Your Money’s No Good Here!

 


It’s good to compare notes with your family.  My brother just told me my dad helped his brother-in-law counterfeit quarters back in the 1930s.  Daddy’s oldest sister, Aunt Jenny, married Uncle Chester, a bona fide reprobate, a rabble-rousing drunk who enlisted Daddy to help with his quarter counterfeiting business.  I don’t know if Daddy would have even qualified for reform school if he’d gotten caught, since he was just a hungry little kid trying to win a place at Aunt Jenny’s table for a few days. Mama and his younger sisters were about to starve since his own father was sick in bed at his mother’s house.  Grandma wanted nothing to do with her daughter-in-law and the grandkids, though she was willing to care for her son.  The boys were pretty much working for room and board anywhere they could.

At any rate, Uncle Chester made pretty good quarters, a time-consuming job requiring a steadier hand than his, since he was rarely sober.  According the Daddy, Uncle Chester made impressions of both side of quarters using Plaster of Paris casts lined with onion-skin paper.  The steady hands were needed to line the molds up and glue them together, leaving a tiny pour-hole at the top, where they could pour in Uncle Chester’s special melted alloy.  Once the ragged quarters set, a little artistry work was required to finish them off.  Voila!  Quarters!

Babbittquarter

Uncle Chester had no trouble passing his bogus quarters at the grocery store, the mercantile, and the hardware store. The problem came at the bar.  Though he was normally stingy and careful, one night he got a snootful and wanted to buy a round for everybody in the house.  Indiscreetly, he brought out a bag of quarters to pay his tab.  They didn’t ring true when he poured them on the counter.  The proprietor objected, Uncle Chester tore into him, and Uncle Chester ended up in Leavenworth.

That really wasn’t so bad.  His cell-mate taught him to make twenty-dollar bills.  Before long, Uncle Chester was out, but wasn’t able to pass his twenties because he couldn’t get the color just right.  After a number of frustrating attempts, he poured up some quarters and headed back to the bar.  When he poured his clinky quarters out on the bar, just as Uncle Chester anticipated, the bar-tender objected.  “Are you telling me my money’s no good?”  A fight and arrest ensued.  Uncle Chester went back to Leavenworth for a refresher, polished his craft, and never had any more counterfeiting troubles.

All’s well that ends well.

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The Threat of Typhoid Tomatoes

This is a story from my mother’s childhood.
R G Holdaway Family with Johnny Bell early 1930's

Mama kept me close to her side we when were home alone. If she did let me go in the yard on my own, I had to be close enough to come running in an instant when she called. The only exception was a trip to the toilet. Since it wasn’t polite to answer from the toilet, I kept quiet knowing, she’d be watching for me to come out before mounting a search. She always warned me against falling through the hole in the seat, but that was a concern she could have spared herself. I’d have sprouted wings and flown had I felt myself falling into the quagmire beneath that toilet seat!!

A well-worn path led down the hill to the toilet located far enough to cut the odor and avoid contamination of our well. Mama was vigilant about sanitation and shoveled lime into the pit to aid decomposition and screened the open back to foil her chickens who considered the flies and maggots a tempting buffet. Chickens are not known for their discriminating tastes. Any chicken Mama planned to butcher, was penned up and fed a fine diet of grain and table scraps for several days prior to its date with the axe, till Mama was convinced it, “clean.” I now realize my brother didn’t bother with the long walk to the toilet at night, since a healthy crop of tomatoes had volunteered beneath his bedroom window. Mama noted the size and beauty of the crop, but said we couldn’t eat them. “They might not be clean.” They looked as “clean” as the ones from the garden, so John and I slipped off and enjoyed the finest tomatoes of the season, which had apparently benefitted from the trip through his digestive system. When Mama noticed the stripped plants, she whirled around and quizzed me “What happened to those tomatoes? You didn’t eat them did you?” My guilty look gave me away. “You did, didn’t you? Oh, My Lord, you could get typhoid from those nasty tomatoes.”

My heart fell. I knew this had to be serious since Mama said, “Oh, My, Lord!” I had no idea what typhoid was, but I did understand I was about to die.

