Monday, June 26, 2017

Grandpa's Autograph Book (1939) Sgt. Roy William White

Decades before the coin was termed, “social media” was a very intimate-scale personal affair: phone calls, letters-and one I only uncovered recently: “Autograph Books.” Do you know of them? I don’t necessarily means ones full of the signatures of the famous, though any average person might’ve mused one day their book might contain one or two of those. (Now, you get a “selfie”-we’ll explore early selfies with the famous in a big way in a near-future column about chauffeur Jim Hall.) It’s a small book filled with light-hearted sayings and memories of people you know. The best comparison is a yearbook. As mine were carelessly left to be water-damaged, I see something precious about this common but personal snapshot of one’s young life, and the days gone by it embodies.

I have one owned by my Grandpa White, and it’s mostly filled with classmates, and given the deeply religious culture of his schooling, I anticipate finding encouraging words from preachers, too. June 26th
1917 is his birth date, so if he were alive today, he’d be 100 years old Monday. So our journey today is through a life that began a century ago!

First, I’ll share him as I knew, an industrious man who rifled through the same stock of jokes like “Pete and Re-Pete sat on a log” and the two crooks holding up a joint to share with his grand kids while running the community hardware store, as he also cared for his wife in her dementia. He was my neighbor for ten years, and I grew up working his garden with him and our entire small family, busier playing pretend (put to good use as a fiction writer now) than learning his tool-handy practicality in the shed. He canned pressure-cooked vegetables and swapped copious bags of raw veggies with neighbors. Paw Paw drove me past many houses he’d helped insulate in Rome, working in the Hufstetler family business. His last 13 years of working life, he got his American dream, walking from the house he owned in the country across a small road and a wooden plank, hidden in the hickory bushes astride a small ditch, along a path leading past their greenhouse to his very own Shannon Supply Hardware Store (and Dot’s Variety), where he stocked home improvement tools and talked to the community about what needed fixing today.

He taught me to sing “It ain’t gonna rain no more/ well it ain’t gonna rain no more/ how the heck can I wash my neck?/ it ain’t gonna rain no more!” I borrowed its tune for the earliest existing ditty my sister and I made up, for walking our fingers up our dog Brandy’s haunches til she’d snap. He would gear up for a laugh with a sound like a lawnmower trying to start, punctuated by a two-note exclamation of joy! He taught me to whittle wooden missiles to stuff with long grass and spin up into the air, dashing their points into the lawn.

He was the secretary who took the message at Fort Benning that President Woodrow Wilson’s wife had died, as he put his skills to use from Bob Jones University for the U.S. Army during The Big One. That’s contrary to his bloody personal combat atop a cliffside versus five Japanese soldiers, for anyone who heard that tale one day at lunch in second grade. He’d vacation in Pensecola and later, at Fall Creek Falls in Tennessee, and otherwise lived a Christian life that ended each night with Bible readings. He would not have remotely approved of either major Presidential candidate last year, but didn’t seem very political. He enjoyed the Atlanta Braves and TV Programs like The Waltons, 60 Minutes, Lawrence Welk, M*A*S*H and The Price Is Right, a.k.a. Screamin’ Women. He gave us an acre for a penny and helped us finance and improve our first trailer when I was nine. He would greatly approve, in principle, of me writing, as he and Aunt Linda provided me my very first type writer, a relic from her own college years I think, and allowed me to type my comic book plots on the same black number he used for his genealogy pages. He attended Grace Bible Baptist Church his entire adult life, and as detailed in my grandmother Dorothy’s diary, that’s where they met and began dating -at her family’s home- before he was whisked away to New Jersey for basic training at Fort Dix. They married three days after his birthday in 1942!

That diary, shared by my mother Brenda Faye White Disharoon, speaks to an interesting point about our personal effects being left behind after we no longer need them. There’s a chastity to her words and their entire culture that I didn’t realize at the time was not uncommon, but still a bit remarkable for their time. There’s also glimpses of her personal world and friendships, including the one with my grandfather. Sadly, the diary ends before they wed, so I mostly only have stories from the viewpoint of their daughters. My main document from my grandfather was the dry, census-like genealogy he composed throughout his retirement years, appropriate, as it was gleaned from cemeteries and census records.

Nearly one hundred years after he was born, what I imagined to be a cherished personal effect came into my hands: the one document of his relationships with the people he befriended after selling his car and leaving the farm so he could achieve a then-rare college education in Cleveland Tennessee.
Roy William White’s autograph book, its cover a rich forest green that’s nearly blue in sunlight, bound by a string, opens with an floral illustration of baby’s breath framing the words: To Keep My Friends Is My Delight, So In This Book, I Pray You’ll Write. I can tell he was young and excited to have it.
He wrote Bob Jones College and Cleveland, Tenn 1939 in diagonal cursive shooting around both sides of a drawing of a feather in an inkwell beneath the framed quote. It’s Made In The U.S.A.

