First Things First
The first things I remember are frosty Carolina mornings with a cheery fire crackling in my momma's big, black woodstove.
There's no particular reason why you should remember October 28, 1936, unless you happen to be one of the handful of history buffs who know it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty standing in the harbor in New York.
The mood of the time was laid back and lethargic, the waning era of the Great Depression, and the last year of FDR's New Deal. Polio was a dreaded childhood disease. The Dodgers were in Brooklyn, the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world, and streetcars still rumbled down the streets of small-town America.
Cokes cost a nickel, hot dogs were a dime, and hemlines were well below the knee. Radio was king, and Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson were big stars.
It was seventy-one years after the end of the Civil War, twenty-three years since the Wright brothers made their short but historic flight up the coast at Kitty Hawk, and one year before Amelia Earhart's ill-fated attempt to fly around the world. But 1936 itself was a bland and ordinary year, absent of earth-shaking happenings and grandiose events.
One thing for sure is that the most inauspicious occurrence on October 28, 1936, took place at approximately 2:00 a.m. at James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina, when eighteen-yearold LaRue Daniel and nineteen-year-old William Carlton Daniel had their first and only child — me.
The bureaucratic foul-ups started on the first day of my life when somebody put an "s" on the family name of Daniel on my birth certificate. I became the first and only Daniels in my family.
They named me Charles Edward and took me home as hairless as a billiard ball and probably hungry, a state of affairs that has existed ever since, except that I did manage to grow a modicum of hair over time.
My very first memories are of snowflakes as big as goose feathers, a moon the color of new-made country butter, and a night sky like Van Gogh's "Starry Night." I remember cold mornings with a cheery fire crackling in Momma's big, black woodstove and waking up with the smell of breakfast cooking and how the early morning sunshine would make frost diamonds on the winter-brown broom grass in the field next to the house.
We had electricity but no plumbing. Our water source was a hand pump on the back porch. We cooked and heated with wood and took baths in the same galvanized washtub Momma used to do the laundry.
Did you ever take a bath in a galvanized washtub on a cold night? The side next to the fire is roasting, and the side away from the fire is close to hypothermia. You're red on one side and blue on the other.
Our sanitary facility was the kind you had to walk to. And yes, it's true, folks; the back issues of the Sears and Roebuck catalog really did spend their dotage in the little house behind the big house, growing thinner by the day, titillating the imaginations of little boys who sat there ogling the scantily clad models in the lingerie section.
It was a time when hardly anybody locked a door. We always had a handout for the occasional itinerant, or "tramp" as we called them, and most men's word was better than any contract a lawyer could draw up.
There were no atheists in my world. We believed that everything that existed was created by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God. We believed in heaven and hell, the virgin birth, and Jesus Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross. We believed He rose from the dead and would one day return to claim His rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords.
That's just how it was and how it still is with me.
I was about the forty-leventh grandchild born on my daddy's side of the family. But I was the very first on my mother's side, a fact that carried a considerable bit of weight until the advent of several more grand-siblings, who siphoned off a goodly portion of my exclusive adult adoration.
My maternal grandparents lived just down the Carolina Beach Road from us. At the time I came along, my mother's two sisters, Ruby and Greta, and her brother Buster were still living at home. Of course, I was the epicenter of attention, and don't think I didn't take advantage of the situation.
My mother was an exceptionally pretty woman who had tremendous respect for education, which I think stemmed from never finishing high school. She had to quit school and stay home to help with the work and the younger children.
This was not an uncommon practice in those days. Times were hard, and keeping food on the table and the family taken care of was considered much more important than finishing high school.
My mother never stopped educating herself and worked hard learning the things she missed out on in school. She eventually became a bookkeeper, dealing with intricate math. This was in the days before computers, when columns of numbers were added on hand-operated adding machines and the sums entered into a book with a fountain pen.
Although she had regretted not getting a high school diploma, more than anything else she had wanted her class ring. When I got mine, she was some kind of proud.
I never told her that years later, on a wild night in El Paso, I pawned it for three dollars and never got it back. Just one of the many things I've done in my life that I'm not proud of.
My daddy knew more about timber than any man I ever knew. He could look at a pine tree and tell you how many board feet of lumber it had in it or what kind of pole or piling it would make. He could cruise a tract of standing timber and tell you what it was worth. Millions of dollars changed hands on nothing more than Carl Daniel's word.
