W.D.'s Lounge sits on the corner of Levee Road and Panola Street. In the photo on the right, it's the juke joint on the right, the one with the twin air conditioners sticking out over the sidewalk. I snapped the photo from the middle of Levee Road. Behind me there's a humongous pile of grass-covered dirt called the Mississippi River Levee. To my left and beside W.D.'s there's some closed juke joints you can check out on Random Delta Photos, Page Three. |
You can easily find W.D.'s Lounge. When Highway 128/Plank Road dead-ends at the levee, turn left and there sits W.D.'s Lounge on the corner of Levee Road and Panola Street. Don't, however, try to find it open during daylight hours. It opens around dark on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only. It closes around daylight.
Maybe if W.D.'s Lounge opened earlier and more often, the first part of the week I spent in and around St. Joseph wouldn't have been so miserable and lonely. The black folks wouldn't talk to me and avoided me. I felt like an IRS agent or a whore in church. The white folks treated me like I was either invisible or had a horrible case of body odor. Now I know how a homeless and alcoholic bum feels when he's around middle-class folks with homes and hidden addictions.
Around 6 pm one afternoon I went to the local supermarket to purchase some link sausage to take back to camp and grill over a fire. At least, I thought, I can enjoy my own company. As I stepped inside the supermarket, a 20ish black male in front of me spoke to another 20ish black male. My ears caught something about being at band practice that night because they needed to practice singing. There would also be "a bunch of girls there."
When they stopped talking and parted, I stepped up to the first man and introduced myself and told him the purpose of my being in St. Joseph–"Hunting local musical talent," I said--and informed him that I overheard part of the conversation. "Do y'all play any blues," I asked, "or do you play rap?"
"Would you mind if I came to practice? I might write about y'all."
"It'd give your band lots of publicity."
More silence. Then, "Okay . . . I guess." He started easing away from me.
"Where do you practice?"
"Ah . . . ah. . . ." He spoke something unintelligible.
"Write down the address," I said and handed him my notebook and pen.
When he handed me the notebook, I read the address, then asked for the street's location. He pointed in the general direction of north, then turned and started walking quickly away. "What time?" I asked his back.
"Seven," I heard him say as he headed for the check-out counters.
No longer needing link sausage, I found the supermarket's soft drink cooler and pulled one out. As I stood at the check-out counter paying for my soft drink, I glanced through the store's plate glass front windows and saw the young man riding away on a bicycle, headed in the general direction of south.
At 7 pm I drove the Bluesmobile down the street the young man had written down and pointed out. Black folks of all ages, seated on porches and in yards and gathered around cars and pickups parked in the edge of the street, all stared curiously at me and the Bluesmobile as we eased past them. I couldn't find the address. I reached the end of the street, turned the Bluesmobile around, and retraced our path. Still couldn't find the address. I reached the end of the street where I had originally entered it, turned the Bluesmobile around again and still couldn't find the address. Now the black folks really stared curiously at us. When I reached a group of teenagers gathered around a pickup, I stopped the Bluesmobile. A young man jumped down from the bed of the truck and walked up to my window. "Can I help you?" he asked.
I showed him the address written in my notebook and said, "I'm looking for that address."
He read it and thought pensively for a moment. Then he looked up the street and then down the street. "Ain't no address like that. Who you lookin' for?"
I told him the story of the 2 young men in the supermarket.
"Nah, man. Ain't no band practicin' on this street. Ain't nothin' like that ‘round here."
I thanked him and drove away. That night as I watched sausage sizzle on the grill beside my tent, I considered getting up the next morning and packing up and leaving St. Joseph. Neither the black folks nor the white folks around there wanted anything to do with me.
