An American Story

Jessie Askew

Translator’s Preface

This study was written by Jessie Askew, a friend of my parents in Evington, Virginia. I don’t know how to contact her to ask for permission to post this. Jessie, if you ever find this, please feel free to contact me at mike@ballfam.net to let me know how you feel. Of course, I hope that you will be delighted, but if you aren’t, I’ll do whatever you like with it.

I’ve scanned this in from a type-written document, then run it through an optical character recognizer to get back to text. I’ve had to edit it to clean up errors in the process, and have also corrected a few obvious typographical errors. I’ve tried not to change anything substantive. I’ve also added some formatting for easier online reading. One thing I added was occasional notes that look like [note 0] If you click on one of these, it will take you to some question or comment that I felt compelled to add. If anybody has a note to add, or perhaps some answers, please send me email.

The names in the study were (quite properly) changed. I’ve left them that way.

I know I learned things here that I’d not known. I hope that you will too.

    Mike Ball

Author’s Preface

The subject for this life study is a white male who was born on October 31, 1915. Although I could have selected an older subject, a close encounter with death two years ago prompted me to give him the opportunity to relate his life story. I will call him Smitty and his wife Jo.

Smitty’s personality type is what Havighurst calls “integrated.” He is a “reorganizer, competent and involved” with a wide variety of interests. He states that in looking back over his life he has “no regrets” and he is content with his life. He exhibits a high degree of satisfaction with his circumstances, living “in the lap of luxury.”

Smitty is Irish. He reminds me of a leprechaun, even though he is average in height and physique. He has thick, dark, auburn hair with only a touch of gray. His lighter colored eyebrows are long and full, and he brushes them straight up. Along with the twinkle in his green eyes and a wide, happy smile, he has a friendly look. He played Santa Claus for the children at River Ridge Mall a few years ago, and he was perfect for the part.

Smitty is a congenial, friendly person. He is open and honest. Occasionally, his Irish temper shows his impatience with ignorance, laziness, and wastefulness. He is politically conservative, but also very generous and quick to share with others who are less fortunate. His conversation is filled with anecdotes, songs, poems, and quaint sayings. In the ten years I have known him, his parting words on every visit have been “beeeee carrreful.” In the ten years I have known him he hasn’t changed.

Instead of asking at the beginning, as suggested by Kotre in “Outliving the Self”, I waited until the end of the interviews to ask Smitty what the chapters of his life would be. Some of the chapters are longer than others, but he was definite as to how they should be divided.

Chapter 1: Birth to Age 10

Smitty was born on Halloween night in Washington, D. C. His earliest memories are trolley rides to the end of the line and going to church at the lily ponds. [note 1] His daddy was working at the lily ponds when he was born. He remembers two old maids who lived across the road from the church. They would give him Boston brown bread for a treat. The trolley ride was interesting. He remembers watching the conductor switch the trolley from one end to the other when they reached the end of the line. His family maintained their ties with the church for a long time after they moved to Washington.

Smitty has tough hands as a result of an accident he had as a small child. He was playing in a box his daddy had built him for a playpen. Smitty was just learning to pull up. The hot water pipes were not enclosed in the wall, and Smitty took hold of them with both hands. His burns were so bad that his daddy had to take a silver table knife to separate his fingers. He doesn’t remember the incident personally, just what his parents told him.

The first place where Smitty remembers living was in the section called Petworth at 2707 Eleventh Street, N. W., Washington, D. C. There was a business section nearby on Fourteenth Street, where there were lots of stores and the Savoy Movie House and the Tivoli Movie House. He can remember seeing Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush as well as numerous other movies. He remembers an outdoor theatre “which was quite an innovation in those days.” They only had one film, so they would show the feature outdoors while the comedy and short subjects were showing inside. Then they would take the comedy and short subjects outside and show the feature inside. That was the only outdoor theatre he remembers until drive-in theatres were started.

