The Ballad of Old Man Peters

by Jon Franklin


© 1984 by The Evening Sun

Used with permission



Verse One:


Time is precious as it runs out, and Old Man Peters spends long hours at his desk, writing and studying, fighting for a little more knowledge. Death is near, but he brushes away the cold comprehension. There has never been time for fear, and there is none now.

Prudence, though . . . prudence is another matter.

Outside, beyond the double-locked doors, poor teenagers traverse the alley on the way to nowhere, casting occasional glances at the old man’s rowhouse.

For a lifetime Wilk Peters traveled the world in search of its people and its wisdom, and he brought his knowledge back to black universities to share with the students there — but the children who pass in the alley know nothing of that.

Their minds are filled with the hormones of youth, and to them the old man is . . . an old man, that’s all, an incomprehensibly ancient old man, 82 years old. Spent. Finished.

To some of them, he is prey. For those Mr. Peters has locks on the doors, locks on the garage, steel screens on the windows . . . but he doesn’t consider moving. Moving would take precious time.

He sits at his desk, a book of Italian grammar open in front of him. He stares at it. The mind behind the eyes is old, years beyond the average life expectancy of, as the actuaries so succinctly put it, a black male.

Outside, a truck thunders down The Alameda.

He reads a line, loses it, reads it again.

The scientists say that there are two kinds of memory, short-term and long-term. It is as though life writes its current experiences upon some blackboard in the mind and, as the days pass, the brain copies the information into a permanent library.

But at 82 the blackboard often goes blank prematurely. Then what Mr. Peters learned today, a moment ago, is lost. When that happens, he stubbornly begins again. In recent years he has learned to make notes to himself, lest he forget an appointment, or an important fact.

But he needs no notes to remember his childhood, and the romantic, impossible dream that saw him safely through decades of racism, poverty, and ignorance . . . the dream that guides him still.

The dream began in Trinity county,Texas, in the southern forest east of the great prairie, the part ofTexasthat had enough rainfall for cotton to grow; Klan country, where the nights were ruled by racial paranoia.

Wilk’s father John had once owned his own farm, but that was a violation of the racial code. After a series of night attacks by anonymous riflemen he abandoned the land and fled for his life.

Wilk was born a few years later, in 1900, in a sharecropper’s cabin. His mother, Martha, carried him with her when she went to work in the fields, and soon he was joined by another baby, and then another.

With each season, the family changed farms, seeking a better life, finding hard labor instead. Wilk learned to supervise his younger brothers and sisters, then to hoe.

At the age of eight he was an American serf walking behind a plow mule.

But even then there was some special, indefinable thing about Wilk Peters. Somehow he sensed that the world stretched far beyond theTexashorizon.

Though he had never seen them, he knew from school that the earth included seas and mountains, and was home to people who were hues of brown, red and yellow. To the north wasOklahoma, somewhere to the southwest a place calledMexico.

Mexico. . . he liked the way the word slid along the tongue.

It was a foreign country — exotic in the poor boy’s mind, yet near enough that he occasionally heard Spanish spoken by travelers. It had a romantic sound, rich with rhythm and vowels, and to hear the incomprehensible words filled him with a restless, inarticulate lust to . . . to . . . to go.

His parents had attended grammar school, and though they had never learned to read without effort they understood enough to know that education was the path to emancipation. And they recognized that Wilk’s . . .  specialness . . . if it was to flourish, required tangible aspirations.

Considering his son’s future,Johngroped far beyond his own experience.

He had never seen a library or a college campus. He knew nothing of engineers and scientists, of economists or accountants. There was only one educated man in his humble experience, an awesome figure in a tall black hat — the doctor.

Wilk would be . . . a doctor.

A doctor.

The word was a gift from father to son, and it settled in the boy’s mind and lodged there, a kernel of reality around which his inchoate yearnings could coalesce. The word gave definition to his life and focus to his mind, and it led him to an instinctive understanding of the enemy.        The doctor represented knowledge. The antithesis, the enemy, was ignorance.

The dream gave school a special urgency, and while his classmates daydreamed Wilk diligently pursued the art of penmanship and the abstract rhythms of mathematics.

He learned that there was a country calledFrance, beyond the Atlantic Ocean, and another calledRussia.Switzerlandwas a place of mountains. InSpain, matadors challenged enraged bulls. Armies marched inGermany. Boatmen poled gondolas through the canals ofVenice.

The boll weevil was by virtue of its six legs an insect, and separate from the eight-legged family of spiders.

Wilk was wary of spiders, snakes and white men, but he wasn’t afraid of them. In his nightmares he recoiled from a far more horrible evil, ignorance, and with his entire being he concentrated on the desperate need to beat it back. Step by encouraging step, he saw himself succeeding.

Another sister was born, then a brother, then another sister, finally seven in all. Mother and father slept in the main room of the cabin, the children in the side room.

JohnPeters was a good and provident farmer, and though there was little cash there was no hunger. The family raised its own poultry, grew its own garden, smoked its own hams and kept range cattle.

The seasons changed and Wilk grew. With the approach of Christmas and Thanksgiving the cabin began to smell of baking cookies and cakes. The holiday table was laden with turkey, stuffing, bowls of home-grown vegetables and woman’s most wonderful contribution to man, sweet potato pie. If there was no Christmas tree with gifts beneath it, no one felt the lack.

