Old Man Hillen

“Are you gonna pay for that gum?”

Phyllis and I turned to see Billy’s cheek bulging. His eyes got big and a stream of purple drool ran out of the corner of his mouth. The three of us stood horrified before Old Man Hillen, the proprietor of the Variety Store. It was obvious the sour old geezer took no prisoners where pilfering children were concerned.

“Spit it out.” Phyllis demanded, her face as hard as the old man’s. She hurriedly paid for our purchases as Billy and I beat her out the door. We knew there would be Hell to pay. Phyllis aligned herself with our parents and could be depended upon to report any infraction. This one was huge.

The situation was made more ominous since our business in the first place was the purchase of Mother’s birthday gift. The three of us had walked to the Variety Store after school. Mother was to pick us up. The wait seemed endless, knowing the catastrophe that was brewing.

“Billy Ray stole a piece of gum!” she exploded before she even got the car door shut. “Mr. Hillen made me pay for it!”

Mother was appalled. “Oh no. I hope you’re ashamed of yourself. I’m gonna have to tell your daddy about this.” A pall hung over us, dreading what was to come.

Justice was swift and sure. Daddy was enraged as he railed at Billy, before strapping him with his belt, then pausing before giving him a few more. Worse yet was the pronouncement that they’d be going back tomorrow for Billy to apologize and make it right. It was a terrible night at our house. No one escaped Daddy’s black mood.

Daddy was waiting for Billy when the bus ran, always dependable when punishment was due. He led the small boy into the Variety Store and announced to Mr. Hillen, “My son has something to say to you.”

Humiliated, Billy managed to stammer an apology.

Rather than accepting Billy’s apology, the hateful old man launched into a tirade against thieving kids and the way sorry parents were raising them. Daddy was infuriated and told him they’d made it right and he wasn’t listening to anymore of his mouth. They left. We never went back in that store.

Uncle Albutt Part 8

Over the years, Aunt Jewel made frequent mention of Eunice and Doxy. On Sunday, April 14th, Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel surprised us by showing up for Sunday dinner with Eunice, Doxy, and Baby Dewie in tow. Before the days of telephones, it wasn’t unusual for relatives to arrive unannounced. It was a bit of a surprise to have them bring Eunice and Doxy, people we were only vaguely acquainted with. Like the gracious host and niece-in-law she was, Mother put a couple more potatoes in the pot, opened another can of beans, watered down the gravy, and slid another pan of biscuits in the oven. Even though Mother was creative cutting up the chicken, it didn’t go too far. The big pieces didn’t make it past the company, while the kids dined on the neck, back, ribs, and wings. This was in the days before we knew chicken wings were a delicacy, so we weren’t that happy. We had been forewarned not to complain. In all fairness, Mother did reserve the coveted fried scrambles and put them on our plates to spare us the pain of seeing Uncle Albert gobble them all up.
Mother’s dishpan was at the ready as she cleaned up while she cooked. Aunt Jewel chain-smoked at the kitchen table and watched as Mother cooked. Eunice nursed her snotty-nosed baby. After a wet sneeze, the baby blew out an impressive snot bubble. Eunice grabbed Mother’s dishrag from the dishpan and wiped the baby’s nose, then matter-of-factly, tossed it back into the dishpan. This, on top of the smoking and breast-feeding was too much for Mother. She got Eunice a hanky and suggested the women move to the living room where it was more comfortable. The decibel of banging pots and pans increased as she put Phyllis and me to washing dishes and setting the table.
Fortunately for Mother, while she was struggling to stretch the noon meal, she had no idea Daddy had recently boasted that she’d just completed their return, bagging them a nice refund. Uncle Albert was impressed. Eunice and Doxy needed a nice refund. Uncle Albert assured Eunice and Doxy Mother would be glad to prepare their tax return, hence the reason for the impromptu visit, information he shared as he ground out his cigarette in his dinner plate. Though Mother made no overt objection, I didn’t miss her sigh and pursed lips. Daddy did have the grace to look a little worried. After clearing the table and putting us to doing the mountain of dishes. Aware of her mood, we knew better than to fight over our task. Mother told Eunice, they’d better get started. Naturally, Eunice wanted Mother to do the long form and calculate interest on their many debts. This was long before calculators.
As Mother labored over the form and calculations, Aunt Jewel perfumed the air with her cigarettes at the other end of the table, turning the air blue. The skinny baby squalled and snorted as Mother picked information from Eunice. Even though Eunice had never done a tax return, she argued with Mother over how it should be done, arguing that rent, groceries, and gasoline were exemptions. She felt little concern over receipts. “I got that at home somewhere. That doctor bill was about twenty-five dollars. I don’t need no receipt.” Just as Mother thought she had finished, Moxy strolled through and wanted to claim an exemption for the baby, even though it was born months after the cut-off date. He wouldn’t be convinced, so Mother hastily added the baby, knowing it wouldn’t fly. She did however, refuse to sign the form as preparer, having a healthy fear of being jailed by the IRS.
The little family eventually left, exhausted by the taxation process. I never heard if they ended up in jail. Fortunately, Uncle Albert never brought Mother any more tax preparation business. Daddy never got his hanky back.

