GROWING UP AND HIGHT SCHOOL YEARS
John B. Isom
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MORE LESSONS IN SALESMANSHIP
It was in a conversation with a shoe salesman in Gadsden Alabama, during my college years that I received my second lesson in the selling business. He told me of a sale he made to a woman. She had come in with a little girl, six or seven years old, and asked for a certain style of shoe she wanted for the child. As he was measuring the girl's foot the mother said, "She wears a size six." Knowing she would need a larger size he fetched a size 7 1/2. The girl was pleased by the way they felt and looked. The mother, after a careful look asked: "Are they a size six?" No madam." said the salesman, "The size is a 7 1/2. A six is too small and will hurt your daughter's feet. They could cause permanent damage. Also, because a six is too small, I cannot guarantee the shoes will not rip". 'But I want a size six for my daughter,' the mother demanded."
"I'm sorry," said the salesman. "I can not sell you a size six for that little girl."
Now, being as mad as an old setting hen, the woman grabbed her purse and made for the door, grumbling her protest all the way. Here that best part of me surfaced just long enough to say, " Go thou and do likewise," as that salesman. Later in the day the woman meekly returned and bought the same size the salesman had suggested.
It was during my first year at the Baptist Seminary, in Louisville Kentucky, that I got my third lesson, or lessons, in the selling business. To stay in the seminary I knew I had to get a job. So I reported to the office of the Seminary two weeks early, rented a room in the dormitory, washed up a bit and began meandering through the halls of that huge building. In time I stumbled upon the lobby. It seemed I was the only on in the building. Glancing at the bulletin board I say an inch ad that read: "Wanted, a shoe salesman: Call Burt's Shoe Store". I called and reported that my call was in answer to his ad. I told him who and where I was and why I needed a job, and asked when I could start selling shoes. "Come in tomorrow or the next day and we will show you around. Maybe we can use you this week-end," said the man at the other end of the line.
The next day I spent an hour or two in the store. They showed me how and where to find the different styles of shoes, and gave me the selling procedure to be followed. This store was one of many, in a chain of stores , for women only - no kids' or men's' stuff. The procedures were rigid and determined by the top sales people in an office in New York City or somewhere else. Among others, there were three sacred rules. It was an unpardonable sin to disobey any one of them. First, when it began to appear that you were not going to make a sale you were to walk by the manager and say, as you passed, "33". That was his cue to send another sales person to replace you. The second sacred procedure came just after the customer agreed to buy a pair of shoes. Before writing up the sales ticket, or taking the lady's money, you were to show her a purse and shoe polish to match her new shoes. Then you wrote up the sales ticket for the things you had persuaded her to buy, crammed the ticket and money received into one of the shoes, then, with the bought merchandise in hand you led the customer, not to the cashier, but to the hosiery lady, who worked behind the same counter as the cashier, and introduced them. Introducing of the customer to the hosiery lady was the third sacred rule.
I had no trouble following these sacred rules unless a customer said, "You have shown me the shoes I came in to see, and I thank you, but I don't like them. I don't want you or any other salesman to show me any more shoes". Or if a customer, having bought a pair of shoes quickly added, "I don't need any polish and I don't care to look at your purses," or, I don't want any hose". To ignore such expressed wishes, and then seconds later act as though I had never heard them, seemed to me to be more unpardonable than ignoring one or more of the sacred rules. The manager would always chew me out when he caught me doing what I judged to be the lesser sin. In vain I would try to explain why I felt justified in ignoring the rule(s). However sensible and just my excuse might have been it was always unacceptable. These arguments went on for some time. One day I said, "Look, I know the rules. I always obey then when I can. But to do something 10 seconds after a customer has asked me not to is not only an insult to the woman, it makes me fell like an idiot as well. If you want me to work here you will have to trust me to use my own judgment about these matters". No, he didn't fire me. From then on he ignored my sins. When I left I think he would have given me a good recommendation had I asked for one.
When I started working at the shoe store I decided I would not lie about the size of the shoes. How much or how little I lied in the sale I report here I will let you be the judge. A polite and charming woman came in and gave me a number that indicated a style of shoe she had seen in the window, and expressed the desire to try them on. While measuring her foot she said. " I wear a four". My measuring gadget told me she wore a six. Not seeing a six right off I brought back a 6 1/2. and put them on her feet. She got up, looked at them in the mirror, walked around a bit, looked down at their back and front, looked at them again in the mirror while wiggling her toes. "These feel a little big." she said. "Do you have a 3 1/2". I thought they were a little too large myself. I went back in the stacks and was lucky enough to find a size six. I put them on her feet, and she went through all the looking, turning, walking and wiggling as she had before. "I'll take them," she said. I went through all the sacred rites of getting her to the cashier and on her way with her size 3 1/2 shoes that I knew were 2 1/2 sizes larger. Remember, she never asked me what size the shoes were. Remember, also, I didn't tell her.
