Brotherhood: Orion and Michael Thomas
I first saw Jack Johnson when I was maybe six or seven. He’d slip into town, without observation and set up at Rosewood.
Rosewood Academy was quite famous in Virginia for both its sports and dramatics departments. Our entire educational career from the third to twelfth grade was at that school with a class of twenty-five or so students.
We had a very dynamic auditorium, which Jack Johnson utilized each fall. His production began with a theme song he’d put on the phonograph:
“Lucky ole son, Give him nothing to do But roam over heaven all day...”
That was his theme. Jack Johnson was a small wizard looking cat who didn’t have a race.
He could go amongst any group and fit in. He always wore a dark grey suit, white shirt, and tie which never got soiled; an achievement since he’d always be seen walking out of the mountains. He looked like he was in his thirties and despite his small frame was strong as an ox. He was a very unusual looking cat who spoke in terse riddles you’d have to rewind a few times to decipher. He had this sweet smell about him too.
He’d walk out as “Lucky ole son” wound down. He’d look up and dramatically shout “Amarjah! Give me power! Amarjah, give me power!”
Then he’d run across the street to a graveyard with everyone chasing after him. There a six-foot shallow grave would already be dug with a pine box at the bottom. Jack jumped in and called for two people to put the lid on the box and nail it shut.
“Dirt come to breath, cover body!” His words mumbled together in a dialect of English unique to himself.
The two helpers climbed out and shoveled dirt back atop the crypt. A big mound covered the grave and he’d be down there nailed shut. Just as we made our way back to the auditorium a helper cued his theme song...
“Lucky ole son, Give him nothing to do, But roam over heaven all day...”
“Amarjah! Give me power!”
Out comes Jack Johnson walking gingerly up the aisle to the auditorium stage.
Next he’d have someone else tie him up in a barber chair with huge double-knotted rope around his feet, legs, waist, and chest.
After the helpers tightened the ropes Jack Johnson looked up and
closed his eyes, “Amarjah! Give me power!” He’d slowly rotate his arms under the ropes like a fledgling baby bird discovering its wings. Suddenly, his arms rose and cut right through the ropes.
He’d make his stomach revolve, inhaling and exhaling until he broke the ropes round his waist. He’d grunt and vigorously open his legs releasing the ropes. Then he’d jump up from the chair to our applause.
He also was known for a whirling dance he’d do in the dark. He’d balance several kerosene lanterns along his arms and twirl til we were dizzy to “Lucky ole son.”
He’d stop, crack the lanterns and eat the glass before drinking the liquid. To our horror and disgust, he’d barf up the bloody contents into this bucket sitting on the floor. Everybody was freaking out.
That was Jack Johnson. What it was all about I don’t know but I felt something more than a magic show going on.
My grandmother said she remembers him coming to Illumination when she was a girl and he looked exactly the same then as he did now. Still, most looked at him as just a sideshow freak.
After the pyrotechnics, he’d gather everyone around him and do a genealogy of all in attendance like the Book of Numbers. He’d give warnings and advice, then dismiss us.
After Michael Thomas and I left Illumination for college he was never seen again. In fact, he sometimes stayed with the grandfather of Michael Thomas.
MT was from Moppingtown, which was the “hood” part of town. The roughest, cutthroat, terrorist cats lived over there. These were men who walked around in t-shirts in a blizzard and picked up a car to change a tire with one arm.
Michael Thomas was born quite dramatically. His mother, rumor had it, was on the run for killing a white man who might of been his father. She gave birth to him on the run. There was no birth certificate, no hospital, and no medical supervision. He was a very sickly child. Before disappearing without a trace, his mom gave him to her mother who was a conjure woman. He was in bad shape. He couldn’t hold down any food or liquid, his skin was peeling off, and he was barely conscious.
Conjure woman gathered some herbs and whatnot and worked something on the brother. It obviously worked.
We first met in the second grade. We were in class and the teacher asked everyone if they had gone to church Sunday. Everyone raised his or her hands except MT. Now this lady seemed to have it out for a brother, maybe because she was a very dark-skinned woman and Michael Thomas looked like a little white boy. He was tall and lanky with unkempt, shaggy hair.
“Why weren’t you in church, young man?” “I had to work,” he responded. “Work! You’re too young to work.” She went over to his desk and
“Why weren’t you in church!” “Lady, I had to work.” This went on a while longer until she threatened to throw him out the
window if he wouldn’t tell her the truth. He was telling the truth. She didn’t care or didn’t believe him or both.
She grabbed him heading for the window. He cuts loose running to the back of the room, leaving her by the window. He picks up these empty milk bottles and began hurling them at her. Mop! Mop! Mop!
Who is this dude I wondered? She didn’t bother him anymore.
That winter I noticed him again. A devastating blizzard hit town. We were in the middle of a test; he comes in late with nothing on but a little T- shirt, raggedy pants and a pitiful excuse for shoes with no socks. He had no paper, pencils, or school supplies and his hair was wild, long and curly. He just sits down unassumingly like this was the most normal thing in the world.
I had a big notebook and plenty pencils, so I got up and gave him some supplies. He thanked me.
Ten minutes later he gets up and turns in his test. He got a perfect score! This with no books, no supplies, and apparently, no study.
So we struck up a friendship. He had nothing while I had it all. I adopted him like a play-brother. My fathers’ businesses were beginning to take off and Mister Lushus was a legend so I enjoyed a kind of prestige in the community. Being from Moppingtown, MT enjoyed a kind of infamy, so we made a good team.
