Byron Jones parked his beat-up, old, black Chevy in the driveway and stared at the house in front of him. All of his hopes and dreams lay before him in this green house with the pale yellow shutters.
“This is what I have been working for,” he said to himself, “my own office, my own home.”
It was the summer of 1960. Byron was a family doctor. He had been working at a big Philadelphia hospital, when word came that a new doctor was needed in rural Ambler, about twenty-five miles outside the city Old Dr. Carter was tired and sick. He decided to retire and go live with his daughter. The hospital recommended Byron as his replacement and he jumped at the chance. Now, he was finally here, ready to start his own practice.
He got out of the car and stretched. He let his eyes wander around the pretty front yard. Neat rows of purple pansies sprouted in a flowerbed near the big, wooden porch. Bright red geraniums bloomed in a pot at the wide front door. There was another pot of geraniums at the bottom of the porch steps and one at the side yard.
“Doc Carter must have dabbled in gardening,” again Byron talked to himself.
It all looked so homey. His mama would love it. He thought about her and about his sixteen-year-old brother, Keats. Mama loved poetry and had named her boys after her favorite poets, Lord Byron and John Keats.
Byron leaned back against the car and let his thoughts wander back to the family he loved so much.
Byron had grown up dirt poor. Most of his clothes were hand-me-downs and a couple of sizes too big. They came from the oldest boy of the rich white folks his mama kept house for. Byron never had his own bike, or even a wagon. But his mama made sure that their tiny apartment was always filled with books. He read the classics, like Moby-Dick. He read history books, and even the poetry books that his mama loved so much. When he was eleven years old, he read a book about George Washington Carver, a black scientist who was the son of slaves. From that time on, Byron knew he could make something of himself. His love of reading certainly didn’t come from his father. For as long as Byron could remember, his father had drifted in and out of his life, like the ocean tide. Byron resented his comings and goings. He always upset Mama and disappointed Keats, who worshipped him. He was loud and rude and mean. He only came for money and a hot meal, and then he was gone again. Three years ago, Mama got a letter postmarked from Florida, telling them their father was dead. That’s all Byron knew. His mama had cried and burned the letter, and they never talked about him again. Byron didn’t care, but Keats was hit hard. After that, Keats started getting in trouble. He skipped school and hung around with a bad group of boys. Byron had just finished medical school, and started his hospital training. He had no time to help out. Keats would probably be in some sort of reform school, if it weren’t for Dr. Harrison Peabody III. Dr. Harrison Peabody III was the man his mama worked for. He was a kind man and had already helped Byron get into the Jefferson Medical College, where he himself had gone to school. When he found out Keats was in trouble, he helped get him into a better school outside the city. Now his little brother was actually talking about becoming a doctor, like Byron. Finally, things seemed to be looking up for the Jones family.
Byron was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t see the two little girls standing on the sidewalk at the bottom of the driveway. Two sets of the same bright blue eyes stared right at him. The bigger girl stepped forward.
“Hi, mister. What are you doing in Dr. Carter’s yard? You’re not stealing anything, are you?”
Byron laughed. “That’s not likely since this is my place now. I’m Dr. Byron Jones. I’m the new doctor, who is replacing Dr. Carter. How do you do?”
The girls’ eyes grew bigger. “You look way too young to be a doctor. Doc Carter had gray hair, and lots of wrinkles. Even his ears were wrinkled! My name is Lucy. I’m six. This is my little sister, Carol. She’s three. Say hi, Carol.” Lucy stopped to take a breath. Carol continued to stare with her thumb in her mouth. She had blond curls and a big blue bow in her hair, the exact color of her eyes. Lucy was about a head taller, and had the same blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her two front teeth were missing, and Byron thought she looked adorable when she smiled.
“Do you give lollipops?” little Carol asked. “Dr. Carter always gave me a lollipop after my checkup.”
Before Byron could answer, an angry-looking woman came running down the sidewalk. “I thought I told you girls to stay in the yard. You forgot our rule again, too. No talking to strangers.” She emphasized the word “strangers,” and gave Byron a nasty look.
Byron stepped forward and held out his hand. “I hope we won’t be strangers for long,” Byron said, smiling. “I’m the town’s new family doctor, Byron Jones. I’m happy to meet you,” he added.
The woman looked at Byron’s outstretched hand as if it would bite her. “We already have a doctor in the next town, mister. When Dr. Carter left, we started to see Dr. Potter in Horsham. We don’t need your kind in this neighborhood,” she sneered. “Let’s go, girls. Never come back here again,” she ordered as she dragged the little girls away.