In this case what I have been calling the best part of me, or that "something else," found no fault with my motives, and said so. At the same time, he, she, or it, was unsure as to the rightness or wrongness of my silence about the size of the shoes. A few years later I read Shakespeare poem that advised a father as to what to tell his son who was approaching manhood. Here are four lines of that advise:
"Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use amongst other people."
REFLECTIONS ON "WILDERNESS"
I suppose it was the "white lie" suggestion that reminded me of my silence about the size of those shoes, and the uncertainty as to the ethics of that silence suggested I reread the last lines of the poem, Wilderness, by Sandburg.
"Oh, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valved heart - and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where: For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no.
"I am the keeper of the zoo: I'm the one who says yes and no:"
I'm the one in the charge of the zoo; I'm the one who must judge between the animals of this zoo, and decide which one is to be followed in this and that situation. There is no one else to decide. Therefore, I am not always so God-Almighty sure where I'm going or should go.
It was from such reflections that it began to dawn upon me that we may very well be alone here: here on a level of being - life - where there is, within our reach, no authority in heaven, on earth or in our hearts that can always answer our questions with absolute yeses and noes. Even the best in my zoo - the "advanced cry" of my heart - can only provide me with finite and imperfect answers. My heart confesses as much; saying in substance - "I, the voice of the animal of my zoo which I exalt above all others, I too am finite. I 'only know in part' and what I see I see 'through a glass darkly' So the greatest virtue toward which I must forever strive has to be humility. I must always be humble before the mystery of this zoo of my life, and even more humble before the greater mystery of Life as such, in all of its minute and cosmic manifestations.
Mr. Cook had been a Mason for many years. Once a month, rain or shine, in his one horse wagon he made the three mile trip to Holly Pond to attend his lodge meeting. It was after we moved there that he resigned from his Masonic lodge and joined a hard-shell Baptist Church. This church did not believe in secret orders, such as the Masons. All my encounters with Mr. Cook were pleasant ones. In his quiet and non-pretentious way of expressing himself I was made to feel I was in the presence of a person who was as he seemed to be. Once he and I were sitting up with a corpse. During the wee hours of the night, in the presence of the dead, we quietly talked about many things. I had, by then, become more interested and active in the Sunday school and had begun reading the Bible. Religious questions had begun to interest me. During that long night our conversation drifted onto the subject of churches and religion. He spoke of his years as an active Mason and the helpful role it had played in his life, and simply reported, what I already knew, that he left his Masonic lodge in order to qualify for membership in the church he had joined. The tone of his voice and facial expressions made it obvious that that decision had been a painful one for him to make. After a brief silence he sighed and continued, "If I were turned out of my church tomorrow I would go the next day and pay up my dues to the Masonic lodge."
Of course I didn't say so, but the thought ran around in my mind that here is a man who gave up something that meant more to him for something that was less meaningful to him. I wondered then why. I still wonder. He would have, I thought, been a happier man - more at peace with himself - had he been able to do something that would have caused him to be kicked out of his church.
Before we leave the Cook farm I want to say something about one of the sons of the Cook family. His name was Isaac Cook. He must have been in his mid fifties at the time.
The house on the Upchurch farm that we bought was smaller than the one on the Cook farm. We corrected that by building a large room onto the house. We also added a room onto the barn. There was a good well near the barn and we dug another in the backyard near the kitchen porch.
An old blacksmith shop on the place was bought with the farm. The bellow was an ancient one that was pumped by pulling down on a pole hanging on a hook with one end of the pole attached to the back end of the bellow by a short rope. Neither Papa, R.L. or I knew anything about how to sharpen a plough. Papa never tried to learn, but he wanted us to learn to sharpen our own ploughs using that bellow. After beating a few sweeps so badly out of shape that even an expert could not have salvaged them, and then going a few times to watch a blacksmith at work, we learned how to sharpen our own ploughs well enough to plough with them. We did not, however, advertise for business.
I was in my 14th year when we moved to the Upchurch farm. By this time a close friendship had evolved between me and Talmage Whatley. He was the oldest son of the Sunday school superintendent. He became my weekend brother. More and more of R.L.'s weekends were being spent with his girl friends. During the summer, after the crop was laid by, there would be a two-week singing school every summer, within a three mile radius of New Hope. Talmage and I, during our mid teens went to three such schools. The same things were taught year after year - just the bare rudiments of music: the length of notes and rests, lines and spaces, the clefts on which the different voices were written, the different kinds of time - 2/2, 3/4, 4/4 etc. We were taught to read music by the shape of the notes - Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, and Te - rather than associating the pitch with lines and spaces. No attempt was made to teach harmony. We were drilled daily in keeping time and in "beating time." in order to conduct group singing. Talmage and I were hams and became the star pupils in conducting.
