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The Memoirs and Autobiography of Darrell Bain


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April 2006

I've been asked by a number of people when my biography will be posted. Something or the other always seemed to get in the way of it, but I guess it's about time to get started. Rather than a short biography, I have decided to make it into a rather extensive memoir, and to post some of it each month to my web site. Each new posting, and archives of previous parts of the memoir, will be found by clicking on the "MEMOIR" link at the top of the web page.

I hope readers will find at least parts of it interesting. The South, in the fifties through the seventies, along with my time in the military, were particularly formative periods of my life. There's some good, some bad. I don't promise to completely bare my soul, but what I do write will be as true as memory serves.

Sidebar on memory: As psychologists delve deeper and deeper into our brains and minds and discover more and more about the way we process information, some interesting facts have come to light. Our memories aren't nearly as accurate as we think they are. Our brains are wired to "fill in" what it thinks should be in our memories, much as we "fill in" words when reading by seeing what we think should be there. I'm sure you've heard of how unreliable eyewitness accounts are. That's because our minds don't work the way we think they do. We constantly revise and edit our memories. I've listened to some people I know describe events in ways that are pretty far removed from the way I remember them, yet I saw no evidence of deliberate deception on their part. It was simply that they "remembered" the event differently than I did. People will fill in facts and figures when they aren't certain; they will add or subtract colors and words and clothing and myriad other items when relating their description of events or people.

All this is my way of saying that my memories may not be exact. I shall do my best to be as accurate as I can, but memories from childhood, especially young childhood, are apt to vary from the literal truth. Also, memories from our very youngest days are badly fragmented, like a film a mad editor has cut to pieces, leaving more blanks than clips, then tossed in the air and mixed and randomized. And as we get into our later years, say from ten years old and up, our memories are still just fragments of all that has taken place in our lives. What we best remember are those events which had emotional overtones attached to them--but they are also the memories most likely to be distorted!

One more caveat: our memories from when we were very young are not only badly fragmented, but we probably remember things in no particular order. Children aren't that aware of time, in a linear fashion, like we are as adults.

Now, having explained my reservations, I guess we can get on with the stories making up the memoir, for that's what our memories are; a story of our life.

Part One
The Little House

I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana way back in 1939. Has it really been that long? It doesn't seem possible, but of course it is. Time is a funny thing. No matter how old you are, all your past life seems to have passed in the merest instant. In that sense, we're all the same age.

My first memories are from the time we lived in a little white house in Shreveport. And as noted, the memories from that time are in no particular order. I can't possibly sort them out into a timetable. The best I can do is say that these memories are from when I was no less than two until I was four years old, just barely.

My parents were poor but honest, no cliché. Real poor, due more to my father's habits of drinking and gambling than anything else.

I can remember living in that small home in Shreveport very clearly. It was near the railroad marshalling yard. We lived on sort of a knoll so that we could look down into the yards. Dad worked there and was able to walk to work. I don't remember if the house was part of a subdivision or not, or even whether there was such a thing back then, although I'm pretty sure there was.

Thinking back, I get the horrors picturing me as a child of no more than three or possibly four, when I frequently lit the gas heater in the living room on cold mornings while Mother and Daddy were still asleep. (Even then, I was an early bird). I even remember being dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts. Why they allowed the very dangerous practice of letting such young children light the stoves in the morning is a mystery to me. Maybe kids were expected to light the stove back then. I simply don't know, but it would certainly come back to haunt both me and my parents just a few years later.

I remember my two favorite cousins, Larry and Jerry, coming to visit one year, along with their parents. That was also the first time I saw Dad gamble. He and my two uncles shot dice in the living room one day. I can still see the piles off dollar bills and quarters and half dollars. Considering that this was way back during WWII in the early forties, that was a pretty fair amount of money.

Rationing was in effect, though I didn't know it. One morning there was no coffee. Dad got annoyed and picked the previous day's coffee grounds out of the kitchen trash to make some. I told mother about the incident later in life and she swears it couldn't have happened, but I remember it clearly.

I was fascinated with the way mother mixed the yellow color into the blocks of pale white stuff to get something that looked like butter. It wasn't butter, of course, just margarine. That's how margarine came back then. A package of yellow color and the block of grease or vegetable oil, or whatever it was made of. After it was mixed by squishing the ingredients together by hand until they were well blended, it was put into a wooden mold and shaped into a mound with little decorative curly cues on it.

I think Mother was very happy during the four years or so we lived in that little house. She grew up during the great depression when times were very hard. She and Dad lived in a one room log cabin up in Arkansas when they first married, and that's where my two older sisters were born. Dad was making fifty cents a day when he could find work. He spent two years in prison for making moonshine to earn money. He probably wouldn't have gotten more than a fine or a couple of days in jail ordinarily, but he shot one of the revenuers in the leg when they found the still. Anyway, after the hardscrabble existence in Arkansas, I'm sure that little white house with a bathroom, running water, electricity and gas heat must have seemed like heaven to mother, especially with young kids and disposable diapers not even on the horizon yet.

