October 3, 1948, A Dirt Road Outside Smallville, Mississippi
“It was a wonderful service dear!”
Jonathan Kent nodded and wrestled the floor shifter in their 1934 Ford pickup into second gear. She had a few miles on her and the differential would need to be replaced soon, but even the thought of losing a day in the fields to fix the truck couldn’t dampen his spirits. “You sure know how to flatter a preacher man, Mrs. Kent.”
“You know what I think?” Martha asked.
“Tell me,” Jonathan beamed.
“I’m thinking I’m married to the best preacher in the whole state of Mississippi,” Martha answered, latching onto her husband’s arm. “The most handsome too.”
Jonathan moved his hand to his wife’s and squeezed it. “You sure do know how to pick a man, Mrs. Kent.”
Martha pushed his hand away and rolled her eyes. “Not to mention the most humble.”
“That too,” Jonathan laughed as he smacked the steering wheel raucously. “But you’re right, dear. The new church got off to a swell start!”
The Lord was up to something big in Smallville and Jonathan was excited to be a part of it. His enthusiasm led him to preach about the children of Israel leaving behind their yoke of bondage in Egypt for the Promised Land that was to come. Maybe one day he’d live long enough to see the Promised Land himself.
In the meantime, he’d count his blessings. He and Martha recently celebrated their ninth year of marriage and things were finally looking up for them. Martha was hired the previous Wednesday to work in one of the downtown sewing factories. Jonathan worried about what the neighbors would think of him letting his wife go to work, but women had been doing it since the war and the extra income was welcome. In addition to Martha’s good fortune, their small farm yielded a bumper crop of cotton. Working the land was hard labor but farming was in Jonathan’s blood. With Martha’s job and a good crop, maybe they could finally be poor rather than dirt poor for a change.
Their blossoming financial situation wasn’t the only thing Jonathan was excited about. After years of meeting in an old-fashioned brush arbor their congregation finally convened for the first time in their very own church that morning! And what a service it was! One of the downtown white churches donated an old piano in honor of their consecration service and Martha’s playing added to the morning’s festivities. Someone rounded up a few tambourines and passed them around. The lively music filled the morning air like a heavenly choir and set the tone for Jonathan’s fiery message that followed.
“I wasn’t too hard on them was I?” Jonathan asked his wife.
As she did so many times in the past, Martha took one of his hands in her own and patted it. “You worry too much, dear. The Washington boy even came to the Lord this morning.”
“Again!” Jonathan laughed as he shifted gears. The truck’s transmission coughed and sputtered worse than before, but he couldn’t complain. It too was a gift to their ministry from the same church that donated the piano. It wasn’t much to look at but it got him from one end of Lowell County’s sprawling farmland to the other whenever there was an emergency and even in bad weather. As an added bonus it was handy on the farm too.
Martha hummed a few bars of an old spiritual called “Wrestling Jacob” that referred to the passage in Genesis when Jacob wrestled with God. For his troubles Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life. It was a curious passage of scripture but Jonathan had gone a few rounds with the Good Lord himself and limped away wiser each time.
“Jonathan! Look out!” Martha cried.
Jonathan slammed on the brakes so hard the truck skidded across the road and nearly rolled onto its side. Something large and metallic dropped from the sky and shot across in front of them. It then plowed into Old Man Booker’s cotton field in a breathtaking finale.
The truck came to rest and Jonathan flung his door open.
“What are you doing?” Martha shrieked. “It could be dangerous!”
“All the more reason to take a look,” Jonathan answered.
It wasn’t hard to find the mysterious object. Jonathan followed a trail of charred cotton stalks into the muddy field and found it buried nose-down in a trough about five-hundred feet from the road. Smoke belched from a gash in its side. Although finding it wasn’t a problem, Jonathan wasn’t sure what it was.
“Jonathan? Are you ok?” Martha asked.
“Stay back, Martha,” Jonathan warned.
