Growing up on a Tennessee farm in the 1920s and ‘30s was a stark life.
My dad, Jack White, had a fyce pup, part rat terrier and part something else, called Tip.
“He had a little tip of white hair on his tail that stuck out.”
Tip was a small dog, nearly solid white except for a liver spot over his left eye.
“I really liked Tip,” said dad. “He was my pal. He was a first rate squirrel dog. He’d trot through the woods as quiet as an Indian until he found a squirrel. Then he’d go to yipping, and he’d worry a squirrel around a tree until I could shoot him with my rifle.”
He still has that .22 caliber German pump.
“I knew Tip would be a good coon and possum dog, too.”
His brother Tom was four and a half years older than my dad and had coon dogs in which he took great, unmerited pride.
“I went hunting with Tom several nights and his dogs never treed anything. They’d run a fox all night — and a coon dog can never catch a fox. The fox will get far out front of the hounds, then lay down and rest awhile before jumping up and running some more. The foxes were running Tom’s dogs to death.
“I said, ‘Your dogs are running a fox!’
“And he said, ‘No they ain’t!’
“And sure enough, a fox ran by me close as from me to that door.
“I told him then, ‘We’ll hunt with your dogs tonight, but tomorrow night, we’ll put your dogs in the house and take Tip.’
“The next night, you’ve never seen as many possums as we killed. We couldn’t shoot one until he had another one treed. As soon as a dead possum hit the ground, Tip would start yipping up another tree. I knocked one off a grapevine while another one was up a tree. At the end of the night, we had the biggest pile of possums on the ground. We had thirteen possums.”
Tom and dad would skin the possums and dry the hides for a fur buyer who would make his rounds in an old car once a week.
“We would dry hides on a flat board but he asked us to stretch and dry them on a broomstick. I never asked him why.”
After Tom went off to war, my dad was still a teenager and on the farm. One day his dad, Bob White, came to him in the field and delivered some bad news.
Their neighbor Everett Cheek, and a relative of Bob’s brother-in-law Houston Cheek, had told him that Tip had killed some of his sheep.
“Son, you’re going to have to put Tip down,” is what Bob said.
My dad told him, “If that’s the case, you’re going to have to shoot him. That’s something I can’t do.”
So my grandfather took Tip in the woods and shot him.
The next day some more of Everett’s sheep were killed. It turned out, it was one of Everett’s own dogs.
“There was never an apology from anybody about it,” said my dad.
It was about that time that another more momentous development occurred in my dad’s life.
Despite all the hard work required of him, living on the farm, my dad was an excellent student at Bryant Station School.
“I really loved school. I enjoyed it.”
On top of farm chores, starting in the eighth grade, he drove the school bus. It was an old Chevrolet pickup truck that had been converted to a school bus. It looked sort of like a covered wagon. There were two benches in the bed that faced one another and canvas curtains to keep off the chill. It could accommodate about a dozen kids.
“Our driver got sick and the superintendent asked the principal, Bill Orr, if he knew anyone who could drive the bus – and Mr. Orr said, ‘I know one boy who sure can…’ and he volunteered me.”
By the way, there was an adult, Hunter Harris, who filled in as bus driver once in awhile but my dad said, “He couldn’t drive a duck to water. It was really dangerous for him to be hauling kids around.”
The superintendent told my dad to keep the bus out on the farm during the summer and to drive it once in awhile, “just enough to keep the battery charged.”
So, in the mornings, my dad would put his milk bucket on the school bus and haul it from the barn to the road for the milk truck to pick up. That was the extent of his summer driving until one of the neighbors reported to the superintendent Robert Lee Harris that Jack White was “joy riding.”
The superintendent told Jack to turn in the bus until Fall, at which time, it turns out the covered wagon was exchanged for a bona fide, for-real school bus which Jack drove in the ninth grade.
One day, in the ninth grade, Principal Orr made an announcement in assembly that students should start taking their books home to study more. Grades were terrible. Then he said, “But there’s one boy here who I know is taking his books home…That’s Jack White – and his grades show it!”
This really embarrassed my dad.
“I scooted down in my seat because I always had my lessons done by noon every day.
“Ralph Sands was left-handed and I was right-handed and we would work math problems, then compare answers. If we didn’t agree on an answer, we’d work it again to find out who was right.
“I never had to take a book home in my life.”
My dad was such a good student that Mr. Orr, who also was the math teacher, even asked him how to work problems he couldn’t solve.
But with high school looming for both Jack and Margaret Dee, his younger sister, my grandfather faced a tough decision. He couldn’t afford to send both to school and he sat them down to tell them.
Margaret Dee began to cry. She really wanted to go to high school.
My dad told my grandfather, “Well, you won’t have to worry about sending me to school.” And that was the end of the conversation.
The start of the next school year, my dad was working in the field when the school bus came to pick up Margaret Dee. He said, “I really hated to see that school bus drive off. I can’t tell you how it made me feel.”
He was a poor farm boy who really loved school.
Despite all obstacles, my dad got a job at the Railway Express Agency, first as a delivery man. He then worked his way up to manager (or “agent”) of the depot office in Columbia. Part of this entailed passing a written competency test that included a lot of math. Math was a big part of the job because an agent constantly figured shipping rates.
Of course, he passed the exam with flying colors and assumed the agent job. He was very good at the highly physical and mental aspects of his position. He was a wise and level-headed manager.
In fact, when he applied for the job, unbeknownst to him, all the town merchants and plant managers signed a letter and sent it to the REA corporate offices in New York, imploring them to promote my dad to agent.
