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Uncle Marvin's Funeral

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Bayview, Alabama - also known as “the camps” - was a peaceful little mining community in January of 1949.But the tranquility of the camps was sometimes shattered by the death of a miner. Once in a while this was caused by an explosion inside the mine.  More often the reason was “a rock fell on him and cut his head slap off.”  In the early part of 1948, one of these tragedies hit close to home. My daddy had a sister named Doney Shook, who lived in Bayview. Her husband, Marvin, worked at Edgewater Mine. They had a daughter named Molly Faye who was my age and a son two years older, named Jerry Ray. Molly Faye and I were in the same class at Bayview School. One morning in February of that year, Mr. Wilson, the principal, cracked the classroom door and beckoned our teacher, Mrs. Hamrick, into the hall. A few seconds later, Mrs. Hamrick cracked the door and asked Molly Faye to “please come out into the hall”. A couple of minutes later, to my surprise, the door opened again, and the teacher asked me to come out. When I reached the hall, there was no sign of Molly Faye. Mrs. Hamrick then broke the bad news to me.

“Daniel, your uncle, Marvin Shook, was killed in the coal mine early this morning, and I’m sure you would like to go on home for the rest of the day.” I said, “Yes ma’am, I think so”. I dashed back into the classroom, grabbed my book satchel, and bolted down the hall and out the front door.  As I passed Mr. Earl, the janitor and bell-ringer, he inquired as to where I was going in such a hurry. I blurted out, “My uncle’s been killed in the coal mine, Mr. Earl!  A rock cut his head slap off!”

 

I hadn’t seen Uncle Marvin more than six times in my life, but I was not going to pass up a day off from school. Nobody I knew of had a telephone in those days, and news traveled slowly. I ran the entire mile and a half hoping to be the first to tell my family the bad news. And I was.

My mother was sitting on the front porch reading a storybook to Marty.  As I bounded up the steps, she swept Marty from her lap, jumped up from the porch swing, and demanded, “What are you doing home, Daniel Wayne?  What in the world is wrong?  Help me, Jesus!” I sure hoped she wasn’t going to have a running fit. I could hear the radio playing back in the kitchen, “If I knew you were coming I’da baaked a cake, baaaked a cake.”

Almost out of breath, I finally got it out. “Uncle Marvin has been killed in the coal mines!  Somebody came and got Molly Faye, and the teacher said I could go home too!”

Indoor plumbing had not been introduced in Bayview at that time. Our backyard was actually a small hill with concrete steps leading up to our “outhouse” as it was called. When I broke the news to my mother about Uncle Marvin, my daddy happened to be occupying the outhouse. My mother tore around the side of the house toward the backyard with me on her heels.  We  bounded  the concrete steps two at a time. My mother beat on the tin door shouting, “Ben, Marvin has been killed in the mines!”

My daddy’s voice came back, “Get the hell away from this damn door and let me do my business!”

My mother, sure he had not understood her, pleaded again. “Ben, did you hear me? You brother-in-law has been killed.”My daddy’s voice came from inside the outhouse again, “I told you to get the hell away from this door!”By this time Marty had made it up the steps dragging her doll, Sally. Slowly we three turned around and made out way back down to the house, awed at my daddy’s reaction to Uncle Marvin being killed in the coal mines.

 

Later on, after my daddy had completed “his business” and bathed and shaved, he and my mother drove off to Aunt Doney’s house. When they returned that night, I ran out to meet them.

“Daddy, was Uncle Marvin really killed in the mines? Did you see him?”

“Yeah, son, a rock cut his head slap off. No, we didn’t see him. The funeral man’s working on him right now. He’ll be laid out at home tomorrow evening and we’ll see him then.”

I didn’t like this “we” business and said, “I don’t have to go, do I? I really don’t want to.” I had already been dragged, protesting, to two funerals in my life, of people I had never heard of, because of my mother’s belief that it was “good for me.” I never did see any result from it other than bad dreams, and I sure didn’t want to see a dead man without a head.

I asked my daddy again, “Can’t I just stay with Mama Davis?” Mama Davis was living with us at the time. This was my mother’s cue.

“Daniel Wayne, your Aunt Doney would be hurt if you didn’t come, and I believe it’s good for you to see these things.”

 

The next day went by much too fast for me, and before I knew it, we were pulling up to Aunt Doney’s house. Several cars were already lined up in the street in front of the house. We made our way up the steps to the front porch with me bringing up the rear.

My daddy didn’t knock on the door; he just went ahead and opened it.  I guess he figured it was all right, it being his sister’s house.  From inside, I could hear a chorus of voices, “It’s Ben and Malva and Daniel Wayne’s with them. Y’all come on in.”

As I went in, I sort of nodded my head, but to no one in particular because it was just a blur of faces. I plopped down on the end of a sofa watching my mother hug Aunt Doney.