It was near the Labor Day weekend, and as the park slowly filled to capacity, my tent and meager belongings were almost surrounded by fancy camper trailers. The spaces near me and the Bluesmobile had filled last. (See Camping With The Bluesmobile for more info on that phenomenon.) The middle-class white folks who owned those trailers, and even some of the staff in the privately-owned park's office, treated me as if a huge sign above my tent read
The next morning fate stepped in and improved my mood and my luck. A little after noon on that day, I was sitting in a white folks restaurant in downtown St. Joseph. I had just finished a delicious dinner--"lunch" to you Yankees--and I was perusing the local newspaper, the Tensas Gazette. It contained a picture of an older white couple and an article about them and their work with the Tensas Parish Museum. The article was mostly about them, so I didn't read it. But I did look up, and there across the street stood the Tensas Parish Museum.
So I paid it a visit. It's housed on the 2nd floor of a gleaming-white circa 1850 wooden building which was originally a boarding house. Due to the frequent flooding of the nearby Mississippi River in those days, they built the boarding house atop 8-feet-tall brick foundation piers. That once-open space beneath the building now contains the Tensas Parish Library. Up the wooden stairs I climbed, the huge and wooden double doors I opened, and inside the museum I stepped.
To my right sat a desk. Behind the desk sat a slim, middle-aged black woman. On the desk sat a wooden box labeled Donation $1 Near the box lay an opened guest book. I greeted the woman, hired, I assumed, at minimum wage to watch the museum so the rich white folks could go about their rich white folks' business. I dropped a dollar in the box and signed my name to the book. Then I turned around and looked at the museum.
Every wall of every room contained one or two huge windows which reached almost to the 12-feet-high ceilings. Designed for that purpose in the days before electric lights, the numerous and large windows allowed sunlight to stream over everything in the rooms and to reflect piercingly from the gleaming–white interior walls like sunlight from snow. Even in 1998, this building had no need for artificial illumination.
One room contained beautiful old gowns and flapper dresses, hanging from hangers. Glass display cases sat everywhere. Some contained uniforms and memorabilia from the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Beside a glass case containing World War II uniforms and some beautiful linen maps of Europe issued to paratroopers, sat another glass case. Atop it sat, incongruously, a chipped, yellowish-brown and wide-mouthed ceramic jar a little larger than a quart fruit jar. It looked like a small cookie jar minus its lid. Wondering what the heck an object so plain was doing in a museum, I looked closely at it and at the words typed onto the little sign leaning against it. The words informed me that some fortunate soul had found the little jar buried in the long-neglected garden near the ruins of a probably burned-down-by-the-damn-Yankees plantation big house. It had been filled, the words informed me, with gold coins.
Other cases contained antebellum plantation memorabilia of all descriptions. Other cases and every wall contained old pictures of people and places. A bookshelf against a wall was filled with ancient books, their fronts mostly rotted away. I spent an hour or so musing around the museum, and I left, deeply disturbed.
That night while the remainder of my sausage sizzled over a fire, I pondered my dilemma. Do I confront the rich white lady with her museums's problems? Hell, why not? I'll probably never return to St. Joseph.
So bright and early the next morning, up the wooden stairs I climbed again, the huge and wooden double doors I opened again, and inside the museum I stepped again. There behind the desk sat the slim, middle-aged black woman again. In a chair at the far end of the desk sat a large, middle-aged black woman. I introduced myself to the woman behind the desk, then added, "Ma'am, I'm an anthropologist, and I've had a college course in museology. Would you please call your curator and tell her to come down here? I see two major problems with this museum."
The woman stood. "I'm the curator."
"Yes. I have a supervisor, but I'm the curator. What's the matter with the museum?"
I pointed to one of the many windows. "Ma'am, ultraviolet light from the sun is destroying everything organic in these rooms. In a couple of years, all this stuff will be nothing but crumbled little pieces. Look over here." I walked to a case directly beneath a window, and she followed. "Look at that letter," I said and pointed to an old letter which was nothing but un-readable and crumbled little pieces.
"Ultraviolet light did that?"
"Yes, ma'am. UV light. Look at this." The architectural drawings of an antebellum mansion lay on top of a case and in the form of bound 2 feet by 3 feet rectangular blue pages with white letters and lines. "The top page is light blue, see?" I lifted the page. "The rest of the pages, the ones out of the UV light, are dark blue, see?"
"Yes, I see. My goodness!"
