Childhood Remerberances

April 6, 2009 - 1,225 views

I thank the goodness and the grace
Which on my birth have smiled,
And made me, in these Christian days,
A happy English child.

These lines written by Ann and Jane Taylor (1782-1866) certainly speak for me. For, reviewing the trauma of my birthing, it is entirely credible to say, “but for the grace of God, I would not have survived.”

I was born August 31, 1913–on a Sunday afternoon at six o’clock. I was the sixth child of Alois Preston and Jenny Mae (Sutton) Fitz Randolph. (Two brothers had died in early childhood.) The Ritchie County, West Virginia hamlet of Berea was home to my family. Part of the house was built of logs, I have been told. Mamma was attended during ray premature birth by two doctors, Aunt Sarah Randolph and cousins Conza and Draxie Meathrell.

Interesting accounts from my nativity have come through the years, some of which I will record here but cannot verify. Cousin Conza asked the Doctor, “What shall we do with the baby?” and he replied, “Never mind the baby, just take care of the mother.” How thankful I am that Conza did care for me by putting me in the oven. (I’ve wondered if the stove burned wood or gas?) My birth statistics include weight of three pounds (in a shoe box with cotton batting). A tea cup would fit over my head and a ring could be placed over my wrist. Papa reports in his autobiography that I was not fed for a day, at which time I took a bottle of Eskey baby food and fell asleep. In the first week I gained five ounces.

I understand that Conza and Draxie were given the privilege of naming me. They had recently read the novel, Saint Elmo, and so passed the name to me, sans the “Saint”.

Mama has told me a neighbor friend came to visit and, seeing me, said, “Jenny, he has pretty eyes”. After the visitor left, Mama cried. It was several weeks before Mama recovered from giving me birth.

On April 1, 1914 our family moved from Berea to Salem, West Virginia. Brother Brady, seventeen years old, would attend Salem College Academy. Ashby, twelve, and Avis, ten, would attend the college teacher training elementary school. I was seven months old when we moved to Salem.

Our first home was high on the hill north and east of the college. My parents organized a group of neighbors who pooled orders for stable groceries from Sears, Roebuck Company. (Today it would be called a neighborhood coop.) The order from the catalog came by railroad freight so was slow in arriving. There was excitement when the orders were opened, sorted and delivered. I remember our family getting a keg of salt cod, along with other staples like flour, sugar, etc. Sometimes we got “store bought” cookies topped with pink marshmallow, when we could afford them.

I must have been four years old when we moved to the house next to Salem College. (The house stood on the exact present location of the Senator Jennings Randolph Library.)

How blessed my life has been through the years by the influences of Salem College to 1935 when I graduated from college. From 1917-18 on I idolized the college students. The coaches and athletes were my heroes. When the students tired of my visits to the campus they would say to me, “Go home an tell your mother she wants you.” I developed a romantic attachment to Byrl Coffindaffer, a popular girl on campus. When sister Avis played on the Academy girl’s basketball team, they chose me as their team mascot.

As a small child, I spent many hour leafing through the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs fantasizing acquiring many items. I believed the teams of horses came with the harnesses shown in the harness section. A circus of cutouts pasted on cardboard, complete with tent, was fun to play with. And Mama’s spools from her sewing were as good as boughten toys.

Two happenings in Salem–one in fall, the other in summer–remain vivid in memory. The autumn cattle drive down the main street to the railroad shipping point was high excitement for a small boy. Picture the street in front of our house a sea of bawling cows with every now and then one escaping from the herd into the lawns and beyond. The drivers on horseback were the nearest to cowboys we ever saw.

There were years when summer brought a caravan of Gypsies to Salem. With them came a high level of community excitement and anxiety. They traveled by horse and buggy though I remember times when they had automobiles. They would set up a camp west of town and then return to the stores to shop. Their reputation for stealing caused local merchants to be suspicious and wary.

About the year I started to school my folks bought a house on the hill across Pennsylvania Avenue west of the college. There were forty-eight steps up to the house from the street and climbing those stairs, often two-at-a time, was great exercise through the years.

The house had four rooms of about equal size plus a sleeping porch and a very small toilet room. A porch extended along the east side of the house and there was a good cellar under the south east corner of the house. (We took baths in a wash tub in front of the kitchen stove.) The south side of the house was on concrete block pillars four or five feet above the ground, allowing cold air to circulate under the house. Because the house was not insulated and there were no storm windows, it was difficult to keep warm in winter. Frost was often caked around the door and intricate frost patterns covered the windows. My bed in the sleeping porch would be cold at night so Mama would heat an iron on the kitchen stove, wrap it in cloths or newspaper and put it in the bed for warmth. That made going to bed in winter bearable.

