John B. Isom
LEAVING HOLLY POND HEADED FOR HOWARD COLLEGE
Toward the end of July, 1932 I hitchhiked, some seventy-five miles north-northeast to Mentone, Alabama. The purpose was to attend the annual weeklong retreat or conference for Sunday school teachers and officers. Many courses and informal discussions were offered during the week. This was another one of John Mcquire's programs. I had been offered a job to pay my expenses. They gave me the job of table waiter. It was there I saw, for the first time, the drumstick and the thigh piece of a chicken served as one piece. They served this two-in-one piece of chicken not less than once every day. For the first two or three days I thought they were rabbit legs.
Mentone is on top of Lookout Mountain, sitting right on the west edge overlooking the narrow valley lying between the Lookout and Sand mountains. Every evening there was an open-air sunset service. It hardly mattered who conducted the service, or what was sung or not sung, said or not said. The service always led you into the inner world of silence and wonder. Just the setting would do that. Sitting there you look down over the treetops to the valley far below that stretches to north and south as far as eye can see - even beyond. In the meantime the upper vision of your eyes is scanning the forest and cliffs and Sand Mountain to its upper most rim, which marks off the great arc of the horizon between earth and sky, beyond which a round red sun is slowly, slowly dropping from sight, leaving behind its slowly fading glow. That panorama inspires thoughts and feelings that enlarge your perception of who you are; deepens your appreciation for the larger human and non-human world of which you are a tiny but real part.
On most days there was a special visitor - " a big shot" - who was used as the speaker for the inspirational service. One day the special visitor was Dr. T. V. Neal, the new President of Howard College - the College of Alabama Baptists. John Mcguire made it a point of introducing me to the new President, as a prospective student of Howard College. Among other things John told the President I would need some kind of job to stay alive. When Mcguire finished stretching the truth about me from A to Z Dr. Neal said, "You come on down this fall and we will find you a job." On that promise I ventured off to college with less than $10.00 in my pocket.
A COUNTRY CHURCH ABOUT 60 MILES SOUTH OF MONTGOMERY
Some fifty or seventy miles south of Montgomery there was a little country church that wanted to develop a program that might get more of the people of the community involved in the Sunday school. They asked John Mcguire to send them a Sunday school "expert" to teach a study course that might help them in their efforts. It sounded as if they wanted a one church Enlargement Campaign. John asked me if I could go down and give them a hand. I decided to do it the week before going to college. That meant I would be leaving Holly Pond three weeks early. It was my intention to get to the college campus two weeks before classes started. That was for the purpose of getting the job lined up the President had promised me.
Just before leaving Holly Pond Mr. Buckner gave me the name and address of the largest department store in Birmingham, and said; "John, we have a charge account at that store. If you ever need to I have made arrangements for you to use that charge account." It was during the winter of my freshman year that I had to get a pair of shoes. I tried for some time to make do with pasteboard inner soles to keep my feet off the ground, but they were no good at all in wet weather. I bought a pair of shoes and another item or two and charged them to Buckner's account. The total bill was less than $10.00. It pleases me to this day that I never again had to impose on the Buckner's charge account. I was indeed lucky to have had the Buckners as my friends. I was also lucky in being able henceforth to make do without sponging on them any more. With all my worldly goods in a pasteboard suitcase I hitch hiked deep into southern Alabama, some one hundred and seventy miles, to the little country church that had asked for Sunday school help. I find nothing in my memory to suggest that adventure was a pleasant or useful one. I have to rate this one to have been my worst job as a Sunday school "expert."
The trip down there had some discouraging and frightening moments. For a long time I rode with a silent truck driver. He asked no questions and answered none. By and by he turned into a churchyard and spoke the longest sentence I heard him use: "I'm going to take a nap." I thanked him for the ride and hit the road. Another time I was picked up by a man who took a big swig from a bottle of liquor before we started. The bottle was already half empty. My guess is we traveled as fast as the car would go. Every fifteen minutes or so he would take another swig without slowing down. Finally, he had to stop for gas. I decided that was as far as I was going his way. I thanked him for the ride, but silently thanked my lucky stars for that gas station.
In the shank of the afternoon I arrived at a home, in the little church community, where I was to sleep and eat my morning meals. No one in the family had much interest in what I had come to do. Most of the members of the family could not have cared less. Even worse, there must have been ten trillion tiny black gnats in the community. My guess is that not less than four of them could go, at the same time, through one of the small square holes in a screen wire. Those little nymphs chewed on me day and night during the whole week.
