The Prince of Frogtown

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Authors: Rick Bragg
walked away, and nobody ever saw him again. Had a boy named Luther. We called his boy ‘Two-Deucey,’ on account of his daddy.”
    They brought more than their customs to town. They brought their livestock. Every house had a cow lot in the backyard, and when your cow went dry your neighbor gave you some of their milk, to help you get by. There was a sprawling, communal hogpen, and tiny gardens, mostly tomatoes, squash, rattlesnake beans, pepper, cucumber, a few stalks of sweet corn, collards, turnip greens and pumpkins. Chickens roamed the streets. No one stole, because the ambrosia of a frying pullet could not be contained by such thin walls. Likewise, no argument was private, no betrayal secret. If a man hollered at his wife, you heard it three doors down.
    “They were good, moral people,” said Homer Barnwell.
    “But,” he said, “pretty much ever’body carried a pistol.”
    A police officer was more likely to get hit with a brick and have his gun taken than serve a warrant. The hillbillies would kill you—that was a natural fact—so police usually left them alone to settle their arguments. When they did come, they came shooting.
    Donald Garmon, who is seventy-two now, grew up in the village. “When you got up in the morning and put your shoes on, you was pretty sure you was going to fight somebody, before the sun went down,” said Garmon. “Somebody was going to hit you, and you was going to fight. I hate to say it, but it was one of the meanest places I ever been in.”
    Shot five times by the police, mill hand John Barnwell—Homer Barnwell’s father—was still drafted in ’16, and fought in France, across no-man’s-land. In the trenches, the mustard gas ruined his lungs, and he came home to work again, coughing, smothering, in the cotton mill. A world war had changed nothing here. It was still either the mill, the backbreaking uncertainty of the fields, or surrender.
    They tried to unionize over time, to better themselves, and poor men burned rich men in effigy and fought each other at picket lines with pistols, knives and ax handles. But the mill bosses finally just locked all the doors, stopped taking credit at the store, and waited them out. It is hard to walk a picket line when the company owns your house.
    The rich people bought them, really, for pocket change, but in their hearts they were still in the mountains, still up high. As the cotton mill used up its first generation of workers, new handbills fluttered from barns and fence posts in the foothills outside town.
             
    WORKERS WANTED
MEN WITH FAMILIES
GOOD WAGES
GOOD WORKING CONDITIONS
GOOD HOUSING
ELECTRICITY
FREE COAL
             
    Bobby Bragg rode past them on his mule, oblivious to the promises and the lies. He never learned to read. He was a young man by then, still sharecropping in the bleak economy after the First World War. Finally, the lure of year-round money and a ready-made house wicked out and found him, too. He rode his mule into town, to try and get on. That’s how they said it, “gettin’ on,” like it was a boat, or a train, and if you didn’t get on, you got left behind.
    “You don’t drink, do you?” the mill boss asked him.
    “Just on Christmas,” Bobby said.

----
    The Boy

    “R ICK,” THE BOY ASKED, “how do you punch somebody?” We were supposed to be taking a walk.
    “You never punched anybody?” I asked.
    “No,” he said.
    I did not know what to say.
    “Will you show me?” he asked.
    I guess I should have told him there is rarely a good reason to punch someone, that it is better to turn the other cheek. I should have evoked Gandhi and King. I should have told him that the meek inherit the earth and all that razzmatazz.
    “Make a fist,” I said.
    I tapped the bridge of my nose.
    “You hit here, one time, hard, and it’s over,” I said.
    “Why?”
    “’Cause it hurts real bad,” I said. “Their eyes will water, and they will cry.”
    “Then what?” he said.
    “Then

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