A question I get a lot from readers of The Resurrection of Hucklebuck Jones is, where did you come up with the name?
There’s a story behind that.
I grew up in rural Maryland, around people who weren’t above a few tall tales and superstitions. Ours was the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, but Dorchester County also birthed the legend of Big Lizz, the ghost of a former slave who, it is said, can be seen near Greenbrier Swamp carrying her dismembered head as she crosses the road.
So, it was with some skepticism that I pursued the real story of Hucklebuck. I first heard of him when I was a boy. He was said to have lived in a shanty in the woods behind Wheatley’s Church, near my home of Galestown.
But was he real? My only reference point was a day many years ago. My friend Billy and I decided to venture into the woods to see if we could find any truth to the story. Sure enough, we came across the remains of an old wood structure fallen in upon itself. We dug through the site, but found little more than an old phonograph record and some rusty cans. That was the first and last time I was there.
Fast forward forty-five years, to last fall. The protagonist for my book needed a name. Naming characters is harder than you might think. Once I decide upon a name, the character becomes real to me. If I mess it up, I’m stuck with a name I dislike or have to change during the editing process. This happened to Adam Overstreet, one of the main characters in my book, Shunned. He was originally named Kyle until it was pointed out that his name was very similar to another of the lead characters, Miles. Thank goodness for Microsoft Office’s Find and Replace feature.
Anyway, the lead character’s original name was Jocko Jones. I liked the sound of it. One of my oldest and best friends is Dan Jones, and for reasons I cannot remember, I sometimes call him Lucky. Lucky Jones. Jocko Jones sounds like Lucky Jones, so there you go.
Except, it didn’t fit. Jocko Jones sounds like the name of a circus clown, don’t you think? I needed something different. From someplace deep in my memory came Hucklebuck. I used that Find and Replace feature again and Hucklebuck Jones came to life.
“Are you nervous?” my wife Robin asked.
“Should I be?”
She gave me that smile. That all-knowing smile that says, you’re not nervous yet, but you’re going to be.
That was two weeks ago, while driving to my 40th high school class reunion. Now, before going any further, let me share a little background. My classmates and I graduated in 1977. Two months later, I left Maryland for college in Kentucky. Visits home were limited to Christmas breaks and a couple months each summer when I worked on our family farm. Later, when family and job obligations became part of life, the visits were even fewer. Other than attending our 15th class reunion, I haven’t seen more than a couple of my classmates since we marched out of commencement.
Back to Robin’s question. Nervous? Not at all… until we were walking up the steps of the American Legion Hall. That’s when the anxiety started raining down like bricks. I tried to play it off, but Robin sees and knows everything. For the first time in forty years, I was “that kid” again. Doubts I hadn’t felt since high school gnawed at me. Where would we sit? Who would sit with us? Would I fit in?
It was the first day of school all over again.
Perhaps your high school experience was like mine. I never quite fit in, especially the first couple years. I envied those kids who moved through the hallways without a care in the world - the kids with good hair and clear complexions. I was scrawny, my front teeth were busted, and my wavy hair poofed out in every direction except where I wanted it to go. Not exactly a recipe for high school success and popularity.
And I haven’t even gotten to my eyes yet.
My eyes didn’t see like everyone else’s. In those days, I was legally blind. I couldn’t read the assignments on the blackboard. I had to hold textbooks two inches from my face to read the print. I could barely make out faces from more than a few feet. When my classmates were in Drivers’ Education, I was in the library. That’s hard when you’re fifteen.
There were kids who said some pretty cruel things; a couple teachers, too. I did my best to avoid their attention. If a teacher didn’t assign me a seat in the front of the classroom, I sat quietly in the back, doing my best to figure out what all the stuff was on the board. I got D’s in some classes because of it, but that was preferable to asking for help.
But there were also the angels – the kids and teachers who went out of their way to help me fit in, like the popular athlete who chose me for his teams in P.E., saving me the embarrassment of being picked last, and the teacher who slipped me the lecture notes I couldn’t see on the board. I remember you!
Then, in eleventh grade, something clicked. A teacher praised my writing. Another encouraged me to get involved with a school club. I even won a couple awards. These small victories swept in like rain on a dry field. The changes must’ve been evident because the kidding stopped. Classmates I used to avoid became friends. By senior year, I was earning straight-A’s and was in the school play. A pretty and popular classmate went to prom with me. She even drove!
Then we graduated and went our separate ways. I returned for our fifteenth reunion, but it was just so-so. We were still striving back then, trying to be more, climbing our ladders of success. I didn’t go back to another reunion until this year.
And those nerves I felt as we arrived were gone as quickly as they came. We had fun, caught up with one another, and danced a lot. And at the end of the evening, a classmate – a person who I thought had it totally together in high school – mentioned how unhappy senior year was for them. I have a feeling that classmate wasn’t alone.
So, to the North Dorchester High School Class of 1977, it was great to see you! I want to thank you for helping me become the person I am today. I appreciate your kindnesses and apologize for the times you were hurting and I didn’t know it, or knew it and did nothing to help. Back then, I allowed my vision to hold me back. Perhaps you were held back by your skin color or clothing or something even worse that you were dealing with. I want you to know that, in the years since we last met, I’ve tried reaching out to others who were hurting like you reached out to me. I’ve tried to encourage others like you encouraged me. And I’ve laughed some and danced some and tried not let things that don’t matter get in the way of making new friends.
That’s real. And I owe so much of it to you. Blessings to you, North Dorchester Class of ’77. See you in a few years!