Thursday, June 27, 2013

A STRANGER PASSED BY by Johnny W. Kilgore


The following story is based on actual happenings. Little Johnie is yours truly, whose name is now spelled  J  - O  - H -  N -  N -  Y. The dialogue is presented to move the story forward. But in no way do I remember everything  as presented in the story. Also, many things are presented as a little child would view them, and may, or may not, be the way things were in reality.  This is part of my personal historical memory when I was very young. 

I appreciate those days as a child, and the special people who were a part of my life.  My life was made rich because of the loved ones mentioned in this blog post, as well as from those in my larger, extended family who are not mentioned here.     

In a recent reading of the mystery book entitled, Citizen Vince, written by Jess Walter, and published by Harper Collins, Regan Books, there is a quote found on page 91 which I noted on a scratch pad because it resonated with me.  It reads, “Being able to remember--that is what makes a people.”  It is my desire that this short story will help to “make a people” as we journey together through the memories and emotions of a sensitive, young boy.

Time: Second Week of September, 1951
Place: Granny Kilgore’s House
Fearful Sighting of a Stranger 

       It was one of those early September days when the sky is blue, the sun brilliant, and visibility nearly perfect. In the early morning, a 6 year old boy, three months shy of being 7 years old, sat perched on his grandmother’s front porch. 
     His grandmother was a tall lady who was fearful of many things-- being by herself,  living alone, hearing and experiencing storms with thunder and lightning, crossing bridges, and seeing snakes. She was a woman with conservative views of what a good Christian lady should look like in her appearance--- no makeup, long hair concealed styled into a bun on top of the head,  and plain dresses which covered the arms and extended to the ankles.  The legs were usually protected by heavy, brown nylon stockings.  She was a farmer’s wife, and she looked the part. She was also a “stay at home” granny. 
     Granny’s home had been a house filled with children since the early days of the 1920’s and 30’s.  Granny had reared nine living children in that small framed farmhouse, constructed from heart pine--plain and rustic.  It was built by her husband, John Wesley Kilgore, better known as Virge.  The day of his death was Christmas day, 1949. Granny had not been left alone at night since then.  Some of her children lived with her, or came and stayed overnight with her during the grieving period. The support she had was ever present in order for her not to be alone.  Her grandchildren were also involved in keeping Granny company.  
     Johnie was one of her grandchildren, among many grandchildren, a small boy with big brown eyes and dark brown hair, who stood on her porch, looking down a curvy country road.  Normally, he would be attending school which began the middle of August.  Although the school year had commenced a short two weeks earlier, it was already time for the annual fall break.  A school break of two weeks was set aside in Winston County each fall so that children might help with the harvesting of the cotton on the farms. For children who did not live on farms, or who did not have family or friends to help with the cotton, this was a little vacation each fall.  During this break time, Johnie was visiting with his grandmother who lived across the hollow from his parents, and whose ancestral home sat beside the main road--the road where his eyes were now keenly fixed. 
     During this particular early morning visit, something, or someone, caught little Johnie’s eye, as he stared down the dirt road covered with red rock. The road connects the communities of Poplar Springs and Nauvoo in rural, northwest Alabama-- the only artery to anywhere in that area. There was a sense of uneasiness that captured his thoughts because of what, or who, Johnie saw coming his way, trekking on the edge of the road.  It was possibly an insidious culprit approaching the porch where he stood.  But who could it be?  There was definitely someone walking toward Granny’s place. Someone he didn’t know. A stranger.  
     Johnie was not alone in wondering who was coming his way.  There was also his younger brother, Mike, and his cousins, Carolyn and Charlie, on their grandmother’s front porch that day, collectively taking notice, and wondering who it might be walking toward them. There was only  five years age difference between Carolyn, the oldest,  and Mike, the youngest, with Johnie and Charlie in between. Their squirmishness was likely due to their ages, and maybe, more so, due to what the four saw with eagle eye-- an unknown man walking on the edge of the road, coming closer and closer by the minute.  Soundlessly, the stranger was walking toward them, heightening their fear. They didn’t know who he might be, and what he might do. 
     Johnie and Charlie stood on the edge of the highly elevated porch while Mike opened the screen door to go back into the house, frightened by the thought of a bogey man coming to get him. However, Granny sent little Mike back out to play with his brother and cousins.  Although there was a sense of fear that overtook the children, Charlie knew there was safety in numbers, and displayed an air of toughness often common to his demeanor.  
     Defensively, the children decided to ignore the man approaching them, as they continued their play time.  The large swing seemed to swallow little Mike, as he pulled and crawled up into it.  He waited for someone to propel him back and forth because his legs were too short to push off unassisted.  
     Since no one stepped forward, Mike began begging repeatedly in his childish voice, “Help me swing. Someone help me swing. I need someone to push me off.” 
     Carolyn, being the only girl, as well as the oldest in the group, responds as a mother would to Mike’s plea.  “I’ll swing you.  Stop your whining now.  Besides, I don’t have anything better to do.” 
     The swing was located near one end of the porch, and Carolyn stood behind it, anticipating the return of the swing as she pushed it in rhythm back and forth.The activity aided in easing some of the discomfort because of the stranger’s suspicious approach. Charlie and Johnie continued to stare down the road as they speculated on who it might be. The stranger was just a speck when they had first noticed him, but as he drew near, ever so near, they saw a weathered old man, hat on his head, and cane in his hand.  Could it be Claude Green?  All the children-- Mike in the swing, Carolyn behind the swing, and Charlie and Johnie on the porch’s edge--were looking askance. It might be Claude Green! That possibility bothered them greatly, and an emotional fear swells within them all.  

