Saturday, May 14, 2011

THE RIVER JORDAN: A True Story of the Underground Railroad - Introduction, Part III

For some weeks, I had lived in an imaginary realm where time stood still and nothing ever changed. I was a listless spirit, wandering through an empty void; a mute observer to a horrendous tragedy, unable to change or control anything. My poor grandmother, enduring her own grief, finally bought me a horse to console me. I kept him at the Washington County Fairgrounds, just a couple of blocks from where we lived in Marietta.
Early one August morning, I saddled Dan and rode him through town and across the Ohio River to Williamstown, West Virginia, then headed north on the old Waverly Pike. It soon grew very hot as we plodded upstream along the Ohio, but I was determined to put distance between myself and the sadness at home.
Around 10 a.m. I was thirsty enough to stop at a house and ask for a drink of water. A warm-hearted lady working in her garden gave me a glass of lemonade instead, and I continued on with renewed vigor. Sometime before noon, I reached Bull Creek at the north end of the little town of Waverly. I was only about ten miles from home, but Dan was sweating badly from the heat radiating off the asphalt pavement.
After crossing the bridge over Bull Creek, Dan climbed a long gentle grade and I was soon thirsty again. The thought of giving up had begun to creep into my mind. Then just ahead on the right, I spotted an old man sitting on a bench in the shade of an oak tree in front of a big old farmhouse. I noticed that he had a funny little cap cocked sideways on his head. That dingy, sweat-stained gray cap turned out to be of Civil War vintage.
I stopped and exchanged greetings with the old man, whose name was Bill Harness, then got directly to the point. He directed me to a well at the side of the house. The pump had a crank, with an old tin cup hanging on a hook on the faucet. There was a three-gallon bucket sitting nearby. I turned the crank and filled the bucket for Dan, then took the tin cup and drank deeply. I can’t remember a time when water tasted any better. What a pleasant relief the shade of that grand old oak tree gave me! I just took my time.
When Dan and I had finally finished drinking, I replaced the tin cup and bucket and thanked Bill Harness again for the water.
"Sit a spell and rest yer hoss," he said after looking Dan over. I gladly accepted the offer and tied Dan to the tree. "Nice hoss yer got there.”
We just sat there on the bench in the shade, gazing out at the two-lane blacktop. Occasionally a car or truck would roll by, but traffic was light in this part of the country back in 1951.
Finally Bill asked in his hillbilly twang, "Whar yer headed?"
"Pittsburgh I reckon."
"Whoa, ah reckon yer got you a fur piece ta go, don' cha?"
"Yup." I had no idea how far away Pittsburgh was; I wasn't even sure I was headed in the right direction. For something to say, I offered, "Nice place ya got here."
"It'll do till something better comes along," he said with a big grin. Then he asked bluntly, "What ta hell you agoin’ all the way to Pittsburgh fer?"
"To git a job I guess," was the best answer I could come up with.
"Yer Ma know whar yer agoin'?"
"Sure thing," I lied.
"Hmmm," he said.
We continued to sit for a while, then Bill asked, "What's yer name agi'n?"
I told him.
"I was jest thinkin' yer might be some kin to them there slaves mah gran'pappy Solomon Harness used t’ keep 'round cher."
...I heard what the man said, but my mind wasn't responding. In the first place, I still didn't understand the historic issues about slavery very well. It had certainly never crossed my mind that slaves had been kept right across the Ohio River.

(to be continued, Henry Robert Burke)

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