“John ate most of them. I only ate a couple of little ones but nothing was wrong with them. They tasted real good.”

“Being raised in filth wouldn’t make them taste bad. They could still make you sick.” She went on about her business as I prepared to die.

I worked up my nerve. “Mama, will typhoid kill you?”

“It could, but maybe you won’t get it. I had typhoid when you were a baby and nearly died.” I already had a keen conscience and knew I deserved punishment as I waited anxiously all afternoon for typhoid to strike me down. I attributed everything to typhoid: a ringing in my ears, a rapid heartbeat, feeling hot and thirsty as I played listlessly in the shade that July afternoon. My last day dragged. Mama didn’t say any more about typhoid, but I knew it was only a matter of time. I dreaded going to bed that night since I wouldn’t be waking up tomorrow, but certainly couldn’t confide in Mama, since I’d brought all this on myself. During bedtime prayers, I got cold shivers reciting the line, “and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Knowing tonight would be the night put a whole new light on the situation, especially since I’d disobeyed Mama. It hurt my feelings a little when she tucked me in as matter-of-factly as usual on my last night on earth. I fought sleep, but couldn’t hold it off forever. I bounded out of bed, thrilled to find myself alive and ravenous when I awoke and smelled dry-salt meat frying, biscuits baking, and coffee percolating before daylight the next morning. Typhoid would have to wait for another day!

The Boogerman’ll Get You By the Hair of Your Head!

shamMother and I natter on incessantly.  Yesterday we went to visit my aunt a couple of hours away.  As we rode along, I was asking Mother more about the details of her early marriage at eighteen.  She slipped up and confessed a tale she’s felt guilty about ever since.  I couldn’t believe she stumbled and told on herself after sixty-nine years.  She usually bumbles right away.  To set the stage, you have to know she has a ridiculous conscience.  If she suspects there is a rule somewhere, she is obligated to follow it, no matter how senseless.  If she fails, she is required to feel guilty.  That’s the rule.

Mother, married at eighteen.  Within months Daddy moved her into the house with his widowed mother and her two daughters.  They were poor and lived in a decrepit unpainted house miles out in the country, not the newlywed home she’d envisioned.  To put the icing on the ruined cake, Aunt Julie with her two squalling brats had settled in as well.  The house was uncomfortable, Mother felt unwelcome, Daddy was never home except to sleep.

The kids, two and four, whined without ceasing, unless they took a break to throw a fit.  One day, she was alone in the room with them and was totally fed up with the whining.  She told Yvonne, the oldest, “Stop that squalling or the Boogerman will get you!”  To reinforce the lesson, she stepped into the next room, scratched on the door-facing and wailed “Wooooooooo!”  The terrified kids shut up immediately.”  From then on, when the whining started, she’d give them another little dose of Wooooo, if she got the chance when Aunt Julie wasn’t in the room.

“Why didn’t I ever hear this great story before?” I had to know.

“Because I felt guilty, I guess. I didn’t mean to tell it now.  I’m still ashamed,” she confessed.

“Well, you should be.  I am sixty-five years old and I could have been enjoying this story my whole life!”

Musings on My Father, on His Birthday (Part 1)

parents wedding pic

Bill and Kathleen Swain’s Wedding Picture, June 29,1945

family3   My father and some of his siblings.  He is the small boy with the wet pants holding his cap.

If my father had lived, he’d be ninety-one today.  I’ve been thinking about him all day.  He was born to share-croppers during the deepest of The Great Depression.  He was shaped by it, just like everyone else.  He was fourth of seven children.  His father died young, leaving a widow and three young girls still at home.  Bill was thirteen and never really lived at home again.  He worked and lived wherever he could for something to eat and maybe a little something to bring home to his mother and the three sisters left at home.  He said he worked a whole day chopping bushes in the winter rain one for a five-pound bag of meal.  He spent a lot of time at his Uncle Albert’s home.  Though Uncle Albert wasn’t always kind, he always provided him a home and something to eat when Daddy showed up.

He was over six feet tall at fifteen, and passing for seventeen, got his first job for the public, as a watchman at a drill rig.  It wasn’t far from his mother’s house, and sometimes he’d slip home to get something to eat.  His older brother got him on as a greaser in the oilfield soon afterward.