“Looks like a rocket,” Martha replied, ignoring her husband’s admonition and moving into position to get a closer look herself. “Why would anyone around here have a rocket?”
“I’m sure it’s another of Luthor’s hare-brained experiments gone wrong,” Jonathan guessed. “I wish he’d have built that defense plant somewhere else! All the jobs in the world won’t be worth it if he kills us all!”
“We should go,” Martha advised. “Perhaps we should get the sheriff and bring him back to take a look.”
Jonathan nodded. “Nothing we can do anyway.”
The Kents turned to leave but an unexpected sound froze them in their tracks.
“Jonathan! There’s a baby inside!” Martha shouted.
If he hadn’t heard the full-throated wail himself, Jonathan wouldn’t have believed it “We’ve got to get it out of there,” said Martha. “That thing could explode any minute!”
Jonathan wasn’t sure what a baby was doing inside a smoking rocket in the middle of a cotton field in rural Mississippi, but he sure wasn’t going to let it burn to death. He rushed to the rocket and reached his hands through the gash in its side and took hold of the smoldering, splintered shell. Unable to budge the metal, he placed his shoe next to his hands for leverage and pulled with all his might. The sole of his shoe began to smolder and he could smell the searing flesh of his hands but failure was not an option with a child’s life hanging in the balance! Slowly the heat rendered the shell malleable enough to pull away the wreckage and reach inside.
“I can feel it! It’s a baby, sure enough!” Jonathan shouted. “Sweet Lord in Heaven! It’s tiny!!”
“Can you get it out?” Martha asked.
Jonathan nodded. “I think so, but it’s getting hotter by the minute!”
“Hurry before that thing blows!” Martha cried. “We can’t let a baby die like that!”
Jonathan reached into the rocket once more and latched onto the baby’s torso. “I wish there was a gentler way to do this, little one!”
The baby’s head popped free first. It cried as the sun beat down on its tender flesh and blinded his little eyes. It was wrapped in an oversized red and blue blanket adorned with strange markings. Most prominent among them was what appeared to be a pentagon-shaped shield bearing the letter “S” within. Given the markings visible on the craft’s exterior, Jonathan doubted it belonged to Luthor or that it was even from Earth. But that was impossible. Wasn’t it?
The rocket burst into flames.
“Something’s not right here,” said Jonathan as he handed the baby to Martha.
“Of course it isn’t,” Martha replied as she swaddled the baby tightly in the blanket. “A baby just fell from the sky in a rocket! What do we do with it?”
“I... don’t know,” Jonathan replied. “We could take it to the police.”
“Him,” Martha corrected as she moved the baby away from the burning rocket. “He’s a baby boy not an 'it'.”
“Him,” Jonathan conceded, careful not to point out that Martha called the baby an “it” just moments before. “Maybe they’d know what to do with him.”
Martha looked the baby over. “It’s a miracle! Not a scratch on him!” She cradled him in her arms and planted tiny kisses on his forehead.
“Martha, no! We can’t…” Jonathan argued.
Martha lifted the baby to her shoulder and rocked it until his cries diminished into a contented cooing as he settled into her. “I don’t see why not.”
“What will we tell the neighbors? A baby fell from the sky?” Jonathan replied. “They’d swear we were loony! What about the orphanage?”
Martha shot him the look. “You want me to walk out of this cotton field with you or not, Jonathan Kent? Can you doom him to that life?”
Jonathan recalled the downcast eyes of the children they visited in the state orphanage. Plessy v. Ferguson provided the bare necessities of life, but separate was far from equal for them. They were destitute in what children needed most – love and hope. Most families of color were too poor to adopt so the children stayed in the system until they were old enough to fend for themselves.
Jonathan sighed. “No, I can’t. But what will we tell the neighbors?”
Martha smiled as she cradled the sleeping baby in her arms and started back to the truck. “Do you honestly believe anyone will question us? Our community loves us and will accept him and the white folks pay us no mind anyway.”
