Donald was a cocky kid and thought he was tough and liked to show it. I guess my reputation for toughness preceded me because he never wanted to try me out in a fight. His mother was Juanita, a friendly lady and his dad was Ben, a friendly man. He had two brothers, Freddie and Gary David. His house always had a lawn and he kept it trimmed. His family was financially much better off than mine but that seemed not to matter. We played together and went to the river together. Donald could be braver than most because he always had an uncle around.
His dad’s brother, Jack, was there a lot of the time. He was about five years older than we kids were. He was a nice fellow and liked to be around Don and his friends. His other uncle, A J ‘Jake’ Redman, was also there sometimes. He was Juanita’s brother from Richmond and he had a reputation for being extremely tough.
Another friend I made was Utah Stephens. His real name was Carl Laverll but his Grandpa who raised him called him Utah and so that was his name. I think he took that from the old cowboy song,” Utah Carroll.”
The first time I saw Utah was one day when he was walking by my house. I said something to him and he gave me an answer I didn’t like so I took a poke at him on the shoulder. He wasn’t sure what to do so he went home. A little later I was skating on the road in front of the house and a girl walked up to me and asked if I was the one who was picking on her little brother. I said I was and she grabbed me around the neck and started punching me in the face. I struggled to fight back but, because I had on the skates, I couldn’t get a foothold. I also couldn’t stand up so she finally had to let me go because I was too heavy for her to hold up.
As I sat on the road taking my skates off, she left and told me not to pick on her brother anymore. I just cussed her and by the time I got my skates off, she was gone. Later that day I saw Donald Steely and told him about my run-in with Utah and his sister. Don said Utah was a good guy, new in the neighborhood, and his sister’s name was Merrilee. So the next time I saw Utah, we made friends. He was and still is a good guy and in later life we had some adventures together. Merrilee remained tough for as long as I can remember.
Utah was raised by his Grandpa and Grandma. He had a sister, Merrilee, and later she had a son who was raised by Pop Hampton, her grandpa. Pop Hampton’s name was Van Hampton. He lived to be about ninety-five years old.
The thing I remember about Pop and Mom Hampton was that they were very nice and quiet. Pop Hampton chewed a tobacco called Cotton Boll Twist. It was a bulk tobacco that was twisted in a rope and dried and cured. He would cut a piece from it with his pocketknife and chew it and spit in a can that was kept nearby. He was the first in the neighborhood to get a television set. That was about 1947. It was a 17-inch and his favorite program was championship wrestling. When we could, all of us kids and some other neighbors went to his house to watch wrestling on TV. It was a real treat. He doted on his grandkids and they loved him and Mom Hampton.
Another of my very first friends was Eugene Burgin. He lived on Hillside drive with his sisters and his mother and step-dad, Leonard Burgin. Eugene was a couple of years older than I was but he ran around with some of the same kids that I did, including me. He was a really good worker. He had a bunch of pigs he raised in his back yard, which was converted to a pigsty. Every morning before school, Eugene would make the rounds of the entire neighborhood and collect garbage for his pigs. He set it up with almost all the people in the neighborhood to save all their slop for him and he made his rounds every morning without fail, pulling a wagon with several large cans on it to hold the slop. He was always a good worker and, after he got old enough to drive a car, always earned his own money to service and drive it. I’ll have another story about these boys later on in this story.
Later I became friends with Gene’s uncle, Merle Burgin. Merle was younger than Eugene and Eugene didn’t call him, ‘uncle.’ We didn’t encourage Merle to go places with us. He seemed too young although he was almost my age.
I was a fat kid and, after a while, I began to be called,” Fat James,” by the kids and later by grownups, too. I resented it at first and had a few fistfights with some of the boys but, after the grownups started to think that was my name, I got used to it. None of my family or relatives called me Fat James. As it turned out, I was unique in my name and position in the neighborhood.