The Moon Above: Part 17

Chapters 33 and 34

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THIRTY-THREE

Idle Hands

I LOVED BEING MARRIED. Loved everything about it. I was used to being alone, stuck inside my own head, so it was wonderful to have Virginia around all the time. And we were together a lot because neither one of us had a job. The downside to marriage was that because we had no income and no money, we were living with the Rev. Scott and Mrs. Scott. We had a small room upstairs, directly over theirs, so we grew very quiet in our lovemaking.

I needed to work, so the reverend found me odd jobs to do around the church and for parishioners. I cut lawns, fixed broken cars, repaired windows, even painted signs, which sort of gave me the willies. I wasn’t as good at sign painting as my father, and I didn’t want to get good at it.

Virginia did some work related to the church, as well, including picking up some of the little old ladies in the Rev. Scott’s Mercury. We went to church every time the doors opened, which meant we were there all-day Sunday, half the day Wednesday and for days on end during special “revivals,” which seemed to occur every few weeks. I had no idea that Christianity was so tenuous in Alabama that it required constant reviving.

Reverend Scott occasionally tried to engage me in conversation about religion, but I didn’t want anything to do with it. I would go to church because he was helping me out and because I was married to his daughter, but those were the only reasons. I did not recognize the personal god that the reverend preached about. I did not believe in a god that cared not a single whit for what happened to his creations. I had been to Hell. It did not make me believe in Heaven.

I also did not care much for being back in Alabama. I didn’t particularly want to be in Chicago, either, which had skyscrapers full of bad memories for me. I had returned Mother to Chicago and she resumed her place in the kitchenette, returned to a life she was no longer living with any enthusiasm. Part of her wanted me to stay, I think, but part of her wanted me to go. I was the last thing reminding her of her old life, and I think she had grown happy — if happy is the word — in her new, small, quiet, gray one. She let me go back.

But living in Alabama was making me mad. I was used to Chicago, where white people had the upper hand but there was still some room for a Race man to get ahead. In Alabama, the wind was in your face all the time. Willie was right. German prisoners of war, the worst of the worst, were treated better than patriotic Race soldiers. And I was starting to hear stories about how Race soldiers coming back from the war were being mistreated, beaten, even killed in the South. It was a background muttering among the Rev. Scott’s flock, and the Chicago Defender spoke out against it in almost every issue. The Defender was still distributed throughout the South, put out hand to hand by the train porters, but I didn’t read it much. It reminded me of too many things, and it reported on another world that was no longer mine.

One day that other world came very close. A soldier from Tuskegee, an airman in training, in fact, wandered into town and got too close to a white woman. According to the mob who beat him half to death, he had whistled at her and chased after her, which I doubt. Maybe he looked at her. Maybe she walked into his field of vision and he turned his head to see what was causing this movement, and that was enough to earn him a lifetime of disability, according to the redneck thugs who beat him up.

The man had not served in the war — he was too young — but I heard from Willie that he was a promising pilot and would have made the country proud. Hearing about the beating, and reading the local newspaper’s account of it, infuriated me. The newspaper reported the incident as if the man had it coming. Of course, no one had seen who had done the actual beating. No one would be charged; nothing would happen to them. Reading the story made my blood boil, even worse than hearing about it by word of mouth. I got so angry that my vision dimmed for a while and my pulse pounded in my neck. I thought I might have a heart attack, but I didn’t.

I don’t care if the man was the worst Race soldier on the planet, he was better than a hundred of these ignorant white men. He was serving his country, even if his country wouldn’t serve him.

“The Army is complaining to the sheriff,” Willie told me about a week after the beating.

We had started playing cards regularly, but we just bet bottle caps because I didn’t have any money.

“Complaining how?”

“Hauling his dumb redneck ass in and yelling at him. Telling him that soldier was U.S. government property and shouldn’t be damaged by his local dumbasses.”

“We’re always someone’s property.” I threw my cards down in disgust. I had a pretty good hand, but my heart wasn’t in the game anymore.

I badgered Rev. Scott about the incident. “Why isn’t the church taking a stand against this?”

He had mentioned it in sermons but that was it, just words. I don’t know what I expected him to do, but I wanted him to do something.

“I’m meeting with some ministers from around here. We’re talking about what we can do to protect our men and women.”

“Talking.”