All the Moppingtown boys worked at the Virginia Country Club. That’s where MT was that Sunday he had to defend himself against that crazed teacher. The country club catered to all the upper crust white bread of Virginia. When Mister Lushus moved back to Illumination he was the obvious choice to take over the kitchen. He worked all the big affairs, weddings, fundraisers, etc.
I’d accompany him and help in the prep work: cutting onions, carrots, selecting choice cuts of meat, anything he needed.
When I became a teenager I wanted to hang out with MT and the Moppingtown crew. They were the caddies at the club. Like any fraternity, one had to prove oneself prior to admission.
One day I walked up to the caddy shack where they all were. MT and all the fellas were sitting around a fire.
“What the fuck does this yellow nigger want!” “Get your yellow ass outta here!” “I ain’t going nowhere.” “Who you think you are? You know what you bout to get into?” “Look, I ain’t scared of none of you. I’m gonna work up here this
summer and I ain’t going nowhere.” The leader, Lee Lee, puts a poker in the fire and holds it up. Michael
Thomas is grinning. “Ain’t no punks up in here. You gotta take the brand.” “I ain’t taking nothing.”
“Okay, yella, then you gotta fight Bumba.”
This big Paul Bunyon looking white boy steps up to me. He’s the only white caddy there and he’s got the brand protruding from one of his huge lumberjack arms.
“Him? The only thing I love more than kicking somebody’s ass is kicking a white boy’s ass.”
In those days you had to hold your own, a man had to be man and I loved to fight. Long ago I had elaborately choreographed my moves for any situation.
Bumba steps to me, laughing. I warned him, “You may be bigger than me but you can’t get as angry
I was a little dude. I styled myself after the wolverine. The wolverine is a vicious, crazy animal that’s very small but even a bear won’t mess with it. That was me. I’d summon my psychic strength and go berserk on a mamma- jamma. This white boy had no idea what he was in for.
Bumba lunges towards me. I took his arm and jumped up around his back, wrapped my legs around his waist while locking my arms onto his neck. I tightened all four limbs and took him down.
He had underestimated me. I squeezed my legs tighter around his waist and clamped my arms hard round his neck. His wind was cut off. He ain’t breathing.
The Moppingtown boys jumped back.
I looked up at Lee Lee and all the terrorist cats,“Should I kill this cracker? He’s got a few seconds to live... yea or nea?” Bumba’s flapping his arms like a fish.
It was a Mexican standoff. “Drop him.” I let go. Bumba drops to the ground curled up in a ball, gasping for air. Michael Thomas looked at me, “I would’ve killed him.” After that, nobody messed with me. A few days later they saw Mister
Lushus dropping me off in his sparkling gold Oldsmobile and everyone made the connection.
“No wonder Orion’s crazy.”
Now the Moppingtown boys were treacherous but Mister Lushus would take them all on at once. He was not to be played with.
That sealed it between Michael Thomas and myself. We were brothers for real, inseparable. He was the valedictorian and I was the salutatorian. I was the class president, he was the vice-president. I was the track star and he was the basketball star. We had our pick of the ladies.
MT was a treacherous cat in his own right. Word round town was that MT don’t fight, that mamma-jamma kills. He was damn good with a knife.
One day we’re up at the caddy shack and he’s throwing knives into a tree stump. Here comes Bumba again.
“Bet you ain’t gonna throw no knife at me.” Swap! MT threw it right into his thigh. We had no fear of anything. Once a white boy called him a “shaggy-
haired yellow nigger” and ran. Michael Thomas shot off like lighting. He caught up with the dude by the lake and took him down; bashing his head against a big rock. Then he put the boy’s head underwater.
Another Mexican standoff. “O, I’ll kill him unless you tell me to let him go.” “Kill him.”
The poor boy’s mumbling bubbles through the water, his body trembling.
“Go on and let him go.”
MT lets up. The boy’s all blue. This is just the way we grew up; rough and tough manhood 101.
Back in the tenth grade I had a teacher who for whatever reason did not like me. One of my father’s businesses was a funeral home. At that time, an ambulance service was a part of the funeral business. Occasionally I assisted him in driving an ambulance after school. I was scheduled to drive a patient to the hospital for cancer treatment immediately after class. But this teacher wanted to discipline me by having me stay after school.
“I’m sorry but I have a very important appointment after school. You’ll have to schedule me for another afternoon.” I was very polite.
“I said you will stay this afternoon, Mr. Roberts.”
“Pardon me, I do not want to repeat myself but I told you I cannot stay this afternoon and I don’t want to say it again. When that bell rings I’m walking out the door. You do what you got to do but I’m gone.”
Another Mexican standoff.
Here comes the principal, “When one of my teacher’s gives you an instruction, you follow his instruction Mr. Roberts.”
The wolverine’s coming up and I’m getting angry as a hornet.
“One last time, I told him, now I’m telling you I have important business to attend to after class. I’ll gladly stay another day but not today. That’s it.”
“Mr. Roberts, you’re staying here.” “We’ll see, cause when that bell rings I’m walking out the door.” Now he’s standing over me to block any movement on my part. Damn!
Why do they want to fuck with me? The bell rings, I get up. The principal grabs me. I snatched him by
his shirt collar and his crotch, picked him up and body slammed him to the ground. I ran over to the bookshelf and one by one began hurling the books at him.
He crawled out the room on all fours, bloodied and bowed. I’m banging him all the way.
I’m so mad I’m crying. When I got home I was still raging. I explained the situation to my dad. We went right back to the school to see the principal bandaged up like a bomb hit him.
“I raised Orion as a man. I’ve never put my hands on him and I taught him never to allow anyone to put their hands on him either.
“You were totally out of line with my son. If you don’t apologize right now I will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
Reluctantly, he gave me an apology.