Given the choice of experiencing Pain and Nothing, I would choose Pain.
My Life at the Limit Readers from across the USA.
A story of Tragedy and Triumph, from Vietnam and other Storms of Life, is a punch in the gut. But if you can hang on for the ride, you will learn some life lessons about patience and perseverance. You might even become a better person for having read it. (Tennessee)
A story you won't soon forget; it's that Powerful and Profound. The time you spend reading this Real-Life Drama will reward you many times over. (Colorado)
Swan doesn’t mince words in this Entertaining, Engaging, Gut-wrenching story of a Life at the Limit. The Combat scenes are graphic and not for the weak at heart. But, if you can handle the truth, you will learn something about how others struggle. You might even learn something about yourself. I Highly Recommend the book. (New Mexico)
The harrowing Combat scenes and the remarkable story of the medic are images I won’t soon forget. It gives me an understanding of what it takes to earn the Medal of Honor. Swan’s journey through life makes me appreciate mine more and how fortunate I am. (California)
If the Combat scenes and the Saying Goodbye chapter aren't enough to alter your sleep cycles, then the POW stories in Part II of the book will. On the upside, you'll have an perfect opening to evaluate your life. As a result, you might make a change for the better, be more appreciative, patient, and a kinder, gentler person." (Mississippi)
Swan's life story includes lots of Pain and Suffering, and Comebacks. Overall, by his own admissions, it was Magic. I found it to be a Good Read and I highly recommend it. (North Carolina)
Cover photo: 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) Huey flies by Napalm strike for Battle Damage Assessment and search for stragglers. (DoD photo courtesy Openeverse.)
Copyright © 2023, Swan’s-Song-Publishing, California, USA. All rights reserved and protected by all Copyright © laws registered in the United States of America and other participating Countries.
MY LIFE AT THE LIMIT – Donald Swan
While more than 125,000 celebrated the Summer of Love in 1967, I was in Vietnam trying to stay alive in a war zone, following soldiers in and out of battle as a Combat Correspondent with the elite 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Unsurprisingly, that experience changed my life immensely.
There are Twelve compelling chapters, and many riveting photos in my Vietnam chronicles. Although this book is Historical Fiction,* My story is based on actual events from the War, as I remember from some fifty-five years ago. All people, places, and battles are real unless otherwise noted.
My Vietnam story is less about me and more about the GIs in the jungle, young men, and some boys who volunteered or were drafted. They were a generation defiled of their youth, yet, when called upon, they fought and died for each other with extraordinary acts of courage. One of the soldiers in my story received the Medal of Honor for his exceptional valor during a horrific ambush.
At least seven men could witness his heroism because he saved their lives. I was there and watched in awe as Charles C. Hagemeister, our medic, fought the enemy with inconvincible courage and tenacity. (Regrettably, he died in 2021 at age 74.) But, finally, albeit after death, he’s getting the recognition he deserves through this book.
Men like Chuck Hagemeister came home to an ungrateful nation and faced many challenges in the country that some soldiers believed they were defending. As the conflict dragged on, the notion of “Fighting in Vietnam to Defend one’s Country” was passionately challenged. But, despite or because of that, I believe the stories of these young men fighting in the muck, trying to survive in the oppressive heat, challenged in ways most will never know, should be passed on to future generations. Although there are many books on the Vietnam War, none are about Chuck Hagemeister, the ambush, and his Medal of Honor.
Although I restrain from some of the odious language and slurs in my Vietnam story, I will have plenty of blood and guts elucidation. For example, I won’t tell you we lost someone on the battlefield. Instead, you’ll hear something like: He caught a large piece of shrapnel in the gut, kept asking if he was going to die, lied to, then made us promise that we tell his mom that he loved her, and bled out before the medivac arrived. In chapter seventeen (The Bravest of them All), that illustration will seem tame when I portray how our men were slaughtered in an ambush.
You probably already know that in the field, GIs are often called the Vietnamese g**ks or d**ks.” It came from frustrated and weary grunts fighting a vicious enemy, an adversary that bolted from camouflaged spider holes with AK-47s blazing; they employed hit-and-run tactics and set booby traps and punji pits. The enemy shot at our men from friendly villages to lure the GIs into returning fire and killing civilians. Our soldiers, the ground pounders, were often unable to distinguish enemy from civilian and were saddled with ridiculous rules of engagement. Hence, these infantrymen calling the enemy g**ks. I am not going to judge.
Thirty-four chapters constitute the rest of my momentous Life At The Limit, with Elvis, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Romance, my Auto Racing, PTSD, and Disease. In addition, part II of the book contains nine bonus chapters with four additional and incredible stories of Veterans in battle, including two POW stories, one from Vietnam and WW II. Finally, I close the book with What I’ve Learned.
What this book is Not: There’s no superfluous assessment of the war that most readers already know, no history, no discussion of the draft, no tearful goodbyes from family, none of me playing Army as a kid, no rhetoric at all. Instead, I waste no time putting you with me in the sucking mud of the monsoons, stifling heat, snakes, and punji stakes. You’ll hear the anxiety of men walking point, lulled into boredom, then terror, running out of food, water, and ammunition.
Finally, you will face the most horrific torment of battle — as too many did — haunted by the last words of a friend dying in their arms. It’s a raw and honest account of what I and others experienced in Vietnam and many more adventures in my fascinating Life at the Limit.
