Because, at six years old, like Willie Nelson my heroes had always been cowboys, I would beseech my mother to sing me cowboy songs at bedtime. Irene Millsaps, I know now but apparently didn’t then, knew no cowboy songs. The one she sang to me, I only realized after I was grown, she made up. It went, “He’s my rootin tootin cowboy/ And I guess he’s worth a nickel/ Or he may be worth a penny/ But he may not be worth any.” It had kind of a western swing tune.
She taught me standard southern mother fare -- Jesus loved me; God knew every single bad thing I did and was taking notes for future reference; I should always wear clean underwear in case I got hit by a car -- along with some misinformation, for example, that beer was brewed in big barrels that rats fell in and drowned and were left to rot. She taught me things that many mothers wouldn’t have known, such as how to build a fire in a fireplace, (you’ve got to have a “back stick” against which the fire is built) and that the bark of birch twigs tastes very good, like Beeman’s chewing gum, which is now hard to find.
Perhaps the most valuable thing my mother taught me before I was six was how to read. She did it by spending a lot of time reading to me Little Golden Books of which I had a vast collection, sounding out the letters until I figured it out. At five I wasn’t old enough to start school in Cartersville, but when we moved to Cedartown half way through the school year, the first grade teacher went to our church and she let me start the first grade after Christmas. The class was divided into three groups and Miss Green seated me at the “slow” table, but by the end of the week I was at the first table. The time my mother spent teaching me was the cause of my rapid ascent.
My mother sewed all of my shirts as well as her own dresses until I got old enough to want my clothes to look like everybody else, and then later in high school, at my request, because she could make things I saw in catalogues and on British rock stars on T.V. but couldn’t buy in Fannin County, those sixties paisley prints with oversized pointy collars. Later when I wasn’t subject to her control, it would seriously irk her that I wore bell bottom jeans with patches over the holes -- youth fashion at the time -- because she had lived through hard times when patched clothing was a mark of poverty.
She taught me the names of flowers, trees, insects and animals even though the mountain names she knew for them didn’t always coincide with what the rest of the world called them. Canna lilies were simply “cannies” and dragonflies were “snake doctors.”
My mother of course loved me and I her. Until her dying day she would have made any sacrifice that benefited me. In spite of that, from the time I was around twelve until I was almost thirty, I didn’t like my mother very much.
We’ll have more on that later, but for now I want to stick with how remarkable she was when I was very young. She once caught a large snapping turtle and put it in an old washing machine we had outside -- the kind that was essentially an open barrel with three agitators like upside-down bowls and a wringer on top which you fed the clothes through before hanging them on the line -- so I could see it when I got home from school. She said “they” said if one bit you it wouldn’t let go until it thundered.
It was along about the time of the snapping turtle -- I was probably nine or ten --that my friend and I were wishing aloud one Saturday that we had a “clubhouse.” My mother, overhearing this, came out of the house shortly wearing overalls, inquiring how big we thought our house should be. She drew out plans on the floor of the carport, then got a handsaw and started working with the scrap lumber left over from building the pastorium. My friend, Johnny Champion, was agog.
By the next weekend we had an eight by twelve clubhouse with a porch, a window, a sloped tin roof and a ladder on the back by which you could get on the roof.
Having a clubhouse, I started a club, the Destroyers, and appointed myself its leader. We had a club song of my composition which, as you will see, was influenced by the network news’ reporting of current events. It was sung to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” except for the last line which was sung exactly as you would think. “We are the Destroyers/ Marching on to war/ Crushing the Black Muslims/ Because they are so dumb/ Cha Cha Cha.”
We did a little three-step hip shake to that last part.