Playing cops was just a game until the bullets were real.
The gravy train hasn’t stopped in the hollers of western Virginia for more than thirty years when Stony Shelor starts his junior year at Jubal Early High. Class divides and racism are still the hardened norms as the Eisenhower years draw to a close. Violence lies coiled under the calm surface, ready to strike at any time.
On the high school front, the cool boys are taking their wardrobe and music cues from hip TV private dick Peter Gunn, and Dobie Gillis is teaching them how to hit on pretty girls. There’s no help for Stony on the horizon, though. Mary Lou Martin is the girl of his dreams, and she hardly knows Stony exists. In addition, Stony can’t seem to stay out of juvenile court and just may end up in reform school. A long, difficult year stretches out in front of him when a new boy arrives in town. Likeable bullshit artist Jack Newcomb dresses like Peter Gunn, uses moves like Dobie Gillis, and plays pretty good jazz clarinet.
Jack draws Stony into his fantasy of being a private detective, and the two boys start hanging around the county sheriff’s office. Accepted as sources of amusement and free labor, the aspiring gumshoes land their first case after the district attorney’s house is burglarized. Later, the boys hatch an ingenious scheme to help the deputies raid an illegal speakeasy and brothel. All the intrigue feels like fun and games to Jack and Stony until a gunfight with a hillbilly boy almost gets them killed. The stakes are even higher when the boys face off against Ku Klux Klansmen bent on murder.
A.D. Hopkins will launch his debut novel at The Writer’s Block on March 7, 2019. More details to come soon.
A.D. Hopkins spent 46 years as a journalist in Virginia, North Carolina, and Las Vegas. Much of that time he was an investigative reporter and editor, and part of it he was a touring correspondent focusing on small-town life. Hopkins’ fiction reflects realities and people he met in the small towns, police stations, and courthouses of Virginia. Hopkins co-authored a respected history of Las Vegas, and is an authority on early Nevada gunslingers. In 2010 he was named to the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame. In years past Hopkins taught fencing and was a Scoutmaster for an inner-city troop. The Boys Who Woke Up Early is his debut novel and will be in bookstores and wherever fine books are sold on March 1, 2019.
In September 1959, a week or two after school opened for the year, boys were loitering in the morning sun on the front steps of Jubal Early High School, putting off going inside until the opening bell rang. We had already established our seats for the year. On the north side of the steps, the right side going in the door, sat guys wearing black T-shirts, engineer boots, and peg-leg jeans with switchblades in the hip pockets. Because they generally wore their hair long and combed into ducktails held in place by gobs of Butch Wax, we called them “greases.” I sat on the south side, wearing a flattop crew cut, brown oxford shoes, a plaid short-sleeved sports shirt, and khaki pants. I had a knife too—every boy or man I knew carried a knife—but mine was an Official Boy Scout Pocket Model, which was as much about screwdriver and bottle opener as about its cutting blade. The greases didn’t like me much, nor I them, but I had paid a price to sit on the same steps as those guys and be left alone. So I sat there every morning, always alone.
A boy I didn’t know came up the walk that morning. From a distance I could see he walked funny, with an unhurried swagger, as you sometimes saw young black men do in Charleston, West Virginia, or Richmond or Baltimore. This guy was white, like everybody who went to Jubal Early High School, but he had the walk. There was a rhythm to it, a little extra swing in each step, as if he were keeping time to music the rest of us couldn’t hear. At first I thought he had black hair, then as he drew closer I saw he was wearing one of those round French caps with no brim. I didn’t even know what to call a beret, then; I had never seen one before, except in the movies. The stranger also wore sunglasses, which nobody from Early did except when going to the beach once a year.
“I don’t believe this,” said Todd Powell to the rest of the greases.
The newcomer looked close to six feet tall, and skinny. Everything he wore was Continental style, fitted close to the body. His pants were rust colored and cuffless, and he wore a burgundy plaid sports coat. Only the principal and the few male teachers wore sports coats at Jubal Early High, but this was a teenager. Under the sports coat he wore a black turtleneck sweater. His shoes were black with elastic panels in the sides, pointed toes, and hard heels that rang on the concrete.
As he drew closer, Todd called out to him, “Hey, boy! You get those clothes off a dead nigger?”
The stranger didn’t look at Todd. Didn’t look away, either, nor did his slight smile disappear at the insult. As he came right past us you could see reddish-brown hair under the beret, and a hopeful attempt at a goatee on the pale skin of his face. The guy carried a case under his arm containing, we later learned, a clarinet, although Early High School had no band.
The school’s electric bell rang the one-minute warning, but nobody moved; neither did the stranger quicken his pace. When the bell fell silent we could hear only his leather heels striking the concrete like an unhurried drummer building a platform for some fellow musician to launch a solo. As the newcomer put his hand on the door to open it, one of the greases broke the silence.
“Flaming asshole!” a grease said.
It was said low yet loud enough for the stranger to hear it. But the stranger didn’t acknowledge the insult, just sauntered on down to the principal’s office and enrolled himself as a junior. Jack Newcomb, I would later learn, was his name. He would be my classmate.
