“Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care, Jimmy crack corn an' I don’t care,” Dwayne sang cheerfully, holding onto the reins with one hand and screwing on his old, dusty, beat-up hat with the other.
“Idiot, idiot, idiot,” she silently mouthed, “You are such a gall-derned, good-for-nothing, straw-for-brains idiot,” she was thinking, but out loud she said, “Dwayne, you’ve got to hurry; they’ll not wait for me, and there’ll not be another plane to Atlanta until next week.”
“Goin’ as fast as Nell and Belle will take us,” Dwayne said, good-naturedly, snapping the mules’ reins. “Besides, Cara, there is a war on, you know. Did you already forget about the Germans and Jap-o-neeze? All of us gots to make sacrifices, Cara!”
“What in Pete’s name does that have to do with” she started to say, but experience stopped her; she knew there would be no confronting her cousin with logic. And to think, the day had started out so full of promise. She had sprung out of bed long before dawn, thrown on her clothes that she had laid out the night before, and brushed her blonde hair before scrambling an egg that she wolfed down with a glass of milk. The old yellow suitcase waited beside the door. She had carefully packed, unpacked, and repacked it with several changes of clothes, along with the paperwork she would need to get into the science fair once she got to Atlanta.
It hadn’t been easy, but she had persisted and prevailed and had even won over most of her detractors. She took first place in her high school’s competition, and since her high school was the only one in the county, she was declared county champion. Then, however, she was thrown into the ring at the regional fair with other East Tennessee winners, all of which were male and some of which were just plain mean mountain farmboys, bent on winning the trophy and the trip to the Southeastern Fair in Atlanta. But Cara had won. She had overcome the sneers and condescending insults from her male opponents, and she had even survived the attempted sabotage that had backfired on the hapless clod from Soddy-Daisy, earning him disqualification and winning her the trophy.
But, as her aunt always said, there’s always another mountain. The most recent one had sprung up as she pumped water over her breakfast plate. “Cara,” her father said, creaking open the screen door into the kitchen from the back porch, “Sumpin’ came up and Mr. Baxter needs to see me at the courthouse. I gotta go inna town and can’t take you to the airfield.”
Cara’s mouth flew open, but before she could protest, her father continued, “Dwayne’s gonna take you in the wagon, but you better leave early…summa the road’s still a mud pit.”
“Daddy,” she said, “Dwayne? He don’t have a lick of sense. I can’t miss my plane.”
“He’ll git you there, honey,” her father said, pausing at the screen door, “Good luck in Georgia with that fair.” And with that, her father was out the back door again, his boots thumping on the porch and out into the yard toward the barn. Two minutes later, she heard the old pickup sputtering and coughing down the dirt driveway toward the county road that bordered their farm.
It would be another half-hour before she heard Dwayne steering the team up the driveway. Dwayne’s mother, Bonnice, was Cara’s father’s sister. Bonnice’s husband had run off when Dwayne was a young boy. It wasn’t that Cara didn’t like her cousin; it was just that he was always getting underfoot. And, although he was three or four years older that she was, for as long as she could remember, she felt like Dwayne never could quite grasp the context of any of their conversations. And, although most of his friends had been drafted or had volunteered, and were currently serving in Europe or in the South Pacific, Dwayne had remained behind.
“Dwayne’s flat-footed,” Bonnice would often tell the family, or anyone that would listen, “Couldn’t pass the military physical.”
“Flat-brained,” Cara would always mutter under her breath, “Couldn’t pass the military mental.”
Cara met Dwayne in the turn-around and threw the yellow suitcase in the back before climbing up into the wagon’s seat. It was at least ten miles to the little mountain airport, and she could already see the first hints of the September dawn sparking through the trees at the top of the ridge. Still, she figured that unless Nell or Belle dropped dead, or one of the wagon’s wheels fell off, or a meteor fell in the middle of the muddy road, they would make it to the airport with a few minutes to spare. It was only then that she let herself feel the excitement and anticipation of the event.
She knew that the plane waiting to take her and the other regional finalists to Atlanta was only a puddle-jumper, and not one of the “big-city” aircraft that she had read about in Life magazine. It was an old Ford Tri-Motor, and she had seen it many times when visiting the little airport with her school classes over the years. The small regional airline that owned the plane had its headquarters in Knoxville, and it had donated the flight as an additional “prize” for the regional finalists. And, although the plane was perfectly safe and adequate, it was far from luxurious. But, Cara was still excited about flying in it; not only would it be her first plane ride, she had based her whole science project on the aerodynamics and propulsion of airplanes.
