I first learned what a bad boy Milburn was at an Angel Martinez revival in 1955 when the teenage delinquent reached into the bulging offering plate and pocketed a wad of money intended for the Lord’s work. He was two rows in front of me, but I moved back a little for fear of a potential thunderbolt from Heaven.
Not long after that, Milburn shot a teacher under the chin on the last day of school with chunk of concrete from a homemade slingshot. Mrs. Thornton was waving goodbye to her homeroom class when, zap, Milburn got revenge for all the detentions, trips to the principal’s office and daily humiliations. Mrs. Thornton used to have all her pupils go to the front of the classroom and articulate the phrase, “Wasps build nests on posts.” Most of us learned to control our tongues and front teeth well enough to sound the “psps” sounds at the end of “wasps, nests and posts.” Milburn never could. His version of the phrase was “Waspes build nestes on postes.” He would say it that way every time, much to Mrs. Thornton’s displeasure.
He went to reform school for that assault on our teacher and came back to our school the next year with ragged, self-inflicted tattoos below his knuckles that spelled ugly words when he laced his fingers. Reform school had not helped him towards kindness. On the contrary, the place made him meaner. Shortly after he returned, he threw a chubby boy named Bobby down on the curb on the way home from school. Bobby wailed and bled profusely from a gash in his forehead, while Milburn gloated over his random act of violence.
Miss Grace, a neighbor lady who walked close to the Lord, observed to the church boys I ran with that we should allow Milburn into our group. She put it this way, “When hunters train bird dogs, they put the bad dogs in with the good ones, and they learn to be good dogs.” I understood the analogy, but doubted it applied to Milburn’s relationship with other boys. We feared him, even the older boys. We also found his company obnoxious, because he had absolutely no sense of humor, and we lived on laughter.
Anyway, Miss Grace employed all of us, including Milburn, to clear some land near her home. I tried not to work too close to this conscienceless miscreant with a sling blade, but he kept sidling up to work beside me. I soon learned that it was because I had a car and he wanted to use me and it for criminal activity. He whispered to me how much money we could make going to oil fields and getting scrap metal. “We could take that back seat out of that old wreck of yours and haul two or three hundred pounds to Smackover. We’d split the money right down the middle. What do you say?”
I know I sounded like a sissy when I replied that my mother would not allow me to use the car in that fashion. Milburn started pushing me and making fun of me, calling me a mamma’s baby. Fixing my gaze on the sharp implement in his hand and remembering Mrs. Thornton’s wound and Bobby’s injury, I felt certain my life was almost over. That’s when Grace intervened. She must have been watching from the edge of the woods. She grabbed Milburn by the ear with one hand and cast the sling blade away from him with the other. “I’m taking this cur home, boys.” That was her way of saying, “This dog won’t hunt.” Thank God for Grace.
Daniel G. Ford