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Second letter to Larry, my brother (1919-1983) . . .

Dear Larry,

Next month will mark the twenty-seventh year that has passed since that October day in 1983 when you, as Shakespeare has so poignantly observed, “shuffled off this mortal coil.” As you probably are aware, I did not attend your funeral, but I can make no apology for that—when the call came with the news, I was en route to Washington’s National Airport to take a flight to Miami for an assignment that was critical to my job with the U.S. Customs Service.

I had prepared for the flight for several weeks and could not afford to miss it. I’m sure you understand—the bills were still arriving with monotonous regularity—I know it’s trite to say, but I needed to be able to “put food on the table and shoes on the baby’s feet.” Please know that I was there with you in spirit—I thought of little else on the flight to Florida.

I’ve written letters to two of our sisters, Hattie and Jessie, and I plan to write to Dot and Lorene, our other two sisters, and possibly in the future to our mother, our father and even to the stepfather our mother unwisely allowed into the family in 1942. All are gone now, but I trust and would like to believe that you are in communication with them. I have serious doubts that the stepfather is available—he may be somewhat lower on the metaphysical level of existence than the others.

I would like to couch this letter in terms of us remembering certain times when we were together. My memories are still just as fresh as they ever were, and I hope yours are also—I would not want to talk about happenings that you may not remember.

I remember vividly the fishing trip you took me on when I was about four, perhaps five years old. We lived at the old Box place in Vernon, Alabama, and we went fishing in Yellow Creek near the house. My float went under and I snatched the hook out of the water and snagged it on an overhead branch. I thought I had a really big fish until you reached up to remove the hook—I was really disappointed, but at least you had a good laugh.

You were at home on leave from President Roosevelt’s CCC—the Civilian Conservation Corps—a respite from helping build in Utah what you described as“ roads that started nowhere and ended nowhere.” The family had a homecoming party that included a washtub filled with ice and beer. Someone left a partially filled can on an inside table and I drank some of it, and a short while later I stood on the top step of our front porch and barfed it up in view of the entire family. Shades of child abuse!

Do you remember taking me on a rabbit hunt on a snow-covered day just a year two later when I was in the first grade? We were living on Eleventh Street South in Columbus, Mississippi and you were home, once again, from Roosevelt’s CCC. We only found one rabbit that day, but that one generated memories that are burned into my psyche—memories of the rabbit, a nylon stocking and a bedpost that will always be there. A click here will refresh your memory and will create a memory for any potential viewer of this letter.

Do you remember when I was living with you and your wife Toni and your two boys in Suitland, Maryland and I broke my right leg sliding in to home plate in a ball game? I had a full cast from my toes to mid-thigh, with a forty-five degree angle at the knee, and you bought a set of crutches for my use. Long before the cast came off, I used one of the crutches in an attempt to kill a pesky bee and broke it—the crutch, not the bee—the bee escaped unharmed. In spite of my pleas, you refused to replace the crutch, saying that what I did was dumb, that it’s impossible to buy just one crutch and you told me to manage with the remaining crutch—I managed.

I wrote a long-winded story, more than a bit fictional, of that broken leg, a tale that was told and can be found here. The tale tells how I and my Little League team won the national and international championship that year.

You bought me my first bicycle, a beautiful item that needed only the pedals, seat and handlebars installed to make it complete, but you made me disassemble it right down to the wheel bearings which I cleaned and repacked with the special grease you used on your fleet of trucks. I followed orders with some resentment, but I realize now that your method contributed to the bike’s longevity and to my safety. Click here for the full story of my first bike, first kiss and first train ride.

You may have put this memory aside, but I remember coming home late one evening and you were seated in the living room with a half-full pint of whiskey, and Toni was crawling around on her hands and knees on the floor, groaning and moaning and mumbling. You explained that you had caught her at a place where she should not have been, with a person she should not have been with. You said she had swallowed a lot of sleeping pills and that you would take her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped out after she went to sleep. Toni was mumbling something over and over that sounded suspiciously like he hit me, but I couldn’t be sure—it could have been my imagination.

Being a young fellow of at least average intelligence, I took my leave and returned to the apartment in Suitland that our mother and our sister Dot were renting from month-to-month, and stayed there until things quieted down. We never discussed the incident after that evening—I don’t know whether you took her to the hospital or to a doctor. I’m guessing that she did the same thing with the pills that I did with the beer I drank at that party some ten years earlier. That would probably have rendered a trip to the hospital or to a doctor unnecessary.

The outcome of that incident was a temporary breakup of your family. Toni and the boys went to her mother’s place in New York City, and you and I returned to Mississippi. I have no knowledge of your activities or whereabouts for several years, and just four years later in 1948 I was reunited with you and your family in El Paso, Texas as the result of our stepfather casting me, our mother and our sister Dot aside in Midland, Texas and we managed to negotiate the 300 miles to El Paso on a Greyhound bus.