                                                                      *   *   *

Time: Week prior, First Week of September, 1951
Place: Rural Nauvoo Community 
Murder of Mrs. Boshell
     A fear had swept the entire community since Saturday, September 8,1951, a week before the children were gathered on the porch.  Mrs. Ada Boshell, age 77 years old, had been brutally murdered in the early morning hours.  Her bloody, tortured body was found lying on the floor near the front door of her home, a mile up the road from Granny Kilgore’s house.  Claude Green, alias Cotton Green, a known alcoholic, was the culprit who had been seen in the vicinity during the time of the hideous crime.  He was at large now, hiding in the woods where no one in the area could find him.  
     The murder of Mrs. Boshell overshadowed the community like a dark, heavy lingering summer storm.  Unlike a storm though, the murdering effect was not going to “pass over” or “play out.”   Instead, it was fresh in the hearts and conversations of the citizenry.  The horrendous crime was more like a tornado passing through.  Because of all the nefarious events which surrounded the tragedy, a communal sense of security and safety had been replaced with a sense of fear, resulting in a haunting silence.  The world of crime and evil had invaded the community of religiously good folks who lived there. 
     For the most part, the children were left in the dark concerning the mysterious death of Mrs. Boshell.  All they knew was one basis fact according to the consensus of the community-- Claude Green did it.  In such a short time, his name had become the designated name given to the bogeyman when parents wished to entice their children to behave. (*See postscript)

                                                                        *   *   *

Time: Two Years Prior--Late Fall, 1949
Place: Cecil Kilgore Home
Meeting Mrs. Boshell

