Fred Oakes was the "Boss" and also the father of four boys and one girl. The time gap between the first boy (Charles, “Charlie”) and the next group (Melvin, Floyd, Donald “Duck”, and Eleanor) was about 9 to 15 years. Charlie was born in 1927 and raised in the Depression years. Not a very good time for him due to the fact that Dad had to work seven days a week from daylight to long after dark. Charlie never got over the fact that when the next three boys came along things had gotten better, and Dad was able to do more with us than with him. We talked about this one night in Colorado on a deer hunt.
My recollection of my early years consists only of bits and pieces. I remember working on the junk/parts/scrap yard. I think we went to work about the time we started 1st grade in school. I remember coming home from school and having Mother meet us in front of the house to make sure we took off our school shoes. (They were rationed due to it being wartime - WWII.) Then we were allowed to go to work on the yard. Painting, wire brushing rusty parts, cleaning greasy parts in coal oil, (kerosene), were some of the early jobs. By the time I was 10 years old, I was welding and using the cutting torch. Several welders worked at Dad's after the war. Blackie Trammel and Uncle Buddy (James Hartley, mother’s brother-Mel), had welded in the shipyards. (Especially the large wartime Ingalls shipyard at Pascagoula, MS-Mel). Johnny Paulin and Fred Honoré were there for short periods, (both very competent workers that Dad relied on.-Mel) I remember Uncle Buddy and Aunt Catherine lived in an 18-wheeler trailer in the backyard. He drank a good bit, but always worked. (He was a saw-filer like the rest of mother’s brothers. They were always in demand by the various sawmills in MS, LA and ARK.-Mel) A very happy-go-lucky guy whom we liked a lot, sober or “drinking.” We learned how to work and worked alongside the grown men that worked for Dad. Curtis Hicks worked for Dad for avery long time.
One of the benefits of working in an auto-related atmosphere was learning all about auto repair and their operation, and being allowed to have our own car if we wanted one. I was about 11 years old when I got my first car, a Dodge two-door sedan of about late 1930s vintage. It had been hand-painted and was ragged inside/bad tires/no battery, but I was able to buy it cheap ($25.00) to be paid out of our weekly pay–starting at $1.00/wk early and getting to $3.00/wk by the time we were dating. I remember The Boss being strict about some things, but he was very good about letting us explore new things. We learned to drive on the yard using the wreckers and tractors. (We learned to drive backwards early; the road into the auto yard was one lane and trucks, tractors and wreckers had to be backed out regularly, an unpopular chore for most of the workers, so we got to do it. The big trucks would move so slowly in reverse that you could let the clutch out fully and concentrate on steering. -Mel)
Dad started a baseball team when we were very young. (Mother had bought us a softball and a bat. When Dad found out he jumped into his car, drove to town and returned with several McGregor baseballs, a bat and gloves for each of us. He took us out in graveled area in front of the Hallberg store next door and gave us our first throwing and pitching lesson. -Mel) All the kids in the area came to play or practice. I have a picture of Dad and me in the back yard of the house in which I have a baseball glove that Dad bought for me. I would guess it was Mother who took the picture. I'm sure this was about the time Dad got interested in having a kids’ baseball team. There was lots of pitching and catching in the back of the house, and I can remember all the missing asbestos shingles on the side of the house to prove it. As we got older, Dad cleared off a spot in the field across the railroad for us to practice. It was uneven, but all the kids in the area who could get there would show up to practice. At some point we started having games. (Often neighborhood Black kids would show up to play with us. -Mel) There were several men and one woman around Vicksburg who organized kids’ teams so games were scheduled and the Oakes Auto Parts team was formed. The first uniforms were white tee shirts and whatever pants you happened to be wearing.
It seemed like we were playing grown men’s teams almost from the start. The Boss bought all the equipment for catching, batting, and uniforms. We were very classy. He also bought gloves for any player who needed one. (During the week The Boss would schedule a Sunday game with a local team. As we got older he found teams in other towns and counties for us to play. These were usually associated with a picnic for the community. Large crowds would come to a school field or a converted cow pasture. -Mel)
Over the years, Dad had several pickup trucks that we went to ballgames in. We would put several front seats out of junk cars in the back of the pickup and we rode in style. Some of the older boys would smoke when they could get money for smokes - sometimes ready rolls and sometimes Prince Albert roll-your-own. Billy Bishop was elected to sit in the front and keep The Boss distracted so they could smoke in the back. (Only a few smoked, most of us dreamed of being professional ball players and by all media accounts they didn’t smoke or drink. We took it to the extreme of eschewing carbonated drinks, relying on Delaware Punch. Of course many years later the truth about player habits was revealed in many “tell all” books. -Mel) Cursing was not allowed. It would get you a seat on the bench. Johnny Griffin probably had the worst temper of all the players and was sat down on occasion for a fiery outburst, usually at his brother, Phares.
As we got older, working every Saturday was hard, since most friends our age were playing. (Saturdays and after school we worked in the yard unless there was some sports practice. –Mel) The redeeming factor was the small amount of money we had that the other boys mostly didn't. (And we mean small! After working all day, I would go to The Boss to get my pay so I could take a girl to the movies. He would slowly open his large, leather billfold, tethered to his belt, and hand me a dollar! Each time I would have to plead my case, he would then hand me another dollar. -Mel)
We had great competition for the chance to go with the grownup workers when they took the wrecker out to pull in a car The Boss had purchased. We went through the inside (learned how to take out every model's seats) - some good change now and then. (Once Dad told us the car had been owned by a gold miner and there were likely nuggets in the car; needless to say we tore it apart sifting though every bit of dirt. –Mel) The main thing was to siphon gas from the tank so we could use it on our Saturday night dates and could save the hard earned cash. Donald once found an army GMC 6X Dad had bought with a 30-gallon tank filled with gas which he kept secret from the rest of crew. (This, however, was not without a price. On more than a few occasions, the car’s rear wheels were lifted and it was pulled backwards by the wrecker. This was to keep the driveshaft from turning and overheating the automatic transmission in the car. I was placed in the car and told to “steer backwards.” It was terrifying. Why we didn’t lash the wheels in the straight position, I still don’t know. –Mel)
Over the years, one of the jobs we were given was building hard-to-get leaf springs. Dad had racks full of every size and length. There was a forge we used to heat the spring ends red hot and bend them into an eye. His bender had a number of sizes so you could match the hole to the spring you were making or make one for certain cars and pickups. Ford and Chevrolet were the most popular with Dodge and Internationals next. Being kids, we would sometime put a spring leaf in the coals and get distracted and not watch and the spring end would melt off. It was usually not a problem as Dad had so many old springs a replacement was easy. Brushing and painting (black) was a chore. The black paint was black pigment in a drum, about like slow-moving tar. After prying the pigment from the drum, we would mix it with gas to thin it and then slop it on. (Oakes Auto Parts was maybe the only place to get custom springs, regular or overload. –Mel)
There was an outdoor toilet located by the spring shed, a “three-holer” as I remember. It was our job to keep the wasp nests out by throwing a cup of gas on them. (Not an OHSA recommended procedure. –Mel) Always hated those outhouses and thought many times about following a cup of gas with a match!
The Boss set the price for everything. The problem was his price often reflected who was buying and their ability to pay. When any of us would sell something, it was either too cheap or too much. (Sadly, Dad could not understand that this was humiliating and destroyed our confidence. I no longer would make a price for a customer and felt little sense of ownership in the business, identifying more with the workers. –Mel) We took the money to the bookkeeper, Mr. John “Dado” Dugan. He would make a cash ticket and put it in the cash register. (Mr. Dugan was a retired Irishman who had worked for the Electric Power Company in the 1920s and 30s. He had also been a street car conductor. He told of having to carry a pistol for fear of being attacked by the Ku Klux Klan because of his Catholic religion. His wife, Amelia, would show up each payday to pick up his check from him. Apparently, at one time he had had a drinking problem, though now he was a teetotaler. One summer I was assigned to work with Mr. Dugan to learn accounting. I carefully went through the accounts and wrote down all the money owed us by credit customers. It was thousands of dollars. I went to Dad and advised we collect it, since most of those in arrears were regular customers. Dad explained that he knew they all owed him money, however, any attempt to collect it would stop them from coming. He said they were now all cash customers and he no longer extended them credit. The money owed he considered just the cost of evaluating the customer’s credit. At the time I could imagine many recreational uses for that money and continued to advise him to collect it. -Mel)
INVENTIONS AND PROBLEM SOLVING
The Boss loved challenges. A few that I remember were the modifications he made to the trucks that pulled trailers made by the "M" System Company and the pulpwood trucks that belonged to a Mr. Brown. The "M" System brought a regular 1-1/2 ton truck to the shop to see if The Boss could shorten it. The road regulations at the time would not let them make a longer house trailer because the total length of truck and trailer would be exceeded. We pulled the truck under the big shed and The Boss started looking at what he needed to shorten the truck. Brake lines and wires and drive shaft were removed. That was a good bit of length that could be cut out and still allow for a modest but short drive shaft. Making drive shafts was a skill we learned at an early age.
After cutting the section out of the truck frame it was welded back in place. The Boss knew that the weld would not hold on a spring-steel type frame so he cut another two pieces of a larger frame that would fit over the welded frame and extend a good length past on each side of the weld. We then drilled holes through the add-on piece and the truck frame, rivets were put in the holes and heated and ends flattened, making a very tight and very strong fit. Making the drive shaft consisted of removing one end of the original long drive shaft and, after cutting it to length, the joint end would be inserted back into the shaft and lined up in an old lathe and welded. (The speed control on that lathe was a truck transmission he had installed, rather than the more conventional pulley-belt system. –Mel)
When they picked up the truck, Dad told them that the shorter length would need some learning to drive empty. The "M" System started making longer trailers and brought more trucks to get shortened. Finally, Dad told them he would supply parts and make drive shafts and they could do the rest, which they did. The first drivers that pulled longer trailers said they did great–only problem was when they headed home empty, they rolled the trucks several times until they learned how to slow down in a sharp curve. Within several years, the bobtail design of Dad's truck revision had spread to all the trucking companies across the country.
When Mr. Brown came to The Boss to see what he could do about loading and unloading his pulpwood trucks faster, he told Dad to do whatever was needed and take as long as he wanted. It was winter and they could not get into a lot of the wooded areas due to mud. The trucks were usually loaded with about 6-ft small diameter logs put across the frame of the truck.
First, he decided how to make a winch to lift the logs onto the truck. Power was supplied from the power takeoff on the transmission of the host truck. A sprocket was put on the takeoff, and a chain was run to the drive shaft connection on a regular car rear-end assembly. One drum was removed, and a spool fabricated to hold the cable that was to be used to lift the wood. This was mounted just below the I-beam on the frame of the truck. A master cylinder like the ones used to operate the brakes on the car was mounted on the side of the cab on the outside and hooked to the one brake drum still on the rear axle. This picture is the same winch construction but arranged somewhat differently due to this being a smaller truck. The cable was run to the center of the truck where he had mounted a vertical heavy piece of pipe. At the top of the pipe, a hub that was cut from the rear end of a heavy truck was mounted and welded. This piece was welded to the round pipe, making a swivel top. Another pipe and brace was welded in a horizontal position with a roller in the end for the cable to run on. A hook was attached to the cable, and it was ready to be used. Vertical posts were welded to the truck to hold the logs during transport (Note 2). The idea was so successful and easy to build that, after building three of them, The Boss, again, told them he would sell them parts and they could build their own loaders. Within a few years, this loader became the standard for the pulpwood hauling industry.
