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.
Begins about 1943
Before getting into this period of my life, I want to go back and relate another memory from the Little White House period [Shreveport] covered in the first excerpt. Like all boys, I imitated my Dad, even at that early age. The other day when a couple of the great grandkids were visiting, an event occurred which jogged this memory. I often observed Dad stretched out on the couch, still fully dressed except for having taken his shoes off, and reading the newspaper. One day I did the same thing, even though I didn't know how to read yet. I got a piece of the discarded newspaper, stretched out on the couch and crossed my feet, exactly like Dad did, then held the newspaper up and pretended I was reading. That is my first memory about reading. One of my sisters, the one two years older than me wasn't in school yet. She told me, "Oh you can't read!" And I couldn't just yet, not at three years old.
Now to the event which jogged that memory. When the kids were visiting, my great granddaughter Cheyann, who is five years old, climbed up into my lap. First she took my glasses from atop a book laying on my chairside table and put them on (I can only imagine what blurred vision she must have had!). Next she picked up my book and held it, just like I do when I'm reading in my easy chair, and then she said "Now I'm reading, just like grandpa." She was very serious, and it made me feel great that I was obviously setting a good example. I love to see kids read, even pretending to read. Once they get hooked on the printed word, the whole wide universe is open to them.
And now, on to the farm in Keithville.
Later in life when I came back home to visit, Mother and I spent hours in the mornings, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking about everything under the sun. Several times she mentioned to me how much she hated moving to the farm, and looking back, I can see why.
I don't remember the move at all. We were living in the little white house in Shreveport and the next thing I knew, we were out on the 500 acre farm near the very tiny town of Keithville, about 10, maybe 15 miles south of Shreveport. I didn't realize then that it was primarily a dairy farm. Snooky, my oldest sister, four years my senior, soon got taught to milk cows because there were no milking machines. All thirty cows had to be milked every morning (and maybe every evening, I'm not sure about that). I was never old enough to milk, but Dad and Snooky let me try on several occasions. I could never get the milk to come. I do remember the odd sensation of holding the teat in my hand, though. And watching Dad send a stream of milk to the barn cat. It didn't have a name until we kids gave it one. Pitty Pat Kitty Cat Bain. Pitty Pat loved the milk. The stream Dad directed toward his mouth would spatter his whole face but he never minded. He would lick what he could off his face, use his paw to wipe more off, then lick his paw. When he couldn't get any more, he would shake his head to rid his face of the rest, then begin meowing for more! I'm referring to Pitty Pat as a male, but he (she) might have been female. I seem to remember some kittens, but I can't be sure.
The cows were everywhere. Me and Gary, my next youngest brother, played everywhere, including in the pasture. Once we saw some of the cows laying down, and as nonchalantly as sitting down to dinner, I climbed up on the back of one of the cows and sat there like a Mahomet on an elephant. It's a wonder the cow didn't become annoyed and stand up with me on it. I have no idea what would have happened had that occurred. It probably wouldn't have been good, though. Either the cow would have stepped on me, or I might have broken something from the fall.
Kids can get into the darnedest predicaments. I have only the vaguest memory of standing behind a farm truck while it was backing up. It knocked me down and passed on over me without a wheel touching me. All I got were a few bruises. Looking back, I may not even remember the event. I may well have created the memory after hearing the story so many times. Remember my discourse about memory in the first excerpt?
Another predicament involved Gary, in which I became a hero. I think my cousins Larry and Jerry and their parents were visiting. There was an old bayou on the farm where a pier had been constructed years in the past from planks. It was old and rotten, but as kids will do, we walked out on it anyway. Naturally, one of the rotten planks collapsed and Gary fell through the hole. I just managed to grab him by the head and prevent him from slipping on through and down beneath the pier, where he would surely have drowned. I held on while either Larry or Jerry ran back to the house to find an adult. I still had him by the head, holding on for dear life, when Mother and Dad got there. I don't remember if we got spanked for playing there (after me being lauded for saving Gary's life and Gary comforted for still being alive), but I would bet that we did. At any rate, I don't remember ever playing there again.