He joined the Navy at seventeen at the start of World War II, knowing he’d be drafted, choosing the Navy because he heard they got regular meals.  He never intended to be hungry again if he could help it.

Upon discharge from the Navy, he joined a construction crew running heavy equipment, and met and married my mother in East Texas.  They barely knew each other. Before long, they moved back to Northwest Louisiana, where he got on at International Paper Company and worked thirty-five years.

I knew my father as a driven, difficult man.  He was very loving to us when we were younger, but didn’t deal well with older children.  He made it clear he preferred having our “respect” than “love.”  I don’t think he understood he could have had both. I loved him dearly as a small child, but he wasn’t comfortable with girls and distanced himself from his girls as we grew older, thinking we were Mother’s responsibility then.

Daddy bought remote, unimproved acreage to build a cattle farm in my early teen years.  I thought that was wonderful till I learned the reality of what that entailed.  The place hadn’t been farmed in decades.  The house place under three huge oaks was overgrown in a locust thicket.   Locusts bushes are covered in long, sharp thorns, almost as hard as iron.  We had to help clear that thicket, pile it and burn it before the slab for the house could be poured.  Many times one of us stepped on a locust thorn and had it pierce our shoe and go into our foot,  sometimes more than an inch deep.  When you pulled it out, the tip was left to get infected and fester for days before it swelled and shot out in a purulent core.   The process was hurried along by soaking the pierced foot in hot salt water.  I don’t think any of us ever went to the doctor; it was such a common problem. We learned to dread those locust thorns.  For several years after we moved there, those locust thorns would turn up in our feet.   (to be continued)

Robert Gordon, Wayne, Robbing Nanny, and Look Out Pope!

R G Holdaway Family with Johnny Bell early 1930'sL to R Johnny Bell(cousin) Mary Elizabeth Perkins (Lizzie) with Kathleen Annie Lee Holdaway, Roscoe Gordon Holdaway, John Arthur Holdaway about 1930  (note how well-dressed the children are and Roscoes’s mended overalls.  I have one of these chairs in my writing room today.  Kathleen helped Roscoe replace the bottom in 1932.  That story will be in her memoirs, soon to be published.)

Mother is eighty-seven.  She swears if she ever meets up with her cousin, Robert Gordon, she intends tell him what a hellion he was, even if he is the Pope and has a beard down to his knees.  Well, I am pretty sure our Pope wasn’t previously known as Robert Gordon and doesn’t have a beard down to his knees, but if he was, and does, please tip him off.   A whacked-out little eight-seven year old lady down in Louisiana might knock his block off if she gets a chance.  From the many stories I’ve heard over the years, I know Robert Gordon had a little brother, Wayne, who was also horrible, but nowhere nearly as mean as Robert Gordon.

Robert Gordon’s initial transgression that put him on Mother’s dirt list was not his fault.  He was her Grandma’s favorite.  Her grandma paid no attention whatsoever to Mother, or most of her other grandchildren, openly doting on Robert Gordon with warm waves of affection washing over his brother Wayne.  No matter that her cousins had lived next door to her grandma from the day of their birth.  Mother, hereinafter known as Kathleen, was still steamed to see them with the run of the place, their toys littering Grandma’s yard, and watch them cuddled in Grandma’s lap, when she was never noticed.

Kathleen’s prized possession was a little wagon that her father had acquired second-hand and painstakingly repaired by the broken tongue. The very next tme Robert Gordon visited, he ferreted out her precious wagon, sneaked the hatchet from the kindling pile, and smashed the tongue to smithereens so effectively that the wagon was a total loss.  The destructive act wasn’t discovered till after his departure.  The family later remembered hearing banging when Robert Gordon had claimed time to go to the toilet.  From that day forward, Kathleen hated him.image

Kathleen had but a handful of toys, mostly homemade or hand-me-down, so of course she cherished every one.  She had learned, to her great sorrow, that Robert Gordon and Wayne would steal, given the chance.  Before they left after a visit, her older brother, who usually only lived to torment her, held the boys upside down by ther and shook them, while she retrieved her toys raining to the ground.

