Monday, March 24, 2014

Hardscrabble


© Guyspencer 2014
Hardscrabble

It was a hardscrabble day, a hardscrabble time, and a hardscrabble place.  It was the depth of the depression in rural North Carolina.  The mill was old and run down, orders were increasingly scarce.  Prices, and therefore wages, were low.  The night shift was a thing of the past, and the evening shift was in danger.  The workers were under constant pressure to produce more, and to work for less.  In particular, the “stretch-out” system doubled the looms each worker was responsible for, while at the same time reducing wages.  Union talk was dangerous.  It could get you instantly fired.  If a worker lost his job, he also lost his mill-owned cottage, putting his family on the street.  The “blacklist” could condemn any worker to permanent unemployment.  If necessary, mill owners had been known to hire thugs to shut down any worker organization.

Sited alongside the south fork of the Catawba river, the Springs Shoals mill and its surroundings were entirely owned by an absentee owner, Rufus McAden.  That means everything, the worker’s homes, the company store, and even the church were all wholly owned by Mr. McAden.  Therefore, should that evening shift be eliminated, some cottages will go empty because their occupants will be too poor to rent them.

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The day was hot.  Hand in hand, a woman and her daughter walked past the mill towards the company store.  They both wore long shabby dresses.  Their bare feet kicked up dust from the unpaved road.  The woman was slim.  Her daughter was 15.  Hidden under her dress, the girl’s body was rapidly ripening, swelling in all the correct places with fresh reproductive promise.  A truck drove by, forcing the two to walk through a cloud of dust.  The dust settled on the mother’s face.  A rivulet of sweat washed away a streak of dust.  The girl didn’t seem to sweat, so her dusty face wasn’t so obvious.

In the store, the daughter wandered around while her mother ordered a few groceries.  She ordered carefully.  Because this was a company story, most purchases were deducted straight from her husband’s pay.  Unlike certain legends, the store didn’t allow debt, so she had to choose frugally.  Today’s meal would be pinto beans and cornbread, augmented with a few collard greens from their dusty little garden.  Meat was something they could afford only occasionally.

Neither the store clerk nor the mother paid the girl any attention as they did their business.

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The mother and the girl retraced their steps back to their home.  As they passed the mill town’s little church, the Pastor waved from the front porch, “Hi Mrs. Rankin, Hi Millie.”  The mother waved back with all the cheerfulness she could muster, but the daughter looked away to hide the guilty look on her face.

As they walked, they could see the Superintendent’s house up on the hill.  Samuel Grisdale and family lived in that house.  Millie knew that the Grisdale’s had three children, but she saw little of them.  The oldest, a boy, was always away at school.  There he was being groomed to join the next generation of mill superintendents. The girl was kept aloof, for fear that she might consort with the local boys, who were of too lowly a class for her.  The youngest Grisdale child was a toddler who was tended by an English nanny whom Millie saw only in church.            

Millie couldn’t know, but the high and mighty Grisdales sprang from poor workers in English textile mills only two generations ago.  Luckily for them, Mr. Grisdale’s grandfather had brought his expertise to America just when it was needed for the burgeoning textile industry there.  From then on, the Grisdale clan prospered.   

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Finally home, Millie halfheartedly helped her mother prepare supper.  The beans needed to be soaked on the stove, the collards needed washing, and the cornbread needed mixing.  As soon as possible Millie asked to be excused. 

Millie disappeared into her bedroom.  She was lucky to have a bedroom of her own.  Most of the cottages had a single bedroom, regardless of the size of the family that occupied them.  Millie’s father, Joe Rankin, was the day shift supervisor.  That meant that Millie’s cottage was larger than the others.  It was located “front and center” directly across from the mill entrance.  It even had a private outhouse.  Other cottages shared communal facilities.  So as poor as Millie’s family was, they were better off than other workers.  Her mother was among the few who didn’t work alongside their husbands in the mill.

With no electricity, no radio and certainly no TV, it could get very quiet in these cottages.  The loudest machine in the cottage was the generations-old clock that ticked high on a shelf.  The walls were thin, cheaply built.  Perhaps that’s why Millie’s mother heard an unusual rattle of crinkly paper in Millie’s room.  More curious than suspicious, she opened the door.  Seeing her bedroom door unexpectedly open, Millie stood frozen.  She was caught with half a Hershey bar in her hand and a classically guilty look on her face.     