READER DISCRETION ADVISED
*This is a work of Historical Fiction. I choose this genre primarily to eschew Internet trolls who are notorious for spending an inordinate amount of time and resources trying to find fault in a non-fiction book. If a real or imagined mistake is found, they attempt, often successfully, to discredit the book and gain support for others to do likewise. Some trolls even suggest that readers who feel slighted or believe the writer was inaccurate in describing a battle they were in should sue the author. So, this is fiction, Historical Fiction. The WWW has been a blessing to tens of millions, but one of the downsides is the existence of these despicable trolls. Historical Fiction is set in a real place during a culturally recognized time. The story’s details and actions can be a mix of actual events and ones from the author’s imagination as they fill in the gaps. Characters can be pure fiction or based on real people (often both).
United States Veterans of all Wars, especially those who were KIA. My 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) brothers in arms and junior enlisted U.S. Army Infantry; many deserved recognition but got no medal.
Contents & Chapter 1
Chapter 1: Training to Kill. Chapter 2: Cooling My Heels Chapter 3: I Saw Elvis Chapter 4: Cotton Pickin' Monroe County Miss Chapter 5: Silvertone, Down, But Not Out Chapter 6: In The Game & 1580, WAMY Chapter 7: That's Alright (Mama) Elvis Chapter 8: Top Dawn Radio, Tupelo Chapter 9: Rockin' in Elvis' Hometown Chapter 10: Wings to Wilmington Chapter 11: Losing My Wings Chapter 12: Ft. Benjamin Harrison Chapter 13: Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam Chapter 14: A Break From Vietnam Chapter 15: Into Cowboy Country Chapter 16: Bong Son Chapter 17: The Bravest of Them All Chapter 18: Saved by the Stream Chapter 19: AFVN, An Khe Chapter 20: Back to the World Chapter 21: Home & Marriage; Ft. McArthur Chapter 22: Medal Of Honor II Chapter 23: How We Could Won In Vietnam Chapter 24: 1st Team In Vietnam Chapter 25: Twins & Trouble Chapter 26: Destination In Deutschland Chapter 27: Deceit In Deutschland Chapter 28: Be All You Can Be Chapter 29: Kansas City, Here We Come Chapter 30: My Diagnosis & KLAK Colorado Country Chapter 31: To Some of the Girls I've Loved Before Chapter 32: Elvis Is Dead & and Rocking in the Rockies Chapter 33: The Twins to Colorado Chapter 34: The Great Salt Lake & the Good Mormons Chapter 35: Where the Wrights Really Learned to Fly Chapter 36: The Spill Heard Across the Country Chapter 37: Aliens, Anyone? Chapter 38: Lisa & Laura, When I Lost my Ass & My Job Chapter 39: California Dreaming Chapter 40: My Checkered Past -- Racing that Is Chapter 41: Racing to the Finish Chapter 42: Worst Job Ever Chapter 43: Transforming My Little Piece of Paradise Chapter 44: Another Decade Slips Away Chapter 45: The End is Near Chapter 46: Saying Goodbye Afterword Book II Chapter I Don's Greatest Hits 1955-1977 Book II Chapter II Don's Greatest Hits 1978-1991 Book II Chapter III The Battle of the Bulge and Beyond Book II Chapter IV With Deep Regret Book II Chapter V Bad Night at LZ Bird Book II Chapter VI In the Event Of My Death Book II Chapter VII Dying Is Easy,Living is what's Difficult Book II Chapter VIII Patriots Or Traitors? Book II Chapter IX What I've Learned
Chapter 1: Training to Kill
A carpet of luxuriant rye grass snaked through the forest floor around dogwood, peach, cherry, magnolia, and azalea. Pearly white sand and small coruscating ponds surrounded greens of bent grass, manicured to perfection. This was Augusta National, a Garden of Eden for golfers.
A few miles away, I stood at attention, a guest of Uncle Sam, sweat pouring off my brow. I wasn’t here for the golf.
I was counting on the heat, humidity, and farm labor I endured in Mississippi to give me an edge in U. S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), in the especially hot summer of 1966, at Ft. Gordon, near Augusta, Georgia.
During the eight weeks of intense training at the 56,000-acre post, some GIs were seriously injured, and two recruits from our Battalion, of about 1,000, died from heatstroke. Around the time of these deaths (July 25, 1966), the officially recorded temperature in Augusta was 98 degrees, and the humidity — 100 percent! There was absolutely no pause in our training, no break (just extra salt tablets) from the stifling heat and humidity.
Our training company was made up of draftees and volunteers. About half of our group were so-called minorities, from the poorer areas in and around New York City. The rest of the recruits were mostly Caucasian and came from rural and poor regions of the South. A few from both groups had chosen the Army over jail after a Judge had given the two options.
In the best of circumstances, this aggregation wasn’t apt to blend very well; in the pressure cooker of BCT — it was volatile. There were taunts and insults, pushing and shoving aplenty. When it elevated to fists and blood, most were not within sight of a Drill Sergeant. Even the lamest in the groups knew they could end up in the stockade with the possibility of a Bad Conduct or worse, Dishonorable Discharge.
