Incident At Venona

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
The winners get to write the history books.

Submitted: March 18, 2017

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Submitted: March 18, 2017



This was told to me secondhand, so I cannot verify anything.  I just wrote down what the man said.

I was on my way home, to Atlanta.  I had been in Charleston, five hours to the east, installing computer equipment.  I work for one of those companies with initials for a name.

I finished up at 5 p.m. and decided I’d rather sleep at home.  I made it seventy miles up Interstate 26 when a hellacious storm hit.  The rain was coming in sideways.  I managed to crawl off the highway at the Orangeburg exit.  

When I saw the bright yellow Waffle House sign through the blistering rain, I knew what sailors must have felt when they saw the beacon from a lighthouse.  I pulled into the lot.

I bolted into the restaurant and shook off as much of the rain as I could.  After I ordered a BLT plate and coffee, I considered my options.

According to the weather site, a cold front had unexpectedly turned south and collided with a warm front.  They were predicting several more waves of heavy rain and there was a chance of tornadoes until 10 p.m.  Getting home didn’t seem too likely.  

After two hours of steady rain, there was a lull.  Before it started back, I made it across the street to the Holiday Inn.  In the room I turned on the TV.  It wasn’t raining in Los Angeles so I watched the Cubs and the Dodgers.  It was close until Kris Bryant jacked a fastball over the fence.  When the game ended, I realized the rain had stopped.  

It was 11:30 and I probably should have gone to bed.  But I’d drank too much coffee.  I went down to the lobby and asked the clerk, “Is there a bar nearby with a pool table?”

I ended up down the street at Fat Mike’s.  The place was empty.  I played a few games of eight ball against myself and contemplated leaving.  A slender, gray haired black man came in and sat at the bar.  I asked if he was interested in playing some pool.

His name was Garland Harris.  He was quite a talker and we were having a good time.  After a few games he asked, “So, tell me, what do you do?”  I said, “I work with computers.”  

“No, I meant, what do you do when you’re not at work?  Tell me about yourself.”

I talked about my writing hobby.  I like to make up stories and post them on the internet.  

Garland said, “Well my friend, this is your lucky day.”  

“I’m going to tell you a story about my parents.  Orville and Reba Harris.  This really happened, back when I was a small child.  Aside from me, everyone involved is long gone.  Get a pen and  write this down.  I don’t care if you use our real names.”

It was 1951.  America was at war in Korea.  Like many wars, young men would be drafted.  One of those was a gas station operator from Venona, a small town 20 minutes north of Orangeburg.  

George Wolfsberger, Jr. drove an Army fuel truck for two years, halfway around the planet on the Korean peninsula.  While he was gone, he turned the gas station over to his mechanic.  Who was Orville Harris, Garland’s father. He’d worked at the station since George Sr. ran the place.  Orville knew how to repair cars and manage a gas station.

However, it was South Carolina, thirteen years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.  George was white, Orville was black.  Segregation was still a common practice.  Everyone in Venona knew Orville and his wife, and most were okay with him running George’s station.  But not all.  Five year old Garland would soon get his first lesson in racism.

At the start, it was little things.  Reba came out of the grocery store one day, and there were a dozen eggs smashed on the hood of her car.  A few weeks later, Orville found “N***** GO HOME” painted across the front of the station.  Garland remembers his father asking his mother, “What the hell does that even mean?  You and I were both born in Venona.”

Reba insisted on calling the law.  Venona had a one man police department.  Chief Herman Katz came by.  He told Orville, “Honestly, I don’t much time to investigate vandalism.  But I’ll ask around and see if anyone knows anything.”

Similar incidents occurred over the next few months.  In a small town, secrets don’t last very long.  It became common knowledge that the perpetrator was one Bobby Lee Gunderson.  Not one of Venona’s finest.  Everyone had a story about his antics when he was drunk.

Bobby Lee’s poor social skills extended to his love life.  He’d been chasing after local beauty Margaret Hobson for years.  She’d made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with him.  Chief Katz had to go to the Hobson residence more than once to run off or arrest Bobby Lee.

Venona was buzzing just before Thanksgiving.  The Hobson family had disappeared.  Nobody knew anything.  Mr. Hobson had not resigned from his job.  Margaret’s younger sisters hadn’t picked up copies of their school transcripts.  But their house was empty.  Then Chief Katz told everyone what happened.

