People, generally, do not believe me when I tell them that I can remember things in my life when I was two years old. "Nobody can remember that far back", they say. Well, I don't know about everyone else but I can remember events when I was two.
It was during the Second World War and three of our families were living with my Grandparents on Central Avenue in Tifton, GA. The house is gone now, but many of the memories are still vivid concerning those days. Having been born on November 23, 1941, two weeks to the day before Pearl Harbor, the events I remember from age two were probably from the year 1943-44. Back in the last millennium. My father was in the Navy as was my Uncle Bill, for whom I am named. So, my Grandparents, my Aunt Lillian and her little son, Billy and my own mother along with me all lived in the big white house about two blocks off downtown Tifton. My oldest sister, Marty was born while we were there and we all lived like a big covey of quail in that old white house. We walked everywhere we went. No car.
Just up the street lived Ronald Hasty, a lifelong friend who later served the Lord in the ministry as I have. Who could have known that two preachers would come from our little "gang" of kids on Central Avenue? Ronald was my hero. He was about three years older than me but that didn't matter. We all played together outside nearly the whole day. There was a bank of reeds separating the back yards of the houses and also across the back of the lots which marked where the yards ended and the alley began. We played under those reeds where they would bend over and form sort of a little room. We made rooms under there and they were our secret hiding place. It was a perfect imaginary wonderland under those reeds. I remember the first day Ronald ever went to school. When they told me that Ronald was starting school and he would not be home until the afternoon, I was disappointed and lost. But every day I waited with great anticipation for him to get home.
I remember that I had a little dog. Black and white spots. He was a little terrier of some sort. A sooner-Terrier I guess. He was my buddy and companion. Pictures in our family archives remind me of his looks. It seemed that we were always playing together and very happy. I've always liked guns. I dressed like a cowboy most of the time. Pants, boots, hat and vest are evident in photos of those days. My father, Frank Harrell, bought me a bow and arrow when I was about three or four. I was so small that the tip of the bow would touch the ground when I held it to shoot. But that didn't matter. I had a bow and arrow. The boys in our little gang would all shoot it into some bales of hay my father bought off a truck going down Central Avenue one day. I remember him hailing the driver to stop the truck and let him buy two bales of hay. We stood them beside the garage of our next door neighbor and fired away. It was fun. I still don't know why my father gave me such a potentially deadly weapon at age three or four. But, no one was ever hurt by it. We instinctively knew that an arrow would kill a person and we valued life in those days.
I had a little peddle car and loved to drive it all around. It ran out of "gas" when I got too tired to pedal any more. I could ride it up the sidewalk a short ways in front of our neighbor's houses but the sidewalk had been deformed by the roots of the big oaks along Central Ave. There were places where it had been displaced by as much as three or four inches. Couldn't peddle there! So I was limited to our own sidewalk in front of the house and a short way down the street the other way from the big oaks. I remember that all my friends wanted to "drive" my little peddle car. I have a picture of my Grandfather Golden and me walking up the sidewalk toward town negotiating the deformed sidewalk. He was holding my right hand. The picture is taken from behind us and shows a little boy walking with his Grandfather trusting him by holding his hand. I now have my own grandchildren and I recently had a photo made of me and Tucker Williams, my daughter Mandy's son, walking in the same way across the parking lot of a local shopping center. History repeats itself I guess.
We had a chicken pen in our back yard with our garage forming one side of it and chicken wire completing it. One day, my dad and I along with my grandmother and mother were on the back porch. I was sitting at the steps with my dad. Something was killing our little chicks and dad was talking about it being a big wharf rat. Suddenly, I noticed a rat poking his head from under the garage. "There's one right there!" "Where?" Right there sticking his head out from that hole." "Sure is", he said. So, he went inside and got his .22 single shot rifle. He took good aim and ended the earthly existence of that big ole' rat. Of course I was excited beyond description and ran with my dad into the chicken pen to get the rat. He came out holding it by its tail and my mother screamed...."don't you touch that thing!" "It has diseases on it." I couldn't have been more excited if it had been an elephant.
