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Keeping the Faith
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, a memoir
By Wayne Flynt
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ancestors, Real and Imagined
I was born on the fourth of October 1940 at Rayburn's Clinic in Pontotoc, Mississippi, weighing a robust eight and a half pounds. Some cultures put great stock in numerology, believing that dates and numbers affect or even determine destiny. I'm not sure dates are determinative, but I do believe they are important.
The year of my birth divided two of the most important epochs in human history. The Great Depression lay on the back side. The front end would feature the deadliest war in history. Perhaps if my parents had known what was coming, they would have taken the advice of the kindly physician who had warned mother not to have any more children after a daughter was stillborn. The cataclysm of the Great Depression should have been enough for a couple barely out of their teens who knew deprivation firsthand. They also knew war had already erupted in Asia and Europe. My parents' choice to bring new life into the world anyway gave firm evidence of their indomitable spirit and confidence in the future.
Many couples were not so bold. Children born between 1930 and 1945 represent one of the smallest demographic niches in the twentieth century. In addition to smashing the economy, the Depression seemed to have destroyed all hope in the future. As a consequence, my tiny cohort of the population lived our lives in the crease between two optimistic generations, largely ignored by advertisers and purveyors of popular culture. If the generation that followed ours was the baby boomers, ours should have been called the "baby busters." The Big Band music that we loved gave way to rock- and- roll. Movies, clothes, cars, even popular religion, moved in strange and, to us at least, problematical new directions.
Looking into the rearview mirror of history was sobering to me. A Pontotoc County minister wrote President Franklin Roosevelt to describe conditions in his rural parish five years before I was born. Pontotoc County, he wrote, was a land of small farmers, 80 percent of them tenants and nearly all of them in debt. Most received less than seventy- five dollars a year for their cotton after paying off loans. "We as a people have pride," he concluded, "and the landlords have tried to care for the tenants." Though farmers fed families from their fields, they had no money for clothes, medical care, or emergencies. Drought had cut their cotton production by half, and they were desperate. Barely had my parents moved to this forlorn place than they welcomed me into the world.
Mom had complete confidence in Dr. Rayburn and his clinic. But after a difficult delivery, when he announced that she had a "fine baby boy," she could only manage strength enough to inquire whether or not I was pretty. (Would any physician tell a new mother her baby was ugly?) Photographic evidence contradicted his tactful reply. She did not get to hold me because she was sick with malaria. Dad had to write birth announcements while Mother spent a week recovering in the hospital.
Economic necessity required Dad to return to his sales route, and Mom, after a week's visit by her mother, was left alone with me. The only material evidence of the change in their lives was a photograph of me, wearing a handmade apron, being held by my father and then by my mother beside his Standard Coffee truck.
For people so poor, mythic ancestors constituted a treasured legacy. To my father, Flynts were embedded in the history of Great Britain like veins of quartz are embedded in rock. Flint, a Norse word for fine-grained, hard gray rock that when struck produces sparks and shatters into sharp cutting edges, is not only an accurate geological description but also a fine psychological depiction of the people who bore the name. They tended to be hot-headed, their honor easily offended, and their response violent to sharp blows. Much of what I learned about the early Flynts involved their participation in violence of various kinds, beginning with the Hundred Years War between England and France. In 1415, the year of the great medieval Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V's army contained an archer named Thomas Flynt.
The largest concentration of Flynts (and also the home of my maternal Roddam ancestors) was an area along the English-Scottish border referred to in British history simply as "the Borders." Prolonged and terrible violence raged through the area of Lancashire and Yorkshire on the English side as well as across the border in Scotland for three hundred years after 1300. This terrain furnished the killing fields for the Wars of the Roses as Yorkists and Lancastrians contested control of England. These counties also straddled the invasion routes along the North Sea through which marauding Scot and English armies tried to control the island. Violence finally became so endemic that the border folk made war on themselves, raping, murdering, and robbing their own people as well as invaders. Called "reivers," the plunderers ranged from the English Midlands as far north as Ayton, turning the terrain into a vast battlefield for three centuries. These wars bred a race of hard, tough people whose blood feuds, desire for revenge, robbery, and mayhem became the norm among every social class from agricultural laborers to gentleman farmers to true nobility. Unemployed professional soldiers, guerrilla forces, professional cattle thieves, and gangsters (the term "blackmail" originated here) organized a kind of rogue state
Thomas, the first recorded Flynt to come to North America, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, on the ship Diana, in 1618. Family tradition traces Thom as's origins to Ayton, Scotland, at the northern edge of the Borders. Ayton is still a lovely village on the North Sea some forty miles east of Edinburgh, with a single traffic light. When fog and mist roll in from the ocean, they obscure details of the town as surely as genealogy confuses the origins of my family. What brought Thomas to Jamestown is uncertain. It was most likely the prospect of riches, although persistent family lore also connects him to scandal (some ecclesiastics accused his priest-father of watering down communion wine and selling the surplus). He partnered with Sir George Northby of Yorkshire to ferry poor Englishmen to Jamestown in his tiny ships, Diana and Temperance, in return for grants of land, fifty acres per settler. By the late 1620s, Thomas owned a thousand-acre plantation near what is now Hampton, Virginia, and served in the House of Burgesses.
