My Year of Almost Starving to Death--1959 through 1960
This hub is not being published in the traditional hub format. Rather read this honest, heart-wrenching (seriously) thesis-like account of a kid, age seven, raised in rural northwest Alabama during 1959 to 1960. This is written in thesis form due to the fact that I am way too tired in body and mentally spent to come up with clever headlines for text capsules. I thank you for enduring this piece. Kenneth.
In the past few years I have grown more and more appreciative to my all-time favorite writer: (the late) Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the Father of Gonzo Journalism. I am not so stupid as to even let a thought drift into my ragged mind that I might (even accidentally) end up in his category. No way. And not your way. No one ever wrote like Thompson. Not even the mega-clever, late, Lewis Grizzard, syndicated columnist and University of Georgia grad. Go, Dawgs! And out of pure respect, Thompson studied at Columbia University. Go, Lions.
Oddly, this hub does not deal about Grizzard or Thompson although both would be heralded by anyone, anywhere who knew these two literary icons, but in a sad note, no one, not anyone of social importance has even heard of me or my name. Both Grizzard and Thompson hovered on profanities. I don't. Even in my hubs I do not use a crutch of profanity in my private life. I can easily make my point without them.
This piece is sad. Very sad. I am getting you psychologically adjusted because I would be the last man on earth to cause you to read something that made you so depressed that you begin to lose sleep, weight, your job, and finally not relating to your spouse--and end up in a divorce court who hates men/women. Things like this have happened. Just ask Judge Judy. Or Wapner. One of those TV judges.
In 1959, I was six. Of course I was seven in 1961. Both not really glamorous, peaceful, or easy to find one happy moment. You would just have to live there. Or maybe now in 2017, you can travel down deep toward the Mississippi Delta area and you might see a handful of shacks with tin roofing and you might see a few of the residents, both black and white, who for some reason, The Fed's and society have literally thrown them to the curb.
We lived on a lonesome gravel road with pine trees on each side and the trees were thick as honeybees working in their hive. At the end of this forsaken road sat our shack which was cleverly disguised as a frame house that my dad (paid our very greedy landlord) around ten bucks a month if the money was good when his cotton was selling high. Other than rent, we had power from the R.E.A. (Rural Electric Association) that is still in business today, but goes by another name: Tombigbee Electric Corp.
At night, when we were all asleep (explanation in below paragraph), I was the only soul that was awake. Dad, naturally was fast asleep because he worked like a dog from early morning to dusky dark and my mammy, she did her fair share of housework plus tending to me because I did not know that much about anything, so she took care of me in this dark time of my life. I want to be upfront. I was not that bright.
The silver lining or Pine Sol lining of this awful living condition was laying in my bed listening to the various sounds living in (and on) the pine forest such as: coyotes, our two dogs, a few hoot owls, and a whole lot of harmonious dry flies. I quickly took to loving their soulful sounds. Their songs, when blended with the other wildlife, put me right to sleep without one worry to face until the next morning and then, my life started the entire poverty-laden life all over again.
Along with us having just power for lights, iron to press (our limited amount of) clothes, we did not have a telephone, cable television, or internet. We did not have enough scratch to have a phone and the other two great inventions--cable TV and internet, was yet to be invented. We did though, have a Wizard brand radio that my dad bought before I was born. He never told how much money it cost. But with that fact notwithstanding, my dad dearly loved Country Music. The early kind of Country Music with early stars like: Hank Williams, Sr., Faron Young, and Jean Shepherd. My dad also kept this secret as to why he loved this brand of music so well. I thought, even at my dumb age, that it had a lot to with our poverty-laden life in this God forsaken, rural cesspool of northwest Alabama.
Of course us rural outcasts had fireplaces. What Norman Rockwell painting was without one? Fireplaces were what made us noble, strong, and able to survive on pure air when food was not available. For this, I can thank God for the few apple trees that grew along one side of our shack. Inside our shack can be described as "middle of the road"--we had a bank calendar on most of the walls and a linoleum rug for the floors. Ahhh, yes. We never complained because I did not know what 'complain' meant. For what it's worth, the bank name was Marion County Banking Company which is now long since out of business. And by the way, what banking institution ever had a "company" in their name?
When you have been launched from your mammy's womb, you never know what to expect. The first thing we learned was the word, "no," when we are crawling right into a roaring fireplace because the grown up's were too busy talking about one thing: money, or as we social outcasts called it, "scratch." Adults around me, my mom, dad, sister and fiance (who came to see my sister frequently) talked due to not having a television and our radio would not pick up any decent station, so my dad just relaxed, smoked his non-filtered Camels and thought about what farming he had to do the next day.