I had a friend across the street. Central Ave was a wide street that could have been a four lane. There was little traffic in those days and my mother taught me to stand at the curb, look both ways, and if I didn't see a car to run across the street to visit Jerry Henderson. He was a great kid, but something was not just exactly right about him. Something occurred during his birth that affected him the rest of his life, but he liked me and we played together a lot. One day, Jerry was going to come over to our side of the street and play with me. I was standing on the curb awaiting his arrival across that wide street. He suddenly bolted and ran to cross Central Avenue. But, he didn't look both ways. A large black Hudson auto driven by a local doctor ran over him. I watched as he rolled around under that car which had a lot of ground clearance, thankfully. Of course the doctor stopped and people ran into the street to see about Jerry. He was banged up pretty badly. His right ear was cut off and someone picked it up and put it on ice. After all the hubbub of the moment, the doctor took him to his office and they sewed his ear back on. Years later one would never know that it had been severed in that accident. But, this event taught me to be extremely careful crossing the street. My mother and grandmother used to send me to the little corner grocery at the corner of Central Avenue and 4th Street. There were a lot of little corner groceries in those days. Now, get this....I was about three and one-half and they would send me after bread and milk. I would look both ways clutching the money for the purchase of the day. Then, I would scoot across the street and walk down to the little grocery. I would tell the ladies who worked in the store what we wanted and they would get it for me. I would pay and they would watch me go up the street to make sure I was o.k. Didn't have to worry about abductions and abuse in the forties but they were just being careful for a three or four year old.
One day I went to the Corner Grocery, and everyone in there was crying. I remember looking at the people and wondering what was wrong. When I got home I told my mother and grandmother that something was wrong at the store because everyone was crying. My grandmother got on the phone and called the store. She found out what was wrong. It was the day President Roosevelt had died at Warm Springs and they were all crying over his death. The people loved Roosevelt. He had taken us through WWII and was serving his fourth term in the days before the two term limit had been made law. I remember that people treated his death as a national tragedy.
One night there was a big "stir" in Tifton. The Tifton Lumber Company was on fire. My Uncle Ben Golden, Jr. was a member of the volunteer firefighting unit in Tifton. I remember that it was a huge fire and everyone who could fight a fire was fighting it. But, it was to no avail. The place burned to the ground. I remember Granddaddy taking me to see the fire. We walked up the street behind the Tifton High School. The fire trucks were making their way up that street also. It was an exciting time for a small boy. Fire trucks, sirens blasting....a huge fire just across the railroad tracks....lots of noise and excitement were all part of the night. Christmas, as always, was a very special occasion especially in those days. It had not been so commercialized by that time. I remember one Christmas when I was about three. We were all sitting in the middle room between the living room and the kitchen. It had a little coal fireplace which sat at an angel in the corner. The fire was going. It was Christmas Eve and the adults wanted me to go to bed so Santa Claus could come. I was being a kid about it all and I wasn't cooperating very well. All of a sudden we heard a "clang, clang, clang" outside. "You hear that, Bill?" "Santa is coming and you had better get in bed so he can land on our roof and come down our chimney." "He won't come if you are still up." Of course, I went straight to bed in a hurry. Santa was nearby! I had heard the clanging noise from his sleigh! Little did I know that my grandmother Golden had slipped outside with a dishpan and a large kitchen spoon. She was the "clanging" of the sleigh. But, it got me in bed and Santa came.
During these same years, a neighbor down the street died. I remember that they lived on the corner of Central and 6th. He was a rather well known man in the community. They were having a "wake" in his house the night before the funeral and my grandparents and mother took me with them to pay our respects. I recall how I felt as we approached the door of the house. As we walked up the front steps onto the porch, I wasn't really sure that I wanted to go inside. I had never confronted death before. I knew people died but had never seen a dead person before. I remember going into the house. A lot of people were there. My mother and grandmother took me to the side of the casket and told me that their neighbor had gone to be with Jesus. "Do you want to see him, Bill?" I said that I did and they held me up so I could see the deceased man. I still remember the event very vividly. I was not scared. The whole event helped me understand that people die even thought that seemed a thousand years away to my little mind. I remember asking a lot of questions about the whole thing as we walked back to our house. It was all explained to me concerning the funeral and his burial. I have never forgotten this event.
In 1945, when I was nearing four years old, a significant event occurred. One day my mother and I were in the bedroom that we occupied near the back of the house down a long hallway. My Aunt Lillian and her new son, Billy, were further up the hallway nearer the front of the house. Suddenly, we heard a knock at the door. I recall that my mother said for me to go see who was at the front door. So, I ran up the long dark hallway into the living room. I saw a man standing at the door in a white outfit on. He also had on a white cap. He said, "Well, hello young man, where's your mother." I immediately turned and ran down the long hallway and told my mother that a man was at the door dressed in white clothes. She hurried up the hallway as if expecting someone. When she got to the living room and saw who was at the door she shouted and quickly unlocked the screen door. They hugged and cried. My grandmother quickly came to the room and she hugged the man also. He was someone I didn't know. When he finished hugging the women, he picked me up and kissed me and my mother told me that this man was my daddy who had returned from the war. I've always thought that this event would make a great scene in a movie but it was real and not make believe.
