Our farm lay in the hilly lands of Northeast Mississippi’s Monroe County, about 100 miles east of the well-known Mississippi Delta. Our nutrient-rich-loamy-soil was great for farming, especially cotton.
This area of the state is known for its red clay, good for keeping nutrients in the soil, bad for getting stuck in when it’s wet. Also common was the kudzu vine, very bad for just about everybody, unless the plant is confined within a pasture for continuous grazing or needed for erosion control. Confined is the operative word, since it is known to grow a foot per night, and completely envelope structures, large and small. The vine also smothers other plants and hogs the sunshine.
We lived just a few miles from the town of Hatley, population 302. The Tombigbee River, the area’s water navigation route flowed southward through nearby Amory, with 5,280 residents and Aberdeen, the next largest city and county seat with 6,450 people.
It’s safe to say that Northeast Mississippi ranks as one of the hottest and most humid regions in the U.S. Summer temps are regularly in the high-90-degree range, and it was not unusual to see 100 degree days. It’s hot and humid June-September, chilly and sometimes dreary, the remainder of the year, including episodes of frost and freezing temperatures, yet snow is a rarity. Rain falls every month, dropping about 55 inches yearly, about the third highest in the continental U.S.
Adverse weather is not uncommon, and this area of Mississippi is an active tornado zone, among the ten worst in the U.S., averaging 43 per year. (Weather data from Mississippi State University.)
As for commerce, which is to say farming, cotton reigned king in Monroe County. Other crops like corn, soybeans and wheat were not far behind.
But for a couple of years in the mid-1950s, the County was known as the Bentonite Capital of the World. After extensive research and the fact that bentonite is found worldwide, I could not substantiate the claim, but that was the declaration, nonetheless.
Although the operation employed just a handful, when compared to farming, volcanic ash deposits produced enough of the clay-like chunks to keep double-axle dump trucks busy six-days-a-week from the mine near the community of Splunge. After dumping their loads at the rail yard in the nearby town of Smithville, the bentonite was shipped south to New Orleans.
Not long after the bentonite ran out, Monroe County got an even bigger windfall: Textile manufacturing. The county attracted five plants, all making pants and employing about 600, primarily women, most at minimum wage. Elvis’ mother Glayds worked in such a plant in Lee County. Everyone knew someone who was working at “the factory,” including Dale’s wife Elaine.
Sewing was a hot, dirty, and monotonous endeavor, and we were happy for the opportunity. It was steady work and more reliable than farming. In 1959, Mississippi rated dead last among the 50 states with a median family income of $2,884 annually.
Monroe and the Magnolia State, however, would not lose its standing in the Bible belt, boasting the most churches per capita in all the United States. Local ministers were fond of saying we had more churches than bars. Number crunching wasn’t necessary. There were no bars. Monroe County was dry, as was the entire state of Mississippi until some Counties went wet in 1966.
Momma or Mother, I never called her mom, was short and slightly heavyset. Called Miss Ruby (by friends) or Sister Ruby (among church members), she had a wonderful smile, beautiful teeth, and shoulder-length brown hair, although she usually wore it in a bun. Despite minimal formal schooling, she used good grammar, was industrious, and had an abundance of common sense.
She met Hugh Roscoe, a part-time sawmill worker and farmer (six years her senior) at a Revival; they married and made their home where Daddy was already living with his momma (Nancy Jane Swan), and three of his seven siblings (the other four has already moved on).
His momma purchased the house and farm with the proceeds from her husband (Benjamin Franklin Swan’s) life insurance policy after he died in 1915, at age 45 from Bright’s disease. When Grandma died in 1949, her remaining children had mostly moved out and gone their own way. Word was, all of Roscoe’s sisters and brothers agreed that without the farm, he would likely fail. By 1952, Daddy and Momma were the sole owners of the house and farm. Neither came close to finishing high school.
My Daddy Roscoe was a big man, a stout six-footer. He was a strict no-nonsense man of few words except when he entertained company by performing tricks and dressing like an old lady and wearing a bonnet. Daddy was very good at math and possessed lots of common sense. He was a hard worker who had put his entire life into farming. In the off season, he usually worked at local sawmills, laying blocks.
Daddy was unconventional even for mid-1950s Mississippi. There was no life, health, auto or homeowner insurance. No regular medical,* dental, or vision care for any of the family. There were absolutely no unnecessary items, and he was stubborn about it.
There was no radio, access to a newspaper, and I’ve already spoken about the absence of a telephone, electricity,** running water, and indoor plumbing. There was no motorized vehicle until 1949. He refused offers from benevolent church members for assistance in obtaining, what most people considered, essential needs.