     Mrs. Boshell was a neighbor of the Kilgore family--Cecil and Beatrice, and children, Johnie, the oldest,  Mike, the middle child, and Becky, the baby.  Although Mrs. Boshell lived nearby, less than a mile away, Johnie remembers only meeting her on one occasion.  The encounter occurred two years prior when he was around 5 years old.  Except for that one occasion, Johnie’s world and Mrs. Boshell’s did not intersect. His knowledge of Mrs. Boshell before that encounter was in context of adult conversations he had overheard.  In those conversations, she was portrayed as an eccentric old lady, both strange  and mysterious-- different from others.   
     Little Johnie’s singular meeting with Mrs. Boshell  seemed to vividly support what he had overheard. It was a cold, late fall evening, normal in every way, when he heard a knock at the backdoor of their small four room house, located off the beaten path for anyone--especially someone visiting at night.  His younger brother, Mike, was in the front room playing, and his baby sister, Becky, was asleep. It was unusual for someone  to knock at the backdoor, and not the front.  Even more so, it was unusual for someone to knock on any door after dark. It was usually a sign for concern. 
     Johnie’s father entered the small kitchen, where the source of heat-- a wood burning, pot belly stove, was located. The backdoor, where the knock came from, was the entrance to an enclosed tiny back porch. It was of minuscule size and dimensions--barely enough room for one person to move around in. Besides being an entrance way, there was  an enclosed well, the family’s source of water, in the floor of the enclosed porch.  A well bucket, a long slender, cylinder connected to a metal chain used for drawing the water, stood nearby, hanging on a nail from the wall.  The two spaces-- porch and kitchen, were so small, they were as one.
     Johnie called out, “Mother! Daddy!  There is someone at the backdoor.”  
     Hesitantly, Johnie’s mother answered the door, and there stood Mrs. Boshell, in the cold, damp wintery night on the backdoor steps.  By that time, Johnie’s father, Cecil, came into the room. 
     Mrs. Boshell begged in a shivering voice, “Can I come in and warm up a bit?  I’ve been on foot all day, and I’m rather chilled to the bone. I thought I could make it home before dark, but as you see, I was wrong.”  
     Johnie’s father, recognizing the need,  said, “Sure, Mrs. Boshell.  Come on in and warm yourself.”As Mrs. Boshell slowly entered the kitchen, Johnie's mother quickly asked Mrs. Boshell why she was out so late. 
     She replied, “Walked too far today selling stuff. Night came upon me sooner than I expected.  Since you were close by, I reckoned you might let me warm up a bit. Anyway, I was wondering if you would be interested in buying something from me to help me out.”   She stood next to the stove with her hands so close to the stove top that her damp gloves were steaming from the heat.   
     Cecil said with a firm voice, “ I don’t think so, Mrs. Boshell, but you’re welcome  to warm yourself up.  Johnie, go outside and fetch more wood to fire up the stove. It’s a clear night, and the moon should provide enough light to see.”  
     Johnie looked at the old leathery, skinned lady with her hair loosely pinned up....stringy, coarse hair, with mixed colors of gray, white, and yellow.  In his eyes, the lady with a wry smile, standing before him, looked like a witch as depicted in fairy tale books.  Johnie went outside to the wood pile as his daddy commanded. Lazily, he gathered all the wood he could hold in his arms.  He started back into the house, only to see an animal grazing nearby.  He was frightened by the unexpected sight of the animal, prompting him to scurry into the house with only part of the stove wood he had gathered, while the remaining wood fell to the ground. 
     Mrs. Boshell, a peddler who walked about from house to house selling her wares, appeared to be even more strange and mysterious than little Johnie first thought. Now he knew that she walked on foot during the night, and had a donkey as a traveling companion. She also had a stick that was leaning against the wall near the stove. To Johnie, it looked like something he imagined a witch might carry.  He felt very uncomfortable in her presence.   After warming up a bit, Mrs. Boshell thanked the Kilgore family, headed out the backdoor,  took the reins of her donkey,  and headed up the moonlit dirt road towards home. After her leaving, Johnie felt at ease and was happy she was on her way.  That evening was his one remembrance of Mrs. Ada Boshell.
                                                                 *   *   * 

Time: Return to Same Day, Second Week of September, 1951
Place: Granny Kilgore’s House
Meeting the Stranger