My maternal grandfather was the epitome of a man's man: physically strong and capable, a mighty hunter and fisherman. He was a natural leader with the instincts of a frontiersman and was definitely the undisputed patriarch of our family.
He could build a house or a boat, raise a crop, skin a deer, or run a trotline. Once, in his youth, he picked up a bale of cotton by himself. Graham Hammonds was gentle, charitable, and strongly devout in his later years, and I don't believe there was anything he feared other than his Creator.
He commanded a great deal of respect, and everybody knew him as Mr. Graham.
My maternal grandmother, Mattie, stood just over five feet tall, and if God ever made a sweeter woman, I never had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.
When it came to Southern cooking, she was the master, and in my book, she had no equal. She was loving and gentle, and I'm sure that the time I spent with her helped make up the positive side of me.
I never got to know my paternal grandfather, as Poppa Billy died when I was only four years old, but Grandma Daisy lived until I was in my late teens. She was the prototype of a grandma: good-natured and jolly, a righteous woman who loved the Lord and could quote Scripture to fit just about any situation.
Grandma Daisy and Poppa Billy raised nine children on a small Carolina tobacco farm in a house with no electricity and no running water and instilled in them a sense of right and wrong and a strong work ethic.
They're all gone now. But I know in my heart that this world is a better place for having them pass through it.
My early childhood consisted of tricycles, puppies, swimming in the creek, picking sand spurs out of my toes, and trying to avoid red ant hills, or at least that's how I remember it.
The first songs I learned to sing were the gospel song "Kneel at the Cross" and "You Are My Sunshine." I don't even remember learning them. It just seemed I had always known them.
The first song I remember getting emotional about was one my dad sang to me titled "Hobo Bill," the tale of a railroad bum dying alone in a cold boxcar. It could literally reduce me to tears.
I don't recall how old I was when we got our first radio. But I do remember bringing it home and turning it on and, right then, beginning a lifelong fascination with a little box that rocked my world.
There was The Lone Ranger, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Jack Benny. Then there was a scary show called Inner Sanctum that Momma and Daddy would listen to after they went to bed with the lights off. I'd hunker down under the covers in my little bed and see boogers all over the room.
But most of all, what radio brought into our home was music, all kinds of music. Big bands were popular in those days, and the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Harry James, and scores of others were all the rage. Many of them had their own radio programs or were featured on comedy or variety shows.
Sunday featured gospel music, from the dignified choirs of the big churches to the energetic, guitar-powered Pentecostal praise and worship to the earthy harmonies of black spiritual songs. It all poured out of our radio.
There were even shows like Afternoon with the Masters that featured classical, or what we called "long-haired music." Everybody I knew avoided it like the plague.
But the premier night of the week was Saturday and the radio show that our whole neighborhood was glued to. The fifty-thousand-watt clear-channel voice of WSM boomed into coastal Carolina at night like a local station, bringing the Grand Ole Opry into the homes of adoring fans all over the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest.
There was Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, and Bill Monroe. Uncle Dave Macon would pick his five-string banjo and sing about tencent cotton and forty-cent meat, how in the world can a poor man eat. The square dancers would prance around to the lively hoedown sounds of the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the taps on their shoes clapping out the rhythm as they sashayed across the stage. We all listened and tried to imagine what it would be like to actually be there.
It was an energetic, entertaining, and unparalleled hunk of Americana and made a profound impression on my young life. I listened in awe, having not a clue that one day I would stand on that same stage and go out over those same airwaves.
I was raised in an atmosphere of love by parents who believed that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. My mother could wield a switch with the aplomb of an Olympic fencer, a talent she shared with most of the mothers of that era.
The corporal punishment was meted out in accordance with the degree of the transgression. If it was a minor infraction, Momma would do the honors. However, if I stepped too far over that fragile line, Momma would bring out the big guns, "We'll just wait until your daddy gets home," which doubled the punishment because you had to dread it the rest of the day.
My parents always explained exactly why I was being punished, and looking back, as the old saying goes, "I never got a lick amiss."
My love and respect for cowboys and all things Western started with those black-and-white cowboy movies that played in almost every theater in the South every Saturday afternoon. There was Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Sunset Carson, Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, and Lash LaRue. Of course I had my favorites, but I loved them all.
They all had basically the same theme. The man who ran the local saloon had a gang of outlaws who robbed stagecoaches, rustled cattle, and tried to run people off their land. Usually the same bunch of actors played the outlaws in all the movies, and as soon as they appeared on the screen, every kid in the place knew who the bad guys were.