They were years of innocent hope, of family laughter and poverty lightly borne, when life stretched on toward infinity and dreams were indistinguishable from reality. Of course Wilk would be a doctor. Why not?

Then, in the spring of 1913, his father returned from an errand and collapsed heavily on the bed, disoriented. The next day he couldn’t move his left side.

Somehow the family got through the summer. From his bedJohngave orders, advice and encouragement to his wife and eldest son. Leaning on one another, Wilk and his mother hoed the corn, tended the livestock, and struggled to keep the farm and equipment in good repair. In late summer the whole family helped pick the cotton and Wilk drove it to market.

Then, in the autumn, as the days began to grow short, Wilk’s father died. They buried him in a small cemetery not far from the farm he’d been forced to abandon. There was no money for a tombstone.

Wilk stood, numb, by the grave. Without his father’s strength and knowledge, the poverty was suddenly crushing.

When school began a few days later, Wilk’s brothers and sisters went but Wilk stayed home. He was needed to take his father’s place on the farm.

As the boundaries ofTrinityCountyclosed in around him, the 13-year-old clung desperately, hopelessly, to the only thing he had left: his dream.





Verse Two


In the early years of the 20th century, the dream that a black sharecropper’s son could become a doctor was an audacious one. But while Wilk had his father to encourage and instruct him, it had somehow seemed possible.

With the approach of the winter of 1913, however, his father lay in an unmarked grave and Wilk, as the eldest of seven children, inherited adult responsibilities. For him, there could be no more school.

His father had taught him the fundamentals of farming, and Wilk could plow, hoe, chop, pick, milk and do most of the other chores. But the boy’s best efforts had gone into books, and he lacked the practical savvy that had allowed his father to support the large family.

The winter passed, followed by a summer of hard work, followed by a poor harvest, followed by a desperate winter. The next year was no better. Nor the next. Wilk yearned passionately for the sound of his father’s voice, a voice that knew all things, a voice . . .

A voice that had said, “I want you to be a doctor.”

A doctor.

The dream had no place behind a plow, no application to the process of butchering a hog, no meaning at all for a boy who had dropped out of school so early. And yet . . . somehow . . . without it he would perish.

The dream sustained him as he fought for the family’s survival, and it comforted him when he failed.

He worked hard, but hard work didn’t suffice when the rains didn’t come, or when they came too early and beat down the tiny cotton seedlings. Hard work didn’t stop the bowl weevil or the worms that burrowed into the ears of corn, and hard work couldn’t help his little sister.

Wilk’s youngest sister had always been sickly, but now she grew increasingly thin and weak. A doctor was called.

Wilk watched with awe as the man examined his sister, but the outcome wasn’t any comfort. The girl was very sick, the doctor said. But he didn’t know why, and he had no medicine that would help.

Harvest brought still another failure. The family needed money for food and Wilk and his mother looked around for something to sell.

There was nothing left but the mules. They brought very little.

It was then that the Reverend EvaJohnson entered their lives.

The ReverendJohnson was part black and part American Indian, a man with a bible, a bible and a job, a real job, in the turpentine forests . . . and a man with an eye for Wilk’s mother.

Wilk instinctively disliked the preacher. He watched suspiciously as the courtship developed, but was helpless to prevent the marriage. Then, when the family moved to the turpentine camp, the boy’s worst fears were confirmed.

Soon he and his brothers and sisters were at labor in the long-leaf pine forests, scarring the trees to bring the resin out, collecting the sap and pouring it into barrels, hauling it to the distillery for conversion into turpentine.

As for the preacher . . . sometimes he read a few words from the bible, but he wasn’t a real preacher after all. Sometimes he worked in the turpentine forests, but he usually had something more important to do, like hunting and fishing.

The turpentine work was difficult, menial labor, from dawn to dusk, and the days blended into one another. With the passage of time Wilk’s image of himself as a doctor deteriorated into fantasy, a fantasy that grew increasingly difficult to capture.

Wilk was in the forests, scarring trees, when word came that his youngest sister was dead.

Then he stood, at age 16, in another anonymous free cemetery, miles from where his father was buried, watching them lower his sister’s wooden coffin into the ground.     For two more years he worked, taking orders from his stepfather. But he balked when the man decreed that the family would move again, to work for a new turpentine company.

Wilk, for his part, suspected that one turpentine forest was much like another, and, anyway, he wasn’t going anywhere . . . nowhere, at least, with the preacher.

He stayed and the family moved on. For the first time in his life, Wilk was alone. He was 18.

Confused and unsure of himself, he hung around the turpentine forest and grappled with the future. The dream was all but gone now, and it offered no inspiration.

Finally, hearing of work in the lumber mill town ofDiboll, and having no reason to stay where he was, he took his few belongings and headed down the dirt road, one foot in front of another.

Diboll was a sawmill town of perhaps 2,500, a collection of green-wood shacks, dirt roads, and a company store . . . and it was always in need of another strong back. Within a few days of his arrival Wilk was pushing slabs of lumber toward a howling planer.

It was a tiny, humble place, lost in the hot southTexasforest, a transient town that would vanish as soon as the timber was gone.

But to the young farmboy it was a wonder. Model A Fords, used by the lumber company, frightened horses on the street. There was electricity, a boardwalk in front of the store, and a bewildering number of faces.

And some of those faces, he found as he settled into the first of a long line of cheap rooming houses, had intelligence behind them.

