Granddaughter Letters

Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 74 (Giving to Others Works) 

[May 23, 2024]  It was my only dime.  I was standing at the checkout counter at the Bastrop Piggly Wiggly Grocery store with my Mom.  And there it was, a March of Dimes card with slots where a dime could be placed, the money used for funding polio research.  I was looking forward to getting my first candy in weeks.  Alas, my dime went into the card’s dime slot.  I admit that I was torn between a delicious candy bar in my pocket and giving up my only dime.

In truth, getting polio was the only disease that scared me as a kid.  I knew kids with polio, and I feared having to live inside an iron lung, lying on my back with the machine helping me breathe.  It was more than life or death, being unable to have regular friends, other kids being scared of you, or running through the neighborhoods like a crazy kid.  I was fortunate that schoolchildren began receiving the polio vaccine in large numbers around 1955.  I entered first grade in 1958. One of our first tasks was to line up and get the shot in the left arm.  A scab formed and later fell off, leaving a distinctive scar.  That scar would be our badge of courage, proving for the first time we were immune to this scourge of a disease.

In church, school, and at home, I was always told that “giving was better than receiving.”  Using a kid’s logic, there is no way that could be true.  Or, so I thought it was wrong.  It was simply more fun to get things than give stuff away.  But Mom insisted we give each other presents on our birthdays and Christmas.  Mom was great, only twice a year.  On special holidays, like Thanksgiving or Easter, we give our friends and family a small, cheap card.  “Just write your name on the back of the card,” our teacher suggested. Then, every classmate received one from every other classmate.

In my younger years, I gave my sister Terri a present that was usually something like a clothespin, with a scrap of material for a dress glued on and two eyes drawn with a pencil.  Crude, but I made it “with love.”  For my brother Philip, the gifts were easier.  I painted the face and gun of a plastic soldier toy that Dad gave me.  And it didn’t matter that the paint peeled off surprisingly fast.  One year, I gave him a pretty rock (better than coal in your Christmas stocking and prettier).

Sometimes, I would give my sister insects and small animals.  I thought it was funny to see her reaction.  She was a girl, and girls were afraid of bugs and animals.  Terri was good about not reporting me to Mom for being a prick.  Some of the better gifts were lizards, and they were fast, frogs which were slow, lightning bugs caught at night, mosquito hawks, dung beetles, carpenter bees that looked like a regular bees but with no stinger, and a de-stingered honey bee.  Of course, they were all healthy and alive.

Presents for Mom and Dad were a different story.  They had to be perfect presents, requiring some serious thinking.  What did they need?  What did they like?  Most importantly, what could I afford?  What I could pay was important because that meant something less than one dollar, and that dollar took me weeks to save when I was very young.

On Sundays at church service, we gave what we could by putting our nickel or dime in the collection plate.  Sometimes, Mom would give us each a quarter to put into the plate, with strict instructions not to pocket the money.  Dad explained that the money went to the Chinese who were starving to death in the millions.  I thought he was exaggerating; he was not.

At the end of every school year, it was expected to give your teacher a small gift.  I always forgot.  It was my job to remember these things.  Mom told me it was all on me.  Others remembered, and, yes, I was embarrassed.  A little shame to motivate goes a long way.

Never forget a birthday was the rule.  My Mom, Dad, brother Philip and sister Terri’s birthdays are seared into my brain.  I can never, ever forget them.  On the other hand, my youngest sister Paula’s birthday, 12 years younger, was easy to mix up, and I often get it wrong to this day.  When I left home at 17, she was only 5.  No excuse.

I think I was mainly a happy-go-lucky kid without much worries.  I was just forgetful because I was not focused, and that was a problem that would haunt me and create embarrassing situations.  In Junior and High School, I was one of “those kids” who rarely turned in his homework on time.  This was not a workable way to have a good life.  I lived and I hope those victims eventually did forget.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 73 (Why a Good Friend) 

[May 19, 2024]  We were on the ground, punching each other, yelling, grabbing, cussing, and rolling around in the dirt as we had just argued over something neither of us could remember.  And the reason we fought was not as important as the fact we could fight and still remain friends despite bloody noses and bruises.  Thinking for us little boys was impossible, so our solution was fighting.

Wilson was interestingly different than me, but he lived next door, and we were the same age, so he was similar enough to me that we could talk and talk and fight.  He was somebody I could disagree with and fight with over differing opinions, like who had the strongest or smartest dad, the best house, or the best shot with a BB gun.  You know, important stuff.

There was always tension in our friendship.  Our parents thought we got along perfectly, but I didn’t want that, nor did he.  Wilson and I wanted some stress between us.  We could yell, cuss, and fight, and when we were done, we both felt much better and remained friends.  And that was unexplainable.

If we got along perfectly, we wouldn’t want that.  We would get bored, and that would surely break up our relationship.  We wanted some trouble, mystery, craziness, and combativeness.  That is why our friendship worked.  We could trust each other, which is why we could talk and would fight about anything, things adults might avoid.

We could talk about pretty much anything with straight talk because we knew we could trust each other.  We told each other the blunt truth, even when those truths were harsh and hurtful, which might lead to a fight between us, Wilson or me running off crying.  But we always came back; that took grit and courage, which was hard.

For better or worse, we told people what we thought, and those people often did not like it.  Older boys, who were more sophisticated and stronger and faster, didn’t like being reminded of their warts and problems in front of girls, so they would chase us and do some ass wuppin’ on us.  That’s why Wilson and I had fast feet.

And this struggle never ended because we were constantly growing, changing, and maturing.  It was unfortunate, but as we aged, we learned to shade the truth so the older boys were less likely for us to get beat up.  Unfortunately, the truth was being sacrificed.  That’s how it was at my hometown grade school in Mer Rouge, Louisiana.

It was hard being Wilson’s friend, not because we fought, but because sometimes we didn’t even know what we wanted.  We had to work that out with our words, which was crude yet necessary for our friendship.  For example, I had my 410 shotgun when we went hunting, and Wilson had his dad’s 16 gauge.  I wanted to hunt doves, and Wilson wanted to shoot squirrels.  We would bring our game back to our mothers to fix up for supper.

But the hunt sometimes would not happen.  I could not say precisely why I wanted to hunt dove and Wilson to hunt for squirrels.  Years later, I discovered that Wilson was not good enough with his dad’s shotgun to take down a flying dove.  Squirrels were just easier.  One day, my Dad found us fighting in the drainage ditch beside our homes.  “Why you boys fighting?”  I had no answer because I couldn’t understand it or say why.  Wilson thought I’d lied to another friend about his poor hunting skills, which would be a sin.  So we fought.

A good friendship takes work.  With my neighbor Wilson, I learned that a great friendship sometimes takes fighting, struggling, and a bloody nose.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 72 (Little Big Man) 

[May 13, 2024]  “We love having you at our house, Little Big Man.”  We called him Granddaddy; he was Bigmama’s husband.  He was a short but strong man, forgiving of my misbehavior, forthrightly religious, a good storyteller, skilled with his hands, able to fall asleep in his office chair, and intense but compassionate.  He was a man who knew more than most men but had little formal education.  He was not the man you would think was a crusader for his family, and he liked me better than most for some unknown reason.

Granddaddy Boyd Smith called me “Little Big Man.”  I believe this was a term of endearment, given that I was maybe ten or eleven years old at the time and certainly not a big kid nor a man – but I wanted to be.  I was maybe 60 pounds, dripping wet, skinny, and thin-boned.  Granddaddy was stocky, muscular, and balding.  He was born in 1904 from a different stock and was highly respected and brutally truthful.  “Listen up, Little Big Man,” he said in a hushed tone, “Go fetch my flyswatter.  Your cousin over there earned himself an ass swattin’.”

A few years ago, I went back to the home where Bigmama and Granddaddy raised four children, my Mom being the youngest, and where us grandkids had a wonderful time just being kids.  We visited my grandparents often from the early 1950s, well before I could remember and until I joined the Army.  I didn’t know it then, but now, looking back, Granddaddy saw something in me.  Maybe I was his favorite, I dunno.  Now, there were lots and lots of cousins around my age running around, so he could have had the pick of the litter, but instead, he got skinny little me.  “How are you today, Little Big Man?”

Bonita, Louisiana, was our home away from home.  It wasn’t the 13 bedrooms, or the half city block of their property, or the giant swing set, and it was my Granddaddy and Bigmama themselves who made this place so special.  Their personalities made it home.  And everybody in town knew them well; by extension, they knew us and treated us with great kindness.  “Put it on Granddaddy’s tab,” I would say at the store.  So I wouldn’t have to pay for anything. But only with his permission would I dare do so.  Never have I done this again.  Only in Bonita.

Wherever my grandparents were, it was home.  Camping on the lake, traveling to Baton Rouge, the capital, and fishing off their motor boat was home unlike anywhere else.  I felt content around Granddaddy and was secure, knowing he could beat up anyone, especially punks who caused problems.  And Bonita had seen its problems: murders, armed robbery, the KKK, and snake oil salesmen.  You wouldn’t know it now.  Things have changed.  Now, they are “modern.”  Even Bigmama’s large, old house is gone, dismantled and removed.

“Little big man, come here and sit next to me,” Granddaddy would say.  “Look here at these arm muscles, you want to arm wrestle?”  I always took him up on the offer.  I’m sure he let me win.  After I “won,” he effortlessly lifted me up and off the ground with just one arm.  I was amazed.  I thought he was the strongest man in the world.

One day, he took me out into the yard and told me the story of his father, William T. Smith, who was born in 1878.  Granddaddy loved his father dearly, and his father was still alive in the early 1960s.  And my family was at his funeral in 1963.  I was told that William T. Smith served as a member of the 38th Infantry, U.S. Volunteers, Company B during the Philippine-American War, 1899 to 1902.  I was given Private Smith’s service record, a small booklet listing how the war progressed, where he fought against insurgents, and the ships that carried the troops.  The booklet is a fascinating read of the history of one of our direct relatives.  I remember most how Granddaddy was so proud of his father.

The exciting story is about William T., my great-grandfather.  He was married and had seven children.  When his wife died, he advertised for a new wife, went to meet her at the train station and on the way home, he told her that he had seven children: one was my grandfather, and another one was an infant.  She was pretty mad about that deception.  They never had children, and when she passed away, he married a third woman and had two additional girls, only slightly older than me.  We kids always thought Nell and Sue were cousins, but they were actually great aunts.

On any day, there were a dozen or more young kids, all granddaddy’s grandchildren, still young enough to be seen running about screaming their heads off, having the time of their lives, playing on the swing set or balancing on the property iron fence, and knowing that there was always our grandparents we could run to for anything.  But one of my cousins was a little delinquent and deserving of an ass swattin’.  As I recall, he never got that flyswatter despite that cousin deserving it.

When Granddaddy passed away, I was greatly saddened.  The best years of my life were spent with him, learning about how to be a good man, to be a proper Christian, learning how to fix cars, and to care for my family.  He also stood up for me when I needed him most.  Despite my defects, I couldn’t have had a better Granddaddy, and of course, with the most wonderful Bigmama, they made a loving couple and a “crusader” for his family.

If I were to imagine Heaven for me, it would be with Granddaddy and Bigmama, drinking coffee and eating the best breakfast of eggs, biscuits, and bacon, watching them talk and smile, and just being who they were.  I’m still proud to be called “Little Big Man.”

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 71 (Mother’s Day) 

[May 12, 2024]  Like so many children nationwide, Mother’s Day is a special time for her children to show their appreciation.  My sister, brother, and I might have been young, not yet reaching the tender age of ten, but we knew our duty to cook Mom a spectacular, delicious, perfectly prepared breakfast, with cold orange juice and hot coffee with sugar, and served with flowers, and in bed.  And it had to be a surprise.  We were wise enough to know that Dad would not help us because that is not what dads do.  It was up to us kids.  That Sunday, May 14th, 1961, was the Mother’s Day breakfast to remember.  And the best Mother’s Day ever.

It all began after waking up early with the birds chirping and the sun shining.  I was up first, having to run to the bathroom.  I’d used an old Indian trick that my Dad had taught me.  He said the way the Indians made sure they were up early to go hunting was to drink a lot of water right before going to bed.  Well, it worked!  Show time.

My brother Philip and I slept in the same room with Terri in the bedroom next door.  We were so excited.  I could see it on Terri’s face.  She couldn’t hold in her excitement and was squealing with glee.  There was, of course, no plan to make Mom her special breakfast.  Individually, we just started getting stuff from the refrigerator; pots and pans were under the sink; the coffee was there, too.  Hot coffee was a unique challenge.  We had not prepared it before, so I filled it up to the filter level; it seemed right.

If I remember correctly, being older, I did most of the intelligent work.  Experience, none of us had any to speak of.  Terri had seen Mom prepare meals, so we asked her questions about how to break open eggs, how to cook bacon, the right temperature, and how long.  I’m not sure Philip and I paid attention to her answers; we, too, were over-excited.  Cooking breakfast, all seemed so simple in concept.

It turned out that the biscuits were the most difficult of all.  Flour and milk mixed to a sticky consistency then flattened with Mom’s roller and cut out with a small drinking glass.  Following my young sister’s direction, we threw flour all over so the dough didn’t stick.  And we weren’t sure how long they would be in the oven.  Eventually, the biscuits were done.  They were a little undercooked, but better not to be burnt.  See how smart we were.

At some point, we were ready for the breakfast presentation.  I sent Terri to peek in on Mom to make sure she was still sleeping; she was.  After lining up at the door, we knocked on the bedroom door.  “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom,” we yelled.  She was surprised, and the meal was “absolutely delicious.” Mom had eaten nothing better.  She told us so, and moms never lie.  I knew it would be.

Of course, the coffee was undrinkable and cold and would wake the devil.  The eggs were cold and hard.  The biscuits were raw.  The bacon burnt.  The orange juice we forgot.  Philip had to run back into the kitchen for a fork, knife, and napkin.  And the flowers were yellow blossoming dandelions from the yard.  But this was the best Mother’s Day ever at the Satterfield house.

We also hand-made Mother’s Day cards.  I learned how to do that in the third grade.  Our teachers were pretty darn smart.  They knew this day was coming, so they assigned us the task of making the cards in class.  They knew we didn’t have the foresight to make them at home.  I’m sure most of the cards made in class were simple, but the focused attention and love we put into them was all that mattered.  Mine was ready.  All I had to do was show Philip and Terri.  Finding the paper at home was hard, but we had crayons, and I was good at staying within the lines and making the colors stand out.  Happy Mother’s Day from your kids.  Mom had a big smile on her face.  Dad faked being asleep.

Then we dashed to play outside.  Did we forget to clean up the kitchen?  Yep.  We never gave it a second thought.  Mom was happy; we kids were happy.  We delivered a “delicious” Mother’s Day breakfast.  What could have possibly gone wrong?

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 70 (All Aboard)

[May 5, 2024] Two loud, sharp toots from the locomotive followed by the railroad Conductor’s shouting ALL ABOARD.  This trip would be another exciting and fun time for the family.  Up to about the year 1970, the Missouri Pacific Railroad ran passenger trains.  The one we took was officially known as the Delta Eagle, “Eagle,” referring to their premier passenger service.  These trips were free for us in the early 1960s because our Dad worked on that railroad as a Telegrapher.

We were traveling to Little Rock, Arkansas, to visit our great Aunt Rea.  With our meager luggage and apprehensiveness, Mom, Philip, Terri, and me boarded about midnight into a standard passenger car.  Sleeping cars were an upgrade and not free.  Since we had little money, this would have to do.  On the plus side, these rail cars were spacious and gave me the space to run up and down the aisles, to my Mom’s embarrassment.  “Sit down here, Douglas and rest your head a bit.”  She must have been eyeing some unsavory-looking young men at the back of the car.  I was oblivious to any danger, just like any other young kid.

I must have fallen asleep at some point but awoke at each stop as passengers came and went.  I was amazed at these people.  Riding trains was not cheap, but it was the preferred mode of transport between major towns for long trips.  In those days, it was about a four-hour trip up north to Little Rock from our home.  Trains took longer, due to all the stops, but were safer.  As planned, we would arrive in the city sometime after breakfast to be picked up by Aunt Rea.

At one point, we slowed down to a crawl to pass by a major freight train derailment.  Lights from emergency services, smoke or steam from burning cars (who knew what was in them), a mishmash of noise, and an array of strong smells shocked us.  Thank goodness the crash didn’t involve our passenger train; this freight train being crushed like a tin can was terrible enough.  Everyone was at the windows glaring at the ghastly sight.  None of us had ever seen anything like it.  And I never heard anything about the crash; the news mainly came from newspapers.  Anyway, what kid read them anyway?

After passing the derailment, we were delayed a long time, but it was still early in the morning.  I was excited.  My imagination ran wild.  Maybe there would be a fistfight, an armed train robbery, or another trainwreck.  Nope.  I had watched too many cowboy movies.  At another stop, we were required to exit the train with our baggage.  No explanation, okay, get back on.  Toot Toot, ALL ABOARD.  There were no cell phones, so our aunt had to wait at the train station, not knowing why our train was not on time.

Of course, all the delays had us arriving late to Little Rock, but Aunt Rea was there all smiles.  That perked us up after the trials of our journey.  Traveling in Aunt Rea’s car was wild with us, and our luggage was packed in like sardines and no seatbelts.  And she never obeyed speed limits.  That was fun.  We were all fast asleep when we arrived at her house.  We had fun.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 69  (the Tooth Fairy)

[April 29, 2024]  Truth be told, the Tooth Fairy was always my favorite childhood myth. The red-suited Santa was a close second. In my imagination, this tooth fairy was a beautiful Tinkerbell-like pixie with tiny wings and the uncanny ability to sneak into our bedroom and place a quarter under my pillow.  She would snatch the baby tooth without awakening my brother or me, who slept nearby.

I lost my baby teeth early, so I was very young when I got my first quarter, or maybe it was a dime.  Come to think of it, it was a dime. With the cash, I bought bubble gum, a penny each.

For me, the Tooth Fairy ranks right up there with peanut butter and mayo sandwiches, Bigmama’s pecan pie, throwing dirt clods at wasp nests, eating watermelon on a hot day, and running through our neighbors’ yards pretending to be “army men.”  Dubble Bubble was a brand of bubble gum, and it came in only one flavor, a weak hint of strawberry.

As a boy, I was highly candy-motivated. I stuffed my mouth full and chewed and chewed until my jaw ached. Then, I would save it by putting it in the top dresser drawer for later use the next day.  Just thinking about it today makes my jaw ache; muscle memory from long ago, and who knows what was stuck in that used bubble gum.

Thanks to the Tooth Fairy, or rather thanks to my Mom, who surely must have been the culprit behind this generous fairy, I was often rewarded. My brother, two years younger, was jealous as I raked in those early dimes. I felt bad for him, so I shared my gum. Sharing was not in my nature, but Mom always told us to share because it was the Christian thing to do.  She was right, but that didn’t matter much to me, as I hoarded a lot of candy.

I’ve been told that I was a “risk avoider” and that I would go out of my way to avoid getting hurt or getting punished by my parents or teachers for doing something really stupid.  Recently, I took a psychological “test” to determine my personality type, and yes, the results did say I am prone to avoiding risk.

The way I look at it, why do something stupid without considering the ramifications?  So, I was a reasonably well-behaved boy and ensured my baby teeth were properly tucked away in an envelope to make it easy for the Tooth Fairy.  I wouldn’t want her/fairy/Mom to miss that tooth.  I wanted that dime.

On one occasion, I caught my Mom with her hand under my pillow after I’d gone to bed with a baby tooth sealed securely in an envelope.  Shocked that she would try to take the Tooth Fairy’s gift from me, I blurted out, “That’s my money.”  My reaction was emotional at the time, but I’m glad my Mom was the forgiving type.  I still remember the wide-eyed look on her face.

The first time I saw a dentist to check my teeth was when I was 14.  Where I grew up, doctors were rare, and the only reason you went to the hospital was to die.  I was scared of going to the dentist for the first time, but he gave me nitrous oxide, also called laughing gas, to calm my nerves while he filled a cavity.  By then, all my baby teeth were gone.  That’s a good thing.

I must have made a killing in dimes from the Tooth Fairy, losing more than a dozen baby teeth. That’s a whole two dollars, a veritable fortune for a kid. I was anxious but a happy kid. Like the British say, “Let’s crack on,” and keep this superstition alive and well.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 68  (See Dick Run)

[April 28, 2024]  You never know when a piece of good news comes along and prevents an embarrassing moment.  As a kid, I was chronically unprepared for school, and when the school principal, Mr. Montgomery, came into our First-grade classroom, we were told to sit still and not talk.  That was okay with me because, at that moment, I was next up to read from the childhood reader, “See Dick Run,” and I was not ready.  Maybe it was a truly lucky day after all.

That school year was a rollercoaster of making new friends and the task of learning “readin-writin-rithmetic” plus being graded on something called “deportment,” whatever that was.  As I recall, it was akin to good manners; in my Mom’s words, it was “stay out of trouble.”  Keep your mouth shut was a workable theory but it was too often difficult because boys will be boys, always getting into hot water.  One of the greatest things about my Mom was that she was unfazed by my many excuses for not wanting to go to school and being unprepared.  Homework?  What homework?

The reading part of the classroom I didn’t like so much either – it was hard – nor did my best friend and next-door neighbor Wilson like it either.  We’d known each other since we were babes in our mother’s arms.  Come to think of it, us boys all had other things on their minds, like playing baseball, not girls.  Girls had cooties, a mysterious  – perhaps mythological – disease that boys could catch by touching them.  Ack, run away!

The first book we learned to read was “Dick and Jane: Go, Go, Go.”  I had to look up the book title because I avoided reading books then, and remembering book names was impossible.  My memory of First Grade was that it interfered with fishing and running about in the woods, swimming in the local bayou, playing outdoor games with my buddies, hunting with my BB gun, and doing nothing at all.  I distinctly remember reading these Dick and Jane books.  The sentences were three or four words long.  So easy, yet soooo dull.  The hand-drawn pictures looked like they were taken from a Sears catalog.

And there was a dog named Spot, a little sister Sally, and a baby without a name.  There was zero excitement in these books.  You can read “See Dick Run” only so many times before you go crazy. Don’t get me wrong; elsewhere, there were some entertaining activities and plenty of learning opportunities in the classroom.

I learned how to Square Dance and to “do-si-do,” mix Plaster-of-Paris, plant radishes in the dirt, learn how to say the word “umbrella” correctly, team up with the strongest boys during recess to win all the games, paint popsicle stick figures after gluing them together with Elmer’s glue, and really important not to make the teacher run out of the classroom crying.  It was enjoyable, more often than not.

These “See Dick Run” books have not been used in regular classrooms since the 1960s.  However, I did learn that the older books are still helpful to students “with intellectual challenges.”  Who would have guessed?  We were not the brightest class of kids, but our school teachers, all middle-aged women, knew how to inspire us to be better kids.  To my knowledge, none of those in my class ever went to prison or a mental institution.  That sure is saying something good about our teachers.

There are a few paths to a good life; one of them is reading.  It took me many years to come to that realization, and then I had to make up for all that lost time spent not reading.  As a measure of repentance, I recently ordered the original First Grade reader “Dick and Jane.”  Opening the package and holding the book in my hands was like being instantly transported back in time.  There I was, now standing before my teacher and the school principal to read from this book.

See Dick Run.  See Spot run.  Run, run, run.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 67  (It’s Blowing Up a Storm)

[April 21, 2024]  From the shoreline of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, I could see my Mom clapping her hands over her head.  After a dozen or so tries, I’d finally got up on my skis and had completed another right of passage for a southern boy: water skiing.  Mom was pleased.  I did feel pretty good that I could ski before my dad, but I felt bad, too.

This trip was going to be the best camping ever.

We would have a summer vacation of boating, lake camping, spinner fishing, swimming, sleeping in an uncomfortable tent, eating watermelons, and fun water skiing.  That week, the weather cooperated, there were few insects, the lake was like a mirror, and the scenery was beautiful.  “Like a postcard,” Bigmama would say.

There was nothing better than lake camping with my grandparents.  Plus, Granddaddy had a beautiful red and white 15-foot Starcraft boat with an Evinrude motor.  His boat had plenty of horsepower in that engine to pull a water skier behind on the lake or fish off the side while bobbling near the shore, which we did daily.  We hauled in fish, much to my delight.  I was a natural.

Crack!  One day, while exploring the lake’s upper reaches, we got jumped by a powerful storm.  It had all the elements of a disaster, with high winds, lightning, large waves, and a severe likelihood of capsizing Granddaddy’s boat.  Aboard were Granddaddy, Dad, Mom, my brother Philip, and me.

We managed to get the boat to an unknown shoreline while the adults tried to keep the boat from drifting out deeper into the lake, where being overturned would be disastrous.  And keep the boat’s aluminum hull off the large shore rocks.

I insisted I help hold the boat at the rocky shoreline, but Dad said, “NO!”  “Adults only.”  I was maybe ten years old.  “Bail out the water.”  He was serious.  He was also worried, and I could see it in his eyes.  The water was pouring fast into the boat.  But we survived.   After experiencing the worst aspects of the storm, we slowly limped the Starcraft back to our camping area.

But, like any vacation, there comes a time when the day might bring an unexpected turn.  That day on a stormy lake is one never to forget.  Arriving back at the campsite, I saw Bigmama collecting her kitchenware, bags of food, our sleeping blankets, pieces of our tentage, trash, and oddities strewn everywhere like an explosion had thrown stuff everywhere.  I was immediately off the boat to help, even if I couldn’t do anything meaningful.

Hours following a storm are often calm.  We took the time to gather up our things and began drying out.  Granddaddy was amazing at how fast he got the tent fixed and upright.  Plus, much to my enjoyment, he had a massive fire roaring in a pit.  I stood beside it, gathering in its warmth and mesmerized by its light.  The adults worked quickly, with darkness approaching.

We slept with wet wool blankets on the bare ground that night, but the wool kept us warm.  We never heard of a sleeping bag.  From my tent, I watched as the flames bounced shadows around the camp, and eventually, I slept soundly.  During the night, we had critters visit.  One opossum was sniffing at my head, and he was a persistent little bugger because he wouldn’t stop.  It was as if a small rat family invaded us.

The following morning, I peeked out of my tent to see Bigmama making her famous delicious biscuits, a pan of eggs cooking in grease, pancakes on the grill, and a pot of coffee brewing.  Later, I laughed at Bigmama’s funny jokes, which seemed funnier when my mouth was full of buttered biscuits.  We were back to the best vacation camping trip ever.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 66  (Grandpa Douglas Satterfield)

[April 18, 2024]  His face was wrinkled and tanned; he was thin, of medium height, with blue eyes and thinning gray hair, and wearing thick glasses.  Douglas James Satterfield sat in his favorite chair overlooking the front of his farmhouse, smoking an unfiltered Camel cigarette.  His farm was located south of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, near the Arkansas River.  Grandpa’s gaze was intense and unflinching.  He was a capable man, and you could tell just by being near him.

I was named after Grandpa Satterfield.  My grandmother and other family members called him Douglas, and to distinguish me around the house, I was called Doug.  Your father’s middle name is Douglas, to continue that tradition.

I don’t have many regrets in my life, and the reason has been a personal philosophy to always look forward to the future, to the family, and to God in everything I do.  One family regret I have is not getting to know my Grandpa Satterfield better.  Us kids called him “Grandpa” (pronounced gran‧paw, emphasis on “paw”).

Grandpa was a very old man in my memories; he was frail but stoic, and our grandmother was too.  He was born in 1882 in Tennessee, moved to Arkansas, married, had six children by two wives (not at the same time), and passed away in 1976.  I was stationed with the Army in West Germany at the time when he passed, and so I didn’t return for the funeral.  I was notified of his passing by post, and sadly, the notification was far too late for me to return to the States and attend his funeral.

By the time I was born, he was already 70 years of age.  As I write this letter, you are eight and I’m 71.  This age difference encourages me to write these “Letters to My Granddaughter” so you can learn about me rather than regret not knowing.  Or, at least, you now have the choice to know or not know.  It’s your call.

What I know about Grandpa would fit on the back of a dinner napkin, which is a terrible shame, and I regret that I failed to learn more about him when I had the chance.

My Dad was the youngest of six siblings, born in the summer of 1929.  History tells us that this was the beginning of the Great Depression, lasting many years and destroying lives across America.  One of Grandpa’s children was Uncle DJ, who fought during World War II in Germany, and three sisters, plus one half-sister.  Whether the depression had an effect on more children, I will never know, but by the time my Dad was born, his mother, my grandmother, was 37.

From the stories I have heard, Grandpa worked in a Stave Mill for several decades, first as a saw filer and then making narrow strips of wood for the sides of barrels.  These barrels were used to transport various goods in the days before prefab boxes and plastic containers.  Grandpa was an expert in wood and could identify any wood type just by glancing at it.

In 1918, he received his military registration for a possible draft into the Great World War I, although he did not serve.  I can only guess but it might have been his age at 36 and because he had three children and his wife (my grandmother) was pregnant with a fourth.  I have a photographic copy of his military Registration Card with his squiggly signature.  Cool.

