I grew up in and around Charleston, West Virginia, during the Great Depression of the 1930's. We were dirt poor as were most of our neighbors, whether living on a scratchy patch of acreage in the country which passed for a farm or in town. Thanks to Tom Brokaw my generation is known as The Greatest Generation. Looking back, that's kind of funny. As a youngster I would have felt like the richest kid in the world if I had just any one of the many toys that boys take for granted today. We had no television, no MacDonald's, no computers, no video games and no one to drive us to school. But - we had love. Until I ran away from home at 17 to sing in New York, I never went to bed at night without someone saying AI love you.
No one ever had a better foundation for life. We may have been hillbilly, but we were a family. No matter our differences, in times of need or trouble the wagons were circled and we survived. Most of all, I had a most wonderful woman to prepare me for the future. From my birth on May 17, 1924, most of my earliest memories revolved around my grandmother.
Baby boys were not so often victims to the surgeon's knife in those days. However, when I reached age three, my mother found a medical journal containing an article which pointed out the health hazards to
uncircumcised male babies. Within a few days I found myself on the long cold, stainless steel table in Dr. Schultz office, screaming between fright and anger as the nursesmeared Vaseline around my mouth and placed a kitchen strainer and cloth over my face. The last thing I remembered was the sickly smell of chloroform and Grandma's face hovering above me, whispering, "When you get home I'm going to fix you a skillet of fried taters."
I woke up on Dr. Schultz's black horse hair couch absent tonsils, adenoids and foreskin. Grandma and Mama sat close by. The sight of Grandma's face reassured me that everything would be okay. All my life her face has been the one true beacon to me.
It was during one of our early migrations to the city when Grandma lived with my Great Grandma in a big two-story house on Lewis Street in the east end of Charleston. At the top of the stairs, straight up from the kitchen, she fixed up a room for my recovery.
Great Grandma Vickers spoiled me rotten with ice cream and ice chips and malted milks while I stayed at her house. Over everybody's objections she insisted that, "This child needs some nourishment. Just look at him. He's as pale as a ghost."
I did my best to live up to her diagnosis. I think her delicious medications were the reason I didn't suffer from the usual post-tonsillectomy pains, other areas of my anatomy excepted.
Sure as shootin', a few days after Mama brought me home to Grandma's house, I could smell the aroma of potatoes, fried brown in lard, wafting up the stairs from the kitchen. I hadn't been downstairs because it hurt to walk. Grandma, knowing that I needed to be up and around in order to heal, called out from the foot of the stairs, "Raymond, if you want some of these fried taters, you'll have to come down to the kitchen and get them."
In total misery, I clung to the railing all the way down to the stairs, clinging to the railing with my right hand while holding my night gown as far away from my butchered manhood as possible. All the way down to the kitchen, the stitches pulled with every step. My first words to my grandmother were, "Grandma, I'm ruint."
"You'll be just fine," she said, picking me up and positioning me on a straight-backed kitchen chair atop three feather pillows. I barely reached the top of the table but those were the most delicious fried taters I have ever tasted.
My Grandmother came from a large family. She grew up on the banks of Coal River in Logan County West Virginia, the eldest child of Oma Kidd and Henry Hill. Grandma's mother was full-blooded Cherokee, great grandpa Hill a mixture of Scots-Irish. An itinerant country preacher, he sired a total of fourteen children; four girls and four boys from his marriage to my great-grandmother, the other six from another marriage.
Grandma had a tough childhood. By the time she reached school age, her mother had three more toddlers. On the first Monday morning in September, she went off to the one room country school with the other river children, most of them either Cherokee or part Cherokee.
"Pa came to fetch me at noon," Grandma said, "so all I ever saw of a school room was that first half day." With three little ones and Monday being wash day, Grandma Hill needed her eldest daughter to Ahelp out with the young'uns."
She not only helped out with her siblings but became a bride before her fifteenth birthday. Within a year, she gave birth to my mother. Her first husband, and my birth grandfather, James Shirkey was thirty-five when Grandpa Hill gave my fourteen-year-old Grandma away. "I think Jim Shirkey paid Pa twenty-five or thirty dollars to marry me. I know Ma cried for weeks after my new husband took me off to Charleston where we set up housekeeping."
I don't think she ever forgave her father for selling her off to a man twenty years her senior.
