Jim Woods was a sports hunter writer, outdoorsman and game hunter. Follow his journey from his early beginnings in the Navy through many hunting adventures, both in the Eastern and Western hemispheres as he searches for and bags trophy game.
A Long Walk Home
This account of my birth is enhanced family verbal history—enhanced because I don’t know precisely what dialogue was spoken, although the gist of it is faithful to what I’ve been told. I’m not certain that my mother remembered exactly either, and quite likely recalled and told it a bit differently each time I heard it from her. However, the story is as I remember it being told to me, and of course I have no personal memory of the events.
“Virgull! [My father, Virgil Neff Woods] Ah kain’t go no futher!”
Already some fifteen steps ahead of her, he deliberately took two more as though he didn’t hear, and then disgustedly set down the two battered and mismatched suitcases. He unslung the water jug hanging by the rope loop from his shoulder, and turned to face her.
Her streaked, blonde, straight, sweat-matted hair clung to her colorless features. She hadn’t put on lipstick in four days. Even her normally blue eyes were dusky gray.
The tattered sweater, once blue like her eyes, now faded by the years and grayed by the dust filtering upward from her every step, hung limply on her shoulders. The stretched sleeves covered half of her hands so that only her fingers were exposed below the frayed cuffs. She had needed the wrap in the coolness of the morning when they started out just after first light. Now at midday in mid-September, the Arkansas weather was steamy. Still, it was easier to wear the sweater than to carry it and the sniffling boy too.
Her dress once had been a bright flowered print. She traded and coaxed cloth from neighbors until she had enough of the multicolored flour sacks in the same pattern to make the only maternity dress she had ever owned. She had worn it while pregnant with the boy, now in her arms, two years ago. Threadbare and almost bleached out, once again it stretched taut across her swollen stomach. The soles of her flimsy sandals gave way to the piercing of every pebble in the road, and her feet were bruised and dirty.
“We can make six more miles today,” he objected gruffly, then relented to the persuasion of her silent tears.
Under the refuge of a hickory tree just turning to yellow alongside the grassy roadside ditch, he fished cigarette makings from the bib pocket of his overalls. To conserve tobacco, he packed the paper loosely from the Prince Albert can, twisted the ends to keep the cherished narcotic in place, and then popped a wooden match into flame under his grimy thumbnail. When the paper flared and the tobacco glowed, he stuck the half-burned match to the grass and twigs she had gathered for a cook-fire.
He appreciated the tree that sheltered them, but cursed the forest around Hardy [Arkansas] that finally had run out, causing the mill to shut down. It had been degrading for him to go hat-in-hand to her sister’s family in Fort Smith, and beg to stay on with them until he found another job. There should be jobs. It was 1934; the Depression was turning around, the nation’s economy on the way to recovery—Mister Roosevelt said so. Then came the letter from his own sister Catherine [Pierce] in Paducah [Kentucky] telling him that the Illinois Central Shop was hiring—and paying forty cents an hour!
Paducah was three hundred miles away. Train fare was impossible for them, so they set out afoot, and had been lucky with rides while they walked along the main roads. They crossed the Ozark Plateau in three days, sometimes hitching a ride on a wagon or truck. They even slept under a roof every night; on the ground huddled in their coats in abandoned or dilapidated barns, but at least not out in the open. Now at Marked Tree, they turned northeast through the Mississippi Valley to cut across the corner of Missouri into western Kentucky. The main flow of commerce moved in the tug-towed barges on the river, so the surface roads through the region were lightly traveled. The single car going in their direction passed with a blaring horn and a flurry of dust. They had walked nine miles.
She untied the rope from around the heavier suitcase, and removed the cast iron skillet and the battered aluminum pan that long ago had lost its handle. Then she dug out the bag of flour and measured a couple of handfuls into the pan. From the Clabber Girl can, she added a pinch of baking powder, and lastly, a sprinkle from the saltbox. She twirled the ingredients briefly with her single tablespoon, and formed a depression in the center of the mixture.
He pulled the cork from the jug of tepid, cloudy water reclaimed from a farm pond back down the road, washed the dust from his mouth with a swig, and handed her the bottle. She poured some into a tin cup to give the fretful boy a drink, and then clucked soothing endearments to quiet him, while she splashed more water into the flour mixture. When it was stirred into a thin batter, she used the same spoon to measure lard from the tin to the hot skillet where it sizzled and smoked, and spooned three pools of the batter into the skillet. She then retrieved the spatula he had shaped and thinned from a broken board with his clasp knife on their first night’s stopover.
After the batter was covered in bubbles over the entire top surface, and the bubbles broke, she flipped the hoecakes over to cook them through. The edges of the bread were burnt and crisp, while the centers were plump and soft. When the first one was done, she passed it to her husband. She turned her attention to the boy, crumbling the next hoecake in a tin plate and pouring syrup over the pieces from the almost empty Log Cabin can. Then she mashed the bread into a gooey mixture and spoon-fed the boy.
She was snatching a bite of her own bread in between feeding the boy when He demanded, “Don’t we have some of that baloney left?” Setting her lunch aside, she probed once again into the kitchen suitcase and produced a greasy paper package, and remembered the meager feast of last night.
They agonized over the decision, but had spent a precious dime for their first meat in three days. It was hard to wait as the butcher sliced a few pieces from the cloth-wrapped sandwich loaf. When the man realized how desperate was their hunger, he rolled another sheet of butcher paper into a cone and filled it with crackers from the barrel out in front of the counter. They protested that they didn’t have money for crackers, too, but he insisted that crackers were free with the purchase of bologna. They carefully divided the meat and crackers into two portions and put half away for the next day, even though what they acquired was barely enough for one meal.
She unwrapped the package and gagged at the odor, and her eyes brimmed at seeing the formerly fresh pink bologna now slimy and tinged with green. The crackers, also closed up in the hot and airless suitcase, had gone stale and soft. Her weeping turned to near hysterics at the waste, and he stoically resolved not to add to her misery. He wouldn’t voice the deserved accusation that she should have known this would happen when he insisted they not eat it all at one time. Besides, she cried at everything these days.
She separated the crackers on the butcher paper in the forlorn hope that they would dry in the air and perhaps serve as an acceptable snack to pacify Bobby [My brother, Bobby Gordon Woods] before the next meal, then solemnly fried the last of the batter.
After another sip all around of the just barely drinkable water, she started to repack the suitcase, because she knew that he wouldn’t allow them to rest here for very long. As she twisted around in her sitting position to stretch for the fry pan, she felt a sharp, penetrating pain and screamed him out of his musings of the good life to come. “Virgil! The baby’s coming!”
“Don’t be silly, Ethel Marie! [My mother, Ethel Marie (Burns)Woods] You’re just upset over that damned baloney. You’re not due for two weeks and we’ll be at Cat’s way ‘fore then.”
“No! It’s coming. I know it is and it hurts! You’ve got to help me!” Her panic was real and contagious.
“What can I do?” Now, scared at his inadequacy, he was yelling at her. She had no right to involve him in this business that was her doing.
“Get the coats . . . and the boy’s diapers!”