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.
1947 through 1950
Social mores. Poorer and Poorer. No TV, no phone, no movies, no games. The Final Split.
Part of relating my life in the little community of Summer Grove where we moved after the dairy farm has failed to involve a description of the social mores of family life in the forties. Even as children there were chores to do, but they were very clearly delineated between boy jobs and girl jobs. All Gary and I had to worry about was chopping and bringing in kindling and wood for Mother to start the fire in the kitchen wood stove. Other than that, we were pretty much free. My older sisters had to help with the dishes, washing and hanging out clothes to dry and bringing them in, cleaning house, shelling peas, and many other "girl" jobs. Mother would never think of asking the boys to help with any of those chores, and Dad wouldn't have permitted it if she had, for fear of turning us into "sissies." My brothers and I grew up with the attitude that such duties were "women's work." It took many years, even after I was grown, to get rid of some of those attitudes and I imagine I've never completely cleared my mind of all of them.
Another factor which helped shape my live was the lack of outside media entertainment, or even friends to play with. For you younger readers, try to imagine growing up with no television, no phone, no movies (we lived a long way from the nearest theatre and wouldn't have had the money even if there had been one close), no electronic games (and not even any board games--again, no money), We had very few books or magazines in the house (no money). We didn't live near any other kids we could play with other than one older boy. In short, any amusement other than playing cards, we had to devise for ourselves.
This usually amounted to Gary and I, and sometimes Michael (my youngest brother) as he became old enough to join us, making up games. We played Pirate by using an old door laid on the ground and pretending it was a raft or ship. We played cave men by using tall dead and hardened weeds which resembled spears. We played along the railroad tracks, always finding interesting things to do there. And there was always Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs to look at. We would sit for hours thumbing through the pages and wish for the cornucopia of goods displayed in them, especially toward Christmas. I always wished for expensive toys, knowing I would wind up with clothes instead. It's a wonder I learned to love books so much given those circumstances, but I did.
One of the highlights of each summer was Vacation Bible School. I hated VBS because it didn't seem fair to have to go to "school" during summer, and for me it was very boring besides. Except for one thing: kids were asked to memorize Bible verses, and free books were given to those of us who memorized a set amount of verses. Each year I would strain my little mind memorizing volumes of verses, winning as many books as I possibly could, which always amounted to every one they offered. The books were religiously oriented, but for all that, fun to read because they were boys' adventures and showed me a life far removed from my own, but one which was displayed as normal for most kids, i.e., a family where the parents had the time and inclination to pay lots of attention to their offspring, and describing such things as cars and car trips, movies, friends, new clothes, boating, nice homes and so on. It made me realize they must be a normal part of life for most kids.
For us, Mother was far too busy and worried about having money to feed and clothe us to show much affection and Dad was seldom there, and there certainly wasn't any money for toys, and such things as lawn mowers and boats and parks were as far removed from our life as another planet. Dad was spending increasing amounts of time in bars and gambling away his salary. I have no idea what inclined him in that direction, but it didn't make for a very normal or typical life. I might mention that I've learned over the years that Dad was quite a rounder even before he and Mother were married.
So what did I do when not in school? Well, first off, I read every scrap of printed material that came my way, such as it was. The elementary school "library" consisted of two small shelves of books in a coat closet. I made short order of them, and so far as I remember they were never exchanged. One time a couple of adult books, one on the history of astronomy and one on the history of microbiology somehow appeared in our house. I think I was the only one who read them, but I devoured both, reading over and over again about the pioneers and great minds of those two sciences, from Galileo to Hubble to Pastuer to Koch. From that point on I was always fascinated by science.
Dad thought I was kind of strange for liking books better than hunting and fishing and when he spent any time at all with me, it was trying to get me interested in hunting and the outdoors. When my eyes became irritated from reading one day, Mother took me somewhere to have my eyes examined. It showed that I needed glasses, but Dad wouldn't hear of it, even though the railroad insurance would have paid for them. He told me he didn't want me to look like a sissy. Fortunately, my eyes weren't that bad and no permanent damage was done.
There were lots of woods, fields and streams to play in, and Gary and I roamed them with never a thought of getting lost or getting into trouble. We made fishing poles from saplings and corks from wood to fish with. We made kites from old newspapers and flour and water paste. As best I remember, none of those kites ever flew very good, but we kept trying. We were forever making bow and arrows to play with, not good ones, but they amused us. Our favorite toys were homemade slingshots, and the signal lights along the railroad tracks were almost irresistible targets--until a railroad detective came out to investigate. We denied doing the deed but found other things to shoot at after that.
