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Dean began his morning trek each school day from a corner of the T-intersection where June Street ended at Lance Street. He would walk towards school, rain or shine. He would see other children alone or in groups ahead of him or following him. The children walked west with the sun at their backs, rising steadily up a gentle incline. They walked along the road, as there were no sidewalks. There was virtually no automobile traffic.

During his first school year living on June Street, his daily trek was solitary. His family having moved so many times, he had not yet formed any friendships beyond the children in his extended family. None of those children lived nearby. This left a void in his life that he filled by recalling stories from the past or by daydreaming about a different kind of life. The familiar landscape became a substitute for social interaction with children his own age. The scenery prompted him to remember events or stories that had shaped his life so far – or even to imagine adventures.

The road dipped in the first part of the second block, before returning uphill for the rest of the way to Martin Elementary School. It was a recently built one-story school with wall-to-wall windows rising to the ceiling in every classroom from windowsills about five feet off the floor. Dean liked that the windows brought in lots of light – so much so that his teacher had to partially close the blinds on sunny days to soften the effect.

The walk to school came to a complete stop at a major intersection not far from the students’ destination. Here they were two pairs of railroad tracks with parallel roads running along on either side of the rail tracks. Ahead of the railroad crossing, school crossing guards were stationed on both sides of the intersection of June Street and Gaffney Avenue, to make sure the children crossed the busy road safely. Martin Elementary was less than a half block away to the left. Just across the tracks and to the right stood Essex Mill, a long one-story structure with sculptured brickwork and a pitched roof. A row of tall windows painted green stretched along the sides of the factory. A spur rail line ran to a freight platform at the far side of the mill.

Dean was curious about what went on inside the mill. He had heard in school that Essex Mill, like so many textile factories in Tyler and surrounding towns, was famous for its yarn spun from cotton fibers. In fact, underneath the name of the city on the masthead on the editorial page of the local daily newspaper the Tyler Times Dean had often noticed the following words: “the fine combed cotton yarn capital of the world.” Dean’s grandmother Beth – his mother’s mother – had told Dean that the yarn is shipped to factories where it is woven into fabrics.

A gifted seamstress with her own sewing machine, Grandma Beth also told her curious grandson that the process of producing yarn in a factory is based on the same principle as the spinning wheel of fairy tale fame. Grandma even had an old-fashioned spinning wheel at her home to spin into yarn the cotton they planted and harvested at her farm. When Dean watched her do it, it seemed like she was performing a bit of a magic, twisting and spinning balls of cotton into single strands of yarn. How did that happen? he wondered.

At Essex Mill, the children going to and from Martin Elementary could see the bales of raw cotton brought in for spinning. They could also see cones wound with thread being shipped away. Sometimes old cones would be found discarded in the woods near where Dean lived. Dean, like other children in Tyler, knew and understood that spinning cotton into yarn was the most important business in Tyler, so much so that the municipality had long been known as the Spindle City, for the spindles that held the cones on which yarn was wound. In the spring and in the fall, when the windows were open at Essex Mill, children crossing the rail lines could hear the hum of the spinning frames. The beehive of activity added to the intrigue surrounding the mill.

And yet Dean had never seen inside Essex Mill. As far as he knew, there were no classes at Martin Elementary where teachers took students on field trips to tour Essex Mill or any other cotton mill – certainly not his third-grade class. It was not clear why. Maybe the mill did not extend an invitation Dean mused one day. Maybe the school did not ask if tours were possible, he imagined another time. That seemed odd because he knew that classes at just about every elementary school in town made field trips to many local area destinations where children could learn about the world outside the classroom.

When Dean was in the first grade at North School, he and his classmates visited the closest city fire station and were delighted when firemen demonstrated how they respond to a fire alarm by sliding down the pole from their second floor sleeping quarters to jump on the fire engine and speed off to put out the fire. His class also visited a nearby bakery where they saw giant ovens where loaves of bread were baked by the truck load. They saw machines slice the loaves, slip plastic wrappers around them, fold the wrappers and seal the ends. They also toured a plant where raw milk was pasteurized, bottled and capped. Dean’s second grade class visited a farm in the country. He already knew about farming life through his many visits to his grandparents’ farm in the country. He realized, however, most of the other boys and girls in his class had never seen a farm up close.