In the Mid-1960s, U. S. Army Drill Sergeants (DSs) could and did treat trainees virtually any way they pleased: Loud, Vulgar, and occasionally Physical. Although I was in good shape, I quickly learned that BCT required more than brawn. I also had to appease and maneuver in the virtual minefield around Staff Sgt. Hicks, one of my snarky and callous Drill Sergeants.
The Vietnam veteran, so designated by the large and distinctive 1st Cavalry Division patch — yellow with a small horse’s head and diagonal black stripe — was worn at shoulder level on his right sleeve. He appeared to be in his late twenties and stood wiry and weathered at about 5’ 7.” His heavily starched fatigues sported perfectly ironed creases, and the tips of his spit-shined jump boots sparkled black in the bright Georgia sun. Hicks wore his Smoky Bear hat slightly tilted — just above his right eye.
He stood with conviction and authority, and the sergeant’s raspy voice spit out invectives faster than a jacked-up Carnival Barker. “When I get done with you sorry sissies, y’all wished you’d took the Marines,”* Hicks shouted, “cause’ I’m as tough as any Drill Instructor in [Marine] Boot Camp. No, I’ll be tougher cause’ turning you pathetic sons’ of bitches into soldiers gonna take a God Damn miracle!”
Calling Staff Sgt. Hicks’s management style In Your Face would be an understated insult to the man once you saw him in action. He intimidated the candidates of war up close, personal, vulgar, and unrelenting. If we didn’t perform to his satisfaction, which was the usual, Hicks would hurl his favorite insult, “You f**king worthless trainees look like the aftermath of a Chinese g*ng b*ng.”
One didn’t have to screw up to feel the heat; we ran everywhere, dropped for seemingly endless push-ups, and repeatedly double-timed with our ten-pound M-14s, stiff-armed high over our heads, taunted by Drill Sergeants.
There was marching, lots of marching to cadences like:
Ain’t no use in calling home
Jody’s got your girl and gone
Your left, Your left,
Your left right left;
Ain’t no use in going back
Jody’s got your Cadillac
Sound off; one-two
Ain’t no use in going home
Jody’s got your girl and gone
Sound off; one-two
Ain’t no use in feeling blue
Jody’s got your sister too
Sound off; on-two
Ain’t no use in looking down
Ain’t no discharge on the ground
Your left, Your left.
Your left right left.
Sound off . . .
A typical day began with a rude awakening at 4:30 in the morning, with a band of Drill Sergeants banging garbage can lids while ordering us to “shit, shave and shower.” Then we fell into formation for inspection, followed by rigorous physical training (PT) that included running, calisthenics, and close order drills until breakfast at 0600.** Then it was more PT followed by marksmanship training with live ammo naturally, hand-to-hand, and combat tactics until the noon meal. By now, we had a fresh set of DSs.
But there was no chow until we satisfactorily executed the low crawl, monkey bars, and recitation of the 11 General Orders, totaling 65 words about Guard Duty that no soldier was likely to repeat or remember after BCT.
By the book military low crawl is designed for stealthy movement in battlefield conditions. The purpose: Make your body a smaller target for the enemy while moving swiftly, flat on the ground. A 40-foot-long four-foot-wide course with a three-inch furrow dug into the hard Georgia dirt was the low crawl obstacle we had to surmount in a timely manner.
The mercury lingered in the high 90s. We had been humping since 0430, and now there was the added pressure of a rarely seen officer observing us; our platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Harris. He stood like a recruiting poster, about six feet, square jaw and solid build, with gold bars on his collar and cap. His olive drab fatigues were starched and creased to the point that I believe his uniform would stand erect without him (in it). The tips of his Cochran® jump boots glistened like black water reflecting from a Georgia swamp.
The Lieutenant wanted to see how his men were progressing. So, naturally, the first recruit in line for the low-crawl was the biggest screw-up in our company, a tall-skinny buzz-cut recruit from West Virginia. He laid down in the dirt and began to advance, but his belly was not flat to the ground, and he was too slow. The Drill Sergeants were yelling, “Get your butt down soldier, you gonna get it shot off.” Our Platoon Leader was not amused.
Harris waved our boy out of the dirt, spun off his cap, and dropped into the pit hard. Then, while perfectly flat, he pulled himself forward with quick twists of his arms and elbows and pushed with swift kicks of his knees and feet. He plowed through the soil like an International-Harvester,® and he slithered 13-yards faster than an alligator in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. When Lt. Harris stood, gathered his cap from the dirt, and brushed himself off, three buttons hung by a single thread from his fatigue shirt.
Without any prompting, I and the remainder of our platoon immediately fell in line, dropped into the dirt, and low crawled with sufficient motivation.
After the low crawl wake-up call from our platoon leader, Lieutenant, there were still miles to go before we slept. We marched eight miles in full gear, then trained in mortars, hand grenades, and again with our M-14s. Daily indoctrination continued until 1900 — longer during night maneuvers — and one was subject to details until 2200 when lights-out was called.
As desperate as the U.S. Army was for soldiers, a few days later, we saw “Goober” (smart like a fox?) boarding a Greyhound™ back to West Virginia wearing his GI Khakis and black low quarters.
