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The year the United States entered the War, Buford Tee Jefferson opened the Nickel and Dimer in Jones County. He purchased a run-down piece of property, located near the route of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad to build his juke joint. He wanted to attract the colored railroad workers and saw mill employees who had money to spend. It was a place the coloreds in Jones County could go that would be free of the raucousness and bawdiness of the barrelhouse crowd at the Hankering in Wayne County, a place to let off some steam without having to trudge twenty or more miles to the Hankering.
Buford Tee offered his prime whiskey at the Nickel and Dimer and hired local colored talent to perform for the patrons. Those that wanted a little more action could make their way to the Hankering, freely doling out money on the crib girls for their services, the crib girls happily obliging.
A year later the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. It was now the law of the land, but it proved difficult to enforce. The Volstead Act solved this problem. When people in the county heard that everything from whiskey to rum to beer was being banned, they vehemently protested against the law, chiding that it violated their civil rights and infringed upon their personal liberties. If they wanted to drink, they felt it was their God-given right to do so. They also argued that if they could die for the country in the War, then they damn sure should have the right to take a drink whenever the notion hit them.
August thought the new law was going to put a dent in his whiskey-making business, but it actually gave it a boost, many residents stocking up on liquor just in case the ban would render the county completely dry. The sheriff of Jones County, Sheriff Coffield, never enforced the laws banning alcohol in his county, allowing August to continue his enterprise without interference.
As soldiers returned home from the War, they were surprised to learn that alcohol was banned in the States. They were angry, particularly, because alcohol was sold unreservedly overseas and they could indulge freely while on their tour of duty. The soldiers couldn’t believe the evangelists and prohibitionists, that they had risked their lives for, had taken away a freedom they believed was guaranteed by the Constitution, something that helped them keep their sanity during the War, many coming home from the War addicted to the intoxicating brew.
Many colored soldiers made their way to the Nickel and Dimer, dressed in their military uniforms, to knock back a few bottles of whiskey, tell some war stories, and gamble. The crowd welcomed the soldiers like they were colored celebrities. One soldier, in particular, Hezekiah Bennett, nicknamed Rock in the War because he had a head shaped like a rock, all lumpy and dented, bragged about how he saved a whole white infantry unit, telling the story with zeal, other soldiers refusing to recant their war stories, wanting only to forget the whole experience, the nightmares and flashbacks paralyzing them to the point they couldn’t acclimate themselves back into society.
“At daybreak, you see, we were starting our advancement,” Rock narrated, holding a whiskey bottle in one hand and a soldier’s smoke in the other.
“Yeah, and what happened then?” one patron asked, listening intently to his tale.
“The enemy forces were closing in, you see,” Rock added.
“Uh huh, uh huh,” another patron said, urging Rock on, who had paused to take a swig of whiskey and a long drag on his Camel cigarette.
“There were men all over, see?” Rock continued. “Men laying out, some wounded, some dead.”
“Go ‘head,” the first patron insisted, tired of his slow progress in the story.
“We couldn’t stop. We had to leave the wounded,” Rock said.
“Why?” the other patron asked.
“There was gunfire and shells all over our heads,” Rock said. “We couldn’t stop advancing until we got to a position to take the enemy out.”
“And what happened then?” the first patron asked.
“Two white soldiers and me, we saw a shell hole and made a run for it,” he replied.
“Yeah, uh huh,” the other patron said, hanging on to Rock’s every word.
“I managed to dive in,” Rock said.
“Yeah?” the other patron said.
“They fell in after me,” Rock added. “They was hit, both of them.”
“And,” the first patron egged on.
“I bandaged their wounds and got them stable,” Rock said. “One guy lost his life. The other lost just his hand. Then I advanced forward. I had to leave them and take out the enemy.”
“Did you take them out?” the other patron asked.
“Hell yeah, I took them out,” Rock boasted. “We pushed them damn Germans back. We beat they asses. They gave us medals and welcomed us back to D.C. Colored soldiers, a colored platoon did that.”
“Damn, you the man,” the first patron commented. “You the damn man. Barkeep, get this soldier another drink!”
As more patrons entered the joint, they gathered around to hear Rock retell his story many times that night, each retell embellished a little bit more with exaggerated details. Rock didn’t see any harm in it. He was a hero in their eyes, no doubt.
As the night went on, the soldiers also longed to feel a warm body next to them, keeping the local, single, colored ladies who were looking for a husband or a sugar papa busy on the dance floor. Those, not trying to be tied down to one woman, who wanted to just get laid would head to the Hankering to indulge themselves in the crib girls.
Rock and a few other colored soldiers entered the Hankering, again Rock retelling his war story to interested patrons. They would buy him drink after drink to keep his narrative going. The other soldiers, not interested in talking about the war, their memories more demoralizing than Rock’s, would find a crib girl to entertain them, heading to the back rooms to get gratification. By three in the morning, the soldiers would have their fill of liquor and women and would be ready to head home, proudly wearing their uniforms that had become disheveled and soiled with sweat, alcohol, and sex.
Several admiring patrons offered to take Rock home. He turned them down, deciding, instead, to walk home since it was only a couple of miles away heading through town. He had hiked hundreds of miles in France, so that little jaunt was nothing for him.
When he reached town, he passed two white soldiers coming out of the Wayfarer’s Lounge, a honky tonk for whites. Rock recognized one of the soldiers, the one missing his left hand, and rushed up to him to see how he was doing.
“Hey, remember me? In that shell hole in France?” Rock asked excitedly, believing the man would recognize him.