Almost all the residents of Diboll could read and write, and most had at one time or another journeyed down to Tyler, 125 miles away . . . Tyler, the place of dreams, home of the black place of learning, the Methodist-owned Texas College.

Wilk found that some of the other young men at the lumbermill had also dreamed of getting an education, and that some of them had actually gone toTylerand enrolled. They had failed, however, and had returned to the mill in Diboll.

This intelligence had a dramatic impact on young Wilk. If they could go, so could he! The gossamer fantasy instantly solidified in his mind, from possibility to dream to goal to necessity.

Yet . . . the men he talked to had failed.

InTylerthey had somehow lost the dream, forgotten their priorities, mismanaged their money, failed to apply themselves to their studies, flunked out . . .

It was said in Diboll that an illiterate, once he became an adult, was done for. The mind was set, firm, impossible to teach.

The thought filled Wilk with cold terror. He couldn’t believe it was too late; he refused to believe it. If he ever got the chance, he promised himself, he would not drop out.

If he got the chance?

Wilk looked around him, at the automobiles, at the sawmill, at the goods in the company store, at the simple machinery he operated at the sawmill. To make those things, somebody, somewhere, had to know something. To make the trains run, somebody had to know something.

Desperately, he wanted to be one of those people.

So it wasn’t if he went to college. Not if.


He would have to save money, and in the meantime he would have to study, to make up for lost time.

The resolution made, his ignorance became suddenly intolerable, and he couldn’t wait. He borrowed some primers and, when he wasn’t working, he reviewed arithmetic and grammar. Then he found a book on mathematics. It was incomprehensible, but he refused to put it down.

By day he worked at the sawmill, by night he studied, on Sundays he went to the local church, on payday . . .

On payday, every two weeks, he carefully divided his money into three small stacks. One stack was for home — for shoes for his sisters, a dress for his mother, for whatever was needed. The second stack was for his own modest requirements.

The third stack was the smallest, by far, but by far the most precious. It was for the dream.

A dollar became, with the addition of another, two dollars. Five dollars grew into ten, ten became twelve, twelve became thirteen.

Wilk began to worry about security. There weren’t any banks in Diboll, and he didn’t dare leave the money in his room.

The solution was to fold it and knot it into a handkerchief. Before he went to work he put the handkerchief into his right pants pocket, then tied a string around the bottom of the pocket so that the handkerchief couldn’t possibly fall out. At night, he slept with the handkerchief pinned into his pajama pocket.

A year passed in work and study, then two. The more he learned, the more voracious his appetite for knowledge became. Slowly the puzzle of mathematics yielded to his stubborn attack, and he was captivated by the sweet logic of it.

As he learned, the idea of learning itself broadened. When some of the townspeople talked of forming a band, for instance, he was mesmerized by the idea.

Back in the turpentine forests some people had played a guitar, but . . . a band! All those different instruments!

Music was still another thing for a young, hungry mind to learn, and Wilk spent precious money on a used clarinet. After that he worked, he studied, and he played.

The handkerchief got too full to carry with him. He walked to a nearby town, located a trusted aunt, and gave her $50 to hide for him.

And another year passed, and another. He sent off toTylerfor a college catalog. He pored over it, neglecting the clarinet.

Soon, now.

One Sunday a note appeared on the church bulletin board, announcing an educational meeting. Dr. W. R. Banks, the president ofTexasCollege, would give a lecture and be available afterward to answer questions.

Wilk returned to his room and re-counted his savings. The total, including the money that had been left in the care of his aunt, amounted to almost $300.

That evening Wilk was at the church early, and when the program began he listened spellbound to the tall, unbelievably erudite gentleman who seemed to know every word in the dictionary and could make ideas dance in the air like notes on a page of music.

Afterwards, Wilk overcame his intimidation, went up to the man, and demanded his attention.

Wilk confessed that he was 23, and had only a sixth-grade education. But he’d saved some money. And he could work hard.

Was it possible?

The college president studied the intent young man. Experience told him Wilk was too old, but he hadn’t the heart to say so.

Nothing, he equivocated, was impossible.

It was all Wilk needed to hear.

That autumn, almost precisely ten years after his father had died, Wilk packed his belongings, bought a ticket on the lumber train, and headed forTyler.





Verse Three


Intimidated, but firm in his resolve, Wilk Peters demonstrated his knowledge to the admissions officials atTexasCollege. He could do sums, and he could do take-aways. He knew nouns and verbs . . .

The officials shook their heads, sadly. The fellow knew a little, but too little, and he spoke in the condemning, ignorant slur of the field hand. A pity.

The illiterate adult who showed up on campus, hat in his hands and life savings in his pocket, was a familiar story to black educators. The eagerness to learn had somehow survived in such men as Wilk, but the youthful plasticity was gone from their minds. They tried, but they failed.

Wilk was too old . . . but who would tell him so?

No one. He would have to learn that himself.

They gave him a job shoveling coal in the furnace room of the girls’ dormitory, showed him a tiny cubbyhole where he could sleep, and explained to him where the path to knowledge began.

And so Wilk found himself, at age 23, a full-grown man with caloused hands and hardened muscles, sitting with his knees jammed under a tiny desk, wrestling with long division, surrounded by prepubescent sixth-graders.

The effect was not what the admission officials had predicted.

Wilk viewed his place in class as opportunity, not insult. If the children laughed at him he didn’t notice, preoccupied as he was with the serious business of fractions, with the parsing of sentences and the memorization of poetry.