“Talking is what I can do right now, Johnny. I’m not a soldier like you. I can’t fight anyone. And the Lord told us to turn the other cheek.”

“I think we’ve done that. Enough.”

I think I was made even more angry because I didn’t know what to do about it, either. Should I try to beat down every white man I saw? I was nearly back to my old strength but that would never be enough. I would get my own ass beaten down at some point and then everyone would say I deserved it, and I would set my own cause back. It was frustrating and it made my pulse pound. Because there was nothing I could do about it.

Six long months after we moved in with Virginia’s parents, I got wind of a good job, where I could use my skills without working on things that would give me nightmares. I heard about it from Willie, who always kept his ear to the ground where money was concerned. He probably just wanted to stop playing for bottle caps.

“I heard from my cousin that a guy up in Huntsville is going to start a car company,” Willie said.

“A car company? Hasn’t he heard of Ford and Mercury and Chrysler and Studebaker?”

“I guess he has. He wants to make something more affordable. Something for the common man. I’m just telling you about it, I’m not saying it will work. If you don’t want a job, don’t ask me about it.”

I didn’t know anything about Huntsville, hadn’t even heard of it. Willie said it was up near the Tennessee state line. That had some immediate appeal. It was farther North, and I wanted to go farther North. And, more importantly, it was hundreds of miles from the reverend and Mrs. Scott. They were fine people, don’t get me wrong, but I was ready to live with my wife, and I’m sure they would be happy to get us out of the house. I knew that Rev. Scott wanted me to get a full-time job. He was probably getting tired of saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and then finding me something to do around the church.

I expected a fight from Virginia. After all, we’d be miles north and getting around in those days wasn’t as easy as it is now. I could have flown, I guess, but I was done with flying. I was going to crawl along the ground like everyone else from now on. Virginia seemed a little disappointed at the location, but she said, “Johnny, if you want it, take it, and I’ll go with you.” I think the strain of living in the house with her parents as man and wife was getting to her, too.

And so, I told Willie yes. I should have checked out the job, found out more about this man and his car, but the truth was that I didn’t have the money to go up there and find out. A job had been offered to me, and I was going to take it, sight unseen. If I could work on an airplane engine, I could work on a car engine.

I took the train up to Huntsville to sign on and get started. I would rent a room for a while and then find us a place to live, and Virginia would join me. I would have been bored with the place, but Willie came with me, as he took a job there, too. We swapped bottle caps back and forth the whole way up to Huntsville. I was not impressed by my first sight of the place. It was just another sleepy little town, dusty and slow, cars and people trundling by as if they didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time.

“Where are all the Black folk?” Willie asked, and I looked around. Sure enough, there weren’t a lot of Race folk, at least not within sight of the train station. That could not be good.

We spent part of the tiny amount of money we had on a taxi out to the Huntsville Arsenal, where Willie said the car company was setting up.

“Why are they in an arsenal?”

“Lots of space, I guess,” Willie said. “With the war over, not much use for arsenals.”

I wished that were true, but I doubted it.

The area did not seem industrial. We saw lots of cotton and corn and cows, even after we passed a sign telling us we were on Huntsville Arsenal grounds. We got out to face a guard lounging near an unpaved road with a long gate that stood open. He did not seem excited to see us or interested in us. The end of the war had not ended the training in Tuskegee; but it had ended whatever had been done here.

“We’re supposed to go to Building 481,” Willie said. “We have jobs at the car company. Dixie Motors.”

“I heard you was coming. Go on through, it’s down the road and on the right. You’ll see the sign. Only, I think it’s Keller Motors now. I don’t remember if they changed the sign. It’ll say one or the other.”

We headed off down the road so he could return to staring into space.

“Dixie Motors,” I said. “I don’t like the sound of that. I like Keller

Motors better.”

“I’ll like whoever signs my paycheck,” Willie said.

We found a building with an open front and not much else. There were wooden shapes here and there, which I guess were meant to hold a car chassis. There was a row of lights along the ceiling and, aside from the wood, not much else. It was considerably less advanced than what the Nazis had built, even under a mountain, but at least no one had died here.

“Hello?” Willie asked to the empty space. “Hello?”

A door was cracked open on the far side of the room, and after about half a minute a head poked out. It was a white man with a crew cut.

“Help you fellas?” he shouted, not bothering to show any more of himself.

