The Happy Elephants of Three Creeks

“You’ll never forget the sound of a happy elephant, Junior” is the way that Uncle Heavy started telling me about one of the craziest ways that segregation benefitted the Negroes of Three Creeks, Arkansas in the 1930’s. “Blacks couldn’t attend the festivities when the Fall Harvest brought people and the people who liked people’s money, to town”. In those years Uncle E.J. earned the nickname, “Heavy” because he was a thick boy and “stretched 6 feet and four inches above the ground”, as Grandpa Herman would say. He was the eldest of the Mardis 8, but had an older brother, Levi, who taught him nearly everything he knew about farming and following. One of those lessons was “Seeing what they don’t want you to see: Yourself getting out of here!”

“Seeing what they don’t want you to see: Yourself getting out of here!”

Hollem, Howard R., photographer

“Junior”, Uncle Heavy pitched his resonant baritone voice across the front seat of my red Cadillac and made a patting motion. His huge palm was stuck on the end of a ham shaped forearm sticking out of  the shirt’s cuff folded up to his elbow. I was twenty-six that year and drove my Uncle around his old town listening to these remembrances. The patting palm meant to slow down and anticipate a sudden turn off the main dirt road. Nearly every time that road led  into a small lane that would open up into a clearing with shack-like houses or barns. I slowed and watched for the rare truck that might be coming along behind.

His way of giving direction was to make a “humpf” sound just  ahead of a turning in spot. Uncle Heavy…humpfed and stabbed his meaty finger toward an indentation to the right of the road.  “Careful now! Ol’ Henry Leland didn’t know about dipping into Jimmy Jolly’s Crossing when he built this Caddy”, and he laughed a sonorous bellow that always reminded me of a donkey’s bray. I turned.

Sixty bumping feet after that turn and thru a whip of small tree switches there was an opening. A few feet further and a lake, rimmed by huge white boulders, appeared. A ragged line of about twelve fishermen with cane poles leaned against a cooler were cast into the lake. In Arkansas, you wave and give a holler. In unison the men threw their hands into the air and welcomed the bouncing red Cadillac into Three Creeks-Union Arc-Junction City, Arkansas. Uncle Heavy pointed to a spot of grass and I parked in the shade of half-dead oak tree. One of the older men squinted and yelled out, “Eurman?, Well, I’ll jus’ be damned!” We climbed out as all of the men approached with big grins.

I was introduced to my great-great-cousin, “Tumor” or Mr. Reverend Percy. According to Uncle E.J., in his formative years learning the Gospel Mr. Percy was practiced his preaching on mules in the field. He looked at me for a few seconds and declared, “Hell, son…wit dem shoe-sized ears you ain’t nobody’s boy if yo Daddy ain’t J.C.!” “Whatchusay?” another man witnessed and a few others asked, “Son, I knowed yo Mama, Miss Rose, all thru school. How’s yo Aunt Malveis doing up in Dallas? You got Mr. Herman’s taste for cars and Miss Adla’s bug eyes!” And just like that my whole genealogy spilled out on the ground.

Even at twenty-six, once a group of thirteen old men start up you might as well be a four-year old. They laughed at half told stories and recalled entire lives within minutes of coming together. One pole whipped into a half moon with a fish on the line and we moved the crowd to watch the catch. It was a large channel catfish, about eleven pounds once the “cousin” called Ben-Roy brought it on to the bank. Staring at that incredible catch caused Uncle Heavy to ask Tumor if he remembered “the elephants from the Circus?” That question caused all of the men to grin broadly as they each had a remembrance or family folklore to repeat about seeing exotic animals right outside their homes every day for almost two weeks.

Turning to me, Tumor’s face was sullen but quickly turning into a mischief. “The Whites wouldn’t let us in the Circus, J.C. Jr.” He assumed correctly that I was called after my Father. “I mean they had a man standing at the Circus field with a two-barrel scat gun ‘cross his ches’”, and Tumor stood erect with a stern look on his face. Another man chimed in, “Us kids had a fit about dat and a few folks got the switch took ‘em to shut up about it”. Tumor picked up the story, “But GOD had different plans about it all!” The group of men laughed and slapped one another on the shoulder. “On about the third day after the start up of thangs we was up and in the field”, Tumor turned to his right and wiped his hand in the air toward the vast fields. “…an’ son, let me tell you this. I figured Gabriel had commenced to blowing the final horn of glory when dem elephants run into this creek and blowed their noses that very mornin’!” Uncle Heavy picked up the story with a big laugh, “Yo Granny come up from way over yonder”, his big paw stabbed the area where a line of trees now stood, “Her hoe was up and she was a runnin’! Most of the kids was in the field, but yo Daddy was still a lil’ boy and was in the house with Miss Verta Mae watching over him.“  He wiped his eyes at the memory and the spectacle of her running and seeing the growing crowd of animals.

