The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1931-1932: Two Shoats For The Doctor Bill

By Grace Cash © 1991

Issue: August, 1991

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

In the Spring of 1931 when I graduated from the tenth grade at Chestnut Mountain School, I was the picture of optimism. Papa's "Spring Credit" from our Atlanta-based landlord was sufficient to outfit the womenfolk in bright colored dresses. The cloth had been ordered from Sears, Roebuck & Co, and stitched on the pedal sewing machine. I had a new pair of black pumps trimmed with lizard-skin, and I felt distinguished when I pinned to my new red-checked silk dress a gold class pin with "1931" dangling at the end of the chain. I had just read a novel called "Ishmael." The writer stated repeatedly. "And Ishmael went from success to success." I thought I would be like Ishmael, although I would have been satisfied if I could have graduated from Oakwood's eleventh grade high school and got a job in town. A town job spelled success in the 1930s.

Fall came and there was no way to get to Oakwood, located six miles from our farmhouse. There was not even enough money to go around for winter shoes. I wore Papa's cast-off brogans for everyday. I had worn out my Sunday lizard-skin pumps. Now that nearly everybody had at least one car in the family, Papa took his mule-drawn vehicles off the highway and we walked everywhere we went. Mama let me wear her best oxfords to church that winter. When the neighbors came to visit, I hid my bare broganed feet under the chair next to mine till they left the house.

And then out of a clear blue sky, I received a spark of hope. Papa had two pigs, so puny they were about to die, which he turned over to anybody who wanted them. When I claimed them for my own there was laughter mingled with doubt that the pigs were any better off. The pigs not only lived but they thrived, and put on a thick coat of stiff glossy black hair. They ate everything I could find - weeds, nubby ears of corn discarded in the barn lot, table scraps, dish-water. I fixed them a warm box-house in the cow lane for sleeping at night. After a while the joke regarding my pigs could be told in five words: "Well, look at Grace's pigs!" Still there was laughter, although nobody had a right to act haughty. The United States was at the height of the Great Depression, so that starvation lurked treacherously close nationwide. Even people who had town jobs were scared.

I was sixteen that winter, but I might have been eighty. During the day time I was the youngest family member at home. The younger ones were at school. In my spare time from helping with the cooking and quilting, and bringing water up the hill form the well, I read the Bible and books the landlord left in a mildewed trunk in his "reserved" room. There were books by Thomas Mann and other educators, and loads of Presbyterian magazines and papers. In that room I found scraps of information about students at the University of Georgia and at Harvard. (Both sons of the former plantation owner had left letters received from girlfriends such as the formal acceptance of an invitation to a college-related social function.)

Then came March with cold high winds that stung my bare feet inside Papa's brogans. I never once thought I would sell the shoats, known as such now by their vast growth, promising to fatten out to three hundred pounds each. Even if I had sold them, I would gladly have turned the money over to Mama for clothing and household bills. But all that was settled for me without lifting a hand. One would need to know how Papa felt when a creditor approached him about a debt he couldn't pay to understand why he turned my shoats over to the doctor's collectors that March day.

The doctor sent a truck around the countryside, collecting from farmers who owed him. Papa's debt dated back to 1923 when I had typhoid. I didn't know the debt hadn't been paid. I watched through the window while the two men loaded my black healthy shoats on the truck bed, and shot back out into the highway as though they despised their job as much as Matthew himself. Papa returned to the house, his head hanging low, his old worn wool hat shading his eyes, looking as he did at other times when a debt came due and he had nothing to pay. He had nothing on this day except the milk cow and the laying hens.

Mama came into the kitchen where I stood frozen-faced. She tried to smile, but her smile wrenched her whole face. She said, "Grace, Papa had to make a payment on that old debt. That was when you had typhoid fever in 1923. Dr. Freeman hadn't said a word about it till now. I guess he hated to send around that truck, but other folks owe him, times are so bad."

I could smile then, remembering the young handsome doctor who brought me a package of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum every visit he made to the farmhouse those long summer months after I regained use of my partially-paralyzed voice and was on the road to recovery. He would stand beside my bed a while, watching my notched-toothed smile, sufficient "thank you" to wreathe his own face in smiles.

My shoats were never mentioned again. I thought now - as I thought then, never once losing my speculative mind, even though the brain is prime target of the hot, raging typhoid fever - that I had got a fine bargain when the doctors in the small town called Hoschton were on call and Papa asked Lott's Store to call the other Hoschton clinic, that of Dr. Freeman, who reached our house well ahead of Papa in his T-Model Ford. Nobody but a prize-doctor would have waited eight years to send the collector's truck around to the farm, and no other doctor would have known the healing value of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for an eight-year-old patient.