A Time to
"Well, Sari, Howard bought my lunch today," said Mama. Her words are so predictable around the first of every month, that I can form them without even listening to her. She always says them as if she had been escorted to lunch by the most sought-after, best-dressed young gentleman at the community dance. Of course, I know that she means the $4.26 government check is still enough to pay for the vegetable plate at Morrison's. I close my eyes and see the little brown envelope stamped Official Business, the greenish blue insurance check inside, and think how much that small amount of money continues to representremaining a gentle reminder of my own simple childhood unknowingly protected from the shadow of a more complex adult world making history around me.
I don't know if my early memory is my own recollection or if the stories told to me or around me have so stamped my mind with people and events that my participation seems more like sleepwalking. When I try to remember, I see only fragments of rooms, some recognizable, some not, with people in them speaking in unfinished sentences: time fragments, moving fast and then slow-belonging to uncertain seasons, uncertain years. When I look back, so many times I feel I was on the outside looking in on the life I was supposed to be living, not knowing whether I visited the backyards of the years through the mind's eye of my Granddaddy or whether I walked among them holding his hand.
Back then, time was measured by theseasons. The weather, that culprit or creator of crops and adventure, was at the center of intimacy among hunters and fishermen, mostly farmers by occupation. These people, my people, didn't just pass the time of day discussing the weather. They speculated about it, prayed about it, feared it, shared it, and held it sacred. Events were recalled by the kind of day it had been.
Take the cold February night the house burned in 1936 when I, along with one bureau drawer of my clothes, was taken next door to stay with Cousin Sadie. Someone jerked me from the safe sleep of my warm bed to the neighboring screened porch, which became my observation post. I don't remember hearing shots my Daddy fired to alert the volunteer firemen, but his story became a favorite among the old-timers sitting on the town benches: "That Dink went outside and shot his gun, put it back in his closet and let it burn up with his house."
The year we lived with relatives while the house was being rebuilt remains a blurry kaleidoscope of scenes that change with the slightest flash of memory, never to be recaptured quite the same again. It seems there were rows of beds on a sleeping porch from where I watched charred sticks come falling down. I sometimes tiptoed among blackened mason jars and bedsprings. When we moved back home, people had been shifted all around. Granddaddy still had his room and Uncle Howard his, but my new baby sister had my baby bed. Because the upstairs rooms were not there as before, Aunt Mable Miller, "Mamie" as everybody called her, and her family now had a house next door. Her two grown children, Helen and Jim, were away at college most of the time. Mamie, Daddy's sister, was the one in the family who kept the important papers and the book we all signed at Thanksgiving. She was also my second grade teacher.
"Sari, take this reading book and sit in the hall and listen to Curtis read until the bell rings."
"But Aunt Mamie, I ... "
"Curtis, get a desk from the seventh grade homeroom and pay attention when Sari helps you."
Curtis Pippin sat in the big desk and I in one of the smaller chairs I used from my own reading group, the bluebirds. He was so much older and bigger than the rest of the boys in my class. I felt sorry for him, but at the same time, I was scared to be alone with him in the hall. Curtis went barefooted in the summer and when it was cold wore laced-up boots bordered with red clay. The only place I kept my eyes was on the book in my handhis he kept on the dirty fingernail he used to trace the words underneath the pictures as he read,
"Come and play!"
"Come and play!"
"Jump, Puppy, jump!"
"Jump, Little Puppy, jump!"
He could pronounce the words right when the pictures were there.
I was quickly becoming Aunt Mamie's assistant. Not only did she run the grammar school, she costumed the Christmas pageant and organized and narrated the annual May Day program. She counted on me to help out and fill in anywhere, and without practice.
"Sari, one of the fourth graders is sick. I know you'll fit into her dress. You can put your hair up in pin curls under the rabbit hat you're wearing as Peter Cottontail's mother, then change in time for the Maypole Dance."
The high school band played "Pomp and Circumstance" as the May Queen and her court slowly marched the entire length of the softball field. The girls wore long pastel evening dresses and were escorted by their fellow classmates in dinner jackets. They watched Mamie's program put on in their honorthe Senior Class of 1941.
First grade girls dressed in pansy, zinnia, and daffodil bonnets of crepe paper skipped and performed in their dark green to "Dance of the Flowers."
As I changed into my light blue organdy dress and brushed my hair, I looked out the bathroom transom and caught the end of the third graders' act. Their woodenhinged toy movements were believable as they exaggerated every step and jerk of their arms to the band's rendition of "Wedding of the Painted Dolls." Each spit curl was in place on their white-powdered facestheir cheeks round circles of pink rouge. The girls' brows and the boys' mustaches were so heavily penciled that they looked like caricatures of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald posing on the front of Aunt Mamie's sheet music.
