This set of letters is about my father’s large impoverished family and what drove my Uncle Lee, the oldest of 16 kids, to commit a crime.
But first, you need to know a little bit about what led him there. I interviewed his ghost and he’s what he told me.
My Uncle Lee was a tough kid.
Uncle Lee: Yep.
Lisa: How tough were you, Lee?
UL: We didn’t have shit. We sharecropped. It was the damn pits. We were always poor. Helped daddy with his still to make corn liquor. But mostly we were hungry. And mad about it most of the time.
Lisa: You were pretty rambunctious?
UL: When we got older, around 13 for me. Me and your dad, Jesse and Buford would run around Jackson county and raise hell. Steal livestock, cars and other guy’s women. We’d return the cars and replace the livestock with daddy’s corn liquor. But the women. We kept them.
Lisa: Why would they stay with you?
UL: We were goodlooking and charming. Especially me.
Lisa: Did you have any ambitions?
UL: Yes. Us kids had the same one. To get the hell off of that godforsaken farm.
Lisa: How were you going to do that?
UL: Get into whatever military would take me. Put away some dough. And then after the war, drive away from that shithole.
Lisa: Which war was this?
UL: World War II. The Marines took me.
Lisa: How old did you tell the Marines you were?
UL: 18. But I think I was 16 or 17. I could have been 15. They took anybody after Pearl Harbor. They didn’t care.
I went to boot camp in Point Royal, South Carolina at Parris Island.
Lisa: That’s a tough place.
UL: Was it? After growing up the way we did, sleeping on top of each other like cord wood, learning to smoke corn silk so we wouldn’t be hungry all the time…Parris Island was fucking Disneyland.
I got three squares, my own rifle. Didn’t have to share my boots with anybody. Slept in a bed by myself. And they gave me a monthly check on top of all of that. All I had to do was what they told me. No one in the Marines could hit as hard as my pop. Not even that sonofabitch drill sergeant.
Lisa: What was your experience in the war?
UL: I was sent to the Pacific Theatre. I got taken prisoner. I escaped. I killed the enemy. I saved some guys. They gave me medals and all that shit. I did pretty good at that so I was sent back stateside first as a drill sergeant and then later to tour around the country with the Marines and get more guys to sign up.
Lisa: You must have been charismatic.
UL: I was a goddamned poster boy for the Marines. Handsome, rugged, decorated. Semper fidelis. You bet your ass.
Lisa: Were you saving any of your money?
UL: I was when I was out there fighting. Less when I was out with the recruiting tour. I was sending home my pay to the old man. We didn’t deal with banks.
He was hanging onto it for me so when I got home, I’d give him a little bit of it but I’d buy a car and get the hell out of Alabama.
Lisa: But you didn’t send as much home while you were out on the tour?
UL: I drank a lot. Busted up a hotel room in New York. Paid for the stuff I busted up. Scared some people. Got sent home early.
Lisa: What do you mean?
UL: I wasn’t used to that kind of life. I hadn’t been around that many women who looked like these women did. And there was fancy night spots and hotels like fucking mansions. The Marines was footing the bill so I got to drink and eat and do whatever as long as I told young men how amazing the Marines was and how glorious war was and all that shit.
When I wasn’t up on a stage or talking to the guys about how great it all was, I went out on the town and got crazy. Got into fights. They told me I punched out MPs, bouncers, GIs, cab drivers, just about anybody. I was a menace. So they kicked me out. Dishonorable discharge.
Lisa: How’d you feel about that?
UL: Fine. I got to see the world and do all kinds of things. I got out when boys was still getting killed all over the damn place. So I considered myself lucky.
Lisa: So did you tell your dad you were coming home?
UL: No. I thought I’d surprise Mama. She’d be happy I got home a year earlier than she was expecting. Daddy shore did look surprised when I rolled up.
Lisa: He wasn’t happy to see you?
UL: Fuck no. He had spent every penny I had sent home. Bought hisself a radio, a new mule, shit like that.
Lisa: What’d you do?
UL: First, I tore the house to pieces. Which didn’t take much because it was a shotgun shack. Pile of rubble to begin with.
My mama was hollering at me. She was hollering at the old man. It was a bad scene.
I went out to the still and drank up a bunch of shine. My older brothers were all off to war so no one was there to talk to and understand. And the girls and younger kids were scared of me. I was terrifying.
I wanted to kill my old man. But that wouldn’t do no good. Wouldn’t get my money back.