Jonathan found an irrigation ditch and dropped to his knees. He plunged his hands into the dirty water and found the cool mud below. It felt good but it wasn’t practical to kneel forever so he removed his best Sunday shirt and baptized it in the muck to bandage his hands.
Martha was right. Their congregation would assume some family member gave them the boy to raise. The white folks wouldn’t care as long as the baby wasn’t one of their own. His skin was a shade darker than either Jonathan’s or Martha’s but close enough to pass for family.
“I’m taking him on to the truck and getting him out of the sun,” said Martha.
Jonathan looked to the sky as his wife walked away with their new son. “I guess this is another of those wrestling with heaven moments, huh Lord?”
“Did you say something dear?” Martha called over her shoulder.
“Praying for wisdom dear,” Jonathan replied as he finished wrapping his hands. He stood and made his way to the truck and climbed inside. “We’re going to need a very good story!”
“You leave that to me,” Martha cooed. “I could spin a doozy in my day!”
Jonathan started the truck and wrestled it into first gear with his muddy bandages. It hurt to steer but he got it back on the right side of the dirt road. “And try to remember we’re clergy.”
Martha couldn’t contain her joy as she cradled the boy. “Spoil sport.”
“What will we call him?” Jonathan asked.
“I’ve always said if I ever had a son, I’d name him Clark after my family,” Martha replied.
“Clark Kent,” Jonathan muttered. “I like it.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Martha. She looked into Clark’s sleepy, little eyes. “I have a feeling God has a special plan for you, our little Clark Kent.”
Twelve Years Later
The other kids played baseball after school.
Clark Kent wished he could play with them but knew it could never be. So what if he was “special” as his folks called him? Didn’t every parent believe their kid was special? Of course their children weren’t aliens from another planet with powers far beyond those of mortal men, far beyond even Jimmy Ray Edmunds who was the best athlete in school.
So instead of slugging home runs that would land somewhere on the moon, Clark settled for watching Jimmy Ray wow the girls on and off the diamond while he sat on the sidelines and devoured whatever books he could get his hands on. He was caught up in the middle of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “A Fighting Man of Mars” when a shadow loomed over him.
“What are you doing?” the shadow asked.
Clark looked up. The shadow in question belonged to a skinny white kid whose bright orange locks were tucked beneath a white, boater-style straw hat with a navy sideband. His white collared shirt was tucked into the waistband of his puffy khaki-colored knickers and too clean and kempt to have been playing ball with the others. An unbuttoned navy vest hung off his scrawny shoulders and was the only piece of his ensemble that lent him a hint of normalcy. His long, white socks were pulled up to the tapers of his knickers and stuffed into shiny brown loafers that looked like they cost more than a Mississippi acre.
“Reading,” Clark answered.
The boy laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Clark asked.
“Negroes can’t read,” the boy replied.
Clark slammed his book shut and stood. Tan Hadron and the giant Martian spiders would have to wait. “Of course we can! We’re not stupid, you know!”
The boy spat a brown stream of snuff spit between his shoes and rubbed it into the dirt. “That’s not what my father says. He says you’re all dumb nig...”
“You say that word and I’ll show you I can use my fists too,” Clark huffed. He pushed his oversized. dark-framed glasses up the bridge of his nose.
The boy recoiled from Clark’s outburst. “I don’t say it! My father does!”
“Well I don’t want to hear it,” Clark answered, pleased that someone cowered away from him for a change. “What’s a white kid doing on this side of town anyway? You get lost?”
The red-haired boy shrugged his shoulders. “The old man was arguing with some contractors about some land. I got bored and went walking and ended up here. Still a free country isn’t it?”
“For you maybe,” Clark replied.
“Say... isn’t your old man that colored preacher?” the red-haired boy asked.
Clark nodded. “Sure is! Jonathan Kent! Finest minister in Mississippi!”
“My father says he’s an uppity troublemaker,” the boy replied.
Neither Clark nor the white boy noticed the other kids had stopped playing ball and circled around them.
