“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
As suggested by the title and subtitle, this post is about my cousin Donald Peacock, specifically the early years of his life. It is published in commemoration of his seventy-fourth birthday.
It so happens that Donald and I are of the same age. He was born in October of 1938, and I was born in November of that same year, the sons of brothers Adam and Arthur Peacock of Selma, Arkansas. Through the past seventy-four years Donald and I have been friends as well as relatives. We were particularly close during our boyhood years though I was brought up in Selma and McGehee, Arkansas, and he in Montongo and Monticello, Arkansas—twenty-five miles or more from one another.
However, in his memoirs of his early years it should be evident to anyone who has followed my own early life that, with some notable exceptions, his childhood and youth in SEARK was not greatly different from mine in that same geographical and cultural environment.
So here is Donald’s account of his early years as told in his own words with only slight insertions by me in brackets—primarily for the sake of the uninitiated reader—and a few long paragraphs that I shortened to fit the blog format. Most of the photographs were provided by Donald and me and Donald’s daughter Allison. Some of the photos of Florence Raines and her husband Monroe Barrett were provided by their grandson Stephen Coburn.
MY EARLY YEARS
Donald Peacock, 2007
My mother, Vera Mae Raines, and daddy, Adam Jessie Peacock, were married December 25, 1934. [My own parents, Vivian Barrett and Arthur Peacock, were married December 25, 1927.] It was a joint ceremony with Florence Raines (her sister) and Clayton Monroe Barrett. [Monroe Barrett was one of my mother’s cousins.]
Daddy was the youngest of three children of Thomas Benjamin Peacock and Simeon Marius Sumrall. He dropped out of high school and worked a variety of jobs before marriage: blacksmith, oil fields, farming, etc. He told me that most repairs on Ford Model T cars could be taken care of at the blacksmith’s shop and sometimes required “hay wire” to complete the repair. Even with little formal education he had a wealth of practical knowledge and seemed to know all facets of automobiles, farm machinery, water pumps, etc. He was quite adept at repairs and progressive in what we needed on the farm.
Mother was the younger of the two daughters of Samuel Joseph Raines and Jody Lee Rogers. They resided about 10 miles north of Monticello near a community called Montongo.
Vera and Florence were quite different. Mother was the one who followed her daddy around and helped on his farm and was outgoing. Florence was shy and stayed in the house with her mother. In fact Florence did not want to go to school alone, so she started a year late in order for the two to go together. After high school, mother and Florence went to college in Monticello at Arkansas A & M [now the University of Arkansas at Monticello] for one summer. They both dropped out of college to start teaching school. Mother got her job at Gourd (near Selma where my daddy lived) for $50 per month and stayed at a boarding house. It was quite challenging at her age of 17 having to deal with some students bigger than she was.
Granddaddy Raines owned a fairly large farm with a new home on the highway (Highway 81 at that time). The old home was about a half mile from the highway. When the girls got married, he gave Florence the new house and 40 acres and he gave Mother more acreage and a piano.
There was an understanding that Monroe who had done carpenter work would be a major contributor to building a new house for Adam and Vera. Mother did not like the fact that her mother had to move back to the old house in the woods. According to her, Granddaddy told her confidentially that he was confident that she and Daddy would be better able to get by on their own. Florence had quit her first teaching job soon after starting it. Mother never forgave Florence for taking the new house. She also claimed that Monroe’s help was marginal. It forever shaped her compulsion to treat me and my sister equally to the dollar on all gifts.
Our farmhouse, about a quarter mile behind Aunt Florence’s house, was built mostly by Daddy, with some help from Uncle Monroe and probably some hired or bartered help. I do know that his daddy, Poppa Tom to me, gave him standing timber from his place near Selma. The local sawmill in Selma cut the logs on the halves (they kept half of the boards instead of charging any fees). The boards were hauled by wagon to the building site.
Daddy did not want a fireplace because too much of the heat went up the chimney. He built a brick flue in the center of the house so wood burning stoves could be installed in the living room as well as one of the bedrooms.
The house had a tin roof, and he captured the runoff from rain in steel cistern tanks on each side of the house. From one tank a pipe and faucet ran into the kitchen sink, but was not used for drinking water. That was the entire plumbing in the house.