Another invention was to convert 16-inch, Chevy truck, 6-hole wheels to 15-inch wheels. The use of 15 inch tires took over the market, and 16 inch tires were hard to get and cost more. The Boss had a machine to straighten wheels. He converted it to also cut the hub from 16-inch rims and 15-inch wheels. Then, we would weld the 6-hole cutout into the 15-inch rims, then straighten it on the wheel machine, and it was ready to be sold.
The Boss invented a number of tools to do special jobs. One of his inventions was a Garfish Hook. He loved to jug-fish on the Yazoo and Sunflower Rivers. The hook was spring loaded so that it snapped shut when the gar tugged on the bait. He made two designs. One snapped open, and the other closed (seen at left). The one that closed turned out to be the best and was used the most. This is Chris, The Boss’s brother, on the left, and Pewee Letney, Chris’ brother-in-law. The gar was caught with The Boss’ gar hook, which the gar is hanging on.
Another FFA project was a grass cutter for the school to cut the football and baseball fields. Actually, they used it to cut the grass on the whole school campus. The car was donated by The Boss. Of course, we had to put a mower on it to cut the grass. The first thing was to rig a transmission in the front bumper area, then build a frame for the cutter blade and a wheel to set the level of cut for the blade. The cutting rig was mounted to the front of the car and attached to where the bumper had hooked to the frame. This grass mower turned out to be a great rig. With the blade speed set to high from the transmission, it would cut anything it could run over. I have seen it hit a Coke bottle and the only way you could tell was you would see a puff of green smoke come from under the cutter. This rig gave many years of service. (The cutter design was submitted to an FFA contest and won a prize for the school. -Mel)
When we were small kids at home, Dad made most all of our toys. The first I remember was a merry-go-round. This was made from a rear-end wheel housing from an old tractor. A big pipe was welded to the downside of the axle housing so it could be buried in cement to hold it in an upright position. On the end of the big rim, Dad welded a vertical-curved piece of metal that was the back, and the top of back was rolled over so you could get a grip on it to hold on. There was a nice flat seat all the way around that you would sit on. (There was a ratcheted horizontal handle that let the rider pull and increase the speed. –Mel) This was a great toy until we got older and figured out how fast we could make it turn. It could be spun so fast that you could not hold on. This became the game—who could hold on the longest. After we started to school, Dad took this merry-go-round up and carried it to Redwood and put it on the campus for the kids to play on. I remember it being a highlight of the young kids until the older ones discovered the secret of fast spinning and this became a problem. They later replaced it with a different merry-go-round that would not go so fast. End of an era.
Dad had a Creole man named Fred Honoré working for him for a lot of years. We were in the office one day, and the phone rang, and Fred answered it. The man on the other end asked for Mr. Oakes, and Fred told him that Mr. Oakes was gone. Then the man asked to speak to that “yellow nigger” that worked there. Fred told him in a very calm voice that if he would come to the yard (shop) he would be glad to introduce him to that “yellow” nigger! (Fred moved back to Louisiana and educated his children despite his inability to read. His son. Louis, became Captain of Traffic Officers in Los Angeles. –Mel) For more about Fred click...More
The Boss sold a truck to someone in Edwards, MS. We were going to deliver the truck and then catch the Greyhound bus back to Vicksburg. All went well, and after the truck was delivered, the man who bought it dropped us at the bus station. Within sight of the station was a little candy shop run by a little old lady who was very nice. (Lou’s Candy -Mel)We bought a small amount of candy and went back to the station. The bus ride was the most memorable part of the trip. Fred smoked a pipe, and he was using Half and Half tobacco. The smell of that brand of smoke made me sick for years after that trip.
When we were small (young), we would catch the city bus in front of the house on Friday evening after school and go to the movies. It was usually the Strand Theatre (sometimes the Alamo and more rarely the Joy –Mel) as it was on the same block where the bus stopped to pick up people going out North 61 highway. The bus ran as far as the three mills (heading, hoop and stave). We would start looking for the city bus as soon as we got to the mills, hoping that the school bus would beat the city bus to the house, and we could catch it and get to town to see the latest Western. (One of the bus drivers was Joe McCandless, the brother of our much-loved fourth grade teacher at Redwood. -Mel) They would have double features, a short subject, and a serial of some on-going hero complete with a cliffhanger ending each week. (A list of our favorite cowboys would include Lash LaRue, Hopalong Cassidy, Durango Kid played by Charles Starrett, Bob Steele, Wild Bill Elliot, Johnny Mack Brown, Alan “Rocky” Lane, Monte Hale, Rex Allen, Buster Crabbe, Sunset Carson and Don “Red” Berry. Less popular were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter—too much singing. Tarzan and Bomba movies with Johnny Sheffield were never missed. -Mel). I think the bus fare was a nickel to town and the same going home. The movie was about 15 cents, I think. We would have an extra nickel or dime sometimes to get popcorn. Sometimes, when the movie was over, we would have saved our money and would go down the street to a hole-in-the-wall cafe (Chris’ Cafe, I think). A hamburger was 10 cents and they were a delight.
On the corner where the bus stopped was a clothing store. I think a member of the Jabour family ran the store. I can remember him standing at the front of the store in a suit and tie. Strange to us country boys!
We figured out exactly where the front door to the bus would be when it turned the corner and parked to take on passengers. The reason for this was that most people on the bus smoked, and on a cold night the windows would be shut. If you did not get a seat by the window where you could raise it a few inches so you could stick your head out and breathe, you would have to choke down smoke all the way home. They had regular places to stop, but most of the time, the driver knew the people and let them off as close to their home as possible. I feel sure some of the drivers knew that we would catch the bus on Friday afternoon and would wait at the mill until the school bus passed, then start his route to town. Lots of people rode buses back then. One driver I knew was T. C. Sheller. He had a daughter about my age, and I still see her at some of the school reunions. (Our brother Charles would sometime miss the last bus for the night, 11 pm and had to walk home, a long way. –Mel)
The Boss loved to farm. We had about 20 acres that were his, and he rented about 20 more. We planted some sweet corn to eat and some regular corn to sell. Grandpa (Charles Franklin Oakes) had a garden on the back corner and supplied the house with some vegetables. Once the corn had been planted and started growing, it was our job (and the neighborhood kids) to hoe it. Many days of the summer were spent hoeing the corn. Well, that's what we were supposed to be doing, but there was a lake (McNutt) that was very, very close and was a lot cooler than hoeing. By the time the corn was starting to dry, we would still be chopping Johnson grass taller than our heads. (The rows were quite long, or so it seemed to us, especially on a hot day, as most were. The occasional snake, usually a puffing adder, that we disturbed, made for an exciting day. Our enthusiasm for hoeing was low to begin with, and as time went on we it ebbed, even more if that were possible. Finally Dad came over to the field and announced, “You know by the time you boys get to the end of the row, the grass at the beginning of the row is back to the same height as when you left it. You might as well take your hoes and water jars and come home.” -Mel)
One year, I got a sack of corn seed through the school FFA (Future Farmers of America) to grow and keep records of the yield and make a report on it. The corn was a "Funks-G-Hybrid". That acre of corn made a fantastic yield that year. The corn was sold, and Mother used some of the money to buy comforters (blanket bed covers) for the four rooms upstairs. One thing I did get with some of the money was a pair of Russell hunting boots and a fly rod and reel. I still have the fly rod and reel as of 2011.
THE RARE VACATION
I remember some of the vacation trips we (the whole family, except Charlie) took to New Orleans, Pensacola, and then to Panama City, FL — all this in the old '49 Nash that Mother had. I think the car is in the picture of Eleanor at New Orleans Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park under the 7-Up sign. I remember that we did not ride the roller coaster—I think because it was wood, and Dad did not trust it. We left New Orleans and drove to Panama City in one day. The only bump in the road was when Dad decided that the road signs did not know what they were talking about. He wanted to stop alongside the road and walk on the beach. The problem was the signs that said "soft-shoulder" really meant it. When we pulled off, the car instantly buried to the axle in the grass covered sand. The "I told you so" was going good when a state dump truck showed up and offered to pull us out —for a fee. Ten dollars got us back on the road and to our condo camp house for the week. It was located on a back bay—lots of trees and a pier that went out a ways in the bay. We had brought a casting rod, but knew nothing of how to salt water fish. Most of the time we spent hooking the crabs we saw under the pier with a big treble hook.
There was no air conditioner in the camp, so Mother suggested we go to the movie in town to see a picture and mostly to cool off. The problem was that the movie house was not air-conditioned. I think the movie was Clifton Webb in “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
Dad took Melvin out with him on an all-day deep sea fishing trip; I guess because he was the oldest. It was not too great for Melvin as he got seasick, and I don't think he fished very much. I know there were some pictures of the camp, etc., but have not seen any of them.
I think the next year the FFA made a trip to Gulfport, MS (actually, I think the place we stayed was at Long Beach–Mel). Ralph Wells, the school shop teacher, headed up this adventure. Everyone was required to bring a chicken (whole) to be put in the ice chest to help feed the group. The chicken adventure was as follows: Melvin, Johnny Brewer and I were going and would be picked up at the house by the bus. Instead of driving to the store and buying three chickens we took the pellet gun and went in the fields where Dad had a lot of junk—also where wild chickens lived. We proceeded to harvest three chickens and cleaned them for use on the trip.
About the only thing I remember happening was swimming in the Gulf in front of the place where we were staying. An old, low boardwalk/pier went a ways out so we were swimming from this pier. The water at the end was only about three feet deep, and when you would dive off the end, you would have to go shallow to keep from hitting the bottom. Well, Johnny Brewer decided to make a running dive which went bad when his foot slipped and he went straight down and his face hit the hard sand bottom. The result of this was a lot of loose front teeth. Mr. Wells took him to a dentist who said they would tighten back if he was careful for a while. He never lost any, so I guess the dentist knew what he was talking about. (We made a boat excursion to Ship Island to swim. We saw porpoises riding the boat bow wave for the first time. -Mel)
CARS, TRUCKS AND FAMILY
Automobiles were what the Fred Oakes family was about. The better cars were sold and the lesser-valued ones were used by the shop or the family—Hudsons, Studebakers, Reos, Whites, Diamond T's, Packards, Kaisers and Fraziers. The truck I remember using a lot was the Diamond T. It was probably rated about 2 tons. I'm sure we hauled much more than that at times. The late 1940s and early 1950s were tin hauling times. The Diamond T was loaded during the week and, early on Friday morning. Curtis Hicks and one of us boys would leave on the trip to the scrap-buying yard in Greenville, MS. I always liked going on these trips because Curtis would stop in a small Delta town on the way back to get lunch. The small-town cafe had the biggest and best hamburger steak with gravy and onions and fries that would fill even a young boy's empty stomach. The town's name was Arcola, MS and was some of Curtis' stomping grounds.