"It's not even in the direct sun, but in a year or so that top page is gonna look like that letter over there–nothing but little crumbled pieces of paper. Look at the fronts of these old books," I said and pulled a book from the shelf. "Almost rotted off, and the sides still look good. That's because the sides don't get any sunlight. And, ma'am, those beautiful old dresses over there? In a couple of years they'll be rotted scraps of rags down in the floor."
"They're already rotting! What can we do?"
"You can buy UV filters to put over the windows. If you don't have the money to do that, get some paint and paint over the windows. If you don't do that you ought to put all of this stuff in closets or give it back to whoever loaned it or donated it to y'all. I ain't lying to you, ma‘am. In just a couple of years, all of this stuff is gonna be rotted junk."
"I'll tell my supervisor all this, but I doubt the police jury will give us any money. What else is wrong with the museum?"
The color of her skin made it much easier for me to explain the museum's other problem. "Ma'am," I said, "this is a white folks museum."
"You got that right!" she proclaimed loudly and to my surprise.
"Ma'am," I continued, "somebody could come in here and look at all of this stuff and never know that a black person ever lived in Tensas Parish."
"You right about that!"
"The only thing pertaining to black people in any way that I've been able to find in here is a contract that was signed by a plantation owner and his former slaves right after the Civil War."
"That's it! That's all! An' over in another room there's an old plantation ledger with a page in it where they sold some slaves. There's nothin' else."
Along about that time, the curator introduced herself as Virginia Carter and her larger friend as Florenda James. Needless to say, I suddenly had two black friends in St. Joseph. We started hunting something black in the white Tensas Parish Museum. Needless to say, other than the two things already mentioned, we could find nothing else. After several minutes of searching, we were looking at a bunch of faded (of course) photographs in a case and trying to find a photo of a black person. Notta. Then I noticed a faded photo of a group of men standing on top of the levee during a 1920s flood. One of the men looked a little darker than the other men. "Hey, y'all," I said, "this guy might be black."
The three of us peered at the photo, trying to decide the race of the dim figure. We couldn't decide. Then I noticed something different about the man in the photo. "Hey, y'all," I said, "this guy is black!"
"How do you know that?" Virginia asked.
"He's the only one holding a shovel!"
After a while my two new friends returned to the desk, and I pulled up a chair. We talked for nearly an hour about ways to add a little black to a white museum. Then I mentioned the fact that I was seriously considering heading home due to my lack of success in finding blues musicians and a good juke joint. "There's a cool-lookin' juke joint on Levee Street," I said, "and there's an electricity meter in the box which means somebody pays the bill, but I guess it's closed."
"That's W.D.'s Place," Virginia informed me. "It's a good place. Doesn't open ‘til around dark on Thursday. And we've got some fine musicians around here. James Baker and his sons for example. He played guitar with Hezekiah And The House Rockers."
"Well, I'll be damned. I never heard of James Baker, but I sure heard of Hezekiah And The House Rockers. They recorded an album for the Folklife Center at Northwestern, my alma mater."
Virginia, as if her brain contained a telephone directory, started reciting names and phone numbers. And that's what a museum has to do with blues and a juke joint. When I left the museum, my notebook contained a wealth of contact information. But there was more to it than just notes in a notebook. The black grapevine went to work. All of a sudden, black folks would talk to me.
One of the first things I learned after that event was that nobody called W.D.'s Lounge by its proper name. They called it "W.D.'s Place" or "Willie D.'s Place" or "Don's Place." The owner, Don Pollard, explained: "I originally had a partner named Will. Instead of naming it Will and Don's Lounge, we shortened it to W.D.'s Lounge."
Let's open the front door of W.D.'s Lounge and step inside before all the customers arrive. A little later we'll check out the action while the band played.
My back was against the front door when I snapped this photo. To the bottom right you can barely see a corner of the pool table. Beyond the pool table you see the bar against the right wall. The rectangle of light in the upper right corner is a TV above the bar. In the middle background of the photo you see the bandstand, down at the other end of the large room. The banners hanging across the center of the room advertise a brand of beer. The rectangle of light in the left of the photo is the jukebox, sitting against the left wall of the building.
