You Think You Can Whip Me?

Dad usually disciplined me and my brothers by whipping us with his belt although he knocked me down once when I was 13 or 14 with a right to my face because I was late coming home.  And I saw him wail on one of my brothers, Pop, with a crutch.

Part of the crutch story was told to me but I saw the wailing part with my own eyes.

Pop ran away from home when we lived on a farm near Gadsden, Alabama.  He was 15, 16 years old, about 1950. He went up to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to work in a cotton mill.

Charles T. (Pop) and John F. Stith Sr. (Dad) Christmas, 1960, about 10 years after the crutch incident.
Charles T. (Pop) Stith and John F. Stith Sr. (Dad), Christmas, 1960, about 10 years after the crutch incident.

Dad made some phone calls, figured out where he was, and sent my oldest brother, John, to bring him home. Dad would have gone himself but he was in the hospital, Jane Greer, one of my sisters, told me. According to the way I heard it, Dad broke a leg when the brakes on a coal truck failed and the truck went over the side of a mountain near Altoona, AL.  According to the way Jane remembers it, Dad was in a jeep that went over the side.  In any event, his leg was broken and he was in the hospital.

John and his wife, Mary, and Jane and her husband, who was also named John, went to Chattanooga, to the cotton mill, to get Pop. But he wouldn’t come.  Pop swung first and he and John fought, Jane said.  The police came and took Pop away, first to jail, and then to some sort of juvenile detention facility, she said.

The four of them drove back to Gadsden, Jane said, and my brother reported to Dad, who, like I said, was in the hospital.

According to Jane, Dad checked out of the hospital and hired an ambulance to take him, Brother John, and Jane’s John back to Chattanooga, about 90 miles.  They arrived at the juvenile detention facility after dark.

Dad identified himself to the fellow in charge and said he had come for his boy.  According to family lore the keeper said he couldn’t have him, that Pop had to go to court.

“You don’t understand,” Dad told the man.  “We’re not talking about whether I get my boy — I’m going to get him.  What we’re talking about,” pointing to John, “is whether he has to put you on the ground first.”

Now the keeper understood.  Dad got Pop and they rode back to Alabama, I was told, in silence.

I was there when they came in the farmhouse, into what we called the back living room.

“You think you can lick the old man now that I’ve got a broke leg, don’t you,” I heard Dad say to Pop.

“No sir,” Pop replied.

“You think you can, but you can’t.”

He leaned on one crutch, toss the other one in the air, caught it about a third of the way from the bottom, and commenced to whacking Pop with the crutch.

Postscript: Pop revered our father and imitated his mannerisms. Years later Pop and I were up at Snowbird, sitting by the fire outside the  cabin, when he told me: “If I go to hell it’ll be for idol-worshiping Dad.”

Coming Monday: Lucky’s Best Story



The [Sad] Carolers

It was 1961, my first –and only – Christmas away from my family and, surprise, surprise, I was doing just fine. In fact, in some ways it was turning into the best Christmas ever, completely free of stress.

USS Los Angeles (CA-135)
USS Los Angeles (CA-135)

I was in the Navy and my ship, U.S.S. Los Angeles [CA-135], was anchored in Victoria Bay, Hong Kong. I was 8,331 miles from my home in Charlotte, N.C.

Weeks earlier I had mailed Christmas presents to my girlfriend, now my wife, Donna Joy Hyland, including a Percy Faith album titled “Music of Christmas,” music she said she played over and over — still does.

Christmas in Hong Kong was going OK. For one thing, there’s not nearly as much work to be done in port and the crew was getting lots of liberty. I was going ashore almost every day. For another, my shipmates and I were all in the same boat, literally and figuratively – everyone was a long way from home, so why whine about it.

I was still OK on Christmas Eve until word was passed that Christmas carolers were approaching our ship.

Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.
Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.

I climbed a ladder to the main deck and saw a gaily lighted tug boat coming toward the L.A. There were a couple of dozen men and women on deck wearing sweaters and scarfs to ward off the chill. Hong Kong was a Crown colony then and these English men and women had come to serenade our ship, to cheer up the American sailors so far from home on Christmas Eve. The tug stopped 20 or 30 yards off our port side, cut its engine, and the carolers began to sing, acapella.

Those old, familiar songs drifting across the water did not cheer me up, quite the opposite. They made me profoundly homesick.

NOTE: Coming one week from today: Lucky’s Best Story.  You can read it, or watch and listen to a video.

Coming Friday: You Think You Can Whip Me?