     The stranger walking on the edge of the curvy dirt road, could it be Claude Green? It had only been a few days since Mrs. Boshell was murdered.  Everyone was fearful, cautious, and uneasy because of  the brutal act of murder that had invaded a safe place.  The community was held captive by a climate of worry and stress because the murderer had not been found.  And on this very day, a stranger was passing by. Claude Green, the suspected murderer, was on the run from the law. Granny was keeping Johnie, Mike, Carolyn and Charlie. “Aunt Timmie”, who was the sister of Granny’s deceased husband, Virge. was also there, staying the week with Granny.  While the children entertained themselves on the front porch, Granny and Aunt Timmie were in the house, working in the kitchen, and afterward, getting off their feet by resting a spell, talking about old times, but mostly, talking about Mrs. Boshell.
     The children noticed that the adult figure moved rather quickly on foot. Soon the suspicious stranger was very close to the yard.  Could it be Claude Green? It was difficult to determine his age, but in the eyes of the children, he was old. Johnie hoped he would pass on by, ignoring everyone on the front porch.  Pretending to not see him, the children’s  plan was to not look up. While standing on the edge of the road directly in the front yard, the stranger stopped abruptly.  He looked up at the front porch where the children were.  He stepped into the yard and moved closer to the porch, near the steep steps that ascended to the front door. There he stood, looking directly at the children.
     Johnie, Charlie, Carolyn, and Mike all froze as they heard the man say, “Hello, kids!  Beautiful day, isn’t it?”  
     Then he looked up into the sunny blue sky, and turned to look around in the yard. The children were speechless as their ears perked up in response to the stranger’s voice. “Is anyone else at home? Are your parents here?”  
     Carolyn answered, “Our grandma is inside.”  
     In a pleasant tone, he said, “Well, I know you don’t know me, but don’t worry. I’m just passing through. I mean no harm. I want to give one of you children a gift, but you will have to earn it.  I’ll give a knife to the one who  will give me a kiss.  Who will be brave enough to kiss a stranger?  A kiss on the cheek, and I’ll be on my way.”
     The stranger with an aquiline appearance, placed his hand in the side pocket of his overalls, and pulled out a small case knife, bone yellow in color with accents of brown.  It was beautiful 
     The knife did not impress Charlie as he immediately shouted, “No way!  No Way!” 
     Johnie thought to himself, “A kiss, huh?” Then he began reflecting on the kisses given and received when attending the special birthday occasions of Grandpa Buttram, his Grandmother Manasco’s father, and his mother’s grandfather, who lived in the town of Nauvoo. 
     Grandpa Buttram was a distinguished looking, affable older man, handsome in appearance, snow white hair, an olive complexion, and a distinctive pattern of speech.  He always loved children, and was demonstrative in showing it. Johnie had ridden on Grandpa Buttram’s knee many times, playing children’s games,  bouncing back and forth.  Grandpa Buttram also showed affection with a kiss. People kissed him--both men and women, boys and girls, and he kissed the little ones in return. Little reticent Johnie was not comfortable with an older man giving him a kiss,  but accepted it because he was too small to do otherwise.  He viewed Grandpa Buttram as someone who was from a different world--an old world , European style of talk and of doing, and of Scottish and Irish descent.   
     Although this stranger did not look like Grandpa Buttram, Johnie wanted that knife, and he knew he would have to earn it with a kiss.  He had never owned a knife before. What a treasure.  It wouldn’t hurt to give the man a kiss if it meant getting the knife. Besides, he had kissed an older man before. Though he did not like the idea, but if it is the only way, he thought, “Why not?” 
     Johnie spoke up loudly, “I’ll give you a kiss!”  
      Overcoming his diffidence, little Johnie descended the porch steps, as he cautiously approached the stranger.  Suddenly, the stranger gracefully knelt close to the ground at the child’s eye level. Johnie  kissed the stranger on the cheek.  The stranger thanked little Johnie, and rewarded the boy with the special gift he had promised--a beautiful pocket knife. The others on the porch were incredulous to what just happened. 
     The stranger wished the children a good day,  and continued his journey up the road toward Poplar Springs, leaving a happy child behind who placed the most  wonderful and deserving gift into the front pocket of his  denim blue jeans.

