STRINGBEAN, ROOK AND HITLER
His name was Ed, but nobody called him that, except maybe his wife, Trudell. To all who knew him his name was “Stringbean” although he was mostly called “Strang,” the southern Middle Tennessee derivative of “String.” He was a sharecropper and worked the fields and milked the cows of Billy O’Neal, one of our neighbors. He was almost always dirty, as was Trudell and their four children. When questioned about why he never took a bath, he’d say, “No need to – just get dirty again the next day.”
He lived in an old worn out four-room house at the end of a rutted out dirt road. A pickup truck could make it to their house, but just barely. The front porch was held up by three 2 x 4’s which all stood at slightly different angles. The floor to the porch was made of wide wooden planks that had been worn smooth by years of wear and exposure to the weather. In the spaces between the planks you could see the dirt below – where the dog could usually be seen resting. A few chickens roamed the dirt yard, pecking for stray kernels of corn. Sometimes one could be seen perched in an open window of the house.
He always wore overalls with the straps let out to their maximum length. In the summertime, he sometimes did not wear a shirt, and kept the flaps of his overalls unbuttoned for air circulation. The skin under the flaps was fish belly white, not having been exposed to the sun in a good long while. With the flaps open, it was obvious to all that he was wearing no underwear, which allowed him to jangle freely as he walked.
Strang couldn’t read or write, although he knew some of his numbers. When his signature was required, he placed a big X on the line, generally with a pencil, and usually after licking the point to make sure it showed up good.
I knew him because I worked in the fields with him, hauling hay and picking cotton. Everyone except Strang used leather gloves while hauling hay to avoid tearing our hands on the string or wire that held the hay bales together. He didn’t wear gloves – his hands were so tough they felt like leather. A sharp knife might draw a little blood with enough pressure.
He was generally affable enough, and most everyone liked him. He could take a joke as well as tell one if the mood struck him. But he had a dark side and could turn mean in a heartbeat if he thought he was being cheated or being taken advantage of. He would not suffer fools.
He drove an old Ford pickup truck that looked as if it might have once been red or brown. Late in the afternoon of a hot August day, he pulled it into the gravel parking area of Tom Mitchell’s store in Blanche, Tennessee, a village in the southwest corner of Lincoln County so small it was almost invisible. He was covered in a thin layer of dust and alfalfa leaves, and it was evident that he had been working in a hay field.
After parking the truck, he reached out the window of the driver’s side, pushed down the handle, opened the door and climbed out as it creaked open. His dog Bud was in the back, and he reached around into the truck bed and unsnapped the chain from his collar. The other end of the chain was connected to a concrete block, which allowed the dog to move around the truck bed but restrained him if he tried to jump out. Bud immediately got down from the truck bed, ran up on the store porch and laid down under a bench which provided him a modicum of shade.
I was sitting with Tom, the proprietor of the store, who was fanning himself with his cowboy hat. He was a tall, affable, pear-shaped man who wore copper bracelets on each wrist for good health.
“How’s the boy?” Tom said to Strang as he walked up the steps between the Sinclair gas pumps.
“Fine, Tom, but it’s early,” replied Strang.
“Come on in the store and get out of the heat.”
Strang walked across the porch, pushed open the screen door, and walked directly to the big red Coca-Cola drink box at the front of the store. Tom and I followed him in. He opened the top and reached in, fishing in the dark, cold water for a sixteen-ounce RC, his favorite drink. After pulling up a couple of bottles of other brands, he pulled out the bottle with the yellow label which he knew belonged on an RC bottle.
“Got it,” he said as he pulled his arm out of the icy water, leaving a film of slime and alfalfa leaves on the surface. Remembering that he needed something to eat with his RC, he walked over to the cake and candy rack and picked up a bag of Lance salted peanuts. He proceeded to the ancient cash register where Tom was waiting and handed him two dimes, telling him, with a slight smirk, “you can keep the change.”
“Well, thanks, Strang, that’s right nice of you,” replied Tom with a grin as he deposited the silver coins into the cash register.
Strang bit down on the Lance peanut bag, ripped it open and spit the blue wrapper end on the floor. He then poured the peanuts into his RC and took a long swig as he walked toward the back of the store where a small group of men and boys were talking and laughing and having a general good time. The air was thick with cigarette and cigar smoke which was being blown around by a big box fan that Tom had turned up to “Hi.”
“Hello, Strang,” said one of the men. “How the hell are you – looks like you just left a hay field.”
“How could you tell,” replied Strang as he smiled a crooked smile and brushed hay remnants from his hair and three or four day old beard.
