John Broom was someone I thought of as a mysterious elderly man when I was a young farm boy in the 1950s, but he probably wasn’t elderly as I see things now. He was mysterious, however, and may still be viewed that way if he were alive today. He lived somewhere in the vicinity of our farm in rural Montgomery County, Tennessee, no more than a couple of miles away. I remember the gravel road that went past his house, but I never knew where his house was. It was back off the road, out of sight in the woods up one of the hollows (pronounced “hollers”).
I don’t recall ever having a conversation with him, although I used to see him often. Nowhere in my memory did I ever see anyone else talking with him either. But he was often mentioned in conversations with family members and neighbors. John Broom never threatened anyone to my knowledge, but it was clear that he was not someone to mess with, either. The very mention of his name seemed to convey respect.
Uncle W. G., who I have written about previously, was one of Daddy’s older brothers. He nicknamed me “Little John” because of a habit of John Broom’s of carrying a rifle or shotgun over his shoulder as he walked along the gravel roads in the area where I grew up. Some said he was a sharpshooter, but I don’t know if that’s a fact or imaginary. He seemed to be best known for almost always carrying a gun in public. I really know nothing else about his life, which seems odd to me now.
In those years I did a lot of squirrel hunting, sometimes with Daddy or my older brother Nolen Robert, but often I went hunting by myself. I had my own .22-caliber rifle and a 410-gauge shotgun, but that shotgun was too small to be very useful hunting squirrels and, less often, rabbits and quail. So Uncle W. G. loaned me a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun that he allowed me to keep for several years. It was an old shotgun that had been well cared-for, so I kept it well oiled and polished.
No doubt Uncle W. G. saw me at times walking along the gravel roads with his shotgun over my shoulder on the way to hunt in some part of the woods near our house. That image of John Broom walking along the roads with his gun over his shoulder triggered the “Little John” nickname that Uncle W. G. gave me.
I liked him calling me “Little John” because everyone around assumed John Broom was a good shot, and this meant Uncle W. G. thought I was a good shot, too.
Looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t meet John Broom along those gravel roads, with each of us carrying a gun over our shoulders. But that never happened. I wish it had. I no doubt would have spoken to him and maybe tried to engage him in conversation. In those days children and their parents didn’t worry about our safety when we were out alone. I was taught to look people in the eye and speak to them, and I almost always did.
The world has changed so much since then. My wife Ellen and I often walk past children in our neighborhood who are waiting for the school bus. They don’t look at us, going to great lengths to avert their eyes, even posturing themselves to act as though we aren’t anywhere near them. They are only doing what their families taught them, to avoid contact of any kind with strangers.
In my youth it was socially acceptable for a boy not yet a teenager to carry a rifle or shotgun along country roads. No one worried what would happen if I met John Broom carrying his gun, or anyone else.
Years later when I married and moved away from home at age nineteen, I returned Uncle W. G.’s shotgun to him. He had been generous with his multi-year loan to me, and it was somehow sad to relinquish it.
As a young adult, when I bought my first 35mm. camera and began taking pictures of animals in nature, I lost all interest in hunting animals with a gun. I still owned a rifle and a shotgun then, but after years of forgetting about them in a closet, I sold them, never to hunt and shoot animals again.
Still, though, I miss Uncle W. G. calling me “Little John.” I suppose what I really miss is Uncle W. G.