Volume 4, Number 7
by Jimmy Perkins
Brothers and Sis were two houses over from where Mom was. They was playin in the front room of my aunt's house where the coal stove sat. It was twenty degrees out and snow was all over the ground. Dad was drivin down from Detroit without a hint what was happenin and no way to let him know. Mammy took care of Mom till Doc Obrian arrived.
The hospital lay forty mile cross the Cumberland Mountain. She didn't want to go neither. She had never been and she wasn't goin now. That was the way in the hills. The side of the mountain saw new life on that cold and snowy winter day. The twelfth day in to that year, an innocence awakened to the world. Gloriously new and fresh to all things.
There was no malice nor fear nor understandin of such things in the strong and tiny miracle heart. A view past the tar paper and board and batten gave light to the red clay path and road leading to the shallow valley below. The dirt road led to everywhere and most of the time back again. That's how life is and always will be. All comes and goes.
The ridges where the mountain people live never have had much to offer and it's easy to see why. Red clay won't grow a thing except brush, Kudzu, and them old knotty pines. Hard life and hard people with a fondness for the mountains. That was the easy thing to see.
The mornin hours just 'fore the sun burned off the fog seemed in particular to be most lonely in the ridges. No one around, just you walkin the road to a relative's or just standin along the tracks. No train come by that early. It was too quiet and the hills wouldn't take to any interruption durin this changin time of the day. A weary stray might stare at you from it's grass bed in the brush, haggard like the bums down past the depot. It didn't know if you was goin' to run it off or offer your hand. The air smelled like no future might smell if it had an odor to it. It made you want to get away and away is exactly where my family went. In Baltimore dad welded in the shipyard. The war was goin' then and a lot of mountain people went to Baltimore. Most didn't stay though. Baltimore seemed like a trial place for all of us. It was a place to see if you could take to the strangeness of being away from the hills. Mom and dad stayed and relatives began to follow. Two rooms was all there was and a hallway separated them. One was the bedroom and the other was where you could cook. There's a picture of Mom and Dad and Sis on a tar roof just outside a screen doorway to the hall. Sis played on that roof, five stories up. Beat down and hard...hard as an old stomped floor with a rancid smell. After the war in Europe everybody found themselves back downhome to renew themselves. "Just Over In The Glory Land"... That's where dad found himself.
A tent revival was in town. It was religion, entertainment, and just plain relief for everybody. Tired of tryin and tryin with little success, the whole community was there night after night, searchin. Dad went and that was a fair amount. He had taken a rougher road earlier in life and now the stress and joy and work for the family softened that road. He went up and got saved. There was peace, not necessarily in the valley, but peace just the same. Shortly afterwards, he became ordained and started preachin. He preached and people from everywhere came and listened. He had the gift, it was plain. Respected and regarded, dad had been called. He made his mark with the gift given him. During this time of preachin, it alone could not sustain the family. Dad drove the bus line to the plants but, after the bomb was dropped that soon played out. He bought a ten ton tandem wheel truck to haul coal from the tipple, however, finding tin cans and smashing 'em with the huge tires was all he really found that was steady. This was no living so, Dad cut his losses and went on. He still preached but not as often. He went north himself first. There was work in Indiana, then the bus line in Detroit and finally in Cincinnati doin some sort of driving. We were at least fed. Dad found a town up north that suited him and he sent for us. He parked cars and worked two and three jobs, any job, just for his family.
There we were right smack amid what would be a not so sweet an awakenin. Accents and culture soon became somethin fights and conflicts were made of. Downhome people didn't know it but soon enough colored town, run down tenements, and a prejudice that ate you alive was part of everyday life. "Southern Exodus", there could be no other name for it. Seems like every relative to come up the pick stayed with us.
My dad never said a thing though, not that he was a quiet man.
I guess because he was only tryin to survive too. Most went back. The strain from being away from the mountains was too much for all except the strongest or desperate. The pull drug em back like a magnet. My family had better stock though. We made it that way. That's how we survived. Everybody from downhome lived in a certain section of town back in those times. Mostly on the fringes of colored town. But, still close enough to the see uptown and know the aggravation brought on by being different. Landlords didn't want to rent to mountain people with children so, it was hunt for whatever you could find. We lived with cockroaches and varmits people wouldn't let their dogs live with. The wall paper from decades past was always peelin off and scribbled on from the children who had been before us. I remember the long two and three story buildings that at one time were great houses. They were now apartments and boardin rooms that should've long ago been condemned. Third Street is the first place my memory can recall. It only had two rooms. One was the livin room, which served as our bedroom, and the kitchen, where everything went on.
