Black Hats and Blackberrys

by Lou Antonelli


“Yes, I am one of those Donleys.”

The docent was taken aback. “I’ve never met anyone descended from the family that once owned this plantation.”

She looked at him with curiosity. He looked down at the cypress planking floor. She probably thought he was shy; Tom didn’t want to look her in the face because she was so pretty. “Yes, John Stuart Donley was my great-great-grandfather,” he said.

“And I am probably the last of the Donleys,” he thought to himself bitterly. “Good luck to me, getting a girl as beautiful as you some day.”

* * *

He was too early for the next tour, and was alone in the foyer as he signed the guest book. He was feeling pretty lonely, and he realized — as he looked around at the scene of the crime that deprived the Donleys of a vast inheritance — that perhaps confronting his family’s “bad luck” head-on may have been a touch of foolish bravado.

He didn’t hear the young lady walk in. She saw him write his name down in the guest book. “You must have mixed emotions, visiting the family homestead that was lost,” she continued.

“Dammit, she’s cute,” he thought as he looked away.

“Yes, I thought it would be a good idea to get in touch with my family’s historical roots here, as unpleasant as they may be. I don’t think any family members have visited the site of the late unpleasantness in a long time,” he said rather sarcastically.

She giggled. “I wonder if you’re the first Donley to visit here since...” she paused.

“1874,” he said. “I’m sure I am.” He read her name badge: “The Respite Historical Plantation —Melissa Garcia, Docent.”

A wave of light-headedness passed over him. He rocked on his heels.

“Are you OK?” she asked. “You’ve turned pale.”

“I need to sit down for a minute,” he said. “It was a long drive from Dallas. I’m going to sit on the bench in the garden.”

“Sure,” she said. “I tell you what: rest up for now, I’ll come and get you when the tour is ready to start.”

“Thanks,” he said, pointing to the badge. “Melissa.”

She smiled at him.

The garden was abloom with lavender, azaleas, and rose bushes of all colors and variety. Tom sat down in a heavy stone bench.

He looked around. “It looks so pretty and peaceful,” he thought. “I wonder if he enjoyed an occasional quiet moment here.”

* * *

John Stuart Donley came to East Texas in 1846, prospered, and 12 years later built The Respite, the largest mansion in Sheldon County. The plantation covered 160 acres, and was operated with free labor — quite unusual for the time and place.

J.S. grew up in Southern Ohio, and become convinced as a young man that slave labor was a false economy — one could achieve better production with free, cheaply paid labor. “I save a lot of money on chains and chasing,” he was quoted as saying at the time. In the years after Reconstruction, it would be called sharecropping. But in the years before the Civil War, it was considered progressive.

The other Sheldonites who had come to Texas from Tennessee or Mississippi didn’t quite trust J.S. but he was solid on states rights and supported the Confederacy to the hilt. He was too old to serve in the war, but he contributed horses and provisions during the early years and then fed and housed troops after East Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas were cut off from the rest of the Confederacy when Vicksburg fell and the Mississippi was closed.

General Kirby Smith, head of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, said at his headquarters in Marshall that “J.S. Donley is worth a battalion in the field to me.”

Reconstruction was hard on Sheldon County — the scalawags and carpetbaggers stole everything that wasn’t red-hot or nailed down — and in 1874 when the military occupation of Texas ended, there were violent incidents of vigilante retribution.

In those hateful, bitter times that saw the rise of the Klan, people recalled that J.S. never owned slaves — and that he was born a Yankee. Others coveted the plantation, and in the late afternoon of August 14, 1874, the county’s yellow dog Sheriff, Wilford Petterson, shot him down on the verandah of The Respite without a word of warning after leading a posse of black-hatted vigilantes onto the plantation and up the carriage drive. Young Mrs. Donley and the children were taken in a horse and buggy and dumped at the county line. Petterson bought The Respite for $10 in a sale on the courthouse steps as “abandoned property.”

The last of the Pettersons — a long line of loutish rednecks who cowered at the thought of honest labor — died in 1947; his widow (not being a Petterson by birth) possessed a modicum of sense and bequeathed The Respite to the State of Texas so it would be preserved as a historic site.

Tom Donley’s great-grandfather was the crying little boy left standing in the dust at the end of a wooden bridge with his mother and siblings that hot day in August 1874. The widow took her family back to Ohio and no Donley set foot in Texas until 1999, when Dell Computers hired a computer science major fresh out of Case Western University.

Family members joked about a Donley going back to Texas, and Tom laughed with them — but lost contracts, outsourcing, and the Bush Recession had made him think twice since then. He’d been pink-slipped the day before. Finding his personal belongings that morning sitting in the breezeway of the apartment building where he lived — thrown out by his now ex-girlfriend — was the latest of his misfortunes. He threw everything into his Hyundai and started driving east on Interstate 20.

“It is time to get the hell out of Texas,” he thought as he gripped the steering wheel. Three hours later, halfway between Marshall and the Louisiana border, he saw the sign:

“Entering Sheldon County.”

He knitted his brow. “It’s time to confront this ‘bad luck’ thing head on,” he thought. “I’m going to the scene of the crime.”

* * *

As he sat in the garden, he realized his desire to confront his family’s past history was probably foolish. “I am just feeling sorry for myself,” he said.

His Blackberry buzzed. He pulled it out and saw an email had arrived. It was a reminder from the bank that his auto loan was past due.

“God, we have all this slick technology, and we use it for all this stupidity,” he thought.

He looked around as he tucked the Blackberry back in his pocket, and saw a small neat white building on the far side of the garden. A sign in front said “Plantation Telegraph Station.”

