Recently, I got lucky. It was back in the winter of 1948 when I was 7 years old. We lived on Bean Road in the Piney Chapel Community where we share-cropped cotton on Mr. Henry Binford’s place, and lived in a ratty old farmhouse with a tin roof and no insulation. It was heated by a wood-burning stove in one bedroom, which doubled for a living room. The rest of the house was closed off. We drew water from a dug well located on the back porch and the outhouse was close by, which was a great convenience in the winter time. I was a 2nd grader at Piney Chapel where Miss Exie Holt was my teacher. The only thing I liked about school was getting to ride the yellow bus, where I learned to “match pennies” with older boys. Mama said it was gambling and a sin. I guess that’s the reason I liked to do it.
At school, I sat in a right-handed desk and had to twist around and crook my left arm in order to write. This caused me to begin my sentences on the right margin of the tablet and write backwards. Other kids were writing, but I couldn’t get the hang of it. Mama had birthed a moron. On the other hand, I was unique – the only kid in class who could write backward. Finally, Miss. Exie obtained a left-handed desk and I learned to write, (not very good,) but at least I was starting on the left margin.
A terrifying event occurred at school when a health department nurse came out to give shots. We fell in line like ducks, rolled up our sleeves and some of the boys bragged about how they “weren’t afraid of a ‘li’l ole’ shot.” The sight of the needle set off whimpering, and then crying, which spread like wildfire. Soon, all of us were crying and begging, even the braggarts. That was only the beginning. Following our shot, someone said, “I’m sick.” This caused the others to be ill. Pretty soon everybody was sick. Miss. Exie put us on pallets until the hysteria passed. That’s another reason I didn’t like school.
Then a bully shoved me off the porch steps into prickly bushes. It was a girl. Other kids teased me, “Ha, ha, ha, he’s afraid of a girrrll, he’s afraid of a girrrll.” That’s another reason I didn’t like school.
That winter the dirt and gravel roads froze, then thawed, creating deep muddy ruts which made it impossible to travel, including the school bus. That’s when my luck began to change. I didn’t have to attend school. A hard freeze followed, making the roads again passable. Mama got lucky also. She slipped on ice on the back porch and severely injured her back. She said she was the luckiest person in the world, that her back could have been broken. Now that’s real luck!
I slept on a feather bed in an unheated north room where the slightest breeze caused the wallpaper to flap and pop. Each night the water in the glass beside my bed froze solid. One cold night Mama stacked several quilts on top me and wrapped a heated brick in a towel and placed it at my feet. She said my prayers and kissed me on the forehead. “Good night punk’n, sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.” The last thing I remember before falling asleep was hearing the cold north wind howling beneath the eaves of the house and rattling the tin. I woke early next morning, hot, sweaty and itchy. When I didn’t appear in the kitchen at my usual time and warm by the stove while Mama cooked breakfast, she came and checked on me. “What’s wrong punk’n?”
“I don’t feel good,” I said. She placed her hand on my forehead and wrinkled her brow. “Young’un, you’re burning up with fever. You can’t go to school.”
That was wonderful news. My condition worsened during the day. Mama and Daddy hovered over the bed with worry on their faces.
“I think you need to get Dr. Darby out here,” Mama said to Daddy.
He walked to a neighbor’s house and called Dr. Darby in Athens. That afternoon, Dr. Darby showed up with a red nose and carrying a black bag. He took my temperature, then pulled back the covers and placed a cold stethoscope to my chest and announced his diagnosis.
“Well, he has measles. I recommend that he drink a ‘Dr. Peppers’ twice a day until he recovers.”
Daddy walked down the frozen dirt road to Roy Hargrove’s store on Elkton Road and returned with a carton of ‘Dr. Peppers.’ I took my time recovering and managed to drink another carton of Dr. Pepper before my health improved.
Imagine, propped up in a warm feather bed, skipping school and drinking ‘Dr. Peppers.’ How lucky can a kid get? Lady Luck was smiling on me. I immediately began planning on getting chicken pox, the mumps and the itch…
By: Jerry Barksdale