“A few of the older students transformed one of our favorite games, Fox and Hounds, into Get the Democrats. The game didn’t bear that name, but its object was to chase, catch, and then pound on or kick the son of a Democrat. The Idol, Wellborn, Moretz, and Hardin boys were sons of Yellow Dog Democrats. One or two sons of the Greene family were also, but the boys most often hounded were the Idols and Wellborns.” John Idol, from “Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains”
Out to Pastoral
By John Idol
Note: The following chapters from John L. Idol, Jr’s “Deep Gap Days” take up his continuing Blue Ridge Mountain sage where, More Boyhood Tales from The Great Blue Ridge Mountains, left off.
BURLINGTON North Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—2/18/2013—
Going to War
Puppy love not being lasting in our cases, my rival and I joined our classmates in taking on military airs and titles, assigning ourselves ranks and endorsing our homework with such ranks as Master Sergeant, Captain, Major, and Colonel.
No one ever moved up the chain of command as swiftly as we did. We all received rapid promotions, though we never elevated ourselves to General, perhaps not wanting to load ourselves with too much responsibility.
We tried to do our bit to help the war effort. The school put on a drive to round up scrap metal—parts of plows, harrows, rakes, cars, stoves, whatever we could find and lug to school or have parents bring in by car or truck. At intervals a flat-bed truck appeared to carry off our collection. If we wanted to do
more to help our soldiers win, we could remove the thin sheets of wrapping from chewing gum and form them into a ball.
Each day we watched the ball grow larger, from golf-ball size to the girth of a softball. How proud we were when it reached that size, for it could be carted off with the heavy stuff and put to use in bringing down Hitler and Tojo. In our love for things martial, we sometimes marched in formation at recess, using old brooms, broken mop sticks, or hand-carved rifles for our weapons.
To show the medals we’d won for our bravery, we removed corks from the caps of soda bottles, pressed the cap against our shirts as we held the cork behind the cap. The result was a shiny medal, the more we wore, the prouder we were. We could not imagine a braver, more celebrated corps of soldiers anywhere in the nation, at least among fourth and fifth graders.
We did not know, until many, many years later, that the scrap metal and balls of gum wrappers had likely not gone to war. Instead, all that collecting was a plan to engage school children in the war effort, to make them feel they were contributing.
A Trial and a Switching
Instead of having to focus on events in the European or Asian theaters, I faced the need of fighting my own battle to defend my good name. That I had to wage it came as a complete surprise. One day I was told to report to the classroom where the principal, Tommy Thompson, was teaching a class of seventh graders, among whom was Mary Sue Greer, my first cousin.
Standing near the principal’s desk when I nervously walked in were two other cousins, C. B. Watson and B. L. Greene. I had no idea why they were there. Momentarily, I saw I was on trial and that they had been called to testify against me.
“Now, tell me,” said Mr. Thompson, “why you think Johnny Idol broke the eggs in the nest near your house, C. B.”
Looking at the principal rather than at me, C. B. said, “A few days ago as B. L. and Johnny and me was walking home after school, a hen run from a hidin’ place beside the road and headed for a patch of weeds. The three of us looked at the spot she had ran from and saw a nes’ of about a half dozen eggs.”
“Is that right, B. L.? Now tell the truth.”
“Yes, that’s right. We all saw where she come from and where she a-headin’.”
“What happened then?” asked the principal.
“We walked on towards home,” said B. L.
“And then what happened, C. B?”
“Well, two days later as B. L. and me come to school together, we stopped to check on the hen and her eggs. She was gone and the eggs was all broke.”
“Is that right, B. L.?”
“Yes, sir, all of them was broke.”
“Ever’ las’ one on ‘em was broke,” C. B. added.
“Now, tell me,” said the principal, “who broke them? Did you see anybody break them?”
“No, sir,” both blurted out, “but we knowed it mus’ have been Johnny since he was the only other boy who knowed where the nes’ was.”
I then clearly saw what lay ahead and, despite my bashfulness, said stoutly, “I didn’t break no eggs. They’re right in sayin’ I knowed where the nes’ was, but I didn’t bother the hen after we saw her and I didn’t break no eggs.”
