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