Slingshots were commonly called "nigger shooters" by kids and adults alike, with never a thought of giving offense to anyone. Negroes in the forties in the South were treated as practically an alien species, not fit for anything except menial labor, and the word "nigger" was used as casually as any other descriptive part of the language. Schools were completely segregated; in fact the races were completely segregated, with separate drinking fountains and bathrooms in public places, though I saw very few of those, since none of us kids ever went anywhere. Negroes (as they were called in polite terms) weren't allowed to eat in restaurants, or at soda fountains and the like; they could purchase items, but weren't allowed to sit on the stools at the counter. Segregation permeated every aspect of life. Even obituaries in the newspapers were white only!
The schools were supposed to be "separate but equal" but that was a momentous lie on the part of every politician responsible for funding schools in the south. They were no more equal than a kitten is equal to a tiger. Once Gary and I were exploring in the woods and we found the elementary school where negroes in our area were taught. We found a way to get inside and curious, as kids will be, we took the opportunity. It was a one room building, heated with a wood stove. No bathroom like our schools, just an outhouse. The school books were so tattered and worn they looked like trash and nothing else. Lunches must have been prepared in that room for there was a pantry with big tins of peanut butter and others of beans and peas. That was about it. The desks were misshapen and battered to the point they should have been used for firewood. All the grades must have been taught in that one room because we found books for several different grades. In short, compared to our school, it was pitiful.
Beginning in the fourth or possibly fifth grade, I began working in the school cafeteria for my meals, which would have cost fifteen cents otherwise, money we simply didn't have. Up until then we brought our lunch like the other poor kids, but I think we were one of the few who brought biscuits and salt pork rather than sandwiches, or sometimes an odd combination of sugar and butter on biscuits. Sugar was cheaper than jelly and bread was too costly. By the way, I still like a hot buttered biscuit with sugar! Working in the cafeteria meant I had to skip the lunch break and not get to play with the other kids. I can't remember it bothering me; it was just a fact of life that me and three or four other kids worked for our meals.
This would never be possible today; the schools would be too scared of getting sued if the least little accident happened, but back then people didn't sue like they do today, at the drop of a hat. Besides, I'm sure some school psychologist would insist doing such a thing would hurt the kids' psychological development, making them feel inferior or some such psychobabble. Personally, I think it helped me develop a work ethic. I certainly knew what I was working for, and felt I was well paid with the full cafeteria meals!
One of my most notable memories is of Dad selling our milk cow to pay some debts. The cow was the only legacy of the dairy farm which moved with us, and the only important one so far as I was concerned, and my siblings as well. We all loved milk and had it for every meal. A couple of days after the cow had been sold, Dad brought home cans of evaporated milk and insisted that when diluted with water, it tasted just as good as fresh cow milk. He was singularly unconvincing. None of us could abide the taste of evaporated milk and we refused to drink it no matter how much we were threatened and cajoled. Within a week or two he gave up and we had either water or tea with meals.
We lived in one house for a few months, then finances deteriorated even further. We had to move and this time it was up the road a couple of hundred yards, on the other side of the railroad tracks, into a truly decrepit old place. It did have electric lights, bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling on cords, but that was the only purpose the electricity served. There was no money for appliances. Mother was given a new wood burning kitchen stove to cook on and somehow we came by an old wringer type washing machine. That was the extent of the amenities. There was the usual outhouse which we all hated to use, having gotten a brief touch of a bathroom in the previous house. Besides the kitchen stove, there was one wood burning stove to heat the whole house with. It must have been horribly cold during the winter with the thin walls, bereft of insulation, but I don't remember ever being that cold. Mother was the one who got up each morning and got the fires going.
I do remember playing in the woods a lot. There was a stream we explored for several miles back into the forest and lots of interesting things to do around the railroad tracks. Mother would have fainted had she seen Gary and I walk across a long railroad trestle with a drop of 50 or 60 feet beneath it and no way to escape had a train come along while we were playing on it. We were very lucky!