That refuge was broken up a short while later—our mother and sister returned to Mississippi, your wife and sons took a plane to New York City, and you and I pursued her—our pursuit first took us to Dallas where we met the Greyhound bus you thought she may have taken from El Paso. You said she may have taken the train and we could meet the train in St. Louis. We failed to meet the train in St. Louis because we spent the night in jail in Valley Park, a suburb some 20 miles west of St. Louis. We continued on to New York City and stayed with Toni and the children in her mother’s apartment in Greenwich Village for several weeks, and finally from there back to Mississippi. If your memory is faulty in this instance and you have access to the Internet, click here for the full story of our trip across the continent to New York.

Do you remember the sleeping arrangements in your mother-in-law’s apartment? It was a two-room affair with a tiny bathroom, and we slept, cooked and dined in one large room—pretty crowded but far better than our room in the Valley Park jail. I was accustomed to such luxurious surroundings from years spent in places that either had no bathroom or the bathroom was somewhere down the hall and shared with others.

As for our sleeping arrangements, I remember that the two boys shared a baby bed, and each night we placed the top mattress of the only bed on the floor for you and Toni, and I slept on the bottom mattress on the bed near the window.

I’m sure you remember the night when an intruder threw a leg over the sill of the apartment’s only window! Although we were on the second floor of the building, someone managed to climb up and enter through the open window. The shade was pulled down—yes, windows had shades in those days—and when the intruder straddled the window sill the shade rustled and you awoke and shouted and threw a shoe at the window. One loud curse and the burglar was gone. We never knew exactly how the person climbed up to the window. Evidently the intruder survived the drop, because there was nobody in sight when we finally got up enough nerve to raise the shade and take a look outside.

We finished the night with the window closed, and without the occasional breezes that slipped into the apartment. We had a really uncomfortable night. Nope, no air conditioning in those days, and no fan. I hadn’t slept well before the incident, and it certainly didn’t reduce my insomnia for the remaining nights in that apartment.

I remember you and Toni arguing one morning and you telling her that we were leaving and that you were taking the two children with you. I will never forget Toni running downstairs to the sidewalk, screaming for the police, and returning with two of New York’s finest. The officers said that you and I could leave and take our personal things with us, but nothing else—you were ordered, under the threat of arrest, to not attempt to take the children away from their mother.

You left the apartment before I did, and as I was leaving Toni told me that if I ever needed anything to call her. I never saw her or talked to her again—I know that she remarried, but I never knew her married name or her whereabouts, and to this day I do not know whether she has also shuffled off this mortal coil—if still alive today she would be about 86 years old. I would like to believe that she is alive and well—I have never wished her anything other than well, and whatever the event, I still wish her well.

I doubt that you ever saw the picture I’ve included in this letter. It’s from a 35-millimeter slide, probably taken in the mid-1970s—I’m guessing 1975 because there were some other slides that showed our 1975 Oldsmobile 98—it looks new, and we bought it in that year. The slide was scanned in and printed by Cindy, your niece that lives, loves and works in Alexandria, Virginia. Unless my memory fails me, the black-and-tan hound was named Bugler, and the little Cocker Spaniel in the lower right corner was named Useless.

Larry, there are many things I would like to discuss with you, but this letter seems to have legs. Let me chop them off for now, with the promise of returning soon with a whole new set of reminisces. I trust that you and any potential viewers of this letter will understand my feelings and my reasons for taking them back in time. Some of my memories are pleasant, and I enjoy speaking of them. Not all are pleasant, of course, but in this world of Yen and Yang we must take the good with the bad, and learn to smile with the one and frown with the other.

From your only brother, the only member of our family still standing—all the others are gone.

Mike

Postscript: Regarding the names of the two dogs in the image above, my memory did indeed fail me. My niece in Arkansas, my brother’s daughter, e-mailed me on 9-5-10 to say that the black-and-tan-hound was named Sam and Bugler was his pup, and the Cocker Spaniel I presented as Useless was named Puny. Thanks, Deanna, for straightening the names out for me.

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

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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A household of many aunts and uncles, including Braxton . . .

In my grandparents household, the grandparents on my mother’s side of the family, there were numerous sons and daughters, with the result that I had many aunts and uncles. All were born considerably earlier than I, and since I am near completing the eighth decade of my life, all have sloughed off the mortal coils of this life and transferred to another, perhaps a better one than this—at least it is to be hoped that it is a better one. I know of nothing that would have caused the powers-that-be to sentence them to a worse life for the remainder of eternity.

Did you get that—remainder of eternity?

Does eternity have a remainder?

That’s kinda profound, don’t you think?

The youngest of the brood of children birthed and reared by my grandparents was a boy named Braxton, known to family and friends as Brack), but to me he was  Uncle Brack. I was far advanced into adulthood long before he left us, but I never had the temerity to call him by his name—he was always Uncle Brack, a man I idolized and longed mightily to be like when I grew up—I wanted to be just like him and do the same kind of work he did.

