A Not So Merry Christmas
By: Garland Davis
It was the winter of ’49-’50. It was an unusually long and cold winter. I was five years old. These events actually happened. My mother always marveled at my ability to remember the details of happenings when I was a child. I remember the months before and after Christmas of that year.
The United States was struggling to pull out of the recession/depression that set in at the end of WWII. Jobs were hard to find. My Dad was fortunate enough to have a job with the City of Winston-Salem Streets Department. I remember that his salary was $140 per month. I thought that was a fortune and that we were rich. My mother watched a couple of neighbors’ children during the day for a dollar per day. I had a hard time believing that we were poor.
My dad had bought a ninety-acre farm earlier in the year using the GI Bill. The cost was $100 per acre or $9000. I don’t know the particulars of payments or interest rates. We moved into the main (there were three in all) houses on the farm in the spring of 1949. There was no electricity and the earliest that Duke Power would run the lines and install a fuse box was the spring of 1950. We lived there almost a year with kerosene lamps for lighting, a wood burning range for cooking, and an outhouse a hundred yards or so from the back door. My brother described it as “five rooms and a path.”
Rob was married to my dad’s niece. They lived in town. He and dad were close and always were helping each other in projects of one kind or another. There were ordinances against livestock within the city limits. Rob would always buy two pigs each spring. My dad would pen them on the farm, they would split the cost of feed, (I was usually forced to do the actual feeding) and each family would have the meat from a hog at slaughter. They also planted a large garden on our place. Rob and his family would come in the evenings and on weekends to help tend it. I was happy for that; less that I had to hoe.
Rob worked for a small box company. They made corrugated cardboard boxes and wooden crates for industry. They were an unionized shop with a little over a hundred employees. They were part of a union that represented workers in the furniture manufacturing industry. The furniture workers called a strike and insisted that the box company workers strike in solidarity with them. I remember hearing Rob tell my dad that they didn’t want to strike, but were threatened with violence by the furniture workers if they didn’t go out.
The Owners and Management of the box company told the workers that a strike would put them into bankruptcy and they would be forced to liquidate the business. The union ignored management’s warning and forced them to strike. The company filed for bankruptcy and went into liquidation. Rob was without work and didn’t have the money to pay rent or to even feed his family. They moved in with us. Their furniture was stored in a stall in the barn.
At the time there was my two brothers and me. I was five, Johnny was three, and Tommy was less than a year old. The cousin’s family consisted of three boys also. Tony was six, Tim four and the baby, Mike, was less than a year (he died of leukemia in ’53). After sleeping arrangements had been sorted out and beds were allocated, we ended with four boys sleeping in a double bed, both babies in the same crib, and two beds for the adults.
It was a bleak winter and Christmas that year. It was made even bleaker by Tony, the six-year-old. He was lazy and a complainer, he was unhappy because there was no electricity and no indoor toilet. He didn’t want to help with the chores. He complained about feeding the chickens but had no complaints about eating them. He was a chubby kid (fatass) and always wanted seconds and the largest helping when, more often than not, there was barely enough to go around. He complained because he couldn’t go to his old school because he had to walk about half a mile to the school bus stop and because I didn’t have to go. He was also a tattletale who would rat you out for your infractions and shift the blame to others for his.
He tried to beat me up because I could read his books and he couldn’t. (My grandmother taught me to read and write long before I was six years old.) He felt that if I could read, then I should also be made to go to school. (Later after I started school, he also tried to beat me up when I was moved from first grade to the third grade. One year ahead of him). I will admit that I resented being replaced as the oldest child in the house hold. I also disliked him referring to us as “poor hillbillies” because my dad and us boys wore bib overalls while Rob and he had belted pants.
I will not go on any more about Tony other than to say that after the three months living and sharing the little I had with him, I came to dislike him and have always felt that way. I lost track of him after enlisting and never bothered to learn anything about what he did with his life.
I know that my mom and dad bought presents for Rob’s kids as well as my brothers and me. Christmas gifts that year consisted of apples, oranges and a piece of clothing. It was far from Merry. My brother loudly voiced his discontent about the situation to my mom’s embarrassment. You see Johnny is very much like I described Tony.
In March, Rob found a job with the State Highway Department as a heavy equipment operator. He had been with the Army Engineers during the war. They re-rented the house they had previously lived in and moved back to town. The feeling among us children was, I imagine, like being freed from prison.
Suddenly the house seemed empty, there appeared to be more food. And our mom and dad were much more relaxed and less liable to discipline a kid for imagined infractions.
Within a couple months of Rob going to work for the state, my dad was able to go to work at the same place as a Chain Gang Guard (in those days the penal system was part of the highway department). The hours were the same as the city, but the pay and working conditions were better.
We saw Rob and his family frequently, but Tony and I never pretended to like each other.
Shortly before my dad died in ’57, Rob was killed in an accident unloading a bulldozer from a flatbed truck.
With spring, we got electricity and dad were able to install indoor plumbing. He was able to lease out the tobacco acreage to a sharecropper. We got new pigs, a couple of steers, a mule, and two milk cows.
Life was better, even after my dad died and we were struggling with just the Social Security payments.
I recall this each holiday season. It is one of my memories of growing up. I know that Rob and my cousin appreciated us doing for them. I would like to think that Tony also did, but I know he resented ever having to depend on those he considered “inferior.”