Our shack came equipped with its own supply of wildlife. (I mentioned the wildlife that lived and sang in the pine forests that grew along the lonesome gravel road that led to our shack, but this wildlife had managed to edge itself into our shack and why, I never knew). One night my dad found out that a scorpion has a short temper and a mean point on its venomous tail. Dad was tough. Even when walking barefoot on scorpions. And one night he was up to use the outside restroom, the woods, and killed a snake in one of our dresser drawers. The poor thing. The snake, not dad. The poor reptile had little enough sense to know that where he was sleeping was a danger zone.
Okay, you have a general idea of white poverty here. No, not all white people were like us of an obvious poverty bracket in life. Those in our hometown, Hamilton, Ala., which is still here, owned cars, homes, kids with great hair and teeth, and stores where my dad spent our hard-earned farming money. I do say this: in this timeframe, one could get a hefty amount of groceries, a tank of gasoline, a pair of shoes all out of a ten-dollar bill and have change to rattle in his or her pocket. Dad's pocket, to be exact.
The one, very one day that I dreamed about, prayed for, and would have fasted if I knew what 'fasting' meant, was all about us getting to go to Hamilton to see if we could get enough goods to survive a few more weeks. Mammy loved Sunbeam sliced bread; Bama mayonnaise and Southern Belle bologna that some butcher named, "Mac," would begrudgingly cut off my mammy a pound of this delictable substance and we would have a feast once we returned home to our shack.
This was a moderate grocery list. A really good grocery list might read: Bama mayonnaise; two loaves, Sunbeam; a bag of dry pinto beans; a tub of Blue Leaf lard; a pound of bacon; and a pound of Southern Belle bologna that I thought later only made my mammy ask the butcher, "Mac," (who worked for our biggest grocery store) the Yellow Front on west courtsquare, who despised us for being poor. But therein lived a controversy. I watched this bulky "Mac" fella, as a pretty woman of high station in Hamilton, probably the wife of a gas station owner, would coo, "Uh, say there, 'Mac,' would you care to cut me off a pound or two of that chuck roast?" "Mac" glared at her as well as my mammy. Maybe this man was mentally challenged and the Yellow Front manager had a heart for people who had a secret gift in cutting meat for the public.
As the years grew worse for my family and I, we grew more and more restless. A person who lives on little of nothing day after day, can get mighty weary, friends. But my dad, a pretty shrewd guy, I believe God gifted him for the gift of gab for almost everyone in and around Hamilton knew him--and there came the day when the hope of us moving to a better home and life was in bloom. I could tell it by the look in mammy's eyes as well as those of my sister and her husband-to-be.
At age seven, something (or someone) told me that when a person's eyes twinkle, this means good news. At least I started to believe this was why my family's eyes twinkled when the talk of us moving would surface at meal time.
But the two items that always came to my mind were: A bottle of Coca-Cola or maybe an ice cream cone. Simple dreams, right? Not so fast. A lot of dreamers starve to death and never see their main dream to come to fruition. I had not planned to starve and go to Judgment Day without having at least one sip of that new drink that some smart man created in Atlanta, Ga., (one of Lewis Grizzard's favorite hang-out's). And if my dad did not have enough "cotton money" as he called it, I settled for an ice cream cone with one scoop of ice cream. I was not a greedy boy.
Listen. There are people like I was then and there were people like I was in 1959, poor, without much to offer anyone, and not knowing how poor they really were. When I first started thinking and knowing, I thought that everyone was poor. Really. What a great theater play this might have been. "Death of a Community," would have been a sell-out. But this is the whole truth of how my family and I lived.
How did I enjoy my rare bottle of Coca-Cola or one scoop of ice cream on a cone? Slowly. I made these delicacies last ever so long. On our way back to our shack, the same Coke that my dad had bought at 12 noon, I was still slow-sipping at 4:30 p.m. and the same method of enjoying my single scoop of ice cream cone. Slowly, methodically, and ever so tidy to get each drop of these delicious treats.
Why did I purposely act as if I would never get another Coca-Cola or single scoop ice cream cone? Because at age six going on seven, something was birthed in my mind that was yet to be corrupted, polluted, or molded in whatever way that society said. I had this thought when I went to bed and when I awoke. I was not worried that much about sleeping snakes or scorpions in my bed.
I was more concerned whether or not that I would get another Coke or single scoop ice cream cone or not. And there were those times when there was no "cotton money," or any money from our meager farm. Our greedy landlord put a stop to us farming. He told my dad that he was afraid that the U.S. Department of Agriculture might stop in to see him and charge him more land tax. Fool.
But daddy endured. Mammy picked what apples were on the trees to make apple pies to have for meals and my dad worked when he could thanks to a Marion County Commissioner by the name of Walter Rich, a good guy whom I never forgot for his benevolence toward my dad.
