Author’s Page: O P Butts – Words of a Bitter Old Man
Chapter 1: Migrating to Memphis
Most people believed the heart and soul of O P Butts to be as cold and murky as the icy waters of Old Man River on a cold February morning. And those same people reasoned the fate of his soul held a destiny as doomed as the worthless timbers drifting southward on the river’s current – a destiny soon forgotten in the eternal abyss of some distant Delta swamp. To them, the lone ember went unnoticed; hidden evidence that love had once burnt passionately within the heart and soul of one which they considered simply – a bitter old man.
No one in Memphis knew O P Butts or his young bride, as they crossed that Mississippi River Bridge together for the first time back in 1965. It was a brilliant spring morning. The azaleas had opened early that year; and the dogwood was in full bloom. New beginnings seemed abundant – and open for the taking.
O P had grown up west of the river, nurtured on hard times and weaned of affection at an early age. The impoverished east Arkansas delta country was an unforgiving head master in the study of indigent survival. O P had graduated with honors. Conceived behind a departing troop train in a North Little Rock freight yard, O P never met the Camp Robinson soldier who could claim to be his daddy. Once O P said the only thing that the man ever gave him was a hankerin’ for cheap liquor. But actually, that was a taste O P had acquired of his own doing – later in life.
The maternal name, Butts, was a gift from his momma. A name was the only thing she had to give. O P was with her just once – an event which he could never recall. She died on April 12, 1945 – with her newborn son clutched lovingly in her arms. And while a nation grieved a greater loss, Miss Mary Francis Butts was laid to rest beneath three mature black walnut trees in an unmarked grave sandwiched between a muddy bayou and a hundred-eighty acres of freshly planted cotton. The mourners consisted of an itinerant preacher and two colored grave diggers. The grave diggers sang O’er the Crossing as they filled the hole, covering the flimsy pine box with rich black delta earth.
To the relatives with whom O P stayed over the next thirteen years, he was little more than a cheap farm hand, an unwanted mouth to feed, and a dreadful reminder of life’s consequences. So with four years of formal education and no one to hold him close, O P struck out on his own. Agriculture dominated the Delta economy; therefore, it was only natural that he would find himself curled in a cottonseed trailer by night and straddling a John Deere tractor by day. And with the smell of cotton holding such a strong influence, O P naturally understood why cotton was King in the Delta. The sharecropper, a feudal servant to the land, bowed in reverence to the cotton plant – always seeking its bountiful blessing.
With the river beneath them and downtown Memphis in sight, O P smiled and kissed the beautiful girl curled next to him. And she was a beautiful girl. Her shoulder length brunette hair danced wildly in the currents of air streaming through the open windows of the hardtop coupe. She was tall for a woman – taller than O P. But neither cared. Her frame was slender, but not frail. Had she grown up in New York City, she probably would have been a dancer – or in Los Angeles, an actress.
But she had not grown up in those places. She had grown up in the boot heel region of Missouri; making her a hybrid, part Midwestern and part Southern. And on this particular morning, their dreams were not of New York City, or Los Angeles, or the boot heel of Missouri; but of Memphis. They had just crossed the threshold to a new life of hope and promise.
O P’s bride was the former Miss Francis Kaye Dunlap of Poplar Bluff. The pair had met on the dance floor at a VFW hall in Rolla, near Fort Leonard Wood where O P was stationed with the Army. One year earlier, a run-in with the Mississippi County, Arkansas sheriff had forced O P into a career option – six months with a county chain gang or two years of service with the United States Army. O P considered the options – and chose olive drab cotton over black and white wool.
It wasn’t long after that first dance that the pair fell in love and eloped. Francis didn’t tell her momma. And O P didn’t tell the Army. But within a week, the Mother Dunlap had her daughter back home, locked away in her bedroom. And the Army had O P confined to the stockade. However; they were meant to be and were soon together again – distancing themselves from anyone determined to pull them apart.
