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This is mainly a book for children--his. And for you and yours also, if you share in the idea of the main true story, that hard work and dedication are their own reward. Also included are vignettes of people important in his life and memories that have persisted. Ups and downs are part of everyone's life, as well as spans of time that are neither, but the ordinary tenor of things. In the bad parts there is only one way to survive--keep your head down and keep digging. Simply, the absence of the bad boosts most of the rest of life to a pleasant plateau.
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I have no idea how many there'll be.
I don't remember my mother (Sarah James Whitley Davis—(called "Jimmie" or "Jinks" by my father), singing to me, or holding or rocking me, for that matter. Probably she did but if it was often, you'd think it would stick in my mind. Annie held me and rocked me and sang to me. Annie Barkley came to live with my family when I was a baby and she was a teenager.
She wasn't legally adopted but she was considered one of the family. As I understand it (from talking to my sister Lula—"Ludie"), she and her brother "Johnny" were orphaned and none of their real family wanted them. We took them in and Johnny was soon old enough to join the Navy. I remember seeing him in his uniform when he'd come home once in a while, and I thought he looked so grand.
I know Annie took care of me because Ludie has told me that, often, my mother would be annoyed with Annie for spending so much time with me instead of tending to the chores around the house, which evidently was supposed to be her main function. Annie raised me, until it was time for me to start school in Raleigh (there was a false start in Beaufort, but that will keep a while), and she taught me love, and kept on loving me even when she left to get married; I know because she told me so. My sisters (Laura, whom we called Sister), and Lula Mae ("Ludie"), and my brother probably taught me something as I grew up, but I don't remember what. Everybody called my brother Buddy. His name was Monty Rudolf, but somebody misspelled it and in the family Bible it is written "Monnie."
My father, Selden (sometimes Seldon) Thomas Davis, (he was called Tom by most people and "Suhthie" by my mother), taught me a lot. He taught me perseverance, dedication and a love of nature. He couldn't have lived at a better—or worse—time to practice the first two. I was born in 1920 and certainly prior to and past that time people there in Carteret County, North Carolina, near Beaufort, were poor as church mice. Papa farmed and when he wasn't farming he, like most men around there, fished and worked on the dredge, and sailed. He was a "truck farmer," meaning he raised vegetables for the table and took them to market in Beaufort in a two-wheeled mule-cart. They didn't use horses in those parts back then, and instead of wagons they used carts with two big wheels, about four feet in diameter. I don't know (you're going to hear that a lot in this story, I expect), but one theory is they were easier to maneuver than a four-wheeled vehicle in the woods and on the area's sandy and marshy ground.
Fishing and sailing were not sports. Fishing meant hard and dangerous work on big commercial trawlers out in the Atlantic fishing for menhaden, a kind of herring sold mostly for fertilizer—and later for dog and cat food. Sailing meant handling freight boats between Beaufort and Baltimore and back. And there was the backbreaking kind of "sailing," working on the dredge boats, constantly keeping open Beaufort Inlet and the sound between the Bogue Banks and the mainland. In all of this, somehow he operated a grocery store in Beaufort for some time and he learned to be a blacksmith and a carpenter.
He moved the family from Carteret County to Raleigh twice. This back-andforth activity, when I was very young, will always seem mysterious and unclear to me, and even with the help of Ludie's later explanation, I can't figure out how old I was at those times. It seems to me I started school before the first move and I know I didn't really get into first grade until I was in Raleigh to stay and was seven years old.
All I remember about school in Carteret County is the one-room school house in a grove near the church Papa belonged to; that each student had to have a collapsible aluminum drinking cup, made of concentric bands of reducing size from top to bottom, to be filled with a dipper from a bucket on a bench outside the schoolhouse door; that an older boy named Robert French taught me to tie my shoes, something every member of my family had given up on; and that there was a pool near the lane from school to the main road that filled with water when the tide was in and had minnows swimming in it.
The move to Raleigh was to find more profitable work, I'm sure; and I was always told it was because the climate on the coast was bad for Mama's health and that she suffered from "catarrh," which as near as I can tell, is like nasopharyngitis which is what put me in the hospital in Basic in 1943, and which is an inflammation of the membranes of the nose and throat. On one of those sojourns in Raleigh (the first, I think), we lived in a "shotgun" house, owned by the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, on Gavin Street. A shotgun house is so named because it consists of only three rooms, one directly after another, so that, if you wanted to, you could fire a shotgun in at the front door and the charge would go all the way through the house and out the back door. Some other time we lived in a better house on the same street, and the neighborhood never was much to brag about, and there was a big snow, very unusual for Raleigh—like a blizzard to me, because it was up to my waist.
