Chapter XIII: John Brown on
the first Saturday night in August, the Richmonds
and I piled into their Toyota and headed up High Street. We were off to
the big John Brown play! Finally the moment had come. All day, I had been
tiptoeing around my parents and brothers, not sure whether they knew the
play was tonight or not, waiting every second for one of them to blare out
that I was forbidden from going. But the evening came, and no one seemed
to know, so I escaped!
As Mr. Richmond steered up the long hill in town,
Alex, Luke, and I put on fake mustaches and beards, to look like John Brown's
thirty-something-year-old sons. To look dirty-faced, like we had been fighting
Union troops, we had a can of stage makeup as brown as shoe polish. As I
smeared it down my cheeks, glancing in the visor mirror, Luke and Alex started
laughing because I had gotten gobs of it in my eyelashes.
"All in the spirit of authenticity, boys!" Mr.
Richmond roared out, warming up his John Brown voice.
By the time we turned onto Philmore Street, Alex,
Luke, and I were made up in floppy hats and fake beards, our faces streaked
like John Brown's raiders! Daniel, who was playing a rowdy spectator, was
decked out in an old-time suit and top hat. If there were any girls at the
play, they'd go crazy for him.
Philmore Street was full of the fanciest old
houses. Many had big names. Our Lady of Longstreet was a yellow mansion
with curvy white columns. McClellan's Charge and Burnside's Brigade were
also giant structures. But the house we pulled up to was a stone house not
much bigger than the one my family lived in. I had barely noticed it in
all these years. There was a high black gate around it, floodlights in the
yard, and fancy electric candles in every window. The mortar was as white
as the backs of my sneakers, and the columns glistened with green paint.
This was my mother's dream home--a small Harpers Ferry limestone house like
ours, restored to the hilt!
A chubby man with a pink face and a wineglass
in his hand opened the door and was all smiles for Mr. Richmond. He even
gave him a big hug like a woman. I recognized him. He was a big-name author
around town. He wrote ghost stories about Harpers Ferry and Antietam, the
famous battle-field just eleven miles up the road, across the river in Mary-land.
Was he the man in the play my father hated? The one my mother had warned
"I see you all have come ready," he said, chuckling
as he looked around at our different costumes.
We went inside to a room full of bright lights
and people dressed up like on Halloween. Right away my heart began to pound.
Around the room were park people who were my neighbors but who never spoke
to my family because my brothers had done something bad to them. The man
in the farmer's overalls--Jerry had bent the antenna off his Jeep. The man
who lived right behind us--Robbie had taken the distributor cap off his VW
just to see him try to start it in the morning. The park architect dressed
in an old-time suit--Dad didn't like him because he double-parked his Cadillac
everywhere on the narrow cobblestone streets. Father Ron was here, toting
one of those toy muskets they sold in souvenir shops around town. Dad definitely
hated him. Lee Jackson was here, too, wearing an old floppy hat just like
mine. I couldn't imagine what part he was playing. He was on Dad's blacklist,
As I looked at them all talking and laughing,
I began to realize that no one recognized me under my itchy fake mustache
and beard. It was like I was at a masquerade ball. When Daniel, Alex, and
Luke started laughing and smiling along with Mr. Richmond, who was talking
to a group of people, so did I, and for a second, I was rubbing shoulders
with Harpers Ferry's upper crust! I wished my scared little parents could
see me now, especially Mom. This was nothing. As nice as she was, she could
do this easy.
As I found myself glancing around this beautiful
house, the ache in my stomach for my mother grew. This was how she wanted
our house to look--walls painted bright, chandeliers everywhere, fancy dark
furniture, oval rugs, antique lamps, teacups.
Drifting away from everyone, I peeked into the
first room I could. Over the fireplace was a big painting of George Washington.
We had that exact same painting in our house! Only ours was smaller and
in a cheap frame. We had the same fireplace mantel, too. But this one was
refinished in fancy red wood and filled with neat candles. Dad had put a
rusted stovepipe into our fireplace, which curled down to a potbelly stove
some old hillbilly must have stuck his head into and committed suicide a
hundred years ago.
I peeked into another room. Wow! A fancy wooden
desk big enough for the president! A computer with speakers! In this room
in our house, Dad stuck boxes and boxes of old Popular
Mechanics magazines and left the plaster walls full of cracks. Jerry
said it was like The Addams Family house in there.
We didn't need to build an addition on our house or move up to Ridge Street--we
could fix up our house to look just like this one!
I went back out to the main room, where everyone
was chatting. After everyone stood around for a while, talking and sipping
from wineglasses, Mr. Richmond appeared from a back room, wearing an old
nightgown and a phony gray beard much longer and scragglier than mine, along
with a white bandage around his forehead, spotted with fake blood. The room
quieted down, and everyone took their places. The lights soon dimmed, except
for a desk lamp, which was angled to shine on Mr. Richmond's face as he
lay on the sofa, looking injured.
A tall man wearing what looked like a Dracula's
cape came into the room and sat in a fancy chair at the head of the sofa.