As I have reported there was a Sunday afternoon singing on the third Sunday of every month at New Hope. On other Sundays of the month there were singings at one of the neighboring churches. After church Talmage and I would grab a bite to eat at his or my home and be off to a singing. Our singing school teacher, or someone who knew us, would see to it that each of us were asked to lead the singing for two or three songs. I always chose songs written in 4/4 time, for that was easiest for me to beat.
There may have been others who went to the singing schools we attended, who were hams enough to get up and conduct the songs at those afternoon singings. If so, I don't remember who they were. As I remember it, Talmage and I were the only ones hammy enough to try it. Both of us became preachers.
In 1926 two of Talmage's older sisters went to Cullman to high school. The church they attended in Cullman had a Baptist Young People's Union (B.Y.P.U.). When they returned in the spring of 1927 they organized a B.Y.P.U. group at the New Hope Baptist Church. The Union met every Sunday evening. The members were divided into groups of seven or eight, one being the group leader. The groups took turns planning and conducting the services. The Baptist Sunday School Board provided the church with the materials for the programs. Each member of the group in charge of the program was assigned his or her part a week in advance. The idea was not just to get up and read the part assigned, but to study the part and develop one's own speech based on the ideas suggested in his part. Some did little more than get up and read their parts without comment. A few did read and think of their part enough to have some thoughts of their own and tried to express them. Thus they acquired some skill in thinking and expressing their thoughts, as well as skills in leadership.
That summer a number of us, who had not done so, joined the church. In the fall I was asked to teach, of all classes, the young people's class - my own age group. I was too ignorant to have sense enough to say no. I took my responsibilities seriously. I began to carefully study the scriptures suggested for each lesson. I studied the comments in the lesson materials compiled by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention as well. I had learned, by then, some of the things Baptist believed, or professed to believe. Such as: The Bible is the infallible word of God; God was a supernatural being - all powerful, all knowing and all seeing, the creator of heaven and earth and all therein - whose headquarters were some where above, in a place called Heaven. I had learned from the Bible that Jesus was God's only begotten son, supernaturally conceived and born of the virgin Mary. I knew that God had sent Jesus from heaven to earth to live as a human among humans so there might be eye witnesses of one who knew and obeyed God's will. I knew all who believed in Jesus and followed him would be saved - saved meaning he would go to heaven when he died to live forever with God and Jesus and his saved loved ones and friends. I understood, at the time, that all those who did not believe in Jesus and follow him would be eternally lost, and that when they died they would go somewhere below, to a place called hell - there to suffer the torture of burning in hot fire forever.
All the preachers who came to preach to us, and all those whom I respected and looked up to as being the best people of the community - like Mr. Whatley and Mr. Sizemore - assured me that all the things stated above were true. I had no reason to doubt their honesty and sincerity.
MY B.Y.P.U. EXPERIENCES
It was during the early years of my B.Y.P.U. activities and Sunday school teaching that God The Father, God The Son and God The Holy Ghost began to play the role in my thinking that "the best part of me" had played during my childhood years. The verses - "Love your neighbor as you do yourself;" "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" - were now thought of as being what The Triune God expected of me, rather that what "the best part of me" expected of me. In making the mental transition from "the best part of me" to The Triune God, one thing was left unchanged - the role that was being played in my thinking and feeling by those two verses of Scripture. I could believe, without fear, that God would never expect better of me than what the ethics of love and equality expected of me, as those ethics are defined by those two verses of scripture.
Now, sixty years later I have to believe it's true - "We know only in part" - that we are, in fact, "surrounded by mystery" - that we have no absolute answers as to the cosmic meaning and purpose of our existence, here on this tiny speck of beautiful earth, in a vast ocean of time and space. Yet today, even more than sixty years ago, I can believe there is nothing within the reach of our knowing that can better advise us as to how we may make the best of our human existence than the ethics of love and equality, as defined in those two verses of Scripture. I believe that the greatest meaning to be given to our lives, and the best rewards that may be possible, depends upon how well we learn to love and treat each other as equals.
To be honest, I must confess, I was never as sure about many religious matters as the preachers I knew and some of my friends seemed to be. Hell, for example! I heard many sermons, during my childhood and youth that described hell in all of its horrible dimensions, but I do not recall any of them causing me to lose any sleep from fear of going there. My mother died when I was eight years old. I have heard many sermons describing what a beautiful place heaven is, but I confess that being reunited with my mother in heaven was never more than a faint and uncertain hope - a hope that played no great part in my future expectations. Some of my friends talked about heaven, hell, God and his will for their lives and for that of mankind, with such certainty, that I sometimes wondered if they had breakfast with God every morning. I was never as sure about such matters as my friends seemed to be. I could only believe and hope that in time I would know and understand enough to believe with a confidence equal to theirs.
RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME -- SORT OF
My friend Talmage had a married sister in Akron, Ohio. In the summer of 1927 he and I decided to go to Akron and make our fortune. He said his family would never let him go if he told them; that he would have to slip away on a day when the family would be out of the community. He knew the family was planning on going to the annual county Baptist convention which was to convene in a church some miles away. Provided he could make up an acceptable excuse for staying home, we agreed to leave on that day. Talmage had a buggy that was practically new. The plan was to drive to Cullman, sell the buggy, and put the mule in a public barn. He would leave a note telling his father where to find the mule. He would use fifty dollars of the money we got for the buggy to buy our tickets.
I had no intention of leaving without telling my father, but I waited to the last hour to do so. After the family retired the night before we were to leave, I packed a few clothes in a small pasteboard suitcase and pushed it under the bed. The next morning papa was cutting weeds along a ditch near the house. There on the ditch bank I told him what I planned to do. After a brief silence he said: "Son, I rather you wouldn't go." He paused again until he thought he could continue without choking up. "But," he said, "if that is what you think you have to do I am not going to say you can't go." He then asked me a few practical questions as to how I was gong to finance the adventure, where I would stay until I got a job, etc. I answered by telling him the details of our plan. We then said good-bye to each other, and a few minutes later Talmage came and we were on our way.
The unexpected happened. All we could get for the buggy was $25.00 - just enough for one ticket. I suggested that he go alone and I would try to join him later. I went to the train station and saw him off, caught a ride home, arriving just as the family was sitting down for supper. I remember well enough how glad and happy I was to be home.
This is as good a place as any to say what I must say somewhere in this tale of my life. I have heard of self made men. My own experiences tell me there is no such creature. For better or worse, for me, we only got $25.00 for the buggy. No one can ever know if that was good or bad luck. I only know that the road I have traveled was determined in part by accident and luck. Whatever we may achieve or become, of which we are proud, were made possible, in part, by the helping hands of loved ones, friends and even strangers. We do not make of ourselves what we are alone. At least I know that is true in my case.
Early in the evening Mr. Whatley returned home. Finding his son's note he came to our house to find out, no doubt, what Papa might know. He was surprised when I answered the door. We sat in his car while I told him what happened, and he shared with me what he thought may have been the reasons why Talmage wanted to leave home. I volunteered to drive to Cullman next day in my buggy and lead his mule home.
B.Y.P.U. and the EVA BAPTIST CHURCH
In the spring of 1928 a request came from the Eva Baptist church to send some one from our church to help them organize a B.Y.P.U. group. Eva was ten to twelve miles north of New Hope. The church sent me on that mission.
Before organizing the BYPU at New Hope a class on how to organize a BYPU group was taught. I attended those classes. It is a very simple organization: a president, vice president, secretary-treasurer and group captains. Not a very difficult job for anyone who has a copy of the manual and has been an active member of BYPU for two or more years.
A date was set. I ask the Eva church to order a supply of the program materials. In less than an hour, after the meeting was called to order, officers had been elected, the members divided into groups and a program planned for the next Sunday.
Some weeks, maybe months, later, for a reason I no longer remember, I went to the Eva church on Sunday morning. After church a young couple invited me to their home for dinner. They told me this story.
The evening we organized the BYPU a young man, about my age, was present. That evening he rode home with this young couple. They told me the young man was greatly impressed by what I did in helping to organize the BYPU. He thought it was remarkable, something far beyond anything he could hope to do. After so expressing himself he sighed and said: "I might have amounted to something had my mother lived."
The young man, of course, could not have known that my mother died when I was only eight years old. I made a pledge to myself that day - a pledge I have kept. I promised myself I would never use my mother's death as an excuse for any failure or lack of effort on my part.
A LUCKY ENCOUNTER WITH MR. E.L. BUCKNER
During the summer of 1928 Mr. E.L. Buckner, principle of the Holly Pond High School, came to see me. He had studied to be a Baptist minister and was a minister in the Arab community before he took the job as principal of the public school at Holly Pond in 1923 or 4. Through his efforts a four year high school was built in the community. The school term beginning in the fall of 1928 would be the senior year of the first freshman class of the high school.