We made "caves" of the stacked railroad ties by moving them around. I still have fond memories of standing close to the tracks and watching a coal burning steam engine approaching, huge amounts of dark oily smoke billowing up and trailing behind and the long, deep wail of the whistle, warning motorists of its approach, then roaring and clanking past like a modern day dinosaur, the wind of its passing blowing dust and grit on to our bare skin and into our hair and eyes. We made a game of how close we would stand to the tracks when the train came by, and probably scaring the engineers half to death.
I began drinking coffee when I was seven and had my appendix out, which happened while we were still living in Keithville. In those days, the rule was bed rest for at least a week after surgery. My diet the first few days was a choice of water, tea or coffee. That's when I learned to like coffee, just for a change, and I've loved it ever since. My doctor tells me one of the possible causes of my recent bout with internal bleeding was excessive coffee drinking. And as I remember, coffee and cigarettes were the two things we always had money for. However, toward the end of Mother and Dad's marriage, the cigarettes were rolled from loose tobacco on a little gadget. We kids thought it was fun to roll the cigarettes for Mother and Dad and made a game of it. Gary and I sometimes filched a couple and learned to smoke, though without inhaling.
My cousin Jerry usually came to visit every summer. Me, Jerry and Gary formed a club. We called it "The Confederate Club." Jerry was a captain, I was a lieutenant and Gary was a sergeant. We didn't have any privates. We were very serious with our club and continued it off and on for years. Later on when I had a little allowance, Gary and I sent a few pennies each month as "dues" until we discovered the Captain had used the money for a model airplane. At a family reunion 50 years later, we inducted Jerry's father into the club, promoted every one to General, then disbanded. It was great fun.
Our fifth grade teacher is one I'll always remember. During the year, each day she would read us a segment of "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. I think now, that by the fifth grade, there's no time for such foolishness. Kids are too busy studying for those tests mandated by the government. I've often wondered how many readers that teacher created by reading aloud in class. Of course today, it would be impossible to read that book aloud in school. Too much mention of race, and so much casual use of the word "nigger." But how many kids miss out on real history by policies like that? Mark Twain wrote about times and events from the era honestly and I doubt he intended to give offense to anyone. Like most authors, I believe he was simply trying to tell a good story.
All in all, I found myself increasingly living in my imagination during that era, doing things I thought gave me an aura of importance, like making up an imaginary language no one else knew. I fooled my brothers and sisters for years with it. My fantasies were mostly about having lots of money one day so I could do some of the things I read about in books.
There were no boy or girl scouts or cubs and brownies, or perhaps there were but none of us belonged to them that I remember. Probably it was a matter of transportation not being available, if there were clubs in the area. We had no after school organized activities at all. Again, there probably were some, but we didn't go, again for lack of transportation, I think, or more likely there was some money required and we simply had no money.
There's something I forgot to mention which occurred during the time we were living in Keithville, when I must have been about five or six. We were visiting my great aunt in Shreveport, a rare occasion, and for some reason I suddenly began wondering where everything came from. I asked my aunt where all the houses I could see came from. She said God made them and everything else. When I asked when and how God made them, she backtracked and said God made men and men made the houses. That satisfied me for a while, until one day when I was, oh, maybe eight years old or so, I was outside and suddenly remembered that occasion. I started thinking about it and began wondering: If God made everything, where did God come from? I couldn't figure it out then and I've never been able to resolve the question. Actually, I don't think anyone else has either, philosophers and preachers notwithstanding.
Every Christmas and Thanksgiving after we moved to that falling-down old house, a big car or truck would pull up and representatives from the local churches and charities would unload boxes and baskets of food for us, knowing we were one of the poorest families in the district (well, the negro population was almost certainly poorer, but no one worried about them, to my knowledge, though I suppose they had their own charities). As I've remarked, in the south of that era, the two races may as well have been separate species, with whites the dominate of the two. Mother was terribly embarrassed at having to accept charity as she told me later, but she overcame it by the thought that the kids would get some good food and a change from the habitual salt pork, biscuits, beans and oatmeal.
In the sixth grade I had my first contact with someone who was truly foreign. A couple of kids from Europe, probably refugees from WWII, appeared in our class. They spoke not a word of English but were sent to school anyway. Before long, they assimilated the language from us, simply by playing and talking with the school kids. We would point out things and give the English name for it and they would faithfully repeat it. Sometimes we were kind of casually cruel in the way kids will be, and introduced them to words like stinkpot and stupid and so forth. I don't remember any of us kids cursing in grade school. Now it seems they start learning foul language in kindergarten. At any rate, the foreign kids soon learned English and caught up in school, helped I'm sure by their parents at home who wanted them to fit in with America as soon as possible. Instances like that make me even more certain today that the idea of second language instruction in school is wrong. If we want immigrants to assimilate, leave it to the kids; they'll take care of it, with some help from their parents, and perhaps some after school heavy instruction in English to hurry the process. I'm speaking of legal immigrants here, of course.