The first signature dates November 19th, 1939. Dot Edwards of Eastman, Georgia, expresses her joy at writing on the first page, says she’s enjoyed knowing him, wishes him success, and : “Remember our N_ _ _ _ episodes!” What do you think that was? Why the bit of mischievous code? There is at least one earlier date, but for some reason, Dot got the first page. Was there some woo pitched somewhere?

The next one’s the day before, headed with Romans 8:18- it was the practice to have at least one favorite Bible verse, if not several for various occasions- containing a pair of simple cartoon hands, beside an arrow stating: “Remember shorthand!!!” We’ll hear from, as one signer calls it, “fellow sufferers of shorthand class” in this booklet. A saying: “Long may you live, long may you tarry, love who you please but mind who you marry.” (my policy) Humorously, beneath it’s a paragraph that begins: “I must say before I close, I have and am enjoying your friendship very much. You will never know how much I really do appreciate it. It is one of the many things I have here in B.J.C. which is very dear to me. Thanks. May we always know each other. Hazel Flynn I wonder: did they somehow keep touch? There’s a special optimism when we are young and bond with people on the road from home, when we’ve had a memorable time. It’s remarkable how we hope to stay in touch.

Hazel pops up on a second page at the back on 11/18/39, too. It’s reminiscent of grade school humor:
I have always been told never be a pig so I’ll be a hog and use two pages. So: Way back here out of sight, I sign my name just for spite. Yours til the Statue of Liberty does the Black Bottom down the Mississippi River. Hazel Flynn, alias half-pint.

John L. Edwards of Menlo admires Roy’s struggle to come attend school- which required not only selling the car but also a special school loan he worked off, when “so many don’t care”- his diligence, and his ability to stay “in the center of God’s Will.” He hopes when “we’re out in this Old World, separated by hundreds of miles probably, I hope we’ll remain pals in Him.”

After a signature from May, 1940, where most other signatures originate- most likely, his last year there-Holland Thomas in November 1939 also admires his determination. He assures him ‘the best kind of life, Roy, is a humble Christian life consecrated to God.’ The page before simply says: “remember all things in Life are a gamble-except Life in Christ.” I think Lindsay’s last name is Gimble- lots of cursive, a skill I think is no longer commonly taught. Remember BJC is still,and was then, one of the nation’s biggest and most fundamentalist Bible colleges, which is to say it’s a training ground for future church administrators, seminarians, personnel, but also, Christians who want some career education in a religious social setting. True to this, the booklet’s full of Christian messages. OF course, their classmates were also going to see anything signed here, too.

Anne Gasaway tells him she hasn’t known him long but leaves a nice, long message. Paw Paw made sure to attribute her name. Laura Prescott promises to remember him as a kind and thoughtful friend while she was “a ‘measly’ thing in the hospital.” At the end of an even longer signing, she also leaves her address. So does Winston M. Broome, another fellow survivor of Shorthand, who remembers their good times together and signs himself :“Winnie” or “Pluto.” He makes with the witty repartee like no one else, teasing him about having to sign the book, period, much less not letting him use shorthand- “but I loves ya just the same.” Job 2:20.

Daisy Bell P.S.’s Paw Paw to “remember Laura, Hazel and the Broome Mates!” Quite punny.
His actual roommate Bob leaves him a quote from Bob Jones, Sr.- the school’s founder.
Kzrl Keefer’s here, too, offering prayers and wishes for “a mighty fine roommate.” He leaves Isaiah 26:3, his home address, and heads it up with: “When the Outlook is Dark, find the Up Look.”

A Mary Kaye Sanders recalls them sitting at “the table”- a recurrent mention, some type of approved social gathering at a college that didn’t allow mixed genders to visit their segregated dorms-and along with a quote, writes in tiny cursive about how they sat for three weeks at the Table without saying a word to each other. A Marian Sanders remembers that table as much more of a “riot of a good time.”

It’s a pleasant image, is it not: to picture a Heaven where all these friends can find one another again and enjoy Roy White’s birthday party in that timeless place?

There’ s so many more, especially from May, 1940. I think their entire outlook on life was very different than you often find today, from a much less worldly people.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into one man’s book of memories of simpler times. Thanks for hanging on to it...and happy birthday, Paw Paw.

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