Uncle Albutt Part 6

Aunt Jewel had several nieces and nephews I saw from time to time.  Her sister Lucille, of the hairy legs, who was married to Daddy’s Uncle Dunc, had three daughters, Alma, Eunice, and Gladys.  I guessed Lucille wanted to keep to her family’s tradition of inflicting horrible names on kids including her boys,  Hambone, Mookie, Teeter, and twins Fats and Snake.  I can’t imagine how she settled on Fats for one of the twins.  They both were skinny as snakes, though neither bit me.

I was most impressed with Alma.  Mother said she was a tramp because she wore her swimsuit and moved the grass when a road crew was working in front of their house.  It made no sense to me.  I thought she looked beautiful with her bright red lipstick, blonde ponytail tied with a scarf, teetering along in high heeled wedge sandals.  The mower gave her a lot of trouble and a couple of the guys came to check on her.  Her sister Eunice came out in her swimsuit, but she was not so popular, probably because she was extremely thin.  Her suit bagged over her hips like a toddler’s training pants.  Alma got a boyfriend that day.  Eunice didn’t.  No matter, Eunice had somehow snagged a boyfriend named Moxy.  I think he followed her home from her carhop job.  Mother also thought carhops were trashy, dashing my career hopes.  I was impressed when Eunice got married at the age of sixteen and had a baby shortly thereafter. Eunice and Moxy were great favorites of Aunt Jewel’s, so I heard of them from time to time over the next few years.

Gladys was nearest me in age.  Apparently still under the influence of her religious, fundamentalist mother, her clothes inspired no envy in me.  Her hair was tightly braided.  She wore a dark, long-sleeved dress and brown leather oxfords I did not envy.  Her mother kept her busy, leaving her little time to play with me.  I helped her wash dishes and mop the kitchen so we could escape outdoors.  That afternoon, we waded in their pond in our clothes.  Gladys said her mama didn’t allow her to wear a swimsuit.  Afterward, I  wore one of her Pentecostal dress and flour sack bloomers while my clothes dried on the barbed wire garden fence.  I wanted to keep the flour sack bloomers, but mother insisted I give them back.  I never wore anything more comfortable.   We each got a quarter of watermelon from their garden that had been cooled in their well. Late in the day, the men fried fish while we chased fireflies in the dusk.

Uncle Dunc, became progressively rowdier as the evening drew on.    Though I didn’t know it at the time, It was my first experience with a drunk.  Uncle Dunc began playing wildly with us, chasing us as we jumped off the high porch fronting their house into the darkness.   I enjoyed the day tremendously, though sadly, never got to visit again.  I lay that deprivation directly at Mother’s feet based on a conversation I heard as we drove home late in the night.  She took a dim view off drunks frying fish and chasing her children into the darkness.  What a pity!  I thought I was having fun.

I later got the impression he was named Dunc because it rhymed with drunk.  Still makes sense to me.