Judging by the lack of interest of most of the people of the church, my guess is that the whole thing was a momentary dream of one or two people, who had forgotten the dream before I arrived. By far the most important event of the week was a sad one, the death of a small child. It was my first attempt to conduct a funeral service. It was not easy. However, I have never conducted an easy one since.
I managed to live through the week and the hitchhike back to Birmingham, where I was to begin my life as a college student. I vaguely remember riding into the city with a truck driver, either late in the evening or early in the morning. I am not at all sure that is how or when I arrived. I had never been in any place larger than a one street town; never been on a streetcar. I have to assume the truck driver dumped me off somewhere in the warehouse district of the city. Memory refuses to affirm or deny that assumption. In fact memory refuses to provide any information as to how I found my way to the college, where I slept that first night or what time of day it was when it catches up with me in Mrs. Thomas' office.
Mrs. Thomas, I was to learn, was one of the older fixtures of the college. She was secretary, receptionist, chief paper pusher and watchdog of the offices of the administration. She ran the place. She knew all you needed to know about the college, past and present.
I introduced myself, telling her I was there to enroll in the college as a ministerial student. She informed me I was two weeks early; that it would be two weeks before registration would begin. "I know I'm early," I said. "I came early in order to find a job. I met Dr. Neal this summer. He promised me some kind of work that would pay for my room and board. If I may, I would like to register now, be given a room in the dormitory and find out the kind of work I will be doing." "Well," said Mrs. Thomas, "I can give you a room, but nothing will be going on here for another two weeks. As for the job, I suggest you talk to the President's secretary. (I don't remember talking with the President's secretary at that time or any other.)
It looked as though I was the only student, or prospective student, on the campus. It was obvious that Mrs. Thomas had time on her hands. She gave me a key to a room. While I was hesitating, wondering what to do next, Mrs. Thomas allowed, since she was not busy, she would register me and get me out of her office. She showed me the required subjects I would have to take. "But," she said, "you can take Greek rather than math, if you choose. Since you are going to be a minister Greek might help you in understanding the Bible."
How much that suggestion was motivated by the little fact that her husband taught Greek I'll never know. On her suggestion I signed up for Greek rather than math. Four years later I knew very little Greek and what I did and what I did know did not improve my understanding of the Bible. She and I, by some process, decided on what elective courses I would take. She then gave me a list of textbooks I would need and informed me I could buy them at the College Book Store.
I checked into my room and did the essential house keeping chores. Looking across the campus I saw a building being remodeled and brick veneered. I put on some work clothes and went over and started working, doing whatever I thought needed to be done - such as picking up and placing in piles scattered pieces of old lumber. I don't remember how long I worked there, hours or a day or so, before anyone thought to ask me who I was. When I explained I was informed a contractor was doing the job and I was not on his payroll. I never got paid for that volunteer work.
Here again memory has no information as to how I got in touch with the proper person of the College who could give and assign me a specific job or jobs.
Memory has no record of what that first job might have been. As it would have been called on the farm, there was a good size field or grass, or an under-grazed pasture, fenced in by eight of the college buildings. The shape of the pasture would look like a very big egg as an egg might be drawn by a person who knew nothing about the fine art of making something look oval on a flat surface. The first job I remember doing was pushing a grass cutter back and forth over that pasture.
I did a variety of jobs during my first year and the last half of my second year. Other than cooking, at one time or another, I did every job to be done in the kitchen and cafeteria of the boy's dormitory. One winter I was responsible for keeping the fire properly burning in the coal furnace of one of the buildings. I was the mailman of the dormitory during my second year.
Memory has refused to keep any record of where and how I got, during the first semester, the ready cash for books, paper, pencils, laundry, etc. I'm sure no one gave me any money. I am equally sure I didn't steal any. I have no memory of the college paying me in part with cash for the work I did. Yet I seemed to always have enough to pay for such essentials. So, I have to assume the college paid me in cash for part of the work I did. A church I worked for on Sundays may have given me a widow's mite. If so it was too little to remember.
MY FIRST CHURCH JOB IN THE BIG CITY
I landed my first church job in Birmingham even before classes started. A job I was soon to wish I had lost before getting it. A senior, who was studying to be a missionary, returned to the college a few days early. His name was Redwine. By some grape vine he had heard of me. He was the contact person at the college for all the Baptist churches in Birmingham, who wanted to exploit the students by conning them into working in their Sunday schools and B.T.U. programs. Redwine persuaded me, without knowing where or what, to take the job as B.T.U. director of a large church. I was to be given carfare and Sunday evening meals. There was an east-west double-track streetcar line on the street in front of the College campus. The college was located near the east side of the city. To get to his church I had to take a car going west and ride to the far west side of Birmingham, then transfer to another car and ride north for some fifteen minutes, to one of the large industrial communities which make up the larger city of Birmingham.