My youngest brother Michael was barely toddling when another event happened, one which was my first introduction to calamity. It was the Christmas season, I believe, and cold. The wood stove was going good. In fact, the sides of it were red hot. The red color must have attracted Mike's attention. Before anyone could grab him, he took a couple of wobbly steps, then put his hand out to steady himself. The flat of his hand landed squarely on that red hot portion of the stove. He screamed and screamed, but it was a couple of seconds before anyone could get to him. When he was yanked away from the stove, some of his charred skin stayed there, burning with a sickly sweet odor.
Remember, this was back in the early 40's and we lived way out in the country. And possibly no one realized right at first just how serious the burn to Mike's hand was. Someone suggested tea, and soon his hand was soaking in a pan of cold, strong tea. I don't remember much else except occasionally seeing Mike with one hand ending in a huge ball of gauze. Probably it was on one of the times he got to come home to visit between bouts of plastic surgery, because he stayed in the charity hospital in Shreveport for three months, having skin removed from his thighs and grafted to his hand. On one of those morning talks with mother in later years, she had tears in her eyes as she told me how Mike stayed in the hospital so long he began calling the nurses "Mother."
Remember me telling about how I lit the gas heater in the little while house in Shreveport when I was only three years old? And how I said it would have repercussions later? It did. I still knew how to strike a match, and so did my sister Carla, two years my senior. I have no earthly idea why we did what we did. Certainly Carla should have known better. For that matter, I probably should have, too. Be as it may, one day Carla and I found ourselves alone for a period of time and we went exploring. We got into the closet built under the stairs and found a box of matches there. And then, with not a care in the world, we sat down in that big closet and began striking matches and throwing them away from us. Inevitably, one of them started something in the closet burning.
The next couple of hours were exciting, to say the least. The closet was situated beneath the stairs leading to the second story. That was also where Dad stored his shotgun shells. Between the closet and staircase being in flames and the shotgun shells exploding and men and women running back and forth with tubs and pans of water, it's a wonder we didn't get trampled. Or perhaps we simply stayed out of sight, knowing that we were responsible. I don't remember, but I surely do remember seeing the efforts to put out the fire and hearing the shells going off. I don't know where the other men came from but probably they were there working for Dad. It's a pure wonder that the whole house didn't burn down, but it didn't. I don't remember the spanking, but I know I must have gotten one. And Carla, too.
And while I'm talking about Carla, she was always a sickly child when young. Mother and Dad both told me later that several times they came close to losing her, but she survived the sicknesses, only to come down with Tuberculosis. Back in those days there wasn't much to do about TB. Maybe they used Sulfa drugs. Penicillin was not yet on the civilian market, although it was beginning to be used to treat war wounds which got infected.
Anyway, the treatment for TB in those dark ages was complete bed rest. For six months, Carla wasn't allowed out of bed, even to go to the bathroom. The rest of us kids had to help with her, emptying the bedpan and so forth. And relatives helped out by soliciting everyone they knew to wrap a present for her. They were delivered in a huge box, and Carla was allowed to open one present a day in order to escape the boredom of always having to stay in bed. Occasionally I would find myself being a bit envious of her getting to unwrap a gift every single day, but mostly I just felt sorry for her, and well I might have. The treatment was based on ignorance. She would have been much better off being able to exercise as much as she could and to get some fresh air and sunshine, but we didn't know any better--that was the state of medicine in those days.
Carla eventually recovered, but there were other injuries and sicknesses that seemed to dog our steps.
One day Dad was repairing the back steps and left a board laying on the ground while he went to get some tool or other. It had a huge nail driven through it and sticking upright. I was out playing and came running pell mell and stepped squarely on that nail sticking up from the board. It went all the way through my foot and poked up the skin on top, making it look like a little tent. Now today, that would garner a trip to the emergency room, all kinds of antibiotics, cleansing of the wound with probes, tetanus shots, bandages and so on. But that was then, on a farm out in the country. My treatment consisted of pouring kerosene (which we called coal oil) into my puncture wound to clean it out, then wrapping it with strips of bandage torn from an old pillow case. Know what? It healed perfectly.