 

Uncle Albutt Part 5

Quite often, our family and friends would gather for a late evening meal.  While the kids ran wild in the dusk and on into the darkness, the women prepared a filling meal of beef stew or chili and cornbread.  It would be near bedtime by the time they called us in, hysterical  with chasing each other in and out of the darkness.  Of course we’d been warned against running in the dark, but staying in range of the lights was for sissies.  I’d be in a delicious frenzy of terror till I stepped back into the light, where all horrors vanished.   They would be so many kids we’d be settled on the floor with our supper in a pie or cake pan.  This was before budgets stretched to include paper plates.  It was an honor to sit on the floor with the big kids.  Babies and toddlers sat at the tables where their mamas could keep a grip on them.  Two or three dinners were always dumped on the floor and there was squalling a’plenty as mamas cleaned up the mess and resettled the messy kids.  The kids finished in short order and tore back outdoors while the adults took their turn at the

After the meal, it wasn’t unusual for the men to load up their guns, flashlights, thermoses of coffee, and the dogs for a night of hunting, leaving the women and children to visit.  Mamas gave their kids a cursory wipedown with a washcloth before bed, since it wouldn’t have been possible to bathe that many children and settled them on pallets on the floor, sometimes as many as six to the bed.  Mamas rocked the knee babies and lap babies to sleep before putting them on a bed flanked by pillows once the settling down started, the women started their stories.  I loved these nights, especially if Mawmaw was there.  She believed in ghosts and could make our blood run cold.  Mother worried about nightmares, but lacked the courage to shush her mother-in-law, for which I was grateful.  I NEEDED those stories. Mawmaw thrilled us with tales of babies buried alive, girls who died of broken hearts when their dead sweethearts appeared to them, and big black ghost dog, and ball lightning rolling through the house. The kids didn’t dare move off the pallet, they were so terrified. Fatigued by their play, finally they drifted off to sleep, one by one.

As the women talked, they thought they heard an intruder trying to get in the front door. Someone else scurried to check the back door, unsure if it was locked.  .  Had there been an intruder, he’d have had a horrible shock breaking in on half a dozen  terrified women and a gaggle of children.  Meanwhile Mother hurried to the door.  Thinking she’d scare him away with a bluff, she called out.  “I’ve got a gun.  I’m gonna shoot through the door!”

Aunt Jewel stood right behind her.  Obviously terrified, she shouted out.  “Well, don’t just stand there!  Go git your gun.  You ain’t got no gun!”  Fortunately, there was no intruder, or he thought he’d better not break in, since nothing happened.

 

Uncle Albutt Part 4

Uncle Albert had an interesting vocabulary.   Even when he didn’t get words right, he forged bravely ahead.  When his energy was low, he didn’t have much image.  When the doctor diagnosed him with emphysema, he referred to his ‘zema. Air conditioners were air positioners. He called my sister Phyllis, Phillips.  I liked that one.  I was Linder.  I didn’t like that quite so much. My mother Kathleen was Kathaleen.  He called Daddy “Willie”, his real name instead of Bill, the name Daddy gave himself once he left home.  Daddy cringed every time he was called Willie.  The only other person who got away with it was his mother.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be Willie, either.  For some reason, Daddy’s brother Parnell named his daughter Willie Carol.  She was a whiny, sullen kid, maybe because of that name.  It makes perfect sense to me.

On occasion, we saw some of Aunt Jewel’s relatives.  Her sister, Lucille, who incidentally had married one of Daddy’s cousins, had the hairiest legs I’ve ever seen, man or woman. The wearing of seamed stockings only made it more obvious.  A good proportion of the wiry hairs worked their way through the stockings, trying to escape, while the rest were imprisoned flat against her legs.  I don’t know which fascinated me more, the swirling mass of flattened ones, or the wild escapees.  I never got to look enough, and certainly wasn’t allowed to comment. Mother warned us off when she knew we’d see Lucille.  Daddy swore her legs had gotten hairier because she shaved them!  That just sounded nuts.  How would hair roots know a razor threatened?  He was death on leg-shaving, ascribing to the old wive’s tale that shaving made hair grow back thicker.  I don’t know what planet he was from that made his daughter’s legs, shaved or unshaven, his business, but Daddy thought he was God and his wishes,  commandments.  More likely, he may have feared he’d be stuck with his girls forever should we sprout hair like that.  Of course, Mother never volunteered the information that she shaved her legs.  I guess she didn’t want Daddy to know what was in his future.  Naturally, I shaved my legs as soon as I could get hold of a razor.  I can’t tell you how happy I was to get away from home.

