The first snow
Before Americans became more mobile, before World War II, you could live in one section of the country and never hope to visit another.
Never go to Hollywood to meet Shirley Temple. Never “howdy” a Cherokee out west, or in New York hear the music of old Broadway.
As a child, I didn’t expect to see snow. Unlike my parents, who were Tennessee natives, I was born in a Sarasota, Fla., hospital in 1927, the year Lindy flew the Atlantic and Silent Cal Coolidge was president; born on the coast not far from the bay, where we seined for crabs and I was baptized, a few miles from the beach where we picked up sea shells and saw mullets skipping in the waves. Sarasota was too far south for snow.
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We had pine needles, guavas, mangoes, ants, mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, sharks and sand spurs, hurricanes, but not snow. We had the circus in winter quarters and the Red Sox in spring quarters, and three kinds of weather: very hot and not so hot, and a cheating kind of cold; in our poorly heated houses we shivered around winter's wood fires, but there was no snow.
Then the Christmas invitation came from my grandparents, Graeme and Rutledge Smith (“the Major” as he was known in Tennessee). Instead of a phone call or a letter, it was a Western Union telegram. As former owners of a little weekly paper in Cookeville who had gone on to bigger things in Nashville, they enjoyed sending good news by wire:
ALBERT JR. INVITED FOR CHRISTMAS WITH OTHER GRANDCHILDREN AT OUR EXPENSE STOP. LETTER, TRAIN TICKET FOLLOW STOP. MAY BE SNOW STOP. LOVE STOP.
In boxcar letters, that's how it read, nearly 80 years ago.
When the Dixie Flyer huffed and puffed into Nashville's smoky Union station the 10-year-old boy clutched the hand of the kindly porter who put him first in line to leave the Pullman car. A smother of hugs followed. Granny Graeme and Aunt Dollie squeezing me like a grocery test for ripe fruit. The Major tipping the porter a dollar for my safe delivery. My cousins promising to show me the newborn pigs when we got to the farm.
Up the grimy steps, past the Salvation Army Santa and his bell and kettle, through the swinging doors and the aroma of brewing coffee, the sound of carols from a radio, onto the street where it was true winter cold, not like Sarasota, and already dark in Nashville at 4 o'clock, dark and acrid from the soot of 50,000 coal-burning fires.
But more than steam and fog, smoke and mist, and bone rattling chill, the street lights’ glow confirmed it — the first flakes of snow were beginning to fall. “Tell me, Albert,” asked my grandfather, “how would you like a sleigh ride?”
On the old farm
In late summer of 1940, after my parents gave up on Florida, relatives rallied around to rescue my father, the family war hero, and bought the farm in middle Tennessee that would be my parents’ home for the next 25 years.
It was in Sumner County some 50 miles away from Kentucky where I would be rescued some two decades later from the same alcohol problem that afflicted my father, only he had to contend also with a pensioned condition for shell shock that today we call post-traumatic syndrome. He fought a lot of that war in France.
There was no running water, no electricity and no telephone. That first fall, we got in the corn and pumpkins, cut the tobacco and sorghum with the help of neighbors and two mules and a wagon for transportation. By hand, we milked 12 Jersey cows, a gift from my father’s sister, and hauled the cream on a ground sled to the gravel road for the milk truck pick up a mile from the old house.
When the burley came in order, the neighbors showed up again for stripping, and later for sorghum making. We drew our water from a spring house where we cooled the milk and kept the fresh table food. Everything else to eat was in the smokehouse or cellar where we could see floor logs that had been there since Andrew Jackson.
Nothing was easy. School was a 20-mile bus ride after morning chores and a long walk, but my parents were happy at first, and so was I. The weariness over drudgery and sad times would come later, but on the eve of war, my mother and dad were children again, playing a game called farming, and so my little sister and I played with them.
We were poor, but life was rich — the smells and sweat, the colors of harvest, riding a horse to a farm across the woods for a day’s payback work and a taste of a neighbor’s cooking. Other neighbors, the Savely brothers, playing the guitar and singing on Saturday nights. Following Dad through a snowy field for a rabbit hunt. New clothes bought when the tobacco sold.
Other than coming in second in a Future Farmers of America speech contest, I wasn’t much of a farmboy. There is a story that I plowed up the corn instead of Johnson grass, and read poetry to the mule.
I left home as soon as I could, all but ran away, enlisting in the Army at 17. But I have forgotten most of why I left. I just recall the kindness, sharing and courage — the true harvest of life on that farm 75 years ago.
The richest girl in Hendersonville, Tenn., had a log cabin for a party house that was better than the homes that many of us lived in. This was before her father and his brother — who manufactured overalls, ran a chain of retail stores and owned farmland in several counties — lost their money.
They were never pretentious and I was always welcome to Jackie’s parties. There was a juke box for playing records by the big bands that soon gave way to songs about war. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition was, I thought, the worst. I’ll Be Seeing You was among the best, or was it Sentimental Journey?
There was a brand new high school in Hendersonville, which meant no more long bus rides to Gallatin, the county seat. I was too slight for sports but I made a contribution; naming the football team “Commandos” was my idea.
The morning after Pearl Harbor was attacked, my grandmother Graeme Smith called the principal, Mr. Hawkins, long distance from Nashville and said she would bring a radio to the school if he didn't have one. “I want those children to hear President Roosevelt talk to Congress about the war, this is history,” she said.
Like everyone else, Mr. Hawkins did what my grandmother demanded. She only accepted one answer, “Yes, ma’am.” He lugged a radio into the gym, called a special assembly and we strained to hear FDR through the static ask Congress to declare war. Next day Graeme called again and we went back to the gym to hear the president ask for war against Hitler and Mussolini. Each time after the president spoke we sang, My Country tis of Thee.
By the time classes resumed, the war fever was burning away Depression blues. No farms, nor families, would ever be the same. Boys and girls would leave home. If not in uniform, you likely would be on public work, in a defense plant — everyone with something to do. Neighbor Will Ed Griffin went off somewhere near Knoxville and the A-Bomb was dropped before we ever knew he was at Oak Ridge, or what he was building.
Christmas was coming, but for the first time in our lives there was a question bigger than what will we get for Christmas. The larger question was, what will we get after Christmas?
Al Smith of Lexington, founding host of KET’s Comment on Kentucky, is writing his memoirs.