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.
1950 through 1953
The last segment of my memoir ended with the breakup of Mother and Dad's marriage on Christmas Day of the year I was eleven years old. I cried and cried, because for all I knew, Mother had indeed run off with Jim, leaving us six kids home with Dad while he was sick in bed. Of course, I learned later that Mother simply took an opportunity when she had it, fearing for her life, she told me later.
Several days passed, with constant agonizing over where Mother was. Religious leaders of the community came to the house, offering prayers for her return. Such an event was a scandal in our little community. The prayers did no good, nor did anything else. I can't recall all the details of what went on, other than it seemed like I was crying most of the time, thinking Mother was gone forever.
After several days, our neighbor (I think) took us kids to Arkansas to stay with Grandmother. Then someone else took the two youngest, Michael and Jackie, to Oklahoma to live with Mother, where she had sought refuge with her sister's family while trying to get her life in order. Mother also started work there, having to lie about having experience as a waitress in order to find a job. She got away with it, somehow.
The four of us in Arkansas with Grandmother, Snooky and Carla, my older sisters, and Gary and I began school in Mena, a little town of about 4,000. It took a while to adjust, but eventually we all did, or as well as we could. Neither Gary nor I ever talked about our situation at school. Somehow it felt as if it was something to be ashamed of.
Gary and I spent a lot of our time over at our cousin Jerry's house. We probably drove Uncle TC and Aunt Helen almost to the wall with our constant presence when not in school, but they did what they could for us and I'll always remember it. They were both wonderful then and still are now. In fact, I sort of took Uncle TC for a father figure simply because he was such a good person and was never too busy to pay attention to us, even though at the time he was struggling to make a living and had five kids at home himself. I remember being amazed at seeing him change the diaper of the baby, something Dad had never done.
We also got to spend some time with Grandma Bain, our other grandma, whom we loved, but who would be a long time forgiving Mother for leaving Dad, simply because she didn't know the whole story. Actually, I guess Mother and Dad are the only two who knew it all and neither of them talked much about it then or later. I'll always be grateful that neither of them ever said anything bad about the other until long after we were grown, and even then it wasn't much. Dad admitted once that drinking drove Mother away and that there were "other issues." Mother told me after I was grown that drinking and gambling killed the love she once had for him and that he threatened a number of times to kill her if she left, which was why she had to do it the way she did. That's really all I know other than that I know for sure that Dad's drinking and gambling beggared us.
The school in Mena was quite different than the one in Summer Grove. I had a hard time adjusting, especially since I was becoming more and more aware of girls, yet still carried that awful bashful trait with me. I simply couldn't talk to a girl in other than neutral circumstances. Yet I daydreamed about them a lot, especially the pretty ones.
One day when I had already finished my lesson, as usual way ahead of the others in my class, I started doodling on a sheet of paper, writing down the names of all the girls in the class I thought were reasonably pretty. Some boy found the paper and then it found its way into the teacher's hands, who then assumed it was a note I was passing, despite my adamant denials. I was taken to her office for a thorough paddling. The stories I'd heard was that you got paddled until you cried. I gritted my teeth and refused to utter a sound, all the while thinking of the injustice of what was happening to me. Finally, the teacher's arm got tired, I guess, because the paddling ceased. Later on, I got a lot of teasing from the guys and some angry words from the girls. The whole thing was terribly embarrassing.
Gary and I lived with Grandmother for about three months, where I had my first ice cream cone and saw a couple of movies, including Bambi, then Mother sent for us. We moved to Oklahoma and I began another new school. Mother was getting herself established but still living with her sister.
Gary and I started school there. It was a very unhappy experience for me, even though I was in school with one of my other favorite cousins, Larry. The problem was that all the boys in the sixth grade seemed to want to do was fight and see how tough they were, while I wanted to read all the books in the small library first thing. I usually spent recess and lunch hour reading since we weren't allowed to take the books home, but inevitably, I would be taunted until I couldn't stand it any more and had to go outside and fight.
Fighting wasn't something I detested or was afraid of; it was simply that there were more interesting things to do. Like any other country boy, I had been in scraps before, but never had I seen an environment like this one, where the boys wanted to fight all the time, for no reason at all that I could see, other than to find out who could whip who. It seemed absolutely crazy to me. All the fighting I had ever done, a very limited amount, had been over some issue or another, forgotten now, but certainly not just to see who could whip who.
Over the course of a week or so I managed to whip all but two of the boys, but the so-called "toughest boy in school" still wouldn't leave me alone. Probably that had a lot to do with the fact that the prettiest girl in the class was showing an interest in me (and I was too bashful to talk to her) and that he was such a braggart I couldn't let it stand when he made such wild claims as he could whip any five boys at the same time. When I called him on it and tried to get some other guys to prove him wrong and shut him up, no one would stand with me.