The only wedding gift that the young newlyweds received was the general discharge handed down by the Army. O P had asked to leave the Army before his enlistment was up; and the Army felt it in their best interest to oblige. Unsure how the law would view his discharge back in Arkansas, O P and Francis decided to seek their fortune across the river, in Memphis. However, the stigma of a general discharge made finding a job difficult in those days.
If cotton was King of the Delta, the river was God. Some worshipped, while others cursed its existence; for it could deliver its blessing – or pour out its wrath – within the short span of a single growing season. And just like God, the river was a bountiful provider for those who sought its blessing – and feared its fury. The fertile river bank was the Promised Land – a land of milk and honey. Channel cat, soft-shell turtles, fresh water mussels, poke salad, dandelion greens, dewberries, and wild plums were all waiting for the harvest. So with money scarce and the cupboard bare, O P turned to the river.
When going down to the river, O P preferred walking to driving. It wasn’t so much the cost of gas as the smell of the catch that lingered in the trunk of the ’58 Impala. And one thing O P had plenty of – was time. So six days out of the week, he would walk the three miles down to the river’s edge, set out his lines, pick the wild fruits and greens, and finally bring in the day’s catch. Then with the setting sun at his back, O P would head home to Francis, and the comfort she provided.
O P had salvaged a broken Red Rider wagon from a street side trash heap, repaired the damage, and found it quite the aid in hauling his fishing equipment, buckets, and bounty of the day. It was during these walks with his red wagon in tow that O P realized the monetary value of his river time. Over time, the folks along Union Street had become accustom to the odd white fellow and his wagon passing their way with his daily catch in tow. One extremely hot mid-summer evening, O P stopped at the curb, and asked an old colored woman, who happened to be watering her tomato plants, for a drink from her garden hose.
As O P gulped from the hose, the woman peered over at O P’s load, “Lordy my! Dem’s sum good lookin’ fishes! And dem preddy berries! Lordy my! Bet dem’s is sum sweet berries!” Then she added with an inquiring smile, “Probably good as dat dar drink’o wadah, uh?”
That day, O P struck a deal with the old woman – when he stopped by for a drink from the hose, he would leave a large bream or small catfish in the old lard bucket by the gatepost. And it wasn’t long before he was generating a small weekly income, selling his excess catch to the residents along Union Street. A channel cat would fetch a dime a foot. A hubcap sized soft-shell, fifty cents. A gallon lard bucket of fresh water mussels brought a quarter. And while O P preferred cash, he could barter for the equivalent in government commodities. Each night, O P would pull into the yard with a wagonload of river goods, cheese, dry milk, peanut butter, and a pocket of change. On a good week, O P handed anywhere from thirteen to fifteen dollars in cash or commodities over to Francis for the family expenses.
Then one sunny fall morning just as the leaves were starting to turn yellow on the sweet gum trees, O P Butts’ life took a turn. While fishing at the river’s edge near the A. L. Wright Screw Products property, O P met Mr. A. L. Wright Sr., owner of the A. L. Wright Screw Products Company. Since 1942, the A. L. Wright Screw Products Company had been producing screws and screw products for military contractors from the river front plant. Following the war years, Wright had prided himself in hiring veterans and helping them get a fresh start at life. He felt the vet possessed loyalty, honesty, and a solid work ethic – plus he felt he owed them something for their service.
Mr. Wright had a knack for judging people and their character. And though O P had a tarnished service record, A. L. Wright saw evidence of those character traits in the man picking up wild persimmons from the ground that morning – traits most people overlooked. He asked O P to come to work for him on the spot. And just like Peter, O P heeded the call. With that chance meeting, destinies were changed – and the future suddenly held promise for the young Butts of Memphis, Tennessee.
And all was well with the Butts family. As the months passed and O P grew comfortable with his job at the screw factory, they bought their own little two-bedroom Levittown style house on a quiet, tree lined, Memphis street. The fenced backyard held a small garden space for Francis to grow vegetables and flowers. She put in a small chicken coop by the garden space where she housed a half dozen bantam chickens. The little hens provided eggs for the family, plus fertilizer and insect control for the garden.