Since mother knew that Millie didn’t have a penny to her name, the candy bar was a surprise.  It only took her a moment to remember Millie wandering around the company store by herself.  Moments later, she had Millie’s confession.

 
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Mother sat at the kitchen table to think.  Millie sat in her bedroom, crying loudly. 

What to do?

Dealing with the remains of the candy bar was an easy choice.  No food was ever thrown away in this house, so it went into the ice box for possible inclusion in a cake.  But what to do about the theft?  Mother had to balance several things in her mind.  First, simply ignoring the stolen candy bar was impossible.  The clerk at the store would miss it.  Worse, it would come out of his pay!  He wouldn’t be able to prove who did it, but Millie would forever be marked as a suspected thief.

Foremost on mother’s mind was a poor person’s rigid pride.  The Rankins might be poor, but they weren’t trash, and they sure as hell weren’t thieves!       

Naturally, her religion wasn’t far from her thoughts.  “Thou shalt not steal” were words this family lived by.

Also, what was best for Millie?  Simply hiding her theft would leave her guilty and confused.  That would never do!  Also, what about her standing in the community?  If they did nothing, Millie would be a suspected thief.  Better that she confess,  and then let everybody know that she had been seriously punished!  That way, people would simply view her as a punished child who would be unlikely to repeat that particular mistake. 

“Yes, that’s what I’ll do,” mother decided.  Make her confess and apologize.  After that, Millie must be punished in the most public way possible so everyone knew that she wasn’t coddled and would never steal again!

There was one final thought on mother’s mind.  She wanted to protect Millie from the possibly dangerous wrath of her father.  Joe Rankine was a good man, a churchgoer, and a loving father.  But he also was uneducated, rough-cut and had a quick Irish temper.  He would take this as a blow to his considerable family pride.  So mother had to finish Millie’s punishment before Joe returned from his shift at the mill, leaving nothing for Joe to do.  For Millie’s own good, she had to mark her daughter’s bottom so severely that her father wouldn’t dare add more punishment.

Mother had a bit of pin money in the kitchen, less than a dollar.  They didn’t have much credit left at the store, so she fished out a nickel to pay for the candy bar.  Along with the nickle, she placed an old pocket knife in her pocket.
 
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Hand-in-hand, mother and Millie walked back to the company store.  A solemn bit of theater ensued wherein Millie tearfully confessed to the store clerk and offered her abject apology.  Mother paid for the candy bar and assured the man, “You can tell anyone who wants to know, that us Rankins ain’t no thieves.  Millie is goin’ up the hill to that willow tree in the Grisdale’s yard to cut herself some switches.  When I get her home, she’s in for the whippin of her life!  You can be sure, after she gets that whippin, she ain’t ever goin’ to steal agin!”

Millie had already guessed her punishment, but hearing that announcement induced a new torrent of tears.

When they left the store, Millie’s vision swam with tears.  However, she could see well enough to tell that the Pastor wasn’t still sitting on the church porch.  She was relieved, sure that her mother would have made her confess to him.

She wasn’t so lucky at the Grisdale house.  They knocked at the back door.  Mabel, the Grisdale’s housekeeper and a distant cousin of the Rankins, answered the door.   Millie was made to request permission to cut herself some switches.  She tried, but her mother wouldn’t let her get away without confessing to Mabel why she was to be whipped.

Using her mother’s pocket knife, Millie tearfully selected three switches.  Mother rejected two of them, so the dejected girl had to find two larger ones.  Two boys watched from a distance.  From personal experience, they knew the purpose of those switches.  They wanted to razz Millie, but a dark look from her mother made them decide otherwise.

With Millie holding the switches and hoping that nobody noticed them, they walked back down the hill towards their cottage.

 
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They approached their cottage from the rear.  As they passed the outhouse, mother suggested that Millie use the facilities.  No stranger to whippings in her own girlhood, mother knew that they were best taken with an empty bladder.  She waited for Millie to emerge from the odiferous hut, and then escorted her into their cottage.  Millie handed over the switches, “I’m sorry mommy.”

Mother looked up at the clock, then spoke sadly as she unbuttoned the back of Millie’s dress, “I’m ‘fraid you’re about to be a lot sorrier Honey.  I must do a good ‘nuf job on your bottom so your father won’t add any with his belt.  Now go in your room and take off your dress and panties.  You think ‘bout why you’re about to get whupped.  The instant you hear the shift change bell, you come out here.”