When Mr. Buckner stopped by our place to see me he was trying to find enough prospective students to justify sending a bus down the road that passed our house. He wanted to know if my sister, Francis, and I would be interested in starting to high school. I had heard of Mr. Buckner, but had not met him. Since he was active in the Baptist Church in Holly Pond he may have heard of me. Anyway, this was the first time we met. I do not remember the introductory part of our conversation. The body of the conversation had to do with my going to high school and how important it was for me to do so. He wanted my sister and me to consider seriously beginning that fall. Other than expressing his hope of sending a bus by our house nothing had been said about helping me to go to school. But, seemingly, as an after thought he said: "If you really want to go to school I am in a position to help you, and, I will do more than you think I will." He said nothing as to what the nature of such help might be. But just as clearly as if he had said so, the suggestion ran through my mind that he meant, if need be, I could live with him and his family as long as I wanted to go to school. That fall, as he promised, he sent a bus by our house and Francis and I started to high school. Two or three weeks later he had to discontinue, for lack of students, sending the bus by our house, and we had to walk a mile to catch the bus.
In the fall of 1928 Talmage returned from Akron, driving a 1927 T model Ford, with a rumble seat and an exhaust whistle that could be heard a mile or more. A few weeks later he told me he was getting married and needed some money. He wondered if I would be interested in buying his car. I bought his car and then loaned it to him for his honeymoon trip. The last time I saw him was when he returned the car.
The summer of 1928 R.L. and his wife moved to Akron, where they lived until he retired at the age of 62. He died in November of 1984. He was 76.
In the winter of 1928 my step-mother died from pneumonia. It was on a cold wet night. Over roads sloppy and slick I drove half the night searching for a doctor who could come. One came, but his efforts were in vain. In those days doctors didn't even know what caused pneumonia, no more so than I did.
My step-mother's death made it necessary for Frances to drop out of school to manage the house and help care for Alfie and Anne-Bell who were only small children. I stayed in school, finishing my first year of high school in the spring of 1929. I was 20 years old. In August I would begin my second year.
In the early fall Papa married his childhood sweetheart, his half brother's widow, and decided to move to his wife's farm on Lookout Mountain, after the crops were gathered Frances and Brinton were also making plans to get married and did so in November. They went on their honeymoon in my T-Model Ford.
By December of 1929 I was the only member of the family left. My Isom Grandparents lived next door. I moved in with them for the time being, but by that time I saw no way I could continue high school beyond the first semester. My childhood sweetheart, Portis Snuggs, and I were considering the possibility of getting married. We found a small farm we wanted to buy and began trying to find a way to finance the deal, but our efforts had not been too hopeful.
It was around the middle of December that Mr. Buckner stopped me in the hall and asked me to stop by his office before I went home. There had been no significant conversation between us since the summer of 1928 when he came to my home to encourage me to start to high school. Since that time my contacts with him had been no more than that of any other average student who had managed to escape being sent to the principal's office for some infraction of the rules.
In his office he told me he knew of the death of my step-mother in late 1928, that he had recently learned of the marriage of my sister, and that my father had married and moved out of the community. Then he asked what I planned to do. I confessed that I did not see how I could continue in school beyond the first semester; that Portis and I were seriously considering getting married, if we could find a way to finance the purchase of a small farm we wanted. He asked me what luck we were having. Not much was my reply. He asked a few other questions in an effort, I suppose, to get some idea to what extent I wanted to continue in school. I don't remember the details of his questions or my answers. My answers, I'm sure, said in substance that I would like to continue but did not see how it would be possible. Then he said, and I'm sure these are his exact words:
"Well John, I don't want to butt into your business. However, if you really want to go to school you may come and live with me and my family as long as you want to go."
Remember, we had known each other for only a year and a half, and this was only our second conversation. I did not know what motivated him to make such an offer, and was at a loss to understand why, but I cannot say I was surprised, for in our first conversation, when he came to encourage me to start to high school, he had said, "I'll do more to help you than you might think I will." At the time the thought ran through my mind that the nature of that help might be just what he was now offering me. I was amazed then by his offer. I am even more so today. I now understand better, and have a greater awareness of what an ignorant, raw and uncouth country boy I was in 1929. It is still hard for me to imagine that he could have been motivated by any intellectual promise he saw in me. At that time even my average intelligence was hardly visible. Most of it was hidden beneath many layers of ignorance. Believe me, I am not stretching the truth. Mrs. Buckner is still living. Ask her! There is only one answer that might make some sense as to why he made me that offer. Simply, out of the goodness of the man, he wanted to help a very common, ignorant boy who had shown some will to try to make the most of the opportunities which had come his way.
He suggested I take my time to think about his offer before making a decision. I should talk it over with my Grandparents, and Portis. If need be I could wait until the beginning of the second semester, which started around mid January. I thanked him for his offer and promised to let him know my decision as soon as I could. I knew, however, before leaving his office what my response should be.
I do not remember the reaction of my Grandparents. My guess is it amounted to something like: "son, that is a decision you will have to make for yourself." During the next two weeks Portis and I went over the pros and cons a number of times. After due consideration of all points of view we had to agree, with some reluctance, that we should postpone getting married and I should accept Mr. Buckner's offer.