I’m thinking, oh boy, one less screw-up in the company, making it likely that the DSs would have more time to harass us average trainees. Now, some recruits were saying, “I can screw up real good; let them bus me out.” But what about those who had been told, “Jail or the Army?” Others were saying, “Go ahead and ship me to Vietnam now, away from these sadistic Drill Sergeants.” For many, the U. S. Army had managed to turn Georgia U. S. A. into their own combat zone.
The hammer over our heads was the real threat of Vietnam. If we could withstand the rigors of Basic and hone some combat tactics, we would have a better chance of survival in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The intent of BCT is to break down the recruit to the lowest form of life, then slowly build him back up while indoctrinating the candidate to obey orders — immediately and unquestionably.
BCT taught the skills the U.S. Army had determined would best serve the soldier in combat; it was intense, rote, and rigorous. If the soldier’s skills were sufficient and so ingrained, his training would kick in automatically in a combat scenario — practically without thinking. That’s the theory, and there is some evidence to support it.
This is how we trained; the sergeant’s pushed us to exhaustion, tried to make it unbearable, and wanted to find our breaking point. Our training may not have been Green Beret or Ranger tough, but our Drill Sergeants were no pussies. They pushed us hard enough that a few men did break and were recycled, sent to the shrink, or in rare cases back home. Better to have a meltdown in BCT than in the regular Army, or worse yet — in combat. The theory: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”
There was a brief rest period when we got mail call, during field exercises, late in the afternoon. After the command to fall out, our Drill Sergeant’s announced in a loud but friendly voice: Smoke ’em if you got ’em.***
The frequent letters from Marty (my girl in NC) and Momma were a great morale boost. During one of the smoke breaks, a Drill Sergeant asked where I was from. When I replied “Mississippi,” he said to a fellow DS, “He’s a 20-year man . . . never had two pairs of shoes.” During the same respite, a trainee was laughing loudly. The same DS asked him, what was so damn funny? Then the sergeant, without waiting for a reply from the soldier, quipped for everyone to hear, “I’ve been in the Army 20 years, and I haven’t heard one damn thing that was funny.”
With a fresh set of Drill Sergeants, we headed to chow at 1800; the same rules applied as with the noon meal; a recruit couldn’t get to the mess table until successful completion of the low crawl, monkey bars, and recitation of General Orders. If a trainee failed any of these exercises, he had to start over by going to the back of the line. Undoubtedly, some never mastered all the tasks in time to get fed. When we feasted on C-Rations in the field, those rules were waived, but there were less “food” and calories in those cans.
After the early evening feed, we “rested” in classrooms with lectures on tactics and reviewing combat films from Vietnam; anyone falling asleep would get 20 push-ups or more. Finally, we remained in the buildings where we began taking apart, cleaning, and re-assembling our M-14s. In the final evaluation, we were required to perform those tasks while blindfolded. Failing any major exercise like this would get the trainee recycled, or as the Drill Sergeants said: “Start basic all over again.”
Our next stop was at the chemical compound, where we were locked in chambers filled with tear gas and remained there for a minute or more to gauge our reaction. Now with masks around our waists, we were sent in the gas again and got no relief until our protective gear was fitted correctly.
Then we double-timed to the range for a special live-fire exercise all were required to experience during BCT. Conducted under darkness, coincidentally, while low crawling under razor wire, M-60 machine-gun bullets blazed 10-12 inches over our heads at Mach 2.5. Panic during this exercise, and you’re unlikely to worry about any more training or Vietnam. As bad as the Drill Sergeants were and as hard as the training was, heat prostration notwithstanding, one was unlikely to die from it. Getting burned with a 7.62-mm projectile traveling 2,750 feet per second was a decidedly different matter.
By about 2100, we had marched or double-timed back to the barracks or tents for an inspection of our footlockers, latrine, and living areas. If we passed, lights were out by 2200.
We trained for 60 straight days and nights, and those of us lucky enough to avoid injury, recycle, or worse had finally met all the requirements and completed U. S. Army Basic Combat Training. Despite Sgt. Hicks, I graduated BCT in the upper third of my company of 150, or maybe it was because of him.
Had my Mississippi experience given men an edge? Maybe, but the real test would inaugurate some 9,200 miles from Georgia.
Next move: Advanced Individual Training (AIT) several weeks or even months, depending upon one’s Military Occupationally Specialty (MOS) like Infantry, Special Forces, Artillery, Aviation, Engineer, Cook, Chaplain Assistant, Native Language Speaker, Diver, Veterinary Food Inspector, Cryptologic Linguist, and many others, most headed to Vietnam.
Most of us would get leave before our advanced training began. Then, after successfully completing AIT, we would be prepared — and hopefully ready — for WAR.
*Some were drafted into the Marines (or allowed to opt for the Corps).
**Many writers list military time as 0600 “hours,” this is redundant and incorrect. 2400 (midnight) begins a new day. 0600 is the sixth hour of a new day, eliminating the need for “AM or PM or hours.”
***Typical military meaning: Take a break, you earned it, you might not get another for a while, and don’t forget to field strip your cigarettes.
About reading My life at the Limit:
When a chapter ends, and you can go no further: Click “Older Posts” or “Previous Article” to bring up the next chapter. Don’t Ask.
Also, I am inconsistent in how I post dates, i.e., when I’m writing about a strictly military event it’s 20 March, and in other stories, it’s March 20.