The college maintained a secondary school on campus, so that the student teachers could get experience teaching neighborhood children. If Wilk could survive sixth grade, he was sure that next fall he would be allowed to enroll there. If he survived secondary school, then . . .          Wilk had never known security, but neither had he ever had anything to lose. Now, he had opportunity. At night, scooping coal into the big dormatory furnace, he was sometimes overwhelmed with fear.

What if something happened?

What if he got sick? What if one of his family got sick, and he had to drop out and support them? What if . . . what if, now that he stood on the threshhold of a world which he wanted desperately . . . but which he didn’t understand . . . what if he lost his courage?

If there might be no tomorrow, he would have to study harder today. In that way, the sixth grade progressed. The following summer he went toDallasto work and save money.

When he’d left in the spring theTexasCollegefaculty had assumed they’d seen the last of him. Their surprise showed on their faces when he returned in the fall and asked to enroll in secondary school.

That year he met Shakespeare. Shakespeare seemed to speak directly to him, over a span of four centuries, from beyond an ocean, across the immense chasm of race.

He read the famous words, “To be or not to be: that is the question,” and then he read them again, and again. At night, as he shoveled coal, he thought about the English bard, he considered the symbols of elementary algebra, and he memorized Latin.

He also discovered the library.

It was a sacred place, as hushed as a church, and it occupied the entire top floor of one of the college buildings. The library had books on every subject Wilk had ever heard of . . . and many he hadn’t . . . and there were more titles than he’d ever imagined could exist. They were all neatly arranged by some scheme that he didn’t immediately grasp.

The young man walked the aisles in wonder, looking at the words on the spines and touching the bindings.    The librarian was Govina Banks, the president’s wife, and she, as much as her husband, was responsible for the careful husbanding of the black community’s meager intellectual resources. Thoughtfully, she watched the young man.

A year passed, another. Sometimes on Saturday and Sunday Wilk found odd jobs inTyler, a thriving metropolis of perhaps 11,000 souls. One Christmas a package arrived from Wilk’s mother. It contained a blanket.

He found his support and courage in books. When he discovered something he considered particularly valuable, he transferred the words to memory:

“The stones are sharp, and cut my hands. But I must build . .  . and build . . . and build . . . until this temple stands.”

In a volume of obscure quotations he discovered the motto, “Keep on keeping on.” He soon forgot who said it, but he would never forget the words.

Slowly, so slowly that he would not perceive it for many years yet, Wilk began to change.

In part it was knowledge that changed him, the simple accumulation of historical dates and geometric theorems, of Shakespeare and the exotic sound of Latin. But he also responded, on a more fundamental level, to his own success.

He had been a dreamer. Now, in beating back the ignorance, he was turning his dream into reality.

He had always respected knowledge.

Now, he began to respect himself.

If he could survive the junior year of high school, what else might he do? Might he . . .

What, he wondered, was Shakespeare’sEnglandlike? What was it like in Hamlet’sDenmark? What was a place called “France?” And what would it be like to walk the streets ofItaly?

His thoughts moved in another direction, as well. One of his student teachers was a young lady named Geneva Crouch . . . and . . . and she was one of the prettiest women he had ever seen.

Sometimes, as he listened to her, his mind wandered far off the subject of English . . .

He said nothing to her, of course. It was against the rules for students to date teachers, and he didn’t dare risk the anger of the administration.

When he graduated from high school in the spring of 1928 there was a small ceremony, but Wilk missed it because he had to work. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, though. It wouldn’t be the last time he graduated from something; of that he was certain.

His fear of failure had vanished. If he had made it this far then he could keep on keeping on all the way to . . . where?

It didn’t matter. Somewhere. Medical school.

That fall, the year he turned 28, he enrolled as a freshman inTexasCollege.

Though his education was still far from completed, life was different now. As a laborer in grammar school he’d been nothing, a nobody, an inevitable failure who would probably be back in the fields by next year.

But a college student . . . now, that was different. In the black community inSouth Texasat the close of the roaring 20s, a college student merited respect.

The next two years were consumed by work and study. Wilk traded Latin for French. He wrestled with higher algebra, and won. Analytical geometry followed, and history, and sociology, and biology. Such were the threads of fantasy, that went into the fabric of dreams.

As he grew, the little Methodist campus seemed to shrink. There were, after all, only 300 students — and the college lost substantially in appeal when Dr. Banks, the president, quit to take over as president of the state’sPrairieViewA & MCollegesome 150 miles distant.

Worse, the pretty teacher,Geneva, left for Prairie View with them.

Then in the autumn of 1929 the stock market crashed, and there was talk that the menial jobs formerly reserved for black people should go, instead, to out-of-work whites.     As the economic situation deteriorated Wilk understood that he might not be able to go directly to medical school, as his father would have wished, but he wasn’t alarmed.

He would have to go to work for a while, that was all, until he could save enough money for medical school. He could teach mathematics, a subject in which he was quickly becoming an expert.

And anyway, he felt as though he had shed the cloak of ignorance. He was a student, a good one, smart enough to get high marks, good enough to write away to Prairie View and get accepted immediately.

At Prairie View, Mrs. Banks helped him find a job waiting tables in the student cafeteria.

During the next two years at the larger college, Wilk continued his intellectual and emotional growth. He concentrated on mathematics and took up German on the side. There was even enough time, occasionally, for conversations withGeneva.