One summer, as a young boy, my Dad tried working at this stave mill but had to quit because the work was too physically demanding.  Most of the stave mills closed after World War II and this was the time that Grandpa moved his family around southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana to find work.  Eventually, he purchased a farm just outside Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  This farm is where my few memories of Grandpa began.

The “Satterfield Farm,” as we called it, was mainly for growing cotton.  Our grandmother had a large garden and tended her chickens.  We didn’t visit often, being over a two-hour trip one way, and we rarely stayed overnight.  Occasionally, I would stay for a few days after my family returned home.  At the time, I thought that time on the farm was “boring.”  And I mean really boring.  I wanted to run, have fun, and see places I’d never been.  I was perhaps a bit of an aimless boy, as typical kids are, which is why I was bored.  I was unhappy being there.

Yet, the farm was not that at all.  It was far from boring, thanks to Grandpa Satterfield.  I learned to pick cotton, snap the head off a chicken and pluck feathers, throw a knuckleball (that was hard), shoot a sitting squirrel at 30 yards with a shotgun loaded with No. 9 shot, mow grass in straight lines with a push mower, tie a proper knot to hold a hook and bait a worm for fishing, and make the finest slingshot.  I also learned to properly maintain my equipment, tools, shoes, and clothes, and always buy the best.  These new-found skills unexpectedly gave me purpose.

My Grandpa also enjoyed hunting and fishing and instilled that love of the outdoors in my Dad.  So sometime around when my Dad was nine or ten years old, Grandpa gave him a 410 single-shot shotgun, made by J. Stevens Arms Company, model 94A.  It has no date or serial number but was manufactured sometime after 1930.  My Dad hunted with this shotgun often, as I did when I was a kid.  Being the oldest, I was given this shotgun.

This gun is the only tangible object that connects my Grandpa with my Dad and me.  Now, the shotgun belongs to you.

Going back in time, the Satterfield’s originated in central and northern England, and we can trace them back to the late 1500s.  Why they decided to immigrate to America is not that different from others, as they looked for more opportunities to be free and independent.  That has always been our noble goal.  Times were hard for the Satterfield’s because they always worked hard for what they got, did not cheat or steal from others, never owned slaves, and were religious and dedicated to their families.  I’m glad that I can say that I’ve been a part of this tradition and so will you.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 65  (Mowing the Grass)

[April 11, 2024]  In the early 1960s, the American economy was not doing as well as one might believe.  Things were tough; the baby boomer generation was everywhere, and although jobs were plentiful, they paid almost nothing.  For a kid looking to earn some money, forget it.  We had to compete with adults looking for work, and potential employers would readily hire a grown man over a kid looking for part-time work, and if they did hire one of us kids, they paid us only a fraction of what an adult would receive.

So, my friends and I had to put our heads together and devise a plan to get some spending money.  As children, we learn early that we are part of a family, and many duties and responsibilities come with that.  Often, we are given odd jobs around the home.  I was fortunate to have many jobs where I learned about hard work, saving my money, and figuring out who would pay us.  One such job was mowing the grass for people around the neighborhood.  We might earn a quarter or two by helping them out if lucky.

Growing up in a small town with no traffic lights meant that everyone knew each other, and if you were willing, you could get just about any small job for either money or trade for some item you wanted.  I did this when I was about ten years old by mowing grass.  I had my lawnmower, the old push type I’d found at the local dump, but it was not motorized.  I was not allowed to use our power mower; that was Dad’s mower for our home.

Mowing the grass was one of the first jobs I had where I worked for myself.  Part of my earnings went to the family.  At first, I thought this was unfair, but I gained an appreciation for the respect my family and neighbors granted me for doing a good job.  My earnings were whatever the homeowner gave me.  Typically, this was a quarter of a dollar unless the yard was large, and then I got an extra dime.

It was hard work in the heat and humidity of the Deep South.  The blades never cut me because the push lawn mower was typically dull, and I worked slowly until everything was cut.  Many years later, I learned how to sharpen the mower blades after it would no longer do me any good.  For a ten-year-old, however, sharpening was a skill too far advanced and required a sharp file that I did not possess.

One of my neighbors, the father of my best friend Wilson, would teach me some of the “tricks” of mowing the grass and pleasing the customer.  This was new to me.  He told me, “Either you do the job right or not at all,” and, of course, I said: “I had no idea that ‘not at all’ was an option.”

The mowing part, I had that down pretty well.  Satisfying the customer was a different story, however.  He told me that the first thing I should do is to politely ask the customer how they were getting along and thank them for their generosity in hiring me.  Smile, he also said, “as if your life depended upon it.”

He told me it was just as essential to get my customers to like me as it was to do a good job.  If they were unsatisfied with my work, I could forget about any future work, and the adults would no longer help me.  Mrs. Cox would say to my mom, “That Doug sure has a beautiful smile.”  I was learning and learning fast.

As the years passed, my family moved to the big city 10 miles north.  I didn’t realize it then, but this big city had a population of about 8,000, which was “big” for me.  I no longer mowed anyone’s yard, but I came into contact with a farmer who gave me much better jobs, picking up cow manure, cleaning pig pens, and finally graduating to milking cows.  That’s where I met my first real girlfriend.  And that is another story.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 64  (Gas Jockey)

[April 4, 2024]  My boss, Mr. Amato –  also called “Mr. A.” – ran his gasoline service station as if his life depended upon it, and in a way, it did because the livelihood of his wife and seven children stemmed from selling gasoline to customers.  I was a new gas jockey at his station in my sophomore year in High School.  My job was straightforward: giving good service and pumping gas in that order.  Mr. A. was a tough nut when it came to treating the customer “like family,” and I would never forget that lesson.  All of us gas jockeys were taught by Mr. A. that to be good at our jobs meant knowing the business, doing what we were told, and learning how to please the customer.

According to Mr. Amato himself, he was a fan of Vince Lombardi, the best football coach in American history.  We learned to be on time, and Mr. A. had a Lombardi coaching philosophy to back him up.  One of Mr. A’s rules drilled into me was based on ‘Lombardi Time’ where the coach expected his players and assistants to be 15 minutes early to practices.  Not on time, but 15 minutes early.  If they weren’t, Lombardi saw them as “late.”  One day, I arrived at work “five minutes before my scheduled shift.”  I was docked an hour’s pay for that dereliction of duty.  It was a lesson, and I was never late again.

Mr. A. was an Italian immigrant from a small town outside Naples, where he came to America by himself as a child sometime in the late 1920s – living in Italy at the time meant living in hopeless poverty.  He once told me how he was scared when he stowed away on a merchant ship coming to America.  The crew had caught him and threatened to throw him overboard, but by doing all the dirty jobs on the ship, they allowed him to stay.

He was trying to teach us about being part of the American Dream, and he often referenced it whenever he felt the need, which was often.  If you want to be a real man and live the Dream, you have to have “heart in the game.”  And, yes, all of us teenage gas jockeys wanted to be real men; somehow, that sparked an interest in us.  Yeah, be like John Wayne, Johnny Weissmuller, or Clint Eastwood.

Our pay was two bits an hour – 50¢ – plus any tips we might get from customers.  Mr. A. said we were overpaid, but we got a dollar less than the grown-ups doing the same job.  While I rarely earned a tip for cleaning windshields, checking the oil level and tire pressure, or doing a quick visual check of the vehicle, I learned about pleasing my boss, Mr. A., by pleasing his customers.

Mr. Amato also expected us to do as we were told, and we did.  I kept my eye peeled for any hint of a problem with the goings-on at the gas station.  He seemed to like me and once said I was doing “okay” at my work by helping customers and not spilling gasoline when topping off the gas tank.  Yep, I did what he told me to do, but more.

Two men pulled up in a dilapidated car wearing green ski masks one day.  I didn’t take long before they were out, running into the office, going for the cash register.  Mr. A. had one of those large brass registers that weighed more than I did.  Waiting for them inside was a madman, Mr. A.  There was no time to think.  No time to call the police.  No time for being scared.  Just action.  From behind his desk came the madman with the biggest Louisville Slugger baseball bat I’d ever seen, or so it seemed.  For me, everything after was a blur, but Mr. A. kept his head.  The robbers got away but were later arrested a few miles away after crashing into the Wooten Grocery warehouse.  Rumor has it they both had broken arms.

My parents didn’t like me working as a gas jockey.  My Dad thought I could do better, and my Mom thought it was too dangerous.  I never told them about the robbery, and they never brought it up.  So, it was a sad day.  I gave Mr. Amato two weeks’ notice that I would be moving on to work closer to home.  My Mom had gotten me a paper route, and I would have that job until I graduated High School.

I learned that you don’t always get to choose who you work with, or what they are made of, or whether they are reliable, loyal, happy, or super smart.  Do your best.  Know right from wrong, and don’t hesitate to act when the chips are down.  And there will be a time when you are called upon to do something that requires courage.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 63  (Light My Fire)

[March 27, 2024]  In 1967, when I was 15, an American rock band, “The Doors,” released the song Light My Fire.  Ah, the nostalgia of it all.   I first heard the song on the radio when my friend William and I were at his house, and his mom was out grocery shopping.  Somehow, we were drawn to its hypnotic beat and sexual psychedelic lyrics.  We were told that year that it was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  And we were drawn in, mesmerized by the song’s strong magical allure.  William said not to tell our moms that we were listening to it for fear of getting into trouble.  Our parents weren’t prudes, but they were careful not to expose our impressionable minds to harmful influences.

And while we were drawn to this music, at the same time we thought it might be cool to start our own band and duplicate well-known hits like Light My Fire.  Alas, it was not to be.  Fifteen-year-old kids in my neighborhood didn’t have the talent, money, encouragement, discipline, or drive to see any effort through.  Perhaps we were just immature nerds having unrealistic dreams.  Later that same year, we heard that Light My Fire was performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and that William’s mom had blurted out that this kind of music was “soul stealing,” whatever that meant.

I liked listening to music, but it was not on my priority list for to-do activities.  My sister Terri had the 45 rpm record player, and there was no way I would ask her to play this song because she might squeal on me.  Nope, I was not taking the chance with that song!  Anyway, I preferred being outside and running around with friends doing stupid boy stuff, trying to avoid having any neighbor thinking we were juvenile delinquents.  Dad had said that if I didn’t behave, he would send me to a Home for Delinquent Boys.  I took this as an empty threat but there is always some truth behind his words, even if I didn’t believe him.

Light My Fire was the song that helped me gain a few friends; some were not the kind of people you want your kids to be around.  They were on the path to, heaven forbid, premarital sex, illegal drugs, criminal motorcycle gangs, hippie communes, hashish rooms, or psyched-out, burnt-out, long-haired, freaky peaceniks.  I saw several students expelled from school and others run away from home who had decided drugs and alcohol were more important than sticking it out.  These options didn’t appeal to me.  I liked living at home with a roof over my head and having a mom who cooked supper for us, even if I hated fried liver, fig preserves, slimy okra, and nasty collard greens.

I learned fast that being “free” meant you could travel down a path to hell, and if you choose the lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, and other high-risk behavior, then good luck because you probably weren’t going to make it in life.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 62  (the Sandy Beach)

[March 26, 2024]  It was Sunday and Father’s Day.  We were hurrying to get to the beach on Padre Island to have fun on such a glorious day.  I want to express my gratitude to my father and grandfathers, who helped raise us kids and ensure we grew into responsible teenagers, rational thinkers, hard-working, God-fearing, and upstanding community members.  On this day, our Dad took us for a picnic on the sandy beaches with all the family, six of us.  The sky was clear with moderate temperatures, and the ocean waves were pounding hard on the island.  We had some surprises in store for us kids, having never been to the ocean.

Sun poisoning, for those unfamiliar with it, as we were, makes you wish you weren’t part of the land of the living.  We’d only recently moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, the city of bright sun, wind, salt, and an occasional hurricane.  The day Dad drove us into this small city, the summer of 1966, we saw the destruction of a massive tropical depression that had wreaked havoc up and down the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Swimming in the ocean on Father’s Day was a new experience for a kid who was used to freshwater lakes and bayous.  The salty ocean water irritated my delicate skin, and the sun did its job on my white-boy skin.  My Mom said that my brother and I looked like lobsters, which was no compliment.  I thought I saw a touch of regret in her eye as my brother complained that the ocean water stung more than it should have on his skin.  We’d been raised in the Deep South, and we never witnessed the sun from horizon to horizon like in the flatlands of Texas.  We suffered for two full days and another week of peeling skin that came off in six-inch swaths.  We learned also about a plant sap that helped relieve the pain, aloe vera.  It was a lifesaver as it cooled the burning pain.

It was an overcast day the first day we drove into the city.  I immediately liked what I saw: palm trees, the ocean, and a few insects, especially lacking in the kind that bite or sting.  This Texas city was open and fresh and fabulous.  I also saw downed trees, power lines, and several buildings with the siding stripped away.  It was a confusing scene for a young teenager, good and bad.  Surprisingly, our house was cool and breezy, with a swamp cooler that relied upon low humidity to work efficiently, something lacking in a coastal town.  It was hotter here than in Arkansas and Louisiana.  But we were excited about all the new experiences, like hearing Spanish spoken for the first time, learning to skateboard, and new toys like the small troll doll, Superball, and Silly Putty.  My sister Terri got an Easy Bake oven that year, and she enjoyed making “cookies” and “mini cupcakes.”

My Dad quickly learned that you don’t drive your car on the beach or that doing so would rust out the undercarriage and be worth less than junk.  We bought a late 1950s green Plymouth Belvedere, a 4-door sedan, to be our “beach car.”  Those cars are prized antiques today.  That summer, Mom drove us to the beach nearly daily while Dad worked.  On the way home, we always stopped at a car wash, hosed off the salt, and inevitably got water under the rotor cap and stalled out the engine.  One day, as we headed home, we stopped to get gasoline at a Texaco station.  The owner told Mom she had won a prize and we would be on a television commercial.  Wow, we were going to be famous.  We weren’t really famous, but the commercial was cool.

That year, I joined the Boy Scouts and discovered that I had a lot of learning to catch up with the other boys, but they also did some neat events outside, like cooking over an open fire.  I was the only scout that had hunting experience, so I was looked upon with some respect, but most saw me as a “hick from the sticks.”  It was good to have joined up because there were not many kids where we lived; being on the edge of town, the houses were far between.

One day, my brother and I found a rusty old water-cooled World War One, M17 Browning Machine Gun.  It was in rough shape, and the tripod was missing.  How it got into the creek behind our house is anybody’s guess, as it was likely stolen and dumped there.  Dad made us throw it back into the creek.  He didn’t want us to get in trouble with the police or the Army.  A week later some local kids had their picture in the newspaper with the machine gun they had found.  I was disappointed, but I wasn’t in jail for theft.

We were on our own that year a lot.  Philip and I explored the neighborhoods and stayed out of trouble.  We learned where all the best places were for skateboarding and hanging out and where to pitch a few pennies and play marbles.  I was never good at it; it was very frustrating, but it could have been worse.  At least there were no bullies on the prowl hunting for loner kids.  Yet, my brother and I stuck together close just in case, and that was a good thing.  We would fondly remember Corpus Christi, Texas.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 61 (Drive-In Theater)

[March 19, 2024]  Who said the “old days” weren’t wonderful?  Back in those old days when outside drive-in theaters were all the rage, our family saw plenty of movies on a giant outdoor screen, usually on a Saturday evening.  Hundreds of cars – or it seemed like hundreds – were parked next to a short metal pole with a voice box attached.  Unlatch it and place the box on the driver’s window, partially rolled up.  A drive-in was a pretty neat idea.  You would sit back in the comfortable seats of your car and watch a movie.  Of course, the backseat was not ideal, as those in the front partially blocked your view.  Who sat in the back seat voluntarily anyway, other than teenage couples with other interests?  Us kids liked it anyway and were frequently there with our parents or later with anyone who could drive.

I often quickly lost interest in these movies and could name only one I “saw.”  We would get fidgety and then a bit rowdy, and then Dad would tell us to “quiet down” and give us some quarters to go buy Coke – meaning soda pop – and candy at the snake bar, which was also the same small building that housed the movie projector.  I caught on to that game quickly.  But I never liked going there because the ground was sticky at the window where many sodas had met their demise in the uncoordinated hands of little kids.  But my brother Philip and I would never disobey, so off we went guiltily to the snack bar.  Both of us could eat one entire candy bar before we returned.  Dad always gave us a quizzical look, saying with his eyes that he knew we were skimming some candy off the top.  Guilty as charged.

The weather conditions had to be just right to make viewing comfortable.  Too cold, too hot, too windy, or worse, too many flying insects made this a miserable adventure.  Convertibles were the best type of car to watch, and they were easier on those in the backseat.  But who wanted peering eyes to see you picking your nose or gulping down multiple Musketeers chocolate bars?  Convertibles were only driven by lucky out-of-town rich kids, but humidity, bugs, and rain didn’t care how much money you had.  Occasionally, a fast rain shower would pass by, catching you off guard.  This was before any accurate weather forecast was possible.  There was no weather app on your iPhone to look up.  There is no iPhone.  More specifically, no phone at all.  You just looked at the sky and took your chances.

I liked to walk the line – or row – of cars at the drive-in near where my Dad parked the car.  Walk slow and see if I could catch teenagers necking.  It was crude entertainment, but things could heat up fast if the young man decided to adjust our attitude for looking.  That’s where my running ability came into play as I could achieve escape terminal velocity.  Of course, we found all sorts of lost items on the ground, including wallets, car keys, watches, and other small miscellaneous stuff like pencils, discarded spark plugs, and tire irons lying around in the dark.  We dutifully turned it all in at the snake bar.  Dad made us do it.  They must have had a vast collection.

Did I say there was one price per car and a dollar per person to enter?  Yep, unless you were an unrelated adult, you got an extra charge.  Some of my friends tried hiding their friends in the automobile trunk to avoid the extra dollar admission fee, but the businesses soon caught on and started random trunk inspections.  But either way, the drive-in was cheaper than indoor theaters and more convenient.  You could bring your own picnic basket, and my Mom fixed ours up expertly.  And the kids could come in their pajamas.  It was cheap entertainment for a family of four or more, and then we were sent straight to bed after returning home.

When not at the drive-in, while Dad drove around with us in the back, we could see the giant projection screens from a long way off, especially at night.  Us kids would start bugging our parents about going out to a movie whenever we saw one in the distance.  We were like bugs attracted to a bright flame.  Our love affair began to dwindle when my parents bought a color television set in the late 1960s.  We stayed home more often, and by then, we got three good channels offering some great shows.  You could find out what was playing by reading the local newspaper in the entertainment section or, if you had money, you could buy a TV Guide for 10 cents.

One movie I remembered at the Bastrop drive-in theater was “The Time Machine.”  I was eight or nine at the time of the showing.  It was scientific fiction, something new to me.  Us kids were young, perhaps a little too young for that specific movie.  Well, let’s just say there was some serious screaming in the backseat of our car when the cannibalistic Morlocs came to snatch the clueless surface folks.  It made a fearful impression on me.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I could see that movie again.  This time, the Morlocs were funny not scary at all to me.  They looked so fake, with glowing eyes and green skin, and they were walking so slow that it was hard to imagine them catching anything, much less an ordinary surface human.  Since then, I’ve seen it a dozen or more times, and each time, I think of myself as a scared little kid peeking over the backseat in my Dad’s 1949 Chevrolet at the local drive-in.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 60 (Coffee, black please)

“Hey, drink this.”  I was freezing cold in Dad’s jon boat as we puttered down the Ouachita River.  The bayou Bonne Idee was closer but Dad wanted us to go where he’d heard the fish were biting.  Off we went, my brother Philip and I were on another fishing trip with Dad.  Dad seemed to have been born with a fishing pole in one hand and a shotgun in the other.  We went fishing and hunting more times than I can remember.

I liked to fish, but my brother loved it more than anything.  On this trip, it was overcast, and the morning temperature was “chilla;” in southern speak, that means it was likely in the lower 60s.  I took the old metal cup from Dad, looked at the black liquid he’d poured into it, which was warming my hand, and took a big gulp.  It did smell good.  But I’d misjudged the hot coffee temperature – what kid drinks coffee anyway – immediately spitting it out on the side of the boat.

Dad said I wasn’t supposed to drink it so fast, but of course, I didn’t know that you know, being a little kid usually means you have only minimal training.  This was just like our Dad’s teaching method.  Like when he wanted me to learn to swim, he took me to a nearby lake and threw me straight into deep water without warning.  I survived by kicking, clawing, and coughing up water while struggling back to shore.  There you go, training over.  That coffee sure smelled good, like a cigar smells good.  Don’t smoke cigars, they’re nasty.  “Sip, just sip a little at a time,” he said.  Philip laughed but refused to drink any.

I have a strong affection for coffee.  And my first drink that day in the fishing boat didn’t discourage me from liking it.  It was those many trips with Dad that hooked me on coffee.  Whether we were fishing for bass, bream, crappy, or catfish, we had a good time.  Dad would show us how to tie that special knot on the lure so it wouldn’t get lost.  And he showed us the best live bait and to mount them on a hook.  He also taught us to cast a line so we wouldn’t get tangled in the low tree branches along the river bank or snag one of us in the boat.

If Mom came along fishing, she always had a spare jacket if we got cold and something to eat if we got hungry out on the water.  We kids were always hungry.  Philip remembers Mom saying one time that Dad likes his coffee black.  It was black because there was no room on that boat for cream and sugar.  Space was limited, and that’s how it was.  Come to think of it, Philip and I still drink our coffee black too.

After this trip, we stopped off in Bastrop at a place that served good food.  It was a greasy spoon place, with good food but questionable sanitation.  That’s what Dad told us, so it must have been.  The waitress came over to get our order, so Dad ordered for all of us.  This was the first commercial eating place I’d ever been to.  I didn’t even know they existed.  “What would you boys like to drink?” She asked.  “If I had my druthers, I’d have some of your black coffee,” I told her.  With Dad’s permission, I got my second cup that same day.  It was hard to sit still in the car going home; there must have been something in that coffee.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 59 (Let’s Go Gigging)

[March 9, 2024]  The bayou water was like glass, not a ripple, nothing moving except our aluminum flat-bottom jon boat as it slowly glided along with its silent electric motor.  It was also dark out, black as ink.  I held the flashlight.  Dad navigated the boat.  Earlier that day, Dad said matter-of-factly, “Hey Douglas, let’s go gigging.”  I had no idea what he was talking about because I’d only heard the word gigging a few times before.  In simple terms, gigging is hunting frogs with a spear.  Then you eat them.

My first response was total surprise.  I’d never done something so “appealing” in my short life – touch of sarcasm there – but I’d been hunting before, and I wasn’t squeamish like so many of the girls I knew.  Eat a frog?

Hey, I was learning about being a good kid.  Mom and Dad, for example, had established some family rules and one of the most important was obeying them.  If they “asked” me to do something or made a “suggestion,” it really meant jumping up and doing it right now and not asking questions.  Besides, being a little kid meant having no money, no job, no prospects, little knowledge, no ride to anywhere, and no ability to live on my own.  So when Dad said let’s go gigging, all I could do was say, “Yes sir!”  And, I’m convinced I might have saluted, if I’d known how.

This may come as a shock, but I was learning about rules, oftentimes the hard way – there was no easy way for me.  One rule I learned was that if you eat too many pecans off Bigmama’s pecan trees, you’ll get a stomach ache and probably throw up uncontrollably.  Another rule was to never throw rocks at a nest of hornets; you can’t outrun them and they’re smart and they have a nasty attitude and their persistent as heck.

I also learned that the Bible was a great guide to more rules that improve your life.  I’d learned not to mock my parents, as written in the Old Testament book of Proverbs.  If you do mock your parents, it is said that you will be eaten by vultures.  Vultures!  Besides, what kid wants to get eaten alive?  Another simple rule was to never ever throw trash out the window of Dad’s car, while moving, even if you are helping out your next door friend get rid of some old kitchen garbage.  The sheriff doesn’t look too fondly on littering Louisiana roads, so he tells me.

Back to gigging frogs.  “They taste like chicken.”  Where’d I hear that before?  I talked to several friends in town who had eaten cooked frog legs, but none had gone gigging, except for Billy, who owned an old hound dog.  That dog would eat anything, and Billy could too.  What you can learn from people is amazing if you listen closely to what they say.  Everyone seemed to have an opinion on whether frog legs were good-tasting.  It was hard to wrap my brain around the idea.  Sort of like eating rattlesnakes; they taste like chicken, too, not.

Dad brought along a canvas sack for the frogs.  I figured we gigged maybe 50 frogs that night within half an hour.  Not toads.  There’s a big difference.  All went smoothly until Dad was getting his boat into shore.  As I got up, something must have tripped me, and I went headlong into the dark waters but fortunately with one hand on the side of the boat – my survival instinct had kicked in.  I immediately lost the flashlight and put a small gash on my left knee.  Predictably, my Dad was more worried about the loss of his only flashlight.  We were home before my scheduled bedtime.  Mom cleaned the frogs and prepared the legs for serving the following day.  Ummm, they were gooood.

When you’re a kid, it seems like you’ll be a kid forever, but that is not the case.  I wanted to be a “grown-up” more than anything.  It was those little skills like the time-honored tradition of gigging for frogs, making my own slingshot, also hunting, fishing, camping, swimming, and how to survive in the swamp.  But I was growing up educated through hard knocks and faster than I knew.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 58 (Hillbilly Moonshine)

[March 1, 2024]  Karma is a mean dog sometimes.  The first time I’d ever heard of it, I thought “moonshine” was some disease, and after tasting the vile stuff, I had no reason to alter my mind.  As a struggling High School student (I wouldn’t say I liked school), I was attracted to some unsavory types.  Bad choices, yep.  Straying off the right path, yep.  So when one of my buddies talked me into having “just a small swig of hillbilly moonshine,” I took the bait.

The burn!  Oh, the BURN.  In cowboy movies, you see the Indians calling hard liquor “fire water.”  I thought that was fake to make movies more popular.  Nope.  It was true.  And that batch of moonshine quickly burned like lightning down my throat, every inch down and into the belly.  Never had I experienced this level of pain, even when compared to having my arm stuck in my grandmother Bigmama’s electric laundry rollers that slowly crushed my little arm.

Seconds after that swig of moonshine, I ran screaming out of the janitor’s closet – where we were daring each other to taste it – and into the hallway between the chemistry lab and my math homeroom.  Heads turned, teachers frowned, and my student peers looked right at me smiling, as if they knew exactly what happened, with that quizzical look chickens give when a fox walks into their chicken coop.  My throat began to close up, and my mind imagined me choking to death.  But that was not to be.

“You got lots of ‘splanning to do, young man,” said the Vice Principal.  Nothing like a dash of fear to begin the school year.  I’m no teetotaler.  Nor am I a sluggard, even to this day.  I learned my lesson about alcohol, and it was a harsh lesson never to be forgotten.  A few years later, that lesson would be reinforced at the end of my training in the Army.

High School can be rough for an academically unprepared young boy raised in a small town near the Spanish Moss-covered trees overhanging the bayous of north Louisiana.  I’d rather be fishing in those bayous than going to school in the big city.  Big city kids sure knew how to get into trouble with the school and with law enforcement.  This behavior was exciting and fun but dangerous and not good for your health, like drinking unknown liquids out of a plastic jug that your third cousin provided you.

That was the year I realized I was not prepared to be a teenager.  Several seniors, primarily associated with an overrated, underfunded, no-talent, teenager hard rock band, decided they would get drunk after school on a Friday.  Friday was teenager night out on the town.  I chose not to be part of the event because my attitude has been adjusted from the moonshine incident.  It was a good thing because they were caught and arrested, and heaven forbid, their parents were called to pick them up.  If I’d been caught, the last thing in the world I would have wanted is for the police to call my parents; better to go missing.

This was the year my height became officially 5’11” as measured by the track team coach.  I was still growing.  Whenever girls asked my height, I would claim I was “about 6 feet tall.”  Girls like tall guys.  Coach Green, also the football coach, had some words of advice for us.  “No drinkin’.  No sex.  No carousing around town.  And keep your grades up.”  Some of the bigger and taller boys ignored this advice, but I figured, okay, it makes sense.  Besides, I didn’t have a girlfriend.  And 1967 would be the year of the controversial 4A championship football game against Austin Reagan High School.  We lost.

Years later, as a senior, I joined a few friends at an early graduation celebration.  I was 17 and still dumb.  Alcohol was present, along with cigarettes, pot, girls, and lots of food.  We were at one of the rich kids’ homes while his parents were away.  There was plenty of quality beer in cans and bottles.  The following week, there was a rumor that the kid’s parents wanted to know who was at the house party to find out who brought the hillbilly moonshine.  LOL.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 57 (Getting Ahead)

[February 24, 2024]  Growing up, we kids never channel surfed on our television set.  There was only one clear channel.  Plus, we rarely watched television because our Dad set strict limits.   One of those rare times we were permitted to watch, we saw the 1941 movie “Sergeant York” on our old black and white.  The young man, Alvin York, was what we called in Tennessee “dirt poor,” meaning he owned little.  Growing up, he just wanted to farm his small plot of land, get married, and have kids.  I always thought, wow, wouldn’t it be extra cool to know the hero, Sergeant York, and tell my friends.  That would be any kid’s wish.  Sadly, Alvin York passed away when I was 12, so my wish never came true.

