Landless Whites

Walker Evans took the pictures for James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families.  Note that word “tenant.”  Interestingly in that regard many of the pictures in the Library of Congress of the rural south during the Great Depression are characterized as depictions of “landless whites.”  I don’t recollect having seen pictures captioned “landless blacks.”  I don’t think one had tograndpaporch characterized blacks as landless; that was assumed.  But “landless whites” were a particular social category, particular enough that the phrase could be used as a tool to sort through the thousands of pictures of the rural poor taken by people like Evans, Marion Post Wilcott, and Dorothea Lange.

My Grandfather, William Berner Tingle, was for a considerable while landless. My father, William Berner Tingle, Jr., remembered having moving from house to house at least half a dozen times in his childhood.  By the 20’s the family fortunes had decayed almost completely.  Land can be divided up only so many times between all those sons, and by the time my Grandfather came along there wasn’t any left.

I don’t know for sure that he was a tenant farmer or sharecropper.  I expect he was.  But as far as I can tell, he was also an odd jobber.  So if he rented, I am not sure that he planted crops for much other than his own consumption and to sell to get some cash money for things like sugar, coffee, and clothes. Some of the Tingles seem to have had an entrepreneurial streak, and somewhere along the line Grandpa Tingle acquired a mobile saw mill.

He would scope out the territory and go up to the landowners who had a good stand of pine and say he would cut them down and sell them for a percentage.  He kept himself and a crew of four to six men busy for years with that saw mill.  That’s how he acquired the money to buy a few acres in Ora, South Carolina.  He was no longer landless, and on that land he built from wood he had cut the house he sits in front of in this picture.

He was a man known in that small community to have a one hell of a temper.  Part of that may be genetic; many members of the line have a tendency to fly off the handle.  But I think too he was in chronic pain.  He had asthma as the result, some believe, of having a tractor buck up on him and crush his chest.  Also he had hemorrhoids of a near Olympian variety.  The story goes that to be able to sit in his car he stretched across the metal frame of the driver’s seat a tractor inner tube with a hole cut in the middle large enough to accommodate the hemorrhoids.

He died pretty young in his early 50’s I think of a heart attack that occurred, according to some reports, in the middle of a raging fit about the price of sugar.  He smoked.  If you look closely at the picture, you can see a cigarette between the fingers of his left hand.  He also drank.  My father reports that he was sent not infrequently to the local store to buy a bottle of Old Crow.  The bottle was then usually secreted in the hollow of tree stump, hidden out of sight but of ready access.

Friday Night Out

I read this article where a working class academic took umbrage with his middle class academic colleagues when they described those who supported gun control as rednecks whose idea of a big pacificoceanFriday night out was going to Wal-Mart.  How could such people who would never think to stereotype a woman or a minority person or a gay person stereotype so completely members of the working class?

Hell, I say if the shoe fits wear it.  My idea of big outing, in light of my working class background, is going to Costco.  My idea of a really big outing is taking a truck load of crap to the dump.  The dump is usually pretty exciting and you get to throw all that shit out on the ground, and the whole place has a powerful odor and lots of birds, plus big tractors and shit like that.  I always found trips to the dump fulfilling.  What the hell is wrong with going to Wal-Mart or Costco or the dump?  If I really felt middle class people had better things to do on Friday nights I might be envious.

My parents never went on outings.  I have absolutely no recollection of their ever having gone out for example to a movie.  They had two big outings:  Church on Sunday, and Friday evening a trip to the grocery store.  Because they went out to get groceries on Friday evening, the old man frequently bought a roasted chicken at the local market, so there wouldn’t be much to clean up after before they headed out to the grocery store, and when they got back we had to run out to the car immediately and bring the shit in because be damned if the old man was going to carry one of those bags in not when he had us slaves to do it for him.

We did have the obligatory family outing every summer when I was in elementary and maybe junior high to the beach.  Since we were an hour or so drive to the Pacific Ocean I guess we had to take advantage of its presence.  These were dreadful affairs rife with potentials for disaster.  First, since these trips involved roasting weenies, we had to find the ice chest, the charcoal, the charcoal lighter fluid, and the hibachi like thing the old man used to roast the weenies.  By the time we had rounded up the shit necessary to make the trip, I was usually a nervous wreck.

That was followed by the drive.  Before they put in the freeway, there were actually stop lights, and it seemed every time we made the fucking beach trip half the city had also decided to go there.  This made for much swearing and cursing and pleading on the part of the old lady for the old man to drive more carefully.  Then the ultimate horror was locating a parking place near where my mother liked to go on the beach, a place without much sand but with tide pools for educational purposes.  The looking for a parking place could go on for some time attended throughout by cursing and whimpering.  Then there was lighting the fucking coal in the fucking hibachi…

So we usually ended up drinking some lukewarm soft drink and eating weenies in buns with sand in them.  Fuck but I would much rather have gone to Wal-Mart.