To laugh about our differences

  • Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ernest Shaw,

With a degree of regularity the headlines of the newspaper are the all-too-familiar accounts of two or more lives being ruined. Violence strikes again as one young man snuff out the life of another. One is buried and the other will eventually land in prison. Our state has been near the top of the violent crime rate for more than a century. Some of our neighborhoods are so dangerous that a young man’s chance of survival was better in the army in Iraq or Afghanistan than his own community.

More than 16,000 Americans were murdered in 2010 according to the Centers For Disease Control. Murders, particularly in the south, are generally carried out by someone close to the victim. Experts will tell you that the violent crime rate is actually going down but it does not seem so. We are less endowed with civility as minor disagreements escalate into fatal confrontations. I recall the good old days when a fight did not necessarily mean a killing.

My dearest childhood friends Sammie and Willie Gamble lived across the field from us. The brothers and I spent most of our time together in our rural Salters community that was better known as “the Backwoods.” I remember fighting them one morning and getting in some good licks before deciding to make a strategic but hasty retreat across the cotton field to our house. A summer shower came up as I ran through the door of our modest house. The sun soon came out, all was well and I was back at their house by the end of the day and we played as if nothing had happened.

I attended Sunday school at Oak Grove Baptist Church with Calvin Staggers and his sister Margie. Calvin, Willie, Sammie and I were working in the tobacco field of Mr. Emiel Baker during the 1960s when Sammie and Willie decided to fight Calvin to settle an argument about something so unimportant that I cannot recall the details now. They asked me to help them but I tried to discourage them. Later at the tobacco barn, I went to the scene of the “fight” but it was all but over and Mrs. Ethel Gamble the aunt of Sammie and Willie had to use a yard rake to get Calvin off her nephews.

The brothers and I never talked about what happened at that tobacco barn that day. Sammie and Willie moved across the Santee River to Berkeley County during our middle adolescent years. Calvin, his siblings and I ended up in New Haven, Connecticut after high school and I believe that we all lived peaceful lives. I know that my only brush with the law occurred during the early 1970s when I was charged with Disturbing the Peace after breaking up a fight involving two of my female relatives and another woman. I had to explain my role in that affair to a judge twice in court before charges against me was dropped.

During the summer of 1990 a familiar looking man approached me at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Greeleyville. He called me by name but I could not even guess who he was. After I made several unsuccessful attempts to identify him, he smiled, said that he would let me figure out who he was rather than tell me and walked away to talk with others. Embarrassed, I quickly left the church and spent the next several months trying to figure out who the man was.

In January of 1991, my sister called from Greeleyville to tell me that Willie had died. I went to his funeral at Union Baptist Church in Salters, and it was not until I saw him lying so peaceful in the coffin that I realized that I had met him six months earlier. I will always regret that I did not will myself to remember who he was six months earlier when he was still alive.

In Berkeley County Sammie became a minister, and soon an elder. He outlived his brother by 16 years and shortly after he died on January 26, 2007, I got another call from back home. I drove my wife and children to Berkeley County to witness my childhood friend being laid to rest on a cold February day and to speak a few words of comfort to the grieving mother of my childhood friends.

I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for five years and I ran into Calvin’s sister Margie several times but more than 40 years passed before I saw Calvin again. Calvin Staggers came down from New Haven, Connecticut during the summer of 2009 and we had our first opportunity to talk about old times after many years. We laughed about several things but he laughed the hardest about the “fight” from so long ago. I wish that our young people could have the same opportunity to laugh about their differences so long after the event.

Ernest Shaw

Irmo

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