School Days, School Daze | Watching the Trains Go By | Fishing for Whales | The Corncob Capers | The Quinine Quisling | The Tale of the Toe-Hair Transaction | The Case of the Cantankerous Cat | The Big Ditch Debacle | He’s Home!
Chester was the third-born child of Frank and Winnie, who was born on August 8, 1915, and who departed this life on March 21, 1983. He was a decided deviation from the norm of Frank and Winnie’s other five offspring, in that where the rest of us had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark-toned complexions; he had blond hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion.
For reasons which you will later understand, I need to tell you that, as a child, he was a sleepyhead. He could sleep anytime, anywhere, and under any conditions. And, once asleep, it was almost impossible to awaken him.
His mind was sharp, his curiosity was insatiable, his convictions were firm, his opinions were fixed, his temper was flammable, and his anger could be instant. But all of these traits were softened and redeemed by the rapidity with which he cooled off, confessed his shortcomings, and apologized.
Against this brief background, I want to try to emphasize the happy and humorous side of this dear brother that I knew and loved for almost 65 years. I am aware that the things I have written in the following pages have been touched, tested, tempered and tendered by more than 70 years of the mellowing mists of my memories. If I have made mistakes, they were mistakes of my head; because my heart didn’t mean to make them.
School Days, School Daze
Day after day, and year after year, we walked the 4-mile round trip to the Bois D’Arc School. The road passed by 5 farm homes where, from our house to the schoolhouse, the metronome for our marching feet consisted of the unceasing and intimidating sounds of squealing hogs, snorting horses, braying mules, bellowing bulls, and the angry and ferocious barking of three bulldogs who always appeared to be hungry for the flesh of a schoolchild.
Our school-day schedule was from 8:30 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and was perfunctorily performed as follows: 8:30, school began; 10:00, a 15-minute recess; 12:00, a one-hour lunch time; 2:30, a 15-minute recess; 4:00, the end of the school day.
Chester was always about forty times more interested in recess, lunch time, playtime and the end of the school day than he was in readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic; and his innate curiosity and restlessness led him into an ever-changing, sometimes-puzzling, and always-interesting series of episodes.
As an example of his unpredictability, he once developed a near-obsession to beat the rest of us home from school each afternoon. In order to accomplish this, he would cut across the fields between the schoolhouse and our house. The fields were intermittently infested with mud, tickle grass, Johnson grass, stink weeds, head-high blood weeds, thistles, cockleburs and stinging nettles. But such minor hazards did not daunt or deter our always-adventurous brother. The rest of us tended to play it safe and walk the slightly-longer-but-much-more-monotonous way home, via the road. We would arrive home and find Chester already there; mud-covered, weed-stained, bur-scratched, nettle-stung and thistle-stabbed, but grinning like a Cheshire cat because he had beaten us home by about three or four minutes.
From a distance of almost 70 years, I can still remember something alluring, inviting and infectious about his curiosity and actions. I have no logical explanation to offer as I, 70 years after the fact, confess that I sometimes yielded to temptation and followed him across the fields in what I then thought was an effort to beat my other siblings home.
If I were now compelled to give an answer as to why I chose to follow him through weeds, mud, grass, briers, burs, nettles and thistles instead of walking by the way of a relatively-smooth road, I would say it was not because I wanted to beat my brothers and sister home, but because of my admiration for what my “Big Brother” was doing, and for the gutsy perseverance with which he was doing it. For, back in those days, if I had seen him scale Mount Everest with bare feet, I would have been no more proud of him than I was when I saw him so dauntlessly cut across those treacherous fields on his way home from school.
Watching the Trains Go By
Our home was located about one mile west of the railroad. In the mid-twenties, Chester and I became entranced with walking over to the railroad to watch the trains go by. As sustenance for the trip, we took along a few delicacies; such as a cold-biscuit-and-mustard sandwich, and a raw potato. When we arrived at the railroad, we would sit down on a grass-covered elevation, eat our sandwiches and potatoes, and eagerly wait for the train to go by. When the train passed, the engineer would toot the whistle and wave his glove-covered hand to us.
We would walk back home and get some more sandwiches and a few more potatoes, and walk back to the railroad to watch the next train go by. Since there were several trains each day, going in both directions, I’m confident that
on our best days we walked eight or ten miles; and probably ate a peck of raw potatoes.
Fishing for Whales
Our favorite fishing hole, the rock falls on Island Creek, was located about ten miles from our home. My brothers and I spent many days and nights at the falls; fishing for whales and catching a few slightly-larger-than-minnow-sized perch.
