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We Didn't Know We Were Poor Until Somebody Told Us
The Legacy of Growing Up in the South
By William Lynn Smith
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 William Lynn Smith
All rights reserved.
The Haunted Place
* * *
As Dad and his brothers grew up along the bottoms and bluffs in west Tennessee they were like any other young people of that era. There were no automobiles or parents with automobiles to carry them places. If they wanted to go to a function of some sort they either walked or rode a mule. Even though riding the mule sounds like a better option, taking care of him before, during and after the trip definitely made it less attractive. Most of the time they just walked.
Timing was a real issue as well. To Paw, day light during the week, Monday through Saturday was for work. That left very few hours in the day for visiting or going to town. So Dad and the other kids became very adept at traveling in the evening and not staying too late before heading home.
There was a place however that even the stoutest spirit among them hated to go. It was over a bridge on the road between Three Points and Fulton. That bridge spanned a creek that passed through the old breast works, fortification trenches, at Fort Pillow. Fort Pillow was a fortification built on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi by the confederates during the civil war. The confederates had built an extensive system of trenches to protect the side away from the bluff.
There were three horrific battles fought around the fort. The fort was lost, taken back and lost again by the confederates. During those battles and retreats, there were atrocities visited on both sides by opposing forces.
Close to the bridge I spoke of earlier in this account, there was a hospital built by the confederates. It was outside the confines of the fort to apparently to allow for easy access to the water in the creek. Dad said that it was always believed that the confederates had dug an escape tunnel from the hospital back through the breast works into the fort in case they were overrun by Yankees coming up from the road to the landing at Fulton. Although I have heard this story many times from Daddy, I have never read about it from any other source.
Dad said that during the initial battle with Grant's forces the hospital was evacuated. The surgeons and patients entered the tunnel and went to the fort. When the Yankees entered the three room building they found no one and claimed it for their use. Apparently they did not find the entrance to the tunnel. The fort fell and the Yankees became the defenders. History notes that confederate forces took back the fort and lost it again several days later. Dad never was clear on exactly what point of the battle that the confederate doctors re-entered the hospital but it is integral to the story. It is related that they again were going to evacuate. However enemy forces had taken the fortifications and had blown up the end of the escape tunnel. The surgeons and patients were now in the tunnel when the Yankees entered the hospital. Upon seeing the entrance to the tunnel and not knowing how many rebel soldiers may be hiding in there, they simply collapsed the entrance effectively burying them alive.
The story passed that on moonless nights the voices of the tormented surgeons and rebel soldiers could be heard from the bridge over the creek. Imaginations would construct pictures of ghoulish figures in uniforms and surgeons smocks creeping up from the nether regions to accost the hapless souls traveling by. Pretty spooky stuff.
On this particular Saturday night the boys had been to a dance at a house just this side of Fulton. In those days a dance was not such as we have today. It was usually held at someone's house. Any refreshments that were provided were the responsibility of the guests. To create a dance floor, the family would move all the furniture out of the front room onto the porch. Sometimes saw dust was scattered about to enhance the foot action of the dancers. There were always musicians of sorts. Someone would bring a guitar, a fiddle or maybe even a squeeze box. Dad always prided himself on playing the jug. This was accomplished by blowing across the open mouth of a one gallon crockery jug providing the bass or beat.
The dance had been fun but it was late and they had a long walk home. All the kids that lived along the road back to Three Points and Western Valley were walking home in a group. The younger kids rode a mule that someone had brought along. The old mule plodded along with the group. There was no moon and the night was blacker than pitch in a bucket of oil. There were a few carrying kerosene lanterns, very few because kerosene costs almost a dime a gallon and a dime was not easy to come by. The closer the group got to the bridge the more the older kids told stories about the ghostly soldiers grabbing folks off the road. After being drug away, except for hearing their voices with the others in torment in the night, they were never seen or heard from again.
Dad described the next scenes with great detail. He said that the group began to cross the bridge. Everything was still, deathly quiet except for the sound of their own footsteps on the boards. The ones straggling began to hurry along to get closer to the ones carrying the kerosene lanterns. Unbeknownst to the travelers, a very large screech owl was watching their passage from the trees overhanging the bridge. Apparently the lights agitated him and he let out a long scream. His scream was answered by a chorus of screams as the kids began to run toward Three Points. There was no looking back, just pick them up and put them down. Dad said that he thought his lungs would bust. Every time they would begin to slow down something behind them would begin to close and they would pick up the pace rather than allowing it to catch up. In their collective minds they could just see the skeletons dressed in rotting clothes coming out of the darkness.
After a while the physical exhaustion began to override primal fear and the group began to slow down. They were feeling safer because they were close to the Macklin place, the first house on the road. After looking around, the group reasoned that the little ones on the mule must be the noise that they heard from behind. In all the confusion they left the mule and now he was trotting behind them trying to catch up. Apparently he was in no hurry. After all, what did a mule know about spooks?
