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A GRANDFATHER'S GIFT
Papaw's life and times in rural Mississippi
By James E. Smith Sr.
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 James E. Smith, Sr.
All rights reserved.
Thomas James Smith, my father, was born December 16, 1905, to John and Annie Smith in Jefferson County, Mississippi. One day, when he was twenty-eight and still single, he was over at Clark, Mississippi, at the post office talking to Hollis Segrest, the postmaster. Hollis asked, "Tom, when are you going to get married?"
Daddy said, "Well, I'm not against the idea, but I just ain't found the right girl yet."
Mr. Segrest said, "Well, Pearl Beesley has a beautiful young gal up yonder," referring to a house up the hill to the rear of the store/ post office. He continued, "Her name is Annie Mae, and I think she is about marrying age."
Daddy said, "Well, I'll have to talk to her one day when I get a chance."
Later on, Daddy heard that one of those parties that the folks called a "dance" was taking place at a friend's house. There would be live music, if the local musicians were available to play. The music makers played for food and whiskey or whatever alcoholic beverage was offered. Moonshine whiskey (homemade whiskey) was the mainstay of alcoholic drinks. If the musicians were not available, the dance would have to be held at someone's house who owned a wind-up record player. No invitations would be sent out. Everybody around the neighborhood had an open invitation to every dance. The dance would begin, and the house would fill with guests. There would be no cars parked in the yard, because few people had horses to ride, let alone cars to drive. Some rode work mules, but maybe they didn't have a saddle. Some just walked over. The Blue Hill and Clark communities were densely populated in those days, so the walk wouldn't be more than a mile or two. The couples would meet at some location and walk two by two down the trail to the dance. They would be spaced out several steps, so sweet talk could be exchanged as they walked along and not be overheard by the others.
Some brought 78 RPM records to the party if they had them, though there weren't many who did. Owning a record player was a luxury around the neighborhood in 1934, and the Depression had everybody hunting rabbit tracks to keep from starving to death, as Mamma's brother, Uncle Lewis Beesley, used to say. Uncle Lewis said they couldn't afford shells to shoot rabbits, so they would take a piece of charcoal and rub a black spot on the side of an old dry log, and the rabbit would think it was a hole. When they chased the rabbit, he would try to jump into the fake hole and would knock himself out, and that was how they harvested their rabbits. He told us kids that sometimes they didn't have shoes to wear. When they went to church, they would be walking as quietly as a cat on the hardwood floor, and people would know they didn't have shoes. They would put hickory nuts between their toes so they would tap on the floor as they walked in and people would think they were wearing shoes and wouldn't look down at their feet. We never believed all that, but we laughed until our sides hurt at Uncle Lewis. Uncle Lewis said they called rabbits "Hoover Hogs" because the Depression was blamed on President Herbert Hoover. Back then, the blame or credit was always on whomever was president, the same as today. Times were hard, and music recordings were hard to come by. Daddy said some people would do without flour to buy a Jimmie Rogers record. Jimmie has been given the credit for being the father of country music.
At those dances, the same records would be played over and over, and when they got tired of hearing those, they would sing themselves. Mama said some of those ole country boys and gals were good singers. Daddy fit that description, and he knew a lot of Jimmie Rogers's songs. Daddy and Mama were both attending one of those dances. Daddy noticed this pretty young girl and went over to ask her for a dance. It was Mama, and she accepted. They spent a lot of time talking together as the party continued. That was referred to as courting. If you were seen talking to a member of the opposite sex and no one else was around, well, you were courting. Maybe you didn't want to admit it, but you were and there was no use in trying to deny it.
My father lived almost on top of a famous spot in that part of the country called Blue Hill, and my mother lived about three miles east of Blue Hill just beyond the Clark Post Office and General Store. Clark is no longer a town, but it was a town with a post office back then. Mom and Dad walked to dances together and to Bethesda Baptist Church together on Sundays. After a reasonable courtship, Daddy proposed the big question, and Mama said yes. At seven o'clock on a Wednesday night, December 26, 1934, in my mother's grandpa Klar's house, they were married.
The old custom of dressing for your wedding was, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in his shoe." This custom was observed in their wedding. They didn't have an old British sixpence, so Daddy put a silver dime in his shoe. Mama wore a brown dress and brown shoes that she borrowed from her sister-in-law. Daddy wore his blue navy serge suit. Each of those items was supposed to be good luck. The "something old" was for continuity with the bride's family. "Something new" was for the bride's new life ahead. "Something borrowed" was from a happily married friend or family member with hopes the good fortune in marriage would carry over to the new bride. "Something blue" was worn because blue symbolized love. The "sixpence in his shoe" was for wealth and security. I'm not sure if both could wear these things or if it was meant just for the bride, but between the two of them, all these things were used in their wedding. I guess the "sixpence in his shoe" referred to the groom. Daddy's shoes were new.