“An uppity what, white boy?” one of the Greeley twins asked with a shove that knocked the white boy off-balance. Clark believed it was Joe but he always got their names mixed up. “Brother Kent is a fine man! He’s helped our family out lots of times.”
“Yeah,” added Marvell Jacobs as he caught the red-haired young man and threw him to the ground. If Jimmy Ray Edmunds was the most athletic kid Clark knew then Marvell was the most imposing. He stood an impossible six foot tall at fourteen years of age, built like a man – broad and thick. He glowered down at the white runt in the funny clothes. “He scraped up enough money to buy my grandma a heatin’ stove last winter. Don’t you talk about Brother Kent like that!”
Surrounded by an angry mob of black adolescents the boy lost much of his bravado. “I meant no offense! Honest gentlemen! I was just making conversation.”
“You know what happens to us when we wander into your neighborhoods?” asked an older boy Clark didn’t recognize. He jerked the white boy up and grabbed the young man’s white shirt collar in his hands.
The red-haired boy gulped.
The unknown boy released the redhead’s shirt collar and flung him around. He trapped the boy’s arms behind him, exposing the young man’s gut. “They make examples of us!”
“You’re hurting me!” the young man yelped.
Marvell punched him in the gut. “Good!”
The red-haired boy dropped to his knees in the Mississippi dust and tried to suck air into his lungs. Jimmy Ray kicked him from behind and sprawled him to the ground. The situation quickly devolved into a gang beating with the white boy cowering in the fetal position to protect himself from the mob stomping away at him.
There was a part of Clark that wanted to allow the beating to continue. After all, the boy was obviously a racist pig and deserved whatever was coming to him. But Clark was also keenly aware such a beating would only bring trouble to his own people. “Stop!” he yelled.
Clark dove into the fray and covered the boy with his own body. “This ain’t right and it sure ain’t no way to defend my Pa! Don’t y’all even listen to him preachin’ on Sundays? Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you? You should all be ashamed of yourselves!”
The older, unknown boy shook his head. “White boy wanders into our neighborhood and insults your old man and you kiss his cracker ass? You’re pathetic, Kent! A regular Uncle Tom!”
The crowd dispersed, leaving Clark draped over the frightened boy. Clark’s glasses fell off during the fracas but somehow miraculously survived. They were beside the young man’s knee. He reached for them but didn’t quite make it.
“Get off me!” the boy demanded as he tried to push Clark away.
Clark stood and reached his hand to the ill-tempered stranger with the fiery locks. “Kent. Clark Kent.”
“Alexander Luthor,” the white boy spat as he brushed the dirt from his clothes and attempted to straighten them the best he could. Blood trickled from his nose and onto his upper lip which was split but he was more shaken up than anything else. “They call me Lex, and I don’t shake hands with your kind!”
“You’re welcome,” Clark replied, letting his outstretched hand fall to his side. He wasn’t sure what to make of the boy’s behavior. Was he compensating for the embarrassment of being beaten? It didn’t matter. Clark wasn’t happy about the way Lex referred to him as “your kind”.
“What?” Luthor huffed. “You want a Purple Heart? I got news for you, Kent. This whole neighborhood will be up in smoke by tomorrow morning and there’s not a cop in these parts who’ll raise a hand to help! But since you remembered your place, I’ll put in a good word for you!”
Clark heard enough. He drew his fist back.
“A hypocrite too, huh?” Luthor smirked. “What happened to all that “do unto others” garbage you babbled about a minute ago? Go ahead, Kent! Hit me! Your folks will be burned out by morning!”
Clark wasn’t afraid of anyone burning his house down. Pa’s orders or not, Luthor was messing with the wrong family! In the end it wasn’t fear of Luthor or any number of racist pigs across the state that dropped Clark’s hand to his side but rather the one word his father deemed most shameful of all and it had nothing to do with the color of a man’s skin – hypocrite.
Lex Luthor spat what was left of his chew on the ground between Clark’s feet. “Smart move, Kent. Maybe your ilk will evolve into a civilized species yet.”
