Saturday, June 20, 2015

...a boy and his mule

He was fourteen years old the summer he left the old farmhouse each morning in the semi-darkness, before the heat had begun its rapid climb. As he hitched up Old Sam, his much-loved mule, his thoughts were of his mother. Widowed early with three young sons to raise on the small south Georgia dirt farm, she cooked and cleaned, boiled clothes in an old washtub and hung them outside to dry. She fed their meager livestock and the chickens, weeded the garden that fed them and hoed the fields, all the time caring for the two younger boys. Life was not easy in the post-reconstruction, Depression-era south.

The idea had come to him slowly. At night he had figured and planned, then chosen his words. As he told his mother, she looked deep into his eyes. Once convinced that he would not be dissuaded, she gave him her blessing. And she prayed. Without ceasing, she prayed. Each morning of her eldest son's fourteenth summer, she stood on the back porch and waved, prayed some more as he and his mule trekked across the field toward the woods.

Thin but determined, he and his mule cleared twenty-two acres of loblolly pines over the next two months. He felled the tall trees and, with Sam's help, drug them into the field. In the heat of the day, he and Sam walked to the creek where he propped against a tree and ate the cold biscuits filled with sorghum syrup she'd wrapped after breakfast. After a quick dip in the cold creek water, he returned to work.

For sixty sweltering south Georgia days, days filled with mosquitoes and rattlers, moccasins and gnats, he cut and drug and cut some more. When the trees were down and the wood cut into logs and stacked for cooking and heating, he and Sam pulled the stumps, every last one, the mule straining   while the boy tugged with all his might. As if the days weren't hot enough, he then burned the stumps in a field, away from grass that might catch fire...never on a windy day, only on the still, hot ones. Once the ground was free of roots, he hooked Sam up to a plow and they tilled the twenty-two acres. He hoed and planted cotton, a later crop than usual, and returned each day to weed. As the plants grew, like his mother, he prayed: for the crop to grow and for the weather to nourish, not destroy. But mostly he prayed for her. He never heard his mother complain but sometimes when he stole quietly to her room, he glimpsed the fatigue, the furrowed brow.

The weeks turned into months. He ran into the field after August hail storms. Watched the sky for rain clouds. Finally, in the fall he picked the prickly bolls, crawling through the rows with a burlap sack hitched around his neck. He and Sam hauled the cotton to the gin.  In quiet triumph, he had brought his first cash crop to harvest. The cotton yielded enough to pay bills and plant the winter garden. The next year's early planting yielded a bumper crop. For five more years, he and Sam planted and picked and hauled their way through the seasons.

He reached manhood - quiet, still wiry but now strong, as kind and loving as his mother - just in time for WWII. All three of her boys were drafted but he was the first to leave English Crossing, their small Georgia community. After basic training in Nebraska, he embarked from New York City. Another English crossing would follow the next summer, this one to Omaha Beach. Across different fields, to the hell of the Ardennes and other places that would live only in his memory, he marched. And all the while he read and re-read her letters. He wrote to her that all was well with him. "Somewhere in England, May 1944" became "Somewhere in France, June 1944", then Germany and, somewhere in the mix, Holland.

Back in Georgia, alone on the small dirt farm, she fought her own battle...her diagnosis, breast cancer. Discharged on Christmas Day 1945, he got home in early 1946, in time to be with her before she died. For the rest of his life, her name was was Old Sam's. She would have liked that.

His battles were never discussed, neither those of boyhood nor any that followed. He told the odd funny story, occasionally recalled an old Army buddy. Sam often came up in conversation, always with a twinkle and a laugh. "Yesiree, I wish I could see Old Sam one more time. He was a special mule." But never a word about that long-ago transforming summer, about D-Day, about the Battle of the Bulge.

He bonded deeply twice in his life, both times in a battle for survival. Whatever pain or fear he knew going forward belonged only to him and to God. He found great peace in books and loved his neighbor. Some prosperity followed but, in his last years, new management cut the sales territories of all who neared retirement to cut expenses. Salesman of the Year many times over, he became a study in solitude as he struggled once again. It is his spirit, though, that is remembered by those who knew him...loving, beloved, so deeply missed.

One brother survives. Before he slipped into the fog of age, one evening atop Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, he recounted memories at the dinner table. As he spoke of the big brother he yet loves, tears spilled onto his face. Outside in the deep darkness of the Blue Ridge, stars gathered overhead and blessed the words he legacy, my father's fourteenth summer.

Sugar Mountain, NC

With Uncle George, the morning after
Sugar Mountain, NC

John W. Strickland, 1922-1995

He remains, always, my Daddy.
Photo: Vestavia Hills, AL, 1990