Few of us young’uns ‘round Simpson Creek had shoes back in those days. Not that we knowed any better or cared much one way or t’other ‘ceptin’ come wintertime when we just had to make the best of it.
I remember 1934 well. Times was hard then. It was durin’ the Depression and cash was short in our isolated, Tennessee mountain valley. The little money folks had come from sellin’ crops. We’d barter maple sap, herbs, eggs, animal pelts and such for needful things like food staples, farm and household goods, and sundries. Most families had no money to buy shoes for their kids.
Sometimes Ma wore clodhoppers that laced up above her ankles. Lord only knows how long she’d had ‘em. Pa had a pair too, but mostly he would go to plowin’ or huntin’ barefoot for fear of wearin’ ‘em out. He said a man only needed one pair of shoes; to get married, go to church and get buried in. I reckon he was right for his times seein’s how a’body can’t wear but one pair at a time nohow.
Our cabin set back from the creek amongst the hemlocks and greenery. I was the fifth of my parent’s eight livin’ children. Three more died young and were buried in the churchyard. One day Ma pointed out the graves to me. They was marked with a slate rock, though there weren’t no names on ‘em. That was okay. The Lord knowed who they was.
Footpaths meandered through woods and scattered fields to meet at the grocery. It was also our Post Office, and offered the community’s only telephone. The church and schoolhouse lined up beside it facin’ the dirt road. Simpson Creek weren’t much; no ‘lectricity or runnin’ water, but it was our home.
I was twelve that year, and was ‘spected to help with gardenin’ and household chores. Ma made all our clothes, and she just finished showin’ me how to lay out a dress pattern when she said, “That’s enough, Maysie. Now, I want you to take two dozen eggs down to the grocery. Don’t be breakin’ any, and trade ‘em out for flour. Take Maggie with you.”
“Yes’m.” I took up the egg basket in one hand, and nine year-old Maggie in the other.
We rounded the corner of the cabin and met James totin’ firewood.
“Where you’ns goin’?” He was almost fifteen and full of mischief.
“Down to the store.” I lifted the basket. “Ma wants us to take these here hen eggs.”
He glanced around before whisperin’, “I dare you’ns to cut across the Jowers place.”
“We’ll be doin’ no such thing.” Crossin’ the Jowers property would shave near half-a-mile off’n the two-mile walk to the store, but like most folks, I was scared of that bunch.
Ever’body knowed that Clem Jowers was the meanest man around. He had a cabin on the ridge above the creek and two nasty, growed-up boys. His skinny wife blinked real fast when you said hello to her. Folks said Clem operated a moonshine still that was hid out in his woods and he’d better not catch nobody traipsin’ across his property.
Truth is, nobody much cared what a man did to tend to his family’s needs, and figured it weren’t none of their business noways. As long as a’body was respectful and come to prayer meetin’s on Sunday, people tended to look the other way. Clem Jowers was anything but a respectful, church-goin’ man. Rumor had it he made quite a bit of money off’n sellin’ his ‘shine.
I’m tellin’ you all this so’s you can get some notion of our community and the kind of feller Clem Jowers was. Nobody but a fool would want to get crossways of that man.
Like I said, I was one of eight children, but there was only five of us kids still at home. My older sister, Lucy, married and moved to Knoxville. She claimed they had ‘lectricity and even a radio in their house, though it didn’t seem likely. Brother Teddy was off somewhere in the Army, and brother Bob was workin’ in a WPA camp over to Anderson County.
Anyway, 1934 passed by, and it come up towards winter again. Snow dusted the ground, so mostly our family huddled inside by the fireplace aside from privy calls or needful outdoor chores. That was when my two year-old brother Amos come down sick. Then it was three year-old Sarah, then Maggie, then James and even Pa.
Within two days Ma knowed they had the measles. That don’t sound like much now, but in them days measles killed a great many folks, especially young’uns. I should know since I had a light case when I was a baby. At the same time one of my sisters died from it. She was one them buried in the churchyard. Likely it was because I had measles before that I didn’t catch it again.
Naturally, Ma was scared to death and sent me off to the grocery to telephone Doc Beaufort and beg him to come. I lit out a’runnin’, my bare feet leaving tracks in the snow.
There weren’t no time to waste, so I chanced to take the shortcut across the Jowers property. You might’a knowed I didn’t get far before Clem Jowers caught me, and I stood lookin’ up at him.
He was a stooped, stern-eyed character with chin whiskers that fell down to his belt. I figured the rifle he carried weren’t meant just for squirrel huntin’ neither.
His eyebrows knitted together as his voice growled, “What’re you doin’ here, gal?”
My feet were burnin’ from the cold, and I shifted from one foot to t’other. I told him about my sick family, and my reason for hurryin’ down to the grocery.
Jowers stood there a’lookin’ at me for a second, then asked, “Whar’s your shoes?”
I just shrugged and drug my toe in the snow. “Ain’t got none.”
“T’ain’t fittin’ for young’uns to go about this time of year without no shoes.”
Me, I shivered, shrugged again and stared at the ground.
“Well, you’d best git on about your business. When you call Doc Beaufort, you tell him Clem Jowers said he’d better be up here to see about your folks by the end of the day, and I don’t mean maybe.”
“Yes sir,” I mumbled, and skedaddled out of there.
You know what? I told the doctor over the phone what Mr. Jowers said and he showed up at our cabin that very evenin’. He stayed for three days tendin’ to the sick. On the last day ever’body was feelin’ better and Pa asked Doc Beaufort how much he owed him. Not that he could’ve paid much ‘cause I doubt Pa had more’n two dollars to his name.
The doctor told him, “Nothing,” but I wondered about that. I’d never heard the like of him not demandin’ some kind’a payment. You could see Pa wondered ‘bout it too. He was a proud man, not taken to acceptin’ handouts.
Still, Doc Beaufort wouldn’t take nothin’ for his time no matter how hard Pa pressed it on him. I never shared my thoughts with my folks on account I didn’t want to shame ‘em. But in my heart, the man who paid the doctor still “shines” to this day.
That weren’t the end of it, though. Two weeks later a travelin’ shoe salesman showed up at our cabin. He measured all us kids for a pair of shoes, but wouldn’t take a penny for our order. Accordin’ to him, the gov’ment had a new shoes program for young’uns. Pshaw, nobody believed that, but after he left us, he visited ever’ cabin along Simpson Creek doin’ the exact same thing for all the kids. T’weren’t more’n a week later ‘til we was all sportin’ new shoes.
I’d told Pa what Clem Jowers said about kids needin’ shoes. Him and some other men went up to see Clem to thank him.
That ornery old cuss denied havin’ anything to do with it, and seein’s how none of the men wanted to buy a jug of ‘shine off’n him, he ordered them off his land. It didn’t matter. Ever’body knowed Clem done it.
Come Spring, Federal revenuers arrested Clem and his sons at their still and sent all three of them off to the penitentiary. Bless her heart, Mrs. Jowers didn’t live to see her menfolk walk out of prison. That was long ago, but it still don’t seem fair to me. Sometimes life’s like that though.
In 1934, I reckon us kids livin’ along Simpson Creek wore the “shiniest” shoes our old mountains ever saw. It just goes to show that you can’t always tell about folks. You surely can’t.