“My Pocketknife”

It took a couple of years longer than in other towns, but The Great Depression finally hit Oil City, Louisiana in 1932.  The price of oil plummeted and work ground to a stop.  They capped the wells and hauled the rigs away, to wait for better times.  In 1934, out of all other options, Lee Allen McLemore and his thirteen year old son Charlie hit the road looking for work, and like many others head west to California.

My Pocketknife
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Charlie and his father crawl up the embankment
Hidden by the bend they crouch and wait
The train’ll have to slow down maybe just enough
With any luck they’ll grab that freight

Charlie and his father left Oil City at dawn
Somethin’ called The Depression had arrived
Work was for the takin’ out in California
Pickin’ cotton under sunny skies

Long as I have my pocketknife
I’ll be alright, be alright
I can make it through the coldest night
Long as I have my pocketknife

Charlie and his father join a migrant army
Ride the rails with tramps an’ hoboes
Tent camps were jungles, danger everywhere
Do your best to hang on to your coat

Charlie and his father dodge a railroad bull
Hidin’ in the tender ’til he’s gone
A man was crumpled in the corner, frozen overnight
It’s a damp and cold L.A. dawn

Long as I have my pocketknife …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Charles Taylor “Charlie” McLemore (1921-2001)

Jake McLemore’s father was Charles Taylor “Charlie” McLemore.

Charlie grew up during the depression, traveling with his father, Lee Allen, on trains, with other hobos, with the putative goal of finding work. When the crash hit the oil industry, it took longer than for most other industries, but eventually the bottom fell out of the oil business in 1932. The wells were capped and the rigs hauled away, leaving the men who had depended upon the work stranded in small oil patch towns with no other opportunities for work. Many of them joined the large numbers of itinerant men riding the rails. Some looked for work but many had given up and made do as best they could.

But when we think of hobos riding in boxcars we don’t usually think of children doing the same thing. But when families had no money, little food and nothing on the horizon, they simply sent their children away to fend for themselves, as best they could.

“At the height of the Depression, as many as a million teenagers traveled the rails looking for work and community, moving in vagabond packs and living in hobo jungles, finding both charity and brutality in the broken-back cities of America. They crowded the cars and hid down in the tenders where the coal and water were stored; they squeezed between cars and clung atop their bucking roofs. In 1932, about 75 percent of the nearly six hundred thousand transients on the Southern Pacific line through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were under the age of twenty-five.”

“Fathers, and sometimes sons, stayed in the network of “jungles” along the route, tucked amid the timber and hidden from view. Each camp had its own division of labor—one person went into town to find a potato for soup while another brought salt or an extra spoon. Pots and pans hung from tree branches; crude shelters were made from cardboard or tin scrap and sometimes built up in the trees. Pocketknives were like gold in the jungles. Blades were “hired out” in exchange for soap or a bowl of stew. In a pinch, a knife could be traded for a pair of shoes or sold for cash. Men cooked possums and jackrabbits caught in snares along the brush lines and traded their hides for food.” (Mealer, Bryan. The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream. 2018.)

This was the kind of life Charlie McLemore lived during his childhood.

Charlie and his father worked picking cotton in California for a few weeks and also fruit when they could. They managed to work just enough to feed themselves, as well as, put a little aside. Eventually they got back to Oil City just as things were starting to come back.

By the time World War II started, and a need for oil exploded, Charlie was in his late teens. His father got work immediately at a refinery and from then on, the Lee McLemore family did okay.

Charlie went into the oil business as well, but oil was not the only resource product that supported the Oil City economy. Natural gas was even more abundant and Charlie got a job at United Gas Corporation, headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana, and moved his family there in 1960 a year after Jake was born.

Charlie worked at United Gas and survived the hostile takeover by Pennzoil in 1968, and became part of the management of Pennzoil United, Inc. He did pretty well, well enough to send his son Jake to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Retiring at the age of 70 in 1991, Charlie lived long enough to see Jake get married and have children.  Charles Taylor McLemore died in 2001 at the age of 80 from a heart attack a few months before 9/11, and several years before his grandson Lee’s death in 2004 in Iraq.

Despite surviving the Great Depression by riding the rails with his father, he was among the generation that experienced the economic boom after WWII.  Charlie McLemore saw nothing in his lifetime that undermined his faith in the American Dream.  A dream he lived out to the fullest.

Bessie Carson Grant (1932)

Bessie Carson Grant was born during the Great Depression to a bootlegger and his wife, pilot car driver Millie Carson Sparks. Shortly after Bessie was born Millie gradually made fewer and fewer trips running her husband’s contraband whiskey. But despite quitting the bootlegging life she still had to give testimony in the great whiskey trial of 1935, which she did with little Bessie on her lap, as a three year old toddler (see song, “Lucy’s Grandma on Her Momma’s Side“.

During the Great Depression, children suffered a lot. They no longer had the joys and freedoms of childhood, and often shared their parents’ burdens and issues on money. For Christmas and birthdays, very few children were able to have fancy toy. Some families made gifts themselves, but many others could not afford food at all. For most people, the only way to celebrate holidays with gifts, were to window-shop. Since children lacked food, they often suffered from malnutrition.

There are two schools of thought about the impact of the Great Depression on children. One school holds that the hard times left young people physically damaged and psychologically scarred. The other insists that the decade of dire want and desperate wandering served to strengthen their character and forge what became America’s “greatest generation” of the World War II era. In fact, children’s experience of the depression varied widely, depending on their age, race, sex, region, and individual family circumstances. Nevertheless, certain patterns have emerged. Demographically, birthrates fell during the decade to a low of 18 births per 1,000 population, and children’s health declined due to the poorer nutrition and health care available.

Economically, many children worked both inside and outside the home; girls babysat or cleaned house, boys hustled papers or shined shoes, and both ran errands and picked crops. Yet the scarcity of jobs led record numbers of children to remain in school longer. Socially, high school became a typical teenage experience for the first time. A record 65 percent of teens attended high school in 1936; they spent the better part of their days together, forming their own cliques and looking to each other for advice and approval. Thus arose the idea of a separate, teenage generation.

This is the sociological phenomenon that formed Bessie Grant. Yes, she was tempered in the crucible of economic hardship, but at the same time it caused her to develop an almost pathological concern for financial security. As an adult,a  mother and wife, Bessie was prone to be frugal to the point of denying herself and her family any kind of “luxury item,” which might include a book, or candy, or anything that might represent fun.

Gradually she softened up, especially once she came to trust on the capability of her husband Walter Calahan Walker who was a hard worked and good provider. While Bessie may have scrimped on her children, of which she had four, she doted on her grandchildren. Bessie’s children were often heard to jokingly complain about how she never allowed them such-and-such that she happily acquiesced to when it concerned one of her grandchildren.

Bessie’s favorite grandchild was Lucy Bess Cooper, the youngest girl of her second child, Mae Ella. When she found out what happened to Lucy, it broke her heart and she never forgave Mae Ella for keeping so much of Lucy’s life secret from her (see song, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison“).

Bessie has seen her children grow up and their children grow up into fine people. She enjoys helping Mae Ella raise Lucy’s boy, McCoy, the one Lucy had in prison (see song, “Lucy’s Grandma“).

After Walter passed away in 2001, Mae Ella invited Bessie to move in with her, which she did.