When I took this photo, I stood in the bandstand with my back against the rear wall. That's an unidentified female customer on the right. She's mad at me because I wouldn't buy her a hamburger. The guy in the middle with the white tennis shoes is Don Pollard, the owner. The guy at the table with Don and wearing a blue T-shirt is a likable fellow named Johnny Coleman. Don and Johnny are watching the TV above the bar and rooting for Mark McGwire to hit another home run.
Take a look at the area behind the bar. The ice maker is broken. The blue ice chest down at the other end of the bar contains ice for mixed drinks. That's a potato chip rack above the ice maker. The red thing hanging from the ceiling is a plastic race car advertising Budweiser.
For y'all's information, Delta black folks, both sides of the river, drink Budweiser almost exclusively. Ten years ago when I was in the beer and liquor business, Delta black folks drank Miller almost exclusively.
Then as now, Delta black folks drink mostly Seagram's liquor products. On the shelf on the top right, that's half gallons, fifths, pints, and ½ pints of Crown Royal. Below that you'll find Seagram's 7-Crown and several different brands of brandy and cognac.
This is a close-up of Don behind the bar and watching Mark McGwire on TV. Yes, I know I cut off the top of Don's head. Try taking photos in a dark juke joint sometime. That's ½ pints of Seagram's Gin on the top shelf. On the next shelf you see little cans of grapefruit juice. Yes, that's a box of M & M's on the bottom shelf.
I didn't get the price of the ½ pints, but you can buy a pint of Seagram's Gin, a bucket of ice, and a can of grapefruit juice for $9.00. That's cheap. For you beer fans, long-neck Bud costs $1.50 and 16 oz cans of Busch cost $1.25.
Here's the rest of the band and the reason the band quit early. That's James Lee Watson on drums. I won't name the keyboard player. He was very drunk. If you'll notice he's playing with his right hand only. Most of the time the band played he just sat there and tapped one key with his right index finger.
If Sally Pollard's looks could kill, this fellow would now be pushing up daisies. Jessie Pollard was also mad, so this fellow might now be rolling along the bottom of the Mississippi River.
Even with a drunken one-fingered one-note keyboard player, the band put on a damned fine show. Here's Sally belting out a song. You will never guess what she's singing. It's Rockin' Sidney's "Toot Toot." After all, this is Louisiana.
Don't mess with my Toot Toot.
J.B. is relaxing with his friends after spending all day building deer stands. He was getting ready for hunting season. Tonight he's hunting two-legged "dear."
After Virginia Carter at the museum put me on to James and Betty Joe and I met them, I immediately liked them both. That's a rarity. They've been together for 30 years, also a rarity. I asked them how they met. Betty answered, "I was sittin' on my momma's front door steps. He came walkin' by. I didn't pay no attention. Next day he came walkin' by again. He smiled at me. I thought, Hummmmm. Next day he came walkin' by again."
James and I spent hours laughing, talking and drinking too much beer. He traveled all over the world when he played with Hezekiah And The House Rockers, a 3-man band which consisted of Hezekiah Early on harmonica and vocals, James on guitar, and the elderly Peewee Whittaker on slide trombone. They disbanded upon the death of Peewee.
"We were headed to Paris on a 747," James told me. "I was sittin' beside Albert King. There was something I'd always heard about and wondered about. I said, ‘Mister King, can I ask you a question?'
"He said, ‘Sure.'
"I was feeling bad about playing the blues. I said, ‘Have you ever worried about going to hell from playing the blues?'
"He told me that the blues was the truth. That's what he told me. He told me, ‘The blues is just a good man feelin' bad.' So I went on playing it then."
James was full of Hezekiah and Peewee stories. He obviously loved Peewee. "One day we up and decided we'd go to Memphis and see if we could make some money. Get a gig somewhere or something. So we loaded up and went to Memphis. Got a motel room. Didn't have but one bed. I was the youngest–way younger than Peewee–so I let Peewee and Hezekiah have the bed and I slept in a chair and on the floor.
