BY: FRANK M. WHITE
It was June 1955. He was 18, and had recently graduated from the county’s Negro Training School for Colored. He was at the local bus terminal with his grandma and aunt ready to board the bus that would take him to the Army Induction Station. As he turned to his grandma, she reached up, gave him a tight hug and said, “Goodbye my child, take care, and be careful. It’s a cruel world out there. Don’t forget your upbringing. Remember where home is. We love you. May God bless and keep you in His care.”
He had now been on the bus for quite awhile. He had gotten settled in his seat, his body and mind had become harmonious with the roar of the engine, the whine of the wheels, and the voices of the other passengers on board. As he closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep, his mind began to focus on his grandparents, and his grandmother’s parting words to him.
His grandparents were tenant farmers who had taken him in to rear after his father was killed fighting in World War II. They lived so far back in the woods that the “Monday morning sun didn’t reach them until Tuesday afternoon.” The old farmhouse did not have running water or electricity. It was so poorly insulated that on cold winter nights, the water bucket in the kitchen froze, and the wind gusting through the cracks sounded like a slew of whistling teakettles.
During the day between cooking, cleaning, gathering eggs, sewing, tending her flower garden and other chores, grandma listened to her soap operas on the big old battery radio they owned. Since grandma and grandpa went to bed “with the chickens,” they did not listen to many night radio programs.
Even though the house was old, grandma had a passion for keeping things neat and tidy. One of her favorite sayings was “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Every Monday was Wash Day. Since they didn’t have a washing machine, grandma had to use a washtub and scrubbing board to wash clothes. Every Monday, he had to fill all those washtubs with water from the well before the school bus came at 7:00 a.m.
He had been itching to join the Army since he was 16, but his grandparents refused to sign for him and demanded that he get his high school diploma before he signed up. He was glad to be getting off the farm. He had experienced more than his share of slopping hogs, feeding chickens, cleaning hen houses, milking cows, cleaning stalls, spreading manure, sawing and splitting wood, shucking corn, threshing wheat, plus other types of hard and dirty farm chores which were too numerous to mention. He had spent more hours than he cared to remember walking between the handle bars of a one-horse plow, looking at the south end of a mule heading north. His upbringing was something he was ready to leave behind.
His grandma had said to be careful and take care. He had always been big for his age, and didn’t anyone mess with him. He had been a star quarterback on his high school football team, so he knew how to take care of himself. Plus he wasn’t no child, he was an almost grown man. And what did she know about a cruel world? She was 60 years old, and probably hadn’t traveled over sixty miles away from home in her entire life. She didn’t have more than a sixth-grade education. Subjects like history, algebra, and civics were like “greek” to her. With regards to travel, she couldn’t even read a road map, and probably thought that the world was flat.
Grandma couldn’t drive either. His aunt had to drive them down to the bus station. His grandfather, a deacon in the small, local Baptist church, who always prayed that the Lord would give him a good crop, couldn’t even get away from the fields to see him off. Anyway, it really wasn’t his crop. The farm and the crops belonged to the “man in the big house on the hill,” and his grandpa only received a pittance from the harvest. There wasn’t much left of that after the bills had been paid. Grandma was Secretary/Treasurer for the church, but she couldn’t type or use an adding machine. All records were written in longhand and all figuring was done in a ledger book. She was very proud of her hand writing and figuring abilities though. She often said that she could figure in her head and didn’t need no machine. People often complimented her on her beautiful handwriting.
Thoughts about how well his grandmother could sew and cook brought a smile to his face. She could make the foot pedal of that old Singer sewing machine sing like a canary. She made a lot of “feed sack” shirts, skirts, dresses, and other clothing for herself and a host of nieces, nephews and grandchildren. As a matter of fact, the pretty floral-print dress that she had worn to the bus station had been made from a “feed sack.” (Grain to feed the various farm animals came in 100 lb. floral cloth bags. People used those bags to make various articles of clothing. Thus the term “feed sack clothing.”)