She had compared a number of warplanes, American, British, German and Japanese, and had designed and built her own model. Although it didn’t actually fly, it did have a working miniature engine and the wingflaps and rudder could be controlled by toggle switches on the underside of the model. She chuckled to herself at the irony that her boxed-up projectwings, motor, fuselage and allwas most likely already safely secured in the cargo of the old plane, patiently awaiting her arrival as Dwayne’s wagon slugged through the Tennessee mud.
By the time they were halfway to the airport, the morning sun had cleared the ridge and was beaming down on the old wagon. Cara was pleasantly admiring the late-summer/early-fall Tennessee mountain foliage when the meteor fell in the middle of the muddy road. Only, it wasn’t a meteor; it was Grannyma Iris, and she was standing in the middle of the road and flailing her thin arms like a windmill. Technically, the old woman was not kin to the two in the wagon, but the whole county knew her as “Grannyma.” Her husband had long since passed away and her children were grown and married with grown children of their own.
“Oh, praise the Good Lord, childurn! I din think en-body would ev’r come down dis road!” she said as Dwayne stopped the wagon. She was wiping sweat off her forehead with her bonnet. The tiny old woman leaned up against the wagon. “Old Bessie,” she said, out of breath and pawing at the strands of thin grey hair caking her forehead. “My good milkcow...done...got...loose. An’ I declare I can’t fetch ‘er back. You childurn go get ‘er, please.”
“But...” said Cara, looking frantically at her watch and then at the morning sun overhead.
“Yes’um,” Dwayne said, bolting out of the wagon, “Come on, Cara! Jes’ point us where, Grannyma.”
“See ’at barn?” Grannyma said pointing at the far end of the pasture. “Thas where she s’posed to be. See ’at door open? S’posed be closed.”
“Cara!” Dwayne was jumping the fence to the pasture.
As Cara gazed down at her clean, traveling clothes, she realized that there was no sense in remaining in the wagon. The faster they could get the cow back into the barn, the faster they could be back on their way. “There’s still time,” she thought, climbing down out of the wagon. Besides, Grannyma Iris was looking at her, quizzically, her face asking, “What you waitin’ on, child?”
By the time they found the cowshe was down by the creek, happily munching on wild onionsand herded her back to the barn, Cara realized that their margin for error for getting to the airfield on time had decreased substantially.
“Thanky thanky thanky, childurn, the Good Lord shore did send you as angels,” Grannyma Iris said as Cara and Dwayne climbed back up into the wagon’s creaky seat. “I can’t pay y’all, but I’s got some homemade pie an’ a fresh glass o’ milk for y’all”
“Well, Grannyma, that sounds wonderful” Dwayne drawled as he put his dusty hat back in place.
“but we’ll have to take you up on that later,” Cara said sweetly, discreetly elbowing Dwayne, “We’ve got to be someplace, but thank you so much.”
“Oh no,” said Grannyma Iris, “Thank YOU, childurn.”
“Dwayne!” Cara said sharply as the wagon got around the bend and out of the old woman’s sight, “It’s going to be all we can do to make it, now...the last thing we need is for you to spend another half-hour stuffing your face!”
“Yeah,” said Dwayne, “but we ain’t gonna want to take her up on it after today…not less you like onion-milk. Ooo. That shore would ruint a good piece of pie.”
The boy took Cara’s irritated gaze as an invitation to begin singing again. “Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care, Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care,” he brayed, “Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care, Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care.” Cara stared straight ahead, too upset to even protest.
When they finally reached the airfield, it was fifteen minutes after the scheduled departure of the plane, but to Cara’s pleasant surprise, she could see the old Tri-Motor in the distance, warming up. The old road went parallel to the single runway, but the tiny shack of a terminal was at the opposite end, on the far side of the field.
“Look, Dwayne!” she exclaimed, “They haven’t left, yet!” But the words had scarcely left her mouth, when, to her dismay, the plane turned abruptly to its right and rolled over to the starting point of the runway. They could hear the roar of the three engines wafting in waves across the field.
“Stop!” Cara screamed.
“They can’t hear you,” said Dwayne.