Remember, I had no experience working in a church larger than a one-room building, curtained off into more than eight classrooms. I had never been involved in a B.T.U. program larger than three small groups. This church had a large basement, cut up into a number of classrooms with a good size assembly hall. The basement housed the junior Department. The building had two other wings or floors where the intermediate, senior and adult groups met
My first Sunday evening on the job was worse than a nightmare. The bell was rung at the proper time for all departments to assemble for their separate opening services. After some ten minutes, as the new director, I decided to visit the departments to see and be seen, and get some idea what kind of job I had accepted, sight unseen. I descended the stairway to the basement, expecting to find a devotional service in progress. Instead I found myself in a wild stampede of what looked like fifty or more ten to twelve year old boys and girls running around like a disturbed bed of "piss-ants", making enough noise to wake up the dead. I watched the leaders of those hyenas for a minute or so, as they hopelessly tried to herd them together and get some kind of order. Then, without the proper words for it, I spoke with my meanest and loudest mule-cursing voice and said, "Sit down and shut up!" There was dead silence, for maybe twenty seconds, just long enough to discover from where came such a strange and loud noise. Then the running and hollering began all over. I collared one little rascal as he passed. I asked where he was going. He didn't know.
"Is your mother upstairs?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered.
"You get up there and don't come back without her," I ordered.
When I let him go he took off in high gear, but in the opposite direction from the stairway. To avoid being run over, or mortally wounded by flying debris, I made for the stairway myself.
It must have been thirty minutes later when I stumbled upon the young people's department. I found twenty or more high school youth sitting around in a nice assembly room laughing and talking with each other. At least it seemed a safer place to be than the junior department. No one acted as though there were aware of my presence. I observed for a few minutes. As far as I could tell no one was in charge and no program was in progress. There was no adult sponsor to be seen. I interrupted their chitchat to introduce myself, and to ask who was in charge of the program. The silent response looked like, "Program? What's that?"
It was obvious, no program had been planned. No parts had been assigned. Finally, one program booklet was found and the parts assigned on the spot. The book was passed from one reader to the next, each reading, or mumbling, through his part without any preparation or thought. However, as I was soon to learn, their preparation was but little less than the minister made for his Sunday evening sermon.
We ate the leftovers from the noon meal about an hour before B.T.U. time. After the meal the minister would pull out a drawer of a filing cabinet, fish through a dozen or so old sermons, looking mostly at the titles, until he found one that suited his fancy at the moment. He glanced through the two or three pages of scribbled notes for not more than fifteen minutes. As far as I could tell that was the extent of his preparation for the evening sermon, not counting the original preparation. Not much more preparation than the young people made for their parts.
The description you have just read of the situation is ninety-five percent truer than you can, perhaps, believe. For three or more months I wasted my Sunday afternoons and evenings in a vain effort to find a way to be useful in that situation. I was saved from having to give the job up as a lost cause when I was invited to preach one Sunday for the Sulphur Springs Baptist Church. I accepted the invitation without hesitation. After the service the church invited me to be their once-a-month minister. I accepted that in double-time.
I arrived back in Birmingham in time to make the hour-long car ride to my B.T.U. job. I made the ride with a light and joyful heart. I knew this was to be my last ride to that church. The minister accepted my resignation with regrets, but maybe with as much joy in his heart as there was in mine. In my own judgment I had failed even to begin to do the job to my satisfaction. I could believe the situation was no worse when I left than it was when I began. That, however, was nothing to brag about. Had it gotten worse it would have been absolute chaos.
MY JOB AT THE SULPHUR SPRINGS BAPTIST CHURCH
The Sulphur Springs Church was 25 miles north of Birmingham. It hung near the bottom of a middle-size mountain, some hundred yards south of four or five sulphur springs, in a small recess of the mountain. Two or more generations before my time, the water from those springs had been used to exploit the sick, by advertising it as a cure for whatever might ail you. The water was bottled and jugged, like beer and wine, and shipped as far as advertising could reach. The community grew into a large health resort. Two or more large frame hotels, in the last stages of dilapidation, still remained as reminders of the "good old days."
Long before I arrived on the scene the community had returned to its normal one country store size, hardly more than a ghost of itself when its sulphur water was the "sulphur drug", sixty or more years before the age of the sulfa drug. In 1932-3 there were maybe a half dozen native families and as many more retired families living in their cabins on the mountainside.
