Darkness loomed over the rolling country side of beautiful, sleepy Doniphan, Missouri. In fact, Darkness loomed over the whole world. It was the 1930s; the days of the deep Depression. Food was scarce, and money was scarcer. Hitler was gaining power in Germany, and the inhumane fascist movement was exploding. These were dark days indeed.
Yet, within all the Darkness, a light shined out in the home of the William Borth family, a flicker of family love and unity. In our poverty we, especially Ma and Pa, trusted the Lord for our daily provisions; the wood to feed the cook stove, the meals we ate, and the clothes we wore. Every Sunday we went to Oak Grove Church, a little white country church where we worshipped and gleefully sang the hymns of old. It was there that my love for music began.
We had ten hungry mouths to feed, Ma and Pa and eight children, and sometimes bellies went hungry at bedtime. Squirrel and opossum were a treat, and Pa would slaughter a hog when he could. Pa also made the biscuits served with Hoover gravy in the morning. We didn’t need alarm clocks as the succulent aroma of the biscuits aroused our drowsy nostrils.
I loved and sparred with my seven siblings, but I was especially close to my three-years-older brother, Bill. We worked and played together, and I had to endure his tricks and teasings. He was funny and clever. I adored my oldest brother, Clyde; he was a superhero to me. He worked hard in the fields and earned extra money for the family’s survival. Ethel, my oldest sister was like a mother to me. She cooked and cleaned, and helped Ma with child care as there was always a baby in tow.
We all worked on our family farm in the day time, but there was also time for fun. We sang popular songs in the evenings and listened to music on the old wind-up Victrola. My favorite was the colorful harmonies of the Carter family. For dismal times, the sounds of music could be heard all day. We were the poorest of the poor, but, we, kids didn’t know it.
One day while Bill and I were on horses plowing the fields, we noticed Clyde trudging up the dusty road from town. In his hands he held a big mysterious package. All of us ran from our chores to view this special moment. We ran screaming his name, but all Clyde could do was grin a suspicious grin.
He finally stopped by our creaky old doorstep and slowly opened this unusually large and cumbersome bundle. Bill and I gasped in awe when we saw the bright shiny strings and polished wooden body of the Sear’s guitar. Ma and Pa gasped in anguish at its price – eight hard-earned dollars that Clyde had spent. Although that was a lot of money in those dismal times, the old Sear’s guitar proved to be a more than a worthwhile investment.
Clyde eagerly grabbed the guitar like it was a long lost lover. He strummed a few chords then burst into song, “You are My Sunshine.” Shivers of delight overwhelmed my heart, body, and soul. I knew I was in love, a lifelong love of the guitar.
Days went by while Clyde selfishly played on this prized possession. Bill and I teased him relentlessly until finally, he showed us a few notes and chords. We were naturals! We took to this guitar like ticks on a dog! It wasn’t very long before we were playing actual songs, singing, and thrilled with the magic this instrument made. All my brothers and sisters would join in the fun, humming, singing, and clapping, in merriment that the dark days of the Depression couldn’t suppress.
Some nights when the rosy sun went down, the fireflies were sparkling, and the crickets were chirping, Uncle Bird would visit, and we’d have a hootin’ hillbilly jamboree. Our spirits soared whenever he’d play the “Spanish Fandango.” We idolized him because his talent in strummin’ and singin’ was amazing. His fanciful guitar fingers sweetly haunt me to this very day.
My days were filled with plowing the fields, chopping wood, and carrying for the farm animals. I especially loved the dogs and the horses. Unfortunately, my favorite dog was poisoned and died, but I never ceased to love those critters. Many of the breed have crossed my life, and I’ve loved and taken care of them. All critters catch my heart, and they seem to love me too.
Poverty and hunger never ended, and it seemed like this Depression would last forever. We tired of empty bedtime belly aches, burnt crops, gangsters, begging hoboes and drifters. Yet some light brightened this dismal situation by the intervention of government programs. They helped put food on the tables of thousands of indigent people in the country. One noted program in our area was the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program for adolescent boys to work in agriculture and send most of their wages to their folks at home.
Arnold and Collins, (my buddies), and I bravely enlisted in this military-like program to help our folks at home. I was sixteen, naïve, but I gravitated towards the independence this program offered.
I packed up my meager belongings, but I had to leave my beloved guitar back home. Ma gave me a kiss, Pa shook my hand, and Arnold, Borth, and Collins, the ABCs of the CCC, were on their way to a new life.
Disappointment creased my brow when we finally arrived in Iowa. My hopes of being in Idaho, further west, were dashed. I had wanted the charm of the Old West like Brother Bill had encountered there.