I don't know what brought Mother and Dad to Shreveport, but I think it must have been the impending war and the availability of work in a "large city". It was large compared to the little town of Mena in western Arkansas where they had lived, for sure. He got a job with the railroad as a brakeman.

I was born in 1939, the first of the kids to call Louisiana their native state. My two younger brothers were born while we lived by the railroad yards, as well as another sister who died shortly after birth from a heart defect, one which is easily cured these days. So at the time we left there, I had two older sisters and two younger brothers (though now that I think about it, my youngest brother may have been born right after we moved from there).

My first dream (or the first I remember) occurred in that little house. I dreamed we had gone to Arkansas to see Grandma. I was bitterly disappointed when I woke up and discovered it was only a dream. I think kids love their grandparents so much because they are always cheerful and indulgent, not having to put up with the kids 24 hours a day, every day. It must make a difference!

I was forced to take naps during most of the time we lived by the Railroad yards. I remember one day when the sun was shining brightly, creating numerous sunbeams peeking through the curtains of the bedroom, and Mother put me to bed. I lay there thinking, I'm a big boy. I shouldn't be having to take naps. It's all sunshiny outside. Why do I have to take a nap? I think I went to sleep right afterward.

One day Dad took me with him down to the Railroad yards. He was a brakeman, but knew all the engineers. He got one of them to give me a ride, just me and the engineer up in that cab that seemed to be a hundred feet off the ground. The engineer blew the horn, the long wailing sound of the coal burning engine. I was in heaven, certain that no other boy in the world had ever gotten to ride in a real steam engine. The engineer even tried to let me wear his hat with the white ticking, but of course it was a little too large.

There was probably more than one trip to Arkansas to see all the relatives up there, but I only remember one which was taken from the little house. We rode a passenger train for hours and hours. The seats were like little love seats facing each other, always colored a dirty green, it seemed. Perhaps that was to conceal the inevitable stains and dirt they accumulated from constant use. We rode past long rows of cotton fields where I could see negroes out picking the white cotton boles, dragging their sacks behind under the hot summer sun. Little puffs of dust would rise from around each one as he or she moved the bags a few feet farther up the row. We could see mountains in the distance, blue and far away, and then suddenly we were in them, with high slate ridges above and below, and trees, pine and sweetgum and oak, growing almost sideways at times. And just like on a car trip with kids today, we kept asking Mother and Dad, "Are we almost there now?"

It was for grandmas and grandpas that I loved to go to Arkansas. One set of grandparents lived up in the mountains on a farm. There were cows and horses and pigs and chickens. The hogs were in big pens. When I went to examine them from a closer viewpoint, grandma grabbed me and pulled me back several steps from the pen. "Hogs are dangerous," she told me. To prove it, she pulled her long dress up above her ankles and showed me the terrible scars on one of her legs where she had fallen into the pen one day while feeding them. Hungry pigs make no distinction between humans and any other kind of food. All my uncles on my Dad's side of the family hunted and fished constantly. It was a fascinating experience for a little boy, and grandma made the most delicious pies and cakes!

The other set of grandparents lived in the little town of Mena, except I never knew Granddad Masters. He died of Tuberculosis when I was still in diapers. I feel like I knew him, though. Mother always said I took after him. He had a wanderlust, the itchy feet that are both a plague and a blessing for me and my brothers. All of us inherited them. Granddad also tried to write. When he couldn't get published, he bought a printing press and published his own work. I would give a pretty penny to see some of his writing now but it had vanished by the time I was old enough to want to read it. He taught himself taxidermy. All of us kids were fascinated when we visited grandma and went upstairs and admired the big bobcat he had killed and mounted. Curiously, the Bobcat grew smaller as we grew older! Granddad painted some and worked in various fields, never satisfied, and by all accounts was a man out of place, never finding whatever it was he searched for. He died in his forties after battling the TB for years.

Grandmother heated the house with a coal burning stove. It was the first time I ever saw coal burning. It fascinated me. I could hardly wait each morning to see her start a fire with what looked like black rocks. The only other heat was from the kitchen stove and a couple of little gas burners in other parts of the house. In later years, my brother Gary and I and my oldest sister would live with grandma in the same house for a while and go to school right down the hill.

In that little town in Arkansas, I loved to play with my cousins, Larry and Jerry. We were all three the same age. And of course my next youngest brother, Gary, always tagged along. I was tasked with "watching" him. I doubt I did a very good job, because the best I remember, I was just aggravated that he was always around when I wanted to talk and play with Larry and Jerry.

That's about all I remember from that part of my life. When I was four years old, we moved to a place about ten miles from Shreveport, onto a farm near a very small town named Keithville. I didn't know it at the time, but Mother was bitterly against the move. She wanted nothing more to do with farms after growing up on them and living in the country with no amenities like inside plumbing and electricity.

 

The next excerpt will begin with life on the farm. It will probably take a good number of pages to cover that part of my life even though it only lasted a few years.

Darrell Bain


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