I got ideas about being in the Army by watching this movie.  The movie’s message was that if you work hard, are honest and trustworthy, and are courageous, then you can get ahead and earn respect.  This idea is a part of an old Southern culture and explains why most military recruits come from the southern states.  And the lesson was clear to us, “uneducated, southern boys” growing up in the backwater areas of Louisiana.

But I’d worked at several jobs as a kid, like picking cotton, helping a dairy farmer with his cows, raking leaves, picking through the town dump, working as a pump jockey, selling fireworks, delivering newspapers, and doing so many odd jobs that I lost track.  Yet, I wasn’t getting ahead.  So, what was the formula for success?  I asked myself that question many times in those years.

Of course, there are ways to get ahead without working too hard.  You can steal it, inherit it, marry it, find it accidentally, run for political office, or join a big law firm, none of which appealed to me at the time, mostly because I was a Christian.  So unless you are in one of these categories, you must work.  I realized that I was going to have to work hard, be honest, and be brave.   At the minimum, this just might work out for me.

As a kid, I even knew a few adults in my hometown who did well by following this simple formula.  Furthermore, many of those older men I worked for in my pre-teen and teen days told me as much, and they were successful, or at least they claimed so.

I’ve never told anyone before, but as a High School sophomore, I contemplated being a stand-up comedian.  Oh, such a fleeting dream.  My favorite joke to my friends’ parents begins with me telling the story about a television commercial on over-the-counter medications and that it could do wonders.  The way the pretty woman in the commercial said it was so pleasing.  The actress asked a Pharmacist for something that might help her husband with “irregularity.”  It got a laugh, even if I didn’t fully understand the ramifications.  I dropped the idea of being a comedian after watching Red Skelton and Charlie Chaplain do slapstick comedy.  It was far too dangerous and challenging for me.

I learned a lot about working hard from my Dad.  He was a railroad worker, and that was one brutal rodeo.  The money was good, the hours okay, and being a union member was enlightening, but wow, getting run over by a 35-ton box car was not in my bag of things I wanted to do.  I would work on the railroad, and although I stuck it out for two college summers and Christmas vacations, I was happy to get an easy job, so I joined the Army.  More later about my luxurious condo accommodations in Basic Combat Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Did I ever say I was from Hicksville?  Alvin York was from Fentress County in Tennessee and lived in a log cabin near several of my relatives.  Even by Hicksville standards, he was poor.  And yet Alvin York became famous, although not wealthy, from his bravery in World War I.  Just reading about his exploits made me feel puny.  So, I did what I thought was right and went down to the Army recruiter and talked with an impressive-looking sergeant.

The recruiter’s job is to get you to sign on the dotted line.  Basically, recruiters are salesmen with pretty uniforms decorated with lots of medals.  But first, you had to take a test to see if your IQ was high enough, and they talked to you about the best jobs that sounded cool, exciting, and adventurous.  Or you could choose where you wanted to be located in your first assignment.  In my head, I only wanted to get out of the country and discover incredible new locations to visit.  I signed up, and the next thing I knew, I was shoveling dirt in Louisiana during August and trying to get my two-man fighting position to Army standard.

I didn’t realize what low pay meant until they told me I would be a Private – E-1 in military-technical speak – nothing lower.  Even a snake had it better.  I made more milking cows.  As fortune would have it, I was sent to my first duty station in West Germany to guard a nuclear weapons storage facility.  And that is a non-glorious story for another time.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 56 (Dreams and Nightmares)

[February 23, 2024]  I woke up in a sweat, my heart pumping and my mouth dry.  It was the same dream I’d had since I was a little kid and before I could remember my dreams.  It was not a nightmare, not too scary or crazy, but not uncommon either; it was a frustrating dream that little kids regularly have.  I’m standing on a set of railroad tracks, and a train is barreling down on me, but when I try to move out of the way, my legs go only in slow motion, like stuck in molasses, held by some unseen force.

I’m not into interpreting dreams, but I think this one means I had no control over what was going on in my life.  At least that’s what my Dad told me.  Like “the sap keeps running,”  I saw things for what they were but thought I didn’t know what they were.

I had two favorite dreams.  One had me running through an open field of flowers and buzzing insects on a bright and sunny day.  It was a pretty cool dream, warm and pleasant, and the kind that made you want to stay asleep. Inevitably, Mom would wake me up in the middle of that dream, so I never got to its end, like unfinished business or taking a shower in a raincoat.  In the other, I was flying above the land.  There was a special thrill to this one, and soaring up high was good where I could see things better than regular sight, but each time it ended with me falling.  I woke up before crashing.  So weird.

Oddly, my dreams are all in black and white.  Well, that’s good because when, on the rare occasions that I did have a nightmare, it was easier.  Was it because I only ever saw a black and white television?  The problem with nightmares was they seemed so real at the time, high emotion and fast moving.  My bad dreams followed a theme: something dark and terrifying lurking just far enough away to be unrecognizable.  The figure rarely moved; it didn’t need to scare me awake.  I had these nightmares for years.  I awoke often with my Mom sitting on my bed, stroking my hair to calm me down.  Thanks, Mom; your presence had a calming effect on me.

Then, one day, my baseball coach said I could be a better player if I had more confidence in myself.  He said that any great player must first convince himself that he is a great player before becoming one.  Good advice.  I didn’t improve much in baseball, but I did figure out a way to gain confidence.  I started daydreaming about how I might be stronger, more powerful, faster.

While awake, I thought about those dark figures and willed myself to dream of attacking them and destroying whatever it was.  I daydreamed this for many months, creating even more diabolical ways of destroying those amorphous dark creatures.  Slowly, very slowly, I had fewer and fewer nightmares.  By the time I was in High School, the nightmares were essentially gone, not for good but rare and short and in the dream, I attacked the dark creature like I imagined in my daydreams.  I decided to face my nightmares voluntarily.  And while they still scared me, I was braver and could now sleep more soundly.

Why I can remember dreams as a kid is in odd contrast to being an adult.  As an adult, I rarely remember dreams except for a vague fragment here or there.  Perhaps that is a good thing.  I no longer wake up in a sweat or with my heart pumping.  And I no longer find myself standing on railroad tracks or seeing vague figures in the dark.  I won out over the nightmares, and I became braver.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 55 (Table Manners)

[February 18, 2024]  For the gazillionth time, my Mom told me to get my elbows off the table and to stop chewing with my mouth open.  Supper time was the most important meal of the day, and everyone in our family was to be there – like a rule – I was told to help by setting the table correctly.  Forks were set on the right, and knives on the left.  We were to pass bowls of food in the clockwise direction and, once done, clear the table.  And to wash and put away the dishes.

Not Hungary!  “Eat your dinner, ’cause people are starving in China.”  This was a typical one-way conversation at the kitchen table, Dad to Douglas.  “Eat or go to bed without eating.” I thought to myself that Mom and Dad were just making this up to make me eat my vegetables.  But starting in 1958, the greatest famine in recorded human history began in communist China.

Supper time was family time, and we all talked about our day; much to my Dad’s happiness, I would talk about my excitement of hunting, fishing, swimming, floating down the river, camping and frogging, throwing pebbles at bats and catching snakes.  The “girls” preferred other subjects so uninteresting to me that I can’t even remember them.  If you didn’t talk, both Mom and Dad quizzed you, and you had better answer in a complete sentence.

No matter where we lived, our supper meal time was sacrosanct; it was a window of time for the family, and little else was allowed. Occasionally, some off-topic subject would be brought up and quickly shot down, like how excited I was to see a movie.  They made an exception for the movie “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charleston Heston, Yul Brynner, and Anne Baxter because we were a dedicated religious family.

Dad educating us on religious beliefs was okay for table talk.  My brother and I sometimes, during very rare times, we’re allowed to see a film at the “cinema” – today known as a movie theater – by ourselves or see it on our black and white “tv set.”  Doing either required special permission from Dad.

Mom insisted we act “civilized” and did not tolerate lousy table manners.  By the time I was nine, I knew more about how to set a table, eat with a fork and knife, hold them correctly, sit up straight, and say, “Please pass the taters,” better than any kid today.  I quickly discovered that wiping my greasy fingers on my pants was a bad idea.  Those manners helped me get by later as an adult, and today, I find myself teaching Boy Scouts how to eat with utensils without embarrassing themselves or their moms.  And they remember.

“Don’t kick your brother under the table, Douglas Reid!” my Mom would say in frustration.  I knew how to behave right when she used my middle name.  Several times, I brought nightcrawler worms and set them on the table near my plate to goad my younger sister into screaming: it always worked.  I would laugh and laugh, even when Mom swatted me in the butt.  I was careful, only playing tricks when Dad was out of town, which was rare.

Mom must have pulled her hair out with the antics my brother and I played, but you would never know it.  She never yelled.  Nothing seemed to get her riled up, ever.  Lucky for Philip and me.  I dared my brother to put a frog on our sister Terri’s lap at supper.  He wimped out.  Maybe he was too smart, although it would have been a real screamer.

My favorite meal was fried chicken, mashed ‘taters, green beans, cornbread, and okra.  If watermelon was in season, all the better. But the best dessert was the pecan pie that Bigmama made.  I was not too fond of the taste of fried liver, spinach, pig’s feet, cottage cheese, and onions.  I ate them anyway and didn’t complain much.

But we all survived meal time.  My brother Philip and I did our best to eat as fast as possible so we could ask permission to be dismissed from the table.  Most of the time, it worked, but if either parent was in one of their moods, we had to sit there until everyone was finished; such torture, we thought.

Mom would say, “You can tell a good person by the manners their parents teach them.”

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 54 (School Bus and Fanny)

[February 15, 2024]  Fanny slammed on the brakes of the School Bus she was driving, and then, as she stood up, she turned around and yelled at us, mostly Junior High School kids from Bastrop.  “Shut up with that racket.  I can’t drive with all that screaming.”  That’s a close quote, as best I can remember, but I’ve removed six or seven cuss words.  In response, several girls started crying.  This ride would just be another typical day on Fanny’s bus.

The entire bus of kids, packed to the max with maybe 60 or 70 of us, stopped talking all at once.  But Fanny’s tirade only created a temporary lull in the pandemonium, and we made the trip twice daily, to and from school.  It never changed on her bus; more yelling and screaming, talking over each other, running in the aisles, throwing paper, and waving our hands out the windows; pure chaos.

This was my first year in school after Elementary School and my first time riding a school bus.  There was a little excitement in our household that first day as I readied myself.  None of us, parents or cousins, had ever ridden like this to school, so there was no getting the lowdown on school bus rules other than “shut up and sit down.”

Driver Fanny was a force to be reckoned with, and I wasn’t going to get on her bad side; that was the last time I sat in the front seat.  Sitting in the last seat was far more interesting; it was bumpier but had more action.  I even felt bad for a kid who was taken away by ambulance after falling and hitting his head on the emergency door exit while fooling around trying to open it.  I told my Mom about the accident, and she seemed not to hear me.

My homeroom was math class with Mr. Braumeister; he didn’t take gruff off anybody.  “Mr. Beer Man,” as we called him behind his back; yeah, I felt guilty about it.  We were often late to class because Fanny ran behind schedule, which was a common experience and much to our amusement.  This meant explaining my tardiness to Mr. B.  Most of us were afraid of him.  Kid scuttlebutt had it that he possessed a genuine German Tiger Tank hidden in his garage.  Untrue, of course.

Mr. B. Had been a German Prisoner of War, captured in early 1945 and moved around to a few POW camps in Midwest America before being returned to postwar, occupied Germany.  Somehow, he’d escaped his poverty-stricken Fatherland, immigrating to the United States.  He taught Advanced Geometry, which was the year I learned my previous schooling was academically poor.  Let’s be honest.  My schooling and lack of motivation to finish school work had destined me to a year of “remedial math.”  Humiliating.

Traveling home was another adventure.  Kids are only in school about six hours a day; the experts claim that’s all the attention span they can muster.  You’d never believe that if our bus trips were an example.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 53 (old Sailor with a Tattoo)

[February 6, 2024]  Miracles do happen.  I’d been delivering newspapers on my bicycle back in my old High School days, just a few blocks from where I lived, and standing next to a green-colored, early 1950s Studebaker Champion car was this older man who looked meaner than dirt and older than Moses.  With his shirt sleeves rolled up, I noticed a naked lady tattoo on his right arm.  Immediately, I stopped and said “howdy” in my southern twang, doing my best to sound like a Texan.  “You’re not from around here, are ya?” He said, talking like I was being accused of some terrible crime.

“Just delivering papers,” I managed to eke out.  I looked more at his car; it was beautiful if a machine could be beautiful.  It was sleek, had many curves and chrome, and had a futuristic look.  At the time, America was pushing into space, new inventions were hitting the market, and the world was moving peacefully into a better future.

“Hop in, and I’ll take ya for a spin.”  It was like a wish had come true that I would sit in this wonderful car.  A sixth sense of mine was trying to kick in.  And I was a little scared of this old man; he didn’t look right in the head.  He was a neighbor, so he had to be sane.  Weren’t we all?  Besides, it was the suburbs.

He drove like my great-grandmother, slow, cautiously, and taking curves in the road like he was navigating through a nursery of toddlers.  I looked over at him, and there on his upper arm was that tattoo of a naked lady in a provocative pose, like she was dancing.  At first, I didn’t notice three horizontal bars under the naked lady.  My curiosity peaked, for I knew there had to be a good story here.  I asked him about the tattoo, and his words came tumbling out, telling me of a great adventure he and his men had experienced during “the war.”.

This old man had been the Skipper of a Navy submarine early in World War II.  His job was hunting Japanese shipping in the Pacific, near the Japanese home islands.  Those missions were extraordinarily dangerous early in the war.  It was common to lose the sub with all men on board due to accidents, just as often as enemy action.

This old man, known locally as Mr. Jacob, told me of one encounter his sub crew had in 1942.  His men were being hunted relentlessly by Japanese anti-submarine ships.  In one engagement, and out of desperation, he launched several torpedoes head-on at one of their warships.  His sub escaped, sinking that ship, but only after a great deal of damage to the sub.  It was a miraculous escape.

The bars below the naked lady were ‘warships’ his crew sank.  Cargo ships were easy prey compared to warships.  I asked him what he thought about me getting a tattoo.  He laughed since I was a wimpy kid in his eyes.  End of conversation.

On the slow drive back to my bike and undelivered newspapers, we stopped at a place selling sodas.  He bought me a Dr. Pepper and said, “You have a good life because we were there.”  And he was right.

Years after I joined the Army, several friends suggested we go downtown to get a tattoo to show that we were “tough men.” I declined.  I knew what a tough man was like.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 52 (High School Buddies)

[February 5, 2024]  A few days before the start of my Junior year in High School, me and a few of my best buddies sat around a large fire pit eating, drinking soda, and yakking it up about whatever we wanted.  The conversation strayed to many topics, and most of all, we spoke of girls.  All summer, we did our thing: bike riding, dirt bike racing, selling fireworks, and sleeping late.  Our get-togethers were just south of Abilene, Texas, and that summer was a scorcher that even the scorpions and horny toads hated.

We were a bunch of uncoordinated, nonconformist twits, and we were proud of it.  “Don’t trust anybody over 30” was the common mantra of the times, and we adopted it fully as we loved the freedom of ignoring what our parents told us.  We all assured one another that we were all very handsome and manly men because we were now a year older than last year.  Perhaps that was one of the few truths that day.

Topics ranged from girls to upcoming school, politics, looking buff in our t-shirts, and the latest Mexican Restaurant that served spicy food so hot I threw up the first time I ate there.  Or perhaps it was something terrible in the food.  We talked about what we’d done over the summer, like visiting the zoo and seeing animals having sex in the open or one poor dog that got into the leopard area and found out that cats come in all sizes.

We were turning 15, real youngsters, pushing past the seventh-decade mark.  We griped about President Lyndon B. Johnson and his “ill-advised” involvement in Vietnam and our slowly rising fear of getting drafted at 18.  Saying that Johnson was a good patriot to our nation was like saying that alligators like vegetables.

My closest buddy, Bill Smith – now that’s his real name – would later go to college and become an Electrical Engineer.  Maybe it was his fear after getting nearly killed by an electrical outage at our school.  He tried to fix it by putting a penny in the electrical fuse box, a solution our dads told us to get things working again.  His right arm was looking gross after he was knocked several feet away.  Only a passing janitor saved his life.  Thanks to that janitor.

Each of us had taken a few severe crashes dirt biking; in particular, I had several spills that tore up my legs, arms, chest, and back.  My helmet saved my head.  Several of our crashes were unexplainable, like when we got a big head start to zoom up a 100-foot, clay-faced, rock-encrusted hillside.  My bike, a yellow 250 Yamaha, took my 120-pound body up about halfway before giving up.  I went flying off.  To this day, I wish I had a video of that one because it would indeed have won a prize in America’s Funniest Home videos.

A few of our falls are easily explainable.  Henry, a friend who would later become a Pediatrician, had a nasty fall.  Carrying a large box for his mom, he went to mail it at the Post Office when the box blocked his sightline – not smart – and he didn’t see the rise in the floor entrance as he stumbled, Frankenstein-like like for several feet before finally falling forward on his hands and knees, all while trying to balance that box.

None of us in our fire pit group got the Darwin Award we deserved.  We are all still kicking today.  We were called “the gang” – yeah, I know, authentic – but what we did outside of school made up for our dumb stunts and just below-average grades in school.  The only class we had together was Chemistry, and I hold the record for starting a fire by exposing pure sodium metal to air and water.  It is incredible how much damage that caused to the “indestructible” marbled chemistry lab countertops.

We gathered our vestige of knowledge and devised several things to do before we turned the ripe old age of 30, kind of like a kid’s bucket list.  These were stupid, and I’m embarrassed to write any of them down.  One was to get a naked lady tattooed on our arm.  Thank goodness I never succumbed to that one.  I can only shudder to think what my Mom would have said.  Imagine her explaining her 15-year-old’s tattoo to her lady friends.  Another was putting our tongue on a turtle’s face.  Yeah, that works.  They bite pretty hard.  Of course, we all had to jump off a cliff cut by a river below.  None of us landed in the water, but only Bill broke his leg, landing in the gravel on the bank.

My Dad’s advice was to have many great friends, and if they are funny, all the better.  But avoid crazies.  I don’t know how I would have made it this far without good friends.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 51 (Mama’s Values)

[January 29, 2024]  Sitting beside my Mom, I remember watching the epic movie “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charleston Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramesses II.  It was a moment in time that helped me see my Mom as a woman of good character and that she made sure her kids understood right from wrong.  Indeed, that was no easy task with little ones like me as a disagreeable, strong-willed youngster.

Remembering the movie, having sat with my Mom at home watching for nearly four hours with only one intermission, I saw how her values were ingrained into us kids.  I was slow to realize that Mom valued the love of God, kindness, generosity, and pinching pennies, which was a huge advantage for us kids.

Mom’s ability to save money was legendary, and the family was in awe of how she could seemingly make dinner for five out of practically nothing.  It was like we only ever had leftovers; an original meal was an allusive fantasy.  Nothing was ever wasted.  She would save the grease from cooking, scrape baking pans with a special tool to get every drop, and cut the bottom out of sugar and flower bags to get every ounce out.  Any food item “almost going bad” was made into soup, along with the bones with marrow inside.  Just scrape off the mold; it was just “on the surface” anyway.  Leftover meats that started to smell funky were a staple of our diet after cooking the flavor out.  Hmmmm, good!

I believe her culinary knowledge created one of the best human immune systems in her kids that would marvel the medical world.  None of us ever missed a day of school, except for the standard communicable diseases we all got, and amazingly, we all had mild cases, except for measles.  Upon returning to class, my teachers gave me the teacher’s skeptical eye, saying, “I don’t believe you’re not sick,” because how could I be back so quickly?  There was no getting a doctor’s note clearing you in those days, just a hand on the forehead to check for fever and a spot check for bumps in the wrong places.

Of course, we only got vitamin C from the Kool-Aid drink; strawberry was my favorite, with half the recommended sugar to save costs and extra water to make it go further.  I was an adult before I had a proper Kool-Aid drink made to the package directions.  And those thin Jiffy Peanut Butter and Miracle Whip sandwiches on stale white bread that Mom always made me for lunch were great.  Later, I moved up to real mayo and crunchy PB.  Such delicacies were daily.  I still eat Mayo-PB sandwiches.

When I was seven and in First Grade, Mom gave me a half dollar to go into town and buy five Mr. Goodbar chocolates.  Candy was a special and rare treat for the family and her favorite.  I came home with six candy bars.  I thought I’d hit the jackpot and hoped to get the extra candy, but “No, it was a mistake.”  And it would be wrong to keep what I didn’t pay for.  So, I’m back to the store to return that extra chocolate bar.  Even at that young age, Mom had taught us a crucial life lesson I can never forget.  Don’t steal.  The store owner would not have missed it, but that was not the point.  The chocolate did not belong to me.  Period.  Even if the missing candy bar was never discovered, Mom said, “God would know.”

Mom was a saint.  She was disgusted by lying, so don’t ever lie to Mom.  She had a remarkable mother lie detector that could ferret out even the most minor lie.  But she was not above a little white lie to prevent hurt feelings.  Most babies are beautiful, but some just aren’t.  Mom would tell the mother that their baby was beautiful, nonetheless, “Oh, what a cute baby.”  And if that dress on the neighbor girl was ugly, Mom would say it was just right for her.  “It’s a gorgeous dress, little lady.”

Born in 1929, Mom didn’t have a racist bone in her body.  This was the Deep South in the 1950s, and segregation, despite being technically illegal, was alive and well.  Whenever Dad brought home a big mess of fish, she insisted we take extra to the poor blacks on the other side of town.  Mom understood being poor and tried to do something to help them, even if it was a small gesture.  She saw that their houses had no doors or windows, so she would use her sewing machine to make curtains for those folks we personally knew. And she refused to use the segregated bathrooms around town and told the owners her mind.  Please don’t get on her bad side.

It wasn’t unusual for me to get into trouble at school or when doing odd jobs; sometimes, I just forgot to do what I promised.  She was always there with a kind word, a big hug, and a kiss on the top of my head.  Mom would make things right, often with just a phone call and her gracious words.  Indeed, she taught me to pursue responsibility and never be lazy.  God was watching, and being a habitual slacker was a broad, easy path to Hell.  This was a harsh lesson, along with telling the truth.  But all of us kids survived and turned out okay.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 50 (the Cotton Festival)

[January 21, 2024]  Standing there with my brother Philip, we were mesmerized by the lights, the music, the crowd, and the energy of the Morehouse Parish Cotton Festival – near Bastrop, Louisiana.  Like a county fair anywhere else, the cotton festival brought out everyone from miles around for curiosity, amazement, and almost professional entertainment.  I was amazed.  I’d never seen anything like it.  There were exciting rides brightly lit up that would cost you a quarter to ride, cotton candy for a nickel, games of skill and strength, a human freak show with a bearded lady, odd food like a fried hotdog on a stick and soft drinks that cost too much, a few scantily-dressed young adult women, and clowns roaming the fairgrounds doing tricks with balloons.  Booths lined the main drag through the area where a person could easily spend all their money.

I was in the Third Grade and learning about money, and both Philip and I had earned a few pennies returning discarded Coke bottles for their deposit.  And we were given a quarter each by our Dad to spend wisely.  Of course, we couldn’t resist the temptations and spent our quarters at the first booth we came to, trying to knock over three bottles with a baseball.  We lost.  Philip cried.  And we were out of money.  Dad had warned us before arriving not to spend our money all at once.  Then we were stuck walking around with our parents, how embarrassing we thought.

Our family stopped at another booth while my Dad unsuccessfully threw darts at balloons on a wall.  The game seemed easy, but breaking a balloon with a dart was nearly impossible.  We never did win a prize.  Suddenly, I realized that I was standing there alone.  Where had my family gone?  They were with me one minute, gone the next.  I was in a panic.  Trying to locate them in a large crowd was scary, and I panicked.  I wandered around with tears in my eyes, looking for them for what seemed like an eternity but most likely only ten minutes and found my family standing beside a vendor’s booth eating cotton candy.

My brother’s face was covered in a sticky pink substance.  I wanted some candy too, but Dad said no, I’d spent my money.  I was learning that the world is not always fair, a frustratingly painful truth that would prove difficult to accept.  In a way, I was better off.  Philip also had some tiny flying bugs stuck on the pink candy and his face.  He didn’t like that much.  I thought it was funny and called him “bug face.”  Mom snuck me a nickel, so right before we left, I bought my own cotton candy, accidentally dropping it before I could get a bite.  Darn.

One thing I liked about this fair was that I was beginning to learn that there was a world outside our small town.  And that world was full of exciting new things and people, unlike me, some were also dangerous.  Our church preacher had warned my parents about getting ripped off by pickpockets – they were notorious at this fair – but that never happened to us.  Then our family, all five of us, crammed into a Ferris Wheel gondola for a short ride up incredibly high in the air.  There was a lot of screaming as the gondola rocked freely back and forth, seemingly ready to dump us out.  I was scared, but I could see “forever.”  The sights from the top were an exquisite view of the fairgrounds and nearby town.  But I was never so happy to get my feet back on firm earth.  My Mom didn’t say so, but I believe she was thinking the same thing.

On the drive home later that same day, an old man driving a junky-looking car failed to yield and ran into us only a minute from our house.  Dad was driving his white-over-red 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air without seatbelts.  I loved that car; it was beautiful and built like a tank.  All of us kids were in the backseat and were thrown around a bit, but no injuries.  Dad was smoking a cigarette that popped out and burnt a hole in his trousers.  Mom bopped her forehead on the metal dash and got a little bump.  Dad was driving slowly, so the damage was minor.  I never knew what became of the old man.

This trip to the Cotton Festival would be a full day, and we were exhausted.  The fair would go on for a few more weeks, but Mom would not go, so we all stayed home; good decision with three young kids in tow.  We were back at the cotton festival the following year, but this time, we had experience.  That was the time I found a lost four-year-old boy.  I stayed with the little tyke, holding his hand until we found them.  He wanted to go home with my family.  Awkward!  I was growing up, expanding my views and getting to know that the world didn’t owe me anything but that I owed the world everything.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 49  (Dirt Bike Racing)

[January 13, 2024]  I wrecked out, scraping my knee into a bloody mess,  ripping apart my boot, and tearing up my plaid pants.  I was trying to take a turn too sharply and too fast on a sun-scorched day in Abilene, Texas.  The paved road surface was soft, gooey-like from the sun’s heat, and you could see the heatwaves shimmering off the surface.  I was inexperienced on my new motorcycle, and down I went, sliding along the graveled, gooey surface.  I never told my parents.

My brother and I saved money from our paper routes, and that cash was just enough to get ourselves small bikes.  We bought our first motorcycles, each a Honda street bike, a 125cc for me, for a great package deal that our Dad negotiated with the dealership salesman.  Motorcycling was popular in the 1960s, and we were just riding the trend.  It was early 1967, and we thought bikes were the coolest thing ever because they symbolized excitement and freedom.  And what young teenager doesn’t want that?

I traded my street bike for a 1964 Ford Mustang the following year.  What a great, cool car it was.  I also bought a 250cc yellow Yamaha dirt bike.  My interest in bikes was changing, and I loved to ride out of town into the hills nearby, south of town.  My friend David and I were bonded at the hip.  Every Saturday, we’d get lost, traveling many miles to find just the right place to ride up and down hills, across streams, weaving in and out through wooded areas, and meeting up with like-minded young boys to compete to see who could do the craziest tricks without getting seriously injured or, heaven forbid, killed.  One day, my friend David almost bought his Darwin Award when he decided to jump across a six-foot gap near the apex of a big hill.  He failed to get his speed up properly and crashed, sending him to the hospital with a broken femur, three broken fingers, an impressive number of stitches, a broken nose, and his dirt bike to the junkyard.  I was shocked by his injuries, and it scared me.

I liked to race uphill against any and all comers.  It was exciting.  It was an adventure.  I won many and lost many.  The high-pitched sound of the 2-cycle engines was sweet and entertaining as it echoed across the valley floor.  The hills we raced up were not gentle slopes but cut with deep ravines and covered with large, sharp rocks, and steep – so steep you wondered if the bike might come back, front wheel rolling back upon you.  The trick was to do any contortion of your body to make sure your bike didn’t land atop you.  I saw bikes land on their riders many times; the injuries ranged from a few burns to crushed ribs.  Fall off your bike, and at minimum, you were leaving skin and blood all about.  But we never failed to help the injured.  They were part of us.

There were no trophies or ribbons signifying the winners; there were no second places or cheaters, just winners who were held in high esteem.  We raced for bragging rights, nothing else.  At the end of the day, we would be dirty, dusty, sweaty, and tired.  On our way home, we high-fived each other.  Being there physically and racing on your own was a win.  Only a few could compete against us; those who did were part of our dirt bike racing brotherhood.