Smitty’s family consisted of his parents, older brother, himself, and various homeless persons his mother befriended. He said his mother had “a heart of gold.” He can’t remember when they did not have some other people living with them.

Smitty’s family lived in a second story flat on Eleventh Street. When you opened the door, you were faced with a flight of stairs. He said he remembers when they put in electricity, and he thought that was “the most amazing thing.” He “could open the front door, flip a button at the bottom of the stairs, go up the stairs, flip another button and the light would go out. That was wonderful, just wonderful.”

Chapter 2: Age 10 to 21

The family left eleventh street (“the neighborhood started going colored”) and moved to 622 Jefferson Street, NW, Washington, D. C. Smitty’s daddy got a job “down at the navy yard.” It was during the depression, which had started while they were still on Eleventh Street. He attended New Paul Junior High School. He began singing the school song at this point in our interview:

On New Paul, On New Paul, We will loyal be.
Etc. (laugh)

Smitty broke his leg playing football at New Paul, and he said it was his own fault because he thought he was a “hotshot.” He was playing with boys “a lots larger” than he was, but “it didn’t make much difference. I was on crutches for a while.” Smitty’s Aunt Fannie carried him to the doctor’s office. He was wearing his Boy Scout uniform. The doctor told him he was going to have to cut the knee style trousers to remove them but Smitty said, “Oh, no you don’t. I had to work too hard to earn the money for this uniform.” He removed his trousers and while Aunt Fannie went home for another pair, the doctor applied the cast.

Aunt Fannie was a very special person in Smitty’s life. She had dated his daddy. He never knew the whole story. His momma stole his daddy away from Aunt Fannie. Shortly after his momma and daddy married, Aunt Fannie married Uncle Thadeus. When Uncle Thadeus died, Aunt Fannie and her four year old daughter, Cousin Annabelle, came to live with the family. He says Aunt Fannie never forgave his momma. He loved his aunt. She was a nurse, and she nursed him through two bouts with pneumonia and the broken leg. She made sure he had any medical attentions he needed. He was always very close to Aunt Fannie, and Cousin Annabelle was like a sister.

Late in his fifteenth year Smitty made one of his annual visits to Evington, Virginia. He had been visiting the area since he was four years old. He stayed with an old family friend, a gentleman about 75 years old. He said William was as close to being a mentor as anyone in his life. William lived in a log cabin. That began his “romance with log cabins.” William taught him how to work. He learned to make sorghum molasses. He said he could remember picking blackeye peas “until I thought if I could ever straighten up again., I’d never bend over.” One night he heard William talking to his wife in bed. She said, “I hope so and so.” William said, “Honey, hope without faith ain’t worth a s—.” Smitty thought that was a real good saying and that William was “quite a guy.”

Smitty didn’t do well in school. He doesn’t know why he didn’t like school, because he enjoys reading and learning. However, he says he never had a passing grade in English. In his opinion, English is a “stupid language.” The teacher would say “this is the rule for such and such, and the exception to the rule is so and so.” English was not logical to him. [note 2] He attended a vocational school, “took up” printing, and through the school worked in two or three print shops. The summer he was fifteen, he earned enough money to go to the World’s Fair in Chicago. I asked him what he remembered most about the fair, and he said “I saw Little Egypt. She had bare titties.” He was quiet for a minute and then. said, “I always was a breast man.” He was allowed to quit school in the eighth grade, because he had a job as a compositor for the American Dairy Supply Company. He printed milk bottle caps for countries all around the world. He worked there for three or four years, until his daddy retired and his parents went to Florida. He went with them. His momma said she would feed him, but he got bored after a week or two and went looking for a job. He found a printing job. In the spring they went back to Washington for a visit. They had been living in a trailer in Florida, but his momma wanted a house. After the vacation they rented a house. Fortunately, the man they rented the house from had a “beautiful daughter. You’ve heard the story of the landlord’s daughter. So, I had a sailboat, she wanted to go sailing. We went sailing and wound up married” (two years later) and they made their home in Sarasota, Florida.

