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I didn’t feel good about dreading Helpful Citizen day. But that’s the truth: I definitely wasn’t looking forward to it. Oakes School thinks, “No education is complete without service.” Or, as the t-shirts said, “Helpful Citizen Day: Learning to give a helping hand.” There was a picture of a big hand reaching down to take a little hand, drawn in a childish way, which would have been better if a child had actually drawn it. Whenever I see grownup pictures drawn to look like children did them, with stick figures and houses that have their perspective all wrong, I feel like they’re making fun of us. We’re just kids. We would draw better if we could.
But the drawing wasn’t what bothered me about the day. I have nothing against doing volunteer work. For example, I participate in the Keep Us Green day, planting flowers along the roads. And I sort recyclables a couple times a year down at the dump. That’s fun, especially the part where you get to throw the glass bottles into the big hopper and watch them break. But being forced to volunteer makes as much sense to me as being forced to play. It’s not play if you’re forced, and it’s not volunteering if you have no choice about it.
To make it worse, I was put in the group going to the Senior Recreational Center attached to Dunn Village, a block of apartments Mr. Dunn rented mainly to old people. I don’t know what to say to old people, unless I know them, like my grandparents or Mrs. Fordgythe. Meeting anyone for the first time and having to have a “pleasant chat” is just hard for me. And, judging from Ari and Mimi’s reactions, hard for them, too.
At least we’d all been assigned to the same group. On the other hand, I would rather have been assigned to the group painting the fence at the park or the group doing the gardening at the long-term care section of the hospital. I did manage to get out of the petting zoo job. All the other students thought it was the best of all the volunteer offerings, but I’d heard from a good source (my older cousin Max) that instead of hanging around the cute ponies and lambs the way you imagine, you have to shovel stuff. Say no more. So when the kids who were assigned to the zoo found out about it and pumped their fists and said “Yes!” it was all I could do not to laugh.
There were six of us in the Senior Center group, led by the too-perky Ms. Floyd, our math teacher. I used to think that Ms. Floyd was cheery on purpose to counter the bad mood of her students since most students don’t like math class. It’s like a dentist who knows that she’s about to hurt you so she talks in a high-pitched voice and smiles as she says, “This may hurty-wurty just an eensy-weensy bit.” The higher the voice and the younger the baby talk, the more trouble you’re in. Helpful Citizen Day changed my mind about Ms. Floyd. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
I realized that the day was not going to go quite as smoothly as planned as we were unloading the minivan that brought us. We pulled up into the semi-circular driveway and even before the van stopped, three senior citizens – actually, do you mind if I just call them “old people” from now on? – were coming out the door to great us. One was the organizer, Mrs. Muldauer. Behind her were an old man and an old woman. They all seemed so glad to see us. All the kids went around to the back of the van as Ms. Floyd used both hands to shake Mrs. Muldauer’s hand, leaning in, smiling even more broadly than usual. As Mrs. Muldauer introduced her two companions, we were pulling easels out of the van. When I say “we,” I mean Mimi, Ari and me along with Halley Jackson, a girl who was always always always enthusiastic. When I say “we,” I definitely do not mean Amanda and Lydia who were less happy about being in our group than we were to have them. They stood near enough to the door of the van to look like maybe they were about to do something without actually doing anything.
That’s fine. (Well, not really.) There wasn’t all that much to carry. What wasn’t fine was when Mrs. Muldauer came up to us to greet us. She introduced her companions as Bill Tidewater and Felicia Markson. We all said hello to Mr. Tidewater and Ms. Markson, except for Amanda who made a point of referring to them as Bill and Felicity. Even if Amanda had gotten Ms. Markson’s first name right, it wouldn’t have been fine.
But here’s the real giveaway. When Mr. Tidewater said, “Can I give you a hand?” Amanda said “Yeah,” and handed him some poster board signs to carry.
Definitely not fine.
