Friday, July 17, 2015

Musings About My Father

My father, Jewell Bell (25) with my mother Olive Tatum

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my father. Perhaps it is because I am approaching the age at which Dad left us. As I look at myself and think back on him, I am struck by how much harder his life was than mine has been to this point. I realize that much of that was because he worked so hard to see that his children had better lives than he did.

Jewell Thomas Bell was born at home in Milner, Columbia County, Arkansas on September 22, 1904. His mother suffered a hard labor, and she never had another child. Being a “one young’un,” as they were called in those days, was not an experience he enjoyed.

Dad’s childhood was shaped by tragedy. When he was still an infant, his mother went blind. We learned later that the blindness was a result of a childhood head injury, which sparked a benign brain tumor.  But when he was growing up, his mother’s sisters drummed into Dad’s head that the strain of giving birth to him caused his mother to go blind. This guilt trip plagued him all his life.

My grandfather, whom we called, “Pappy’” never recovered from his wife going blind. For years, he spent every dollar he could get his hands on taking her to doctors all over the region seeking a cure. Unfortunately, the state of medicine in South Arkansas in the early Twentieth Century rendered his efforts fruitless. In the process, he ended up losing his farm and having to work as a logger in the lumber industry.  Relatives from a fairly large extended family helped care for my grandmother. After losing her sight, she had become a complete invalid.  When Pappy had to cook, their meals were usually dried beans and cornbread.

Dad was apparently an avid student. Years later, he could still conjugate Latin verbs and quote many passages of poetry. Given a decent education, he could have had a bright future. But as World War One erupted in Europe, family economics trumped such considerations. Dad grew to man-sized by the time he was in the eighth grade. Big enough to do a man’s work, Pappy pulled him out of school to work full time in the woods as a logger. He would support his parents for the rest of their lives.

Despite his circumstances, Dad managed to become something of a musician, although he couldn’t read a note of music. He played a mean honky-tonk piano and also played the fiddle in the manner of Charlie Daniels. He could hear a tune once and then play it on either instrument. This ability to play “by ear” was not passed on to his children or grandchildren, but two of my grandsons, Thomas Bell and Evan Williams, inherited it. Being a member of the band at the country dances of the era was a apparently a good way to attract girls. At close to six feet tall with black hair and a wiry build, Dad was devilishly handsome.

At some point in the late 1910s or 1920s, Dad and several other young men from Columbia County decided to go up to work the Kansas winter wheat harvest to earn extra money. Winter wheat is harvested in July, when the crops in Arkansas are still immature. Dad told me of this adventure late in his life. Piling into an old Ford pickup, they drove north on the dirt roads of that time, often camping in the woods on the way. Once in Kansas, they had no trouble getting work. The mechanized equipment the Kansas farmers employed fascinated Dad. They had huge steam-driven tractors and combine machines. Dad learned how the machines operated and how to keep them repaired. He would work with machinery for the rest of his life.

After returning to Arkansas, Dad learned to set up and operate the complicated planing machines that smoothed the good Southern Pine lumber of the region. There were no computers in those days. The sophisticated machines were set up  manually, continually making adjustments until the boards produced exactly matched the industry-issued templates. The precise quality of boards from Dad’s machines became legend in the pine lumber industry.

Dad spent the rest of his working life in the lumber industry. Still the primary support for his parents, he did not marry my mother until he was past 25. From that point on, his primary focus was on supporting his family. Times were hard in those first years of the Great Depression, but Dad always managed to find work of some sort. He told me later that he was completely out of work only one day during the Depression.

Our family was definitely what was called “working class” in those days. Some politicians called us “little people,” but that always rankled. Dad routinely worked 50 or 60 hours a week. Because he was a foreman, he didn’t get overtime pay. But we had a roof over our heads, good food on the table, and decent clothes on our backs. My brother, Tom, and I were encouraged to do well in school and to look beyond our circumstances for the future. We were both given formal music training and played in the high school band. Our parents helped as much as they could, but we also had to work for our education (I worked an average of 30 hours a week at Safeway during my high school years).

The inherent danger of working with heavy machinery finally caught up with Dad. While in his forties, his left hand was caught in a machine cylinder, and he lost the middle finger of his left hand. Besides losing the digit, that accident robbed him of his ability to play music. Then, in his early sixties, he caught the same hand in a powered roller, breaking almost all the bones. With only one working hand, he could no longer work.

In his retirement, Dad was a voracious reader. But like so many people of his generation, he became inactive in his retirement and his health slowly faded. Having smoked heavily all his adult years, he developed severe emphysema, which robbed him of breath.  I didn’t get to be with him in his last days. I was on Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in October 1983 when he fell and quickly succumbed to his injuries. On the way home, I thought of what I might say at his funeral. I conjured up images of him playing piano in God’s jazz band. But Dad had asked for a simple graveside service, so there was to be no eulogy. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this now. He was a good, hard-working man who loved his family. 

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