Over the years Uncle Brack was a share-cropper farmer, a farmer in his own right, a store-keeper, a used-car salesman and a bus driver. Only the profession of bus driver attracted me. He worked for the Miss–Ala Stage Line, a bus company that plied a route between various towns, and one of its routes moved passengers back and forth between Vernon, Alabama and Columbus, Mississippi, a distance of some 30 miles. Vernon was a small town with few people and few amenities, and Columbus had many, including theaters, restaurants, department stores and small industrial components that provided jobs for people from Vernon.

Get it? Miss–Ala? Mississippi plus Alabama?

Uncle Brack’s bus driver uniform was a white shirt with black bow-tie, gray trousers with a black stripe down the side of each leg, and a gray hat with a large metal cap badge and a shiny black brim—he always wore the cap jauntily cocked to one side like our World War II aviators wore theirs. A holster on his belt at his right side held his ticket-punching machine, one with which he always executed a quick-draw, twirled it several times with it coming to rest in his palm, ready to punch a passenger’s ticket. In the eyes of a small boy in the 1930s, he was a combination of all the heroes in Zane Grey novels and in James Fennimore Cooper’s stories of the Native Americans of our great Northeast. In short, when I was a small boy I wanted to be exactly like my Uncle Brax.

He was an inveterate joker—he could no more resist making jokes, practical or otherwise, than the sun can resist rising in the east and setting in the west, and he  regaled any gathering which he attended with his stories. One that he told repeatedly involved a lady that had sneaked a black cat on when she boarded his bus. He said that before he left the station he saw the cat in his rear-view mirror and announced that The lady with that black pussy will have to leave. He said that five women left the bus and the others crossed their legs.

I never believed that story—I thought it was funny, even though I wasn’t sure why it was so funny. I didn’t believe it because in those days people rode the bus with pet cats and dogs, and even with a shoat in a gunnysack—for those unfamiliar with that phrase, that’s a pig in a poke, an actual young porker purchased at an auction in Columbus and now en route to a farm in Alabama where it would be fed and pampered until it became a hog, then slaughtered in the fall for the larder of a farm family, and that’s a fact—I’ve seen such cargo carried on a Miss-Ala  Stage Line bus more than once, and I’ve also seen such cargo carried on trains that ran between Columbus  and various small towns in Mississippi—that’s a subject for a future posting, so stay tuned!

People often bought baby chicks from a Columbus hatchery and boarded the bus with 100 peeping baby chickens in a flat box, similar to a pizza box but somewhat larger, with small round holes built into the sides of the box to provide oxygen for its occupants. Uncle Brack loved to tell the story of the time a lady—a very large lady—boarded his bus with such a box. En route to its destination of Vernon, Alabama, bumping along on a rutted potholed graveled road, the box fell from her lap and spilled the baby chicks, called biddies by country folk—out on the floor, and they scampered to all points of the globe, constrained only by the limits of the bus. The lady frantically ran around gathering them up and putting them back in the box, and at one point she leaned far over from the waist and the pressure on her stomach produced a certain sound, one that resonated all over the bus. A drunk passenger was watching the lady in her quest for the biddies and spoke up with a sage bit of advice, saying That’s right, lady, if you can’t catch ’em, shoot ’em! I remember other Brackisms, but most are not completely suitable for postings on WordPress.

Uncle Brack was a likeable fellow and ladies found him attractive, and he took full advantage of that attractiveness whenever the opportunity arose, so to speak. According to my mother—his sister—when Uncle Brack came in from a night out, usually tanked up with Alabama moonshine or beer illegally transported across the Alabama state line from Mississippi, his mother—my grandmother—would go through his pockets and retrieve any items that were manufactured ostensibly for the prevention of disease, but in those long ago days were mostly used for the prevention of pregnancies—condoms. As my mother told the story, on his wedding day she presented a gift, a cigar box filled with unused condoms. I believe the story because I believe my mother—had Uncle Brack told the story I would not have believed it.

After all that carousing around in search of a bride—that’s what he told his mother he was doing—Uncle Brack married a widow, a sturdy no-nonsense woman with two children from her first marriage, a six-year old girl and a boy of 12 years. The couple stayed married for many years, adding three more children to the family, and the marriage was ended only by his death. During those years of marriage I never heard a word—not even a hint—that Uncle Brack ever returned to his errant ways with women. It was, in effect, a marriage made in heaven.

There’s lots more to be told about my Uncle Brack, but I’ll hold it in abeyance for future postings, so stay tuned.

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

 
 

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The legend of Lee and his wives . . .

