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THOMPSON: Growing up in Florida in the 1950s

March 20, 2017 - 12:45 PM

 


OPINION


This week's column is a excerpt from a book I am writing about growing up in Florida in the 1950s. And despite the distance in miles and time, perhaps it will sound familiar to some readers.

My parents had integrity, character...and grit. They were poor for much of their lives...both living through the Great Depression in small Georgia towns. My mom was Mozelle. An exotically French name for a woman who would never see that country...or any other. And, when she passed at 94, in her mind she never suffered much from not traveling. Mom had no middle name, "too poor to afford one," she once joked.

Almost everyone called dad, Tom, though his first and middle names were WiIlie and Loton, respectively. My sister, Willie Ruth, was just a year old when they left Georgia for Florida in 1938. She always went by Ruth, a Biblical name that everyone who knows her would say she certainly lives up to.

"Who," she would later ask no one in particular, "names a baby girl Willie Ruth?" She might have hated the name Willie for herself, but she was always daddy's girl and adored him. Ruth's early years were rougher than my brother, Clark, and I ever knew, a function of a decade long depression and world war.

Clark snagged Ollys as a middle name...Ollys? I don't know whether mom and dad tired of uncommon names, but I ended up with a more or less normal middle name...Eugene. Ruth was 11 years older than Clark, and nearly 13 and a half years my senior. She was like a second mom...but even when I was a teenager she was my closest friend. 
          
During one of many long conversations with dad more than a half-century after mom, dad and Ruth migrated from Georgia, I asked him how they came to settle in Ocala? Without hesitation, and with a nod and slight smile, he replied, "That's where the car ran out of gas." 

Everything they owned...one suitcase of clothes and some odds and ends...a coffee pot, hot plate and some bric-a-brac that once decorated homes in Georgia...all packed in a nine-year-old Model T. Ruth's cradle was an old crate from dad's peach picking days at farms in Brooks and Pierce counties in Georgia.

When the car ran out of gas, Dad forked over $12 - about half of what he had to his name - in advance for the first month's rent at a boarding house three blocks from Ocala's town square. It bought one meal a day in a communal dining room with eight or nine other boarders. Rent would be due again in 30 days. 

It was 1938 and times were still hard. Dad told me later that he never once turned down a job. "Nothing is beneath you when your pockets are empty," he said. Dad set about finding work the same day the young family moved to Ocala.
                                                                          
Of course, the middle class didn't exist then...it came after WWII. Credit was nonexistent unless your name was Rockefeller, DuPont or Ford. Dad - like most Americans - bought on cash. 

There were no lay-a-way plans then. Fortunately, you could live on the cheap. A dozen eggs...18 cents. A pound of bacon...30 cents. Ten pounds of sugar...50 cents. A gallon of gas...12 cents. So, dad's tale about running out of gas in Ocala was proof enough...he couldn't afford pride either.

Dad took every handy man job he could find...and anything else. Mending fences. Repairing a door or window jamb. Hauling manure. Moving cattle. Some weeks he made $12...some weeks less. But, mom and dad and baby Ruth were together. Life was difficult for most everyone, dad explained, as he recounted his life in the months before he died in 1999.
           
"You did what you had to do son," he said matter-of-factly. "And you know, it wasn't all bad." I learned some valuable lessons from dad, a man with less than a grade-school education. He respected women and children...and men who respected women and children. He loved beautiful sunsets, listened intently to Gene Autry sing Back in the saddle again, and he always made sure his family had food on the table and somewhere safe to sleep. Happiness, it seemed, was simple if barely affordable even in 1930s Florida.
      
By 1950, when I was born, mom's and dad's many sacrifices and hard work were paying off. And in 1960, we lived in a house they owned from day one. Dad's talents and skills as a master carpenter were in demand all over Ocala. If you wanted something built right at a fair price, he was your man.  
          
My childhood in Anthony was more or less idyllic. I knew practically everyone and everyone knew me. Certainly, everyone knew mom and dad. They respected both...and some probably feared mom a little. As she so often said throughout her life, "she didn't take s*** from anyone." She was a stern, occasionally harsh disciplinarian. Dad's easygoing manner and patience were in sharp contrast to mom's high-strung, hair-trigger temper. 
            
If you crossed mom you were in deep weeds. She never looked down her nose at anyone...and if someone did that to her...well, it wasn't pretty. And, if she thought you were unfair or attacking one of her children, she was like a mother bear...only scarier. 
                                                                            
Dad was soft-spoken...but you never doubted his seriousness or resolve. If he said something, you listened. I never had a spanking from him...ever. Mom, on the other hand, was one part Mother Teresa and two parts Rocky Marciano. I got more than a few whippings from mom...my brother even more. He never used what I had discovered early on...humour could get you out of trouble...and I could make mom laugh. It didn't save me every time...but it worked often enough. 

Once when Clark and I had done something to temporarily alienate mom's affection, she ordered both of us to go in the field behind our house and "cut a switch" that she would use on us. Clark brought back a nasty looking thing that Malaysian prison authorities might use in a caning.

I watched as Clark suffered five nasty swings from the switch he had cut. I - with a smile - produced milkweed from behind my back...and made mom laugh. Clark chased me around the house later, but I was faster. Laughing, I yelled back at him..."Are you crazy? You gave her a tree limb!"

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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