The first family car I can remember was the 1939 Oldsmobile. At the end of WWII, Dad was using some kerosene with his gas because gas was rationed. This would burn but was harder to start, especially when the engine was cold. I remember that Dad would park the car on the hill (Clay Street) by the shop so he could let it roll downhill and help it start. I also remember that we would leave the shop when it closed on Saturday night and go out on South Washington Street to an ice cream place (Seale Lilly). What a great treat for sweets-loving kids!
Several converted trucks come to mind. One was a 1939 Plymouth car that was converted to a pickup. The Boss used this truck to haul the ball team around until he built the Lincoln. The one remembered the most was the Lincoln V-12 car that was fitted with a pickup bed and a welded-in back glass and panel from another truck. The man who did a lot of work on it at night was named Abney. He worked at the M-System (trailer factory) which had made temporary housing for the military during WWII. When finished, it was painted red and had whitewall tires. The front fenders had spare-tire mounts on them. The truck was used to haul the baseball players to games. As mentioned earlier, Dad would put the seats out of a junk car in the truck back to sit on. There was always a load of boys in the back and several boys in front.
Mother had a Ford station wagon at one time, probably one of the last ones made at the start of WWII. It was a wood-sided wagon and looked very neat. It was later replaced by a '49 Nash. The Nash had a lot of room inside and the front seat backs would lay down flat to make an area large enough for a bed. The motor was a flat head, 6-cylinder, standard-shift with an overdrive unit.
Bob Hardy and I were double-dating one night, and we were headed north on Washington Street. Bob was driving, and I had told him several times that the brakes were not too good, and he needed to pump the brake pedal when he stopped. We came to a stop light and a car which was already stopped. Bob started pumping a little late, and we bumped into the back of the car ahead. It was a Black taxi. We got out and he claimed that the back of his car was damaged. I could see it was not hurt as cars had bumpers back in the 50's. He insisted we go to the cab stand. We followed him to the stand which was located by the Blue Room night club. (Photo at left.) This was just across the street from Dad's shop. When we got to the stand, the cab driver said he would call my dad for me and see what he was going to do about the wreck. I told him the number, and then told him who he was calling. He asked me if that was Fred Oakes that owned the Oakes Auto Parts place. I told him it was and he put the phone down and told us to go on our way. I asked him if his car was okay, and he said it was; he had had a chance to take a good look and there was no damage. The next day, I asked Dad if he knew a cab driver named (whatever it was) and he said yes– that he owed him some money and had not been around for a while. Dad wanted to know how I had met him. I did not lie–I told him I “ran” into him in town last night.
A big adventure was a trip with Uncle Buddy to Eunice, LA, to move his furniture and Aunt Catherine to Vicksburg. We left early in the morning but had a little problem starting the Diamond T. When Uncle Buddy was trying to get it started, he had pulled the spark advance knob out and then pushed it in. The problem was, it moved when he pulled it out but did not return when he pushed it in. This caused the spark to advance and the result was that it did not have the maximum power when on hills or when trying to get up speed. When we got to his home, Aunt Catherine was there and had packed a lot of boxes and cooked up some quail and invited their next door neighbors over. They had a daughter who was a year or so older than I and was very pretty. Needless to say, I hated to leave the next day. We loaded the truck and all squeezed into the cab and headed for Vicksburg. What a slow trip it was due to the load on the truck! I'm not sure if this was the time they moved into their truck-trailer in our back yard or not.
I remember game night at home. Friday nights, for football, but maybe a weeknight during basketball season, was chili night. I must have had a good stomach back then (still do) because the chili never bothered me while playing the game. I still love it. The night of the game, Johnny Brewer would always come to the house on the school bus with us or in the car if we had driven to school that Friday. He told me in later years how much he loved that chili. (Johnny starred for Ole Miss, the 1964 Cleveland Browns championship team and ended his career with the New Orleans Saints. -Mel)
One of The Boss's dreams was a disassembly line for his junk cars. The shed that was across the road from the generator/lathe shed was to be the start of the line. This shed was to parallel the road and run towards the back of the yard. A rack was to be used to get the car off the ground where a worker could get under and work. (It, along with the plan for his own museum, remained dreams of his throughout his life. –Mel)
The Boss was a peacemaker at one time. We were sitting on the front porch shelling peas one night when we heard a loud screaming coming from the road in front of the house. Within a few seconds, a Black woman came running into the yard and onto the porch. She was very frightened, and it took a few minutes to get her story. Her husband was chasing her with a knife and was going to kill her. When Dad heard this, he went into the house and got his 12-gauge Winchester Model 12 (I still have the gun) and walked out in front of the house. There was a man out by the road who would not come any closer. He left after a short while, but the woman refused to leave. Dad then decided to call the sheriff who dispatched a deputy. The deputy put the woman in his car. I never heard about a killing, so the dispute must have been settled.
Another event was the mad dog shooting. We were under the big building, and Dad was talking to a customer when we started hearing dogs howling in the lane just up the road that paralleled the road through the scrap yard. Dad listened for a minute and then told us to get in the house. It was a mad dog causing the trouble. Dad ran into the house to get his Model 12 shotgun. Just as he exited the front porch, a dog was seen coming towards our place alongside the road. When the dog reached the front of the shop, Dad let go with the 3" magnum and killed it. Dad walked up (not too close) to the dog and could see foam on its mouth. He had the guys working for him get a couple of tires and some wood and place atop the dog, being careful not to touch the dog. The fire was started, and the dog was burned right where he fell. For several weeks after that, you could see where people had killed dogs and burned them. (The whole scene was recalled when I saw “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Dad and Atticus Finch had much in common in the way they handled that dangerous situation. –Mel)
GRANDPA OAKES COMES TO LIVE WITH US
I don't know when Dad decided it was going to be too crowded in the house and he needed more living space. I would guess it was when Grandpa Oakes came to live with us. The laundry in the back of the house was probably set back from the house about 50 feet. It was decided to put four rooms and a bath on top of the laundry building. I remember their building it, but I don't know who was the carpenter on the job. However, Melvin remembers the carpenter was a man who called himself Little Fish and would sign his work someplace. The sign looked like a fish. The building was framed up after the old roof was removed, the roof was installed and the sides blacked in with planks and tar paper. The inside rooms were walled with Celotex and lights and a small bathroom-type propane heaters were put in each bedroom. I can remember how great it was to have my own room and not have to sleep on a roll-a-way bed in the bathroom (not yet finished) of the main house with one, or sometimes two, other brothers. Having a door to the room that could be closed was also great.
That first winter we found out how cold our new rooms could get. The small heater was of little use unless it was lit several hours ahead of time (I think it was more like several days before –Mel). Since we had to jump up and immediately dress to get ready for school, there was no opportunity to light the heater to warm things up so this made it practically useless. Grandpa was in charge of rousing everyone out. His favorite saying was “JAR THE FLOOR”. I'm sure he hated this job as we were not easy to get going. We would grab our clothes and, in our underwear, head across the walkway bridge to get to the main house. Inside the house was a large wood stove which we would get behind to warm up and dress. (The wood stove was a wonderful addition to the house. Previously mother cooked on a kerosene stove that produced almost no heat. The only other heater in the house was in the master bedroom. It was a large kerosene heater with a stove pipe venting into a brick chimney. It produced almost NO heat. It was hard to tell if it was lit. None of us every went to that room to get warm. And while chopping and carrying in wood for the new stove was a new chore, we all loved the warm and cosy atmosphere in the kitchen. Mother was alway up about 5 AM and made a fire. The stove also had a reservoir which provided hot water for shaving and washing up in cold weather. -Mel)
Sometime later, we made a TV antenna tower on top of the poles that held up the walkway bridge. We welded extra poles to the top of four poles and added a crow's nest and a center pipe that could be extended about 15 feet by cranking up the pole with a cable winch. Once the TV antenna was attached and raised, the TV was checked. If needed, the pole was lowered to crow's nest level and adjustments in direction were made. I remember having two Jackson stations and one from Monroe, LA. (The first TV we saw was in the window of Wells-Lahatte Appliance store on South Washington Street. People from all over the city would drive out there at night and sit outside to watch a very snowy picture from a TV station in New Orleans. –Mel)
In cold weather, late at night or when it was raining, the bridge was sometimes used for quick relief over the rail. By the time we were all gone from home, one of the rails had rusted completely through. I don't remember using this relief place but am sure some of the others did! (The alternative was to go down the stairs and around the laundry to a unlit outhouse, furnished with spiders and mosquitos in the summer and a very cold seat in the winter. I attribute my long time between necessary bathroom breaks to that experience. When Dad laid the concrete floor for the outhouse, he pressed a pair of mother’s shoes in the soft cement. His explanation was, “If she ever leaves me, I will be reminded of her when sitting on the throne. –Mel)
The walkway between the apartments over the laundry and the house had many uses. One I remember involved taking the .22 caliber air rifle (which I still have), getting some of the big kitchen matches, and going out on the bridge at night. The big building had a tin side on it which faced the bridge. I would pump up the air rifle and put one of the matches down the barrel with the head coming out first. When shot into the side of the building, more times than not, the match would light and look like a flare when it bounced off the building. The road at the side of the building had no flammable material around, so it was pretty safe. Too, since welding and cutting operations were performed all around the building there was no risk of fire.
Toys were not often bought. Many were invented or copied from someone else's toy. The pop gun we made and used because we had several big chinaberry trees. A piece of fishing pole cane would be cut and a plunger made to fit inside the cane. A handle was fashioned so the cane tube could be held while the plunger was slammed forward into it. The ammo used was green chinaberry balls. They would be pressed into one end of the tube, and the plunger, pushed forward from the other end, would compress air and blow the ball out.
One toy was very good at building leg speed and manual dexterity. At this time, there were many horse-drawn wagons still in use. There were two steel rims on the wheels. The large one went around the outside of the wheel, holding it together and reducing wear on the wheel. The other rim was on the hub which held it together. The smaller rim was usually about 12" in diameter and 1" wide. This allowed the metal rim to be rolled easily. The secret was the stick that you made to guide and operate the rim. A broom handle was used if one could be found. Welding rods were great for making the hook that was put on the end of the broomstick. The design of the hook had lots to do with how it worked. The hook was used to pick up the hoop and start it to rolling, then it was moved to the lower rear of the hoop and pressure applied to make the hoop continue to roll. It was pretty amazing how good some of the kids in the area could navigate that hoop.
About the time WWII was over, we kids were into playing war. Dad built us a machine gun that made a real machine gun sound. We set it up at the edge of our foxhole that we dug behind the water tank stand. I'm sure it probably contributed to some hearing loss as it was very loud. I made one for my grandson, Lucas, when he was little. (At left.) I think his mother, Lisa, hid it from him due to the loud sound. A gear was put on the inside of the pipe with some teeth extending out the bottom. A spring leaf was bolted onto the barrel with the edge riding on the gear. When the crank was turned the leaf would pop from one tooth of the gear to the next, making a very rapid, popping noise. Great toy!