One late-summer night, after we had been at the falls for 2 or 3 days, a north wind blew in and drizzling rain commenced to fall. All of us, except Chester, hastily fashioned a rather makeshift shelter with our wagon sheet and huddled down in semi-safety from the cold wind and rain. Chester machoistically declared that he would keep on fishing. He wrapped an army blanket around his torso, perched himself atop an upended bucket, dangled his worm-baited hook in the water and waited for a whale to bite.
As he waited, and as the cold wind and rain refused to abate, he fell asleep, fell over the edge of the rock and tumbled, body and blanket and bucket and pole and line and everything else, into the water. His terrified-and-tormented yells lured us from the comfort of our wagon-sheet shelter to attempt a rescue.
After getting mostly frozen and totally waterlogged, and with Chester gagging, coughing, spitting and mouthing what I shall charitably describe as mild expletives, we pulled him from the water, wrung him out a little, and bedded him down inside our shelter. In between our caustic tirades against brother Chester, all of us shivered, shook, and longed for the morning. Chester merely yawned a time or two, turned over, and went to sleep!
The Corncob Capers
Across the financially-depressed thirties, our basic entertainments came from what our imaginations could devise. One of our most ingenious creations was the Sunday afternoon corncob fights. We would gather the mud-soaked-and-dried corncobs from the hog pen, soak fresh corncobs in a tub of water, and save them as ammunition for Sunday afternoon. Some of our nearby-farm-boy friends would come over and join the battle (but only once) and when none of them ever had enough courage to return for a second encounter, we were just as happy to fight one another.
The length of the battle was determined by how long our corncobs lasted. When the battle was over; bruised, scratched, scraped, bloodied and almost exhausted; we all sought first aid and rest. With his facial scratches, bruises and bloody corncob welts shining against the background of his blond hair, blue eyes and fair complexion, Chester always appeared to be the most-severely wounded in every corncob battle; but by the next Sunday afternoon, with his wounds partially healed, he would be rearing to again enter into the War of the Corncobs.
The Quinine Quisling
In our “country kitchen,” the dining table had a wooden bench behind it and a window above the bench. One summer afternoon, when the window was open, Chester stretched out on the bench and went to sleep. His head and open mouth were positioned directly under the window.
His open mouth presented an irresistible temptation for Harry, who poked a bottle of quinine through the window and sprinkled a few drops into Chester’s mouth. Having been alerted to Harry’s ignoble intentions, we were all front-seat observers of Chester’s convoluted spasms of snorting, spitting, sputtering and spewing as he tried to tell Mama that a bad-tasting bug had fallen from the ceiling into his mouth. This time, it took him a lot longer to get back to sleep; about two or three minutes.
The Tale of the Toe-Hair Transaction
Harry once told Chester that he would pay him a dollar for each of the hairs on one of his big toes if Chester would let him pull out the hairs when and how he wanted to pull them. Chester, after counting about ten hairs on one of his toes, and after envisioning himself as a rich young man with ten dollars in his pocket, quickly and enthusiastically signed the attesting agreement and presented his toe for the first hair to be pulled. With a pair of tweezers, Harry pulled gently on each hair, just enough to irritate the skin but not enough to remove the hair. For several days, and about three or four times each day, Harry repeated the same process without ever pulling out one hair.
Each day, Chester’s toe became more irritated, red, swollen and sore; without one hair being pulled and paid for. Finally, Papa and Mama convened an executive session of the Upchurch Supreme Court and handed down the unanimous verdict to the effect that the toe-hair transaction was totally unconstitutional, and the attesting document of agreement was null and void. Chester morosely hobbled around for several days in which his toe was taken off the critical list, but in which his vision of becoming a rich young man with ten dollars in his pocket
was moved to the top of the critical list and expired long before his toe got well.
The Case of the Cantankerous Cat
In the early-thirties, a scabby, vile-tempered and anti-social tomcat took up residence in our barn. One day when Papa, Mama, and all of our siblings were absent, Chester and I decided that the time had arrived when we should lure the cat into our house. We devised a crafty plan to help us accomplish our goal. We laid a broken line of meat chunks (to tell the truth, those meat chunks were chicken guts) from the barn to the house, across the front porch, through the front door, and a couple of feet into the living room. We selected a small stick with which to prop open the screen door, tied a cord around the prop, placed the prop in the door and, with the cord in our hands, crawled under a bed to await the coming of the cantankerous cat. He probably expended a half-hour in doing so but, following the trail of meat chunks, he traversed the distance between the barn and the house, crossed the porch, and slithered through the propped-open door.
When he was three or four feet inside, we pulled the prop from the door. And that’s when the action began! The door slammed with an authoritative bang, heaven and earth paused in order to get a better view of what was about to happen, Chester and I began to crawl from under the bed, and the cat went certifiably insane! With bloodcurdling hissing, squalling and yowling, and with the speed of lightning, he went up the walls, crisscrossed the ceiling, stripped the curtains from the window, knocked pictures from the walls, upended cane-bottom chairs, and turned the room into a disaster zone. Then, that Mephistophelean monster swirled around and did it all over again, and again, and again.
Chester, having made it out from under the bed, exercised a measure of beyond-the-call-of-duty courage and ran toward the screen door, hoping to push it open and let the cat go free. Before he had gotten halfway to the door, the cat leaped from somewhere and landed squarely atop Chester’s head. To the accompaniment of his renewed hissing, squalling and yowling, the demented cat flailed his claws up and down the sides of Chester’s head, over his face and forehead, under his chin, and around and around his neck.
Chester dropped to the floor and went into a contorted roll in an effort to free himself from the cat. When our cat-episode began, we were trying to catch the cat; now, Chester was trying to turn him loose. The cat suddenly disentangled himself from Chester, leaped against the screen door, knocked it open and, with wails and yowls that sounded as though they were coming straight from the pits of hell, disappeared inside our barn. Chester staggered up from the floor, wet a towel, wiped the blood and small particles of serrated flesh from his head, arms and hands, and philosophically allowed that he was delighted to be able to make the acquaintance of a cat that was a lot easier to catch than he was to turn loose.
Almost 70 years have gone by since Chester and I got acquainted with that cat. As the years have gone, I have often pondered the question of why we wanted to lure that vermin-infested and fugitive-from-hell cat inside our home. But I am still no closer to the answer than I was five minutes after that terrible tomcat finally decided to turn Chester loose.
The Big Ditch Debacle
The farm that we rented, lived on and worked, had a government-conceived-and-installed-water-control system that we loathingly referred to as “The Big Ditch.” I won’t try to describe it, but will tell you that, because of the extra work it created for us, my brothers and I hated it with a consuming passion. It would be an understatement to say that our affection for “The Big Ditch” was about the same as our affection for the red hot scum that hangs on the walls of hell.
One sultry summer day, we were in the ditch cleaning away the weeds, Johnson grass, thistles, cockleburs, stinging nettles and other forms of foreign growth. If I borrowed all of the most-descriptive phrases of all of the languages on this earth, I could not even remotely describe how hot, sweaty, dirty, miserable and disgusted we were in that ditch!
With rivulets of sweat and dirt running down my face and into my eyes and ears, I suddenly screamed, wailed, maniacally laughed, blathered, blubbered and ran toward Chester with my hoe held high in a life-threatening position; still screaming, blathering, blubbering and pretending madness. Chester whirled with a look of panic on his face, dropped his hoe, tried to climb the wall of the ditch, slipped and rolled down to the bottom. I positioned myself above him, with my hoe still poised and my blathering and blubbering undiminished. He slowly raised his hands to protect his face and, in a weak and trembling voice, said: “Don’t hit me with that hoe. Please don’t hit me.” From farther up the ditch, Papa ran toward me, screaming: “Don’t hit him! Don’t hit him!”
After several years of intense entreaty, I think I sort of halfway convinced Chester that I hadn’t really gone bonkers that day in the ditch, but he never again appeared to be comfortable if I was anywhere near him with a hoe in my hands.
It is deeply satisfying to me that so many of my memories of Chester are connected to the church. My first distinct memory of him is of our sitting in the back of our mule-drawn wagon, on our way to attend services at the Bois D’Arc Baptist Church. I also remember the sense of security when I sat beside him in the booster band of the Bois D’Arc Church, and tried to sing the same way he sang.
I remember that, in later years, he and I repeatedly walked the 6-mile round trip to music classes, choir practice, quartet practice, and the worship services of the Central Baptist Church in Itasca. I remember accompanying him and Mag to the pastor’s study on November 15, 1939, on their wedding day.
I remember the more-than-fifty years of his life, and the generous amount of his money, that he invested in his church. I remember that on the last Sunday night of his life he attended the service of his church, lingered for a discussion with his pastor, went home, went to bed, went to sleep, and waked up in glory! I remember the surging and haunting emotions of my heart as I sat in the church during his memorial service.
As the service closed, as I stood beside his open coffin, as I looked upon his face for the last time on this earth, as the final reality and sorrow of his death washed over me, I silently whispered to my hurting heart: “He’s home! He has taken the shortcut across the brier-and-bramble-infested fields of this world, and has again beaten us all home.”
Hal Upchurch, 1995