Carole Steele was born two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and she spent her childhood in rural North Carolina, and for a short while during the war, in Portsmouth, Va., while her father worked in the shipyards at Norfolk.
While we were married, she often told stories of that childhood: her older brother, Mel; her hardworking father, Mutt; her peculiar grandfather, Earl Thaddeus, whom she called “Papa E.” They lived in a small house on the banks of the Dan River in Rockingham County, some 30 miles north of Greensboro, in the 1940s, where her family kept animals — a cow, some hogs and chickens. In her memory, this childhood was by turns idyllic, stormy, disappointing and exhilarating. It was for her, even more than for most, the persistent foundation of her adult life.
In the years before Carole died, I tried to get her to write down her stories of life and childhood. Finally, we settled on a strategy: I would sit her down, and like George Burns saying to Gracie Allen, “So, tell us about your brother, Gracie,” and she’d be off to the races. Carole was like that: She had a million stories. I typed as fast as she spoke, and I got much down, but I’m afraid Carole did not live long enough to finish the project.
Ultimately, we filled about 35 pages with her recollections. I hope that someday, granddaughters Carol Lily and Tallulah Rose will want to find out more about their Tiggy and will appreciate that this was written down and saved for them.
These are Carole’s words, verbatim and unedited. She spoke like a great storyteller, and much of it sounds as if it might come directly from Faulkner. These are 10 episodes, from when she was about two years old until she was eight or nine.
Papa E and the Easter chicks
When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuchsia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.
And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.
On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.
I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.
Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house.
“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”
Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.
We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.
The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.
We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”
Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”
But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed.
Carole and the balloons
One day, when Mama Piggy was visiting, Daddy was at the shipyard; Mama Piggy, Mother, Melvin and I rode to Buckroe Beach in Mama Piggy’s dark blue car. We were walking on the sand when we came upon a man selling ugly brown balloons. Mother bought one for Melvin and as we walked on, I pulled at Mother and asked could I have one, too. This was a familiar situation because Melvin often whined for things and when Mother got something for him, maybe because she thought I hadn’t expressed a desire for the Dixie Cup of ice cream or the balloon, or a toy, that I didn’t need one or even want one. But of course, seeing a toy in Melvin’s hands made me want a toy, too. So we turned around and went back to the ugly brown balloons and one was bought for me.
They were each tied on to skinny wooden sticks. Balloons were very scarce during the war, as were bright colored things. Anything related to grease or metal or oil or oil byproducts was scarce. When we got home from Buckroe Beach, we lay down to take a nap. I stayed awake long enough to make sure that Mother and Melvin were actually asleep; then I pulled a safety pin out of Mother’s pincushion and sneaked into the living room where the thin sticks of our balloons were slipped behind the coiled spring of the front spring door. I selected one balloon to represent the one that belonged to Melvin and I popped it. As Mother and Melvin were waking up from the bang, I realized I would have to sacrifice my own balloon to deprive Melvin of his, and with my cold hard little heart, I popped the second balloon. Melvin was totally pissed, and I thought he would never stop whining and crying about it.
This experience was really rewarding to me, so I decided to try some other things. That night, after everyone went to sleep — at this time Melvin and I shared the big double bed — I pulled up on my knees on the bed and leaned over and looked in Melvin’s face. I made faces at him; stuck out my tongue at him; waved my fingers behind my ears; and became convinced that he was completely asleep. Then I raised up, balled up my right fist and punched him in the nose as hard as I could. He woke up screaming and crying with blood running down his face. After cussing me, he ran into Mother and Daddy, told them I had punched him in the nose on purpose. They assured him I would never do anything like that, that I was a sweet little girl and he must have had a bad dream and waked up with a nosebleed.
When he came back to bed, he didn’t hit me back, but he really hated me. But I had drawn blood. I wondered what else would draw blood. I really enjoyed hitting him.
The next day, he and Ruebel Jones got into a fight in the back yard. I was probably 3 and Melvin would have been 5, making Ruebel about 7. Ruebel had a little brother, blond, named Dewey. His nose always ran and his face was always covered with dirty snotstripes. They were both unsavory characters and Ruebel was certainly a bully.
I had a Pepsi bottle that Mother had filled with ice water and I carried it around with me in the back yard. Ruebel hit Melvin in the nose and of course, Melvin started bleeding all over again. Melvin did not hit Ruebel back because Ruebel was much bigger, but I ran over to Ruebel and hit him as hard as I could on the head with my glass filled-up Pepsi bottle and Ruebel went down with blood running out of his nose. Bloody noses, bloody noses: I was a MAN.