He said nothing personal, of course, because he was still a student and she a teacher, but in subtle ways he expressed his interest. He couldn’t tell by her reserved manner whether she reciprocated his feelings or not.

As the winter of 1930-31 tapered into spring, and Wilk’s graduation approached, he faced the world with high hopes. He had become fascinated with languages, and a few years spent teaching math would give him time to get deeply into German.

He sent off applications to every blackTexashigh school he could think of, and sat back to await the replies.

A week passed. He got a rejection, then another. But mostly there was . . . nothing.

He couldn’t understand what was wrong.

As graduation approached, Wilk borrowed enough money to rent a cap and gown. His family didn’t come, butGenevadid.

The commencement speaker was a woman who was president of another black college inTexas, and Wilk listened, along with 150 other graduating seniors, as she counseled them not to be disheartened by the economic situation.

“It’s not dusk,” she insisted. “It’s dawn.”

Afterwards Wilk approached her, as he had approached Dr. Banks ten years earlier in that DiBoll church. But now, as he inquired about teaching jobs, he was not nearly so humble.

“What can you do?” she inquired.

“Well,” he said proudly, “I can teach math.”

She waited for a moment, as though expecting him to continue. When she realized he had finished, a frown settled on her face.

“Our schools need more than that,” she snapped. “They’re poor. The windows are broken out. The water is cut off. The roof leaks . . .  It’s not enough to just teach math! What I’m asking is what else can you do.”

Wilk was taken aback. The cum laude on his new college degree notwithstanding, he had to stammer an admission that, beyond mathematics, he had almost no skills at all.

The woman shifted her attention to another graduate and Wilk, wounded, withdrew.

Not since he had been a 23-year-old grammar school student, memorizing multiplication tables with children, had he been so acutely aware of his ignorance.





Verse Four


After graduation in 1933 Wilk Peters hung around the Prairie View campus, hoping that some high school, somewhere, would hire him as a mathematics teacher. But as the depression deepened, no acceptance letter came.

There was no work in town, either, so Wilk volunteered to help file and cross-reference material at the college library.

He liked library work, and thought it was good for him. There was peace there, in that temple-like place, handling the precious books, indexing the valuable knowledge so that it could be found by other hungry minds. The library freed his mind for thought.

He looked at the shelves of books that he’d never read, and he asked himself, again and again, what he knew of the world. The answer was not reassuring.

As he worked, the chief librarian watched him and noted the reverence with which he handled each volume. She discussed him with Mrs. Govina Banks, the wife of the college president.

Mrs. Banks thought back to the old days atTexasCollege, when she had been in charge of the library there. She remembered the ignorant young laborer who had gazed with such wonder at her mere 6,000 volumes. Obviously, a college degree had not changed him.

She approached Wilk.

Had he ever thought, she inquired, of becoming a librarian?

Wilk stared at her in shock. The idea was so perfect . . . and he’d never even thought of it, so firmly had he fixed his mind on his father’s edict to become a doctor.

But “becoming a doctor”, Wilk knew, had been no more than a symbol in his father’s mind. The doctor was the persona of the educated man.

It wasn’t an M.D. that his father had really wanted for him, it was knowledge. And what was a librarian after all but a custodian of knowledge? Mrs. Banks was right; his father would have approved.

The decision made, Wilk’s floundering ended. At Mrs. Bank’s urging he applied for a scholarship to the Hampton Institute’s college of library science inVirginia, and was accepted. Then he proposed marriage to Geneva Crouch, and she accepted him too.

It was a wonderful summer, almost as though life were beginning anew.

That autumn Wilk, who at 33 had never been beyond the borders ofTexas, left his bride, hitched a ride toKentuckyand traveled the rest of the way to school inVirginiaby train.

He made the trip wide-eyed, his overflowing brain absorbing new sights, sounds and cultures faster than he could process them. He felt himself becoming wiser with each mile.

For years he had fantasized about traveling, but the idea had seemed frivolous and he’d repressed it. But by the time his trip toVirginiaended he understood that travel wasn’t frivolous at all — it was another way of beating back the ignorance.

Finally, inVirginia, he stood one cold day on a beach, looking out over the famousAtlantic Ocean, trying to visualize the exotic places that lay on the other shore. He was consumed with the lust to see them all.

It was an awakening, and though Wilk would return toTexasCollegethe following spring, there to serve as librarian for four years, he would never be the same.

Back inTexas, as soon as his finances would allow he purchased an automobile, and that spring he and his wife drove toNew Yorkand spent the summer studying atColumbia. Afterwards they drove toQuebec.

It was like being in fairyland. Wilk was surrounded by foreigners speaking strange sounds . . . and he understood them.

On the way back toTexashe thought about the many kinds of peoples in the world, and all the different languages, and how the people were barred from talking with one another. The language barrier, he decided, was a kind of ignorance . . . an impediment to knowledge.

He was chagrined that he could speak only French . . . French, and a little German. He would have to do something about that.

There wasn’t much time or energy for the new dream, though. AtTexasCollege, and later atLangstonUniversityinOklahoma, Wilk was brought face-to-face with hundreds of young black people, ignorant as he had been ignorant, desperate to learn.

He was all but consumed in the task of teaching them to thread their way through the encyclopedias, the histories, the periodicals.

But at night there was always some time, if only a few minutes, to study German.

In 1944 Wilk received an invitation to join the staff of the Cleveland Public Library, which at the time was widely considered to be among the top three city library systems in the country. He jumped at the chance.