Except maybe for Dean, most young people from Martin Elementary likely did not know that children and cotton mills shared a history. Dean knew about it because he learned it from Grandma Beth. Born Elizabeth MacDougall in 1888, Beth had gone to work at the age of 12 in the year 1900 in a cotton mill in the town of Culpepper, 12 miles south of Tyler and across the South Carolina state line. She worked there until just before she married Dean’s grandfather Robert Henderson in 1906 at the age of 18. Beth told Dean all about the wedding one day when Dean asked about a large glass-covered framed color photograph of a handsome young couple on their wedding day. It hung on the wall near the mantle with its old wind-up clock that had Roman numerals and chimed every hour on the hour even during the night. All their lives Grandpa Rob and Grandma Beth had been farmers in Bethesda, with Grandpa doing a little work in his old age at his son Clay’s lumber mill that he operated not far from where Rob and Beth lived.

Dean knew that his gentle and cheery Grandma Beth engaged in hard manual labor all her life because she had told him about it once years before he started to school. It was a sultry day in late summer when members of the extended family gathered on the farm to help Grandma Beth pick cotton. There was Laura, Aunt Pearl, who was Laura’s sister, and Pearl’s oldest daughter Nadine, then a teenager. They had decided to plant a cotton crop that year because the price of cotton was so high.

“Cotton will bring good money this year,” Grandpa Rob had said.

Dean, then too young to be picking cotton, remembered how the others spent hours plucking white cotton balls from plants whose leaves had turned brown and curled up, with many of them having already fallen to the ground. They slipped the cotton fiber clusters into large canvas satchels hung over the shoulders by the canvas straps attached to them. They sported broad-brimmed hats to shade their faces and eyes from the glare of the sun. The family work crew began with lively chatter in the cool of the early morning. As the sun moved toward the center of the sky and heat became more intense, they fell into a long silent stretch. Dean, who loved hearing the stories they would tell, longed for them to start up another conversation. As Grandma Beth bent down to pick a few cotton balls from some of the lower stems of one of the plants, Dean noticed her arched back.

“Grandma,” he said, breaking the silence.

“Yes, Dean?” she responded.

“Why do you have a hump back?” he asked.

“My word!” said a shocked Pearl.

Laura was not surprised at the brash question from her curious son but Pearl felt embarrassed for her mother whose spine was curved by the thinning bones of old-age. Yet, she was still working long hours every day. It was the reason Beth’s two daughters and one of her granddaughters had come to help her pick the cotton, Dean was told. A long spell of dry weather had made the cotton ripe for picking and the crop needed to be harvested pronto, Dean’s mother had told him when they got up very early that morning and Laura drove them down to the farm to join with the others to pick cotton.

“Now, Dean,” Pearl continued, hoping to shield her mother from having to answer the question but trying not to embarrass the boy either.

“Yes?” Dean said, looking worried that he may have said something wrong.

“That’s the kind of question you’re not supposed to ask,” she told him.

“No. Let him ask. I don’t mind,” Beth said.

“Tell me, Grandma,” Dean said, turning his gaze upward into her kind old eyes, now more curious because there was an objection to the question.

“Well. I got it from bending down and doing hard work all my long life,” she told him. Dean remembered her telling him that her life of hard work began as a girl working in a cotton mill in Culpepper at the age of 12.

“So that’s why,” Dean said with a sense of wonder. There was nothing more to say as he pondered at length her answer and what its implications might be. After a few minutes of silence Pearl started up a conversation on another topic and the matter was set aside.

As it is for children everywhere, the end of the school day at Martin Elementary was a time of joy. The day’s studies were behind them. Mostly playtime lay ahead except for homework in the evening. The homeward journey was sometimes delayed when an unusually long freight train would block their path across the railroad crossing. The children would wait patiently for the sight of the red caboose, knowing they could soon resume their homeward journey. At times, when a train blocked the path longer than usual, the youngsters would start counting the rail cars in unison to pass the time. Every afternoon the gentle downward incline of June Street pulled the children home like a magnet, seeming to discourage too much dallying and dawdling along the way. The contours of the rolling hills, then, seemed to set a theme of uphill struggle for each morning and downhill release for each afternoon, accentuating the day’s rhythms of studying and playing.

Dean was keenly aware of the variety of trees he saw along the way to school with one type of tree or another occasionally catching his fancy. Mostly he remembered the occasional and exotic chinaberry tree. These trees were found in mostly barren yards where houses had recently been built. To Dean the chinaberry trees didn’t seem to follow the same rules that appeared to govern other trees along the route to school. He noticed them in part because their dark green, leafy clusters have fanciful variations in shape and form. Some of the chinaberry trees were sparsely branched and looked malformed while others were winsome and thick with branches and leaves. To Dean they seemed out of place on the landscape. He surmised that only those most carefully nurtured and properly tended developed into healthy trees with a graceful spread of leafy branches.