Speaking of kerosene, it had many uses back then. The house was entirely lit with kerosene lamps. Trimming the wicks of those things to make them burn with a bright light is an art, as I found out when Betty and I moved to our own farm and we were without electricity after our first hurricane. I never could get the blasted things to burn right.
Once there was a jar of kerosene setting on a table or floor or somewhere in reach of Michael. This was after his hand had healed (which left it scarred and somewhat shriveled, along with numerous scars on his thighs from patches of skin being removed and grafted to his hand). Kerosene is a clear liquid. To Mike, it must have looked just like water and he was thirsty. He picked up the jar and drank enough to make him very ill. That required a trip to the hospital for injury to his lungs, but he survived.
Another time I got hurt by simply doing nothing but watching while Snooky, my oldest sister was carving on a piece of wood to make something, possibly a butter churn or the like. Well, maybe I wasn't exactly doing nothing. I moved in close to see what she was making just at the time when the big butcher knife she was using slipped. It whacked me right on my upper thigh, making a cut three inches long and a half inch deep. Again, that was an injury that today would require a trip to the emergency room. All I got was the inevitable kerosene rinse and a bandage. I still have a beautiful scar from the cut that should have had about a dozen stitches.
Homemade ice cream was a great treat back then. We didn't have an ice cream freezer, not even a hand cranked one. The ice cream was made in a metal, one-gallon bucket that the ribbon cane syrup came in (for ages I didn't know there was any other kind of syrup. Ribbon cane was cheap and that's what we got). Somehow or other, a staph bug must have been the cream. We all got food poisoning. It felt like I was dying and it looked like the rest of the family was dying, but we all survived. And guess where the blame for the food poisoning went? The adults were firmly convinced it came from making the ice cream in the metal syrup bucket! So why did they do it? Just a risk, they said, and it didn't happen often, but occasionally the metal bucket caused food poisoning. An old wives tale of course, but for years I believed it.
On a dairy farm, it was a dead certain cinch that we made our own butter. One of the hated chores of childhood was the monotonous task of sitting in a chair and pushing the wooden churner up and down until the butter finally congealed from the cream. It was exhausting, but had to be done. Sometimes Mother used the chore as punishment. It made us behave pretty good. Once the butter was ready, it was put into wooden molds, then into the icebox. The icebox wasn't electric, no electricity, remember? As Dad came home from work, a couple of times a week, he'd stop by the ice house and pick up a block of ice. One winter we had an ice storm, then sleet, then freezing rain on top of that, until ice was everywhere about four inches thick. For a while Dad didn't have to bring ice home. The old house had a tin roof. One day when the thaw began, there was a terrible rumbling noise. It sounded like the world was coming apart, but it was only the melting ice sliding off the roof. It's a good thing no one was underneath or they would have either been killed or seriously injured.
Another illness we all got was whooping cough. God, I can remember plain as day how horrible that felt, coughing as if my lungs were going to come apart, unceasing coughing, coughing day and night to exhaustion, to the point of not being able to breath, to feeling as if I was suffocating and still coughing. How on earth Mother managed all of us kids with the illness at about the same time and still took care of all her other work is beyond me.
The farm layout was something like this. There was the big two story house with a big cistern next to it for water to the kitchen (but there weren't any inside bathrooms; we had an outhouse), a pump house where a gasoline motor powered a pump to pump water from a well to the cistern, a big barn for the cows, some corrals and pig pens and an old rundown tenet house up the dirt road to the gravel road leading to Keithville. There was also a big iron pot out in the center of the back yard. This was where mother washed clothes, by building a fire around the pot, and sloshing the clothes around in boiling water with a big stick. Oh yes, she made our own soap from lard and ashes, too, yellowish gray stuff cut into chunks the size of a grown person's hand.
