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In this collection of 14 interrelated stories, 12-year-old William Stroup recounts the ludricrous predicaments and often self-imposed hardships his family endures. Beneath the book's folksy lightheartedness, however, lie the problems of indigence, racism, and apathy that Caldwell confronted repeatedly in his fiction.
My Old Man's Baling Machine
There was a big commotion in front of the house, sounding as though somebody had dumped a load of rocks on our steps. The building shook a little on its foundations, and then everything was quiet. Ma and I were on the back porch when we heard the noise, and we didn't know what to make of it. Ma said she was afraid it was the crack of doom, and she told me to hurry and turn the wringer handle faster so she could get Mrs. Dudley's laundry wrung and pinned on the clothesline before something terrible happened.
"I want to go see what it was, Ma," I said, turning the wringer handle with all my might. "Can't I, Ma? Can't I go see what it was?"
"You turn that handle, William," she said, shaking her head and feeding a pair of Mr. Dudley's overalls into the wringer. "Whatever it was can wait until I get this laundry hung on the line."
I cranked the wringer as fast as I could, listening at the same time. I heard somebody talking in a loud voice in front of the house, but I could not make out anything that was said.
Just then my old man came running around the corner.
"What on earth's the matter, Morris?" Ma asked.
"Where's Handsome?" my old man said, short of breath. "Where's Handsome at?"
Handsome Brown was our Negro yardboy who had worked for us ever since I could remember.
"Handsome's cleaning up in the kitchen, like he should be," Ma said. "What do you want with him?"
"I need him right away to give me a lift," Pa said. "I need Handsome in a big hurry."
"I'll help, Pa," I said, backing away from the wringer. "Let me help, Pa."
"William," Ma said, catching me by the arm and pulling me back, "you turn that wringer handle like I told you."
Just then Handsome stuck his head out the kitchen door. My old man saw him right away.
"Handsome," Pa said, "drop everything and come around to the front of the house. I need you to give me a lift right away."
Handsome looked at Ma before he made a move, waiting to hear what she had to say about his leaving the kitchen work. Ma didn't say anything then, because she was busy feeding one of Mrs. Dudley's faded old calico mother-hubbards into the wringer. My old man grabbed Handsome by the sleeve and pulled him down the steps and across the yard. They were out of sight around the house in another minute.
I wanted to go with them, but every time I looked up at Ma I knew better than to ask again. I turned the wringer with all my might, trying to get the wringing finished as soon as possible.
It wasn't long until we heard the front door open, and soon afterward there was a heavy thud in the hall. It sounded exactly as though the roof had caved in.
Ma and I both ran inside to find out what had happened. When we reached the hall, my old man and Handsome were tugging and pulling at a heavy big box that was painted bright red like a freight car and had a big iron wheel on top. The box was as big as an old-fashioned melodeon and just as curious-looking. Handsome gave it a mighty shove, and the whole thing went through the door and came down on the parlor floor so heavily that it shook the pictures hanging on the walls. Ma and I squeezed through the door at the same time. My old man was standing there beside the big red box, patting it with his hand and panting like a dog that had been running rabbits all morning.
"What on earth, Morris?" Ma said, walking around the box and trying to figure out what it was.
"Ain't it a beauty, Martha?" he said, panting between each word. He sat down in a rocking chair and looked at the box admiringly. "Ain't it a beauty, though?"
"Where did it come from, Pa?" I asked him, but he was so busy looking at it he did not hear me.
Handsome walked around it, peeping through the cracks to see if he could see anything inside.
"Did somebody give it to you, Morris?" Ma asked, standing back and doing her best to size it up. "Where in the world did you get it?"
"I bought it," Pa said. "I just a little while ago made the deal. The fellow who makes a habit of selling them came through town this morning and I bought one off him."
"What did you pay for it?" Ma asked, concerned.
"Fifty cents down, and fifty cents a week," Pa said.
"For how many weeks?" Ma asked.
"For all the weeks in a year," he said. "That ain't much. Shucks, when you come to think about it, it's hardly nothing to speak of. The year'll go by in no time. It won't be a strain at all."
"What's it for?" Ma said. "What does it do?"
"It's a baling machine," he said. "It bales paper. You put in a lot of old paper, like old wornout newspapers, and such, and then you wind the wheel down tight on top, and it comes out at the bottom in a hard bale, all tied with wire. It's a mighty invention."
