Wednesday, May 04, 2005

SEARCY ’46 – ’56 - Part 16

Chapter Eleven

Ernie Simpson

The Character of Dirt Roads

It must have been about 1950, in the winter, when we lived on our little farm north of Ballew community, that the following incident occurred.

I was maybe ten, my brother, Jim, was about five, and we were poor, but were getting by day by day. We had finished dinner and had been listening to the radio, and getting ready for bed. The wind outside was howling, and it was bitter cold: dead of winter, with snow blowing in near-blizzard conditions. Dad had just put another stick of wood in the stove and we were backed up to the stove to warm our behinds before jumping into bed. The back bedroom was always coldest in winter, since we kept the door to the room closed to conserve heat. But always in winter, around bedtime, Mom would warm a blanket and wrap it around Jim and me as we jumped into bed. The feather bed was warm once we got settled in. I thought it was fun to stick my head from under the covers to see my breath in the cold air.

That particular night, just before we were to head toward the bedroom, there came a knock at the door. Mom and Dad looked at each other, because no one in his right mind would be out as late as this, especially as cold as it was.

Dad opened the door, and there stood a man in an old threadbare coat, a rough old hat, and work shoes. His face looked in pain from the cold, and he was shaking from head to foot. Dad let him in, and told him to warm by the stove.

He thanked dad for letting him warm by the fire for a little while before he continued on toward town. Mom warmed some leftover supper for him and he ate and, after warming a bit more, he started towards the door. We were all watching, curiously, at this unfortunate creature that had appeared out of the darkness of the winter night. The stranger reached for the doorknob; as he did, his legs gave way and, with a groan, he collapsed near the door.

Dad helped him over by the fire and, after he gained some strength, he started towards the door again, and Dad told him he didn’t have to leave, he would never make it to town, and he could sleep on the floor near the stove. Mom got a quilt and pillow for him. Jim and I went on to bed.

Next morning, after breakfast, the man left with Dad and me as my father went to work and me to school. Dad later said he learned this may have been one of the good ole boys from over around Four Mile Hill, and that he had been living on an old abandoned homestead down near the river.

When he ran out of food and it turned so bitter cold, he made an attempt to get to town. Dad realized that he wouldn’t be able to make it as he was about to head out into the night.

I think Dad was nervous about his staying in the house: he was a stranger, a derelict, and Dad also told me later, when I was older, that he didn’t sleep a wink that night, while the man was in the house.

Now, years later, I have to admire my Dad for being of the generous nature he was. There was no way to travel, with the roads in that condition in the dark, and I have no doubt that the man would have frozen to death. In these days, the decision would have been tougher to let him stay but, even back then, it was difficult.

The dirt roads of the early days brought us to help a fellow human being in distress; I think paved roads have locked the doors on people in need. I believe that frozen, cold dirt road in 1950 was the reason the door to our house was opened to that stranger.

Like Paul Harvey, I believe that, indirectly, the character of the road led the man to safety, somehow, some way. Funny, I somehow think it would have been a different story had the road been paved.


The Inevitable Tom Pry Footnote

In the 30s, 40s and 50s, the kind of social relief structure that we have today really didn’t exist, except in big cities; otherwise, it was based on a patchwork, basically unorganized basis. Ernie’s nameless stranger was one of an army of old men who just Existed; to call it “living” would, perhaps, be exaggerating just a bit.

My grandfather, Tom Edwards, acquired an old man like that, “Uncle John” Ketcherside who, sometime shortly after we moved in, back in ’46, showed up at the door one day at the dead end of our dirt road.

Uncle John was typical of so many of this nameless army of dispossessed: he had no family, no home, no property other than what he was wearing and carrying, no car. Unlike so many of his peers, Uncle John was receiving a small Social Security check every month. This made him one of the Fortunate Few.

The deal they made sounds cruel and one-sided, and would certainly have found my grandfather on the receiving end of a Federal lawsuit today: Uncle John got bed and board. In return, he worked, dawn-to-dark, 5-1/2 days a week. He got a ride into town when he wanted/needed to go, which was always the weekend his Social Security check came in.

Grandad would occasionally buy him a few five-or-ten cent bags of the horrible “Country Gentleman” tobacco he stuffed in his disreputable old pipe.

Uncle John Ketcherside worked. He was slow, but he was steady.

(He was also unlovely in his living habits, with the nasty habit of tapping out the dottle from his pipe on the base of the kerosene heater that was our sole source of heat, other than the wood stove in the kitchen, eventually replaced by a butane stove).

This sounds like a terribly unfair setup. The backroom that Uncle John and I slept in (separate beds) was, like Ernie’s, SOOOO cold during the winter … ! I learned to wake up in the dark of early morning, carefully reach out of the oh-so-warm quilt, and feel around on the floor for my pants, shirt, socks, and shoes, gathering them all into one hand – before suddenly springing out of bed and running like mad for the livingroom and that marvelous kerosene heater, tobacco ashes and all, to get dressed.

On the other hand, Uncle John was the one who had presented the deal to Grandad. With no family of any kind, ours became the home that he otherwise would not have had. And he ate very, very well: my grandmother cooked better than the average woman, and in copious amounts.

(I remember Roland King coming out to pick me up for something we were going to attend, and Billie offered him a strawberry shortcake while he waited on me to finish my chores. Being your usual starving teenager, he said yes. Billie’s idea of a shortcake was to take a serving bowl, put down a layer of one-egg cake, cover that in fresh-picked strawberries and juice, put down another layer of cake, and repeat as necessary until the bowl was full.

(When she brought out this monster creation and handed it to Roland, there on the porch, he looked at it in astonishment for a few moments before, carefully, saying, “Miz Edwards … this isn’t a shortcake.” ?? “It’s a meal.”

(Meal or not, Roland managed to down most it before we left).

As I said, Uncle John ate well, and Grandad and Billie’s was his home until he died, and they were the ones who buried him, one of a vast army of homeless, unmarried men who wandered our countryside.

And it is left to me to bid him adieu, doing so in a medium that didn’t even exist when he died. Rest well, old man: we can’t even imagine what life must’ve been like on your personal dirt road – but we know we’re glad we didn’t have to walk it, as you and so many of your peers did.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


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