The Gentle Strong Man

John Norman Johnson was the Sampson of my youth.

I don’t remember seeing him around when I was a boy — he was so much older, a friend of my brother, John, who was 16 years older than me.  But I remember the stories. They said he was a man of prodigious strength.

John Norman Johnson
John Norman Johnson

After WWII Mr. Johnson hauled coal for my Dad, from his mine at Altoona, AL.   One day when Mr. Johnson was coming down the mountain the dump truck he was driving got to going too fast and he braked, hard, and pulled back on the steering wheel. It came off in his hands — he pulled steering wheel off the steering column — or so they said.

When I got grown I finally got to meet Mr. Johnson.

Brother Pop was in the hospital in Birmingham and Brothers John, Dave, and I went to visit him.  John Norman Johnson lived in Birmingham and while we were there we went to see him, too. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found wasn’t it.

Looks like part of John Norman Johnson's collection to but, but dolls are at a B&B in England.
Looks like part of John Norman Johnson’s collection to me but, no, these dolls are guests of a B&B at Bourton-on-the-Water, England.

In Mr. Johnson’s home there were dolls everywhere. Dozens. Scores. Some were in display cases. Some were on shelves mounted to the walls. Every flat surface in that house on which a doll could stand or sit had a doll standing or sitting.

The strong man of my youth had become a collector of dolls.

Postscript: Later on, I’m told, Mr. Johnson tried to invent a candle that would burn for a year. While he was at church the candle he had concocted flared up and started a fire that destroyed his house — and his dolls.

Coming Monday: Have Some Carrot Cake

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