I Am What I Am
By Bill Shepard
When I first gave thought to writing this article and to the title, my mind went back to a comic strip I read as a boy. One of the characters was Popeye and his favorite line seemed to be, “I y’am what I y’am, I y’am Popeye the sailor man!” I bet that line stirs a lot of memories! So, here I go again!
I am what I am! I am a mill village boy, nothing more, nothing less. I am proud of my heritage and would not trade it for any other! Growing up on a cotton mill village during one of the hardest times in American history helped to prepare me for the long journey ahead.
The 20’s and 30’s of the past century were difficult times, not only in America but around the globe. World War I had ended leaving the entire world in shambles. Jobs were scarce, starvation stalked the nation like a hungry wolf and bread lines were formed with hungry people in many parts of America. Veterans, many sick and unable to work camped out on the White House lawn in Washington seeking help from a government that was unable to respond. That was my world as a small boy.
Fortunately for the south, the textile industry was on the move from the New England states southwards to be near the large cotton plantations and cheap labor that was plentiful. Poor share-crop farmers flocked to the mills where they could find work that offered more than they could earn ploughing another man’s fields. That was what prompted my dad to move with his family to the textile mill (cotton mill) in Darlington where I spent my happy childhood. Though the times were hard as nails and some suffered more than others, I can honestly say that I never missed a meal, and went to bed every night with a shelter over my head. I was awakened every morning by the sound of a whistle from the big mill and knew my dad was on his way to work to earn the money that made my well-being possible!
I was rich while growing up in a world of poverty! I was rich in the abundance of my surroundings.
I was part of a loving and caring family; a dad that worked long hours for little pay, and a mom who knew how to stretch that little pay as far as it could go. I had the love of two older brothers and two younger sisters! We had our difficult moments and differences but when the day ended and darkness covered our household, we slept in peace.
I was rich in the things that nature provided! I knew where the wild plums grew and ripened in the springtime. Besides eating until I could eat no more, I would pick bucketfulls for mom to make jelly. It would be so good on cold winter days that would follow.
I knew where the wild grapes (muscadines) grew in the treetops of the forest nearby, and I knew where to find the hickory nuts that ripened in the early winter. If I could beat the squirrels to them I would gather a-plenty to carry home to eat later on the cold winter days ahead.
When the hot summer days arrived my brother and I swam and splashed in the cool waters of Swift Creek We knew where to find the red-fin pike and sun-perch that were in abundance in the small stream.
Than came that day in December 1941 when the world changed forever. My mill village days were over and I was introduced to another and different kind of world. My early years in the mill village have followed me and in many ways helped to prepare me for what I have become. I recall an instance that happened many years ago that speaks to what I am trying to write. I was being interviewed by a school superintendent regarding a position at his school. He asked if my parents were schoolteachers. When I answered they were not, he asked what kind of work they did. I answered my dad was a mill worker and I grew up on a mill village. I thought to myself,” it’s over, he doesn’t want to hire a mill village boy!” He offered me a position teaching in one of the most prestigious schools in South Carolina at that time. As time passed the superintendent visited my classroom frequently. One day he said to me, “Shepard, I’ve never told you this but one of the reasons I gave you a position at this school was because of your background and growing up on a mill village. I knew the students would identify with you and feel at ease with your presence.”
Most all the students at that school lived on the mill village of the large Riegal Textile Corporation. I remained there for seven more years and then moved on to other mill towns! Most of my working years as a teacher and pastoral minister were in mill towns. I credit my childhood years on the mill village in Darlington with preparing me for any success I have enjoyed.
I was, I am, and in my heart and mind will always be…..a mill village boy….nothing more, nothing less!
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. He is the author of “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised”. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week. His mailing address for cards and letters is: Bill Shepard 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, S.C. 29673.