Melvin was furious with me because Ruebel had beaten him and I beat Ruebel. Ruebel and Dewey both ran home crying. Melvin ran into Mother crying and tattling on me: one of his favorite things. I don’t know that I ever really hit another child after that in my whole life; it was too easy to win. All it took was a hard heart.
Carole and yellow food
Sometimes I got into trouble entertaining myself, on my own.
I loved to explore all the containers in the bathroom. Sometimes I left great messy trails of bath powder through the house, or pulled all the tissue off the roll. Sometimes I opened the refrigerator and experimented. After the first banana I ever had, I pulled out all the yellow foods of the refrigerator because I thought yellow meant sweet.
I carried it all to the back porch and tested each item. The worst disappointment was crookneck squash.
Then I found a cake of butter, a one pound cake of butter, that Grandmother Bell had mailed to us in an oatmeal box. I thought it would do as a doll birthday cake. Mother and Melvin came back into the house just as I was finishing the last few bites. Mother was sure I would be very sick, but I didn’t suffer any ill effects.
Hub Hawkins stutter
Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.
Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes.
Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, and might have been a little slow.
One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.
At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.
Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”
And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious.
And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad Deele.”
Papa E and Bucko
Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school, Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down.
Bucko was very ill tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him.
There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.
On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.
The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there.
I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”
Tea with dead squirrels
In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.
Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.
After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.
It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.
Papa E and the pond
When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.
He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.
He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like.
And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.
He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.
But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape.
We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.
There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.
He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots.
Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use.
Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.
On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.
These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.
Old man Ratledge
Janice’s grandfather, Old Man Ratledge was the meanest looking man I ever saw. He still had some black hair and always grizzly whiskers. He always smelled like whisky and was extremely grumpy. I just have to say he was very mean. He spent his days on the porch of the old Ice Plant rocked back on the two back legs of his chair. Occasionally, Janice and I would walk down to the Ice Plant and ask him if he would please give us a nickel or a dime and he would call out, “Goddamn it, you sons of bitches! Get away from me!”
We also had hogs. Down the road some distance from our house. If Daddy happened to be at home and Melvin or I telephoned, when we asked “Can I speak to Mother please,” Daddy would always say, “She’s gone to feed the hogs and the hogs got her.”
The hogs were a real trial. We had one successful year of raising hogs and on the day they were slaughtered, Daddy made me leave the scene but I was too tempted. It was a very exciting morning already because Melvin and I had seen a cottonmouth at the creek and daddy had sent Charlie Mosely down to the creek to hunt the cottonmouth and kill it.
Since I couldn’t go down to the creek, and Charlie wouldn’t let me go with him to kill the snake, I hid around the corner of the plumbing shop and watched the hog killing. Daddy and the men shot the hogs in the temple with a pistol. I remember seeing the heavy hog bodies go lifeless. Then they tied the two back feet together and hung the hogs upside down. They put buckets under the hogs to catch the blood and cut the hog’s bellies open down to their necks.
I have a strange memory of everything that happened next because I have confusion about Charlie coming up holding the dead cottonmouth by its tail, and the hogs entrails coming out of them. I have a memory of seeing a snake or a hog cut open and little live black snakes crawling out.
We took lots of our hog meat to friends and family. Mama Piggy came and helped mother make extra hot sage sausage and Papa Bell took the hams to salt cure for us. The tenderloins were the most prized part of the meat. We ate those right away and took them fresh to friends.
Mother made wonderful country gravy with the tenderloins and we had all of the tenderloins and pork chops that we could hold for a good while.
2 year old’s paradise
This doesn’t belong to that time: but to a time when I was probably 2 years old.
We’d come to Mayodan to visit Papa Bell and Grandmother Bell and very early in the morning, our cousin Marilyn came and woke us up to go out and play. And we went down the hill toward Papa Bell’s turnip patch. There was a big concrete conduit pouring out toward the turnip patch. It had a little water in the bottom of it. We crawled up in there and splashed around for a while. Then we came out and walked into what I thought was a jungle: all kinds of weed were up to my shoulders and trees I’d never seen before. At the other side of the turnip field, I could see a rising bank and the back steps of a group of houses. One of those back doors opened and a boy came out with a white dishpan full of soapy water. His mother yelled at him and he threw the water out and went back inside. Birds were singing all around my head. The smell of the leaves and the weeds all around me was so intense that I will never forget that morning. I think it might have been the first time I was ever in weeds and the first time I heard birds singing to me.
Now, if I imagine paradise, it is that second when the birds were singing and I saw the boy come out his kitchen door.