Bows and arrows were other toys we made and used. The bow was made from a dried rattan vine or a limb from some tree in the area. The arrows were works of art if not in design. Most were fishing pole cane which grew in the hills in front of the house. For a point, we would insert a common nail into the end of the cane just past a joint. It was wrapped with fine copper wire, supplied by the junk yard. A notch was cut in the other end right at a growth notch. The fletching was not feathers, but cotton that had fallen from the wagons hauling the picked cotton to the gin and which we picked up on the side of the road. It was laid on the side of the shaft and tied in place with the same fine copper wire that was used on the point. These bow and arrow combos would shoot an arrow pretty good for about 20 or 30 yards. We would shoot into the side of the old wood shop building from back of the house.
A favorite target for our arrows were the wood boxcars that were being used at that time. They had pictures, letters and numbers painted on the side and these made great moving targets for some young wild Indians. As the train pulled the car past, we launched our shafts at called targets, hoping to make a hit and also for the arrows to stick in the side of the car. I can only guess what the railroad people thought when they saw these arrows hanging from the side of their boxcars. (Another train activity was to put small items, coins in particular, on the track to have them flattened. –Mel)
One of the jobs we had as young kids, and it lasted until the mid-1950s, was cleaning out and recharging the acetylene generator for the cutting torch. (Acetylene gas is created when calcium carbide pellets are mixed with water. The gas is flammable and is the source of the flame in a miner's headlight. The gas, when mixed with pure oxygen, can burn at 6000 degrees F, sufficient to ignite and melt iron and steel. –Mel) When the water section in the bottom had dissolved all the carbide it could, it would be time to recharge. The residue that came out was a snow white calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) that was saved in buckets and given to people to paint tree trunks and white wash fences and barns. When the water level was established in the bottom and carbide put in hopper on top, it was ready to generate gas. An example is shown at right, not an original from Oakes Auto Parts, but has the same look and operation.
I remember using the big grinders on metal. The sparks would fly, and you would turn or move your heard to keep fire sparks from hitting you in the eyes. (As a child I marveled that Dad could grind metal and have millions of sparks hitting his hands, and though each spark was a piece of red hot metal, it didn’t seem to cause him any discomfort. –Mel) Goggles were only used when using the cutting torch. These cut down on the bright light and gave the eyes protection from flying hot metal. Holes burned into pants, socks, and shoes, I'm sure, gave Mother fits.
When we hauled in an old Mercury coupe from across the Mississippi River that did not have a motor or a transmission, I decided to buy and rebuild it. This is not the one I had but is same year and model.
There was an old Ford pickup in the yard that had a motor and transmission that could be fitted into my new wheels. After a deal was made with The Boss I started pulling the motor/transmission from the truck and set it up in the motor rebuild shed. All parts were taken off, cleaned up and painted red. Cliff Mathews, our cousin, was working for The Boss at the time and he agreed to help me rebuild the motor. The crankshaft was taken to Genuine Parts and ground. The block was bored by Clifton and me as Dad had a boring machine. He also had a huge stock of new pistons which could be sized and fitted in the new bored block. We bought a new set of rings for the pistons and inserts for the main bearings and piston rods. When it was assembled I painted the block red and all the extras were painted black. I also cleaned out under the hood of the car and painted all that area black. When the motor and transmission were installed it looked pretty impressive. It also ran like a Swiss watch. I then started dressing up the rest of the car with seat covers and anything else I could find.
Everything ran great and several months passed before The Boss came to me and said he had a man who wanted to buy the motor out of my car (The Boss would sell anything). I told him I did not want to sell the engine part of the car. The Boss said the man who wanted it was from out of town and his car was in the shop in town and he really needed a running motor. I gave this a little thought and then made him an offer he did not refuse. Several days before we had pulled in a ‘49 Mercury. It was wrecked very badly but the motor had looked okay. I said I would trade him my motor for the '49 motor. He gave this a very short thought and agreed. I was very happy as the '49 had a much more powerful motor. (If you think Dad was a bit heavy-handed in pressuring Floyd to sell his engine, then consider what Mother must have thought when she went out to run an errand and found Dad had sold her car without asking. She was not amused. -Mel)
We pulled my motor out and put it in the pickup and delivered it to a shop in town. As soon as it was delivered and we returned home, I started pulling the '49 motor. It was quite a job, but was accomplished. Then the fun began as a lot of the equipment on the '49s did not fit the older 40's Mercury coupe. We were able to fit up a transmission and clutch okay. The motor supports had to be handmade due to the location and height difference in the two motors. Modifications were made to the radiator and it worked okay. After a long time it was finally together and a test run down the highway was in order. The motor did great—lots of power. In fact, the front end of the car was not up to the extra speed and would have to have some tightening-up work.
Most of the summer was spent refining my car, and I had it running very well. I had a date scheduled which required a trip to Oak Ridge. It turned off cold that week, and I realized I needed a heater in the car. There were lots of heaters on the yard and finding one was not too much of a problem. It was mounted in the car, and hooking up to the radiator system was accomplished. Not knowing any better, I found some heater hose on an old car and put it on mine. I made the trip out to Oak Ridge okay, and it was warm in the car. When we were almost to Redwood School, I started smelling the odor of "hot engine". Then the valves would pop when the car was given the gas.
When we rolled across Highway 61 in front of Allison's Store, the motor quit. When I looked under the hood, the motor had some red hot spots on it. I knew it was finished for the night, so I called Dad from a pay phone at the store. He came and picked up my date and me, and when we got to the house, he let me borrow his new pickup to finish the date. I was certain the motor was gone in my car, and it was a sad night to be on a date. We pulled the car in the next day and let it sit. I was sure the valve seats had cracked when it overheated, as that is what usually occurs. We checked it a while later, and the compression was not good, so I figured it was shot. The old heater hose had broken.
A few days later we got in an old '47 Hudson coupe. (This is not mine but same year and model) It looked very good but the rods were knocking, and the clutch was slipping and grabbing. I liked the car, so I traded-even my Mercury to Dad for the Hudson. The trade worked out great for him as the Mercury's motor turned out not to be cracked, probably because we did not try to put water in it to get it going before it cooled down. Instead, the problem was burned-out head gaskets which Dad changed, and the car ran just fine.
When I pulled the pan off the Hudson motor, I found that it had babbitt rods and mains. They looked pretty good, so we used a big file to dress down the rod and main caps and fit each one to its rod and main. When we finished, it was a tight engine, but Dad said it was supposed to be tight at the start. The clutch was next, and the guy working at Dad's at that time said he had had one like it and he had to keep oil in the clutch pan because it was a clutch plate that used cork to operate. The cork had to be oiled to work properly. We poured a Coke bottle of oil in the pan of the clutch and it started running out about as fast as we could pour it in. It was decided to pull the clutch pan and put a gasket on it so it would hold oil and to weld a small crack in the bottom of the pan. While this was being done, I looked at the clutch and disc. They both looked fine and it was, in fact, a cork clutch disc. When it was all together, it held oil and worked great. After that, I always carried a pint whiskey bottle full of oil in the trunk for the times when the clutch might act up.
I put the Hudson on the road and it drove and sounded great. It was a wonderful car for a kid my age. It had some unusual features, one of which was a switch on the floor on the driver's side, sort of like a dimmer switch. This switch would change the stations on the radio. I had a lot of fun with this.
The Boss got a Cushman scooter (example at right) along with a load of junk iron. I pulled it aside and decided I wanted to fix it up and ride it. It was not too hard to get the motor started, but when I took it for a spin, it had no power at all. The motor seemed to be fine but it just would not go. I called Dad in to have a look. It only took him a quick glance to see the problem. Someone had put the big sprocket on the motor and the small one on the axle (like a bicycle). This switch back of the large sprocket to the rear axle gave it all the power and speed it needed. The Cushman became my fishing vehicle. I would go to McNutt and Little Flat Lakes to fish on my bike. I took it one day and found my way to Indian Camp Lake. Not many people went to this lake, so the fishing was great. A few days later, I got up before daylight, loaded my fishing gear, and headed to Indian Camp Lake to fish. I was cruising along a dirt road at the end of a plowed field when the front wheel of the scooter dropped into a ditch that the farmer had dug to drain water from his field. The sudden stop caused me to pitch forward over the handle bars. When I stopped rolling on the ground, my stomach was skinned good which put an early end to that fishing trip.
I needed a portable boat, so the search began. I took two of the 1940 Ford hoods and welded them together. It made a boat but was heavy and very unstable in the water. The next boat was a 10.00-20 big truck tube. Someone around the shop had suggested a rubber raft like they used during the war. The truck tube was pretty large when blown up (only took a couple of pounds and it was twice the size of a tire). I needed something in the hole to put my feet in. Canvas was not the answer, so I tried an old #3 washtub in the hole and it fit great. I laid a 5" wide board across the top and tied the handles on the tub to the board. When put in the water and you got in, it settled down nicely and was very stable. After making several fishing trips with it, I decided I needed something to keep it from spinning too much when paddling. At the end of the board I sat on, I put a piece of board down into the water, one on each end. This made a huge improvement and cut way down on the spin when you were paddling. I carried this boat in the trunk of my car for many years.
I was swimming at the Redwood swimming pool one Sunday, and Ted Porter was there. I was telling him about my boat, and he thought it was a joke. He was certain no one could fish from that kind of rig. I bet him that I could get in the tub boat, and then he could climb into the boat with me. He jumped on this in a hurry. I went to the car and got out my boat, and put it into the pool. Needless to say, there were many stares. When I got out in the pond, I had Ted swim out and put his knee up on one side. Then I took his hand and rolled him up and over, until he was sitting just ahead of me, and we were still floating upright. To say that he was surprised would be an understatement.
When you are the kid, you don't think about how hard it is for your mother to keep a house and keep all the people involved going. From the start of remembering, I can recall how Mother had to work day and night to take care of a house full of kids and later a grandpa, and also feed Dad's workers when he moved his business back to the shop at our home on North 61 Highway, sometimes known as Kings.
Clothing was resupplied in the fall with an order by Mom from “Monkey Ward” (as Dad called Montgomery Wards, a large catalog supplier in Chicago) or a trip to J. C. Penneys on Washington Street for blue shirts and blue jeans. (We loved going to Pennys as they had an overhead wire cash carrier rail system for sending & returning your money to the central cashier. It worked on a network of cables which were in pairs about 2" apart. These cables would carry a small metal box to the office where change was made. The box was then returned to the sending point. Pictures are shown at right.–Mel) I always wanted a pair of the black engineer’s boots they sold—never got a pair until I finished high school and went to work with Rayflex Exploration (doodlebuggers).
I can remember being sick with some kind of cough, probably a bad cold. The process before being put to bed was to sit on a low stool with a small electric hot plate at your feet and a bucket of water on it with some type of chemical (Vicks Salve was popular. -Mel) in the water. When it vaporized, it would be collected in the sheet that Mother put over you and the vapor from the bucket would be inhaled. You would soon start to sweat. When you were "done", she would dry you off and tuck you into bed with lots of cover. This treatment must have worked since no one ever died. Treatments for all health problems were home remedies. Going to a doctor was rare. Dad knew two doctors in Vicksburg that were used on the rare occasion that the problem did not cure itself. We were bothered by boils at one time, and Mother took us to Dr. Messina. He gave us a shot, and we had to go back once a week or some time schedule and get two more shots. The boils soon went away.
