Bitter Sweet Days
by
Gilbert Ward

 
Gilbert's family in northeastern North Carolina [Northampton County] knew by mid-summer that 1930 would be a good crop year. With enough rains the crops of peanuts and cotton promised to surpass last year. Sugar cane, grown just for home molasses, was sweeter than ever. Gilbert and his brothers enjoyed cutting the stalks of cane and sucking the sweet juice in the field. Will [Ward], his father, said to him one day as they drove to town for chicken feed, "The crop yields keep going up but we are receiving less money than ever before." That reminded Gilbert of a song he had heard on the radio that said, "Eleven cent cotton, forty cent meat. How in the Hell can a poor man eat?" When he and Robert, his younger brother, sang it at home Hattie [Elliott Ward], their mother, made them use "world" instead of "H-ll." The economy of the crops hadn't bothered Gilbert though. Last year he was paid a penny a pound for picking cotton. Some days he picked 100 pounds, working real late after school. He had saved $3 last year. As he rode along with his father he thought about the delicious meals served by the ladies during peanut thrashing time when the farmers had joint harvests. "Peanuts and cotton farming was a pretty good life," he thought. As they continued towards town Gilbert said to his father, "Frank said tobacco brings more money than cotton." Then he asked his father, "Why don't we raise tobacco, Papa?" Frank [Outland] was county sheriff and Gilbert's first cousin and considered an authority on many subjects. His mother [Julia Ward Outland] was Will's sister. Will pretended he hadn't heard and didn't bother to reply. When his father was silent Gilbert knew he had deep thoughts about something important.

He had heard his father talk about a depression, but Gilbert didn't know what it was, so it did not concern him. Something had bothered him before though. It was rumored last year there would be no money for Christmas. But the family had been blessed with the usual abundance of fruit, fireworks, socks, handkerchiefs, and neckties. He and his little brother Robert received matching gray cardigan sweaters and corduroy knee pants, ankle high brown shoes, and blue shirts for school.

Their family had plenty to eat, a good home and clothes to wear. Salesmen selling magazine subscriptions, cloverine salve, and other nick knacks, having lost good jobs or left college because of the depression, occasionally stayed overnight at their farm home before proceeding on with their wares. There were no motels or boarding houses in this rural farm country. It wasn't called bed and breakfast, but that's what Gilbert's mother gave the salesmen for 50 cents a night. Some paid nothing but chopped a good stack of firewood for her before leaving.

Gilbert heard talk between Will, his father, and a salesman about moving to Colorado--where it was "flowing with milk and honey" and job opportunities flourished on every mountain peak.

The family never moved but Gilbert worried because of the talk about moving. Instead, his father sold some acreage from the farm, which had been in the family for about 200 years. Those sales enabled him to settle most of his outstanding debts. The expenses kept mounting though.

Gilbert began to believe his cousin Frank was right and that tobacco did bring more money than cotton and peanuts. Will did not grow tobacco because of his Quaker beliefs, but his in-laws [the Elliott family] did. According to family talk they had more money than Will did at the end of the year after farm debts were paid.

Later that same week when Gilbert and his cousin Earl Outland were hunting rabbits, Earl said he had seen G. T. [George Taylor], Gilbert's brother, smoking at the filling station last week. Gilbert said, "Yeah, Earl, I know. We can't let Mama find out." Earl said, "Gilbert, do you think anyone could hide that from Miss Hattie?" That's what Earl called Gilbert's mother. He went on, "I don't think Cap'n Ward would say anything (Earl was speaking about Gilbert's father) but Miss Hattie would not like it one bit." Gilbert mused that one over and decided to himself that he just did not understand this confusion over smoking. All of his movie heroes smoked. Smoking seemed to be the last thing they wanted to do just before they died in the war movies. They'd even hang on a bit longer just to inhale cigarette smoke one last time before they died. "Smoking must really be good," he said to no one in particular while he waited for Earl to say something else.

Changing the subject, Earl suddenly said, "That was the best molasses syrup I ever tasted when Ole Man Eddie Elliott's molasses was being cooked last month." "Yeah, I missed that because I got so sick when I tried to smoke that lousy cigar while playing croquet in the front yard," replied Gilbert. "I had to pretend that eating too many green apples had made me sick so that Mama wouldn't know about the cigar smoking."

Earl didn't appear impressed and said, "Let's call off the fishing trip Saturday and go to the molasses mill next Friday night when Archie and Joshua [Hattie's brothers] will be cooking their cane juice. Let's get the gang together and stay late. No school next day so we will be able to sleep if Mama [LeAnna Wright Outland] will let me out of the yard work." Gilbert said, "Okay, sounds good to me. You tell Ernest [Earl's brother] and Maisy. I'll tell Robert and Rosa Lee [Warren]."

Gilbert, age 14, was a year older than Earl and was subtly letting Earl know he thought male maturity was in order with Rosa Lee, who at 13 was large for her age. "The girls love to go to the cane mill and I suppose we could put up with them for one evening," replied Gilbert while hiding his excitement from his cousin. Gilbert noticed that Earl smiled silently as if he knew something Gilbert didn't. Gilbert immediately dismissed the thought from his mind when Earl agreed with him and went home for a late supper.