I don't know if we then progressed to a house on Sunrise Avenue, or if that occurred on one of those moves back to Raleigh, but I know it was a better one. I know there was no lawn as such, but generous patches of clover in the yard in which I liked to play. Uncle Martin (Mama's brother) had preceded us in moving to Raleigh, and was working at the roundhouse in the Norfolk Southern Railroad yards as a machinist, repairing the huge engines. Papa worked as a carpenter in the "steel shed," a big, long, hot, sheet metal-covered structure encompassing several tracks. (Uncle Benny had never moved to Raleigh and remained in Beaufort.)
Every day a whistle blew at the roundhouse at 7:00 AM, 12 noon, at 12:30 and at 3:30 PM, signaling, in turn, time to go to work, time for lunch, time to go back to work, and time to "knock off." Papa and Uncle Martin (he lived on Sunrise Avenue, too, all the rest of his life, actually), came home every evening, dirty and greasy. I don't mean "kind of," I mean their faces would have been great in a minstrel show and their clothes were solid black and stiff with grease. I suppose the same ritual took place at Uncle Martin's as at our house, when Papa shed those clothes and took a bath in a wash tub in the kitchen before he was fit to have supper with us. (And, by the way, the noon meal then was "dinner" and the evening meal was "supper," so called by all our neighbors.) There were no such things as washing machines then, and the wives of railroad men, all around us, had to wash those clothes in tubs of scalding water every day, meaning two changes of work clothes was all anybody could afford.
Some time later, Papa gave up the railroad job and took to carpentering for contractors, building houses. Work was plentiful because Raleigh was growing. Working in his "spare time," he built a house for us, and later another up the street, on North Blount Street Extended. It was "extended" because Blount Street begins downtown in the south of the city, runs northward until it is stopped by two railroad yards and takes up again and extends northward to Whitaker Mill Road. The "extended" stuck until after I left home, when that northern end was renamed "Carson Street."
The yards are those of the Seaboard Railway and the Norfolk Southern Railroad and between them was a jungle of scrubby trees, where there is now a highway.
While we lived in that first house, at some point I became afflicted with what was called "rheumatism." My legs became useless, the muscles tightened so that I could not stand on them, and my jaws also were nearly immovable. I could hardly eat. I lived mostly on Eagle Brand condensed milk, spooned into me by Annie, and fig newtons which she somehow forced into my mouth. I must have eaten other things, too, but not much and became very thin, a condition that I maintained most of my life. A tonsillectomy was prescribed and performed, and whether it had anything to do with it or not, the problem with muscles went away. I must have been five or six years old at the time, because the situation kept me from starting to school until I was seven.
I have always wondered what the cause of the problem really was because, at about the same time, Buddy had what was called Infantile Paralysis—Polio—which injured one leg and foot very badly for life. He spent a long time in a special hospital in Gastonia, North Carolina, up in the mountains.
The second house Papa built—and the ones before it and most of those around us—had no basement, but stood on brick pillars some three feet high. The space beneath, with ground of dusty red clay, was a perfect play place for me and other little friends. Using pieces of wood and empty pop bottles for "trucks," we made a web of roads in the dirt, pretending our vehicles were "Macks," or "Internationals," etc., and we, with imitation engine noise, bragged whose was the most powerful. It took up a lot of pleasant hours in relative coolness in the summertime,
It was some time in this early milieu of play and school that my Grandfather Whitley (Mama's father), died. I suppose I had been moderately happy and contented up until then, and then I first felt the blow and the weight of dismay, grief, sadness and depression almost unbearable. I was told what had happened, but I didn't understand it. I suppose Papa borrowed a car (we didn't own one,) and we drove to Beaufort in a kind of insufferable gloom.
On arriving at Father's house, out in the country (we children always called him "Father" and Grandmother Whitley "Mother," because early on I couldn't quite manage the correct and longer appellations, and we were not encouraged to use such disrespectful terms as "grampa" and "grammy." I was ushered into his bedroom and was allowed—"caused" is the better word—to look at him lying dressed, still and stiff, and unheeding of me when I called out to him. And I was crushed, and I cried, and I was terrified. Terrified because I knew he would never again speak to me, or hold me and I felt more alone than I knew was possible. I'm sorry if it sounds offensive to the rest of my family, but to my knowing, really knowing, he was the first human being I ever loved, and I loved him with all my being because he loved me. I was his favorite. When we lived near Beaufort our homes were not very far apart—within easy walking distance—and I seemed to spend more time at his house than ours. I followed him everywhere, when he wasn't carrying me or holding me on his lap. Even his smell was sublime to me. Always he had in his pocket an apple or a pear or a peach for me; and he smoked Granger pipe tobacco; he worked at a lathe covering himself with the aroma of fresh black gum tree shavings—and that combination of odors clung to him and surrounded me and were the aura of love itself. We played in his big front yard while preparations were made for the funeral, in the white/black sandy grassless ground under the huge sweet gum trees, Ludie and me and my cousins Edna, Uncle Martin's daughter, and Ralph and Minnie, Uncle Benny's children. "Play" wasn't really what we did, when Father died, because we knew what was in the house and why so many people were going and coming. We had little wooden paddles, no bigger than spoons, that Uncle Benny carved for us from kindling in the woodpile, and we dug a little with them, and talked a little and tried not to cry and we didn't laugh; we couldn't.