I know there was some phasing of the construction as some was completed after I was a toddler. The bathroom and sleeping porch were last to be added. There was no electrical service available at that time, but Daddy bought a Delco brand generator and installed a few car batteries to operate a few lights and a DC refrigerator. The generator had to be run every day by manually starting it. Prior to this, milk or some perishable food was kept in a bucket submerged in the well during the summer.
My sister, Dorothy Nell, was born on January 30, 1936, and I was born on October 12, 1938. Mother was afraid that Dorothy Nell was too frail and skinny and was always trying to get her to eat more. She did not have that problem with me. Unknown to Mother, she developed diabetes during her pregnancy with me. I was born about a month late and weighed 12 pounds and 4 ounces. The doctor broke my right arm between the shoulder and elbow by pulling on me. Mother bled profusely and remained in bed for several days. My arm was taped to my chest to heal.
That October was unusually hot, and mother said that I had a lot of heat rash. I started walking at 7 months and apparently got in everything such as climbing on top of the upright piano and eating baking powder or flour. Mother grabbed me by my ankles and spanked my back to dislodge the powder and get me to breathing. She was always afraid I would develop diabetes and did her best to keep me away from sweets, even letting Dorothy Nell have candy while hidden behind a door. Throughout my early adult life she would remind me to get my blood sugar checked once a year.
In September of 1939, Florence gave birth to her only child, Nan. I grew up closer to Nan than to my sister due to our ages and interests. Granddaddy Raines who was born in 1870 was fairly elderly by the time I can remember him. He had one glass eye and always used a cane. His old house was about a quarter mile from ours, and he visited every day. We had a radio, and he listened every day at 5:00 pm to get the news of World War II.
I heard a lot of his tales from his past. Frequently Nan and I would both sit in his lap and ask for a repeat of some story he had told many times. It was like replaying your favorite video or DVD. Some were not politically correct by today standards as he had played practical jokes on uneducated black workers.
One story I remember well took several days to set up. He kept telling the workers about an escaped crazy woman that was killing people. Every day or so he would mention that she had been spotted coming toward this area from another community. Then he talked one field hand into bringing his friend down a trail through the woods. Meanwhile he had dressed up in some of Grandmother’s clothes and had a big knife (shades of the “Psycho” movie including the bonnet). He thought it was the most funny that the man who knew about the joke ran faster than the other one when Granddaddy jumped out from a tree.
He also told us about walking alongside a covered wagon when he was 13 as his family immigrated from one of the Carolinas to Arkansas. He once dated two girls at the same time, and one wanted him to shave his mustache.
As a joke he shaved one side.
Granddaddy and his brothers and cousins competed in physical feats such as running, jumping, and probably wrestling. He claimed to be the only one who could high jump his height of approximately 5 feet 8 or 9 inches. When they were in Monticello, they would go by the cotton gin and see who could register the most weight on the scales by pulling on some of the balance beams.
When Granddaddy found out that his eye had to be removed by a surgeon in Little Rock, Daddy only had a pickup truck. Since a car was needed to have the space for all occupants to make the 90-mile trip, a deal was made with Mother’s first cousin, Bill Henry. Daddy could swap vehicles but would change all the tires from his truck to the car for the trip. Rubber was rationed and tires did not last nearly as long as they do now.
Grandmother Raines did just about all the chores at their house including the garden. She was some 18 or 20 years younger than Granddaddy and was in good health except for an occasional migraine headache. She was usually very quiet, but I can remember being told repeatedly, “Don’t slam the screen door!”
Of course I had a closer relationship with my maternal grandparents since Daddy’s family lived in Selma. All their kids and grandkids called them “Momma” and “Poppa,” except Dorothy Nell and me. Mother taught us to say, “Momma Simmie” and “Poppa Tom. ” I suppose it was because we were grandchildren instead of sons and daughters. Speaking of names, Daddy’s birth certificate or family Bible showed his middle name as “Jessie,” but Mother told him that was the feminine spelling and got him to use “Jesse” instead. There were many Jesses in Peacock history, but apparently the person writing in the Bible didn’t know the different gender spelling.
We visited Selma at least once per month, and Momma Simmie would cook a big dinner. Back then we had breakfast, dinner, and supper. For many years after growing up, I wasn’t sure if someone mentioning dinner was talking of a noon or evening meal. One of Mama Simmie’s quotes was, “It doesn’t do any good to cook up a big bunch of food. It just gets eaten right away.”