As the boy walked away he made a point to step on Clark’s glasses and broke them.
The Next Day
“And then he turned on you?” Lana Lang asked.
Clark nodded. “Like a rabid dog.”
Clark and Lana had been best friends and neighbors for years but it was only recently that he noticed how she smelled sweeter than a magnolia blossom in bloom or how the sun reflected off her shiny, dark hair. Never before did his stomach knot up when they lay in the fields together watching the clouds drift by. Why were things so different than last summer?
“It’s just white people, Clark. They got different ways than us,” Lana explained.
“Maybe so but you’d think he’d show a little gratitude,” Clark huffed.
“What’s so funny?” Clark asked.
Lana rolled onto her belly and stared at Clark. “That’s what I like about you, Clark.”
Clark was confused. “You lost me.”
Lana smiled. “You look for the best in people. You want to give them a chance.”
“Don’t you?” Clark asked.
Lana shook her head. “My daddy says everybody’s out for what they can get for themselves, black or white.”
“You see that cloud up there?” Clark asked. “The big fluffy one with the little vapors tailing after it?”
Lana rolled onto her back once more and nodded. “Yeah, so?”
“What do you think it looks like?” asked Clark.
Lana studied the cloud carefully and traced its shape in the air with her right index finger. “I see a dog – one of those big hairy ones that rescues people in the Alps. He’s even got a barrel around his neck.”
Clark looked at the cloud again to make sure they were talking about the same one.
“What’s that twisted look on your face for?” Lana chuckled.
“You really see that?” Clark asked as he pointed to the cloud again. “That cloud?”
Lana slapped him on the arm. “Yes that cloud, Clark Kent! What do you see?”
“I see Sandman,” Clark answered. “The barrel is the chin of his gas mask.”
“Who?” Lana asked.
“You know, the Justice Society hero from World War II,” Clark explained.
“And you looked at me like I was the crazy one,” said Lana.
“But that’s my point,” Clark answered. “We choose what we want to see. If you go looking for the bad in someone, then you’ll find it. Same with the good.”
“That’s pretty deep,” Lana replied as she stood to her feet and brushed off her yellow and white flowered dress. “I’ll have to think about that one. Want to come back to my place for dinner? Momma’s making fatback beans and her famous cornbread.”
Clark shook his head. “Tempting, but I can’t. Today’s Pa’s birthday and mom’s making polk salad.”
Lana shook her head. “Turn down Momma’s beans and cornbread for polk salad? Are you sure you’re not from another planet?”
Five Years Later
Clark heard his folks stirring in the kitchen and reached for the wind-up alarm clock by his bed. He raised it to his window to see its face in the moonlight. It was two-thirty in the morning! It couldn’t be good news that had them awake in the wee hours.
He rose from his bed and found his robe. He pulled it tight around his waist. After fumbling around in the dark for his slippers he made his way toward the kitchen. That’s when he heard another voice. It belonged to Eula Jefferson one of the ladies in his folk’s congregation. Mrs. Jefferson sang horribly off-key and very loudly on Sunday mornings but there was no doubt about the joy in heart. There was no joy in her voice that night.
“Can I get you some more coffee, Eula?” Clark’s mother asked.
“No thank you, Martha,” Mrs. Jefferson replied. “I still have half a cup.”
“Are you sure the story is true and not just some rumor?” asked Clark’s father.
Clark shuffled into the kitchen. “What’s going on? Morning, Mrs. Jefferson.”
His mother looked up from the table where she appeared to be consoling Mrs. Jefferson. “This is grown up business, Clark. Go back to bed.”
“But Mrs. Jefferson looks upset,” Clark argued.
Ma flashed him the look he and his father dreaded to see. “Clark…”
“Let him stay, Martha,” his Pa interrupted. “Clark’s practically a man now. I’d rather him hear about such things in our own home through responsible adult conversation than to have his heart stirred by the rumors and misinformation that’s sure to follow.”
