Last year, I wrote about my dad, Richard John Collins, for Father's Day but, this year, I'm going to write about a father figure who played a very important role in my life. James Vernon Johnson was born in 1904 and told me his family was descended from slaves. He used to tell me about picking cotton and how he made his way from Nashville, Arkansas, when he was just a young kid to the great North. I wish I had paid more attention because now, in hindsight, I realize his stories were priceless and had more impact on me than I ever realized.
He always had an uneasy alliance with white people and never hesitated telling me about instances where he had been treated unfairly. I remember he had a run-in with the only grocer in town and never spoke to him again. I can't remember why but I know he had a good reason. Jim was a very fair-minded person and these inequalities laid heavy on his mind all through our lives together and he never forgot a slight.
I met Jim through his wife Mary Johnson, who I loved like a mother and who helped raise me from birth. She helped when my mother was working and actually even took care of my grandmother before I came along. My dad used to tell me, "If it wasn't for Mary, you wouldn't have any sense at all." Of course, he was divorced from my mother then so I had to take this comment into perspective.
Jim worked for 47 years as a mechanic for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He was famous around our area for his hard work and his massive hands and strength. My uncle, who also worked for MoPac, told me he had seen Jim lift an engine wheel all by himself. I always thought of him as a bit like Paul Bunyon possessing super-human powers.
He and Mary were revered in their town of East Carondelet, Illinois (population 603). Mary was a Mother of Flat Creek Baptist Church and Jim was a Deacon of the church. They were always helping the community and had a huge vegetable garden in the back of their house. Jim plowed it all by himself and then they shared the bounty with less fortunate neighbors.
Jim also raised hogs. I loved riding with him to the outskirts of town to feed them and I remember always wanting to take a piglet home. Jim wisely resisted knowing how my mother would appreciate it. He used to sell his hogs in St. Louis and told me he noticed that when he would drive up with his load, he always received less pay than white men with the same goods. He devised an ingenious plan. He found a wino, gave him a bottle, and Jim sat in the passenger seat while the "white man" pulled in with his pigs. He never got screwed again.
I miss Mary and Jim and wish they were still here so I could tell them how important they were in my life. They taught me things I would never have learned, most importantly about equality and finding the good in people. Although, like Jim, I never forget a slight. :-)
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