I Went to the Moon with a Wink
and a Prayer
Copyright 2008 by Kay Harper
My Aunt Blanche and Uncle Joe were one of Shelby County’s original power couples. Joe Harper, my grandfather’s brother, was the dedicated Office Manager of the county’s ASCS office for nearly 30 years. Joe’s wife, Blanche, who started out as his secretary back in the late ‘30’s, eventually became his assistant, then, when he died in 1965, succeeded him as Office Manager. Not only did they come to the aid of the farmers of Shelby County in a multitude of ways, they were a major force for good in Memphis for over 50 years.
Of course, as a young girl I knew none of this. They were simply the best Aunt and Uncle a girl could ever have! I dearly loved them. My affection for them grew even stronger, when, at the ripe old age of 9, they invited me to visit them in Memphis for a whirlwind weekend which proved to be not only fun, but highly educational as well.
“I prayed last night for God to send a Guardian Angel to watch over you on this trip.” Moma was holding my hand as she walked me to the train. All of nine, I was feeling very grown up, as I was about to embark upon the first solo journey of my young life. The train at Cairo, Illinois, would take me three hours south to Memphis, where my favorite relatives, Aunt Blanche and Uncle Joe, would meet me and wisk me off for the weekend. I knew I’d be spoiled rotten by Sunday.
Daddy and the boys were standing down on the platform, waiting to wave goodbye as Moma and I boarded the train to get me settled. We were just up the steps, when the beanpole porter opened the door to a car for us. “Right dis way,” he said as he smiled from ear to ear.
“She’s going to be traveling by herself—her first trip alone.” Moma’s voice cracked a little.
“Oh, I see.” He knew just what to say. “Don’t you worry, Missus, I be havin’ my eye on this lil’ one chere.” Then he patted the top of my head and gave me a big wink. “Wasyurname, Lil’ Dawlin’?” I glanced over at Moma to see if it was all right to speak to this stranger.
She nodded, “Go ahead—tell him your name.”
My eyes shot down to inspect the scuffed floor between us. I whispered, “Kay.”
“Didjou say Kay?” I nodded.
“Well, Miz Kay, you can call me Arthur. Now you sit down right chere.” He motioned to a seat on the front row. “You get yosef comfable. I be back direc’ly.” Then he gave me another wink, tipped his hat to Moma and left.
Moma looked down at me and smiled. “Bye bye.”
I hugged her, and as she hugged me back she whispered, “You know that guardian angel I prayed for?”
“I think it’s Arthur!” She winked, too. “OK. All set?” I nodded again. “Now you be sure and give Aunt Blanche and Uncle Joe a big hug from us.”
“I will, Moma.” She slipped out and joined my waving family on the platform. Just then I was hit with a disturbing thought. Everybody can wink but me. As the wheels began to grind I made a note in my head to try and learn.
“Here goes!” I whispered as the train jolted out of the station. I waved back at my family, and kept my arm going until the train rounded the bend by the Mississippi River. Then the station was out of sight.
It was Friday about noon. I’d be back in time for Sunday supper, but I didn’t care how brief this adventure would be. I decided I was going to enjoy every minute of it--whether I could wink or not!
True to his word, Arthur returned a few minutes later, flashing a smile that revealed a big gold tooth. The Coca Cola in his hand was for me. “I take you to the Club Car direc’ly. You be gittin’ yo sef sompin’ good for lunch. Food’s good here. Yessum. Enjoy ya drink fa now. I be back fa ya.” He tipped his hat, winked and disappeared into the next car.
Wow! I thought. Coke before lunch! Never in my whole life! Moma always said, “If you drink a Coke before a meal, it’ll ruin your appetite.”
“Oh well,” I smiled. “Moma’s not here now.” I took deep swigs, and settled in as the world flew past the window.
We’d been hurtling through Kentucky for an hour or more, but when we got to the cotton fields, the train slowed down to a crawl. Dozens of the farm hands were out, picking the crop in the hottest part of the day. They took the white clumps and pushed them deep into the big, long bags strapped to their shoulders. The colored men and women moved slow and steadily. I thought they looked tired and sort of sad. I wondered how I’d feel if I had to go out in the hot sun and break my back to gather up a bunch of fluffy white stuff. I knew I wouldn’t like it a bit—not one single bit.
