He hopped off a southbound freight one starry night in the summer of 1948 and made Hatfield his home.
Hatfield was a rural municipality with a population of just over two thousand that occupied a fertile plateau in north Alabama’s verdant Appalachian foothills. It was surrounded on all sides by expansive multigenerational farms, where cotton was still king.
On its eastern edge, just outside the city limits, Main Street became tree-lined Rollins Pike and smashed its way through a high hill topped by a ground-level billboard before snaking off into the countryside. It was behind this sign, shielded from the passing motorists below, that Jabbo set up camp.
Several customers and idlers were present in Hatfield’s only barbershop, which also served as the local gossip parlor, on the morning that Jabbo first showed himself in town. He shuffled through the door almost apologetically, closing it carefully behind him. His clothes … ill-fitting khaki pants and a faded blue shop shirt … were wrinkled and tattered, but relatively clean. His heavily scuffed Wolverine work shoes had seen better days. A dark stubble of beard covered his angular face. As he entered, those in attendance grew silent and fixed the lanky stranger with appraising, vaguely accusatory stares. He was around six feet tall, in his late thirties or early forties, and walked with a slight limp. His gray eyes, just visible beneath the brim of a sweat-stained fedora, were a bit on the rheumy side.
“Can I help you”? It was the shop’s owner, Wilfred Worley, who spoke first, his scissors meticulously snipping at a stubborn tuft of hair around a mole on mayor Yancy Holt’s neck.
Jabbo removed his hat and fingered its brim.
“I-I-I’m lo-looking f-for w-w-work,” he finally managed, his face contorting slightly as he struggled with each word.
“What kind of work do you do”? Wilfred asked affably, ignoring the stutter and reaching for a bottle of lavender water on the shelf behind him.
“Anything,” Jabbo replied, managing to get his answer out on the first try.
“Who are you”? crotchety Emmett McKinney wanted to know. He leaned forward in his chair, spat tobacco juice at a coffee can on the shop’s worn linoleum floor, and was rewarded with a distinct metallic plink.
Jabbo gave him a wary look.
“What’s your name”? Wilfred interceded. He splashed a goodly amount of the scented liquid into a cupped hand, rubbed his palms together briskly over a small utility sink, and began gingerly slapping the mixture onto the mayor’s ruddy checks.
Jabbo shifted uneasily, still fiddling with his hat, and braced himself for his next attempt at oration.
“Ja-Jack Bo-Bowen,” he intoned at last.
“Where’re you from”? old Emmett persisted, his age-lined eyes narrowing slightly.
Jabbo shifted his weight again, searching for an answer in the tops of his dusty Wolverines.
“A-around,” he said quietly without looking up. His right jaw muscle clenched and made a small knot on the side of his face. It was clear that he didn’t care to discuss this matter further. An uneasy pall ensued.
“There you go!” Wilfred exclaimed brightly a few seconds later, whipping the barber’s cape off the mayor with a flourish. All eyes turned in his direction.
Yancy Holt stood up, dragged a handful of change out of one baggy pants pocket, and thumbed thirty-five cents into the barber’s patiently waiting hand. Lumbering across the room, he retrieved his straw skimmer from a rickety wooden coat rack, jammed it onto his balding cranium, and started for the door. Grasping its handle, he stopped and turned toward Jabbo. Surveying the stranger for a moment, he said, “My brother is slaughtering a hog tomorrow and could use some help. Are you interested”?
Jabbo nodded, the faintest trace of a smile playing across his thin lips.
The mayor returned his nod deliberately, as if to seal the bargain. “Okay then,” he said. “The pay is three dollars and a poke of fresh meat. Wilfred, will you tell this man how to get to Clay’s farm”? he asked the barber.
“Sure thing,” Worley replied without looking up. He was using the spent cape to brush the mayor’s pruned locks from his chair.
Holt absently waved his thanks as he opened the door, heaved his considerable bulk through it, and pulled it shut behind him a little too firmly, causing the raised Venetian blinds to bang menacingly against the glass.