Halley stepped in before anyone else could and said, “Oh, thanks for offering, but I can grab those.” Halley was already carrying two boxes of games and a grocery bag with cookies, but that didn’t stop her. Amanda went right ahead and handed Halley the poster boards. “Thanks,” said Halley. “Thanks so much.”
Throughout this entire interaction, Ari stood there, studying Amanda like a boy taking an eye exam.
The Senior Center looked on the outside like a mansion. The front porch had marble pillars, and ivy had grown up the walls. But, when I brushed against one of the pillars I discovered that they were wood painted to look like marble. And the brick walls behind the ivy were stained black from soot, except where they were crumbling, revealing fresher orange brick inside.
The front entrance opened into a large room with a linoleum floor that was scuffed and dirty, and even sagged in spots. Long cafeteria tables were spread out, some with plastic tablecloths. No two table cloths matched. In fact, one looked exactly like the shower curtain in our upstairs bathroom at home. Off to the left and to the right were smaller rooms for various activities, including one with game boards set up for chess and checkers, one with a small TV placed in a piece of furniture designed for a much larger set, and a room with a couple of computers in it. Ari and I looked at one another. We knew where we’d be going first.
But I was interested in the layout of the building for another reason. I had brought with me an ordinary looking envelope. It was surprising how small a stack $10,000 can make when you get it in thousand dollar bills.
Ms. Floyd gathered us together and said, “Why don’t you all just make yourselves at home here for the first hour or so? Meet the people, make some new friends, and then let’s get back together at 10:15 sharp. See that clock on the wall?” It was an ancient dial clock, not in the “beautiful and old” sense but in the “scratched and should have been replaced ten years ago” sense. “So you all be punctual.”
Mimi moved immediately to a table in the main room where a woman was looking through a photo album. Ari and I headed for the computer room. There were two old people in it. Neither was using a computer. And we could see why. The computers were ancient in the “did they ever really make computers this bad?” sense. The screens only showed 16 colors. The machines had 5.25” floppy drives, which meant that the only software they could run had to have been made fifteen years ago. And the only connection these machines had ever had to a web was one left by a spider.
Ari and I had been hoping that the computers would give us an easy way to talk with the old guys. We could show them some of our favorite Web sites, teach them how to play checkers on line, introduce them to the idea of mailing lists that talk about whatever it is that old people like to talk about. Now the easy path of discussion was closed off. I swallowed, turned to the old person nearest me, and started a conversation the hard way.
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Jake. ”
“Hello, Jake. I’m Thomas Sadler. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” was the reply. So, the direct approach worked. In fact, it worked a lot better than Ari’s approach. I heard him say, “Hey, well, hey.” Fortunately, the man he was addressing was better at this than Ari. “Hello,” said the man, “My name is Frederick Hallstadt. I see you like computers…”
Mr. Sadler and I talked about the book he was reading. It was a western, not a type of novel I particularly cared for. I prefer books with swords, magic and chain mail. But it turned out that Mr. Sadler read cowboy novels because he liked to see how wrong they were. He had been a cowboy for a few years when he was a young man. And to answer your question before you ask it: No, he didn’t strap a six-shooter onto his leg and have shoot-outs with bad guys in black hats. “Sometimes they wore gray hats or white hats, or even once an orange golf hat,” Mr. Sadler said. “Just kidding,” he added. Mr. Sadler, dressed in a faded checked shirt, did look a little like an old cowboy. Only one thing was out of place for an old cowboy: a handkerchief neatly folded in his shirt’s breast pocket.
Although Mr. Sadler was in the computer room because he could talk with his friend Mr. Hallstadt without disturbing anyone else, he was interested in computers. He asked me a lot of questions about the Internet. He had a grandson across the country who wanted to send him email, and some of his old friends in different parts of the country had told him that they were staying in touch through instant messaging. And he wanted to know if our congresswoman answered email because he was very upset about the cutbacks in funding for education. I thanked him.
