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Dempsey and his dad . . .

Dempsey was one of my many first-cousins, born in 1928, the younger of two sons born to Ellie, one of my mother’s sisters. Aunt Ellie was married to my Uncle Esker, a hard-working land-owner that lived with his family in a rural area some five miles south of Vernon,the county seat of Lamar County, Alabama. He  was a highly successful landowner, farmer, store keeper, blacksmith, syrup-maker, grist mill operator, auto mechanic, self-trained veterinarian and a husband and father.

He died under the wheels of a farm tractor, his head crushed by the lugs of the left rear wheel with his younger son, a boy of ten years, at the controls of the tractor. For the edification of anyone unfamiliar with lugs, they are the huge metal spikes on the rear wheels of some tractors, designed to allow the tractor to find traction in mud and loose soil. One can still see highway signs in rural areas prohibiting vehicles with lugs from operating on paved highways—for obvious reasons, of course. Those spikes can cause significant damage to asphalt pavements and bring death to living flesh, whether animals or humans.

It was an unfortunate and horrible accident, and it was impossible to know with any certainty how and why it happened. The tractor had a power take-off, and its broadband drive belt was hooked up to operate the grinding machines of grist mill at the time. Families came from farms and small communities from miles around to the grist mill with wagon loads of raw corn and grains and returned home with cornmeal and flour. The old-time tractor had no starter—its engine was started by a hand-crank from the front, as were many vehicles in those days, a procedure that often required two people for success—one to turn the crank and the other to operate the throttle and choke to provide the proper mixture of gasoline and air to start the engine.

Obviously the gearshift had to be in neutral when the engine started—otherwise the tractor would lurch forward  when the engine started, with predictable results for the person cranking the engine. The tractor should have been rendered immobile—that is, secured with safety chains or with barriers in front to keep it stationary while it was hooked up to the grist mill—it was not secured in any manner.

This was an accident waiting to happen, and it  happened. The tractor was not secured, and when the engine started the tractor was in gear and it lurched forward. My uncle slipped and fell and the left rear wheel crushed his head. His son either failed to place the gearshift in neutral before signaling his father to turn the crank, or by accident put the tractor into gear after the engine started, and before his father could move out of harm’s way—he was said to have died instantly.

I don’t know my uncle’s age or the year he died. There is no record in the Social Security Death records because this was just a short time after Social Security was established in 1935—I doubt that my uncle ever had a Social Security number. I was a little feller at the time, somewhere around five or six years of age, but I have vivid memories of my uncle’s  casket in my aunt’s house—the casket was closed, for obvious reasons. His casket was one of three  that I remember seeing in that same room in a period of perhaps five years  when I was a small boy. The others were those of my grandmother (my mother’s mother) and another uncle, one of my mother’s brothers. The life and unusual death of my mother’s brother is recorded in one of my postings. It involves my uncle, another patient in the asylum and a metal bedpan. Click here for that story—it’s worth the read.

In those days the deceased lay in state at home for a time, at least overnight, before being interred. This gave friends and relatives time to bring in flowers and food for the family and for the other mourners, and to tender their respect for the dead and condolences to the grieving family members. There were lots of flowers and lots of food at Aunt Ellie’s house—my uncle was a highly-respected man in the community, very active in his church in addition to his business activities, and people came from many miles around to attend his funeral.

I had big ears when I was a little boy—still do, as a matter of fact. I don’t mean that my ears are larger than normal—they aren’t. It’s just that I am unable to tune out conversations around me. I dislike dining at cafeterias because I am tuned in to every conversation at every table within earshot, and that becomes a bit overwhelming. As I moved around at my uncle’s wake, in the room and through the house and on the porch and in the yard, anywhere that mourners gathered, I gleaned information from people talking in low voices about the accident, going over the details and wondering how such a thing could have happened. I took in all the solemn voices and speculations and conclusions, and because I am blessed—or perhaps cursed—with a fairly decent memory, I have retained many memories of the event.

One of my most vivid memories of my Uncle Esker is of his huge barn across the highway from his house. I went with him one morning to feed the animals and to see the foal that he told me had been born the day before. It was a beautiful colt, brown with white markings. I stood in awe of the foal and my uncle asked me if I would like to have one like that. I answered in the affirmative, of course, and he told me that the colt was mine, but that I would have to wait until it grew up a bit before I could claim it.

No way—I claimed that colt that same day, and I could hardly wait to tell all my friends about my pony. I was the only kid in my circle and on my block and maybe in the entire city of Columbus, Mississippi that could claim to be the owner of such an animal, and I got as much mileage as I could with the information. My uncle died soon after the gift was made, and since he and I were the only ones that knew about the transaction, I laid no claim to the colt but I still feel, even to this day almost three-quarters of a century later that I once owned a beautiful white-faced and white-footed pony—that’s a very satisfying feeling—not many kids can make that claim!

