[Ed. Note: This piece ran first in 2009; here it is again for Father's Day 2014.]
I know only sketchily what brought my father, John Lamb, from Greenville, South Carolina, to Horse Creek Valley. He never talked much about his past. Only in his last year of life did he speak to me of his father, and then only two or three times. He never mentioned his mother at all.
“He has never mentioned her to me, either,” my mother once told me, “but his relatives say she died when he was about nine years old. She sewed a lot, they said, and had a habit of carrying her needles stuck in her dress.” Mother poked at her chest a couple of times, as if sticking pins in her blouse. “They say the constant pricking caused a cancer of the breast and it killed her.”
Dad’s father died young, too, or relatively young, 57, of pleurisy, leaving Dad an orphan at 15. Dad’s next home was with his older brother William in Clearwater, S.C., where my uncle and his wife Toddy, and soon my father, worked in a cotton mill.
“We lived on the highway,” Mother said, “and Bill and Tod lived across the road from us, two doors down.”
The highway was — is — U.S. 1. Clearwater is one of several cotton-mill towns strung out along the two-lane road as it meanders 17 miles from Augusta, Georgia, to Aiken, South Carolina. Located four miles from Augusta, at the western end of Horse Creek Valley, Clearwater in the early 1930s, when my father arrived there, was little more than a small village of company houses clustered around the Seminole Mill. It is not much more than that today, for the mill, like most other mills in the valley, closed years ago, and no new industry moved in. Or seems likely to. Today, most mill villages are anachronisms. Modern industry has bigger fish to fry, and bigger and better places in which to fry them. So nowadays Clearwater just sits there, a town marooned in time, a hamlet becalmed in a backwater of history, a geographical oxymoron: a mill village with no mill.
Even the highway, once a mainstream of national commerce, is now an insignificant tributary. In the 1950s, a new four-lane road pushed through from Augusta to Aiken, giving Clearwater wide berth, and a decade later, still farther away, Interstate 20 opened. Now the modern world, tires hissing, exhaust fumes flying, blows past Clearwater and all of Horse Creek Valley without so much as tooting its horn in a nostalgic salute.
Ah, but there was a time when Clearwater teemed with life. When I was a boy, about five years old, the town, indeed the whole valley, bustled with activity. The mills ran 24 hours a day, inhaling and exhaling full shifts of workers every eight hours, and they were workers who, though poorly paid, were happy just to be drawing regular paychecks, happy to have any kind of steady job. It was 1940, the nation had only recently begun to shake off the misery of the Great Depression, and cotton-mill workers, perhaps more than most of the recently unemployed millions, had good reason to think that happy days were here again. Only five years earlier, the four-room house I was born into, my grandmother’s house, on Highway 1, was the home of 14 people teetering on the edge of destitution. At the lowest ebb of the Depression, only one of the household’s ten adults, my father, had a job.
“We had only three beds and a couple of cots,” Mother said. “Your crib and playpen was a large pasteboard box.” She laughed. “Some of us had to sleep in shifts. The sheets never got cold.”
But in late 1940, my parents, able at last to afford a place of their own, moved to a two-room (note: not two-bedroom) company house on Pine Street, less than half a mile from the house on the highway, and in 1941 they moved twice more: into a three-room shotgun house on lower Church Street, a stone’s throw from the mill, and then into a four-room house farther up the street, on higher ground, No. 24 Church Street.
For my parents, the moves must have felt like a rapid ascent on the social ladder, and indeed it was, for I have observed in life that any of us can measure our upward (or downward) mobility with fair accuracy by the number of rooms in our successive dwellings. Of course, there are rooms, and then there are rooms. No. 24 Church Street was by no means the palace at Versailles. But as mill-village housing went, it was nice. Relatively new, it had features lacking in the house on the highway, not least of which was an indoor toilet, the first I ever saw, and the house looked out on a quiet, tree-lined residential street, not a busy highway.