I remember climbing on a barbed wire fence by the house and cutting my right hand in the palm. It must have been pretty deep, but they put kerosene on it and wrapped it with a rag. It healed, but years later, I would wonder why I could not bend the last joint on my thumb. The cut was at the base of the thumb and had left a scar that could easily be seen. Another treatment I got was for poison oak. This would call for a very hot water bath, then the Ivy Dry applied all over. The water caused extreme itching and the Ivy Dry would stop it. I don't remember Melvin or Donald being bothered by poison oak when we were kids.
Mumps was another illness that passed through the kids. It appeared that Melvin and Donald had mumps but I did not—maybe a very mild case— but it never showed. Several years later I was at the Porter house, and a number of them had mumps but it never affected me. The worst for me was chicken pox. I had them everywhere I had a place. It was bad for a while. I sometimes wonder if Dad's case of small pox was not just a bad case of chicken pox.
We were playing on some cars in the back of the lot when a pain hit me in the stomach that doubled me over, and I could not move. Someone was called, and I was taken to the hospital where my appendix was removed. I was in the hospital a week, and my stomach was taped all over. I remember well when they removed the tape for there was lots of pain. I'm not sure which doctor did the surgery.
Mother had several Black women helpers to help cook and do clothes. Savannah was the first I remember. She was a large woman and laughed a lot. Her husband would come with her a lot of times and do work around the house or some job Dad had on the yard. (Savannah told of having her tonsils removed without any anesthesia, I still shudder when I think about it. Mattie was the next long-term maid, I think the last name was Mathis or Maddox. Her son served in Europe and later moved to Chicago. –Mel) The next was Willie. Her last name was Wilson. She was there a long time, and Mother mentioned her in the album she made for me when I was 26 years old.
Mother took us religiously to the Seventh Day Adventist Church when we were young. As we got older, I think Dad won out, and we began to work on the yard every Saturday. Sundays in the summer were baseball times. Winters were filled in with hunting.
I remember Mother trying to get grocery money out of Dad. She had as much trouble as we did on Saturday night getting our allowance/pay. I'm sure it was hard for Dad to realize what it cost to feed a large family and the men he had working for him. His numbers never moved up with the times. If someone worked for 20 dollars a week, then 20 years later he would still expect to pay only 20 dollars. Needless to say, most of the workers that were good and learned quickly moved on to better paying jobs. (As did all his kids. –Mel)
I remember the trips by foot to Cain's Store. Mother would need some soap or bread or whatever, and we would be given the money and sent upon the journey. If you stood in the road and looked, you could see the store on the slight rise in the direction of town. Sometimes, there would be a penny or two left over, and we would be allowed to buy candy. Back then a penny would buy a lot of candy if you picked the right ones.
Mother had her hands full the year it froze and snowed, and we were out of school so long. She had just gotten an electric stove. With no electric power for about two weeks she had to cook on a 2-burner kerosene hot-plate-type stove. The fumes were so bad that the windows and door had to be opened to be able to stay in the kitchen. We kids had to go outside to play in the snow and would get cold and wet pretty quick. Trying to dry out clothes in the house was almost impossible. We played in wet clothes most of the time but were so active it did not matter much. I can only guess how happy Mother was when the power came back on. One of the little pleasures Mother surely missed was her evening soap operas.
We had this large floor-model radio that could receive many stations. (At right is sister Eleanor and the Stomberg-Carlson radio with magic eye phototube tuning. –Mel) Mother had several favorite soap operas that she listened to but I only remember Stella Dallas. (Other soap operas were Portia Faces Life, Ma Perkins, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, Just Plain Bill, One Man’s Family, Lorenzo Jones and his Wife Belle, and When a Girl Marries. Most were broadcast in the afternoon, stopping at 5:00 PM when four, 15-minute kids shows came on, presumably to entertain the kids while mothers prepared the evening meal. Some examples of these shows were: Superman, Hop Harrigan, Tom Mix and his Horse Tony, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Land of the Lost (Saturday AM), Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, and Sargent Preston of the Yukon and His Dog King. Nearly every night, we would gather around the radio between 7-10 PM and listen. It was family time with Dad in a big rocker, Mother in the upholstered chair and the kids stretched out on the floor or if the weather was bad and the AM reception was regularly interrupted by static and fading signals, we would sit with ears glued to the radio speaker. Our favorite stations were WOAI in San Antonio, a 50,000-watt clear-channel station (no other station in the nation could operation on the 1200 kHz frequency), KRLD in Dallas, WSM in Nashville and XERF (the border blaster), a 250,000 watt, clear-channel station in Acuña, Mexico, not subject to US power limit, it reached most states in the Union, primarily playing music and radio evangelists.
In our preteen years, our entertainment of choice was Dad telling stories. These were stories he had heard as a boy up on the Yazoo River from his grandpa Chris Dose, his Leist relatives and neighbors. Some were simply about his hunting and fishing adventures, and others, his own creation. We also enjoyed playing cards with Dad: Conquian (Coon Can), Seven Up (All Fours) and Casino. As we got older, the radio became the center of our evening entertainment. Some of our weekly night time shows were Fiber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, The Bob Hope Show, Mr. District Attorney, The Great Gildersleeve, The Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, Lux Radio Theater and a number of quiz shows such as Take It Or Leave It (contestants could double their money up to the $64-Dollar Question), Dr. I. Q. where winners from the audience received silver dollars as prizes. This is but a small sample of our radio shows. There was nearly no daytime reception of distant stations because of ionospheric daytime profiles and increased absorption due to higher electron density from sunlight. This restricted daytime radio to line-of-sight stations such as WQBC in Vicksburg. -Mel)
Mother wanted water piped into the house. We had two water tanks up on a rack by the back corner of the house that caught water from a gutter that ran along the south side of the house into the #1 tank with a connecting pipe about a foot from the top of each tank. It was our job about every two years to clean out the tanks. There was usually about a foot of mud on the bottom of the tanks with many critters trapped in the mud. I guess this was what gave the water such good flavor.
It was decided to dig a well just back of the chicken yard by the pear tree. The Boss used some of the local hands to start digging. When he got down as deep as they could dig it by hand, there was only seepage from mud/clay. At this point, it was decided to bring in a water well driller. I don't know who he was, but they came in and set up and started drilling. At 300 feet they drilled through a cypress log that was buried in the clay. I think they went about 100 more feet and found some water-bearing sand. The casing was installed and The Boss installed a sucker rod (oil well type) pump. To operate the pump, he rigged a connecting rod to the back of a transmission that was driven by a pulley belt to a large electric motor. The discharge was into a small tank that had a pressure switch on it. Due to the low volume of water the well produced, it was not a very good system.
Dad decided he needed a big tank to pump water to on a steady basic flow, and the main tank could be pumped to the house and have plenty of reserve. He found two old tanks that were the same diameter, with each about 8 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. It became my job to weld these tanks together to make the large water tank. Needless to say this took some time. With the tanks laying on their sides I had to use jacks to push up the tops to match up. Because they were not cut the same, a lot of trimming took place. Flat pieces were welded to the edges to hold the tanks in line for the weld. Lots of work! The welding on the outside was not bad but welding from the inside created lots of fumes. When finished, a stand was built to set the tank on. This stand was about 8 feet high and was later closed in and a shower installed for the workers and us kids.
(In another effort to provide water to the house, Dad had a shallow well dug immediately behind the house. He build a small cover shed to house the pump and electric motor. We were all dubious of the water quality since it was 50 or 60 feet from the outhouse. I tried never to drink it. Floyd may remember more about it. –Mel)
Mother was involved with the Redwood PTA and was president at one time. I can only guess what adventures she had while doing this. The school was progressing in a lot of areas and I'm sure it was a busy time.
JOHN GENTRY, SOLDIER, HERO AND OAKES AUTO PARTS WORKER
One of the workers that The Boss had was named John W. Gentry (b. Nov 9, 1921 in Ark–d. Feb, 1986). He served four years in the Army during WWII. He had no education and could not read nor write. John and a close friend of his were drafted at the same time in 1942. (There is a record that says he enlisted on October 31, 1942 at Camp Shelby, MS.-Mel) They were inducted in Hattiesburg. I don't know where they did basic training, but John told me that he stayed with his buddy all through the war and came home on the same ship with him. I remember asking him if he ever thought about not coming home, and he told me about his dream on the ship overseas. He said he dreamed that he and buddy had gotten out of the service together and had gone into a clothing store in Hattiesburg and bought a new suit of clothes and a big white cowboy hat. He said he remembered this dream four years later when he was standing in front of a big mirror in a clothing store wearing a new suit and cowboy hat.
I don't know all the places John went, but I do remember the places involved in the stories he told. One story was when he landed on the beach (D-Day) in France. He said he sat behind a pillar of concrete (probably anti-tank piers). The water was red with blood and the bodies of many dead soldiers were still lying around. A recruit who was with him was sick at his stomach and could not understand how John and his buddy could sit there and eat. John told him if he lived long enough he would be doing the same thing.
When they moved into the interior it was to the famous hedgerows. John said he learned about them very quickly. He moved up one of the rows and lay down on the bank on the side facing the German line. He soon found out this was not the thing to do. He had his right arm around the front of his head with his chin resting on his forearm. Before he heard anything, a bullet entered his forearm, hit the bone and glanced up, went in the skin on his forehead, and came out, and made a ring around on the inside of his helmet and fell out in front of his eyes. He said it soon became evident that the Germans had zeroed their rifles on the front of these rows. From then on he did his looking from the back side of the rows. John said they started using a dozer blade on the tanks to cut roads through the hedgerows to keep from exposing the underside to German fire.
As the forces moved inland, they came to a German-held town. It was reported that the town had been abandoned and the officer in charge wanted him and his buddy to go into the town and see if they had, in fact, gone. John's squad moved across a big field behind a railroad line which was on a levee about 8 feet high. When they got to the point where they would have to leave the cover of the railroad, their officer said they would cover them from the tracks. John and his buddy crossed the track carrying a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and a sack of BAR clips. The BAR was so heavy that John carried it and his buddy carried the clips loaded with ammo. Ammo was easy to get, but you had to keep up with the clips as they were very hard to get. About a hundred yards from the track, the Germans started firing at them. There was a ditch running through the field towards the town, and when the fire started, they dived into it. He said the ditch was shallow, and the German machine gun was cutting the dirt down and started clipping the pack they had on their back.
John and his buddy waited for their group to return fire, but none came. They knew it was going to be the end if they stayed in the ditch. They decided to leave the pack, clips and BAR, and when the German machine gun ran out of ammo and had to reload, they would make a run for the railroad line. When the firing finally stopped, they jumped up and started to run. By the time they were halfway there, the Germans started firing again. The bullets came by so close that John wasn't sure if he had been hit or not. Both soldiers reached the safety of the railroad line. When they got to the safe side, there were no soldiers there. A while later, as they rested, another one of their buddies came down to check on them. When they inquired as to why there was no cover fire, they were told the young officer in charge ordered everyone to move back, leaving John and his buddy out in the field. Later, when the officer came down, he told John that he had to go back across the field again. John said he took his .45 Colt automatic out and stuck the end of the barrel on the officer's nose and asked him if he was sure that was what he wanted to do. The officer decided to pull back and left John and his buddy where they were.