Arthur came back, smiling up a storm and said. “OK, Lil’ Dawlin’, I take you to the club car now. You be gittin’ some fine food. You like fried chicken?”
“Yes! I do! It’s my favorite!” He reached out to collect my empty Coke bottle.
“Well, we got some of the bes’ fried chicken you ever will eat—comes with taters and beans--itsa reg’lar feas’! Les go!”
As I was getting myself settled at my table in the club car, a giant colored waiter in a snow-white suit appeared out of nowhere. Towering over me, he announced, “Hey, now. I’m gonna brang you yo food. Name’s Dixie.”
“What a funny name,” I thought. He smiled and shook a long finger at me. “I know, you be thinkin’ I gots me a funny name, hunh?”
I blushed and stared down at the starched white linen tablecloth. In that split second, I decided to take my cue from Daddy, who was always encouraging us to ask whatever questions we had. He’d say, “Go ahead, ask! The worst they can do is tell you to go jump in a lake. Then you’re no worse off. ‘Course on the good side, there’s always the possibility that they’ll give you an answer. And you might just learn something.”
So I asked, “Why do you have that name?” “Well, Dawlin’, that’s a perty long story. Issa nickname. Had me a frien’ in the Navy who called me dat ‘cause I come from Alabama. They call that part of the world Dixie. You ever been to Alabama?”
I shook my head, “No.”
“Well, it’s about the perties’ place on earth.”
“Do you ever get to go there now?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, Christmas.” He got a far off look in his eye. I go there ever’ Christmas. No matter where I git to ridin’ on this ol’ train, I git off and find my way back to Alabama ever’ Christmas. I got me ten brothers and sisters back there. When we all get together, them and their kids, issa big ol’ crowd. You jis’ a young thang, but you gotta know there’s no place like home—especially at Christmas.” I smiled and thought what a nice treat it must be for him to get to go back to Alabama every year—and see everybody. “Now, what’s yo’ name?”
I shrugged. “Oh, it’s a plain name…just Kay.”
“Well, jus’ plain ol’ Kay, whachu gonna be eatin’? We got real good fried chicken. You like fried chicken?”
“Yes! It’s my favorite. Arthur told me it’s real good here, too.”
“Well, you be in fa a treat then. How ‘bout some taters and beans, too?”
“Oh, yes, please. That’d be good.”
“OK, I be back soon.” He winked and disappeared to the same nowhere place from where he’d come.
I looked out the window at the miles and miles of fields: cotton, corn, soy beans, tobacco. They stretched on and on. All that space. That’s when I remembered that Uncle Joe ran the agricultural office for Shelby County, Tennessee, and Aunt Blanche was his assistant. They had lots of practice looking at fields—all over the county. I could imagine them riding along shaking their heads (whether the crop was good or bad), saying things like, “My, oh my! Would you just look at that?” Then they’d stop and visit all the farmers. It seemed like the perfect job for them because they liked people so much.
The fried chicken, taters and beans were just as tasty as my new friends had promised. I wiped my hands one last time and said, “Thank you, Dixie. It was DE--licious!”
Dixie winked and waved me on. “Better git on back, Miz Kay, ‘fore Arthur comes in here lookin’ fa ya and tellin’ me I kep’ you too long.” His big laugh boomed out.
“Bye, and thank you again!” I stumbled back to my seat in the next car as I kept time with the clickety-clacking wheels.
“Hey, Lil’’ Dawlin’!” Arthur came up the aisle, flashed his gold toothed grin and gave me another wink.
I slid into my seat, but my curiosity had me ready to pop! So, with my father’s wise words on the subject of “just asking” still echoing in my ear, I managed to get out my question. “Arthur, could you teach me how to wink? You and Dixie wink all the time and, well, I don’t know how.”
“Easies’ thang in the world. Les’ take yo right eye. Now keep that lef’ one open and jist close that right one. Go ahead. Close it.” I followed his directions, but both eyes closed.
“OK, now, les try it agin,” he said patiently. “You’ll git it.”
Both eyes snapped shut again.
“Well, I’m not gonna give up on you jus’ yet. An’ don’t you quit tryin’ either. You gonna do it. I know you will.”