In any case, the new house meant that my father the orphan had risen in a mere 16 years from a sharecropper’s shack to a respectable address in the working-class American South of the early 1940s. If in her whole life my mother ever gave a single thought to upward mobility, I’d be surprised, for she was singularly unassuming. But I feel certain that my father noted his new perch with great satisfaction, for he was an ambitious man who, no doubt spurred by poverty, chased elusive wealth all his life.
“Your daddy could have been rich if he had saved all the money he spent on get-rich schemes,” Mother said after his death in November 1988.
We were sitting in the kitchen of her home in Greenville, S.C., sorting through box after box of his personal effects. Each held brochures, pamphlets, manuals, booklets and other literature on this or that half-baked scheme to make money. You’ve seen the ads: Start your own mail-order business; raise chinchillas, organize a chain-letter; get in on the ground floor of multi-level marketing; buy and sell government surplus; write hit songs; invest in precious metals; and on and on. You name it, it was there — and Dad had probably tried it. He even came up with a few of his own schemes.
I remember one as the Infamous Photinia Folly. Make a long story short, one April Dad bought 3,000 one-gallon plastic pots, lined them up in rows in his backyard there in Greenville and filled them with potting soil. Then he bought a few red-tip plants at Kmart, with the idea of using cuttings from them to grow thousands more and get rich as a wholesale nurseryman.
“I’ll make a killing,” he said, standing there surveying all those pots, thumbs hooked in his overalls straps, dollar signs in his eyes. “These things sell for $2.98 to $4.98 apiece in garden centers. So, wholesale, they ought to bring a dollar apiece come next spring. That’s $3,000 minimum! And what have I got in them? Maybe $200. Maybe. And this is only the beginning. All I have to do is plant ‘em and let nature take its course.”
Nature’s “course” that winter included an early freeze that left all of Dad’s fledgling photinia rattling in the wind with rigor mortis.
Okay, a freeze, to both preachers and lawyers, is an Act of God, and none of us is blamable for an Act of God. But another of his get-rich schemes that I recall struck me then — and strikes me now — as more an act of lunacy. In spite of myself, I think of this one as the Phenomenal Florida Frog Farm.
“Frog legs will be the next fast-food craze in America,” Dad announced one day. “We could buy some swampland in Florida — get it for a song — and start raising frogs.”
“Get a jump on the market, so to speak,” I said. Very drolly, I’m ashamed to say. No matter: My little witticism leaped, or limped, your choice, right past him.
“What’s the biggest fast-food success story in America, in the world?” he asked, eyes ablaze.
“McDonald’s,” I said.
He writhed in frustration. “Okay, the next biggest. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Am I right?”
I gave an uncertain but conceding nod, my knowledge of the fast-food industry already exhausted.
“And what do frog legs taste like?” he prompted, grinning.
I just looked at him. I didn’t know what frog legs tasted like — and didn’t want to know, at least not first-hand.
“Chicken!” he crowed triumphantly. “Tender, delicious chicken.”
While he sat there — this talk took place at his kitchen table — like a supremely confident defense attorney who had just rested his case, my mind reeled to the do-si-do of his logic. I won’t belabor this by itemizing my objections; suffice it to say that I took his proposal “under advisement” and kept it there until another enthusiasm seized him, sweeping the Florida Frog Farm idea into oblivion. He didn’t let me get away, though, without trying a sauce he had concocted “from secret flavor granules” that was going to do for frog legs — and any other meat — what the Colonel’s secret recipe had done for fried chicken. Dad served it to me on steak. I ranked its taste, speculatively, of course, right up there with camel dung.
But let me be fair to the man. He was not crazy, or at least no crazier than the rest of us, and he was by no stretch a fool. With very little formal education — “Maybe seventh grade,” Mother said — he rose in the Army to chief warrant officer, the top enlisted man’s rank, and along the way got his high-school diploma and earned quite a few college credits, I was told.
I realize, of course, that there are many educated fools, but, excepting his hare-brained schemes to get rich, Dad had a good head on his shoulders, and was a caring, provident husband and a thoughtful father. I wish I had known him better.