Once Ashby was in bed with flu and Mama put a hot iron at his feet. When the wrapping came off and his feet touched the hot iron, he exclaimed, “Hell’s fire” I was shocked but now realize his response was appropriate.

Our home was heated and lighted with natural gas. There was a stove in each room and the fragile gas mantle lights burned with a hissing sound. Furnishings in the house were basic and minimal. A piano was the exception. Avis played the piano and Mama a played a small accordion well.

I had a special tree-seat in the large oak tree at the head of the steps leading to our house. There I whiled away many hours and the swing in the same tree offered breath-taking sweeps out over the steep hillside.

Most of the sidewalks in Salem when I was a child were built of wood. It was common practice to walk carefully on them saying, “Step on a crack, you break your Mother’s back. Step on a nail, you put your Dad in jail.” I learned to walk a two inch steel rod used as the railing on the walk approaching our house. That is close to walking a tight rope.

When I was six years old I started to first grade in the college teacher training school in Huffman Hall. Miss Perine was an excellent teacher. (She later married attorney Oscar Andre, an outstanding Salem College alumnus.) Miss Childers was my second grade teacher and equally outstanding. Although I was left-handed, I was pressured to write with my right hand. Today’s teachers would not consider this a good thing to do.

The thrill of the first day at school is memorable. Meeting the teacher, being assigned a seat and reacting to the other children around me was both exhilarating and frightening. It is my impression that I was a sensitive, nervous child who was afflicted with a serious stammering speech impediment. Shopping for school supplies with tlalia was a big part of’ the excitement of starting school. We bought pencils, crayons, ruler, scissors, paste, paper et al. Do you remember the fresh smells of the room your first day at school?

An epidemic of diphtheria struck Salem while I was in first grade and I fell victim to that dangerous disease. Dr. Edward Davis was our family Doctor and injected a final shot of antitoxin when he had nearly given up hope of my survival. Wondering aloud where he might place the injection, the response he got from me was, “You can put it in the bed for all I care” My exclamation gave the Doctor new hope for my recovery.

Dr. Edward Davis was a good physician and a wonderful man. He never hesitated to minister to the poor and underprivileged in our community, often without pay. He was an officer in World War 1 and I remember seeing him riding a spirited horse in an Armistice Day parade.

Mama’s physician during my early years was Dr. Xenia Bond. She was a robust lady with a caring spirit and a hearty laugh. Her office was on the second floor of her home. As we sat in the waiting room on the first floor, she would come to the head of the stairs and call out, “Ready for the next.” Dr. Bond and Miss Elsie Bond, registrar for Salem College for many years, were maiden sisters who lived together. (They were Aunts of Ashby’s wife, Ruth.)

High top boots that came up almost to our knees were a status symbol among the boys in grade school. We tried to waterproof them so we could wade in deep water but inevitably our feet got wet and we hung our stockings on the radiator in our school room to dry. The odor of drying stockings lingers in my memory. With the coming of spring we looked forward to the day when we could go to school bare-footed. Walking with tender feet could be painful, especially on the railroad tracks. Springtime also brought a search for the first violets. Digging sassafras roots for tea was another spring rite.

I digress from my own story now to bring some light on Mama’s life and character. Her story, of course, is closely interwoven with my childhood. This may be the only written record of her life experiences shared with me through the years. (In his seventy-eighth year my Father wrote his autobiography documenting his and Mother’s lives together through more than fifty-five years.)

Papa began “going with Mama in June 1892 when she was twelve years old and he twenty. (A tin-type picture shows her attractive and mature for her age.) She was a scholar in Papa’s Berea school. (Papa always called his pupils, “scholars”.) They were married in March, 1895, when Mama was fifteen years old. So her formal education must have ended with eighth grade or before.

Mama has told me that she aspired to further her education by attending Salem College Academy rarner t[idll Lidrl’y.-LLie,. Olie ii%)p@ -Lo use aoiiey froj a calf she was raising to help finance her plan. To win her Mother’s approval for her plan, made a hat and took into her Mother’s sick room. (Grandma Sutton was terminally ill with tuberculosis and died at the age of thirty-eight.)

It is understandable that Grandma Sutton did not want to die leaving her daughter unmarried. The Asa Fitz Randolph family was the most educated, influential and affluent in the community. It must have been comforting to have Jenny Mae married to Alois Preston Fitz Randolph.

