By A.H. Watson
I mined the early war years in Jonesboro deeper than most likely cared to descend. I had no intentions of continuing that seam?
As I read the piece in full for the first time, yesterday, it provided me with understanding of my grandparent's, and others living at the time, that can be seen best from the distant end of the tunnel.
I now see the large unfulfilled hope that must have loomed large in their minds ? especially that of my grandfather.
My grandmother, with college behind her, was both quicker of mind and worldlier than her husband. Unlike today, women - even smart political and social aware women of that era - were forced to find their "completeness" in the act of marriage, children, and the management of household affairs.
To understand this, it is required to have faced disappointments in one's own life; to have wrestled empty hopes and dreams to ground?. held them close - that others may be sheltered from your pain- to insure that the defining nature of disappointment and constant worry not be transferred to next generation.
A generation free to grow; not march to a soul-killing dirge as background music to their life.
And so it was with my grandfather... As well as others in that small town; A town soon to lose its identity by becoming little more that a bedroom community of the snarling dragon to it's north.
Gilbran perhaps said it best in, "The Prophet." He suggested that one's happiness is defined by the amount of pain one has experienced; that happiness is constrained by the empty cup of one's pain and can only reside to the same depth of the pain a person has experienced.
Gibran, while correct, avoided the most salient point of human pain ? pain leaves scars and those scars color both man's recognition of happiness and his ability to enjoy what Gibran calls "happiness" - that being simply the "absence" of pain.
Born right after the Recent Unpleasantness, my grandfather had no opportunity to attend college. He had spent his early years sifting through the ashes of the family home retrieving the hand cut nails to use in the new home. Taught at home, reading before the law, and a continued lifetime interest in books gave my grandfather a depth of knowledge not found in most? even those today with advanced degrees.
Yes, the world of our fathers was a smaller world indeed but simply because they dealt with it primarily from the standpoint of black & white, it was far less nuanced or full of contrived "equality."
There was no judge in the land in 1940 that would have allowed an alien with 19 charges over one year of continual rape? OF THE SAME CHILD?.to go free because the rapist was not provided with a translator of his obscure dialect.
The illegal came from Nigeria a nation whose national language is ENGLISH! The man had gone to high school and college in America and spoke better English with better understanding that the average ghetto dweller.
No my grandfather's generation would have jailed - then hung the rapist within thirty days - not allowed him to go free, or to jail for twenty-five years while millions were spent KEEPING him there before finally sending him to hell.
To think of the hundreds of millions wasted on such matters is sufficient to damn our present world to hell in its own right for the "grape peeling", rectal examination, camel threading, bullshit that passes for "caring liberal angst" which now smothers the landscape with its permissive, supportive, acceptance of evil.
Yet, as college degrees became more prevalent the further distance we moved from the Great Adventure, the more my grandfather must have become uneasy with his lack of a degree. This was, of course, unnecessary but much as telling a girl weighing 80lbs that she need not diet, there is something in the human mind that simply at times will not see the truth.
Poppa was "thinking smart," he was a leader, and a fine businessman. But put my grandfather in a room with some blathering idiot of a teacher and he would become quiet as a mouse?even when the words coming forth were complete drivel. He would just shake his large gray head and go out back, or disappear to the back of the store or Post Office.
Every week at the store, in his ham-handed way, Poppa would "dress" the two windows facing on Main Street.Having little in the way of props, and not being queer, this weekly affair was better that a Roy Rogers movie with all that singing and horse kissing.
For a mental image try thinking of Mike Tyson or Tiny Tim as your interior decorator.
The two window spaces, one on each side of the door, were ample as window spaces go but my grandfather was a large man ? not fat, large. When he bent over to place something in the window space with his butt facing main street he could flat draw a crowd.
Only those people passing through town and soon to leave ?or his few good friends dared comment, but if you didn't know better you would assume the World Series was being played on a large screen TV by some kindly merchant.
There was this rather large, usually dignified, almost unapproachable man, squatting in a window on main street doing, 'God knows what.' Seemingly playing with toys, he would then quickly rise come outside, pay no attention to the gathering crowd look in his window, then return only to fiddle around some more with the items there.
I look back now on one particular incident with Poppa. Time, and my own pride pricked by others along the way; I feel nothing but shame for the hurt I must have delivered in my young, unknowing way.
The weekend before Easter I had returned to Atlanta for three days to be with my mother and see my Aunt and Uncle. On Saturday morning at 8 years of age I took a streetcar some 12 miles from Emory University to the middle of town. I was meeting mother after work.
(Yes, in those days women worked five and a half days a week and were glad to have a job?and yes, this was before political correctness and the love of evil had made it impossible for a family to leave a child, in a locked car, at church, while they dropped off some item. And long before we arrested police for shooting criminals and give the criminal free reign to bring drugs into the country for testimony against men doing their job)
Across the street from Morison's Cafeteria, where I insisted mother take me as they ALWAYS had strawberry shortcake, was Davidson's Dept. store. The entire front block was lined with display windows dressed weekly by a team of professional artists and fashion experts.