It was time for the big finale, and I was there holding a smooth satin streamer doing my part to weave in among the other colored ribbons attached to the tall white maypole.
Even though Aunt Mamie was good at directing people, her real calling was directing music. For years she had led the singing in the school auditorium as conscientiously as she directed the Methodist Church choir. Every Friday at chapel she led the entire student body in lively renditions of songs such as:
Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking
What a Grand Life this would be
If the boys were all transported
Far across the big, blue sea.
And transported they soon wereboys and men in uniform and my twenty-three-year-old Uncle Howard among them.
That spring he left for Camp Blanding. It was a little after Valentine's Day. I know it was around that time because I had just thrown away Fletcher Link's dead flower. For all the girls in our class, his mother always made big red construction paper valentines with a big pink camellia in the center tied in place with a white ribbon. She would bring them to our classroom on a tray.
February 25, 1941
Camp Blanding, Florida
I passed the physical exams with no trouble at all. The doctors say that there is nothing wrong with my heart. I have been stationed in the infantry.
It has been a hard week, they started me out with a twenty eight pound pack the first thing but I got along very well. We march seven miles each day. The miles are going to and from the woods that we train in. I have dug holes, jumped in them and pretended to shoot, then got out and covered the hole up again. Running through the woods with that pack and falling on your belly is no picnic.
I have been lucky that I have no blisters on my feet; most of the boys have them. While marching out yesterday after dinner, four men out of our company fell out. The weather was pretty hot. It is a surprise to me, but I can stand the running as good or better than most of these boys.
I started to call you up this evening and I would have if I thought that Sari would be close by to talk over the phone. I sure do miss her. Give my love to all,
I am your son,
Private William H. Bradford
A. P. B. 31-31 Division
Co. "I" 115 Inf.
Camp Blanding, Florida
For most of that year things stayed pretty much the same around Richland, our little North Florida town of about 1,000. Richland is located in the upper part of the state close to where the Gulf of Mexico has taken a little chomp out of the curve called the Big Bend. We are five miles south of the Georgia line and the sign south on the main highway reads, "Tallahassee, 16 miles." The Apalachicola River borders our county of Gadsden on the west. The Ochlockonee River is the eastern boundary and about five miles or twenty-five minutes away from our house by way of Granddaddy's car. You had to allow for him to stop, get out, and meander up and down the dirt road looking for turkey tracks.
The land was the mainstay here, and planting went on as usual with each change of the seasons. Around midwinter the farmers cultivated their seed beds anticipating another thriving tobacco crop. Grandaddy would say, "The quality of what you raise depends mostly on the kind of soil you plant it in." I couldn't help but feel he meant children as well as crops. Our county's subsoil of red clay with no presence of rotten limestone and the perfect climate provided just the right spot for growing shade tobaccobrown gold, our first big industry.
The farmers waited for the first good rain shower around the middle of April, then the farm labor moved the plants from the smaller beds and set them out in larger fields, which sometimes covered as many as thirty to forty acres. When Granddaddy first took me inside a tobacco shade and I saw how necessary every worker was to keeping the crop underway, I knew then where the term "hands" must have come from. A homemade wooden tool resembling an oversized, sawed-off dinner fork was used for making holes in the rows of dirt. Colored women dressed in overcoats with felt hats sometimes over their headrags, dropped the tender plants from their baskets next to these holes. Young laborers who could squat, bend, and almost stand on their heads all day secured the plants in place in their special holes. Children carried buckets of water for an older worker who watered each plant with a dipper fashioned from a tin can attached to a long thin wooden slat. This transplanting was done at intervals up until the first of May in case of a late frost. It was foolish and downright dangerous to transplant much later since harvesting would begin in late May when school was out.
* * *
We were busy at work during recessreshaping our established playhouse, its walls defined and lined with short twigs and pine straw. It looked like a big game of hopscotch except each block of outlined room had a little opening for a door. We had taken care to build it all under a low-hanging, leafy hickory branch for shade.
Mary Jean was sweeping the dirt floor with the makeshift broom of dried bushes. Patsy sat on top of a wooden drink crate while I began plumping the nests of oak leaves we used for our dolls' beds. Sally stirred the acorns in the jar-top lids we used for pans simmering on top of our stove, a big chunky piece of concrete we had found in the ditch.