John's unit later took a town, and he went upstairs in a building that would make a good lookout post. After John and his buddy checked out the room, he sent his buddy down to tell them to bring the radio and maps up. In the middle of the room was a large oak table. All the glass was out of the windows. There was one window in each wall. The table was pointed lengthwise toward a side window, and John placed his rifle on the table. Luckily, it was pointed towards the window. He turned to look at the other window, and he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and grabbed for his rifle. A German was standing on the ledge outside the window. As he moved to the open window, he raised his Luger to shoot at John, who only had time to pull the trigger on the rifle as it lay on the table. When he fired, the German exploded off the ledge and fell to the ground below. When John went to look out the window he saw why the bullet had knocked the German back so hard. The window was cased with heavy oak wood and the bullet from the rifle had entered the wood casing and taken out a large chunk of wood, driving it into the lower part of the German with great impact. John had had no chance to point his rifle; if it had not already been pointed toward the window or if the table had been lower, he would not have survived.
The unit moved into another town and was conducting a search. While walking down the main street, John came upon a big glass window in the front of a store. He stopped to wonder how that glass had survived in a town that had been bombed several times, and where several fights had occurred in an effort to take control of it. As he was looking in the glass, he saw movement behind him across the street. He said he didn't have time to think—just dived into the open doorway by the big glass. By the time he hit the ground, a rifle grenade went through the glass and exploded in the back of the building. Some rifle fire took place, and when he looked out, some other American soldiers had killed the German who had fired the shot at him. If the glass that reflected the movement of the German had not been there, John would not have survived.
John was with the group that crossed the Rhine River the first time. He said they were along side of the river, and the artillery was firing so many shells and with such big guns that it was impossible to keep your helmet buckled because the concussion would lift it up and almost choke you.
John was getting a small pension, I think about $40 a month. When I asked him why he was receiving that money, he said he had a piece of shrapnel in his back and told me the following story about how he was hit. The Americans had taken a French town from the Germans and were celebrating with the French girls. They had hidden all their wine and liquor so the Germans could not find it. It was late at night and John, his buddy and several girls (all mostly drunk) were walking on the main street when they heard shells coming from German artillery. He said they were so intoxicated that they just kept walking. One of the shells exploded near them, and he was hit in the back with a piece of that shell. It hit too close to John's backbone to remove, so he just continued to fight and never went to a hospital.
When I saw the movie, Saving Private Ryan, I remembered how John had described the beach on D-Day. I am sure that the people who set up these scenes for the movie had talked to someone who had been there.
At times, John was put in charge of his group. Because he could not read, he had to get another soldier to read the orders to him that he received on paper. I remember that he had a medal that I think it was a Bronze Star. He also still had some of the handwritten orders from the war.
About 1952, I was delivering some parts to Melsheimer's Garage and was waiting for him to write me a check for the parts. I walked into the back of his shop, and there was a vehicle covered with a tarp and lots of dust. When I pulled up the edge of the tarp and looked underneath, I saw a military Jeep. It appeared to be in very good condition. It was love at first sight, and I knew I had to try to buy it. When I picked up the check, I asked Melsheimer if the Jeep was for sale. He proceeded to tell me the story of how he came to have the Jeep.
Before WWII, there were beacon light towers across the country for airplanes to navigate by. These lights would slowly rotate a very bright light. We had one on the hill almost in front of our home. Mr. Melsheimer said the Army came to him and wanted him to be in charge of the beacon lights during the war time. He would be required to go to the lights when there was a blackout called for by the military. This meant he had to travel up some dirt roads in bad weather or at night and would need a good source of transportation. Consequently, he was provided with the Jeep for this purpose. After the war, he notified the Army that the Jeep was there, and they could come get it, but they never did. He put it in the back of his shop and covered it. This is where I found it about seven years later.
I went home and told Dad that I had found a Jeep for us to use hunting. He was interested so we went back to the shop, and Dad made a deal for it. A hundred dollars was the price. This was a great deal if the Jeep would run. It would need new tires as the old ones were dry rotted.
STEELE BAYOU DEER HUNTING
As mentioned earlier, Johnny Brewer and I were school friends. We played ball together, and we both loved to hunt. One of our best hunting places was along Steele Bayou which ran into the Yazoo River, just a short ways upriver from where Johnny lived, and close to the Eagle Lake ferry. We hunted a strip of land that lay between Steele Bayou and a big slough called Hog Bayou. We never saw anyone hunting this land and were not sure who owned it. Anderson Tully Company owned most of the land in that area. Hunting clubs were rare, and people hunted on Anderson Tully land without objection from them. I was to find out some years later that the land we hunted on belonged to a group of four men. I met one of them a few years later and was invited to his camp to hunt with my buddy, Charles O'Conner. The man's name was Guchereau or something like that. He and three other men bought two sections of land and used it for a hunting camp. Due to the fact they had an agreement that the hunting land could only be willed to one heir, the property is still intact today and about the only big woods in that area.
Johnny and I would wait for a cold, rainy, bad day to make our deer hunt. We knew we would have it to ourselves then. The club across Steele Bayou was the very large Ten Point Hunting Club. They controlled about 20,000 acres but not that across Steele Bayou where we were. I remember one trip we made that proved to be a major adventure. We left Johnny's house at daylight in his boat and went upriver to just past the mouth of Steele Bayou. We tied the boat up in some willows, took our guns and lunches, and headed up the bayou just on top of the main bank. Once we got past the Ten Point clubhouse, which was on the other side, we moved deeper into the woods. We were close to the bayou, but in far enough to get to the hardwood trees. There were tons of Overcup acorns in that area and deer loved them.
I was using a 7.7 Japanese rifle that my brother, Charlie, sent home after he served in the Navy in Japan in 1945. Johnny had an old 8mm German Mauser, also from the WWII era. Our hunting procedure was to have one of us hunt slowly ahead with the other following about two hundred yards in the rear. Any deer spooked by the lead man would usually circle around behind the front man, and this gave the man in back a chance to see the deer. Hunting slowly this way does allow you to cover a lot of area, but there were plenty of deer around. It was Johnny who was in the lead and I heard him make a shot —then another shot— then another. We had only planned to kill one deer as it would be a major job to tote the deer to the boat. About this time, I saw several deer sneaking through the woods away from where Johnny was. I assumed that he had missed as he had made so many shots. When a big doe came in sight, I shot with the 7.7 and the deer dropped on the spot.
I waited for a time and then went looking for Johnny. I found him looking at some blood on the ground and asked him what happened. He was walking slowly and looking for deer when he saw several does walking slowly away from the bayou. He threw up his gun and took a shot at one of them. The doe showed no sign of being hit so he fired twice more as the deer ran away. A minute or so later, he saw a nice 8-point coming through the woods toward him. When it stopped, he fired and dropped it in its tracks. We went over to the buck, and he was a nice one. I asked Johnny about the blood he was standing by, and he thought it might be from the doe he shot. We went back to the blood and followed it about 100 yards and found the doe. About this time I told Johnny that I thought he had missed, and I also had a deer down.
All these dead deer posed a major problem since we were over a mile from the Yazoo River. We decided to carry the buck out on a pole and get some of the Shiers boys to come back with us and get the other two deer, promising them one for meat and pay for helping us. We followed along the top bank of the bayou, and when Johnny got to a place where the bayou made a big looping curve, he decided to cut through the woods and save all that extra walking as it was getting late, and we had to return for the other deer. It was plenty cold and the deer were cleaned out so the meat would be okay. I was not in favor of the short cut, but Johnny insisted, and the buck on the pole was very heavy and hard to carry. We cut through the woods away from the high bank, and since I was in the rear and had no compass, I took note of the sun’s position. We had not traveled far when I noticed the sun was not where I thought it should be. Johnny said he knew where he was going, so I followed.
About this time, it clouded up and there was no way to tell direction. I finally made Johnny stop, for I was so tired that I was ready to leave the deer behind. As we sat there resting, I heard a rooster crow. When I heard it again, I made a point to line up the direction from which I heard it. It could only be coming from two places. The Ten Point Club on the bayou had chickens, and the Shiers across the Yazoo also had some. We figured the crowing sound was coming from the Ten Point Club since we did not think we had traveled far enough to get close to the Yazoo and that far upriver from Steele Bayou. Johnny wanted to head out towards the sound of the rooster crowing, but I told him I was not moving with the deer until he went and checked it out. That way I figured I could call to him and keep him going in the right direction. Two yells would be left and three yells would be right.
He headed out and only went a short way, and I heard him yell that he was on the river. We soon had the deer on the bank of the Yazoo and Johnny headed down river to get the boat. When we got to his house, we skinned the deer and fixed some cornbread and catfish for supper. By that time, it was almost dark, so we went to the Shiers house and got three of the boys to go with us to get the other deer. They said they had a boat on the river, and we could paddle across and save time instead of going to Johnny's and getting his boat. This made sense at first, but when we got into the boat, it almost sank with the weight of the five of us. I was very nervous going across and told them we would have to make several trips to get everyone back across. When we got up the bayou, we could only find one of the deer. I guess we had hidden the other one too well to be able to find it at night.
When we started out with the one deer, we had gone only a short distance when we took a break. One of the boys had brought along a single shot 22 rifle just in case. All of a sudden we heard a noise on the lower bayou bank, and then eyes came over the edge and stopped. The boy with the rifle fired and the eyes disappeared. I don't know if he shot to kill something or if he was scared. I think scared. We went over to the bank and looked down. There was a deer lying on the ground dead as a doornail. I told him it was his to care for, and we headed out with the other deer. After several trips across the river, we were finally back to our car. We gave the Shiers boys both deer since they had shot one and we had promised them one of ours. Besides, we did not want to fool with another deer as we were dead tired.
GRANDPA OAKES' BOAT AND FISHING AT McNUTT LAKE
There was a big lake in the back of Dad's place called McNutt Lake. It offered pretty good fishing as the river flooded it almost yearly. Grandpa had been wanting to do some fishing for catfish, so he decided to build a boat to put in the lake and use it to do his fishing. He got some cypress planks from somewhere but did not have enough long ones to do the sides and the bottom, so he used short planks crosswise the bottom. Many seams had to be caulked, so we boys had a lot of work to do. When the boat was completed, we hooked an old trailer behind the tractor so we could pull the boat to the lake. (A note of interest is that Grandpa Oakes never learned to drive and never owned a car). We got the boat in the lake and chained to a tree. The next day we were back with trot lines, paddles, and whatever Grandpa thought we needed. Chicken parts were used for bait and we put out several lines.