Chapter 3: Age 21 to Early 50’s

Meeting Jo was a chance encounter. Smitty had several girlfriends before meeting her. He even had one he was serious about in Virginia. He said, “Jo beat her out, and I always felt guilty about that.” He said he didn’t think he broke her heart, because she later married and raised five fine boys. Jo had joked with her friends several times in her senior year at college and told them she was going to go home after graduation and marry the first available man.

There was some opposition from Jo’s family, when she and Smitty first started dating. Her brothers and father did not want their college educated sister and daughter to be seeing this “uneducated illiterate.” However, when they got to know each other, Jo’s family became “quite fond” of Smitty. Smitty’s family was delighted from the beginning.

Smitty and Jo married when he was 23 and she was 21. He went to work at the post office after two years as a printer. Times were rough. They had to “scheme.” Summer was bad for the printing business because the circus was gone. They did a lot of printing for the circus. He cut wood, sharpened knives, and sharpened saw blades for 35 cents each, to make ends meet. They ate one meal a week with Jo’s family and one meal a week with Smitty’s family. After he went to work for the post office, things were a little easier, but then came World War II. He was able to delay entry for two months, because of the birth of son #1. They discovered after his basic training, his nearsightedness made him limited service. Just as he was going to be discharged, a call came for mail handlers. Smitty spent the duration of the war in New York City as a mail handler.

I thought things were going to get really interesting at this point in Smitty’s life, because New York City is where he met Violet. He said he was bored in New York and began to frequent the Marble Collegiate Church, pastored by Norman Vincent Peale. They had a servicemen’s canteen with music, dancing, games, skits, etc. He met this “very vivacious” girl whose fiancee was overseas. They enjoyed each other’s company. He said the relationship was purely platonic. He never even kissed her unti1 forty years later. They have kept track of each other all these years, and she and her husband came for a visit a few years ago and stayed several days. Jo and Violet are good friends. He said that if he hadn’t loved Jo so much, he might have pursued Violet. After the war, Violet’s fiancee came back leaving Smitty “in the cold.” A few days later he went back to Florida, Jo, and his growing family. A #2 son had arrived and was three months old. He was a product of Jo’s visit to New York the previous summer.

Smitty went back to work as a clerk in the post office and a few years later took a bicycle route as a carrier. In his early 40’s he began to be dissatisfied with his job. Problems with his mail route triggered his sudden resignation. The post office had expanded his route to include several sandy roads. He found it difficult to ride his bike in the sand and had to push it a lot. Also, he began to develop some physical discomfort in his “private parts.” He had requested a change several times. After one especially uncomfortable day, he made another request. They refused to make the change and threatened to fire him, if he didn’t accept his assignment. He told them they wouldn’t have to fire him, he quit. He went home to tell Jo he had quit his job. She didn’t say anything, but he said he could tell that “her head hit the ceiling.” By then they had son #3, daughter #1, and daughter #2. It was just before Christmas. He loafed through Christmas, and earnestly began searching for work after the new year. He had hoped to take up carpentry, but this was in the mid-fifties recession. Work was slow. He tried a hardware store and building supply store, but there was no work. He went to see his old boss at the print shop and soon began work again as a printer. In a couple of years his boss retired, he bought the shop. and for the next seventeen years enjoyed his trade. He liked being his own boss.

Smitty and Jo suffered what he considered the worst trauma of their lives during this chapter. After their first daughter was born, they had another baby boy. He died of spinal meningitis at age six weeks. Smitty said, “It was rough, rough on both of us.” He and Jo are both devoted to their children. He calls them his “pearls.” Of all the events of his life, he insisted this was the worst. He was so depressed he quit carrying the other children off to bed at night, and he quit singing to them. He didn’t start to get over the loss until the children begged him to sing to them again. He said, “You can’t quit living.” It was the children who helped them get through the tragedy. When the second daughter came along as a “surprise,” she helped fill the empty spot. He considers his children his “greatest asset” and his “greatest contribution to humanity.”