They had talked so much they never shot any rabbits that day. Neither Earl nor Gilbert really cared. The best part was just going out and talking, being free to roam the woods with Chief, Gilbert's dog, and no one telling them what to do.

Will had been talking with Hattie's brothers, Archie and Joshua, about the crops that would soon be ready for market. That night at the supper table Will told Hattie how much Archie and Joshua expected to get from their tobacco crops that year when they took the cured tobacco to the Rocky Mount market. Gilbert thought it sounded a lot more than what his father expected to get from his cotton or his peanuts. Though he was tempted to ask him again why he didn't raise tobacco, he thought better of the idea. Instead he talked with his brothers about squirrel hunting and about how good a dog Chief was on the hunts.

Shortly they would be having fun at the tobacco barn when the harvested tobacco would be smoked [cured] around the clock for about two weeks. He, Earl, G. T., Robert, and Ernest always enjoyed helping at the barn during tobacco curing. Roy Joyner, who owned the barn [located adjacent to the Ward farm], liked for them to help him stoke the fire while he slept. Gilbert remembered how good it was to smell the mixture of tobacco and hickory log smoke. It was pleasant to think about the bittersweet, aromatic, thinly veiled swirls of smoke wafting up through the rafters and disappearing through the barn roof. Moonlight nights were best in the barn, talking man talk, smoking roll-your-own Duke's Mixture cigarettes, drinking sweet cider and eating boiled peanuts. Sometimes Beecher, Gilbert's older brother, would bring new grape wine for sampling. Ah, it was the good life. Gilbert liked to hear the owls hooting and the bugs singing when everybody got silent in the barn with their own thoughts. Sometimes after dozing off a few hours at the barn they would wake up early to the sounds of foxhounds running a fox across the road nearby [Old Pinner's Church Rd, now Eagletown Rd, between the Ward and Joyner farms]. They would go and saddle their horses and join the early morning foxhunt before going home for a breakfast of ham, eggs, cantaloupe and cornbread.

Most every night Sheriff Frank Outland stopped by the barn for a chat and to sample the drinks. Frank was a local hero, having been wounded in a shoot out with rebels when he was a U. S. Marine on horseback in Nicaragua. He liked to discretely drink with the boys, but he always told them not to smoke. He said it was bad for their health, but they smoked anyway. Still it was fairly obvious to Gilbert that at least some smart people, other than parents, knew smoking wasn't good for anyone. Gilbert knew his father, some time back, had made a decision not to grow tobacco. Still, that seemed not very smart when more money could be made growing it than growing something else.

School had already started. Gilbert and Earl were on their best behavior during the week. Gilbert cleaned and swept the chicken house everyday after school. He hated that chore but had made a deal with his mother to do it for 10 cents a day, everyday, except Sunday. This came to the healthy total of 60 cents a week. It was enough to have 15 cents on Saturday for the movies, 5 cents for popcorn and a nickel for a coke, and have some money left over. He always wondered why Mr. Charlie Myers, who owned the theater, always said "5 cents for popcorn" and then "a nickel for the coke." There must have been a reason but he never found out. "Some things are just strange and seem to remain that way," he said to himself.

From his earnings he always managed to save enough for Christmas presents for his mother, father, and seven brothers and sisters; all but Robert were older than him. That usually took only a dollar so the rest of his savings were put away for a rainy day. With chicken house cleaning money, plus his cotton-picking earnings, he began to understand the meaning behind the often-heard quote, that so and so was "living in high cotton," and he felt it had something to do with prosperity. He felt prosperous.

He decided that when he began farming on his own he would grow tobacco because of the money. Also Gilbert wondered why his father chewed tobacco. It was such a nasty appearing habit. And he thought if smoking is bad, why isn't chewing worse? Or maybe it was just the smoke that was bad? If so, why did it smell so good in the barn? The next time he saw Frank he would ask him about all this he told himself before falling asleep thinking about Rosa Lee.

It wasn't easy, but Gilbert finally figured out a way to see Rosa Lee before Friday night. He rode with the iceman down the back road to Rosa Lee's home and carried in a half block of ice for her mother's kitchen icebox. Gilbert could see Rosa Lee by her mother as she sewed a new dress for her in the dinning room. He wanted to say something to Rosa Lee even though he felt sure Maisy had already tipped her off about the Friday night plans and Gilbert's expectations of her going with him.

He thought about how cleverly he had arranged it all in anticipation of holding Rosa Lee's hand Friday night. But he became tongue tied in the presence of her and her mother. Gilbert's strategy changed. He would go home and later flag down Mr. Warren [Tulie Jordan Warren], her father, and ride back home with him to help him with his chores after he returned from delivering the mail. Then he would say something to Rosa Lee about going to the molasses cooking.