The chinaberry trees distinguished themselves in other ways. They offered clusters of lavender flowers in the spring. In the fall, they bore bitter yellow berries that tended to linger through winter, finally falling to the ground in the spring. He heard the tree’s berries are poisonous and that he should never try to eat them. He noticed however, that birds feasted on them to no ill effect. For Dean, the chinaberry trees were both intriguing and lonesome, defying the odds by just being there, but painful to watch across the seasons as, over time, too many would languish rather than thrive in the red clay soil. By contrast, ordinary oak trees and pine trees and maple trees and willow trees and sycamore trees grew strong and lush. Dogwoods were the most charming trees and there were a couple along the way to school. However, they never seemed to grow very tall.

As fall turned to winter and the leaves fell, Dean found that he especially liked pine trees, because they kept their dark green needles over winter. He found it comforting that some things in nature are evergreen across the seasons. Evergreen trees reminded Dean of something he had heard at church. He was taught in Sunday School that people may die but they have souls that live for eternity. A story he heard from his father brought that idea home. Dean heard Hank tell the story to his brother Ed and Ed’s wife Elaine one evening when the two of them visited the Farleys in their new home. Ed owned a neighborhood grocery store on the east side of town. On that visit Hank implored his brother and sister-in-law to visit the Gospel Evangel Church, the one Hank and his wife Laura had joined earlier that year.

“Consider your immortal souls,” he told them, echoing words from one of the sermons he heard. Ed scoffed at the idea.

“I don’t believe that,” he said. “When we die, that’s the end of it. There’s no life after death.”

“I do believe,” Hank replied. “I got a glimpse of it when I was just a boy.”

Ed look rather quizzical. He turned his head slightly to the left and kept his eyes focused on his brother, who was directly in front of him.

Dean, who had been ignoring the conversation among the adults up this point, was suddenly all ears.

“It happened one day when I first started to school,” Hank started.

Dean knew from what he heard his parents say, that his father attended a small one-room school in the country, a few miles west of the cross roads at Bethesda where McIntyre’s store was located. While playing chase in the school yard one day, Hank recounted how he ran into the usually quiet country road in front of the school and was struck by a truck.

“I was hit and knocked unconscious,” he recalled. Hank fell under the truck but not under the wheels and the truck did not stop until it had passed over him completely. The trucker jumped out and picked up Hank’s limp body and carried him onto the bank at the edge of the school yard.

“Suddenly I rose up like a ghost from my body into the sky where I looked down on my body layin’ there. I could see all the people gathered around me. Some of the children were crying.”

The distressed truck driver was explaining to the teacher and students how had slammed on his brakes in an effort to avoid hitting the boy who seemed to come out of nowhere and jump in front of the oncoming truck, Hank recalled. Another driver who had stopped offered to drive to McIntyre’s Country Store and call for an ambulance to come from the nearest hospital in Edgerton.

“It looked to me like I had died,” Hank recalled.

Then Hank said he ascended higher into the Heavens away and the scene below eventually anished from his view. He was moving toward a bright light.

“It got brighter and brighter. The light was blinding me. I could see a tunnel ahead of me and began to moving into it. The blinding light was coming at me through the tunnel. As I moved along the tunnel toward the bright light, I could see happy people on the other side. They were calling me to come join them. I felt like I was about to enter Heaven. I was filled with joy and felt happier than I had ever been in my entire life. It was as real to me as sitting here right now and talking to you,” he said.

Dean swallowed what seemed like a lump in his throat as he stood their wide-eyed. Hank paused to give everyone a chance to fully take in what he had just said. Ed was clearly moved but said nothing. He was just an infant at the time it happened. While he had been told about Hank being hit by a truck, Ed had never heard Hank recount the details of the story to him.

“Then what happened?” asked Elaine.

“I remained there for a long, long time, waiting to cross over. But just as I thought I would cross over, instead I began to return back toward earth,” Hank said.

Next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital, Hank told them. The first thing he heard was his father telling him, “Son, you’re gonna to be alright.” His mother stood there crying tears of joy to see him conscious again.

“I know the soul lives forever. I believe I saw over to the other side,” Hank said as he ended his story.

Suddenly Dean’s mind snapped back from the story to the real world around him. Ahead were the railroad tracks he crossed every day on his way to school. Yet he would continue to have such vivid daydreams sparked by the passing landscape in the days before he made friends with other children in the neighborhood who were walking to school.

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