We took baths there, played there durin cold weather and relatives even slept in the big closet next to the refrigerator. The only bathroom was upstairs and was a common one used by every renter in the buildin. It had a ten foot ceilin and above the door was a window that tilted in to let the air draft. Mom and dad slept in the double bed with me between them while my brothers slept on the couch that let down to where two could sleep. One to the head and one to the foot. Sis slept on a roll away bed in the kitchen. There were many shabby traps before then that my memory doesn't recall. There was Wilkerson Street (next to the bus depot), Second street, and many more...
Next to the apartment on Third street was Saint Mary's street, which was really an alley connectin the bigger streets. Part of it is still there separatin two big brick buildins, Red Cross and Ohio Bell. There's a large college with the biggest grass lawn us kids could only dream about sitting where so many people came and went and cried and laughed and worked hours on end while they fought the northern cold 'til it hurt. Inside and out. It hurt so bad. (Durin this time Dad started the "Ringold Street Southern Missionary Baptist Church" and that helped us all. All southerners, all in need, they attended regularly. The church has grown since those early days forty something years ago. It?s in the southern outer section of town known as Kettering. It?s very blessed, very big and a new type church. I know there are a few original members there, but how many others remember how it all began?) There was a U-Haul trailer storage there in the alley just feet from our apartment. The trailers, some open some enclosed, were all secured by a huge chain to a steel post or the wrought iron fence that separated the apartments from the alley. Inside the trailers was a haven for the drunks that staggered around town stinkin drunk from liquor and homeless till they found the small shelters where they slept until the next mornin. They'd start all over again stinkin and smellin and drunk. Kids lived there! Decent people lived there by circumstance alone. People survived. Mom and dad raised us and suffered through the poverty and prejudice without my young mind knowin, however, I'm sure my brothers and sister knew well about the filth and doing without. They knew it was all they could do and time alone would cure it or make it worse.
The city gave us our shots and our clothes were bought from the bins at the Goodwill and Salvation Army up on fifth street and Wayne Avenue. Because of all the drunks we use to call it Filth and Wine streets. Life was difficult because new comers are seldom welcome, especially if they were from the mountains and threatened the lives around them. Imagine the toll it had on all those souls from the mountains. Good or bad, this and that, we all lived that way for a very long while. I wonder if the landlords that owned the hideous dwellins where we lived would know that one day these same outsiders would go on to thrive and rent and own better than anyone could have ever wished for?
It happened as time went on and as all things that learn to survive in the poorest conditions, we grew stronger. Dad got a union job driving pick-up trucks and delivery type trucks from job site to job site. He rented us a small house on the east side. Life was better and I knew it even if I was a kid. We were doin all right even if the neighborhood was still rough. It was still in town but, far from the dirty yards void of grass and wide busy streets we had grown use to. There was a small bathroom, a little living room, two bedrooms and a parlor! We didn't even know what a parlor was except maybe just another word for sis' bedroom. That was until she got married. She married a fellow from the hills, just another state. She was sixteen then. My dad married them right there in that parlor of all places!
One day my oldest brother took me to one of his friend's home. The house was in a neighborhood that sat much higher on the hill than ours and it was a fair amount different. It was almost like being in a different world. This was really somethin new... I marveled at the way they lived. There was a television in a big living room where the man sat smokin and readin. A boy about my age lay on the floor watchin T.V. The house was great. It had two stories and wasn't even an apartment building. The man was nice and the boy was friendly and my brother's friend was just as nice. This didn't seem right. People surely didn't live this way. I knew that this was not like what we were use to...
I've wondered at times if that's not why my brother took me.
Town was crowded and even if schools were better it was not good enough. My mom had decided we had had enough and away we went. Up and out. Although dad didn't mind staying, he knew mom was right. She really didn't give him much alternative. Come with us or stay here...we're movin! Mom took some of the money and put it on an apartment. Another apartment! We just left that. I'm sure that's what everyone thought but, mom knew. It was a modern apartment. There was two stories, two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, eight windows and EVEN a walk in closet to play in! We had arrived. Little did we know that behind the apartment buildins there were lots just filled with grass and ball fields and stuff that could overload a down home city kid's mind in a heartbeat.