“I’m talking to you, you horse’s butt!” Cara said, jumping overboard. As Dwayne slowed the wagon, she ran along with the wagon, grasping over the side for her suitcase. Finally, making contact with the handle, she pulled the suitcase over the side and ran desperately toward the field. The barbed-wire fence at the edge of the field was low enough for her to clear in a running leap, suitcase in hand.
“Thanks for the ride!” Dwayne yelled at her through cupped hands, but ignoring him, she ran toward the taxiing plane. By the time she got to the edge of the runway, the Tri-Motor was already airborne, and sailing over her head. She saw some of the other students on board, peering out the plane’s windows, looking down at her curiously.
For the longest time, Cara sat in the tall grass at the side of the runway with her yellow suitcase in her lap. Across the field, there were several dark green Army C-47’s being loaded and unloaded by soldiers. “Life goes on,” she said to herself. “The war goes on. The science fair goes on.” Then, slowly, she got up, dusted the grass off her dress and turned to start her long walk back home. She figured that, with a little luck, she could make it by nightfall. She followed the fencerow until she found a gap in the barbed wire, and then she walked along the edge of the dirt road with the late-morning sun at her back. Dwayne and the wagon, of course, were long gone.
After a while, she began walking up the long, sloping hill that eventually led to Grannyma Iris’s farmhouse. Grannyma’s property reached all the way to the bottom of the hill, on both sides. The road split a dense mountain woodside; ancient oaks served as a majestic canopy over the road. As Cara started up the hill, she was startled by a man’s voice coming from behind her. “Miss? Could you help me?” She spun around just in time to see a stranger stepping out from behind one of the oak trees. He had light, sandy hair and pale blue, piercing eyes. He was barefoot and wearing a pair of ill-fitting overalls over a dingy white undershirt. Something about him frightened her, but she struggled to not let her fear show.
“Is the airfield down this road?” he asked, smiling.
Maybe it was his accent, or maybe it was his foreign looks, but a sudden chill hit Cara like someone was pouring ice water through the top of her head and it was draining quickly down to her toes.
“No. I don’t know,” she stammered.
“You’re obviously going or coming from some sort of terminal. Hmm? Your yellow valise?” The stranger was still smiling. “It’s a simple question. Are you coming from or going to the terminal?”
Suddenly, Cara recognized the accent and realized the situation she was in. The stranger was German, and his ill-fitting clothes meant that he had escaped from the P.O.W. camp in nearby Crossville. She knew that many of the captured Germans in the camp were officers, and some were Luftwaffe pilots who had been shot down. Then she remembered the C-47’s and the soldiers on the field by the runway. Without thinkingor hesitatingshe spun around as quickly as she couldlike a wagonwheel on its sidearms outstretched, and released the suitcase, sending it sailing toward the stranger’s head. Oddly, her Sunday School teacher’s Bible story of David and Goliath briefly flashed through her mind. Her stone was much larger and her Goliath was much smaller, so just maybe it would work.
As soon as the suitcase’s handle cleared her hand, she was running as fast as she could, up the hill toward Grannyma Iris’s farmhouse. She heard the “Ouff!” from the stranger as the suitcase found its mark, but she didn’t dare turn around.
Halfway up the hill, he caught her, and grabbing her roughly by the arm, he spun her around. This time, he wasn’t smiling, and there was an ugly mark on his forehead that had been made by the business edge of the yellow suitcase.
“Heil, Hitler!” Cara screamed at the top of her lungs. It was the only thing she could think of to yell. She figured screaming “Help!” would irritate him further, and maybe paying homage to his commander-in-chief would pacify himafter trying to take his head off. But, hopefully, maybe someone else in earshot would hear. She only hoped the German wouldn’t realize that no ordinary Tennessean would dare scream something like that without being in serious trouble.
It actually seemed to workthe German was at first puzzled, but then began to smile again. Only, this smile was not as friendly as his first one, and it was accompanied by a 10-inch hunting knife. The blade gleamed in the afternoon sun.
“Let us start over, Fräulein,” he said. “I think you were on your way to the airport... going on holiday, maybe? No? Your clothes inside your little yellow ‘weapon’ were clean and folded. Oh, not anymore.” Suddenly, his face darkened and he grew serious.
“They all fell out in the dirt after your silly little stunt. Hmmm? So I think we are on our way to the airfield. So, march. Now!” He gestured with the knife toward the top of the hill.
“What are you going to do with me?” Cara asked as they started up the path to Grannyma’s farmhouse.