The boys gathered ammunition for their continual pine cone war. Dirt flew from the deep hole One Side was digging. It now held three soldiers. Poles were lying across the ditch, and most of the Other Side was repairing their stick hideoutweaving the limbs like latticework and covering them again in pine straw and magnolia leaves the wind had blown away.
I had just finished my apple, when I saw Aunt Mamie coming toward the playground. Vester Pierce, Hall Monitor, was with her carrying the dreaded dodge ballthat hollow, rust-colored rubber ball that bounced higher than your head and had a plinky, tinlike sound when it hit you in the back or vibrated on the hard-packed red clay.
The fun came to a halt. Even though it was the last day of school, we must play the organized game. So we left our dolls, and the boys put down their wooden guns.
May 29, 1941
Camp Blanding, Florida
This past week, I have carried my rifle about 50 miles and sometimes I think it is a better man than I am. In the afternoon, it feels like a piece of railroad iron. We may go out on the range to shoot next week. I sure do want to shoot the damn thing.
Most of the boys are gone on passes and the camp is practically deserted. I went to the theater this evening. It is in the big tent you saw. I will try to come home next weekend. Don't count on it too strong for there is a chance Uncle Sam may change my mind.
There was a chance there was going to be something way out of the ordinary that June. I might see my very first movie star in person.
We stopped by the ice plant like always on the way to Wakulla Springswe went two or three times during the summer on Sunday afternoons. Mr. Munley slowly got up from the ladder-back chair he sat in tilted back against the wall. He disappeared into the walk-in icebox, finally reappearing and walking across the wooden platform. In his hand he held an oversized pair of black tongs that clutched our big block of ice. He plopped it down in the washtub next to the watermelon and jars of tea and potato salad. Ruthie and I sat on quilts in the back of the dairy truck next to the basket of fried chicken and Mama's cake saver.
"We may get to see Johnny Weismuller, the real Tarzan," I told Ruthie. "Don't let his ape call scare you."
"Cheetah, Cheetah, red-bug eater."
"Cheater, Cheater, red-bug eater," we both chanted over and over again.
It made sense that the Tarzan movies could be made at Wakulla Springs. It was one of the world's deepest freshwater springs and known for its underwater caves. The water was so crystal clear you could see fish swimming among the tall grass that bordered the area where we swam, that is, if we could stand the icy water. You had to take a deep breath and jump right in or go underwater and stay there or you'd freeze to death. Daddy always made us come out when our lips turned blue. The swimming area, including the three-story diving tower and several painted barges for sunbathing, gave way to the river, a safe distance away, filled with water lilies, turtles, and alligators. The banks of the river were a tangled mess of trees and vines, a perfect jungle for the treehouse of Tarzan and Jane. Near the picnic area, Daddy pointed out a kind of float stored there which the cameramen used for underwater scenes, but there were no movie stars to be seen.
We dressed at the bathhouse, and before we loaded up for home we watched the teenagers jitterbugging in their bathing suits on the concrete floor of the open paviliona concession stand on one side, juke box on the other.
On the way home I had unbelievable visions of sunken treasure inside the underwater cave; its entry I had seen 120 feet down from the glass-bottom boats at one time or another. I couldn't say I was really too disappointed that we didn't at least spot Tarzan somewhere. After all, I was there, there at the very scene I might later recognize at the afternoon picture show.
I watched the palmettos flash by and thought how I would ride over this same road in the fall when we made the trip to the bay for the salt fish. Just as sure as mullet spawning time rolled around after the last full moon in October, Daddy and Granddaddy would load the old stone crock and head toward Shell Point. They had the mullet dressed and covered with saltthe coarse, chunky kind. We would have all the salt fish and roe we could eat for breakfast during the fall and winter. I didn't know it then, but that trip to the coast would be our last anywhere for a while.
* * *
It was along about the beginning of Lightning Bug season of the next year when we began to get letters from Ft. Benning, Georgia. Uncle Howard enrolled in Officer's Candidate School and from there promised to send me a pink organdy dress and a pair of black, patent-leather shoes. Now centered in the glass portion of our front door was the big, white star decal bordered in blue framed by the crocheted panel behind. This star emblem marked our house as the home of a serviceman willing and able to give his life for his country.
May 5, 1942
First I will tell you that this is a touch. I am going to do what I have always done when I needed some things, ask you for them. I will get to that a little later.
About a month ago I was called before a board of officers for an interview. This took place at the Infantry School on the main post here at Benning. I went over with a very high recommendation from Captain Walker. As a result of the interview, the officers rate you and classify you according to that rating. If you make a good rating, you will be called to the school before someone that made a poorer rating, even if he was examined before you were.