Daddy’s methods did ensure he never had to deal with adult children boomeranging

home.  Times just didn’t get that hard.

Uncle Albutt Part 3

Uncle Albert was the only person I ever knew who never attended school at all.  He couldn’t write or read a word.  I remember seeing him bring documents for Mothr to read and interpret and pen his replies.  He was the first person I ever saw make an X mark for his signature. Mother wrote his name afterward and witnessed it. I was filled with awe that a person had never attended school.  Mother filled out his income tax returns for him every year.

Uncle Albert was very shrewd in his accounts, despite his lack of education.  He handled his business affairs skillfully, requiring no assistance.  He was a skilled trader.  I remember hearing him tell Daddy how he left the house one morning with a goat to barter and after several trades, came home with a shotgun and box of shells.  I never knew him to hold public employment.    He farmed forty acres more than fifty years, providing a living for him and his wife.  He paid cash, bartered, or did without.  The whole time I knew him, he drove a nineteen forty-eight Ford pickup truck.  He and Aunt Jewel smoked Prince Albert Tobacco and rolled their own cigarettes when money was tight, and bought Raleigh cigarettes when they were flush.  Aunt Jewel saved Raleigh Cigarette coupons for prizes.  From time to time, she’d show off a fancy vase or pair of pillowcases. . I never knew of them being without cigarettes of some sort.

Daddy was always honored when Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel came to visit.  One evening, Mother cooked our favorite, fried chicken.  We never got enough of her fried chicken, particularly the crisp scrambles of flour that dropped off during the frying.  Knowing this, Mother scraped up every crisp bit and put it on the platter with the chicken.  After the chicken was devoured, she divided those scrambles among the kids.  They were delicious, a highly anticipated treat.  That evening, the chicken platter passed from on end of the table to the other several times.  Uncle Albert liked Mother’s chicken, too.  As he forked  the last piece, the unthinkable happened.  He tipped the platter up and poured all those beautiful scrambled bits onto his plate.  Our eyes were huge with horror.  Surely he hadn’t just scooped up all the best all for himself!  He had!  Mother shushed us with a look as he noisily crunched and chomped through the pile.  A more heartbreaking sound was never heard.   In just a few seconds, he finished off our stolen treat, then burped his appreciation, wiped his mouth, leaned back his chair and remarked, “That’s the best part of the chicken.  I ain’t never got enough.”

we knew just how he felt.

Uncle Albutt Part 2

Through a connection with his son, Uncle Albert somehow came up on a ninety-nine year lease on several acres on Dorcheat Bayou in Louisiana.  Ready to retire from farming, he decided a fish camp would provide a modest retirement income.  My father bought his farm and stock, but that’s a story for another day.  Obviously, he was a multi-talented man, able to turn his hand to any task.  His farm boasted two cabins.  He moved into the second cabin, disassembled the log house he was living in loaded it piece by piece on his old truck, and moved  it to his lease, where he went to work reassembling it just as it had originally been, except he added an additional bedroom, occasionally recruiting help from relatives with bigger jobs.  Once the reassembled house was in the dry, he took apart the second cabin, using the timber to cover over the logs and seal the house tighter.  One day, Daddy decided we’d go by and check on Uncle Albert’s progress. My older sister climbed on the unsecured log walls, tumbling them to the ground.  I was so glad she got to them before I did.  Neither Daddy nor Uncle Albert was pleased.  Daddy spent the rest of that evening and Saturday helping Uncle Albert get it back together.  None of us kids were invited along, for some reason.  When Uncle Albert was satisfied with his house, he used the rest of the salvaged lumber for fishing boats, a pier, fences, a bait shop, and outbuildings.  Soon he had a pretty good business going.  By the next spring, he had a large garden underway.