Before I knew it, the ancient clock in the other room, which I could see through the doorway, said that our hour was up. I got up and interrupted Ari to let him know. Actually, I interrupted Mr. Hallstadt. Apparently Ari had managed to get him really irritated; from what I could overhear, it had something to do with Ari’s tendency to say, “Well, if you say so,” whenever he didn’t have an opinion on a topic.
Predictably, Amanda and Lydia kept us waiting. The rest of us sat at the table with my family’s shower curtain on it, chatting about the people we met. Mimi had talked with a group of three women who had known one another for over sixty years, two of whom had disliked each other for over fifty years. The morning light came through a set of large windows on the far wall. A string of letters that spelled out “Happy Birthday” was taped across the center windows, and bits of tape from decades of other signs blotched the glass here and there. But the light was strong and bright enough for me to notice the little specks of dust floating everywhere, like confetti at a parade.
Fifteen minutes later, Amanda and Lydia came in from a back door that led to the outside. I saw Lydia stuffing a little plastic bag from the Sweet Nothings clothing store into her backpack.
“You must have gotten lost talking to these wonderful people,” Ms. Floyd said to Amanda and Lydia. Don’t do that, I thought. Don’t make up their excuses for them. At least let us see what they’d come up with. “Well, let’s try to keep to our schedule, ok? And the next thing is what we’re really here for: life stories.” She paused, as if we were supposed to clap our hands in joy. “Everyone take a notebook and if you forgot a pen, I brought some extras.” Amanda and Lydia took pens. “Now, each of you is going to find a senior and help him or her write his or her life story.”
“How long does it have to be?” asked Amanda
“You’ll have an hour and a half,” said Ms. Floyd. Amanda rolled her eyes. “So keep track of the time to make sure you get all the way through. You’re not going to write the life story now. You’re just going to take notes. We’ll write up the final version back at home.”
Lydia said, “That’s not fair.” Amanda popped her bubblegum in agreement. I could read what she was thinking: Lend a Helping Hand Day wasn’t supposed to include homework.
Ms. Floyd seemed to have read the same message. “Your English teachers have agreed to count this as a writing project.” We had to write six projects over the course of the year. “Now, there’s one more thing. I don’t want this to be just ‘I was born in 19-something and then we moved to wherever in 19-something-else and then I went to school.’ I want you each to get one great story from each senior. One thing in their lives that makes a great story. So, you’ll have notes about all the important events in their lives but you’ll have one, long piece that tells this great story. Everyone understand?”
Ari asked, “So the rest of it should just be dates and places?”
“No,” said Ms. Floyd, “but it’s a good question.” No, it wasn’t. “You should write the whole biography as if it were story, not just places and dates. We want these Life Stories to tell the truth about their lives in a way that the seniors themselves would recognize. Ok? Then let’s go. We’ll meet back here in an hour and a half. Oh, and we’ll be reading the stories at the cupcake social after lunch.”
Ari and I went back into the computer room where Mr. Sadler and Mr. Halstadt were talking. Ari whispered to me, “Can we both do one guy?” I shook my head and sat next to Mr. Sadler. Through the door, I could see Ms. Floyd hustling Amanda and Lydia along. Now she was shaking her head and telling the girls to go in different directions; apparently, they, like Ari, were hoping to double-team an old person.
“Mr. Sadler,” I said, “I’d like to write up your autobiography.”
“Me?” he asked in surprise, adjusting the handkerchief in his pocked. “I haven’t done anything worth writing up.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s not true,” I said, having no idea if that was true or not. “Besides, we only have an hour and a half to take notes. Then I’ll write it up after we leave. So, it will really be just a quick overview. But, I need to have one really good story. We’re going to read them after our little party here this afternoon.”
“One good story? I don’t know. I can’t think of any.”
“Why don’t we just start from the beginning and get down the basics of your life? And we can worry about the story afterwards.”