Although Arnold and Collins were with me, at first I was so homesick that I could hardly eat or sleep. Gradually, I began to make more friends; some of whom I’ll never forget, none that could replace the bonds between Brother Bill and me. Eventually, I found an easy way to make friends by selling tobacco. Those Southern boys were really hooked on cigarettes, and my pal-making technique made lonely days more pleasant.
The days went by very quickly, and we spent our time clearing land, chopping wood, and plowing fields. The letters from home were few, but, needless to say, most of my paychecks were mailed to my folks. My buddies and I would run to the canteen and choose some candy or trinket to escape the loneliness and boredom.
At camp there were no phonographs or radio, but, most of all no music. I missed my music and guitar, deeply. My good friend, Orville Collins and I, often wondered what was happening in this world of arts. As we marched throughout the beautiful country side of Iowa, we’d stop and play at every honkey-tonk or nightclub we could. This experience helped me develop my confidence as a rhythm guitarist. Entertaining an audience raptured my soul.
My repertoire grew from “You Are My Sunshine” to “Grandpa’s Crutch, “Little Brown Jug,” and my proudest achievement, “San Antonio Rose.” I learned to pick like Uncle Bird, but I could never master “The Spanish Fandango.”
It was at CCC where I decided my life’s ambition – to become a Country and Western picker and singer. I was enthralled with the entertainment arts and enthusiastic with the movie antics of Hoot Gibson, Hop-a-long Cassidy, and Gene Autrey. There were many other theatre stars, which influenced me and helped me escape the misery of the Depression. I sought their fame and fortune, and I vowed never to be poor again.
I was discharged at age eighteen after having served one year. My wages had helped my folks a lot, and I had visions of family love and singing at my returned. I could smell Pa’s biscuits, hear Ma’s cooing at the babies, and feel Bill’s tickles. Instead I was welcomed by my vacant, boarded up home. There were no farm animals in sight and no lazy hounds to greet me. I felt disturbed, angry, and abandoned. I learned soon enough that Brother Bill was moving what was left of the clan to Detroit, MI, where the automobile industry was booming. Ethel and some of my other siblings were already living there.
Although I had dreams of moving west to Tuscan, Arizona, a town that charmed me in my CCC travels, I decided to try my luck in Detroit with them. I was a bit miffed, but I decided to go. We did have better luck in Detroit, and at least we never went hungry again. I never returned to Forshee Creek (Doniphan) or lived in Tuscan, but I remained and lived a good life in Detroit.
Today, 2013, I am 91 years old. My body is frail, but my soul is young. I dream of those days long ago when I was a strong, vibrant, country boy pickin’ and strummin’ on my beloved guitar. Most of my adult years were spent in Detroit where I laid down roots with my lovely wife, Helene. We raised three children in an asbestos bungalow in the suburbs. As the Bible teaches, we were rich enough not to go hungry and poor enough not to forget the Lord.
My music was soon confined to solitary strummin’. Sometimes at family gatherings my brothers, Clyde, Bill, Glenn, and I would play those old country jams. Our children loved it, but our wives showed some disdain. Deep in their hearts I know they loved our music sessions.
Like dreams of some young men, most of mine were dashed by this thing called “life.” Duties and obligations outweighed any fantasies I might have had. My family was so poor that I sent a lot of my money to them all their lives. My dream was also hindered by the call of Uncle Sam in the middle of World War II. And, Pa had a near death experience. I was called home to Doniphan to aid in this trial.
Some dreams don’t always come true on planet earth. Maybe it was my lack of confidence or persistence. Maybe it was my lack of life achieving skills, setting goals and reaping them one step at a time. My youth was consumed by survival skills and was dependent on the weather and food supplies. Music was just an amusement, not a necessity.
When I was just a young kid from Doniphan, Missouri, I never dreamed that I’d live to see the year 2013. So many things have happened with all kinds of people passing through my life. Most of my family and friends have passed on, and, truthfully, I am quite lonely. Yet, I count it a blessing to be alive at age 91 and see the advances in technology, arts, and sciences. I mourn for the decline of morals in our nation, the nation I proudly served in World War II.
My hope is that I leave a legacy of the love of music to all my heirs and descendants. My son, Tom, is especially talented on the guitar. He plays rock and all forms of music. Dean, my oldest son plays a little piano and guitar. My granddaughter, Jennifer, is a Presbyterian minister, and sings in the choir, church activities and nursing homes.
When I was a teenager at Oak Grove Church, I promised to follow the Lord with all my life. However, I lacked the faith to lead the godly kind of life my parents preferred. But, God has blessed me in many ways, and my life is complete. My cup overflows, and He holds the rest of my life in his hands.