Occasionally a frog would somehow get into the cistern and die. We always knew because the water would start tasting rotten. It's amazing how a little frog weighing less than an ounce could make all that water smell bad. The solution was to drain the cistern and find the frog, then refill it (I think--there may have been another way to find the pesky thing because I don't actually remember it being drained). The outhouse usually had Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs to use for toilet paper. The pages were slick and didn't work the best, but the upside was you always had something to read.
Every evening except in bad weather or when it was extremely cold, my oldest sister would take Gary and I (and later Mike) out to the cistern and give us a bath from the faucet there. I can still remember jumping up and down and trying to get away when the water was really cold, but Snooky brooked no nonsense--we got our baths!
And here's a funny. After a time, the outhouse would begin to get full and smell. One day I saw Dad with some corncobs and asked him where he was going. He said "To take a shit" and went off into the woods. A few minutes later, Mother asked me where Dad was. I told her "He went to take a shit." And that was my introduction to cursing. Before that I had no idea there were words you weren't supposed to use in polite company. Mother really let me know there were, though!!
Ever so often a great aunt who was a nurse would paint our throats with merthiolate. I think that was supposed to keep us from getting some kind of infection but I don't know what. And it may not have been Merthiolate. That was what was used for cuts and scrapes (and later proved to be ineffective). All I remember is how bad it tasted.
Hog killing in the fall was always a big affair. The hogs would be slaughtered out under the persimmon trees about the time the persimmons were getting ripe, then the meat cut up. The negroes would come for the intestines to make chitlins. They would grab a long length of intestine and squeeze it empty by running their hands down over it. I couldn't understand why they wanted that part of the hogs but other things were going on and I never asked. Part of the kids' job was to grind the meat by hand for sausage. Mother would mix it with seasoning and form it into patties, then pack it in kegs of lard, which had been rendered from the fat of the hogs. For days after the slaughter we had fresh pork, then it was back to salt pork or smoked ham. I must have eaten several tons of salt pork up until I was eleven or twelve.
We had a few horses. Gary and I would ride them bareback, but one day I got kicked--and I never got on a horse again until I was working in Saudi Arabia. I still don't like them, partly because they scare me, I'm sure.
Dad always had some negro men working for him at one time or another. He would calculate their wages using a pencil and writing on the side of a shed. The Negroes were always dressed practically in rags, with shoes split and held together with rope or twine. I thought they looked sad in those old clothes.
One really poignant memory was one day, out on the dirt road, a negro man was taking a break from plowing. I went over to talk to him. He looked down at me after we had exchanged a few words and asked, "Whut you rather be, a white man or colored man?" For some reason the question embarrassed me. "White, I guess," I answered. The man wiped sweat off his brow and looked into some far distance then back down at me. "So would I," he said. The memory remained so vivid that after I was grown I wrote a story about it and submitted it to The Saturday Evening Post, the first submission of my writing life. I never heard anything back.
I had a vivid imagination even before starting school. One day I noticed that after I had been out playing on the dirt road by myself, and started home, that no matter how fast I went, the sun remained at about the same spot in the sky. When I got back to the house I told Mother, "Mr. Sun followed me home." She laughed, one of the few times I can remember her laughing from then on. I also had an imaginary friend, a purple alligator. I don't remember that one. Mother told me about it later on in life.
Somehow, even with working full time on the railroad and running the farm, Dad found time to hunt and fish. Every fall, he went duck hunting, then it was time to pluck the ducks of their downy feathers to make pillows and mattresses with. There's nothing so soft as a feather mattress!
Dad went squirrel hunting a lot. He had a squirrel dog named Tracks. He was our dog as well and stayed with the kids all the time. He was a very special dog and much admired by other hunters.
About the only thing we ever did as a family was to go fishing on the bayou. Mother loved to fish, but got to do very little of it. Her job was to build a fire, clean the fish, and cook them. They were so good, fresh from the water, and of course I didn't realize how much Mother would have loved to be fishing instead of cleaning and cooking!
We had a battery radio for a while. The batteries were about as big as a car battery is today. One night we all listened to the Billy Conn and Joe Louis world heavyweight fight. We also listened to some radio programs. The Shadow is about the only one I remember.