The legend of Lathan:

Internet research reveals that the proper name Lathan is pronounced to rhyme with Nathan, but apparently the folks in Alabama ‘way back in the past century didn’t know that. I don’t know how he spelled his name, whether Lathan or Lethan or perhaps Leethan, but everyone knew him as Lee. Then, as now, Alabamians have their own set of rules on pronunciation of the English language, and for that matter, rules for all other languages. Click here to read about names.

Lee was my first cousin, the elder of two boys born to one of my mother’s sisters. Lee’s younger brother was indirectly responsible for their father’s death from an accident involving a farm tractor. I will cover that in a future posting, so stay tuned.

Lee’s mother, my Aunt Ellie, figured prominently in my pre-teenage years. It was to her home that I and my youngest sister, a lass just eighteen months older than I, were shipped annually for our summer vacation. I know now that it was to provide some relief for our mother and two older sisters. Our banishment to Alabama for several weeks each summer was their summer vacation, relieved of the need to look after us.

I won’t speak for my sister because she’s not around to defend herself, but I must admit that I needed around-the-clock supervision. I was inexorably drawn to water in all its locations, whether pond, lake, creek, river, swimming pool, mud puddle or sewage ditch—yes, sewage ditch. Because of water’s attraction I had great difficulty staying home, a trait—call it a fault—that will be the subject of a future posting—stay tuned.

Aunt Ellie lived with her husband and children some five miles south of Vernon, a small town in west central Alabama that served as the seat of Lamar County. Vernon was only thirty miles east of Columbus, Mississippi, just across the state line—the towns were connected by a two-lane graveled road, the negotiation of which was an adventure in itself.

I’ll discuss that road in a future posting—I promise! Just as a teaser, I’ll say that my uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, drove an interstate bus for a company called Missala Stages—get it? Miss for Mississippi and ala for Alabama? Missala looks and sounds like something from Hebrew history, right? Right!

That uncle’s lofty profession was at the top of my wish list of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Another of my uncles was a city policeman in Columbus, Mississippi. His was the second profession on my wish list. I never realized my first dream. The closest I ever came was owning and driving a full-size customized van, a vehicle that I still own and drive around the block frequently to keep the battery charged. I did, however, fulfill my second wish—I became a federal law enforcement officer in a second career following retirement from military service.

And now back to my cousin—Lee was married five times, I believe. I may be off one or more—that’s one time less than five and one or more than five. There may well have been others of which I have no knowledge. Two of those marriages are indelibly fixed in my memories of my cousin Lathan.

His third, or perhaps his fourth bride was a 16-year old girl that his younger brother, a youth not much older than she, had managed to impregnate. The brothers were in the state of Washington at the time—many of my Alabama relatives migrated to that state each year seeking employment among the many apple orchards.

I don’t know whether Washington state law at the time prohibited coitus between minor girls and not-much-older boys, but it really made no difference in this instance. The girl’s father was not seeking legal retribution for his daughter’s deflowering—this was the proverbial shotgun-toting father demanding that the boy marry his daughter, and as might be surmised, the boy was in a state of panic. It was my understanding that the girl was willing—nay, eager—to comply with her father’s wishes.

Lee soothed the emotions of the father and his daughter, and skirted serious damage to his younger brother by saying something on the order of, “Hey, baby brother, don’t worry about it. I’ll marry her for you—I’m used to it and besides, she’s kinda cute.”

And so it came to pass—Lee and the girl were married quickly and remained married for a long while, at least as long as any of Lee’s previous marriages. I have no knowledge of the whereabouts and health of the bride, the baby or the father, but the brothers are long gone from this realm and the others probably are also—that shotgun marriage was consummated far back in the past century.

Lee had another quaint habit. He was known to cross over the hollow behind his home to visit the home of an ex-girlfriend, one then married to the man that owned the home. Lee’s visits were naturally made during the husband’s absence. And here Lee’s acuity in all things daring is demonstrated. He always told his mother where he was going—he did not feel it necessary to tell her why he was going and what he planned to do when he got there. His mother knew that he had learned that the husband was away from home and the wife was there alone, and she knew that the husband was subject to return later, perhaps while her son was still there and perhaps still involved in certain activities.

At this point one must suspend disbelief. Lee’s mother—my aunt—stood watch on the highway for the husband’s return, and if Lee had not returned by that time she would give a warning holler across the hollow to prevent Lee from being caught with his pants down, so to speak. Her holler was something that sounded like whooooeeeee, whooooeeee, a sound that could carry for a mile or more on a still night. I realize that some may consider this a Ripley’s Believe It or Not issue, but both my mother and my aunt—Lee’s mother—told me this story and I believe it.

Just one more story and I’ll close this posting. Lee was an irreverent prankster, and his ultimate prank was played on his last wife, a lovely lady that cleaved to her husband through thick and thin, and even stayed with him after he pulled this prank on her.

