Monday, June 9, 2014
EUGENE RAWLS (1900-1975)
I originally wrote this as an email to my sons. It's something of a memorial to my father.
My dad, Eugene Rawls, would have been 114 years old today. He was always called Gene. He was soft spoken, rather like my cousin Sully, and in Sully’s manner, was not reluctant to give you his opinion. He was genial to people he liked and had nothing to do with people he didn’t like. And once he formed an opinion of a person, he didn’t change it. He had a Rip VanWinkle quality of connecting with children.
He was about 5’10 inches tall and of stocky constitution. He was always a stout person. Even as a child, he had a barrel chest and big shoulders and hands. He never wore a ring because his fingers were so big. At least, that’s what he said, but I can’t imagine how a ring would work around tractors and farm equipment, which is where he spent a good deal of time. He wasn’t a person to eat to excess, but we had fattening foods. He ate the chunk of fat hogmeat Mom cooked in vegetables and ate fatback almost every day. It was what we had for meat.
He had a big, well-formed head and ears, had a big nose and, as long as I remember, wore glasses. He never had false teeth, but as he grew older he could have benefited from a partial plate. He always wore a hat, usually a sweat-stained felt fedora.
He had a horseshoe scar that covered the top of his bald head from an automobile accident when his car overturned in Sugar Bottom. His left hand also bore a prominent scar. His little finger and two next fingers were curled in and stiff from a shooting accident. He was taking a shotgun from the backseat of a car when it discharged and shot into his hand. I believe both accidents happened before he married.
As a younger man he played cards and drank -- was an alcoholic. I don’t remember when he gave up whiskey, but I suspect it was after his friend Ted Lawson died while in the hospital with DTs.
He wasn’t a stern disciplinarian, though he kept a switch behind the clock on the mantelpiece. I can remember getting rid of it at one time or another when he wasn’t around, probably with Nila’s help. Perhaps that’s why I once had to go to the yard and find a switch he used on me. Mom paddled with a flyswat which didn’t hurt much, but a switching was like fire on your legs.
He began to attend church when Mom started going to Pauline Church. That was when I was in high school. He liked to sing and had a beautiful bass voice. If he was about the house when Nila and I played the piano and sang hymns, he would sing with us.
He loved to fish. There were many times in summer when I drove him and his john boat to one bridge on Black Creek and, after a couple hours or so, picked him and the boat up at another bridge downstream. I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when he taught me to drive. We started on the tractor and moved up to the pickup.
One time when I was first driving with him beside me in the pickup, we came to a split in the road at Slim Lucas’s house. Both roads went to his house, but I couldn’t decide which to take and drove down the middle and slammed on brakes at the trunk of a tree. It threw Dad forward and he hit his head on the windshield. He didn’t really get angry, but he turned and said something like, “for heaven’s sake, make up your mind and take one road or the other.”
He liked to hunt and usually had a pack of beagle hounds, but not nearly as many as Uncle Mell. For the most part, I think he went rabbit hunting until Uncle Mell retired. Then the two of them went fox hunting.
He seemed content to live the life of his parents. He was close to his mother, brothers, and sisters. I can’t imagine him moving any distance from them. This is unlike my mother, who wanted a better life than that of her parents. She was close to her father, who had been an ambitious person.
Dad was in prison once, nine months I believe, in Petersburg, Virginia, for bootlegging whiskey. He felt that somebody had turned him in to the Feds, perhaps because many people made bootleg at the time, but he was the only one caught and convicted of it.
He married Mildred Shumpert when he was 39 years old. From my perspective, it seems an oil and water combination. Whatever their differences, they had to make-do with their deal after they had children, for neither of them had the financial resources to separate the family. He never complained about Mom, so I don’t know his feelings. However, Mom was so disappointed in Dad that, had I taken her advice, I’d never have married.
When I was nine years old, he had a heart attack and was in the hospital, probably Baptist Hospital in Columbia. He told the story of sitting in bed smoking a cigarette when the doctor visited and told him that smoking was going to be the end of him. He finished the cigarette and never smoked another, though he carried a half-pack in his pocket for another year.
His heart condition was a constant presence in our family. Dr. Brodie, the local doctor, told Mom that Dad would likely drop dead of a heart attack at any time. Dad lived another 23 years. I can remember him stopping work on the tractor, coming into the house, and lying on the bed because of chest pains. Sometimes his face was unnaturally red and he obviously didn’t feel well, but he didn’t talk about it.
My father was older than any of the fathers of my classmates, old enough to be my grandfather. However, he didn’t act old, and I never thought of him as old. He had a self-assurance that served him well regardless of his age. I miss him still. Time dulls the blow of his death--he died alone while my mom was at the laundromat--and experience teaches us to believe the obvious, that we all die.