That particular Saturday one of the displays contained a nod to the coming Easter weekend. The window display was lovely. I remember a large wicker or straw Cornucopia horn with beautiful colored scarves seemingly pouring from it. At the end of the scarves was a mirror dressed to look like a small pond with various jewelry and necklaces piled in a 'studied' abandon. Scattered among other women's items such as perfume were items that suggested these items would make nice Easter presents for the woman in you life. There were decorated Easter eggs and small stuffed chicks of many colors - to remind the more dense among us that Easter was coming.
In the corner of the window, but out of the way, was a full-page ad as it appeared in the Friday paper. It was a copy of this window display with over the top in large type.
"EASTER: A TIME TO GIVE YOUR CHICK A GIFT"
Henry returned on the Sunday local. From the Train Station he crossed the Highway 41 and walked past the family store on the corner above the house some two blocks west of Main Street. While making the turn at the store Henry noticed that, over the weekend, his grandfather had redecorated the front window while Henry was in Atlanta.
Passing the store, Henry felt something was unusual about the store's front window; He walked on?. then returned, to look again at his grandfather's efforts. Still puzzled Henry backed away from the window?and headed home.
It was almost a ritual that he enter the house from the rear porch and into the kitchen. He would place his small overnight bag on the back step, then venture to the wood pile?. gather an arm load of kindling and small scrap lumber for starting the morning fire around 5am.
It was far easier to get the "fire fixings" in the evening than be abruptly awakened in the early morn to round up the needed wood, especially so on those cold mornings before dawn, when the ice from the muddy road pushed small piles of dirt and pebbles high above the surface of the ground ? adding visual reinforcement to the depth of the cold seeping in around the neck and lower back.
Like so much else experienced some seventy years ago, the power and smell of steam engines, the depth of cold felt by a child in a cotton robe holding an arm full of frosty ice covered kindling, bare feet aching as they fly across the frozen yard, cannot be reproduced in this era of all needs filled? or pounded flat, by doting parents.
On a quiet Monday morning - even now all these years later ? I can hear my grandmother admonish me ?
"Henny, I declare, you would forget your head, get your lazy self up and get some 'starter'?.Put your coat on? and your shoes ?not like last week you hear me ?"
"NOW?Henry! ?. Not supper time!"
Poppa would always add?" Now Mary, the boy's no fool, he wouldn't go out with out his coat and shoes ?he is not stupid, leave him alone."
"Don't even think that Jessie; the boy is almost all Mundy, not an intelligent bit of "Adams" in his entire body."
The coldest you can ever be? and live? is to be standing at the coal & kindling pile way in the back of a large yard -no shoes or coat - breasting five pounds of kindling and wood, cold with frost ? knowing that you cannot get warm until what you have in your arms ?becomes a roaring fire.
The iron cook stove Henry's grandmother insist on using daily - using in spite of the new electric stove on the other side of the kitchen, will take some twenty minutes to reach sufficient warmth to ease the pain reaching up from his toes. Meanwhile, every breath taken in or out of the house gives way to a fog of air upon each release.
Three necessary items, a coal skittle, a wood and kindling box, and a tray for old papers accompany every wood stove.
Anyone can start a fire, but to do it time after time with one match, with assurance that it will continue to burn and not simply die shortly after birth, requires a degree of intelligence and a strict adherence to some simple laws of physics.
One match will not start a block of wood or a log, as there is insufficient heat to raise the temperature of the wood to a combustible degree. A match will, however, start either paper or a stick of kindling. From that start, sufficient heat can be generated to start the wood, logs, or large pieces of coal?ergo Fire!
Then eventually, breakfast!
Three balled up pieces of newsprint is enough to start small pieces of pine or oak. Strange as it may seem to those today considering the wealth of paper around the house, this was not true earlier in the century. This was especially true in small towns where the local paper came only weekly and consisted of three or four pages at best.
Yes, there were brown paper sacks but each of these would be religiously saved, re-folded like new, and returned to the store - That is all but those lifted by grandmother to be used to drain chicken, bacon and other fried items. To this day no better method has been developed to drain fried foods than the reliable brown paper sack.
The poverty of old used paper around the home in the first part of this century left my friend Timmy and myself with the important task of finding and gathering kindling or pitch wood, lighter, gum - as it was variously called.
Before cotton was king, the Deep South states were noted for rice & indigo along the coast and a seemingly unending supply of 60'-80' pine logs from trees here when the Indians were pushed west.
Stumps from these large majestic trees became a separate resource of themselves. The slow growing pines some 3 to 5 feet in diameter consisted almost entirely of wood containing high degrees of heavy oils known as turpentine - once rendered from the stump.