The Hobsons had stopped by the police station on their way out of town.  They knew people would be disturbed by them disappearing, so they told the Chief.  But they wouldn’t tell him where they were going.  They wanted to make sure Bobby Lee couldn’t find them.

When the story got out, Bobby Lee was humiliated.  His drinking got worse.  He took his frustrations out on Orville.  One day at the gas station, Bobby Lee made a scene.  He claimed he’d given Orville a ten for three dollars worth of gas, and only got back two dollars in change.  

Orville was well aware of the scam the man was trying to pull off.  He had paid with a five dollar bill and had received the proper change.  Bobby Lee had been getting in trouble for that one since high school.  But he was shouting and a crowd was gathering.  That was bad for business.  Orville gave him an extra five dollars.  Bobby Lee left, muttering vague threats under his breath.

Garland said he can still remember the feeling of fear and confusion, being woke up at 3 a.m. by the sound of a honking car horn.  A very drunk Bobby Lee was in front of their house, screaming obscenities.  He heard his father go out the front door.  His mother came in his room, picked him up, and carried him to the bathroom.  She put him in the tub.  She said, “Garland, I want you to lie flat in the tub and do not move until you hear me or your father at the door.“

She set the lock and closed the bathroom door on her way out.  Garland could hear Bobby Lee shouting.  He heard his father’s voice, much softer.  Then, a shotgun blast.  And another.

Garland panicked and ignored his mother’s instructions.  He ran to the front door.  Bobby Lee was lying in the yard.  He realized, the dark liquid dripping on the grass was blood.  Orville and Reba were standing over him.  Orville was holding his double barrel shotgun.  

Back then there were no cell phones or 911.  Reba walked in the house and dialed the operator.  

Chief Katz was there in a few minutes.  He felt for a pulse and said, “Yup.  He’s dead.”  He placed the shotgun in an evidence bag.  He looked over Bobby Lee carefully, then asked Orville to describe what happened.  

“We were sleeping.  Bobby Lee drove up and started honking the horn.  He was shouting a lot of things I’d rather not repeat.  He said he would kill me and my family if we don’t leave Venona. He came at me.  I shot him. With both barrels.”  

Katz said, “I’m going to assume that when you shot him, he pretty much fell to the ground where he was.  Is that correct?”  Orville nodded.  “Show me exactly where you were the first time you pulled the trigger.”

Orville moved to a spot about six feet from Bobby Lee.  “I was standing here.”

“Where were you the second time you shot?”  

“Same spot.  He stopped coming forward when the first shot hit him.  But he didn’t go down right away so I shot again.  Then he went down.”

Katz paused for a moment, then said, “I’m going to ask you one more time, because I have to know what happened.  You could be in a lot of trouble if I don’t believe you are telling the truth.  So tell me again, exactly where you were, each time you fired the weapon.”

Orville started to speak, then Reba interrupted.  “You want to know the truth, Chief Katz, I’ll tell you the truth!  It was me!  I shot that miserable son of a bitch!  I had the shotgun, I was standing on the front porch when he came at my man.  He’d threatened to kill all of us.  I aimed and pulled the trigger.   He was still breathing when I walked up on him.  I wanted to make sure he was dead.  So I shot him again.  From right here.”  She was standing at Bobby Lee’s feet.

“He quit moving after the second shot.  That mother fucker said he’d kill my man, and he’d kill my baby!  I’d shoot him a hundred times if I had the chance!”

“Then Orville took the shotgun from me.  He told me to let him do the talking. He lied about what happened.  He was trying to protect me.”

Katz paused again.  Then nodded his head.  “I believe that.  I just needed to know exactly what happened.  The truth is, Mrs. Harris, if you hadn’t killed Bobby Lee, someone else would have.”

Another pause.  “It probably would have been me.”

The chief opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a paper bag.  He tipped the bag over next to Bobby Lee’s right hand.  A pistol slid out, onto the ground.

He said, “That’s Bobby Lee’s gun.  I took it off of him a few weeks ago.”

Katz took some photographs of the body and the scene.  He put the pistol back in his trunk.

By then an ambulance from Orangeburg arrived.  Chief Katz told the driver, “He’s dead.  You can take the body.  I’ve finished my investigation.  Open and shut case of self defense.”

© Copyright 2019 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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