When the subject of the Depression came up, as it often did, and bemoaned by those who had been more fortunate than we, Daddy was fond of saying, “What Depression, that’s the way we lived normally?” Imagine what it might have been like, had he not inherited the house and farm.
When I was about five or six, Daddy got a seasonal job (October to March) with the Miss. Dept. of Forestry as a fire lookout. Atop the twelve-story-high tower, he occupied the 7 x 7-foot enclosed platform, where he used binoculars for spotting smoke, and determined coordinates by employing a D-type alidade atop his large round map. He then reported the critical data (relayed to the fire crews) via his two-way Motorola™, call sign KKD-774.
Remembering the hours upon hours he used to sit on the front porch, doing nothing and peeing off the porch, I knew this was the perfect job for Daddy. In the tower, though, he peed and otherwise relieved himself in a chamber pot, like the ones we used at home in the evening.
He sat atop that tower for eight hours or more, seven days-a-week during the fire season — for 20 years!
In my early years, going to town (Amory, half-hour away) or even to Parham’s small store (less than a 15-minute ride) was a big event and I remember begging Daddy often, and he would say “Let’s just sit in the pickup and pretend [to be going to town].” Once a year, though, I was sometimes allowed to accompany Daddy on his annual trip to Aberdeen (county seat) where he paid his taxes.
Visiting this city of 6,450 on the Tombigbee River turned out to be a great adventure for me. The courthouse building was a fascinating structure, old and palatial with an impressive clock tower. Daddy didn’t exactly take me on a tour of Aberdeen, but I was able to see some of many historic antebellum mansions and cottages, known to be among the finest in the South. The city escaped destruction during the Civil War supposedly because both the Confederate and Union commanders were Freemasons.
The first time I was able to venture out of Monroe County (at about age 10) was when Momma and her sister Dara went to Jackson, Miss. to visit their sister Siby, usually with Dale driving. The 190-mile one-way trip south was to Whitfield Sanatorium (mental institution) near the state capital, where their sister was a resident. Momma would say something like, Don, we’re going to the zoo in Jackson but first, we will be seeing your Aunt Siby (in an asylum).
My brother Dale, eight years older than me, was a great companion who allowed me to lead a more “normal” childhood. He drove me to school functions, the dentist, and the like and paid the fees. Fortunately, we had some aunts and uncles who saw our lifestyle for what it was, gave us gifts to make up for things we would never get from Momma and Daddy.
Thanks, Aunts Dara and Bertie, (two of Momma’s sisters) and their husbands for a watch, clothing, toys, BB-gun, and so forth. Aunt Dena, (Daddy’s oldest sister) was another special relative; she was a former school teacher who visited often, brought us gifts, and best of all encouraged and motivated Dale and me to better ourselves. I never had the fortune of remembering any of my grandparents; all were deceased before I was a year or two old.
Dale allowed me to use his prized Western Flyer bicycle, he bought new, while I learned to ride. I wrecked his tall two-wheeler many times, and it was pretty banged up by the time I finally learned to ride.
My brother got me interested in cars and let me help him “work” on his 1937 Chevy he bought for 40 dollars at age 16. I vented my frustrations about our backward lifestyle and the hard life of working on a farm. But he always drew the line on my grumbling if he thought it disrespected Momma or Daddy. He was a good Christian, who was artistically and mechanically talented. He hand-painted a white 3-inch tall cross below the trunk handle of his old black Chevy.
You will hear about his good deeds toward me and others thorough this book. At about age 15, in addition to his responsibilities around the house and farm, he started working on people’s cars, typically for no money, just to get a reputation for being able to fix things. He began driving a school bus at age 17 when still in high school, and soon as he graduated, he began delivering and pumping gas for all buses in the county. He also enrolled in community college and studied drafting.
But when a job became available at the county bus shop, he jumped at the chance of becoming a full-time mechanic. The move paid off as he was Foreman in less than a year. Even though he was artistic and did well in drafting, a full-time County job maintaining and working on school buses was too good to pass up.
As for Momma, she did everything around the house and farm except for plowing with the mules. She was busy all day, every day, rarely sitting down except to read the bible. She never had a day off, constantly working to support our family.
Momma did most of the work on hog-killing day, rendered out lard, scalded the skin of the hogs and scraped off hair, cut and separated the meat, ground sausage, and salted the meat that was stored in the smokehouse. She canned quarts and upon quarts of fruits and vegetables during summer and early fall. The heat in the kitchen was well above 100 degrees many times, as she used a pressure cooker on the wood stove. She shot squirrels in trees from the back porch with her shotgun, dressed, and cooked them. She raised a flock of chickens for eggs and eating; Momma killed and prepared them for our meals.
