Let Me Learn Ya Something
The sun seemed to focus its attention on me as I tried to focus on my grandfather in the driver’s seat. The visor did little for me; I tried to maneuver, but I was still two summers from a six-inch growth spurt that proved the hulking man next to me was related to me. It was the summer of 1983 and I was spending Saturday afternoon cruising with my grandfather.
Ray Charles was playing. Ray Charles was always playing. Occasionally, he would play Johnnie Taylor or Otis Redding, Sam Cooke if my grandmother was in the car, but it was mostly Ray Charles. He said my grandmother loved Sam Cooke because he was as pretty as his voice. Brother Ray, as he called Ray Charles, was gritty. A soul shouter he called him, Redding and Taylor.
If Granddaddy said it, it was true. His words might as well have been commandments to my 10-year-old ears on those Saturdays when I rode shotgun in his 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. This was his “weekend ride” because he drove a pickup truck to and from work all week, but the Cutlass came out for taking my grandmother to the grocery store, church and his rides with his special man, me.
Each Saturday started the same, Reno’s Car Wash, where he would get the whites whitened and the burgundy sparkled before the spokes were cleaned to a shine. By 11 am, I was his passenger and our journeys would begin. There was never a destination, just a ride. I looked forward to those rides because I looked forward to my grandfather’s stories. He always seemed thisclose to hitting a white man on the job and would curse like I was one of his friends and not his grandson.
I loved that about him; he didn’t treat me like a little boy, he treated like a man. My parents handled me with care because I was so small. At 10, I was just over 4 feet tall and weighed about 55 pounds. Sitting next to my six-foot-four-inch grandfather, I wasn’t reminded by how small I was, but how tall I could be. My grandfather was a big man. Not just in height. He weighed about 250 pounds and had muscles bulging against his sleeves. Even at 62-years-old. He didn’t have the physique of a bodybuilder, his muscles weren’t built by weights, but by the weight he’d carried since 1921.
We drove around the city, honking the horn and waving at folks my grandfather knew and didn’t know. It was a hot summer day, so people were out all over the city, especially downtown, which was where we seemed to be heading. I was hoping a few of my classmates were shopping with their mothers and would see me riding shotgun in the Cutlass. I practiced how I would casually notice them noticing me riding clean.
The idea of seeing Dawn Brewer coming out of Bamberger’s or McCrory’s and seeing us cruising by was enough to distract me from the back of my thighs sticking to the leather seats. My granddaddy didn’t believe in using the air conditioning, said it ran his gas too fast. I had to move every 20 seconds or so to ease the pain caused by letting my thighs rest in one place for too long.
Just as we approached the corner of Main Street, where Bamberger’s stood and Downtown began, we turned right, and I knew then today we were going to see Uncle Jimbo, Granddaddy’s youngest brother. I was a bit disappointed. One, I thought I saw Dawn and two because Jimbo was always drunk. Perhaps Granddaddy saw the disappointment on my face because he told me we would ride through Downtown after we checked on Jimbo. I perked up a little, but Dawn would be gone by then, checking on Uncle Jimbo always took all day.
Going to see Jimbo also meant stopping by Park Liquors to get a fifth of Johnnie Walker Red. There were days Jimbo would drink that in a few hours, others when it seemed to only take minutes. My grandfather parked the car and left the engine running so I wouldn’t get too hot, I started to say he could just cut the AC on, but I remembered the size of his hands and didn’t want to get acquainted with one of them.
Minutes later, Granddaddy emerged from the store, brown bag in one hand, plastic cup and keys in the other. There was only one cup because Granddaddy did not drink. I don’t know if he did when I wasn’t around, but Uncle Jimbo was always the only one who drank on our visits. Grandaddy pointed the car towards Jimbo’s and Ray Charles was telling us about a woman he had way over town and I decided I would ask Grandaddy a question I’d had for years.
“Granddaddy, why does Uncle Jimbo drink so much?”
My grandfather looked at me and I instantly regretted asking the question. I imagine this is the look he gave them “crackers at the job” before he cussed them out so many times. But, he smiled instead of cussing and said, “Let me learn ya something…”
My grandfather never attended school. He couldn’t read. He learned to sign his name, see how many games back of first the Mets were and how to recognize the lottery numbers he spent $20 on each night. Everything he was taught, he learned by experience. So, there are quite a few odd phrases he used and “let me learn ya” was one of them. He never used the traditional, “let me teach you” or “let me show you”, it was always, “let me learn ya”.