Mrs. Banks had indeed been right. Wilk’s profession was perfectly matched to his dream of learning. Everything he did in library science brought him into contact with more information, and every job he had taught him something new.

In Cleveland, for instance, he was one of several people who were required to read the new books that came in and report on each one’s approach and its value to the library.

Because the other book review librarians worked an earlier shift, Wilk had to read whatever they left . . . dull stuff. And, because it was the mid-1940s, a lot of that dull stuff was contained in arcane, analytical tomes aboutRussiaand communism.

It fascinated Wilk that the Russian people, as far as he could determine, were not much different from Americans. They apparently had the same aspirations, the same dreams, the same need to understand and cope with the world around them. But for the Russians it had somehow gone tragically wrong.

Wilk wished he could speak Russian . . .

Well, why not?

And so Russian became language number three. It allowed him to read books by Russian Jews and, as the son of a black American serf, Wilk identified with their travails.

It would be wonderful, he thought, to visitRussia. He couldn’t of course . . . he had neither the money nor the time.

In 1948 Wilk moved on to the Tuskeegee Institute, where he landed a good job as an assistant reference librarian. As usual it was hard work and long hours, but also as usual there were many new things to learn.

In addition to languages, he now sought the humble skills he lacked.

He became fascinated, for instance, with small engines. He knew from his farming and gardening experiences that plants, when intelligently cared for, rewarded the gardener far beyond the measure of his effort. Might not small engines respond the same way?

He ordered an engine repair manual and, when he wasn’t working or studying languages, he tinkered with his lawnmower. When he it running perfectly, he started working on his neighbors’.

He also found interesting and profitable relationships with people. One of his coworkers was a native ofHaiti, and when the man went home for a visit he invited Wilk andGenevato come along. They leaped at the chance.

It was Wilk’s first truly foreign country, and he was repelled by the poverty . . . but fascinated by the people. The common folk spoke a mysterious language called Creole, but the professionals could all speak French.         They treated Wilk like royalty, and his ability to converse with them made him feel like a citizen of the world. The visit was far too short, and coming back felt like a return to prison.

Wilk turned fifty at Tuskeegee. The students, he couldn’t help but notice, called him “sir” with increasing frequency.

He shrugged it off. Certainly he didn’t feel any older and he still had plenty of . . . of . . . of whatever it was that made young men chase dreams.

He sat in the Tuskeegee Library, helping students, filing books, organizing material, contributing, working . . .

God, but he wanted to go toGermany.

OrAustralia.Australiawould do nicely.


The months passed, one after another, but the yearning didn’t go away.

Then one day he got a letter from a friend he’d made long ago inOklahoma, a man who was now chairman of the English department at Morgan State College inBaltimore. Morgan was expanding into library sciences, and needed a good teacher. Was Wilk interested?

For the first time in his life, Wilk hesitated. After all, he explained via return mail, Tuskeegee had a good retirement plan — a better plan thanMorganState.

Wilk’s friend inBaltimorethought about it, thought about Wilk, and pondered what he knew about what made Wilk tick. Finally he wrote back.

MorganState, he pointed out, with the brilliance of psychological matador going in over the horns with a sharp sword . . . Morgan teachers worked on a nine-month contract, with summers off.

If Wilk took the job he would have time to do, well, to do . . . whatever he wanted.

Wilk stared at the letter. The idea was pure nitroglycerine.

Whatever . . . he . . . wanted.

Whatever . . . or wherever!




The moon.

He forced himself to think logically.

Francewould be first. In fact, he had a little savings . . . why not go toFrancethe summer before moving toBaltimore? Yes. Of course. Adrenaline pumped through his brain. That was a wonderful idea.

Life would never be the same.

AtMorganState, Wilk Peters became the ageless, friendly librarian who seemed to have a personal grudge against ignorance.

He was the one who was always helping out the foreign students . . . the absent-minded fellow who was always ready to assist an American student with a French translation, or to help with an essay that had to be written in German, or to decipher the meaning of an obscure Russian, Italian or Spanish phrase  . . . the man who studied languages at night and disappeared every summer.

He traveled inexpensively, on reduced-rate steamships and bargain airlines, tramping through kingdoms his father had never heard of, eating local food, staying in student dormitories or private homes, studying, observing, absorbing, learning.

In the summertime Wilk was a student, not a teacher. He spent three months at theUniversityofBarcelona, studying Spanish, geography, music, literature and art. At the Sorbonne inParishe studied French and French civilization. He studied inQuebec, inBerlin, inVienna. As he grew more proficient, he began studying more on his own.

Each Autumn he returned to Morgan State, bearing gifts of the mind . . . tales from Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Norway, England, Ireland . . . so many countries that, when he was asked to list them by a fascinated student or a campus newspaper reporter, he couldn’t name them all from memory. Finally, he started keeping a list.        In the summer he traveled and studied, in the winter he taught library sciences. In 1961 Wilk was appointed the college’s official advisor for foreign students.

The years passed.

And then, on the 30th of June in 1966, the timeclock ran out and the professional resume ended. At 66, Wilk applied for his pension.

He was retired.

In the terms of a youth-oriented culture he was finished, washed-up, farmed-out and pumped-dry, and it was all over.

The world, as usual, was wrong.

Wilk Peters emptied his desk into a cardboard box and drove home . . . gleeful as a teenager on the first day of summer vacation.





