She was bored. The sameness of the days stretched behind her like a late afternoon shadow. Sameness loomed before her like a dark cloud. She felt bored with being bored. Trapped, she was stuck in tiny Inwood, in the backwoods of Jackson County, a mostly rural, agricultural county in the Florida panhandle where she’d lived all nineteen of her years. With no means other than her own two feet to go the five miles to Sneads, with its booming population of one thousand, Earline couldn’t even have a job, even if there’d been one. It was April, 1942. Spring, a time of renewal, growth, blossoms, and Earline found herself stagnating.
Two of her older brothers, J.W. and Melvin, had joined up when they heard about Pearl Harbor. They’d all been sitting there that Sunday in 1941, listening to the radio Earline had bought for five dollars, paying a dollar on it whenever she’d saved enough from her various jobs, before they’d moved to Inwood. Eventually, she’d paid the whole five dollars, and the radio became the family’s lifeline to the world. Then came Pearl Harbor, and on that radio they listened as President Roosevelt spoke on December 8th, speaking of the “date that would live in infamy.”
Glued to their respective spots and hanging on his every word, they listened as the President asked Congress to declare war.
Few young American men could ignore what this meant. No questions, no doubt, no waiting, J.W. and Melvin joined up, along with thousands of others. The next thing Earline knew they were off to prepare to fight. J.W. would end up in the 101st Airborne, eventually becoming a paratrooper and undertaking exceptionally dangerous missions with the Army’s Screaming Eagles, often jumping behind enemy lines to relay critical information. Melvin would drive tanks and fight with General George Patton. But Earline didn’t know, couldn’t know, these details at the time. She only knew that two of her brothers and most of the other young men around there were off to the war. They had a mission, a purpose, albeit a highly dangerous one.
With Melvin and J.W. gone, Uncle Lon now in charge of the five younger siblings, and no job to be had, one boring day followed another for Earline. On one of these days, she went for a walk.
Breathing in the pleasing scent of honeysuckle, she ambled down the red clay road, heading toward Highway 90, which ran east and west across the panhandle and to the far side of the country. All around her birds sang—wood thrush, quail, and dove. Mockingbirds joined in, mimicking, and mocking. The sounds brought some comfort, the lively calls, announcements, pronouncements of the free, the unconfined.
Abraham, Mittie’s father, Earline’s Granddaddy Stevens, was the oldest family member she’d known. She didn’t remember her grandmother, Rhoda, Granddaddy Steven’s first wife who’d died giving birth to Mittie’s two-years-younger sister May, but she did remember his second wife, Charity. Before her grandfather came to live with them after Charity’s passing, Earline recalled their occasional visits.
On one of those visits, late at night, Charity, dressed in a long white nightgown and white nightcap, moved as quietly as she could through the little house, looking for the door out. She needed to find the outhouse. Her presence or some movement awakened Walter, and through the fog of sleep, he spied what seemed an eerie apparition dressed all in white, floating through the house. He grabbed his shotgun from where it lay by his bed and took aim. He was about to squeeze the trigger when Mittie woke up, saw what was happening, and cried, “Walter, don’t point that thing at Charity!”
The New York City trade show was held at the imposing Coliseum on Columbus Avenue, the structure a staggering 323,000 square feet in all, with four floors for exhibition. On the cavernous main level, vendors packed the enormous space with their displays of jewelry, tee shirts, caps, cups, key chains, and other imaginative forms of souvenirs. Merchandise seemed to spill out of every nook, every cranny.
Sounds crowded every space, too. Everywhere was the buzz of excited vendors, buyers, casual lookers, the hum of humanity meandering through aisles, pausing at displays, conferring, acquaintances calling out to one another. Clatter and chatter filled the air.
Petite Earline, dressed smartly in an azure blue pantsuit, a color she knew echoed in her eyes, sat at her booth. She also knew she needed to draw attention to the gemstones Al had sent her to show and, most importantly, to sell.
She’d heaped the stones on the display table so they lolled in happy profusion across the white cloth beneath them. Silky tiger’s eye with wavy bands of color, the blues and greens of chrysocolla—often mistaken for turquoise, tawny palm wood with its dark speckles. Potential customers strolled by, their eyes caught by the mass of little rocks. A few stopped, then moved on.
As a few more potential buyers approached, Earline reached into the mound and pulled out a blue-gray stone. She examined it for a moment then nonchalantly popped it into her mouth. She chewed, and her eyes closed as she savored the delicious rock. She opened her eyes, chose another, this one with a rosy glow, and slowly, deliberately dropped it into her mouth. Again she savored the unique flavor.
By this time a crowd had gathered, blocking the aisle. Several people wanted to eat a gemstone. Some started to reach for them.
“No, no! You’ll break your teeth,” Earline laughed, amazed and delighted that there still were so many folks willing to be gullible, just as there were decades ago when she was with the carnival.
Finally, she allowed one person to take one she’d pointed out. She didn’t tell him some were gemstone candies she’d slipped in, and only she knew which were which. She cautioned him, “Now don’t let it break your teeth.”
Gingerly he raised the stone, placed it in his mouth, and with deliberation bit down. A twinkle crept into his eyes as he chewed.
In the end, she took an enormous order for gemstones. A Kellogg representative wanted several tons of them for Corn Flakes’ trinkets. It was an order to match the size of this exhibition hall.
Later, when she reported to Al about it, he jumped up from his chair and exploded. “There’s no way I can get that many gemstones! And then they’ll just want more, and I can’t get them. Those New York guys will sue hell out of me!”
“Well, Al,” she said. “You sent me there to sell gemstones, and I sold them.” It seemed to her the rest of the deal was his problem.