Then, in 1969, the movie “Easy Rider,” starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, stormed onto the stage.  The road drama was about these two men traveling across the American South and Southwest in hopped-up choppers.  The film became an icon, exploring the rise of young men breaking away from society’s restrictions and highlighting the freedom of traveling the road.  U.S. dirt bikers now wanted a chopper and feel the wind in their hair.  But that was not to happen to me.  There were other things in my future.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 48  (Sharing and Manhood)

[January 12, 2024]  As a kid, I wasn’t concerned about sharing my toys (I had so few that sharing was easy), but I had one personality around age 13 or 14 that concerned my parents.  It took me years to fix.  I didn’t recognize this childhood problem until I learned how to deal with it the hard way.  At 13 years old, I entered Junior High, and, like so many young folks, this was a time of stress that I’d never before experienced.  While I was not fond of school (actually, I hated it), I had an attraction to the sciences.  Part of the reason, I believe, was my conscientiousness, hard work and focus, but only if I was interested in the subject matter.

One day, a teacher wanted us to learn how to sew using a needle and thread, so naturally, I was uninterested.  I was not interested because sewing was “girl’s work” in my view.  Little did I realize my sissy homework would give me one of the biggest lessons of my life and push me toward maturity.  In the classroom, we were instructed to cross-stitch on a pre-printed pattern.  My project was two Peacocks facing each other.

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the rhythm of sewing and the aesthetic color arrangement on the cloth.  I’d done some crude paintings in my childhood, which had a similar feel.  Surprisingly, I found my Mom working on my project one evening.  She was just trying to help me.  I didn’t realize it, and I was rude to her, saying she was “doing it all wrong.”  Her stitching was genuinely excellent, of course, but not with the colors I wanted.  I told her so.  I failed to share my project with my Mom as a responsible young boy should have done.

For the first time in my life, I made my Mom cry.  I’d insulted her terribly, and my behavior showed how ungrateful, arrogant, spiteful, and bitter I was.  Immediately recognizing what I did, this became the moment I started to become a man.  I’d done what no strong boy or man would ever do: hurt his mother.  And I knew it in an instant.  And while I’d failed my first test of becoming a man, I would never forget that moment, and from that point forward, I pledged never to disappoint my Mom again.  When a boy fails his mother, there can be no greater life disappointment.

Sharing your life’s mission with others is one of those things a good man will do.  Besides providing for them, which is vital, he should bring his family into his life, sharing the good and protecting them from the bad.  That way, there are no secrets or unpleasant surprises.  I’d had an outdoor life up to Junior High and lived in what someone once called “Hicksville,” a pejorative term.  It describes a place with no action and in the middle of nowhere.  But I spent my time camping, fishing, hunting, and taking on odd jobs.  I knew everyone in town.  But now I was living in a small city, going to a large school, where my neighbors locked their doors, and you don’t know your neighbors; a real cultural shocker after living my life previously in small-town America.  I was physically maturing, and the hormones were stirring.  And there were many gorgeous women, actually girls, around the school.  I’d nearly forgotten about being an Army man since there were so many moving parts of life.  I was interested in getting along with my new friends but not paying attention to myself.  My goal of joining the Army started to fade.

Junior High was tough.  I attended four junior highs in three years.  I found that sharing the few toys I had helped me gain friends wherever I lived.  I also showed my city friends how to hand-make slingshots, toy parachutes, firestarters, and other boy stuff.  It seemed that sharing my knowledge was better than anything.  This bit of knowledge would pay off later as a man.  Men appreciate sharing what they know.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 47  (Handmade Items for Boys)

[January 8, 2024]  It was an amazing shot.  With my handmade slingshot and an eagle-eyed aim, I knocked a giant fat squirrel right out of the oak tree.  The shot was one in a hundred.  From where I stood, I could see the squirrel jumping limb to limb, always on the move, doing what a squirrel does.  He must have been a good 25 feet away.  I’m sure he saw me.  To my surprise, when the squirrel hit the ground and hit it hard with a thump, the next thing I saw was him scampering away like nothing at all happened.

I had made my slingshot meticulously, ensuring the stretch bands were cut precisely with quality bicycle innertube rubber.  It was the best I’d ever made, and I was proud to use it and show off my work.  Like art, it was a masterpiece.  Yet, every kid had their own slingshot and also a toolbox of items for boys to do, what boys do,

All my friends had handmade tools and toys, and we learned how to use them properly; otherwise, the older boys would surely get some severe ribbing.  Like adults, we boys could measure our big-boy status by the number and quality of our tools and toys, especially what we made with our bare hands.  We made most of them when I grew up, except for guns, knives, and bicycles.  There was pride in hand-making our tools and toys, and we showed them off to all our friends after getting our Dads’ double-checks to ensure they were good enough.  And this is when we first learned safety.

I made my first kite when I was ten, a standard diamond-shaped kite with a long tail.  My Dad built a box kite late that summer, but we couldn’t get it to stay aloft; it was probably too heavy, or there was not enough wind.  My kite flew high, yeah!  I made a musical flute and got pretty good at playing it, but I think I drove my parents a little crazy.  And I carved a “snake killer” stick that I used when walking in the woods.  I’d used my pocket knife to carve creative designs into the stick, making it look cool and functional.  I was sometimes scared, but many rattlesnakes died after running into me.  I could never figure out how to make a good sailboat because mine always capsized and got waterlogged.  My sailboats never sailed.  It’s a good thing I never was a Navy sailor.  I helped my Dad build several birdhouses for our backyard, and we gave most of them away to neighbors.  That was a lot of fun learning how to saw with a jigsaw without cutting off my fingers, and it was satisfying, too.  With ingenuity, persistence, help from my Dad, finding suitable materials, and luck, my friends and I could build just about anything.  Almost.

Handmade tools and toys made our lives easier, and we played games with them all, sometimes involving some risk.  For example, I always carried a fixed-blade knife, except not to church; Mom searched me good before we left home.  Many years ago, my good friend Wilson jumped off a trestle railroad bridge one day while carrying a folding pocket knife, his slingshot, strips of innertube rubber, string, a yo-yo, and strike anywhere matches, and after hitting the water below, he promptly lost them.  I was with him when he jumped.  I was scared that he’d drowned.  He was more mad about losing his “good stuff” than his life.  None of us gave a thought to him losing his tools until later.  He cried, and not because he might have died but because he lost all his good stuff.

That squirrel got a second chance at life.  Us boys survived, even if there were close calls, so we also got a second chance, or third, or fourth.  Looking back on my reckless days, I’m amazed we lived to advance to junior high.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 46  (Bigmama)

[January 2, 2024]  I was not yet two years old when my parents temporarily sent me to live with my grandparents.  My brother Philip was just born, healthy and happy, and yet it still would not be easy for my Mom with two small kids at home, so I was sent away.  My mother’s mother was smart and tough but a kind woman.  Her name was Alla B., but we only knew her as “Bigmama,” pronounced fast, like one word.  I was in college before I knew it was two words, but I still write it as one word out of respect for her.  For a few weeks, she cared for me while things settled down at home with my new brother.  As the story was told to me, when Mom and Dad came to pick me up from Bigmama’s home, I didn’t want to leave.  They had to drag me away, screaming that Bigmama was my real mother and I was certainly not leaving.  Eventually, I was worn down and taken home.  My stay at Bigmama’s house began a long, dedicated, loving relationship with my grandmother; I’m told I was her favorite grandkid.  Of course, that made perfect sense.

My family lived only 20 minutes away from my Mom’s parents, so we visited often.  Good for us kids, even if our visits drove my Dad a little crazy.  Bigmama and Granddaddy lived on half a block in their small town, in an old 13-bedroom home once a traveler’s lodge so common in the 1920s.  We kids loved that house with many hiding places and rooms to explore.  Sometimes at night, we would tell stories of ghosts on the second floor and convince each other that we heard the sound of rattling chains and dragging feet, the kind of noises only a scared kid could imagine.  But Bigmama put our fears to rest with a great hug and kiss on our heads and a few kind words.  She would ensure we were busy enough so scary thoughts didn’t creep in.  We often spent an entire week at Bigmama’s house.  And while Granddaddy spent much time and money repairing and remodeling the main house, outhouses, fences, and grounds, the house was still hers to care for.  And we will never forget it.

One day, Bigmama was doing the family laundry in the main outhouse.  She washed in one of those old-fashioned open-top electric wringer-washing machines.  When the wash finished, she ran the dripping wet clothes through a wringer and then took them out to the clothesline, where they dried in the sun.  I was a little tyke but fascinated by Bigmama’s chores and the machines.  I helped her that day.  Then it happened suddenly.  She was hanging bed sheets on the line.  At that moment, my right hand got caught in the wringer, and I watched in panic as the rollers pulled my arm and squeezed it.  “Help!  Bigmama, help!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, now freaking out as the rollers rolled up my arm, squishing it, getting closer and closer to my shoulder.  Time stood still.  To my relief, Bigmama was there in a flash, running in from outside to stop the rollers by throwing the off-switch.  I saw relief on her face, but I was in shock, crying, and yet I still had the fortitude to give her a long thank-you hug.  I was taken to the hospital, less than an hour away, for X-rays to determine if there were any broken bones.  There were none.

The best part about staying with my grandparents was the food and friendly mealtimes with family around the table.  Bigmama didn’t get her name for nothing.  We all loved to eat.  All of us kids were “too skinny”; according to her, we needed “to put some meat on those bones.”  Breakfast each day was homemade biscuits with a ton of butter, crispy bacon, eggs, and toast, topped off with a big glass of real orange juice.  Granddaddy ate first and had hot, black coffee, the kind that would “put hairs on your chest.” The day would fly by, and Granddaddy would run supper.  He would fry freshwater fish he had caught earlier in the day, frying them in his vast deep fryer.  This fryer was so large and got so hot that it was located outside.  He could fry a fish in 10 seconds.  That’s how to feed a boatload of folks.  Bigmama would make up black-eyed peas, fried okra, mashed taters, greens, and sweet iced tea.  On a hot, humid Louisiana evening, that meal sure was tasty.  Then it was topped off with pecan pie, made with pecans from pecan trees from her yard.  Sometimes, if the season was right, we had watermelons.  She often would feed as many as 15 of us grandkids at once.  Hmmmm, good.  The best meals ever.  Bigmama was a great cook and the best grandmother ever.

Bigmama also taught me how to be a better young man.  Looking back, she must have thought I needed the most help.  Occasionally, we are the lucky ones who have someone in our family who keeps us on the path to being a good young man, and who does so by dispensing practical guidance.  Bigmama was a no-nonsense lady with the utmost integrity, moral strength, and compassion.  Yes, like most grandmothers, she dispensed advice with a sprinkling of discipline and was able to do it in a way that made you feel right at home.  Here are some of her unsolicited advice for the benefit of her many grandsons: 1) Prayer and your family will help carry you, no matter what, 2) Obey the Golden Rule, and 3) Don’t throw rocks at cars or set the dry grass on fire.  Good advice.

Bigmama also knew how to clean and bandage cuts and scrapes, remove bee stingers, treat sunburn, remove tree bark from our arms gravel from the knees, and how to calm down a hyped-up grandkid.  And those lessons were forever!

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 45  (Christmas 1958, one to Remember)

[December 25, 2023]  My two-year-old sister Terri spotted the little bird first and called out in the calmest voice, “Mommy, a birdie.”  It was a small bird in a small nest, maybe a sparrow or finch, and was hidden within the branches of our new Christmas tree.  Now, the bird was flying in a panic inside our living room.

The year 1958 was the year I began to grow up.  It was also the best and most Merry Christmas ever in the Satterfield family, all five of us.  I turned six years old that year.  So it was no surprise to my Mom when I told her I wanted a “real Indian hatchet” for Christmas.  Hint: I didn’t get one because I might chop out my eye.  I only recently realized what Christmas was about, and like so many young kids, this was a time to give and receive gifts and to learn about the days of Jesus.  It was an exciting time, and I was thoroughly excited.  In this particular year, Christmas was the best part.

I don’t know how, but Dad found a beautiful spruce tree to decorate.  These trees are rare in northeast Louisiana.  It smelled so good, and it was the same tree type I would get for my children many years later.  It was the classic Christmas tree, like the ones in fairy tales.  Mom and Dad would decorate our tree.  I was most attracted to the colored bubble light lamps.  Inside each was water heated to the point that air would bubble through them; the effect was mesmerizing.  And the tinsel was draped heavily, glittering at every angle.

Underneath the tree, presents were increasing in number. Two presents each for us kids, a small toy, and one piece of clothing to wear.  And child-crafted presents for our parents.  I had gotten my brother and sister to help me with Mom and Dad’s presents.  Also, there are presents for our two sets of grandparents and Aunt Rea.

The week before Christmas, there was a tremendous celebration at our church.  I was in a well-rehearsed play about the birth of Jesus.  I was to be one of the three.  Wisemen presented gifts at the manger scene, and I was dressed in garb that fit those times.  I was scared in front of an audience of about 150 local folks, with standing-room only, a good turnout for a town with a population of only about 800.

Santa Claus was coming, and all of us kids were ready.  Milk and cookies were set out.  Our rooms were clean, and clothes folded.  Dad had taken my brother and me to the barber only a few days before, and we had close-cropped hair.   Mom told us stories of Christmas past and why we celebrated this time of year.  Being a six-year-old, it was hard to take all this in.  That is why I was to begin growing up.  Life in a good family, with a mother and father, is crucial for our development.

And then it was Christmas morning.  We kids were up before dawn, standing in the living room and staring slack-jawed at the most beautiful site.  I was the first to notice that Santa Claus had drunk the milk and eaten the cookies.  Mom had given us strict rules about waiting on our parents before touching anything.  I nearly blew a gasket.  Finally, Mom and Dad came into the room.  “Remember what Christmas is really about,” my Mom said.  I’m not sure I even heard her.

A few hours later, we were packed into the car, an old 1946 green two-door Chevrolet Fleetline and traveled to my Mom’s parents’ house.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, and our grandparents were all assembled in one place.  The noise was loud and continuous.  Bigmama had us sing a few traditional Christmas songs.  I couldn’t remember the words, but she knew them intimately.  At the end of the day, we were so exhausted nothing could keep us awake.

This time was the best Christmas ever in the year 1958.

This was also the year our favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, won the World Series.  I had my first day of school.  America launched the world’s first communication satellite, a jump in the space race.  And on December 18th, just one week before Christmas Day, the satellite broadcast a pre-recorded Christmas message from U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, becoming the first broadcast of a human voice from outer space.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 44 (What I Wanted to Grow Up to Be)

[December 17, 2023]  The firetruck went screaming down the street with six or seven young men hanging onto the sides of the truck with one hand, holding their fireman’s helmets in place with the other, as they raced to put out a kitchen fire near my house.  I was starstruck at the sight of such a fine display of courage.  Firefighting is what I wanted to do when I grew up; it sure was exciting, and those men were admired in town.  My Dad was one of a dozen local men trained on the one fire engine apparatus our small town had available.  I still have a photo of me standing on that bright red truck, holding my Dad’s hand, the truck gleaming bright red in the sunlight.  The fire engine was a darling; the townsfolk were proud of her, and the volunteers who handled her expertly were courageous.  It was expected to refer to large pieces of equipment as “her,” an old tradition recognizing its value and need for protection.  That made me want to be a firefighter and have fun riding on her side with these men.  A few years later, that would change.

I was 10 or 11 when my brother and I started watching a weekly ABC network television show, “Combat!”  This show was a black-and-white TV series about a squad of American soldiers fighting the Germans in World War 2.  My brother and I were glued to the TV set on Tuesdays, but during the school year, we were limited to one 30-minute show only after homework was done and as long as the show we wanted was over before bedtime.  Also, our Dad didn’t want our shows to interfere with the nightly ABC News hour at 9 PM.  I never had homework on Tuesdays; at least that’s what I told my Mom.  By this time, we had already seen three war movies, 12 O’Clock High (1949), Gung-ho (1943), and Sergeant York (1941); which were shocking and thrilling to me at the same time.  I also listened to several men in town talk about that war, like my “girlfriend’s” dad since he’d been in the Pacific Theater of war.  These shows and talking with our town’s combat vets sparked something in me, although I was not exactly sure what that feeling was.  I started to change my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Now, I wanted to be in the military.  Our friends, my brother Philip and me, could be found running around any day of the week with a wooden stick called a submachine gun because it was cool and on automatic, ratta-tat-tat, ratta-tat-tat.  Cool!

I wanted to be a real “Army man” for many reasons.  Also, my Uncle DJ was a WW2 combat Vet, and he told me some scary, knee-knocking, hard-to-believe stories that I could never forget.  He was a big, fat man – my aunt, his wife was super skinny – but I didn’t see him that way.  To me, he was a hero; in my mind, he was wearing army fatigues, a helmet, and army boots, and he was carrying a rifle as he told these stories.  All these Vets were heroes.  One day, I talked to my Mom about one story that a local Vet told me, and she swatted me in the butt for telling lies.  What?  I wasn’t lying.  Their stories, plus television, plus movies, plus a strange attraction to these men had altogether convinced me to be one of them.  I had no idea my desires would come true ten years later and make it a 40-year career.  The decision of what I wanted to be when I grew up would change many times.  In High School, I wanted to be a scientist, maybe an engineer, chemist, or geologist.  I never lost my love of firefighters and army combat soldiers.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 43 (Donkey Softball)

[December 15, 2023]  You could almost feel the bat crack when it hit the ball.  The softball popped into the infield and, in a normal game, would have been an easy out.  But the second baseman was sitting atop his donkey, stretching out his glove, missing the pop-up, and falling off his donkey.  The hometown boys sitting on the sidelines broke out in laughter.  The second baseman jumps up, gets the ball from the dirt, remounts his donkey, and throws the ball to the first baseman who missed the throw, then slowly rides his donkey to get the errant pitch.  This took three or four minutes, but the hitter, my Dad, had not yet made it to first base.  His donkey refused to move an inch.  Donkeys are known for their stubbornness, especially when forced to do something they dislike and around people they don’t know.  The small crowd was having a great time; the players were busy controlling their donkeys, and the donkeys were hee-hawing and trying to wander away to the sidelines for their apple treats.  This game was Donkey Softball.

Young men in our small town had organized a donkey softball tournament to raise awareness for our church.  These donkey ball games were popular in the Deep South before World War II, so this game was a bit of a throwback.  The whole town turned out to see the upcoming shenanigans.  I remember walking up to the area where spectators were allowed.  A bird flew overhead and pooped on my Mom’s hair.  She was a real trooper and didn’t freak out like some women would have done.  We walked to the sidelines to get a seat on the “benches” made of railroad ties set on concrete blocks.  When you sat down, you had to be careful about getting tar on your pants or sitting on a toad.  I ran around picking up toads and chasing girls, yelling, “ribbit, ribbit.”  I laughed so hard my friend Jerry thought I was going bonkers.

The game occurred on our town’s only ballfield and on a late summer Saturday afternoon, so it was hot, humid, and buggy.  One would have thought God had brought one of his Egyptian plagues to us; toads had captured the playing area, and it took about an hour to run most of them off.  The game got underway with my Dad first in the batter’s box.  The game was getting exciting and funny as we all cheered for the home team and our dads.  None of us had played such a game before, and that presented several challenges that needed addressing.  Each team member had to get personally acquainted with “their” donkey.  If a donkey likes you, they are more likely to obey.  Otherwise, they revert to their natural stubbornness, and they could bite.  And all the ball players needed time to figure out the best method of staying upright; there were no saddles, only reigns.

One young man from our town was thrown off his donkey.  A big crowd gathered.  Dr. Coats, who lived at the end of town, checked him out, but nothing was broken, just a strained back.  The game continued.  After some time, my Dad made it to first base and was one of the few to get that far.  The toads returned, the sun went down, and the donkeys were restless.  After one complete inning, three hours later, someone called the game a draw.  The final score was 0 to 0.  My Dad was voted best player, and we all laughed at his small honor.  I spent most of my time yakking with friends, chasing toads, and finding dung beetles, and toward the end of the game, I got to hold the reins of four donkeys.  I thought I was important because of the small responsibility I’d been given.  I was beginning to learn the value of responsibility.  That’s how I learned about the good life and donkeys.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 42 (New Baby, Paula)

[December 11, 2023]  The Satterfield family lived in the countryside on the outskirts of the small city of Bastrop, Louisiana, just west of Cypress Bayou, recently moving there from the town we’d grown up in.  Our new red-brick home was in a sunny place with giant oak trees, a child’s swing set, woods in the backyard, and a large grassy yard to play in.  There were many places to run and have fun, mainly in the woods and ponds out back where a kid not paying attention could get lost, or get rattlesnake bit.  We adapted to the country setting, made new friends, and explored open fields, wooden areas, and dirt trails.  It was a fun place, with our nearest neighbors living on a farm where I worked.

Then, Baby Paula Marie Satterfield (your great aunt) was brought home to us on a chilly January day; she was beautiful, healthy, and loud.  The months before her birth, our Mom sat us down to explain how the new baby, due very soon, would keep her busy.  She needed us to pick up just a few extra chores, only a little extra, and try to stay out of trouble.  Mom promised a nickel increase in our weekly 25-cent allowance to compensate.  She extracted a pledge from the three of us to behave ourselves, and that we would assist with cleaning baby bottles, warming milk on the stove, changing cloth diapers (yuck), and folding baby clothes she had recently washed and dried.  It is incredible how often baby diapers had to be changed, and wow, they sure smelled.  We promised!  Mom expected me to take the lead despite working afternoons on the neighbor’s farm and having a “girlfriend,” the farmer’s daughter next door.  Mom’s request was okay with me; family comes first, as always.

Christmas had passed a few weeks before, and we were back in school when Dad rushed Mom to the hospital.  She was gone for three days.  Dad stayed home with us for those days and cooked supper for us kids.  Cheeseburgers and beans.  I wouldn’t say I liked cheese, but my brother loved it.  Dad did, too, so I had to eat cheeseburgers anyway.  I complained that Mom did a better job of it, and I’m sure Dad didn’t care what I said.  Dad was strict and didn’t put up with any whining.  Phil and Terri were excited about the new baby, too.  Then suddenly, baby Paula was home.  Then, our world changed, and we did not realize it, not entirely anyway.  I wanted the new baby to be a brother, more to play with and, looking back, rather selfish of me.  These were the days when you didn’t know the baby’s sex until the moment of birth.  I remember hiding in the closet for a few hours to protest, but everyone ignored me since they were busy with baby Paula, who was very cute.

Kids, lots of kids, were typical where we lived.  A family of five or six kids or more kids was ordinary.  We all knew about babies, a little anyway, since it seemed every family had one, or so it seemed.  Those babies make a lot of noise and require immediate attention.  But baby Paula was extra good, much to Dad and Mom’s relief.  Today, when we have conversations in our family, we refer to days before Bastrop as “pre-Paula days.”  Things went pretty well in the Satterfield household that winter, and then we were told we were moving again to another city, this one a “real” city.  We were headed to Little Rock, Arkansas, the home of our Aunt Rea (great aunt Marie Tabor) and the person from whom Paula’s middle name came.  This big city is where our adventures began in earnest and where taking care of the baby was difficult for us.

For those first few months, we were on the go, keeping the house clean (Dad helped), washing dishes, and playing with the baby.  Baby Paula turned out to be a great addition to the family.  When we went shopping downtown, taking baby Paula along, all the teenage girls stopped us to ask questions.  Those girls were pretty.  I stared.  But I didn’t forget about my girlfriend, no matter how good those teenagers looked.  Then we left for the big city by train.  Dad followed us, and we spent a day riding on a passenger train.  My brother and I had a great experience running up and down the aisles and having fun in our train passenger car.  Little Rock would be a flash because our next stop was in south Texas, to the town of Harlingen.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 41 (Adventures in Riding Horses)

[December 9, 2023]  He was the most gorgeous black stallion I’d ever laid my eyes upon; his breed was a Morgan.  I had a curious outlook on what it was like to be an adult.  And that is expected of a young, outdoors, fun-loving, mostly shy kid from the Deep South.  One of those experiences involved riding horses and riding them bareback.  We knew no other way.  If you wanted to be a good “young man,” then you did things like riding horses without a saddle, scrounging good junk from the town dump, cleaning up your yard and that of your neighbors, running errands for local businesses, staying out of trouble with the law, and helping out widowed women with a few chores.  We all knew this, and we aimed to be good, which we were told would lead to a good life.  To be a grown-up, independent, strong, and creating a family was more prestigious and exciting than going to school and being a kid living at home.

At six, I was not too young to be riding a horse.  I was late learning how to ride compared to the children in my school who lived on nearby farms.  In those days, the only training you got before getting on a horse was to “hold on tight.”  On my first attempt, I fell off from my lack of proper balance, which had nothing to do with the horse, who didn’t move.  Once I said “giddy up” (like in cowboy movies), time went fast.  That riding experience did teach me a few lessons about horses.  First, horses have personalities and can remember you.  So, please don’t treat them poorly.  And never let them be the boss, or you will pay the price later for that failure.  Second, a horse’s teeth occupy more space in their head than their brains, but they are not stupid.  I also found that they are highly food motivated and you can use this to get on their good side and train them properly.  And third, horses are herd animals and like being around other horses and people, but only if they like you.  I learned this last lesson the hard way.

The horse that first day, stabled near a friend’s home, was named “Rebel.”  It was such a cool-sounding name.  I had not the slightest clue that the name might describe his personality.  “Giddy up,” I called out in my high-pitched, nervous voice, and away we went at a full gallop.  At least, that is what it seemed like.  The trees were flying by past, and my friends were left far behind.  I leaned left, or was it right, and promptly hit the ground with a thud.  Fortunately, nothing was broken; I checked for injuries as I dusted myself off.  The horse continued into a farmer’s cottonfield to be found and returned hours later.  My friends were with me in a few minutes, patting me on the back and saying how thrilled they were that I “rode that horse like a real cowboy.”  It was an exaggeration, but I smiled and said, “I did it.”  This was a small, a very small victory to becoming a man, and it felt darn good.

But it was dumb luck that kept me from getting killed that day.  The horse Rebel was euthanized a year later after stomping a man to death.  He was all black, sleek, very big, and full of life.  Rebel was a beautiful creature.  I desperately wanted to impress my friends that day; maybe I did.  We all talked about my brief ride with my Mom.  She said, “Just don’t get yourself killed.”  Yep, that’s precisely what any mom would say to her young son wanting to grow up fast.  The wild ride was part of an adventure, and I would ride again but not until many years later in the Army.  I did learn that I had personal limits to overcome, like fear of the unknown and dealing with a horse that can kill.  I also learned that if you fall, get up, dust yourself off, and walk tall.  You and your friends will respect you for it.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 40  (Trip to see My Great Aunt)

[December 4, 2023] My great aunt Marie Tabor was a beautiful woman, tall, energetic, smart, articulate, motivated, and dedicated to my Mom.  She was the sister of my maternal Bigmama (Grandmother Blankenship).  Aunt Rea lived her entire life in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a classic upscale neighborhood and was a hairdresser.  She had no children, which may be why she was so close to my Mom.  We called her “Aunt Rea,” and since she lived about three hours away, we didn’t visit often, but we had a good time when we did.  She adored us, too.  But her husband was a bore.  We didn’t like him much, and he smoked cigars, sat all day in his armchair, and read the newspaper.  Great Uncle Eddie was boring!

The first time I remember going to see Aunt Rea was when we arrived at night.  As we came upon a hill overlooking Little Rock, the whole city was lit up like nothing I’d ever seen, spread across the valley floor.  The lights below us were beyond my wildest imagination.  I stared, probably slack-jawed, at the site of what was before us.  There was a world out there that I had no idea existed, and I wanted to see more.

Little Rock was at the center of the nation’s racial segregation, and in 1957, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne was sent to force the state of Arkansas to desegregate its schools.  Aunt Rea’s hairdresser shop was directly across from the Little Rock Central High School, and CBS was in her shop reporting this historic event.  Many of the videos that day were taken from her shop windows.

Aunt Rea seemed to be the center of everything.  She would take me throughout the city, exceeding the speed limit, chain-smoking cigarettes, keeping her pocketbook close with her loaded Colt 1903 semiautomatic pistol, and talking nonstop and so fast I had a tough time keeping up.  She and I were living on the edge.  It was fun.  I heard her tell stories of her upbringing and of wanting children and not being capable of having them, a regret she carried with her until the day she died.  Aunt Rea had the fastest, deepest southern drawl ever.  She was an amazing woman, and she made me smile.  I loved her.  Many years after graduating High School in Texas, I would drive hours to visit her.  For me, Little Rock was the center of a wondrous universe.

Aunt Rea was a results-driven woman.  She had fun and useful projects that would keep our interest whenever we visited.  I enjoyed our construction of a five-story, white, with green trim birdhouse for her yard.  It took a couple of weekends to finish it to her satisfaction.  I was to draw the template outline on ½ inch plywood and cut the pieces out with a handheld jigsaw.  Then, we used thin nails and wood glue to assemble the birdhouse correctly.  The corners were wonky.  When I pointed this out, Aunt Rea gave me a big smile and hug.  Then we drilled holes large enough for a small Wren to fit inside.  Her dull, dimwit husband put up a tall pipe in the backyard and set the 5-story birdhouse on it.  Standing on Aunt Rae’s back porch, holding her hand, we admired the beautiful birdhouse.  This small project helped me decide on my future career.

