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In Plainview, Texas in the early thirties there was a man of mental deficiency. Universally all the children in town referred to him as “Crazy John”. I did know his true last name because my grandmother studiously avoided the use of the epithet we children used and strictly enjoined us not to use it either. She knew his mother well and thought highly of her. His mother lived in an old but immaculately kept frame house with a well-turfed lawn, neatly trimmed hedges and masses of flowers. Plainview is a location that is hostile to the landscaping arts and if a yard looks beautiful you can bet that it represented a great amount of someone’s labor. For this house it was John’s labor which kept it pretty and his mental deficiency did not seem to hinder that process, His mother was an invalid, so if she taught John his horticultural skills it must have been some time ago.
John was about thirty-five or a few years older. He was a compactly built, short man with a very large head and short stocky arms that somehow suggested that he was a dwarf even though in my memory he was five foot and five inches or so. He was neatly and cleanly dressed and invariably wore a hat that was not at all unusual for a grown man in that decade. His hair was prematurely gray and a bit longer than custom. He had steely blue eyes that looked about him nervously. Those eyes and his loose almost slack lips were the features that advertised his mental deficiency. Also his speech was slurred.
Children are terribly cruel – at least they were in the early thirties. John rarely left his home, but when he did he was usually on his way to the store with a list his mother had made, or to his job at the auction barn where he periodically cleaned out the stalls and pens and loaded the ordure on wagons to be hauled away for fertilizer. When John was out and away from his house he almost always attracted a following of from one to ten pre-teen children yelling, “Crazy John! Crazy John! Yaaa! Yaaa! Yaaa!” at the top of our lungs. Yes, I’ll have to admit that I have done it too. John would become frantic. He would stop and pick up a rock and pretend to throw it at the children, but I never knew him to release the rock. After a while he would withdraw from his rear pocket what every child in town knew as a “nigger-shooter” and carefully aim it at the taunting crowd but I never knew him to release it. Usually by this time some adult would be attracted by the noise and would scold us into submission and give us the standard lecture about John being a pretty good man and he could not help his condition we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. But we weren’t ashamed. We just waited for the next opportunity to taunt him.
Once I was in a pack of ten or so kids following John on his way to work when I looked up and beheld my grandmother standing on the street corner watching the whole affair. I knew I had been busted. Mama as I called my grandmother would not spank me, but I would wish that she had by the time she got through talking to me. But surprisingly on the thirteen-mile ride back to the farm and all that night she did not mention a word about John. About mid-morning next day Mama began baking cakes – two identical three layer chocolate cakes with chocolate icing. I asked her why two cakes alike. She replied that we were going to take one of the cakes to John and his mother since his mother was not likely to be able to cook things like that, and it had been quite some time since she had done John’s mother a kindness and it was due. I knew then that my epiphany was yet to come. After the cakes were done I was told to take a bath in the washtub on the back porch, to comb my hair and dress up like I was going to church. Weldon, my uncle, drove us into town and let us out at John’s house. Weldon’s mouth was twitching just a bit as we drove in, as it sometimes did when he really wanted to smile but knew that it was improper to do so. We climbed the porch steps up to the front door and Mama knocked on the door since I was carrying a cake. John answered the door.
John’s mother was in a wheel chair and was a delightful little gray lady with bright blue piercing eyes and a ready smile. She hugged me and told John to get ice tea and cookies for us all, which he did in an amazingly short time. She and Mama began a conversation about who was getting married to whom in the town and who wasn’t but should be, and I was on the couch with John who just regarded me and then grinned I thought rather wickedly and said, “I like your Grandma, always have.” But it was enough. There was a torrent of conversation with John about all sorts of things including how much he got paid for cleaning out the auction barn, and about my horse, and who my cousins were that lived in town. No mention was made then or later about my conduct of the day before. There in that house eating cookies and drinking iced tea John seemed as normal as any person I had ever met – except that he was twenty-five years older than I was. Weldon came shortly and picked us up.
A week or so later Mama and I were sitting in the car waiting for my granddad to come out of the feed store when John walked up to the car window and presented my grandmother with a bouquet that had seen better days. It was wilted and worn and tattered but my grandmother said, “Thank you, John! Bachelor buttons are one of my favorites. I’ll put them on the dinner table tonight.”
She did too. And I never cried “Crazy John” again.
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