Byron felt sick. “Is this what it’s going to be like living here? Will people think I’m not good enough to be the town doctor?”
Then his optimism returned when he thought of what his mama would say. “One rotten apple doesn’t make the barrel bad. Hold your head high and be proud.”
He felt better. Byron opened the trunk of his car and took out the going-away present his buddies at the hospital had given him. It was a sign to hang in his new front yard. It read:
DOCTOR BYRON ANDREW JONES
DOCTOR OF MEDICINE
ALL FAMILIES WELCOME
Byron hung the sign where Doc Carter’s sign used to be. It fit perfectly. Then he took his suitcases out of the car, and carried them inside. Byron didn’t bring much more than his clothes and some personal belongings. Doc Carter had left the place fully furnished. Just as well, because Byron wasn’t much into decorating. After a quick meal, he took a shower and went to bed. He was looking forward to tomorrow, his first day on the job.
Byron awoke to a bright, sunny morning. On his way down to the kitchen, he passed the living room window and couldn’t believe his eyes. He raced to the front door, threw it open, and immediately slipped on something wet and slimy. The porch was splattered with rotten-smelling tomatoes and other garbage. The sign that he had so proudly hung up the night before lay smashed into pieces on the front lawn. In its place hung another, which said in ugly black letters, “GO HOME STRANGER.”
Byron sat down on the front step, his head in his hands. He could only think of one thing: “What a way to welcome a man to a new town.”
A few months had passed since Byron was “welcomed” to his new home. Although he had let the police know what had happened right away, Byron wasn’t surprised that the culprit was never found. It had taken a week for him to clean up the mess and replace the sign that he had hung so proudly. In the meantime, Byron knew that he had to face the facts. He had gotten Doc Carter’s job because he was a good doctor, but he was also black. In this mostly white town, he wasn’t trusted because of his color. He remembered the first day he parked in the driveway of his new house. Two little girls had come up to talk to him when a nasty-looking woman came and dragged them away. It was clear that she didn’t want her daughters to talk to a strange, black man. Byron had since learned that the mother of the two little girls was named Mary Orchard. Her husband was the town’s most prominent lawyer. The Orchards were pretty influential around here, so Byron supposed this was why most of the white people traveled to the next town with their illnesses. Plenty of patients came to his office from the large black community on the town’s east side. They welcomed him into their homes and their church too. But so far, only a few white folks ventured into his office.
When Byron finished medical school, he took an oath to use his skills to help all sick people, white, black, or green!
“How am I supposed to do that, if I’m not the right color for these people?” he wondered out loud.
Byron knew he had faced little discrimination in his life. He was always so wrapped up in his studies that he didn’t pay much attention to the terrible way some whites treated the blacks. It really didn’t affect him much anyway. He had grown up in a God-fearing black community where neighbors helped each other out. Now Byron faced real discrimination for the first time in Ambler. So far, his mama didn’t know all of what had happened. She thought Byron was still settling in. He knew she would love his little green house with the decent-sized yard where she could garden. He wanted to make life easier for her, the way she had for him and his brother all these years. But how could he bring her here, when he was not welcome?
Byron didn’t know that things would soon change!
Byron woke to a blue, cloudless sky and birds chirping. He got dressed and had his usual breakfast, coffee and toast. He threw the bread crusts out to a hungry squirrel waiting near the kitchen window and smiled broadly. He could still hear his grandma Ettie coaxing him to eat those crusts, when he was a kid. She told him that it would put hair on his chest! He was still chuckling to himself, when he heard a loud pounding on the front door of his office.
“No one is scheduled to come in until nine o’clock. I’m giving little Ezra Smith his tetanus shot. I hope he doesn’t try to bite me like he did the last time he was in here. Well, let me see who it is.”
Byron opened his office door and a little girl came tumbling in. It was six-year-old Lucy Orchard! He hadn’t seen her since that first day. She was coughing and panting.
“Hold on now, Lucy. Stop and catch your breath, then tell me what’s wrong.” Byron put his hand on the girl’s shoulder, and he could feel her tremble.
“Doctor Byron, you gotta come quick! It’s Carol. It’s not my fault! I told her she couldn’t go get her baby doll but she did it anyway and now she’s stuck and she can’t get out!” Lucy started to cry.
“Lucy, what are you talking about? Where is Carol stuck? Why didn’t you tell your mom and dad?” Byron asked.