Writing of his Mother-in-law, Papa said, “She was one of the noblest women I ever knew. I could never have had a better or more loyal friend.”

i-lartin Sutton, Mama’s Father, was a talented craftsman. I remember a hickory splint clothes basket and kitchen chair designed and crafted by him. Brother Brady knew Grandpa Sutton well and had high praise for him.

“A good wife (and Mother) who can find? The writer of that question in the Book of Proverbs would have found his answer in Mama’s character and life. “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her. Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”

Mama was many-talented. She learned photography in Berea and continued taking and developing pictures after moving to Salem. An expert seamstress, she sewed for our family, community families and college students. Wedding gowns were not above her level of skills. During the depression years I wore underwear and pajamas she made for me from muslin flour sacks. Crocheting, knitting and tatting were in her repertoire of skills and she crafted beautiful paper flowers.

Cooking was her career specialty. For many years she ran a boarding house for Salem College athletes, charging twenty-five cents a meal. Her bread, pies and cakes were legendary with family and guests. What a treat it was to come home from school to eat a slice of bread (maybe the heel) fresh from the oven–with butter, of course.

Music was high on Mama’s agenda for pleasure. She sang with a fine alto voice and enjoyed entertaining us with her accordion music.

Children and young people were a major love for her–and they loved her. For our church, she was a leader of the Junior Christian Endeavor. Her Christian faith was real and deep. She did not wear it her sleeve.

Mama would certainly qualify as a “workaholic” though her health was poor throughout her adult life. “Sick headaches” sometimes felled her for a day or two. Today they would be diagnosed as migraine headaches. Brother Brady suffered with them as does our son, Daniel.

With all her talent and creative drive, Mama was almost painfully humble and self-conscious. To sum it up I must say, “What a wonderful Mother.”

The influence of my brothers and sister was a great blessing for me. Brother Brady married and left home when I was four or five years old but he continued to demonstrate an interest in me through the passing years.

Ashby and Avis often invited friends to our home for evenings playing Rook, singing around the piano and enjoying fudge and pop corn. They seemed not to mind having me around listening to them until my bedtime. (The friends who came oftenest were Russell and Mildred Jett. Avis’ best friend was Ruth Davis.)

It was frightening to me when their conversation turned to ghost stories–an exciting topic for them. Rumors of a ghost at an old house on Long Run was reason for college young people to visit the -site at night, hoping to witness an “appearance”.

Ashby was an outdoorsman and nature enthusiast. He was happy to share his knowledge and experiences with me. An aquarium he set up, with minnows, tadpoles and natural water plants, was of great interest for me. In hunting season he sometimes brought home squirrels that Mama cooked for us. When I constructed a model airplane, powered by rubber bands, Ashby carved the prop for me and then enjoyed flying the plane with me.

Having Mama or Avis read to me was a special thrill. Among the books that made a lasting impression on me were: HURLBURT’S STORIES OF THE BIBLE, BEAUTIFUL JOE, BLACK BEAUTY and JUST DAVID. (Mama and I would both cry in the sad parts of the books.)

Music was so important in our family that Mama started me taking piano lessons at six years of age, first with Mrs. Ogden and then with Mrs. Wardner Davis. Mrs. Davis inspired me with accounts of the great composers, helping me greatly in my musical education. Avis taught me sing the tenor part for the hymn, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”. Unfortunately, boys my age in Salem thought playing the piano was for “sissies”– a problem difficult for me to overcome. Nonetheless, I am eternally grateful to Mama for insisting that I study piano through those childhood years.

Childhood playmates brought joy and excitement into my life early remembrances. Sandford Randolph, my cousin who lived at the Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue shared ray play experiences in my recollections and continues loyal to the present. I recall making and cakes that we actually offered for sale (one cent a piece) on a front of Sandford’s house. At one time we experimented with smoking–trying corn silk, bean and grape leaves. Sandford, a year older than I, was able to frighten me at times. Once, when we were playing quite a distance from home, he told me the world was expected to end that day. In such an event, I wanted to be with my Mother so I hurried home fearfully. I was playing tag football with Sandford in his yard when I broke my left arm below the elbow. Aunt Gertie took one look at my arm and said, “Run home to your Brother, Elmo.”

Sam Swiger was the third member of our friendship triumvirate. He, too, was older than I, but it made little difference. It was quite a regular happening for the three of us to stay overnight in one of our homes. Paige Lockard taught us how to set a rabbit snare on college hill and, to our surprise, we caught one. Then we paraded to each of our homes, displaying the catch. (Time has dulled my memory on what we finally did with the rabbit.)