They wore the same clothes and hats and rode the same horses whether they were robbing a stagecoach or hanging around the saloon. Except for the bandanna masks they donned for their dastardly deeds, they looked exactly the same. But for some reason, nobody could figure out who was making all the mischief.
The country would be in chaos, terrorized by a band of desperadoes nobody could identify.
Enter the hero. He'd walk into the saloon, beat up five or six guys, shoot the gun out of somebody's hand, foil the evil plans of the outlaws, say goodbye to the girl, hop onto his silver mounted saddle, and lope off into the setting sun.
They would never do anything as boring as kiss a girl. The mushier stuff was reserved for John Wayne and Randolph Scott and the guys who made what we called "high-class Westerns." They ran during the week, along with the dreaded "love movies," which were anything that didn't feature cowboys or Tarzan.
The boys who did the high-class Westerns kissed girls, got married, and occasionally even got shot, but Saturday's heroes had never been known to take a bullet. They were tall in the saddle, fast on the draw, and the undisputed darlings of the short-pants set.
Every boy's prized possession was his cap pistol. You usually got it for Christmas and ran out of caps in a couple of days. Then you had to make the sound of gunfire with your mouth, "Pow, pow. Got him."
Those old Saturday Westerns were so heavily scored that the music was about as important as the plot and had to be included when you mounted your broomstick horse and played cowboy. "Make out like me and you are coming down off this mountain and see this bunch of fellers rustling cattle. Let's go! Dun de dun. Pow Pow. Dun de dun. Pow Pow." We never missed.
Occasionally, the theaters would have live acts between the movies, sometimes variety shows. I guess they were the dregs of a dying vaudeville. But my favorite was when some country music artists would bring their road show to town. The music, the costumes, the lights, and the overall ambiance would totally enthrall me, and I think that's where the fantasy of being onstage first started. The idea of standing in front of a crowd of people playing an instrument and singing has always excited me. It still does.
When I was five years old, something happened that would change our world and help form many of my attitudes for the rest of my life.
It was a bleak, cold Sunday afternoon in December. The whole family was gathered at my grandmother's house when word came over the radio that the Imperial Japanese Air Force had bombed the US naval base in Pearl Harbor.
President Roosevelt declared war. The news fell like a ton of bricks on the shoulders of a nation already deeply concerned about losing sons on the battlefields of Europe. President Roosevelt said that December 7, 1941, would be a day that would live in infamy.
It was also the day America got her back up. The shock wore off and the mobilization was on. Provoked by aggression, fueled by patriotism, and empowered by almighty God, the American people had no doubt they would be victorious. Even in the darkest days of the war when the fighting went badly and the casualty lists were high, we listened to FDR and war commentator Gabriel Heatter and said our prayers knowing full well that no swastika or rising sun would ever fly above our beloved United States of America.
Brokenhearted mothers buried their sons, hung a gold star in the window, and got back to the business at hand. The war effort was in high gear, and seeing this nation operating at 100 percent was an awesome sight.
Recycling is not a new idea. It peaked during the war years as tin cans, old newspapers, scrap metal, and even used cooking grease were saved and collected to play some small part in winning. Hollywood did its part with movies like The Fighting Seabees and The Sands of Iwo Jima. When you saw John Wayne up there on the big screen, you got the feeling we just couldn't lose.
Besides making scores of patriotic films, movie stars volunteered for active duty. Others did USO tours or appeared at war bond rallies. The Hollywood of the war years and the Hollywood of today are a stark contrast.
Wilmington, North Carolina, is a seacoast town and was strategically important to the war efforts because of the port facilities and a shipyard. German U-boats lay in wait in the waters a few miles off our coastline to sink the oil tankers leaving the port of Wilmington to supply our troops fighting the war in Europe.
It was said that sometimes the ships were sunk close enough to the shoreline that the glow of the burning tankers could be seen from the beaches along our coast.
The war was very real to us. In the days before sophisticated communications and satellite technology to keep up with the enemy, we never knew if the Germans would try to bring the fight on shore.
Slogans like "loose lips sink ships" were prominently on display, and we had air raid drills and rationing. The enlistment offices did a brisk business, and everybody had a father, brother, or uncle who had gone to war.
Due to a badly set broken arm that wouldn't straighten out, my dad was classified as 4F, which meant unfit for service.