Some years later I took my family by to see the first church I served as minister, and see if I could con them into drinking some healing water from the sulphur springs. Mary Beth, my youngest daughter, was a pre-schooler at the time. We parked by the road and made the very short walk to the springs. I dipped up a cup of the "healing" water. Rose, my older daughter and Elien were skeptical and hesitated to partake. They graciously insisted that innocent little Mary Beth drink first. She took the cup, took one sip, then without a verbal comment, but revealing her reaction well enough in her facial expression, stepped up and empted the cup back into the spring. Indeed, the water smelled terrible and tasted worse.
MY COLLEGE DORMITORY ROOMMATES
During my first, second, and fourth years at Howard I lived in the dormitory. At the request of his father, Dr. Sandlin, his son, Rupert, was my first roommate. Like father, Rupert was a sloppy person in every way thinkable, save one. He was not easily provoked to anger. Just or unjust criticism rolled off Rupert without touching his emotions, as easily as water rolls off of a duck's back. This perfect control of his anger provided him with a defense that no expression of anger, hate, or abuse, however vile, could penetrate. This virtue of his, as he used it, was a deadly weapon by which he could force you, in self-defense, to accept Rupert as he was and, silently, to forgive and forget what otherwise would be unforgivable conduct.
I soon discovered he had sticky fingers. Nothing of value could be left in sight. The College also discovered as much and perhaps more. Anyway, the school found him to be an undesirable student and sent him on his way. I never saw Rupert again after he left the school.
Mark Lohr, an Englishman, was my second roommate. He had a decided British accent. He was just the opposite of Rupert - clean cut in every way. I judged him to be in his mid-thirties. I learned next to nothing of his past, his family or how it was he drifted into the college student body a bit late. He never seemed ready to talk about himself and I respected his right to silence concerning his biography. He was a charming and interesting character.
It was not long, however, before he fell madly in love with a girl studying to be a minister. So, they were married. They began their life together, having only one another and a blind faith and hope that their love would provide all things, even a job. Years later I heard he was running a small country-like store somewhere on the edge of Birmingham.
Mr. Newman, in his late thirties, was my third roommate. He was a minister of a country church not too far from Gadsden, Alabama. He was married and had one child. He was a very likable man, weighted down with serious financial and family problems. Yet, as he was going to bed I could be telling him my best two-minute joke but by the time I got to the punch line he would be sound asleep. How he could do that was, and remains, a mystery to me.
Nathan Sims was my last roommate. When Newman left Sims moved in toward the end of my freshman year. We remained roommates during the rest of my dormitory life - that is during my sophomore and senior years. Nathan was a World War I veteran. As I, he too was born and reared on Sand Mountain. He is the fellow who had heard my Uncle John preach and thought he was great. Sims was a ministerial student, but a perpetual one. He was enrolled in Howard when I arrived. I left him there four years later. I doubt if he ever got a degree. He was a wonderful man. He knew his limitations and accepted them with good grace. He was a kind, thoughtful and generous man. He had a very small skin cancer in one of his ears. It spread very little during the four years I knew him. Some ten years later, just by chance, I met him on a sidewalk in Gadsden. The cancer by then had covered most of one side of his face. Yet, he was still the same hopeful man he was when I first met him. Seemingly, he was still able to wring and twist something satisfying out of his tragic existence.
An Assyrian wandered into the dormitory one evening. He had enrolled in the college as a ministerial student. He had no place to sleep. Sims and I found a mattress, put it on the floor between our beds and let him sleep there until we found him a room and bed, and a job of some sort to pay for his keep. He stayed around for a while and then disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared.
LIVING OFF CAMPUS
At the beginning of my junior year I got conned into joining a group of ten or eleven other ministerial students in an ill-fated adventure. We rented a large house near the campus. One of the fellows had been a cook in a CC camp. We agreed to give him free room and board to do the cooking. The rest of us would take turns doing the rest of the kitchen work, such as washing the dishes, and keeping the rest of the public parts of the house clean. The roommates were responsible for keeping their own room. Everyone except the cook was to pay an equal share of the housekeeping budget.
The adventure might have been successful enough had everyone been able to pay his part and willing to do his share of the work. From the very beginning there was hardly a week when everyone paid his full share, or did his fair share of the work. It was true the cook was far from being the first class cook. However, he might have done better if he had had more and better things to cook. It was an interesting adventure but by mutual agreement it was abandoned after one semester.
