My barefoot sprint from the backyard through the Johnson grass, was paying dividends. No farmer or fisherman in sight; but a big-blue Cadillac, a baby-blue convertible, passing on the gravel road just 20 feet in front of me. The Caddy sported white tags like those from Tennessee.
My eyes focused on the two men in the front seat, and with the top down, I got a good look. The driver had slicked-backed-black hair and long sideburns. I ran after them on the banks of the road until they disappeared in a cloud of dust, at about 20 mph.
I had seen enough. At age eight, my world had just changed. Because the driver of that Caddy, with the slick-backed-black hair and long sideburns, was ELVIS! You know, Elvis Presley. I’d seen pictures of him, of course, and they sure looked like the man behind the steering wheel of the convertible that had just roared by our house kicking up gravel. Everyone knew that Elvis owned Cadillac’s.
Naturally, I was anxious to tell everybody, and on that first day there was just one: my Momma.
As I looked for her, a warm summer shower moistened the dusty-dry-dirt and filled the air with that pleasant and unmistakable earthy smell.
I found Momma walking toward the back porch, raindrops rolling off her bonnet, and a hoe resting on her shoulder like she was carrying a rifle. She’d been working and sweating in the large truck-patch, down a slight grade, behind a grove of trees about 15 yards behind our house.
Momma said she had heard nothing, let alone seen a Cadillac. She thought it was best we keep the story just between ourselves.
Caddy, similar to the one I saw Elvis driving by our house in 1955. (Courtesy GM)
So there was no use in pressing my Elvis sighting story, I had lots of chores to tend to, like feeding the chickens and bringing in “stowood.” (Stove wood used to heat the stove Mamma cooked on.) If I wanted any dinner, that is. (Noon meal in the South is dinner, not lunch, and the evening meal is supper.) And don’t forget to add those crab apples to the hog slop, Momma reminded me.
It wasn’t inconceivable, though, that Elvis had driven by our house. He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi,* less than an hour’s drive north of us in a shotgun house, a narrow rectangular structure about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long with rooms arranged one behind the other with doors at each end. It was a symbol of how the poor lived in the mid-20th Century South, and although painted, the house was no better than ours. By now (1955) he had been living in Memphis for seven years.
There was a rumor, that in a few months, he would do a show at the National Guard Armory in Amory, Mississippi, less than a half-hour’s drive from where I was standing. On car radios, I had heard Elvis’ music on WHBQ in Memphis, the station that first played his records, and rightly got the credit for introducing him to the public.
“I went into Sun Records, and there was a guy in there took down my name told me he might call me sometime. So he called me about a year and a half later, and I went in and recorded my first record, That’s Alright,” Elvis said in early 1953. (First commercial release by Elvis, a regional hit, 1954.)
The leader of a popular Memphis band, where Elvis had failed an audition, told him he should “stick to driving a truck,” (his job at the time). A year later, in 1956, Elvis had four #1 songs on Billboard’s Top 40, two of which were the top two songs of the year!
Big dreamer that I was, I wasn’t thinking of being like Elvis, although we had a few things in common. We were born nearby, very close to our Mother’s who thought we might be preachers had a deceased sibling, made early visits to a radio station, grew up poor in substandard housing, influenced by church attendance, and were searching for more exciting employment. Our mother’s middle name started with the letter L, and we both went on to serve in the US Army in Germany. Finally, we were both unpopular in high school until we started performing.
I just wanted a job like those disc jockeys on WAMY in Amory, “working” in an air-conditioned studio. I could do that, introduce Elvis, play his records. Momma told me that I was a good performer. I had practiced-preached for her many times using two empty five-gallon lard cans stacked one atop another as my pulpit. Momma, a very religious woman, was pleased by my “sermons” and hoped that one day I might be a minister for the Lord.
My eight year older brother Dale had a makeshift oil change rack just across the road (from our house) at the crest of a knoll; he secured blocks on the ground and then placed two narrow boards atop them for a car to drive onto. I would stand on the rack looking down a gentle slope, toward a small apple orchard just before dusk.
I imagined an amphitheater filled with lost souls. I stood tall, for a six-year-old. I believe some of my best sermons were delivered with no one listening. After just a few nights of preaching, I switched to a parody of introducing artists and singers, as I hoped to one day do, to a large gathering, or on the radio.
Maybe Momma was on to something. Spreading the word might work for me with music, instead of preaching. I was sincere in my plan, because I loved music beyond the dream that it would get me off the farm.
Interestingly, one of my favorite songs was Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets; it would become the Nation’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll hit. Guess who once opened for Bill Haley? Yep, Elvis. I was also drawn to The Four Lads, Dean Martin, Fats Domino, and others. I wanted to introduce those stars and their music to the masses via radio. Deep down, though, I dreaded the day when someone would tell me to stick farming.
There would plenty of time for me to daydream, in the coming years, about my aspirations, while working on the farm, while in church, school, or when riding the bus to and from school 90 minutes a day.
When school started in August, students were dismissed early the first few weeks for the cotton harvest. Great, out of school early — to pick cotton!