He left the iceman to get by on his own, walked back home and waited by the road for Rosa Lee's father. When Mr. Warren saw Gilbert he stopped and gave him a ride. Gilbert said, "Mr. Warren, you must be tired from carrying the mail all day. I'll ride home with you and help you feed the animals." "That's thoughtful of you Gilbert," said Mr. Warren. "I am tired and I could use some help." While he worked he kept looking for Rosa Lee to come outside. By the time they got only half through with the chores, Rosa Lee had mysteriously disappeared.

Without waiting for her any longer, Gilbert decided he had better get on his way. He didn't dare mention anything to Mr. Warren about Rosa Lee going out that evening. Instead he walked the short distance home, convinced that she would surely know why he had showed up at her home twice the same day and would be waiting for him at his home to go to the molasses mill with him. If all else failed he knew Maisy would have fixed him up already. He felt real good and satisfied with himself. "It takes careful planning to work these things out," he thought.

When he didn't find Rosa Lee waiting at his home as he had expected, Gilbert hurried over to Earl's house to see what he could learn. Earl's mother said that Earl had already left. Gilbert thought that was strange. Earl always waited for him. "Well, it's getting late. I'd better get going," he said to Earl's mother. "Earl must have gone on ahead without me."

Gilbert, one of the first to arrive at the mill, began talking with the workers and other neighbors. They waited for the first vat of cooked molasses to come off the fire. After it was emptied they would sop the remaining juice in the bottom of the vat with biscuits. As he waited he wondered what had happened to Earl. And why hadn't Rosa Lee waited for him? A little later he turned and saw her arriving, wearing her new dress, hanging on Earl's arm and looking at him like he was a knight in shinning armor. They both acted as if they didn't even know poor Gilbert was there. Maisy showed up with Ernest, both of them animatedly talking, not noticing Gilbert. No one seemed to notice he was there and he never felt so alone in his entire life. He was glad the sun had set, and except for the fire burning under the vat, it was almost dark. No one could see how red his face was.

After all his careful planning about having a nice evening with Rosa Lee, she showed up with his best friend, younger than him, looking like she thought he was Rudolf Valentino. "This is an absolute insult," thought Gilbert. "I'm older and bigger than Earl. She can't do this to me." But he realized she already had and there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it.

He left soon, alone with thoughts of seeking out Sheriff Outland to find out how he could get into the Marine Corps at age 14. Instead he went and helped Mr. Warren finish caring for his new litter of little pigs very late in the evening. That's so much for chivalry and all that stuff. He said to himself, "Someday I'll be filthy rich from growing tobacco. She'll come around when she realizes how important and rich I have become. I'll start a cigarette and cigar factory. I might even name a cigar after her someday when she decides to treat me right. Yes, Rosa Lee might be a nice name for a cigar, and I might just do it, but not unless she decides to be nice. A cigar named Rosa Lee wouldn't be weirder than cigarette packs with a camel's picture."

"I'll join the marines next year after I get through selling my new crop of pop corn at the county fair. Too much to do at home this year," he thought. When he went home that night he was already thinking about the good times ahead at the tobacco barn next month. He had given Rosa Lee her opportunity. "She isn't the only girl. There's Florence at school. She likes to go horseback riding with me, and she has her own horse. I know she likes me. She's even prettier than Rosa Lee. Anyway, I don't think Rosa Lee really likes Earl," he convinced himself before he reached home and went to bed. "In the morning I'll ride with the fox hounds before breakfast and then go fishing with Papa. I'll ride Barney, the best horse. If Earl wants to go, after the way he treated me tonight, he can ride Kit, the old blind and bony mule. Even so, it would be more fun with Earl on the hunt. Girls aren't everything. Fox hunting with boys is more fun than trying to figure out girls," he said to the empty dark bedroom before he dozed.
[The above story paints a picture of life in Northampton County, NC, in the early 1930s. This picture was a way of life that was happening on many other farms in the county. The story was written about September 1998. [Note: The Rural Electrification Act was not until 1936 and rural areas had no electricity in the early 1930s in Northampton.]

[Gilbert joined the Army in about 1938. He spent 29 years in the military. He started in the Infantry, and then became part of the Army Air Corps in 1942. In 1944 he served with the Army Air Corp in Italy and Austria (Russian zone). In 1947 the Army Air Corps became the United States Air Force. In 1949 the Air Force assigned him to office of the Air Attache of the American Embassy in Oslo, Norway. He spent the rest of his career in that capacity in various Embassy assignments in Europe (France and Italy), in Africa (Congo and Chad), and in Central America (Guatemala). Upon retiring from the Air Force, he attended Local Pastor Seminary Training at Boston University School of Theology and Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. He was ordained a United Methodist Church Minister and served as a pastor in that faith. Today, he is retired and living in Sarasota, Florida. Unfortunately, his wife Muriel (Ginger) Brehm, the love of his life, died in 2008. She was always by his side as he traveled the world. At 90 years of age he is still independent and working. He serves as a working servant with the Sarasota Annual Community Prayer Breakfast and for the Mayors Feed the Hungry Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida. He attended the invitation-only 2009 Presidential National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and enjoyed very much being part of a national multicultural prayer and discussion group suggesting ways and praying for a more peaceful world.]

[Bracketed comments and additions are by Al Ward, nephew of Gilbert Ward.]
 

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