Millie’s eyes bugged.  Until now she had seemed resigned to her punishment, “No Mommy, not that!  Everybody will hear.  Please Mommy!  Whup me now!”    

“Someday you’ll understand why I must do it that way,” mother said firmly as she turned Millie and propelled her towards her room.

 
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Inside her plain closet-like bedroom, Millie cried loudly as she stripped off her long, slightly threadbare dress.  Her baggy old cotton panties came off next.  They had once been white, and once without holes.  That left her wearing only a plain, yellowing hand-me-down bra.
 
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Mother fussed with supper preparations, trying to distract herself from thoughts of Millie’s imminent whipping.  Still, she wasn’t able to stop herself from stealing frequent glimpses at that loud old clock.  Except for the bedrooms, the cottage was all one room.  It was simple and plain, but it was always kept clean and neat.  “Clean and neat ‘cause the Rankins ain’t trash,” mother thought to herself with a bit of satisfaction.  The kitchen featured a small wood range, an ice box, and a basin under a hand pump.  A small table sat near the range with four chairs around it.  The table was bare except for those three waiting switches.  She moved the chairs away from the sturdy old table.  The windows were already open for ventilation.  Mother pulled down the tattered window shades.  There was little breeze, so they would provide sufficient privacy.    

Checking the clock again, mother sighed.  She had little enthusiasm for the job ahead of her.

Operated by water power, the mill had no steam plant to operate a whistle, so a church-style bell served to regulate its schedule.  Fifteen minutes before the end of the day shift, the bell rang to summon the evening shift.  Because of the central location of the Rankin’s cottage, nearly every worker on that shift would soon be streaming by.

Naked save for her bra, her hands concealing her lowest curls, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, Millie hesitantly crept into the room.  Unaccustomed to nakedness, both mother and daughter blushed.  Millie saw the shades blowing in the languid breeze and begged, “At least close the windows.”

Mother ignored her entreaties.  Her mouth set into a firm line, she picked up the heaviest switch before pointing Millie to the table.   By now, male and female voices could clearly be heard outside.  Talking and joking, the first members of the evening shift walked towards the mill entrance, passing within a few feet of the cottage’s blind-covered open windows.       

Automatically, but not without an audible sob, Millie bent over the table and took a white-knuckled grip of the far side.  With her left hand firmly pining Millie’s torso into place, mother swallowed hard, cleared her throat, and then raised the switch high.
 
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Outside, conversation suddenly stopped when the workers heard Mrs. Rankin’s voice announce loudly, “Rankins ain’t trash, and they ain’t thieves!”

The younger workers, those whose ears hadn’t yet been ruined by the loud clatter of the mill’s looms, clearly heard the impact of a switch against flesh.  They heard only a few of those sharp “Thwick” sounds before they heard the first feminine shriek, followed by a shrill apology.  If they hadn’t already guessed, they now knew that it was young Millie on the receiving end of a serious whipping from her mother.  Thanks to Mrs. Rankin’s loud scolding as she delivered that whipping, they also knew the reason for Millie’s punishment.

Everybody at least unconsciously slowed down to listen.  Most walked on, saying something like “Judging from those sounds, we know that Millie will never do THAT again.”  But one young man, Richard Cramer, stopped open-mouthed and gaped at the open window, accurately picturing the scene behind that ragged paper blind.  He had seen Millie many times, but this was the first time that he had seriously thought about her bare bottom.  As he stood there transfixed, his heavy work pants developed a bulge.

An older coworker came along and jarred Richard back to reality with a friendly slap on the back.  “Let’s give Millie a bit of privacy huh?”

Blushing, Richard resumed his trip into the mill.  For the rest of his days, he would remain obsessed with Millie’s bottom.       

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Those people outside didn’t know it, but Mrs Rankin had just recruited them as messengers.  There were two messages.  The first was to her husband.  As she had intended, several people from the oncoming shift told him that his daughter was “Getting it good.” and that apparently she had stolen something.  Joe turned red with fury and embarrassment!  Rankins ain’t thieves!

“Don’t worry,” one man told him, “Your wife is taking care of things.  When she gets done you won’t need to worry about that young lady!”  That was exactly the message that Mrs. Rankin wanted her husband to get, that his daughter had already been well-punished and had no need of further fatherly punishment.   