Mr. Thompson wrinkled his brow, removed his glasses, and said, staring straight at me. “Seems like, Johnny, we have a problem here. You knew where the nest was and B. L. and C. B. say that no one else knew where it was.”
“It wasn’t me that broke ‘em,” I whispered, now barely able to speak because of my embarrassment. I now knew what was coming, a switching, and I didn’t want Mary Sue to see me get one. She knew I was incapable of smashing eggs.
“You know, Johnny,” the principal said, “that it’s your word against B. L.’s and C. B.’s, and they are sure you’re the one that did it.”
“But, I didn’t,” I protested. But to no avail. I was told to place my hands on a nearby chair and to lean over. I then got my first and only spanking at Deep Gap Elementary School, four or five lashes with a hickory switch. I left the room angry and in tears.
I got another switching at home, for Lane had told us, “If you get a spanking at school, you’ll get one at home, too.”
That double spanking fired me up for revenge. It came a few days later as I walked home with B. L.
“You know,” I said, “I didn’t have nothin’ to do with that nes’ except to see it when you and C. B. did. Why did you say I broke them eggs?”
“Ain’t nobody else could have,” he retorted.
“There’s a dozen or more kids who passed by that nes’ every day on their way to school and back,” I said. “Any one of them might have did it,” I barked. “You told a lie on me,” I added. “You’re a liar if you say I did.”
“Ain’t no liar,” he said.
“Yes, you are,” I shot back. “A bold-faced liar if I ever saw one.”
With that, he flung down his books and assumed a boxer’s stance. I flung mine aside as well and put up my fists. We swung at each other, his intended blow missing, mine landing solidly on his chin. He toppled backward and fell to the shoulder of the highway. I left him there and rushed on home.
The next day we resumed our cordial relationship and nothing more was ever said about the hen, her eggs, or our fight. I felt vindicated, but I never forgave Mr. Thompson for whipping me in front of my cousin on circumstantial evidence.
Even now, it galls me to think of the rush to judgment that led to my switching, my double switching.
A Politicized Playground
Nobody ever got a switching for it, but if I had tattled to my teachers or told Lane about how the sons of Republican parents treated my brothers and me, some butts or ears would have burned. A few of the older students transformed one of our favorite games, Fox and Hounds, into Get the Democrats.
The game didn’t bear that name, but its object was to chase, catch, and then pound on or kick the son of a Democrat. The Idol, Wellborn, Moretz, and Hardin boys were sons of Yellow Dog Democrats.
One or two sons of the Greene family were also, but the boys most often hounded were the Idols and Wellborns.
The sons of Republicans were from the Watson, Greer, Miller, and Greene families. Before classes, at recess, during lunch hour, and after school the ugly game went on.
It originated when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected for a third term. Not the president himself was the problem. Instead, it was Eleanor, whose stand on rights of Blacks infuriated the local Republicans. A derogatory term, “Breadnigger,” came into use to denounce anyone who voted for Roosevelt. Sons of Republicans quickly picked up the word and began throwing it into the face of a few of us scions of Democrats [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger].
The game usually began by a taunt: “Watch out, you Breadnigger, We’re goin’ to git you.”
“Ain’t no Breadnigger!”
“Yeah, you are. Your Daddy voted for Mrs. Roosevelt, and she’s a nigger lover.”
“That don’t make me no nigger lover!”
“It does, and you ain’t nothin’ but a Breadnigger!”
I, for one, didn’t know what the term really meant, but I didn’t like the sound of it. Neither did Junior or Paul Wellborn, Aunt Clemmie’s sons. “You stop callin’ us Breadniggers!” we shouted.
“Nothin’ but a Breadnigger,” they shot back. Shouts turned to blows or intended blows, and then the chase began, we Democrats becoming the foxes, the Republican the hounds.
When they caught us they returned many blows for the ones we’d landed or tried to land, and they kicked us. A few times, as I left the school ground for home, some of them threw rocks at me. “Git on home, you Breadnigger; you ain’t nothin’ but a Breadnigger!”
One day when the game had turned uglier than usual and the Republicans were kicking us and screaming “Breadnigger,” an older student, Max Hardin, the son of another Yellow Dog Democrat, saw and heard what was going on.