Smitty had a partner in the printing business for a brief time. The partner was a man who “bordered on genius.” He designed a letterhead once, which won an award from the advertising firm of Brown and Bigelow. The company ordered 50,000 copies. Smitty thought this was “a feather in our cap.” His partner enjoyed the designing and winning, but he was bored with the printing. Smitty said, “He was an artist; I was a printer. He thought I was an old fogey.” He said his partner would do things like paint the four sides of his house different colors, just to upset his neighbors. Apparently, they had a good work relationship, but one morning Smitty found his partner’s keys left behind in the shop. He realized that his partner had quit. They made an amicable settlement. There were some hard feelings due to the amount of work his partner left behind to be completed. Shortly thereafter, workmen’s compensation laws caused Smitty and Jo to decide to sell the business. He worked for the buyer for a while and then decided to come to Virginia. The buyer made a mess of his business, a fact which made him sad, but he said it was out of his control. He did love his trade and showed me a sign he had hanging in the shop. It said:

This is a printing office
Crossroads of civilization
Refuge of all the arts
Against the ravages of time
Armory of fearless truth
Incessant trumpet of trade
From this place words may fly abroad
Not to perish on waves of sand
Not to vary with the writers’ hand
Fixed in time, having been verified in truth
Friend, you stand on sacred ground
This is a printing office.

The sale of the shop ended another chapter in Smitty’s life story.

Chapter 4: Years ’til Retirement

Smitty and Jo left their youngest daughter at home to “keep the home fires burning” and they came to Virginia. The older children were all married and on their own. He found work as a carpenter for A&N Sporting Goods. They moved around a lot, living in a small travel trailer. While they were living in Winchester, Smitty developed an interest in old canals. He was working eleven hours a day, six days a week for periods lasting six to eight weeks, with short periods of no work between assignments. Being too bored to sit at home in a travel trailer, on Sunday they would get in the car early on Sunday morning and ramble the back roads of Virginia. Wherever they were at church time, they would stop and go to church. They followed the C&O Canal from Cumberland down to Great Falls. He joined the Canal Association to learn more and has since followed the James River Canal from Tidewater to its summit.

Another interest developed by Smitty during this time was old water powered mills. What interested him more than anything else was how they got their power. He said some of them have overshot wheels, some have undershot. There are high breast and low breast mills, pitchback, turbines, flutter and tub wheels. He could have talked the rest of the time about the many different ways of getting power from water. The only reason he doesn’t have electricity powered by water on his property is because he doesn’t have a stream. He belongs to SPOOM, the Society for Preservation of Old Mills.

On a bitter, cold day in February of 1977 Smitty was working in Richmond and had a heart attack. He said he “had a very unreasonably long stay in the hospital, a long expensive stay.” When he was released, he was “up to our ears in debt — no hospitalization.” After his release, he and Jo went home to Florida. From February to October, they had to “scheme” again. They survived by “selling stuff.” Through the years Smitty had been a “notorious collector” of old books, old tools, interesting odds and ends, and what Jo considered junk. He also had a collection of silver coins which had risen in value. They sold his old truck, most of his books, some of the old tools, etc. and some antique nautical maps, which had belonged to Jo’s grandfather, a sea captain. Smitty managed to retain enough of his old tools to have a museum quality collection. He hopes to have them properly displayed someday. They were able to pay off the hospital debt. Smitty became eligible for social security on his 62nd birthday in October. From then on the financial situation was greatly improved. He received his pension from the post office, another small disability pension from the military (because he was allergic to wool), and Jo had a small inheritance from her parents’ estate. Cousin Annabelle gave them a small piece of land in Evington. They sold their home in Florida and returned to Virginia to live “the life of Riley.”

