In an earlier edition of this publication, I briefly mentioned an elderly man who lived on our farm named Elijah. The response was positive, and I decided a man this unique deserved more than a couple of paragraphs.
Elijah lived in an old house constructed by my great-grandfather in eastern Cleburne County. It was just across the dirt road from my grandparents’ house. With my Grandfather’s permission back in the early 1950s, Elijah cleaned out the structure which had formerly been used to house white, leghorn laying hens, and moved in with pretty much the clothes on his back which consisted of overalls, a long sleeve shirt, no socks and leather, plow boots.
Elijah served in the army during World War I and had never been married or had children. He knew how to survive on very little because he had little. He rented six acres on which he grew cotton to buy his essentials like clothes, flour, fatback, coffee and liquor when a financial surplus presented itself.
I was born in 1966, and by 1976, I was a regular visitor. My grandparents always told me not to go up there when he was singing because that meant he was drinking. Well, telling that to a 10-year-old boy was like trying to keep a hound from a hot, buttered biscuit.
At this time, Elijah was around 90 years old, and his diet consisted of the harvest from a small garden beside a creek, opossums, fish from the creeks, snapping turtles, fatback and water bread make by simply mixing water with flour. I walked in on one of Elijah’s singing episodes one day, and he looked at his pint bottle and said, "You know, they say this stuff will kill you, but it sure takes a long time."
During a hot, July trip across the state line into Georgia to sell hogs, Elijah had accompanied my Grandfather so he could buy coke fuel, which is a byproduct of coal, for his small stove. The coke looked similar to lava rocks and distributed and held heat evenly. Since the one-ton truck with cattle panels would be empty on the return trip, this would allow a ton of coke to be loaded and carried home for Elijah.
On the way, Elijah had stated his desire to try a fine, cultured drink like champagne. They stopped at one of the establishments that sold fine, cultured drinks since our own county in Alabama was dry at the time. Elijah purchased a two dollar bottle. The next stop was lunch at a small café during which time the bottle would be left locked in the truck. Champagne doesn’t keep well if stored in a truck with black, vinyl seats, no air conditioning and the windows rolled up on a scorching, July day.
On returning to the vehicle after lunch, Elijah asked if it would be ok if he took a sip of his treasured purchase, and my Grandfather said, "I guess one sip wouldn’t hurt you." Elijah screwed off the top of the bottle, and what happened next looked like a New Year’s Day celebration and Nascar Winner’s Circle. The champagne spewed until there were only two inches left in the bottle. Elijah took two big gulps and said, "I shoulda saved that two dollars for something that woulda lasted longer."
Elijah would regularly accompany us on trips to take hogs to the sale, and I always loved to hear his perspective. Once we were riding past the campus of West Georgia College during class changes. I noticed Elijah was studying the campus carefully. On the return trip past the college, he said, "That’s the biggest cotton mill I’ve ever seen. Just look at all them workers."
During July, Elijah would take his pocket knife to a pair of boots that were fairly-well worn out. He would cut strips out of the leather. What he ended up with was a comfortable, breathable pair of lace up sandals, which he referred to as his "sanders." In today’s economy, that same pair of footwear would cost upwards of $60.
When planting his small garden, Elijah would plant three kernels of corn in the place of one. I once asked him why he did this. He said, "I plant one for the crows, one for the deer and one for me."
Elijah would often use old magazine photos, pages and old calendars to decorate his inside walls. I realized later he did this to keep the cold air out from between the cracks in the wood. It’s interesting to see old, crumbled magazine paper on the wall now with advertisements from the 1960s. There were ads like, "More doctors smoke Lucky Strike."
On one page, there was an ad photo picturing a happy, healthy, family of four running across the beach, and they had that 1950s wholesome look about them. The caption read, "We’re healthy because we eat lard. (Sponsored by the National Lard Council)"
Elijah was a simple man of contentment. His lack of teeth never stopped him from showing a continual, huge grin. The only time he was ever witnessed worrying was when he thought he was going to run out of salt.
Despite his occasional departures from sobriety, Elijah loved the Lord and he would often quote scripture while working, whittling or warming himself in front of his little coke-burning stove. I don’t guess I ever saw him when he wasn’t completely content. He lived life on the simplest of terms, but he loved the simplest things of life.
Elijah died at the ripe age of 96, and he left behind many self-reliant tips for ingenuity I still use today.
The house he lived in remains because the tight-grained, slow-growth, longleaf pine planks have stood the test of time. Like the many rings in those timber cross-sections, Elijah’s life circled the globe in World War I, but he was happy to spend his twilight years at the circle’s origin in Alabama.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.