One one visit, Robert Gordon who was younger than she, but bigger, entertained himself by hiding and jumping on Kathleen’s back as she rounded corners, pushing her to the ground and enjoying the ride to the ground as she fell face-first into the dirt and muck of the yard.  John helped her plot, so she was ready on his next visit.  As she pranced alluringly around the corner, he jumped.  She threw herself backwards,  the back head bashing satsfyigly into his face and nose.  Blood and snot poured from his nose and split lip as he ran bawling for his mama.  It was difficult to convince anybody she had started it when he’d jumped on her back, though he tried.

The most memorable, and adult-infuriating trick Robert Gordon and Wayne ever pulled of was The Great Goat-Milk Robbery.  Though they were as poor as any farmers during The Great Depression, her parents were excellent providers.  They had but one cow, but they kept a goat or two as a secondary source of milk.  Cows don’t produce milk just before and immediately after calving.  Milk production drops drastically during periods of low feed availability such drought.  At any rate all live stock is preciouos and to be treated well.  The Evil Robert Gordon and Wayne were beyond the Pale.  They slipped away from the visiting adults and robbed poor Nanny Goat of her milk in a way that no Christian ever should.  The repulsed neighbors were watching horrified while one boy held the goat and the other nursed, just like he was a kid goat.  Kathleen’s daddy and mama and the horrid boy’s parents got there just as Nanny was being rescued and flogged by an outraged neighbor.  Robert Gordon and Wayne’s parents left in disgrace and Kathleen’s family had another long, enjoyable talk about how hideos they Devil-ridden were. Poor Nanny didn’t give milk for three days.

This is the same chair from vintage picture above, one of my most treasured belongings.

Bear on chair

My Dead Aunts Coat ( from Memoirs of The Great Depression)

imageNot long after Aunt Ellie’s funeral, Cousin Katie brought her faded, old plum-colored coat to Mama.  “Mr. Blizzard bought this for Aunt Ellie years ago.  The material is real good.  It won’t fit me. Do you want to make it over for one of your girls?

“I sure do.  The cuffs on Kathleen’s coat are over her wrists.  I ‘ve been trying to figure out how I could come up with some heavy material.  This should do good, if you’re sure you can’t use it.”

That caught my attention. I hated that camphor-smelling old coat.  I’d seen skinny, old Aunt Ellie wrapped up head to ankles in that faded old coat, puttering around in the yard or sitting wrapped in it next to the stove on cold days.  The front was spotted and the cuffs slick with age and wear.  I imagined myself creeping around in that worn-out coat, looking just like Aunt Ellie, my white hair wound in a wild bun, like Aunt Ellie’s. A string of mean kids would be following me, pointing and laughing at the poor, pitiful kid in the raggedy, old dead-lady coat.

“Mama, I don’t want Aunt Ellie’s old coat.  The kids at school will laugh at me for wearing an old dead-lady’s coat.”

“Now Kathleen, this material is too good to throw away, and you need a coat.  That’s all there is to it.  When I’m through making it over, nobody will ever know it’s not ordered from Sears and Roebuck.”    She immediately pulled out the catalog to have me choose a style so she could cut a pattern.  Glumly. I pointed a coat out, knowing I was defeated.

I pushed the coat from my mind, though periodically, I’d come through to find Mama cutting the fabric, brushing it with cleaning fluid.  Though I had no interest in the process, she later told me she cut the coat apart, turned it, cleaned and reblocked, before finally pinning on her custom fitted pattern.  Truly, the reverse side of the fabric was a rich rose.  Stitching it and the freshly cleaned lining together, Mama polished it off with a new collar.  New buttons completed her masterpiece.  It looked nothing like Aunt Ellies’s faded old coat.  No one would ever recognize it!

I hated it!  Mama made me put it on and model it for her and Daddy.  I knew better than to complain.  On the first cold day, Mama made sure I wore my new, old coat.  Ashamed, I rushed to hang it in the cloak room as soon as I got to school.  At recess, I hung behind to put my coat on, hoping no one would remark on it.  I hid around the corner, hoping to avoid humiliation.  At lunch, Berenice and Christine admired my coat in passing, before moving on to a more interesting subject.  I was pleased but almost disappointed after I’d thought it so ugly.  In truth, it was a very nice coat, cut in a stylish pattern, but you’d never have convinced me.  The whole time I wore that hateful coat, I kept waiting for my shameful secret to be discovered.