Mr. Porter Sanders from Union Church, Mississippi, the local justice of the peace, performed the ceremony. There were so many people there, they decided to have the wedding out in the front yard, but there were no lights other than the light from the fire. Somebody held a lighted pine splinter over Mr. Porter's head so he could read the scripture. He finally finished the ceremony and pronounced the couple married. Mr. Porter never got around to signing the licenses, and they never did get around to getting the licenses signed afterward. So, technically speaking, my parents were never married. Union Church, Mississippi, was about six miles south at the intersection of Highway 550 and Highway 28.
Their honeymoon was at my father's parents' house on Blue Hill. Daddy still lived with his parents. At one point, they moved into the smokehouse and/or barn located at the rear of the house, so they could enjoy making their own home together. They lived there until the next crops of cotton, corn, etc., were finished. That was the rest of that year. After living there for a few months, they moved to the Truly farm near Church Hill and around Truly Lake in Jefferson County. They were working under the FSA (Farm Security Administration) that was enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. One of the activities performed by the FSA was having farmers live together under the guidance of government experts and work a common area. The government owned the land. There were many government programs in those days, such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Works Project Administration), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), and many others. In this FSA program, the government furnished houses. Some had two rooms and some three rooms. They also furnished a mule for farming. This was life for many people during the Great Depression.
My parents had a dream of owning their own farm someday. Their dream seemed so distant during those times. Farms were coming up for sale. Lending agents were foreclosing on farms all round the country. Still, even though many acres of farms were up for sale, they needed money for the purchase. Banks and other lending agents would loan money, but my parents would need collateral to secure the loan. Mom and Dad had neither money nor collateral. They were barely making living expenses, let alone saving any money.
Their first child, John Pearl, was born September 30, 1936 while they lived at Truly Lake. They named him after his Paternal Grandpa John Smith and Maternal Grandpa Pearl Beesley, he was called J.P. or Pete. They moved from there to Terry, Mississippi, just south of Jackson sometime after that. Some friends helped them move, and they told a story about one of Mama's remarks. It seems the house had cracks in the floors wide enough for snakes to crawl into the house. She had pulled out a dresser drawer one day and found a rat snake or chicken snake coiled up on the clothes in that drawer. Somebody who didn't know about this incident just simply asked, "Annie Mae, why are ya'll moving?"
Mama replied, "Let me tell you something, when snakes start getting in your drawers, it's time to move!"
One can imagine the wonder the other person had when she asked, "What in the world are you talking about, Annie Mae?!"
In Terry, they lived on the same type of government farm project, FSA, and raised a cabbage truck crop. The government was trying to help people in order to get money flowing again. In Terry, they furnished a house, barn, mule, farming tools, canning utensils, etc. All my parents had to do was supply the labor. The government supplied an overseer to provide instructions on how to farm and provided the market for the cabbage. Their second son, William Arthur, was born on August 29, 1939, while they lived in Terry. In 1941, the United States entered WWII, and jobs suddenly became plentiful. There were military bases to build, and weapons, ammunition, ships, vehicles, and everything a country needed to fight a war to produce. With the money flowing, people were buying things, and that created more jobs. Our nation was pulling out of the Depression. Daddy left his family with relatives and moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for a better job.
There were so many construction people coming into Hattiesburg to build Camp Shelby, an army base, he couldn't find a room. He got on the list to move into a new boardinghouse that was under construction. He had a cot under a shade tree and put his suitcase underneath his cot. He was there several days. He said he got in from work one day and they were ready for him to move in. He got everything inside just as it started to sprinkle rain. He had gone to work as a plumber's helper for a construction company that was building Camp Shelby. His pay was seventy-five cents per hour, and the folks back home just couldn't believe he was making that much money. It was unheard of in that part of the country in those days. With that kind of money, maybe his farm dream just might come true. They might have extra money to save.
After a while, Mama and her two kids moved to Hattiesburg with Daddy. When he had moved to Hattiesburg, Mama couldn't live in the house in Terry anymore. She had moved back home with her two children, waiting for Daddy to send for them. After he got settled and found room for them, Mama and her two kids moved to Hattiesburg with Daddy. Mama said she could buy a pound of hamburger meat, a dozen eggs, and a loaf of bread for one dollar. All those groceries required a little over an hour's work, so you can see why the folk back home were so excited about Daddy's pay scale. Even though one of their major dreams was owning a farm, they wanted a family even more. Raising children was far more important to them than owning a farm. They felt that if they put their heart and soul into it, they could do both, raise a family and save up to buy a farm.