Sam’s father, Otis Swiger, owned the grocery store where our family traded. There was a pipe from the floor to the ceiling in the middle of the store. The pipe was probably four or five inches in diameter. They kept the pipe greased with lard and offered an ice cream cone to any boy who could climb to the ceiling. I never made it to the top but I did try.

Another painful grocery store episode comes to mind. Kelly’s store was about a block east of Swiger’s and our family kept a charge account in both stores. One day, when I was very young, I checked out the candy counter and asked for a yellow marshmallow banana (or was it a peanut?). Mr. Kelly handed the candy to me and I said, “charge it”. Before I reached the door he caught me and took the candy from me. It was a humiliating lesson in “credit”.

I often played with the Oak Street boys, too. They were: Chester, (Check) Zinn, Faud Ilaught, Wilson Davis and Edgar (Huck) Finley. Chester had a dog that would pull him in his wagon. I played “crokenoll” at Edgar’s home and listened to piano numbers by Harry Snodgrass on the victrola.

When I was eight years old I had my first traumatic confrontation with a policeman. The policeman was Uncle Joel Randolph, Sandford’s grandfather, who for a number of years was Salem’s sole law officer. He really looked the part of a western lawman, as I remember him.

This is how it came about. On my way down town to the post office I joined another boy and ended up playing “train” by climbing up on tire empty box cars on the tracks by the depot.

***********f rom my corner of earliest mud pies stand in*******

Uncle Joel, the Policeman, caught me on the ladder of a boxcar and, with his firm hand on my shoulder, led me toward the town jail. At the doorway of the city hall, where the jail was located, he stopped to reprimand me severely and release me. At home, Mama knew there had been some dire happening and sat with me on the front porch swing until the whole story came out. That’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being in jail.

Telling of my friends and playmates, I have neglected to include girls. Actually, during my first twelve years girls had little importance in my life. I was invited to birthday parties where they played “kissing games”-Post Office and Spin the Bottle. I was not popular at these parties. Carla and Lorraine Dennison lived on the hill above our house. They were close to my age and we played Hide and Seek, with other neighborhood children, on summer evenings.

Our family was always “temperance minded”, so it not surprising I would join the LTL (Loyal Temperance Legion, sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.) In the LTL program, we were encouraged to step on cigarettes on the ground and twist them with our shoe. Perhaps the WCTU was a century ahead of its time. (I still feel an urge to stomp out cigarettes.)

The coming of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference to Salem College in 1925 was a major event for young and old alike. I made my first appearance on a Conference program that year. The story I told was of a boy who drove a nail in side of the barn for his every misdeed. Later, he was permitted to pull out a nail for each good deed performed. Sadly, he discovered that the nail holes were still in the barn.

During those Conference meetings a kindly man sat with several children on the college front lawn and taught us The Twelve Tests of Memory. Let’s see if I still remember them: “Twelve Egyptian fiddlers that played at the marriage feast of the indomitable heliogabulous; Eleven sympathetic, synoreous, cutaneous gudgeons; Ten lopsided, clinkerbuilt, flat-bottomed flyer boats; Nine patent practent periwinkles; Eight pharmaceutical tubes; Seven quarts of lymeric oysters;; Six canal boats laden with sugar and tongs; Five imperial goblets; Four pair of corduroy trousers; Three squawking wild geese; two ducks and a good fat hen.” He also taught us another memory ditty.

The Rogers family from Florida came to Conference in 1925 in a big automobile. I was thrilled to meet Clarence and Crosby Rogers and take them home to eat grapes at our grape arbor. This was the beginning of a friendship that has been rich through the years.

Junior Christian Endeavor was an organization for the children of our church that met on Sabbath afternoons in the church. Mama helped with the memorization program when I was a member. Each of us was given a ribbon on which we attached cardboard symbols representing the portions of the Bible we were successful in memorizing: the Lord’s Prayer; the twenty-third Psalm; the First Psalm; 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 and others.

Pastor George B. Shaw was our greatly revered and loved minister of the Salem Seventh Day Baptist Church during my boyhood and until I graduated from Salem College in 1935. His wife, Nellie, was a dear and wonderful lady. Their daughter, Hannah, married Professor H. 0. Burdick. Miriam, their second daughter, had an outstanding career as a missionary nurse for Seventh Day Baptists in China. Pastor Shaw was a brilliant Bible scholar who regularly quoted the Sabbath morning scripture from memory. What a profound and lasting influence and inspiration Pastor Shaw was to the members of his congregation.