I remember that my mother made me a little U.S. Navy uniform to match my dad's. It was a perfect copy. She was an excellent seamstress. One day when he was home on leave, we had our pictures made together. My sister, Marty was a very small child at this time and we also have a picture of daddy holding Marty with me in my little Navy uniform standing beside them. I actually remember this happening in the front yard of the Central Avenue home. They stood me up on a white yard chair and he stood to my left. Father and son dressed in our Navy whites. My grandmother was up on the porch watching the whole process. Our photo was snapped with an old Kodak box camera and they made an excellent picture. The picture survives until today these seventy odd years later.
One day a man came along who was taking pictures of kids on a little pony. Of course my mother wanted a picture of me astride the little steed. I had on my cowboy boots, my western hat and my cap guns. Every boy in those days had a set of matching western revolvers. Didn't hurt us one bit. I recall going down the street to a house on the other side of Central Avenue down on the far corner. The man had found a good backdrop for the photos in that particular yard. We went there and stood in line while others had their photo taken. I remember being lifted onto the little horse and having my picture taken. I felt like a western character and still have that photo today.
My grandmother rented out the front room or two to a woman and her son before my Aunt Lillian came to live with us. The woman had a son who was about 12 years old and he was a good friend. I had a toy which he helped me play with. It was a ball which had a parachute and a little pewter soldier inside. When thrown up high, it would open at the apex of the toss and the little soldier would float down on the parachute. Problem was that I could not toss it high enough to make it work. I worried the dickens out of my friend because he could throw it really high and make it work. I would go to their room and call for him to come throw the parachute ball for me. Looking back I now realize that he really was patient with me. Sometime he would beg off but most of the time he would come outside and toss it for me so I could watch the parachute work. No graphic computer games in those days and we were a lot better off.
Tifton has two railroads that cross near the center of town. The North to South One was called the Southern Railway and the East-West one was the Atlantic Coastline. My grandfather Golden loved trains and he taught me to love them also. We would walk about three blocks to the railway station which serviced both lines. There would usually be a lot of people there who were going to ride the train. I remember those big black steam engines pulling in to the station. They were huge. As they arrived the steam was belching forth from the engine and the horn was blasting its arrival. I recall that Granddaddy Golden and I would sit on the benches outside and patiently await the big, black behemoth of an engine's arrival. It was exciting. The train would stop and the conductor would put a little step stool at the door for people to use in getting off the train. After just a short time, the conductor would pick up the stool, put it inside the door, give his signals to the engineer and they would be off. The engine made a lot of noise. It huffed and puffed as the pressure from the steam mounted up. The wheels would sometime spin and then get a grip on the rails. Then it would be gone again. We would get up and walk the three blocks home. It was a great adventure for a boy about three or four years old.
Believe it or not, I remember my first haircut. My granddaddy used a Mr. Walker at the City Barber Shop on Love Avenue. My hair was getting longer my mother decided that I needed to look like a boy and not a girl so she and Granddaddy Golden took me to see Mr. Walker. The barber shop was a small, narrow place sandwiched in between two other businesses on Love Avenue. I remember that when my turn came, the barber said: "OK young man, have a seat right here." He got a covered board out from somewhere and placed it across the arms of that huge barber chair. My mother and grandfather stood there and discussed the process with him. I recall that they talked about which side of my head my part should be on and Mr. Walker told them that since my "cowlick" was on the right side of my head, that they should part my hair on the right side. I remember him cutting my hair and then parting it on the right side and combing it. Everyone gave their approval and we left the City Barber Shop.
As a small kid I loved bugs. I wasn't afraid of any of them from ants to spiders. My mother used to warn me about picking up certain bugs and I learned which ones I should avoid. One day, my Aunt Rhunell Branch, my mother's sister, was visiting with us. She was outside with me. We were walking around the right side of the house and I was looking for crickets. I reached down to pick up some kind of bug and she warned me about it. Then she said, "Bill, what are you going to be when you grow up." I said, a "Bugologist." For a long time they would tell people that I had said I wanted to be a Bugologist when I grew up and, of course, people would laugh. As the years went on and I became a preacher, I realized that I wasn't too far from being a "Bugologist" after all. As a pastor I have had to deal with a lot of "Stinkbugs" over the years.
My Uncle Bill was a photographer by trade and when he came home from the war, he fixed a small dark room in a certain area of our garage out back. I used to go in there and watch him develop film. One day my baby sister, Marty, who was a very small child, made her way out to the garage and tried to go into the dark room where she had seen me go. Uncle Bill was working in the dark developing film and any light would destroy his work. When Marty cracked the door open, Uncle Bill grabbed it and slammed it shut. He didn't know Marty was there and the door cut her thumb almost completely off. It was hanging by a tendon. Everyone was in a state of panic. Mother grabbed Marty and rushed down to Dr. Zimmerman's office on the corner of Central and Fourth Street to see what he could do. He said: "Martha Raye, there is nothing we can do but take this thumb on off." Mother said, "no sir, I'm not having my daughter go through life with no thumb. You put it back on." He told her it would probably not live but she told him to put it back on anyway. If it didn't live, then they would take it off. So, Dr. Zimmerman sewed Marty's thumb back on. It lived! Today, one cannot tell that it was ever cut off. She has always had perfect use of it. Mother was right, and the Lord healed Marty's hand perfectly.