Lee’s last wife, the one he spent the most years with after marriage, was different from all the others. Lee said he married her because she needed to be cared for and there was no one else to do it. She was marred in the womb, perhaps, or could have been afflicted with polio or some other debilitating disease as a youngster. Her body was terribly misshapen, with gnarled arms and crooked legs and a prominently hunched back.

I met her only once, and the person I met was a beautiful woman, one that withstood and accepted the worst that illness, or perhaps nature, could throw at her, and she persevered. She had a pretty face, a brilliant smile and a personality loved by all that knew her. I can only think of one fault—she loved and married my cousin Lee and never faltered in her love.

And now for Lee’s joke—his wife had a specially built toilet seat, made to accommodate her physical features. One night after she had retired, Lee raised the seat, covered the toilet bowl with Saran-wrap and then lowered the seat.

The result was predictable. At some time later in the night his wife needed to empty her bladder, and did not notice the addition to the toilet—in Lee’s words, she flooded the whole bathroom.

He said that when she returned to the bedroom she straddled his chest and began beating on him with both fists. He was a big man and she was a tiny woman, so she couldn’t do much lasting damage. Before it was all over, both were laughing at the incident. Both are gone now, and may God be merciful with Lee when he pulls his shenanigans in heaven—if he made it to heaven, that is.

Everything I have told about my cousin and his wives is hearsay—however, I heard the story about the saran wrap from Lee himself. He was considerably older than I and we did not move in the same circles, but I believe the stories are true.

Lee also spent time in Walla Walla State Prison in the state of Washington on at least two occasions, both for passing bad checks. He was paroled from the first sentence, couldn’t find work and decided to commit suicide. He wrote a bad check for an old Cadillac sedan, another bad check for a garden hose and a roll of duct tape, parked under a highway bridge, taped the hose to the Cadillac’s exhaust, ran the other end through a window, taped the window, started the engine and lay down and went to sleep.

He awoke several hours later with a splitting headache, but was very much alive. He was told by the used car salesman that the tank was full of fuel, but it seems that the fuel gauge was inoperative and was stuck near the full mark. Having failed to take his own life, Lee returned home to Alabama and waited for the authorities to return him to Walla Walla for violation of parole—writing the bad checks.

Lee was eventually paroled again, and as far as I know he spent his declining years without further problems, all the while enjoying life with the most beautiful and sweetest of his many wives.

That’s my story—it consists mostly of hearsay, but I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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A letter to Hattie, my sister . . .

Dear Hattie,

Writing to you is a bit awkward for me because I have no way of knowing your age, or even knowing whether you have progressed in age since your death. I believe you have, because I believe that we are all born without sin, just as was Jesus, even without the sins of our mothers and our fathers, and I would like to believe that still-born babies, and those that die shortly after birth as you did, are privileged to ascend to heaven and do ascend, there to grow into adult spirits in order to welcome their parents and other family members on their level when they arrive, not as unknowing infants but as adults and as understanding spiritual beings.

The only thing I know about you is what our mother told me. I know that you lived only one day, but I don’t know what went wrong with your birth, whether you died in the womb or after you were born, nor do I know where you were buried—in west central Alabama, of course, but I don’t know whether you were buried in a cemetery or near the house where you were born—in that day and age many still-born babies and those that lived only a day or so were usually buried on private grounds, often without  ceremony or a marker of any kind. That’s doesn’t mean that those involved were not sorrowed by your death—that’s just the way things were handled in those days, and I’m sure you understand that.

Had you lived you would have been to me another older sister, not a completely good thought—sometimes I felt that I was up to my shoulders in sisters. You are one of seven children born to our mother—five girls and two boys, and I am the younger of your two brothers. You, our brother and our four other sisters were all older than I, so I’ll guess that you have progressed in age accordingly. I have never known where you stand in age in relation to the others.

You could have been our mother’s first born, and that’s very possible—she married our father, a considerably older man, at a very young age, just as did many farm girls during that era and in that area—older men as well as younger men married young girls for different reasons, not the least of which was that they needed a young wife in order to produce lots of children, especially boys, to help out on the farm—some marriages were in essence an economical necessity.

First births were, and still are, often very difficult, while babies born in subsequent births were, and still are, in less danger, and of course you could have been born between  the births of our other siblings. However, this I know for sure—you are definitely older than I because I am the last born, delivered several months after our mother divorced our father—I am also the last one of our family still standing, and reasonably erect—in posture at any rate.

The others are all gone—our mother and our father, you, our brother and all four of our sisters. Oh, and also gone is a stepfather our mother married when I was nine. We understood why he was attracted to her, but we never understood why she was attracted to him. He may have meant security for her, but that’s not the way it turned out—if you’ve been watching the twists and turns their relationship took you’ll understand. The two were married, unmarried, then married again in a relationship that lasted, spasmodically, for a total of 29 years.