We returned the next day to get our boat load of catfish. We kids had high expectations. I don't know if Grandpa felt the same or not, for he was not much of a talker. The first line was not moving when we got to it but started shaking as soon as Grandpa pulled on it. Whatever was on the line was sure heavy, as he had to pull very hard to get it up. When it broke the water it looked like some kind of monster. It turned out to be a very, very large loggerhead turtle. The hook was hooked at the edge of its bony beak and was pulled almost straight by the time he was to the top of the water. A few seconds later he was off and headed down. We raised all the other lines and had one catfish and many turtles. I don't think Grandpa ever caught many fish in the lake because of the large number of turtles. We made a big, hand-held hook to grab the big turtles with, and it worked okay except we were not strong enough to pull the turtles over the side of the boat.
One day, Grandpa and I were raising the lines when one of the commercial fishermen came by and stopped to talk. When Grandpa pulled up another of the big turtles, the fisherman got real excited and wanted to buy it. Grandpa told the fisherman he could have the turtle if he could get it into his boat. The fisherman worked his boat around to the line, and we handed him the handle of the big hook. He had to work at it but got the turtle into his boat. I had no idea about weight then but, looking back, I would say the turtle went well over a hundred pounds. The turtle was struggling and trying to get out of the wood boat so the fisherman got his old .22 rifle and shot it in the head several times. I asked him if the boat was going to sink if the bullets went through the bottom. He told me the bullets would not hurt the boat because it would pack with mud or would swell and not leak.
We used the boat Grandpa made for several years and kept it chained and locked to a willow tree at the end of the lake. The high waters would back into the lake and the chain would hold it underwater until the river went down. One year, the water went down so fast that some heavy driftwood hung up on the boat and pulled it away, leaving the chain and bow board attached to the tree. We never saw that boat again.
MCDONALD-MILLER SCRAP SALES
Scrap iron and cast iron were piled up and then loaded onto the truck and hauled to McDonald-Miller scrap yard on Mulberry Street where the street crossed the railroad tracks. There was at a big tunnel that came under Washington Street, down the hill from the old Koestler Bakery and the Whistling Dick Service Station. We always liked hauling scrap because this provided a break from loading it. Usually, the older workers were in no hurry, and we always made a stop at some store for Cokes. While we were waiting to get weighed in and unloaded, we could roam around the scrap yard and see what was coming in. The one thing that made a big impression on me were the huge stacks of clean, glass gallon jugs. When I asked someone what they did with the jugs, I was told they sold them. The jugs were a big business and came from the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. I asked a man, “Who would be interested in buying all those jugs?” - he just laughed and said bootleggers (aka whiskey makers) bought them. NOTE: JC Oakes, a first cousin, worked with us on the yard one summer loading scrap, and it was a very hot one. I am not certain, but I think that scrap yard had a lots to do with him going to college!!
About 1953, The Boss purchased a scrap iron shear. This saved him a lots of money by not having to use the cutting torch as much. The one problem was it was a very dangerous machine to operate.
Next door, the Hallbergs had a small store in the front of their long, shotgun house. They carried a small amount of goods and also had a hand-operated gas pump. The pump had a 10 gallon glass tank on top, about head high. It had gallon markers on the inside of the glass. If you wanted 5 gallons, you would use the long handled gas pump to pump up to the 5 gallon mark. Then, you could put the hose with its spout into your car or container, and gravity flowed your gas out, according to how much you wanted. Mr. Hallberg worked at the Standard Oil dealership in Vicksburg, and his wife ran the store. Gas was self-service due to Mrs. Hallberg being so heavy that she did not get around very well.
Up the road (towards the north) about three hundred yards was Abraham George's grocery store. This was a large, very old store. There was a porch all the way across the front, and there were usually baskets of produce or something stacked along the wall. People could usually be found sitting on the seats (planks) between the posts of the porch. The store also served as a bus stop. Next door to the George's grocery store was the Roberts’ house. I don't know if the store had been owned by the Roberts family or not. I would guess that it had been owned by the Roberts at one time, as they had owned a large amount of land around this area in years past. Mrs. Roberts raised her four motherless grandchildren, Becky, Laura, Barbara and Bill McDuff. Becky and Laura were quite a bit older than we and left home after high school. Bill and Barbara were our regular playmates.
Bob Cain had a store at the top of the hill towards Vicksburg. We would sometimes walk to this store before we had bikes. This was before washing machines, or at least before Mother had one. I remember the trips by foot to Cain's Store. Mother would need some soap or bread or whatever, and we would be given the money and sent upon the journey. I can remember buying Octagon soap for Mother to wash with. If you stood in the road and looked, you could see the store on the slight rise in the direction of town. Sometimes, there would be a penny or two left over, and we would be allowed to buy candy. Back then, a penny would buy a lot of candy if you picked the right ones.
Further up the road, Joe Jones had a small store with gas pumps. It was always fun to go to his store because of the stories he would tell. We were friends with his son, Billy Joe Jones. Billy Joe became a preacher and performed the wedding ceremony for Barbara and me. I later told him that he did not do a good job, as we had later divorced.
Some people whose name I think was Nixon opened a small store across from Abraham George's store. We never went there much as we were teenagers and were going farther from home to spend our little money. Harlan's Grocery was at Waltersville, and their daughter went to school at Redwood. Her name was Ann. After the Harlans moved out of the store, a Chinese family, (the Jues –Mel) bought it. They had a lot of children, and some went to school at Redwood.
There was a store in Waltersville where a blind man named Wallace Walker built mattresses. We would ride our bicycles to his place to talk with him and watch him build mattresses. He would poke a long needle through the bottom of the mattress, and it would come out between his fingers on the hand on top of the mattress. We always thought he would poke the needle through his hand, but he never did. He had a lot of gum ball machines around the shop and boxes of the big jaw breaker-size gum. He always gave us some of the gum. Mr. Walker had a beautiful daughter and his family and our family were friends. (Wallace had been blinded since the age of nine. Ammunition fell in a nearby fire and exploded, blinding him. He attended the School for the Blind in Jackson. He served in the Mississippi Legislature. His wife was named Louise Wells. Mr. Walker played a mean piano, always being persuaded to play on Mother’s piano when visiting us. His daughter, Marie Walker Basham’s memories of these visit included the sweet smell of the house from the Stanley Products crystals Mother used in the vacuum cleaner and the smell of spaghetti sauce cooking. Read more about Wallace and Louise here...more. –Mel)
A PLACE TO PLAY
When The Boss built our house, he must have built the wooden shop that was just across the driveway from the house at the same time. He may have operated out of this shop when we kids were very young. By the time we were playing outside and were old enough to remember, he had bought the shop on Mulberry Street in town and was operating mostly from there. I can remember us playing in the shop (pictured in the background) and how big it was as compared to the house. The front part was floored and had a counter and a rack of bins in which to keep parts. A dirt floor extended from the office area to the back. There were a lot of airplane propellers on the wall. The Boss had been building airboats at one time and these were leftovers from that adventure. (The first airboat Dad constructed ended with him flipping it on its maiden run on the Yazoo Canal. I think Mother put a stop to that project. –Mel) We would occasionally see a snake in the shop, but it was usually on the run from us. A memorable episode in the shop was the time when Melvin tried to cut a cantaloupe open with one of Dad's single edge razor blades and cut his hand badly.
Another place we spent a lot of time was the waterfall swimming hole. It was over the hill in front of the house. A large creek had formed the waterfall, and it was the perfect place to swim. (Perfect until one day when I was sitting in the water watching Floyd climb to the top of the falls using the natural cavities in the rock. I saw something white protruding from the dark interior, closer inspection revealed a cotton mouth moccasin. Thus ended our swims at this paradise spot. -Mel)
SOME OF THE BOSS' SALES PHILOSOPHY
The Boss had a lot of sayings that were sales-related. I have heard him use this one many times: "You can shear sheep a lot of times, but can only gut him once". He never tried to overprice his products just because someone badly needed or wanted it; his prices were always fair. A man came in one day and wanted a part that cost ten dollars. When The Boss gave him the part, the customer said he only had five dollars, but would return the following Saturday and pay the remaining five. The Boss looked him in the eye and told him that he had been a good customer and he did not want to lose him so he was going to let him have the part for five dollars because he figured he would never see him again if he owed Dad the remaining five. It did not seem to hurt the guy's feelings, and he was happy with his half-price deal.
The main thrust of The Boss's business structure was to buy anything if the price was low enough. ( He said he would also sell anything if the price was high enough, even Mother’s car. –Mel) He had bought the acreage across the railroad from the back of our shop and home place that extended from Highway 61 in front to the railroad in back. He would haul anything he could get at the right price onto this property for storage until a situation came along that would allow him to make money on it or use it in his business. (Here are two stories, one that illustrates customer’s respect for Dad’s prices, the second illustrates how much he believed in the correctness of his prices. One Sunday afternoon Mother and Dad took a ride up in the Delta; we were not sure when they would return. As often happened, a customer showed up and was interested in a two-wheel trailer of Dad’s that was parked on the Hallberg space next door. As mentioned earlier, we were pretty useless at pricing, however, the customer really wanted the trailer, and we thought Dad might appreciate a large sale. We told the customer $125. He sensed our indecision and told us, “That’s too high.” We refused to lower the price and told him he could wait or come back when Dad was there. He decided to wait, and was rewarded with Dad’s return an hour later. He did not mention our price, only asking what Dad wanted for the trailer. Dad’s reply was, “$200.” He bought the trailer without referring to our price. In reflecting on this incident, I decided that the customer believed that Dad knew the true worth of the trailer, we didn’t and maybe he didn’t.
The second incident occurred when a customer came in to buy several used tires. Dad priced them at $10 a piece. The customer began to whine about the price, claiming it was too high and asking for a much lower price. Following much haggling, Dad suddenly announced, “I am not going to sell you these tires.” The surprised customer was at first speechless and then offered to pay the $10. Dad refused. Again, a bewildered customer assumed this was a joke and held out the money. Dad would not take it. Desperate, the customer offered $15, again to no avail. The customer left with a story which I assume she enjoyed telling as much as I have. -Mel)
DAD HIRES A COUPLE OF TRANSIENT WORKERS
We were sitting in the office late one evening when an old Ford car pulled up out front containing two white guys about mid-30's in age. They asked The Boss if he had any jobs that they could do because they had been headed home to Michigan and had run out of money. Dad asked them if they had any training on automobile repairs, and they replied that they could rebuild transmissions. That drew The Boss's attention immediately, for he had a transmission shed in the back where he had stored all the transmissions that he wanted to repair or use for parts. The Boss could rebuild them, but he did not usually have the time to do it as he was the main salesman and parts buyer. He asked the two guys if they had time to go down back and look at something. They said they could as they were not going far anyway.
When we got to the shed, The Boss picked out a transmission that had a bad cluster gear and set it on the bench where he kept tools that he used for transmission work. He showed the guys a big circular bin that was full of all kinds of transmission parts— bearings, bushings, and whatever might be needed in the rebuilding. The Boss told the two guys to see if they could rebuild a transmission. He would be in the office and would come inspect their work when they were finished. We went back to the office and had a Coke. In about 30 minutes, the two boys appeared at the office door and said they were finished. The expression on The Boss's face said it all; he was certain they had made a quick try and were ready to move on.
