Old William had hands that had a life of their own, a story, a song, and you wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear it.
The scars on his hands told some kind of story I had never heard. One of suffering, one of work, one of living. Maybe the most important one of why he was still alive.
His eyes were a soft brown, like a few dogs I have had. He wore glasses with one limb taped and wrapped in a color that must have been once white.
His face was weathered and worn showing the years he spent trying to get by and find a life, a life mostly lost.
When his eyes finally found mine, he seemed desperate to see me, and I tried to see him.
But, he was born in the crux of time, when an education was how you survived day to day. Nothing flimsy like a printed diploma, nothing permanent lie a medal.
Where did you got water?
Where you flopped for a night, who could you trust and who to run from?
Food came last, as survival was not earned from a drive-through, but a night.
No, Old William was alive when he could have, should have died a dozen times before.
He found our neighborhood of children, and rented the worst house among all the shit houses of all.
We found him kind and loving, though at first we feared him. He sat on the steps of his hovel and just seemed to breath and look around him, as if the autumn was food enough for him to come outside.
He was very quiet as we at first, passed by and slung insults at him. “Dummy” or “Homeless” or “Stupid”.
His sun browned face and hands were in full view, while the rest of him was covered in fabric used long ago, but clean in the now.
He had a smell about him, one never forgets. Not dirty, or unclean, just a sturdy one, one borne of struggle with nary an ounce of fancy.
A Man smell. A survival smell. A lonely one that will haunt me forever.
Old William looked at you directly, as if he were God looking into your soul, but his words and speech barely stretched to a 6th grade level.
Somehow, I found him, and he me.
“You pass by with your buddies and throw things at me. Why sit with me this day, Harry?”
I said, “Well, I never see an anger from ye. You never throw anything back!” I say.
Old William said, “Long ago, I was grabbed and used by the government. I was told to kill a yellow man. Not a bad man. A yellow man. But, all I known then was cotton and how to get it out of the field. When to plant, weeding the field, when to crop and take it to the ginnie. How to make mules pull though the weight that could break them.
I knew nothing of killing. I never killed a fowl, nor a pig, nor anything. Why would I kill someone that was not trying to kill me?”
I asked him, “Did you kill the yellow man?”
Old William’s head dropped low as his eyes lost mine……
“Yes, I did. I shot and stabbed those that were trying to kill me and mine, in the same uniform. But, let me tell you, my heart and soul were ruined by that. I have no hate or fight left in me. I still breathe, but I have been dead for a long, long time.”
Old William told me, “I never got an education. I bet you are going on to high school, and make something of you. But, I never did. I went to school for maybe 5 years, till Pa needed more help in the fields. I did learn to make Mule Whips better than most. These days most people don’t use Mules, so they don’t need whips. But, they are fun to crack!”
I asked, “Mule Whips? Can you show me?”
And, he pulls out a long one, much taller than me.
He swings it around his head in a circle, his arm and body like a ballet dancer spinning and moving, and suddenly jerks the whip back to him. The crack, the sound, startled me, shook me, grabbed me.
I liked that sound. It was clean, though it shocked. It did not care the color of a man, nor his religion.
It just was.
He showed me a wooden handle some eight inches long a hand could grip. At the top, a hole had been drilled one side to the other.
Strung through that hole was a leather string, and coupled to that was a complicated introven series of straps that connected to the whip.
I later learned this whip was 22feet long and was composed of a hemp rope core with rubber interlacing back and forth and under through its entire 22foot lentgh.
There was a “popper” near the end where the hemp was tied into a knott, with maybe 2 inches of hemp continuing on from the popper. The popper was the key to the sound.
When a whip was moved around a head or body with enough speed, and then jerked in a straight line back to the whipper, a boom would be heard, and it was that snap that would scare the mules to move faster. (not to hurt a man, but to scare the mules)
With the old mule teams, moving in the desert, a four by two team could move the most weight. So, that whip had to reach out to the ass of that first mule team and when snapped over would make the lead team speed up just a bit.
Did Old William really move a team of mules and heavy loads west of the Mississippi? Or was that just his tales?
Old William said, “I think you can do it. Most cannot. You are taller than most, and you have big feet for a foundation. I think you have the strength. Most walking and breathing today would never push the old teams. I do believe you could! I doubt in a hundred full grown men, one could make a 22 footer bark without taking out an eye or a shred a muscle. I believe you can.”
In that moment, he seemed proud and sad.
Old William started me on a 6 foot length to get the rhythm going and the speed, to learn how to make it pop, later to center on a target like a limb or a matchstick.
Days went by, I could not hit the match or the limb. I could barely hit a tree or can.
One day I hit a soda can, and then again. Old William moved me to a 10 footer, then a 15 footer, and finally the long one over the following weeks.
I was so proud, and William seemed glad I was.
Proud he had passed along his life to someone, even me.
Sad it was a waste of his life and he spent a lifetime learning, only to see no one needed him anymore.
Here I am, writing these words, for a man you will never know, and a skill dead, dead, dead.
I write these words for a gentle man you should have known, and you never will.
That is a loss you cannot imagine.
But, for some reason, he wanted to pass along a knowledge he had gained from decades of work and sweat, and it came to me.
I share some with you.
I am thankful Old William found me, trusted me, with his lifetime treasures of survival and work.
A skill of craftsmanship, a life, gone, gone from this world, from a man filled with loneliness and gentleness I cannot convey to you.
Your loss, not mine.