Poppa Tom mostly just sat on the front porch in a wooden rocking chair. He had facial characteristics of an American Indian. Supposedly some Indian woman was in his lineage, but I never got the details. He even slept there some and insisted that he never closed his eyes many nights.
I would play with my cousins, mainly Jimmy Peacock. Lumber from the Selma sawmill was stacked to dry right across from Poppa Tom’s house. Sometimes we would play there. I remember Jimmy telling me about Superman as I had never seen the comic book. [Superman comics appeared in 1938, the year Donald and I were born.] Poppa Tom’s oldest grandchild, Floyd Gibson, did a lot of chores and took care of his farm. Daddy told me that as a child he frequently would go to sleep on the bench at the dining table after supper. Once after being warned several times, he was left on the bench to spend the night.
Daddy was farming and running cows about the time I came along. He purchased some more land from Granddaddy, and I think some from others who had moved away. We always had a large garden, and I hated helping Mother pull out Bermuda grass and shake off the dirt from the roots before throwing it over the fence. Daddy always had a patch of tomatoes and sometimes cabbage and cotton, but mostly had cattle.
He planted tomatoes in wooden flats early in the spring and kept them in a cold frame until the weather was warm. The cold frame had a cover of canvas which could be pulled back in the day and then covered with pine straw at night if it was too cold. One year after the tomatoes were harvested the cows got into the patch and ate the tops off the vines. After a rainy late summer, the plants made a nice fall crop.
Also next to our house was 5 acres of Alberta peaches. The orchard required a lot of work, pruning, thinning, poisoning, picking, wrapping the mature but not ripe peaches in bushel baskets. Tomatoes were also sold as “green wraps,” and trucks would come to our house to pick them up in bushel baskets with lids attached.
Daddy made a tool out of a broom handle stuck in a large rubber hose. When the trees were too loaded in small peaches, we would beat the limbs with the hose to knock off some peaches to make sure the ones left would grow to a large size. One year we had a hailstorm that knocked off a lot of peaches just as they were about ready to pick. We gathered them and washed them in galvanized tubs.
Speaking of galvanized tubs, Dorothy and I would fill one with a little water in the summer and place it outside in the sun. This was our warm bath water and prevented the house from getting so hot by firing up the wood cook stove.
Daddy had a black family of sharecroppers living in an old house on one of the properties. O. G. Brazil was the man, and Noreen was his common-law wife. O. G. did the hard work such as splitting posts and firewood as well as plowing with a mule.
Later on we got a Ford Ferguson tractor (used I’m sure). I enjoyed talking with O. G., especially if it was raining and he couldn’t work. We would stand under one of the sheds watching it rain. I’m not sure what the financial arrangement was with O. G., but Daddy had to be careful not to pay him all his share at one time. Once he went to town and gambled it away in a crap game. O. G. could read and write, but I don’t think Noreen could. Mother would pass along our outgrown clothes for their kids.
Sometime during the 40’s we got electricity from the Rural Electrical Association which I assume was a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. [See my story of getting electricity in my Selma home in 1947 as described in my earlier post titled “The Way We Were.”]
The well in the back yard was filled in, and Daddy installed a water pump in the yard to pump water in the kitchen. There was a long suction pipe from a spring up the hill on the south side of the house.
Even though we lived in the sticks at the end of a dirt road, had an outhouse and very little cash, we did not consider ourselves poor or deprived. Our cousins and neighbors had a similar lifestyle. There was always plenty to eat, and our needs were simple. Mother saved the flour and feed sacks that were designed for making clothes after the contents were gone. We also had store-bought clothes as well as hand-me-downs from relatives that were older. Much of our shopping was done through the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. When I wore out the elbow on a long-sleeved shirt, it became a short-sleeve shirt for summer. Similarly long pants to short pants.
For entertainment we had cards, dominos, and jigsaw puzzles. Mother was particularly impressed that I at a very young age could put together the adult puzzles. Dorothy Nell played with dolls or read books, and I checked every cow, hog, horse, and watermelon and played with the dogs. Nan got a horse for Christmas one year, and we rode it together. I can remember the blister on my butt from sitting on the back edge of the saddle.
