Tuesday, October 29, 2013


The first statement I must make is that my earliest life was influenced by the Old South southern culture.   Anyone not a part of that bygone culture will not understand the Faulkneresk (William Faulkner: A Rose for Emily) mind set of southern men and women that hid family secrets and lived lives of illusion. 

To begin at the beginning my grandmother was born.   Her parents lived in a small Mississippi Delta town.  She was born in 1892; and it is my understanding that her father owned and operated an undertaker and livery service.   He had been a teenage scout during the Civil War and guided Confederate soldiers through the Delta around Union lines.  

My grandmother was married at age fourteen to a man in his early twenties.  Her husband was from Kentucky but was the station master for the Illinois Central Railroad in a nearby Delta town.  I can remember my grandmother telling me how handsome he was riding his horse when he came to court her. 

Within a very few years my grandmother had six children: four girls and two boys.   My mother was the youngest.  

My grandfather was strict, but of all his children my mother was his favorite, and the hardest to control.   From the stories I have heard, my mother reminds me of the young girl Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.   At eleven she got into her father’s whiskey and took his Lincoln automobile and drove through the cotton fields. She became pregnant as a young teen and, as families did in that day, she was sent away to live with her aunt and uncle in a different town until the baby was born.   About that same time the aunt and uncle ‘adopted a baby.’    I suspicion that their child is my half-sister.  

True to the southern Mississippi mystique, the story does not end there.   My mother’s older sister was engaged to marry a man from Vicksburg.   While her sister was working at a defense plant in Memphis my mother secretly accompanied her sister’s fiancé on a business trip to Savannah, Georgia.   There she became pregnant with me.   Needless to say, this broke up the engagement of her sister.  

So to pick up in the middle: I was born.  My mother abandoned me in the hospital, but my aunt came down from Memphis and retrieved me.  I was passed around for a very short time and ended up with my grandmother, whose husband had just left her for a younger woman.   My grandmother did not like my birth name so she changed it – she also did not like my birth date so she changed that also.

We soon moved to my grandfather’s home town in Kentucky where we lived for eight years: My grandmother possibly thought her husband might return to her - but he never did. 

The story does not end here.   At the age of eight, my grandmother moved me back to her home in the Delta of Mississippi.    Her children were all grown and so she received no alimony, and this was before welfare so we were indigent and lived off the generosity of her oldest daughter who had married well.  My grandmother was well respected in the community (ie. A Rose for Emily) but we had nothing except her pride. 

I grew up believing my grandmother was my mother and that my actual mother and aunts and uncles were my brother and sisters.  It was not until I joined the Navy at age nineteen that I discovered my name was not my name; my birth date was not my birth date; and my sister was my mother and ….   I don’t believe even Faulkner could have put this story together.  

I have absolutely no antipathy toward my mother.  She was a woman that could not be forced into a mold of conformity.   After I was born she decided to enlist in the Navy; but women who had had children were not eligible.   My grandmother’s brother-in-law was governor of the State of Mississippi and my mother imposed on him to use his political connections to bypass the unmarried/childless requirement.  Strings were pulled and she enlisted.   She was in the very first group of Navy Waves to be assigned in a war zone.  She was a hospital corpsman aboard a hospital ship in the Pacific during the Second World War.   One of the men she nursed was Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers.  They corresponded for a while.   Later she married an architect in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  He had been stationed in Pearl Harbor, at the same time she was assigned; though they had never met.   

Fast forward: I left the South when I was eighteen and did not return for forty years.   I spent twenty-two years in the Navy where I was a drinker, a fighter, a nonconformist and a womanizer – not a very nice person.   The military rank and social structure was abhorrent to me; but I stayed in the Navy because I found I could control my assignments.   When I retired I married a wonderful young woman: we attended college together and then move to Alaska where we taught school in remote Indian and Eskimo villages.  

After leaving Alaska we moved to the small town in Kentucky that I remembered from my childhood (no way would I have ever gone back to Mississippi.)   I really could not say why I felt the need to return to a place in the south, other that I identified it with my roots.   Perhaps this poem written in Kentucky will explain:


Kinsmen from the distant past
Eternal specters faintly moving
Never seen but somehow speaking
Their voices just beyond my reason

Unknown forces drew me back
Can destiny be preordained?
Keeping some appointed meeting
Generations fade but never leaving.

We had saved a little money and were able to pay down on a house.   We owned five acres that was surrounded by two hundred acres of farm land.   No neighbor was visible from our house.  The place had been built in 1864 and was structurally sound and in immaculate shape.   It had been owned by an undertaker and his wife who used it as a party house and retreat.  The rooms were eighteen-by-eighteen with eleven foot ceilings and two huge fieldstone fireplaces.  They had decorated the place in French-whorehouse chic with wall to wall mauve carpets and chandeliers – not exactly our taste but the location was fantastic and the rooms were great.    

Now to the Rainbow vacuum cleaner.   We had a little bit of money left over and because of the carpets decided we should by a quality vacuum cleaner.   We settled on a Rainbow water vac.   The price was almost a thousand dollars back then (1993.)   We felt guilty spending that much on a vacuum cleaner; but the unit was real quality, with stainless steel wands and hard rubber tools.  

That was twenty years ago.  Now we live in a small cabin in Maine and this morning we vacuumed the living room with that same Rainbow vacuum cleaner.  

There is something to be said about quality.

Sometimes you get what you pay for.

the Ol’Buzzard

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a life story! It has it all! I'm glad you don't harbour bitterness toward your non-conformist mother. You got on with living your own life.


COMMENT: Ben Franklin said, "I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all doctrines he holds are true, and all he rejects are false."