I was asked to be the guest speaker at a seniors group meeting at St. Philip Lutheran Church during lunch today. This is the story I shared with them.These are my memories and Wayne may have some different ones as any of you, but this one is mine. Hope it conjures up some wonderful memories for you.
Today, I invite you to join me in my time machine. We are going back to Northeast Louisiana in the 1950s. This is a trip covering about 65 years chronologically and 110 years culturally. I hope some of these memories conjure up memories of your own to share with your kids and grandkids or great grandkids.
We are going back to West Carroll Parish snugged up in the very northeast corner of the state. Across the northern border lies Arkansas and about 10 miles to the east lies the Mississippi River. The parish, oh I suppose I should explain that a parish in Louisiana is like a county in every other state. Anyway, West Carroll Parish is in an extremely rich and fertile farming region thanks to the seasonal flooding from the Mississippi River before the levees were built. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you were not one of the many small farm owners in the parish most of your income was made between March and October. The rest of the year you got along as well as you could.
Let’s set the date for our time travel to August 15, 1953. Seven year old Kenny and four year old Wayne were in the back seat of the car and mom was taking them to their day care facility, the Huff family farm. Mom was the only girl in the family of Edgar and Ruth Huff and Kenny was Edgar and Ruth’s first grandchild. Wayne was about the second or third, but was no less loved. Mom would drop us off on Philly Lane on Wednesday morning on her way to work. Dad was trying to build a chiropractic practice in the last state in the union to license chiropractors, but that would not happen for another 20 years. In the meantime, dad worked for another chiropractor in a town about 100 miles away from Wednesday through Saturday to make ends meet. Mom worked so when there was no school for Kenny, the boys were at the Huff farm from Wednesday morning through Friday night.
Philly Lane was the gravel road that ran in front of the Huff farm. At least it was gravel at the beginning of the summer. Always freshly graded and covered with new gravel in the spring, but by August most of the gravel was covered by a fine powdery layer of dust, warm on bare feet. There was always something wonderfully soothing about walking in the warm powdery dust in bare feet.
Mom would drop the boys off at the farm and they were generally greeted with a big glass of milk with cornbread crumbled up in it. This was a great summer treat. Edgar was already out in the cotton field with his dozen or so field hands picking the crop. Cotton picking generally ran from mid August through mid September in north Louisiana. Kenny and Wayne were too little to be considered good hands, but as soon as we finished our cornbread and milk snack we would head out to the field through the peach orchard and past the chicken house to “help” with the cotton picking. The road out to the nearby field was as dusty as Philly Lane and running through the dust always raised a little cloud as soon as our bare feet hit the ground. We had our size appropriate cotton sacks so we could pick too. The real field hands dragged 6 foot canvas sacks by a strap over their shoulder and would pick several hundred pounds of cotton a day. The best pickers were said to be able to pick a bale a day. A bale of cotton was 500 pounds. Our little sacks were flour sacks that grandmam had sewn a strap to so we could carry it over our shoulders like the big hands.
There was Edgar, granddaddy, standing up on the cotton trailer with the scales and his tally book. As a hand would fill his or her sack they would drag it over to Edgar and he would weigh it on the scale. Once weighed the cotton was dumped into the trailer and Edgar would write with his stubby little pencil the name of the hand and the weight. At the end of the day, he would add up the weight each hand had delivered to him and pay them accordingly. Payday was every day. Wayne and Kenny would dutifully fill their flour sacks and drag them over to Edgar to weigh and he would and add our tally to his book. I don’t think he ever really tallied us because we got a quarter at the end of the day regardless of how much we may have delivered, which, to be honest wasn’t much.