"After a couple of days we ain't got a gig and barely got any money. Hezekiah and Peewee say we goin' back to Louisiana tomorrow. So there we are in that motel room and it's paid for, but we barely got money for one hamburger for all three of us. It was in the afternoon. Early. Peewee's takin' a nap. Hezekiah says to me, ‘Hey, get your acoustic guitar, an' I'll get my harp, an' Peewee'll get his trombone, an' we'll go stand on a street corner like they did in the old days.'
"That sounded like a good idea to me. We woke up Peewee. He said, ‘I ain't goin'! I ain't goin' nowheres but back to Louisiana in the mornin'!'
"So me and Hezekiah headed for downtown Memphis and left Peewee sleeping. We walked down a street, me packin' my guitar in the case an' Hezekiah with a harmonica stuck in his back pocket. White people were everywhere. Hezekiah stopped. Said, ‘This is as good a place as any.'
"I took my guitar out of the case and got behind the open case. Hezekiah got back there with me. We started playin' blues. Hezekiah blowin' that harp and singing. Those white people acted like they ain't never heard anything like that. A big crowd gathered around me and Hezekiah. They started droppin' money in my guitar case. A rich white man dropped a hundred-dollar bill in that case. People kept droppin' money. I ain't never saw anything like it. The crowd would move on an' here'd come another crowd. Got to where I couldn't hardly play for watchin' all that money. I could see fives, tens, twenties, another hundred. We quit playin' when that guitar case was full of money.'
"Peewee was waitin' on us. I threw the guitar case on the bed and opened it. You oughta seen Peewee's eyes. I started countin' money in two piles–five for me, five for Hezekiah; twenty for me, twenty for Hezekiah; hundred for me----"
I interrupted–-"Y'all didn't give old Peewee a share?"
"Hell, no!" James informed me. "He wouldn't go with us!"
I suspect this good-looking woman was the target of J.B.'s dear hunting instincts. She's sitting at our table beside my chair and across from J.B. The empty 16 oz Busch cans behind her are mine. The empty Bud Light bottles beside her belong to her and J.B. Her name is Felisha Tucker. When I returned from taking a photo of the band, she stopped me and said, "Hey, take my picture."
So I took it. Then I said, "What do you want me to tell all the folks out there in Internet land?"
"Tell ‘em to dance across Texas," she said. "Hell, I lived there 10 years. What can I say? Nah, don't tell ‘em that. Tell ‘em ain't nothin' like the blues."
Y'all have now been told.
He's singing "Down Home Blues." You know the lyric. It goes
Got to kick off these shoes. . . .
And so the music ended. The empty cans between me and Felisha Tucker told me that I should return to camp before I drank too much to safely drive. I was in a good mood, amazed that the week spent in St. Joseph had ended so well after starting so miserably. The next day, Sunday, I planned to break camp and head home. So I stood and made my goodbyes to all of my new friends. James and Betty Joe, I knew, I would miss.
I left my new friends and walked out into the cool night. The night air tasted and smelled fresh and clean and moist, blowing across the wide Mississippi, somewhere beyond the dark hulk of the levee on the other side of the street. I took a deep breath, savoring both the air and the moment.
There beside the front door stood this little round fellow, Keith Brooks, and this woman whom I had noticed walking around downtown St. Joseph. I had met Keith a couple of days earlier–after the black folks started talking to me–in his father's little restaurant located around the corner.
He always had a smile on his face, and I thought he was photogenic–those pigtails, the red T-shirt, the big round belly, those huge cut-off pants. He had worn that outfit for at least 3 days. "Keith," I said, "can I take your picture?"
"Sure," he said.
"How ‘bout me?" the woman asked.
"Sure," I replied. "Get up there on the step beside Keith."
When she did, I snapped the photo. "What's your name?" I asked her.
"Poison," she informed me.
"Poison," she repeated. "Deadly Poison."
"Well, Ms. Deadly Poison, it's been good to meet you." I shook her hand. Then I shook Keith's hand. "I'm glad I met you, Keith. Maybe I'll be back one of these days."