An uncomfortable silence again fell across the room.
Wilfred finished cleaning the chair, dropped the soiled cape into a gaping cloth bag on a rack beneath his tonic shelf, and pulled a clean one from the adjacent cabinet. A new-fangled air-conditioner rattled noisily from a cutout in the wall above the barber’s mirror.
He turned, resting his arm lightly on the chair’s red vinyl back, and inspected his clientele.
“Next!” he chimed.
The following day, Jabbo trudged the eight miles to Clay Holt’s farm, arriving at sunup. There, he did the bulk of the work involved in butchering a 400-pound sow. He wrapped individual portions of meat in waxed butcher’s paper and deposited them in a rusting freezer on the Holt’s back porch. As he labored at this task, he also used an old broom handle to periodically stir the contents of a large black kettle simmering over an open fire in the Holt’s barnyard: the sow’s rendered fat would eventually form a solid cake of pungent lye soap that could be cut into different-sized pieces for general household use. At sundown, Jabbo left the Holt farm with half a dozen pork chops, a slab of bacon, and package of jowl meat for seasoning beans and other vegetables. He felt the weight of three shiny new silver dollars nestled in the pocket of his threadbare khakis as he walked and let out a contented sigh.
The next morning found Jabbo back at the Clay Holt’s place, where he spent another twelve hours performing a variety of backbreaking chores: mucking the pigsty, digging a new hole for the family’s outhouse, then filling in the old one, and weeding the Holt’s large vegetable garden. He crawled up and down its seemingly endless rows on his hands and knees in the hot July sun, pulling each individual piece of alien vegetation out of the ground by hand. At the end of the day, he received two paper dollars, a fifty-cent piece, and a good-sized chunk of the lye soap, which had hardened overnight.
Word quickly spread that there was a man in Hatfield … a white man, mind you! … who would do the dirtiest work you could give him for the paltriest of wages. A man who would shovel shit from dawn till dusk for two dollars and a can of soup. Who would stand ankle-deep in fetid mud to castrate young hogs by the dozen for next to nothing. A man on whom all manner of distasteful and denigrating work could be heaped without a single qualm.
A name befitting such an individual was needed and the town’s citizenry was not slow in providing it. Ja-Jack Bo-Bowen went through a number of short-lived transmogrifications before ultimately becoming Jabbo.
Jabbo’s existence and his interaction with Hatfield’s inhabitants slowly settled into a fairly regular routine. As time went by, the name Jabbo took on a life of its own. If you were forced to put in a long, hard day of work, you had “pulled a Jabbo”. If circumstances conspired to make you walk a great distance, you had “Jabboed it”. Schoolchildren, always in search of the most demeaning moniker with which to taunt one another, finally found it. These banter sessions often ended with the hurled epithet, “You Jabbo!”
And so it went.
It turned out that Jabbo drank a bit. And when he did, he drank hard. But, he kept to himself during these intermittent bouts and never caused any trouble. Martin County, being located in the buckle of the Bible belt, was “dry”, but homemade corn whiskey was plentiful and cheap. Even Jabbo could afford it.
He never missed a day's work because of his drinking and he never showed up for a job drunk, or even hung over, at least, not so you’d notice. His drinking was a very private thing, a strictly one-on-one affair between him and whatever past demons haunted him, and he was adept at making it fit the times when work was scarce.
Securing Jabbo’s services was an easy matter. You simply pulled onto the shoulder of Rollins Pike beneath his billboard hovel and honked your horn. This was best done the evening before a forthcoming workday and was answered with either a wave of assent or a shake of the head if he already had work.
Ralph Yeager, who owned the parcel of land on which Jabbo had settled, wasn’t even aware that he had an unsolicited tenant for some time and was then initially inclined to dispossess the squatter. However, he also noticed that the high school kids had stopped vandalizing his billboard since Jabbo’s arrival, which meant money in his pocket. After due reflection, Ralph walked over to the itinerant’s campsite and told him he could stay on for a while if he would do some occasional yard work at the Yeager home, which lay on the other side of a thick copse of woods behind the billboard. Jabbo readily agreed.