The ride to the cemetery was even worse than seeing him, and seeing him there, when they opened the casket for a little while, was sheer horror, not because of what I saw but because of the pounding knowledge that from that moment on I would never see him again. At no time during that travail or afterwards, did anybody try to explain to me what had happened or what death was all about; nor did they hold me to comfort me. It had happened and I was there, a ceremony would and did take place and it was over. But not for me. Back home, I dwelt on the idea of what it must have been like for him, and for a while I was sure it was about to happen to me, that I was dying. The fixation made me feel physically ill, and I told Mama, and she brushed it off, assuring me that I was all right. With the help of time, the ideas left me and I could think about other things.
I did, at last, start to school at Hayes Barton School, within a goodly walking distance of our street. ("Hayes Barton" is the name of an upscale neighborhood in Raleigh, so called in reference to the name of Sir Walter Raleigh's estate in Cornwall, England.) It was there, in the first grade, that I met Kern Holoman (more about him later), and we have remained best friends ever since. Ludie, two years ahead of me in school, walked with me that first day, for no adult accompanied me.
There were pleasant things to involve me. Ludie and I were close then, and we decided we should have a place to play ball. The area across the street from our house was just an old field, overgrown with weeds. We went over there with hoes and a sickle and rakes and made ourselves a baseball diamond. Other children around came to watch and stayed to help and to play there.
Near our play place, that old field was level near the street and sloped up to the west for perhaps a hundred yards to a line of large trees. Older boys had nailed boards for a ladder up one of those to a big limb about twelve feet up, where they attached one end of a steel cable. They inserted a pipe in the cable, about three inches in diameter and a foot long, and attached it, about six feet above the ground, to a smaller tree at the bottom of the hill. A boy would climb the ladder, hang on with one hand, catch the pipe slung up to him by another boy using a wire sling fashioned for the purpose. The catcher would grab the pipe, hold on, step off and slide down at about a thirty degree angle. The originators of that sport were old enough and tall enough that their feet would touch the ground and allow them to trot a ways to stop before slamming into the little tree.
Well, the temptation was too much, and when the big boys were absent, I climbed up, Ludie slung the pipe up to me, and I had the ride of my life! I think she caught me and slowed me down so I didn't collide with the tree, and on repeating it many times I developed a technique of letting go of the pipe (there being some slack in the wire), as I approached the bottom, dropping to the ground and avoiding the tree without help. It was great fun and I never got hurt—nor do I remember ever being afraid to do it—but I don't think Ludie ever tried it.
My parents never paid attention to birthdays or even Christmas. We children got some few presents, and somebody—probably Ludie—strung streamers of red and green crepe paper about and a paper red bell from the chandelier in the living room, and that was all the decoration. There was never a Christmas tree—until the year Ludie decided we should have one.
She and I went across the street to that old field and chopped or sawed (I don't know which) down a little pine about three feet high. We took it home, propped it in a corner, and decorated it with homemade, crayon colored paper chains. That was it, that first year, but in the coming years we were able to add some store-bought ornaments, but it was, as long as I was at home, just we two who made sure we had a tree.
The houses we lived in on North Blount (now Carson) Street, had behind them, bordering the back yards, the railroad "Y." This was a track that allowed an engine to push passenger cars up from the yards on one leg of it to a straight, extended portion, then go back down to the yards via the opposite leg, thus adjusting the string of cars which had just arrived in one direction to now be turned in the other, ready for departure. The straight portion came up behind the houses in a "cut," a wide, rather deep (fifteen feet) sort of ditch, and the banks of it were red clay. The train came up only twice a day and we knew when it was coming, so digging steps and climbing up and down those banks became a fine sport for me, neighbor boys and, sometimes, Ludie.
The place had its joys, and its horrors.
At one time, a work train and crew deposited very large cement pipes on the bank opposite our houses, awaiting some construction project. It was great fun to climb on them, over them, through them, or just lie in them and talk loudly to hear the strange reverberations. It was, until one day—and, thank God, we children were nowhere near—one of the pipes, being moved by workmen, fell upon one of their fellows, and he was killed.
Excerpted from A Biased Biography: Mine by David Martin Davis Copyright © 2004 by David Martin Davis. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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