There was virtually no work to be had for Papa in Berea, KY, so he had to remain behind in Lee County as long as his job lasted. But at no time, then or later, did he fail to provide for his family, as best he could. Mama, especially, bore a heavy burden, trying to provide shelter and sustenance for her children, while coping with an increasingly serious problem with her left kidney.
When we first moved to Berea, the best affordable housing Mama could find was a flat above a shop a stone’s throw or so away from the public school. Life was hard for Mama there, but convenient for us children.
For the first time, Ralph had excellent teachers. Donnie quickly made a lot of friends, and developed here his ability for “horse trading.” On one of his trades, he came into possession of a decrepit Barlow knife, and thru a series of trades, wound up with a dismantled bicycle, which he put together, and learned to ride. In all his trades, he somehow managed to make his partner believe that he was getting the better of the deal, and left him feeling happy.
Ruth’s inclination toward scholastic achievement took form here. My own proclivity toward prowess in spelling reached fulfillment with one of my teachers. She had weekly spelling bees, and I quickly climbed to the top of the line, and held onto it for so long that she had to make a ruling that after two or three times, the head person got demoted to the foot of the class, and had to start over.
It usually didn’t take me more than one session to work back up to the head of the line. One time the boy next to me tried to bribe me to misspell a word so he could be top boy, but I somehow just couldn’t make myself do it. That love for spelling went back to my second grade teacher, who singled me out and gave me such a superb start.
Two of the huskier boys in the school used to get on one of the playground swings, facing each other, and pump up momentum until, with one super surge, they would go up and over the top bar. They tried to get me to do it also, but I didn’t figure I had the weight – or the guts – to do it, so I declined. They later became daredevil riders on the bobsled and motorcycle riding in a dome.
I only completed the seventh grade there, and my teacher persuaded me to take the county exams for graduation that were held in Richmond. I passed them, and so went to the [Berea College run] Academy the next year.
Around the time I entered the Academy, the family moved to a ramshackle house on the east side of town. It belonged to a friend Mama made in the church, and she made it affordable for us. It was two story, with outside plumbing, and we had to get our water from the pump of a house two doors north.
But it had a nice woodshed, and a fenced lot where we could raise chickens. The owner had a son my same age, and we became the fastest of friends. While we lived in that house, Papa lost his job, because the oil field in Lee County was playing out.
Uncle Charlie, Aunt Emma and Grandma had left for a new oilfield in Wyoming, so Papa came home long enough to size up his chances in Berea, and finding nothing there, tried to persuade Mama to move with him to Wyoming. But Mama could not have endured another move of that magnitude even if she had wanted to. And she didn’t want to; she had assured her children the opportunity for a good education, and adequate medical care for herself. So Papa went off to Wyoming alone.
Meanwhile, Mama had obtained a part-time job as housekeeper for the Churchill family, who had moved to Berea from British India, and established a weaving establishment, The Churchill Weavers, using the high-speed hand looms that he designed and patented.
Not too long afterward, Mama’s kidney problem got so bad she had to go to the hospital and have it removed. The doctor said he almost had to cut her in two to do the job, and there was an anxious week or two when we didn’t know whether Mama would survive. All the time her only concern was, “what will become of my children?” But she survived, and so did we.
Charles Howard Hopkins