All this was happening during World War II. There was rationing of almost everything. Mostly it didn't bother me except cakes were a rare treat since sugar was rationed.
I started school out there on the farm. We had to walk down the dirt road to the gravel road to catch the bus, about a half mile (not the ten miles through snow you hear your grandparents brag about). The best days were when the bus broke down and we didn't have to go to school.
I already knew how to read by the time school started. We all started in the first grade. There was no kindergarten, or if there was, it wasn't available to us.
We had very few neighbors. The only ones I remember were the Mullers. They lived right up the road from the bus stop. I thought it was great fun to discover that Mrs. Muller and I had the same birthday.
One Christmas when our radio was either broken or the battery was dead, Gary and I got to go to the Mullers and listen to Santa Claus on the radio. I absolutely believed in Santa Claus until I was six, but that Christmas the whole family went to Shreveport for the Christmas shopping. On the way home, I started looking in the big paper bags and discovered some toy guns. "Put those back!" Mother ordered very strictly, and I did. Then the guns appeared under the Christmas tree and I knew immediately that Santa was a fake.
One Christmas, cousins Larry and Jerry were visiting with the aunts and uncles. Uncle TC gave Gary and I a real metal gyroscope. It cost a dollar, way back in 1945, so it must have been an expensive gift. It was wonderful the things that gyroscope would do! You wound it up with a piece of string, and pulled the string to get it to spinning. Then you could make it stand upright on a piece of taut string, lean over and not fall and do all kinds of fascinating things. That might have been the impetus for my first flicker of interest in science.
I have to laugh today about the zero policy of no weapons at school. Back then, every boy from about four or five years old had his own pocket knife that he carried everywhere, including to school. Occasionally a boy would get a paddling for using his knife to carve his initials on his desk, but that was all that ever happened. We would spend recess at school playing mumblety-peg. I don't remember the rules now, but you flipped your knife with the both blades opened, one at an angle to the other, and tried to make the blade stick in the soil when the knife landed. We were forever carving something or other. School teachers and administrators of today probably have a hard time imagining every boy in school carrying a knife, but we did. And the greatest calamity of a young boy's life was losing his pocket knife. It happened frequently, but poor as we were, our knives were always replaced. They must have been pretty cheap, or Mother and Dad felt they were very necessary to a little boy.
The war ended while I lived out on the farm. I can remember Dad saying, "The boys will be coming home, now." And I remember seeing the headlines, covering half the front page, JAPS QUIT!
By the second grade, I was thinking how silly the Dick and Jane readers were. I always zoomed through mine in two days or so and was bored stiff the rest of the year in reading class. Writing class was boring. We sat for hours making loops and whorls and other symbols as practice for when we were taught cursive writing. I have no idea whether it did any good or not.
We gave each other valentines each year, to whomever we wanted to, and compared the number each kid got. They were dropped into a big box, then on Valentine Day, the teacher handed them out. There was no worry about someone's psych being scarred because someone else got more valentines than another person. It was just a rule of nature that some kids were more popular and we thought nothing of it.
It also seemed natural that there were "rich" kids and poor kids, country kids and "town" kids. I never felt deprived that our shirts were frequently made from feed sacks and everyone knew it, even though the sacks came in colored patterns. What did bother me was that Dad made Gary and I wear overalls. We stood out from all the boys who wore regular jeans. One day I came home crying and told Mother I wasn't going to go back to school unless I had some jeans. See, there was pressure to keep up with the fashions even back then!
One day an airplane zoomed overhead so fast it left its sound behind. It was too high to see that it was a jet, but we all thought it amazing a plane could go that fast!
I guess Dad was drinking more by then because when there was work on the farm to do, Dad always had a big tub of beer in ice water.
One year there was a flood. The water came up almost to the back door. It wiped out all the crops. The same year prices fell and Dad couldn't stay with the farm. It was the summer before starting third grade when the farm failed and we moved to Summer Grove, a little town closer to Shreveport.
I'll talk about living in Summer Grove with the next excerpt.
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This page last updated 15-06-10.