Gradually, some of the Virginia Flynts moved south to Wake County, North Carolina, and from there to Monroe County in central Georgia. By the Civil War my great-great-grandfather John Flynt owned a thirty-two-room mansion at High Falls on the Flint River, farmed a small plantation with ten slaves, and furnished seven sons to the Confederate Army.
My grandfather Julius Homer Flynt entered the world in 1868 amid widespread devastation, closed schools, and Reconstruction violence. Education was a luxury the family could not afford, so he reached adulthood unable to read or write. The death of his father and squabbling among his siblings sent him on his way to Alabama, where he finally settled in Calhoun County. He found work in an iron foundry on Cane Creek, which emptied into the Coosa River near Ohatchee. It was while working there that he met the woman who would become his wife, Annie Phoebe Owens.
Ten years his junior, Annie was the tenth child of Thomas and Reastria Adeline (Addie) Nunnelly Owens. Addie died in childbirth when my grandmother was born, and Thomas soon remarried and fathered eight additional children. My aunt Lillie Mae, the Flynt family storyteller, referred to Annie as "the last Owens in the first batch," as if they were biscuits hot out of the oven. The eighteen Owens children grew up at Greensport in a large house on the Coosa River, where their father tenant farmed and operated a river ferry.
Privacy was beyond the provision of so large a family, so when Granddad courted Annie, he did so in the presence of many of her siblings. When he finally transported her away in a borrowed buggy to their humble wedding, her parents and siblings lined the porch to wave their best wishes. As he turned a curve in the road that carried them beyond the prying eyes of his future in-laws, Homer leaned over to kiss his fiancée. Annie, startled by his presumption, slapped him "good and hard." As Lillie Mae explained, "Why he just thought he had it made." The new couple settled into the routine of sharecropping, moving on average every 2.4 years until finally settling in the tiny hamlet of Shady Glen.
Felix (Pop Fee to his grandchildren) Maxwell Moore, my maternal grand father, came from a modest family of obscure ancestry. His father died young, leaving his mother, Amanda, to manage a farm of fifteen acres with her young sons. Like the Flynts, they lived in a two-room cabin with an open breezeway or "dog trot" connecting the rooms. Life was hard for most everyone in Alabama, but it was especially challenging for a widow with seven small boys on a hardscrabble farm. Fee was the most academic of the seven, finishing high school between farm seasons and odd jobs. He was a prodigious reader and champion worker of crossword puzzles. After graduation, he taught school while commuting to nearby Howard College, a Baptist school in the Birming ham suburb of East Lake, where he completed a degree in education in 1924. Certified as a teacher, he followed that profession for fifteen years.
Like so many southern men of his class and time, Granddad drank too much, which cost him his teaching career. Reports of his drinking circulated in the Clay community where he was school principal. He confirmed the rumors by showing up drunk for a school trustee meeting. They fired him on the spot, though he tried to preserve his dignity by telling them: "I'm damned glad you fired me because I was about to quit anyway."
That firing ended his fixed occupation and propelled him into a series of short term jobs: carpenter; filling station attendant; rural mail carrier; Pinson's postmaster; vegetable salesman at the Birmingham farmer's market; WPA camp guard; elevator operator; owner of a country store on the corner of Sweeny Hollow Road and the Pinson–Center Point highway. He was also politically astute and a fiercely partisan Democrat who loved Franklin Roosevelt. Among his many friends he counted New Deal congressman George Huddleston of Birmingham and a fellow member of Pinson Baptist Church, who used his office as county commissioner to obtain a Depression-era job for Pop Fee operating an elevator at the Jefferson County courthouse.
Though Mom was embarrassed by his local reputation as a drunk, she also recognized the degree of difficulty that his life entailed and his service to the Pinson community. He and other men hauled rocks from Turkey Creek to build their house, the Baptist church, and Pinson elementary school. He was baptized in the creek next to the Baptist church.
I remember Pop Fee as proprietor of Moore's Store, built in 1938 after mother married and left home. He sold his rock house on Highway 79 in the late 1930s for $7,000, enough to buy land at the crossroads intersection and construct a two-story building with service station/store on the bottom floor and living space in the upper. Glass display cases seduced children with a dozen varieties of candy. A large section of tree attached to legs provided a block on which he cut meat. A stove toward the middle of the store invited men to sit on apple crates and upturned wooden Coca-Cola cases to talk while devouring Vienna sausages, sardines, and crackers. I remember my wonder at the stylish way Granddad rolled cigarettes with one hand, opening the tobacco pouch with his teeth, pouring some of the contents into his paper, rolling it, and licking the edge of the paper to seal it.
