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A Story from My Father

The car was distinctive in many ways. It wasn't new, that's for sure. It was a mid-twenties vintage Chevy that had been just about completely stripped down. The old four cylinder engine was running on only two cylinders. The vacuum fuel feed system that fed the gravity tank on the fire wall from the main tank under the car wasn't working. But the most attractive feature was the price. I got it for four dollars from an old black workman who thought he had already gotten all the good out of it working in downtown Augusta. I had turned sixteen that February and hadn't had my driver's license long, but this was just too good a deal to pass up. My best friend Hal borrowed his mother's car and dropped me off near Grady Carpenter's place to make the deal. He followed me to make sure we made it the three miles out to the farm near the Boy Scout camp on Rae's Creek. I figured we could use it as an all-purpose vehicle on the farm, and that's what we did.

Now, you need to understand the nature of this farm. In the middle of the Depression, Dad bought forty acres with an old farm house that he had a contractor fix up after we moved in. We started with an outhouse and a hand pump in the kitchen. The contractor installed indoor plumbing, but the house was still drafty and we had a single wood stove for heat. In the winter there might be ice in the toilet bowl in the morning and the exposed bare copper pipes under the house were prone to burst. The family moved there from "The Hill" section of Augusta in 1936. The move wasn't entirely for economic reasons, although in those times everyone was aware of the necessity for thrift, and we could grow most of our own food in the country. Dad was Theodore Balk, Sr., called Tee by his friends, and was the manager of the only savings and loan business in Augusta at the time. Even during the Depression the family was comfortable. But in 1936 Mama and Dad had a family of four active boys and Mama thought a country setting might be a better environment to raise the family.

We settled in well. The family planted a garden and strawberry beds and hired local hands to plow the land and plant and harvest other crops. We also kept a milk cow, turkeys and chickens. Dad was really a city banker and didn't have a clue about running a farm, but it was a nice place for us boys. We reluctantly tended the garden, milked the cow, gathered eggs, caught and killed the poultry for meals and picked and sold strawberries.

We would ride our bikes to school in town and then spend our spare time running wild through the country with neighboring kids and friends like Hal who came out to visit from Augusta. Baby brother George came along in December of 1937 and my older brother Theodore, Jr. left for the University of Georgia in the fall of the next year. I was left with my two brothers, Bob who was three years younger and useful around the place - he actually got a neighbor to teach him how to milk a cow before the move, so that was his job - and Tom who was an annoying ten years younger and just about useless except for gathering eggs. Mama was mainly busy with George, so we pretty well ran the place.

In 1938, the year I turned sixteen and got the Chevy, Dad decided we should grow cotton. A local farm hand, Leroy, had a mule and a plow and was hired to prepare a four acre field, and then to plant it in cotton. Later in the season, Leroy and others would attend to the other various duties required in the raising of cotton as the season progressed. Hal and I pulled the heads on the car's engine and found a local mechanic to show us how to hand grind the valves. That got it running on all four cylinders at least. We never did fix the fuel system, which meant you had to keep adding gas to the gravity tank on the engine side of the firewall. Since there was no windshield or hood, this wasn't really a problem. You would just reach over from the driver's seat and top it off now and then, The Chevy continued to perform to the best of its abilities as a general work vehicle around the farm. You couldn't really do much field work with it, except maybe pull a drag harrow, but it was a good utility vehicle.

One of the car's duties was to haul firewood from the wooded bottom land down near Rae's Creek back up to the house. Trees had been felled and cut into cord wood and left down by the creek and I would take the Chevy down there and haul it up a load at a time. In order to make more room for wood I pulled the seat out and just sat on top of the wood to drive. On one trip, six year old Tom was riding along and "helping". We had been down to the creek and had a full load on the old car. I kicked it into gear and climbed up on the wood pile to steer. As we negotiated the curvy road through the woods back to the house, little Tom distracted me with some nonsense and I didn't notice that there was a vine hanging across the road at about head height. The car was just creeping along in low gear as the vine caught me under the chin and dragged me off the wood pile. By the time I got myself sorted out, the car had gone straight while the road curved. It ran straight into a tree, which bashed the radiator in. The engine re-started and I was able to work the car back onto the muddy track and get it back up to the house, but the radiator was shot for good.

Later that year when Leroy and his crew were done with the picking, we had about a bale of raw cotton. This amounts to about fifteen hundred pounds, and it needed to be taken to the cotton gin in Evans, a trip of about eight or nine miles. We loaded the three quarters of a ton of raw cotton onto the Chevy and Bob and I headed out, no body, busted radiator and all. Now, this model of car was designed to carry five passengers or as a light commercial work vehicle. Even in the best of shape you wouldn't expect it to carry more than a half ton. Hoping it would carry this load in the condition it was in and with no radiator was just too much. As we headed down Washington Road and through Martinez toward Evans, coasting down the hills and chugging along at a walking pace going up, people in passing cars would wave frantically and point, shouting that the car was on fire since the engine was glowing red and smoking like crazy, but we just waved and it kept on running until we got to the gin. By then the engine was so hot it wouldn't shut down and I had to nose it into a pole and force it to stall. The cotton was unloaded and ginned while the car cooled down. The yield was a five hundred pound bale of cotton and a thousand pounds of cotton seed. You could just pay a fee to the gin and sell the goods yourself or let the gin sell your cotton and deduct their charges. I decided it was best to let the gin sell the cotton and seed rather than loading them back on the car and taking them home. I figured I had used up all the luck I was due for that car just getting the cotton to the gin. The old Chevy cranked again with no trouble and we headed back home. The engine was glowing in the dark as we drove up, but it got us there.

We lived on the farm until rationing made it hard to get gas and tires, then we moved back to the Hill so Dad could take the street car or bus to work. Theodore joined the Army Air Corps, and I finished school and started work at Merry Brothers Brick Company, wondering when our country would get into the war raging in Europe so I could join up.

We never planted cotton again.

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