Keith smiled, and I turned to walk away. Behind me, I heard Ms. Deadly Poison say, "Hey!"
I stopped and turned. She said, "Take another picture."
The three of us laughed heartily, and I was still laughing as I drove away in the Bluesmobile. As I always do at the end of one of my grand adventures in the Delta, I felt a combination of elation and sadness–elation at the grand adventure and sadness at its end. But this time, unbeknownst to me, the adventure had not ended–not by any stretch of the imagination.
I drove out of town, following the highway through ink-black midnight cotton fields. Far ahead like an island of light in a sea of blackness lay the lights of a convenience store, out in the middle of nowhere. I reached the island of light, turned, then stopped the Bluesmobile off to one side of the store's front door.
Pouring from hidden speakers across the front of the store or beneath the gas-pump canopy, the perfectly synchronized voices of the Everly Brothers filled the air.
Bye bye love, bye bye happiness,
Oh, that old song increased my elation. I got out of the Bluesmobile, and with a bounce in my steps and my voice singing along with Don and Phil Everly, I went in the store and headed for the beer cooler. Oh, I was happy. Unable to find a 22 oz bottle of Heineken, I selected a 22 oz bottle of Bud and headed for the check-out counter. Figured I'd sip it during the maybe 4 mile trip to my tent, then build a little fire in the grill and sit out there and commune with Nature and think about the awesome night I had and hopefully aggravate my high-dollar-camper neighbors. Oh, but life was grand at that moment.
The check-out girl, age maybe 25, was grinning, probably at my singing. I sat the bottle of Bud on the counter, did a little dance, then pointed my finger at her, then with perfect timing and with perfect synchronization with Don and Phil, loudly sang, "I'm through with romance. / I'm through with love. / I'm through with counting the stars above."
She started laughing. "Sounds like you've heard that song before," she said.
"A million times," I answered.
"Who is it?" she asked. "We found the tape and just stuck it in the machine. I like it."
"Don and Phil Everly–the Everly Brothers." We laughed and talked a minute or so while I paid for the beer and she sacked it in a small brown paper sack, like a wino and the sack around his bottle of wine. And I then turned and stepped out of the store and into the island of light, an island flooded not just with light but with cool, moist Mississippi Delta air and the voices of Don and Phil Everly.
When I reached the driver's side door of the Bluesmobile, a voice from somewhere beyond the other side of the car said, "Hey."
in order to protect an old man's identity and secret.
I looked over the Bluesmobile's roof. Parked maybe 6 feet from the other side of the Bluesmobile, there sat an old and dark pickup truck. Inside the truck, behind the steering wheel and with the driver's window rolled down, sat an old and jet-black man. I felt a shiver of fear. But the old man just sat there looking at me. "Sir?"
"What's your name?" he asked. His hands, like mine, held a bottle of beer enclosed in a wrinkled paper sack. He raised it–a quart bottle it was–and took a sip.
"Where you from?"
I told him.
"What you do?"
"I'm an anthropologist."
I explained anthropology.
"You one-a them archaeologists, huh?"
"No sir. They study dead people. I study living people."
"What you doin' ‘round here?"
I told him.
"That ain't what you doin' ‘round here."
"Yes sir. Ask Virginia Carter at the museum. She knows me."
"Heard ‘bout that." He sipped again, then lowered the wrinkled brown sack, then looked at me again. "You been sneakin' ‘round here for three-four days."
"I've been here almost a week."
"I seen ye. Seen ye in town. Seen ye drivin' out in the country, too. I know what you lookin' for out in the country."
"Sir, I was taking pictures."
"I know what you doin' ‘round here."
"Sir, I told you the truth."
"You huntin' buried treasure."
"What?" I was more than a little stunned. When I recovered my senses, I laughed. "Sir, believe me–I ain't huntin' buried treasure. I don't give a damn about buried treasure."