You will be pleased to know that I made a very good showing for when the decision from the board came to my outfit, there was an order to prepare me for transfer as quickly as possible. The order came in last Thursday at noon. As a result of that, I attended a class that same afternoon. I am now a candidate in the Officer's Training School. My class, which is a company of 210 men, will graduate on the 26th of July.
It is customary for a person to get a five day pass between the time he gets his notice to report to the school and that time. In my case there was no time, so I got no time off. I don't mind so much although I would like to have seen you all before I started this course. This is a hard three months. I am very glad now that I have had good training. It will be easier for me than some of the men here.
To get back to the main part of this letter. The reason I need some money is this school has forced me to buy some clothes. I bought and paid for two summer uniforms and a small foot locker or trunk. I had to pay for this stuff and luckily I had the money, but I have other obligations. To make it short, I need $20.00 by the 15th of this month. I could get the money if I were back in K Co., but here I am among strangers. If you can help here, good. If you can't, please write right away and let me know.
The men I am with here are all fine men, most of them have a good bit of schooling. I wish you could see the way I have to keep my room. There is a prescribed way for everything. If you could come up some Sunday, I would be easy to find. Anyone in town (it is about the size of Richland) could tell you where I live.
I have some lessons to prepare. Please let me hear soon.
Give my love to all,
Some of the letters were passed among family members. Only portions of them were read aloudsometimes a few lines to Ruthie and me if he sent us a special message. When I thought of Uncle Howard after he first left, I pictured him running up the front walk stepping on Mama's periwinkles and later with my new pink dress over his shoulder, but as time passed and he didn't get any more furloughs, I mostly remembered the cigar smell of his clothes.
June 11, 1942
I have really been busy. From 5:30 A.M. on Monday to 4:30 on Saturday, I do not have a minute of spare time. This course is only 90 days and there is a lot to be covered. I am through with studying the weapons. I qualified as a expert with all of the weapons used in the Infantry with the exception of the hand grenade. We are studying tactics now and it is more interesting than the first few weeks have been.
Being here is a hell of a strain on a man. We are watched all of the time. We know that there will be about 20% of the class to fall to graduate. The men who do not get their commission will be made a Sgt. of the first grade. I don't believe I have anything to worry about. I seem to be getting along alright. When we graduate we will get $150.00 along with our commission. That is to help buy clothes.
This is the first Sunday I have spent in camp in some time. I am confined as a result of gambling in the barracks. Gambling is something that is unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman. The thing that is bad about it, is getting caught.
I wish you could see me graduate. There won't be much of a ceremony, but it is a big thing to me. The biggest thing that could happen.
They are really putting pressure on us now. When I get out of here I am really going to need a rest. Three months here, if you take it seriously, is Hell on a man.
I am trying to get all I can out of the school for I feel that I will be dealing with human lives very shortly. It will be little short of a crime if I don't get all I can from these three months.
It is a pity that wife of yours can't see my quarters. Everything is in its place all of the time. I don't only make up my bed, but sweep and mop under it each morning. If we do anything wrong, like leaving a wrinkle in the bed (a very little wrinkle) we get a demerit. Too many of these demerits and I won't get a Commission at the end of the course. It would break my heart to fall.
I guess you are wondering about this stationery with the wide lines. The school gives it to us to work field problems. It comes out of a writing tablet.
I have some lessons to prepare. At present we are studying map reading. I am going to stop now and shine my shoes so that I won't be in a rush tomorrow morning.
Candidate William H. Bradford
Co. 11 34d Student Training
Reg. I. S. S. C.
Ft. Benning, Ga. O.C.
P.S. If it won't be too much trouble, I would like to have some tobaccosome black and strong.
* * *
The cool, amber-colored water of Roady's Creek tingled our bare legs as we waded in. We didn't go all the way up to our shorts because the cola-colored water hid the holes and roots we knew were there. Sally was the first to head back for the bicycles we had left by the road.
"Come on," she called. "Let's hurry. Mr. Charlie will be wondering what happened to us."
"If we eat as soon as we get there, we'll have plenty of time to play," said Mary Jean.
We rode caravan stylethree different hues and stages of Toni Home Permanents outlined against the July haze. Each head was adorned with curl loosening at its own "Summer Vacation," three month's pace becoming "just right" for the first day of school. Our threesome made this dirt-road outing most every Saturday that summer when I was eight. I say "dirt-road" because few outside of the city limits were paved. We often stopped a while, kicked up the sand with our bare feet, or dug our big toes in the packed coolness of the ditches as we picked wildflowers.