When we arrived at her home to visit, Aunt Rea was often not home.  She was a busy lady between her hairdresser business and being an active volunteer for the local Humane Society.  It was common for her to rescue abused and neglected dogs.  She had her own dogs, Laddie and Mitzi, both Rough Collies that were exceptional, and she adored them.  My sister Terri has an oil painting of those dogs that Aunt Rea had commissioned in their memory.

Since she was out being part of her community, the doors of her home were locked.  Dad would send my little sister Terri through the doggie door in the back of the house when we arrived.  Being the youngest, she was small and could squeeze in and then unlock the door.  Wet doggie licks would meet her.  Aunt Rea was the kind of relative we never deserved, but luck was on our side.  You made a difference in our lives; thank you, Aunt Rea.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 39 (My First Girlfriend)

[November 27, 2023] Bonnie was my first “girlfriend.”  I was six years old, and now as I look back from many decades and a number of girlfriends later, I didn’t actually know what having a girlfriend meant.  Some folks will say it’s not possible for a boy to have a girlfriend so young when he is immature, unfocused, inexperienced, and untested in the world.  And that was me: happy-go-lucky, free-willed, a bit of a scaredy cat, and with a thin physique, tall, and slender but also physicality weak.  I did have one strength, I could run as fast as the wind, and outpace even the top runners many years my senior.  Bonnie was in my First-Grade class and that was my first memory of meeting her, yet that was all good because she was there and pretty, and she smiled at me.  Yes, she was my girlfriend.  We never kissed, hugged, or even held hands.  That did not at all mean she wasn’t my girlfriend.  She was.  I just didn’t know it, yet, and would be until my family moved out of town six years later.

Bonnie contacted me on social media shortly after I retired from the Army, a few years ago.  We both were happily married with kids and grandkids by then.  We reminisced about those days.  Our talks brought back so many good memories that I’d forgotten, they quickly came flooding back.  Like memories of her dad, Mister Bo Sisson, who fought in the Battle of Leyte in the Pacific during World War 2, in 1944, wounded in the neck that earned him a Purple Heart.  Adult men were always addressed as “mister.”  Because of his severe wound from the war, Mr. Sisson wore a throat device that allowed him to talk.  When I was seven or eight, I was invited into their home for a snack and got to meet Bonnie’s family.  I asked Mr. Sisson if he had served in WW2 and, yes, he said so, but seemed reluctant to talk with me about the war around his family.  Sadly, I never got the chance to discuss his wartime experiences.  Later, I would listen to many local combat vets over the next few years. Mr. Sisson would be my first veteran I’d ever spoken to who lived in my small town of Mer Rouge.  But it was he that sparked my interest in war and I believe the reason I later listened so intently to so many veterans.

I was elected president of my First-Grade class, Bonnie was the Secretary.  I’m not sure we had any unique qualities or duties.  Maybe we were just figureheads, or I don’t remember.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention; that could be the case, too.  The big event of the year was the class play and the entire class would be part of it.  Our teacher, Mrs. Esta Freeland said the play’s name would be “When the Pie was Opened,” and we studied hard, memorizing our parts.  The play was based on the old nursery rhyme “Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie.”  Or, that’s what the local paper said anyway.  I think it came from a Mother Goose poem.  Me?  I was a bit slow learning my role.  Technically I was probably below average in my acting ability, but we all played parts anyway.  Bonnie, all my friends and I played starring roles.  It was a great way to learn more about ourselves.  Some of us had good voices that projected well like Mary Hendershot.  Some could remember our lines better.  On the day of the big play, Bonnie and I looked at each other across the stage and smiled.  That made my day.

My next ”girlfriend” would be a few years later after we moved out of town.  I was working on a farm milking cows.  And that is a story for another day.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 38 (Thanksgiving Day)

[November 23, 2023]  Rowen, long ago I was your age, eight years old and living in a small town, so small there was no traffic light, no grocery store, no park, and no library.  Thanksgiving was a big holiday, with family coming in for miles around to eat a great meal cooked by my grandmother; we called her Bigmama.  I hope you enjoy my story.  It tells you about my time as a young boy at a Thanksgiving supper, long before your daddy was born.

Chicken, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, green beans, fried okra, deviled eggs, cornbread, peach cobbler, homemade ice cream and pecan pie – and sweet tea to wash it all down.”  That’s what we ate that Thanksgiving Day, and it was a big family get-together for us.  As we did often, we traveled to our grandparent’s house, about 20 minutes away, for one of our biggest family gatherings each Thanksgiving holiday.  Grandpa and Bigmama, my Mom’s parents, had a large but very old, wood-frame house that was once a travelers’ inn with ten bedrooms but had only two bathrooms.  My Aunt Jean, my mother’s sister, occupied part of Bigmama’s house with one of the two bathrooms.  The shortage of bathrooms was not often a problem, but the large number of girl cousins changed how we did things.  This holiday, Grandpa had to drive some of my cousins a couple of blocks away to the gas station and use their bathrooms; the girls didn’t like it since those gas station bathrooms were gross.  My brother Philip and I went to a neighbor’s house and asked to use their bathrooms.  It was a simple solution, even if they must have thought we were weird.

We arrived the night before Thanksgiving Day, and as was common practice, all five of us slept in an unused bedroom at the back of the house.  It had one large bed.  Bigmama had set out a stack of sheets on the bed and a few pads on the floor for us kids.  When my mom first entered the bedroom, I heard her scream so loud that it scared the bejeebers out of me.  Then I saw what frightened her.  Hanging from the ceiling was a giant Bat, black and nasty-looking, with fur and bony wings.  My brother ran upstairs to escape but returned crying because the dark scared him, too.  Sometimes, I just had to laugh at him.

Aunts and Uncles began arriving around the same time, settling into their rooms, while our cousins and I were running around outside, making scary sounds to scare the girls.  Most of our cousins were girls, so it was easy.  The following day, we were up early to the sound of frying eggs and bacon.  Bigmama was the greatest cook of all time, making an early morning feast for what must have been 18 to 20 people.  Her homemade biscuits with slabs of real butter were the best.  I ate so fast and so much that I walked about while pointing to my stomach that was sticking out.  I almost threw up.  My brother did throw up.  The rest of the morning, we were everywhere, picking up pecans in the backyard, throwing dirt clods at wasp nets and running away screaming – only my brother got stung -, playing on the giant swing set, chasing the girls, and going downtown to watch the drunks stagger out of the local bars.  We had a fun time.

Before us kids knew about the time, the adults called for us to come inside and eat Bigmama’s Thanksgiving meal.  Sometimes, we would eat outside this time of year, but not this time.  Adults ate in the large dining room that sat ten people.  My older cousin Ronna and I were allowed to eat at the adult table, a privilege recognizing that we were older than my cousins.  The others ate at the “kid’s table” in a nearby room where the adults could monitor their behavior.  As the supper was being readied, there was a power outage.  Grandpa got up from his comfortable leather chair and took me to a utility room to replace a circuit fuse.  When he replaced it, we heard a sharp yelp from the kitchen.  I ran back to see my Aunt Jean holding an electric blender like a pistol and decorating the kitchen wall with mashed potatoes.  I laughed.  My Mom swatted me lightly on my rear as a reminder to be kind.

As usual, the meal was fantastic.  However, Bigmama’s pecan pie was voted the best dessert.  Aunt Jimmie-Doris made a very delicious peach cobbler pie.  Aunt Jean had made a dessert also: jello, whipped cream, and a fruit piece of glop that no one wanted.  Our parents had threatened us with the pain of a butt whupping if we acted up, insulted any adult, or annoyed them while they were eating.  I finished first, as usual.  After asking permission to leave, I went to the kitchen to look for cookies when I noticed a small fire burning on the stove.  A dishrag had caught fire.  I walked back to the adult table and stood there until my Dad finally asked what I wanted.  “Sorry, but the kitchen’s on fire,” I said politely.  Adult men were up, knocking over chairs and dishes as they ran into the kitchen to extinguish the pitifully small but still dangerous fire.  Once the fire was out, my Dad lectured me about prioritizing politeness over common sense.  Good point.  Thanks, Dad.

This was a Thanksgiving to remember.  All of us were exhausted as Dad drove home that night.  Our car ran out of gas on the way back, yet we drifted into a gas station in our hometown by sheer luck.  My Mom was horrified.  U.S. kids were clueless as to what had just happened.  A month later, we were in a car accident at this exact location.  There were no seatbelts, and fortunately, no one was injured.  I always liked Grandpa and Bigmama’s place.  This time, it was Thanksgiving Day that brought us together.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 37 (Boy Scout Camp)

[November 17, 2023]  “What is the Boy Scouts?” I asked after my Dad said he’d signed me up as a brand-new Boy Scout.  And the first meeting was that very night.  Oh, great!!  I started with the lowly rank of Tenderfoot.  My brother was too young, so he had to stay home and help our Mom.  He cried because he couldn’t go with me.  I barely made the minimum age of 12.  The uniform was a tan short-sleeve shirt pulled from a cardboard box of used uniforms, one patch over the left pocket saying Boy Scouts of America, an American flag, and with a ripped sleeve that my Mom sewed up for me.  I didn’t get a hat to wear, pants, a BSA belt, a scarf, or any implements we usually think of when we hear about scouting.

I didn’t care.  I was going to scout summer camp, which was exciting to look forward to.  The Scoutmaster told me about the camp, painting it in my mind as some super great place.  But, looking at me, small, thin, and new, he said now was the time for me to “man up,” whatever that meant.  Then he told me about the camp with maybe 200 scouts beginning in less than two weeks, so I did not have much time or money to prepare.  My lack of preparation, however, would catch me off guard, and I would regret not being fully ready.  The Scoutmaster told us new scouts that the idea of Scout Summer Camp was to “build friendships” with other Scouts, but I had no idea what that meant either.

As we rolled through the front gate in a rented school bus, we saw “Welcome to Camp Rockefeller” on a sign overhanging the main gravel road.  Every day at Camp, we got up early, just as the sun rose above the horizon, showered, went to Reveille at 6:30 sharp, got into formation, and then went off to pre-planned events.  Right after Reveille, we lined up for a hearty breakfast, usually powdered eggs and ham with a greenish tint, hard and stale biscuits, and milk and orange juice.  We earned merit badges like Leatherwork, Cooking, Swimming, and Life Saving and enjoyed the day, though it seemed like we walked 10 to 12 miles per day, likely less.  No one knew exactly how far.  The Camp was a blur of events and new things.  That first night, we were excited and stayed up all night talking and laughing and joking around with each other.  No adults bothered us; they had gone to bed early – smart move.  That first wake-up call was a shock.  I was the most tired I’d ever been, with barely one hour of sleep.  That was a fast and hard lesson to learn.  No more staying up late for us.  We also learned different ways to save someone who is drowning, how to swim on your back, paddle a canoe, aim properly, shoot and clean a rifle, design a leather bag, start a fire (three ways), cook simple foods, tie knots with a rope, and other outdoor skills.

All of us Tenderfoots, newbies with no experience, seemed to learn everything by being unprepared.  Yep, that’s right.  We learned the hard way.  It seemed as if we were purposefully kept in the dark as a way to ensure mental torture.  Get your tent setup wrong, and it falls down in the middle of the night.  Forget your sleeping bag and freeze all night (dads brought sleeping bags out the next day).  Wear your bathing suit all day, and get crotch rot between the legs.  Forget your toothbrush, and your mouth feels like tree bark.  The adults were indeed having a good laugh at us, but they rarely showed it.  Occasionally, we might catch one smirking at us weak, ignorant, clueless Tenderfeet, and whenever he saw us, he would say something like, “Get back to whatever you were doing.”

The next evening, after our supper meal – served family style – the whole camp turned out for the final bond fire, and as we gathered around, we could feel the intense heat coming off the flames as they licked what seemed like a hundred feet in the air.  Two dozen older scouts were dressed in American Indian garb, dancing, whooping, and singing around the campfire like you might see in those classic cowboy movies.  Someone was beating war drums in the background, adding to the intensity of the atmosphere.  Then we learned the secret Camp Rockefeller greeting.  I don’t remember the secret, wink wink.

The last day was the main event.  We were told it was something we’d never forget, which was true because I never forgot.  As our troop marched out to this wide-open field, we passed a wooden cabin, one of their office buildings.  A small sign in the corner of one window read, “Feed a scout a fish, and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”  One of our troop’s senior scouts told us, “That’s why we’re here.  We teach you to be a man and a man for others, to protect your family.”  We were divided into two sides of about 100 scouts each.  It would be a battle of one half of the camp against the other using flour in small paper sacks.  If you got hit, you were out.  I got hit 20 times or more but I took out plenty of the other guys.  My muscles were sore, my face and arms sunburned, and I had scratches all over my legs.  But afterward, I walked around with white flour all over me, proudly showing that I had engaged in “battle” with my badge of courage.

I might have been unprepared, inexperienced, and ignorant, but after a week at Scout Camp, I was a better Boy Scout and had the experience to show for it. Finally getting home, I fell fast asleep.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 36 (Rebuilding a T-Model Car)

[November 12, 2023]  The rain was coming down hard.  The night was hot.  For that reason, I was allowed to sleep in Bigmama’s twin bed on the first floor, next to an open window; only the screen kept out the night air.  An old, oscillating fan blew a breeze over me; occasionally, a spit of rain would come through the window, catch in the fan and blow it on me.  That morning, I woke to the smell of frying bacon, handmade biscuits, and grease-fried eggs.  Bigmama was up early, getting Granddaddy’s breakfast ready.  After he ate, it was our turn.  And it was true that Bigmama’s breakfast was the best.  But, that day, the anticipation of Granddaddy finishing his repair of a 1918 Model T Ford got me out of bed and piqued my interest.  He rebuilt old cars for extra cash and because he liked old Fords.  You see, Granddaddy had been trained as a young man in the Ford factory and spent part of his youth building Model Ts sometime in the 1920s.  That day dawned with clear skies, we were to discover whether he could get a junked Model T running after it had sat in an old barn for more than 40 years.  Granddaddy was my mom’s daddy.  She was the youngest in her family.

“Get on up in the driver’s seat, Douglas, it won’t hurt ya,” Granddaddy said with that big ole grin on his face.  He was the best guy ever.  His mechanical and construction skills were the best in Morehouse Parish, and I was his grandson.  Everyone knew him and his excellent reputation; by extension, I was also looked up to with respect.  Although, at the time of my youth, I did not understand this.  He was also physically strong and mentally sharp.  So it was that no one ever underestimated his capabilities.  He was still the most competent man with only a sixth-grade education.  Sitting in the driver’s seat, looking down, there were no floorboards in this Model T, and the wooden floor had rotted away long ago, a common problem.  Granddaddy was finishing up properly adjusting the single-barrel carburetor.  Earlier, he installed four pistons.  The secret to getting these old Fords running was installing aluminum pistons in this four-cylinder car.  He told me factory T-Models had cast iron pistons that meant it emitted a “chug-chug-chug rumble,” the whole car shaking as it chugged down the road.  Aluminum pistons smoothed out the ride considerably.

By early afternoon, Granddaddy had fixed enough of the car that it was ready for a ride; of course, it was on his property.  The car was not road-legal just yet.  “Douglas, you go ahead and drive.”  “Hey, Granddaddy,” I said, “there’s three pedals on the floor and two blinkers” (one for spark timing, the other a throttle).  This Model T was a beast!  It was complicated and too much for me, a youngster of about 12 or 13 years of age.  I learned a lot about old Model Ts that day, but more about my Granddaddy.  For example, I learned that many of his mechanical skills came from owning a gas station and repair shop in town for decades, although he had been formally trained in the Ford factory to build the original T-Model.  That day, I saw him lift a modern tire and rim off the ground by himself without breaking a sweat.  It weighed at least 200 pounds.  I stared at him, mouth wide open; the tire was almost bigger than me.  Later, he would say, “Hey Douglas, look at this arm muscle,” pointing to his right arm.  Granddaddy lifted me off the ground without any trouble; that was fun.  I laughed.  The little village of Bonita was lucky to have him and his family.  I was lucky to have him as my grandfather.

A few years later, my brother Philip bought an old Indian Motorcycle.  And I mean old, probably from around 1940 or thereabouts.  It didn’t run, so he made a big mistake by taking the machine apart, down to the tiny springs and gears of the transmission.  The motorcycle parts were randomly jumbled up in a cardboard box.  My grandfather put the motorcycle back together without instructions and got it running; only a miracle could explain how he did it.  I was the first to ride it, and this time, I went on the highway and back roads without tags or registration and with a loud muffler.  Wearing an old motorcycle leather helmet, I got away with illegal riding.  That was a really fine machine.  A few years later, Granddaddy helped me rebuild the 289 cubic engine in my 1965 Mustang.  My mom’s parents, Granddaddy and Bigmama, were generous folks, and we all loved being at their home.

Repairing and upgrading that T-Model Ford was like nothing I’d ever seen since.  But it was my Granddaddy who showed me so much about himself and his willingness to share with me how he thinks, what his beliefs were, his intense love of Bigmama and family, how he pictures machinery in his head and repairing them, his mentoring young men in his church, ways of solving moral dilemmas, and his thoughts on what he believed were the greatest passages of the Bible, and what being a good man was about.  We talked often.  And that was the greatest treasure and adventure I could ever get from anyone.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 35 (Who Were My Heroes?)

[November 10, 2023]  I didn’t know it then, but I grew up privileged.  Not with money, or status, or owning a big house or car or lots of clothes, but by being in the company of ordinary men, combat veterans from World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who served to protect us at home right here in America.  They were everywhere: salesmen, gas station attendants, growing crops, coaching baseball teams, raising dairy cows, bringing up families, being members of the volunteer fire department, all holding ordinary jobs you could find in Anytown, USA.  I saw their photographs of their battle buddies, and some of these ordinary men occasionally told me hair-raising stories about what they saw and did.  Looking back, I guess there should be no surprise that these veterans wanted to talk to someone about their experiences, someone who wouldn’t judge them harshly.  They talked about how a soldier could never predict when fear would sneak up on you, like a lion in the dark, and suddenly have you in its grasp.  That scared me; it scared me a lot.  How could I ever forget?

As little boys, we listened intently to these veterans, some recently returning from foreign battlefields, as they related their experiences.  It was our way of figuring out what it was like.  We boys were attracted to these men, although we didn’t know why.  They were exciting and mysterious as we listened to what they were saying and learned about their battle buddies, courage, duty, honor, and selfless service.  Like the little boys we were, we asked them stupid questions.  Did you kill anybody?  Were you a hero?  Did you have a real gun?  We were transfixed when they told stories of battles about the enemy and heroism.  There was something about these veterans that drove us to try to understand what it took to be a hero.  We knew nothing about a hero, only that adults in town looked up to them as special, admiring them, shaking their hands, smiling at them, and patting those veterans on the back.  Being a hero must have surely been cool.

Their stories were repeated often where veterans hung out, but we boys never tired of listening.  We were drawn to those stories that told of the best human traits.  Their battles were in the forests of Western Europe, the jungles of islands in the western Pacific, the hills and vast valleys just north of the 38th Parallel in North Korea, and also on the Homefront.  For example, we heard of the soldier who fought until all his ammunition ran out, then used up his hand grenades, then his bayonet and entrenching tool, and then his bare hands to fight off the “Communist hordes.”  We were also told the story about the Marine machine-gunner who kept fighting in his position until overrun.  Or, about the tale of an Infantry squad hiding in a shell hole, short of ammunition, and how they drew straws to see who got the dangerous job of going to the rear for more ammo and upon returning, he finds all his squad mates dead.  And what it was like guarding German POWs from the German U-Boat 505, only a few miles from our home.  Yes, we were in awe.

It is true that they taught me that war is not glamorous, fun, or something you would want to do.  I learned about the human element in war, which affects each person differently and unpredictably.  If you were ever in the military, you know that being brave was the most honorable thing a man could do for his men, military unit, and country.  It brings out the best and worst in humans.  And they taught us that war is unimaginably horrific.  This is how I learned that real heroes don’t wear capes or wear their underwear on the outside of their spandex blue tights, or have X-ray vision.  These men were the real heroes I could see, hear, and touch.  They were right in front of me.  These ordinary men did extraordinary things.  They are now very old, and most are now gone.  I hope I was not the only one listening to them speak of their military exploits.  Otherwise, their stories will be lost forever.  They are still my heroes.  I was privileged.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 34 (Day One of First Grade)

[November 7, 2023]  It was a big big room, dark and eerily quiet.  I entered the first-grade classroom on the first day in the autumn of 1959 in a little town with no traffic lights, Mer Rouge, LA., deep in the antebellum south.  The teacher showed an 8mm color home video of her class from the previous school year.  These kids seemed to be having a good time, smiling and laughing, playing on the playground, painting colorful portraits of their dogs and other animals, and waving at the teacher doing the videotaping.  I guess the idea was to put new kids at ease and show us that First Grade would be fun and exciting.  It didn’t work for me.  I was nervous, and I didn’t like being there one bit.

As I remember, we were all released from school that first day shortly after lunch.  The food was good, and the milk was cold and quenched our thirst.  Like so many kids starting school for the first time, we thought we were special.  We became close to each other, happy, and inspired to learn.  We were us, each with a unique anxiety for school despite our mothers telling us we would make new friends, and yes, that did happen.  About half the class were farm kids, who attended class only after completing their chores at home.  Like me, the rest of our class lived in town and had running water, a bathroom inside the house, and electricity.  Some of the farm kids lacked a few of these “necessities.”

While I do recall that first day clearly, the rest of the academic year was unimpressive and a blur.  Luck would have it that I did like our teacher.  She was in her 40s and married.  That’s all I knew about her.  We didn’t pry into her life, and I think she appreciated our hands off, and she didn’t pry into our lives either.  During recess that first day, we played several group games.  Our teacher taught us “Red Rover,” which remained our favorite outdoor game for years.  For the game, the class splits into two groups, and when your name is called, you run fast and try to break through the other team who are holding hands.  The suspense of waiting for your name to be called is great.  We had class officer elections, and I was elected president of my class; even if I cannot remember why or what my classmates thought of me, to give me a chance.  I remember learning my ABCs, reading about Dick and Jane, counting to 100, eating properly and with manners with a fork and knife, and how to Square Dance, all very dull.  The one part of school I liked was when our teacher read a story, any story, to us as we sat in a big circle around her desk.  These stories were all real adventures.  My favorite First Grade stories were The Little Red Hen, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Old Lady in the Shoe.

I walked home from that first day of school and walked into our house.  Mom asked me about my day.  I didn’t want to talk much about it.  Mom seemed to be pleased that I wasn’t too traumatized.  I know she cared; she knew I was a bit anxious about my first day.  Looking back, I can only see that she actually had an interest in my schooling.  Then I went out to play in our yard.  No homework.  No thoughts about tomorrow, but tomorrow would come quickly as we were immersed in schooling – reading, writing, arithmetic, and comportment.  And our class would shrink in size every year from 23 until I finished sixth grade with them, with only 13 in my class when I left in May of 1966.  I lived in Mer Rouge for about ten years, much longer than anywhere.  Moving from town to town after grade school was hard, leaving my friends behind.  We also left our dogs, and all the moving was shocking to my brother, sister, and me.

I’m still in contact today with many of my First Grade classmates from that first day.  We are scattered across America, but most are still located nearby where we went that day in the little town of Mer Rouge.  That was 64 years ago, nearly to the day I wrote this letter.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 33 (Fun on Halloween)

[October 31, 2023]  “It’s a bonanza!” yelled my brother Philip as he stared into his haul of goodies.  He and I looked forward to Halloween because of the chocolate candy, dressing up in a costume, discovering which of our neighbors were generous and which were cheap, and seeing good friends, yet trying to figure out who was underneath each mask.  This day was special, so unique it was something to talk about in excited yet hushed tones among our town’s children, or else our parents might warn us about accepting suspicious gifts of candy.  Months before its arrival, our school was decorated to the ceilings of our classrooms with pumpkin paper cutouts, corn stalks, a bale of hay, and a drawing by each of us.  And, each young boy dressed in scary clothes, girls as princesses, our teachers in witch garb, and all provided by our teachers’ handy works.  It was a time for a photograph, later before the big day, and sent home with specially designed Halloween keepsakes for our families.  All these years later, I still have one copy on my computer.  Luckily, our school principal gave us a half day off from school on Halloween.

Each year, my costume and my favorite to wear was a skeleton.  It was an inexpensive costume of a plastic skull mask and a lightweight black one-piece coverall with a white set of human bones cheaply imprinted on its front.  Philip and I were in charge of our little sister Terri.  We didn’t mind taking her too much; she usually gave up after 20 minutes because she was tired.  Or, maybe she had enough goodies, I don’t know.  Then it was balls to the wall, my brother and me running like little leprechauns as we crisscrossed lawns, backyards, alleys, local trails, and minor roads.  “Don’t cross the railroad tracks,” Mom would say as she cut us off from half the town and the other side of the town’s nicer homes, where our candy haul would surely expand beyond our limited imaginations.  How much candy we gathered determined our measure of a great Halloween.  Halloween was satisfactory if two Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store paper bags were packed.  Philip and I made out with huge bags full; success was nearly guaranteed.  “Trick or Treat,” we said at each home, not knowing what it meant or why.  Frankly, we didn’t care either.  Halloween had no meaning to us other than candy and funny costumes.

Houses in our neighborhood were close together, making it easier because we knew the families and faster, being so close to one another.  The dads handed out the candy at their home.  Mothers went out with the little tykes, who seemed scared of the older kids dressed in spooky garb.  The little ones were often all huddled together, protection in numbers.  We laughed, seeing them all bundled up like that.  As little kids, we were not that much different just a few years earlier.  Our mother told us to watch carefully for little kids walking alone, especially if they looked scared.  This could mean they were possibly lost.  It would be our job to find out their name and take them with us until their mom or dad found us.  “Make them laugh because they will be less afraid of you boys that way.”  My Mom was one smart lady who looked out for everyone.  We were proud of her, which gave us an advantage since she had confidence in us and did not follow us.  The three of us stuck together.

One Halloween, our small town threw a major “scare” party at the old High School building just before it was torn down.  Everyone was invited, kids and adults alike.  It was great to see so many there.  Of course, my friends and I ran all over the school making spooky sounds, “woooo, woooo,” trying to mimic hoot owls.  Then we heard a real owl, and we panicked.  Then we saw a black cat and ran frightened in the other direction upstairs.  On the top floor, we saw bats and screamed; how embarrassing for us boys as we tried to be brave.  Maybe we also tried looking up the skirts of the High School girls.  I got slapped a few times, and one of their dates said, “Get lost, you little punk.”  We lived across the street from the school, so when it was time to go home, I ran into our house in the dark, hiding in my bedroom.  When my brother came in, I jumped out and screamed.  He was so scared he couldn’t run.  He hopped like a bunny rabbit into our Mom’s arms.  I felt a bit bad but laughed anyway.  All of us kids were wired on sugar and had a hard time sleeping that night.  I still made a few “woooo woooo” sounds.  Dad said, “Shut Up, Douglas.”  It’s best not to risk it anymore.  That was a real Halloween to remember.

I still love Halloween.  No, I haven’t been trick or treating in a long time now.  I would take your dad and Aunt Audrey out on Halloween night until they grew older.  Your dad went as something frightening, always spending a great deal of time preparing a high-quality outfit.  His costume would have made mine as a boy look bad.  We always had a fun time.  Halloween was a good family holiday to enjoy.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 32 (Volcanic Science Project)

[October 28, 2023]  Our family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1966, when I was 14 and about to start the ninth grade.  That city, one of my favorites in Texas, had a mixed history of hurricanes, high humidity, lots of birds, and little emphasis on schools.  When we arrived, a tropical storm had done a lot of damage to the beaches.  I’d never heard of tropical storms or hurricanes before, but I would soon gain an appreciation.  Living in Texas was going to be an exciting experience, frightening to outsiders, and there was plenty of stereotyping of all Texans as Cowboys, bull riders, gun-loving, and reckless.  But just average, as I was to get to know those tough Texans.  I liked Texas!  Fresh seafood, outdoor jobs,  Tex-Mex food, guns-guns-guns (often in the gun rack inside a pickup truck), horses, boots and spurs, a Texan drawl and funny slang.  As well as tornadoes, scorpions, tarantulas, horny toads, armadillos, fire ants, and lots of roaches.  And sun, lots of sun and dust everywhere.  This would be my last year of Junior High School before the big move to High School the following year.

