180 Relative   /   List of Ed's writings and art
Ed Bookhardt Pt.6 180-01Z
August 2010
My Grandson, “Sam the Man” is becoming quite mature and sophisticated. In that vane, he now prefers to be addressed as Samuel, vs Sam. Samuel is in that transitional phase that is all too familiar to parents…struggling to surpass the throes of childhood, while rushing headlong into that mysterious all knowing period of life…the teenage years!

Looking back, it was almost seventy years ago that I reached my teens. The Country at that time was more agriculturally oriented, particularly in the South. The small family farm, as in generations before, was the prime source of sustenance…prosperity was an elusive unreachable thing for those who worked the mule and plow.

With the passing of my generation, so will pass memories of the Great Depression, farming on shares, dirt roads, horse-drawn wagons, kerosene lamps, iceboxes, well-drawn water, washboards, cooking on wood-burning stoves, taking baths in washtubs, clothes drying on the fence line and of course, the outhouse. As a matter of historical interest, I am writing this for my grandson’s generation. Perhaps he may share it with his classmates who in turn may compare their life styles of today with those of a barefoot farm boy of a distant era…

And so the story begins… It was the summer of ‘43 and the world was engulfed in war! The United States and its allies were in a desperate struggle to turn the tide of the evil Axis onslaught. To fuel the gargantuan expansion of the Armed Forces, all eligible young men had been called to military service and gone to war. Our small community had contributed its share as evidenced by the numerous blue and gold starred banners proudly hung in front parlor windows. Each star a subtle reminder of the upheaval and human sacrifices of the time.

Keeping abreast of global events in rural areas was difficult. The four page weekly newspaper and nightly broadcasts crackling and fading over battery radios were the prime source. News also trickled through the grapevine when V-mail was received. Of course the Saturday gossip at the local gas station and Feed & Seed store provided further embellished details. Even so, the war often seemed eerily distant in face of the never-ending struggle to grub out a living from the depleted sandy soil.

The sighting of an olive-colored military sedan on the lone dusty road often shattered the mundane tempo of life. As the uniformed strangers slowly searched the area, word of the “messenger” would spread like wild fire! Hearts froze in fear…to which house was the bearers of the inevitable destined? Small church cemeteries became familiar settings for flag draped coffins and the haunting strains of “Taps.” The remotest area, the smallest town was not immune to the harsh reality of a world immersed in conflict.

That long ago summer brought hardships beyond those associated with the global hostilities. A severe spring drought was taking its toll on crops, as well as the spirits of those whose livelihood depended on them. I remember it well as it marked my thirteenth birthday…a major milestone for a young lad.

My grandmother raised me until the fall of 1942 when I went to live with my father in Southern Georgia. As he was a stranger, I was having trouble adjusting to him, the new family and rural farm life after a carefree “middle-class” childhood in Orlando, Florida. To relieve the frequent blues and gnawing uncertainties, I would indulge in fantasy…I was a perpetual dreamer!

In the blink of an eye I could be Flash Gordon or Captain Marvel. That morning as I went about my tasks, I was a handsome fighter pilot flying a sleek fighter plane against the evil Nazi Luftwaffe. And since Father and Uncle had both been sailors, I too could become a bold seafarer. The images of sailing the bounding main on mighty Battlewagons brought twinges of excitement! More often the twinge was the swish of Maude’s well-aimed tail! She sensed I was a greenhorn and would put me in my place at every opportunity.

I was fretting the war was passing me by. If only I was just a couple of years older, I could run away as my uncle did in World War One and join the Navy at fifteen. Then I looked down at my bare feet and boyish features and knew that was not an option. On the other hand, there was a bright side to all the gloom…Jeanne Whitman, the prettiest girl in school! For reasons I could not explain, I was thinking of her quite often. She had gone away for the summer. I wondered if she would remember me come September. Or would she care that I was sweet on her? Life as a teenager was becoming very, very complicated.

Being the eldest child, I had been thrust into the responsibilities of manhood. On that particular still gray morning, the first glimmer of light found me trying to put the harness on old Maude who was showing her usual cantankerousness. She was refusing to go to the field, thinking if she tormented me long enough I would give up and take her more docile teammate, Madge. Though I was a greenhorn I finally won her over…

As I led her from the barn, Father yelled for me to bring the tobacco sleds to the far side of the field, he and the other croppers would meet me there. I acknowledged with a casual wave. Now that I was working with the men, I tried to assume an adult air. I was tall for my age, but skinny as a fence rail. Overalls hung on me like a burlap sack and the legs were always too short. I would roll them up a couple of turns to hide the shortness ending-up looking like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.