Turned Out In The Cold

imageUncle Joe sent word he needed the boys to cut firewood one November day in 1934.  He’d be ready about ten the next morning.  They walked barefoot three miles through the woods, kicking at the fallen leaves, since it was a still a warm day as November often is in Nortwest Louisiana.  Shoes had to be saved for school, but the opportunity to get a day’s work took precedence over school.  They needed whatever Uncle Joe paid, whether it be a little money or food.  Maybe they’d get a meal or some cast off clothes, too. Continue reading

My Dad’s Early History

family3Back row Unknown 2nd Geneva, Edward, 1st Bill, Bessie Swain.

Bill Swain, my dad was born in 1924, fourth of seven children born to Eddie and Mettie Swain.  Eddie’s father, Thomas Swain owned a blacksmith and farm and was fairly prosperous.  His business was lost during the depression.  As he lay on his deathbed, in his delirium, he kept telling  his family he had hidden money under his bed.  None was ever found.  Poverty-stricken like so many others, Eddie made his way as a sharecropper,  moving farm to farm, hoping for greater opportunity.

Sadly for the family, Eddie died after four years of suffering with a brain tumor, leaving Mettie with five children under sixteen.  Much of the last couple of years, Eddie was either hospitalized at the Confederate Memorial Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, or in his mother’s care at her home.  His mother was willing to care for Eddie when he needed her, but did nothing for Mettie or the children.  The only help Mettie could count on was from her brother.  Brother Albert provided her a house and garden place on his farm when she wanted it.  Mettie was restless, sometimes moving away.   Bill was thirteen when his father died, Edward, sixteen.  Both boys had already taken to working away from home, more for something to eat than money.  They knew they needed to “get their feet out from under Mama’s table.”  If they didn’t havea place to live and work, they’d take a day’s work at a time, for what they were fed the day, or if they were lucky, a bag of meal, a half-bushel of beans, or some corn to bring home.  Bill lived most of the time with his Uncle Albert, taking work on other farms as well when he could get it.

Bill snagged his first paying job at fifteen as night-watchman on a drilling rig.  He was big for his age, able to pass for eighteen.  The site wasn’t too far from home.  He get hungry and slip home nights for something to eat.  From there, he went on to construction and operating heavy equipment, which he did till he went in the Navy during World War II.  He enlisted in the Navy, because he never wanted to be hungry again.

to be continued

Starry Night (from Kathleen’s Memoir of The Great Depression Part 1)

imageLike most of the people we knew, we didn’t have an car, so we never went anywhere at night we couldn’t walk, except for once.  Mama got the news that there was to be a brush arbor revival in Cuthand, hosting a guest evangelist!  To my everlasting amazement, we were going!  We put quilts in the back of the wagon, since we’d be getting home long after dark.  We hopped up in the wagon dressed in our best, headed for the revival, in a holiday spirit long before dark.  I had no idea what a revival was, but couldn’t have been more excited than a kid headed for the fair!

We pulled up to find dozens of wagons parked next to a brush-arbor in a clearing, a simple roof of branches on a make-do support sheltering rough benches. Though it was summer, a few small fires were smoldering, their smoke intended to discourage mosquitoes.  Before long, the song leader got us fired up with a rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  The singing was wonderful, but eventually gave way to the Hell-fire and brimstone sermon, something that didn’t thrill me nearly so much.

It was late by the time the preacher concluded the altar call, releasing us.  After visiting a bit with our neighbors, we headed for home, long after the time I was usually in bed.  I lay in the back of the wagon with Annie and John on the quilts, looking at the magical night sky.  Travelling under its full moon and sparkling stars was a gift.  A slight breeze cooled us, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.  As the horse clomped along, Mama and Daddy told stories and talked amiably.  With all those I loved around me, I never wanted this night to end.

to be continued