His eyes watched me. He took another sip from his sack. The Everly Brothers sang
Dream dream dream,
I unscrewed the top of my bottle of Bud and dropped the cap on the concrete. I took a sip and lowered the bottle. I walked around to the other side of the Bluesmobile and leaned against the passenger door, facing the old man. The whites of his eyes, I could then see, were yellow. "Sir," I said, "I used to have a friend who had a metal detector, and we'd go out and hunt for stuff. All we ever found was beer tab-tops and .22 bullet cases. That was a long time ago."
He took a sip from his wrinkled brown sack, and I took a sip from mine. He relaxed, and so did I. We sipped and made small talk. He learned lots about me, and I learned almost nothing about him. I thought about the yellowish-brown cookie jar in Virginia Carter's museum. Filled with gold coins, the sign read. "Sir," I said, "are you a treasure hunter?"
He sipped his beer, then lowered it. "Yeah."
"Wow. Cool. Ever find anything?"
He paused too long. "Nah."
"What got you started huntin' buried treasure? All the old stories about gold buried to keep the Yankees from findin' it?"
"Nah. My wife's uncle. Long time ago. He's dead now. So is she. . . ."
The old man took a sip from his sack. I sipped too, keeping my eyes on him. A long moment passed. Around us, the Everly Brothers sang, in sync. The old man and I both raised our wrinkled brown sacks, sipped, then lowered the sacks, in sync. Then the old man looked at me and said, "I was over at his house one day. He said, ‘Boy, you work like a slave out in that field for almost nothin', and you don't have to. You got a good mind, boy. Work with yore mind not yore back. Come here, boy,' he said."
"He walked in a room and I followed him. He pointed toward a wall at something in the floor covered with a tote sack. [A burlap sack.] He said, ‘Pull that tote sack off'n that pot.'
"I pulled off the sack, and it was over a rusty iron pot. That pot was full of gold coins. There was some silver bars and some necklaces and some diamond rings. I couldn't believe it. I stood there lookin' down at all that money. He said, ‘Cover that pot back up,' an' I did."
The old man sipped his beer again and stared vacantly through the window of his truck. I stood there in awe, leaning back against the Bluesmobile and finding it difficult to believe I had just heard what I had just heard. I said, "What'd he do with all that money?"
"Put it in a bank in Arkansas. Never worked a day in his life after that."
"Did he give you any of it?"
"Nah. Told me about a mud hole. Said he was headed out of the woods with that pot of gold in the back of his truck, an' he was going too fast an' he hit that mud hole an' turned over the pot an' spilled it in the back of his truck. Lost some of it but he kept goin'. Told me where the mud hole was. Told me if I'd go there an' look around, I might find some gold.
"I went out there an' that mud hole was right where he said it was–way down a dirt road. I got down in the mud an' started feelin' 'round with my fingers."
Now the old man paused for a long time. For dramatic effect? I wondered. He took not a sip but a gulp from his quart of beer. Why was he telling me this story? Was it the truth? If it wasn't, he had a hell of an imagination. I asked, "What'd you find?"
"A silver bar an' 4 gold coins dated in the 1720s."
French gold coins, I told myself. The dates fit. Natchez is just down river on the other side. The Natchez Indians murdered all the French there in 1728. Oh my God! This old man is telling the truth! "What'd you do with ‘em?"
"Where'd he find ‘em? Near an old plantation big house?"
"Yeah. You couldn't even tell there'd ever been a house there. He told me how to tell."
I knew without asking–broken ceramics and crumbled bricks. Near a river–the highway back then. "How'd he find the pot of gold? With a metal detector?"
"Nah. Prob'bly didn't even have metal detectors then. He showed me how he did it. A metal rod pointed on one end with a handle on the other end. A white man catches you with it, it's a crutch. You push it down in the ground an' you can tell if it hits metal. You keep pokin' it in the ground an' you can tell the shape of what you hittin'."
"Is that what you use or do you use a metal detector?"
"A white man catches you on his land an' you got a metal detector, you dead. He won't say nothin' ‘bout a crutch. You just say you lost. He say git yore black ass off'n my property afore I shoot it off."
"Sir, you've found something, haven't you? You've found a treasure, haven't you?"
