I rode the range with Gene Autry, Hop along Cassidy and Roy Rogers when I was a child. I was invisible to them, but they were ever-so-visible to me. We had many brushes with outlaws and some very narrow escapes. They liked me because I was the “fastest draw” on Back Bay of Biloxi, or so I thought. On occasion Gene, Hoppy and Roy even listened to my advice, which was more than my parents did for their five-going-on six year old son.
My favorite horse was named “Trigger.” I named him after Roy’s. He was a golden palomino with a flowing mane and I rode him all around the yards, warehouses and shipyards that surrounded our oyster shell pile home on the shoreline of the bay. We enjoyed one adventure after another. I tied him up every night next to my bed for ‘he’ was one of my Mom’s old worn-out yellow mop handles. He was a good horse and I really missed him when he mysteriously disappeared one day after the trash men passed by. The time was the early 1950’s, my Dad was foreman of the Dorgan-McPhillips Canning Company in Biloxi and my Mom worked picking shellfish for the Southern Shell Seafood Company. They both put in long, hard hours for relatively little pay. That was the circumstance back then for most everyone. We never counted ourselves as poor because most people were in the same shape. Even if we had nothing at all, my folks never would have called themselves poor. It was a matter of pride. My blue jeans were not generally blue by the time I inherited them from my cousins, and my Mom often made my shirts.
Anyway, during this period, my folks on a shipping trip in town bought a big cotton sack of flour at the A&P (Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) food store on Howard Avenue. I remember first seeing it and noting what a wonderful sack it was. It was mustard yellow and had cowboy scenes imprinted all over it. I was in cowboy heaven! I did not think that we would ever eat that sack of flour down. My Mom was locally famous for her cooking and particularly her large “cathead” biscuits and I was demanding them for every meal. I doubt if in the history of the world that there was ever a gradually emptying flour sack watched so closely. I hardly ever wore a shirt and shoes, but I wanted a shirt out of that sack more than anything in the world. The day finally arrived when the last biscuit was eaten out of that cotton sack.
Mom’s work schedule began long before dawn and generally ended very late, sometimes after dark. Twelve and fourteen hour days were not uncommon for either her or Dad when the factory lines were operating. She must have really been tired when she cut out the pattern to make me that shirt. I did not see her do it because I was nestled cozily in bed for a good night’s sleep after a hard day of play. When I awoke and discovered the shirt that my Mom had lovingly made I was ecstatic. I immediately put it on and to my horror discovered that the cowboys were all upside-down except on the sleeves. I pitched an infantile fit, but it was all to no avail. Nothing could be done and I defiantly pronounced that I would never wear it!
Well, I was blessed with two loving, caring parents. Most times their love took form in words of wise council; sometimes it took the form of a switch or leather strap. I was never brutalized, but I did see the error of my childish ways and “the light” whenever it was necessary. I wore that shirt under duress and it caused me more than one childhood scrape with my buddies and cousins, but looking back it was the most special shirt that I have ever worn in my life. My precious Mother had made it for me in the late hours of the night when her tired body told her to rest, but her love pushed her on.
Editor’s Note: This post is Extracted from The Button Jar, Memories of My Childhood on Back Bay of Biloxi by H. Grady Howell, Jr. H. Grady Howell, Jr. has published 19 nonfiction books referencing Mississippi Civil and Mexican War history as well as a pictorial history of Jackson, MS entitled Chimneyville. Both he and his wife, Gail, reside in Madison, MS. You can contact Grady at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org