Late on a Saturday afternoon in 1943, we climbed down from the farm truck that had provided us transportion from John W. Olvey's plantation, where we share-cropped, to the town of Tallulah, La. That was a regular trip every other Saturday, for Mama and Papa to shop for 'staple goods'; but it also gave us kids a chance to go to the movies.
The folks kept our youngest brother Baucum, who was just a tyke, with them while they shopped. We other three (sister Ruby, sixteen; brother Barge, fourteen; and myself, eleven) went to the Movie Arcade. The moving picture cost a dime to get in, and we each had a quarter. We watched picture shows until a little after eight o'clock.
When we left the Arcade, they each had a dime left; I had a nickel. I had rewarded myself with a double helpin' of buttered popcorn. We meandered over to Crow's drug store, where we were to meet Mama and the others. The drug store was a combination soda fountain, beer joint, drugs and notions emporium. On the right side was the fountain. On the left side was a bar area, with a bannister between it and the rest of the place.
We saw Papa talking with some men over in that area, which was out-of-bounds for anyone but grown-ups. Ruby went over to the fountain side and sat down at a table with Mama and Baucum. Barge went back and started reading some circus posters on the back wall. Left to my own rat-killin', I idled around the drug store, just gawking, and come nose-to-nose with a slot machine....a real one-arm-bandit.
I read the card on the machine, and it was down-right simple to operate. All ye' had to do was get three watermelons, or three of them "bell-fruit-gum" things all lined up, and you could win five whole dollars.. for a nickel. A man walked up, stuck in a nickel, and pulled the handle. The wheels spun for a bit, then the left one stopped on a lemon, while the other two kept spinning.
The man cussed under his breath and stomped away, before the wheels quit turning; then they finally stopped, with a "thu-thunk" sound. I had my hand down in my overall pocket, clutchin' my last nickel, with my mind way off somewhere else; that's how come I jumped so bad when Barge said, right behind me:
"You mess with that thang and Papa will skin you alive."
"I ain't messin' with it", I lied; "I was jes' lookin'."
I ambled from one side of the store to the other, and every time I passed that slot machine, I'd be a little closer to it. It was pullin' on me like a magnet. I looked all around, and nobody was payin' attention to me. Quick as a wink, I jammed my last nickel in the slot, jerked the handle, and whirled around so I was facing away from it. I stood there whistling under my breath.
The slot machine groaned and whined for the longest time before the first wheel "thunked" and stopped; then it whined some more before the other two stopped---"thu-thunk". I was listenin' real close, because I figgered that five dollars worth of nickels would make a devil-of-a-racket when they come flying out.
When I didn't hear anything, I eased around and looked. I had three of them bell-fruit-gums in a line. But no nickels come out. I bent down and looked in the trough, and there was a token-lookin' thing way back in there. I fished it out and looked at it; both sides were stamped: $ 5 $.
I raised my eyes up from the token and there was Barge---lookin' me square in the eye, with his jaw stuck out and his teeth grit! I swallered hard and jes' stood 'ere. He knew just by looking at my face that I had done something wrong.
"You went and done it, didn't ye'?"
"I think I messed up", I confessed.
"What'd ye' do?"
"Wa'al, I put my nickel in 'ere and pulled the handle, an' they rolled around for a while, then it come up and stopped like that."
I stepped aside so he could see the wheels. When he saw the bell-fruit-gum things in a line, his mouth dropped open.
"You bone-head. That's a jackpot! Where's the money at?", he asked.
"It won't gimme none", I complained; "just this dang slug made out-a paste-board."
I held it out; Barge turned it over and over, lookin' at them $ 5 $ marks. Then he took me by both shoulders and backed me up ag'inst the slot machine and said:
"You stand right 'ere, an' don't let nobody mess with 'at thang....you hear me?"
"I hear ye'", I said; "But what you gon' do?"
"I'm gon' go get Papa", he said.
"Aw, naw! Don't do that....he'll whup me fer sure", I begged.
He looked down at me from his almost six-foot-tall and two hundred pounds vantage, and said:
"Buddy, I ain't gon' let nobody whup you; jes' do like I say."
He crossed over and entered the bar-room side, where Papa was at.
"Papa, can I see ye' out here for a minute, sir?"
Papa nodded, and followed him outside the bannister.
Papa stood, head bent down a little, listenin' to Barge...but lookin' square at me. Papa held out his hand and Barge laid that paste-board token in it. Papa looked at it, glared at me again, then walked over to the bartender and laid the token on the bar.
"Yessir", said the barkeep, "what'll it be?"
"This paste-board bro-zene was all that come out-a that slot machine yonder, when my boy (he pointed at me) got a jackpot; what's the story on 'at?"
"There ain't no story...that boy ain't old enough to play no slot machine."
"Wa'al, I'll tell ye' one dang thang....his nickel was old enough, when he stuck it in 'ere and hit that jackpot. If ye' don't want yonkers playing the thang, put it over here in the saloon where they can't get to it", Papa said sternly.
"Mister, are you tryin' to give me a hard time?"
"Naw-sir, I ain't. But I aim to have five dollars for this-here bro-zene; or I'm gon' take that slot machine back down on Alligator Bayou and open it up with a cold chisel an' hammer...now, which'll it be?"
The bartender griped and grumbled, but it was hard for anybody to stare into them steely blue eyes of Papa Abb for very long. The man mashed the "no sale" button and pulled the lever on the cash register; then he laid a five-dollar bill on the bar.
"Naw...gimme four ones and four quarters", Papa said.
The bartender muttered under his breath, but made the change. Papa put the four one-dollar bills in the bib pocket of his overalls, and came walkin' over towards me. Barge stayed right close beside of him. As they got close, I was watchin' Barge more'n I was Papa; because he'd promised to keep Papa from killin' me.
"Boy, you know you ain't had bid-ness messin' with 'at slot machine", he told me. "Don't you never do nothin' like that again! Here, now...y'all take this quarter a-piece...an' give this'n to ye' big sister."
"Naw-sir---yes-sir", me and Barge chorused.
Then Papa said: "Uhhhh...boys, I rek'n there ain't no need of us upsettin' ye' Mammy. We'll jes' keep this 'tween us boys...all right?"