Dad sold Tracks, the phenomenal squirrel dog, and our beloved pet, along about then, again to pay debts run up from gambling and drinking. He got the tremendous sum of fifty dollars, equivalent today to around a thousand dollars, at least. Someone who really liked to squirrel hunt must have bought him!
I was so quick in school that I never developed good study habits, a situation which was to plague me later on in life. And Mother, of course, had little time to supervise our studies. All of us kids made exceptionally good grades and she left it at that, and we seldom saw Dad. When not working, he spent time in bars and hunting and fishing and trapping in season. We did get different kinds of meat than salt pork from his hunting, especially squirrels in season, rabbits any time, and there was another kind of meat we enjoyed, frog legs. Occasionally Dad would go frog gigging and bring home a bushel basket of huge bull frogs. It was us kids who cleaned them, a sort of onerous job but not too difficult once we got the hang of it. Mother hated to cook them, because fresh frog legs frequently jumped around in the pan while being fried. They were very good, though.
And occasionally when Dad would really need money immediately, he would go out at night and hunt rabbits illegally with a spotlight. He would come in the next morning with twenty or thirty rabbits, skin them out and take them into the "nigger section" of town in Shreveport to sell, for anywhere from 75 cents to $1.25 per rabbit. I went with him one time and for the first time saw how negroes lived back then in towns. They were worse off than us. Little did I know that a few years later, we kids and Mother would be living in an old house adjoining the section and I would throw a paper route there. Even more ironically, much later in life, Mother would return to the exact location of the old house, living in a nursing home built on its former site after it was torn down.
Discipline when we misbehaved was with a switch by mother, a belt by Dad. We didn't get whipped that often, so I guess on the whole we were pretty well behaved. Gary and I once got a real whaling though, when Dad invested some money in a hound bitch he intended to breed and make some money selling the pups. He told us to tie the dog up when she came into heat. We did, with an old silk hose like women wore back then. The bitch promptly chewed through it and ran off and wound up having a litter of mongrels. As we were taking our whipping, I remember how outraged I felt, especially since I only vaguely understood why Dad was so mad. There had been no rope to tie the dog up with and we had done the best we could, yet still got punished.
I've talked about Gary a lot. He is two years younger than me, so naturally I was the leader in our endeavors as kids. We fought sometimes. I always won, but barely, since Gary was heavier built than me and almost as big as me. We were frequently taken for twins when we dressed in the same feed sack shirts. Just recently, Gary told me that he has always sort of looked up to me. That came as kind of a shock to me. I never realized it; in fact, I had always been a little jealous of him because of his bigger build and not being quite as bashful as me.
Bashful. That was something that plagued me all through school and later on in life. I was painfully shy. The least little thing embarrassed me. Along about eleven I became aware of girls as a separate species, but an attractive girl would scare me silly, and for the life of me I couldn't initiate a normal conversation with girls, especially pretty ones. The whole thing might have been easer to bear had I known then that there was such a thing as a "bashful gene," recently discovered, but of course I didn't. Being so bashful changed my life in a way I wouldn't have anticipated, because I found out in my teen years that with a few drinks under my belt I could overcome some of the bashful trait. Drinking progressed, but that's for a later part of this memoir.
We didn't go to church every Sunday, but did occasionally. I know now that the reason for our infrequent attendance was because Mother was ashamed of our poor clothes and of the lack of money to drop into the collection plate. A few times at church I would invite one of the boys to come home with me and stay overnight and go back to school with me the next morning. I don't remember any of them coming back for a second time. I guess outhouses, salt pork and biscuits and no games of any kind to play, no radio or things like that were too foreign to them.
The last year we lived in that old house, Mother became pregnant again, producing a baby sister. She was unplanned, of course. All of the rest of us came at two year intervals, but she was six years younger than Michael, the youngest of us until then. Jackie made six kids at home.