When we got to the shed, The Boss started looking at the transmission. The shifter top was on, and it had not been on when he gave it to the boys to repair. When he asked them where they got the top, they replied that they had gotten it out of the pile of parts by the back wall and that they could not have checked that the gears were right without the top on. I'm sure Dad figured they had not done the cluster gear and were trying to pull a cover up. He asked them to remove the top so he could check inside while observing that it shifted very well. When the top was removed, The Boss was surprised to see a good cluster gear and one other gear that had some wear had been replaced. He turned to the boys and asked them when they could start work. They said they could start the next day and then asked The Boss if it would be okay to pull their car to the back of the yard and sleep in it for the night. They would look for a place to stay the next day. The Boss had just purchased a small house and lot that joined the back of his yard on the right side. He told the boys they could stay there for nothing if they liked. They took him up on that without a second thought. He also told them that most days he fed the workers lunch and they were welcome to eat. I'm sure this was good news to them as they probably did not have much money, if any.
The boys worked for The Boss about nine months. During that time they lined the walls in the transmission shed with rebuilt and tagged transmissions. While there, they totally rebuilt their own car. The Boss said they could have car parts as a portion of their pay which was fine with them. I remember them as being very nice guys. They were hard workers, and they had the old house fixed up pretty nice by the time they left. When they had saved enough money and rebuilt all The Boss's transmissions, they informed him they would be leaving in two or three weeks. This surely wet The Boss's feathers for he loved having very good workers who were willing to work for low wages. When the time came for them to leave, they told The Boss where they had learned to rebuild transmissions. They had been in prison and had worked in the auto shop. The Boss asked them why they had not told him this at the start. In turn, they asked him if he would have given them a job if he had known. The Boss had no answer for this question, but I think he would have hired the Devil if he knew how to rebuild transmissions and would work cheap.
THE BOSS' SAYINGS
Every now and then, The Boss would have need to refer to a person's mental capacity. The quote would be something like this – "If you put his brain in a hummingbird, he would fly backwards and suck a mule's (a--) butt for a morning glory.” Another was, "If you put his brains in a hummingbird's head, it would roll around like a bb in a boxcar". (Another was, “If his brains were 3-1 oil, there would not be enough to oil the generator bearings in a lightning bug’s butt.” For a person of questionable character, “He would need a reservation at Chicken Jack’s.” Chicken Jack’s was a restaurant that did not cater to the elite or even those who might have ever come near the elite, definitely a place for bottom feeders. For a heartless person, “He would steal the ball from a blind tumblebug, give him a stone and put him on the wrong road home.” –Mel)
CHUCKWAGON CHARLIE OAKES (1927-1999)
THE BROTHER I DID NOT GROW UP WITH
When I was born, my brother Charles was ten years old. This age gap turned out to be huge due to the time period and all that happened in the world in the next ten years. Because I was only seven years old when Charlie went into the Navy at the age of 17, I have no early memories of him. However, I do have some vague memories of his being at the house when he came back from WWII about two years later. Charlie was at the house only a short time, and then he left again to join the Air Force. His training, and being stationed in various places in the U.S. and abroad, and also his marriage, limited our meetings to short visits at Christmas or some other occasion when he would be in Vicksburg.
The name "Chuckwagon” Charlie came about due to our hunting trips to Colorado. Our route to the mountains passed thru Charlie's hometown of Wichita Falls, TX. It was just the right distance from our next layover, Gonzales. Every year, stories were told about our hunts, and Charlie got very interested in coming along. His interest was in photography and socializing around the camp fire. We knew he would be a great asset because he loved to cook and was good at it. In 1981, he met us in Colorado and camped with us for a week. He had a great time and began making plans for 1982. He wanted to improve the cook-area which was a utility trailer that carried our hunting and camping gear. We made plans, and he came over and stayed a week with me. We made many changes in the trailer, and when finished, Charlie pronounced it, " …better than those used by the sheep herders we've seen in the mountains." Charlie called it a "Chuckwagon" so naturally he became "Chuckwagon” Charlie. Charlie and the Chuckwagon are shown in the picture above.
1953 VICKSBURG TORNADO
One such occasion was in December 1953. Our Redwood High School football team was scheduled to play a benefit football game in Vicksburg, and Coach J. C. Dorman was going to pick up Earl Martin and me at our house about 5:30 or so that Saturday evening. At a few minutes after five, Earl and I were in the office at our house, and Earl was on the phone to some girl. I heard a loud noise and went to the door to see what it was. I saw The Boss, Mother, Donald and Eleanor running for the cellar in back of the house. There was, no doubt, the noise was a tornado. I hollered at Earl and we, too, ran for the cellar. By the time we got shut in,we heard a horn blowing out front. Earl and I climbed out, and looked and it was Coach waiting to pick us up. We got in the car and headed to Vicksburg. Coach was not aware that the storm had passed so close. Little did we know how bad this storm had been.
Coming into Vicksburg, we could see lots of red glare along the river, and the main part of town was very dark. Coach cut up the hill to Cherry Street and headed to Carr Central School. The lights were out along that street also, and when we got out of the car, we could see there was nothing going on at the school. Coach Dorman and the few boys that were at the school, along with Earl and me, headed to the police station to see if we could help. At the station, Earl and I were assigned to a group that would be clearing a drive path through the rubble on Washington Street so the ambulances could get through.
The first major pile of bricks we encountered was in front of Central Smoke House. We started rolling sections of old brick up on the sidewalk and moving a lot of single bricks and boards. As we dug deeper, the shape of a car was uncovered. The tire we had first seen was the spare that was upright in the trunk. The trunk lid was mashed down into the trunk space, exposing the tire. As we got to the gap between the top of the car and the door, we could see a Black man inside the car. There was no doubt he had died instantly as his head was split open, a pretty sobering sight for both the young and old.
When the path up Washington Street was opened, a police officer came and gathered a group to clear a roadway to the Saenger Theatre. The street in front of the theatre was piled high from side to side with cars that had been parked on that street. The storm had shoved them downhill towards the theatre. We started at the bottom of the hill by the bus station and rolled cars and I don't mean on their tires. Most had been turned over, and some were still upright. If it were possible, we pushed them out of the way; if not, we rolled them like a ball. As we cleared out an area in the bottom, the cars on the hill were rolled down until a path had been cleared from Clay Street. I remember seeing people standing on the sidewalk smoking while gas was running down the street. A few people were trying to get this stopped. I cannot imagine what would have been the result of a flash fire from the gas.
Once the roadway was cleared, Earl and I went back to the police station to see what we could do next. They had too many people blocking up the city streets, so we were put at a corner of Monroe and the street coming from Cherry to Monroe by the old courthouse. We began directing traffic away from the downtown area. This lasted until about 2 a.m. when the National Guard took over the task. It just so happened that a Fowler Pecan truck had turned over on this corner and very large paper shell pecans were all over the street. This held us over on the grocery end. When we were relieved, we headed back to the police station. We had to pass the Help Yourself Grocery where Earl's brother, Pete, worked. We saw lights and went inside and encountered Reggie Ellis, who asked us if we would help out by carrying coffee and sandwiches that he had made to the command control station in the Vicksburg Hotel. We were glad to help and had a sandwich and drink while the food and coffee were being prepared.
After the delivery, we headed back to the store to take another load of food to the police station. Next to the hotel was a small place housing the Chamber of Commerce. When I glanced inside, I saw an airman in uniform who looked a lot like my brother, Charles. Earl and I went in to look and sure enough, it was he. Charles and his wife, Jo, were en route from their home in Texas to Vicksburg to spend the Christmas holidays. They were just across the river when the storm hit and were forced to stop because of the heavy rain. Once it stopped, they came on into Vicksburg and Charles took Jo to her family's home. Then Charles came downtown to help out in the search and rescue effort. What a coincidence that I should run into my brother in the midst of such a tragedy!
Charles and I agreed to meet back at the Chamber of Commerce office at 6 a.m. as Charles said the National Guard would be in to take over. We met back at 6 as agreed, and Charles took Earl home, and then we went to my house. I can only guess, but I think Mom probably had a bad night and did a lot of worrying as she would not hear of our going back the next day to help with the cleanup.
What a wonderful place and time to grow up and learn so many of life's lessons, all of which came in handy on my life journey. Thanks, Boss, and thanks, Mom, for allowing it to happen. 7/2/2013
By Mel Oakes
My brother Floyd and I sometimes joked about how his several days at Hinds Junior College had ” hurt” his career. Attending on a football scholarship, he could not accept the senseless severity of the coach, and while the coach achieved much in his career, his behavior with my brother is a stain on his record that I refuse to forgive. Like The Boss in this memoir, my brother has achieved much in his lifetime and is liked by all who know him. Both he and Dad would have a few regrets, as we all do, but wisely did not dwell on them. All who knew The Boss would tell you, if only he had had the education to be an engineer, he might have competed with the likes of Edison, Ford, Bell and Marconi. Though I am unabashedly biased, I believe there is ample evidence in this memoir to support that conclusion.
Growing up and working with The Boss we would often hear people say, “You must have learned a lot from him about mechanical and electrical things.” They would be wrong in the traditional since of learning. The lack of a high school education limited my dad’s ability to explain things. He just didn’t have the language or the linear learning structure that we are more familiar with. This is what demonstrates his brilliance. After I was introduced to physics and mathematics, I was then able to comprehend the many things he taught us by example. I could never discuss successfully the physical principles of mechanical or electrical devices with him. On many occasions, I tried to introduce him to some of the physical laws; these always ended in failure. Had I been more skilled with analogies at the time, I might have had more success. However, no one should or did underestimate my father. He could not verbalize the difference between volts and amps, yet if he told you that you were wiring that motor incorrectly or that it would be underpowered, you had better listen! How his brain was wired would challenge today’s neuroscientist. What was clear to me and everyone was his superior memory. He seemed to know the location of every automobile part on the yard, and what’s more, what it would fit, and its function. He had the ability to tell you that he didn’t have a starter from a 1939 Chevy like yours, but he did have a 1937 Pontiac starter that would fit and work. Equally impressive, he knew which one it was in that mountain of starters randomly piled head high under a shed.
“Doing” was his teaching technique since verbal instruction was not possible. We were required to tackle every task and every machine on the yard, and they were legion. We were told to “watch me” or “watch Clifton” or “just figure it out for yourself.” And we usually did, though Floyd and Donald were the far superior of the three of us at doing this. Like my father, no task was beyond Floyd’s reach and his high school education gave him the foundation to learn in a way that let him develop a systematic understanding of the operation of things. What joy he gave my father! Dad’s pride in Floyd’s accomplishments was evident. He certainly envisioned Oakes Auto Parts continuing under Floyd’s leadership, and he would have been delighted with the results, for Floyd would have taken it to new heights. The highly organized and very profitable salvage yards of today confirm the correctness of Dad’s dream; Floyd would have made it happen, Donald also. Alas, others got the benefit of their talents. I hope Floyd’s employers appreciated him; however, like my father, he would have also made a helluva engineer. I hope Coach Renfroe is listening and is contrite.
In writing this memoir Floyd has provided the family with a special treasure that will be an heirloom. I am amazed at the detail with which he recalls events, some nearly seventy years old. How fortunate we are that he continues to explore new things, in this case, writing. What would Mrs. Franklin, our beloved high school English teacher think? I know she would be proud.