December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Excerpted from Reflections of a Porch Sitter by Sandy Richardson
Do you remember the scene in Gone With the Wind where Rhett asks Scarlett if she believes in hell, and she tells him yes, ’cause she was raised on it? Well, as a child, I was raised on it too, along with warnings about the evils of whiskey, the sins of gambling, and a thousand stories about how hard life was during the Great Depression.
When I grew older, I didn’t think too much about the tales and warnings of hell, whiskey, and gambling, but those hard times stories stuck with me–especially the ones about the people who lived through them. I made my grandmama tell about them over and over–especially the one about Sammy Lee.
Sammy Lee was a wiry little man with big calloused hands, bowed legs, and dancing feet. He did odd jobs around town for the most part –plowing gardens, butchering pigs, building fences. In the cotton season, Sammy Lee worked down at the cotton gin where he was in charge of handling the big shoot that sucked the cotton right out of the wagons then spewed it out into the huge metal bins to be packed down and baled. That shoot swung back and forth over the bins, and while those storms of cotton whirled around and down, old Sammy Lee sang his two favorite songs: “Come and Search My Big Fat Pocketbook” and “If Ya Wanna See Yo Mama, Ya Gotta Meet ‘er in the Sky.” By the end of the day, Sammy Lee was hoarse, sweaty, and covered with cotton lint. It stuck all in his eyebrows and eyelashes, but he never seemed to mind–especially on Fridays, because after work on Fridays, Sammy Lee got to do what he loved best in all the world.
The children in town loved Fridays too. They gathered on the sidewalk down town every week and played marbles or jacks while they waited for Sammy Lee. One of them was always the lookout and along about dusk dark you’d hear the shout, “Here he comes. I see him coming!” Then the children scrambled for seats along the curb to watch as Sammy Lee sauntered up in high style.
He arrived dressed in black trousers, a starched white shirt, checkered suspenders, and his shiny, black, dancing shoes. Riding high up on his shoulder was Jambo. Now it was believed that Jambo was a French-Algerian monkey, and how he met up with Sammy Lee nobody knew, but the two lived together quite happily together, and both enjoyed this Friday night ritual.
Jambo dressed for it, too. He sported short pants, a red vest trimmed in gold braid, and a black pill box hat with a gold tassel on one side. Around his wrists were wide elastic bands that held two tiny, silver cymbals in place so that he could clang them.
Once they arrived, Sammy Lee would lay his big leather satchel on the ground and from inside of it, take a dented tin cup that was then handed to Jambo. Jambo would scramble down Sammy Lee’s arm and go from child to child with the cup, shrieking every time a penny clanged into it. Then he would put the cup back in the satchel and climb on top of an old wooden crate.
Sammy Lee would blow a few notes on his harmonica; Jambo would clang his little cymbals together, and the show would begin. Jambo twirled and somersaulted on top of the crate, while Sammy Lee tapped danced and soft-shoed his way up and down the sidewalk. The children clapped and sang along, and then when they couldn’t keep still any longer, they danced down the street behind Sammy Lee. The adults would come by later on, and leave jars of pickles and canned vegetables for Sammy Lee, and after all the singing and dancing was done, Sammy Lee would hand the leather satchel to Jambo to pass out lemon drops or peppermint candy to each of the children . The candy was a rare treat in those days of the Depression, but Sammy Lee used the pennies he collected, as well as some of his own money, to buy it. For several years, that candy was the only treat the children got, and Sammy Lee’s music and dancing brought the people of the town a brief and welcome forgetfulness of the harshness of their lives.
But as fate would have it, one Friday night, Sammy Lee and Jambo did not show up. The children waited; the adults came; but no music and laughter broke the night silence. The Sheriff and two men rode out to Sammy Lee’s place and found Jambo dressed in his dancing suit and huddled on the edge of the window sill. Sammy Lee was nowhere in sight, but his
little monkey chattered nervously as the men walked through the house, calling out for Sammy Lee. They found him sprawled across the back porch, one leg sunk deep into a hole in the rotted porch board, his head tilted and lying cater-cornered across the concrete steps. Dried blood covered the shoulders of his white shirt, and as the men lifted Sammy Lee’s frail body, his head
slumped forward onto his chest revealing a long gash at the base of his skull.
Solemnly, the men laid Sammy Lee gently on the bed. Even though the blood had clotted over the gash in his head, Sammy Lee’s limp, lifeless body showed no hope that the doctor, who was twenty miles away, could help. And so with great respect, the men covered Sammy Lee’s body with a worn cotton sheet and turned sadly to catch Jambo and take him back to town. But when the sheriff tried to pick him up, the little monkey gave a loud shriek and jumped through the window escaping into the woods. The men had no choice but to leave him on his own for the night.
Now because morticians were extremely rare in the rural areas during those days, and also because the weather was so very hot and humid, it was decided that two women from the church would bathe and dress Sammy Lee’s body, and the funeral was held the very next day. Even on such short notice, everyone in town showed up to pay their last respects. The few stores in town closed, the cotton gin shut down, and everyone gathered at the small church on the edge of town. One by one, the people filed by the open casket to say goodbye to the little man who had spread such joy and happiness in the community. He looked so fine in his starched white shirt, black jacket, and striped bow tie, but he did not look like the Sammy Lee everyone remembered. Sammy Lee had never been so still or so silent, and, of course, he did not have on his dancing shoes.
As the last person filed past the casket, two somber deacons began a slow march toward the front of the church. It was time to take Sammy Lee away. The gentle notes of “Amazing Grace” swelled to fill the small chapel. Women and children sobbed. Men blew their noses, and—– a cymbal clanged???
Yes, it was a cymbal! Leaping through the open window came Jambo scrambling towards Sammy Lee’s casket and beating his little silver cymbals as hard as he could. Before the deacons could grab him, Jambo lurched forward and landed right on Sammy Lee’s chest. He beat his tiny hands together two more times, and Glory Be To God !–Sammy Lee sat straight up in that coffin. Women and children screamed! Men gulped! And Sammy Lee climbed out of that coffin, perched Jambo on his shoulder, and tapped danced his way right out of that church!