“There’s not much to tell…”
Mr. Sadler – Thomas Beecham Sadler – was born in 1917. “I was raised by my grandparents after my father died when I was three. Grandma and Grandpa moved in and my mother never really got her bearings back. Grandma and Grandpa were wonderful folks. Grandma taught herself to read when she was a child, and when she met Grandpa when he was fifteen, she taught him how to read, too.” He paused to let me catch up with my note taking, adding casually, “They were born slaves, you know.”
The words didn’t hit me until a few seconds after he said them. “Slaves?” I asked. It didn’t seem possible that in the 21st century I could be talking to someone who actually knew slaves. But I did the math mentally. They could have been five or even ten years old at the end of the Civil War. “That’s amazing.”
“Yes it is. In fact, you see how I wear a handkerchief like this in my breast pocket? That’s because my grandpa taught me that a gentleman always has a handkerchief neatly folded and ready. And I’ve always believed that he picked that up from his master. So, you’re seeing a slave master’s manners displayed in the grandson of a slave. I do it on purpose. It’s a reminder.”
“In fact,” Mr. Sadler said, “it played a part in the story of how I met one of the richest men in the West.” And then Mr. Sadler told me the story...
* * *
It was the worst of the Great Depression. Mr. Sadler – or Beech, as he was known then – was a teen-ager in Chicago. His family had already been on the edge of poverty. Now the great waves of unemployment pushed them over the edge. Before, everyone in the family, including the children, had to work to bring in enough money for food, but now there just wasn’t any work. When Beech’s father got laid off, the family decided that Beech, as the eldest, should go where the jobs were. So, Beech headed out west. He was sixteen, had a few dollars in his pocket, not much more than the clothes he was wearing, and no idea of where he would go. His only two comforts were that his best friend, Dill “Pink” McDaniels was with him, and he had his grandfather’s handkerchief neatly folded in his breast pocket.
So the two boys walked, hitched, and rode the rails until they got to Montana. That’s just where the road led them. In Durbin, a small town dominated by a very large ranch, they saw a sign in the local feed shop’s window. “Cowboys wanted.” Beech looked at Pink. Pink looked at Beech. They laughed. They had been turned down for so many jobs that the idea of becoming African-American cowboys was just ridiculous. All he and Pink knew about cowboys they had learned from the movies: ropin’ and shootin’ and gettin’ the purty girl at the end.
So, there they stood in the main street of tiny Durbin, pretending to draw on each other and laughing, when a large white man said, “What are you boys laughing at?” Beech looked at him. He was wore an expensive blue suit, solid gold cufflinks, a ring on his finger with a green jewel the size of a small potato … and a cowboy belt, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots.
“Nothing, sir,” said Beech, looking down at the ground as was proper at that time.
“Well, something obviously is entertaining you two boys. You should let us in on the joke.” The man gestured to three other men, smaller than him and not as expensively dressed, who stood behind him. “So, what is so goldurned funny?”
“We were just laughing at the idea of us applying for the cowboy job.”
“And what’s so funny about that?”
“Well, sir, we’re Negroes.”
“I can see that. You don’t know much about cowboys, do you?”
“Just what you’ve seen in the movies.”
“The fact is that there have been plenty of Negro cowboys. Isn’t that right, Sam?” he asked the man closest to him. Sam looked puzzled. “Sam doesn’t know anything either. But there have been. Ain’t nothing funny about it.”
“Do you boys want to be cowboys?”
Beech and Pink looked at one another, not knowing what the right answer was supposed to be. “We want to work,” said Beech.
“Then you are the two luckiest black boys this side of the Mississippi,” he said, although he used a much worse word for “black boys.” “I’m C. Carter Hargreaves, the owner of the largest ranch in Montana and the richest man you’ll ever meet, and I’m going to hire you. I’ll tell you why. Out here, we don’t care what the color of your skin is. What matters is how hard you want to work. Sam, go sign these boys up and take ‘em out to the Slanted Pine.”
“Thank you, sir!” they both said more than once.
“Don’t thank me. Theo out at the ranch will work you hard. If you can’t keep up, then, well, we’ll let you go and no hard feelings.” He turned to leave but then asked one more question: “You boys know how to ride? No? Theo will teach you.” He laughed again.
