More from my grandfather's memories:
From the time he was old enough, Papaw was looking for a way to make money.
“I knew you had to have money to make something of yourself and have yourself a good family. So that’s what I went after.”
He hired himself out for whatever work was available after the pitiful crops in Poppy’s sorry fields failed. Bad years were a mixed blessing; if the rope beans and sweet corn failed too early, there might not be enough to feed the family through the winter, but he would have plenty of chances to cut hay and pick for other farmers. Most years, he says, things worked out just right. They didn’t starve, and he had a little money socked away. He kept it, like most little boys, buried under the house in a Mason jar. His brothers and sisters all knew where it was, but also knew better than to touch it. Like most men in the family, he had a mean streak even then that kept smart people from crossing him.
The year that World War II ended, my grandfather plotted how to strike out on his own. Mick was a gutsy 14 year-old, hardened by an empty belly and muscles honed taut with the work of a grown man. He’d seen his four older brothers move out on their own in the past two years, and was feeling the itch. He knew he was young and he had no intention of marrying yet. As he saw it, that was the only legitimate reason for leaving home and letting your parents and siblings fend for themselves. But he had a jar full of money and a plan that kept him awake at night.
He had no sorrow for the old man. Poppy would, as always, come out of it fine. It was the three younger boys Mick worried about.
“I knew they’d be left carrying my part of the load, and I felt real bad about that.”
Mick worried the most about little H.T., the baby, who had been sheltered from the hard work by Nanny.
“I knew when I was cut loose, H.T. was gonna leave school. Mommy had fought so hard to get him in school, and here I was gonna ruin it for him. No way Poppy was gonna let him sit in a classroom when there was work to be done.”
Mick himself had set in on three or four days of school back before he was strong enough to help with the really hard work. There were older boys at home, besides, and he’d have done nothing but cause mischief—that was Nanny’s excuse for packing a greasy breakfast biscuit into a tin can and sending him down the holler to see what Miz Gray could do with him.
The first day he arrived at the schoolhouse—which was really only a shack that had been outfitted with long plank tables and pews that had been salvaged when a church had burned nearly to the ground—he was surprised to see children he’d never known were in the holler. Mick had thought at age 5 that he’d pretty much known every soul on Lick Creek. It wasn’t a big place, really, but he’d been thorough in his wanderings and had come across houses buried deep back off snaking main road and even dwellings that weren’t really houses at all, just shanties thrown up to keep the rain off folk’s heads. Mick wasn’t an overly friendly type—that was what H.T. was known for—but he knew proper protocol when passing by a neighbor, even one that was miles away. As long as there wasn’t a pillar of smoke nearby (that was a sign of bootleggers, and bootleggers had a tendency to shoot on sight) he’d approach the dirt yard and call out, “Hey, yu’ns home?” No matter how poor the house, someone was usually home and they more likely than not had a glass of water to sip and a spot of porch to sit on and visit. Kin or no, he’d learned just about every citizen of Lick Creek.
Except, of course, the half-dozen kids in Miz Gray’s schoolhouse. Mick knew from looking at them why he’d never heard tell of them. They wore clothes that bore the signs of having been washed in fresh water. Their hair was clean and combed. A couple of the strangers wore shoes. These, Mick knew without being told, were children whose chores were milking, mixing corn bread, rinsing dishes and hanging wash. Children well looked after. Children whose fathers didn’t cook up likker or farm barren fields.
Children he had nothing in common with.
He stayed in school long enough to learn what his name looked like. Miz Gray, it is said, took great pride in the proper penmanship of her pupils. She followed the precise methods of the day, spending hours reciting the letter forms: “S. Start top, slide left, curve down right, pass right, curve down, and left, curl up.” My grandfather wasn’t interested in an elegant hand.
“I told her I wanted to write my own name. She said I had to do other things, like summing up and recitin’. I said no, just my own name. So I told it to her, and she wrote it down on the little board. And I just copied it over and over ‘til I recalled it. Then I quit the school.”
H.T., however, had gone through nearly six years of education. He could read and write. If he put his mind to it, he could get a good job someday, maybe with the government. There was no call for anything but farmers and day laborers in the holler, but in the big cities, a learned man could make good money minding shop counters and selling things like radios and soft chairs. H.T. was gonna be that kind of man, if his momma had any say.
Mick didn’t begrudge his baby brother the dreams their momma had poured into him. Big Mommy had borne twelve children and not one had had so much as a fighting chance from the time it’d hit the ground running. But maybe, just maybe, one of them would live to see something more than the inside of a coal mine or the view from behind a plow. The best Nanny could see for any of her children was a job that kept their hands soft. Ralph knew at fourteen that his hands were already calloused thick and deep. H.T.’s, he knew, were still smooth, except for the ridge he’d worn on the side of his index finger from working with his pencil so much to practice penmanship for Miz Gray.
Besides, Mick didn’t want to narrow his options too much. He wasn’t above any kind of work, as far as he could see. There wasn’t any job—any paying job—he wouldn’t stoop to do. Folks who only did work that appealed to them or came up to their station in life either had money in the bank or were on aid, one.
Later on in life, Papaw’s jobs would read like a laundry list of occupations. There was farmer, of course. Fence post-digger. Lay farrier. Carpenter. Picker. Mechanic. Glazer. Miner. Driver.
All before he hit twenty and found the job that would finally give him the warm house, the clean children, and the plentiful food he had always dreamed of.