The Chevy could be parked in the small unattached garage/workshop, located along the side of the property. Everything had fallen perfectly in place for the Butts. And with the scheduled arrival of a new baby, their lives could not have been happier. Yes, all was quite well with O P and Francis Butts. That was until one cold snowy night – Christmas Eve, 1967 – when dreams were lost, hearts crushed, and love dealt a crippling blow.
Francis told O P that she was expecting their first child at the company’s Fourth of July picnic as they sat at the river’s edge watching the city’s fireworks display. She had wanted to wait until the doctor confirmed the pregnancy; but she could not contain it any longer. The news of the new baby capped a perfect day for the Butts. O P’s career at the screw plant continued to show promise. Mr. Wright had come to look on O P as the son he had always wanted – not the one he actually had. And as O P, Francis, and Mr. Wright sat sharing an ice cold watermelon half; Mr. Wright had casually mentioned the fact that he was bumping O P’s pay up to $1.95 an hour. Then he intentionally let it slip that O P was in line for a production supervisor’s position, which would nearly double his pay. Plus O P had won a twenty dollar bill when he pulled in a sixteen pound blue channel cat to win the picnic fishing tournament. Adding to all of that, Francis contributed to the family’s good fortune by winning a new apron and a five dollar bill for her victory in the dessert contest. Just as O P had, the judges fell in love with her cottonseed chocolate cake. But her news of the baby brought the biggest smile to O P’s face. His beaming smile was in direct competition with the glow of the Fourth of July firework display, that evening.
However, there was a down side with the news of the baby; it brought Mother Dunlap to Memphis. She arrived by bus from Poplar Bluff on a bleak rainy Thanksgiving morning. O P’s heart sank into his stomach when he heard Mother Dunlap would be staying until well after the baby was born. The tiny house on Salem Street was not built to accommodate such a long stay – especially when Mother Dunlap was the guest. Weeks earlier, Francis had swapped the furniture in the second bedroom with a neighbor for a baby bed with mattress, a small chest with a changing station top, an upholstered rocking chair, and a large cardboard box full of assorted baby clothes and toys.
However after several nights of Mother Dunlap sleeping on the couch, followed by several mornings of Mother Dunlap complaining of the pain in her back and neck; it was decided one day while O P was at work that Mother Dunlap would move into the bedroom with Francis – and that O P would move to the couch. And it should not have been surprising that with each passing day of the Mother Dunlap’s prolonged stay that O P’s work day expanded. By Christmas Eve, he was working a double shift, six days a week. And the special money jar which Mother Dunlap had deemed necessary, so Francis could hold all that overtime pay, was getting quite full.
Christmas Eve morning, O P woke up to gray-blue skies and a brisk northwesterly wind. A partial crusting of snow and ice clung to the windows and roof of the Impala. On the drive to work, the radio announcer proclaimed that Memphis would have its first white Christmas in years. And that by nightfall, listeners should expect up to six inches of white fluffy Christmas joy. No one knew that those first six inches would be delivered by noon. And by nightfall, the Christmas joy would be replaced by winter time grief, as nine more inches covered the first six. The storm brought travel in the Mid-South to a screeching halt.
But what was going on outside did not bother the crowd gathered at the A. L. Wright Screw Products Company. They were too busy preparing for the end of year production shutdown and the Christmas Eve company luncheon. Traditionally, Mr. Wright shut down production in the plant twice a year. During the Fourth of July week, the plant’s exterior and grounds were painted and spruced up. Then during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the interior and plant production equipment received the attention. The Christmas Eve luncheon served as the transition from production to clean up. And unlike the Fourth of July celebration, families were not invited. The Christmas celebration was strictly limited to employees. As a rule on Christmas Eve morning, Mr. Wright would walk around the plant, visiting and talking with the employees at their workstation. Then as he left the workstation, he would slip the employee a greeting card containing some special bonus cash. The amount was supposedly based on the number of service years, but was actually based on how much Wright liked the particular employee.