They had a good laugh at themselves until they walked up to the house and the mule with the small ones on board was standing beside the front porch. Leaving them to wonder exactly what were the noises behind them. They all spent the night there.
The Mean Ol' Truck Driver
* * *
My grandfather, Paw, was a farmer in west Tennessee. He owned a couple of hundred of acres north of Memphis where he raised mostly cotton, cows and later on some soy beans. During the fall and winter months he and his six boys augmented their income by logging the river bluffs and bottoms along the Mississippi and Hatchie Rivers. Paw was one of many such loggers that worked to supply the large hardwood industry in Memphis.
Dad and his brothers worked at various tasks while logging with Paw. They not only cut down the trees and "limbed" them, they also worked teams of mules to pull or "snake" logs out of the woods to where they were loaded on trucks. At the loading place, a diesel driven mechanical winch was rigged to pull the logs onto the trucks for the trip to the mill. Cables with tongs were attached to the logs and they were pulled or rolled up a ramp and over onto the trucks.
One of the truck drivers that worked with Paw in that area was J.D. Canfield. To use today's description, he was not a "people person". In fact, if you looked in the dictionary under mean and ugly, you would have found J.D.'s picture in both places. J.D. drove an old rusty Reo log truck that must have been red in better days. He always wore the same overalls and long sleeve khaki shirt every day. Hygiene was not one of his strong points.
The reason no one liked J.D. was because he apparently didn't like anybody. You could say he was an equal opportunity hater. Not a whole lot was known about his personal life but he had a nasty habit of "cuffing" or slapping around those smaller and less able to defend themselves. Dad never related whether or not J.D. drank but from the story it appears that he might have been bedeviled by a hang-over. On this particular day Dad was working as a "cable monkey" or the person that had to take the tongs at the end of the winch cable down to the logs. After it was clamped on to a log, the winch man would pull the log across the ground, up the ramp and onto the trucks. He had been working all day and he said that J.D. had already slapped him around once.
Dad was standing on top of the dirt pile that had been built up by snaking the logs into the area. He looked up the track and noted in the line of trucks waiting to be loaded was the old rusty red Reo. "Man, I really don't want that ol' man to hit me no more" kept going around in Dad's head. It had already been a bad enough day. Not only the earlier incident with J.D. but he had been dodging a large yellow jacket nest that had been disturbed at the edge of the log pile. Yellow jackets are a flying wasp type insect with a serious problem with their attitudes. They differ from regular red wasps or hornets in that they bite with their mandibles and hang on while they sting multiple times with their stingers. That nest must have been as big as a watermelon and it was only because it was cool in early October that they were less active. He made a mental note that he would wait until it got cooler this evening before attempting to destroy the nest so he wouldn't get stung so bad.
It was at that point that the plan of all plans suddenly burst forth. He quickly ran down to the winch motor where there were several cans of diesel fuel. He grabbed one and liberally doused his legs from the mid thigh to his shoes. He then sprinkled the fuel across his chest and arms. He watched the winch operator signal the truck before J.D. to pull away.
Dad said as he picked up the tongs he looked at J.D. scowling at him through his old dirty cracked windshield. Dad said he stared back in mock defiance as he pulled the cable back toward the log pile. He had to be careful because after all J.D. was a grown up. At that time in history, at least in the south, kids did not back talk grownups regardless of what kind of a jerk he or she was. Back talk was a good way to find out just how pain tolerant you were.
After stopping the truck, J.D. stepped out on the running board and yelled "What're you lookin' at brat?" Dad said he didn't look back; he just kept pulling toward the logs. When he got near the log closest to the yellow jacket nest, he pulled slack on the cable and placed the tongs on the log. He then turned and looked at J.D. "Mr. J.D. you'd better not come up here!" he shouted. J.D. was not elderly and he was almost on Dad in two or three bounds. As J.D. closed on him, Dad kicked the nest with his foot. He said that the insects spilled from the damaged nest like dried beans from a sack.
J.D. first cuffed Dad on the side of his head and then grabbed him by the bib and suspenders of his overalls. Even though his ear was ringing he looked directly into J.D.s old yellowed blood shot eyes. "Boy, I am going to enjoy thrashin' you within an inch of your life" J.D. hissed. "I'm gonna, beat your skinny little....".
