His name was George and he would be 100 years old today were he still alive. He may have been named after an uncle who went to college and earned a PhD. His own father, so the story goes, was indentured to a farmer near Golconda, Illinois for money to pay for his brother’s education. Coming into some money later, George’s father chose between purchasing a flour mill in St. Paul Minnesota or timber land near Rison, in Cleveland County, Arkansas.
He chose Arkansas. That’s where my father, George, was born and grew to manhood.
Work was scarce in the early 30s. He often talked of having laid fences, digging the holes by hand in the rocky soil of rural Arkansas, for fifty cents a day. So when the Roosevelt Administration offered young men employment with the Civilian Conservation Corps, George obtained a promise from a comely 16 year-old that she would wait for him and he headed north.
She kept her promise, and George and Mabel married when he returned. They sharecropped at a small community named Ladd, north of Pine Bluff, AR and welcomed a daughter, my sister Robbie, in 1939.
Then something strange happened. The Great Depression was drawing to a close and things got a little better. George went to town one day and, with a little spare money, purchased a hog that he brought home in a panel truck.
That night, George and Mabel sharped table knives by a kerosene lamp and the next morning George butchered the hog, using skills he learned from his father. He found willing customers for the product in the city and soon had a thriving business peddling meat from the back of his truck.
They saved money and purchased a small grocery store south of Pine Bluff. They were just a young couple with hopes for a future. A malevolent neighbor once described them as being, “… so dumb it took both of them to drink a Coca-Cola.” Perhaps she was right, but they stuck with it.
That was in 1941. The war came along then and I arrived two years later. By 1945, they were drafting men with two children and George was scheduled for induction when Germany surrendered.
Afterwards, things looked up. A third child, Ricky, arrived in 1948 and all three children lived healthy lives and still kick around.
When George died, we thought at length about something to say at his funeral. He was, by modern standards, an unremarkable man. All he did was work six days a week running a country grocery with a four-day vacation once a year. How does one aggrandize a life like that? Or, does one need to?
Then, on the morning of his funeral, we found, among his belongings, a yellowed newspaper clipping from “The Pine Bluff Commercial” in 1947 proclaiming our father a hero.
Our father a hero? That’s what it said, adding further that there should be a monument erected to him. What?
It seems that after a tragic tornado ripped through our community—a monster that killed 32 people—our home and store were one of the few structures remaining. According to the newspaper account, George opened the doors of our grocery and said, “If you need it, come and get it and don’t worry about money.”
It bankrupted him and he had to start over. A smaller clipping from a few days later reported how the first story had prompted the small community of Lonsdale, Arkansas to collect some 40 dollars and send it to my father. Anyone who ever knew him can just see him opening that letter and saying, “Well I’ll be darned.”
I had heard stories about that tornado all my life, but I had never heard those. Neither he nor my mother ever mentioned them. I suppose it was because they thought they weren’t supposed to.
It was just what people did for one another back then.