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Back to the Future

On January 10th my dad will turn 93 years old. He is a member of “The GI Generation,” the oldest of the six living generations of Americans. Members of that generation are those born from 1901 to 1926. They were so named because they served as GI’s in World War II by the millions (16.1 million to be exact). That generation also grew up during the Great Depression and became known as the generation who saved the world and then built a nation. It was a generation with strong loyalty to jobs, groups, schools, church, and other institutions. Their motto was “use it up, fix it up, make it do, or do without.” They avoided debt and had a strong sense of personal civic duty – they voted. Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation.”

About 18 months ago, I sat down and talked with my dad about his youth. I wanted to hear his life story – the stuff I had never been interested in as a young man because I was too self-absorbed or because I foolishly thought, “I can ask him about that later.” I am very thankful he is still alive, and that I have had the opportunity to hear his story from his own lips. If your parents are still living, I highly recommend you doing the same. It honors them, and I promise you will learn interesting things you never knew.

My dad was born in January 1925 in Hayesville, Clay County, North Carolina. In 1920 the entire population of Clay County was 4,646 and it was one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. Although Hayesville was close by, he was actually born on an 80-acre farm in the small community of Elf which was about halfway between Hayesville and Shooting Creek. Elf had no traffic light and no post office (the post office closed in 1911), but it did have a one-room school house about a half mile down the road from my Dad’s farm. More about that later. When I asked Dad how it was growing up in the Great Depression, he responded; “We didn’t know there was a Great Depression. Nothing changed for us – we never had much before or after 1929 but we were content and happy.”

My dad was the sixth of nine brothers and sisters who all grew up in a 3-bedroom farm house with a tin roof and a single wood burning stove. They farmed and had only one outside source of income; my grandfather was a self-taught veterinarian and he would “doctor” livestock, charging 25 cents, or sometimes 50 for his work. It brought in enough money to purchase the only items that couldn’t be grown or produced on the farm: sugar, coffee, salt, flour, and cloth that my Grandmother used to sew clothes. Nearly everything else was produced on that 80-acre farm. They had no electricity until FDR’s New Deal dammed the Hiawassee River in 1942 taking all but 18 acres of my Grandfather’s farm. They never owned a car or even a tractor – they plowed with a mule. The refrigerator consisted of a “can-house” which was a 10’ by 10’ hole in the ground covered with a stone “house” with a small door that required a ladder to get in and out. It kept everything just cool enough to avoid spoilage.

In 1942, my Dad had just graduated from Hayesville High School. One of his class-mates had left Hayesville, along with his family, and settled in Canton, Ohio. He kept telling my Dad that he should come to Ohio. He said there were good paying jobs in the Canton defense plants. Convinced of good economic prospects, Dad borrowed $30 from a friend and made the 600-mile trip.

Getting from Hayesville, North Carolina to Canton, Ohio wasn’t easy in 1942. Dad took a local bus from Hayesville to Murphy, North Carolina. He changed buses and traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee on a Trailways bus. When he got off the bus in Chattanooga, he learned the bus to Cincinnati had already left, providing a several hours layover. Across the street, at the corner of Seventh and Cherry, was a restaurant called “Krystal” which served something called a hamburger for a nickel. My Dad had never seen a hamburger, much less tasted one. When the waiter behind the counter asked for his order, he pointed to the plate next to him and said, “I’ll have that.” After finishing two Krystals, he still had 3 hours before the next bus to Cincinnati, so he walked down to the Tivoli Theatre on Broad Street. The movie “Sargent York” was playing, so he bought a ticket and watched Gary Cooper in his academy award-winning role as Alvin York, the World War I hero from Pall Mall, Tennessee.

After the movie, he walked back up to the bus station and boarded the bus for Cincinnati. After traveling all night long, they arrived in Lexington, Kentucky for a short layover, where he ate breakfast before re-boarding the bus. After changing buses one final time, he arrived in Canton. In total he had ridden 4 different buses and traveled 600 miles over the course of two days.

Once he arrived in Canton the first order of business was employment. During World War II you had to have a work permit before you could apply for a job in a defense plant. He arrived at the permit office and completed the application. One of the questions was to describe his “prior employment” to which he responded, “Farming.” The person reviewing his application quickly shared the disappointing news that the war effort depended on farming and, by policy, defense plants were prohibited from hiring farmers.

Dad walked down the street and got a job at the local Woolworth’s making $4.25 per 10-hour day. A six-day work week produced the handsome sum of $25. Not exactly the “good wage” his classmate had used to convince him to move to Canton, but it was employment all the same.

After several months at Woolworths he received a letter from the Clay County, North Carolina Draft Board telling him he had 60 days to report to the Hayesville Induction Center. After sharing this news with the Woolworth’s manager, he rode the bus back to Hayesville. The induction office told him he was to report to Camp Croft in Spartanburg, South Carolina, an Army Infantry Replacement Training Center used to process draftees into the infantry. From Canton to Hayesville to Spartanburg he had logged another 750 miles on busses.

At Camp Croft he was evaluated for fitness and assigned a “4F” classification. 4F meant you had been rejected for military service because of physical, mental, or moral reasons. In my dad’s case it was because of scars on his back that resulted from an accident he had 7 years earlier as an 11-year-old boy. The school house in Elf caught fire one night in 1936, destroying the building. The next morning, as Dad and several other children were surveying the damage, one of the remaining walls of the school fell on Dad. Bricks hit him in the head and back knocking him unconscious. He woke up 10 days later in the Murphy, North Carolina hospital. In 1943, at Camp Croft, he still had the imprint of one of the bricks on his back, convincing the Army he was unfit for service.

If you haven’t already noticed, there is a recurring theme in this story. Yes, Dad left Camp Croft and took another 750-mile bus ride back to Canton by way of Hayesville. By the time he returned to Canton, his job at the Woolworths had been filled so he decided to apply for the same work permit that had been denied him the prior year. This time he declared his prior employment as “stock-boy” and, you guessed it, was immediately hired at the Timken Company working in their bearing plant making steel bearings for tanks. Finally, he was making that “good money” that had lured him away from the family farm in Hayesville.

When I heard my Dad tell this story, I was very surprised. Today, I live in Chattanooga and work about two blocks from the Tivoli Theatre where my Dad watched “Sargent York” in 1942. Many times, I have walked or driven by the old Krystal where he ate his first hamburger. Krystal was founded in Chattanooga in 1932 opening its very first restaurant at…. yes, the corner of Seventh and Cherry Streets. The building is no longer a Krystal but if I close my eyes and imagine, I see an 18-year-old boy from Hayesville, North Carolina sitting at the counter eating his first hamburger. As Burgess Patton sat at that counter he would never have imagined that 75 years later his son would be working a few blocks away.

So, as you can see, I have connections to Chattanooga I never knew I had until I asked my Dad that simple question, “Tell me about leaving the farm.” If you are blessed with living parents, I encourage you to sit down and ask them about their story. And to make the experience a little sweeter, use the voice memo utility on your smart phone and record the conversation. It will become a priceless family heirloom that will remind you wealth is so much more than money.

Bus ride anyone?

Jimmy Patton

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