Clark still wasn’t sure what was happening but he appreciated his father’s faith and candor. He took a seat opposite his mother. “It sounds serious.”
Mrs. Jefferson was noticeably shaken. “It is son. You know the Jacobs family?”
Clark nodded. “I go to school with the kids. Are they okay?”
Clark’s dad took a deep breath. “One of their sons was killed tonight – the oldest, Marvell, along with Mr. Jacobs.”
Clark didn’t particularly like Marvell. He used his massive size to torment anyone he could – particularly Clark. Still, not liking someone was one thing but Clark didn’t want to see him killed. The most appropriate question felt too obvious but was all Clark could think to ask. “What happened?”
“We’re not sure if it was the Klan or Luthor’s goon force,” Mrs. Jefferson answered. “Lionel claims he owns the Jacobs’ land and sold it to a chemical company from up north last week. Emmett refused to leave. His folks sharecropped that land since just after the Civil War.”
“But to kill them?” Clark asked.
“Emmett told me last week that a deputy served him with papers ordering the family to vacate the property,” Pa replied. “He said they’d take it over his dead body. A construction crew showed up yesterday morning with bulldozers to knock the place down but Emmett refused to leave and the workers left without incident. Someone came back later and burned the place to the ground. Everyone else got out, but Emmett and Marvell tried to save what they could of the belongings. Smoke inhalation got them.”
Sometimes the most helpless feeling in the world was having fantastic powers and never getting to use them. There was so much Clark could have done had he been there. “Now what?”
“We do what we always do son,” said his father. “We bury our dead and pray for a brighter tomorrow.”
Clark slammed his fist into the kitchen table, splintering it in half. “Not this time, Pa! The same old answers get the same old results! Those fools in bed sheets need to be taught a lesson and I’m the one to teach it to them!”
Mrs. Jefferson’s eyes popped wide as a bullfrog’s mouth.
“You go to your room, young man!” Ma yelled, pointing her finger down the hallway. “Your father was wrong about you! You’re not a man, just an angry brat acting out! Violence chasing violence!”
Pa jerked Clark around so he could see him. “How many times have you heard me quote Matthew 5:22? “But whosoever says to his brother “Thou fool!” is in danger of hellfire.”
Clark dropped his head. “I’m not so sure I believe in hell anymore.”
“Oh there’s a hell alright,” his father replied. “Go look in Mrs. Jacobs’s eyes and you’ll see it. You see it every day when you sit in your one room schoolhouse with no running water and come home soaked with sweat like you worked in the fields all day while the white kids attend that new brick school with modern plumbing and a rotating fan in every classroom. You want proof of hell son? Peer into the hearts of men like those who unleashed wickedness on the Jacobs family tonight. Don’t you ever doubt that hell is real, son! Do you hear me?”
Not even in the most fiery of his father’s sermons had Clark witnessed him more animated or passionate. “Yes sir.”
“You will pay for this table with your chores,” his father added. “The hard way.”
That meant no powers. Clark nodded. “Yes sir. Of course I will. May I be excused now?”
“Yes you may,” said his mother. “And son?”
“At some point we’ve all faced that boiling anger. Some say it’s a rite of passage for us. But remember, it’s what you do with that anger that determines what kind of man you’ll become. If you give in to it, they’ve beaten you.”
Clark stepped over the splintered mess of the family’s shattered kitchen table and kissed his mother on the cheek. “Thanks Ma. I needed to hear that,” he called as he made his way to his bedroom. As he pulled aside the bed sheet that hung over his door frame he heard the rattled Mrs. Jefferson speak for the first time since his outburst.
“He always looked so puny and weak! But that table must have been three inches thick and it’s solid oak. How did he….”
Pa laughed. “Don’t let him fool you Eula! I’ve fixed that old table so many times it’s a wonder it stood this long.”
Clark slid back into bed but couldn’t get one thought out his mind. “Maybe I can do something!”
To be continued ...