Momma kept up most of the maintenance on the house. She did light carpentry, like building our outhouse. Momma made many of my shirts, quilted for us and others, she prepared lye soap, washed our clothes in a black pot with water she heated with wood, and scrubbed them with an old-fashioned washboard. She was the hardest working person I have ever known, then and now.
She toiled every day all day with her only break coming on the Sabbath when she went to church, and the rest of the Sunday, she was busy providing for us. She did this all without any modern conveniences and no electricity!
Momma lost her firstborn child, Hugh, in 1937 at just 18 months. My brother Dale was born in 1939. I was the first to be born in a hospital; I was delivered in Amory, at Gilmore Memorial in 1947, (now a museum, seriously), and I would be her last child. She adored me, and we were very close.
All too often, I thought, she shared her pain with me about losing Hugh, who might have survived had he been promptly transported to a hospital. We had no telephone, and no one in the household had a motor vehicle. He died a third-world-type death from dysentery. They sold a prized calf to pay his funeral expenses. Twice a month, I walked with Momma the four-mile round trip, carrying a hoe and rake, to care for his grave at Bogan cemetery.
When I was about 10, and she started driving, Momma began regularly attending funerals of people she hardly knew. In my young mind, I thought she became obsessed with the practice, and since Daddy and Dale were usually at work away from home, I would have to go with her. She continued going to funerals for many years, long after I was old enough to stay home and work. I never considered these trips to be much of a break for Momma. She just had to work harder when she returned, never slacking in her daily grind in providing for us.
Momma and I faithfully attended Rocky Springs Missionary Baptist church every Sunday morning, evening, and Wednesday night prayer meeting. The old one-room building sans steeple, with very hard pews and capacity for about 50 souls, was situated on a gentle slope just off a gravel road near where Hugh was buried. The house of worship with faded white paint was dwarfed on three sides by a forest of tall, slim, and straight loblolly pines.
Our pastor, Bro. Earwood was a fire and brimstone preacher, and off the pulpit, he was charming and witty. Now middle age; he said he was called to preach when he was very young.
The reverend came to our house for “after preaching dinner” pretty often. He drove a huge peach color 1952 Pontiac, four-door. I was already interested in cars and I believe his Chieftain was a straight-eight. I remember him spinning his wheels on the gravel as he left our house at the encouragement of Daddy. To supplement his meager preaching income, he dealt in the used car business.
After hearing Bro. Earwood preach many times over the past two years; one Sunday, he stepped down from the pulpit at the conclusion of his sermon. And as he always did, “called for sinners to come forward” to accept Jesus Christ. While the congregation sang Just As I Am Without One Plea for about the third time, I stepped forward, slowly walked down to aisle, and into the arms of Bro. Earwood asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior. Momma was ecstatic, and as I remember, all the worshipers came forward, shook my hand, some with tears of joy in their eyes. A week or so later, I was baptized in a muddy pond near the church, a few months before my 11th birthday.
Momma prayed and praised God often, and hummed gospel tunes while she worked, which was pretty much all the time. On many a summer evening, just the two of us settled down on the front porch. She sat in the swing on the north end, with her well-worn King James Bible on her lap. I sat just a few feet away on the floor, leaning my back to the wall.
Momma’s soft voice was soothing, and her rhythm and inflection gave the verses a melodic tone. I wasn’t bothered with background noise from crickets, whippoorwills, and the occasional echo of a rifle shot from coon hunters. I smelled the pleasant scent from the rolled-up rags she had set ablaze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. My mind wandered as my eyes followed the rising smoke. I tried to make some sense of the Old Testament. I slapped at mosquitoes.
*Thankfully, a good friend of Momma who was well-informed, talked her into getting me vaccinated for Polio.
**In just a few years, my enterprising and talented brother Dale (eight years my senior) would wire the entire house for electricity (with his own money) and set up a generator system for lighting. But indoor toilets would not come before I moved away. Again, it was my brother who installed the plumbing after the house finally got electricity. The nearby dwelling where our neighbor lived, and our house were thought to be the last in the county to receive modern electricity. In 1935, (yes, 1935) nearby Amory, was the first in the state to get a loan from the Rural Electricity Association to provide power to farms and rural areas. Obviously, they missed us. Our old place didn’t get the juice until around 1969, and Momma and Daddy still had no telephone the year I was in Vietnam 1967-8.