Recently, I was having a leisurely Sunday lunch with family and friends at a fine restaurant in Guntersville, when an ear-splitting scream at the adjoining table caused my stomach to do a somersault. Diners were startled. The little imp, seeing the attention he was getting began screaming even louder. His mother and grandmother appeared to be proud of their enfant terrible. My stomach was in knots. My parents couldn’t afford to eat in a restaurant, but if they had done so and I pulled a stunt like that I would have been taken outside and corrected. Children were more respectful and mannerly when I was growing up. My parents didn’t ask me silly question like: “My little sweet pea would you like to eat a biscuit and gravy or would you prefer that I drive to the store and buy you a honey bun?” I ate what was put before me. There was a hierarchy of offenses. Never wear a hat at the dinner table; don’t speak unless spoken to; never interrupt your elders; never be disrespectful, don’t act smart alecky and never, never sass your parents. Wearing a cap at the table was a minor offense, acting smart alecky could earn you a lecture, but sassing your parents would result in well… a near death experience.
Mama, like a zealous District Attorney would often over charge me with an offense.
“What did you just mumble, Jerry?”
“Mama, I didn’t mumble anything.”
“Don’t get smart alecky with me,” she replied.
“I’m not getting smart alecky.”
“Now, you are sassing me young’un.”
The threat of being charged with sassing was enough to shut me up.
Daddy whipped me only once. We were visiting the Turner family and, following a chicken stew dinner, the adults played Rook. Sylvia Turner, about my age – four or five – with long, blonde pig-tails began picking at me. When adults weren’t looking at me, I pushed her off the end of the couch with my feet. After all, a man can take only so much hounding from a woman. She feigned pain and began screaming bloody murder, interrupting the Rook game.
“What in the world happened?” Mama asked Sylvia.
“Jerry kicked me off the couch. Boo, hoo, hoo.”
“Did you do that?” Mama asked me.
“Yessum, but I didn’t kick her hard.”
Daddy dragged me outside by one arm. I was kicking, screaming and begging. He broke off an oak branch and thrashed me. I was running around his legs trying to escape.
“Stand still young’un,” he barked.
How could I stand still and flee at the same time? The thrashing didn’t hurt me, but it scared me half to death. That was the only time Daddy ever whipped me and it was enough. A hard look from him would correct my misbehavior. On the other hand, Mama was always threatening to whip me and quoting scripture – “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child.” But, I wasn’t afraid of her. Sometimes she would threaten to tell Daddy when he came home and that would spoil the rest of my day.
When I grew older, other rules were imposed: Don’t urinate or put rocks in your cotton sack to make it weigh more and don’t urinate in Daddy’s whiskey bottle. Making a blended whiskey out of Daddy’s wildcat would really rile him up.
My maternal grandmother, Edna Holt had three boys by her second marriage and they were what Mama called a “hand full”. Grandmother Holt didn’t use a belt; she used a thick yardstick given away by a local bank. She didn’t tell the boys to get up for breakfast but once. Her second trip to the bedroom was to whack them with the yardstick. They grabbed their butts and began begging. Billy and Harold were in the 82nd Airborne and Bobby was in the Air Force. That didn’t impress Grandmother. “I don’t care if you are in the Army, when you’re here, you gonna mind me,” she said.
Psychologists say that committing violence against our children teaches them to be violent and fearful. I don’t doubt that. I don’t know its long term effect, but I do know that it gets immediate results. I attribute much of my success in life to Mr. B. L Rich, Principal of East Limestone School in the 1950’s. Mr. Rich had long, brushy eyebrows and was a strict disciplinarian. I wore a black motorcycle jacket with skull and crossbones on the back and walked around with my collar turned up, mumbling. I thought of myself as James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. To further my self-image, I threw a cherry bomb down the hallway. The explosion rocked the school, and wouldn’t you know it, a stool pigeon turned me in. Mr. Rich called me to his office and asked if I did it – which I admitted – and then took a large paddle from his desk. “Bend over and hold your ankles,” he commanded. He burned a hole in my smoking jeans and after three licks I forgot I was James Dean and began begging for mercy. I learned that begging teaches humility. It was several days before I could sit or sleep on my back, but it gave me time to reconsider my image. Being James Dean was just too painful. I never got a chance to thank Mr. Rich for helping me out, but I’ll always be grateful to him.
By: Jerry Barksdale