Prior to construction of his house, Uncle Albert took care of necessities,; first, a toilet before summoning all his nephews for the digging of a well, uphill from the toilet, of course.  They came, bringing all their wives and children, a festive day of barbecuing, fishing, children running wild, while the men took turns shoveling the hard red clay from the well site..  Only one man could be in the hole at a time.  The others stayed above ground, pulling the heavy dirt from the hole.  They all took their turns.  By the end of the first day, thanks to the high water table, water was beginning to seep in at a depth of twenty feet.  They dug a few feet more, set the curb so the well wouldn’t silt in, and came back the next day to build a protective well-housing.  Uncle Albert was able to draw a bit of water by the evening of the second day.

Along with all my cousins, I was desperate to be lowered by pulley and bucket as the fortunate diggers were, into the depths of that well.  Sadly, all the mothers and aunts were just as anxious to keep wayward kids out of the well, warning us away every time we came near.  However, were able to indulge in one other life-threatening activity as they focused on that well.  A gravel road ran down the steep hill along one side of Uncle Albert’s property where it intersected with another dirt road fronting his house alongside the steep-banked bayou. The occasional oil-truck, fisherman, or hunter who travelled that way would have had no expectation of kids running wild, since until only recently, it was nothing but woods.    Someone of my cousins had thoughtfully brought along their red wagon to Uncle Albert’s that day.  Naturally, we pulled that wagon to the top of the red-dirt hill, piled in as many cousins as would fit, and prepared for a thrilling coast down the steep graveled road.  There were no engineers among us.  Confident as only a cluster of kids can be, we set off for a bone-rattling ride.  That wagon clattered and bounced, held down only by the weight of kids.  A couple of the smaller ones were pitched out, left squalling in our dusty tracks.  The clattering, crying, and dust cloud caught the attention of the well-diggers and mothers who were laying out the picnic lunch, secure in the knowledge we weren’t falling in the well.  As they looked on at the screaming wagonload of kids hurtling down the hill, an oil truck approached the crossing at the bottom.  It slammed on its brakes, swerving enough to allow us to pass, though our unlikely survival was concealed by the massive dust cloud.  The wagon flew on toward the high bank of the bayou, where we were saved by a brush thicket just short of the water.

In the manner of parents at that time, once the loving parents found their children weren’t dead, they gratefully expressed their joy with beatings for all. I had one fine ride down that hill, but I never got another crack at it.

A Hog a Day Part 18

Linda First GradeIn some ways, my older sister Phyllis was a parent’s dream.  She would walk a mile to follow a rule and was always on the lookout to alert my parents of mine and Billy’s actual or suspected transgressions.  We must have been satisfying siblings to a natural-born tattler.  On occasion she would report, “Linda did such and such.”

Most of the time, Mother either took action or sent Phyllis back to straighten me out.  However, once in a while, Mother replied, “That’s okay.”

Realizing she’d needlessly missed out on the fun, she’d ask.  “Then can I?”

Phyllis was a perfect student and never missed a spelling words the whole time she was in grade school except for forgetting to dot the I in President and not crossing the T in Grandfather.  When I followed three years behind her, the teacher always said, “Oh, you’re Phyllis’s sister.  She was the best kid in class and always did such neat work.”  I was so proud the first time I heard that ominous description, totally unaware that I wouldn’t be shooed into that position with no effort on my part. I thought the role was inherited, not earned.  I wasn’t even on the good kid list.  I was sloppy, careless in my work, chattered incessantly, rarely got to class with homework or school supplies, and was best-known for staring out the window when  I should have been listening.  Billy, who followed three years behind me probably dealt with a whole new type of comparison.  The second day of school, I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Mother and Daddy that Mrs. Crow said I was a scatterbrain, having no idea it was not an honor.  It didn’t take long for Daddy to bring me up to speed on that.