My imagination often outran my technical skills.  I was slightly interested in science, although I did not understand what it meant to “do” science.  There was a Science Fair in my first year of Junior High, and my teacher asked us to participate.  When Mr. MacGruger asked me what project I would enter, I blurted out “volcano,” the first thing that popped into my head.  Constructing a volcano model with smoke and fire from the top would be cool and draw the judges’ attention.  Yes, it drew their attention, just not how I hoped.  My Mom helped me plan, get materials, and build it.  We used plaster to form the volcano cone and a light bulb to make-believe flowing lava.  At the science fair, shortly after setup, the 220-watt bulb was hot and started burning the interior volcano materials.  Smoke, lots of smoke and then flames.  I heard a girl scream and another yell, “Fire!”  Things went downward from there.  A teacher ran over and threw a bucket of water straight onto my model.  Poof!  Out went the gymnasium lights; they somehow short-circuited.  And there was my volcano model, glowing a dark and eerie red in the dark.  This was not how I imagined smoke and flames, but it drew everybody’s attention.  I was given the nickname “Smokie Doug.”  I got a C minus as a grade.  I was relieved they didn’t kick me out of school.

When we moved out of Corpus Christi and to Abilene, Texas, in the late summer of 1967, an enormous hurricane slammed into Corpus Christi, nearly washing our old home into the creek that ran through our backyard.  All of us kids loved that house, being close to the ocean beach.  Living there was the first time we’d ever seen the ocean.  My brother Philip and I spent lots of time in the salty water.  We were goofing off, trying to attract the attention of the older girls; they sure looked good in those bikinis.  The bikini had just gotten popular by the mid-1960s, and I liked them.  Oh, I’d never gotten sunburned before, a real adventure.  This was also the school year I improved my math skills.  Kids in class hated arithmetic, so I liked it.  Studying was frustrating.  Memorizing math rules, formulas, and conventions was hard, and many pencils sacrificed their lives so I could learn about math.  To this day, my most exciting science experiment was the fake volcano, and I earned a math award at the end of the school year.  Then, onward to High School, where my interest in math and science grew, and my thoughts about the Army disappeared.  Forgetting about the Army was a mistake I would later regret.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 31 (My First Car)

[October 22, 2023] It didn’t look like much. It was old, with fading paint, rusty rims, worn-out seats, a cracked passenger window, missing window handles, and terrible gas mileage. Shortly after starting High School as a sophomore, I finished my Driver’s Education and obtained my Texas Driver’s License. A friendly neighbor sold me his old car, a 1953, brown over tan Chevrolet One-Fifty four-door. The car was almost older than me. But it was a car; in Texas, a car is a must to get around. But it was my car, and I paid $100 cash. It had a straight-six cylinder engine, a standard three-on-tree shift on the steering column, vacuum windshield wipers (that didn’t work when it rained), and yet built like a tank. If I’d ever hit anything, there would be minor damage.

I took the car everywhere. Of course, like any 15-year-old, I wanted a sleek, fast, sporty, and cool muscle car. Not my car. “Douglas, you’ll have to just suck it up until you get enough money to upgrade to a better car,” my father said. I felt everyone staring at me wherever I went: the goofy car with the skinny kid inside. One of my close friends had a 1965 green Camaro; another had a white 1964 Chevrolet Corsair. I envied them for their newer, great cars. While I had the less desirable car, mine was more reliable. I learned a lot about cars working on it, as cars were required then.

I had my first blind date that year shortly after getting my car. I must have been unimpressive on the date; I don’t remember her name. I was nervous. It was my first formal date as a teenager. After picking her up at school and we sat down briefly to talk, l tried to scratch my eyebrow, and my finger went up my nose, just the first of the embarrassing mistakes I made that day. Later, I dropped an ice cream cone on her chocolate, which didn’t look too good on her brightly colored dress and white shoes. I’m sure the young lady was horrified. We saw the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman with a famous cast and the movie was actually what I’d planned as the highlight of the date. She hated it. I thought it was great. I dropped her off at her parents’ home, walked her up to the house, and gave her a handshake good night at about 7 p.m. And that was that.

“Don’t get wrapped around the axle.” My dad used to tell me this often, or at least it seems that way. I would get mentally worked up over my school work, part-time job, friends, going on a date, and the stupid family dog (a spaniel without brains or good disposition). Yes, maybe I was a little high-strung too. We had just relocated to Abilene, Texas, and our family had moved five times to three different states in three years. It was tough on us kids, tougher on my parents, and with our new sister Paula, born earlier in 1966, those were stressful times.

I’ve always had the mind to be free, roam without restriction, run, ride my bike everywhere, yell, and “do my own thing.” But America in the 1960s was the decade of the hippie, dressing in ragged but colorful clothes (or Nehru Jacket), having long hair, peace signs, VW vans painted in psychedelic colors, harmful drugs, motorcycles and hotrods, rejecting conventional rules and insulting the main culture. It was also a time of the Civil Rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, high crime rates, and a general unease. My dad was a great guy and always tried his best to teach me the rules of the grown-up game. Despite being a stubborn learner, I occasionally listened to what he said. Stay calm, even when circumstances are out of your control; be a rock in the stream for others. Good people do this. They are calm, ready, capable, and don’t get wrapped around the axle.
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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 30 (Old Red the Coon Dog)

[October 21, 2023]  “Old Red” was the best coonhound (a Redbone Hound) on this side of the Mississippi River, and I was happy to know Billy, his owner, and I often went hunting with him and his dog.  All three of us were each eight years old, regularly went dove hunting together, successfully, I might add, and we were like glue, always stuck together: Billy, Old Red, and Douglas.  All dogs we possess during our lifetimes have a special place in our hearts, as did Old Red, a dog that was the envy of the county and didn’t even belong to me.  And it was the right thing to do, rightfully caring for this hunting dog because this coonhound spent so much time with us; he had something special in him.  If you can love a dog, this was love.  Billy’s father got into bird hunting a few years earlier and had purchased “Red” as a pup from an old man who lived along the Bonne Ide bayou, just east of town.  When his dad gave the dog to Billy, he renamed him Old Red.  It’s a good name for a good dog.

We hunt with a shotgun.  Hit the bird in the air, my dad would say – never on the ground, not good sportsmanship – and only on command would Old Red fetch the bird, not ever before the command is given.  No one wants to shoot their own dog accidentally.  We were family.  I never owned a coonhound myself.  Bird hunting with coonhounds was to warm up our excitement for the big hunt, hunting for what coonhounds are bred to do: track and tree raccoons.  I desired to get myself a raccoon, gut and clean the coon, and make a coonskin hat like Daniel Boone wore at least the myth says he wore it.  Nope, I never succeeded in making one.  I was only on a single coon hunt, and it was really exciting, and it is hard to explain how much of an adventure these hunts can be.  Billy’s dad organized the coon hunt; we all had our flashlights; you see, a coon hunt is at night.  This time, Billy and I had our hunt cut short.  When climbing over a wood fence to follow Old Red, Billy promptly blew one of his big toes clean off before we could tree a single coon.  He let out the most blood-curdling scream I ever heard.  I ran like a wild animal to find Billy’s dad, who picked up Billy and carried him to the car and then to the ER.  Yep, Billy had violated one of the rules of handling guns when hunting – never cross a fence with a loaded gun in your hands and with the safety off.  Hmmm, actually, that’s two safety violations.  The following day, we tried but couldn’t locate his toe.  A local old man said raccoons had likely run off with the missing toe.  Oh, the irony here did not escape us.  Our dads were not happy at all about the whole affair.  Rats!  I missed out on the complete hunt.

One problem with Old Red, and a common problem with coonhounds, was his habit of running off.  He would be hanging out at Billy’s side, sniffing the ground.  If he got on a scent, poof, off he went at a full gallop.  He would follow that scent over Hill and Dale, ignoring Billy and others calling his name.  One time, Old Red ran into a road where a car nearly hit him.  That scared us.  One Saturday morning, a few months later, we walked along abandoned railroad tracks near a trestle bridge.  I’d been there before with my friend Wilson and knew not to jump off the bridge.  Drowning in the water below was a risk.  We took along Billy’s older sister, who was a bit of a tomboy by nature, and she led us to one of her favorite hiding spots near a dilapidated shed once used to store railroad items.  Upon arrival at the shed, Old Red ran off again, this time sniffing along a weed-covered ditch.  He refused to come out and began to howl.  We all laughed because that meant he had spotted a raccoon.  As we worked our way down to Old Red, Billy’s sister let out a squeal.  “Gimpy” Billy, as we now kidded him, pointed to the dense brush.  In the ditch was a mama raccoon in a trap, along with her litter of six or seven babies.  I took off my shirt, wrapping the mama coon while Billy’s sister freed her foot, and then, just like that, they waddled off to their home.  Old Red had finally found his raccoon, and we got our raccoon hunt.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 29 (Milking the Cow)

[October 16, 2023]  She had a great body, was content and cooperative, and had a sweet temperament.   And she seemed to like me.  Every afternoon after school, I visited her, visited her family, talked to her, and helped as best I could.  I was 11, and Bessy was 6, and she always seemed to appreciate me being there for her.  We lived in the rural part of the state, where the roads were mostly hard-packed dirt and electricity and running water had become available for those living in towns during the last decade, not so much the rural areas.  The farm kids I knew were tough because of living a hard life that required taking care of farm animals, planting and harvesting crops, bringing in money to help the family, learning ‘readin-writin-rithmetic’ in school, going to church, and doing those things their parents said needed doing and what is expected that young kids do.  Their kids were ready to take their place in the family by showing they could do chores and lead younger children in life skills.  Little did I know that our neighbor, farmer Jacob Simons, would go out of his way to help a little boy … me.

I’m not sure Mr. Simons needed an unskilled local boy from town to help him on his farm or milk his cow.  He gave me the job anyway.  That’s how it was so often done in the South, neighbors helping neighbors, part of our culture.  His eldest, Linda, of seven kids, had the same job as me.  We team-milked Bessy, first Linda, then me, then Linda, and so on.  I’d never milked a cow before.  There, on the farm, there are no days off.  Farming is a seven-day-a-week operation.  It’s a difficult job.  I was paid 50 cents for about two hours of effort each day, including prepping Bessy by calming her, walking her to the milking area (usually she followed me), cleaning her tits and the milk bucket, milking her by hand, keep from upsetting her, doing a follow-up cleaning, and taking the milk to a special container with a lid.  Once I was there for a while, I think Bessy started to like me.  Then, after I arrived, she would raise her head and stare into my eyes, sometimes lick me with that huge, sandpaper-like tongue, and nudge me to get my attention when I wasn’t paying enough attention to her.  She was a smart girl.  Mr. Simons taught me what I needed to know: to stay focused on Bessy and not let my mind wander, or else the bucket of milk might spill.  He also taught me about pride in doing a difficult job well and the importance of God and family.

I was a town boy, so I had it easy.  Farm kids did many farm chores before school, things I never imagined doing, getting up before sunrise.  And they often took jobs outside the farm to help support the family.  Farm girls began babysitting early and helped their moms clean the house, prepare meals, and care for the younger children.  All this required physical stamina, smarts, determination, and a sunny disposition.  I liked Mr. Simons and his family.  Their home was a hive of activity.  By modern standards, they were poor: no plumbing, electricity only in the kitchen, a wood stove heater, a smelly wood outhouse for your private business (yuck), no television set, no air conditioning (none of us had AC), and a roof under constant repairs.  They may have been house-poor, but they were family-rich.  One could tell they were generous folks.  Mrs. Simon would sometimes invite me over for a supper meal.  That was great fun eating at their long kitchen eating table.  And she once gave me an entire homemade apple pie, my favorite.  They had a big family, and they worked hard for themselves.  I never realized what a sacrifice it was for them all and the great trust that Mr. Simons had in me, especially to milk his only cow, Bessy.  I’m eternally grateful and humble for what they did for me.  I now realized how easy of life I was living.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 28 (Vicksburg Battlefield Trip)

[October 11, 2023]  The sun burned our skin, and the humidity made us feel like we were suffocating.  I remember the relentless sun, incessant bugs, circling buzzards (lots of buzzards), people dragging their kids about, and some adults dressed up in old-fashioned military uniforms.  At the time, I wondered why my Dad had taken this family trip, about two hours from home, if you don’t count the unplanned bathroom pit stop.  We were visiting the Vicksburg Mississippi Battlefield, just across from our home state of Louisiana.  We arrived late morning, 4th of July, 1963, ready to listen to my Dad talk about the important historical significance of the “War Between the States,” a name traditionally given by those from the American South for the U.S. Civil War.  My brother and sister weren’t interested.  I think my Mom was there under protest, tormented, but never complained.  She was a wonderful Mom, packing a picnic lunch she had made for the five of us, mixing kool-aid drinks and keeping them in a cooler, cloth rags and bar soap for cleaning hands, a picnic cloth, and entertaining us when we whined or whimpered, usually about everything.

Dad was about to give us a lesson in history about a war in which many Satterfield’s had fought.  Like so many families, our relatives fought on both sides of the war, and he told us how it was a source of pride that so many of our family members fought with bravery in a struggle of such epic proportions.  Naturally, I didn’t understand any of it.  But I do remember that day.  The day we were at the battlefield was the 100th Anniversary of the surrender of Confederate forces located in Vicksburg.  We saw some fortifications reconstructed in modern times, although we didn’t know it.  Philip and I jumped down into the trenches and acted like soldiers — bam, bam, bam, we started having fun.  Then Dad took us to see a long, wide ditch with water in it.  He said it was called “Grant’s Canal,” dug by several thousands of men, civilians, slaves, and soldiers.  “They dug this canal using only picks and shovels and in the hot and humid weather.”  It took months to dig it.  Why?  I don’t remember anyone saying why.  But it was big and obvious such a ditch took a lot of effort.  I didn’t know it then, but hundreds died from harsh conditions and disease digging it.

For me, the most exciting part of our tour was at the “Battle of the Crater.”   Actually, there are two craters, the first one being famous.  As it was explained to me, Union troops dug a tunnel underneath Confederate defensive lines and blew it up.  I could see the logic: blow up the defense, then charge through the gap with as many men as you could gather up.  Dazed defenders would be less able to fight back.  Okay, what could go wrong?  The dynamite blew.  Defending Confederates were killed or stunned.  Union troops rushed into the crater.  But, they failed to get out in time before the Confederates were able to regain their position and stop the attack.  Good idea.  Bad execution.  Bad outcome.  Union engineers were used to help extract the Infantry, the first time I’d heard of an Army engineer.  That got my interest.

We mostly slept in our car on the way home later that day.  Dad had to carry us from the car to bed one at a time.  The heat, humidity, and walking about the battlefield drained us of all our energy and our Mom, too.  Over the next few days, my brother and I became interested in the Civil War.  That meant we played at fighting this war rather than our typical Cowboys and Indians fighting.  Our enthusiasm infected our friends, and we split into blue versus gray Infantry units and fought it out.  The following academic year in school, I asked my teacher what caused the Civil War.  “States Rights” was her answer, and I believed that for decades until I decided to study the war myself.  I still remember an old 8mm video of my brother and me on Christmas Day that year, playing with toy swords and wearing cheap kid Union and Confederate uniforms.  Fifty years later, to this day, I toured the same battlefield as a federal U.S. Army Brigadier General, a Combat Engineer.  That first day, five decades ago, had made an impression on me, thanks to my Mom and Dad.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 27  (Manners)

[October 4, 2023] “For the hundredth time, Douglas, stop picking your nose while eating.”  Mom was a stickler for good manners because she was interested in civilizing us kids.  She knew that well-mannered children who say “please” and “thank you” and know how to shake hands, present a genuine smile, and listen politely to adults, then adults will want to be around us and help us make our lives better.  The fact that my Mom could see this was a miracle for us.  She said, “Good manners are God’s way of helping you.”  That was true.

I learned to keep my mouth shut when eating and to not wash the food down with my drink.  And use a handkerchief if I had to sneeze, which happened since I had so many allergies.  There were other manners, like don’t interrupt adults when they are talking, sharing your toys even with your stupid cousins, saying “I’m sorry” like you meant it when you did something wrong, don’t say that girls are fat or have cooties, opening the door for your mother and other adult women (and don’t fight your brother if he gets to the door first), and don’t spit into the trash can (when others are looking).

I did my best to behave respectably, saying “yes sir” and “no sir” to show respect and admiration to the elders and not let my emotions get the best of me.  I learned that good manners were a way to charm the adults, not in a manipulative way, and this was a good deal for the adults and me.  But to be accepted by adults by using manners was more than I could imagine.  Looking back, I now see that manners were a step into a disciplined life where I could make better choices and to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow.

And Mom worked with me to pronounce words “like you see spoken on TV news stations.”  She would say, “Talk like an educated man.”  Like many dads in the Deep South, my Dad had little faith in formal education.  He believed that’s where a promising career comes into play: learning to act right, be the right man for the mission, and let others see you do a good job.  Be a man for others and help teach others with the respect they deserve.  It was Mom who warned us never to cuss, use slang, or cave into the Southern drawl, so many of us picked up on the street corners where the delinquents and, in her words, where the “hoodlums” hung out.

Sunday morning in church was our chance to show off the manners our parents taught us.  And both Mom and Dad were closely watching how we behaved.  I knew they were watching me.  It was like a school test but the grade was either pass or fail.  You did a good job at it or not, and if you were good, you might get a bigger piece of pie after dinner.  “Good morning, Pastor John; how are you?” I could say politely.  He would rub my head, say that I must be a good boy, and ask if I wanted to sing in the choir.  “No, thank you, sir!”  Always say “sir” when speaking with a grown man.  Dad let me know that, and so far, I was doing just fine, and I didn’t sing in the church choir.

Dad was a stickler for showing respect for others, and using “sir” was his biggest rule, so much so that it irritated me.  I was a little disagreeable as a kid, which was not helpful.  One day, out of frustration when he told me to say “sir,” I overused it multiple times in every sentence, but he never let on that I was trying to goad him into saying something.  He let it so.  And I still use ‘sir’ when speaking with adults as a sign of respect.  It works.

Sir, I still have my Southern accent.  Darn, it’s hard to get rid of it completely.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 26   (my Broken Arm)

[September 29, 2023]  Few things scared me in my years as a kid.  Maybe I was too busy doing kid “stuff,” running around with my friends, working at odd jobs around town, playing ball, fishing, swimming, playing in the woods, and just goofing off, to be scared.  I did have a fear of getting beat up by the High School boys when I was in grade school, and yes, I provoked them many times by talking to their girlfriends; besides, I thought the girls all were the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen and told them so.   All of them!  However, I was more likely to come to an injury by just doing stupid things, risky stunts, or simply not paying close enough attention to what I was doing, like putting a lit firecracker in a beer bottle and throwing it fast.  Not very brave, not wise either.  My brother Philip and I were guilty of doing this.

My first broken arm I broke attempting to jump over an upended foot locker that we stood up in a friend’s concrete driveway.  “Hey, watch this.”  Snap!  I ran home to tell my Mom that my arm hurt and didn’t work right.  She drove me to Dr. Shelly, our town doctor, who set my arm and made a plaster cast to prevent me from moving it so it would set right.  I’d broken my Humerus, the upper arm bone, dead center, clean break, left arm.  Good thing it was the left arm; I’m right-handed.  I was about nine years old at the time, and by that time, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: an “army man.”  That day, I’d been practicing my “army training,” fun but dangerous, and testing the limit of my courage.  Looking back, I’m lucky I didn’t accidentally get myself killed.

A couple of years later, I would again break my left arm, this time at an out-of-town baseball game, the Ulna bone just up from my wrist.  Crack!  I was taken to the county’s hospital for an X-ray, and I was scared when my Dad said this is how they “show the bones.”  Maybe I was just a little afraid; this time, it hurt bad, and I couldn’t imagine a machine that would expose your bones.  I cried a little, but I attempted as best I could to show folks I wasn’t just any stupid, frightened kid.  The doctor created a plaster cast, but thankfully, just up to the elbow.  More than anything, I was afraid I might not measure up enough to be in the Army.  Now, that was scary.  All the men I knew who had been in the Army were tough dudes, strong, big, and capable.  I saw myself as a weakling with fragile bones and puny muscles.  That is why I was always trying to prove myself worthy.

As a young kid, I accumulated several injuries and scars while having one thing in mind: being in the Army.  Today, you can still see the scars.  I’m told scars are cool.  My favorite scars are those on my right foot, where I jumped barefoot out of our parked car at an out-of-town park.  “Hey, watch this! …”  I said that to my family while still in the car but tacked on, “I’m an army guy.” I landed on a broken Coke bottle hidden in the grass.  This injury was seriously bloody, the bloodiest and probably the most painful of all childhood injuries.  I did some wailing and got 33 stitches for my troubles; the stitching scars where the doctor sewed me up are still visible.  When I joined the Army as an adult, these scars were listed as official “identifying marks” on my body if they ever had to do so.  I’m happy it never came to them needing to identify my body postmortem.

The funny thing about being a kid in those days was that all of us were busy little kids, even in the dark, from dawn to night.  Nothing much bothered us.  We drank water outside from a dirty garden hose when thirsty, ran barefoot along old dirt roads, rode our bikes without a helmet or shirt, went swimming in snake-infested ponds, dug for worms under rocks, jumped off the roof of our house, stepped in cow poop and dog do, and climbed trees without shoes or a shirt.  We hardly ever got sick.  We all had the required childhood diseases like Mumps, Chickenpox, Measles, and so on.  Plus, once, I had Hepatitis A, which sidelined me for a couple of months.  We were never afraid of disease; we considered them an inconvenience and a week off from school.  My friends were scared about contracting polio, but we were vaccinated.  We knew kids who had polio, and that was frightening a lot.  Looking back, Measles was my personal favorite because when a few young married women came over to visit my Mom, I ran around the house, half-naked and acting crazy with a very shocking red rash from head to toe.  “Douglas!  Get to your room right now, young man!”  I can still see the shock on the faces of those women.  I probably looked like the Red Devil himself.  My wife says I’ve always been a “ball buster.”

I did my best to be brave when hurting from an injury.  But I lacked the experience with hurting to be completely stoic.  Occasionally, I cried; other times, I would stand, grin, grit my teeth, and endure.  At those times, my Dad told me he was proud of me for not crying.  By age 13, I would no longer cry from pain, even snake bites.  When bitten, there is the natural shock of the snake bite itself and the fear of not knowing whether this was a poisonous viper.  Don’t run, they say, if bitten, yeah, right!  I ran like the wind all the way home.  And I was lucky; no poisonous snakes bit me.

Broken arms, disease, cuts, and snake bites made me see I had the same fears and experiences others had.  I would cry no more or scare my parents with my adventures but stay the course, doing what I wanted, taking risks, trying to do the right things, never lying (that was an unexpected adventure itself), and just being a normal outdoor kid that wanted desperately to be in the Army.  My struggle to become tough enough to be an “army man” haunted me often.  The thought never occurred to me to be anything else but an army soldier.  Soldiers were brave and heroic.  I was not sure I could be that way.  That is what I feared most, even more than a broken arm.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 25   (Why I Had Guns)

[September 23, 2023]  Since before I can even remember growing up, I had a gun, not a toy gun, a real gun.  Everyone I knew had at least one gun, usually a shotgun for bird, squirrel, or varmint hunting and maybe a rifle for something bigger.  I was anxious to learn how to hit a moving target with my “new” shotgun, a vital skill everyone prized.  I think having a shotgun and knowing its proper use would help me get into the Army.

Otherwise, why did I have a gun as a kid?  Why would knowing how to take it apart, clean it, and use it safely matter to anyone?  Did I have a gun, a shotgun, to feel like a man?  Did I carry the gun to scare people or because I was scared?  Was it because I was bad, paranoid, inadequate, or just loved guns?  No, and it wasn’t because I had a gun to show off, or because I was a cowboy, or to scare people.  I needed a gun for hunting, often with my dad and brother.  Hunting is one way we put food on the table.  You cleaned and ate what you shot.  Having a shotgun got me outdoors where I could be free: no cars, no phones, no TV or radio, no school or teachers or studying, nobody telling me what to do, or having to account for myself to Mom and Dad.  With a gun and a good bicycle, I could take off for a day or two and be on my own.  Going out on my own or with a friend was always an adventure, and it was good.  But this would not last.  I had responsibilities at home that needed tending to.

With my shotgun, my dad was a strict safety disciplinarian; safety, safety, safety.  Screw up once, my dad would say, and you’re dead, or if lucky, maybe I might blow my foot off.  Where we came from, the rural Deep South, having a gun was part of everyday life.  It was part of the Southern culture.  And, so, it was no big deal to own a firearm or two or three.  It was expected to be a good shot.  I was just average, but a couple of my friends were crackshots; they were terrific.  And we had no fear of guns or what they could do in the hands of a trained man or boy.  My first gun was the best.  It was a Stevens .410 shotgun, a single shot designed for women and kids.  My grandfather had given it to my dad when he was a kid (sometime before World War II).  My dad gave it to me when I was six, and it was now my “new” shotgun.  It stayed in my bedroom, always except when hunting.  That shotgun sits in my gun cabinet today with a broken firing pin (I will repair it someday).  Technically, it belongs to my son Sean (your dad), but I’m holding onto it for now.  He knows it’s there.

One weekend, shortly after getting my .410 shotgun, my dad took my brother and me out to the woods to do a little shooting.  He wanted to test our safety memory and teach us to respect the gun.  My brother was first.  Philip wanted to shoot my dad’s 16 gauge shotgun.  “Okay, point it away from everyone, load the first shell, point, remove the safety, pull the trigger.”  Boom!  I look over, and my brother is on the ground crying.  I don’t remember our age, but I was probably seven or eight.  Then it was my turn.  I remembered my dad saying to hold a shotgun tight into the shoulder.  When I fired it, I staggered from the brutal recoil but stayed on my feet.  I smiled.  That was our training.  That’s it.  I got to shoot a box of .410 shells at a few Coke cans we brought along.  Its kick was lighter than the 16 gauge.  I did pretty well and had fun.  My brother decided it better to keep his respect intact, so he refused.  Now, I was experienced and ready to hunt birds.  Several weekends later, my dad and I went hunting doves, so I learned about good sportsmanship and fairness.  I would forever use those skills Dad taught me, and they did help me in the Army many years later.

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Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 23  (Picking Up a Cigarette)

[September 10, 2023]  Long ago, when I was a tween (not a child but also not a teenager), I was probably 12 years old; I was dropped off by Fanny, my school bus driver, at my home.  Walking with my books under my arm, I noticed a used cigarette burning in the ditch out in front of my house.  Most likely, it was thrown by a passing motorist, careless as so many of them tend to be.  Wow, I thought, I can be like one of the cool kids in school and here is my chance to prove it right now.  As a note on my personality, I believed in filling my head with useful, cool things to do, and smoking seemed like something I could easily add to my repertoire.  I could quickly get a few puffs of smoke before entering my house, and Mom would not be the wiser.

I was wrong.  The first “drag” from the cigarette sent spasms into my lungs and caused involuntary coughing while vomiting my lunch onto the grass.  I was on the ground before I knew what was happening, gasping for fresh air, squirming in a jerking motion, and making the most terrifying noise.  I’m sure all the nearby farm animals were scared, as was I.  That day, I learned a valuable lesson.  Never smoke tobacco; it’s not worth trying to be cool.  There surely were other cool tools I could discover to make myself more “popular” as every 12-year-old wants to be.  Cool like John Wayne — stoic, tough, witty, ready to clobber the bad guys, and never ever taking crap off anybody.  But I did not know this at that age.  Not smoking was a small decision but one of the best decisions I ever made.

I was not very interested in school (a mistake that took many years and much pain to correct), but I wanted to learn about science and girls.  Those puberty hormones were starting to rage, yet I was awkward and socially inexperienced.  I closely observed boys older than me and watched how they interacted with the girls.  Looking back, I oversimplified their behavior and believed that being cool was the solution.  “How do I do cool?”  I could do a few things, and “cool” Doug would magically appear.  Dress cool, walk cool, talk cool, puff on a cigarette cool (nope, strike that one), drink beer, and be aloof like I didn’t care one whit if I did that; even the women teachers might be interested in me (or so I thought).  I was wrong, but you couldn’t have convinced me then.  Maybe that was how to get the girls to notice me.

My Mom drove me to a store to buy a Nehru shirt.  They were all the rage in the 1960s.  It cost me 25 bucks, almost a month’s wages.  I tried to walk with a swagger, and I’m sure it was entertaining.  I even had a friend of a friend who knew somebody over 21 buy me a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.  I overpaid.  And the taste was horrific.  When kids in school came near me, I would look away like I was contemplating doing something cool.  All this got me was beaten up once, one girl I had a crush on slapped me (darn hard), several teacher reprimands for failing to turn in homework, and a visit to see the Assistant Principal.  Being cool, indeed, was overrated.  Even my Mom asked me if I was sick or had trouble at school.  If she only knew.  My Mom was cool at her school, so why couldn’t I be?