Chapter 5: Age 62-72

After returning to Virginia, Smitty fulfilled his childhood dream. He bought, took apart, moved, and rebuilt a log cabin on the land his cousin gave him. After cousin Annabelle’s death more land became available, and he bought enough land to bring his holdings up to twenty acres. He added two extra rooms and bath to the cabin, creating a very comfortable home. (My son #2 worked for him. He was fifteen. He learned a lot from Smitty. He wants a log cabin of his own someday. Smitty and William, my son and Smitty — the cycle goes on.) After Smitty finished the cabin, he bought an old saw mill. The wood had all rotted away. He didn’t know much about saw mills, but by rebuilding it, piece by piece, he taught himself how to operate it. For a while he was looking for any reason to saw timber. He was like a kid again. Along with woodworking, caning chairs, weaving baskets, and building boxes, Smitty stays busy.

Smitty and Jo have actively participated in efforts to establish a medical center in Evington — we can’t seem to find a doctor willing to stay. They support the Evington Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service, Inc. and have given substantial sums of money to both causes. They are not rich. They have a modest income, but they have no dependent children and no debts. They have paid cash all their lives. When they first married, Smitty made only $15 per week. Any time he made more than that, they put the money into a house they were building. When the house was completed, they only owed $300. The money they have accumulates, and they believe it should be used to help others.

This chapter of Smitty life ended, when he died of cardiac arrest in August of 1984.

Chapter 6: End of Life

Smitty and Jo were visiting their #2 daughter in Indiana. Smitty was renovating a room for an anticipated grandchild, making a nursery. Shortly after supper one evening, they were watching TV (Smitty and Jo never watch TV at home. They don’t even own one. They would rather play cards, play backgammon, or read the many books they bring back from frequent visits to the library.) Smitty had a cardiac arrest with no warning. His daughter, a nurse, attempted CPR, but Smitty’s airway was blocked. The rescue squad arrived almost immediately, and the daughter called to them to bring suction equipment. The airway was cleared, making CPR possible. The ambulance crew performed CPR all the way to the hospital, which was a good distance away — in the next town. It was not until they had Smitty in the emergency room that advanced life support could be administered. The doctors were able to pull Smitty through at this time and twice more before he was stabilized. He didn’t know what was going on for over a week, but all that time he was fighting to be free of the IV’s, tubes, and wires attached to him. Two whole weeks of memory are completely wiped out of Smitty’s mind. He doesn’t even remember working on the room. Nor does he remember that all the children were there when he came to himself, but it made him proud to learn they stuck together like they did. One of the sons put the others to work finishing the room while they waited for progress reports on their father. They wouldn’t go back home until they knew he was OK. After his release they stayed with their daughter a few weeks and then returned to Evington. He said that Jo had to drive home, and he “had to sit beside her, which is worse than driving. He had to help her drive.” One year later Smitty had quadruple bypass surgery in Florida, ending another chapter in his life.

Chapter 6: New Beginnings

It’s been two years since Smitty’s bypass. He says his goal is to live to see the year 2,000. A year ago he decided that life is “really worth living” and that these are the best years — “now is always the best.” He has been having eye surgery and will soon be able to see better. He says medical science is “wonderful.” He figures he will “live forever, ‘cause every time something wears out” he is “going to have it repaired.” He laughed and said he was “going to be like the bionic man.”

I asked him how was his love life, and his response was “Terrible! I just have fond memories.”

I asked him if he ever thought about another profession, and he said he thinks he would have enjoyed a career in forestry or engineering. Sometimes “I think I am a frustrated engineer.” [note 3]

I asked what he would do if something happened to Jo, and he said, “I would die, (pause) or marry Violet.”

I asked him what he believed (re: religion, etc.) and he said, “I believe I’m here. I’ve been dead and I didn’t see anything up there, but then, that part of my memory has been wiped out.” He said that he thought that religion was the “biggest and best operated racket in the world.” He believes that you pass through this life only once and that he should help as many people as he can and not harm anybody if he can help it. I asked what that would get him and he said,

What’s anything going to get me? The grave’s right there anyway, can’t none of us avoid that. You pass through this life but once, if I can help somebody along the way, that’s a few more flowers on the pathway of life — a few more less on your grave at the end of strife. (pause) Put another star in my crown.

