Father in a Box

She never had time for a husband. As the eldest of her ten siblings, she was left to raise them when both of their parents died within three years of each other and no other relative could financially support all of them as the Great Depression had hit an already economically poor rural farming community.

Losing the general store her parents had owned and operated for many years combined with the daily struggle of mounting grief and an enormous responsibility of raising the children, her patience shortened and her demeanor hardened. She became a strict disciplinarian, which transferred easily into the occupation she chose to support her brothers and sisters.

Miss Emma Davis stood before a roomful of sleepy students, many of them fighting off the weight of their drooping eyelids as they slumped in their seats. Some chins propped on elbows – the only thing keeping their heads from bouncing off the wooden tops of their desks, each of them weary from their morning chores and their long walk to the drafty one-room schoolhouse.

It would seem as though all of the proverbial “uphill walk to school in ten feet of snow” stories originated from Russell County, Kentucky’s rural schools. Many of the kids that Miss Davis taught arrived to school each day without shoes.

Their days out of school were spent walking along the county roads gathering anything that could be repurposed. When their shoes wore out, they combed the country roads looking for an animal that had been stuck by a passing car. The carcasses that were not too decayed were taken home to a Granny who had mastered the art of mending shoes with whatever they could stomach to bring home.

The lucky students who were able to attend studied from the hand-me-down books that their older siblings had carried until farm life required that they remain home to work on the farm.
The path many had to take wandered through the dense woods or meandered along graveled cow trails that were called Kentucky’s public roads in the 1940s. One such road passed far too near an area claimed by a hermit whose only joy seemed to come when emerging from the darkened forest just behind a startled group of schoolchildren as they made their commutes to and from school each day.

His clothes no more than tattered rags hanging on his bearded frame like faded banners streaming in the wind from a rusty flag pole. The boys grew more courageous as the distance increased with their foe and they began to throw gravel and provoke with taunting words, their rocks falling far short of their intended target. After many months of this daily ritual the wild man of the woods threw his own rocks that landed far past the group of emboldened miscreants, showing each of them they could each be hit easily until they arrived at their destination safely behind closed doors. Most of the group chose to proceed to and from school with no further provocation, but some chose to learn the hard way and had a bite-shaped scar as a permanent reminder of their poor choices.

The teacher scrawled a chalk rectangle on the blackboard and turned around to select a student for the next task. With hand extended to present the stick of chalk to her next “victim”, she mentally sorted through those not yet called for their turn to demonstrate a proficiency in spelling abilities.

Almost routinely scanning beyond the usual raised hands of the girls sitting in front who had already shown a natural ability in the subject, she began searching for the boys slumped in their seats and ducking their heads just below her gaze.

Those too tall to hide attempted to look busy with work assigned to the older kids in the higher grades while avoiding making any eye contact, as if the absence of their attention would cause their teacher to look elsewhere.

“Paul!” Miss Emma Davis exclaimed. “Come to the board and put FATHER in the box!” He just knew she was going to call on him. Having your aunt as your schoolteacher almost guarantees being called upon more often than the other students.

Rather than heeding her instructions, Paul glanced to his right and nudged the boy seated next to him. It was his uncle who was younger by only a few months. He had not been called all week while Paul had spent several days in a row washing the chalkboard long after everyone else had sprinted outside for recess. “Raise your hand!” Paul whispered. After protecting him from the class bully on the playground, Paul hoped that his outgoing uncle would take the hit on this one.

However, the teacher already wise to the plan called his name again. “Paul!” she exclaimed, her limited patience already stretched thin, especially if it looks like her nephew was once again deliberately trying to avoid any acknowledgement of her instructions or a respectful response. Paul couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to impress either of the twin Dicken girls, both of whom he was quite fond of, seated in the front row with their raised hands still waving, eager to be called. However, he made an enormous error in judgment he would soon regret. Paul stood up and proudly exclaimed “Sorry teacher, but my father won’t fit in that little box, he’s too big!”

The raucous jeers erupted across the room, masking the sound of the approaching teacher’s footsteps across the exposed wood floor. The painful pinch on his earlobe let him know that a line had most certainly been crossed and he would soon find himself behind the woodshed subjected to the wrath of a switch-wielding Miss Emma. He was sure that even the wild man of the woods had overheard his screams as they echoed across the hills and valleys. He never was sure if he had only imagined the crazed laughter from the distant woods through each of his whimpering sobs as he struggled for air in each shortened breath.

While many parents relay mythical stories from their misspent youth to their gullible children, how many included a rock-throwing wild man? I recently asked each of my siblings to help with a future writing project. I asked them to pick a story that was shared with each of us when we were younger then write out the story out based on our individual perspective. Later we collaborate to combine our separate stories into one.

This Father’s Day, ask your dad to relate stories from his youth. If he doesn’t mind, record them with an app or video camera. Coming up next month we will use the recorded interviews for an oral history project and preserve them for future generations to enjoy! Please comment, like and share with others you may know who are interested in tracing their family genealogy. I look forward to hearing from you.