Furthermore, some text and photos do not blend perfectly in every chapter.
Chapter 2: Cooling My Heels
Where I come from, people had dirt under their fingernails; farmers touched their soil.
Popping and creaking in the unrelenting July sun, the rusty tin roof on our old farmhouse was seething with heat like it was letting off steam. It was no mirage. It was Mississippi, hot, humid, hard-time Mississippi.
In 1955 at age eight, just out of the first grade, I knew there had to be life beyond farming and backcountry living. I was already thinking of and looking for a way out. Dreaming was more like it because I was short on specifics.
Up the two front steps, the six-foot deep front porch spanned the 36-foot width of the house, A swing hung from a rafter on the right side of the porch, an Adirondack chair, and a few straight backs sat on the floor nearby. The 10-foot wide hall ran all the way through the middle.
Our back porch was a continuation of the hallway, except it was open on the left. On the wall to the right hung a two-gallon galvanized bucket with an aluminum dipper. It was our access to drinking water. To the left, on the back porch, a one-gallon aluminum pan sat on a board about four feet above the floor. It served as our washbasin.
Access to our 13 x 13 foot kitchen, to the right from the back porch, had light blue walls and dark linoleum floor covering. Daddy’s straight back chair sat at the head of the “eating table,” and a long bench on one side and few upright chairs surrounded the rest. Three hutches served as cupboards. One featured a built-in flour sifter. Anchored in a corner, near the entry door, rested the main attraction — a large black cast-iron wood burning cook stove (circa 1930) with its four burners, baking oven and two warming closets.
There was a 13 x 13-foot living-sleeping room, on each side, midway through the breezeway. Momma and Daddies were on the right. The original wood plank flooring was worn smooth from decades of foot traffic. Oval-framed pictures of relatives long passed hung on the unpainted walls. A rustic black iron bedstead supported a feather bed on its frame, and a couple of straight-back hickory chairs with bulrush seats rested nearby.
A fireplace with a small hearth and brick surround stood in the center of the outer wall. A pair of blackened Andirons embellished with the image of a dog was used to raise the logs off the hearth and prevent them from falling forward. Two tall translucent vases filled with noteworthy papers sat on the mantel. An old dresser, missing its mirror, was stationed in the corner near the fireplace. Momma’s foot-powered Honeymoon (brand) sewing machine (circa 1910) rested nearby.
A window about five feet tall, and three feet wide, configured with 8 x 10-inch sheets of glass, was located to the right of the fireplace and yielded a view north toward the gravel road. Some panes were held in place with dressmaker pins and needles pushed into their wooden frames. A similar window on the right side wall provided a view of the front porch and beyond.
The room across the hall was identical and similarly furnished, except for an additional bed and walls painted a light blue.
Lighting for all rooms was provided by two kerosene lamps with dark orange fonts, flat cotton wicks, and 8-inch high chimney globes. The 10 to 15-lumen output of each lamp, provided about the same brightness as one medium-sized candle.
Still standing. Swan Family Farmhouse (below) as seen in 2013. Maintained by Don's elderly and amazing brother Dale. Note the original stone foundation. Built circa 1898. (Swan collection)
Indoor living space amounted to about 700 square feet, including the two small “side rooms” on opposite ends of the hall that stored canned goods and clothing.
In one of those rooms, we were storing for someone, an old and ornate organ (circa 1930) with a built-in mirror; surely the most valuable item in the house. While pumping the well-worn pedals, striking the keys, and experimenting with the draw knobs, I eventually learned to play Rock Of Ages.
A fabricated windless using a short sweet-gum log with a handle, rope and pulley system, and a galvanized-gallon bucket was used to draw water from our 20-foot deep well. In the summer when we needed it the most, it was barely adequate for our needs. Covered by an open tin shed, the well was just a few feet to the right of the front porch, besides a sweet shrub bush.
A two-seater outhouse, that Momma built, was situated on a gentle slope about 150 feet behind and just to the right of the back porch. Supported on one end by a mulberry tree and the other by a cedar post, the floor was dirt. It was framed similar to our chicken coop across the street, which Momma also fashioned.
The scrap plank theme of the privy had the weathered look of the outside of our house and the same type of sloping roof. The entryway on the left had no door, but it faced the woods. The two taking care of business holes were cut, octagon style, again, rough plank. There was no lighting or water of course, but a Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog was there for clean-up and a excellent chance for me to fantasize while exploring the foundation section.
In the large backyard, apple, peach, pecan, walnut, and fig trees grew along with Scuppernong and other grapes varieties. Farther behind the house, our 8 x 15-foot smokehouse, with its high ceiling, abutted a grove of longleaf pines. Our pigpen was to the left, about 200 feet, usually downwind.
A portion of the front yard from the porch to the gravel road looked like the dirt infield of a baseball diamond. As an alternative to grass (not uncommon at the time), Momma scraped the area clear of any vegetation using a hoe and maintained it that way.
Momma’s impressive 20 x 20-foot varietal flower garden was just to the left of the front porch. She planted, nurtured, and cared for that beautiful plot — envied by those who had the fortune to walk into Momma’s version of peace and tranquility — with her fragrant magnolias, dahlias, snowballs, hydrangeas, black-eyed Susans, and other beauties.
