I’d Give a Hundred Dollars
My daughter and I were five hours into a road trip with two grandchildren bored in the backseat. They’d exhausted the usual diversions and had sunk to the level of bug-your-sibling-until-it-squeals. That’s when I pulled out an old compact disc of Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits I keep in my car.
The thirteen-year-old began to gag. Inspired by her humor, the nine-year-old joined in with noises only a boy can make. I restrained myself from giving them my opinion of current pop music. Every new generation celebrates its own, I understand.
But I didn’t turn off Tom T. I wanted the children to hear the stories that he skillfully weaves into his songs. My favorite, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” is about a talented but broken small-town guitarist who inspired the storyteller’s early musical efforts. Hall concludes the story with regret that his hero, Clayton Delaney, didn’t live to know that his protégé became a success.
“I’d give a hundred dollars if he could only see me now,” Tom T. sang as we zoomed along the Interstate. “That’s the line that makes your grandfather cry,” I tell the half-listening children. “Why?” they ask. Why.
Ernest Beverly was the son of a tenant farmer named Jim Beverly who never owned an acre of his own land. Jim raised tobacco on other men’s hillsides all his life. In the cardboard photo that survives, he’s good-looking and trim, with a shock of brown hair and kind eye. They say he was a good worker, devoted to his family and the Methodist Church, but he had no chance to go further than his plow would take him. He could read and write, but like many poor men born in 19th Century Kentucky, he had only three or so years of formal education.
However, his oldest son, the quiet one Ernest, would go to college. Owen County native John Wesley Hughes had founded both Asbury (1890) and Kingswood (1906) to educate needy students like Jim Beverly’s son. Ernest saw his chance, and encouraged by his grandmother, he left home around 1912-13 to enroll at Kingswood, a hundred twenty miles away. He went despite his mother’s objections to his uppity notions, her tears that begged him not to go. He would not earn a degree, but college changed him, as education will do when it takes hold. He returned home a history lover, a person who pondered big ideas, a man who dared dream he could travel to the Holy Land.
He also returned with a plan. He’d work the land as his father before him had done, but he’d own the farm, the best one he could find. Persistence and frugality, some might claim deprivation, defined his working life. Ledgers he left behind account for his money to the single penny spent on candy for the baby, the dime he put in the collection plate at church. Over time, he accumulated enough dollars and credit to acquire a parcel of land in the rich valley of the Kentucky River basin. Then he was able to buy another. And another.
When he died at 82, he owned a large, fertile farm that followed the river as far as his eye could see. He had no debts. He had savings in the local bank where he served as a director on the board. A modest man who lived simply, he was generous to his family and church. He never walked in the Holy Land, but this son of a tenant farmer was no longer dirt-poor.
My husband Ernie, named for Ernest, grew up in his maternal grandfather’s home, three generations living together in the way farm families often did back then. The only grandchild, Ernie attributes much that is positive in his life to his Pawpaw Beverly’s example and loving attention. My husband’s decision to leave their farm and follow his skill with numbers into the corporate business world hurt and puzzled his parents. His grandfather, however, did not discourage him. Perhaps Pawpaw remembered his own grandmother’s positive voice over-riding his mother’s tears when he left home a half century earlier to attend college. Perhaps he intuitively knew that his grandson’s work with an oil company would take him, if not to the Holy Land, to Babylon and beyond.
On one of Ernie’s last visits with his grandfather, they walked across the land, Pawpaw pointing out improvements to the barn, that season’s tobacco crop. When Pawpaw tired, they stopped to rest on a little rise that gave them a view of the valley. They were still, listening to the sounds of the place, the birds, the cows, the humid hush of the river. Pawpaw Ernest broke the quiet.
“I’d give a hundred dollars if my daddy could see my farm.”
The singer’s words came round again, “I’d give a hundred dollars . . . “ The children squirmed in the backseat, impatient with both my story and Hall’s. I turned off the CD, and gave them permission to return to their iPads. Someday Tom T. might succeed in pulling them into his song, but not this afternoon. Someday, they might appreciate Ernest Beverly’s story, too, and understand the magnitude of his accomplishment.
Then again, maybe they won’t. They’re not the children of a tenant farmer born in the 19th Century. With their 21st Century ears, they may never hear his life’s story clearly. It’s hard to understand the past, though it trails behind us, shaping even our molecules, pulling us down or lifting us up.
I stared at the horizon where the endless Interstate met the sky and vanished from sight like the future I cannot see. What would the children comprehend of their own grandfather Ernie’s story and mine – or we of theirs? Each generation celebrates its own music, I reminded myself, as I slid Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits back into its case.
Copyright © February 2014 Georgia Green Stamper