Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Growing Up in a Lumber Yard

Me, about 10,  with my bicycle in front of our porch
In an earlier blog post (Our Home-Life at the End of the Depression), I wrote about my earliest memories of my family and the circumstances of our daily life before World War II. In this post, I am writing about the years just afterward.

The death of my grandfather, George Luther Bell, brought significant change to our family dynamic. My grandmother, Clyde Bell, then had nowhere to live except with us.

Grandma Bell was totally blind, the result of a non-malignant brain tumor pressing on her optic nerves. This left her close to helpless. Had she lived in the present age instead of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, an early operation might have restored her sight. My grandfather spent everything he had or could earn trying to find a cure, but the most the doctors of the time could recommend was to try to keep her comfortable. So the tumor grew year by year, horribly distorting the shape of her skull. Grandma required a great deal of attention, and most of this responsibility fell on mother. Being a good Christian woman (think Olivia on The Waltons), she just added the work to her already heavy burdens, never neglecting either her husband or her children. The old saying, “Man’s work is measured by the sun, but a woman’s work is never done,” was never truer than in the case of my mother.

Mother sitting on our front porch in 1950
The immediate problem occasioned by “Pappy’s” death was living space. There was no way that room could be found in our little “shotgun” house to accommodate Grandma. The Reynolds and Gambles Lumber Company, for whom Dad was planing mill foreman, assigned us another company-owned house. Our new home was a typical frame structure of the period. It stood on numerous timber piers to level the floor. This helped keep it cool in summer but made for cold floors in winter. Wide, vertical pine boards with narrow battens sheathed the exterior. Like the other half dozen or so houses in the “camp,” no paint graced the exterior surfaces. A covered porch ran along the front of the structure.

Our “street” was nothing but a bare strip worn in the white sandy soil by car tires. It ran in a fairly straight line out to the South Field Road (named for the rich oil field that petered out in the 1920s), which was covered with red clay and gravel. The nearest hard pavement was a mile or more away at the south edge of El Dorado.

The house interior was divided into four rooms of approximately equal size by walls faced with “shiplap” boards. The room at the main front entrance became our parents’ bedroom/parlor. Mom claimed the room behind it as her new kitchen. My brother, Tom (who is four years my senior), and I were housed in the second front room, which also had an outside entrance. The room behind that was Grandma’s room.

The “camp” had no source of central heat or cooking, no electricity, or running water. Mom cooked on a wood-fired cast iron “range.” We had one sheet metal wood heater in the parlor. A well in the backyard provided water. We took “sponge baths” with washbasins or, on Saturday, bathed in a galvanized washtub behind the kitchen stove.

The soil behind the house was tillable, so Mom soon had a large vegetable garden going. Beyond the garden stood a “two-holer” “necessity,” as they are called here in Virginia.

Tom and I were in charge of keeping Mom supplied with fuel for her cook-stove. Dad would bring home loads of “cut-offs” from the mill. These were usually about a foot or so long. The soft Southern Pine boards split easily into narrow billets for Mom to burn. I became adept at using a hatchet at an early age.

Surrounding our home to the north and east were hundreds of stacks of drying lumber. A level grid of wooden platforms called “trams” spread from the sawmill over a large area. These were about twelve feet wide and anywhere from a few inches to several feet above the ground according to the terrain. Dense stacks of lumber bordered the trams on both sides. At the sawmill, yard hands placed the freshly sawn boards on carts and rolled them out on the trams to the first open area. The men then layered the green boards in stacks to air dry. The layers were separated by 2-inch by 2-inch oak stacking sticks, allowing free circulation of air between the boards.

The proximity of the trams and stacks provided numerous temptations for growing boys to have fun or get into trouble. Stacking sticks became vaulting poles or, with 2x4 footholds nailed on, stilts to walk on. The tall trams also created large shaded areas in which to play in the hot summer months.

We had our own secret place beneath the trams where we kept forbidden treasures. Tobacco and cigarette papers were easy to come by. Dad smoked roll-your-own cigarettes made with Prince Albert Tobacco. He purchased it in packages of about a dozen cans. A waxed paper insert inside each can kept the tobacco moist and fresh. Dad discarded a can when he could no longer easily rake out the desired amount. His finger left small fillets of untouched tobacco in the bottom corners. Tom and I would sneak into the trash and remove the paper inserts from the cans, then pour all the leftover tobacco together. Dad also liked to use a thick book of cigarette papers and discarded the thin packets of papers that came with the cans. We kept these treasures buried in a coffee can under the tram and often sneaked there to roll our own and fire up. We thought we were acting grownup. I don’t think I actually knew any men who did not smoke in those years.

Sometimes, we would also get our hands on some plug or leaf chewing tobacco. I gave that up after Mom almost caught us chewing and I had to swallow my “chaw.”

When Tom wasn’t around to get stuck with minding me, I played alone near or under the house. I frequently built clay dams in the drainage ditches beside the house. Sometimes, I would blow them up with firecrackers like those I has seen dynamited in movies. Otherwise, Dad would tear them out to prevent flooding.

On hot summer days, Mom would get up before daylight and have all her housework done by the time Dad came home for the noon meal, which we called dinner. After policing up after the meal, several other wives from the camp would come over to our house. Grandma had two large oscillating fans that her sister had given her. The ladies would sit in her room to keep cool and talk during the heat of the afternoon. They must have thought I was too young to understand, because they would talk about anything in front of me. I remember that a lot of their conversations concerned their husbands’ faults and who had the worst husband.

Another interesting terrain feature near our home was a tall oil tank berm. During the earlier oil boom, a series of large oil tanks lined the west side of the South Field Road. After the oil played out, the oil companies removed and salvaged the tanks but left the circular containment berms in place. Most were breached to let water out, but a few intact ones became shallow ponds. The one beside out house was dry. The slopes provided places to play “cowboys and Indians,” “cops and robbers,” and other boy games. We would “fort up” atop the cliffs and pretend to be under siege.

Pretending to be cowboys was our predominant game. Before World War II, all the boys had metal cap guns. We also had little lead soldiers painted with WWI uniforms. The war put an end to that. The best toys available during the conflict were guns and dolls made of glued together sawdust. Any of these left out in the rain quickly dissolved. As the war went on, Tom and I made many of our own toys out of lumber cutoffs.

Our mode of transportation was mostly “shank’s mare,” i.e. walking around on foot. As we grew older, we graduated to bicycles. When I first started to school, Tom and I walked from our home to Southside Elementary School, a distance of about two miles. Later, we rode our bikes.

Saturdays were always a treat for us boys. Mom and Dad would go to town to shop for the week. On the way in, they would drop us off at the Majestic Theater. On Saturdays, the theater showed a double feature of “B” westerns with short serials in between. The movies showed constantly. One could stay in the theater as long as it was open. The management let parents come into the auditorium to pick up children they had left there. I remember being given two dimes when we were dropped off. One got us into the movie, and the other was for snacks. Sacks of popcorn and full-sized candy bars cost five cents. I always bought two Mars Bars, one to eat at once and the other to eat between shows. After our parents picked us up, we usually went to a hamburger joint for supper before going home. Those were really great burgers. As soon as we got home, our battery-powered radio was turned on to WSM in Nashville for the Grand Old Opry.

I suspect that modern youth would consider the way we lived to be abject poverty. We never felt poverty stricken. We had a roof over our heads and three nutritious meals a day. We always had clean clothes to wear. But most of all, we had parents and other family who loved us and taught good Christian values that have guided us through our long lives. What more could one ask for?

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor brought significant changes to our lives. For more on those times, see my July 13, 2013 blog post, "World War II Through the Eyes of a Child.”

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.