"What is you going to do with it after it comes out at the bottom, Mr. Morris?" Handsome asked.
"Sell it, of course," Pa said. "The fellow comes around once a week and buys up all the paper I've baled. He takes out his fifty cents, and hands me the balance due me."
"Well, I declare," Handsome said. "It sure is a fine thing, all right."
"Where are you going to get all the paper to put into the machine?" Ma asked.
"Shucks," my old man said, "that's the easiest part of it all. Old paper is always lying around everywhere. Things like old wornout newspapers, and such. Even the wrapping paper from the stores goes right into it. When the wind blows a piece of paper down the street, that goes into it, too. It's a money-making machine if there ever was one."
Ma went up closer and looked down inside. Then she gave the wheel on top a whirl and walked to the door.
"The parlor's no place for it," she said. "Take that contraption out of my best room, Morris Stroup."
Pa ran after her.
"But, Martha, there ain't no better place fit for it. You wouldn't have me set it out in the weather to rust and rot, would you? It's a valuable machine."
"You take it out, or I'll have Handsome chop it up for stovewood," she said, going down the hall and out to the back porch.
My old man came back and looked at the baling machine, running his hands over the smooth wooden sides. He didn't say anything, but after a minute he reached down and got a grip on it and lifted. Handsome and I got at the other end and lifted it up. We carried it through the parlor door and out to the front porch. Pa set down his end, and we dropped ours.
"This'll do," Pa said. "It'll be out of the sun and rain here on the porch."
He began unwinding the big wheel on top.
"Handsome," he said, "you go get me all the old paper you can lay your hands on. We're going to start in right away."
Handsome and I went through the house, gathering up all the paper we could find. There was a stack of old newspapers in one of the closets, and I carried those out and Pa dumped them into the hopper. Handsome came back with a big armful of wrapping paper he had found somewhere. My old man took it and stuffed it down into the machine.
"We'll have a hundred-pound bale in no time at all," Pa said. "Then after that first one, everything else will be pure profit. We'll have more money than we'll know what to do with. It might be a good idea to buy three or four more of the machines off the fellow when he comes back to Sycamore next week, because we can bale paper faster than one machine can handle it. We'll have so much money in no time at all that I'll have to trust some of it to the bank. It's a shame I didn't know about this way of making money before, because it's the easiest way I ever heard of. I'll bale me so much paper at this rate that it won't be no time at all before I can quit and retire."
He stopped and shoved Handsome towards the door.
"Handsome, get a hustle on and bring out more of that old waste paper.
Handsome went inside and began looking through the dresser drawers and in the closets and behind the wash-stand. I found some old magazines on the parlor table and took them out to Pa.
"That's right, son," he said. "Old magazines are just as worthless as old newspapers and they weigh a heap more. Go get all the magazines you can find."
By the time I got back with another load my old man said we had enough for a second bale. We got to work and pressed it down tight and Handsome tied it with baling wire. Pa dumped it on the floor and told Handsome to stack it up on top of the first bale.
We worked away for another hour, and it wasn't long until we had three bales stacked up in the corner of the porch. Handsome told us he couldn't find any more paper anywhere in the whole house, and my old man said he would go look himself. He was gone a long time, but when he came back he had a big armful of song books that Ma had ordered for her Sunday School class. We tore the backs off them, because the backs were covered with cloth, and my old man said it wouldn't be honest to try to pass off cloth for paper. After that he went back inside for a while and came out with an armful of letters tied up with ribbons. He tore off the ribbons and dumped them into the hopper. When everything had been baled, it was close to noon, and Pa said we could knock off for an hour.
We started in again right after dinner. We looked all over the house several times, but couldn't find anything more made of paper, except some loose wallpaper in one of the rooms which Pa said ought to come down anyway, because it was so old and shabby-looking on the walls. After that he sent Handsome and me down the street to Mrs. Price's house to ask her if she had any old paper she had no more use for. We made two trips to Mrs. Price's. By then all of us were tired out, and Pa said he thought we had done enough work for the day. We all sat down on the front steps and counted the number of bales stacked in the corner. There were seven of them. Pa said that was a good start, and that if we did as well every day, we would soon be as rich as anybody in town.