His hand was still wrapped tightly around her arm and he calmly kicked at one of Grannyma’s chickens as they neared the porch.
“We are first going to stop here at this cottage. I believe there is an old grandma who lives here. Alone,” he said smiling, “I have seen her feed her animals. Maybe she can help us with directions to the airport. Hmm? Maybe she will want to go with us. What is it you say...‘the more the merry’?”
“Then are you going to let me go?” Cara asked again.
“Somehow, I do not think that would be a good idea, Fräulein. Let’s go see if there’s anyone home.”
“There’s someun home, alrighty,” Grandma Iris said, emerging from behind one of the trees guarding the old farmhouse, “She just ain’t inside th’ home.”
The tiny woman’s sudden appearance startled both Cara and the German, but Cara immediately saw her chance to escape and skittered away, out of his reach. Grannyma Iris stood only 20 feet away from the man, her double-barreled shotgun pointed at his mid-section. “Drop th’ Arkansas toothpick, son,” she said.
Gone was the kindly old woman who only a few hours before had been frantically searching for an errant milk-cow. The ribbons from her bonnett danced comically in the wind, but her hardened face belied her seriousness, and, more to the point, her weathered old forefinger was wrapped confidently around the weapon’s trigger.
The German, who had initially been totally surprised by the turn of events, quickly began to regain his composure. Cara was a safe distance away, and his focus was totally on the tiny woman. “Now, Oma,” he said, smiling, “you and I both know you would not shoot me. I don’t mean any harm to you or the girl.” Still holding the knife, he slowly took a step toward her.
Grannyma clicked back the hammer. “Drop the knife, boy.”
“Now, Oma...” he said, moving cautiously. He rubbed his knife against his overalls, but he didn’t let go of it.
“Oma, yourself. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know who you calling Oma,” Grannyma said. “Y’all people think you can just waltz in here and grab li’l gals by theys arms and pull the wool over the rest of us. Let me tell you somethin’, boy, I may’ve been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. This is what we’re gonna do. First off, you’re gon drop that knife and you’re gon sit down, right where you stand, and we’re gon figure out what we’re gon tell the sheriff ’bout what you’s up to. You ought be ashamed of yourself grabbin’ that l’il girl...”
But the German had heard enough. Although he had pretended to politely listen, he had been silently calculating the distance between himself and the tiny woman. As she spoke, he slowly moved toward her, all the while assessing the speed at which she could react.
Smiling, he threw the knife into one of Grannyma’s rosebushes. As her gaze followed the knife’s trajectory, she lowered the gun, and the German seized the opportunity and sprang at the old woman. He was only five or six feet away when she pulled the trigger and the blast spun him around like an out-of-kilter top. When the dust cleared, the German sat sprawled in the dirt below the tree staring at the old woman in shock.
“You shot me!” he said, incredulous, “You shot my legs! Are you crazy?! You shot my legs!”
“Yeah, and that was jus’ one barr’l, dearie, and half of it was wasted in the dirt,” Grannyma said. “If you don’t sit still, the next one’ll blow a hole in your gut big enough t’throw one of my chickens through it.”
Then, turning to Cara she said, “Are you alright, child? Did he hurt you?”
Cara shook her head no.
“I heard you call out. I don’t know who ‘Kyle Hibler’ is, but it shore made me look out the winnder. You Kyle?” she asked the German. He looked at her openmouthed, still holding his bleeding legs.
“I jes’ knew he was up to sumpin’. No good ever comes of pushin’ a li’l ol’ gal down the road with a big ol’ knife. An’ Papa’s shotgun is always close at hand.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt her,” the German said, meekly.
Just then the wagon crested the hill, and Dwayne jumped out with his own rifle.
“What in tha…” he said.
“Late as usual,” said Cara, “I would have thought you’d be home by now.”
“I heard the shot,” Dwayne said.
“Heaven’s sakes, child,” Grannyma said to Cara, “He ain’t been gone from here ten minutes. He come by here t’claim his milk and pie, and I foun’ a few more chores for him. Fact, I gotta ’nother un for him. Dwayne, honey, you take her on outta here and send the sheriff. Tell him Kyle here was prowlin’ ’round, waving his big ol’ knifethat un over there in my rosebushtrying to skeer us. An’ you better bring the doctor, so he don’t bleed to death.”
