Red Hell: A Christmas story about life’s intricate connections

As an 8-year-old, I never really gave much thought to those two words, coined years earlier, I suppose, as the unofficial name for a community of hard-working people. No grass grew there; when it rained, it was muddy, when the weather was dry, it was dusty.

Christmas morning, 1942: Early risers were we three boys, ages 10, 8, and 4. World War Two was on everyone’s minds, and we knew not to expect a lot from Santa. But, we never had much before the war, either.

4 a.m.: I’m in the front yard, near the street light, playing with my toys. Suddenly, this woman, and a little boy about my age, were walking past, towards Red Hell. I remember thinking, “Why isn’t he home in bed? Santa has already been to my house.”

One day, spring of ’43, my mother comes running from our house, shouting that the stove was on fire (kerosene stove). A man who lived in Red Hell just happened to be walking by, and he rushes inside and extinguishes the flame. My mother didn’t know how to thank him.

Summer of ’43: my older brother and I were picking blackberries. What we didn’t realize was that we were in Red Hell territory, and some young boys from that area were throwing rocks at us.

My brother tells me to keep on picking, and he’ll throw back. Next thing I know, a good-sized rock lands smack-dab inside my bucket, splashing blackberries everywhere. We figured it was time to leave.

Autumn of ’43: one Sunday morning, the body of a man from Red Hell was dumped in the middle of the road that leads to Red Hell, just a half-block away from my home. They said the police never found the murderer.

I was afraid of the dark after that, and I invited my older brother to come sleep with me and my younger brother, which he gladly accepted. I slept in the middle.

Spring of ’44, my parents moved us all to another rental house, several blocks away. As time passed, Red Hell faded from my thoughts.

In my senior year of high school, I got a part-time job as a soda jerk in Dr. Thompson’s Drug Store. Another senior, who attended a different high school, also was hired, as a stock boy. His name was Ed.

We became acquainted after a while, and little did I know that Ed was the 8-year-old boy that I had seen walking with his mother that Christmas morning of 1942.

And that’s not all: Ed’s father was the man who put out the stove fire in my mother’s kitchen. And he was the man that was murdered that Sunday morning, 1943.

And Ed’s older brother, Jeff, was the boy that threw the rock that landed in my bucket while picking blackberries in 1943. And Jeff was killed as a soldier during the Korean War.

I sometimes think of Ed, during Christmas season. I wonder if he is still alive. I wonder if he is a grandfather, as I am.

And I wonder if any of these grandchildren will ever be outside early on a Christmas morning, playing with their toys, under the streetlight ... And I wonder ...

Hugh Buchanan

Peachtree City, Ga.