I could see the black '40 Ford parked under the huge oak trees next to the cemetery. I knew Granddaddy was sitting in the driver's seat waitingand nodding. The faded green straw basket would be next to him; the basket so loosely woven that the food placed inside formed its shape, bulging here, sucked in there. Mama would have made the pimento cheese sandwiches and my favoritepeanut butter and fig preserves. The bananas would be there; bananas he called ripe and we called rotten. The chocolate-covered creams in the no-brand cellophane bag always served as our dessert.
We sat under one of the huge oaks on an old blanket Granddaddy always kept in the trunk of his car. Bradford cemetery was on a little knoll about one and a half miles east of Richland. From where we were sitting, it was possible to make out the rectangular tobacco fields covered with cheesecloth. I leaned against the tree and smelled the fruity scent of somebody's freshly mown grass mixed with the Prince Albert smoke now coming from Granddaddy's pipe. He felt obliged to give us the same information over and over again any time we were near the tobacco farms. He recited it like a poem that didn't rhyme.
"You know," he continued puffing on his pipe, "this spot right here in North Florida is the only place, 'cept for Connecticut, where they grow tobacco under a shade." We listened politely as we finished sipping iced tea from our jars.
"See here, those barns down yonder are full right now with green tobacco hanging from the rafters. Somebody's inside there tending the fires that'll turn those leaves into dry, thin, yellow gold. Yes sir, those leaves will be used as the outside wrapper for some bully good cigars."
"I'll race you to the spigot," said Sally. After eating the sweet sandwiches, our hands were plenty sticky. It was a relief to rinse and dry them on our shirttails.
Granddaddy joined us as we walked together toward the squeaky gate. It was waist high like a garden gate except it was black wrought ironwith spikes on top. On the front was a small plaque shaped like a coat of arms with the words, "Stewart Iron Works, Cincinnati, Ohio." The graveyard was completely enclosed with the spiky iron fence Daddy and Uncle Howard had put up when they were only young boys.
We walked reverently among the graves in the cemetery my great-great-grandfather had started years ago. Granddaddy commented about the life and death represented by each tombstone as we read the inscriptions:
"FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD"
"Cliff's twins, died of diphtheria in 1907," he said.
"Roscoe's boy killed in World War I."
A headstone built for twothe empty space by Granddaddy's Eva.
"SHE HATH DONE WHAT SHE COULD"
"That's my place," he said.
Satisfied with his nostalgic and historical contribution, Granddaddy put out his pipe, and as he fanned himself with his crinkled straw hat, went back to the car for a nap. He was in no hurry. "In no hurry a'tall," he'd say. He had time to take me and my friends anywhere we needed or wanted to go. He took us uptown when it was cold, to school when it rained, to medicine shows, to cane grindings, to the Saturday afternoon picture show, and even all the way to Panacea to the fishing lodge belonging to Uncle Elbert, Grandaddy's brother. On the way, Granddaddy always insisted we stop at that spring and drink some of the healthy, stinking sulphur water.
Sally and Mary Jean were already stretched out on the cool, marble slabs taking the Dracula positions and pretending to be ghosts of the dead.
"So this time I'm the one who's lost in the cemetery at night?" I asked. They didn't answer and I knew that was my signal to hide among the stones in silence until their stiff, calculated steps and outstretched arms found me. I worried as I waited there about disturbing the sleep of the dead. I knew we all felt a little ashamed for running and stepping on hallowed ground, but it was my family cemetery, and, unless there was a funeral, even Brother Kittle had no business here.
I could hear them coming as I crouched closermy face pressed against the cool marble. I had been in one position behind the stone for quite a while, and I finally had to shift my leg, which had gone to sleep. Quickly, I steadied myself by encircling my arm around the upright stone. Instantly my fingers touched the outline of the crossed rifles. A soldier's stone.
"Gotcha," they said in unison.
July 8, 1942
This afternoon I am uncommonly happy because I just got a letter from my old sister-in-law. Lib, you will never know how much I would like for you to sweep under my feet again. Do you remember what a time you had waiting on me and how I rested before I left. I bet now you are sorry you hid my cigars. It is funny how things come to mind. I well remember the first time Dink and I first saw you. You were standing in the door the day we came after the goat, That goat sure was a tool of fate. You see, if it was not for me (and the goat) you may not have the little girls I love so much. The word of this iskeep on being good to your brother-in-law. You know how puny I was before you brought me out of the kinks.
Well, this will be all for the time being, but don't forget
Mud on the Stars
By William Bradford Huie
The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.