I was not around Dempsey very much, and I didn’t know him well. I have no way of knowing how well he coped with the  knowledge that he was complicit in his father’s death. He died in 1977 at the age of 69 so whatever he felt and how he coped with his part of the accident is of no consequence now. We were four years apart in age, and few ten year old boys have much in common with six year old boys. I may have seen him three or four times in later years, but it would have been for very limited periods. The only concrete knowledge I have about him is that he worked in Birmingham, Alabama for Bama Foods, a company that produced jams and jellies for home and commercial consumption, as did most of my relatives from that period. I and my family have used their products for many years and I can highly recommend them—and no, I do not have any stock in the company!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2010 in Childhood, death, drivers, Family, food, funeral

 

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About my uncle Dalton . . .

This post is about my Uncle Dalton, one of my mother’s younger brothers. I never knew him, and I saw him for the first and last time at his wake. I can’t pinpoint the year he died, but my best guess is that it was around 1940. I know it was before 1942, the year my mother unwisely brought a stepfather into our family, and when I picture myself standing at my uncle’s coffin and listening to my mother explain how he died, I appear to be somewhere around the age of seven or perhaps eight years—hey, don’t laugh—I said it would be a best guess, right?

My Uncle Dalton died in the old Bryce Hospital, an institution for the insane located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You can Google it here if you like—there’s lots of info on the Internet.

According to my mother and other family members, Dalton was the victim of a beating rendered by a fellow inmate, a not-so-gentle man that attacked Dalton with a metal bedpan and the beating proved to be fatal. I have a vivid memory of standing beside my mother and watching her lift the departed’s right arm and the hand dropping limply, indicating, as voiced by my mother, that the wrist was broken. I know now that the hand dropping, or drooping, was normal and did not indicate a break. Had the body been in the maximum stiffness of rigor mortis,  the hand would not have drooped when the arm was lifted.

In humans, rigor mortis commences  about 3 hours after death, reaches maximum stiffness after 12 hours, and gradually dissipates until approximately three days after death. I am reasonably sure that Uncle Dalton had been dead for at least three days before he lay in state at his wake prior to his burial. Therefore it was natural for the hand to drop, or droop, when the arm was lifted. If you like, you can click here to confirm my findings concerning rigor mortis.

My mother told me that Uncle Dalton was a perfectly normal young adult until he unwisely dived head-first from a tree limb into shallow water and lost consciousness when his head struck the bottom—her expression was, I believe, that his head stuck in the mud. He remained unconscious for several minutes and was finally revived, but was never quite the same after the accident, and some years later was committed to Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, an institution for the mentally disturbed—insane, if you will.

My mother visited Dalton numerous times during his tenure at Bryce, and she had interesting stories to tell about those visits. She said that he loved chewing gum, and she always took him gum on her visits. Patients were not allowed to shave themselves, and Mama said that he invariably removed a stick of gum from its wrapper, then reconstructed the wrapper and  pretended to shave with it. She told me a joke that she claimed Dalton told her—I seriously doubt the origin of this joke, but I must admit that it’s funny!

The joke my Uncle Dalton supposedly told was of a mental patient that had been told that after thirty years in the asylum he could go home, so he was given a razor and told to shave. As he faced the mirror and began shaving, a nurse stopped in the hallway to congratulate him, and he turned away from the mirror for an instant, and while he was turned away the mirror slipped of its hanger. When he returned to face the mirror he exclaimed, “Damn, thirty years in this place and the day I get ready to leave I cut my head off!” If that story is true, I have some doubt as to the severity of Dalton’s insanity.

One more story about my insane Uncle Dalton, and I’ll leave this posting for posterity. An official from Bryce Hospital called Dalton’s family to tell them that Dalton had wandered away from the institution and was believed to be returning to his home. A couple of days later his mother noticed that a shotgun that normally hung over the fireplace was missing. A report was made to local law enforcement, and a search began for Dalton in that area. While the search was in full swing, Dalton appeared at the house with the shotgun and several squirrels he had bagged. He said that he left the hospital with the intention of going squirrel hunting and having his mother make squirrel stew for him. As the story goes, the local law officials arrived to take Dalton back to the hospital, but waited until he had finished a meal of squirrel stew.

Possible? Yes, but plausible? No, but it makes a good read, especially as told to me by my mother, and I would like to believe it. Well, why not? It’s all in the past, and whether true of false it’s an indication of the frailty and the goodness of human nature, and our acceptance of both attributes.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Postscript: I overlooked a memory of my uncle, something my mother told me and was confirmed by at least two of her sisters. One manifestation of his separation from reality was his insistence that the air was filled with clocks, all manners of timepieces—clocks large and clocks small, all showing the same time of day or night, and he couldn’t understand why others could not see them.

Was that proof of his mental imbalance? Perhaps, but according to my mother and my aunts he never carried a pocket watch and never wore a wristwatch, yet when someone asked, he could give them the correct time, at any moment of the day or night. Such a gift has its advantages—assuming that the clocks required neither winding nor batteries, the absence of maintenance costs and physical effort would mount up over a lifetime.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2010 in Humor, hunting, insanity, law enforcement

 

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