I was fairly bouncing my first day of school, delighted with my red and green-checked book satchel and school supplies.  I’d been admiring the two fat yellow, pencils, box of eight chubby crayons, jar of paste, blunt-ended scissors, and Big Chief tablet for days.   When Mrs. Crow had us introduce ourselves,  I was horrified to find I was sitting next to a girl named Virginia. Weeks before I started school, Phyllis had misinformed me that the name of female genitalia was Virginia.  I couldn’t imagine what would make any parent name their little girl after that particular body part, but knew I wouldn’t be able to talk to her. I might get in trouble for talking dirty. If that wasn’t bad enough, the boy on the other side of me was named Peter!  I hadn’t been in class an hour before Mrs. Crow confiscated my paste just because I tasted it, finding it sweet, but pretty bland.  She didn’t like it when I stuck my fat yellow pencil up my nose, either.  My school experience was going downhill fast.

 

 

A Hog a Day Part 17

EF453DFA-DCA7-4103-96FE-215A4A32FB35

Original art by Kathleen Swain

Unless you’ve been cursed with a prissy, goody-two-shoes older sister, you couldn’t possibly appreciate this, so just go on with whatever you were doing. If you want to commiserate, jump right in. Phyllis was three years older than I. This put her just far enough ahead of me that all the teachers and Sunday School teachers were still raving about her performance. “Phyllis never misspelled a word on a test the whole year. Phyllis is the best student I had in all my twenty years of teaching. Phyllis is the neatest kid in class. Phyllis always reads her Sunday School Lesson and knows her memory verses.” I’m sure it was all true. She worked on her homework from the time she got off the bus every day till Mother made her go to bed every night, copying it over rather than have an erasure.

I did my homework on the bus, if I could borrow some paper. The second day of first grade Miss Angie called me a blabbermouth and a scatterbrain. I was delighted till she sent a note home. My parents pointed out neither was a good thing. The only notes Phyllis ever got asked if she could be the lead in the school play, tutor slow kids, or be considered for sainthood. Mother had to chase the schoolbus to brush my hair. If we had pancakes for breakfast, my papers stuck to me all morning and dirt clung to the syrupy patches after recess. I never got the connection between being sticky and not washing up after breakfast.

It was bad enough that Mother tried to civilize me. After I started school, Phyllis was embarrassed about being related to “Messy Mayhem.” She started in telling Mother I needed to pull my socks up, brush my hair, not wipe my snotty nose on my sleeve, and most of all, not tell anyone I was related to her. She was a hotline home for anything that the teachers forgot to send a note about. It didn’t help our friendship.

Phyllis was always first in line to get in the door at church. I am surprised she didn’t have her own key. Sitting quietly and thoughtfully through sermons, she’d occasionally nod and mark passages in her Bible. The minister was sure she was headed for “Special Sevice.” Meanwhile, I sat next to Mother, barely aware of the minister’s drone, desperately trying to find interest, somewhere, anywhere. I liked the singing but it didn’t last long. The words didn’t make sense, but it sure beat the sermon. Once the sermon started, I’d start at the front and enumerate things: roses on hats, striped ties, bald men, sleepers, crying babies, kids who got to prowl in their mother’s purses, or the number of times the preacher said “Damn, Breast or Hell!”. Once in a while something interesting would happen, like pants or skirt stuck in a butt-crack, or a kid would get taken out for a spanking, but all this made for a mighty lean diet.

One glorious Sunday, the sun shone. As we filed out, I looked longingly at the lucky kids running wild in the parking lot. We had to stand decorously beside Mother and Daddy as he waxed eloquent, rubbing elbows with the deacons, whose august company he longed to join. As he discussed the merits of the sermon with Brother Cornell Poleman, a deacon with an unfortunate sinus infection, Brother Poleman pulled a big white hankie from his coat pocket and blew a disgusting snort in its general direction. Fortunately for Sister Poleman, she wouldn’t be dealing with that nasty hanky in Monday’s laundry. A giant yellow, green gelatinous gob of snot went airborn, landing right on Phyllis’s saintly, snowy, Southern Baptist forearm, where it quivered just a bit, before settling into its happy home. Her expression was priceless. Mr. Poleman grabbed her arm, rubbing the snot all over her forearm before she could extricate herself from his foul grip. She flew to the church bathroom to wash before joining the family waiting in the car. That snot trick had put a hasty end to all visiting. When she got home, she locked herself in the bathroom to scrub her arm with Comet. I enjoyed church that day.

My brother Billy certainly didn’t have to deal with comparisons to a saint when he followed three years behind me.