“We’re here to work for the Dix — I mean, Keller Motors.”

He looked at us for another few seconds and then disappeared. We looked at each other. He had seen us, two Race men. We probably weren’t going to get the jobs now. We hadn’t specified that we were Race men in our letters, but we hadn’t run from it, either. Anybody paying attention to where we were and what we did would have figured it out, but a lot of people didn’t bother to take the time. I had heard about situations like this, and the thought that I was in one now made the blood start to pound in my ears. Then the white man reappeared, walking out the door and over to us with a big smile.

“Hey, fellas,” he said, his accent thicker than any I had heard even farther south. “Sorry about that, wasn’t told to expect anyone today. My name’s Jim. Jim Dupuy, director of production.”

He shook our hands and smiled at us like we were old friends, and it was genuine. The pounding in my ears subsided.

“Come on back, you should talk to Mr. Mitchell. We’re glad you’re here, we’re ready to get started. Don’t look like much now, I know.”

We walked across the floor, our steps echoing in the cavernous interior. This place was huge.

“Got a good deal on this,” Jim said, as if reading my thoughts. “They used to make gas masks here during the war. This arsenal made a lot of chemical weapons in the war. They probably needed the gas masks just to do their jobs.”

He gave a big barking laugh, and I smiled but felt my throat tighten up a little. Jim walked us through to a smallish office that was crammed with mechanical manuals, motor and aircraft magazines, odd little plastic pieces and other random junk. It looked like a little boy’s room, except messier. Seated behind a scarred metal desk was a rotund man in an ill-fitting suit. When we entered, he popped up to meet us so fast he almost made me jump.

“Fellas, this is Mr. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, this is Mr. Nicholas and Mr. Mason.”

He called us mister and used our last names. I was beginning to like this place.

“Please, call me Hubert. Sit down, sit down, I’m glad you’re here. I checked up on you a little and I understand you are both excellent mechanics.”

“We like to think so, sir,” Willie said.

Willie was more deferent than I expected. Either he liked Hubert Mitchell, or he really wanted the job.

“I know my stuff, too. I built my own airplane when I was a kid, and it actually flew, and I’m still alive. So, I know what to look for, and you fellows have it. This should be easy for you. You’re used to working on very complex engines. The one we’ve got for our cars is simple. It’s just an inline four, less than sixty horsepower. A one-barrel carburetor. You could probably put one of these together in your sleep.” He was right about that.

“What I’d like for you to do, if you want the jobs, is to verify the construction of our engines. We’ll put our cars together on our assembly line, but I want to make sure they’re tested and they’re good. You’ll examine every engine we build and then work with Jim here to make any changes that need to be made.”

I detected a note of nervousness in his tone now, and Jim’s eyes were beginning to dart around the office as if he were afraid to look at anything too long. Now the situation was pretty clear. The Keller Motor Company wanted to hire good quality technical workers without paying the going rate for white ones. As Race men, Hubert knew that we would work for less. As former military men, he knew we’d do a good job. But the rest of his workers would probably be white, and it wouldn’t do to have a Race man giving orders to a white worker. So, we would do the quality checks, but Jim would be the go-between. He would put the muscle behind our ideas and suggestions. He would probably get paid more than us, too, for a job that didn’t even need to exist if white people had any sense. I looked at Willie, and he gave a slight nod. He understood what was going on. I could also tell that he was willing to take the job, and I was, too. It could be worse. We’d be doing work that would call on our skills, but that wouldn’t force me to mess around with airplanes. And Hubert Mitchell, although trapped in his white insanity, didn’t seem to be a bad sort, and Jim Dupuy didn’t, either. It was almost certainly the best we could do. An image of Rev. Scott came to mind. The idea of continuing to do busy work at the church had lost its appeal. I was going into the car business.

THIRTY-FOUR

The Keller Super Chief

THE WORK at Keller Motors was less than exciting. I moved Virginia up to Huntsville and we got a small apartment near the edge of the arsenal, where I could walk to work every day. Willie lived closer to town and usually thumbed a ride in, so his schedule was very flexible. You could never tell when he would turn up.