The stumps were allowed to stay in the ground for twenty years or more then pried from an unforgiving home in the earth and heated in large steam kettles. The stumps, tons of dead weight, produced turpentine and other products used in gun cotton, paint, solvents and many other trade items.In the 1950's companies were still digging stumps from trees felled in the early 1800's.
Why the wait? The reason was two-fold. The first was there were little demand for the product of the stumps; therefore of little value early in the century. The second reason: removing stumps was expensive; the longer they were in the ground the more of the small roots rotted making the stump with less roots, or outer light wood, easier to pull from the ground.
Every generation has its specialist; those are the people that fulfill a niche in the work system that demands special talents - natural or learned. Such work pays more, a perfect example of the actions of a supply/demand economy.
In the mid 1860's average pay for farm work might be .50 cents to a dollar a day, about the same as that of a mule - should one be required.
Small stumps were pulled using chains, and axes and the power of a mule team. Large stumps were another matter. Mules and men could work all day and never remove one large stump. The harder they tried the more dangerous the work became until finally limbs could be crushed and in rare cases the stump would spring back into the hole covering any person in the hole cutting roots at the time.
Men using small cleverly placed pieces of dynamite removed these stumps by loosening the roots without blowing it to kingdom come. These masters of the secrets of "where and how much" dynamite were paid as much as $5.00 dollars a day!
Once, around the winter stove at the store, they forgot that Henry was there. One of the Farmers asked the others if they had heard what had happened to one of the Smith twins.
"Well," he started out telling?.
Seems Dan was in the barn milking when both of the blacks he had sent with his brother Dave to pull lighter stumps, came running all excited into the barn and said, "Mr. Dan best you come quick? yo' brother down in the woods hurt real bad."
Running the half-mile down to the river, Dan looked for his brother but all he could see was the mule team and the stump they had picked to pull.
He turned to the blacks and asks the location his brother. Both blacks pointed behind Dan at the stump and said.
"Lord a Mercy Mr. Dan, yo brother is down there,"?. pointing to the base of the stump.
It had been Dan's first thought, after grieving all day, to carve a flat place, add Dave's birth & death dates, and leave him under the stump.
The circuit Preacher had made short riff of Dan's idea; saying he weren't gonna hold a burial service for the entire church in front of some $2.00 lighter stump in the woods.Don always privately held that it wasn't the stump that got the Preacher's bowels stove up ? it was the thought that it might cut down on the size of the offerings he always pocketed.
Standing over the lighter box in the kitchen, Henry had noticed a newspaper picture from the Friday Atlanta Constitution. It was the Ad and picture of the very same window Henry had seen Saturday morning at Davidson's Department Store.
Then it hit him smack in the forehead ? his granddaddy had copied, in a comical, amateurish way, that very same ad in his shop window?. right down to the live chicks - up at the store at the very moment, pooping over all the nice women's things in the window.
Children are, for the most part, seldom evil, just lacking the nuance that comes with age. The experience of failure in the face of trying; hoping that none see your pitiful efforts, your lack of training or ability at the task attempted; Nuance, and understanding other's failings? comes with living.
Age, and age alone, can tell a person when to speak - or when to keep observations to one's self.
Henry was too young to feel most hurtful things, but in pointing out to his grandfather his poor attempt at copying the ad from the department store in his own store window, he had, unknowingly, struck hard at his secret fear and doubt - The man's own realization of the shabby tackiness of his many window dressing efforts.
Henry had laughed at the bolt of simple cloth in lieu of expensive scarves; at the cheap beads; at the straw hat with the hole in the top. In fact, Henry had even made fun of the live chicks doing their act all over the window items.
The following morning near 8 am, and an hour before the store was to open, Henry passed the store on his way to school. The window that had caused his laughter the night before was bare. Empty of all women's items, all that remained in that window were a few small black and white curls of what seemed to be chewing gum?. but any town of farmers - knew better.
Though grandfather would place new items and their price in the window from time to time, that late Sunday night was the last time he ever attempted to organize a display with any originality or charm.
Being a child it was years before Henry understood the pain and changes a few careless words can/could achieve.
As you know I never use postscripts. The pieces are simple in nature and need no further explanation.
The same is true for this small effort; the difference being that my poor editing and writing left no room for the additional (and better) examples of the pain all of us can cause by either deliberate or unguarded words.No doubt much of what we believe to be "unintended," if followed to the core would actually be - even if unconsciously so at some level, deliberate.Such is the nature of the beast within our breast.
Several years later - after high school graduation, Henry and four friends stopped by his grandfather's store while on their way to Florida for two weeks at his uncle's beach house.
Though it would be another year before the store was sold due to sickness, the front windows, while not bare, looked dusty and old. It was if they had not changed since that day long ago the night Henry had made fun of the display? The display worked so hard upon by the grandfather he loved so much.
A man he had managed to hurt or perhaps embarrass so very deeply with a few thoughtless words.... so long before.
©2007 A.H. Watson, all rights reserved.