The base was finished, and Dad was laid off, so they moved from Hattiesburg to Jackson, Mississippi, to another job. Daddy was laid off from that job, so they moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The United States had the formula to build the atomic bomb, so a plant was needed--and in a hurry. Daddy and Mama moved their family to Knoxville, Tennessee, sometime around 1943, and he hired on at the Oak Ridge atomic bomb plant. I'm not sure just when the plant was started, but they moved there that year. The plant wasn't named at the time. It was top secret. They only knew it was a military facility. Their plan was to work there until they could save enough money to buy their farm and build a house on the new farm back home. They lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a so-called apartment house. That was a very large old home with the owner and his wife living in one bedroom, living room, and kitchen. The rest of the rooms were rented out to tenants. Each tenant lived in just one room. They had to cook and sleep in the same room.
During that raging war and traumatic economic depression, in the Knoxville General Hospital, Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 18, 1944, I saw my first light of day. The doctor held me up by my feet and announced to my mother, "He is ready for the army." The hospital stay for my mother was five days. The doctors didn't get the mothers up the next day as they do now; they kept them in the hospital bed for at least five days. That ran the hospital bill and doctor bill to fifty dollars. Mama had to make room for one more in that one-room apartment. The rooms were much larger in the older homes, than they are in homes today. This room was big enough for a double bed, a baby bed for me, and a pallet for J. P. and William. There was room for a twoburner kerosene stove for cooking. They shared a refrigerator with one of the neighbors or the landlord, I'm not sure which. There was one bathroom downstairs and the landlords used it for themselves only. There was one bathroom upstairs, and all six of the families had to share that one bathroom.
Finally, Knoxville and the nearby town of Oakridge had enough housing for the influx of people who were constructing the plant. Other businesses had grown into the area, due to more working families coming there. A mobile home became available for rent in Oak Ridge near the plant. We moved from Knoxville to the rented mobile home. Because of the war, a lot of products were rationed. Many things that were in good supply were rationed to save a necessary quantity for the military. Each family received a book of ration stamps each month for each member of the family. These stamps were very important. Without them, one could not buy whatever they needed, regardless of the emergency. If the stamp book was used up, they had to wait until next month to buy whatever they needed. On one of the trips home to visit the home folks, we stopped in Birmingham, Alabama. Mama went into the restroom and put her purse on the floor in the stall. She walked out and left it sitting there on the bathroom floor. We were several miles down the road when she remembered her purse. The ration stamps were in the purse. Without them, we couldn't buy a replacement tire, gasoline, or oil. They were very upset, but we drove back. The purse was at the cash register and still intact with every ration stamp still inside. Another lady had turned it in to the service station attendant, knowing someone would return for it.
Since the job was secret, one wonders how they managed to build the plant. The workers would report to a certain place each morning. A truck would come by and pick up a certain number of workers. These men would be shuttled out to a building under construction. There might be pipes sticking through walls. Daddy and the other plumbers would be told to tie a pipe onto that, run it over, and stick it through another wall. There might be a machine in the room, in which case, they would be told to connect the pipes to it. They didn't know from where the pipes came or where they were going or what the machine's purpose was. The next day, they might be taken to a different building to complete some work there. They were told not to ask questions, so they didn't. There was a line of people outside the gate wanting a job. If a person was caught asking questions, he might be fired on the spot and replaced by someone waiting for a job. They were told that military spies were wandering around the plant. Maybe the spies were working along with the men, they didn't know. Even if a worker knew the person he might be talking to, he didn't carry on any conversation about the job.
One day, Daddy had an attack of the mumps. Another person on the job had an attack of the measles the same day. They were sent home and were riding in the same car. When they reached the gate, they had to stop for the guard to release them to leave the site. The guard told them that they would have to wait while he searched the car. Daddy told the guard to please hurry, because he had the mumps and the other fellow had the measles. The guard fell back away from the car and told them to go ahead. Daddy and the other guy, laughing, talked about how easy it would be to sneak anything out of the plant. Just tell the guard that you had some disease and he would get out of your way and let you go on through.
Excerpted from A GRANDFATHER'S GIFT by James E. Smith Sr.. Copyright © 2014 James E. Smith, Sr.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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