Eventually, it got to the point where Clarence, the tough guy's name, said he was going to knife fight me. I was horrified at the mere suggestion, knowing what that could cause, and I flat out refused. It wasn't fear; it was just knowing that it was something I shouldn't do. Then he threatened to catch me after school and do dire things to me. I don't know what would have happened eventually, but then Dad appeared on the scene.
Dad had been working in Ft. Worth, still for a railroad. He had gotten well and had stopped drinking. He came and took me and Gary and Mike and Jackie all back to Ft. Worth. Mother could do nothing at all about it. I don't remember much except the hugs when we left, but I know it must have broken her heart.
It was a strange two years that followed. First there was another school, my fourth that year. Then there was living in a city rather than the country. And finally, there was the atmosphere, living in a slum close to the railroad tracks and having strange women care for us, after a fashion, while Dad worked. He established a charge account for us at the local Mom and Pop store, the type that occupied practically every corner back in those days. They sold groceries, mostly, but a sprinkling of other things. It was like a cornucopia for us. We could have anything in the store we wanted, and there followed a number of months where we lived mostly on candy and cookies. You can just picture 12 and 10 year old boys who had never had much of anything other than staples being able to buy anything in the store. We went hog wild.
The women who cared for us, sort of, weren't anything like mother. I didn't care for either of them, especially after Dad started sleeping with one of them, an ugly old harridan to my young eyes, and especially compared to Mother's beauty. Gary and I were mostly unsupervised, even to taking baths and getting haircuts or knowing when we needed new clothes and so forth, and Dad was little help, having never done anything like care for kids. He tried but he was completely out of his element, and spending time with the bottle certainly didn't help after he started drinking again. Once after Mike got a haircut, we could see dirt crusted on his head. On the other hand, the lack of regular haircuts would ultimately prove to be mine and Gary's salvation, which I'll relate a little later on.
Gary and I found an Army Surplus Store. This was back when those stores were filled with goods from WWII. We bought all kinds of camping equipment, machetes, bayonets, canteens and so forth, then began spending time along the Trinity River, camping out sometimes. We bought all kinds of fishing supplies, too, and found a good way to get to the Trinity River by walking over a bridge spanning the railroad tracks, or in dry weather, taking a short cut through a long culvert that ran beneath.
After that we spent a good deal of time playing around the river, learning to swim by ourselves in the process. We also put ourselves in great danger without even knowing about it. Bums, hobos, drifters, itinerant preachers, criminals, unemployed single men and all kinds of men from the very lowest strata of society also hung around that portion of the river. Gary and I saw nothing wrong with making friends with them, talking and swimming with them and using our charge account to buy food (mostly candy and cookies and cakes) for them. It is a pure wonder that one or both of us weren't molested--or worse.
Our unsupervised life style went on for a few months, then Dad saw that he simply couldn't handle the two youngest of us, Mike and Jackie, especially after he started drinking and gambling again. His abstinence had only lasted a couple of months. Mother came and got Mike and Jackie. She also cleaned the house. I hadn't realized the kind of filth and clutter we were living in until she began sweeping it all out. She left us with a hug and tears in her eyes because she couldn't take us, too.
Now then, back to the haircuts and how the lack of them changed our lives. I was in the seventh grade, and Gary was in the fifth, at a different school, of course. His teacher was doing vocabulary practice with the kids one day and asked one of the kids to use the term wealth in a sentence. The boy pointed to Gary and said "Gary has a wealth of hair." Gary told me how embarrassing it had been, but it also drew the teacher's attention to him.
The teacher's name was Becky. She had been operated on for some sort of female illness as a young lady and was childless and could never have a child. She was married to a man studying to be a minister, in his last year of Divinity school, I think. His name was Steve. At any rate he was practice preaching. Becky somehow checked into Gary's status, and found he had a brother, me. From there, Daddy was approached and Steve and Becky asked Dad if Gary and I could come live with them "for a while." Dad agreed. I have no idea why, after all the trouble he went to take us away from Mother, but that's the way it happened. Within a week or two, we were living in a whole new environment, one totally different than anything we had ever known.
Steve and Becky bought us new clothes, got us haircuts and generally had us all clean and refurbished within a week. We also entered a structured environment from the one we had been in where we were almost totally unsupervised by anyone. We went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. That was a bit much for me, but not all that bothersome. For one thing I knew that Sunday after church we would go to a cafeteria to eat, the first time ever for us. This was an awesome event to me the first few times, where you could choose all those things to eat and lots and lots of people were there and Becky and Steve pretty well let us choose what we wanted. I still remember the name of the place, The Colonial Cafeteria.
The school year ended and we were sent to a church camp. I have to say I did enjoy that experience. For one thing, the eggs were scrambled without milk. Before then, every morning we had the same thing for breakfast: milk, juice, eggs scrambled with milk and cinnamon toast that was more cinnamon than sugar. I had gotten to the point where I could barely abide the taste of eggs, then lo and behold, the taste at camp was entirely different. These were scrambled without milk, in bacon grease and tasted ambrosial to me.