Behind him was a man holding a nightstick. I recognized him as a park ranger.
Behind him was a Civil War soldier, standing like a guard. Two others in
dark suits came into the room. Everyone else sat in folding chairs along
the wall. The red chairs were for the jury, and the gray ones for the spectators.
Some had out playbooks. My heart started pounding.
Then the man in Dracula's cape started speaking
in a heavy, low tone that sounded like a church organ: "John Brown, you
stand accused of treason against the United States." He unrolled a large
scroll and read from it. "You stand accused of inciting rebellion, of insurrection . . ."
He unrolled the scroll further. ". . . of arson, larceny,
and looting--and the severest of these charges, indeed of all charges against
man . . ." Letting the scroll roll up on its own, the judge
leaned down from his throne and stared an angry face at the injured John
Brown. ". . . of murder!"
From the back of the courtroom came a thunder
of banging plastic gunstocks.
"Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" chanted the spectators
in the gray chairs. Father Ron, standing tall among them, looked like a
The judge, in swift response to this outburst,
banged his gavel until the courtroom quieted. Then the chubby man with the
pink face spoke at length, in a funny, overdone voice, pointing a Bible
at John Brown: "The accused," he said, "shall be judged by the law of God
and the land"--he turned and looked back at the spectators--"and not by prejudice
It went on this way for some time, with everyone
getting a chance to point their finger at John Brown, using words like "guilty"
and "everlasting punishment." I was totally caught up in the moment, wondering
how, as John Brown's son, Frederick Brown, I would die to protect my father.
A bayonet to the chest? A gunshot?
Finally, with the bright light from the desk
lamp on his face, John Brown sat up and, with his arm outstretched, started
speaking to the ceiling in a wavering voice.
". . . I have yet another objection,"
he said, his long gray beard falling down, "and that is, it is unjust I
should suffer such a penalty . . . Had I so interfered
in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent--"
He stamped his bare foot down on the floor, rattling
dresser handles all around the room.
"--the so-called great, either father, mother,
brother, sister, wife, or children--"
He paused as one by one, Alex, Luke, and I stepped
forward, knelt, and placed our hands on his. In the bright light, I saw
him look at each of us, his face as chalky as stone. My heart was pounding
hard. I never imagined that the moment could feel so great.
"--it would have been all right," he went on,
"and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward,
rather than punishment!"
The courtroom spectators roared in outrage. So
much so, the judge banged his gavel, and the Civil War soldier stepped forward
and drew his sword, its blade gleaming in the light.
Then, in reverse order, Alex, Luke, and I stepped
back, and John Brown went on speaking, saying he was under God's commandment.
He spoke in long sentences that rose and fell like mountains and valleys.
He said he had no consciousness of guilt and that he regretted the weakness
of man. He mentioned places like Missouri and Canada and spoke of trying
to free slaves without violence.
When he finished, Lee Jackson, with the light
trained on him, stood and spoke, saying the accused was innocent in the
eyes of God. Then the light swung on Alex.
"If my father so consecrates his life to the
destruction of slavery," he said, "no penalty by man can stand against him
for his deed. Not now or ever!"
Luke started speaking before the light reached
him--"Who are we as a nation if only some of us should live freely?" He shook
his fist at the judge. "The bees of revolution will begin to swarm!"
There were chuckles in the back of the room.
My chest was as hard as an oil drum by the time
the spotlight blazed across my bearded face.
"I stand here today," I said, my voice not cracking
once, "before God and country, in defense of my father"--I spun around and
faced the unruly spectators--"for his actions are brave and of the noblest!"
Muskets rose up in my face. Father Ron's pie-face
looked hideous as he shook his plastic gun at me--he should have been in
the picture window across from my house, not John Brown. The gavel banged,
and banged. The guard drew his nightstick. I felt the eyes of the room searing
through me as I soared over the world, as if planet Earth was a Ferris wheel
and I had the highest seat!
The light swung back onto the judge in the black
cape, who rambled on for some time about crimes against humanity and their
consequences. He spoke for so long that Alex, Luke, and I sat cross-legged
on the floor.
"John Brown," he said finally, "it is the pronouncement
of this court that you be hanged by the neck until--"
"Mankind will forever dwell in the wilderness
of his ignorance," John Brown shouted in one final breath, "unless I forfeit
my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice!"
Though injured, he shook his fist fiercely at
"Here! Here!" Daniel cheered loudly, standing
in his spiffy suit.
More outbursts, more gavel banging, then more
soldiers came into the room.
When the lights came back on, everyone started
clapping, smiling, and looking around at one another. Mr. Richmond, the
wounded John Brown, stood, pulled off his phony beard, and bowed. He waved
Alex, Luke, and me up beside him, and we all bowed and smiled under our
The clapping went on forever. In the brightly
lit room, the chubby man, raising his wineglass, said he thought it was
one of their best plays yet. The smiles went on and on, and for the next
hour, we devoured carrot cake and swilled Sprite. In all that time, I absolutely
did not know my name, if it wasn't Frederick Brown!
Copyright © John Michael