We sat there a long time thinking about all the paper we had baled, and my old man said we'd all get up early the next morning and that maybe by night we'd be able to count twelve bales instead of seven for the day's work. Ma came out in a little while and looked at the big stack of baled paper. My old man turned around and waited for her to say how pleased she was that we had done so much work the first day.
"Where did all this paper come from, Morris?" she asked, walking over to the bales and pulling at them.
"From all over the place, Martha," Pa said. "We got rid of all the old paper lying around the place that was just getting in the way. We found a lot of it stuffed away in places that would have been rat nests before long. It's a good thing I happened to get hold of this machine. The cleaning up has made the house look better already."
Ma poked her finger into one of the bales and pulled out something. It was one of the magazines.
"What's this, Morris?" she said, looking around.
She pulled out another magazine.
"Do you know what you've gone and done, Morris Stroup!" she said. "You've taken all my recipes and dress patterns I've been saving ever since I started housekeeping with you!"
"But it's all so old it's not worth anything," Pa said.
Handsome started backing through the hall door. Ma looked around.
"Handsome, untie every one of those bales," she said. "I want to see what else you've gone and taken of mine. Do like I tell you, Handsome!"
"But, Martha—" Pa said.
"Ma, can't we sell the old newspapers and magazines?" I asked.
"Shut up, William," she said. "Stop taking up for your Pa."
Handsome pulled the wire loose, and stacks of song books and magazines began tumbling to the floor. Ma stooped down and picked up one of the books.
"My heavens above!" Ma cried. "These are the new song books for my Sunday School class that we took up the collection for. Those poor trusting souls thought their song books would be safe in my house. And now just look at them!"
She began digging into the pile of papers and magazines on the floor. Then she began digging into one of the other bales. She jerked off the wire before Handsome had a chance to break it.
"What's this, Morris?" she said, raising her voice and staring at one of the letters we had brought out and baled.
"It's just a piece of old waste paper I found stuffed away in a closet," Pa said. "The rats and mice would have chewed them up sooner or later, anyway."
Ma's face became red all over, and she sat down heavily in a chair. She did not say anything for a minute. Then she called Handsome.
"Handsome," she said, biting her lips a little and dabbing at her eyes with her apron, "undo that bale this minute!"
Handsome leaped across the pile of paper on the floor and pulled the baling wire loose. The whole pile of letters fell in a heap on the floor at Ma's feet. She reached down and picked up a handful. When she read some of the writing in one of the letters, she screamed.
"What's the matter, Martha?" Pa asked her, getting up and crossing the porch to where she was.
"My letters!" Ma said, dabbing at her eyes with her apron. "All the love and courtship letters I've been saving from my old beaus! All the letters you ever wrote me, Morris! Now, just look at what you've gone and done!"
"But they ain't nothing but old letters, Martha," Pa said. "I could write you some new ones almost any time, if you want me to."
"I don't want new ones," she said; 'I want to keep the old ones!"
She burst out crying so loud Pa did not know what to do. He walked to the other end of the porch and came back.
Ma reached down and picked up as many letters as she could hold in her apron.
"I'll write you some new letters, Martha," Pa said.
Ma got up.
"It looks like you'd have more respect for the letters all my other beaus wrote me," she said, "even if you didn't have any for the ones you wrote me."
She lifted the apronful of letters and went inside, slamming the door behind her.
My old man walked up and down through the litter of loose papers and song books, kicking through them with his feet. He did not say anything for a while, but after that he walked back to the baling machine and rubbed his hands over the smooth wooden sides.
"It seems like a shame to see all this paper go to waste, son," he said. "It's a pity your Ma had to go and take on so about old letters and things. We could have made us a heap of money selling them to the fellow when he comes to town again next week."CHAPTER 2
The Day We Rang the Bell for Preacher Hawshaw
When I got home from school, Preacher Hawshaw, the Universalist minister, was standing on our front porch talking to my old man. I didn't pay much attention to them at first, because Preacher Hawshaw was always coming to our house and trying to make my old man promise to go to church on Sunday, but Pa always had a good excuse for not going, usually saying Ida, our sugar mule, had the colic and that he couldn't afford to leave her all alone until she got well, or that Mr. Jess Johnson's hogs were running wild and that he had to stay at home to keep them from rooting up our garden, and so I thought they were arguing about the same thing as they always did, I stopped at the bottom of the steps to listen to them, wondering what excuse Pa was going to use that time, and the first thing I heard was Preacher Hawshaw saying that old Uncle Jeff Davis Fletcher, the colored janitor of the Universalist church, had gone over into the next county to visit some sick relations for a few days and that there was nobody to ring the church bell that afternoon during Miss Susie Thing's wedding when she was going to marry Hubert Willy, the substitute mail carrier. My old man listened to all Preacher Hawshaw had to say, but he didn't show any signs of wanting to ring the bell for him.