Just to bring you up to date—when I was born I had only four siblings—one brother and three sisters. You were dead, of course, and our sister Eulene was only ten years old when she died, the victim of a hit-and-run drunken driver. After she was struck by the auto her body was dragged for a considerable distance. Our mother told me that the drunk was arrested a few miles from the accident scene at a low-water crossing while trying to wash the evidence—our sister’s blood, hair and tissue—from the auto’s undercarriage.

I was only two years old at the time so I know nothing about her other than a few details of her death. She is buried in the cemetery at Pinhook Baptist Church, located in a small rural community in west central Alabama, a few miles south of the city of Vernon, the county seat of Lamar County.

Atop her headstone is a marble carving of a lamb, an apt monument to a young girl taken from this life at such an early age—I know, I know—she fared far better than you did, but that’s life—it has its up and its downs and is rife with inequities.

In addition to our sister Eulene, our mother and our stepfather—well, not your stepfather, but my stepfather—are also buried there. The same cemetery also contains the earthly remains of various relatives on our mother’s side of the family—aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. I didn’t know them very well, and some not at all.

I’m writing this because my three daughters—your nieces—want me to tell them everything I can remember about their parents and grandparents, their aunts and uncles and cousins. They have lived most of their adult lives away from those relatives and have never known them very well, and some not at all. They have assigned me a Herculean task, but I’ll do the best I can to comply—I understand their need and longing for more information on those that have gone before.

I apologize for not writing sooner, and I must admit that this letter did not come easily—it did, however, come from the heart. And if some feel that portions of this missive seem flippant, perhaps sacrilegious, the only thing I can say to them is, suck it upit’s in my nature.

I will close on a hopeful thought, one that may not be readily accepted by visitors to this blog. I accept the possibility—mind you, I said possibility, not probability—that souls may move at times between their universe and ours, so given that possibility, I plan to post digital letters on my blog, similar to this one, to our parents, to our brother and to our sisters, and perhaps even to my stepfather, so you might want to stay tuned.

With love from your brother Mike and your three nieces—Debbie, Cindy and Kelley.

Postcript: I found this information in a genealogical report researched and compiled by Jessie’s daughter Vicki, one of your nieces, a lovely lady now living in Montgomery, Alabama. I know now that you were born in 1917 in Fernbank, Alabama, a small town in Lamar County a few miles south of Vernon, the county seat. You were the second child born to our mother, some eighteen months after our older sister, Jessie, was born, and you were buried there in Walnut Grove Cemetery.

Had you lived, you would have been the second oldest of five girls and two boys born to our mother between 1915 and 1932, a period of just seventeen years, an average of three years between births. Remember what I said about farming families and the need for workers?

I would hope that our father was not too disappointed in the ratio of girls to boys—five girls to only two boys. Had it been me I would have been very proud, as witness the fact that I have three daughters and no boys, and I could not be happier with that ratio of girls to boys—of course I’m not a farmer!

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Second marriages, stepfathers, travel and travail . . .

Before beginning this post I offer the following quote in defense of my babbling on interminably about myself—it’s by a writer that, for many years, has been one of my favorites:

“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Walden—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

This posting is extracted from the plethora of memories I’ve retained of my mother’s second marriage and of the stepfather she allowed to enter my life. I relive those events frequently in my memories, and I feel that many, or at least some, may strike a chord in the memories of any viewers who might stumble upon my blog. Some of the memories are pleasant but others are painful—whether pleasant or painful, they’re my memories and I’m stuck with them. By relating and passing them on to others, perhaps I can enhance some of the pleasant memories and diminish some of the hurtful ones.

I must say, as always in the interests of full disclosure, that viewers will need to accept the accuracy of my memories as I relate them—in some instances none remain to support or deny them, and none is left who can, with any certainty, diminish or embellish them.

All are gone.

They exist only in my memories.

I am the last one standing.

When I was born, “I came into this world cold, naked, wet and hungry, and things have been downhill ever since.” I would cheerfully attribute that lament to the comic who said it, but I don’t remember who it was.

My birth occurred soon after my mother (Mama) divorced my father—at any rate that’s how the story goes. I accept that because I have no way of disputing it. I have documentary proof of my birth-date, when and where and to whom I was born, but I have no way of knowing when, or even if, the marriage was officially dissolved.

I suppose that since I was born out of wedlock, I came into the world, at least technically, as a little bastard (according to the accounts of some, I still am). In fact, during the early years there were various times when I disobeyed Mama and engaged (and got caught) in some forbidden enterprise, and she would sometimes exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, you little bastard—even if I must say such a word!” The exclamation was forcibly voiced, but always stemmed from pure love and was voiced with pure love, with humor lurking in the background.

