Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | June 24, 2012

Sample from “Bitterweed”

    It was a time when small boys in southern towns listened for distant whistles and ran to long tracks.  Enormous dragons, spitting foul-smelling steam, slowed to reach steel claws snatching grimy canvas mail pouches, like stealing bags of knights’ armor from an enemy   castle. Engineers, with grimy faces and striped blue caps, waved before giving an extra toot of the whistle, answering the arm-jerking signals as short legs tried to keep pace with accelerating iron wheels. Remembrance of tiny cinders still stings the eyes.

Mama Lou’s house was comfortable. White frame, with broad porches that invited  breezes up from the creek we called Panther Branch. Everyone—eight brothers, sisters and their broods—could sit at Thanksgiving and Christmas tables with overloaded stomachs, or on the porch swing, on green wooden slats, laughing above the squawk of metal chains.

Family gathered there. Not just for major holidays showing on the big insurance company calendar. A day of gathering wasn’t always printed under the calendar’s number. One of the aunts could always call and  ask Johnny Cloud’s grandmother, who operated town’s switchboard, to get everyone on the line. After the get-together on the wires, assembling would be soon.

Many quickly-called gatherings  I remember, or maybe I’ve heard the stories so many times I think I was there, were all attended by  adult women in the family.  The men were at war. Three Rowe brothers who were my mother’s brothers and a  Rowe cousin and in-laws.Two other close cousins from my maternal side of the family were  brothers in all but genes.

My dad was 4F, so he couldn’t be drafted. He worked in the Fire Department on Redstone arsenal.  There were no adult men at the gatherings.
Voices, higher in pitch than usual, swirled through the room like tobacco smoke and there,  most of the women smoked. News from the front; news from ships at sea; news from secret locations.

“… has anyone heard….?” an aunt.

“…do you know about…?” Mama Lou.

And so the news was spread. Each woman held, usually in one hand, at least one Victory Letter, those single sheets of almost-transparent blue paper that were essentially thin envelopes with writing inside.
The women held the letters across their chests, over their hearts, like cradling a baby; like shields from the world, or a pledge of allegiance. For their men.


  1. Powerful and well done, Thomas. One can see this and feel the strength and loyalty of the hearts in this family. I can almost feel the breeze on the porch and hear the pride; and know that gentle tears are held in obedience to hope.

    • Thank you, Ginny. I’m working on a different genre, here.

  2. I agree Thomas. I have fond memories of those steam locomotives and have memories of my own from late WWII. So much was at stake back then when families gathered. You’ve given us a vivid and somewhat solemn picture of that era. Thank you.

    • We lost something when the diesels came ripping through with only a blaring horn. Couldn’t see the engineer and the things barely slowed to pick up mail sacks.

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