Forging a Bond with the Chain Gang
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Commentator Lauretta Hannon grew up in rural Georgia in a military town. Many of the Air Force families there were transient; they didn't develop the small-town intimacy that's common in many parts of the rural South. So when she was a little girl, her main companion was her mother.
There wasn't much to do in Warner Robins, Georgia, in the early '70s but ride around, so that's what Mama and I did. During my preschool days, we tooled around in a butter-colored Cadillac stocked with vodka and orange juice. I sat on the armrest in the front seat, biting at the air rushing from the vent. This was before child seats and air bags, but I had the ultimate protection, the Mama arm of steel. At the slightest tap of the brake, her arm would slam me against the seat.
Our greatest adventures involved chain gangs, crews of convicts that worked by the road. When we'd happen upon these crews, we'd rush to the nearest convenience store and buy cartons of cigarettes for them. We might have been broke, but Mama was never cheap. She bought the best brands: Marlboros, Kents and Winstons. My job was to break up the cartons so that we could hurl the packs out the window. Timing was crucial. The men had to snatch the cigarettes before the boss man and his shotgun could intervene. Not once did we ride by without doing something. Our mission was too important and way too fun.
Mama would floor it once we were sure contact had been made. I'd leap over the front seat and press my face hard against the back window. I loved watching the prisoners smile and hoist the packs high above their heads as we fled in a cloud of red dust. Sometimes one of the men cried, but I knew he wasn't sad. As a four-year-old, I saw the radical happiness I had caused. For the first time, I became aware of my own power. I savored the view long into the distance. Once they were out of sight, I'd stretch across the back seat and picture them in my head, the men in stripes with their wide grins and salty tears.
SIEGEL: Lauretta Hannon lives in Powder Springs, Georgia.
SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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