“I’ve been working all day in the heat while ya’ll are out here smoking and joking in Tom’s store.” He saw that they were gathered around a table where four people were playing a card game.
“And playing Rook,” he said. Strang loved to play Rook and frequently showed up at the store looking for a game. It didn’t require reading, but he knew his numbers, and that was enough.
Tom’s store was a popular community gathering place where men and boys would smoke, chew and spit, cuss a little, spread gossip, tell tall tales and play games. Tom encouraged these gatherings and provided tables for games, several chairs and an old couch for sitting and general hospitality. In the wintertime, heat was delivered by an old, wood-burning stove, which was vented by a stovepipe that went through a hole in the ceiling where it connected to a chimney. Cooling in the summer came from the box fan. Sometimes Tom’s wife, Miss Zeila, would come and make sandwiches, which she sold for a quarter apiece.
Rook is a card game, which loosely resembles Bridge, although not nearly as difficult or uppity. It requires four people, two to a team, and a deck of Rook cards. The game that was being played as Strang walked to the back of the store had just finished, and the winning partners were ready to take on the next challengers.
Among the observers that day was James Bond, a man around 28 years of age, who loved to hang around the store and play Rook. He was about 6’3” and weighed 165 pounds, and was commonly called “Bones.” He was smoking his usual Hav-A-Tampa Jewel cigar, the ones with the wooden tip. He was next in line to play, and, although there were several others who could have been his partner, he asked Strang to play with him. Strang readily agreed, and sat down at the table while placing his now half full RC and peanuts snack on the edge of the table.
The winners of the last game and their opponents were my brother, “Donkey” Don, and Eddie “Weavy” McLemore, both in their late teens and both with smart mouths.
“Sit down, Strang,” said Weavy and let me and Donkey Don beat the shit out of you and Bones Bond. Don smiled and Bones grinned a little as he shifted his cigar to the other side of his mouth. “You deal, Strang” said Don.
Strang shuffled the cards, licked his thumb, and began to deal. The crowd of observers smiled as Strang licked his thumb. He always did it, and it always drew a reaction from someone. This time it came from Weavy, who yelled with mocked disgust,
“Holy shit, Strang, do you have to lick your fingers to deal? We don’t want your nasty spit on the cards.” He held his first card delicately between his thumb and forefinger, waving it gently as he laughed and looked around the room for reaction.
“Good one, Weave,” said Don as the rest of the crowd laughed and waited for Strang’s reaction.
“Fuck you Weavy, or whatever your name is, and you too, Donkey Don. I’ll lick my thumb and any other finger if I want to. It’s my deal, and I’ll deal my way. What are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing, Strang,” replied Weavy, with just a trace of nervousness. “Just trying to have a little fun to liven the place up a little.”
“Come on, boys,” said Bones. “Leave him alone. Deal ‘em up Strang.”
Strang dealt them up, licking his thumb each time around with just a hint of a smile creasing his face.
As the game progressed, Strang’s mood darkened, and his mean streak began to show. The smile was gone, and his right eye began a barely noticeable twitch. He was becoming more and more convinced that he and Bones were somehow being cheated by these two smart mouthed teenagers as the Rook, the strongest card in the deck, showed up an unnatural number of times in their hands.
“You two better not be cheating me – there’s going to be hell to pay if you are”, said Strang. Bones said nothing, nervously twirling the Jewel around in his mouth.
“Relax, Strang,” said Weavy, “no one’s cheating you. We’ve just been lucky.”
“Yeah,” agreed Don. “It’s just luck. It’ll even out. Don’t get your panties in a wad.”
The crowd smiled at this comment since they all knew that Strang wasn’t wearing anything under his overalls. Strang didn’t think it was funny, though, and the twitch became more noticeable. The table began to shake a little as his leg started to bounce on the floor.
After playing a few more hands without the Rook showing up in either his or his partner’s hand, Strang became convinced they were being cheated, and he intended to stop it. He reached into his overall pocket, pulled out his yellow-handled Case knife, opened it and stabbed it in the wooden table.
“Now, by God,” he growled as the knife handle quivered in the table top. This cheatin’ is going to stop or I’m going to cut somebody, Weavy, or whatever your name is. Might be you, too, Donkey Don.”
There was a stunned silence for a few seconds. Nothing like this had ever happened at a Rook game before. Finally, Weavy, no longer smiling, said, “Holy shit, Strang, nobody’s cheating you – put your knife up, and let’s play.”
“Yeah,” said Don. “Nobody’s cheating you – let’s play.”
“Here,” said Bones,” have a cigar.” “They’re not cheating – we’ve just had some bad luck.”