Bernard Edward Franklin was born to work. He liked to brag that he was out in the fields with his daddy before he learned to walk. That might be true. His siblings all went to school –at least to 5th grade, but Lil’ Bernie never stepped foot inside a classroom. He was born the third child to Bernard Sr. and Olivia but looked upon as the oldest, because he was the biggest and strongest. He would often step in to fight kids for his older brother Robert or chase kids home who picked at his other siblings’ rags, despite theirs being just slightly less tattered than the Franklin clan.
By his own estimation, his mother was little more than a girl when she married his father and was 16 or 17 when she had him. On the contrary, his father was around 30 at the time and treated his wife more like his oldest daughter. The couple had nine children before Olivia died giving birth to James, nicknamed Jimbo, in 1933. Bernard married Ida within months and she gave him seven more children before the big bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor.
In all, Granddaddy had eleven sisters and six brothers, many of which he was a brother and father to. By the time Doretha was born in 1941, Lil’ Bernie had his shot at the Negro Leagues stolen by World War II and then the news that a girl he’d been seeing was pregnant. He soon married Lorraine Walker and she gave birth to Bernard III and two years later, a daughter she named Olivia after a grandmother she would never meet.
My grandfather continued to work with his father, supporting his family and his siblings working long days farming livestock and tobacco. Most of his siblings born to Olivia had married and moved on by 1946, but Lil’ Bernie was there alongside his father building a business that slightly turned the fortunes of the Franklins. Bernard Sr. now owned three farms and employed about 30 people, but Lil’ Bernie was really the man in charge.
However, he usually had to carry one of his younger siblings with him for deliveries or supply runs, so he wasn’t cheated on the account that he couldn’t read or do arithmetic. This was typically a job reserved for his favorite brother, Jimbo. Jimbo was much smaller than the rest of his brothers and many of his sisters, he took his mother’s slight build and many of her other features. He was teased most of his life for looking like a woman and his voice being of a higher pitch didn’t help. Lil’ Bernie was extremely protective over his younger brother, so people didn’t go but so far in their bullying of Jimbo, that included their siblings. My grandfather once punched his older brother George out for calling Jimbo a name.
There was one day in 1946 when Jimbo was not around to go into town with my grandfather. He would often disappear for hours and no one ever questioned where he was, they all figured he was nosing after some girl he went to school with. It was known around the family that he had a thing for Lorraine’s sister Gloria and would often walk her home from school and smile at her for an hour or two.
My grandfather couldn’t wait for his lovestruck brother that day, so he asked one of the workers to take a ride with him to purchase feed and other items needed for the farms. After loading the truck, he noticed what looked like Jimbo’s favorite hat on the ground across from the general store. As he got closer to the hat, he realized it was his brother’s hat and knew he wouldn’t just leave it there, because it was a birthday gift from Lil’ Bernie earlier that year.
He bent over to grab the hat and heard what sounded like a grunt. Then a cry. Another grunt. Another cry. He followed the sounds and found two white men, one with his pants down, the other with a shotgun and his brother nearly naked. Rage filled his heart as he rushed towards the men standing over his brother. It took him one punch to dislodge the shotgun from the one man and two blasts later he had killed two men but rescued his brother from their brutalization.
He told the worker to take the truck back to the farm, turned to Jimbo, gathered his belongings and took off running. The two of them ran from all they knew; family, the farms, South Carolina, death and an incident neither would ever forget. With $37 in his pocket, they managed to make it into North Carolina, where they stayed a few weeks before boarding a train that dropped them on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Back in South Carolina, white men in hoods and robes set fire to all Bernard Franklin owned because he refused to hand over his son to stand trial for the killing of two white men. He confronted the men with his own shotgun on one visit and was killed in front of his wife and four youngest children. All the Franklin land was taken for taxes owed to the county. Ida took the kids she gave birth to and went to live with her sister in Tennessee. Martha, the oldest child of Bernard and Olivia, took in three of her siblings with her family in Georgia.
My granddaddy left a wife and two children in South Carolina while he chased his freedom. He always says the plan was to send for his family once he got settled, but he met a woman named Ella while staying in Berlin, Maryland that made him forget the wife and kids he left that day in 1946. By 1953, the couple were married and settled in New Jersey with their second child, my father James on the way.
The way Granddaddy tells it, he spent the next 20 years working for a Jewish family named Krantzler, learning everything he could about construction. He decided to venture out on his own and began Franklin & Franklin Contractors with my grandmother as co-owner. He scored a few big contracts, built five houses on the street where I grew up and even worked on the high school I eventually graduated from.
