The old man, a onetime whiskey bootlegger from the hills of Tennessee, slugged the landlord when he came to evict them, but that didn't do any good. The landlord threw them ot anyway, the old man, his son and daughter, and his grandaughter. The sorry-looking frame hose that sags in the shade of a tall maple tree on Rte. 198 in Burtonsville, Md., where the Brown family lived for 17 years, had been condemned. It didn't have any plumbing or running water, never did.
The sheriff showed up to keep the peace during the eviction, bringing six deputies. They confiscated the old man's shotguns, and if they hadn't John Brown makes no secret of what would have happened: "I would've shot them." A crew of men worke for 10 in the morning to 9 that night, hauling the family belongings out of the house and onto the side of the road. It had been a year since the landlord gave the Browns notice they would have to leave because a new owner wanted to take over the property.
The eviction happened a week ago, and since then John Brown, 74; his son Marion, 38, and his daughter Regina, 40, have been sleeping in a fleet of dusty cars parked in the weeds beside Rte. 198, not far from the two-story, three-bedroom house they used to rent for $75 a month. Regina's daughter, Etta Sue, 12, was sent to a foster home. Social workers offered the Browns motel rooms while they help find them a new place to live, but all offers were rejected; the Browns said they had to stand guard over their belongings, which include 300 country music albums and a guitar that Don Owen once strummed.
Lie out there by the side of the road in Burtonsville has been one humiliation after another. The old man was trying to fall asleep in the front seat of the 1947 Dodge the other night when someone fired a shotgun at the windshield from a passing car, and if you don't believe him, he'll show you the pellet holes. John Brown claims he got revenge the next night, when the Pagan motorcycle gang roared up and down 198, searching for anyone who would harm the old man. "They told me, "Just lay down and go to sleep, Pop.'"
Then a pipe came loose from the 1972 Chevy van and caught him on top of the head, opening a nasty wound and sending him to the emergency room. The Browns built a bonfire to keep warm last week when it was cold, but the police came around and made them put it out. "They said it was dangerous," Regina said. When the family was evicted, their four cats and two dogs were sent to the humane society pound. An animal control inspector came by Tuesday with more had news: "One of the cats is sick," he said.
"Which one?" Regina asked. The inspector said he had no idea but that the Browns had 24 hours either to turn them over to animal control or take them to the vet. He handed John Brown, who was muttering something unprintable under his breath, a paper to sign. "I can't write," Brown lied. Regina signed.
The eviction of the Brown family has become the talk of Burtonsville, and gawkers drive by throughout the day and night. Some throw beer bottles. Regina and Marion cried on the 6 o'clock news last Thursday, and since then the neighborhood dogooders have been regular visitors to the Brown homestead. They rented a van so the family can load their belongings and store them in a warehouse, where the fee will be paid by Montgomery County Social Services. They even held a car wash to raise money for the family.
"Here's some more women coming," John Brown said Tuesday evening as a Burtonsville woman pulled up in a station wagon. She brought dinner, chicken and iced tea from Gino's, and inquired about the scrape on the old man's head.
A new orange-flowered shade umbrella with the $59.95 price tag from McIntire Hardware still stuck to its aluminum stem -- a gift from one of the women -- bobbed like a beachball in the midst of the Brown family's belongings, a sea of what some passerby have called junk. And what a sight it is: rusted bedposts and bedsprings, busted teleisions and chairs and sofas, tools, empty vegetable cans, a pink shag rug, a wig stand without a wig on it, naked dolls with the hair ripped out, a stack of old papers that includes a $23.25 gas bill, dated 1-11-72 and stamped paid, and a school certificate for Etta Sue: "Perfect Attendance This Week-June 27 to June 30." The meat -- venison, rabbit, squirrel and pheasant -- that had been in the freezer rots in the sun, drawing flies. People ask how the Browns fit all that stuff inside their house, and they say they just did, that's all.
John Brown rails at the men who carried his belongings out of the house. "Some of it's valuable antiques, like that old hospital bed over there. They just threw it on the ground. They broke a mirror."
He presides over his possessions from a new orange chaise lounge set under the umbrella, watching the cars and receiving his visitors. Word of his misfortune has spread among other former Tennesseans, and they come bearing food and sympathy. They also confirm some of John Brown's more unbelievable tales, like the one about him being trained as Barnum and Bailey's fire, razor blade and light bulb eater. "My mother-in-law saw him chew up razor blades," Billy Bishop said.
"I've eaten hundreds of 'em," Brown said. "You chew 'em up like a piece of candy." His teeth are all gone, but he says that was old age, not the razor blades and light bulbs. He says he had to leave the Barnum and Bailey circus ranch in Oklahoma because a Cherokee Indian girl called PeeWee was in love with him, and he wanted to get rid of her. He eventually married a tall, darkhaired Tennessee girl he met when she came to his uncle's house for a bucket of water. "She fell for me," he said.
The wanderings that ended at the frame house on Rte. 198 in Burtonsville began on April Fool's Day 31 years ago, when Brown broke out of jail in Tennessee. He was in for bootlegging whiskey. It wasn't the first time this son of a Baptist missionary preacher had been in trouble. In 1929, he shot and wounded a man who was trying to capture an escaped convict buddy of his so he could claim the $25 reward. Once out of jail, he traveled like a hobo all around the country, hopping freight trains. His wife's cousin sent word that he could find work as a landscaper and sod-layer in Maryland, and so he moved his family here 17 years ago. His wife died in 1967. "Kidney trouble," Brown says.
His former house is down the road from the Burtonsville Baptist Church and the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department and next-door to one of the loveliest homes in Burtonsville, a three-story house painted the palest shade of green, with geranium plants hanging from the porch. The Methodist minister lived there a long time ago. A retired couple from Tennessee bought the house 23 years ago, and they don't even want to talk about the Browns.