My first class was American literature and English, as it was for all juniors. I took my seat near the front of the room. Gina DeLancey sat across the aisle on my immediate right. She worked occasionally as a model, when a good clothing store in Roanoke or some women’s charity put on a fashion show. She was very tall for a girl, and everything about her was graceful; she had slender tapered legs, yet she could jump higher than any other girl in our high school and was center on the girls’ basketball team. Her breasts were small enough not to get in her way when she was running or jumping, but big enough to be on a guy’s mind. Gina had clear skin that needed no makeup, full lips, and hair the color of a new gold bracelet; it reached to her shoulders, but that day she wore it done up in a French twist. Blonde hair was a great asset in 1959. That day she was wearing a sleeveless light-blue shirtdress that matched her big blue eyes.
Gina’s best friend, Ernestine Thomas, sat immediately in front of her, and they were chattering happily about something or another. Ernestine was a curly-haired brunette with a well-scrubbed look and a Mouseketeer smile; slightly over average height, she was wearing a colorful peasant skirt and a white flower-embroidered blouse that exposed most of her shoulders. It was cut just low enough to emphasize her big bosom without getting her scolded by a teacher. Ernestine was a straight-A student and a good soprano who sang solos in church; she was more popular even than Gina. But the two went together like knife and fork, to their mutual benefit. Ernestine was pretty by anybody’s standard, but because a person fell into thinking about her at the same time as the lovely Gina, he tended to stow thoughts of both in the mental drawer labeled “Beautiful.” Gina was fairly smart herself, but people thought she was a true brain, like her pal.
I had known Ernestine nearly all my life, all the way back to when we were in the Sunday school nursery at Early Southern Baptist Church. I had known Gina even longer; she was to me what people sometimes called a “kissing cousin.” That meant she was related, but distantly enough that it would have been all right to kiss, marry, fondle, or fornicate with her once she reached the age of consent, assuming she consented. But I had never so much as kissed her. As toddlers playing in the creek at a farm belonging to Ernestine’s grandmother, we had all three seen each other naked. Yet in our first two years of high school, I had barely spoken to either girl, and I was too intimidated by their beauty and popularity to join their conversation now.
Mrs. Weber called the class to order and reminded us that each student was supposed to recite some poem that day, from memory. Gina made the open-mouthed face of sudden and panicky recollection, leafed through her literature book to a page of poetry, and started moving her lips as she silently read the shortest poem. Mrs. Weber asked for a volunteer to recite, and Mary Lou Martin raised her hand.
Mary Lou was tall and wiry, the substitute center on the girls’ team, able to jump nearly as high as Gina. I thought she was just as pretty, but I had never heard anyone else say so. Mary Lou had a high forehead and very dark arched eyebrows over big hazel eyes, in a heart-shaped face with a narrow chin. Her neck was a little longer than most girls’, her nose straight and narrow. Her mouth was wide, with the upper lip straight but turned up at the corners, the lower one pouty, which created a slightly amused expression whether she felt that way or not. She didn’t have the blonde hair associated with glamour; hers was very dark brown and shiny, and hung halfway down her back in an old-fashioned style. She wore a straight brown polished-cotton sheath skirt and a simple yellow sleeveless blouse, and she didn’t wiggle-walk to the front of the classroom, but just strode, all business.
She turned around and immediately started reciting. I guess everyone in the classroom had heard the words, or some version of them, sung as a song, but few of us actually knew them. In a town that believed it was named for a Confederate hero, this Union song was thought to be vaguely subversive. Now, hearing it recited with the pace, expression, and diction of poetry, was the first time I considered what the words actually meant.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on .
I knew, as soon as I heard the poem, I too would memorize those powerful words and remember them all my life. But not everybody reacted the same way I did.
“What the hell was that about?” said Todd Powell, loud enough that most of us could hear it but soft enough Mrs. Weber could pretend she hadn’t. Everybody knew Todd kind of liked Mary Lou, but she didn’t encourage him, so I guess that was reason enough to make an audible wisecrack about her. Did I mention that I really didn’t like that son of a bitch? He was sitting in the back of the room with a couple of other hard cases, slumped forward over his desk with his legs wrapped around the chair legs under him, his jeans riding up and showing his black engineer boots.
“That’s not in the textbook,” Mrs. Weber said to Mary Lou. “Why did you choose it?”
“I wanted to learn a poem that had made something happen,” said Mary Lou. “I didn’t think a poem had to come out of the textbook.”
Mrs. Weber cracked a smile, which was a rare event. “It doesn’t, and I’m glad you realized that,” she said. “That’s worth an A.” She made a note in her grade book.
Mary Lou smiled at her success and strode back to her seat. I wished she would sit near me, but that just about couldn’t happen. Nobody sat in our corner except people who lived in town. Mary Lou sat in the far corner with the rest of the country girls and the overalls-clad mountain boys who rode to school on the bus. For all the chance I would ever strike up a conversation with her, she might as well have sat in France.
Just as Mary Lou sat down Jack Newcomb came in, having finished up his late registration in the school office. He gave a note to Mrs. Weber, who glanced at it and said, “Take any seat.” Jack saw immediately that our corner had the higher status and took the seat directly in front of Ernestine. He set the clarinet case and beret on the desk in front of him but continued to wear the sunglasses and the slight smile.
Gina waited until class was nearly over before raising her hand to recite. She had memorized a poem on the spot and did it properly, with feeling. It was “The Pasture,” by Robert Frost, only eight lines, but very pretty. Ernestine recited something very academic and challenging, and I did Kipling’s “When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted.”
Jack just sat at his desk. He didn’t have to recite because he hadn’t been in class when the assignment was made.
Nothing else interesting happened all day. Rarely did.
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