Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

You CAN!

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Monday, July 24, 2017

My late father, who grew up in abject poverty in rural West Alabama in Lamar County, escaped poverty by serving in the Navy during the Korean War. Daddy said he asked his father – who had at most, a 3rd Grade education, and who, like him was well-acquainted with the backside of a mule and a plough – if he thought it would be a good idea for him to join the Navy. Daddy said that his father replied, “I think it’s a good idea. Maybe you won’t have to work as hard as I have.”

Daddy completed High School, which was almost an unheard-of thing for many in that era, especially in that location, and then went to Navy Boot Camp at San Diego, which is now San Diego Naval Air Station, where he experienced culture shock. Though he never identified it as such, his stories to me about his time there clearly indicate it was.

The idiomatic phrase “everything but the squeal” was a very real thing for him. That phrase means that at “hog killing time” – which was the first period of enduring cool temperatures during autumn in which hogs were slaughtered, because there was no refrigeration to preserve the meat from spoilage – every part of the pig was used for some purpose; food (which was often smoked for preservation), shoes, garments/clothing… everything, including the tail, the head, the ears, the innards (the small intestine was used for sausage casing, the large intestine for chitlins’) – everything but the squeal – was utilized. Nothing went to waste.

During Navy Boot Camp, Daddy said he saw more food thrown into the garbage than he’d seen food in his entire life. At the tender young age of 18, he literally saw more food wasted than he’d ever seen in his entire life. It’s difficult to imagine what feelings would come over a person when their entire life they’d been accustomed to “everything but the squeal” and then seeing it all thrown into the garbage.

Poverty in rural Alabama was widespread, and real… real hard. The Great Depression made an already hard-scrabble life even more difficult. Daddy’s family, and many others’, was so poor, they had to have someone come from Washington, D.C. to tell them there was a Great Depression going on… because they couldn’t tell the difference. Sadly, poverty in rural Alabama continues to this day.

And, like many others in rural Alabama during the Great Depression, his family didn’t grow up with electricity and modern conveniences we now often take for granted. For example, he recalled the electrician’s name, the day, date, and time he came to wire their house for electricity… as well as other unique facts about that day and installation. Cooling of foods to retard spoilage was either by an ice box, or a specially-prepared box in a nearby creek. Water, however, was drawn from a well. An icebox was literally an insulated metal box with a door (similar to our modern refrigerators) which held a 50-pound block of ice which was placed at the top of the box. Cool air falls, you may recall, which is why the block of ice was placed at top… and which is why to this day, the freezer portions of refrigerators are placed above the cooling area. Phrases like “the iceman cometh,” and “put it on ice” all derived from that era. And if you’ll watch a few episodes of “The Honeymooners,” an early Jackie Gleason classic black-and-white television situation comedy, you’ll see an icebox in the kitchen, which is where most of the scenes are placed. Today, the word “icebox” most often means some type of sweet frozen pie, typically lemon, and almost nothing to those who aren’t familiar with the origin and derivation of that word.

But Daddy did escape poverty through utilizing the G.I. Bill after his Navy Service during the Korean War. He matriculated Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which was the early name of Auburn University. There, he met Mother (he actually “stole” her from his roommate), and waited until she graduated before they married.

For many years thereafter, Daddy and Mother lived a good, middle-class lifestyle, and raised two boys. They were definitely “living the American dream.” Medical care was affordable (and largely paid with cash, because insurance companies that provided health insurance had non-profit status, there was no profit motive – that only came after the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973 under the Nixon administration).

Later, after Daddy was promoted to Regional Manager at the company where he’d worked for many years, the Wall Street-traded parent firm forced the company to make poor manufacturing decisions which reduced the quality of the products they sold (to increase profit), which in turn increased dissatisfaction among long-term customers, and resultant loss of customers to a direct competitor. Company profits then decreased to such an extent that the entire company was liquidated by the Wall Street parent firm. Daddy was one of the last to get “The Last Supper,” which was the phrase given to those who were being fired. The company took the employee out to a final dinner at their choice of restaurant, where they were given “the pink slip.”

Daddy then re-utilized his G.I. Bill benefits to return to university where he earned his Master’s Degree, and A.A. Teaching Certificate. During that time as well, Mother had also returned to university where she earned her Master’s Degree. When I asked Daddy why he didn’t pursue his Ed.D., or Ph.D., his simple reply was “they didn’t pay anymore for it.” He was definitely a man who clearly understood the business principles of Return On Investment and Cost Benefit Analysis!

Of course that meant that while he and Mother were earning their Advanced Degrees, my younger brother and I became the original “Latchkey Kids.”

As a Teacher, he started a Shop Program for Junior High School students at a small town in North Central Alabama, where he taught the students Small Engine Repair (certified by Briggs and Stratton – some of his students have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs with lawn care, or small engine repair businesses), woodworking (he initiated Eastern Bluebird preservation by teaching his students to build bluebird nesting boxes, which were widely distributed throughout North Alabama), Leather Crafting, and about the World of Work (preparing students for success in future employment or entrepreneurship), and was State Certified to teach Hunter Gun Safety. He also continued service in our nation’s Armed Forces, first in a National Guard unit of the Special Forces, and later in the Air Force National Guard, from which he was later mandatorily retired because of his age.

My father was an industrious man, to say the least, and his sense of Community Service was the bedrock foundation of his life.

One of his sayings which he often shared with me was, “The first part of ‘I can’t’ is ‘I can.’”

Today, when you think about the difficulties in your life – whatever the circumstance or situation may be – remember that it is temporary, and that “The first part of ‘I can’t’ is ‘I CAN.’”

2 Responses to “You CAN!”

  1. What an inspiring story! My dad was a bit older than yours — for him the Depression hit right after high school. He had made the same comment that you say here, that most folks were so poor and living mostly off of what they could grow, that the Depression didn’t affect them as much. That generation, though should inspire us all by what they were able to do. Just like your Dad who found a way when faced with dead ends, hardships, and failures in the system.


    • Warm Southern Breeze said

      Dad hasn’t been dead a year, and I find myself treasuring these things which he shared with me. I began preparing myself for his death in earnest after he was debilitated by a left hemispherical CVA. Before then, he’d been in a SNF, which to me, was like a type of death, even though he was well cared-for while there. It was the separation & removal, I think, which was reminiscent of death. Anyway… thanks for your encouraging words! I appreciate them. And, I concur with your assessment that those in his generation “should inspire us all by what they were able to do.”


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