I failed at being cool.  And catastrophically so.  I was so bad that even a few younger kids pointed fingers at me and smirked.  After all that, one might think I was ready to hand it up and throw away the idea of collecting cool things to do.  But, no.  Learning how to make myself useful and appreciated was the only real alternative.  That’s when I got farm jobs working with cows and pigs (pretty low for a cool kid).  But I got fringe benefits like Linda, the farmer’s daughter and the first girl I kissed.  Wow.  Working became my passion.  The farmer opened up to me and told me how he got started and became successful and how the business worked.  His kids were all girls, so he was looking for young men good enough for his daughters.  Ouch.  I liked girls but wasn’t ready to go down that path.  I told the farmer the truth, and he understood.  Besides, I was 12.  He laughed.  I learned that hard work, honesty, a good attitude, and telling the truth were the most valuable things a boy could do.  Screw being cool.  Work beat that.  And I had a lot more more money than the cool boys at school.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 19 (I Never Like School)

[August 19, 2023] I wouldn’t say I liked school.  I never liked school.  It’s not that I hated school or was disgusted by it.  Going to class every day just wasn’t what I wanted to do.  Of course, today, I disapprove of that attitude, it’s not very helpful, and it worked greatly to my disadvantage.  Alas, I did not truly understand the benefits of the education system.  Like so many kids my age, I was unhappy about being in the classroom (horribly dull for me) and studying (repulsive) and the teachers/professors (tedious and often lacking common sense).  My longest-running, haunting life problem was my simple dislike for formal education.  Yet, education has one small redeeming value; the many beautiful stories from education.  And I loved listening to and experiencing good stories – letters to my granddaughter.

What I did not know at the time, but what I came to appreciate much later, was that the best stories were old, in fact, very ancient.  And they did more than tell an exciting story but had something more profound — a message of wisdom for those who would closely listen.  The greatest stories were often from the Bible.  And while I appreciated them for those particular stories for their spiritual content, l loved them for the most incredible adventures ever told.  I would sit as a kid, reading or listening to the teacher, often in awe, as I turned each page or as the teacher would tell us something no one else knew (often in a low voice), and they would excite me and make me smile.

For example, one of my favorites was the Exodus stories of the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt, across the parting of the Red Sea, and into the desert.  After years in the desert, the Israelites began worshiping idols and became sinners.  God saw this and sent poisonous snakes to bite them as punishment.  They went to Moses and requested that he go to God and call off the snakes.  Instead of God calling off the snakes, he told Moses to put a bronze snake on a wooden staff and instructed His people to come to see the staff.  That way, they would become brave, and the snakes would no longer be feared.  A classic lesson in life: look at what you fear, and you will be less afraid.

Success in school required something I found hard to develop in myself, and that was the discipline to conduct myself rightly and find the motivation to do those tasks.  And I didn’t know discipline.  I wanted the freedom to do as I wished and at any time.  I didn’t grasp that only through hard work, study, discipline, and a proper understanding of the academic material could I free myself from the straitjacket of my own uneducated ignorance.  I could look at the discipline that I feared and become less fearful.  That realization was a lifesaver and got me to see my self-worth was based on adopting responsibility and telling the blunt truth.  And that is where my life’s adventure began.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 18 (Sabine River Trip for the Boys)

[August 16, 2023] When my brother was five, and I was seven, my father took us on a three-day camping trip down the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border.  This would be a “man’s trip,” talking man things, my dad getting to know us better, fishing, cooking over a campfire, sleeping under the open sky, and floating downstream with a meandering river current.  And it was to be our first time away from home overnight.  It was to be our grand adventure.  It was about our family; specifically, it was about learning to be a man.

For my dad, the family was everything, and that also meant teaching his two boys how to control our tempers and frustrations, behavior limits, how to treat women, how to protect yourself and others, to properly fight with your fists, to tell the truth, being a good Christian (and Biblical stories), and most importantly what responsibilities you had as a young man.  Best of all, on this trip, dad was going to show us his secrets on how to catch fish, which was super cool.  I could see in my mind, pulling a giant wide-mouth bass out of the river with my fishing pole.

And it certainly was an adventure.  For us two boys, we were about to learn what camping was all about, the good and the bad. We were about to learn about ourselves too, unexpectedly so.  My dad was a good planner.  We had food, water, fishing gear, a flat boat (on its trailer), and various supplies.  My dad brought it all.  Yes, he was that good.  Dad must have spent weeks planning our trip and talking with mom about it so she was fully on board, and so she would encourage us and tell us not to be afraid.  And we weren’t scared at all.

The first day meant getting out of bed before sunrise, loading the car, and taking off westward across the state.  We floated maybe 20 miles that first day, fishing off the sides of the boat, lazily drifting our way downriver.  We saw people fishing from the bank and in small boats.  And a few swimmers close to the banks of the river.  There were a few small towns we passed.  People would smile and wave at us.  This was the life it was meant to be.  It was relaxing and yet exciting because this was all new for us.  I remember thinking, “Wow, dad is the best dad ever.”  And I was right.

Landing on the river bank that afternoon, we stopped to prepare for the night.  Dad set up our sleeping areas since neither my brother nor I knew how.  Then it was time to gut the fish we caught (yuk) and cook them over an open fire.  They were the best fish I ever tasted (yum).  We must’ve fallen asleep right there by the campfire.  I woke up in the middle of the night, and I remember it was hot.  And then the mosquitoes came zooming in.  We were eaten alive.  We got precious little sleep.  And it was the sunburn that was uncomfortable too.

Groggy from lack of a good night’s sleep and feeling like my mom’s pin cushion from bug bites, we were up early with the morning sun and drooling for the pancakes and bacon my dad was cooking over an open fire.  We packed up and jumped in the boat.  Two more days of camping, fishing, cooking, and talking.  Lots of talking.  I got to know my dad, and maybe that was the point.  That was a great trip, and I’ll never forget the wonderful time with my dad and brother.  As well, the trip helped change my view of the world in a positive way.  And it took my dad’s desire and determination to take us an old-fashioned, traditional, “man’s trip” down the Sabine River.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 17 (Working on the Railroad)

[August 10, 2023] As early as I can remember, at least since I was a very young child, I wanted to be a Firefighter, and it was my life’s goal, yet I was young and terribly inexperienced and naïve.  Like any kid with potential, I could be anything, but I knew I did not want to work with paper pushers and paperclip men in an office.  I hated the idea of a 9 to 5 office job.  That limited my choices because all I knew was working either on a Railroad Gang like my dad had done or putting out house fires and saving people in my community as a Firefighter.  In traditional Southern families, the eldest son went the way of the father, and eventually, I did so by working summers and holidays on the railroad.

In my last year in High School, at 16 years old, I decided to work on a railroad Tie Gang.  I thought these men were real badasses, and to me, that was super cool.  These Gangs were typically composed of 12 strong men working around a motorized rail car that was stacked with large wooden ties, spikes, and rail plates (that held the rail in place), and they were always on the move.  Such men were the “real men” of the railroad, and they were the ones that made it work.  I envied them for what they did, and, of course, they were highly respected and also feared.  In the old days, they were called Gandy Dancers, which I liked.  I admired these men.  It was a dangerous job, not very glamorous, and the crews were full of some of the meanest, most stubborn, most dangerous, and most fascinating people you can imagine.

I learned a great deal about manhood working with these gangs.  First, I learned that you had damn well be mentally focused, pay attention to the rules, be a team player, pull your weight, work hard, and show the right attitude.  If you did, you might succeed.  Second, I learned that these men had to be tough because they ensured the trains stayed on the tracks.  Sometimes, railroad management would call upon them to protect other railroad workers against local environmental protesters who picked against the pollution of trains.  Tie Gang members were hard-working railroad men (there were no women), harsh and several were scary combat veterans who told stories of Japanese banzai charges during World War II.  Third, laziness, sloppiness, and a lousy attitude were a form of betrayal.  Too many of these repair gang railroaders were seriously injured or killed when in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a boxcar or caboose ran over them and chopped them in half or cut off a leg.  If you were slacking off or mouthing off, one of the good-ole boys might whack you upside your head.

Gang railroading is a tough brutish, and often a thankless job, and the men who work the rails were dangerous SOBs.  I was 6’ 2”, 190 pounds, “skinny,” and comparatively small.  These were big men, like those you see today on logging reality shows.  They saw me as a youngster who needed training and watching out for, and I got some good-natured ribbing for being “little.”.  But I was also a quick learner.  Pay attention to the older men and watch them closely was my philosophy.  I would never be like them, or maybe I would never want to be, but they brought an energetic work ethic to the job that I can still admire.  They gave me a nickname; “Stack.”  I earned it because I was good at getting the crossties stacked on the motorized gang car.  Another newbie was not so lucky.  He had no nickname and was never considered a full gang member. That man, several years older than me, lasted only two weeks to eventually not show up one day.

To succeed at the job, I had to adopt the mental attitude of ruthless humility.  I had to recognize that I was ignorant of the job, the lowly belly of a snake, wet behind the ears, and would never be as good, fast, or professional as these gandy dancers, and it was not easy admitting that to myself.  I was not as disciplined.  I was full of flaws.  I was often afraid I might die that day.  Maybe it was because I was young and ignorant about who I was.  I was also humble about who I could be in the future, and there was some reward for my lack of talent as a newbie gandy dancer.  I was smart enough to watch closely what these men did on the job and how they communicated with one another.  And for them, telling the brutal truth was imperative.  When you saw these men, what you saw is what they were, and they hid absolutely nothing about themselves, and this was refreshing and highly interesting.  That is what I wanted.

This job is where I learned that I could also be a dangerous person.  That is a story for another time.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 16 (Potato Farmer)

[August 5, 2023] In the summer of 1966, just before High School, I helped a local potato farmer with his crops.  I don’t remember if I ever had a dirtier job, yet I both enjoyed and hated working the fields because it was a cross between picking cotton and cleaning pigpens; it was smelly, sweltering, filthy, humid, and nasty.  I never understood why and so I spent some time before writing this letter trying to unpack those circumstances that led to my mixed feelings about a job in the potato fields.  I usually loved my many jobs, pretty much without exception.

Potato farmer said, “Hey Douglas, want a job?  It’s tough and dangerous, and I need a man.”  Me, “Yes sir, no problem, I’m in.”  And then I asked what he needed me to do.  I was willing to try any job as long as it wouldn’t get me in trouble.  But picking potatoes?   I thought machines did that; oh, they do and are called “potato scoopers.”  Don’t you have any of the potato-picking machines?  No problem.  That’s where me and my buddies came in.  Start tomorrow?  My first task with the potato farmer was not picking potatoes but guarding the storage shed from rats.  That’s right!  I was a rat guard.

My tools?  One dog.  One 22 caliber rifle.  One empty flour sack (for dead rats) for my new rat-hunting duties.  The first rat I killed was a bit of a thrill.  I was doing my job, practicing my shooting skills, getting rid of vermin, and getting paid.  This is the kind of job any teenager would like.  But, after the first couple of dead rats, killing them was more of a chore, but the job I signed up for was not about killing rates.  Now picking potatoes is what I wanted to do; that is where the money is.  To pick potatoes, I had to bend over, walking along each furrow in the overturned field, picking up potatoes.  Then sacked potatoes are carried over the shoulders and stored in a shed.  Rats love potatoes; thus, the importance of rat guard.

Several friends worked the fields with me, and the farmer never checked up on us.  At the end of each day, he would gather all the sacked potatoes and haul them to market.  His hands off approach was new to me – I didn’t care because I worked hard no matter what.  A hard-working, honest, and good attitude always opened opportunities for me.  I couldn’t understand friends who said there were no jobs.  No jobs?  It’s too easy to make an excuse for failure to find a job.  And, then it means getting my butt up every morning, no matter how I feel, to get to work and do what I said I would do  I could have made all sorts of excuses for not working and some of them are good excuses, but I remember not having many things as a kid and I was not going to look back and use that as a way to forfeit my duties today. My philosophy is absolutely no excuse for not getting at the job.  Move forward, always.  This takes courage.

At the end of each day, I was sweaty and tired.  I was also happy because I got paid daily, usually five dollars in cash.  It wasn’t the money that mattered that much to me, but being around my buddies and laughing at our own stupid jokes, poking fun at the potato farmer, calling each other nasty but funny names, chasing an occasional rat running across the field, lighting off firecrackers (to scare the rats), and generally hanging out.  Some of my friends smoked cigarettes, and they could do so openly.  I chewed bubble gum and threw the gum at my friends.  We had a blast picking potatoes.  And it was fun for us.  However, I do recommend picking potatoes for any young teenager but be prepared to work your butt off.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 15 (Fistfight)

[July 29, 2023] My first fistfight, the first of many, began with my best friend. He lived next door, was my age and in the same grade, looked a lot like me, yet we were always at odds, often angry at each other. Yet, looking back, I cannot recall a single reason for being angry or any reason for any of our fights. And, these fights were not simple or quick, but scrappy, full-blown knockdown drag out, rolling in the grass and dirt, with bloody lips, bruised faces and shins, and snot flowing freely as our tempers flared into overdrive.

I want to make very clear about how these fights developed. We would disagree on something, often unimportant, and be really mad. Fighting it out with each other was the right thing. At its conclusion, we both felt good (and physically spent), and every fight ended with a handshake and a hug. We were buddies. A disagreement would not permanently come between us, despite the physical damage we did to each other. Nor did we ever cuss or use the Lord’s name in vain. And it was common that at the end of each fight, we could not remember why the fight started.

Nothing stood in the way of our friendship. Nothing at all. We were inseparable with the same likes (baseball, yo-yos, slingshots, hunting birds, running free, ice cream) and dislikes (school, homework, stinging bugs, snakes, reading, arithmetic). If there was a baseball game in town, we were there to cheer on the hometown and our team. We even braved the taboo against talking to older baseball players while the game was ongoing and asking them about the best way to hit a knuckleball. “Get lost,” was the usual reply. We didn’t care.

Our first fight began over something so innocuous that the reason didn’t matter. We were mad, and the hitting began. There are rules to boys fighting, and we had a strong incentive to abide by them. No poking the eyes, spitting, throwing dirt in the face, kicking the nards, or use of weapons of any kind. We all owned knives and guns, lots of them, but we would never ever consider using them on a friend. Typically, shortly after an argument began, we would be rolling on the ground, trying to figure out how to get in the next punch to the gut. Our moms cleaned us up afterward and always asked, “Now, what are you boys fighting about this time?” “Mama,” I would say, “I don’t know why we were fighting. We’re friends.”

Fighting was a way of life, except when the High School boys were out to beat the crap out of us. Not that we didn’t deserve an ass wuppin’ on occasion after scaring the older girls with frog guts or dead snakes. Sometimes we’d gross out the girls with live lizards hanging from our ear lobes. That lizard earrings tactic always got a hilarious reaction, even from our moms. “Douglas, get your butt in this house right now! And dammit, leave those lizards outside.”

With boys, the rules of a good fight exist, so their problem with each other does not linger. The fight was over. The fight was an end to the problem. We were no longer mad. And that’s it. No lasting grudge or nasty attitude. That’s how we remained friends forever.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 14  (Ugly Tomcat)

[July 24, 2023] From the earliest days of my young life! My Granddaddy Smith owned a large, mangy, ugly, tough, mean-as-heck tomcat. His name? “Tom.” More kittens were born because of his masculinity than any cat in that town. His harem of female cats was huge, but they all served a valuable function on Granddaddy’s property by keeping the rat population down. Never since have I seen so many kittens, and I learned how to help a female cat keep track of her newborns.

“Tom” was a cat you did not mess around with. Granddaddy told us kids to steer clear of him, or we might regret our encounter. I know I was afraid of that cat. “Holy cow, that’s one mean cat,” my father said one day while we played in the yard. If we played outside, look out for “Tom.” And never, ever, ever try to pick him up, or you would be wearing your claw marks for a long time. We would watch “Tom” walk slowly and confidently across the yard because his reputation was unmistakable and widely known. If he looked at us, we would run away screaming.

I wondered what happened to “Tom.” Years later, I asked Granddaddy where he had gone. “To cat heaven, of course,” Granddaddy said without hesitation, being a religious man himself. That ugly, mean male cat was gone one day, but his legacy remained. He must have sired hundreds of healthy little kittens, but none could replace “Tom,” and that was not unexpected. Only once in a hundred years does a cat or man come along that makes such an impact on those around him.

One day before Bigmama passed away, I asked her about “Tom.” She told me that he was Granddaddy’s cat, and no one even fed him or took him to a veterinary clinic for a checkup or shots. Maybe he died of rabies, a common ailment among small animals in those days. My cousin, who lived nearby my grandparents, said he was happy that the “stupid cat was dead.” On several occasions, my cousin got crosswise with “Tom” and has the scars to show for it. Everyone, it seemed, hated Tom.

I respected that big cat. “Tom” did what he wanted, and that was that. Looking back on those years, it’s easy to laugh off this ugly cat’s temper and strength. Sometimes size matters. “Tom” was massive; to me, he looked almost half the size of a human kid but was meaner than a half-starved hound dog. My mother asked Bigmama (her mother) what fascinated Granddaddy’s infatuation with that crazy cat. She did not know.

Granddaddy told a secret of his. He said he kept Tom around, not because that male cat was good at chasing mama cats or catching rats, but because he enjoyed having that ugly cat. He told me how important it is to enjoy the good things in life because one day, bad things will come knocking on your door, and the more good things you have in your life, the better you can withstand the bad times. Tom helped Granddaddy be the good man he was.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 13  (Baseball)

[July 19, 2023]  My dad was a New York Yankees fan, and by default, so was I. To this day, I never knew why; we lived in the Deep South, where professional baseball was king, but my dad still insisted the Yankees were the team we would follow, and all three of us kids (later four) will always be big-time baseball fans. I visited my dad just before he passed away at age 93, and yet despite severe dementia, he knew nearly every player’s name on the Yankees’ 1958 winning World Series team. We watched the last game of that season on television; amazing media technology.

Of course, I would play Little League baseball, usually an outfield position, but occasionally infield at first base. I could field ground balls pretty good, thanks to my dad showing me a few tricks of the game, but I was not good at hitting the ball. Dad loved watching me play. Baseball was a genuine love of his. Interestingly, I never saw him play except one spoof game with friends on the back of donkeys. Dad would take me to all the local baseball games. While there, I would sneak off, hunt frogs, and not watch the games much; I thought baseball was too slow and boring for me, so like I often did, I just goofed off.

One year, I think it was 1961, we were playing the best team in the league that game. Those city boys were good; they had a lot of older boys to choose from. It was the bottom of the ninth, the last inning to play, and we were behind one run. My dad waved me back to the outer fence. Their best hitter was up with two outs, and, true to history, he hit a line drive directly at me. With my back to the fence, I jumped as high as possible with my glove. I looked into my glove to find the ball when I came down. That was their last out.

Now it was our turn at bat, and we were only one run away from a tie and two to win. Our two best batters were up but struck out – such a disappointment. I was next. It was up to me. The first two were fastballs over the outside corner, my weakness. Two swings, two misses, two strikes. I backed off the plate and collected my thoughts. I was ready to hit the next fastball as a home run. The pitch was a knuckleball, unexpected. I missed. The goat of the game. Strike three, we lose. There is one thing our coach taught us, and that was good sportsmanship.

He told us that winning every game is not winning. A tough concept for little boys to understand. As my father always said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Dads have been telling their kids this for generations. I thought that was stupid advice.

But a game is not just a game. A game is part of a series of games. Winning a baseball game was not really what we wanted (although we surely thought so). Our goal was to win the baseball season championship, and that was the result of a series of games. That is why good sportsmanship mattered. The strategy of winning the championship is not the same as winning a single game. For the championship, it is more important the team acts as a team.

If you play to win every game individually, the strategy is different, and you will lose the championship. We won the championship that year.

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Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 12  (the Bully)

[July 16, 2023]   He was an obnoxious, arrogant, self-centered, spiteful bully with a streak of hate running through his black heart.  Our family had just moved to a new town, and I was academically transferred to my new Junior High, just a few miles from where I grew up but, in actuality, an entire world away.  I hated my new school, with its “colossal” school buildings, and very easy to get lost in the corridors and where every class meant changing rooms.  But it was the school bully that put terror into me.  Like any new kid, I was about to be tested, and the result would not be pretty.

Harry was his name, his gruff looks and scowl on his lips were like saying, “Punk!  I will beat the crap out of you,  so be really scared.”  And his three skinny cronies, who circled him like mad dogs, were icing on the cake.  I would eventually have to face him and his sidekicks; being the school newbie, it was my destiny to do so, and a conflict could not be denied.  The first week passed without incident.

The following Monday, I was confronted near the teachers’ parking lot after school.  I was about to get on the school bus to take me home when Harry grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me down to the ground.  If I was going to survive this encounter, I knew I had to do something unexpected, do it quickly and decisively, and do it now.  My brain locked up, but I instinctively lashed out with my foot, striking him in his balls and dropping Harry to the ground like a sack of potatoes.  I knew I was in real trouble and would get a savage beating.  “Fanny, get us outta here!”  Our school bus driver was Fanny, originally from the big city of New Orleans.  Thank you, Fanny.  Fanny gave us hell on the school bus daily for talking too loud and acting up, much like normal kids do.  Not this day.  We were all eerily quiet.

Was I scared?  Sure, I was so scared I could barely walk or talk.  But I drove home my foot to exactly the sweet spoke, temporarily disabling my attacker.  As Fanny drove the school bus away, the occupants – all of us little school kids – sat transfixed for several moments, then broke into cheers.  I felt damn good.  I’d extracted retribution.  I’d brought justice to a single point in time.  Although I did the right thing, I did not act morally as I had been taught.  Years later, I would understand better.  Sometimes doing the right thing is not doing the moral thing.

I would attend three Junior Highs in three different states in three different school years.  There was no getting used to any town.  All of us kids just learned to deal with it.  Losing friends is not good for a kid; it makes you emotionally numb and hardens you in unexpected ways.  The school teachers did for us, my brother and sister, what they could do, given their limited resources.  Bullying was just accepted in those days; kids were expected to deal with it on their own.  Maybe that is the right way.  Maybe not.  In those days, kids, especially boys, were taught to be strong and to take a beating if needed.  Today, kids are taught to be victims and report bullying to their teachers.  We teach weakness and victimhood, and that will not work out well in our future as these kids become young adults.

I was surprised that Harry never bothered me again, even if his cronies occasionally ran into me in the crowded school hallways.  And I thought that was tough going.

Then I went to High School.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 11  (Astronauts)

[July 14, 2023]   I was sitting in church with my family in late February 1962, only a few weeks shy of my 10th birthday, with my favorite yo-yo in my front pocket.  My friends and I ran outside to do the “John Glenn” trick when the sermon concluded.  This yo-yo trick would be three loops around and then back again into your hand.  We did this as our salute to American John Glenn, who, just a few days earlier in the week, had orbited the Earth three times in a spaceship (Friendship 7).  To us kids, it was a great achievement despite the fact we could not fully comprehend the importance of the event.

We kids from rural Louisiana had a general idea that there was a space race between America and the USSR but no idea that the competition was white hot and that things were boiling.  Winning the race into outer space seemed the right thing to do, even if we kids were nobodies who knew nothing about space and lived in an out-of-the-way little town in the boonies; we were in “Nowheresville.”  However, we knew we were good Americans and proud of our country.

We all wanted to be astronauts.  Moreover, we all wanted our town’s folks, like our schoolteachers, neighbors, and parents, to look up to us.  I can still do the John Glenn yo-yo trick; I tried it out just a few days ago, one just like the yo-yo I had as a kid.  That day that Sunday morning in 1962, in my back pocket was my slingshot, and I had my trusty Boy Scout pocketknife.  Be prepared!  A yo-yo, a slingshot, and a pocketknife; were the basic tools of the trade of the ordinary 10-year-old boy of the early 1960s.

Later that same year, I would break my left arm, zooming around the neighborhood with friends pretending to be astronauts, even if we had no idea what astronauts did.  But we looked up to them anyway and wanted very much to fly into space.  All of us boys wanted to be an astronaut, but that desire took a backseat to our yearning to be firefighters and army men.  We now know how those childhood dreams worked out for some of us.

My broken arm would heal nicely.  A year later, I would break my arm again, just in a different spot but doing the same thing and trying unsuccessfully to jump over an old clothing trunk that my friends stood on end.  Later, after my arm was set and a plaster cast put on it to hold the bones in place, I discovered that a coat hanger worked best to scratch the itches that inevitably occurred underneath the cast.  I give my mother credit for telling me how to do that.

We had an old black and white television set at home, but I never saw any astronauts orbiting the Earth.  My dad controlled our television time, and besides, I liked playing outside in our yard more than watching the news.  Shortly after my 17th birthday, I would watch the first man moon landing on a color television set.  Technology was advancing quickly.

I was never an astronaut, and, in fact, I never really had the desire to fly after I grew up.  I will attribute that to watching old war movies that changed my ideas of what I wanted to do as an adult.  I regularly watched shows that convinced me leading soldiers in combat would be my real-life’s goal.  I wanted to be an Infantry Sergeant just like the fictional Sergeant Chip Saunders (Vic Morrow) in the 1960s television series Combat!, the TV show of my youth.  Many years later, I would be promoted to Infantry Sergeant and achieve my childhood dream.

The astronauts of the 1960s provided a spark for me to look outward from myself – as a hick from a small town –  and that would allow me to follow my destiny.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 10  (Spare time)

[July 10, 2023]  I was born in Arkansas, close to a line of small towns that ran south into Louisiana along what is now state Route 165, where all my relatives married, worked, raised their families, and died.  My hometown is Mer Rouge, where I learned to be a young man.  I lived in this little village, without even a traffic light, for a time longer than any location in my life, to this day.  The town’s population is less than 200 families.  It is intersected north and south by railroad tracks.

We routinely visited our grandparents and cousins, at most an hour’s drive along a winding two-lane country road.  The folks that lived in these small towns were all the folks we knew.  I’d not been in a town with more than two traffic lights until I was in Junior High School.  The main streets were paved a few years before we moved into town, and it had two adult bars, a general store, a clothing store, a small diner, and a gas station.

Half my classmates were the farmers’ kids, and they were poorer than us, as they lived on dirt roads and often without running water, but they did have electricity.  The real poor lived outside town, had no doors or windows and were all black families.  Our grade school only closed when large thunderstorms rolled through because the dirt roads became impassable.

For entertainment, we played outdoors with our friends, went hunting, fishing, camping, or ran around town with our friends and dogs.  I also had a few jobs along the way, like mowing yards, raking leaves (there were many leaves), sorting junk at the town dump and reselling what I found of value, and delivering newspapers.  Most of the time, we would get friends together and play baseball, seeing who could run fastest, swim in local ponds, hunt rattlesnakes with sticks, throw dirt clods at wasp nests, and catch butterflies, frogs, and lightening bugs (at night).  We always were on the lookout for poisonous snakes, poison ivy, hornets’ nests, and high school boys who would chase us off if they found us looking at older girls they claimed as their dates.

On Sunday mornings, we regularly attended Sunday school and church services.  Mom ensured we were dressed up, suit coat and tie, polished shoes, black socks, and a white shirt.  She gave each of us a quarter to put in the collection plate.  I gave myself to Christ at ten years old, and the pastor baptized me by full dunking at our Southern Baptist church.  That was really, really cool.  I enjoyed Sunday school because the men running it taught us the stories of the Bible and their meaning.  I wouldn’t say I liked sitting still in church; it was hard, the pastor was boring (I did not listen), my brother watched his shoes, my sister looked like she was paying attention, and I squirmed.

Life was easy, overall.  The pace of things was slow.  Sometimes I would go down to the cotton gin to watch them bail the cotton and prepare it for shipment.  The bales were moved by hand, and the workers had to be tough.  The cotton was shipped out of town by train, and went to places I had no idea where.  My favorite pastime was fishing in the lake nearby using a pole, hook, bobber float, and worm.  I dug my own worms, and they were good bait.  Mostly, I caught sunfish.  My dad made me clean and gut them, and only then would my mom fry the fish for dinner.

I never really liked school.  Oh, I did okay.  School never challenged me, and some teachers scared me because they were “mean” (actually, they had high standards).  I never got a butt-whupping, which was a source of pride, but the school principal came close one day when I was caught talking in the lunch line.  No talking.  You ate and got out.  The lunch was 10 cents and included a small carton of milk.  And you ate everything on your plate, monitored by the teachers.  The best part of school was recess, school plays, my friends, and the teachers.  I was not too fond of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  I also did not do well on my citizenship marks.

Our doors to our home were always open and unlocked, even at night when we were asleep.  There was essentially no crime.  Sometimes, town drunks were violent, but as kids, the adults hid that from us.  The town adults were wonderful.  The local combat vets would tell us scary stories.  The volunteer fire department gave us rides on the one firetruck they had.  And the stores were run by their owners, who always gave us kids a nickel to spend on candy.  Small-town life there was not just easy; it was good too.

Then we moved to the big city.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, The Introduction

[July 5, 2023]  Granddaughter!  Perhaps you are now wondering why I’m writing these letters to you, a growing, beautiful young lady.  You are the oldest of my grandchildren.  And like your father and like me as your grandfather, we are each the firstborn and with that position comes special privileges and also expectations.

While I am confident that your father and mother will help you, I am also responsible for giving you something to treasure and love.  In the “old days,” we wrote handwritten letters and put them in the postal system for delivery.  Today we text or videoconference.  I am doing something in between; I’m writing letters to you electronically through the Internet.

I’ll give you some ideas about life; that is my responsibility and a noble undertaking, and I take that task seriously.  And although your parents are doing a great job, there is nothing like a bit of help from the outside.  Here I am, your Poppy (your name for me, your paternal grandfather), and I’m ready to do just that.