We probably made it to the movies about once a calendar quarter. There was always the war news, a cartoon, coming attractions, and then the feature. [See my reference to this subject of movies in my earlier post “The Way We Were.”] Nan and I then would play the main characters such as the war pilots who crashed behind enemy lines. We would eat unwashed radishes or onions out of the garden to stay alive in those dire circumstances and live in her tree house that Uncle Monroe built in a large crepe myrtle.
Nan and I occasionally got into trouble, and I recall one switching from Aunt Florence. Whereas my mother used a slender shoot (small limb) from a peach tree for any switching, Aunt Florence used a grass tassel to switch our legs. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing, but Nan cried.
I started my home schooling at an early age. Apparently after Dorothy Nell started school at Montongo, she would share her lessons with me. I’m sure Mother arranged this and also taught me. By age five, I could read children’s books and do some writing such as signing my name. It irritated Mother when the librarian in Monticello would not let me sign for my own books. She had a rule that you had to be at least 7 years old to check out your own books.
In the fall of 1943, Mother had an opportunity to join her cousin by marriage, Bessie Raines, as the second teacher at Montongo School, and I went along to be in the first grade. The school house consisted of one large room with a removable partition to provide two classrooms. In the entrance were two cloak rooms for our coats and lunches. Heat was provided with wooden stoves and air conditioning with open windows. Cousin Bessie, as I was taught to call her, had the first four grades, and Mother had the fifth through eighth grades. After graduating from Montongo, a student would attend either Monticello or Drew Central, the county school. My classroom had the only stage which was used for school programs with the partition pushed back. Each grade sat in their row of desks and a long bench was at the front of the class. One class at a time went to the bench for personalized instruction.
Of course recess was our favorite activity, and during lunch break we played “work up” softball, because there usually were not enough participants to have two teams. There was wild garlic in the ball field, and you didn’t want to slide just anywhere. Also it was most fun to be selected as the one to go outside during class and clean the erasers. The erasers collected so much chalk dust after a while that a lucky student would get to bang them on a rock or side of the building to knock out the dust.
One year the students got to plant pine seedlings in a hillside next to the highway. I think it was a program to control erosion, but whatever, we were glad to spend a couple of days outside. Another time, I got into the biggest trouble of my childhood. During lunch break, we could cross the highway and purchase items from a mom-and-pop-type store. The Montongo area actually had two roadside stores in sight of one another. One was called “The Loop” after the light rail loop in Chicago. I guess the owner had lived in Chicago. (Back to the crime) I followed the lead of some older students and stole a banana. My cousin, Paul Henry, told my sister who told my mother. I got my worst whipping when we got home and later had to apologize and pay for the banana. As far as I remember no one else was caught and punished. Bananas are still my favorite fruit.
In addition to the annual Christmas program, we had a Mulligan Stew party in the fall, probably on Halloween. A black pot was placed on an open fire and every family brought some food such as vegetables or meat to make the stew. The stew was cooked until the meat fell off the bone. I liked it okay, but I remember the stringy bits of squirrel meat in my bowl. At one of the Christmas programs, I got to participate before I was going to school. I quoted a nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner while dressed in riding pants like Teddy Roosevelt wore. Later that night as I was going to bed in my longhandle underwear, Daddy teased me about going on stage in my underwear, and I started crying. Mother reassured me that I was indeed dressed and gave Daddy a hard time.
He loved to joke with kids and repeated numerous little ditties, such as my name is “George Wonkcom, shoe nonkcom, short name, and speakit quick” or “go to Guinea and holler papah rak.” The first was in response to a child who asked his name, and the second was a mild version of where to go. In case you didn’t get it, guinea hens squawked something like “papah rak, papah rak.” In response to “how are you doing,” he would say, “fine as frog hair, split 16 ways and sanded down.” He considered that finer than “fine as hen’s teeth.”
By the end of the first semester of school, Mother with Cousin Bessie’s blessing decided that I fit in better with the second-grade students, since none of them came to school so learned as I. So, there I was at six years old in the second grade with the much older kids. Although Mother never regretted this move, I ran into difficulties in social life and athletics in high school. So I turned my efforts toward scholarship, avoiding fights, and joining the band.