During the second semester of my junior year I lived with the Jones family. When and where I met the Jones I do not recall. Mr. and Mrs. Jones were in their mid-sixties. They had three daughters. Two of them were schoolteachers and provided most of the money for the family budget. They were a few years older than I. The other daughter was a first year student at Howard and was in love with one of the football players.
They lived five or six blocks from the campus. My room was in the basement, heated by a small portable kerosene stove. One morning I left the stove burning with the wick turned up a speck to high. When I returned that afternoon I found yarn size strings of greasy soot like stalactites, hanging from the ceiling, every pipe and lamp fixture. The bed and floors were covered with the black stuff. After hours of work, by all of us, the room was made livable again. When I moved out the next spring you did not have to look with care to see evidence of that sooty experience.
Mr. Jones was a kind and gentle soul, with a few often repeated opinions of his own, which were kindly ignored by the rest of the family. He was an attendant at the small East Lake Park. His job, like my present one, had nine-nine percent of the work picked out of it. For the most part it required that he be there at a given hour, and stay there until a later hour of the day. Mrs. Jones was a large and motherly woman who was a great cook. She babied me as if I were her own son, had there been one.
While I was away during the summer the Jones family moved into a house just behind the dormitory. They had no basement room for me to soot up, but they did insist that I take my meals with them for nearly nothing. Sims and I shared a room in the dormitory, which I paid for by doing some piddling job for the college.
CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS AND HOUSE SITTING WITH BED BUGS
A college campus is a quiet place during the Christmas holidays. Rarely do you see a student during those two weeks. I spent two Christmases on the campus of Howard College. "Why?" I had no money to go anywhere and I took a job that staying there was part of the job. I was to fire up the furnaces if the weatherman predicted freezing weather. That was to prevent the water pipes from freezing. Memory reports that it never got that cold during either of the Christmas Holidays.
During one of those Christmas Holidays I stayed in the apartment of professor Irns. He was the faculty advisor at the boys' dormitory. He and his wife and small child lived in an apartment on the ground floor of the dormitory. He wanted me to stay there to keep and eye on the apartment as well as the dormitory. No, it was not a lost Christmas for me. It gave me some time for silence and solitude; time, as Sandburg said, "to get at myself", to ponder decisions that have to be made "in silent rooms."
The second Christmas I spent on campus was not as comfortable as the first. That was due to letting myself promise a friend to do something without first finding out more about the conditions in which I would be sleeping. There was a family with a traveling husband - home only on weekends. His wife and brood of children were afraid to stay there at night by themselves. This friend of mine, Marvin Gardner, was paid some little sum to sleep at the home on weeknights. Marvin wanted to go home for the holidays and the family was going on a two-week vacation. They asked my friend to find a student to sleep at their house while they were away. As it turned out there were a number of factors that made this arrangement a Christmas spoiler, to say the least.
First, and least, the home was several blocks from the campus. Second, the place was worse than dirty. It was down right filthy. Third, a large litter of rats lived there. The first night I went I bought a small sack of peaches on the way. Those I didn't eat I left on the kitchen table. The next morning all that was left of the peaches were the seeds and the torn sack. Every time I turned off the light I could hear them running through the house.
The fourth factor, and worst of all, the bed I was to sleep on was inhabited by a million bed bugs, more or less. As soon as I went to bed they were running all over me, drilling for blood from stem to stern. When I turned the light on I saw that many of them had already hit gushers. It was not only dangerous to try to sleep in that bed, it was useless. I found a quilt in a closet and put it on the floor as far from the bed as possible. Some of them found me before morning. The rats and bed bugs kept me twisting and turning through the night. The next day I told a druggist the predicament I was in and asked for advice. He said he had something that would solve my problem and he would sell it to me if I would promise to use all of it as soon as I opened the bottle and wash the bottle out before throwing it in the trashcan. I promised, and followed his instructions. I poured it around the edges of the mattress. He said that the stuff would kill the bed bugs and anything else that swallowed few drops of it. The odor alone should have been enough to kill most anything. It either killed the bed bugs or ran them out of the bed. I plugged all holes through which the rats might get into the bedroom. By going very late to my sleeping quarters and returning very early to my dormitory room I managed to live through that Christmas holiday and read Paradise Lost, by Milton.
Dean Burns taught English Literature. He promised to add 10 points to the semester grade of anyone who would read Paradise Lost during the holidays. Thinking I might need those extra points I resolved to read the poem. In answer to the question, "Did you read Paradise Lost?" I answered, "Yes." As proof I quoted these lines:
"They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way."