Hester&JohnMama was 44 when she married her second husband. He was 48, a big man with a big stomach which significantly preceded him. He usually dressed in khaki pants and long-sleeved khaki shirts, with a black or brown tie held in place with a western-motif tie clip. The ensemble was grounded by western-style boots and topped with a broad-brimmed Stetson hat. He was 6-feet tall without the boots and Stetson—with them he presented a formidable appearance and took up a lot of space. He was born and grew up in Alabama, so his affinity for western garb probably stemmed from having lived and worked for several years in Texas, a state to which he would return a few years later with his new family.

A special note: The photo above shows Mama and my stepfather in later life, shortly before his death in 1970. I took this picture in 1969 during a visit I made prior to starting a combat tour in Viet Nam. Their on-and-off marriage spanned 28 years, from 1942 until 1970. That 28-year span included several lengthy separations, plus one divorce and one remarriage, all of which are excellent subjects for more postings. Apparently their relationship was one of “can’t live with and can’t live without.” In 1980 Mama died, having lived “without” for another 10 years.

My stepfather had bushy eyebrows, piercing dark eyes, almost black, and an ample nose under which, in permanent residence, was a broad black mustache. He always carried a heavy knob-handled wooden cane—not for support but to use as a pointer, to give directions to someone, for example. If necessary it could be used as a weapon, either for defense or offense. I witnessed its various uses as the years passed, and I noticed early-on that people tended to step aside as he neared them on sidewalks or in hallways, regardless of width.

When Mama’s second husband entered our lives I was nine years old and living in Columbus, Mississippi with my mother and two older sisters. The younger sister was just 18 months older than I—another sister (the eldest of three living sisters) was older and worked outside the home. The third sister was married and living with her husband in south Alabama. Mama’s first marriage yielded a total of seven children—five girls and two boys. One of the girls died at birth or shortly after she was born, and another died under the wheels of an auto driven by a drunk—I have no memories of either child, nor of the auto incident. And finally, there was a brother who would figure prominently in my life at a later date. He was little more than a shadowy figure at the time—I hardly knew him. When Mama remarried, my brother was overseas on duty with the US Navy, continuing a six-year enlistment which began in 1940.

My stepfather’s name was John, but during his brief courtship of my mother he insisted that my sisters and I call him “Uncle” John. My younger sister and I readily acquiesced to the name (there had been other “uncles”), but the elder sisters called him “Mister” (not Mister John, just Mister). They had numerous other names for him which they frequently used in the presence of others, but never in his. After the marriage he told everyone to call him “Papa John,” or “Papa.” I had no problem with the terms but my sisters, except for the youngest one, never used them—they continued to use the term “Mister.” The youngest sister resisted strongly, initially refusing to use any title, but finally became resigned to using “Papa.”

The couple married in summer, at the end of the school term. Soon after the brief civil ceremony, with the required minimum number of people present, the newlywed couple departed on what was, ostensibly, a honeymoon. If I ever knew where they went and how long they stayed I must have forgotten it, but I clearly remember where I went. I was shipped off to a sister who lived with her husband in Pritchard, Alabama, a small town near Mobile. I was told that the visit was my “summer vacation” and I believed it, although I wondered at the time why it was necessary for me to take all my clothing.

I would learn years later that my sister had agreed to accept me in her family in order to relieve my mother’s new husband of that responsibility. He had insisted on disposal of the two minor children, in one fashion or another, as a provision of the marriage—a prenuptial, so to speak, and one to which my mother apparently agreed.

Bummer.

So I was off to Pritchard and my sister, the other minor child to be disposed of, was similarly banished but not quite as far away—her “vacation” trip was to Vernon, Alabama, a small town 30 miles east of Columbus, to live with an aunt, one of my mother’s sisters who had made the same agreement with the newly-weds. Neither my sister nor I had any inkling that we had just been cast away, discarded, left on the side of the road like a couple of unwanted pets.

Our bogus vacations began when our school terms ended, but that status was reversed three months later. Shortly before the next school term began, we traveled to Long Beach, Mississippi, a small town near Gulfport, to join our mother and our new step-father. We thought the move was simply the end of our vacation, but we learned many years later that our mother had violated her “prenuptial agreement” to have us reared by relatives. She insisted that she had to have her children with her—I never knew what promises or threats she used, but they were successful. Her new husband relented and allowed us into the family.

Our travels and travails began in 1942 and would continue until 1949, the year that my youngest sister married and I enlisted in the military.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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Unto you this day a child was born . . .

DISCLAIMER: There is a possibility, albeit slight, that some viewers may associate this title with a different birth, one mentioned in the King James version of the Holy Bible (Luke 2:1) wherein it is said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Granted, there appears to be a certain similarity but the relationship is purely coincidental—please be assured that this posting refers to a different child, in a different time, in a different place and under remarkably different circumstances. To those who are familiar with the biblical passage and thus recognize the similarity, I offer my congratulations and my respect.