Over the ensuing months, Ralph watched with growing amazement as Jabbo’s homestead went from a makeshift tent – three sticks and a piece of discarded canvas – to a fairly tight little tarpaper shack with real, albeit cracked windows and a tiny screened front stoop. A piece of two-by-four here, a remnant of one-by-six there, even a few natural saplings harvested from Yeager’s woods, and the place slowly took shape. Jabbo found a small cast-iron wood stove at the city dump and somehow managed to lug it back to his abode. It was missing two legs, but he leveled it with rocks and it worked just fine. Fuel, of course, was no problem.
Between jobs, you could generally find Jabbo at the barbershop. Wilfred Worley kept showers in the back, so the farmers who didn’t yet have running water could clean themselves up on Saturday night before church services the next morning. In return for sweeping the floor, taking out the trash, and keeping the shower area clean, Jabbo received his own weekly shower, as well as a monthly haircut.
The late 1940s became the 1950s, then slipped into the early 1960s. Although Jabbo had been a fixture in town all my life, I first met him … really met him, I mean … when my dad, who was a nightshift foreman at a metallurgy plant in nearby Albany and didn’t have much time for farm work, hired him to help my mom make a few dozen hens ready for the freezer. This was in the spring of 1961, just past my thirteenth birthday.
Having never done this kind of work before, I mostly watched as Jabbo set an old 55-gallon metal drum up on stacked cinder blocks, ran it three-quarters full of water from the garden hose, and built a roaring fire under it.
While the water was heating up, he used a roll of fine-mesh wire to hastily construct a pen of sorts, and with my help, herded the hapless fowls from the henhouse into it. The planks that mom arranged on the tailgate of our old pickup truck served as a crude cutting board and housed a number of necessary implements.
When the water reached a boil, mom and Jabbo took turns reaching into the pen, seizing a hen by the neck, and giving it one good turn in midair, as if cranking an old Model T Ford. The body fell away from the head and then the strangest thing happened … each newly decapitated bird leapt to its feet and began running around the yard in aimless circles before finally keeling over and convulsing into stillness. I found myself caught somewhere between morbid fascination and unsettling queasiness.
After the beheading, we collected the lifeless bodies, held them by their feet, and dunked them in the roiling water for about a minute, so their feathers could be more easily plucked.
At the cutting board, mom enlarged each bird’s anus with a sharp kitchen knife and extracted its entrails through this expanded aperture. Once the feet had been removed, the birds were then cut into eight pieces and wrapped for storage.
When the slaughter was over, we began dismantling our improvised abattoir and cleaning up the mess. Mom washed her tools, the planks, and the tailgate, while Jabbo and I scattered the fire, drained the drum of its still-steaming contents, and undid the holding pen. I guess my face must have belied my uneasiness with the whole affair, because when we finished, Jabbo came over to me, grasped my shoulder, shook it reassuringly, and said, “N-never mind, s-son, it h-had to be d-done, p-people’s gotta eat.” This made me feel somewhat better, but I was unable to verbalize it. He shook my shoulder again and limped away.
Thereafter, whenever I saw Jabbo around town, I always waved to him and he would give me a slight nod of acknowledgement.
He had a gift for machinery, Jabbo did, and in several instances he brought farm equipment thought long dead back to life. He did this as a part of his regular chores, which is to say free of charge. So when I somehow managed to ride my treasured Goodyear Highway Patrolman three-speed bicycle into a concrete culvert revetment and ruin it, I lugged it up to his tumbledown hut, hoping for a similar miracle.
Jabbo studied the damaged bike for a few moments, examining first one part, then the other, and finally announced with his characteristic stutter, “Y-yep, I can f-fix it”. A huge wave of relief and gratitude washed over me.