Grandma gave birth to three children in as many years: My mother, Oma
(named after her Indian grandmother), Sherman and my Uncle Fred. Sherman, barely three years old, swallowed a cigar box tack and died. Family planning and medical science left a lot to be desired at the turn of the twentieth century.
Grandma never had what you'd call a paying job. Not many women did in the early twentieth century, and certainly not during the depressed thirties. Mama was one of the exceptions. She worked as a waitress as far back as I can remember.
Just before I had my first experience with the surgeon's knife, my father came out into our back yard and caught me up in his arms. He said, "I love you." He kissed me, put me down in the back yard and walked out of my life.
So from age three, women pretty much dominated my life.
My teenage rebellion manifested itself in blaming mama for my inability to deal with the fears, frustrations and loneliness that a boy can feel without a father. I did, however, have a male role model who was always there--my grandmother's husband, Mont Vickers--the only grandfather I ever knew since my mother's father died when she was only small child. Grandpa Vickers, a man who worked long hours, and often six days a week, taught me by example that a man must work. A week-end drinker, from Saturday evening to Sunday night, he frequently disappeared with his buddies to the banks of Elk River for singing and drinking sessions that sometimes lasted a full twenty-four hours. Although Grandma strongly opposed his drinking, she loved him so much that he usually got off with a lecture about hell and damnation and then the weekly cycle would begin all over again.
Although a spiritual man, Grandpa did not give a lot of credence to organized religion. He respected the preacher and Grandma's devotion to the Lord. The only time I recall him ever being inside a church was when his mother died. He didn't go to funerals or visit anyone in the hospital unless Grandma put her foot down.
I had a special relationship with Grandpa. We both loved baseball. I've never known anyone with as much knowledge of the national past time as my Grandpa. We often sat on the front porch together, listening to the Saturday games on the radio (between his frequent trips to the back porch, where he hid his bottle from Grandma). We could always get the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers. He loved to spin yarns about the old time players from his youth. Like a sponge I soaked up baseball lore. It would be many years before I appreciated the information he bestowed upon me. His diamond heroes were guys like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Phil Rizzuto, Jimmy Foxx and John McGraw and could spin exciting tales of their exploits on the baseball diamond.
Grandpa sometimes became moody when he drank and easily took offense at an unintentional remark. I have always had a big mouth and Grandma tried to keep me away from Grandpa when he drank, but that=s when he and I had our best conversations. I didn=t care what he drank. I loved him and I knew he loved me. We had great times together on the front porch.
He never encouraged me to sign up for any sports activities at school. Mama forbid me to play in organized sports. "You're not big enough," she would explain. "You could get hurt." So I never played sports. But thanks to Grandpa I could talk locker room stuff with the best of them.
In all truth, I reckon Grandma was my real mother, the nuts and bolts that kept me sane as a child. I followed her around like a puppy dog, asking a thousand questions a day. She never shushed me. Instead, she did her best to give me answers I could understand.
Mama, a vain woman when it came to her age, kept me out of school. She had a morbid fear that someone might find out she had a child old enough to go to school. Finally, one day right after Christmas 1931--I was seven and a half--Grandma put her foot down."Omie," she said (she called Mama Omie when she meant business), "that boy's going to school if I have to take him myself."
So I began kindergarten at Fruth Elementary School, the oldest kid in class,. It wasn't as though I'd gone without an education. Mama taught me to read several years before anyone thought of sending me to school. For the longest time I thought my mother couldn't read. She had me read the paper to her every morning. I'd spread the paper out on the living room floor and read all the stories to her, running my finger along the lines, word by word. I've always enjoyed telling friends that I learned to read by the "finger method."
Fortunately, I inherited Mama and Grandma's genes. Neither of them ever showed their real ages. Even at the ripe old age of thirty-five, I still had bars and liquor stores carding me.
Grandma died at age 97--not from old age--she choked while eating dinner. What a woman. What a life she lived. Most important to me, she influenced my life more than any other person. A devout Christian and someone who never discussed sex with any of her grandchildren, she startled me one day when she said, "Raymond, if you want to live a long time and be happy, always work hard, keep a good sense of humor and have a healthy sex life."
I would more have expected the sex part to come from Mama, but then, Mama is another chapter. Grandma just happened to be a realist.