He got up and walked over. A historical sign read: “The Respite and its plantation was so prosperous before and after the War Between the States that it had its own private telegraph station for the smooth operation of Sheldon County’s largest commercial enterprise.”

He continued to read. “This station and equipment was installed in January 1873 under the personal supervision of former Confederate General Kirby Smith in his capacity as President of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company, as a personal favor to then-owner J.S. Donley. It had the latest equipment available at the time. Service was discontinued in 1895 with the installation of a telephone inside the mansion. The building was later used for storage until it was restored — with the original equipment still in place — by the Texas Historical Commission in 1957.”

Tom unlatched the door and walked inside. The room was musty but tidy. A large brass telegraph unit sat on an old oak table; wires led to an old battery.

Tom walked in front of the set. There was a laminated card: “Morse Code, the original language of electronic communications,” it read.

He sat down in the chair. “Imagine, this equipment was here when J.S. was alive. If only he had known...”

The Blackberry buzzed again. He pulled it out. It was a message that a credit card payment was past due.

He almost slammed the device on the old wooden table, but pulled up short and laid it down instead, then shoved it to the side.

He looked down at the laminated card. It read:

The alphabet in Morse Code.

On an impulse, he studied the chart and began to type away on the heavy brass telegraph key:

“AUGUST 14 1874 TO THE RESPITE PLANTATION STOP” he typed, studying the chart. “SHERIFF PETTERSON PLANS TO AMBUSH AND KILL J.S. DONLEY THIS AFTERNOON STOP BE FOREWARNED END.”

He stopped and pushed the heavy oak chair back. “If only he had gotten that text message,” he thought.

He saw out of the corner of his eye that his Blackberry was blinking. He leaned over and read: Message ready to send.”

“Huh?”

He peered and realized that when he shoved the Blackberry aside it had brushed up against some old frayed wires running between the battery and the telegraph key. One strand of thin copper wire was stuck into a port.

He snorted. “Well, what the heck.” He pressed the send button.

There was a loud boom like a giant electrical short circuit, and the telegraph sounder snapped shut with an incredibly loud sizzling “bang!”

Tom was so startled that he pushed back violently in the chair and tipped over. “Oww, crap, oww, my elbow.”

He rolled over on the floor and began to rub his elbow. He saw a thick coil of smoke rise from the telegraph key.

Then he heard running footsteps in the garden. The door burst open.

“Oh, my god!” It was the docent. “What happened? Are you hurt?”

There was a smell of ozone in the room. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “The old telegraph blew up in my face.” He staggered to his feet, still rubbing his elbow.

“Oww. Hey, you changed your clothes.”

“No, I didn’t,” she said.

He stood up, a bit puzzled as he rolled up his sleeve. “Oww, I really whacked my elbow when I fell over.”

She walked over and felt it. “Nothing broke, just a good thump,” she said. Then she began to kiss it. “I’ll make it feel better. Wasn’t that a joke in Blazing Saddles?”

“What joke?” he said.

“You know: ‘Why are you sucking on my elbow?’”

She hugged him around the neck. “Come on, you’re fine. Your wife is still shopping in Dallas.”

She rubbed against him. “We have plenty of time, lover boy.” She grabbed his hand and began to pull him towards the door. He reached backwards with his free hand and grabbed the Blackberry. He dropped it in a pocket as they walked through the door.

The garden was somehow different, but still very pretty. The mansion’s trim was a different color. “Your wife is still clueless about us,” said Melissa. They walked up the stairs and onto the verandah. A small neat sign by the doorbell said: “Welcome, friend, to The Respite, home of the Donley Family since 1858.”

Below, it read:

Thomas Martin Donley, prop. 1997-
Melissa laughed. “You’re staring at that like it’s the first time you’ve read it.”

She opened the front door. Inside in the foyer, on the same table that formerly held the guest book, was a display case. At the center was a yellowed piece of paper, with the heading of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company.

Tom leaned over. As he read the penciled script, he realized it was text of the “message” he had typed on the telegraph just a few minutes earlier. Beneath was a neat card that read:

The Telegram That Saved The Respite

He read: “This anonymous message with no name or station of origination came in to the central office of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company at midday on August 14, 1874. It was delivered to the office of company President Kirby Smith, a personal friend of J.S. Donley, who recognized its urgency and who immediately dispatched another telegram directly to The Respite’s private telegraph station.”

He continued to read, stunned: “Forewarned, Donley gathered his staff and was armed and ready when renegades led by Sheldon County Sheriff Wilford Petterson rode onto the plantation. Petterson and three of his cohorts were killed in the exchange, while Donley and the staff of The Respite were spared. Survivors in Petterson’s group divulged that the corrupt sheriff had planned to seize the plantation for himself under the cover of the civil disruptions caused by the end of Reconstruction.”

Melissa looped her arm into his. “You’re looking at that, too, like you never saw it before.”

“As a result of this tip by an anonymous Good Samaritan,” Tom read, “the ancestral home of the Donleys has remained in the family to this day.”

Melissa jumped back from his side. “Hey!” She pointed to his pocket. It was smoldering.

He reached in and quickly pulled out his Blackberry. It burned his fingertips, and he dropped it onto the floor.

It broke into dozens of pieces. “Must have short-circuited and melted down,” she said. “You should ask for a replacement.”

He stared down at the pieces as they crumbled into soot. “I really can’t complain,” he said rather softly. “I got pretty good use out of it.”


Copyright © 2011 by Lou Antonelli

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