Beneath the counter that housed his tall metal cash register, Pop Fee stored row upon row of small account books in shoe boxes, each book with a family name written on the spine. Inside the books he recorded credit accounts, sometimes paid when farmers made their cotton crops in the fall, but often left unpaid when crops failed and tenant farmers moved off into the night, debts forgotten as quickly as the names of the communities they abandoned. Granddad was known for his easy credit and sympathetic ear for a tale of woe, which is the reason he never made much money. He operated the store seven days a week, with Sunday mornings the gathering time for white male customers to sit on boxes beside the stove and ruminate about politics and sports while their womenfolk and children attended church.
At age thirty-five, Pop Fee married eighteen-year-old Shirley Belle (Bell in some records) Roddam. In Mom's opinion, the further back in history you went, the better the Roddams got. They claimed pretentious origins, which may have contributed to their animosity toward my grandfather. Their ancestral home was a castle in the village of Roddam, located in Northumberland County, England, in the shadow of the Cheviot Hills that formed the border between England and Scotland. Part of the contested English Borders, the area was the wild and lawless equivalent of the land south of Ayton, Scotland, from which the Flynts came.
The Roddams made unwise choices both in politics and religion. Sir John Roddam died in the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, fighting a losing cause for the House of Lancaster against the House of York. Late in the following century, Robert Roddam was persecuted for his "papist" beliefs. The family's Catholicism in a country trending Protestant, the triumph of the House of York in the Wars of the Roses, and the general mayhem and anarchy of these centuries triggered a Roddam exodus to America. Matthew Roddam became the first of his family to move to the New World, settling in the Roman Catholic colony of Maryland a few decades after Thomas Flynt arrived in Jamestown.
Other Roddams landed in Charleston, South Carolina, toward the end of the eighteenth century from whence they made their way to Mobile, Walker County, and Pinson, Alabama. Like the Flynts, Roddams furnished many soldiers to the Confederacy. By the 1890s they had settled on Sweeny Hollow Road in Pinson.
My maternal great-grandfather John (Papa John as he was known unaffectionately by my mother and her siblings) was a hot-tempered scoundrel. He made his living buying, selling, and trading cattle, and spilled his own seed as promiscuously as the bulls he sold. Papa John married Sarah Elizabeth Self in 1894 but was no more faithful to her than he was to his three succeeding wives (or perhaps four). Sarah bore him seven children, one of whom was my grandmother Shirley. Sarah's sister came to help with the pregnancy and wound up pregnant herself by her brother-in-law. Her child was the first of at least three "outside" children, as the family referred to them, but there may have been more. Papa John may or may not have married his longtime mistress Carrie J. Spraul, a married and successful businesswoman.
Shirley Belle Roddam Moore (Mama Moore to the grandchildren) was as tough as Pop Fee was gentle. The closest she came to being a dainty southern belle was at birth when she was given that distinction as a middle name. Perhaps with such a sentimental, alcoholic husband, she had no choice. But her family prepped her well in the ways of a harsh world even before she married. Just to survive as a female member of the Roddam family required that a woman be strong as iron. And she was. Homer Roddam murdered a man at a honky-tonk. Roddy Roddam (whose motto mother described as better to "make a dishonest dollar than an honest one") owned an auto junk yard that allegedly fronted for stolen cars. He was killed by a Birmingham police officer after threatening to take influential people to jail with him if convicted of auto theft. James H. (Jim) Roddam served jail time for shooting a man and later stole a safe from a whiskey store. He and his sons supposedly operated an auto theft ring as well.
My favorite Roddam story involved Mama Moore's 1949 Chevrolet, which she proudly purchased late in life after learning to drive. Late one night as she was reading a magazine, she heard her car engine start. By the time she opened the door, the thief was driving off. She believed until she died at age eighty that one of her Roddam cousins had stolen her car. And when she used her insurance money to buy a blue and white Buick, she chained the car to the store to prevent repetition of the crime.
Then, of course, there was her philandering, adulterous father, Papa John. Once he loaned Pop Fee money to buy vegetables from farmers in order to sell them at the county market. Instead, Granddad got drunk and either spent the money on whiskey or was robbed (alternative versions of the story). Pop Fee was sitting in a chair when he admitted losing the money. Papa John flew into a rage and began beating my drunken grandfather while his children screamed. Mom, only nine or ten at the time, tried to restrain Papa John, but he pushed her down. Granddad's face was swollen and lacerated from the beating. "I just hated him," Mom told me, the only time I ever heard her use those words about a person. She neither forgot nor forgave. When Papa John died, Mama Moore called her to relate details of the funeral. Mom refused to attend.
Excerpted from Keeping the Faith by Wayne Flynt Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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