J.D's fierce focus on Dad was suddenly replaced by a slack jawed stare at nothing in particular. His tobacco stained lips quit forming words and began to run down like a wheel on an overturned vehicle after a roll over wreck. Dad said J.D.s eyes slowly fell toward the ground where he noted thousands of black and yellow insects swarming and slowly advancing up the legs of his overalls. Dad felt J.D.s grip loosen on him and he stepped back. The yellow jackets were repulsed by the diesel on Daddy. After all, having their home ruined by the loggers and being kicked around by some kid that smelled like a refinery, it appeared that the yellow jackets were going to take all their anger out on J.D. He looked back up at Dad and for the first time Dad said he actually came close to feeling sorry for ol' J.D. As he stared at Daddy J.D. slowly reached up with both hands and purposely placed his thumb and fore finger at the catch of the suspenders on each side of his bibs. J.D. made a sort of animal like half whimper half growl and swung into action.
Daddy said that J.D.s actions over the next few minutes were worth all the pain suffered prior to and all that will be suffered after this incident. He said that ol' man made moves that would make a dance teacher from New York City envious. With one flip of his hands the overalls were released like a parachute on a sky diver. Simultaneously he sort of jumped or actually appeared to levitate out of them. In the same move J.D. pirouetted (spun about) and began to accelerate like the Panama Limited leaving Central Station in Memphis. He was making about the same type of noise as the steam engine on the head end of that train. Dad, the yellow jackets, the mules and all the other loggers were awed by J.D.s sudden display of physical prowess. It was a sight to behold as a terrified half naked man covered the hundred or so yards to the creek just a second ahead of a swarm of angry insects. However when J.D. reached the creek he hesitated to decide whether jumping in was an option. The arrival of the yellow jackets removed all doubt and made that decision for him.
I have never known of an incident where yellow jackets actually killed a human being, similar to the Africanized or killer bees. However Dad ended this story with a mystery. He never mentioned that mean ol' man in later stories. I believe if he had died or been injured in any way Dad would have included that. However, come to think of it, by the time he described J.D.s action Daddy was laughing so hard and trying to catch his breath that I was never sure of the outcome. Apparently the moral of the story, if you will, is that the yellow jackets did effect a change in ol' J.D. This was evidenced by the fact that none of Dad's other stories ever included any mention to the old man again.
Mr. Andy's New Pickup Truck
* * *
Down the road from Paw's place was the farm owned by Mr. Andy. I am sure he had a last name but I never paid attention to it. He was the consummate southern farmer of the time. Dad said that he never saw Mr. Andy dressed in anything but a sweat stained khaki shirt and trousers. He was a large, round, red faced man. Indeed, in my own memories of Mr. Andy before his passing, I can still see his sun reddened face, red hair and a cap of untanned skin where his straw hat sat.
Dad said that in those days Mr. Andy was more red faced because of his health rather than the sun. He would get worked up about something and apparently his blood pressure would sky rocket. Dad said that Mr. Andy would get so mad he would take off his straw hat, throw it down to stomp on it and somehow would always miss. It was also said that Mr. Andy was not very free with his money and good straw hats weren't cheap, even then.
Mr. Andy was like most all the other folks in the community in that he would not hesitate to help someone in need. When there was sickness, a house fire or some other disaster, he was one of the first to pitch in and help. He always used his prosperity like a tool in that regard. However there was another side to Mr. Andy. He loved to show Paw and all the other folks in Western Valley anything he had gotten new; especially if no one else had one. Tractors, hay bailers, buildings or stock. If he had it, he bragged about it, especially to Paw.
One Sunday afternoon in late fall, Paw was sitting on the front porch watching the boys play baseball in the pasture between the house and the road. The game stopped as a brand new Model T Ford pickup truck turned off the road and pulled up in the front yard. Dad said it was Mr. Andy and he had come to visit Paw to show off his new truck. He was also sporting a new straw hat he had purchased. A real fancy one with a wide brim, basket weave air vent holes in the crown and a shaded "see through" plastic visor.
Dad related several versions of the encounter between my grandfather and Mr. Andy and I have put together this exchange from those memories. Paw stepped off the porch and walked around the vehicle nodding appreciatively. "Where'd you get it, Andy?" "Ordered it from Detroit and I picked it up from a dealer in Memphis. Me and Ma took the Panama down to Memphis last week, walked down to the dealer's office and picked it up". "Really looks nice, Andy, you can still smell the fresh paint a 'burnin' on the engine" "I'm telling' ya' Frank (that's grown-ups called Paw) it rides smooth as glass and quiet as the inside of a box of cotton"
Now, Dad and his brothers weren't mean kids, ordinarily. But, you know, there comes a time when a lesson needs to be given—and some fun to be had. Mr. Andy excused himself and walked around back of the house to the outhouse. The boys swung into action. Several of them lifted each back wheel of the little truck while Daddy placed a piece of stove wood under the axle just inside the rear wheels. When the truck was lowered onto the wood, the tires just touched the grass and gave the illusion that it was sitting on the ground.
Excerpted from We Didn't Know We Were Poor Until Somebody Told Us by William Lynn Smith. Copyright © 2013 William Lynn Smith. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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