When Kenny and Wayne tired of playing farm hand we would head back to the house for a snack and some water from the well. The house was what some would call a shotgun house. That means that you could open the front door and back door and shoot a shotgun through the house without hitting anything. This was not exactly that, but close. A few years back, Edgar and two of his grown sons had gone up to Camp Montecello, Arkansas. Camp Montecello had been a POW camp for Italian prisoners during the war and they were kept in these old Army barracks. I know many of you have seen or even lived in similar ones. Granddaddy bought one and he and my uncles took it apart in Arkansas and hauled it to Philly Lane to reassemble. The house, in 1953, looked very much like an Army barracks, but with a broad front porch added across the width of the house. It was covered with white asbestos shingles like most houses along Philly Lane. It was mounted on cement blocks so that it stood about 3 feet above the ground and the crawl space under the house was home to many of the Huff’s free range chickens. When Kenny and Wayne took their mid morning break, grandmam would have chores for them to do. One was to crawl under the house and fetch eggs from the chicken nests. We hated this job because chickens are notorious for relieving themselves wherever the mood strikes so crawling under the house was like crawling through a chicken minefield. You never knew when you would stick your hand or knee on one of the chicken mines. Disgusting! Anyway we did that and washed up in the tub in the back yard when we finished. The only running water in the house was in the kitchen.
No running water meant, of course, that there was an outhouse past the peach orchard and just beyond the chicken house. We didn’t mind going out there except when we were staying out at the farm in the winter. That was a long cold walk in the morning. Summer wasn’t too bad, but then one summer day, I was sitting in that old one holer, looking through the Sears Roebuck catalog, and looked up to see a snake in the rafters. I finished my job quickly and never went in there again. I found other places to go out on the farm after that episode.
At dinner, that’s the noon meal by the way, all of the hands would come back to the house and grandmam had this long dining table set up between the kitchen and the living room. It would seat all the field hands and granddaddy for their dinner, Wayne and I ate in the kitchen. The table usually had fried chicken, some kind of pork and some kind of beef along with appropriate sides from the Huff garden. Granddaddy always sat at the head of the table and mumbled a short prayer before every meal. No one really understood what he was saying, but I eventually ciphered most of it out and it is the grace I use to this day.
After dinner, granddaddy and the hands would head back to the field for more picking. Wayne and I would find things to do around the yard. One of our favorite games was playing Tarzan. Our jungle was the peach orchard. From the time school was out until it started again in the fall, Wayne and I generally wore jeans, no shirt and no shoes out on the farm. By the end of the summer we were pretty well baked. We’d climb up in the peach trees and pretend we were Tarzan and Bomba, the Jungle Boy while we ate peaches in the tree.
Sometimes, Wayne would take a nap. I was not much of a napper, but if I asked nicely, grandmam would let me walk up the lane through the warm powdery dust in my bare feet to Harlene Philly’s house. Yep, the lane was named after her family. Harlene was a few years older than me, but she would play school or house with me. Outside her house there was a brush arbor that would serve as our school or house depending on the game and she would be the teacher and I the pupil. Once, after school was back in and I was back in shirt and shoes, I wandered up to Harlene’s house with my shoes untied so Harlene taught me how to tie shoes there under the brush arbor.
By 3:00 PM granddaddy would bring the hands back to the house for coffee break. Grandmam would have plenty of coffee and usually some fried pies to serve on the front porch. The break was only about a half hour and always included hot coffee, no matter how hot the day was. Coffee was always served in a cup on a saucer. Granddaddy would pour some of his coffee into the saucer so that it would cool faster and he would sip from the saucer. Wayne and I got our coffee, well what we really got was a cup of milk muddied with a drop or two of coffee, but we felt really grown up.
After coffee break the hands would head back to the field and grandmam would send Wayne and me out to the pasture to bring in the few head of cattle they had. The cattle had been munching grass all day, but granddaddy always brought them into the feed lot to give them some oats at the end of the day. The milkers would be placed in stalls in the barn where granddaddy would milk them in the evening and again first thing in the morning.
At the end of the day, the hands would be paid and Edgar, Ruth, Wayne and I would sit down at the dining table to eat the leftovers from dinner for our supper. They didn’t have a television in 1953, but did have a radio. Sometimes we would listen to whatever we could pick up which was pretty sparse, or just read and go to bed.
As I lay on the feather bed I would remember the warm, soft, powdery dust on my bare feet and smile. I still remember and one day that may be all I will remember, but there are worse things to remember than warm, soft, powdery dust on bare feet so I shall be content with that.