With its roof collapsing, a sharecropper’s shack sat 200 feet to the north, making our dogtrot look pretty good, a reminder that our family may have had even harder times. Still, most of my clothes and shoes were hand-me-downs from my older cousin Frankie. But having footwear in the summer months was not an issue; my brother and I went barefoot.
Across the road, some large sweet gum trees stood beside a few smaller cedars. Slightly to the right, two 10 x 12 x 15-foot tall structures, served as corn and cotton cribs. A small chicken coop was attached to one. Still farther to the right rested our 20 x 30-foot barn, with its roof and sides covered with corrugated tin; behind it was a corral large enough for feeding a few livestock. No far to the right of the barn was a half-acre field, our nearest cotton patch.
The narrow gravel road that ran past our house, just thirty feet from our doorsteps, was seldom traveled, led to pretty much nowhere, and didn’t hit pavement for miles. For me, a passing vehicle was an event. Six days a week, I could expect about three, the mail carrier, a farm truck, or tractor.
Sitting on the edge of the front porch facing south toward the pigpen in my Big Buck™ overalls, I was swinging my legs and trying to reach the shaded grass to cool my heels when I remembered a chore I’d forgotten.
I dropped my feet into the six-inch tall Johnson grass, made a sharp turn right and raced 40 feet or so toward the backyard, and stopped under a scrawny crab apple tree. Its fruit fell too early for good eating; however, it was suitable for the hogs. I was tossing the sad apples into a bushel basket when I heard the sound of a vehicle, fast approaching from the north, blocked from my site by the house.
I sprinted hard toward the road with my toes planted in the grass. I made it in time to get a perfect view. Not more than 20 feet directly in front of me was a speeding car kicking up rocks and dust. But it was no farmer hauling hay, nor a local heading to a fishing hole.
Chapter 3: I Saw Elvis
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.* Elvis 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, their house was no better than ours. By now (1955) he had been living in Memphis for seven years.
“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.)
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.
That momentous show with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins was on Dec. 12, 1955, in Amory, where Perkins wrote and performed Blue Suede Shoes, a hit for both he and Elvis. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make the show.
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 and wear a size 11 shoe. 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, and 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 for a car to drive onto them. 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. Some of my best sermons, I believe, 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 to farming.
There would be 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 Hatley 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. Unfortunately, at the first picking in mid-August, it’s still hot, dry, and dirty, and in late September or early October, it’s chilly and wet in the morning for the second harvest.
In the mid to late 1950s, one could earn $2.00 for picking 150 pounds of cotton. The very 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 farm workers.
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, and 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 left over for Daddy to take to Amory, where he sold them from the bed of his pickup. But, 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, mainly 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 — for 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 containing boll-weevil eggs and 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 for 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, ensuring 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, I had homework in addition to chores. 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 poison ivy vine. In addition, Mississippi is home to almost a thousand different insects, including wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, spiders, ticks, red ants, chiggers, and mosquitoes that frequently harassed me. 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. So 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 the 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 are in no way meant to disparage the profession of Farming. On the contrary, they are necessary for our very survival.
*I would learn later, the day before he passed our house, Elvis did a show in Belden, Miss., just 37 miles northwest of our very house..
**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.
***I was occasionally allowed to visit an elderly friend of the family, who lived about a mile from us, “Miss Trudy” Hathcock, who had a TV. (TV ownership, circa 1957, was a rarity in this part of the world.) The only station available, WCBI (from nearby) Columbus, aired shows from all the networks, but primarily it was a CBS affiliate that broadcast Gunsmoke, and I saw it on her TV for the first time. Momma finally realized why I was always begging to visit her.
Chapter 4: Cotton Pickin’ Monroe County, Mississippi
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, which is good for keeping nutrients in the soil but bad for getting stuck in when it’s wet. Also common was the kudzu vine, which is 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, (about eight miles from us) 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 is 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 farming, cotton reigned king in Monroe County. However, 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 more significant 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. Yet, in 1959, Mississippi was 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.
My Daddy Roscoe was a big man, a stout six-footer. He was a strict, no-nonsense man with few words except when he entertained company by performing tricks, dressing like an old lady, and wearing a bonnet. Daddy was very good at math and possessed lots of common sense. Unsurprisingly, like some others in our community, neither he nor Momma came close to finishing high school. But the two were hard workers, especially Momma. Daddy had put his entire life into farming. Although, in the off-season, he usually worked at local sawmills, laying blocks.
She met Hugh Roscoe, (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’s (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. All of Roscoe’s sisters and brothers agreed that he would likely fail without the farm. By 1952, Daddy and Momma were the sole owners of the house and farm.
Daddy was unconventional even for mid-1950s Mississippi. There was no life, health, auto, or homeowners 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** or 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. Daddy 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 lamented 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 Miss. Dept. of Forestry as a fire lookout. Atop the twelve-story-high tower, he occupied the 7 x 7-foot enclosed platform. He used binoculars for spotting smoke and determined coordinates by employing a D-type alidade atop his large round map. He reported the location of smoke he spotted to dispatch (who informed 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 except 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!
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, and 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 encouraged and motivated Dale and me to better ourselves. I never had the good fortune of remembering any of my grandparents; all were deceased before I was a year or two old.
