Reminiscing about the days of family unity
When 73 year-old Oscar Willis began dating Gloria Brumfield in high school, her father thought it would be all right for a while. Gloria’s dad even tolerated the idea of inviting this boyfriend over to share a Sunday dinner. Five years later, when her boyfriend flashed an engagement ring in front of his future father-in-law, it caused Gloria’s father to lean a bit on the heavy side toward “not with my daughter.”
“Her father believed that there wasn’t a man alive good enough for his daughter,” said Willis. “When we were married, at her home, he intended to remain in the barn until after the ceremony. Gloria had to go out and shame him till he reluctantly came in. Strangely enough, we soon became the best of friends.”
Willis was born in a log home up White’s Creek in Wayne County during the winter of 1945. It was a home that maintained family unity without the convenience of electricity, running water and modern heat. Willis said there were wood shingles on the roof that allowed the snow to come through the ceiling when it was windy.
“The things I grew up with would make children today green with envy,” said Willis. “Things like a pet goat named ‘Billy* that would pull me in my wagon around the farm. A nicely ventilated private outdoor restroom with an unlimited supply of paper, fresh un-chlorinated well water, my own personal hoe for digging weeds out of our garden, a deep soft comfortable mattress filled with chicken feathers to sink into, a secluded place along White’s Creek for swimming and a hand-me-down .410 shotgun for shooting rabbits and squirrels. If that isn’t enough to make you feel jealous, we had a deluxe, battery-powered radio we would gather around on Saturday night while eating popcorn and listening to singers like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams on the ‘Grand Ole Opry.’ Finally, our home was privileged to have a telephone with our own special call sign: four short rings was our signal to pick up.”
Willis said drugs became a common word at a very early age at his home because his mother always “drug” him to church every Sunday along with his sisters and brothers.
“I could go on forever about the wonderful memories of growing up without Saturday matinees, shopping malls, cell phones and large convenience stores,” said Willis. “We placed our homemade
Christmas decorations on trees we cut down, ate wild turkey on Thanksgiving and raised our own vegetables. I never got sick once digging up a garden with a horse and plow. Heck, I never knew anyone with a powered tractor until I was a teenager. Dad would go into Kenova once in a while to pick up large bags of corn meal, beans and flour. We never stayed long enough to attend a movie. There was a country store about a mile and a half from the house that we’d buy penny bubble gum from on occasion. If you’re getting the idea we were a poor family, you’re right. The lack of material items just made our family closer. Family unity today is missing the quality of yesterday’s life style.”
For six years Willis carried his lunch to a two-room schoolhouse a mile down the road. Sometimes he’d bring a peanut butter sandwich. Other days he enjoyed ham or sausage for lunch.
“Kinderville Grade School had grades one through three in one room with grades four through six in the other,” said Willis. “Boys would take turns in the winter coming early to start a fire in the old potbelly stove located in the center of each room. My first teacher was Ruth Cyrus, who punished me often for one thing or another. On more than one occasion I went home with the palm of my hand still stinging from the touch of her ruler.”
The punishments continued on through his attendance at Buffalo High School. Willis quickly admits that his best class was detention, where he spent many of his lunch hours still alternating among eating peanut butter, sausage or ham biscuits.
“I did get involved with 4-H,” said Willis. “If a student selected raising a hog or growing a garden for a project, the teacher would come to your location and grade your work firsthand. I never was allowed to take a hog to sell because Dad said we needed it more than the money. As far as hangouts for the school crowd, about all we did was smoke cigarettes out behind the school before the bell rang.”
During his last two summers in high school, Willis worked for Foster Thornburg Hardware, where his older brother worked. After graduation he tried an electronics course in Chicago that was short-lived. Then there was another job in a Chicago steel mill that lasted until a request for a short visit to West Virginia was rejected. Next, there was a six-year enlistment with the Army National Guard that lasted from 1965 until 1971.
“I took my physical at the Ventura Hotel in Ashland,” said Willis. “If you had a heartbeat you passed, then it was off to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where there was nothing but pine trees and sand. Boot camp was just as miserable as I expected, and the food was either raw or burnt. By the time you got to eat you were so hungry it never mattered. I was happy to be transferred to Fort Eustis, Virginia, for eight weeks, where I was taught how to repair helicopters.”
Willis maintained his membership with the National Guard while trying to find a suitable means of support. He spent 10 years with a construction labor union before being hired by West Virginia Water in 1976, a job that lasted 24 years until he retired.
All of which brings us back to a marriage that didn’t receive a whole bunch of initial heartfelt support from the good ol’ father-in-law-tobe. Like most stories of old, there’s a rainbow to be found in it all. Gloria’s dad did leave the barn in time to give his little girl away and grab a handful of tissues, proving he had a heart after all. He finally came around with open arms to welcome his new “son” in a marriage that still goes strong over 51 years later.
Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.