“Mommy told us never to play near the well. Carol fell in the well. She dropped her doll down there and went after it. I told her Mommy would get mad, but she didn’t care. Now she’s down there and she said her foot is stuck.” Lucy started to cry even harder.
“Let’s go. Take me to the well.” Byron grabbed his medical bag and they raced out the door.
Byron followed Lucy to an old, weeded lot down the street near the Orchards’ house. Lucy was still crying as they reached the well. Byron was afraid of what he would find, but he got up some courage and looked down. There was Carol, sitting on a ledge about twenty feet down. She was waist deep in water and clutched her baby doll as she cried softly. While Lucy had gone to get Byron, Carol had managed to climb up onto the small ledge and free her leg.
“Carol, are you all right?” yelled Byron down into the well.
“Who’s there? Lucy, is that you? I want Mommy and Daddy,” Carol whimpered.
“Carol, it’s me, Dr. Byron. Lucy is here too. Are you hurt? We’re going to get you out.”
“My leg hurts a lot. It’s wet and smelly down here, too. My baby doll is wet and hungry,” Carol sniveled.
“Carol, can you move your leg?” asked Byron.
“It hurts really bad. I can’t move it much. It hurts!” Carol started to cry again.
“Just hold on, Carol. We’ll get you and your baby doll out.” Byron looked frantically around the old lot, searching for something to help pull Carol out.
Lucy yelled, “Look over there, Dr. Byron, over on the tree.” Byron turned his head and spied a rope hanging down from a thick branch of a tall elm tree.
“Good work, Lucy! That will do the trick!” said Byron with relief. Byron got out his pocket knife and cut the rope free. Byron made a bowline knot and dropped the rope down to Carol.
“Carol, I want you to do exactly what I tell you. Do you think you can help me?”
“I don’t think I can. I’m really cold and I can’t feel much in my leg,” Carol whined.
“Carol, I’m going to get you out of there. Just take the rope and slide it around your stomach.”
“OK, I’ll try I have the rope around my tummy.”
“Good. Now pull the end of the rope and make it as tight as you can.”
“It’s as tight as it can be. What do I do now?” called Carol.
“Just hold on. I’m going to pull you out of the well.” Byron started to tug the rope up.
Carol started to yell, “Oh, my leg. Ow, ow, ow. It hurts! Stop pulling!”
“Carol, this is the only way I can get you out. As soon as you get out, I’ll fix your leg.” Byron started to pull Carol up again, ignoring her cries. After what seemed like an hour, Carol finally appeared and Byron set her gently on the grass. In the meantime, Lucy had disappeared. Byron carefully checked Carol over for any bruises or cuts, and then he looked at her leg. As Byron was about to move Carol’s leg, she screamed, “Don’t touch me! You’re hurting me!”
Just at that moment, Lucy came running back with her mother, who started to shriek at Byron, “Get your hands off my baby! Get away from her! Oh, Carol, what did he do to you?”
“Mommy, Mommy, he saved my baby doll and me. She fell into the well and I had to go get her. Dr. Byron pulled us out. My leg hurts so bad, but he promised to fix it.” Carol grimaced in pain.
“Mrs. Orchard, Carol’s leg isn’t broken, but it’s badly sprained. I’m going to splint it for her and then we should get her over to the hospital,” Byron said. “She is a very lucky little girl. Lucy was a big help too,” he added.
“Is this true? Were you girls playing near this well? Lucy, why didn’t you come get me when Carol fell?” Mrs. Orchard asked.
“I was scared, Mommy. You said we shouldn’t be playing here because we could get hurt. I was scared that you would be mad. Are you mad at us, Mommy?” Lucy took a breath and kept talking. “I knew Dr. Byron was a nice man, even though you don’t like him. I knew he would help us, and I was right. He lifted Carol out of that smelly old well and saved her baby too. I found the rope for him to use,” she added proudly.
“I guess I underestimated you, Dr. Jones. Thank you for saving my baby. My prejudice blinded me from the honorable man you really are. Honor has no color. We just have to open our eyes to see it,” said Mrs. Orchard. Byron carried Carol over to Mrs. Orchard’s bright blue car.
Word spread all over town about Byron’s heroic deed. He even received a medal of honor from the mayor of Ambler. Soon, people black and white were lining up to have Byron as their doctor. Every single minute of every day was booked. Most importantly, Byron became a leader of the community for blacks and whites. No one cared about his color because they easily recognized the good man inside.