I was inwardly aware of, and sensitive of my awkwardness. I tried to hide my concerns…but let’s face it, I was a geek! I knew Jeanne thought so, as she had not answered the mushy letter I had secretly mailed weeks before. Why do girls grow up so much faster than boys? Gee whiz, she already had boobs! What did I have? I couldn’t find a single whisker no matter how hard I looked, and Little Willy was just that…little! Being thirteen and nerdy was definitely a downer…

As I hurried Maude along the fence line I thought, now that I am working with the men, surely someone will notice and respect my maturity. Besides, I was now earning a dollar-a-day like Father and the other men. The eight-cents an hour kids were getting was now behind me. I knew however, my dollar was just “on paper” as the family had joined with several other farmers to bring in the tobacco crops. They would “settle-up” the hours at the end of the season. I would not see the money as there was never enough to care for the family’s needs. I really didn’t mind as I had no place to spend it. Yet, I would like to send Jeanne a nice birthday present. I had eyed a three-dollar silver charm bracelet in the Sears Roebuck catalog which I was certain would please her.

The sun was just peeking through the pine trees when I reached the field. The dew was heavy on the broad tobacco leaves that overlapped the rows. I would be soaked to the skin before reaching mid-row. Then within a few hours, the sun would burn the dew off, turning the leaves sticky in the withering hundred-degree heat. As I moved down the endless rows I would again drift off into my world of make-believe. It helped take my mind off the grueling task before me.

The monotony was occasionally broken when groups of bright blue and yellow bi-winged Stearman Trainer planes based at the Army Air Corps field in Douglas would fly over. On hearing the familiar sound of the engines I would stand up from between the stifling rows and wave my straw-hat. I marveled at the pilots’ freedom to play among the clouds! Oh dear Lord, to be up there, free of the misery that surrounded me…

Late in the afternoon, as we neared the completion of the day’s harvest, a lone Trainer flew low overhead. It turned and began to circle the field. The plane spiraled lower and lower. Excitement grew! Was it going to crash? I was beside myself screaming and jumping about. I could clearly see the pilot in the open cockpit; he was wearing a brown leather helmet and goggles as he passed above me. I could easily read the serial numbers, he was alone; was he in his final solo training?

At that moment the engine sputtered and went silent, I could hear the wind whistling through the struts and over the canvas surfaces of the wings. He waved and shouted to point the way to the Army airfield! Everyone waved hats and hollered as we pointed toward the southeast. The flyer saluted, the engine came to life and he flew off rocking his wings in appreciation.

As the sound of the engine subsided, Mister Johnson, an elderly neighbor known for his dry humor and occasional nip of corn whiskey, paused, and removed his sweat-stained hat. Scratching his head, he spit a long brown stream of tobacco juice, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and laughingly commented, “Bless that young fella, just think, if that poor soul is lost here in Georgia, what will happen to him when he’s over there in them foreign lands gettin’ his backside shot at?”

This was followed by hee-haws and leg slapping by some of the men. I didn’t laugh, for I knew deep within, the pilot’s salute was really paying his respects to me…a young comrade-in-arms. I turned about, clicked my bare heels together and saluted in the direction of the disappearing aircraft…my heart pounding with delight!

On the way to the barn, the setting sun cast long golden shafts of light across the rows of crops in the now quiet fields. Maude knowing she was headed home, assumed a perky gait. As I glanced once more at the darkening southern skyline, the toil of that long summer day melted away. In a magical moment, as if from some familiar fairytale, the rickety old sled transformed into that bright blue and yellow bi-plane that had circled above me! I was up in the heavens, flying! I was one with my mighty machine…the throb of the powerful engine pulsating through my soul! I was transcended…up, up among the clouds, banking effortlessly off the cool evening breezes! The billowing white scarf about my neck trailing behind as I soared with the eagles! 

Yes, I knew in my heart, Jeanne would be justly proud of her handsome flying-ace! A huge grin crossed my dirty boyish face…

Footnote: This is a rewrite of a story I originally penned for Sam’s thirteenth birthday --- he is now a sophomore at Humboldt State University in Northern California.

Commander Ed Bookhardt, US Navy, Retired is a former SeaBee with 30+ years active Navy service who worked his way up through the ranks from Seaman Recruit to CDR.            He writes good stories.