(Growing Up Hillbilly – Chapter XIX)
My Intermediate Years
I don’t know if all kids who grew up during the Great Depression were addicted to lying and petty theft, but I certainly was. I often would pilfer my mother’s tip jar she kept in the kitchen. Usually, it would be small change, and she wouldn’t notice. I went overboard one morning. Mom had worked the late shift at Greyhound and was sleeping in, so I went a step further and took a fifty-cent piece out of her purse before she had deposited her tip change in the jar.
At the local grocery, I spent the entire fifty cents on Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum. I had ten packets of gum spread out on my bed when, without warning, my mother appeared in the doorway.
“Where did you get all that gum?”
I didn’t have my usual thought out alibi, so I began to stutter and stammer. “I, uh…”
“I asked you a question, young man. Where did you get that gum?”
Quick on my feet for a change, I said, “I helped Mr. Martin stock shelves at the store. He gave me the chewing gum as a salary.”
It was such an obvious lie that she almost laughed out loud. “Is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s right.”
“That was very nice of him, but why didn’t he give you money if you worked?”
“It was early, and the cash register was empty. I was the first one in the store.” The plot thickened as I walked right into the noose with my name on it.
Mom didn’t say anything else. She turned and went into her bedroom. Within minutes she was back in the sun porch where I slept.
“It so happens that there is a fifty-cent piece missing from my purse. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
With my best angelic, lying face, I sort of weakly whispered, “No ma’am, I wouldn’t know about that.”
She still didn’t say anything, so I figured for once I had actually got away with stealing money. Not so. She sent me out back to rake the yard. While I raked, my mother slipped out of the house. When I came back inside, she was waiting for me at the kitchen table.
“I visited Mr. Martin. He tells me you gave him a fifty-cent coin for ten packages of Juicy Fruit. So are you ready to tell me the truth?”
Tears began to flood my eyes and stream down my face. I didn’t say anything. For the longest time, my mother sat at the table and stared at me.
“What am I going to do with you? Do you know much fifty cents is?
It is a lot of money, especially in these hard times. What hurts me most is that you would steal from your mother. I work hard to support you and give you the necessities of life, and you do this to me.”
(Growing Up Hillbilly – Chapter XIX)
She started to tear up. I couldn’t stand to see mom cry. When she got talking seriously to me about life and my behavior, I hated it. I would much prefer to get the switch and get on with it, but I simply couldn’t handle her ‘look how much you hurt me’ speeches.
To add to my misery, she sent me off to live with grandma, where I received a lecture on God and hell’s punishment. Grandma rarely said bad things to me, but this time she really let me have it. “Young man I fear you have an appointment with Judas in the hereafter.”
I was well into my teens when I realized that I didn’t want people to see me as a lying thief. The Junior Sanders caper finally cured me of such outlaw activities, except for one major lie.
After I graduated Lincoln Junior High School, I enrolled in Stonewall Jackson High School. In elementary and junior high schools when I became bored with classes, I would simply skip them. I developed a pretty good skill at forging my mother’s name to excuses for my absences.
I had no athletic abilities. P. T. teachers were supposed to be great examples of manhood. They bored the hell out of me. Consequently, my association with the so-called he-men was the company I kept. I hung out with the roughest and rowdiest boys in school which earned me swats and detention hall. When I skipped detention, my hours were extended. I developed a pretty good tolerance for pain because I received more than a normal amount of swats.
In July of 1941, I decided to join the Navy. Everybody said we would soon be at war with Germany. I never thought of war as killing or getting killed. It could have been boy scouts at camp as far as I knew. At seventeen, I was not old enough to enlist on my own. My mother, who never practiced pacifism with me, refused to sign the permission papers.
“You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just a kid.” I got so tired of hearing, “you’re just a kid.”
All my begging and pleading gained me nothing but refusals. So, I went my usual route to get what I wanted. I both lied and committed a crime at the same time.
I went over town to the Navy recruiting office and picked up the permission form, “for my mother to fill out and sign.”
You can see where I’m going. I had a friend who owned a typewriter to fill out the form. With all my experience of forging my mother’s name, I had no trouble doing it again. I marched down to the recruiter’s offices and submitted the form.
I especially didn’t tell my cousin Bill what I was up to. His big mouth would have spread it all over town. With only the clothes on my back and a small bag of personal stuff, I was among a group of a dozen or so, who took the oath of office and on July 25th found myself on the nine o’clock C&O passenger train, The Virginian, en route from Charleston to Norfolk, Virginia’s naval training center and boot camp.
(Growing Up Hillbilly – Chapter XIX)
I didn’t worry about anybody looking for me. Remember, I had quite a history of running away from home. Usually, I became tired of being hungry, homeless and broke. So, like a bad penny, I usually turned up somewhere waiting for my mother to finance my trip home by Greyhound.
I finished boot camp in late August, and with a three-day pass, I hitched a ride back to Charleston. Nobody in my family knew where I was and certainly didn’t expect me to show up in white Navy duds. I arrived in Charleston after an all-night ride in the back seat with two drunk hillbillies who broke every speed limit known to mankind. I spent a night with those maniacs who were from Charleston, a second 24 hours in a hotel and then hit the highway back to Norfolk.
I arrived at the base barely an hour before I would have been listed as AWOL.
Some old biddy had seen me in downtown Charleston and thinking I’d been home, called my mother to say how surprised she was to see that I had joined the Navy. My mother, even more surprised, got in touch with the local recruiting station and discovered that she had signed the papers, that I’d completed boot and would soon be assigned to a ship.
She contacted the base commander in Norfolk. My summons to the Captain’s office also came as a surprise. I had no idea why someone so important would want to see me. Maybe I’d been an outstanding trainee. If so, it would be an even greater surprise.
No such good luck. He gave me the worst chewing out you can imagine, raging on about the cost to train me, etc., etc., etc. Of course, it didn’t take long to get rid of me. On September 11th, 1941, I was discharged ‘Under Honorable Conditions for the Benefit of the Government.’
I wanted nothing to do with my mother for a long, long time. I’ll never know why kids blame their parents for their own errors in life.
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