No employee brought a lunch to work on Christmas Eve. Mr. Wright provided a feast of a meal at the holiday lunch buffet. A local barbeque joint smoked all of the meat – ham, turkey, beef brisket, sausages, and chicken – everything imaginable. Around 10:30 as the catering crew brought in all of the meats, the plant started to smell more like a smokehouse than a production facility. About the same time, Al Senior’s favorite restaurant delivered the side items and desserts – cornbread dressing, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, relishes, and sauces. On the dessert table, employees always found pecan pie, sweet potato pie, chocolate cocoa meringue pie, coconut meringue pie, and mincemeat pie. Sitting alongside the numerous pies were an equal number of cakes – fresh apple, red velvet, carrot, and Orange Crush. And what would a dessert table be without Christmas cookies and candies, a selection of treats too numerous to name.
A little before eleven, the employees would start drifting toward the break room. They would sneak a pinch from the meat tray or grab a cookie as the caterers set up the buffet, all the while sharing a little small talk with a fellow co-worker. Then at eleven o’clock sharp, those who had not already drifted down to the break room were summoned so the feast could officially commence. Ernest Tareyton, a senior tool and die machinist and a self-declared reverend, would hold most of the crowd hostage while he recited his annual prayer of thanks. The old timers knew the prayer by heart and would start jockeying for position along the serving line when Ernest began his blessing of the various caterers. Then with a group “Amen!”, the feeding frenzy began.
Everyone filled their plates to overflowing, then drifted off with their various cliques to their traditional group dining locations scattered across the plant. They would gulp down their first serving and then head back for more. With their second helping, they would drift around crashing in on different employee groupings, indulging in small talk, and then head back to the trough to eat even more. By one o’clock, most employees had eaten their fill and taken advantage of Mr. Wright’s offer to clock out early. Most headed downtown to buy some special last minute Christmas item with that extra bit of cash which they had long anticipated from the generous Mr. Wright. However, a small select group would stay around until much later in the evening enjoying a special after dinner dessert. A dessert found in the form of gift wrapped half-pint bottles, an exclusive offering handed out by Wright to his most prized employees – the ones who appreciated a quality Tennessee sipping whiskey.
That year was O P’s third Christmas with Mr. Wright. And in previous years, O P had never participated in the post lunch celebration – though he had always been invited. He did not intend to stay that year, either. But the thought of Mother Dunlap and the deteriorating weather, forced a change of plan. On Mr. Wright’s insistence, O P chose the festive camaraderie of his co-workers over the drudgery of the Mother Dunlap and a very pregnant wife – cramped in a two bedroom house on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve. Before O P knew it, minutes had turned into hours, afternoon into evening, and a snowstorm had brought the Delta to its knees.
Inside the tiny house on Salem Street, Francis Butts was beside herself. She knew the company’s traditional holiday schedule. Normally, O P was home by two o’clock, each Christmas Eve afternoon. He would come in and scoop her up into his arms. Then he would carry her over to the doorway where Francis had hung a little sprig of mistletoe and they would share a passionate Christmas kiss. After putting her back to her feet, he would pull the bonus from his pocket. And then, they would jump into the Impala; heading downtown to view the decorations, watch the last minute shoppers, and pick out a special gift which they both could enjoy.
Last year, they had chosen a hi-fi console to fill the space beneath the picture window in the living room. The year before, they shared a metal lawn furniture set and portable barbeque grill for the back yard. This year, Francis had her heart set on a new washing machine. She had not discussed it with O P. But she knew that when she explained the risk in pulling a wagon load of laundry up to the corner laundry mat, with a newborn in tow, that O P would be in agreement that the washing machine would be the best gift for the family. She could purchase the new gas powered lawnmower that O P had hinted at with some of the overtime money in the jar.