We went to church at Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, which was located a couple of miles north near Relfs Bluff. It was a small white frame building with a cemetery behind it. However, Mother’s deceased family members were buried at Camp Ground Church (not sure of denomination) located a couple of miles south of our place. The women and children went into the church on arrival, but the men stood on the front steps until after the singing started. I still remember seeing the neck size of 17 on the white shirt of one fat man standing on the steps. The size was printed very low on the shirt, but he was fat enough for that part of the shirt to show.
One summer during Bible School, we made wooden hymnal holders which were attached to the backs of the pews. At about the age of 9, following Mother’s prompting, I went to the front to be confirmed. Worship services were very simple with a goodly amount of singing. There were no icons, stained windows, robes, etc. We did however have cardboard fans with wooden handles to fan our faces in the summer. [See my earlier post titled “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy.”]
Both Daddy and Uncle Monroe got jobs in government agencies related to agriculture. Daddy worked in Star City, which was about 10 miles north of our farm. During my early elementary school years, Uncle Monroe got a job in Hampton, Arkansas, and the whole family moved there. Of course, I missed my closest playmate.
About 1947, Daddy bought a very large corner lot in Monticello on West College Avenue.
Grandmother and Granddaddy Raines moved into the house. It was configured as a duplex with each side consisting of two large rooms plus bath. There was an entry hall and back door hall. They initially rented out one side. Also Aunt Florence lived there for a while after Uncle Monroe died. Later she moved into the Baptist Home for Children as a house mother. [After the death of my father Arthur, in her later years my mother Vivian Peacock also worked at the Baptist Home for Children with Florence where Mama died in 1973.] Also Nan lived there part of the time that her husband Doug Coburn was in the Air Force.
I’m not sure of the sequences of events, but Mother got a job teaching in Monticello, we moved in town in 1948 [the same year that my family moved to McGehee from Selma], and Montongo School closed. Most of the students transferred to Drew Central.
Ever the one to get a bargain, Daddy bought a military-style barrack and had it moved adjacent to my grandparents in town. (I drove by the site in 2005 and both houses had been replaced, but the original farm house Daddy built and later moved on the lot was still in use). After build outs, it was a three bedroom, one bath house with asbestos siding and a carport. I think it had been part of a confinement camp for European POW’s or possibility Japanese Americans.
There had been more than one of these camps in the surrounding area. After the war and release of the occupants, the one closest to Monticello was turned into a county fairground. While still at Montongo, I was in the 4-H Club and took a calf to the county fair at an early age. I didn’t win any prizes, but I can remember dumping the sawdust out of my new cowboy boots and finding out I had forgotten to wear socks.
Montongo had a much briefer school year than Monticello, so Mother took a teaching job at Monticello Elementary for a few weeks after Montongo finished. I attended the last of fifth grade there to have a place to go while she was at work. I did not like many vegetables, especially spinach, but to get the Dixie cup of ice cream, you had to complete your cafeteria lunch. Somehow I would spread it around on my plate or talk someone into eating part of it in order to get that dessert. Once I was reprimanded for giggling when Mrs. Canter was talking about breeding horses. Another time I got in trouble for going down the stairs three steps at a time.
We were still living at the farm during some or most of the sixth grade, and I had a friend from school spend the night at the farm. His name was Sonny (Zach McClendon, Jr.) and he was a born naturalist. I got to show him our animals and all the bird nests I had spotted. He had collections of butterflies and bird eggs and was already stuffing birds. Once he accidentally left a candidate for stuffing in his desk over the weekend. An aroma awaited us on Monday. Sonny’s dad owned the cotton gin and probably other enterprises. It was quite a change for me to spend the night at his house. It was the first time I had ever had soup for breakfast. When he asked his mom for a clean shirt, she told him which drawer to get one. He opened it and selected one of several brand new shirts still folded with pins in them.
My first schoolyard girl friend at Monticello was Laura Lee Stephenson, a cute blonde. Her dad owned the local funeral parlor. The only picture I had to give her was a snapshot of me with my calf’s rear end most prominently displayed in the photo. She later told that her daddy asked which one was me. These classmates were way ahead of me in worldly ways. She admitted to changing out the salt and sugar at home for April Fool’s Day. Then on Valentine’s Day, she gave me a chocolate heart. Shucks, I didn’t even think of a gift, much less be able to buy one.
Work in progress . . . .