“Grannyma,” Cara said, climbing into the wagon beside Dwayne, “Will you be okay?”
“Lord, child, look at him,” she laughed, “Kyle ain’t gonna be runnin’or walkingfor awhile. As it is, I’m gonna have to fetch him some bandages to patch him up till the doc gits here.”
“Grannyma, he’s an escaped German from the Crossville P.O.W. camp, so you need to be very careful.”
Grannyma’s mouth flew open and her eyes got wide. “German, you say?” she said, clearly surprised, “I knew he talked funny…I jes thought he was a Yankee.”
Dwayne and Cara hopped up in the wagon and headed down the road to town.
It was nearly dusk when the sheriff got back to Grannyma’s house. By the time he drove his black-and-white cruiser up the farmhouse’s dusty driveway, she had bandaged both of the German’s legs and brought him several slices of pie and a large glass of milk, all of which he had gratefully devoured.
She had taken great pleasure in slicing the pie with the German’s former weapon that he had wielded against her and Cara. Plus, she had also tied him by his left wrist to her big oak tree using some rope and pieces of his stolen overalls that had been torn off and scattered by her shotgun. “Waste not, want not,” she said to the sheriff as he walked up into the clearing and surveyed the situation.
“Afternoon, Miz Iris,” the sheriff said to the tiny woman, touching the brim of his hat, and wiping his sunburned forehead with his hankerchief. He was followed by two of his deputies and a doctor from town. The doctor set his bag on the ground and began examining the German’s legs as one of the deputies untied him.
“Grannyma, you did an excellent job bandaging these wounds,” the doctor said, opening his bag. “I think you’re going to live, son, but I bet that shrapnel smarts a bit, don’t it? You’re just lucky Grannyma didn’t aim a little higher.”
The sheriff nodded his head. Then, stooping beside the German, he grew serious. “They’s been lookin’ for you, boy. How’d you get away from the camp, anyway? You didn’t really think you’d get away, did you? Really?”
The German looked away and rubbed his legs as the doctor unwrapped the bandages.
“The girl said you wuz on your way to the airport,” the sheriff continued. “You have your eye on one of them C-47s? He’s a pilot for Hitler,” he said to Grannyma. You do know you’re in Tennessee, right? You think they’s gonna let you take one of our planes? Now I seen it all. Can he walk, doc?”
“No, let’s don’t chance it. Can you boys pick him up? We need to get him to the hospital over in Crossville. Need to get him patched up and back to the camp.”
“Don’t worry, son,” the sheriff said as he and his deputies picked him up and loaded him into the black-and-white for the trip back into town, “The war’s not gonna last forever.”
“Thanky, Miz Iris,” he yelled out through the cruiser’s rolled-down window as he backed down the driveway. “You did good.”
“I would offer you some pie, Sheriff,” she said, “but this boy’s done eat it all up.”
The sheriff laughed, “Well now Grannyma, next time you catch yourself a German, please remember to save me a slice!”
Cara didn’t win the trophy at the Southeastern Science Fair. However, once the sheriff put the pieces of the story together, he got in touch with the Knoxville airline, and they flew her down to Atlanta the next dayon the same Tri-Motorin time to accept the Second Place award. She did take First Place the following year, and it earned her a scholarship. She went on to get her engineering degree, and she retired from NASA in the mid-’80s.
As for the German, after he recovered from the wounds to his legs, he was sent back to the Crossville P.O.W. camp. At the end of the war, he returned to his home in Munich, married his childhood sweetheart and became a commercial airline pilot.
In 1982, he and his grown son, Kyle, flew to Knoxville for the World’s Fair. He rented a car at the Knoxville airport, and they drove up to Crossville. After asking around, he found Grannyma Iris’s farmhouse and drove up into the driveway beside the house. Grannyma came out onto the porch, this time with a broom.
At 104, she was feeble, and her eyesight was poor, but she recognized him immediately, probably because he still walked with a slight limp. Also, over the years she had told the story of that day to friends, relatives and anyone who would listen, so it was almost as if she expected him to show up again at some point in time.
She pulled out some folding chairs from her porch and they set them up next to her rosebushes, under the old oak in her front yard. They enjoyed several slices of pie and some tall glasses of milk, and talked about the World’s Fair.
The Tennessee sun had already dropped behind the ridge when the three said their goodbyes. Pulling out into the still-dusty county road, they checked their map and pointed the rental car toward the interstate.