During the year (1929) we had raised two hogs. Papa and his new wife took one of them. Frances and I divided the other between us. Sometime during the 1929 Christmas holidays, in my T-Model Ford, with half of a three hundred pound hog, I went to live with the Buckners, as a member of the family.
The chores I did for the Buckners were hardly worth the salt in the bread I ate. I knew I was more than a little expense to them. Mr. Buckner got me the job as janitor of the school. That paid me hardly more than enough to keep me in clothes. During the summers I worked at whatever kind of job I could find. The last summer I was there I worked for a farmer, Mr. Burgess. He paid me ten dollars a month - yes, a month, plus my room and board. When I left for college that fall I had eight dollars in my pocket. That was eight more than farmer Burges had, perhaps, after his crop was sold. That was the fall of 1932. There were some fringe benefits to that summer job. The farmers daughter was at the time my girl friend and we used the family car more than the farmer. Mrs. Burgess could not have been nicer to me had I been her son.
The only thing I remember, of financial value, contributing to the Buckner family was the half hog I brought with me when I moved in. I was not totally unaware of the fact that I had to be more than a little bother to them, and no doubt a nuisance more often than I want to believe. Yet, during the two and half years I lived with them they tolerated me with such unbelievable grace and kindness that I was hardly conscious of the fact I was not an asset to the family.
The odds are more than 10.000 to one I would never have even started to high school had it not been for the Buckners. To the Buckners I owe a debt I can never repay.
PORTIS AND I
I had two dates before Portis Snuggs and I began our four year courtship. One of those dates was with Tressie Gilley, who lived two farms up the road from our farm. We sat in the living room during the afternoon on a hot summer day. I was in a chair, the cushion of which was covered with imitation leather. She showed me what must have been every picture the family had of the present and past families of her kin for generations. I sat so still that when I got up the seat of my pants was wet with sweat. It could not have been wetter had I had a number one* accident. That was the summer of my 16th year.
My second date was a double date with my brother. The girl, whose name I no longer remember, was a friend and neighbor of my brother's girl friend. After we returned to her home from wherever we went, she too showed me all the pictures the family had of themselves and their kin. When the pictures ran out neither of us could find much to say, and the situation became more and more embarrassing by the minute, and the sun was still an hour in the sky. Finally she said I would have to leave because she had another date that evening. I was so relieved to have an excuse to leave that it never occurred to me that I should be offended.
A few years later, during my senior year of high school, Mr. Buckner called me out of class one morning and told me a school teacher was stranded in Holly Pond and asked me to take his car and drive her to her school at Center Point, three miles away. The schoolteacher was none other that the girl of my second date. On the way she said she owed me an apology. "The time I had that date with you," she said, " I told you a lie. That was my first date. I became so embarrassed for not being able to think of something to say or do that I told you I had another date that evening so you would leave. That was a lie and I ask you to forgive me." I confessed that I had been so relieved to have an excuse to leave that it never occurred to me to be offended; that I was equally as embarrassed as she in not knowing what to do or say.
As the crow flies across a small stream and over a scope of woods, Portis lived only one half mile from my home. It was not less than two miles by road. Not many, but a few times, I walked the half mile, as the crow flies, for a short visit with Portis during the week. During the four years of our courtship we spent not less than ninety-five percent of Sunday afternoons and evenings together. My main means of transportation, during the first two years, was a horse or mule and buggy. The T-Model Ford served that purpose during the other two.
Once in a great while we would go with her family, in their car, over in Blunt county to visit some of their kin, or to Cullman to see a movie. (Her parents were mostly non-going-to-church Methodist and were not too religious to go to the movies on Sunday). Most of the time our Sunday afternoon and evening schedule was on this order! In the afternoon Portis and I would go to a singing, or to some other church related activity, at some church within a radius of three or four miles. If I were asked to lead some songs Portis would play the piano. Sunday evening we would go to BYPU at New Hope. Tavie, her younger sister, by three or four years, would go with us. In the winter-time she would sit in the foot of the buggy under the lap-robe.
One cold and moonless night we were going home when the twelve hundred pound mule I was driving, quicker than you could say scat, made a ninety degree turn and took off over the rows and terraces of a cotton field. We must have been fifty or more yards down field before I could stop the mule. We were still in our places, Tavie in the foot of the buggy under the lap robe, Portis and I on the seat. I knew we were near if not in, a field where there were stumps. Even though it was too dark to see your hand before you, we had no choice. We had to take our chances and try to get back to the road without hitting a stump. It was pure luck that the ditch by the road was shallow. The only damage I found the next morning was a small non-vital piece of broken harness. Later, when I examined the buggy tracks in the field where we took our dark and unexpected ride, I saw where one wheel grazed a knee-high stump.