Verse Five


At the innocent age of 42 William Shakespeare proclaimed that all the world’s a stage. But by the time Wilk Peters retired he was 66, 24 years wiser than a man of 42, and he knew better.

The world wasn’t a stage at all.

It was a campus.

And the idea that 66 was old was a wives’ tale, a fraud perpetuated by the young. Wilk felt fine; never better. And he was free!

As a free man he could choose what to do with his life. He could study more languages. He could travel in the winter, when the fares were low. He could go to bed when he liked and get up when he liked.

So, on the morning after his retirement, he got up at 7 a.m., dressed, ate breakfast, sat down at his desk and began to study. When he needed to rest his mind, he went downstairs and tinkered with the lawn mower.

Wilk took special pleasure in caring for the 1955 Chevy he’d purchased new — and which now, finally, he had time to maintain properly.

By his retirement in 1966 there were still plenty of 1955 Chevys running around, most of them rusted-out hulks that were followed wherever they went by billowing clouds of smoke. But not Wilk’s.

In Wilk’s view, 1955 was a vintage year for Chevys, and his was a standard-transmission model with no extras to conk out. He had kept it in a garage and cared for it intelligently, and it had no rust.

The old car was much like the old man, in many respects, and he drove it with pride. Every winter, before he went overseas, he put it up on blocks.        Spanish . . . now there was another thing, as elegant in its own way as the Chevy . . . a mechanism of beautiful, feminine vowels and romantically-twirled R’s. If he knew Spanish well enough he could travel independently inLatin America, spending little, learning much.

When he wasn’t working on the Chevy, tending his garden (or someone else’s), when he wasn’t fixing a lawn mower, he was at his desk studying — or was listening intently to foreign broadcasts on his short-wave radio.

As the retirement years passed, Wilk’s front lawn received lavish care and it grew lush and thick, without a weed in it.

Flowers bloomed, the holly grew, and the hedges that surrounded the little yard took on topiary shapes, green bowls and hoops and breaking ocean waves. WhileGenevastood by, proudly, the Mayor of Baltimore awarded the Wilk the “Order of the Red Rose” as part of the city’s beautification program.

The Chevy ran, if anything, better than ever before. That was true of Wilk, too. His mind stayed sharp and his body, while somewhat slower to respond, remained sound.

In the winter he studied at theUniversityofMadrid, in Tenerife, inSwitzerland, in Puerto Rico, inPeru, and he traveled throughout South America andEurope. SometimesGenevawent with him, and sometimes she preferred to stay home.

For the first time in Wilk’s life he felt truly satisfied, a student of the world, just what he’d always wanted to be. Year by year, he could see the hated ignorance retreat.

When he wasn’t traveling and studying, when there were no more weeds in his yard and when his neighbors’ lawn mowers were all running perfectly, he did volunteer work for the Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, the United Fund and other charities.

Several days a week he worked as an unpaid multilingual receptionist at the Spanish Apostolate in the 200 block ofEast 25th street. It made him feel good to help others. They were wonderful years, the best of his life, but sometimes he heard an unsettling reminder of passing time. Sometimes now he thought the teenagers looked at him strangely, even speculatively, and he overheard one say to another something about . . . about that “pitiful old man and that pitiful old car . . . ”

The words didn’t make sense to Wilk. He was fine. He was young . . . younger than they, and not nearly so ignorant. He felt fine, perfect, and the car started every time without an instant’s hesitation.

The year he turned 70 he got a letter from theGerontologyResearchCenterat City Hospitals. The GRC, the letterhead explained, was an arm of the National Institutes of Health located at City Hospitals inBaltimore.

The scientists at the center were looking for healthy old men they could study. They were trying to find out, they explained to Wilk, why old age was a misery for some people and a pleasure for others.

In terms of basic science they were also trying to determine the biochemical basis of the aging process — something that might, in theory, be isolated and identified in healthy old people like Wilk.

Wilk agreed to cooperate and spent several days in the hospital while the scientists examined him in painstaking detail. He no longer had the physique of a laborer but, for a man of 70, he was physically perfect. Wilk wasn’t surprised; he could have told them that.

There was an awkward moment, however, when the psychiatrist asked him where he’d been in his lifetime. Wilk couldn’t remember all the places . . .Argentina,Austria,Belgium,Brazil. . .Ghana,Gibraltar,Greece. . .Panama,Paraguay,Peru,Poland. . . and finallyUruguay,Venezuelaand theVirgin Islands. There were 56 in all.

His memory?

Well, he admitted to being a little absent-minded, always had been. And sometimes he forgot some perfectly obvious Russian phrase, or some word in one of his other languages . . .          Six languages and still learning more at age 70? The psychiatrist was impressed. Wilk’s brain was obviously fine.

The news from the gerontology center was nothing but good, but the doctors’ interest in his combination of good health and old age bore an unmistakable message. And, when he was working outside, the stares of passing children sent a cold wind blowing through Wilk’s mind.

He was getting old.

No, he wasn’t.

He couldn’t be.

He felt just like he always had. He was just as bright, just as curious, just as filled with the lust to learn. And yet what it all meant was that he was going to . . .

He didn’t like the word “die.” “Passed,” was far preferable. But “passed . . . ”

Wilk had always gone to church, and hoped that there was an afterlife. He hoped, but it didn’t seem very likely. Still, the concept of “God” was helpful here. At 70, anytime . . .

The words that came were, “At 70, the man upstairs might pull your ticket anytime.”

And he left it at that, in favor of Spanish, German . . . Italian.