The thing is that it did not matter. The assembly line did not grow more complex; it was still just a series of boards, like the frame of an abandoned house. There were no workers for us to instruct, even through Jim, who was not around much. He and Hubert Mitchell and other officials of the Keller company were out barnstorming the country, raising money to build a small, cheap woodie wagon. We essentially got paid for showing up and keeping the place clean, although when the brass stopped by with the car, we had to tune it up and get it ready for its next stop. When the car was gone, Willie and I studied the blueprints for the thing and tried to figure out the best way to build a bunch of them. Willie had never worked on an assembly line. I had, but it was the one in Germany under the mountain and I wanted to forget about that.

We began to have our suspicions about the car after we became familiar with it, at least on paper. The thing was stone simple. Too simple. The whole back half of the body was made out of wood, which posed no technical problems at all. We could probably get in a truck and drive around the backroads near the base and round up two dozen men who could build a station wagon body out of wood. Willie objected to it on practical grounds.

“You get one of those things out in a wet Alabama winter, and in about six months it will rot right off.”

“They’ll have to keep it in a garage,” I said.

“A garage? This is supposed to be a working man’s car. Now we say he’s got to be a working man owning a house with a garage to buy this inexpensive car? Man, nobody’s made a car out of wood since the horse and buggy days. There’s a reason they quit doing it, too.”

He was right, of course. Whenever the Keller was around it was treated like a prize racehorse and kept warm and dry. That was about as far as you could take a racehorse comparison with this car. It was as slow as a snail in the snow. On one stopover, when the car needed a little more work than usual, Willie and I managed to take it out for a drive. It took forever to hit 50 miles per hour, the little engine churning away under the rounded hood. We tried to keep it on good roads but hit a couple of bad ones, too, and the thing nearly shook our teeth out. Its interior was as spartan as an old buggy. It was only slightly more comfortable than the Nazi truck that had knocked me around.

“This thing is a piece of junk,” Willie said when we got back, although he was careful to say it so that only I could hear.

It was, too. We rolled it back into the shop and propped open the hood to do some work. The car had round headlights on either side of a grill that curved upward on the ends just a little. I used to think the car was smiling at us; after driving it a while, I knew that it was laughing at us. But the company kept growing. Hubert Mitchell and George Keller, the man the company and the car were named after, were on the road a lot. They had signed up dealers all over the country. Of course, they only had one car so far.

Willie and I put our plans for construction together, and even started working on some modifications that would make the thing run better. A new engine would be nice, but we had to work with what was at hand. We managed, at least on paper, to eke out another 12 horse‐power. Our modified Keller Super Chief — maybe it should be the Keller Super Super Chief — wouldn’t win any drag races, but it would be slightly less of a slug than the one we had. We were ready to go, but the brass kept winging in and out on their endless sales visits. No other construction workers were hired, not even anyone to hammer wooden bodies together. Mitchell kept saying good things were about to happen, but I had developed a very bad feeling about the whole thing. There were lots of new cars hitting the road, some not more expensive than what he wanted to sell the Keller for, and they were much, much better.

But if they wanted to pay me for doing nothing, that was fine with me, for the time being. When I got home, I wasn’t tired from having a long day. Virginia and I lived cheap so we had decent money, so we went out as much as we could. We couldn’t eat in most of the restaurants but there were a few good Race ones and we got to know the people there well. Willie was similarly relaxed, and even found a girl. Her name was Eileen. She was awfully young, about five years younger than us, but she was both smart and knowledgeable and she fit in so well that we all soon forgot there was an age difference. Willie and Eileen often joined us on our outings. You might think that meant that I looked at Willie virtually all day every day, but the Keller job was so slow that half the time Willie got bored, wandered off, and started a card game somewhere.

Looking back, that was the best time of my life. I was bored but relaxed. I had energy to explore Virginia’s body and she mine, and we did that a lot. Not every day, but often. She was a preacher’s daughter, but she was learning new tricks, and she was learning them with me. It wasn’t long before she started becoming ill in the morning. We both knew what that meant. I actually had sensed it on the horizon long before it happened. I knew that we were going to bring new life into the world, and I believed, based on nothing, that it would be a boy.

While Virginia continued to grow, Willie and I whiled away the days for the Keller Motor Company and Willie endured good-natured teasing from Eileen about when she could expect to become a wife and mother. Willie and I started going out fishing, something I had never done. The Tennessee River wound its way near the arsenal like a lazy snake and gave us plenty of opportunity. I didn’t like fishing as much as I thought I might, but it was something to do. While the company chiefs tried to drum up interest in the Keller, we learned how to dredge up catfish. I decided that, some day, I would take my son fishing and teach him everything I knew about it, which wasn’t much.