My aunt’s living room was narrow, but it went back a good ways.  From where I was, I could see a white casket sitting at the far end of the room. It was closed on one end, but open on the other. I could not see Uncle Marvin. An idea began to form in my mind.  With this many people milling around, maybe I would not be noticed. Maybe I could just sit right there until it was time to go. If my mother or anybody asked me if I had seen Uncle Marvin, I would just say, “yes” and we could be on our way.

It was not to be! After about ten minutes of safety, my stomach started to churn when I saw Aunt Doney coming toward me. She was tall and lanky like my daddy.

“Come on, Daniel, you need to come and see your Uncle Marvin. He always thought the world of you, you know.” I almost said, “No, Ma’am, I sure didn’t know that,” but thought better of it.

With Aunt Doney as my escort, I walked toward the casket. As we closed in on Uncle Marvin, I kept my eyes focuses on the closed end. I intended to keep my eyes looking in that direction while pretending to be looking at Uncle Marvin but after a couple of seconds she put her hands on my shoulders and pulled me up to the open end as if she knew what I was trying to pull. I  immediately closed my eyes and then barely opened them to a “squinch”. Through the narrow mist, I could make out the upper part of a body--A BODY WITH A HEAD!  I opened my eyes a little wider, and there was Uncle Marvin, head and all.  I was too relieved to ponder how this miracle had come about. My aunt whispered, “Doesn’t he look good, Daniel?” I said, “Yes, ma’am”, almost adding, “specially since  he’s still got his head”.

My aunt said, “You must be hungry child. Your cousin, Jerry Ray’s in the kitchen.  Go on in there and get yourself something to eat.”

I  said, “Yes, ma’am, thank you.” I headed for the kitchen, feeling good that I had done my duty and it was over. As I walked away, I saw Molly Faye sitting in a chair crying. I didn’t know what to say,

so I just slowed down and went on by. When I entered the kitchen, I saw Jerry Ray at the table chewing on a chicken leg while hovering over a plate loaded down with baked beans, slaw and potato salad.  When Jerry Ray saw me, he hollered, “Come on in, Dan, pull up a chair.”

After I was seated, Jerry Ray became excited. “Hey, Dan, guess what?  I got Dad’s watch!”

He stuck his arm under my nose and, sure enough, on his wrist was a big man’s watch.

Jerry Ray said, “This is a genuine ball-bearing watch, and it’s mine now.  And you know what else? Mama said I was going to be the man of the house now!” I wondered how he was going to handle that, being nine years old, but I didn’t make any comment. Jerry Ray went back to eating his chicken leg. I sure wasn’t hungry, so I got up and walked out on the front porch.  I was glad to see Ma sitting in a rocking chair on the porch. I sat down on the swing, and Ma began talking about Uncle Marvin.

“You know, son, he was a peculiar man. He was not like us.”

I asked Ma why he was different.

“He was a refugee from Arkansas, son.”

I asked Ma what a refugee was.

“Refugees was people who had to leave Arkansas because of a flood years ago. They came to Alabama, and some of ‘em settled here in the camps. I don’t know where Doney met up with Marvin. I guess in some beer joint.  And I sure don’t know why she thought she had to marry up with him.  Doney was real pretty when she was younger and could’ve had any boy she wanted.”

As Ma talked I became drowsy and laid down in the swing. Just before sleep overtook me, I heard a radio playing from a house somewhere down the street, “I saw the li-ight, I saw the li-ight.  No more darkness, no more night.”

 

Uncle Marvin’s funeral was the next day. His funeral was to be preached at Freewill Baptist church with burial in the church cemetery. My presence was, of course, required  so I could receive all the benefits that could be gotten from the experience.”

I’ll admit it wasn’t as bad as the night before. I sat in a pew with some cousins, and when everyone paraded around to have a last look at Uncle Marvin before they closed the casket, none of us were asked to join the march. There were a lot more people at the funeral than there were at Aunt Doney’s  house. I saw Ma seated in the pew cross the aisle from us. After a couple of songs, the preacher started talking about Uncle Marvin. He said Uncle Marvin was a good man who always provided for his family. He said, “I have no doubt that Brother Shook is in Heaven.” I glanced over at Ma, but she had her head down like she was praying. The preacher said if there was anybody in the church who was  not  saved, it was time to come forward now.  Nobody moved. I guess everybody was saved. Then the preacher dismissed everyone to walk over to the cemetery. As I was going out, I saw some men carrying the casket out a side door; my daddy was one of them.  When I got to where they were going to bury Uncle Marvin, the casket was already sitting over a hole in the ground.  Chairs were set up along one side.  The chairs were for Aunt Doney, Jerry Ray, Molly Faye and an old woman somebody had said was Uncle Marvin’s mother. I figured she must have been a refugee from Arkansas too. The preacher said some more good things about Uncle Marvin and said the Lord would be with his family during this bad time. After praying some more, the preacher went down the line of chairs shaking hands.  When he got to Jerry Ray’s chair, it was empty.

I had already seen Jerry Ray down by the road. He was showing his watch to three men holding shovels.

 

Stories published In Birmingham Post Herald

and Senior Living (Not this one)

 

 

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