Paul was simply Paul. I’m sure I heard his last name but time has erased it from my memory.
Paul was big black man.
I take that back, Paul was a gigantic black man with a smile and laugh to match. When he laughed, the air vibrated and we’d join in- it just happened. His smile was reassuring and a little scary and very contagious.
Seriously, if he were standing in an NFL huddle today, you could easily pick him out- he would be the “big fella”.
I was about five or six when he came into our lives- my little white hands could easily fit on his palm. In my mind’s eye, I can see a great photograph, particularly in light of the racial unrest during the early 60’s. We were too young to pay attention to it but it didn’t matter to us- it wasn’t part of our world.
Paul worked for my parents doing odd-jobs, mostly heavy physical labor. We would sit on the front stoop and watch for the bus that delivered Paul every week.
It was magic.
The bus would pull up, pause, and leave a giant of a man standing there is his gray suit jacket, gray work pants and shirt. When he walked up the drive, a big smile would spread across his face.
As far as we could tell, Paul had only two possessions- his axe and his “sack”.
Imagine a huge black man carrying an axe on a bus around town today.
The axe was his tool and we weren’t allowed to touch it except the one time he buried it in a stump and challenged us to get it out.
Sword and the Stone- 60’s style.
We had no idea what exactly was in his “sack” but we knew it contained at least a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts purchased that morning somewhere along the bus route.
We didn’t care if they were cold, the sugar glazed globs of fried dough were all a kid could ask for- especially when Mom didn’t buy them and she didn’t know about them- they were our secret or at least we thought so.
My job was to make sure his water jar had plenty of ice and stayed full. His jar was a one-quart mason jar which disappeared in his hand and I refilled often.
I had to carry it with both hands.
I believe he brought donuts and doled them out periodically to keep the minions occupied while he worked without worrying we would wander into the path of his axe.
Paul never set foot in our house. My Mom would make sandwiches for him and invite him to sit at the table but he never came inside. I’m sure he was over-joyed every time the minions piled outside to join him for lunch.
One day, my second youngest brother asked my Mom if Paul was made of chocolate. I’ll never forget her trying to explain that Paul was a negro and the only difference between us and him was the color of our skin- people were people and every person deserved respect. She warned us that some people called negroes “niggers” and it was unkind and we should never use the word or else.
Her explanation confused me because my paternal grandmother, who was born in the late 1800’s, used the term to refer to all black people. My grandmother was raised in a privileged household on a sizeable cotton growing operation in the eastern part of North Carolina. Her world view differed from my Moms who experienced a challenging childhood. My mother was raised by her “village” which included people from all walks of life.
Mom went on some more, but she lost us. We didn’t care. We just wanted to get back outside to the donuts.
Paul worked for us for several years.
When I was a little older and reading the tales of Paul Bunyan, I knew the tales were true except Paul was black, not white- they had that part all wrong….
As time went on, we noticed that Paul came less and less frequently.
One Saturday morning, there was a knock on the door and it was Paul. Paul’s clothes were hanging off him and he wasn’t wearing his usual smile. He asked to see “Doc”- that’s what he called my Dad. He wouldn’t come inside so Dad stepped outside with the minions in tow.
My Dad was a dentist turned orthodontist. Paul told him there was something wrong with his mouth- his gums and teeth hurt and they were bleeding a lot and he asked if Dad would take a look.
Dad and Paul got in the car and drove to Dad’s office- Dad was gone for the rest of the day.
We never saw Paul again.
When Dad finally came home, he told us that Paul was very sick and was in the hospital and he would be there for a while. Later that night, I overheard my parents talking about blood transfusions and money.
Turns out that leukemia can present itself in the mouth- swollen, bleeding gums can indicate serious problems. Dad knew this and after a quick look in Paul’s mouth, took him straight across the street to the big hospital in town.
I know Dad solicited advice from his medical doctor friends and, I suspect, he paid for Paul’s treatment and care. Poor black people didn’t have medical insurance in those days.
We bugged Dad about Paul, we knew he was having regular blood transfusions, whatever they were. We wanted to visit him but children under 14 were not allowed past the lobby in the hospitals in those days.
Paul died a few weeks later.
As little kids we didn’t understand death, we just knew he wasn’t coming back – it made us sad.
For a long while after he died, I would see the bus pull up and hope against hope that, when the bus pulled away, he would be standing there with his axe and his “sack”.
I now understand that Paul was the first person in my life to die of cancer.
To this day, when I see a white and green Krispy Kreme box with big red letters, I can’t help but think of Paul and smile.