I asked why did he need a star in his crown, if he didn’t believe in a life after death. His reply was that he thought he practiced Christianity “a lot better than some professed Christians …” He admitted to some ingrained prejudice that he works at overcoming. He said that he didn’t hate anybody. Then he said, “I take that back. I’ve got a cousin that nobody in the family can stand. I hate him. He’s a terrible person.” [note 4] My impression is that Smitty refuses to be a hypocrite. He will not make a profession of faith that is inhumanly possible to keep.

When asked who his favorite people are, Smitty answered, “Jo, she is my favorite people.” His heroes were Lindy and Hoot Gibson, a cowboy movie star because “he wore a white hat.” He admired Lindbergh (and he had a song to sing about him). He remembers being at the movies when the owner made the announcement that Lindy had landed in Paris. He thinks Roosevelt will go down in history as one of our best presidents. He didn’t agree with all the things FDR did, but he liked him because he would “do something.” He was unhappy with Reagan and thought he would end up like Nixon. He had been a Reagan supporter up until the Iran problem. He liked Bing Crosby, Errol Flynn, James Cagney in musical roles — rather than gangster roles, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette McDonald. He doesn’t like classical music, but he loves semi-classical. He speaks highly of black musical talent.

His favorite song is “Mother McCree,” and his favorite saying is posted on the bathroom wall:

A wise old owl lived in a oak.
The more he saw, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why can’t we be like that old bird?

He said, “When I’m drunk I can say ‘Methodist Episcopal’ … Sometimes when I would come in late, Mother would be waiting up until I came in. As I would go past her door, she would say, ‘Son.’ ‘Yes, Mother.’ ‘Say, Methodist Episcopal.’ And of course I could always say it.” He had a good relationship with his parents. He doesn’t remember his daddy ever beating him, but he remembers one time that his daddy threatened him with a beating. He took his daddy’s razor strap and locked himself in the bathroom. He wouldn’t come out until his daddy promised not to beat him. He doesn’t remember any spankings either, but he said that he was sure he deserved any that he got. Smitty and Jo were caretakers of his parents in their old age. His parents stayed with them until they had to enter nursing homes. They both had Alzhimers disease. He said it was sad to see their minds deteriorate. Jo told me once that Smitty worries about the same thing happening to him.

I asked Smitty if reviewing his life had been special to him, and he said, “Yes, ‘cause I like to talk.” I think that I was the one who benefited the most from the interviews. He did say that he wanted a copy of the paper “for posterity” and he wanted a copy for each of his children.

I remember a few years ago that Smitty told me it was a big shock to him, when he reached the age of 50. He realized that he was half a century old. In looking at my class notes, I found that Smitty fits Valient’s [note 5] theories of adults in mid-life. Smitty insists that his only trauma was the loss of the baby boy. Even when I pointed out the loss of his parents, his career change, his partner walking out, his business ruined, and two heart attacks, he just said that those are things which happen in the normal course of living.

Smitty’s life story is not one for the headlines, but it gave me hope and strengthened my faith in God. Remember, I compared Smitty to a leprechaun. I remember as a child being told that if you can catch a leprechaun and hold on to him, he will have to show you where his pot of gold is hidden. In this case, I believe that the leprechaun is the gold.

I love you Smitty. Thank you and Jo for being there when I need you. I believe your crown will be full of stars.

Notes

  1. I just thought I’d see if you would check out the note
  2. Was this a park, or an area in DC, or something like that? I found this which makes it look like an area, though the date of the housing development is much later than he was living there.
  3. Good instincts, but wrong target. It’s not English, it’s the legacy of certain 18th century pedagogues who weren’t happy with a language that worked just fine without them.
  4. Heck, I always knew that!
  5. Does anybody know who this is? Possibly none of us ever met him.
  6. I have no idea who this is. I couldn’t find anything on the internet about him.

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