Dad had a 16 gauge pump shotgun handed down to him from his Dad. It was manufactured in 1895 and was a beautiful gun. For years, Dad had been promising that it would be mine when he died or was too old to hunt, then one day he announced he had sold it, with no apology at all. Same thing; gambling and drinking. I was heartbroken. He had also bought me a single shot .22 rifle on my eleventh birthday. One time he took it hunting (to use for squirrels) and came back without it. He claimed he had forgotten and left it leaning against a tree. Even then, I knew he drank a lot and gambled, and I suspected he had sold it or lost it in a card game, but I can't say for sure. His story might have been the truth.
All this time, none of us kids had an inkling that things were not good between Mother and Dad. They kept their quarrels private. I was the only one of us who knew much at all, and that was because I came home from school one day with an irritated eye and they were arguing about a divorce. Mother and Dad both asked me who I wanted to go with if they did. It was a terrible question to put to an eleven year old boy out of the blue. I didn't know what to say. Finally I thought of a compromise. "I'll stay with Mother until school is out, then go with Daddy," I said, an attempt to please them both. The subject was dropped for a little while and I never told the other kids about the incident, but the specter of the family splitting up was looming ever closer.
I should note here that readers may have gotten the impression that Dad didn't love us. It wasn't that at all. I'm sure he did love us; it was just that the demons of drinking and gambling had their hooks in him more and more as time went on. And there's another factor. He hadn't been raised in a home where demonstrations of love were common as in most families, and thus brought that lack into his own family. I can't say that for sure, but I do know that hugs or expression of affection were very rare for us kids.
Two of my most memorable occurrences in grade school were field trips. One was to Wonder Bread bakery. It was wonderful and amazing to see how the bread was made without human intervention, other than to maintain the machinery. Another was to a weather station. There was one more excursion, but that wasn't such a happy one.
The fifth grade was to put on a radio play for a local station. Part of the play involved group singing. Our teacher quickly learned that I was tone deaf and couldn't carry a tune. I was politely asked to remain silent during the singing and during practice I did, simply mouthing the words to myself. Alas, during the actual performance at the radio station, I forgot and began singing. I got way off base from the rest of the group, my voice rising over theirs in what amounted to structured screaming (or more likely unstructured screaming). I was having a fine time when I noticed the teacher glaring at me, her face a fiery red, and I suddenly remembered I wasn't supposed to be singing. She never disciplined me for that breach. I suppose she thought once the damage was done, the less said the better. That story is related in one of my Santa Claus Lane books, either Life On Santa Claus Lane or Laughing All The Way. I forget which right now.
I was too bashful to volunteer for any of the school plays or projects and anyway, the good parts always went to the rich kids and popular ones without regard to talent (or so it seems to me when looking back). Besides, most of the good parts required expensive costumes the actors had to buy and I knew without asking that we couldn't afford them, even if I had got up the nerve to try out for a part.
Christmas of 1950 was terrible. The usual charity boxes and baskets had been delivered and we kids were looking forward to Christmas morning of some new clothes and a little candy and oranges and things we never got otherwise. But then Christmas morning arrived and Mother was nowhere around. She had left. My two oldest sisters knew what had happened but they weren't saying. I finally cornered Snooky, the oldest, while she was crying and demanded to know what had happened. She told me "Mother has run off with Jim".
Jim was a fellow Dad brought home occasionally with him, a drinking buddy, but a nice guy anyway. I didn't know it until Mother told me years later, but by the time that terrible Christmas came around, Mother said she was in fear of her life. She wanted to leave but said Dad threatened to kill her if she did. The situation had deteriorated to the point where frequently she had trouble finding anything at all for the kids to eat. Dad was coming home less and less, sometimes staying gone for two or three days at a time, gambling away his paychecks, and I guess she finally figured she had to do something. Jim offered her sanctuary and she took it, though no sexual association occurred then. He was simply helping out in a situation which had careened completely out of control.
In those days, a woman running off put her in the wrong, no matter what the circumstances, so the way it wound up was that Dad got to keep custody of us all but couldn't just yet because of a sudden illness. Mother went to Oklahoma to stay with a sister, taking the two youngest, Michael and Jackie, the new baby sister, with her. Snooky, Carla, Gary and I went to Arkansas to stay with Grandmother, while Dad left town and moved to Ft. Worth, Texas.
There followed an odyssey for the kids, especially Gary and I, for a couple of years. I'll continue with that part of my life in the next segment, where I made a decision which almost certainly had a greatly positive effect on mine and Gary's life, a decision no thirteen year old child should ever have to make.
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