Williams column: Remembering a neighbor
By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
I have often made mention of the Ritchies being my former Old Concord Road neighbors to the immediate north when I was growing up. To make the old picture more symmetrical, I will now devote some time to my adjacently placed, former southern neighbor, Frank Jr.
I remember Frank Jr. from my early childhood and teen years and seem to recall he passed away sometime in the 1970s, much sooner than he should have, from a heart attack. For some reason, I have it in my mind that his walking up several flights of stairs in the Wallace Building contributed to his coronary, but perhaps it was only a chance association, with life-long, cumulative heart disease being the primary culprit.
As I recall, Frank Jr. most often had a stern visage, and he sometimes seemed a little awkward in matters of socialization and expressing himself in conversation. This recollection dates to a time around 1960 or 1961.
Although he was mostly short on conversation, I remember some scattered occasions when Frank Jr. would talk, laugh or smile, seeming somewhat nervous in doing so, as if he had startled even himself with such lightheartedness. I recall being happy for him when I saw him like that.
Out past our backyard and just into the woods was a brush pile to which we would periodically add limbs that fell from the trees that grew in our yard. One day, while making an addition of more limbs to the mound, one of us noticed a new a venomous copperhead snake stretched out across the limbs. Frank Jr., being the owner of a rifle, was quickly requested to give his aid. My father owned a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson, but he was likely asleep from his third shift work, and even if he wasn’t, .38 caliber for a snake might have been overkill. Frank Jr. promptly shot the snake with his .22 rifle, but not at close range as most would. He shot it, with marksman’s aim, from a point in his backyard some 40-50 feet away. I can still see Frank Jr. hitting his mark.
The most likely reason for such distance between Frank Jr. and the copperhead didn’t have anything to do with the fear of snakes, but a discomfort with the woods instead. Frank Jr. had no desire to tread even the most extreme edge of those woods. During World War II, he had been shot in the back while in a forest in Germany, and nearly died as a result. Since then, he avoided wooded areas. They brought back the emotions of that life-changing day in the war. Perhaps he preferred the Wallace Building’s flights of stairs to its elevator, as the elevator might have given him that same “closed in” feeling as those trees of the German wartime forest.
We had other neighbors who kept what might be referred to in the modern vernacular as “free-range” chickens; but back then, they were just chickens that someone should have kept penned.
During the course of several weeks, an unpent rooster had gotten into the habit of making its daybreak “announcement” while sitting on the tar-papered roof of an old shed near the edge of Frank Jr.’s back yard. In addition to his morning “reveille,” the rooster had also become accustomed to leaving much more solid “mementos” of himself all over that rooftop.
One day, the rooster was sitting atop the old building, and I was in my backyard playing, when Frank Jr. suddenly appeared with his rifle and shot the bird. The rooster flew off, wounded, and Frank Jr. quickly finished it off while it was still in the air. It fell to the earth not far from the place the copperhead had been “forever stacked” in the brush pile. I was shocked by all of this, but looked to see where the rooster fell. Later, I dug him a shallow grave with a tablespoon, compensating for his grave’s shallowness by adding twigs, leaves and other sorts of detritus to the re-spooned soil.
Getting back to that shocking moment of the death of a chicken (remember, I was only 9 or 10 years old and had just witnessed death), I immediately burst into very “audible” tears. Frank Jr. looked at me with an angry expression, but I now realize that his look of anger wasn’t directed toward me, but meant for the rooster. That rooster was, by then, most incapable of registering any recognition of even the slightest adverse sentiment aimed in its direction. Frank Jr. then tersely and angrily, said to me: “It was making a mess on my shed!”
His manner of making this brief pronouncement, and the conflicted look on his face, seemed to belie an undercurrent of another message, a little lengthier, which he seemed to want to say but wasn’t able to articulate. I still believe he was trying to say something along the line of: “It was making a mess on my shed, darn it, and if it hadn’t been doing that, you know that I surely wouldn’t have wanted to have killed it!”
Frank Jr. was a good man, and as I said, he sometimes seemed a little awkward in matters of socialization and himself in conversation.