I am writing 100 letters just for you.  Others will read them too, so I will be sure not to reveal anything that might embarrass you, but since I know you, that will be no problem.  I hope to give you some ideas about the good life using events from my lifetime to the present.

What these events will do is give you lessons that helped me be a good person.  No, not the finger-pointing kind of moralistic rules that make you want to puke (like gross anchovies), but the kind of ideas that make you smile, the ideas and ways of living that guarantee you a proper life, a life that attracts good people to you, the kind that some folks call the secret to a good life.  And believe me; you do want them.  Maybe you don’t know it yet, but you will, and you’ll like it too.

Granddaughter, hold onto your britches, big girl.  You’re about to take the ride of your life.  A ride into my life.  I know that you will be asking yourself how in the world can my Poppy, that old guy who moves real slow, talks with a Southern slang, and walks holding my hand like a mangy tired old dog.  How could my Poppy have a life that was anything but stale and boring?  Surely, his life is like watching paint dry on the bathroom wall, really slow and anything but thrilling.  Do you like a little excitement?   I hope so.

100 letters!  What in the world could my Poppy find to write to me about that could possibly take so many letters?  You might think there is nothing Poppy could write of interest or useful.  And perhaps that is true.  Maybe if you think that way, you would be just barking up a tree and getting nothing done but wasting your bark.

100 letters, full of the life of the man who’s raised your own Daddy and helped make him the father he is to you.  There might be something to the stories explaining your Daddy and why he is so good to you.  One day you will treasure these letters.  At least, I hope you do.

Now, I have a dog too.  And my girl dog, all 90 pounds of muscle and grit, a Yellow Labrador, she keeps me young.  I got her at the insistence of your Nonna, my wife and the most gracious and wonderful woman I ever knew.  I walk my girl dog twice a day, three miles, all weather, rain, shine, snow, heat, cold, sleet, and at least one tornado going by.  Was I scared?  No!  Never!  And here is your first hint at what you will discover in my letters.  I ain’t scared of nuttin’.

Then, there is Nonna.  I know you love her as well.  I’m sure you are attracted to her as you always ask for her when we speak on the phone.  Nonna has wonderful traits you can copy and be guaranteed success as a young lady.  She also has a particular kind of beauty, very much like the kind of natural beauty you possess.

Moreover, Nonna loves you more dearly than ever imagine and wants to hug you close.  Call upon her any time.  She will always be there, ready to talk and laugh with you.  Nonna also helps me be who I am and ensures I do not stray too far away.

Once you read my letters, you will see they are not really about me.  Oh, yes, I’m in the stories.  Every one of them.  But these letters are stories about how to live, about how to “really” live with your eyes wide open.  These letters also help you not follow the false narratives pushed on young folks today or the false idols and quasi-religions of those who falsely believe they are saviors of the world, those who believe they know best and who think they are superior to everyone.  These false prophets go by many names.  Do not be confused by them or misled.

I will tell a story in each letter.  There is a lesson to learn from each or two: living, good times, freedom, duty, and fulfillment.  Sometimes the letter tells about tragedy or evil; these two are distinguishable, and you will see that difference.

You will find in each the idea that life is both good and tragic and life sometimes deals us a difficult hand to play in life, but what makes life all worthwhile is that you can find yourself to be a good girl by adopting responsibility and telling the brutal truth, always the truth.

Okay, let’s get on with it.

Laying in the dirt on my back, filthy, sweaty, head spinning, with terrible pain in my left shoulder, I thought, “How the heck did I get here?”  It was sometime early in the morning, just at sunrise, but it was still cool, dusty, smelly, and with no breeze at all.  A big black man with a huge smile and bright white teeth asked if I was in pain.  “What?” I asked, still not with it.  He said, with a booming voice of concern, “Sir, you got tripped up and hit the dirt real hard.  You hurt anywhere?”

Just then, the pain came stampeding back, and my shoulder was on fire and sagging in a bizarre way.  “Good God, sir, I think you dislocated your shoulder; it looks real bad.”  Now, who wants to hear that?  It wasn’t the pain that bothered me so much as being unable to get up by myself and stand without two big dudes helping me.

One of them volunteered to drive me to the nearby aid station to have a doctor take a look.  My luck was to find the doctor still asleep, so they went to wake him.  It seemed like forever for him to arrive and diagnose what seemed evident by that point: a classic dislocated shoulder.  He said, “I’ll fix it, but it’s gonna hurt real bad.”  Just what I wanted to hear, and I’d not even eaten breakfast.

I’d been playing Combat Football with about 35 or 40 Soldiers and Marines on an open, hard-packed dirt field near the heart of Baghdad, Iraq, in the last days of 2010, only a few months before the end of the war.  A week earlier, one of our Marines got hurt badly with the same injury, plus a broken hand and a concussion.  Unsurprisingly, our unofficial motto was, “Work hard, play hard.”

Back at the aid station, the medics seemed intimidated by me.  One said, “There are only two kinds of people we get in here this time of day: combat wounded and engineers.”  I was obviously not combat-wounded.  A short, young female medic asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee, and I nodded yes.  She also sheepishly asked me to give her my pistol and holster (for security).  Now, that felt weird.  Being in an active war zone, I was never without my pistol or rifle, but I knew the rules and handed it over.

Sir, we never had a Colonel officer in our clinic before.  Can we get you anything?”  “You must be an engineer,” another medic said.  Yep!

All I wanted was to get my shoulder fixed, breakfast, and return to work.  The short female medic politely and, in a meek voice, informed me that my long-sleeve PT shirt would have to come off.  “And how is that supposed to happen?” I said with as much stoicism as I could muster.  She said, “Well, sir, we could pull it over your head like you normally do when removing it.”

I’m no medic, nor do I know much about human anatomy, but given the pain up to that point, I figured her suggestion would be a stupid decision on my part.  “Or, we can cut your shirt off.”  Now, that’s more like it.  I said, “Okay, cut it off; otherwise, you’ll hear a lot of screaming, and you don’t want that to happen.”

After the doctor reset my shoulder and put my arm in a sling, he told me I would be sent to Landstuhl, Germany, by military aircraft, where U.S. military doctors would review my shoulder to determine whether I could remain in a war zone.  “Nope, doc, I ain’t going nowhere; thanks for your help.  I’m a staff officer, not a door kicker.  I’m going back to work.”  Then I got my pistol and walked out.

And that was that, at least for the moment.

I was at the “Boathouse,” back at work by 9 o’clock, where Army Engineers had been since the beginning of the war in 2003.  In comes my boss, a 2-star Army General.  He saw my left arm in a bright blue sling.  “Satterfield, I can’t leave you alone for five minutes without something crazy happening.  What the F happened?”

In the end, I was never sent back to Germany.  I knew the Army 4-star Commander.  They weren’t letting me go.  And that’s just the way I liked it.

The real question is, “How the heck did I get here?”  The answer to that question is a tad complicated.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 9  (the Easter Story)

[June 28, 2023]  Sometimes, things come along just when you need them most.  The hard-boiled eggs were colored in pastels, craftily hidden throughout the backyard, tucked behind a tree, hidden in the grass, behind a bush, and on the fence post.  And there was Mom gathering all her children together.  It was Easter Sunday, the first Easter in my memory, so I was pretty young, maybe five or six, preschool for sure.  Our Mom had taken great care to make this day memorable for her children, as it should be.

Those were the days whenever I thought of Easter Sunday, it brought up images of colored eggs, baskets of straw, wearing a coat and tie and attending church services, running around after church to find those hidden eggs, sometimes not well hidden, to get as many eggs as possible.  Then I would make sure my brother Philip had the same number as me – he was slower, being younger, so I shared a few.  I admit I always had one more egg than him, maybe two more.

My parents carefully managed Easter Day so I could understand why it was special.  Mom’s job was to be the force that held the family together with love and loyalty through her dedication to God, Country, and Family.  This also meant knowing why we were hunting Easter eggs, the symbolism that unfortunately escapes most kids like me.  How was it that I came to know the link between colored eggs, Easter bunnies, family, and church?

Patiently and very carefully, Mom told the story of the man known as Jesus in the Bible.  The tale, or should I say the great story, was fascinating.  Usually, I’m bored.  Not this time.  Mom had a way to make the story easy to follow and make it seem fascinating.  Anyone who has read the Bible or can tell a good story about a person knows that this is no easy task.  I think that is why our morals are told in stories rather than lists on a tablet.

As best I can remember it from Mom telling this story many times, Jesus, the man, was forced to carry a wooden cross and crucified on it as punishment for preaching the Word of God.  Now, this wasn’t very comforting for me.  Why would anyone do such a thing?  But Mom continued.  Three days after his burial, He arose, a rebirth.  “What did he say?” I asked.  Like she had anticipated my question, the same question I would ask every Easter on the telling of the resurrection.  Mom calmly told us Jesus said, “Greetings, do not be afraid….”  Wow.

Then, Mom told us how the ancients had common rituals and practices.  One of them was the search for eggs.  And like eggs do, they hatch with new life.  The symbology was not lost on me.  Thank you, Mom, for patiently connecting the dots for me, your eldest child.  And now I pass along that story to my eldest grandchild.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 8  (Cleaning the Pigpen)

[June 27, 2023]  It was my first day cleaning a pigpen, and I knew I had stepped in it big time.  Yep, that’s me all right, taking on a job that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or getting into.  But I was also too hard-headed to admit I was over my head, thinking I could do anything anyone else could do and do it with little effort.  I was wrong.  And I will admit that my personality has never changed that much.  For good or for bad, I’m still too hard-headed for my own good.

Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, we moved away from the town I grew up in and where all my friends lived.  I was distraught for leaving my friends and everything behind, including our two dogs that I loved dearly, beautiful Rough Collies and both emotionally close to me.  Our move would be one of many, moving almost every year, making and losing friends, finding new summer jobs, and involuntarily learning to be mentally tough.

A man showed up the same week we moved into our newly rented house and said he was looking to hire a teenager to make some cash and “learn the trade.”  The following day was my first day cleaning pigpens.  I’d never even seen a pigpen before.

While I cannot remember his name, I was attracted to this happy-go-lucky pig farmer with his outgoing nature and bubbly personality.  It was helpful that he had three daughters; one named Linda – about my age – the first girl I’d ever kissed.  I fondly remember that kiss.  It was like an electric charge that ran through my body.  It made us both smile widely.  She was so cute.

I also remember that first day in the pigpens.  It was memorable, and for a 13-year-old boy, it took plenty of grit to get through it.  Pigs are powerfully built and intelligent, big animals, and they remember how you treat them.  I think their memory is better than elephants, and pigs will hold a grudge.  Don’t ever get on their bad side.  You might be crushed up against a side railing or knocked over unexpectedly from behind and stomped on.  They are crafty creatures.  Respect them.  Treat them well.

That first day, my task was to clean two of the pigpens, I think to prove I was up to the job.  Cleaning the pens is a job that is important because that’s how you raise healthy pigs.  It controls roundworms which pigs are prone to get, keeps the bacteria down to a manageable level, and helps prevent diseases.  A clean pig is a happy pig.  My job, keep the pigs happy.

The pens I was to clean were slippery with solid pig waste and urine, hay to absorb the moisture, a concoction of wet anti-bacterial disinfectant, and rainwater that dripped through the barn ceiling.  Maybe that’s why I fell face-first into that dirty pen that day, and I was stunned, more by landing in the pig poop than by the fall.  Oh, did I mention that pig poop has a strong recognizable stench.  I didn’t know it then, but pigs like to poop on wet spots.  Of course, the entire pen was wet.  I also learned, that first day, cleaning the pens while wearing tennis shoes was figuring things out the hard way.  Typical of me.  I swear the pig farmer was dying from laughter, watching me struggle, get filthy, tear my pants at the knee, ruin my shoes, scrape my forehead, and vomit.

At the end of the first day (actually a half day), I was exhausted, and I remember little else after leaving the pig farm other than my mother making me take off all my clothes in the backyard and hosing me down before I was allowed in the house to get a “real” bath.  The pig farmer paid me five dollars in one-dollar bills for my efforts.  I had a real job.  I was rich.  The pig farmer liked me.  And I kissed a girl.

The Summer would be one never to forget.  My mother, a wonderful woman, helped me more than I realized at the time.  She cleaned my clothes and had them ready for me every day.  She fed me a full breakfast and packed my lunch, usually a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, an apple, and a cookie (my favorite) and placed them in a paper bag for carrying.  My dad was happy because I was a “man” since I had a job and contributing to the family.

I did learn one big lesson.  Don’t work on pig farms.  I joined the Army.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 7  (Growing Up)

[June 23, 2023]  Looking back on my time as a kid, I’m not so sure I was using my thinking abilities properly. Yeah, the men in my town were nearly all combat veterans. I was enthralled by their harrowing experiences, cool demeanor, pretty girlfriends, tales of growing up in the boonies and swamps of Louisiana, great physical strength, and fearlessness. And in school, my teachers were stable, married, smart middle-aged women teachers who understood little boys and took our rambunctious behavior as normal. Both knew how to deal with my friends and me. I was lucky. Despite the advantage I gained with their help, I did things that made me ask myself, what was I thinking?

Hey, watch this! There was when my friend jumped 20 feet off the train trestle railroad bridge into the river below, and I thought he had died. Running to get help in town, my vivid imagination had the town Sheriff throwing me in jail for murder or just shooting me on the spot and then telling everyone in town what a lowlife coward I was by abandoning my best friend to the watery depths. There was no scenario I was getting out of this. My friend lived, and I was not thrown in jail. We often laugh about this incident to this day. The old Sheriff has passed along, but after I grew up and visited my hometown, he still remembered the event and how I was in full panic mode when I found him.

Or the time I ran away from home. I don’t remember why; it doesn’t matter anyway, and it was likely a conflict with my dad (mom was too easy to push me that far). I had my maternal grandparents “only” a 20-minute drive away, but on foot, a nine-year-old stride would take far far longer, and I was lucky to get about a third of the way by walking the railroad tracks; I knew where the tracks went because my dad was in charge of that area. Looking down the tracks, I could see forever and no end to my trip. I thought I would die on these tracks and no one would notice. I turned around finally, as it was getting dark and headed back home. My parents acted as if they even noticed I was missing. I didn’t dare to ask, and they weren’t telling. A few years ago, before they passed away, I thought about asking but decided to let it go. I should have asked.

The year before my grandpappy got me my first real job, my grandmaw Satterfield decided to teach me about life. It was a hot summer day in southern Arkansas when at the meager age of six, it was my turn to catch, kill, and prepare one of her chickens for our supper that evening. Killing the chicken would be a first for me, but it would forever remain a defining moment in my life. This coming-of-age event was supposed to be an adventure of sorts. If you’ve never caught and killed a chicken (the proper way, so my grandmaw says), then you have not lived the life of hardscrabble or are sufficiently close enough to “God’s green earth” for it to matter. Such

virtues were not just ordinary but also expected if you grew up before the 1970s. To do those things necessary to live and do them correctly and morally and with grit is a lesson that a young boy or girl would learn early and then carry through life.

These adventures were all part of growing up.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 6  (A “Real” Job)

[June 20, 2023] Picking Cotton. My first real job was picking cotton at my Grandpappy’s home in southeast Arkansas. I learned many valuable lessons, including that I was not cut out to be a cotton picker. I was ten years old in the Summer of 1962 when I picked cotton for the first time.

A “real” job meant that you worked for someone else and were paid for the work you produced. There was no minimum wage, no health benefits, no free meals, and no union, and if you were hurt and couldn’t work, you did not get paid. There was no workers comp. You see, when you turned ten in the Satterfield family, you were expected to work and contribute to the family. Period. My Grandpappy cotton fields needed picking, and that was that.

Harvesters got most of the cotton, but at the time, they were inefficient and left too much cotton in the boll. The solution? Send pickers in behind the machines. Late in the summer of 1962, I joined a team of about a dozen pickers. All were adults except me. The most experienced and most able pickers were blacks who lived nearby. The unofficial leader of this team was Mama Ida. She was a large black woman who couldn’t read but was the most wonderful person I’ve ever met.

“Douglas, now you just follow me.” She said that every day. And I did exactly what she told me to do. I was a “city boy” (I lived in a town of 300 folks and had no traffic lights), but because I wore shoes and had soft hands, I was weak and needed “tending to.” I learned from her to be a good follower, pay attention to what you’re told, and follow the directions of the other pickers. An important lesson was they showed me how to avoid cutting my fingers on the sharp cotton boll. If you don’t pay close attention to picking cotton, you could get infected and be out of work. No work, no pay.

Mama Ida was a fast picker. So was everyone else. I was slow, embarrassingly slow. But I quickly learned that teamwork can accomplish more than individuals working separately. People had different jobs in the cotton fields, and none were unimportant. I was often the “water boy” and was proud of it. Carrying water in two tin buckets was crucial to their well-being. And the cotton-picking team was honest. Mama Ida made sure of that and never allowed rocks or dirt in our 10-foot cotton sacks, and pay was based on the weight of the cotton you picked. You were paid cash daily. My Grandpappy paid me my wage that first day, 10 cents. I was devastated.

Arkansas in late summer is hot, windy, humid, dusty, and buggy. The cotton fields exposed you to the sun all day long. I suffered and sometimes cried. But I would not quit, no matter what and no matter that I wanted to quit desperately. I had so many cuts on my hands; I couldn’t count them. And my feet hurt. I wore a baseball hat and got sunburned on my ears and cheeks. The other pickers wore rimmed hats, white shirts or dresses to keep the sun at bay.

At the end of each day, I was exhausted and fell asleep after the dinner my Grandmama had made. The usual evening meal was fried chicken, black-eyed peas or butter beans, spinach or corn, and watermelon for dessert. It was good eating. Breakfast was eggs (from the chickens she tended), toast and homemade jam. Lunch was hardboiled eggs you carried with you into the fields. You could take a lunch break, but you earned less if you did so.

Mama Ida would say, “You be careful now, Douglas.” She was telling me to pay close attention to the Harvesters. They would run you over before you even knew one was even there. In two weeks, we completely cleared the fields of cotton. Now it was time to go home to my parents. Picking cotton may not be ideal, but it helped me learn about people and made me appreciate the value of those who do the grudging, hard, often ignored work that makes America great.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 5  (the Army)

[June 17, 2023] Work or Lazy. I was young, but I was an adult. Now was the time I chose Army life over railroad work. It was a time to choose between two radically different paths in life, one that would mean the life I know today, the other the way of my father. There was one other future for me, not drugs or alcohol but one of academia (I would be pushed out of that dream, a dream of little responsibility and little need of courage). This letter is Number 5 of a long-running series of encouraging letters to my granddaughter.

I joined the U.S. Army after working on the railroad for two years. The Missouri-Illinois Railroad was owned and operated by the Missouri Pacific RR (MoPac), which is how I got the job. My dad worked for the MoPac, and they needed a relief agent. I was it. No one else wanted the job, but it paid well and wasn’t too dangerous, except I traveled at least an hour to work and back six days a week. And, bi-weekly, I switched job locations. I was paid an extra $7 a day for travel expenses.

The standard six-day workweek plus travel interrupted my freedom, so I quit and joined the Army. I joined out of exasperation from too much RR work. The recruiters told me I could guarantee an overseas assignment or occupation skill. I just wanted overseas to spice up my life a bit. My first assignment as a Private was Basic Combat Training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I hated it. Then on to Military Police school, which was sheer luck and good for me. Better than the Infantry… the horror. Now, a seven-day workweek.

The day before graduation from MP school, we all got drunker than a skunk. I woke up the following morning on a bare mattress under a row of bathroom urinals and couldn’t remember anything. And it was daylight. We were always up before daylight. I was scared. Staggering out into the open sleeping bay, I found everyone still sleeping. What a relief. Next thing I knew, the Drill Sergeants came in screaming for us to get our asses out of bed and into our Class A dress uniform.

At the large theater where we would hear an MP Colonel talk, we all felt sickly from our hangovers. I have zero memory of anything that day at the graduation. That was that, no more drinking alcohol for me ever again. Well, at least not drinking until I was introduced to German beer two weeks later. “Ein Bier bitta.” I never let alcohol influence my behavior ever again. As an MP, I would catch U.S. troops drunk driving nearly daily. We were hyper-strict on drunk drivers. If caught, you were out of the Army.

At the end of two years in Germany, I changed my job skill to Infantry Mortarman and remained in the Army as an enlisted man for almost seven years. I got out as an Infantry Staff Sergeant, a pretty good position for an uneducated kid from a small town in Louisiana My long-term goal was to attend college, get a degree in Chemical Engineering and get a good job. I’d had just enough money for in-state tuition. However, that was not to be.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 4  (Family)

[June 9, 2023] Family. Family. Family. I’ll update my letters to my granddaughter in an ongoing series for future reading. My granddaughter is the oldest of my grandchildren and the only girl. And she is a very active child and smart as a whip. Today’s topic is family. Regular readers know my stance on families and will not be surprised by this “letter.” But I give a bit of background; that is the point. I’m pro-family. There is no doubt about that.

I grew up in a family of four kids and both parents, mom and dad, mainly in the Deep South. I was the oldest of the kids, and although that came with extra responsibilities like taking out the trash, it also gave me more freedom because my mom spent more time caring for my younger siblings. Looking back upon that time, my freedom probably was more a disadvantage than not. At times, I would be “too big for my britches” – a know-it-all, a less humble than I should be, yet all my friends were just like me … carefree and always out of the house.

Remember that we were “rich,” at least by the standards of those times; doors and windows on our home and a roof that did not leak, usually. And the family was at the center of everything we did. Going to church, visiting relatives, and seeing adult friends of my parents, all of this was local or within a 20-minute drive. We all participated. Grocery shopping was a mom-and-kids affair. Camping, hunting, and fishing were a dad-and-boys affair. Going to see train wrecks (my dad worked on the railroad) was just me and dad. But we all talked about it at home.

Visiting my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were always fun. The “grandkids” were running free. My favorite pastime was throwing dirt clods at wasp nests (never at hornet nests; it was essential to know the difference). The boys would wear short pants, and that’s it. No shirt, no shoes, and maybe no brains. We did it for the thrill. If a wasp caught you, it would be painfully unpleasant, and it was usually one of the moms who applied a thick baking soda paste to the sting.

At my paternal grandparent’s home, there was a fantastic swing set made by my grandfather’s hands. He was a jack of all trades and a great welder. The swing set was anchored into the ground by concrete, and impossible for us to turn over if we swung too high. My favorite was getting the swing to the horizontal apex and jumping high from the ground. I would hit and roll, a skill that later would be of value in the U.S. Army.

Ultimately all we did was about our family. The family was at the center of what we did. Our family was our refuge, our medical care, and the center of our universe. Divorce was unheard of. Single parents only existed if one of them died and left the family with one. In that case, we all helped out because, well, that is what we do. Family!

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 3  (Summer Jobs)

[June 3, 2023] Summer jobs, side jobs, and odd jobs. This article is my latest update to letters to my granddaughter. Growing up in the 1950s was good for me.

By now, you know that we were rich (by local standards), and that meant my parents were married, my dad had a steady job on the railroad, my mom stayed home and helped other wives, our maternal grandparents were nearby as well as aunts, uncles, nephews, and a great aunt, and we went to church services every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.

Our family had enough essentials like a used car, a rented house, and clothes for school and church. But, like so many kids my age, we didn’t have our own spending money; our independence depended upon it. So, my friends and I did things for extra cash. Since there were no stores to work at in town (only adults had real jobs), we had to figure out what to do for some spare spending money. And it wasn’t any “job”; we had to do what we did properly.

I had many jobs, but that’s not what I called what I did. I never worked directly for an hourly wage until Junior High. In Elementary and during summers, I worked odd jobs for local families, mainly on the south side of the railroad tracks, the tracks splitting the town from north to south. If we kids had an extra penny, we occasionally put it on the railroad tracks right before a train came by. If lucky, we found the flattened penny and showed it to our buddies.

The earliest money-making scheme was to find clovers, tie them into a necklace, and sell them for a nickel. I could easily make 50 cents a day. I spent my money on candy at the local general store. I was 4 or 5 years old. Only later did I figure out a better scheme: collecting used Coke bottles. I would get 2 cents for each bottle.

You could earn a few dollars if you were lucky, thoughtful, and would work hard. Was I privileged to work these odd jobs? Yep! No one ever asked me to work for them or do a job. There was no minimum wage or guarantee you would get paid, even if you worked. Sometimes you did work to do the right thing by someone who was part of your town.

I was always busy. If I wasn’t running around “playing army” with my friends or watching baseball on television, I was working. My school grades suffered, but I was too busy enjoying my labor’s fruits.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 2  (my doggie Rusty)

[May 29, 2023]  From the stories told by my parents, my first doggie – Rusty – was my forever companion.  He was there when I was born and lived with us for many years.  I’m convinced our close, very close bond was the reason for many decades of wonderful relationships with animals throughout my lifetime, in particular, pet dogs.  It is said that your first pet is your pet for a lifetime.  You will love them for your entire existence, regularly looking back to that time and knowing that although those precious moments with them are fleeting, they were worthwhile.

My favorite photograph of me as a toddler shows me, about one year old, in a standup baby walker with trusty Rusty at my side.  Rusty was always at my side, never leaving me, whether inside our house, in a muddy ditch on the side, in the grass yard, in the backseat of the car, or in my bedroom.  If there is ever a mandatory need for a child besides their mom and dad, it’s a good dog.  Later in life, my own children had their pet companions that I insisted they get; they were cats, oh, okay, cats can be companions, too.  Since I was the pet caretaker, my kids had cats, and they loved them dearly.  I worked too many hours to give the attention required of a dog; the cats were a substitute.

Before his untimely passing away, and before I could remember, my Mom would tell me stories of our adventures with Rusty.  For example, when I tried to fast-waddle across the street, Rusty refused to allow it.  His reaction had to be instinctual.  I could never wander out of his sight.  He was my protector.  When the fall leaves fell in our yard, I would jump into the leaves that Dad had raked, and there he was, Rusty, running through and scattering those leaves because he must have known I loved it too.  Mom told me that Rusty would look at me after each pass through a pile of leaves as if to say, “Hey, look, my friend, I can do it too.”

Whenever I cried, and as a kid, that must have been often, Rust would lick my tears away.  What a great dog he was to love!  I was fortunate that Mom allowed Rusty to sleep at the foot of the bed in my room.  Indeed, we were inseparable.  And, while I don’t remember the day Rusty passed away, I was surely heartbroken.  He was more than a pet; Rusty was a companion, a friend, and a protector, and he was my brother.

Everybody deserves a dog like him.  Wherever Rusty is now, I hope and pray there’s plenty of wet dog food, tennis balls to go around, and sticks to chase.  I am now comforted by the fact that Rusty lived a full life and spent every moment knowing he was loved.

I still think of my first doggie, Rusty.

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Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 1  (being Rich)

[May 20, 2023] If there is one thing I would want from my grandparents today, it would be letters they wrote to me, telling me about their lives, what they believed in, what made them good men and women, and how they saw the world. Those letters would be more valuable than any token, money, or property. So, I decided to write my grandchildren letters for that reason.

Let’s be clear from the outgo. None of my relatives had much money. They lived modest lives, traveling little, doing what they thought was right for their families, going to church, believing in God and his principles, scratching out a living from what was around them, and hanging on tight to their family because that was what made them who they were. They were not politicians, robber barons, professionals (in the modern sense of the word), formally educated, or money rich. Still, from everything I know, they were happy with their existence and humble to their very core.

Here is my first letter to my eldest granddaughter. She is seven and the only grandchild who can read. The title might be a surprise.

I was rich growing up.

Yes, I was rich growing up. By the standards of that time, some 70 years ago, we were among the rich in the small town we grew up in. I was the oldest of four children. We lived in a tiny town in Northeast Louisiana with a population of about 300 families. We lived in a small house with a roof that did not leak, except when it rained. There were no traffic lights, no movie theaters, and no grocery stores, but we did have three bars and two churches (one Southern Baptist and one Catholic).

How did I know we were rich? The difference between rich and poor was clear for everyone to see. The rich had wooden doors and glass windows in their homes. The poor had screened doors and screened windows (no glass). In the poor’s’ homes, you could look through the walls and see from the front of the house into the backyard. We also lived on a paved one-lane road. The poor lived on dirt roads. Also, the rich had electricity and running water. The poor had lanterns and pumped their water. We lived in the Deep South, and there was no such thing as air conditioning; the summer months were always hot and humid. Both rich and poor suffered from the heat.
We were rich because there was one playground in town, and we could use it. We had a grade-school playground with a metal slide, a small merry-go-round, and a swing with two seats. The ground was dirt, which helped cushion any fall we might make. We also had a Little League baseball team, and we had uniforms. You had to bring your own glove, but the town’s working men provided the bats, baseballs, and ballfield.

Everyone went fishing, rich and poor. My dad would take the extra catch to some poor single mothers he knew, and we kids would go with him. They were very poor, especially by today’s standards. I never gave it much thought but was thankful for what we had. My dad worked on the railroad, and my mom stayed home like all the other mothers. We ate dinner every night together, and, yes, I hated leftovers. We were a happy family, and I got to see my grandparents and cousins nearly every week. The family was most important. I saw the poor every day.