A very long moment went by while Don and Phil sang to us and we sipped beer. I knew damned well that the old man had found something. He also wanted my involvement in some way, either help or advice. But why in hell would he want my help or advice? He finally said, "Yeah."
I said, "Damn."
"It's a pot this big." He held his hands apart as if he held an invisible basketball. "It's full of gold coins."
I said, "Damn!" Then I said, "You dug it up?"
"Nah. I can't. I'll get caught. I walked in there at night. There ain't nothin' but white folks way back in there."
"How deep is it buried?"
"‘Bout three feet."
"How do you know it's full of gold coins if you haven't looked in it?"
"Why would they bury a pot if'n it ain't full of gold?"
"How do you know it's a pot? Maybe it's the round lid off an old wood-burnin' cookstove."
"I been pushin' that rod in the ground for years. It ain't a stove lid. It's a pot. Besides, it's right where my wife's uncle said it'd be–away from the house in what was prob'bly the garden."
I remembered a detail from the sign propped against the yellowish-brown cookie jar in Virginia Carter's museum–"found in the garden." I asked the old man, "How do you know it was the garden?"
"The house faced the bayou. The kitchen's behind the house so's if'n it catches on fire it won't burn down the house. The garden's close by so's the cook don't hav'ta walk far to pick a mess of fresh greens or sweet corn. Prob'bly behind it."
"Damn. You should have been an archaeologist."
He sipped his beer and sat there, waiting for me to say something. I sipped my beer, my mind spinning. The Everly Brothers sang on.
Here he comes, that's Cathy's clown
I remembered an old buddy of mine, a relic hunter, telling me that there were 2 favorite places to hide treasure from invading Yankees: (1) Beneath a gate post. The latch-post, not the hinge-post. You put your gold in a jar, pull the latch-post out of the ground and dig the hole a little deeper, then you drop the jar in the hole and carefully replace the latch-post. (2) In the garden. You bury it in a place you can find later. Say 6 paces out from the broken post in the north fence. Then you plow the garden or the area above the buried gold. "A troop of Yankee cavalry comes ridin' up," my friend informed me, "they don't pay no attention to a plowed garden."
The old man wanted me to help him get that pot out of the ground, but he was waiting for me to offer my help, I assumed. I figured that the white folks he was worried about lived within either sight or sound of the buried pot, maybe both. They were probably descendants of the original landowner. The old man probably figured he stood less of a chance of getting shot with a white man at his side. But the landowners would just as soon shoot a white man digging on their property in the middle of the night as they would a black man, especially a long-haired hippy-looking white man in the company of a black man. And the "pot" was more than likely either a cast-iron skillet or the round lid of a cast-iron wood-burning stove.
My mind could easily visualize the scene: Midnight. A nearly-full moon. Dark clouds rolling. What's the old poem?: "The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon stormy seas. /" A no-headlights ride down a gravel road--no, a dirt road--no, a turn-row down the edge of a vast and black cotton field. Hide the truck in some trees. A no-flashlight walk through the woods. A clearing. The dim form of a house--no, a trailer house--on the other side of the clearing. The old man's whisper, "Here. Dig here."
The "clank" of my shovel against metal--cast-iron metal. The sudden bark of a dog. A terrified pause and the pop of a nitro pill beneath my tongue. The unmistakable sound of a pump shotgun's action loading a shell. . . .
"I'd like to help you, sir, but I can't. I'm leaving in the morning." I sipped my beer, and he sipped his beer. "You gonna try to dig it up by yourself?"
He reached out and started the truck's motor. It idled with a low rumble. "I'll get a woman."
"Yeah. They catch us back there, we can tell ‘em we was doin' something else. They'll believe us."
I wanted to say, Sir, a black man and a black woman and a shovel and a hole in the ground? But I didn't say that. I said, "Good luck."
He nodded his head at me, and the truck backed out of the parking space. I walked around the Bluesmobile and got inside. Just before I left the island of light and turned onto the dark highway, I looked over and watched the truck's red tail-lights until they disappeared–in a direction I will not reveal.