And Beech and Pink did work hard. For two years. They started with which end of the cow to milk and moved to riding, roping, and how live outside for weeks at a time. Theo was a good teacher, but not a kind one. You paid for your mistakes in aches and pains at best, and with bruises and deductions from your pay at worst.
During all this time, they saw C. Carter Hargreaves on rare occasion, usually at a great distance, standing on the porch of his huge house, hands on his hips, smoking a cigar. Whenever they got close enough to him to be noticed, he’d tip his hat at them in acknowledgement, and once he asked them how Theo was treating them.
Over time, Pink and Beech realized that despite what Mr. Hargreaves had said, they were the only black cowboys working at the Slanted Pine. They became better friends than ever, relying on each other for help and encouragement….until one day, the two of them were walking down the main street on their day off. Out of the bank strode Mr. Hargreaves, summery in a white suit and a straw hat. “Howdy, boys,” he said, and then, to their surprise turned in his tracks and approached them. He leaned in towards Beech and said, “Can I have a word with you?”
They walked across the street, leaving Pink to try to figure out what they were talking about. “I’ve had my eye on you,” said Mr. Hargreaves.
Beech didn’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. “I’ve been impressed with what you’ve learned. I’d like you to be Theo’s second trail hand.” This would give Beech more responsibility and just a little more pay.
“Well, that would be fine,” said Beech. “Thank you, sir.”
“No, no, you’ve earned it.”
Becoming second trail hand meant that Beech got up earlier and worked later than ever before. But he noticed that Pink seemed hurt. “Come ride next to me,” Beech said one day, waving his friend forward. As they rode along the edge of the herd of cattle, Pink confessed that he was bothered by the extra 25 cents a week Beech was getting. “The money doesn’t mean anything,” said Beech. And, after talking some more, it turned that what really stung Pink was what the raise meant: Mr. Hargreaves favored Beech. “You ride better than I do and you rope a whole lot better,” Beech told his friend. “Who knows why he picked me instead of you. Just luck.” It didn’t take long for these true friends to smooth out the kink.
Just two weeks later Pink had a chance to prove that he was the better cowboy. That night Theo had produced a couple of bottles of whiskey he’d packed. The little group of cowboys on the trail proceeded to get so drunk that one of them fell asleep on a rattlesnake which was so surprised that it slithered away without biting. Beech and Pink were the only ones left sober because the bottle had been passed from white hand to white hand. Besides, Beech was never one for drinking.
The stars were out and the moon was below the horizon. Beech was lying on his back almost asleep when a gun went off next to him. He and Pink bolted upright, but the other cowboys had barely stirred. They saw a smoking gun in the hand of Fred Barker, an older cowhand who had fallen asleep holding it, and fired it in his sleep without even waking himself up.
But the cattle had noticed. Four hundred cows were moving. Beech and Pink tried to wake Theo but he just rolled over in the middle of a snore. “No time,” said Beech, jumping into the saddle. He and Pink went off at full gallop to prevent the cows from stampeding.
The sound of 400 cows moving together isn’t something you hear. You feel it. The ground becomes a trampoline, pushing up against you and suddenly dropping beneath you. “They’re headed for the cliff!” yelled Beech, spurring his horse with Pink close behind.
Cattle are stupid but not stupid enough to jump off a cliff. But if they stampede alongside of one, the ones on the edge can be pushed over the side because of the sheer rampaging mass of flesh that’s moving without plan or sense. Pink galloped ahead of Beech, putting his horse between the cliff and the cattle, herding them away from danger. He controlled his horse with a precision and confidence that awed Beech. And the cattle were turning towards safety.
