Friday, November 13, 2009

Memoirs of a Grandfather, Part I

Having written a great deal about my grandmother Magdalena and her courage during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II (HERE, HERE, and HERE) it is high time to give some background about her husband, Herman Strong. Born in 1903, Herman was an Alabama farm boy who later became a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, as well as a world traveler and a successful businessman. While going through some family papers, my mother recently came across my grandfather's remembrances of his life, beginning with his childhood in Alabama to the Japanese invasion in 1942. The occupation and his subsequent imprisonment in a concentration camp Herman covered in his book A Ringside Seat to War.

Herman was the youngest son of eleven children. While his father Elisha David Strong was a poor farmer, his mother, Alison Missouri Watson, came from a formerly well-to-do family who had lost their wealth in the difficult years which followed the War Between the States. Rural Alabama in the early twentieth century was not too different from the antebellum days, as Herman describes in the memoirs which he began jotting down in 1982 at the age of 79. His quaint prose reflects another era but his wise insights are timeless. My grandfather's memoirs begin as follows:
For some time now I have had a feeling that I should make a note of events that took place during the early years of my life, especially the first eight years when I resided a the place where I was born.

One reason for making these notes at this time is the fact that I am now approaching my Seventy-Ninth birthday, and it follows that unless records are made now, my memory will soon fade into oblivion.

These notes might also serve as an analysis to substantiate my belief that every human being was placed on this earth for a specific purpose and that no one will be called away until that purpose has been fulfilled. Another reason for making these notes is the fact that the many times I visited Papa after Mama’s death he would say, “I don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here. I want to go on and be with Allison”. On many occasions I would find him sitting on the front porch talking with some young fellows, and this fact alone was sufficient evidence that he had been left here to share his bountiful knowledge with those young people.

Even though our determination of that purpose may not be in accord with that of the Supreme Being, I hope that I may find among these notes some evidence to support the theory that, at this date, at least some of my errands here on earth have been accomplished. The purpose of these notes are to record only those events that I can actually remember and it is quite possible that many of the events will not be recorded in chronological order.

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As I recall, the house where I was born was referred to as a frame house and consisted of two rooms with a fireplace and a hall that separated the two rooms, and had a front porch across the front of the house. A walkway about ten feet long connected the main house to a log kitchen. (The kitchen was a carry over from an original log house.) The large fireplace in the kitchen was used for cooking our meals which were served on a large table in the center of the room with benches on each side of the table....

The so-called mule barn was situated directly in front of the house and consisted of a log corn crib with a hayloft. On one side was a wagon shed and on the other was a mule stall and a small open loft in the back. The crib and sheds were covered with shingles rived out of White Oak blocks with a Fro.

I presume that this lay-out was known as the proverbial ’one horse farm’, since the only farm animal we had at that time, other than a milk cow, was a little mouse colored mule named Jenny. Old Jenny not only did all the plowing, but also pulled the one horse wagon that took the family to church every Sunday. (Some neighbors still used oxen.)

Across the road from the mule barn was the cow lot and stalls. All I can remember about this was our old brown Jersey cow and calf. After she was milked in the morning she was let out to pasture and milked again in the evening when she returned.

I suspect that the little scratchy pants I had to wear when I was about 4 or 5 years old is the reason I can vividly recall how my Grandma carded, spun and wove those woolen threads into cloth. The spinning wheel and loom sat in the southwest corner of the living-bedroom where grandma used to sit and card the wool and cotton into little rolls which she fed into the spinning wheel shuttle. I was allowed to mash the pedal that made the spinning wheel go. I do not remember much about the loom except that it sat in the corner with some cloth always in the process of being woven. I detested the scratchy pants especially since the better dressed boys of my age were wearing store-bought suits.

One eventful date I won’t soon forget occurred on February 10, 1910 when Haley’s Comet streaked across the northern sky. I remember getting piggy-back on the shoulder of one of my brothers, and from the walkway between the house and kitchen he carried me out into the open to view the comet. (I had just turned 6 years old the previous December.)

....I will always remember the little animal cookies that my grandma cooked for me and got me to eat them by teasing me to bite their heads off. (Hear-say has it that I was a sickly kid). This occurred when I was about four or five years old, as grandma died in January, 1909.

I have only a blurred memory, (no details), of the illness and death of my grandmother and my little brother John Heflin, both of whom died on January 10, 1909.