The cotton stalk is around three feet tall, with about 50 bolls open when ready for harvest. At the first picking in mid-August it’s still hot, dry, and dirty, and in late September or early October, for the second harvest, it’s chilly and wet in the morning.
In the mid to late 1950s, one could earn $2.00 for picking 150 pounds of cotton. The best pickers were good for about 200 pounds, bustling from “can to can’t or sun to sun,” (sun-up to sun-down). Fingers hurt from constant contact with the prickly stems, you had an aching back, and your knees were sore. At the end of the day, though, you might have two dollars in your pocket. The minimum wage of $1.00 an hour (in the late 1950s) was not paid to casual farmworkers.
I had little time, though, to earn money picking, because we had our own farm. On our 58 acres, about six were tillable land. In the fertile soil, we grew an acre of cotton, four times as much corn, a patch of Saccharum cane, and on a quarter-acre, known as the new ground, we grew fruit and vegetables.
Sometimes we had enough watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, corn, peas, and beans leftover for Daddy to take to Amory, where he sold them from the bed of his pickup. Except for those vegetables and our acre of cotton, we were subsistence farmers.
We also nurtured a couple of milk cows, a few Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, several hogs, scores of chickens, and a couple of colorful guineas. Our hand-me-down dog, Old Jim and Fuzzy Sue, the cat, were our domesticated animals.
On the remainder of our spread, where crops once grew, stood oak, poplar, cedar, spruce pine, holly, pecan, walnut and sweet gum trees. Ten-foot wide Weaver’s creek flowed year-round through our proverbial back forty and yielded small fish and water moccasin. It also had some good swimming holes, especially when the beavers had been at work.
Two aging mules, Momma, Daddy, my older brother Dale and I provided all the labor for our enterprise. Walking behind Sam and Kate, who pulled the plow attached to wooden stocks was done by Dale and Daddy.
Sam was undoubtedly the dumbest and laziest mule in the state of Mississippi, or smart like a fox. About twice a day, Sam would stop in the midst of pulling the plow — several minutes for no apparent reason — and there he would stay until he was good and ready to move. Tilling the soil with two mules when many farmers had tractors or at least horses seemed ridiculous. But we had a small allotment for planting cotton and therefore a small margin for profit.
My contribution to the crops included picking up cotton squares that contain boll-weevil eggs, hoeing (and the aforementioned) picking. For the corn crop, I was hoeing, harvesting, shucking, and finally, pulling fodder from the dried up stalks.
I cut, split, stacked, and delivered wood to the stove and fireplace. I weeded the garden, picked fruits and vegetables, and shelled beans and peas. There’s more: I pulled up, cleaned, and shelled dry peanuts, churned butter, removed deposits from the outhouse, and so on. Momma helped me with many of these chores when she was not otherwise occupied with her countless domestic duties, including the hours it took to prepare three meals daily.
My daily chores included herding the cattle for feeding, milking the cows, attending to the mules, and slopping the hogs. Then there was feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, and drawing water. I was also responsible for the kerosene lamps — making sure they were filled, and the wicks were trimmed and in good working order.
Not daily but frequently, I had other responsibilities that included cleaning out stables and mending barbwire fences that enclosed about ten acres of pasture.
During the school year, in addition to the chores, I had homework. Some of my fellow students complained of having to finish their after school work before they could watch Gunsmoke, the wildly popular western. I didn’t have that problem. No electricity, No TV!***
Despite having plenty to keep me occupied work wise, I had to be careful of the rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, copper head, cottonmouth, water moccasin, coral snake and the poison ivy vine. Mississippi is home to almost a thousand different insects, and I was frequently harassed by wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, spiders, ticks, red ants, chiggers, and mosquitoes. Nevertheless, I was bored and restless, anxious even. (Insect data from Mississippi State University.)
Only occasionally were there children my age to play with, and none lived within walking distance or a reasonable bicycle ride, not that I had one. When I complained to Momma, as I frequently did about being bored, she would suggest I try to perfect the playing and singing of Rock Of Ages on the old organ or better yet learn another gospel tune. If you’re bored, Momma said, get your chores you have for later in the day, done early, and we’ll have more time for studying the Bible.
A dystopian existence? Not exactly, I had plenty of good food and a loving family. Nevertheless, I was dreaming of a way to get out of Here.
Authors note: My writings about fleeing the farm is in no way meant to disparage the profession of Farming. They are necessary for our very survival.
*Virginia Waynette Pugh (Tammy Waynette) was born in Itawamba County, near Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, adjacent to Lee County. She like Elvis, eventually moved to Memphis to pursue her singing career.
**There is some conflicting data as to when Elvis first performed in Amory.
***I was occasionally allowed to visit a nearby elderly friend of the family, “Miss Trudy” Hathcock, who had a TV. The only station available, WCBI, aired shows from all the networks, but primarily it was a CBS affiliate that broadcast Gunsmoke, and I saw it in on her TV for the first time. Momma finally realized why I was always begging to visit her.