In my early years, going to town (Amory, a half-hour away) or even to Parham’s small store (about a 10-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, about 20 miles from us), where he paid his taxes.
Visiting this city of 6,450 on the Tombigbee River turned out to be an excellent adventure for me. The courthouse building was a fascinating old and stately structure with an impressive clock tower. Daddy didn’t exactly take me on a tour of Aberdeen, but I did see some of the many historic antebellum mansions and cottages that are 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 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.
Dale allowed me to use his prized Western Flyer bicycle, which he bought new, while I learned to ride. Unfortunately, I wrecked his tall two-wheeler many times, and it was pretty banged up by the time I finally learned to ride, but I never had a bike of my own.
Throughout this book, you will hear about his good deeds toward me and others. 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 the county school buses. 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. But, 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, sometimes even 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 late 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. Momma shot squirrels in trees from the back porch with her shotgun, dressed, and cooked them. She raised a flock of chickens for eggs and killed and dressed chickens for our meals.
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 catching up to provide for us.
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.
Momma repeatedly shared her pain with me about losing Hugh, who might have survived had he been promptly transported to a hospital. Unfortunately, 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. I walked the four-mile round trip twice a month (during spring and summer) with Momma 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 and, eventually, some she didn’t know at all. 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 of 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 a steeple with very hard pews and a 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 and peeling white paint was dwarfed on three sides by a forest of tall, slim, and straight loblolly pines.
Our pastor, Brother Earwood, was a fire and brimstone preacher; off the pulpit, he was charming and witty. Now middle-aged, he said he was called to minister 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 with the encouragement of Daddy. He dealt in the used car business to supplement his meager preaching income.
After hearing Bro, Earwood preach many times over the past two years; one Sunday, he stepped down from the pulpit after his sermon. And as he always did, he “called for sinners to come forward” to accept Jesus Christ. So, 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 and shook my hand, some with tears of joy in their eyes. A week or so later, I was baptized in Homer Jones’ muddy pond not far from 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 against the wall.
Momma’s soft voice was soothing, and her rhythm and inflection gave the verses a melodic tone. I wasn’t bothered by background noise from crickets, whippoorwills, and the occasional echo of a rifle shot from coon hunters. Instead, I smelled the pleasant scent from the rolled-up rags she had set ablaze to help 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.
**Until we sourced a hand-me-down radio when I was about 11.
***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 to power the lights.
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 dwelling (quarter-mile) where our neighbor lived and our home were thought to be the last in Monroe County to receive electricity.
In 1935 (yes, 1935), Amory (eight miles from us) 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.
Chapter 5: Silvertone, Down, But Not Out
I scampered down the steps of the hulking GMC® school bus after another boring 45-minute ride from Hatley past vast farmland, shacks, and stately brick houses. Then, anxious to see what Momma had cooked for supper before I went about my chores, I ran into the hall and toward the kitchen.
Instead, I found her in their bedroom sweeping the floor around the old dresser with her long-handled corn straw broom toward the hearth. As I was giving Momma a hug, something caught my eye. The bread box-sized object sitting on Momma and Daddy’s dresser was a beautiful old Silvertone radio powered by a dry cell battery of about the same size.
This hand-me-down radio (circa 1947) would be my lifeline to the outside world of music — my dreams would flourish as the waves streamed through the air at the speed of light — the sound reverberating from its cloth-covered speaker.
We had gotten our first radio around 1958 when most of my friends were getting their first TV, and I was ecstatic. But unfortunately, after turning the power knob on, I had to wait about 30 seconds for the tubes to warm up, wondering each time if the old radio would come to life. But when she finally did, well.
The nighttime reception was especially clear, and I had some excellent choices. The old Silvertone easily picked up signals from WSM in Nashville, WCKY in Cincinnati, WLS in Chicago, and others. The latter station went on air in 1924 and was initially owned by Sears Roebuck & Co; the call letters stood for World’s Largest Store.
I loved the music of Chuck Berry, Nat “King” Cole, The Platters, Pat Boone, Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Sonny James, Sam Cooke, and eventually, Elvis. Often when I was listening to that great music, “You’re going to run down the [very expensive] battery,” Momma kept reminding me to “turn it off.”
As for Momma, she listened to Gospel music, preaching, and occasionally to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. Momma had moved on to another church after Bro. Earwood left Rocky Springs. On Sunday mornings, she listened to the Pastor of our new church, Brother Sidney McLeod, on WAMY in Amory. She heard him preach again in person later in the day at Hatley Missionary Baptist Church, where we had been members for a couple of years.
The Reverend knew I was interested in radio, and Bro. McLeod surprised me one day with an invitation to go with him to WAMY for one of his live broadcasts.
Finally, I was inside a radio station! Bro. McLeod entered the small live broadcast studio, adjusted the large rectangular RCA® mic, cleared his throat, and waited for the hand signal from the man in the control room. The on-air light illuminated, and Bro. McLeod wasted little time getting into the character of a Southern Soul-Saving Preacher, which he was.
But my interests lay with the young man in the control room. By noon, after a Sunday morning of religious programming, he would be playing Rock ‘n’ Roll the rest of the day. The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, Rickey Nelson, Paul Anka, and Elvis, who was tearing up the charts with Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Jailhouse Rock, and All Shook Up. The latter would become #1 on the Pop, Country, and Rhythm & Blues charts!