Life has cheated everyone who has not gone courting in a buggy. It is an ideal vehicle for that purpose. However, it can provide some very embarrassing moments. At least Portis and I found it to be so, back in the days of our youth. I relate here only two such moments.
One Sunday afternoon, to get where we were going, we knew we could save two miles by going part way on a non-public road - a road that is always badly in need of repair. I was driving a large horse. We were going down a hill where, over a period of time, rain water had made small ditches out of the wheel ruts, which were half knee deep. With the wheels in those ditches and the horse on the high ridge between, and holding back rather than pulling, this put the back end of the horse well above and almost over the foot of the buggy. You guessed it. In that position she had to do number 2, which fell right on top of the dashboard, with some of the balls landing in the foot of the buggy.
The other embarrassing moment occurred when we were returning home late in the afternoon of a lazy summer day, which was reflected in the very slow pace of the mule pulling us along a quiet country road. Suddenly the mule stopped, did number one. Both of us were born and reared on a farm. From the time we were old enough to notice we had seen, almost daily, a variety of animals going to their bathrooms. Yet, on those two occasions we sat in dead silence, each too embarrassed to move, speak, laugh or look at each other. Today it would perhaps be hard for young people to believe what you have just read.
Early in 1931, no longer having the money to keep and operate the T-Model, I traded it for a pocket watch. This left me with no dependable transportation to make the more than two mile trip to see Portis every Sunday. Thus we began to see each other less often. We didn't split up in a big fight or quarrel. We just drifted slowly apart on diverging roads, which, each of us perhaps knew, but did not want to admit, we would never travel together again. Sometime in 1932 Portis got married. No, I have no regrets that we postponed getting married. I assume and hope she can say the same. Yet, had we married it would have, no doubt, been hard going for some time. However, neither of us was afraid of work. The chances are we would have made a go of it. For better or worse? Who knows?
ELIEN AND I (Southampton County Virginia)
While on the subject I will finish my romantic adventures. It was more than eight years later before I got involved in another serious romance. In the meantime I had finished high school, spent four years in college and three years in a seminary. At the time this new romance, began I was minister of the Courtland, Sycamore and Sedley Baptist churches in Southampton county Virginia. It began this way. One September Sunday morning, as I announced the hymn to begin the service in Sedley, I looked out over the congregation. I saw Mrs. Elma Wade, who was a beautiful woman herself, but I saw by her a younger and more beautiful model. While we, or they, were singing the hymn I was thinking this beautiful woman must be Mrs. Wade's sister. Before the hymn was finished I had decided to see to it that after the service Mrs. Wade would have ample opportunity to introduce the new minister to whomever the person was standing beside her. That I did not forget to do.
Mrs. Wade was gracious enough to introduce me to her sister Elien. I immediately peeped to see what kind of rings she was wearing. I didn't see one that was absolutely binding. I did see one that just might lead to such a ring if something was not done to prevent it. I started at once to make plans to see what I could do. I knew her father was a member of the Sedley church, but lived eight miles away near Franklin, and did not come to the Sedley church, except on special occasions. Also, I had just heard that this pretty girl's step-mother had a new baby boy. I asked Elien about her step-mother and the new baby. I told her I planned to go see them the next day. What I did not tell her was the little fact I had so planned just that second. I went on the say, being new in the community, I was not sure I knew how to find her father's place. Before she had time even to begin to tell me how to go, I hurried on to ask if she would be kind enough to show me the way by riding home with me the next day, if I came by the store where she worked when she got off. She kindly said she would with, I thought, a little blush leaving me to wonder what that blush might be saying. I was at the store ahead of time. Elien kept her promise. I got to meet her father, step-mother and her youngest brother. It is my guess that no new mother and baby ever saw so much of their minister as Mrs. Newsome and her new baby saw of me during the next two weeks. By then I had learned the suspicious ring Elien was wearing when we first met was not quite as threatening as I originally thought it might be.
When it became absolutely disgraceful to use the new baby as an excuse for stopping by the Newsomes' I stopped using it. by then, however, it was a habit. Regardless of where I was going the nearest way to get there was by way of the Newsomes. Anyway, all through the winter of 1939 and 40, come rain, sleet or snow I pestered her until she said yes.
Some seven months after I saw her in the pew of the Sedley Baptist church we were married, on Easter Sunday 1940, in the Sycamore Baptist church, just after I had led the songs for the service, with the hymn book up side down, and giving a powerful sermon. If Elien was not so kind and gracious to tell the truth, she would perhaps tell you I have been a pest ever since.