To continue with my posting:

September in West Central Alabama is a pleasant month—a beautiful month, with foliage exploding in a riotous collage of colors. The days are cool and the skies are clear, and in 1932 the smell of wood smoke was in the air. In that era most homes in Alabama’s rural areas were lighted by kerosene lamps and heated by open fireplaces, and that would continue for several more years until electricity finally made its way to my place of birth, a farmhouse well off the beaten path, located in a thickly forested area some five miles south of Vernon, the county seat of Lamar County, Alabama.

The small clapboard house built on piers is long-gone, replaced with a modern brick-and-mortar edifice with electric lighting, gas heating, air conditioning, computers and telephones. Moreover, the locations of the garbage can and toilet have been reversed—now the garbage can is outside the house and the privy, formerly an outdoor toilet, is now inside.

The smoke came from fireplace chimneys and kitchen stovepipes. Smoke from rich pine chunks, burning in cast-iron stoves, and hardwood oak burning in open fireplaces emerged from stovepipes and chimneys to merge and fill the air with a scent both sweet and pungent. Since fall was hog-killing time in rural Alabama on most farms, some of the smoke came from fires laid around and under iron wash-pots. The water in the pots had to be at, or near, its boiling point before dipping the carcasses of freshly killed hogs in it, a process necessary to loosen the hog bristles so they could be cleanly scraped from the skin.

Shortly before midnight on September 18, 1932 a country doctor completed the successful delivery of a boy baby, the seventh and final child of the 35-year old mother. After he congratulated her and voiced his post-natal instructions, he turned his horse and buggy around and set off on the return trip to his home in Vernon, a small town some five miles to the north. He arrived there on September 19 during the wee small hours of the morning. Though sleepy and tired from his arduous day, he felt obligated to record the birth before retiring from his labors. Because of that tiredness, perhaps, he mistakenly recorded the baby’s birth as 19 September rather than 18 September.

I was that child, and because my mother said I was born on the eighteenth of September, each year on that date I added another year to my age, a process which would continue for many years. The year 1949 was an important milestone in my life. In that year I wanted to join—nay, urgently needed to join—the US Army and I had no birth certificate, so I traveled (hitch-hiked) to Vernon to seek the doctor who delivered me. I found him in his office and told him I was in search of a document showing my date of birth.

In order to know where to begin his search, the doctor needed to know my age and the year I was born. I told him I was 17 years old, born on September 18, 1931. He found his pen-and-ink record of my birth in a huge ledger and noted that I was not 17—I was 16, and I was born on September 19, 1932, not September 18, 1931. He said that was what the ledger showed, and that was what would be reflected by any document he might issue. I was unnamed in his ledger, so he consented to accept the name I gave him (I have often regretted giving him my real name—shucks, I could have been anybody I wanted to be!).

I apologized for my “little white lie” and explained that I needed to be 17 years old, the minimum age required to join the army with parental consent (otherwise the minimum age was 18). I explained that my mother was willing—eager, actually—to sign a false document. My pleas were rejected, and I left the doctor’s office with a certified document showing my date of birth as September 19, 1932.

No matter—where there’s a will there’s a way. The Army recruiting sergeant (a very resourceful recruiter who, at that time, had successfully achieved his recruiting quota for 12 consecutive years) took a bottle of ink eradicator, and deftly using the bottle’s tiny brush to apply the liquid, removed the “2” from the 1932, and placed the birth certificate in an upright Royal typewriter (the state of the art at that time). After several tedious moments he was satisfied that he had the “1” key appropriately placed. He struck the key firmly and—voila!—a “1” appeared in the exact spot where the “2” had been, perfectly aligned with the “3” in 1932. With that one stroke of a typewriter key and its resulting imprint, I officially became one year older.

The rest, as some are wont to say, is history. My mother (my sole guardian) willingly and unashamedly signed the paper attesting to my age and thereby giving her permission for me to enlist, and I was scheduled for a swearing-in ceremony. However, before that time came the Army recruiter had made his monthly quota for that service and enlistments were closed. He told me I could wait until the Army recruiting quota opened the following month, or I could go into the US Air Force immediately.

I accepted the Air Force offer without hesitation and was duly sworn-in, and on the morning of March 7, 1949, shortly after my mother had taught me how to to make a Windsor knot in a necktie, I boarded a train in Columbus, Mississippi (note: 2-digit codes for states had not yet been developed) bound for New Orleans. In that city I changed to a Southern Pacific train, the Sunset Limited headed for California.

In the midst of a gaggle of other enlistees, I left the train at Sunset Station in San Antonio, Texas and presented myself, all 110 pounds of me, at the tender age of 16 years, five months and 18 days, to a burly military policeman. That worthy used some really colorful language to form us into some semblance of a military formation, a formation which he strained mightily to maintain while we waited for the bus which would transport us to Lackland Air Force Base to begin basic training.

My association with the United States Air Force lasted 22 years, plus several more months and a few more days. As one might expect, events of those years now threaten viewers with an infinite number of additional inane blog postings.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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