Man, could she cook! She could make biscuits that “melted in your mouth,” cakes that were “light as a feather,” and mashed potatoes that were “as smooth as silk.” Her lemon meringue, sweet potato and apple pies were culinary masterpieces. Preachers always stopped by on Sunday evenings and raved about her marvelous fried chicken, and other delightful dishes that were served. They spoke of her as being a “mother of the church”; “a pillar of strength”; and, “a flower in the community.” The pastor often referred to her as having inherited “a touch of Solomon,” or being “Solomon’s Child.”
As far as love went, he didn’t have any problem believing that his grandparents loved him, even though they were not the “huggie” type. Although they were poor, they had made many sacrifices for him, often doing without, in order that he might have the opportunity to participate in sports, and have money for school. He “kinda” like Lena Mae Jenkins, with her cute self, and felt that she liked him. He had even taken her to the drive-in movie a couple of times in his grandpa’s old, beat-up, dilapidated Ford pickup truck. Everyone else laughed about that truck, but she never did. She even rode with him to the senior prom in that old truck. She was heading to the State College in the fall, and he was very proud of her. Although she had promised to write him, he was really going to miss her.
His main desire was to “get out of Dodge” when he graduated. Since college was out of the question, he figured the next best way to do this would be to join the Army. He always had a desire to travel and see the world. His other grandparents lived in the colored section of town next to the main line of the north/south railroad tracks. When he visited them, he would always stop and watch passenger trains as they went by. He would wonder in his mind where they were going, and he would picture himself on those trains going to places like Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. He didn’t often speak about his desire to travel because when he was younger and had spoken about it, his older cousin told him that he would do good if he got past “Possum Creek” (a local area country crossroad).
Thinking back, he was glad that his grandparents had instilled in him the importance of getting his high school diploma. He had seen too many young men drop out of school; get a mediocre job, get stuck in a rut, or get some girl pregnant, forced to marry her in a “shotgun” wedding and live unhappily ever after, or until the divorce came through. His grandma, being a midwife, had delivered many of those babies. She was known to disperse her homespun wit and wisdom on these and numerous other occasions. “Think before you speak”, “put your brain in gear before your mouth fly open” “A lie will come back and bite you every time.” “What goes on in the night will eventually be brought to the light,” dot your I’s and cross your t’s, always remember to say please.”
It was August 1985, thirty years later. He and his wife, Lena Mae, were getting ready to leave the university after taking their only daughter there, and setting her up in her room at the beginning of her freshmen year.
He had served 30 years in the Army, fought in the jungles of Vietnam, made “night jumps” from airplanes, commanded troops, had budget responsibilities for over a million dollars of equipment and supplies and had traveled around the world several times. He had also received his Master’s Degree in Management. Now that he was out of the Army, he was working as an executive for a nationally recognized Fortune 500 firm.
As he stood beside the car, his daughter came over to kiss him goodbye. He reached for her, wrapped her in his arms, and held her close so that she couldn’t see his eyes well up with tears. He tried to think of some profound message to give her as he held her in his arms prior to starting the long, lonely trip home without her. Then like a flash of light, his mind returned to that scene with his grandmother thirty years earlier when he was leaving home for the first time.
Often, over the years, when he had been in “tight spots,” had to make crucial decisions, or was pondering over a particular situation, he would think of his grandmother and how he felt she would handle the matter.
Taking a deep breath and trying to maintain his composure, he spoke these words to his daughter, “Goodbye my child, take care, and be careful. It’s a cruel world out there. Don’t forget your upbringing. Remember where home is. We love you. May God bless and keep you in His care.”
As he was speaking, it dawned on him again what a remarkable lady his grandmother had been. She had been denied the opportunity to obtain formal schooling beyond the sixth grade due to the fact that she was Colored. She might not have possessed a lot of “book sense”, but she had been blessed with an over abundance of common sense. She had been well endowed with rare wisdom, indisputable knowledge, and possessed an unwavering faith. You could say she was “Solomon’s Child.”