Toward the end of my freshman year I began looking for a summer job. In the process I learned the College would be using the boys' dormitory for a girls' dormitory during the summer school. I got the job of cleaning the place up for the girls. I had two weeks to do the job. The dormitory was a three-story brick building of some sixty rooms on the second and third floors. The ground floor housed the kitchen, dining room, public living room and apartments for the faculty advisor, the dietitian, and the housemother.
Mrs. Emery, the sister of the president of the college, played the roll of housemother during my time. She was a lovely woman and a real mother to me in many ways. On Commencement Day I was washing the outside of the windows on the second floor. I lost my balance and fell, breaking both bones in both legs; the right one between knee and ankle; the left in the ankle. My screams for help got the attention of someone and I was soon on my way to a hospital in a screaming ambulance. The pain was acute at the slightest movement of either leg. It felt like they were moving almost constantly. A wheel running over gravel no larger than a crowder pea seemed to be enough to move one or both of them.
Dr. Bancroft was the College doctor. He, with the help of a bone specialist, put my bones back together. Believing that the break in the ankle might leave my left leg useless, the doctors, to assure me at least one good leg, put a steel plate in the right one to make sure the bones would knit back properly. Some time after the bones had healed, due to some minor complication, they had to remove the plate.
Part of the time in the hospital I was too drugged to remember all who came and went. I remember my father coming, and friends from Holly Pond. Some of the professors came, and Mrs. Emery was there at all crucial times. When I awoke after an operation she was there holding my hand.
Air conditioning was still a necessity of the future. In 1933 even an electric fan was not counted among the essentials for a hospital room. The hospital would rent a patient one for twenty-five cents a day. One hot day Mrs. Cox, my adopted mother from Gadsden, was there. She made arrangement for a fan to be placed in my room any day thereafter that I might need it. Now and then someone from the Sulfur Springs community would stop by. One was a retired man. He was not a member of the church. In fact, he was an agnostic. However, he was usually at church when I was there; more, I would think, for the human fellowship than to hear my sermon. Once he brought me the famous poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, and a magazine article about the author. I memorized the poem. Here it is:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade.
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
The poem expressed for me something I believe has helped me over many rough places through the years. I learned from the poem that however much external forces - forces beyond my control - may play in determining the circumstances of my life, I, as Sandburg suggested, "am the keeper of the zoo", of the invisible world of my mind and heart. There, I am the one who "says yes and no." It is I who make the final decision as to how I shall respond to what happens to me.
After four weeks in the hospital I was taken to the College infirmary. The infirmary was a small house just back of the dormitory. My nurse, orderly, janitor and fetcher of my meals, as well as the intern on duty, was a ministerial student, Johnny Johnson. I was his only patient. I should add that Johnny was not a very good janitor, but a kind and helpful friend. He was in summer school and received his room and board for looking after me. I was in the infirmary the better part of three months. Many hours of most days I was alone, but rarely lonely. The aloneness gave me time to try to get to know me a little better; time to take stock of the narrow and broad dimensions of my mind and heart; time to try to recognize and evaluate all the voices of the "menagerie" that is I; time to explore, up to limits of my mind, "all that my heart knows."
During that summer a football player, doing some makeup work, fell madly, and blindly, in love with one of the girls in summer school. She was the daughter of a prominent family of the State. Her father was a judge of some rank. They wanted to get married secretly. Johnny Johnson agreed to perform the ceremony. The law required that a witness to be present. To solve that problem they got married in my bedroom. So they were secretly married. If my memory kept the record straight, they did not live happily ever after. Well, for that matter, who does?
Near the end of August Dr. Neal, the president of Howard College, came to see me. He suggested I go home for a visit and come back when I felt like it, even if that had to be a week or two late. "Don't worry," he said, "about money. We will take care of you until you are able to work." Then he added as he was leaving, "The next time you fall, young man, try to land on your head, maybe that won't hurt you."
At that time I was on crutches and could maneuver but poorly. My trip home is almost a complete blank page in my memory. Stranger still I was never aware of that fact until I started, just now, to write a report of the trip. I remember clear enough going to see my Isom grandparents. My memory has a good picture of them sitting on the front porch. Memory also kept a very good road map by which I could find my way to their place today without any difficulty. I dimly remember it was Mr. Buckner who took me to see my grandparents. Those are all the details I can remember of my trip home in late August of 1933.