"I tell you what, Mr. Stroup," Preacher Hawshaw said, after waiting a long time for my old man to say something. If you'll ring the bell while the wedding's taking place this afternoon, I won't pester you about attending church services the whole rest of the year. Now, ain't that fair, Mr. Stroup?"
"It would be a heap more fairer if you'd promise never to pester me about going to church—this year or any year to come," Pa told him.
"That's asking a great deal of me, Mr. Stroup," he said slowly. "It's my duty to keep after folks until they go to church."
"If you want the bell rung bad enough," my old man said, "you'll treat me like a Methodist or Baptist, and stop trying to make me go to the Universalist church to hear you preach. I've got a religion of my own, and if it's good enough for me, listening to a Universalist preacher preach would only make me dissatisfied with what I've got. You wouldn't want to be the cause of making me turn my back on my own religion, would you?"
Preacher Hawshaw leaned against the wall as if he were all tired out, and thought for a long time. Pa sat where he was on the banister and waited for him to make up his mind.
"Let's not discuss religion any more today, Mr. Stroup," he said at last. "I'm all fagged out, and I've got that marriage ceremony to perform in less than half an hour. It's too late for me to hunt up anybody else to ring the bell, and if you don't ring it for me, I'll be in a pretty pickle."
Excerpted from Georgia Boy by Erskine Caldwell. Copyright © 1943 Erskine Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A telling view of people and their inherent contradictions in work, play, and churchgoing in America. The short stories (vignettes) are brief and quite illustrative.
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Posted July 16, 2012
I jumped awake as a glaring light shone in front of my eyes. I held up a hand to block it out. 'It can't even be six in the morning yet' I muttered in my head. "Lets get started then!" A female white coat said, clapping her hands. I felt my crate being lifted at the hairy hands of an Eraser. I rubbed my eyes with my hands, and felt a cool breeze enter the room as a door was opened. 'Am I...outside?' I wondered. I had only been outside one other time, when the white coats were testing my abilities to escape predators A.K.A Erasers. If the white coats let me out, maybe I could escape! I used my X-ray vision to look through the wall, topped with electrically charged barbed wire. Sandy desert stretched as far as I could see, and the sky was rosy pink, with the stars slowly dissapearing. I heard my cage unlatch, and I carefully stepped out, looking around quickly. None of the Erasers were moving, or the white coats. Odd. 'What do they want me to do?' I wondered. I slowly spread my black wings, ruffleing my feathers. I stretched them to their full thirteen foot span. Still no one moved. I started to jog foreward. Were they possibly letting me go? 'Yeah, when pigs fly, which nowadays, they might' I thought and rolled my eyes. I flapped my wings, once, twice, and felt my feet leave the ground. I allowed a smile to appear on my face. It felt so incredible! I pumped my wings, rising higher and higher. I heard the buzzing, but could not stop, and crashed head on into the invisible electrical field. Stunned with searing, flashing pain, I felt myself drop like a stone. I was lucky to have my wings out, the fall could have been much worse. Spots danced before my eyes as I lay sprawled out on the ground. An Eraser came over, his mouth dripping saliva. "I like it when my piggy is cooked" he snarled, smiling ferociously. I closed my eyes. Suddenly, I heard a sharp fizz then a crack. I forced my eyes open again and saw the field blinking on and off. I pulled myself painfully into sitting position. Someone had smashed the electrical box! The white coats were running around, some going into the building. Erasers were coming toward me quickly, but something caught their attention. Sitting there on top of the wall behind the barbed wire was a dark haired boy. He looked only a little older than me, and he had wings. He smiled and waved, sending the Erasers into hysterics.
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Posted February 5, 2012
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