But worry had started to show on Francis’ face around three in the afternoon. By four, she held a vigil at the window facing the drive. At five, she started to pace the floor; all the while ignoring the venomous string of insults her mother flung out pertaining to O P and the day he was borne. With the six o’clock news, came confirming word of the record snow storm which had crippled the Memphis metropolitan area. Several times during the broadcast, Francis stepped out on the front porch, surveying the current road conditions.
At seven o’clock, she could contain herself, no longer. It had been forty minutes since the last vehicle had crunched its way down Salem Street. Hoping to get some word on O P’s whereabouts from someone at the plant, she put on her coat and scarf, and then she and Mother Dunlap trudged through the knee deep snow, four blocks down to the corner store – site of the nearest phone booth. But their trip had been for nothing. After thirty rings, Francis hung up the receiver. There was no answer at the screw plant.
Not knowing if her husband was involved in an accident on the icy roads or stranded in a road ditch on Christmas Eve; Francis Kaye Butts, her mother, and the unborn child headed back up Salem Street toward their home. Finally, half frozen from the blowing snow and the biting wind, the two women reach the front porch. The pair started up the four railed concrete steps; supporting one another as they climbed.
As they reached the top step, Mother Dunlap missed the step. She fell hard against the right side of the railing. The sudden impact of her weight upon the rusted iron railing was too much for the rickety support. The top anchor bolt securing the rail to the concrete step snapped free. Losing her balance, the Mother Dunlap plunged head long from the top step and into a huge snow drift collecting between the tiny front porch and the set of steps.
Due to the depth of the snow, she would have been cushioned and unharmed by the fall. However; her head struck the jagged edge of a small concrete yard ornament, ripping a gash above her right eye. Looking down at her mother’s motionless body, Francis shook uncontrollably – but not from the cold. The growing reddish tint in the snow around her mother’s head sent the shiver down her spine.
Quickly, Francis turned and hurried down the steps to aid her fallen mother. But reaching the second step, she lost her footing and came down hard against the hard cold steps. A sharp pain ran from the base of her skull, to her left shoulder and down to her lower back. Unable to move, she watched helplessly as the snowflakes started to cover her, her mother, and her unborn child. Her eyes grew heavy as tears began to form, slipping down her cheek. Then suddenly, a different pain seemed to cut deep into her soul. The dull pain pulsed through her lower abdomen and a warm dampness spread beneath her hand stitched cotton dress. A sudden emptiness struck deep in her heart. As Francis Butts lay on the steps, her eyes closed.
In the darkness, she heard her mother calling her name. Then she heard the sound of an approaching vehicle crunching through the snow. The faint sound of a woman’s shout and a man’s voice cut through the haze of the frozen night air. “O P,” she whispered in her semi-conscious state. The crunch of heavy footsteps approaching was the last thing she remembered. Softly she whispered, “Everything’s okay, baby. Daddy’s here!”
Christmas morning, O P was awakened by a police officer tapping on the side window of the snow covered Impala. The car had not moved since O P had parked in the employee lot, the day before. He had made it to the car before he passed out behind the wheel. On their way to the hospital, the officer explained how a passing motorist had been flagged down by a hysterical old woman – blood oozing from her head. The mysterious stranger had loaded the two women into his car and transported them to Shelby General – then disappeared before the hospital staff could speak with him.
Following their initial examination, the intern on duty had determined that neither woman was seriously injured. The old woman had possibly sustained a very mild concussion from the head abrasion – six stitches were required. But the younger woman had experienced a more serious concussion, sprained her left ankle, cracked three vertebrae, and incurred severe bruising to her lower back and shoulder.
Due to the initial uncertainty of the younger woman’s condition, the young doctor on duty was cautious in his treatment and reluctant put the mother at risk. For the moment, the condition of the baby was secondary. By the time the on-duty surgeon was available and examined her, the damage was done. The overworked intern had failed to realize that the amniotic sac had ruptured and that Francis was suffering from an amniotic fluid embolism; oddly enough the same condition which had taken O P’s mother’s life.