How I went and returned, with whom I stayed, how long I stayed, other relatives and friends I saw, where I got the money to make the trip, when I returned to the college, the people who took me to the train or bus station at both ends of the trip - all such details have been erased from my memory. Memory catches up with the details of my life only after I am back in the dormitory. Why these blank pages in my memory? I haven't the faintest idea. Until now, my trip home in the summer of 1933 was a fact in my life that was never questioned. Now, realizing how little of the details of such a trip can be recalled, I wonder if the trip was ever made. However, if I stayed in Birmingham, memory provides me with no details of my life between the time of President Neal's visit and the time I was back in the dormitory attending classes. Either way there is nearly a complete blank space in my memory.
During the months of my recovery Mr. and Mrs. Napier, retired missionaries, sent me $5.00 a month. Their son David was a classmate of mine. When they learned I needed a bike they loaned me David's.
My walking ability improved rapidly. By October the first I was able to make the rounds to my classes without crutches. This was about the time Uncle Jack, my mother's youngest brother - the alcoholic - came by for a visit. He went to either a Greek or a Latin class with me. Two other men were with him. As he was leaving he gave me a dollar or two. I remember thinking he had borrowed the money from the men with him. Due to a later experience with my Uncle, I have reason to believe the two men with him had been deputized to take my Uncle to a veteran's hospital. To delay the trip to the hospital as much as possible he had persuaded the men to let him stop to see his crippled nephew.
My broken ankle had no bend in it, but there was some pain in every step. I was told that exercise was the only hope for any improvement. By December I decided I would have to find a job that would force me to walk more. Also, I was beginning to feel guilty about being a free loader on the College. Thinking a paper route might be what I needed, I asked a friend, Marvin Gardner, who had a route, what the possibilities might be for me in such a business venture. He asked his manager to keep me in mind if something should become available. A week or so later Marvin was offered a better route. He took it and I got his old route.
AS A PAPER RETAILER IN THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
Marvin was not one to over burden you with too much information about anything. He told me my route was adjacent to one of the larger train stations of the city, nothing else. I went with him on the route one day and took over the business the next.
My knowledge of the paper retailing business is too limited to praise or condemn the business in general. The wisdom I pass on here, to prospective entrepreneurs in this service industry, was brewed from the knowledge I gleaned by delivering papers on a route in a whorehouse district in Birmingham, Alabama, between December of 1933 and June of 1934.
On reliable evidence (all circumstantial of course) forty percent of my good customers were whores. Another forty percent, equally as good, were the poor Black people living in the alleys. No, it was not an integrated community. They were two separate communities, as much so if they had been miles apart. The other twenty percent of my customers were the never-do-well persons of both communities. These riff-raff customers, with the help of my manager, almost forced me into bankruptcy in less than a month. My manager gave me papers to offer free for the first week to new subscribers. All those, who had been dropped by former carriers, for non-payment, were eager to take the new carrier's offer to subscribe to the paper, with the understanding they did not have to pay for the first week. During the first two weeks I was picking up new customers right and left.
When I stopped to collect for the second week, here are examples of what I collected: "Don't have any change, catch me next week." "Don't get paid until next Saturday, catch me every two weeks." Some such "pay me later" excuse was ninety-nine percent of what I collected from my new customers. At the same time I had to pay for their papers.
I informed my manager that henceforth I would have to ask my new customers to pay in advance for the second week of the paper. He didn't like the idea. When I showed him my profit and loss columns his own sense of human decency persuaded him to agree.
A couple of weeks later, when I came in for my papers my manager was all smiles, saying: "Look what I got you." He handed me a list 20 names and addresses of new customers. The deal was these new customers were to get the paper free for two weeks. He acted as though he was hurt when I did not jump up and down in thanksgiving for the new customers he had found for me. I reminded him that I was just getting over the losses I incurred, due to new customers, during my first three weeks on the job. I admitted I was in the business partly for reasons of health - hopefully for the health of one ankle, but the rest of me was in the business to try to make a little money. I agreed to throw the free papers for two weeks, if it was understood I could cut all the new customers off who didn't pay in advance for the third week. I reminded him that he must know the odds are ninety-five to one that I would not be able to collect for the third week of papers from 18 of the 20 new customers. His own conscience did the rest. He accepted my offer. I may have gotten one, but not more than two, customers from the twenty on the list.
I discovered that in my little business adventure everyone involved was under pressure. The people to whom I sold the papers were under the pressures of need and desire to buy more than they were able to pay for. My manager was under the pressure of those above him to sell more and more to satisfy their needs and greed, as well as the pressure of his own needs and ambitions. Caught in between those on both sides, who seemed to be willing to take as much as possible from me, and give in return as little as possible, I saw no way to stay alive other than firmly insist that I get something for myself for the work I was doing. I tried to do this without making myself obnoxious, but by being a dependable "cog" in the machine, faithfully delivering the papers on time and paying promptly for all the papers I ordered each week, but, firmly and as kindly as possible, refusing to pay for any papers I did not order. Also, exercising the freedom and responsibility of finding my own new customers and deciding for myself on what terms I would do business with each of them.
