“God, what is poor?” – Chapter 5

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by Esther Turner Cotton

In fond remembrances of Mother and Daddy
Dedicated to Nadine, my sister

Chapter 5


Nadine and J.T. attended Junior High – or South School – across the railroad tracks and south of town out on the ChuiChui Highway.  Nadine was in sixth grade and J.T. was in seventh.

Mother took us into town the first day to help us enroll in school. She gave Nadine and J.T. a nickel or dime for lunch and she bought a five cent package of chocolate cupcakes for Bonni and me.  I was amazed at lunch time when we went to the basement cafeteria. The kids had sandwiches made with “light” bread, cookies, an apple, orange or banana and a thermos of milk. A lunch “pail” in Arkansas had contained a biscuit with butter and jelly or biscuits with a fried egg.

what-is-poor-5When I first walked into the classroom I was so frightened I could hardly speak and when I saw the teacher was a man, I wanted to die. The small schools in Arkansas never, ever, had male teachers in the lower grades. Men were mostly high school principals. I was so intimidated by him that I became physically ill and remained so until school was out in May. He talked so fast and loud and yelled at anyone who didn’t know an answer to any question he asked. All I remember from the entire three months of fifth grade was Cecil McCullar, the teacher, reading to us aloud one or two chapters of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” each morning before class started. Mercifully I passed on to sixth grade and South School but much to my chagrin, he was transferred to South School that year and was my math teacher in eighth grade. My fear of him was no less, however.

Forty-one years later I sat across the table from him and his wife at a retirement dinner for a mutual friend in Safford, Arizona. When Cecil stood up to give a toast to the retiree, he began with “I knew this girl when blah-blah-blah – like I had been a favorite student. It was grace, good manners and maturity that kept me from kicking him under the table and saying, “You S.O.B., I ain’t scared no more!”

The next two years are vague except for the fact that we kept on struggling for a better life and month by month, with very hard work by mother and daddy, we were making it. Mother had taken a job in a steam laundry and dry cleaning business. Every day she sorted and tagged clothes, put them into the washers and cleaning vats, and stood for hours shaking and straightening wet sheets before they were put into the large mangles to be ironed. Later she was promoted to driving the laundry delivery truck.  She contributed a great deal toward helping to improve our standard of living.

I believe the hardest job daddy had and the one that still hurts to think about was grave digging.  He worked this job after 5 p.m., after already doing an eight hours work. He started after an early supper and sometimes stayed as late as midnight. Although mother always went with him and helped, sometimes we’d make it a family affair. We kids would remove dead flowers from graves and clean up.  He took pride in his job, even if it was grave caretaker.

what-is-poor-5bThe cemetery was located about three miles southeast of town down Trekell Road. It was a remote area in 1939. The earth was very dry and alkaline, which meant that a few inches below topsoil was solid caliche, which was harder than stone. He staked out and measured the grave and started digging with a shovel, but when the soil got too hard, he’d get a barrel or two of water from the reservoir and pour it into the grave and let it soak to soften the dirt, then go out and finish digging it the next night. It was very confining and backbreaking work. This dust along with long-term smoking and sawdust was a contributing factor to his lung problems later.

During this time, J.T. had acquired a bicycle and gotten himself a paper route. Besides helping friends, it taught him responsibility and gave him pride. Daddy sold the big truck or traded it in for a 1936 brown Plymouth sedan. It was the prettiest and most comfortable car we had ever owned. We made our first return visit to Arkansas in this car.

South (or Junior High) School was surrounded on three sides, south, west and north by cotton fields and the front on the east was still a desert with a few houses scattered here and there. The one thing that impressed me most at South School was a small white building located at the southwest corner of the big school playground. It was a one-room school for black students. There were never more than 12 students at any time and only one teacher. It bothered me because I thought this was a situation you’d only see in the South.

When I was in seventh grade I got the opportunity to join the new grade school band that was being formed. I played the cymbals, which doesn’t require a lot of talent. The school furnished long-sleeved red satin shirts for each of us but there was a problem – we needed long white pants to wear and I could not afford to buy them. Carl Hoisington, the band director, could have chosen someone else to play the cymbals. Instead, he got funds (probably from his own pocket) to buy white pants for me. The biggest thrill of being in this grade school band was marching in the rodeo parade, the Fiesta De Los Vaqueros in Tucson! Since we were a small unit, with bad music, we marched near the end of the parade, but marching three miles through, over and around piles of horse manure didn’t dampen our enthusiasm in the least. Later in the year I was given a big brass baritone horn – which I never learned to play well – but Mr. Hoisington had hopes.  We had moved out east of town and rode the school bus.  Cecil McCullar was the driver so I was subjected to his put-down remarks about my big horn.

…to be continued.