When my only sister fell in love (then) with her "Mr. Right," they married, but lived with us due to them not having a roof over their heads. The newlywed couple still didn't have a roof over their head while living with us for the tin roof was old and had a leak or two, but our greedy landlord who was also stingy, tight as the bark on an Oak tree, never shelled out scratch for repairing the leaks. Years later when I was older, I heard that he died. I never shed one tear.
As time crawled by, my dad and mom moved to a bigger rented house across our area of Hamilton, Ala., but his sharecropping prospered with (a) Mrs. Verta Dobbs, a good-hearted widow who owned hundreds of acres of land for growing cotton and corn. Dad was shrewd in forging the deal with her to take our rent from his profits when the crops were harvested.
But here came my sister and her husband who by now had bought two acres of land far away from us and started building a home thanks to the Jim Walter Co. The home, I give this guy credit, was a frame house, and what a roof it had. No leaks at all. And the contractor even gave them shingles instead of tin for a roof. My sister and her husband, to me, had hit it big. Living the good life. And this was due to the grace of The Almighty and a good job from a company that is still around, the 3M Company in Guin, Ala.
Sure, I knew now at age seven, a very mature seven, mind you, that I would not be getting a lot of Coke's or single dip ice cream cones although my dad was a good sharecropper. At age seven I had learned something really valuable. I had trained myself not to ask for these two items (Cokes and single-scoop ice cream cones) for I could not take rejection well. When I did meet with rejection, I stole away somewhere and cried. It was not until the 1970s that I learned that weeping is not a sign of weakness in men. This weeping thing had not been invented during 1959 through 1960.
My mammy and dad did enjoy a good degree of prosperity while we lived in the Dobbs house. We even had a few fried chicken on our table once in a blue moon. When we did, I felt like kicking my heels and shouting for joy. But even at age seven, a very mature age seven, I knew that prosperity and celebrations were both short-lived, so the very few celebrations were of a personal nature and kept from my family.
But looking back at these two years that I have mentioned more than once, I could say that in these 24 months, dad did not have to kill any stinging scorpions or snakes in our house with ten foot ceilings. My mother enjoyed a spacious kitchen--something that she hadn't enjoyed in the shack of a house that our greedy landlord kept us living as livestock.
We could even manage a smile or two when 1960 rolled by. I started to New Home School, a farm/community school with the proverbial, Norman Rockwell-esque, two rooms. One teacher who taught first through third grades by a Mrs. Gertrude Ballard and her husband, Mr. L.J. Ballard, who was the principal and taught fourth through sixth grade. L.J. was stern, like stern, and talked stern each time that students would listen. His demeanor reminded cult classic fans of "Cool Hand Luke, 1967" and the warden, "Captain,", played by aimless Strother Martin.
But where there's power, there's leakage. One day I found it. But knew better than to tell anyone. I was coming into the school building and had to climb two levels of steps to get to my third grade room when some (thing) or maybe some (one) told me to look to my right. I did. Without question. There I saw Mr. L.J. standing almost hidden by the monstrous hedge bushes that were planted (on purpose) to shield females going to the girls' rest room. There L.J. was smoking like he was sitting in a seedy bar somewhere in early Mobile, Alabama. What a tough bar room. It had cheap booze and cheap women making their loot by the buck by the dim light that was hanging above the front door.
After this scary sighting about L.J.'s smoking, I was never the same. Never. And even though 2017 when my good friend, Russell Lynch, (now residing in Hackleburg, Ala.), who was among my classmates two years ahead of me at New Home School knew of Ballard's smoking, but like me, was too fearful to tell anyone. The secret smoking was one thing and that event we learned to live with, but the question of why L.J. chose to stand behind the huge hedge bush rows in front of the girls' rest room was never known. Some secrets, good, shady, or evil should never be told.
Due to my family moving so much, I ended up at two different grades of school at New Home, but at the end of our third grade, I had "that" sinking, spewing feeling in my gut. A feeling that even without eating ruined salmon, made me vomit. A feeling that I prayed was just childish stupidity. But no. In 1966, New Home along with all of our farm/community schools shut down thanks to The State of Alabama Dept. of Education. Where did the rural farming kids go? Where else, but to the Marion County School System where two gargoyles sat guarding our entrances. I feared the county school system, but that can wait.
And when these leaner-than-lean days came, and take my word for it. They came with a certain vengeance, I missed my Coke and single scoop ice ream cone so much that I went somewhere and just cried out my eyes. Again and again. I might have prayed too. I cannot recall.
But this I do remember: to this day, 2017, it is impossible for me to gulp a Coke or devour (a) single scoop ice cream cone without first having horrific, hellish flashbacks generated by my family and I who almost starving straight to death in that lean, hungry year of 1959 through 1960.
It is just impossible.
© 2017 Kenneth Avery