The ReckoningLarge Print - 2018
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From Author’s Note:
I heard the story of two prominent men living in a small town in Mississippi in the 1930s. One killed the other for no discernible reason, and he never offered a clue as to his motive. Once convicted and facing death by hanging, he turned down an offer from the governor to have his death sentence commuted if only he would divulge a motive. He refused and was hanged the next day on the courthouse lawn while the governor, who’d never witnessed a hanging, watched from the front row.
From Author’s Note:
Dozens if not hundreds of books have been written about the Bataan Death March. The ones I found and read are all fascinating. The suffering and heroism of those soldiers is difficult to imagine, then or now, some seventy-five years later.
The Bannings were farmers and landowners, but they were workers, not gentrified planters with decadent lives made possible by the sweat of others.
To those who knew them, the Bannings were thought to be cold and distant, devoid of warmth and rarely emotional. This was true but not intentional; they had simply been raised that way.
He was forty-three, and, at least in her opinion, looked older. His thick dark hair was graying above his ears, and long wrinkles were forming across his forehead. The dashing young soldier who’d gone off to war was aging too fast.
He opened the door to his new 1946 Ford pickup, and Mack jumped onto the passenger’s side of the bench seat. Mack rarely missed a ride to town and today would be no different, at least for the dog.
“I’ve killed a lot of men, Preacher, all brave soldiers on the field. You’re the first coward.”
Normally, in the Methodist denomination, a minister lasted only two years in one church, sometimes three, before being reassigned. Reverend Bell had been in Clanton for five years and knew it was only a matter of time before he was called to move on.
A popular preacher murdered in cold blood by the town’s favorite son, a legendary war hero. There had to be a damned good reason for it, and it was only a matter of time before the truth spilled out.
In 1936, a couple of sharecroppers went to war over a strip of worthless farmland. The one with the better aim prevailed, claimed self - defense at trial, and walked home. Two years later, a black boy was lynched near the settlement of Box Hill, where he allegedly said something fresh to a white woman. In 1938, though, lynching was not considered murder or a crime of any sort anywhere in the South, especially Mississippi. However, a wrong word to a white woman could be punishable by death.
Joel knew at a young age that his father’s suits and his mother’s dresses were a bit nicer than the average Methodist’s, and their cars and trucks were always newer, and they talked of finishing college and not just high school. He realized a lot as a child, but because he was a Banning he was also taught humility and the virtue of saying as little as possible.
Jackie was not in the mood to do much explaining, but she made it clear to her parents that she was struggling with her faith and needed time to reexamine her beliefs. Privately, she was asking the obvious question: Her husband, a devout servant and follower of Christ, was reading his Bible and preparing his sermon, at church, when he was murdered. Why couldn’t God protect him, of all people? Upon deeper reflection, this often led to the more troubling question, one she never asked aloud: Is there really a God?
Joel, at the age of twenty, could not remember a single instance when he had disobeyed his father. With age, he had learned to respectfully disagree with him, but he would never disobey him.
…Dexter Bell was a popular preacher with a large congregation, and there are eight other Methodist churches in this county. In numbers, it’s the second-largest denomination behind the Baptists, which present another problem. Baptists and Methodists are first cousins, Pete, and they often stick together on tough issues. Politics, whiskey, school boards. You can always count on those two clans to march to the same drum.”
Twelve white men. Four Baptists; two Methodists; two Pentecostals; one Presbyterian; one Church of Christ. And two who claimed no church membership and were likely headed straight to hell.
Between 1818 and 1940, the state hanged eight hundred people, 80 percent of whom were black. Those, of course, were the judicial hangings for rapists and murderers who had been processed through the courts. During that same period of time, approximately six hundred black men were lynched by mobs operating outside the legal system and thoroughly immune from any of its repercussions.
He smiled and seemed warm and thoroughly honored to be there doing what he was doing, defending a fine man who had defended our country. He lobbed a few questions at the panel as a whole, then he zeroed in on a couple of Methodists, but for the most part his comments were designed not to uncover some hidden bias, but rather to convey warmth, trust, and likability.
Social life was dictated by the church. In the case of the Bannings, of course, it was the Methodist church, the second largest in Clanton. Pete insisted that they attend faithfully, and Liza fell into the routine. She had been raised as a lukewarm Episcopalian, of which there were none—devout or otherwise—to be found in Clanton. At first, she was a bit turned off by the narrowness of Methodist teachings, but soon understood that things could be worse. The county was full of other, more strident strains of Christianity—Baptists, Pentecostals, and Churches of Christ—hard-core believers even more fundamental than the Methodists. Only the Presbyterians seemed slightly less dogged. If there was a solitary Catholic in town he kept it quiet. The nearest Jew was in Memphis.
But there was always another upcoming revival. The Methodists had two each year, the Baptists three, and the Pentecostals seemed to be in a constant state of frenzied renewal. At least twice a year some itinerant street preacher threw up a big top beside the feed store near the square and raged every night through his loudspeakers. It was not at all uncommon for one church to “visit” another church when a hotshot preacher was in town. Every denomination worshipped for at least two hours on Sunday morning. Others came back for more on Sunday evening. (These were the white churches; the black ones kept it going all day and into the night.) Wednesday night prayer meetings were common. Add in all the revivals, religious holiday services, vacation Bible schools in the summer, funerals, weddings, anniversaries, and baptisms, and at times Liza felt exhausted from her church work.
Rusconi testified that at least ten thousand U.S. and Philippine soldiers died during the march. They died from starvation, dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and executions by bullets, beatings, bayonetings, and beheadings. Those who survived were packed into wretched death camps where survival was even more challenging than it had been on the death march. The officers attempted to organize various ways to record the names of the dead, and during the late spring and early summer of 1942 lists of casualties began to filter into Rusconi’s office in Manila. On May 19 the family of Pete Banning was officially notified that he had been captured, was missing, and was presumed dead.
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