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After Work: Crime Stopping

...It wasn’t that theft and other crimes were unknown; it was that they were rare, and usually the juicy ones happened in another county.

So it was with great disappointment in the goodness of man when my father went out to crank up his tractor and found it wouldn’t start...

Dona Gibbs tells of crime-stopping, Carolina-style.

To read more of Dona's satisfying columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/after_work/

Doors weren’t locked when I was growing up in the rural South. Cars were left parked in driveways with the keys dangling from the ignition switch. Tool sheds went un-padlocked.

It wasn’t that theft and other crimes were unknown; it was that they were rare, and usually the juicy ones happened in another county.

So it was with great disappointment in the goodness of man when my father went out to crank up his tractor and found it wouldn’t start.

There was not a chance that it would. Somebody had stolen the battery.

My father heaved a big sigh, hopped into his Ford pick-up truck and headed into town. He brought back a new battery, put it in his Ford tractor and chugged out to finish mowing the alfalfa. (My father had a love affair with Fords that lasted his whole life.)

With a new battery all was right with the world again.

A couple of weeks passed. Another battery disappeared.

Again, he exhaled stormily, drove to town and bought a new one.

This time on the way back he dropped at neighbor’s house.

Every little farming community had a family that when something upset the stability got the blame. Ours were the Brothertons, not their real name I hasten to add.

Somebody blew up a mailbox to smithereens with a stick of dynamite. It had to be one of those Brotherton boys.

A still was discovered down by the creek. Why it must be those same good-for-nothings.

If tools went missing, there was the family of likely suspects.

Our clan of suspects was headed by a man with one of those impressive names, the kind with many last names strung together in a celebration of family connections. The name would conjure up the expectation that he lived in an antebellum mansion with white columns and an alee of oaks.

That was not the case. Although it was rumored that the Brotherton family had received their land through a land grant from the Crown, the place was a mess. An oily sofa sat on the porch. Whether the clan had hauled it out of the living room to thrown in the gully they used for trash or they wanted a comfortable seat to watch the passing traffic, I’ll never know, but the sofa was convenient to the icebox, which also had a place on honor on the porch.

The house had probably been built around 1870s. It had never received so much as a swipe of paint because if you start painting, why then you have to keep it up. The roof was patched tin.

Water came from a well and a hand pump was convenient to the kitchen door. They heated water and cooked on a wood stove. Salt pork and collards were staples, I’d guess since that’s the smell that always rolled out into the yard when the front door was opened.

The yard was bare of grass. A few chickens and guinea hen pecked around in the dust.

In some misbegotten notion of landscaping, the family had lopped off all the limbs of the big oak tree and hickory trees. They’d whitewashed the trunks. This was a practice I saw all over the Piedmont area of North Carolina. It always puzzled me. I came to associate it with dirt-poor, hardscrabble living.

The patriarch of the family was a tall, thin man whose overalls looked ill used and worn.

Since he and his sons were suspected every petty crime that was complained about, I was scared of the whole tribe.

If I had known about the little visit my father planned on paying, I would have been hysterical faster than you could say, “Local man slain with shotgun.”

My father reported the conversation when he triumphantly returned with the second battery.

He said he told Mr. Brotherton that he’d had two batteries taken right out of the tractor and that maybe Mr. Brotherton would like to know, so he could keep an eye on his own tractor. Just a neighborly word.

My father said he could understand how desperate a man could get when his tractor battery gave out and he had a crop to get in and how such a man might “borrow” a battery from his neighbor.

However, my father went on, he just wouldn’t sit idly by and have another battery disappear. If there was some kind of second-hand battery sales going on, he was no longer part of the supply line.

If it happened again, my father said, he’d have to get the police involved.

He told us he emphasized the word “police” in the rural Southern way with both syllables accented.

That, he said grinning, seemed to get Mr. Brotherton’s attention.

He never had another tractor battery taken. Maybe the Brothertons were the culprits. Maybe they weren’t.

And just to discourage anybody poking around the barn, my father took his .22 and shot up into the night sky. Bam, bam, bam every night for two weeks.



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