The winter of 1977 was brutal on East Ninth Street in Waynesboro, Georgia. The Georgia Department of Labor had become beneficiary to $millions in Federal funds under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), with a portion of them being released under CETA Title III. This program was administered locally by a consortium of 13 area counties. Nobody seemed to know what on earth to do with the Title III Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker program. They did what came natural – they threw me into doing it – all the time muttering something about a need to “chill out.” Those words were prophetic.
All of us have heard about bureaucrats being shuffled off to a desk in a closet with nothing to do, except being paid. Sadly that wasn’t the case with this assignment. A nice closet would have been just fine. Instead the office to which your then-naïve apprentice bureaucrat was directed was “somewhere on East 9th Street, down yonder in Waynesboro. You will be fine. Just think, with this job out in the farms, you can probably line up new places to hunt and, if you start early in the morning, you can even catch some afternoon hunts!” You did catch the descriptor “naïve,” didn’t you?
Imagine my chagrin when the office building was in a rusting galvanized tin-roofed, wood frame, old school on a weathered paved street where it intersected with a dirt road. This picture tells it all.
When one rolled his office chair across the floor, the roof would rattle. Heat? That was swiftly gone with the wind roaring through the cracks.
One particularly cold day found James Williams, Alton Spells, and your humble scribe huddled around the gas heater in the office. Get the picture. One mustachioed black dude in a suit, another in jeans with an enormous Afro, and one very white, then-skinny white boy from Evans in Columbia, County, all hunkered down – arguing politics, as usual.
That old building was also the informal headquarters of the Burke County NAACP. President Herman Lodge, destined to be Burke County’s first black commissioner, was a frequent visitor. Between doing program enrollments in the field, this, the only white fellow in 5 Waynesboro blocks would, at age 25, would do battle with his elders, generally combatting the notion that everything was a total conspiracy. Sometimes they would shoo me off. A disbeliever in Whitey-Is-Evil and a social program skeptic made them uncomfortable.
Then there were the program enrollees. There were more than a bushel basket of problems with folks down on the farm. Then there were the self-inflicted problems. Take the Reverend Benny Lapp’s interview.
Me: Rev. Lapp, employers are fickle about job applicant’s employment histories. I notice a gap between 1969 and 1972. Can we explain that?
Rev. Lapp – I were in-car-cer-ated…….
Then there was Shirley McCorn, a poor white gal living in a single wide with 5 kids down in Midville.
Me: Shirley, that looks like a DOG Collar around your calf….isn’t that a rabies tag dangling from it?
Shirley: It certainly is.
Me: You wouldn’t wear that to an interview would you?
Shirley: I would.
Me: Why? What does it mean?
Shirley: Everyone kept calling me a bitch, so I decided to be true-to-life.
James Williams and I rode all over those counties, trying to find jobs for migrants and seasonal workers. There were sad sacks and there were happy faces. There were farmers who told us to get off their property, but more who were happy to take federal funds bounty for doing what they were going to do anyway in terms of employment. James always dressed to the hilt and drove a new Audi, of which he was most proud.
We were the enforcers.
In that day, in Burke County, Georgia folks still practiced witchcraft. We enrolled a person like that, named Neva Doodis. Neva was short for Geneva and she came from Gough….or maybe Vidette……those two towns always get mixed up in the cobwebs of time and a 3-score-aged brain. At anyway Neva’s enrollment was, well different.
Me: You enroll this one, she is a rootworker.
James Williams: Say wha…..at?
Me: She is a witch, a root doctor.
James: Nobody believes in that these days. What can a root doctor do?
Me: I don’t believe in that stuff, either. Just don’t leave Neva around your open beverages.
James: Why not?
Me: If you let somebody who says she is a root doctor feed or serve in a drink a root potion conjured up by a root talker, then what the root doctor can do to you is supposedly unlimited. She can have you by controlling your thoughts, even to the extent that you might bark like a dog or even jump in old Walter Wimberly’s hog parlor to slop with his hogs on your next visit to Shell Bluff. Besides that, she can put a hex on you so that physical things so bad on you at inopportune times, even if you don’t drink or eat anything she got hold to.
James: I can handle her.
Neva got into our training program. She was civil enough, despite being a lover of the moonshine that flowed freely into Waynesboro.
However, Neva was getting paid to attend class. She was missing too many from being hung over or maybe it was from howling at the moon. I finally had enough and drove over to her house during class times. There Neva sat in a rocker, bleary eyed, with a milk jug on the screened porch.
Me: Neva, this is a class day and you have missed it. Didn’t James warn you twice already?
Neva: Dat Williams? Naw, he hain’t been heah tellin me nuttin.
Me: He gave you the notice required to terminate you the last time and you signed for it.
Neva: Missah Ah-el, you ain’t gonna cut mah check off, you can’t do that!
Me: Why not?
Neva: I gots de powah on you.
Me: I made sure not to drink anything. Sorry, Neva but we gave you 3 chances. Like baseball, you got called out on strikes –your sit-at-home strikes against training sessions.
Neva: You gonna be sorry.
Me: James Williams will drop by your last check.
The next week James went out and dropped off Neva’s last check. He came in laughing.
Me: How did it go?
James: Rough, Neva threw pine cones at me – after I handed her check – but she was so drunk she missed. Let’s me and you hope she misses with her hex.
Me: Checks? She won’t be getting any more of them.
James: Clean out your ears, I said “HEX”….H……E……X.
Me: Hex? What hex?
James: On mine, she mumbled something about “your ideas gone bad”…and one yours she got to cussin’ about “whitey wot goes huntin’ meetin’? up wid Mr. Rattlesnake up ‘round de ‘Geechee Rivah.”
That year passed pretty quickly. I hadn’t met “wid Mr. Rattlesnake” just yet and James was packing up his office stuff to leave. He rolled his chair across the floor, causing one last celebratory rattle of the tin roof, got up and shook my hand. “ It was a lot of fun working with you Al, but you didn’t do any hunting much after work!” The gang here – Miss Dorothy, Alton, and Miss Alicia – you all have been wonderful. Even the clients were OK. Hey, what happened to Neva Doodis, I wonder? Remember that silly hex about my “idea?”
“James,” slapping him on the shoulder, I exclaimed “You accused me of bad hearing. I figured out what Neva said was ‘your Audi going bad’!!!” Remember? It wasn’t 3 days after you took her that last check and got bombarded with pine burs when your Audi’s engine blew on the side of Highway 56 and I had to take you home.
James grew pale “Holy Moly, you are right!”
What happened to Neva, we will never know. What we do know is this piece of good advice. Don’t snicker at the root doctor. There are forces in the world that are dark. If you imbibe or eat of their concoctions, you might end up howling at the moon, crawling on your belly like a snake, or have your blinders ripped off and see the very real conspiracies that my old debating adversary, the late Herman Lodge, warned about..
I like to think that I influenced old Herman a little. After all, we are the sum total of the experiences and people that we meet.
Seeing is believing. James Williams knows.
The Audi blew up on the way to fabulous wealth and power. You cannot convince him otherwise.
You will read about them as they are revealed.
No imbibing or feasting on offerings of the rootsayer needed or allowed. The guardian angels don’t approve and I will need them again.***