Just when it finally seemed we were going to be ready to start building cars, George Keller up and died. He died in a motel room in New York City. Word didn’t reach us right away. It ricocheted around the dealers and the salespeople, but didn’t get to us technical folks for a couple of days. Hubert Mitchell ended up telling us himself during one of his swings by the “office.”

“Now, you don’t worry about that,” he said. “Everything is going to be fine. We’ll just find a new man to head the company and we’ll press ahead.”

His face was paler than usual, which put the lie to his words. He looked like a man who worked for a dead company. So, Willie and I put down the fishing poles and started looking for work. I had a new mouth on the way, and I needed to make sure it got fed. And Willie, of all things, wanted to get married. We needed some cash and we would be lucky if we got our last couple of paychecks from the Keller Motor Company.

Virginia was getting larger by the day. She was starting to feel it, too, and most mornings I woke up to the sound of her retching into the toilet. Our fairy tale had come to an end and the real world was intruding again. I looked around the apartment. We didn’t have much. We had bought a ratty couch that we had recovered, and some nice tables that were turned so visitors couldn’t see the chips in the wood. We had a radio, an old one from before the war. Televisions were out but we couldn’t begin to afford one. I knew I needed more money. I needed a more stable job. I wanted my son to have things I never had.

“I hear there’s going to be hiring at the arsenal,” Willie told me one day. “Lots of people starting to move in.”

“What, are they going to start making gas masks again?”

“I wish. That would be even easier than designing a car no one is going to build. No, it’s something about rockets.”

“Rockets?”

We were on the concrete balcony that encircled the second floor of my apartment building, feet up on the metal railing, beers in hand, watching the sun go down somewhere over the arsenal. It was a beautiful day and I was relaxed until I heard that word.

“Yeah, something about rockets. Missiles. Like those things the Germans rained down on London in the war. You heard about those, right?”

I almost dropped my bottle.

“Right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You okay? You look kind of funny.”

“I’m fine. Just the heat, I guess.”

“Heat? It’s not hot. You’re getting soft, man. You need to find you some hard work. Anyway, they’re bringing these German guys over here. They’re the experts with the missiles, I guess, ’cause they built them.”

They were the experts, all right. I tried to keep calm and keep drinking my beer like nothing happened. For a couple of seconds there I felt like I was back in that hellhole, that literal hell, building the devil’s weapons and trying to escape the noose, or worse. A cold sweat push its way to my skin, as if fleeing the very thought of the place.

“Are you sick, Johnny? It’s not hot, and you’re sweating.” Willie brought me back to Earth.

“I’m fine.”

“You really are getting soft if you think this is hot. The Keller Motor Company has not been working you hard enough, obviously.”

“You know that is true.”

“Those Germans will, though, I hear. They’ll work you to death. Very efficient.”

I spit out a mouthful of beer and was coughing.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Fine,” I croaked. “It went down the wrong pipe.”

“You just need to relax. I can’t believe they are bringing those guys here to work, though. Didn’t we just beat them in a war? I wonder if they’ll keep them under guard or something.”

“I hope so.”

I wondered where they would keep the Germans. They would probably need to build some kind of prison on the arsenal. Or were they still prisoners?

“Anyway, I’m going to see what kind of jobs they have. I hope they know a couple Race men can work on their rockets. I don’t have any rocket experience, though. I’m a piston man. I’ve seen a couple of the new jet fighters, but I haven’t worked on them. I think that’s a whole different thing, though.”

I let Willie prattle on while the sun moseyed out of sight. It was taking its time going away, a big kid not wanting to go to bed.

“You ever worked on a jet or a rocket?” Willie asked.

I was back on an even keel by this time. His question didn’t even faze me. “No. I’m a piston man, like you.”

“So, you want me to see what kind of jobs they are going to have?”

Working with Willie was always fun, but working with Germans again did not appeal, even if they were on my ground now.

“No, I don’t think so. I’ll find something else.”

Thank you for reading today’s installment of The Moon Above! Be sure to follow us for updates to the story. You can navigate old and new installments via the Table of Contents.

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