Tailgate sales of garden goods sustained family

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August 6, 2008

Part three

Years and dates mean little to small children. Their memory picks up and clings to events that affected them, sometimes as visually exciting, sometimes as poignant, but not associated with dates. So it is that I remember my family’s moving during the early 1930s, hauling the few things spared by the fire at Grammaw Penley’s house. Dad still had no job and wanted to try growing produce for selling in town.

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Our move covered only about 3 miles, to a bungalow owned by Dad’s uncle John Hilton. It was down a dirt road where the Kolbs and Olivers lived.

Uncle John was a good-hearted man, and generous. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. The house stood atop a ridge and had enough land cleared to grow an acre or two of greens during cool weather and, during the summer, melons, okra, peas and sweet potatoes. Dad had run away from home at age 8 and had lived with a succession of friends and relatives. His formal education ended at the third grade, but he spoke good English and had an intuitive grasp of mathematics. Somewhere, he had learned how to grow things.

One of the items we salvaged from the fire, or perhaps we got it through the goodness of the Odd Fellows at Christmas, was a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling. I was, with the aid of unbelievably bitter pills of quinine, recovering from malaria, with its recurring chills and fever. I can recall my mother reading to me about Riki-tiki-tavi, elephants and the occasional poem. She had graduated from high school in Vicksburg, living with relatives to avoid a long trip each day into town and back. She had been employed for a few years as the first female secretary hired by the ICRR.

‘We sold produce in town at what was called the curb market, named for the way farmers backed their rickety trucks and mule-drawn wagons into the curb.’Many items were delivered back then. Jewel Tea trucks stopped by about once a month. We seldom bought much, preferring Louisianne or French Market coffee flavored with chicory, a taste Dad developed when his parents were tenant-farming near Delhi. Ice was delivered on a heavy wagon, in blocks that must have weighed 100 pounds or more. A heavy tarp was kept tucked around the ice to slow its melting.

And miracle of miracles, electricity was delivered to our house a few years after we moved in. Insulated cords were run beneath the floor, then through holes bored in the baseboards, then stapled up the pine board walls and across the ceilings. Drop cords held single light bulbs about 2 feet higher than the heads of adults. What a difference electric lights made in studying! We could now do our homework after evening chores without straining to read by the feeble glow of a coal-oil lamp.

Dad made a few dollars doing WPA and other government make-work. He planted starts of kudzu in gullies at, I think, a nickel per plant, provided he dug some manure into each planting hole. He worked as a guard in the Vicksburg National Military Park, rousting amorous couples, drunks and homeless drifters from the monuments. We sold produce in town at what was called the curb market, named for the way farmers backed their rickety trucks and mule-drawn wagons into the curb. Dad sold seasonal produce off the tailgate. We brothers weren’t big enough at the time to do much more than help pick.

Among the significant events I remember was a near-complete eclipse, which will date it for local historians, and a fly-over by the dirigible Macon. The dirigible came directly over our house at an altitude of perhaps 500 feet. The sound of the multiple gasoline engines could be heard when the Macon was still 2 or 3 miles away. I was so awe-struck that I think it marked me for pursuing aviation later in my life.

At the Hilton house I had a near-death experience, which led to my coining an expression that I used later in life to describe boys – it is nothing short of a miracle that they live to be men. My best friend was Roy Oliver, who lived a few hundred yards away on our road.

He had an older brother who was, as we callously described it in those days, “afflicted.” He said little to anyone, but went about his chores, which included splitting some firewood from trees dropped near us. Tiring of hanging around the house, nursing a chill, I tottered down to talk to him. He became agitated and swung at my head with his ax. I can’t say that I saw it coming, but a look in his eyes told me to move back. I turned my head at the same time and the corner of the blade sliced through the skin of my temple without bashing in my hard head.

To his credit, the boy didn’t finish me off, but went back to splitting wood while I took myself, bloodied and howling, back to the house.

Jim Wilson, an honorary Master Gardener in eight states, was a presenter for 10 years on PBS’s “Victory Garden” and is the author of 10 gardening books. He now lives in Missouri and in this series remembers his youth in Vicksburg. Mail reaches him at 4200 E. Richland Road, Columbia, MO. 65201 and e-mail reaches him at gardengeezer@centurytel.net