There were sports and crafts and Bible classes all the time. I was a good student and excelled at those, but didn't do too well at sports, being a little small for my age. Gary, on the other hand, won almost all the competitions for his age since he was big for his age. In fact, he was always so nearly my size that we were frequently taken for twins until our late teens when he finally outgrew me.
We only saw Dad a few hours maybe once a month when he came to Steve and Becky's house to visit. He would attempt to play some ball or other games with us but really had no idea how to go about it. When we went to spend a day with him, we stayed in the bar and grill with him almost all the time. He drank beer and Gary and I played one of the machines common to bars then, either a "shoot the bear" sort of thing or a type of electronic shuffleboard.
The summer passed. I can't say I was really unhappy, but I did miss the unfettered life style of before. Then came the first crisis.
Becky and Steve approached Dad about adopting us. That was going too far and Dad took us back. We had already started school and both of us had to change schools again. Changing schools was old hat by now. It hardly ruffled our feathers.
Dad remarried, but it lasted only about a month. I've even forgotten the woman's name, but I do remember the last thing she said to me. "I think your Dad married me just to have someone to take care of you boys." I suspect there was a lot of truth in that statement.
Gary and I went back to another school, this one in a different part of town. In order to get to the river now, we had to take a bus. We still went but not nearly so often. We had another charge account but this one was limited. We wandered around the skid row part of town, unsupervised, spending what money we had in penny arcades and getting rather odd looks from proprietors and the regular inhabitants of that section of town. Again, it's fortunate that we escaped molestation, or worse.
Daddy got into a fight and was hospitalized for a day or two. By this time he was living with a young woman and she took fairly good care of us. Still, I was unhappy. It seemed to me that there had to be more to life than going to school and coming back and spending time in a hot, run down duplex or in the bar with Daddy. We weren't allowed in there without him at night, only during the day.
Whether it was the influence of the religious indoctrination by Becky and Steve, missing Mother, or what, I decided something had to change. I was barely thirteen at the time when I made a momentous decision. I said to Gary "I don't know about you, but I don't want to live like this." He agreed, as at that age he normally agreed with just about anything I said or did. I went and called Steve and Becky and told them the same thing.
Daddy was at work and Steve and Becky came out and got us. We missed school for a couple of days. When the teacher asked me for an excuse, I had one written by Becky. She asked me to read it aloud. I stood up and said I didn't want to read it but I would show it to her. She told me to either read it aloud or go see the principal. Even at that young age, I knew right from wrong, and being forced to read family troubles in class went against my grain. I walked out and went to the principal, and showed him the note and he, of course, agreed with me. About two seconds later the teacher was in his office, behind closed doors. I have no idea what the principal said to her but he must have carved her up into little pieces because all the way back to class she kept asking me to forgive her. I said I did, but really, I didn't. I thought she was just saying that because the principal had scared the holy s out of her.
A few days later we appeared in court. Daddy was there, but he had nothing to say to us. Becky and Steve were there and were granted temporary custody. On the drive back to their house, Steve stopped the car for a talk. He asked us what we really wanted to do. Did we want to stay with them? I didn't really know at that point. I had made a decision and now didn't know what to do next. In a very small voice, I said I would stay with them, but it wasn't really what I wanted. I didn't know what I wanted, not only for me but for Gary, too, as I felt somewhat protective of him, and I had gotten him into the present situation. Steve put his finger on the problem within a few seconds. He said "I think what you both really want to do is go live with your mother, isn't it?" Gary and I both said yes. My voice was much louder that time as I realized suddenly how much I missed Mother and wanted to be with the rest of my brothers and sisters. As I learned later, Mother wouldn't have agreed to an adoption by Becky and Steve anyway. While she had a chance she was already planning on going to court if necessary to get us back.
A few days later Steve and Becky drove us to Shreveport, only a few miles from where the odyssey had begun almost three years earlier. Mother had moved back from Oklahoma and was working as a waitress, supporting Carla and Jackie and Mike. Now she had Gary and I as well, five children, with no support money. So far as I know Daddy never paid any at all.
And here's a lesson in integrity and values just about anyone could learn from. Mother could have made far more money accepting welfare and staying home, but she refused to accept charity, as she called it. She would work for two years by herself, keeping the family together, all but Snooky, who had put roots down in Mena and elected to stay with grandmother. She did it with no medical insurance, too and paid all the hospital bills for her hysterectomy and all our illnesses. We lived in the slums, right at the dividing line between the lowest rent houses for whites and the beginning of a negro section of town, also a very low rent district. However, we never thought of ourselves as slum people, simply because Mother wouldn't allow us to. We were poor for certain, but self supporting and that's the way she wanted it.
I'll continue this story of my life in Shreveport in the next segment, where I finished Jr. High and started High School, began drinking, worked morning and evening throwing a giant paper route and encountered other things that affected my life back then.
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This page last updated 15-06-10.