By the time, he rose to agent, he had bought the old homeplace where he grew up. He loved it.
He had a great Weimaraner bird dog named Gilly and an old ’49 Willys Jeep that he drove all over the property.
The Jeep was a stripped down, topless vehicle for which he never had an ignition key. He always hot-wired it to start it. Every time he got into the Jeep, Gilly would gallop alongside just like Bullet the German Shepherd on The Roy Rogers Show, who would run beside Roy’s old Jeep, Nellybelle.
My brother and I were four years old when he bought the place. I used to love to watch Gilly run in the pasture while my dad drove the Jeep flat out. The Jeep was primarily a farm vehicle and very rarely would it be taken out on the county road. For one thing, it couldn’t go more than 40 miles per hour – which was fast on a bumpy field with high sage grass but pretty slow on a highway.
Anyhow, soon after we moved to the farm, there came a big snow and my dad was forced to drive the Jeep into town. He had driven about five miles before he realized Gilly was running in the snow alongside the Jeep. The fastest he’d been driving was probably 30 miles per hour and the dog had no problem keeping up.
My dad was near the Fountain Creek bridge and he spotted a farmer walking to his barn. So, he put Gilly in the Jeep, took him to the farmer, and asked if he could keep his dog in the barn until he got home.
The farmer said, “He’ll be here when you come back.” And he was.
Gilly hated to see that Jeep leave home about as bad as my dad hated seeing the school bus drive away.
The most favorite dog my dad ever owned was Old Mac. Mac came after Tip while my dad was a young man still living on the farm.
Dad had returned to the house one night from courting the girl who became my momma. When he stepped onto the porch, he could hear a dog whimper in the darkness.
He went inside the house, got a flashlight, then found an English Pointer dog lying in a fence row. He thought the dog was lost and hungry so he went back inside and got him some table scraps.
The next morning my dad walked to the milk barn and he turned to see the dog following – on three legs. His right hind leg was badly cut from his hock to his upper thigh as if he had been caught in a barbed wired fence. Also, his tail was broken.
My dad took a rag and applied the farmer’s ever-present and dependable purple medicine for treating cattle – which now is in a spray can but in those days came in a gallon jug. He also went back to the house and fed him some more table scraps.
It was the last day of bird season and my dad knew where there was a covey of quail.
He picked up his shotgun, looked at the dog, and said, “Come on, Mac.” The dog obeyed just like it had always been his name.
Mac followed my dad over to the fence row on three legs and pointed the covey. My dad flushed the birds and shot two.
“Dead bird, Mac,” said my dad.
Mac limped while retrieving both birds. He obviously was a seasoned bird dog. Dad figured he was about five years old and had been hunting for some time.
He put him up after that and let the dog’s leg heal. When the next season came, Mac proved to be an outstanding, dependable bird dog. In fact, Dad hunted Mac for three seasons before a milk man came by one morning and noticed Mac’s broken tail.
“How long you had that dog, Jack?”
“He came to the house about three years ago.”
“So you didn’t raise him?”
“No, sir.” And Dad told the whole story to the milk man, and added that no one had ever come looking for the dog, nor had he seen any lost dog signs at Galbreath’s store.
“Well,” said the milk man, “I know who the dog belongs to. But he’ll never hear from me that you have him. If he didn’t think enough of the dog to try to find him when he lost him, nor come looking for him after, he don’t deserve him.”
This was during a time when Sam Dorsey had bought the farm and was renting it to my grandparents. Sam was a bit of a blowpot and would come out with some of his Nashville friends with their dogs to hunt.
“These folks were well off and had slick, fat Setters they had paid big money for.”
My dad instructed my grandmother to never let Sam take Mac hunting if he wasn’t around to go with him.
“He doesn’t know Mac’s commands and he’ll have him so confused, it’ll take me a week to straighten him out.”
He also probably thought there was a good chance Mac could get shot.
Regardless, Sam came out one Saturday and brought his friends with their “slick English Setters.” Sam wanted to take Mac with them and my grandmother didn’t argue with him. After all, he was the landlord.
After a time, my dad returned, found out what happened, and joined the men in the field. The Setters were on point. They stood stylishly, like stiff-necked aristocrats — with their thick, wavy pearly-white coats, the silky feathering of their legs and high-pointed tails fluttering in the gentle breeze.
Mac with his old square head and broken tail stood behind them, honoring their points.
Mac looked back at my dad as if to say, “They ain’t got nothin’…”
“Sam, call your dogs,” said my dad. “They’re pointing a rabbit.”
“Aw, naw!” said Sam. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
One of the men walked passed the dogs, stomped around in the brush, and a rabbit ran out.
For the rest of the day, my dad handled Mac and they found plenty of birds. The Setters found nothing.
This was one of the proudest days in my dad’s life — and he’s not one to show pride.
Any time I have owned a good bird dog — and I’ve owned several — I will show him to my dad. Usually, to put on a little show, I’ll let the dog run in a field and I’ll give him hand signals to show how well he behaves.
My dad will always say, “He’s a goodlooking dog…You know, a man’s lucky to have one good dog in his life…I had a good bird dog once…Old Mac…”
And he will tell the Sam Dorsey story. I’ve heard it literally one thousand times. Sometimes he will work in the story about Mac retrieving a bird on a frozen pond and how he looked at my dad like, “How could you ask me to do something like that?”
“…and he never would go out on a pond again.”
I’ve heard that story about 500 times.
But I always let him tell those stories. I listen like it’s the first time I’ve heard them. I know some day he won’t be here.
So that’s why I tell the stories to you.