So I started walking. I walked up Sand Mountain. It’s a long walk from Scottsboro. About 20 miles. I walked across the river bridge. I got to the top of the mountain near Rainsville. Every shitty town seems to end with a ville or a boro.
Lisa: Were you calm by then?
UL: Yeah. I also had time to make out a plan of getting out of there.
I was going to take Hoyt’s truck.
Lisa: Who’s Hoyt?
UL: He owned the only gas station in Rainsville. I knew he had money and an old truck. We used to steal it and bring it back before the morning. We’d leave Hoyt chickens or some liquor for his trouble. He never said anything about it.
Lisa: So you were going to ask Hoyt for some money and the truck?
UL: No. I was going to rob Hoyt. I was so mad at daddy. And I was mad at the town and at everybody. It wasn’t fair but I was mad at Hoyt. I was going to take it by force. I was sick of all of it. The rich people running the town, the church people judging everybody, being dirt poor, all those pinch-faced virgin girls looking for a husband and I had been to war and it was all terrible and I wanted out of there.
Lisa: So what did you do. Weren’t you worried about being caught?
UL: There wasn’t nobody around. It’s a tiny little ole place. Hoyt gets a customer every two hours if he’s lucky.
So I walked in. Drunk but sober enough from my walk. It was the fall and had been sprinkling. I said, “Hoyt. I’m going to rob you.”
I had my M1911. 45 from the war. Hoyt didn’t blink. He looked at me like I was asking him to fill ‘er up.
So I said, “Hoyt. I’m not messing around now. I need all your money from the register and that truck out there.”
Lisa: What did Hoyt do?
UL: He looked a little surprised. But he didn’t move. So I had to holler at him.
When he realized that this wasn’t the usual Saturday night joy riding deal, he opened up the register.
Lisa: Did he say anything?
UL: Yeah. He said, “I’m not going to call the law on you because what your daddy done.” I told him what daddy had done with my money and Hoyt knew how bad off the family always was. But he wasn’t happy about being robbed and a gun in his face like that. Not at all.
Lisa: Did he think you would shoot him?
UL: I don’t think he knew what to believe. I looked different. I looked crazy. I had been overseas. I wasn’t a kid anymore.
Lisa: And so my uncle robbed Hoyt and made his way back to South Carolina, the only place he knew well. He drove the stolen truck to Columbia where it broke down for the last time. Lee decided that this was where he was going to stay.
A little while later, my uncle’s conscience got the better of him. He wrote a letter to Hoyt:
I am sorry about taking your 150. I feel bad about it.
You know how daddy ruint my plans on gettin out of Alabama so I had to take your truck like I tole you that night when I took it.
I know taking your truck was going to put you in a tight spot for a spell. I have put 200 hunnert dollars in this envelope so you can buy another one like the one I stolt.
P.S. I have made my way to South Carolina and have dun well. I met a lady. And she has let me live in her storeroom. Don’t tell daddy n them where I am.
Lisa: Hoyt promptly wrote back to my uncle.
Thank you for the money. I already replaced it with a new truck so I’m giving your $200 dollars to the church.
I did not report you to the sheriff because I know how Atlee is plus you tole me the gun wasn’t loaded. Remember? You might not because you was pretty drunk.
Me and Ella will pray for you.
Lisa: Several years passed and my Uncle would educate himself at the local community learning center where he met his wife, Barbara. She taught him about wine, art and poetry.
Lee owned a chain of gas stations in Columbia and lived in one of the nicer upper middle class neighborhoods.
He decided to check in with Hoyt. Probably to crow a little bit about his success and probably because he couldn’t brag to his own father, who was petty and still mad that his oldest boy had ran off.
I have done well over the years. I own 8 Chevron gas stations in the Columbia, South Carolina area.
I wanted to let you know how I was doing. I think about you every November and still feel bad but I know you’re a Godly man and have forgiven me. And I paid you for the truck a while back.
I hope you and Ella and the kids are doing fine.
I am glad you are doing so well. Ella and me are doing pretty good. We are retired from the gas station business.
The value of the vintage F-150 you took was $4,500 blue book. You can send a check.
May god bless,
Lisa: Uncle Lee didn’t not hesitate to take pen to paper. He promptly wrote back.
Go fuck yourself, Hoyt. I’m glad I robbed you. You old, self-rightout skin flint.
My uncle Lee received a letter back from Hoyt. But…he burnt it in the backyard with his fall leaves.
Uncle Lee: Fuck Alabama.
Copyright 2014 Sandmountain, LLC