However, he trusted a neighbor to do his books and that landed him in trouble with Uncle Sam. He went back to work for Krantzler, picking up side jobs and paying his back taxes. Like his father before him, his dream of ownership went up in smoke, but it never seemed to affect his pride.
That’s one thing I loved about granddaddy. He was a strong, proud man. Despite everything he may have lacked on paper, he was a successful businessman, husband and father. Before that afternoon, I always knew the road he’d taken was filled with racism and segregation, but I never knew that pain he carried. I never knew the pain Jimbo lived with daily.
There were a few years I remember Jimbo working with Granddaddy, but for the most part, he was usually unemployed, collecting a check and spending it on Johnny Walker. He was married to a woman named Ernestine for a while, but she left him for good after my 5th birthday party. I was too young to know all the details, I just remember my mother saying that a woman can only deal with so much. He never had any children. All he had was granddaddy.
The sun was finishing its work for the day as Jimbo was finishing the bottle that arrived between Granddaddy and me. That afternoon, they talked baseball, the heat, Ronald Reagan and once Jimbo had made his way through most of the bottle, he mentioned home.
“Lil’ Bernie, you ever miss home?”
I found it funny that he called Granddaddy “Lil’ Bernie”, but his size could never outgrow respect for their father. I looked at my grandfather, waited for an answer, Jimbo did too, but he never said. Instead, he fumbled in his pocket and produced a wad of wet bills that he placed in Jimbo’s hand.
“Don’t spend it all on that drink, your rent money is in there too.”
He motioned towards the car with his head and I stood up, shook Uncle Jimbo’s hand and started walking. I wasn’t thinking about Dawn Brewer, profiling in my grandfather’s car or even how it seemed to be hotter at 8 pm than it was at 3. I looked over my shoulder and saw Granddaddy helping his brother into the house where he rented a room.
Jimbo was his brother, yet he was also his responsibility, his burden. He had to save his brother, even though it forced them to leave a family, a legacy behind and altered the lives of two generations of Franklins in the process.
Three minutes later my grandfather was walking towards me and he seemingly has moisture around his eyes. It mixed with the sweat from his brow, but I knew those were tears. I’d never seen Granddaddy cry before or after this day, I didn’t really see him cry that day, but I knew something passed between brothers in those three minutes that really affected him.
That winter we learned Jimbo had liver cancer; he never stopped drinking, he said it helped to quiet the pain. I imagine he’d told himself that for almost 50 years. He died the day after Granddaddy turned 63. There was a very small funeral; a few family members I hadn’t seen before or since, a couple of people he drank with, his landlady and Ernestine.
My grandmother stayed with us for a week after the funeral, because Granddaddy had taken Jimbo home to rest. I knew home meant South Carolina. I knew home meant where Jimbo was hurt by those men. I knew home was where Granddaddy killed those men. I knew home meant where my great-granddaddy was murdered. I knew home was what Granddaddy carried between his shoulders, never letting it rest, but always carrying the memory like his cross. I cried every night that he was gone because I thought he was going to get killed by the men who went looking for him all that time ago. My mother couldn’t understand my anguish. My grandmother would just rock me in her arms and tell me that he would be back soon, but this was something he had to do, it was his brother’s last wish.
I woke up that Saturday morning and Granddaddy was sitting in the kitchen with my parents and grandmother. He stood up when he saw me coming and grabbed me up into his arms.
“Go on get dressed, so we could take our ride.”
It was a cold March day, but the Cutlass was clean and sitting in front of our house. I was so excited I nearly ran out without brushing my teeth, but my mother stopped me and turned me back into the bathroom. There was something different about Granddaddy, he looked almost happy. He had been so quiet in the weeks leading up to Jimbo’s death and funeral, but not, he looked like a weight has been lifted.
“Ready to roll?”
I climbed into the passenger seat and pulled my seatbelt as my grandfather adjusted his radio. There was a foreign sound coming from the speakers, it wasn’t Brother Ray, it wasn’t a soul shouter, it was The Isley Brothers. Ron Isley sang about footsteps in the dark and Granddaddy sang along. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and his lips turned into a smile. It was like he was letting me in on a secret, something that was just between us.
“How was your trip home Granddaddy?”
“Let me learn ya something about home, son. Home is wherever you plant your roots and my home is where you’re growing.”
We rode Downtown that day and I saw Dawn Brewer and her mother, but I didn’t wave. I was listening to my grandfather tell me about roots, a man’s legacy and how sometimes we need to look back to understand where we’re heading. I looked forward, swayed my shoulders to the music and imagined being the kind of man my grandfather is.