CHAPTER Eleven: LIFE GOES ON

      When Greg got to the office Monday morning, it was clear that Chuck had already been on the phone for some time. From the half of the conversation he was hearing, and from what Chuck told him later, the Washington Office was not pleased with them. Finally, Chuck slammed down the phone. Greg wasn’t sure if the conversation had actually ended, or if Chuck had taken the initiative. The air in the office could have been infused with angry sparks, the emotion was so strong.

   “So, you were right about no gold stars for us?”

   Chuck was really wound up. “We have failed to support the President’s mission. We have let down the team. The congressman is very angry at the way we treated his constituent. Why couldn’t we have kept her here at least a week, so it wouldn’t have looked so blatant that Fish and Wildlife Service had let down LBJ. Crap! Thanks to immigrant grandparents, I can swear in several European languages, in addition to good old American. I wish I didn’t feel so much like using some of it, now!”

   “I didn’t hear any mention of Jo – Venita – in your conversation. Does anybody care about how she comes out of all this?”

   “Venita! I don’t think anybody back there even knows her name, unless they happen to glance down and see  it written on a piece of paper. They’re probably not going to pay her any salary for her time here, and they may even try to make her pay the bus fare. ‘We’re the Government; we’re here to help!’”

   Jo, and the whole racial situation, had been much on Greg’s mind since she left. He wanted to talk about it, but Chuck wasn’t in that kind of a talking mood. He really wanted to talk about it with Vic, but she wasn’t available. He wondered why they hadn’t talked about it this past weekend – they had talked about a lot of both serious and silly things - but he knew the answer. He hadn’t been ready yet. A lot of thoughts, questions, and ideas had been percolating around in his brain, but only now were they coming together in some coherent form.

   Everybody in the country knew the basics of slavery, emancipation, and the ongoing struggle for real “freedom.” He probably knew more than the average person, just because he had been interested, and had done a little more studying. He knew that – to those who “owned” slaves – it was a purely economic issue. Vast areas of cropland were being developed in the South, and thousands of laborers were needed to tend them. Why not go to Africa, kidnap a lot of people, and bring them back to a lifetime of total bondage? (Just putting it in those terms repulsed Greg. How could a whole regional society be so depraved that they could justify slavery – that they could subject any human to such a life?)

   Of course, he also knew that slavery wasn’t just a “Southern thing.” New Englanders “owned” slaves  - not as many, because they didn’t have the cropland to maintain, but the life was just as evil. New England was also the home of most of the active slave traders. Ships from places like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sailed regularly to Africa; captured a shipload of local people; brought them back under appalling conditions; sold those who survived to plantation owners in the West Indies and the Southern colonies; and came back home with a supply of Barbados rum and other merchandise for sale in the North.

   With our own independence from Great Britain, there was considerable talk of abolishing the slave trade and making slavery illegal. It turned out to be just talk. The South wouldn’t give up their economic assets; northern delegates didn’t think they could alienate the South, because they might not be able to win the war without them. (Apparently, no one understood that the South needed the support of the North just as badly. If the war was lost, a lot of leaders in both regions could be eligible to hang as traitors.) Probably closer to the truth was that many of our “founding fathers” were slave owners – including such heroes as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson! – and were not in any hurry to “free” anybody. Finally, the new nation decided that slavery was an issue best decided by the individual states, not by the federal government. We know how that went! Almost 100 years later, the slaves were “emancipated,” which meant they couldn’t be owned, any longer. So be it, said the Southern states, maybe we can’t own you, but we can keep you one step away from poverty, and a long way from being full-fledged citizens. And that was where things stood in 1965, almost 200 years since we granted “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to everyone.

   As Chuck had described a week ago, things today were pretty bad for most Colored people. He’d known that, but he guessed it was more philosophical, than real, to him. Jo had made it real. They had talked – not about race, or slavery, or desegregation, or how any of it affected her; they just talked, two humans conversing. He thought she was the first Colored person he had ever talked to. And now, it wasn’t some person being denied lunch at the counter in Woolworth’s; it was Jo. He didn’t know if there were still segregated restrooms and drinking fountains in Little Rock, but there had been recently. It was Jo who suffered the indignity of that kind of exclusion. When a state trooper clubbed a protester in Selma, Alabama, he saw jo being hit, and when Lester Maddox chased Colored people away from his Atlanta diner with pistol and axe handle, Jo was in the group being chased. It was real.

   So, what could he do about it? Probably nothing. If he was still in school, he might consider marching in some of the civil rights protests. He wasn’t in school, and he wasn’t convinced that kind of demonstration really did anything, but it was at least something. Then, remembering Chuck saying that there might be trouble over her pay or her bus fare, he thought of something he could do, and did it. He wrote out her time and attendance report, showing three days of work. The Government wouldn’t pay for her travel days, but she deserved some per diem for her food expenses. He took care of that, too.

   There was something else he could do. He wrote her a personal letter.

 

“Dear Jo,

   I hope your bus trip wasn’t too terrible, and that you are home safe and sound. I miss you. The ducks and the marmots and the porcupine miss you. Vic misses you. You didn’t even get to meet her, but she said she wanted to meet you, and I believe her. You remember I did take a couple pictures. If they come out, she can at least get a look at you. I’ll send copies to you.

   Life is about the same, here. I got to thinking that the Washington Office might send some inquiries about your travel or pay directly to you. If that happens, just send them on to us, and we’ll take care of everything.

   We’re also going to send a letter to the Washington personnel offices, saying that even though they made a big mistake sending you here (obviously, not in those words!), we were very impressed with you. If they could find you a job in one of your chosen fields, they won’t be sorry.

   So, write to me and tell me how you’re doing.

   Your short-term acquaintance and long-term friend,

   Greg”

 

***

   The rest of the week seemed almost like comic relief, after that. They got a letter from the local sportsmen’s club, complaining that all the seagulls living on the refuge were wreaking havoc on fish, fowl, and pheasants. The types of havoc the gulls were causing wasn’t clear but, since the refuge only supported a handful of Franklin’s gulls, it wasn’t really relevant. Anyway, Greg typed a letter for Chuck’s signature, saying they’d be happy to come to one of the club meetings to talk about refuge operations.

   The same day, the county agricultural inspector called, saying that the local ranchers were concerned about poison hemlock, which was deadly to cattle. There were no cattle on the refuge, and seeds or plant material would have to disperse a long way to affect anybody else. Nevertheless, it really was a deadly poison, and they always wanted to be good neighbors, so they’d check and take any action needed. It was too early in the season for much new growth to be evident, but Greg did make a quick tour of the refuge. He found two small patches of the plants. He flagged them for later spraying.

   He took all of one day to walk the perimeters of the refuge ponds, looking for nesting activity. He only found one duck nest (a mallard), but saw two Canada goose broods – one newly hatched, and one nearly grown. Paired up cinnamon teal and gadwall were common, and he observed many “waiting” mallards and shovelers. The nesting season was finally well underway.

   While looking for nests, Greg found a goose nest that had been broken up by something, with a dead adult goose nearby. He couldn’t determine what had happened, apparently predation by something. Of interest to him was that the goose wore a band that had been put on it at the refuge in 1961. Then, it had been a new-hatched gosling.

   He made two morning walks in the woods. His Sunday observations had been interrupted by Vic’s appearance, but - as it had seemed then - the big migration was over. There still were a lot of birds around and moving through, but no spectacles.

   Friday, he made a trip to town to get photos developed, and do some other refuge chores. If there was any more communication about Jo’s time at the refuge, Chuck didn’t mention it.

 

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