I had been given a copy of a book which is banned today. The title is: "Little Black Sambo." It was about a child who lived in Africa and how he lived in and around the jungle. I could not read, but my buddy next door could. His name was David Harris and he was part of the "our gang" group. I remember one day we were out between his house and mine and I had my copy of Little Black Sambo. David sat down with me in the grass and read my book to me. For some reason that little happening has stuck in my mind all these years. I was about three at the time. David was a smart young guy and slightly older than me. Years later, he helped design the Apollo space shuttle which speaks of his intellectual ability. But, in those days, he was just one of us; a group of kids living on Central Avenue experiencing life during the days of the Second World War.
One day our little gang went up the street to Robert Holmes house. In his backyard there was a little out building. It wasn't very big. It was about twelve by eight feet. It had a roof on it like the house had. Several of us got up on top of the little out building and while playing up there, one of us fell off...me! I remember landing on the ground. That would have been bad enough but I braced myself with my hands as I hit the ground and the broken milk bottle that was lying there. I cut my left wrist and the blood spurted everywhere. I ran home as fast as I could and my mother and grandmother patched me up. It really probably needed stitches but it healed anyway. The scar from that little fiasco is still visible. This adventure is an example of how little our parents worried about us or watched us while we were in the yard playing all day even at such an early age. Life in the early forties was quite different from what it is today when we are afraid to let our children out of our sights. Even at three or four, we were pretty much on our own when we played outside. No one worried about us even when we were shooting my bow and arrow. We actually understood that the thing would hurt you if used improperly. I remember my dad telling me not to shoot it at anyone because it would kill them or they might have to be taken to the hospital if shot with it. Remember, I was only about three or four at the time.
Just across the alley which was hidden by the bank of reeds I described earlier was the First Baptist Church where we attended. The family life building of today sits right where our Central Avenue house stood. The Pastorium was directly behind our house and I used to walk up and down the alley looking at that big white house. I thought it was magnificent. It stood on the grounds of the First Baptist Church. I recall that the garbage man would travel up that alley about twice a week and collect the garbage. We all had a sixty gallon drum for a garbage can and the Pastorium had one also.
As I have thought about it over the years I have reflected on what a great privilege it was to live with my Grandmother and Granddaddy Golden during those days. It shaped much of my later life. They were difficult days during the war. Everyone was struggling to survive the best they could. Everyone worked together to help the war effort and make a living from day to day. Grandmother's name was Mattie Jo McCord Golden and Granddaddy's was Benjamin Augustus Golden. He was the son of a Baptist preacher and was a rather quiet and reflective fellow. He had been worth a lot of money earlier in the century but the three depressions in the 1920's took it all away. He owned the first tire vulcanizing company in South Georgia over at Sylvester, GA. He told me that one day in 1922 when the first depression hit, he went out to the curbside and burned sixty-five thousand dollars worth of notes that people couldn't pay. He then locked the doors on his business which had been extremely successful and went home. Not long after that he brought his family to Tifton and later became the Clerk of the City of Tifton. He retired from that job around 1955 and then for ten years was the City tax collector. Everyone knew and loved "Mr. Ben." He smoked a cigar most all the time and was always as neat as a pin with his straw hat, tie, and his signature cigar in his mouth as he walked all over Tifton dealing with the taxes people owed. Granddaddy told me one time that he had smoked a box of cigars a week from the time he was fifteen years old. He told me this when he was seventy-five years old. When I factored it out, I found that he had smoked around 156,000 cigars to that point in his lifetime.
My Grandmother Golden made an indelible imprint on my life. We were very close. I was the first grandchild of nineteen that came along and she focused on me. Later in life when I was about seventeen, she and granddaddy asked if I would come live with them as they were getting older and they lived on the outskirts of town in what was country at the time. It was the greatest thrill of my life to live with them. They impacted me in many, many ways and helped form my life.
Central Avenue in Tifton is a special thoroughfare for me. It's where so much of my life was formed and lived out in my early years. When I ride by the location of that old house which is non existent today, there is a yearning for home. Something pulls me to always look at that site. My natural "center of gravity" is there where our house stood in the 400 block of Central Ave.
William F. Harrell