Mr. Vance stood beside Littlejim on the speaker’s rock. Littlejim took the essay out of his pocket as Mr. Vance announced his speech.
“Mrs. Vance and I at T. B. Vance’s Store in Plumtree, North Carolina,” he took a little bow, “announced a competition last January. The competition was for an essay written on the subject ‘What it means to be an American,’ a good subject for a July Fourth speech, we believe. The winner presented his essay at the end-of-school recitations at Mr. Osk’s school on Henson Creek. Then we entered the winning essay in a competition of the winners from twelve states at the Kansas City Star. The Star offered a ten-dollar prize, and they will publish the winning essay.”
Littlejim wished the man would hurry and finish so he could read. He could see Bigjim standing near the wagons, his arms folded across his chest, and his slouch hat pulled low over his eyes.
Trying to stop his hands from shaking, Littlejim stuck one hand into his pocket. Andy McGuire waved at him from the front row of the crowd gathered to hear the one hand into his pocket. Andy McGuire waved at him from the front row of the crowd gathered to hear the speeches. He managed to smile at Andy.
“The winner of the essay contest from Mr. Osk’s school was Jimmy Houston, Littlejim, son of Bigjim and Gertrude Houston. We’re mighty sorry he didn’t win the Star contest, too, but we’re real proud of him anyway. He is going to read his essay to us now.”
Littlejim took his hand out of his pocket and tried to still the paper, which was shaking violently in spite of the hot sun warming his hands. He began to read. As he lost himself in his words, his shaking calmed and his voice grew stronger.
“. . . and most of all, being an American means we live in a place where a man or a woman, or a boy or a girl, can start over when we fail, like I started over when Lilac destroyed the tobacco bed I planted for my papa. It means living in a place where, although we come from somewhere else, we can call home, a place where we belong, a place like my home on Henson Creek in North Carolina in the shadow of Spear Tops Mountain, where my papa, my mama, my sisters, and I live. We are all Americans because this is the place where we belong. Here we have all come home.”
But Littlejim barely got to read the last sentence of the essay. A rider on a large gray horse came thundering across the bald grass. The rider wore a gray suit and a fine gray hat. He pulled in the reins at the speaker’s rock and jumped from the saddle.
Mr. George G. Green, owner of the livery stable in Spruce Pine, held a newspaper in his hand. His saddlebags were stuffed with more newspapers.
“Hold everything!” Mr. Green announced. “This week’s Star just arrived at the railroad station in town this morning. Sam McKinney asked me if I would ride up to the gathering with it. I came as fast as I could.”
The group of people gathered around the field moved closer to the speaker’s rock. Mr. Green held up the newspaper.
“Right here on the front page is the winning essay for the competition. The winning essay is from Mr. Osk’s school on Henson Creek, sponsored by T. B. Vance’s Store in Plumtree. The winning essay was written by Jimmy Houston,” he said.
The men and boys burst into applause. Littlejim blushed. He looked at Mama. She was smiling and her face shone with pride. Nell and her friends were jumping up and down, clapping their hands. “Littlejim’s best! Littlejim’s best,” they shouted.
“And here is a letter from the Star addressed to Mr. Vance. If I were a betting man, I’d say it is a letter informing us that Jimmy is the winner,” continued Mr. Green.
Mr. Vance took the letter and opened it. A small tan paper fluttered to the ground. Mr. Vance picked it up. “A check for ten dollars, made out to Jimmy Houston,” announced Mr. Vance. The crowd applauded again. Mr. Vance shook hands with Littlejim and handed him the check. Littlejim stared at it. He had never seen so much money. Mr. Green shook hands with Littlejim, too.
Then the man in the gray suit walked back to his horse and took the copies of the Kansas City Star out of his saddlebags. He called the names of the men who received the newspaper each week. One by one they claimed their papers and walked away, shaking their heads in wonder that the words of one of their own were printed there.
Finally, Mr. Green called out, “James Houston.”
Bigjim unfolded his arms and walked toward the speaker’s rock, his head down, his face hidden beneath the brim of his hat. He took the paper from Mr. Green and turned to leave, still not looking at his son.
Mr. Osk looked at Uncle Bob, and he walked over to take Bigjim’s arm. “Jim, you must be the proudest man on the Creek,” he said.
Uncle Bob took Bigjim’s other arm. “Jim, what a wonder you have produced in that boy! His words printed right there in the Star.”
Mr. Green spoke. His voice commanded attention. “A man would have to be mighty proud to be the sire of a boy who can write such powerful words. Yes, I reckon he’s much of a man.” He turned to Littlejim. “I reckon the writer of such powerful words is much of a man, too.”
Bigjim turned to face his son. Littlejim could barely see his eyes under the slouch hat brim. “Well, I reckon if his words are important enough for the Star to print, they must be powerful important.” He opened the paper and stared at the words. The tall man’s lips formed the words of his son’s name.
For a long moment no one moved or spoke. The wind made the only sound.
“I reckon a man that could write such powerful words is right much of a man,” said Bigjim. He turned to look at his son. His eyes glistened although they were shaded from the sun by his hat. “Yeah, right much of a man, I guess,” he said as he quickly walked away.
The cloud passed from the sun. The light from that sun had never shone brighter. Littlejim felt warm all over as Mr. Green and Uncle Bob lifted him high on their shoulders and carried him around the grounds, followed by the rest of the gathering. Carl and Ivor and Andy gathered in front of the procession to shout “Hip. Hip. Hooray! Littlejim won!” The smaller children followed dancing, singing, and shouting.
Bigjim stood to himself away from the others. Mama walked over to her tall husband. She took his arm and stood on tiptoe. Bigjim pointed to his son’s name in the newspaper and smiled as he put his arm around Mama. Mama gave him a big hug and looked over at Littlejim, smiling.
At that moment, Littlejim knew that as soon as the men put his feet on the grass, he could leap up and touch the sky.
“Littlejim” was written by Dr. Gloria Houston and published by Bright Mountain Books of Fairview, North Carolina. The book is reproduced here in serial format with the kind permission of the author and publisher.
For futher information, visit the publisher’s website: www.brightmountainbooks.com.