Tumor laughed too at the remembrance and the reactions of the boys, girls and mostly women to the Circus animals being brought to their creek. He recalled, “Not much got done for a while with errbody stealing away to see what they had been refused jus’ days ago”. The men agreed  that after thinking about it there were just a few elephants and two giraffes brought down to the creek, but for them it might as well have been tigers, bears and the bearded fat lady, too. Most of the men were off to other jobs in the area and missed the excitement. “Had it not been for the stacks of poop dropped along the road my Daddy woulda called me a liar!”, Tumor laughed and added, “Heavy,do you remembers how ol’ man, W.C. sent his boys down here to the creek tryna keep us from stealin’ one of dem elephants?” and the men bent over in laughter.

Copyright JasMardis 2023 All Rights Reserved

Sharing, Like It’s Going Out of Style

One year, when we were still a family living in the white frame house on Morrell Street in Dallas, Texas, we ate beans and rice or collard greens nearly every day. Later that year, while out for Christmas break, we got used to inviting some new kids in with us for dinner. Of course, we were used to the food by then, but it was the first time that I had heard and got a different understanding of the phrase, “Like they going out of style“.

There were five kids in our family and we dared not flinch when those words came across the sparse dinner table from my brother’s invited friend, a boy called “Meatball”. He was squat, dark-hued, round with a bushel of uncombed hair and gave off the suggested shape of a big, well, meat ball. His rather large family was new to a duplex further down the hill that was Morrell Street. Even in the colder months most of them spilled out onto the porch and yard during non-sleeping hours. Up and down that block all of our families were just making due, but even our construction-job injured Stepfather had encouraged us to invite and share with the kids whenever possible.

Meatball didn’t bother looking up from his fast moving spoon through a bowl of crumbled cornbread and black-eyed peas. Even though he had used the bathroom sink to clean up it was not hard to find patches of differing colored dirt streaking his scrawny, short sleeved arm and pointy elbow as he ate. We had already prayed, passed the cornbread and Kool-Aid. Now, we waited on a spoon of steaming collard greens from a big, worn pot that sat at one end of the table when he blurted up, “Ya’ll eat beans like they going out of style!”.

We just kept passing our plates from one person to the next and waited for them to return with a layered serving of meatless collard greens. Secretly, we all hoped for one of the bacon or salt jowl halves that seasoned the greens, but that succulent meat often landed on our Stepfather’s plate. Meatball did not pass his plate. He continued to feast on the certainty of his beans and dodged the long arms that reached, grabbed and ignored his sloppy chewing. With all the plates in place our Stepfather called to the little complainer, “Gimme yo’ plate, son“. A moment passed before my brother grabbed and handed off the boy’s crumb-littered plate. Meatball started chewing faster.

For the second time that day neither of us five flinched as Meatball’s plate of hot collards was passed back to him. Mixed into the feathery stack of greens were the two curling halves of thick sliced, red meat and water pearled bacon fat. Again, the pain mellowed bass of our Stepfather’s words wafted toward Meatball, “You reckon dat fatback might be in style, Meatboy?” His mispronunciation kicked a big laugh into the room and nearly everybody corrected him, “It’s MEAT BALL, Mr. Howard“. It was the first time since being injured and returning home from two months of traction in a hospital bed that he smiled big and laughed a full throated guffaw. The bacon slipped in and out of Meatball’s greasy lipped mouth and the room grew brighter with his  addictive and toothy grin.

It would be a few more months of beans and greens and visits from Meatball and others hoping for the fatback on their plates, but never from us five.  Big laughs came slowly back into the white house at 1423 Morrell after the “meat boy” meal. There was new job with less pain and risk of injury for our slow moving Mr. Howard. Around the same time there was Christmas and five thunderous, overflowing, cellophane covered fruit baskets with hard, awkward nuts and candy canes with a single wrapped present. It all got shared on our screened-in porch, along with other toys from up and down Morrell Street…and the echoing, baritone laughter from just inside the door.

Jas. C. Mardis is a Poet, Quilter and Storyteller. He is a 2014 Inductee into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

Photo credit:   Rosskam, Edwin, 1903-,  Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection 1938