The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Public Domain by Glenda Beall


Two blue hydrangeas framed the concrete steps that led up to the back door. The smell of fresh baked pie wafting from the kitchen, made my mouth water like Pavlov’s dog. After the mile long walk on the dirt road from our farm house on a hot July afternoon, the welcoming coolness of the yellow linoleum floor on our bare feet was like an oasis in the Sahara to my sister Gay and me.

Mother knocked and called, “Judy?”

“Come in, Lois.” My aunt, in her housedress and crisp white bib apron, held the screen door open. Inside I glanced around looking for the origin of the delicious aroma. “Would you girls like some lemon pie?”

Maybe it was our hungry look or the pleading in our brown eyes turned toward Mother that provoked Aunt Judy’s offer.

“It’s bad manners to ask Aunt Judy for something to eat,” Mother had warned us. “Wait until she offers.”

With a nod of her head and a smile, Mother gave us permission to plop ourselves into the seats of high-backed chairs sitting at the round table covered with a worn green oilcloth.

When Aunt Judy brought the pie from the cupboard, my eyes lit up. Meringue, piled high and golden on the tips with little beads of sugar glistening like tiny jewels – my favorite.

Mother protested as Aunt Judy cut two giant pieces and placed them on blue and white plates. “That’s too much, Judy. Save it for Jimmy. I know he loves your lemon pie.”

Gay and I dug into the tangy sweet custard and the flaky crust. As Mother and Aunt Judy settled into rocking chairs to talk, Gay and I polished off every morsel.

At Cook’s place, a rented farm where my family lived when I was born, eight people shared a three-bedroom house – six children, my parents and Aunt Judy and Uncle Jimmy. Mother smiled when she remembered having Aunt Judy there. They were closer than sisters, she said. The miracle was that Daddy enjoyed having his brother-in-law live with him and his family. Nobody else in the entire world could have done that.

When my father bought a farm on the east side of the county, Uncle Jimmy bought a small piece of land down the road.

On their farm, my aunt and uncle built their neat little cinder-block home and a barn to hold the livestock. This was the culmination of their dreams. The best part was they were just a mile from us. Judy and Jimmy had no children. My brothers helped them build fence, gather hay, and inoculate cattle. Families helped each other, neighbors helped out when needed. No one had money to hire laborers. Everyone on Fleming Road worked hard, but enjoyed life for almost a decade, before the word came.

The day Aunt Judy found the letter in the mailbox from the United States government, she cried as hard as she did the day she buried her only child. Uncle Sam wanted their land and would pay them a fair price, but they must move out within a few months.

In the early 1950s, Colonel A. E. Dubber, fulfilling his duties, after a two-year search, chose a site in Dougherty County, Albany, Georgia for the Marine Corps Logistics Base. The Cold War was on between the Soviet Union and the United States, and defense building was in high gear.

Uncle Jimmy’s lined face creased even deeper with the sorrow and frustration he felt. “It’s not the money,” he said. “It’s just it ain’t fair to make us leave our home. We’ll have to start all over.”

Their hearts and souls were imbedded in the land, the pond, the barn, the house and everything that made the place special to them. They wanted to live there until death carried them away.

Around our dinner table we talked of nothing else but the impending move. Where would they go? Would they be able to find another piece of rich land on which to plant crops? I was young, but the worry in my father’s face and the hurt in Mother’s voice were enough to impress on me the darkness of the situation.

“Can we still go see Aunt Judy?” I asked. Not only would I miss her pies, but also the twinkle in her blue eyes behind her sparkling spectacles. I’d miss Uncle Jimmy’s tales of long ago when he was a boy, growing up in Mitchell County, before all the children had to go to work in the new cotton mill.

In time, we all had to accept the fact that we could no longer walk down the road to visit our dear kin. The largest Marine Base east of the Mississippi took over 3,000 acres of forest and farm land like Uncle Jimmy’s. The base was commissioned on March 1, 1952. Bulldozers razed the cinder-block house and the outside buildings. Within months the years of sweat and hard work vanished like a mirage in the desert.

Aunt Judy and Uncle Jimmy made a new start on land 10 miles away just off Highway 82. The fields were hard and rocky, not fertile and easy to plow. The aging couple found the work of rebuilding too much to handle alone. The planting and harvesting required hiring of laborers. Even though Aunt Judy helped with milking, the chickens and even stringing fence, they failed to make a profit. Uncle Jimmy went back to the mill. Aunt Judy fell into a deep depression.

Like the loss of a spouse or a loved one, the loss of their farm grieved this couple and brought on mental and physical distress.

Her anger and pain grew into an unreasonable paranoia. She made accusations against Uncle Jimmy. She thought he had found someone else. She complained to Mother.

I can still hear my mother’s soothing voice, “Judy, you know that’s not true. All he does is go to work every day and come straight home to you.”

Gay and I ate at the same oil-cloth covered table, while Mother tried to comfort my crying aunt. The pie never seemed as tasty in the new kitchen, probably because of the lump in my throat.

Uncle Jimmy died of a heart attack when he was 63 years old, never having restored his dream of being his own boss and making a living for his wife on their own farm.

My father lost trust in the federal government, even though it was a federal farm loan that helped him get his start. Today old people and families are forced to give up their homes for the building of manufacturing plants, big box stores or commercial developments. We hear this action is for the betterment of the community or these changes will help the economy of the area. Some fight it, but they always lose. Personal sacrificing for the good of the majority is to be commended, I suppose. But my heart aches

for the helpless people just as it did when I was a child and witnessed the devastation of the dreams of our neighbors and friends.

It could have been our farm that was seized back in 1952. We were just lucky. We lived on the other side of the road.