He came over and broke us up. “What’s goin’ on here?” he asked.
“Jus’ a little game of Fox and Hounds,” said one of the Republicans.
“Ain’t neither,” they’re kickin’ us because we’re Democrats.”
“We don’t like no Breadniggers, one of them said. “They’re all nigger lovers like Mrs. Roosevelt.”
“You leave them boys alone,” said Max, “or I’m goin’ to whip ever’ las’ one of you, you hear? I’m goin’ to keep an eye on you and if you start somethin’ like this agin, I’ll whip you for sure.”
His threat worked. The chase of Fox and Hounds returned to what it was before being politicized, but the term “Breadnigger” persisted as long as I remained a student at Deep Gap Elementary. When I went on to the eighth grade in Boone, I never heard the word spoken again. I don’t know whether the word ever found its way into a dictionary.
If the term was a creation of some kid at Deep Gap Elementary, it stood among rare company, especially if it made its way into the vocabulary of children from far back on Wildcat Road or from down in Elk or Triplett. Here were located isolated families, whose speech more nearly matched that of 18th– rather than 20th-century speakers. Those of us who’d grown up in families living close to US 421 had heard our grandparents or great grandparents use some old-fashioned words and phrases,
but we were surprised to hear our contemporaries express themselves in some of the following ways:
“I mought’ve holped ‘im if he hadda axed me. Atter all, I holped him pick beans las’ year and was a-willin’ to do hit agin.”
“That air boy from Stoney Fork jined the church las’ night. I reckon he was a-feered that the devil was a-goin’ to git ‘im if he didn’t jine.”
“My daddy went to Boone for to buy me a pair of shoes.”
“Me an’ her wasn’t the ones, I swear to you.”
“I mought have knowed you wasn’t goin’ to choose me for your team.”
“Them there girls air fixin’ to tell on us.”
“It ain’t nobody’s fault but theirs; they got theirselves in a fix and ain’t nobody a-goin’ for to help ‘em.”
“I done the bes’ I could on the test, but the teacher she taken off points for my misspellin’s.”
“No, thanks; I done et.”
“My uncle, he larned me everythin’ I know about fishin.’”
“You’uns come see us now—we ain’t seed ye fur a long time.”
“We’uns aim to—we been fixin’ to come over ever so offen, but we ain’t got ‘round to hit.”
“I got me a new pair of skates for Christmas.”
“I knowed we wuz a-fixin’ to get a whippin’ fur not keepin’ our deskes clean.”
And out of ignorance of what fancy language described testicles, we complained about the teachers’ testes being too hard. As some of us grew old enough to read about the male anatomy, a few snickers arose when one of our classmates whined about “hard testes.”
One of the most frequent users of “that air,” B. M. Miller, came to be identified by that expression. “That air B. M.” we called him. He had the habit of beginning many sentences with those words—“That air feller is helpin’ my dad fix his Model T.”
Or “That air girl has the prettiest curls you ever seed.”
Because of my none-too-polite effort to correct the speech of these backwoods kids, I got the name “Professor,” later clipped to simply, “Fess.” The title came not from one of the kids but from one of the parents. I suppose he grew tired of my hyper-corrections and wanted to speak, and have his children
speak, in ways that were natural to him and to them. When, much later, I studied features of American English, I came to realize how fortunate I was to hear the speech of an earlier time. I had been ear-witness to a time in American speech before dialectic differences began to fade and disappear under the force of homogenization.
Editor’s Note: Both Dr. John Idol and descend from generations of Upstate North and South Carolinian forebears but I, who was born in 1951, moved to California shortly thereafter and so first heard the still gravely offensive term “Nigger” from my South Carolina relatives’ lips in the late 1950s and early 60s. Dr. Idol, who grew up among the almost totally Scots-Irish residents of the Great Blue Ridge, would have heard the term rarely there, in childhood, but it was prevalent in the South I visited in my early teens, and enraged me so that I would storm out of any room where an aunt or uncle used the pejorative. The term to which Dr. Idol refers here, “Breadnigger,” as a pejorative taunt aimed at “Yellow Dog Democrats,” is completely unknown to me, and I have been unable to determine an origin.