Just as Beech thought they were over the worst of it, he saw Pink’s horse go down. A panicked cow had moved the wrong way and the horse lost its footing along the side of the cliff. The horse started to right itself, but Pink was nowhere to be seen. Beech pulled ahead and jumped off his horse. Peering over the side, sick with worry, he saw his friend balanced on an incline too steep to climb and too high to roll down. It didn’t take any fancy rope twirling to get a line to his friend, and Pink quickly clambered up to safety. Then they both began to laugh, although neither could tell you why. And then they brought the herd of cattle back to where the other cowboys were still sleeping, all except for Theo who nodded at them once, pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes, and went back to sleep.
The next day, as they were riding slowly and the sun was down low enough that the air had already begun to cool, Beech asked Pink, “Why do we do it?”
“Ride horses next to cliffs to protect cattle.”
“Because it’s our job.”
“We didn’t risk our lives because it’s our job. Our lives aren’t worth a couple of lost cattle.”
“But that’s not up to us to decide. They’re Mr. Hargreaves’ cows. We owe him for hiring us.”
“You’re right, Pink. He hired us even though we’re the darkest faced cowboys we’ve met so far. That counts for something.”
“Here’s to Mr. Hargreaves,” said Pink, toasting him with his canteen.
Three weeks later, the crew came back to town. Beech and Pink had a bath at the wash house, aired out their bedding, and collected their pay. They’d been back for three days when Beech got a ride into town to get his saddle fixed. As he was coming out of the leather repair shop, he saw Mr. Hargreaves walking towards him. Beech took off his hat and nodded a greeting.
“I want to speak with you,” said Mr. Hargreaves.
“I hear you and your friend did a mighty brave thing a couple of weeks back.”
“We just did what we were hired to do.”
“Well, you did it when the rest of the crew was dead drunk. And, I understand that you did it at the risk of grave personal danger.”
“No, don’t downplay it. I want you and everyone to know that I recognize such bravery. I want you to have this as my reward.” He put a bill into Beech’s hand. “No, don’t thank me. You earned it.” He shook Beech’s hand and walked on. “I have one of those for your friend as well.”
In his palm was a $50 bill.
It wasn’t just the money that filled Beech’s heart with joy. It was the fact that he had worked hard and was being recognized for what he was and what he’d done. Of course, getting a year’s salary all at once wasn’t nothing! He knew what a difference the extra money would make to his family back home.
Beech ran straight back to the ranch and found Pink washing the lunch dishes behind the cookhouse. “Pink! Pink!” Beech yelled. “You won’t believe what happened!” And Pink didn’t believe him until Beech showed him the fifty dollar bill. “And Mr. Hargreaves says that when he sees you, you’re going to get one, too.”
Pink sat down on the ground, amazed. “That Mr. Hargreaves…” he began.
“I know,” said Beech. “I’ve met a lot of white men,” he said, as if he weren’t just nineteen years old. “A few have been mean, and more than that have been nice, but to almost all of them I was invisible. Just another dark face like a thousand others they don’t notice.”
“That’s the truth,” said Pink. “The only time I’m noticed by a white person, it’s either because I’m in the way or they expect me to do something for them. And I wouldn’t even mind so much if just once they’d look me in the eyes, and maybe even ask me my name.”
“Well, Mr. Hargreaves is the exception,” said Beech.
“Fifty dollars!” Pink exclaimed.
“Do you reckon we can spend some on ourselves?”
“I think our parents would insist on it. What are you thinking of doing for yourself?”
“Well, I don’t think we want to let our trail partners know that we’ve come into money. They might resent it.”
“That’s right. I’m not sure how it’d sit with them if they found out that the two Negro cowboys had been so well rewarded.” They sat on the ground and talked about what they could buy that wouldn’t make them look rich.
The next day, Beech was all for going into town to spend a little of their money. “You go,” said Pink. “I’m not feeling too well.” He was just plain worn out from the weeks on the trail. So, Beech went into town by himself for the second day in a row.
After having bought a checked shirt and a new leather strap to hold his sleeping roll onto his saddle, Beech was sitting on a bench at the edge of the town square. There was nothing in the square except the trash that had blown in and a small aspen tree with only a few dozen leaves on it keeping it alive. Beech was eating a sandwich he had brought with him when he saw Mr. Hargreaves approaching.