Italian was a new love. Italian was springtime and romantic youth, the youth the old man felt in his bones when he was supposed to be feeling the icy presence of death.

Year followed year, and the Chevy grew older. The people at the Motor Vehicle Administration told him he could buy historic tags for it, if he liked. It was an antique.

An antique! That was fascinating.

Wilk looked at the car and yes, it was old, but it was well cared for. It’d carry him many a mile yet.

Sometimes, in the late 70s, Wilk’s memory started to slip.

His wifeGenevathought he was getting a little deaf, but he denied it. He could hear the roar of a climbing airplane, hear the sounds of Peruvian children, hear the perfectly-timed engine of the antique Chevy.

On his visits to the gerontology center the scientists noted a small but increasing diminution of strength. He was beginning to grow weak. They looked at the numbers with interest.

Most old people were sick with something . . . it was so common that many doctors thought, without really thinking about it, that age and illness were the same thing. But they weren’t. Aging was different. It was . . . well, it was what they were trying to find out.

It was only natural that Wilk didn’t feel old. Old people, when they’re not sick, don’t feel any differently than young ones. When they’re crotchety . . . that, the doctors had found, was because they were in pain.

The teenagers, now, began to seriously concern Wilk.

They seemed like a new group of people, alien almost, heads full of judgement but empty of wisdom. He saw them pointing at him and the old car, and heard their laughter. It made him uneasy. He installed heavier locks on all the doors.

Finally one year the doctors at the gerontology center found a break in the armor of health. Wilk had diabetes, and it was serious enough to treat. It could be controlled, but he had to be careful about what he ate.

It was a small thing, but sobering.

If he had to eat special food, that severely circumscribed his ability to live off the land, restricted him to relatively civilized countries. Still, there were plenty of modernized countries to choose from, and there was no use worrying about it.

A joint condition, which he’d had since he was a young man, flared up.

It was ironic. Each day he knew still more about Russian and small engines, more aboutGermany,Uruguay,Senegal. . . real knowledge sometimes seemed almost within his grasp . . .

But each day that he grew less ignorant he also grew weaker. With advancing age he was increasingly vulnerable to influenza, common colds, and dietary imbalances.

He turned 80, 81, 82 . . .  He lived on, as did hisGeneva, in the little house on The Alameda.

It was too late now, in 1982, for the dreamed-of trip around the world, too late to safely explore disease-riddenIndia.

But it was not yet over. It was not too late for . . . where? It was a big decision.


So 1982 was the year he took out the Italian books, and started studying.

Learning was definitely more difficult now . . . the words kept slipping away, getting wiped off the blackboard before they could be committed to long-term memory. He sat at his desk, forcing his mind to concentrate, to digest.

There was a break in the routine when one day a letter arrived fromPrairieViewA & MCollegeinTexas, his alma mater. The college leadership wanted Wilk to be the convocation speaker during homecoming in November.

It was a singular honor, and Wilk laid aside his Italian books to write his speech. He wanted to do it justice.

It was difficult going. He knew many languages, but they were just words, all equally useless when it came time to speak from the heart.

You had to keep on keeping on, that was all.

But how could he tell that to an audience of young students who would never know what it was like to walk behind a mule, to sit in the back of the bus? He thought of the teenagers, who knew too little to comprehend their own ignorance.

Wilk still didn’t feel old, not even at 82, but writing the speech dredged up memories and made him think of all the years of learning that came after graduation. And he found, as he searched for honest words, an anger he hadn’t known was there.

He was tired, sick and tired, of the complaining he heard around him.

Finally, in November, he stood before the audience.     He told them his story and then, searching for a way to make the lesson real, he told them a parable about a black couple. The couple lost everything they had because of drinking and poor management, but they complained all the time that “whity” was to blame.

Racism is a fact, he said.

But so is courage.

And then, borrowing the words of James Ephraim McGirt, he read them an old poem:



Success is a light upon the farther shore,

That shines in dazzling splendor to the eye,

The waters leap, the surging billows roar,

And he who seeks the prize must leap and try.



A mighty host stand trembling on the brink,

With anxious eyes they yearn to reach the goal.

I see them leap, and, ah! I see them sink —

As gazing on dread horror fills my soul.



Yet to despair I can but droop and die,

‘Tis better far to try the lashing deep.

I much prefer beneath the surge to lie,

Than death to find me on this bank asleep.



After the clapping and the handshaking was over, Old Man Peters went home to Baltimore, to his red brick rowhouse with steel mesh on the windows, behind the double-locked doors, and he sent off letters inquiring about a small apartment in Rome. When they were written he opened his Italian book.

Late into the autumn he sat at his desk, studying the language of the Caesars, absorbing the words with the undiminished intensity of a desperate black boy, born in the year 1900, angrily beating back the ignorance.

Each day Wilk forced a few more words into his mind, adding them to the tens of thousands already there, accumulated through a life of study. Each day the new words fitted in with the old, and he felt a little more comfortable with Italian, and with the world.

The man upstairs might have pulled Wilk’s card at any time, but He stayed His hand.

On December 1, the Chevy safely up on blocks, Old Man Peters kissed his wife goodbye and flew toRome.




This saga-form story, which belongs to the dramatic nonfiction genre, was originally published as a five-part series in The Evening Sun beginning January 31, 1983. It was reprinted in condensed form in The Readers Digest in January 1984 and has since been published in many different languages.


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