Because he could only perform my repairs when he wasn’t working for someone else, the project took several days. School was out for the summer and I had saved a little money from my own chores, so on bike repair days, I generally bought a bag of Billy Burger sliders in downtown Hatfield, twelve for a dollar, and we shared them while he toiled over my busted machine.
I talked incessantly about this and that as he worked. He occasionally nodded and very rarely let out a little “um” sound that I took to be a sign of understanding or agreement.
Working steadily in his spare time, Jabbo eventually healed my steel steed. He wouldn’t take anything for the repairs and this act of kindness cemented our friendship. Although we no doubt made an odd pair around town, we would often meet up whenever our respective schedules allowed it. Many a pleasant hour was spent gleaning the latest news in Wilfred Worley’s barbershop, cheering on the home teams at local sporting events, or sitting around an open fire at Jabbo’s shanty, where we would shoot the breeze well past dark or just stare up at the stars, which seemed so close back then you felt you could reach up and pluck one right out of the ebony sky. Even today, these hours of camaraderie burn brightly in my memory.
On one such night in September of 1962, Jabbo and I were cutting through the woods at the south end of Buzzard’s Roost, the derogatory appellation long since assigned to the colored part of town. At my Little League game earlier that evening, I had struck out in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on second and Jabbo was trying to console me. Still in my baseball uniform, I was pushing my bike through the unaccommodating terrain, half-listening to Jabbo’s soothing words and half-wallowing in my own self-pity.
In the distance, we became aware of an eerie glow at the edge of a small clearing. As we approached, we were able to make out half a dozen pickup trucks nosed into a semicircle, their headlights blazing in the gloom.
Still concealed at the edge of the glade, we watched as a dozen men in white robes and matching hoods took turns berating and striking a colored youth, who I immediately recognized as Leroy Ledbetter, the highly acclaimed fullback at Hatfield’s black “technical school”. He was completely surrounded by this ghostly mob, his hands bound behind his back, blood streaming down his face, one eye swollen shut.
“You darkies gotta learn to leave our white women alone”, one of the hooded men rasped. There was no mistaking the gravelly voice of Luther Shadrack, a local moonshiner, petty thief, and general ne’er-do-well. He raised his old double-barreled shotgun and drove the butt into the side of the teenager’s head. Leroy’s legs almost buckled, but he managed to keep his feet.
“You’ve got it all wrong”, he exclaimed, flecks of blood flying from his battered lips as he spoke.
“You was seen layin’ hands on Donna Tanner”, Shadrack fairly shouted, raising his shotgun again.
“That’ll be enough of that”, Jabbo said, stepping into the clearing. I drew deeper into the shadows.
All eyes were fixed on him as he strode toward them. He took Leroy by his elbow, lifting and steadying him, then reached for his bonds.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin’”? Shadrack asked menacingly, taking a step toward Jabbo.
“I’m untying this young man’s hands”, Jabbo replied coolly and proceeded with his task.
“You better stop right there, J-J-Jabbo”, Shadrack said mockingly. He had apparently failed to notice that Jabbo was no longer stuttering and that his previously rheumy eyes were now as cold as steel.
“I swear, Miss Donna tripped and fell ... I was just helping her up”, Leroy declared as Jabbo pulled the loosened ropes from his wrists.
“Who do you think you are”? Shadrack shouted at Jabbo. “Why, you’re little better‘n a nigger yourself”, he added, punctuating his statement with a thrust of the shotgun.
Jabbo ignored him.
“You been around here for fifteen years”, Shadrack continued almost plaintively, obviously flustered. “Why are you just now showing your nigger-lovin’ side”?
“It never came up before”, Jabbo answered, his eyes never left Shadrack’s trigger finger.
“If you men have a problem with this boy,” he said, “let’s take it up with the police”.
Hatfield’s constabulary in those days consisted of a chief and two patrolmen, any or all of whom were quite probably already present in sheets and pillowcases.