“I want to speak with you,” said Mr. Hargreaves.
“Yes, sir,” said Beech. But before he could thank Mr. Hargreaves for his generosity, he was cut off.
“I hear you and your friend did a mighty brave thing a couple of weeks back,” said Mr. Hargreaves.
“Well...” Beech began, confused. Hadn’t they had this conversation already?
“Now, did your friend tell you about the little bonus I have for you?”
“I don’t understand…”
“Well, if he’s really your buddy, he should have told you. Anyway, I understand that you acted at the risk of grave personal danger.”
“No, don’t downplay it. I want you and everyone to know that I recognize such bravery. I want you to have this as my reward.” He put a bill into Beech’s hand. “No, don’t thank me. You earned it.” He shook Beech’s hand and walked on. “And tell your friend to make sure he passes messages along to you. It’s not every day that a young Negro gets a $50 bill pressed into his palm. “ Except Mr. Hargreaves used a term much worse than “Negro.”
Beech stepped back, not wanting to understand what had happened. Two black faces in the entire town, and Mr. Hargreaves couldn’t tell them apart.
“Don’t you even say Thank you?” demanded Mr. Hargreaves. “Didn’t your momma teach you any manners, boy?”
Beech didn’t know what to say. In nervousness, he touched the clean, white handkerchief in his breast pocket. “Thank you…” he began.
Mr. Hargreaves’ eyes followed Beech’s hand to the handkerchief. Beech could see the color rise in Mr. Hargreaves’ face as he realized his blunder. “You’re the Negro who wears a handkerchief in his pocket,” he said. “I gave you money yesterday. Well, son, you can give this bill to your friend.”
Mr. Hargreaves started to turn away.
“No, sir,” said Beech.
“Excuse me, son? What did you say?”
“I said no, sir. No thank you. I will not give this fifty to my friend. He has a name. It’s Bill McDaniels. His friends call him Pink. I will give him the fifty you gave me yesterday, but I don’t want this one. Here it is back, Mr. Hargreaves, sir, with my thanks. But you don’t even know who you’re thanking. Me and my friend Pink have worked hard for you. And, we’re no heroes but we did save a herd of your cattle by steering them away from a cliff. Yes, sir. And you owe us your thanks. But you can’t thank a man unless you know who is, and you have had two years to learn our names. So, I appreciate the money, and Lord knows my family could use it, but I can’t rightly take it from you.”
Mr. Hargreaves looked at him solemnly. “What’s your name, son?”
“It’s Thomas Beecham Sadler. From the Chicago Sadlers, formerly the Georgia Sadlers, a slave family.”
“Well, Thomas Beecham Sadler. I’ve learned something from you. So I’m going to let you keep that fifty dollars because that was a fifty dollar lesson.” Beech took it back uncertainly. Mr. Hargreaves continued: “But you’ve also embarrassed me, son. And I haven’t become who I am by being embarrassed by little Negro boys. So, take your money, pack your goods, and get off my ranch. You’re fired, son.”
Beech walked back to the ranch slowly, looking at the dust kicked up by the tips of his shoes. He felt oddly calm. No matter how hard he had worked and how good a job he had done, he was still only skin deep to Mr. Hargreaves. He was at best “the Negro with the handkerchief.” That’s not what his grandfather had hoped for on the day he was set free.
“I’ve been a cowboy long enough,” he told Pink. “Want to come with me?”
Pink stayed. Beech left the next day and began the rest of his life.
* * *
I barely took notes while he was talking. But I remembered it all and began to write it up as soon as I had asked him about the rest of his life. We didn’t have much time left, and I wrote quickly.