“I don’t want your goddam cigar” growled Strang as he pulled his knife out of the table and waved it at Weavy who was slowly backing away from the table. “You tell me how you do it,” and I might not cut you.”
Just then James Arthur Whitman walked in the front door. He was an older farmer, in his late 60’s and was a frequent visitor to the store. He was well known to the store crowd and could tell a tall tale as well as anyone.
“How’s it going, Tom,” he said as he walked toward the back.
“Not too good, James Arthur – things are a little tense,” said Tom.
James Arthur saw Strang with the knife in his hand, observed the silent crowd around the table, and knew that there was about to be trouble.
“Be careful, Strang,” you don’t want to use that knife” he said. “Did I ever tell you about the time when I was in the war in Germany and hit Hitler in the head with a turnip?”
“No, James Arthur,” said Tom, “I don’t believe we’ve ever heard that one. Tell us about it.”
The mood in the room suddenly became lighter as James Arthur told his tale. Strang stopped waving his knife at Weavy, but he didn’t close it up and put it in his pocket either.
“Well,” began James Arthur, “it was toward the end of the war, and we had only been in Germany for a few weeks.”
“Bullshit, James Arthur,” interrupted D.B. Mitchell, one of the crowd in the back of the store. “That’s a damn lie. I’ve known you all your life, and I know for a fact you never got any farther than Fort Dix, New Jersey during the war.”
D.B. was a constant presence in the store. He was unemployed and unemployable. He wore thick coke bottle glasses and could read only by putting the page within an inch or two of his eyes. He was short and wiry and walked with a list and was constantly twirling a Lucky Strike between his nicotine-stained thumb and middle finger. He had definite opinions about everybody and everything and a total lack of inhibition about voicing them. He didn’t mind using profanity and was one of the best cussers in town. He didn’t mind calling out a liar.
“Hush up, D.B.” said Tom. “Let James Arthur tell his story.”
“Yeah,” said Weavy. “Let him tell his story.”
“Well, like I said, it was toward the end of the war, and the Germans were backing up toward Berlin. I had gotten separated from my unit and was walking alone down this dusty gravel road. I wasn’t afraid because the German Army was headed for Berlin, and I was a long way from Berlin, or so I thought. I was hungry and pulled up some turnips from a turnip field alongside the road and put them in my knapsack. I was eating one, when I saw a cloud of dust on the road, maybe a half mile in front of me. Since I was in Germany, enemy territory, I figured I’d better hide, and let whoever was coming go by. So, I did. I laid down in a ditch by the side of the road behind a clump of bushes so that I was completely hidden. The car came into view. It was a black Mercedes convertible with the top down. Another Mercedes followed it. As it came closer, I could see the German flag waving from both sides of the front bumper. I knew right away that it had to be someone important, and as it got still closer, I saw that Hitler was sitting in the back seat, just as proud and stiff as he could be.”
“This is just so much bullshit,” yelled D.B. “You were never even in Germany, much less seeing Hitler in the back seat of a Mercedes convertible.”
“Preach on, James Arthur,” said Tom.
“Anyway, he was wearing a German officer’s hat like he was a general, and I decided I’d try and knock it off. No one could see me from where I was hiding, and he was coming so close to me, that I could easily throw a turnip that far. After all, I was a pretty good baseball player in my time.”
“Bullshit on that too,” hollered D.B.
“When the car was maybe fifty feet away, I stood up behind my bush and let a small, hard turnip fly. It was a perfect throw and hit Hitler square in the head – knocked his hat off. You should have seen the commotion. They didn’t seem to know what had hit him, and didn’t want to wait around and find out. Hitler was laying down hatless in the back seat with one of his guards on top of him. Loud German shouts and what sounded like German cuss words were being hurled around, as I lay perfectly still in the ditch behind my bush. After a few seconds, both cars roared off, and I continued my walk down the road trying to find my unit.”
By now, others in the crowd had joined D.B. in his chants of “Bullshit,” including Strang, who had put his knife back in his pocket and was listening intently with the rest.
Everyone in the store was laughing, including James Arthur, who said to D.B., “Don’t you yell bullshit to me you blind as a bat little shit. I don’t lie and don’t care whether you believe it or not. But it’s the absolute truth.”
“Thanks, James Arthur,” said Tom. “I’m glad you showed up.”
By now the twitch had disappeared from Strang’s eye, his leg had calmed down and the Rook game continued without any further trouble. A satisfied look appeared on his face as he sucked down the last of this RC and peanuts. After all the commotion, the Rook began to appear in either his or Bones’ hand on a fairly regular basis.