Life on the farm in the ‘20s was difficult. Life on the farm is always arduous work; it’s a family vocation; it starts at daybreak and it never stops until bedtime. At fourteen years old, boys are expected to do any job that a man can do. Before school, it was milking the cows and feeding the animals. After school it was usually field work; plowing behind a mule, planting, hoeing, harvesting, cleaning and do it again tomorrow.
By the time Nate was fifteen, he and his brothers Jim and Buck knew everything about farm work. “John Russel’s” name had been changed to the nickname “Buck” either because he was always trying to ride every horse and mule on the farm or possibly named after Buck Rodgers a popular cowboy on the Saturday movies. Bobbie Jeane, who later preferred “B.J.” as a moniker, was the oldest girl. When she was twelve years old, she started cooking a pan of 32 biscuits from scratch every morning for breakfast.
Because of the unceasing labor, it was not unusual, in fact, it was usual, for the teenage boys to be unhappy with their situation. When Nate was about fifteen, he became angry enough one day that he decided to leave home. Late in the evening, Jim came to his father to tell him that Nate had packed and left. He took his father to the window and they could see Nate walking across the field in the dark. Since they had no luggage Nate pushed his clothes into a pillowcase and they could see the white case, carried over his shoulder, from a long way off in the moonlight.
Juby looked at Jake and said: “What are you going to do?” “Nothing” was the reply and then some mumbled garbled words. “What did you say?” “I said like father like son.” “And what does that mean?” “It means that I did the same thing when I was a teenager.” “You never told me that.” “Well, it was not my proudest moment, but it taught me a lesson.” “OK, now you have to tell me; and tell Jim and Buck too since they are awake.”
The story goes that Jake, whose real name was Willie B. Henderson, at 15 was unhappy about the hard work and no free time in his life so he left home with only 5 cents in his pocket. He hopped a freight train going south, getting off at the first stop in Florida to start a new life away from drudgery. Being hungry he walked into a local grocery store. A package of eight cinnamon buns was exactly 5 cents so he brought it to the register to pay, laying his nickel on the counter. A young girl took his money and rang up the sale, then looked at him curiously. “You’re not from around here are you?” “No,” he said, “I’m from Fitzgerald, Georgia.”
The young girl looked amazed, “Do you know Willie B. Henderson?” she asked. At this point he was not just amazed, he was dumbfounded. How could she know of him? Not willing to admit to his name he said, “Yes, I know him, how do you know him?” “Well, she replied, I don’t really know him, but my cousin Julie has been dating him and she wrote it to me in a letter.” Since Julie was a past girlfriend, Jake left the store as fast as he could and decided not to come back to that establishment. He walked outside of town, sat on a log, and ate the cinnamon buns. In his later memory, that was the best food he had ever eaten. He found a job at a local farm milking cows and caring for the herd, no different than what he had left behind. The story of the prodigal son was not lost on him, but he reasoned that the fortune he had left with was only a nickel. A month later he hopped another train headed north back to Fitzgerald. He was welcomed home. No fatted calf though.
Having finished telling this story to Juby, Jim, and Buck, he assured them that Nate was a smart boy and a good worker. He would be OK. And, God willing, he would someday return. Juby could not get his story out of her mind. She was slightly amused, asking: “Well, what did you learn from leaving home?” Jake smiled: “I learned that you can’t really get away from your past. And that I certainly could not get away from God.”
Three months later, on one of Jake’s Saturday trips to Land’s Crossing he took 4-year-old Peggy with him. When they returned Nate was with them. He was carrying Peggy who was holding tight to his neck. Peggy announced to the family: “I found my Nate, I found my Nate, I found my Nate.” I was never told where Nate went or what he did during these three months.
This is two stories in one, from two generations. I think that there may be a lesson somewhere in this for all of us.