The White Dirt Ditch, an out-cropping vein of Mica which we called Isinglass, was only a stone’s throw from the house, and is one of my most cherished memories. Venturing this far from the house at that time in my life was in itself a daring feat. My sisters, Lena, Floy and I used discarded knives and spoons for digging tools as we tunneled into the soft dirt bank. I use the word ‘dirt’ loosely because the material was actually more like talcum powder and was not gritty. Lena and Floy used the sheets of mica we extracted for their play-house windows.

When I hear those beautiful words from the 23rd Psalm, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the Stillwater”, a picture of our pasture flashes before my eyes. Here a clean clear stream wound its way through the green meadows on its way to the Enitachopco Creek. The grass in this meadow was constantly clipped and groomed by our cows and looked like a modern day fresh mown lawn....

It was in the fall of the year 1910 or 1911, but not yet cold enough to wear shoes, that I was allowed to go with my brothers to pick Chestnuts at the edge of the woods behind the old Bradberry place where we picked up at least two Roller Champion Flour sacks full. The mention of wearing shoes brings to mind that one of my brothers bragged he could burst open a chestnut burr with his bare heel....

One of the most frightening experiences in my life at that time occurred late one Sunday afternoon as I was returning home alone from a visit with my cousin, Douglas Watson. A heavy thunder storm came upon me between the Mathis place and our house. Suddenly, it became as dark as pitch. The trail through this heavily wooded area could only be seen by the constant flashes of lightening as torrential rain soaked me to the skin. Then an earth shaking clap of lightening hit a large virgin pine not more than fifty feet from me lighting up the sky as I watched it strip half the limbs and bark from the top to the bottom of the tree and even plowing up the road a great distance from the tree. Obviously I got home but I can’t remember how.

My policy of avoiding hear-say stories must be broken in order to reveal the phenomenon of Papa’s much repeated story of my brother Olney’s disappearing voice. Papa heard Olney’s call for help from a dense wooded area behind the old Mathis place. As he ran to the spot where he heard the voice, he heard the call still further down the hollow. After rushing to that spot, which was near the bank of the Enitachopco Creek, the voice came again, this time it seemed to be coming from the middle of the creek. Without hesitation Papa made a final dash and jumped into the middle of the creek, after which there was no further sound. Since the creek was shallow and the possibility of Olney getting drowned was minimal, Papa went back home to find Olney safe and sound unaware of what had happened. Since no one can question Papa’s honesty and integrity, it can only be concluded that the voice that Papa thought he heard was a premonition of Olney’s premature death.

Since I would not have reached the age of six until December 1909, I probably did not start school until the fall of 1910. As I recall the school was conducted in a large one room structure with a pot-bellied stove in the center of the room around which the younger First grade students were seated. It was here that I learned the alphabet, which was prominently displayed on an A-frame chart. The first page contained the letters ABC in both large and small letters, and on the next page we advanced to the words; Apple, Ball and Cat, which were colorfully illustrated....

As a matter of record I might mention that since farming was the primary occupation of most people in this community, schools were accordingly conducted to allow students to be absent during planting and harvesting seasons.

I remember one day when my brother Walter was still living at home, we were chopping cotton in Papa’s brag patch (cotton field), and Walter gave me a good nettling for leaning on my hoe too long. Farming the red hills of Tallapoosa County in the early 1900’s was a way of life for most Alabamians. Rather than dwell on the adversities of this harsh life, I will mention some of the more enjoyable aspects of it…. Nothing is more gratifying than watching a wheat field grow to maturity, harvesting the wheat with a hand held scythe-like cradle. After thrashing comes the pleasure of having the wheat ground into flour which Mama made into a loaf of bread that would melt in your mouth.

Speaking of Papa’s brag patch, brings to mind the day when the cotton bolls were fully open and the brag patch looked like driven snow. The whole Clan turned out that day to pick cotton and when the day was over, and the weighing done, it was found that brother Lunie had put us all to shame by picking 600 pounds of cotton!

....I remember one frosty morning when I awoke early because Papa promised to let me go with him to Alexander City to sell a bale of cotton. To be sure that our feet did not get cold, Papa had heated two large stones which Mama wrapped in an old quilt and placed on the floor of the wagon. It was the usual custom that after the cotton was sold and the necessities purchased we would get a dimes worth of cracker barrel cheese, a box of crackers and sit in the wagon and wash it down with a bottle of Coca-Cola. That alone was worth the whole trip.....

It was in the early Fall months of 1912 that Papa sold the old home place to Mr. John Peppers for three or four hundred dollars and purchased the Charles Harris place near Goldville for one thousand dollars. This 80 acre farm consisted of a beautiful white house, a tenant house and barn, a mule barn and stables on the South side and a cow barn and buggy shed on the North side along with a smoke house....