And what was I doing? Washing and cleaning out school buses at $1.50 each at the County Shop, where my brother was a mechanic; it was my first paying job outside of picking cotton.
But I was able to listen to WAMY while working. I critiqued the announcers and began talking over them, introducing the songs myself, “It’s 92 degrees in Amory at two-thirty-five on WAMY.” I accentuated and enunciated W-A-M-Y ad nauseam. People who overheard me would shake their heads and smile, while others gave me a thumbs-up.
The days ticked by slowly, the weeks dragged, and the months seemed like forever. After all, I was in the Deep South, a region not known for being fast-paced. And I was one of those anxious and ambitious boys, unfit for the tempo of country life.
Now there were The Browns, The McGuire Sisters, The Drifters, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Brenda Lee. Elvis was commanding millions of fans, entertaining them with Are You Lonesome Tonight? and Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear.
I was becoming a teenager during the birth of a musical revolution: The infancy of Rock ‘n’ Roll with Elvis and other major artists, soon to be followed by the Beatles and the British Invasion. I was witnessing nothing less than a musical explosion for the ages, and it forever changed the beat of young Americans’ hearts, especially mine.
My older brother, Dale, was empathetic to my dream of becoming a DJ, and he offered me a ride to town one day in his 1937 Chevy. I jumped at the chance, and I was ready to execute my plan. He drove me to Main Street in Amory, population 5,280.
WAMY was a daytime station (licensed to operate from sun-up to sun-down only), and naturally, I knew the Sign-Off time. Dale stayed in the car nearby while I waited for the announcer at the bottom of the stairs by the glass door, lettered “WAMY” in a three-inch bold-gold script.
The DJ seemed to be in a rush as he stepped onto the sidewalk, put his Thermos® under his arm, and began locking the door. He looked to be about 25. I was 14. I resisted the urge to tell him I thought he was a great DJ and that I was a big fan, and so on.
Instead, I got right to the point. I looked up at him and said, “What does a fellow need to do to get a job here, an announcing job like yours?”
“Well,” he said, without hesitation or bothering to stop, “First, you need to go to college and get a good education and start from there.” My jaw dropped. As his car faded in the distance — so did my dreams.
What, I thought, are you kidding? We’re in the Deep South, one of the poorest states in the country, in about the smallest town that could support a radio station, and I need a college degree. I’m in the ninth grade, and I’ve never even known anyone who’s gone to college! He had given me the worst possible answer.
It was a long ride home.
That night, I watched Dale cup his hand around the chimney and blow out the kerosene lamp while I positioned the porcelain chamber at the foot of the iron bedstead.
Dale squatted at the fireplace stoking the coals, hoping for an all-night burn, while I stripped down to my long handles and climbed onto the right side of the bed next to the pale blue wall.
A New Haven Seven Day striking clock rested in the middle of the mantel. I followed the pendulum in the dim firelight, trying to get my eyes to sleep, but instead, I began quizzing Dale as I often did. Where would he live if it could be anywhere? What would he do if it could be anything? But he recognized the questions to be my own.
Dale already knew my dreams, but he listened again anyway. He already knew what I wanted — to get the hell out of here.
The next morning I awoke tired and cold, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and knelt down to help Dale get the fire going. I grabbed yesterday’s clothes from the nail on the wall, pulled them on, slipped on my shoes, headed out the door, turned left into the chilly hallway, hurried to the outhouse, and sat down on the cold, rough plank. Then, on the back porch, I dipped from the bucket, washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face.
After skipping my chores, breakfast, and brushing my teeth, I walked across the road to await the school bus, about to waste another 45 minutes of my life riding to Hatley school.
Understandably, I was down, but there was too much at stake to be out. Time dragged, but when I could get a chance and a ride, I would visit WAMY when the DJ I had asked about a job with was not on-air.
Within a few months, I had delivered enough coffee and doughnuts and pestered enough people that I had the name and address of the person responsible for the hiring decisions. He was at WAMY’s sister station in West Point, a town about an hour’s drive south of Amory.
My cousin, a high school graduate and owner of a typewriter, helped me with the letter I sent to the manager in West Point asking for a job at WAMY.
Momma and Daddy had warned me not to get my hopes up, and the weeks dragged on.
I was cutting bushes with Daddy in the lower pasture, a good hike from the house, when Momma delivered a letter addressed to me, postmarked West Point, Mississippi. I dropped my Kaiser blade, wiped off some sweat, grabbed the envelope, and tore into it with my right index finger.
Momma and Daddy stood nearby, looking for my expression as I read the letter that could change my life.
He was sorry to have taken so long to respond and thanked me for my interest and so on. But considering my very young age and no experience, he said there was nothing he could do to help me with my dream of becoming a DJ. I needed experience and more age. At least he didn’t say I had to have a college degree.
“Well,” Daddy said, “you’re pretty good around the farm, and you and Dale can run it one day. Besides, your Momma and I don’t want you leaving home anyhow.”
Oh, wonderful, I thought, I can still be a farmer. Why do you think I’m trying to get out of here? And I don’t need to leave home to work at WAMY. So for the remainder of the day, I cut twice as many bushes as Daddy.
Yeah, I’m really good around the farm (especially when I’m angry about farming).
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