                                                                     *   *   *  

Time: Present Day, July, 2013
Place:  Johnie’s Home
Summary Lesson--Entertaining Strangers   

     1951 had been a taciturn year--one of silence and fear.  In the midst of that time, A STRANGER PASSED BY.  A knife was given.  A kiss was received.  Obviously, rewarded by a knife, the difficulty of kissing a stranger was lessened by the promise given.  But what good is a promise unless it is acted upon and claimed.  Also, there is a question to be asked.  Who was the giver and who was the receiver?  Both participants were recipients. It was a time remembered with a lesson taught and learned, all in the midst of a season of fear, suspicion, silence, and anxiety, all won over by the resounding request of a stranger.
     Johnie is now grown.  He is  a designated senior adult, age 68 years olds. Although  this story occurred  more than 61 years ago, he continues to be a recipient of that moment frozen in time, when as a  young child of almost 7, a stranger passed by bearing a gift.  This is the lesson he learned from that encounter long ago: There are always strangers coming and going who cross a person's path. He, likewise, may be a stranger to others as he walks down the road of life.  There is a scripture, Hebrews 13:2, that says it all. “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! (New Living Bible Translation, 2007)

     The story above occurred just after the murder of Mrs. Boshell, but prior to the arrest of Claude Green.  Immediately after Mrs. Boshell’s murder, many men of the community became part of a search party to find Claude Green who was hiding out in the woods.  Some in the search party had threatened to lynch him if he were to be discovered, while others in the party went searching to prevent such a thing from happening.  At any rate, Claude Green, in fear of his life, surrendered to the law, was arrested, and was tried for the murder.  He denied he was the culprit, and strangely enough, a stick had something to do with the focus of the case. Claude Green was tried by a jury of his peers, resulting in a sentence of life without parole.  After serving some time, his case was appealed.  That story is for another time and another place. 


1 comment:

  1. My memories from the night Mrs. Boshell was killed. I was at Mama Kilgore's that day when we also saw a strange man walking up the road. I stayed with Mama Kilgore a lot after Papa Kilgore died. That evening when I was back at home ( where the McKeever house is now) on the sleeping porch with Annette. We saw Mrs. Boshell walking up the road that ran through our property and I remember us hiding so she couldn't see us because we had always heard that she was a witch and we were scared. It was getting late, almost dusky dark, and we were afraid she would stop. Not sure were Mother was at the time. I found out later that she had told Mother several times that she was afraid to sleep in her house and would sleep outside in the bushes. She always wore many dresses at one time with a tobacco sack tied to her underclothes, where she kept her money. Interestingly enough, she had just sold her cattle and her son made her put the money in the bank. She also had two tenant farmers who lived on her place and the thought was that Claude Green had spent the day with them drinking and decided to rob her that fateful night. I don't know if Aunt Beat remembers this but Uncle Cecil and Daddy were called out to a fire that night and since the killer or killers tried to burn her and the house up (the blood put out the fire), it was thought that the call to another fire was so that Uncle Cecil and Daddy would not be around to put out the house fire. My great uncle was the one who found her the next morning. He had a calf that she wanted and he had gone there to talk to her about it. The front door was partially open and when he pushed the door open, she was lying in a pool of blood in from of the door, partially burned up. Mother actually went to the house to see her if you can believe. Of course, the hunt began for Claude Green and we were petrified. Daddy slept with his gun and escorted the children (at nighttime) to the outhouse. We were so grateful when he was caught. Mother swore she saw him outside their bedroom window one night while she was sleeping at the foot of the bed with the window open to get some fresh air and awoke to someone standing outside the window. I remember when we moved to Guntersville, I found a detective book about this story. Of course, they added a lot of fictional stuff but was still interesting. Anyway, I know these are rambling comments but wanted to add my two cents.

    A little funny: When I was staying with Mama Kilgore, we were outside one afternoon and a Jet had flown over leaving the white streak across the sky. Uncle Grady came by about that time and Mama was screaming, "the world is coming to an end." Well, how did I know. She had me so upset. Grady laughed and said," Mama, that is just an airplane." She was a strong woman but was afraid of everything. I do believe the reason I have anxiety attacks to this day is because of all the scary things I heard as a child. BUT so many good memories too. Plan to write those down at some point. Hope all is well with everyone. How are you supposed to feel when you are a great-great grandmother. Oh my gosh.

    Love you and thank you for all the interesting articles. You have a lot more time than me but is much appreciated.
    Frances Walther