I had one more thing to do. As Ari and I stood up to head back to where Ms. Floyd was standing in the main hall, Ari created a distraction, as we had agreed. Unfortunately, Ari’s idea of a distraction was to say, “Oh, look!” in an unconvincing voice and point into the main hall. When Ari again said “Oh, look!” this time louder and more obviously faking it, and when again neither Mr. Sadler nor Mr. Hallstadt even turned their heads, I just walked to a small table behind both their chairs and left the envelope. They would have had to have had eyes in the backs of their heads to see me. I had printed on the letter “For the People of Dunn Village Recreational Center” in big letters that no one could miss. I hoped.
A the little party the residents nibbled on oatmeal cookies, sipped punch, and talked about the weather, sports, and how to tan a zebra hide. (Mrs. Wilcox had apparently spent time in Africa.) When it was time to stand up and tell the stories we had gathered, I could hardly wait. But I had to.
Halley went first. She told about the time that Bill Tidewater met John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had been a young senator from Massachusetts at the time and Mr. Tidewater was working as a cab driver to supplement the income from his job as a landscape gardener. Senator Kennedy asked Mr. Tidewater why he had to work so hard, and when he replied that it was so he could get his son the medical treatment he needed to learn to walk after coming down with polio, the Senator promised to work on providing health care for working people. Maybe Mr. Tidewater changed history that day.
Then it was Ari’s turn. In typical fashion, it took Ari a long time to find his topic. First he talked about where Mr. Hallstadt was born and about how his parents had come from Germany before the first World War. Then he talked about a book Ari had read about the use of airplanes in that war, although it had nothing to do with Mr. Hallstadt. It sounded like Ari was about to get to the actual story when I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was Mr. Sadler pulling me back towards a corner of the room.
“What’s up?” I asked, thinking perhaps he wanted to change something about the story he had told me.
In response, I felt an envelope being pushed into my hand. I didn’t even have to look down to know what it was.
Mr. Sadler looked at me. “I didn’t take Mr. Hargreaves’ fifty dollars, and I don’t have to take your $10,000.”
“But why?” I asked. I did not like being compared to Mr. Hargreaves. “It’s for the Center. To fix it up.”
He looked at me hard. “I can’t tell you where I got it,” I said. “I just can’t. But it’s mine. Really. I got it honestly.”
“Why’d you bring it?” I could feel Mr. Sadler’s eyes inspecting me like a chef turning a potato around to make sure that there were no blemishes.
“To leave it here where someone I could trust would find it. Why won’t you take it? I really want the center to have it. Your story meant a lot to me.”
Mr. Sadler took the envelope back from my hand and tucked it into his trouser pocket. “Yes, I will take it. Do you want to know why?” I nodded. I was so confused. “You came with a big packet of money,” he said. “You were going to help us even before you met us. Even before you knew who we were. Well, that’s just not right. It makes the money into nothing but money. If you want it to be more than that, then you’d better get to know us first.”
“How could money be anything except money?” I asked, puzzled.
“It can be love. Respect. Guilt. Contempt. Even hatred. But money is never just money.”
He shook my hand and pushed me forward gently with his thin, thin hand. Ms. Floyd was finishing with Amanda who apparently had just given her presentation. As I approached, I was surprised to hear what Ms. Floyd was saying: “That is just not acceptable, Amanda. I didn’t say anything when you took advantage of your friends this morning, or when you snuck out instead of helping here. But that is just plain rude to our hosts, and I will not stand for it. Now go back to Mrs. Cromley, apologize, and actually talk with her. And Lydia, if the story you have to tell exhibits the same sort of disrespect, then you’d better go back right now to Mr. Alma and do a better job.” Turning to the audience, Ms. Floyd pulled herself together. “I do apologize. Those are not students typical of Oakes Middle School.”
“Don’t apologize, dear,” said Ms. Markson. “We quite enjoyed it. In fact, you were too gentle on her.”
“Now,” said Ms. Floyd, consulting her list, “Jake Richter will tell you a story from the life of Thomas Sadler.”
I stood. “They called him ‘Beech,’” I began, “and he is the grandchild of slaves.”
I saw Mr. Sadler touch the handkerchief in his pocket.