“What? Naw, I don’t know you!” the soldier snapped.
“But remember? I pulled you out of that sniper fire. I bandaged you up. I saved your life,” Rock continued, trying to jog the soldier’s memory.
“Look, nigger. I told you I didn’t know you. You ain’t saved my ass. So get the hell out of my face!” the soldier said harshly.
Rock, puzzled by the soldier’s angry display, fell silent. He was certain that was the man he had pulled from the gunfire.
“Sorry,” Rock said and turned and walked away.
While walking home, Rock replayed the incident in his mind over and over, thinking the War had forged a common bond among all men in uniform, coloreds and whites. Apparently, it had not, based on that soldier’s reaction. Still, Rock was positive that was the man whose life he had saved.
It was night, the air was thick and humid, and the sky was lit by gunfire. Rock and his colored platoon were advancing forward toward the Germans. The white platoons ahead of them had been hit from overhead by German Hun planes, spraying liquid fire at them. When they saw the planes coming their way, Rock and his platoon fell to the ground, the wind from the planes stirring up around their faces and cooling them off. They waited until the barrage ended and advanced forward once again, coming upon several wounded soldiers from the white platoon.
Rock could hear the Huns returning, and he knew he needed to get the wounded out of harm’s way before the barrage of shrapnel and machine guns started pumping again. Rock pulled two white soldiers to a shell hole and helped to bandage them up. One soldier died, but the other, he was able to save his life, although he would lose his hand, blown off by shrapnel flying through the air. After Rock finished tying a tourniquet around the soldier’s arm and bandaging his hand to stop the bleeding, he prepared to head to the next pile of human bodies ahead of him, but the soldier grabbed his hand and thanked him for saving his life, his pale skin darkened by mud and blood covering his face and body. Rock nodded, the white man’s face burned into his memory. Rock had not allowed himself to feel anything during his stint in the war, trying only to do his duty and make it back home alive. The look in the man’s eyes almost made him cry, but he couldn’t allow the tears to form, emotions a deadly weapon in a war. Rock told him he’d be okay and moved on to the bodies lying ahead of him.
Rock was less than a mile from home when he heard footsteps running behind him. He turned to see the two white soldiers barreling toward him. He took off running, but they overtook him and knocked him to the ground, punching and kicking him.
“You sumbabitch!” the handless soldier shouted.
“You ain’t shit,” the other soldier yelled. “You ain’t nothing but a piece of trash, nigger.”
“Done got high and mighty walking ‘round here with that uniform on,” the handless soldier snapped.
The other soldier beat Rock almost unconscious, and then he started ripping the uniform from Rock’s body, hollering, “Take that damned uniform off. Disgracing our country.”
When they finished with Rock, they left him nearly naked on the side of the dirt road. Rock didn’t regain consciousness until early that morning. He was groggy and sore, his side throbbing. He sat up, giving his body some time to adjust to the pains shooting through him. Then he shook his head and tried to stand up, his legs stiffened by the cool, damp air. He looked around to see his clothes torn and strewn in the road. The tee shirt and underwear he had on were torn, and he wondered what had happened to him.
Rock stood up slowly, gaining his balance, and headed down the road, walking as close to the bushes as he could. After a short ways, he heard a car heading his way. He ducked behind some bushes and waited for the car to pass, but it didn’t. It stopped on the side of the road. It was Buford Tee. He had seen the torn uniform in the road and wondered what happened, thinking the worse had occurred, another lynching.
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Buford Tee cursed.
The soldier, recognizing Buford Tee from the Nickel and Dimer, stepped out from behind the bushes and walked slowly toward him. Buford Tee looked up to see the half-naked man walking toward him, stunned but relieved at what he saw.
“Hey, you alright there?” Buford Tee asked.
“As much as I can be,” Rock replied. “You mind sir, giving me a lift?”
“Sure,” Buford Tee said, helping him to the car.
“You need a doctor?” Buford Tee asked, prepared to take him to one.
“No,” Rock replied.
“You want me to take you home?” Buford Tee asked.
“Ain’t got no home,” Rock said, his parents having died a few years before he left for the War, Rock figuring joining up would give him a better chance at a good life.
“Where you been staying since you got home from the War?” Buford Tee asked.
“Wherever somebody would let me,” Rock answered.
“Oh,” Buford Tee said, noticing Rock was tired of answering questions and drifting in and out of consciousness.
Buford Tee took him to his house and helped him to a guest bedroom to let him recuperate. He called the colored county doctor to come see about him. The doctor gave him some pain medicine and told Buford Tee he’d be alright in a few days, no broken bones to keep him down. Buford Tee thanked the doctor and paid him for his services. When Rock awoke later that day, Buford Tee fried some catfish and cornbread for him and poured him a tall glass of whiskey.
“What happened to you, man?” Buford Tee asked, placing a tray in front of him.
The soldier told him what happened, not with the same exuberance he had been telling his war stories the night before at the Nickel and Dimer and at the Hankering.
“That’s some shit,” Buford Tee snapped. “A colored man risk his damn life in the War fighting for people that’ll thank you when they scared shitless they gone die but act like you a piece of shit when they get back to the states.”
“I know that was the man I saved,” Rock said, still trying to convince himself of that truth.
It took a week for Rock to fully recover, Buford Tee allowing him to stay with him until he was well enough to get out on his own. Rock didn’t have a job or a place to stay, so Buford Tee offered him a job at the Nickel and Dimer and set him up in a rental apartment he owned to help him get back on his feet.