Life Lessons Learned
A Commentary by J. D. Longstreet
There were four of us in that house: My mom and dad, my younger brother, and myself.
The house had three rooms and a path … literally. No bathroom, but there was a toilet (an “outhouse” – a “privy”) down that path. There was also a small stable for a milk cow.
Later, the company decided to bless its employees with a bathroom in, or on, the house. In our case the bathroom was built on the back porch so that in order to use it one still had to exit the house and cross the porch to get to it. It had the all too common porcelain toilet and a shower. There was no lavatory, or sink, in that bathroom. There was a small push-out window near the ceiling of the room. It was hot in the summer and absolutely frigid in the winter.
Between the house and the outhouse there was a huge cast iron wash pot in which mom did the laundry every Monday. Wire clotheslines were strung across the backyard so that making an emergency trip to the outhouse at night was akin to maneuvering an army obstacle course — blindfolded. It was here that I learned the importance of having a flashlight readily available at night. I do – to this day.
The lighting in each room of the house was a single electric wire, hanging from the middle of the ceiling, with a socket for a single light bulb and — a string attached to the pull chain — as the only switch to turn the light on and off. There were no electric receptacles anywhere in the rooms. That single socket was the only source of electricity in every room.
As was everything in those latitudes (upstate South Carolina – the Piedmont/foothills), the house was on the side of a hill. The front porch was at near ground level while a man of average height could walk, unstooped, underneath the back of the house. In fact, that is where we stored our firewood for the stove and wash pot fires and coal for the fireplaces that had coal grates in them instead of dogs for burning wood.
As I mentioned, a good portion of the wood underneath the house was for mom’s huge cast iron wood range cooking stove. It was a monster! The thing would heat a city block when the fire got going. (The best food I have ever had, in my life, was cooked on that wood range.)
To get some relief from the heat in the kitchen in the summer, we had to raise the room’s two windows, one on the south side of the room and the other on the east side, and prop them open with pieces of firewood.
The kitchen table was rectangular and covered with an oilcloth tablecloth. That table was the center of our family universe.
There was an icebox. I mean a REAL icebox. It was my job to see that it didn’t run out of ice. I had to walk a city block, and a bit more, to a community grocery store (every day) and purchase a block of ice (for five cents), which the grocer man placed in my little red Radio Flyer wagon that I used to haul that slippery, heavy, cargo.
Then there was the drip pan beneath the icebox that had to be emptied at least once a day, or more, depending upon how hot the kitchen got on any given day.
The kitchen was the family room. The other two rooms were for sleeping.
The house was set back, ten or twelve feet, from the cement sidewalk. My earliest memories have the street itself unpaved, but later it WAS paved with the old macadam mixture of round smooth river rock and tar. It stunk to high heaven when it was hot and would blister the bottoms of your bare feet.
The rent was a dollar a day.
We were poor. But then, so were all our neighbors — so nobody seemed to notice.
It was on that block that I learned to fend for myself. It was on that block that I learned to fight, lie, cheat, steal, curse, and the most wondrous thing of all … that girls are different from boys. I also learned that I like girls … a lot!
The block was awash in children, or “younguns,” as they were called in those days. In my house, my younger brother and I were referred to as “chaps.”
It was on that block that I was cold-cocked, knocked unconscious, when I ran headlong into a China Berry tree while chasing a fly ball.
It was there that I learned, mostly, (I admit) by trial and error, right from wrong. It was on that block that the basic building blocks of what passes today for my character were forever molded.
When we moved to a four-room house in another mill village across town, I wept.
I will always be a Mill Hill boy. It is in my blood and maybe — in my DNA.
The Mill Hill is where I came to know and understand poor working people … people who live their lives on the very edge of out and out destitution. It is where I learned self-reliance. It is also where I decided that I would claw my way to a better future through hard work; determination, stubbornness, and perseverance taught me by my father’s example.
It was on that Mill Hill where I learned that you must be ready to take a stand and defend your position from all comers regardless of the clamor of the opposition.
The Mill Hill was tough and it was not fair. I learned, on that Mill Hill, that life is truly NOT FAIR. But, most importantly, I learned that life is not supposed to be fair!! I learned that crying out for fairness was only an excuse for a shortcut to one’s goals.
That Mill Hill taught me that if one truly wants to make something of one’s self then you first must forget “fair.” You play the hand you are dealt. But you play it with cunning and skill and perseverance. And you NEVER, EVER, QUIT because you are never beaten ‘til you quit!
And finally, I learned, on that Mill Hill, one should never compromise when one is satisfied that he/she is right. Compromise neuters one’s self-reliance. When you believe — to an absolute certainty — that you are right, compromise is nothing less than a personal sell-out.
Some will disagree with the life lessons I learned on the Mill Hill, but that’s OK. They are MY lessons. And they have served me well. After all, it was the hand I was dealt over 70 years ago, and I am still in the game!
J. D. Longstreet
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