Friday, June 19, 2009

The Hush Puppies Box - Part 1

I always called it "The Hush Puppies Box," because that's what it was -- a shoebox with a photo of the iconic bassett hound on the top. But what was inside wasn't shoes. Instead, the box contained artifacts of a life, as if everything about a person could be contained in something the size of a shoebox. Artifacts of a life. My father's life. He kept treasures in this shoebox.

The Hush Puppies Box disappeared by design a year ago or so, replaced by a proper, archives-quality storage box. The jumble of articles has been replaced by each item being carefully wrapped in acid-free paper or, in one case (a knife in a sheath from the Philippines), a silversmith's cloth.

He was born in 1916 in Jena, Louisiana. He had three sisters, all also born in Jena. A fourth sister died in childhood -- a vastly more common occurrence then than it is now. His father had been a land surveyor, at a time when you didn't need much training to do that. He had landed in Jena with his surveying crew, and stayed at a boardinghouse owned by my tobacco-chewing great-grandmother. Her 16-year-old daughter worked there, too. My grandfather was 26 at the time. They would be married for almost 46 years.

My father had been nameless for three months after his birth, because my grandparents couldn't agree on a name. My grandmother finally came up with "Glynn," reflecting either some Welsh heritage or the name of the county in Georgia rumored to be where the family landed from England. "Landed" might be too gentrified a word. "Dumped with the rest of the inmates from the debtors prisons" might be more accurate, if less romantic.

After a few years in Jena, the family moved to Shreveport, where my grandfather operated a small grocery store. Shreveport in the 1920s and 1930s (and well beyond) was a highly structured class society. My father's family fell into the part of the structure that might be called "lower middle class," a group that nearly fell out of the structure with the Great Depression. My father started Byrd High School in Shreveport in 1929 and graduated in 1933, likely the darkest year of the Depression. That he stayed in high school was nothing short of a miracle. And a dream.

He clung to this dream in high school, even as economic conditions worsened. The dream was this: he wanted to be a doctor. And he took Latin, which was something aspiring doctors did back then. But at Byrd High School, Latin was a class for the wealthy kids -- and here was this boy from the wrong side of the tracks memorizing amo, amat, amare with the rest of his class.

For Thanksgiving one year, the Latin classes organized a food basket drive for poor families. The baskets were delivered to every house on the block where my father lived.

Including his.

I can't even imagine what he must have felt. But the memory remained with him for the rest of his life.

The Depression ended the dream of college and medical school. After high school, my father went to work in the only business hiring at the time -- the oil business in East Texas. It was a dirty and often dangerous business. And there was this wannabe doctor becoming a real-life roughneck.

From the oilfields, he got a slightly better but still potentially dangerous job with the Shreveport Fire Department, helped, no doubt, by one of his brothers-in-law who worked for the department and would eventually become Shreveport's assistant fire chief. He left the Fire Department and joined the circulation department of the Shreveport Journal. This was a time when radical career changes seemed to be the norm, at least for my father. He stayed with the Journal for several years, even through the early period of World War II. And then he joined the Navy.

From this early period of my father's life, the Hush Puppies box contained only three items.

One is a 1941 copy of his birth certificate from 1916. His parents' names were James Lafayette Young and Martha Ann Valentine.

The second item was a big metal souvenir penny from Galveston Beach, a remembrance of a family vacation from 1921 when my father was five. The self-described "Lucky Penny" is dark gray, with an Indian head on one side and the inscription "Souvenir Penny of Galveston, Tex." on the other. My grandfather bought this for my father, and he treasured it, as much for the souvenir value as for the fact his father had bought it for him. More than 40 years later, his own family would take the same vacation, a pilgrimage of sorts to one of the happiest memories he had as a child. Galveston Beach was a lot dirtier and in no way resembled the memory of that vacation in 1921, but my father loved it anyway. Nothing could take away the magic of the Lucky Penny.

The third item was my grandfather's pocket watch. The crystal is cracked; the watch stopped at 5:25. On the back is a flowered engraving surrounding a small shield. Inside the shield is a "Y" for Young. The one time I can remember my father showing me the watch, he said it was one of his earliest memories of his father -- pulling the watch out of his pants pocket to check the time.

It's hard for me to think of my father as a child. Except when I hold the Lucky Penny and look at the pocket watch.

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