Although I was only eight years old at the time I was assigned the duty of driving the milk cow and calf to our new home for which Mama complimented me by saying, “You have done a man’s job today!”

The farm had not been cultivated for several years which posed quite a preparation problem. However, the whole family from the oldest on down pitched in and cleared the fields for planting.....

I will make no effort to recall the many interesting things that took place that first year at our new home, yet one occasion I shall never forget. Papa had gone to Alexander City that day to sell the last bales of cotton and as he graced the table that evening he said, “Thank God for our abundant crop which has enabled us to pay off the farm in full.

I recall the one room school house which I attended until it burned down about two years later. After that, classes were held in a small one room building at the cross roads in Goldville under the largest oak tree that I have ever seen. It was here that I fell in love with a little red-headed, freckled faced girl named Grace Patterson. As with many small boys I would often get into scuffles with other boys, but of all the fights I had at the Goldville School the aftermath of the one I had with a boy named Alvin remains deeply imprinted on my mind. Alvin, who was twice my size, reported me to the teacher for some reason evidently serious enough to cause the teacher to give me a licking. After this I got permission to go home. Instead of going straight home I stopped on the trail between school and home and when Alvin came along I jumped him and gave him a good beating. After I let him up he ran ahead of me and told Papa. When I got home Papa was ready and gave me a whipping. He lifted me off the ground with one hand while laying on the switch with the other. (I never realized he was so strong). While I was receiving this punishment he was also explaining that he was not whipping me for fighting, but for way-laying Alvin along the trail. To him, the act of way-laying was an underhanded and cowardly thing to do.

It was during the first year at our new home that I learned to swim. My brother, Hugh, and some of the local boys let me go with them to the ‘big hole’ on Enitachopco Creek. There Hugh threw me in and said, “Swim or drown”. Somehow I managed to paddle back toward the bank to lots of laughter from the other boys standing by, and that the whole episode had been prearranged....

It was the winter of 1919 that we had a 12” snow, and as we had no snow boots, Papa showed us how to wrap ‘gunny’ sacks over our shoes which made walking in the snow easy. He also taught me how to track rabbits to their dens. When they jumped out, they were unable to go over or under the snow and it was great fun trying to catch them.

Here are other memorable occasions; Christmas 1916 when all the children and grandchildren were at our home; March, 1918 when Papa and I were working the back forty and Mama brought us some cold water and hot buttered bread, along with the sad news of the mysterious disappearance of the USS Cyclops that carried my brother Olney to his death along with over 300 crew members and passengers; and also the sudden death of my sister, Floy.

In the month of April 1917 I was incapacitated with what was then called Rheumatism, but was later diagnosed as Polio. It started in my right ankle then moved to my knee and on up to my hips, then slowly went down my left leg. This took place in a period of two or three weeks with no permanent damage, whereas many others afflicted with this ailment were crippled for life. (To be continued....)
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11 comments:

Lindsay said...

What a delight! My own grandfather (even though I'm just 30!) was an Alabama farm boy born in the late 1890s, and was the youngest of 16 children! This is a delight to read. Thank you for sharing.

Lindsay said...

Sorry to comment twice, but I just finished reading in full. It is surreal to read the passage about his clear memory of Haley's comet the February after he turned 6 in December, for one of my own most distinct memories from that age is watching the comet with my Dad in 1986, the February after *I* turned 6 in December!

My own grandfather was taught in a similar schoolhouse, and he and his siblings who never went to college were highly educated, knew Latin, and wrote letters debating philosophy, literature, and politics all their lives! It is sad that the perception for poor farm families like our grandfathers' would be that they were also ignorant.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you very much, Lindsay, for your comments. It seems that our grandfathers had very similar childhoods. Yes, the limitations of poverty and hard work did not keep them from becoming educated, probably better educated than most college students today.

Brantigny said...

A legacy.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you!

it's me said...

a treasure--waiting for the next installment..

elena maria vidal said...

Coming up tomorrow!

Matterhorn said...

This is marvelous. Very haunting, the part about the mysterious voice.

Julygirl said...

Thanks for sharing. How lucky to have something like this for the younger generations of your family. What a wonderful first hand account of American life in the early 20th Century.

I hope we will learn more about the mysterious voice in one of your next installments.

Alexandra said...

I love reading family histories. Thanks so much for sharing. :)

elena maria vidal said...

By knowing who we came from we get a deeper sense of who we are.