ROMANCE AND DATING
In between the two romances I have reported in this tale there is very little romantic history left to be told. During the seven years I was in college and the seminary I had no sweetheart or girlfriend. During those years, if I went somewhere where I was expected to show up with a member of the opposite sex, I would ask a classmate who I thought might enjoy whatever it was I was going to. Once in a great while I would accompany a female classmate to an event who found herself in a similar predicament, This withdrawal from any romantic life was something I did out of necessity more than by choice. I had deliberately decided to spend seven more years in school. That decision left me hardly any other choice than being an uninvolved bachelor. Pure necessity demanded that it be so. For as it proved to be, my school work, church activities, and working to stay alive, left me very little time, and no money, to do anything else.
During those seven years I was sufficiently tempted only once to consider beginning another romantic adventure. It was toward the end of the summer between my college and seminary years. I was on my way to the Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Having a few free days on my hands I went to Holly Pond to visit the Buckners. Just by accident it was at the time the school teachers were returning to get ready to open school. Among the arriving teachers there was a new one, just out of college, adventuring for the first time into the amazing world of a high school teacher. One look at her and I decided that Mr. Buckner should have the honor of introducing me to this new teacher, immediately, if not sooner. As I walked casually by, Mr. Buckner, being a thoughtful man, stopped me. "John", he said, "I want you to meet Miss Anne Bailey ---." He must have added her family name and told me what she would be teaching. But, Whatever he said after "Anne Bailey" didn't register. She was a charming and beautiful woman.
I had come by to visit the Buckners. I did, after that introduction, see them now and then at meal times, and slept in their guest room a few hours each night for the better part of a week. I confess Anne Bailey made another romantic adventure a very attractive temptation. At the same time necessity said, "Forget it." I still had before me three more years of school and as many more years of scrounging just to stay alive. Besides more than three hundred long miles would stand between us.
A college friend, Allen Hyatt, who worked with me in the kitchen and dining room of the boy's dormitory, came to Holly Pond that same fall to begin his teaching career. In a few months Allen came to the aid of the three hundred miles between us, making it easier for all concerned to forget it
Between the time Portis and I, reluctantly and silently, said good bye and the time I left for college there were two brief girl friend affairs by which I made the transition to the status of an uninvolved bachelor. The first was with Lillian White, the teacher of the first grade in the grammar school. The grammar school was in a large two story frame building on a lot adjacent to the high school. Miss White's room was one of the front rooms on the ground floor. I was the janitor (not the sanitation engineer) of both buildings. The grammar school building was heated by a big potbelly stove in each room. One of my many duties was to build a fire in each of those stoves during the wee hours of every morning.
It was my practice to go over after school, clean the ashes out of the stoves and get the things ready and in place to start the fires the next morning. Other than Miss White I seldom found another teacher staying after school preparing for her teaching duties the next day. I found Lillian in her room most every day. The walls around her room, at eye level of a six year old, were covered with all sorts of teaching aids - pictures with words under them, letters, numbers and whatever else she could find that would hold the attention of a child long enough to learn some tiny bit of knowledge. I was impressed by her ingenuity and industry, as well as by her looks and charms. As I did my thing getting the stove ready for a fire the next day and she did her thing preparing for her teaching duties. we began exchanging ideas about this and that. As the days passed it seemed to take me longer and longer to prepare Miss White's stove for a fire the next day, even longer than it took me to prepare all the others. This made for longer and longer conversations. Soon this suggested that we get together over the week ends when we would not be hampered by teacher and janitor responsibilities.
An older friend in the community was dating one of the high school teachers at the time. He had a Buick roadster with a rumble seat. All the teachers boarded at the same place. On warm afternoons they would often invite us to go places with them. Lillian and I saw each other most week ends until school was out in the spring. Then she went home.
At the same time another school was out, the school where the farmer's beautiful red headed daughter was a teacher, and she came home. You guessed it. She lived just across the campus from the Buckner's place. During the summer a good friendship evolved between us. She remained my girl friend until the fall of 1932 when I left for college to begin my adventure as an uninvolved bachelor.
No, it was not a bad experience, and not a lonely one. I seldom had time to be lonely. There was a kind of freedom and independence about it that could grow on you. I didn't have to go places and do things that I did not have time for, or did not want to do - things that I would have done if I had had a girl friend close enough to have some right to expect me to do some things on her terms. As busy as I was, at the demand of necessity, it was, no doubt, the best life style for me during those years.
So much for the boy-girl relationships of my life. Each of them added a dimension to my life that it otherwise would not have had. Grateful I am to each of the lovely young women whose path, at some point during my youth, crossed mine, and for varying lengths of time, made it possible for us to walk a short way together, before they diverged sending us on our separate ways, but not before sharing with me, now and then, as I with her, a glimpse and feeling of the best of her private world - her finest hopes and noblest dreams. Some of the uniqueness of each of them, in happy memories and lingering dreams, continue their walk with me, and today, as then, help make living for me a more meaningful and happy experience than it otherwise would be.