“Pay attention, boy! Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you,” Daddy said as he slapped the chair arm with the belt from his pants. “I don’t wanna hear no more talk about going to school. You eat and sleep here so’s now it’s time you pull your weight.”
I stood right there in front of him as daddy raged and ranted with that worn-out belt in his hand. I tried not to jump with each slap of the leather as it hit my back and legs. Cryin’ did no good so I didn’t even bother with that wasted activity. After several lashes, Daddy dropped the belt he’d used on us all at one time or another. He headed into the kitchen, hollerin’ for his supper as I pulled myself together and went to the washroom where my sister had brought in some warm water and a rag to wash the blood from my legs.
Yesterday, Daddy came to the school and walked right into my class. The teacher, Miss Wilkins, asked him what he needed. Daddy paid her no mind and walked over to me, grabbing me up from my desk. Miss Wilkins tried to stop him but one look, like those he used on his kids, was enough to have her back off. I seen her go to the office but I knew it would do no good. Daddy dragged me out of the building and that was the last I saw of a regular schoolroom. He may have taken me from my third-grade class but I wasn’t through learnin’ yet.
Next mornin’ I got up at five like I did every day and brought the water in from the well so Mommy could cook breakfast. My two brothers and three sisters had their chores to do as well. Daddy didn’t tolerate “nere-do-wells” as he called’em. Daddy come into the kitchen and sat at the table. He demanded coffee and to “make it quick” from his eldest girl. She knew to do as he said or there would be hell to pay.
“Charlie!” Daddy yelled, “You gonna get a job today at Mason’s. “Bout time you paid for your keep.” I kept my head down and sat as still as I could while Daddy ate his breakfast. He got up to get ready for his job at the sugar mill. The rest of us ate the food Mommy cooked. Mommy made the best biscuits and gravy, hot buttery grits, and sliced tomatoes ”to give us energy” she said. My oldest brother and sister went off to school while I went out to meet Daddy in the car.
“Get in and don’t fuss. Guy Phillips owes me a favor so he said he’d hire you to sweep the floor. Don’t you go making ’em mad or I’ll beat you till you can’t sit down,” Daddy threatened, “If I hear of you causing trouble, you know what’ll be waiting’ on you.”
“Yes, Daddy, I know,” I replied in a quiet voice. I looked out the window of the old 1933 Chevy Standard that had seen better days. My teacher said we were at war and we all had to do our part. Me and some other boys had got some old copper to take to the scrap pile that the neighborhood started. Daddy had a fit and whooped me good for givin’ it away and not getting’ money for it.
Daddy turned the car into the gravel lot in front of Mason’s Meat Packing Company. I got out of the car and he pulled me by the arm into the building. Mr. Phillips met us as we got to the office. He was a big man but had a kindly face. Maybe this won’t be too bad.
“This your boy, Carl? He looks mighty puny to work here. I guess he’ll wield a broom alright though. I’ll get ol’ Tucker to show you what to do,” Mr. Phillips turned to call an old man walking down the hall. “Tucker! Get this boy a broom and show him how it’s done.” Mr. Tucker led me away to the packing floor. It was awful cold in there but I figured I’d warm up if I kept busy.
“Charlie, this is your area. You keep it nice and clean and stay out of the way when they bring the meat bins through.” Mr. Tucker explained as he showed me where I was to work. “You do what we say and you’ll do fine.” He walked back to his station and left me to it.
I’d been working there a week when there was a commotion among the workers. Seems a government inspector was coming to check things out. I didn’t have no quarrel with the government so I just went to work like usual. Mr. Tucker came up to me right fast like and pulled me by the sleeve toward the back of the room.
“Charlie, you get in the vat and stay quiet. I’m gonna put this here lid on top so nobody can see you,” he explained as he helped me into the large ceramic jar. It was empty but smelled like rotten meat.
“Why do I have to be in here, Mr. Tucker? Was I doin’ a bad job? Are you gonna tell my daddy? I asked worriedly.
“No, son. You’re doin’ a good job but you’re only 9 years old! We ain’t supposed to have kids younger than 13 in here. If them inspectors find you, they could shut us down. You don’t want that to happen do ya?” Mr. Tucker pushed me down inside the vat and put the lid on top shuttin’ out all the light and most of the good air.
I stayed there all mornin’ til them government men left. I felt dizzy-headed and stiff from the cramped space. A couple of the workers got me out and found my broom so I set to work until the end of my shift. I worked every day but Sunday for three months pushin’ my broom. Daddy came every Friday to collect my check. One day after I got home, Daddy told me I wouldn’t be workin’ there no more. We were movin’ to another town closer to the sugar mill.
Daddy found me another job with a man that fixed TV’s. I swept up the floor and wiped off the workbenches when he or one of the other two men finished a job. They had all these machines that had wavy lines on ’em and some that made noises if you turned a dial. They had tubes and knobs and all kinds of hand tools to fix the TV’s that people brought in.
As the men worked I watched when I could to see what they were doin’. I listened to them a talkin’ and trying to figure out the problem with each TV that came in. Mr. Parker, my boss saw me one day watchin’ the oscilloscope. “Do you know what this machine does, Charlie?” asked Mr. Parker.
“Well, sir. It seems to show what kind of power the sick TV puts out. You watch the wavy line when you touch different parts of the inside of these here TVs. Then you know what part to fix.” I answered and looked up at him.
“That’s pretty good, Charlie. It’s not quite what it does but close enough. Why don’t you help me with this TV and I’ll show you how to fix it” offered Mr. Parker.
Mr. Parker let me help him once in a while to fix a TV then he had Dave, his helper let me work with him. I still swept the floor and wiped the benches but now I was learnin’ somethin’. I had been there a couple of years when things changed for me.
Daddy didn’t take me to work anymore. Mr. Parker had been slippin’ me some of my pay before Daddy could come pick it up. I kept it in a box under one of the workbenches so nobody could find it. I counted it up one day and I had enough to move into a little trailer that was out back of the shop. I found a three-legged chair and a broken table on the side of the road and fixed it up. I made a pallet out of old movin’ blankets and found a pot to cook in at the city dump. I had my own home.
Daddy told me to get back to his house but I stayed right where I was. Mr. Parker told my Daddy something that I didn’t hear. After that, he didn’t come round no more and that was fine by me. I got me an old guitar and listened to a man play on the Grand Ol’ Opry on the shop radio. After a while, I could pick out a tune. Daddy wasn’t gonna beat me no more. I was learnin’ how to fix TVs and play the guitar. Life had taught me some hard lessons but I learned’em good. Miss Wilkins would be right proud if she saw me now.
~Image- Wikimedia commons
* I wrote this story loosely about my uncle, my dad’s oldest brother. I gathered stories of his life from various family members and imagined how his early life might have been. I don’t swear that any of this is true, but I understand that he did leave school in the 3rd grade, his dad sent him to work at a meat-packing plant and he did learn TV repair from a couple of men. He also lived on his own in his early teens, away from his family. He taught himself how to play guitar, banjo, mandolin, and the piano- all by ear.
To learn more bout my family, check out Metaphysical Girl, now available for Pre-Order for $7.99 until the publication date of December 26th, 2021. You will be able to find this book at your favorite online book stores and mobile apps where e-books are sold, such as Smashwords, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo