Michael Soward - Author and Musician

Book Excerpt

Chapter 1
Why Oh Why Am I here?
Our bed was no refuge from the cold of a bone-chilling Arkansas winter. The
biting wind whistled in through the cracks in our tar paper shack and my little
brother, Gregory, tried to cuddle up to me to share body heat. Our feet were so cold
we had to keep moving them; Gregory’s seeking mine for warmth. The old black iron
coal stove couldn’t keep up with the chill, not to mention the drafts that swept around
the shack like little eddies of misery.
As I lay there trying to get to sleep, I knew Gregory had been thinking about our
parents again. My mother had died some years back at an early age and as far as we
knew, our daddy was still living in Milwaukee, as was my older sister, Wendy. Us boys
had been living with our grandmother, our father’s mother, in rural Arkansas. Gregory
whispered to me, “Milwaukee can’t be that far.”
“What makes you think daddy even wants us?” I asked.
At nine, I was the older, more sophisticated, but less adventurous brother. I told him,
“Freight trains go in all directions you know. Which way is Milwaukee? Do you know?”
Dead silence. And with that, our runaway plan evaporated into thin air.
I was nine and Gregory was seven now. My father had left us pretty soon after
our mother died and we had come here to Blytheville, Arkansas, to live with my
grandmother, Eva.
She was a poor but proud, brown-skinned lady, whose passionate devotion to God
was matched only by her passion for corporal punishment. We were beaten regularly.
The usual procedure was to tie us to the bedpost, drop our pants, and switch us until
we bled. I would tell Gregory, “Hold your breath and it won’t be so bad.” But I was
wrong. I can still remember trying to tense up and prepare for the pain but it was not
possible. Grandma felt if we didn’t bleed or show welts we weren’t really punished.
Sometimes, as an added flourish, she would put hot pepper up our butts.
Grandma Eva was progressive if nothing else. As we grew older, she relied on
heavier objects, like broomsticks, to whip us with. Gregory and I wondered what
Life-ology 101
we had done to be born into such madness. Were we really such a handful or was
Grandma Eva bitter because in her older years, along with her poverty, she was saddled
with her son’s two rapscallion boys? Whatever it was, we suffered for it.
So, although we were growing up in the poor, segregated South, we discovered
early on that race was the least of our problems. In addition to Grandma’s zeal not to
“spare the rod and spoil the child,” we also had to cope with the reality of grinding
poverty. We lived in a dilapidated shack up on short pilings with a poor source of light
or running water. Our only heat was a lone black iron coal stove. The maggot infested
outhouse was out back, but I was usually too scared to go out there in the dark to use it.
We bathed in a metal tub filled with cold water from the spring. Occasionally, it
was heated on the stove.
We raised a few chickens which provided us with eggs, and oftentimes a chicken
roaming around the yard would wind up in Grandma’s frying pan.
Mulberry trees and mulberries were always plentiful as well as pecans, in lesser
numbers, from another tree.
We were so poor that no food could be discarded. I remember once, my
grandmother made a pound cake. Now, we had always had trouble with mice and ants
and when she left the pound cake out on the table overnight, by morning an army of
ants had invaded the cake. To my amazement, grandmother said, “We’ll just put this
cake here in the coal stove oven and let the heat run the ants out.” We ended up eating
that cake because we couldn’t afford to throw it away. I still remember that weird,
sharp, ant taste . . .
Cotton was the money crop of the South and everybody was involved in it. Black
people like us, segregated at the bottom of society’s totem pole, were the laborers, the
ones who pick, chop, and bale cotton. I started in the fields before I was thirteen. The
pay was six dollars a day and every penny of it went to Grandma Eva.
Mr. Richardson, our next door neighbor and the cotton field boss, owned an old
used school bus and he picked us up and gave us a ride to the fields. Now I know
the first image that comes to mind is kind of a Simon Legree, old time overseer, who
drove us with the lash. Quite the opposite. In fact, compared to Grandma Eva, Mr.
Richardson and his wife were angels—the kindest people.
Working from sun up to sun down, more than eleven hours in a cotton field, is
hard to describe. It’s an experience that most people on earth thankfully won’t ever
have. The fields were so long that you could hardly see another person at the end of
one. We called them mile-long rows.
By midday, the blistering sun can send temperatures soaring to 100 degrees.
It’s mostly then that the cries for water went up. Mr. Richardson was the only one
authorized to allow the water boy to go into the field with water for the pickers as he
had to make sure that he had enough water for the whole day. The water bucket had a
big block of ice floating in it. Once when the water boy arrived to give me my water,
a big grasshopper was floating around in the water. I was so thirsty that I took the big
metal cup and fished the grasshopper out of the water and drank some.
Picking cotton was hard on the back too and hard on the hands since the cotton
ball is attached by fiber and had to be plucked off. It’s then stuffed into a sack. When
the sack is full, the picker treks back to the central collecting point and unloads.
At times, the day seemed endless, the monotony was stupefying, and the aching
fatigue numbing. Finally, the lengthening shadows of afternoon would bring some
blessed relief as the day began to wind down.
I kind of think of my pathway to Christ as a rather roundabout path via my
grandmother’s strong Christian devotion, which led me to church, which led me to
playing the organ. Grandmother saw enough talent in me to invest in organ lessons.
While I love music, trying to read music and study it confused me. I learned the good
old-fashion way—by ear. I guess spiritual music and the organ inspired me to really
believe in what the words and music was saying about Christ. It brought it home for
me. It made it reality.
I was being developed by my involvement in the church. When you’re reared in
a church environment, especially in the black community, the church connection is as
much a part of your life as your corner grocery store or your school. It is part of the
very fabric that makes up your life.
It was about this time that I learned to play the organ that Elder John Moore, the
pastor of our church, came into our life. I first learned to play the Hammond organ at
his church. He was just a naturally kind and gentle soul. Gregory and I always loved
and respected him. There were many times that grandmother would call him to talk to
us about certain things. We looked to him like a dad. He would always tell us to obey
our grandmother and that it was for our own benefit. I always thought, “Well, at the
very least, it’ll save us some skin.” Our talks with Pastor Moore always made the pain
of living with grandmother go away.
There was, however, something that I had to admit about Grandma Eva, albeit
begrudgingly. She was a great reader of character of both adults and children. She
knew Gregory was mischievous and she knew that I had a good heart but I was
stubborn. I always felt it was my task to try and keep him out of trouble. My efforts
failed most times. He always got more whippings than I did because many times,
grandmother whipped Gregory first. By the time she got to me, I was so mentally
whipped just thinking of my upcoming punishment, she knew there was no need to
inflict the same level of punishment on me or prolong it.
On the other hand, my grandmother adhered to what could only be described
as extreme views on a number of topics. A classic example: she said that dancing,
partying, clubbing, and such was the devil’s work. That is, unless you were dancing for
the Lord Jesus.
So on prom night, I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go because of Grandma’s
beliefs. My child heart yearned to be there with all the other kids but I hadn’t dared to
tell my school friends that I wouldn’t be going. I just went along with them thinking I was going. My date? I had no idea since I wouldn’t know what to do on a date
anyway. Still, I wanted so badly to go to that prom.
At about eight o’clock, there was a knock on the door. It was my schoolmates.
They explained to Grandma Eva that they were here to pick me up for the prom. A
surprised Grandma told them, “Michael is getting ready to take a bath and go to bed,
and he’s not going to any prom or dance.” Of course, I got a lashing later.
No need to mention how my school day went the next day. I was the butt of
jokes and the laughingstock at school. But this was life with Grandma Eva.

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