Mrs, Rankin’s second message was to the entire community.  It was simply that her daughter had made a childish error and had been properly punished for it.  Therefore, she was unlikely to repeat that bad behavior.   The news spread through the village at the speed of gossip.  Within ten minutes, the store clerk knew for sure that Millie’s thievery had been corrected. 

Soon, all would be forgotten.  Tomorrow, some other mill child would be whipped for some other childish crime and Millie’s thievery would be old news.

Despite that severe and public whipping, Mrs. Rankin had done her daughter a huge favor.  She had preserved Millie’s bottom from the harshness of her father’s belt, and her openness had preserved Millie’s reputation in the community.  Even here in this rough community, children were allowed to make mistakes, providing that they were properly corrected!

 
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In the house, Mrs. Rankin had finally finished her grim duty.  It hadn’t been a pretty sight!  Mrs Rankin had started with the heaviest switch to quickly break down Millie’s defenses.  As soon as she had Millie shrieking in full voice, she had changed to a lighter, but still painful stick. 

She had held Millie’s torso down to the table, but that didn’t stopped the girl’s bottom half from performing a lewd dance as the switch tattooed crisscrossed welts onto her bottom and legs.  As her feet kicked, she displayed her rapidly-maturing innermost feminine secrets to her mother. 

At times like this, a mother thinks many thoughts, usually all at once.  Girls married young in those days, so her daughter’s physical maturity made Mrs. Rankin realize that Millie wouldn’t be living at home much longer.  Also, the sight made her doubly thankful for her decision to punish Millie herself.  No father could comfortably see his own daughter displayed like this.

She hadn’t rushed the whipping.  As she worked, she continued her loud scolding, more for the benefit of her unseen audience than for Millie.  Before she was finished, every square inch of Millie’s bottom was covered in welts, from the top of her bottom crack almost down to the backs of her knees.  Millie’s bottom would have no unmarked spots to invite her father’s belt. 

By the time the last of the evening shift straggled by, it was finally over.  Poor Millie lay across the table; limp, exhausted, hurting, and still sobbing loud enough to be clearly heard outside.

After carefully checking her work, mother helped Millie to her feet.  She positioned her facing the wall next to her bedroom door, her striped bottom on display.  The girl sobbed, danced in place, and gingerly explored her bottom with her fingertips.
 
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She had less than ten minutes to wait before her father came bustling into the house.  As mother had intended, his temper had been given time to run its course.  Embarrassed by Millie’s display, but seeing that his wife indeed had done a good job on Millie’s bottom, he satisfied himself with  giving her a loud but perfunctory scolding.  Still, Millie shook in fear, afraid that her father would remove his belt to use on her.  In the end, Joe ordered her into her room with orders to dress herself.  Exactly as her mother had planned, Millie sidled into her room without showing her front.    

Millie remained in her bedroom in disgrace while her Mother and father ate supper quietly.  By mutual but unspoken agreement, they left plenty in the pot for Millie to eat later.  As usual,  father left at dusk to sit on the company store porch, where he would smoke and exchange stories with his cronies.   

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Sure enough, by the end of the week virtually everyone in the town had forgotten Millie’s thievery and whipping.  Richard Cramer was a notable exception.  He would never forget the mental image of Millie’s whipping, nor would he outgrow his sudden obsession with her body.

The next Saturday evening, Richard appeared at the Rankin’s doorstep.  He wore his cleanest clothes, his hair was slicked back with water.  He was sweating, terrified of rejection and ridicule, yet drawn irresistibly to Millie . 

Awkwardly, he stuttered his rehearsed line, “Could I p-please escort Millie to church tomorrow morning?” 

Trying not to look too excited, Millie looked pleadingly at her parents.  In return, her parents tried not to smirk as they pretended to reluctantly consider Richard’s request.  “Yes,” they finally decided.

For Richard, it was the beginning of a determined but uncertain courting campaign.  He wasn’t the only eligible bachelor in the mill town, so there would be competition.

For Millie’s parents, it was the beginning of a process that would eventually cost them their daughter, but give them cherished grandchildren.

For the mill, it was the genesis of a new generation of cheap labor.

For Millie?  Millie still had much to learn!  Unfortunately, lessons could be painful in the narrow hardscrabble world of the depression-era North Carolina mill town.


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© Guyspencer 2014

1 Comments:

Anonymous Hardwood said...

A very clever mother.

11:38 PM, December 11, 2016  

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