Francis was rushed into emergency surgery. The surgeon had acted just in time to save Francis, but the premature baby girl had not survived. The doctors and staff were tight lipped regarding the details surrounding why the baby had not survived. The chart simply stated that the child was dead at birth. No explanation was given whether the death was a result of the treatment, lack of treatment, or the accident. However, the Mother Dunlap had no doubt where to lay the blame.
And as the patrol car pulled into the Shelby General emergency entrance that Christmas morning, O P jumped from the squad car before the patrolman could bring the vehicle to a halt. The concerned husband hurried through the entrance and to the emergency room patient ward, as best as he could in his hung-over condition. Then as he felt an abrupt, penetrating stare shoot straight through him, he focused his blurred bloodshot eyes and noticed Mother Dunlap seated beside a hospital bed at the far end of the ward. With her eyes locked in on the target, her crimson face smoldered in anger. Her fury set to explode. She shot a protective glance toward the woman lying in the bed, and then stood to protect her matriarchal domain.
“Get out of here, you worthless mongrel!” the Mother Dunlap screamed.
O P looked past the enraged mother, begging his wife’s forgiveness; “Francis! I’m so sorry …”
“You’re sorry alright!” the Mother Dunlap cut in. “I’ve tried to cram that in that girl’s head since the day she laid eyes on ya.”
Ignoring the interruption, O P continued; “Francis! I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you. I’m so sorry!”
The enraged mother repositioned herself between husband and daughter; forcing O P to distance himself further from his wife.
Turning his attention toward his adversary, O P reasoned, “Listen as painful as it is, me and Francis got things to tend to. The baby needs …”
“The baby needs! Well let me tell ya! That baby needed a daddy, last night! That woman over there needed a husband! But all you needed was that bottle of whiskey, ya been wallerin’ with. It don’t matter though, she’s used to being let down by rapscallions like you! Years ago, she needed another man in her life; but her deadbeat daddy wasn’t anywhere to be found, either!”
“Still the baby needs …”
With a taunting laugh the Mother Dunlap sneered, “The baby needs! The baby needs nothing! They took it out with the trash, last night.”
Overwhelmed O P lamented, “They put our little baby in the trash!”
The Mother Dunlap’s hatred for O P Butts – and all of his type – far outweighed her concern for her daughter’s emotional state. O P Butts was vulnerable and the Mother Dunlap knew it. She could crush him to a point that he would never return.
“Yeah, Daddy! They took that little mistake out of here with the trash – and threw it in the incinerator.”
“No! They wouldn’t do that!” O P cried out in anguish.
“But they did!” the Mother Dunlap taunted. “And you know what? With your blood flowing through that poor little thing’s veins, she’s probably still burnin’ – for eternity in Hell!”
O P’s countenance took on an appearance of total despondency. From her bed, his wife slowly twisted her weakened frame in the direction of the unkempt, dejected man. The vacant, dazed stare sliced cleanly to the center of O P’s soul. He perceived a profound sadness and anguished bereavement in her eyes. A sense of betrayal which he had never seen in another human being – let alone his wife. As he started toward his wife to seek and provide comfort, Mother Dunlap quickly moved again to her defensive position at the end of the bed.
But when Francis closed her eyes and slowly rolled over – turning her back to him – O P stopped dead in his tracks. Suddenly, even in his dazed condition; he realized the full impact of his foolish and selfish deed. Their baby was dead. She was gone. And he had not been there for her in her time of need. Never would he hold her close. Never would he hold her tiny soft warm body. And he was to blame. He had failed his daughter. He had failed his wife. He had failed his family. And no amount of penance could ever justify their forgiveness – forgiveness from the only ones which he had ever loved. Or ever been loved by! The image of that blank expressionless gaze from Francis would forever be seared into the heart, mind, and soul of O P Butts.