I put my mind to it. This time I actually winked—I thought! “Is that it? Did I do it?”
“Dat’s it! An’ you didn’t even have to learn it the lazy way—holdin’ up your other eye with yo’ fingers. Like dis.” He held up his eyelid with his thumb and index finger. “You jis’ a natural born winker! Try it again.”
I tried it with my left eye this time. And winked!
“My goodness, you got the whole thang now. Winkin’ right and lef’. I declare! That’s it, Lil’ Dawlin’, that’s all there is to it. You be winkin’ all over town now.” He tipped his hat to me, let out a loud laugh and said to the whole car, “We be comin’ up to the big city real soon.” Then he said to me, “You bes’ be lookin’ out the window sose you don’t miss nothing.”
I glued my gaze out, but practiced my winking as the outskirts of Memphis flashed by. Then, there was a building here, a building there. All of the sudden the train was surrounded. As the buildings started bunching closer together, some shot way up in the sky!
When the train pulled into the station, Arthur took my bag and led me out to the stairway between the cars. I could see Aunt Blanche and Uncle Joe standing on the platform, but they couldn’t see me. I smiled up at my new friend and offered my hand. “Thanks, Arthur. I’ll think of you every time I wink!”
He chuckled, and put his great big hand around mine. “Dat’ll be good, yessum, real good!” We shook hands, then he said, “I believe dat’s yo folks comin’. Now you have yo-sef a mighty fine time, Lil’ Dawlin’.”
By then Aunt Blanche and Uncle Joe had spotted me on the stairs, and swooped in for a big hug. “That one’s from Moma and Daddy and Bob and Bill.” I hugged them again. “This one’s from me!”
Aunt Blanche’s accent was Southern-molasses. “Kay, lan’ sakes! Harper, just look at her. My goodness, she’ll be as tall as us soon! Goodness gracious! Well, you got everything?”
“Uncle Joe’ll carry your bag. Let’s go!” We headed for the big green Oldsmobile, and drove home to their quaint little house on Moon Street.
Moon Street. I thought it perfect that my most beloved relatives lived on a street with such a name. In many respects, going to visit them was like a trip to the moon. Their beautiful home was bathed in a special light of love and caring. It had a mystery all its own. That’s how I thought of Aunt Blanche and Uncle Joe, too. They were mysterious, very special and, perhaps because they had no children of their own, poured their light into the lives of my brothers and me.
The activities of the next two days became a big blur when I settled into my seat for the train ride home. This time, the porter was a grumpy old man named Floyd, who wasn’t about to give a little girl traveling alone the time of day, let alone something as special as winking lessons. And Sam, the steward in the club car had probably been working for the railroad too long, because he was not one bit of fun. I realized that getting a conversation started with either one of them was not very likely.
But the lack of engaging personalities aboard the train gave me an opportunity to run and re-run the weekend activities in my mind. Since I’d learned how, I had winked up a storm in Memphis. I winked while we were playing with Suzette, the dog, and Jerry, the bird, as we watered the African violets that lined the windows in the back of the house, while we ate Aunt Blanche’s fancy food and fantastic desserts, and listened to her play “Autumn Leaves” on the piano, when we visited the Pink Palace Museum (a tribute to grace and beauty in pink marble), went on a major shopping spree for clothes for my Barbie Doll, and enjoyed a real live fashion show lunch!
When I pulled into the station at Cairo, Bill and Bob were jumping up and down to see which one would see me first. I was banging on the window when Bill finally spotted me. “Hey, how was your trip?” they asked as they swarmed around me. Just then Moma and Daddy arrived, and in one big group, we piled into the car.
That night, as I said my prayers I thanked God for my family, for my special Aunt and Uncle, and for giving me such a wonderful trip. Afterwards, I couldn’t sleep. My journey kept spinning around in my head. It felt good to be home, but I knew I had turned a corner deep inside. I couldn’t deny the new identity that was emerging in me: I was an adventurer! I knew I would never be the same again.
A new sense of confidence had been born in me. Though I was only nine, I had discovered a very important thing about myself: I could travel alone. And I liked it!
Years later, when my restless longings created countless destinations, and I found myself staring into the face of the unknown, this is the journey I would recall—the one that had started it all—when I went to the moon with a wink and a prayer.
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