Early in January of 1934 I bought a book of meal tickets and informed Mrs. Emory I thought I was now able to pay for my meals. Up until then I had been a guest of the College. With the money I made retailing papers in a whorehouse district, and with what I got for preaching at Sulphur Springs once a month, I was able to pay for my meals, with enough left over for the other bare necessities. I got the job as mail carrier to the dormitory and that paid for my room. This job required walking a half block to the main building, once each day, picking up the dormitory mail and sticking the mail under the proper doors of the dormitory.
Believe it or not the whores were no temptation to me: not because I was above the temptation of sex, but because sex, as a commodity to be bought and sold, was then, as now, repulsive to me. Observing them every day for months it was obvious that they had hard and unhappy lives. Some still in their twenties, without their makeup, looked old and worn-out. If you can forget the sadness and hopelessness of their lives you might find a few of my encounters with them amusing.
One beautiful day two attractive young women were standing just inside a picket fence that separated them from the sidewalk. One was a blond the other a brunette. I stopped and asked if they would be interested in subscribing to the Birmingham Post. The brunette, with just a picket fence between us, looking me straight in the eyes, said, "Shit no!" I silently blushed as I hastened on my way. That was the first time I had heard a woman use that four-letter word.
One really hot day I stopped to collect. When I identified myself as the paperboy the customer yelled, from somewhere in the house: "I have broken my leg. You will have to come in to collect." I found her stretched out on a bed wearing hardly more than a cast on one leg. She instructed who I assumed was her teenage daughter to pay me. The girl was wearing a garment through which I could see everything there was to see. While the girl and I were transacting our financial business the mother was bemoaning her fate, wondering out loud if she would be able to bear the pain of her broken leg and the hot weather much longer. I assured her the broken leg and the hot weather would not kill her, for I had lived through the summer of 1933 with both legs broken and in casts. That seemed to give her some hope. Before she could begin cursing her fate again I made my departure.
There was another customer who lived in a house with a front porch about knee high above the ground. I usually knocked on the floor of the porch and she would come out to the edge of the porch to pay me. She paid every other Saturday. Often I would ask her if she was going to church the next day. Her answer was always no, but in a variety of ways: such as, "Don't know." "Maybe." "Can't tomorrow." "Have to work." "Guess not."
After hearing such answers for three or more months, I asked, "will you tell me why you can't go the church?" There was some hesitation before she said: "Well, I have to make a living." The way she said it and the tone of her voice revealed that she, too, was in the whoring business. Until then I had not noticed her displaying any of the common advertising signs of the profession. The size of the woman may have prevented me from noticing her advertisements. She stood over six feet. She was both broad and thick. Fat may have accounted for some of her dimensions, yet she was far from being obese. The proper curves of her body were visible and, to say the least, not ugly. She was just an ungodly large woman.
I had thought of her as a person beyond middle age. The next time I collected I took a close peep at her face, which suggested she was still in her twenties. I confess she became a slight temptation to me, not by what she was selling but by her size. I could not resist wondering what she would look like without any clothes on. No, I never found out.
Did all the biking and walking, for nine months in the paper business, improve the health of my broken ankle? Yes. However, for three or more months it was a very painful treatment. There were many days when every step was more painful than the step before. It was five miles to the Birmingham Post Building downtown, where I got my papers. The Napiers loaned me David's bike, on which I made the ten-mile round trip six times a week. This took not less than an hour. I left the bike where I picked up my papers. To throw the papers and get back to the bike took more than an hour. I should add it was pure luck that I escaped being run over a number of times in the going and coming.
By the time I got back to the dormitory the ankle would be twice its normal size. I would take a hot shower and stay off of it as much as possible the rest of the day. By the next morning the swelling would be gone but the ankle would be as stiff as a board. The first dozen or so steps were very painful - like my ankle was being pierced by needles from every direction. However the pain would soon diminish until it was back to its normal and bearable level. Slowly it became less painful for me to make the bike ride and throw my papers. In June of 1934, when I retired from the paper business, my ankle would bend enough to walk without limping. It has improved but little, if any, since then. The ankle is still a bit painful in the morning after an abnormal exercise the day before. To change to shoes with lower heels produces the same morning after effect. However, I have been lucky in that I'm still unable to predict a change in the weather by how my legs feel.
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