“It’s already been handled”, Shadrack hissed through crooked yellow teeth. “When the other sambos and piccaninnies find this young buck hangin’ from a tree tomorrow with his guts all blowed out, they’ll get the message”.
“That’s not going to happen”, Jabbo said, his voice low, but firm.
Shadrack’s eyes grew wild with rage. Veins bulged from his neck and forehead. Beyond speech, he let out a guttural scream, jerked the gun to his shoulder, and fired.
In that same instant, Jabbo took one step to the right, shielding Leroy’s body with his own.
The blast, both barrels, caught him full in the chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.
In the shocked silence that followed, Leroy, now covered with Jabbo’s blood in addition to his own, spun on his heel and dashed off into the trees like the star running back he was.
I was completely numb from having witnessed my friend’s murder, and in fear for my own life, I silently slunk off through the woods toward home, my vision blurred by tears.
The next day, the town was abuzz with the news of Jabbo’s “accident”.
Luther Shadrack claimed that Jabbo had stumbled upon his possum-hunting party in a drunken stupor the night before and that he had shot him by mistake. Despite the nefarious reputation of the shooter, no one questioned this account: they all knew that Jabbo frequently drank to excess and that he was given to wandering the woods at night.
To my everlasting shame, I remained silent, but with the cunning that often replaces intelligence, Shadrack somehow divined that I knew his secret. After all, Jabbo and I were seldom seen out of each other’s company. Following his narration to the small crowd that had gathered on the street corner that morning, he sidled up behind me, his putrid breath on my neck, and hoarsely whispered, “Them that thinks they knows something had better keep their fuckin’ mouths shut or there’s apt to be another accident”. I was properly filled with dread.
At Wilfred Worley’s barbershop, it was rumored that Jabbo would be given an unmarked pauper’s grave in the municipal cemetery, but Worley was having none of it. He started a collection for a granite headstone and took in more than two hundred and fifty dollars before noon. Among others, the donors included Worley himself, the Holt brothers, Ralph Yeager, and – to my gut-wrenching disgust – Luther Shadrack.
That afternoon, I visited Jabbo’s shack. Inside, in a battered cigar box, I found a handful of medals that Marine corporal James Bowen had won in the Pacific during World War II. Among other keepsakes, there was also a well-worn letter from his parents in Chicago, begging him to come home.
The next day, I wrapped the box in brown paper and used the address on the letter’s envelope to forward Jabbo’s mementos to his folks, together with a note of my own stating that I had known Jack Bowen to be a good, brave, and true man, and that I would miss him dearly.
I didn’t explain the circumstances surrounding Jabbo’s untimely deathy ... it was much too early for me to get my head around the barbarity of the situation at my tender age.
I spent the next five years waiting for school to end, so I could get out of Hatfield. While I had many warm memories of my life there, there was the sickening reality of Jabbo’s murder and one great inescapable apprehension – who were the other cowards in the bedsheets that night and how closely did I interact with them on a daily basis? Every time I dealt with anyone in town – a filling station attendant, a store clerk, even a preacher – I had to wonder.
It came as no real surprise to anyone when Luther Shadrack, while attempting to rob a store in the middle of the night, was gunned down by the shopkeeper who lived upstairs. The weapon used was a double-barreled shotgun.
Later on his life, whenever I returned to Hatfield, I never failed to visit the cemetery where Jabbo had been interred. On each occasion, there was always a vase of flowers in front of his headstone, sometimes fresh, sometimes wilted, but ever-present.
This mystery was finally resolved when, during one of my infrequent visits, I found an older, grayer Leroy Ledbetter kneeling at Jabbo’s grave.
Without being conscious of doing it, I suddenly found myself on my knees beside him and we shared a moment of reverent silence, barely glancing at one another, me remembering my friend and he his benefactor. It was not the last time that we would meet this way.
I never told Leroy that I had been present on that awful night so many years ago when both our lives were changed forever, but I like to think that, somehow, he knew.
© Copyright 2017 Jim Shipp. All rights reserved.
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