For a child of the Roaring Twenties who reached adolescence in the Depression of the early thirties, rural life probably offered the best of all worlds. As Scottish Presbyterians believing in strict observance of moral values, we stayed relatively uncontaminated by the Great Gatsby lifestyle of the flapper era, with its fast dancing and illegal drinking. And being farmers, we could manage to live off the land when the economy nose-dived in the 1929 stock market crash, even though my father lost his savings-$4,000-in the failed Farmers' and Merchants' Bank in Charlotte.
Not that those were not anxious times. Yet it never occurred to me or my parents to think of the rigors of dairy farming as hardships. We all simply believed in hard work. The fact was that the South had never fully recovered economically from the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is strange to realize now, in light of Charlotte's present prosperity, that the region of my boyhood only sixty years ago was unbelievably poor.
In the Depression, our dairy farm barely survived when milk got down to 5¢ a quart. After the stock market crash of 1929, and the bank holiday that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered in 1933 under his National Industrial Recovery Act, my father nearly went broke. At first he was confident that his bank in Charlotte would reopen, but it did not. He couldn't even write a check to pay his bills. He had to start over from scratch. It took him months to recover from the blow.
Yet business reverses never stifled my father's sense of humor. While he had cause to be melancholy or depressed, he was anything but that. There were down moments, of course, when the rains did not come and the crops did not grow, or when a prize cow died. But in spite of the hardships, he found much to laugh about. People loved to come to our place from all around the neighborhood just to hear him tell his jokes. His dry sense of humor kept us laughing by the hour.
Growing up in those years taught us the value of nickels and dimes. My father early on illustrated for me merits of free enterprise. Once in a while when a calf was born on the farm, he turned it over to my friend Albert McMakin and me to raise. When it got to he veal stage, we marketed it ourselves and split the proceeds.
Later we were among the first in our neighborhood to have a radio in our car. When my folks went into a store to shop, I stretched out on the back seat and listened to those mysterious sounds-distorted broadcasts marvelously relayed by wireless from Europe. They had a hollow echo as if coming to us through a magic seashell. I was particularly fascinated by the oratorical style of speeches shouted in an almost hypnotic voice by a man in Germany named Adolf Hitler. He frightened me in some way, even though I did not understand his language.
However, there were more important things to think about in my boyhood North Carolina universe. It centered on the three hundred acres inherited from my grandfather by my father and his brother Clyde, where they ran Graham Brothers Dairy. Father handled the business affairs and the farm itself, with Mother doing the bookkeeping at our kitchen table. Uncle Clyde looked after the milk-processing house.
My father's younger brother and dedicated business partner, Uncle Clyde seemed to depend on Daddy for nearly all the decisions having to do with the farm. The first few years of my life, he lived with us. He always liked a good laugh. He once placed an order with a traveling salesman for a whole case of wonder tonic that was supposed to restore his lost hair. He was only moderately disappointed when it failed to live up to its promise.
Even though a bachelor, he never had any women friends that we knew about. Yet, when he decided to build a house across the road from us, my mother jokingly said, "Maybe he planning to get married!"
Little did we know! I'd had a teacher in the second grade by the name of Jennie Patrick. She came from a prominent family in South Carolina. I would never have dreamed that Uncle Clyde was secretly courting her! One day when he was pulling out of the driveway, all dressed up for a change, my father stopped him.
"I'm going to get married," he stammered with a blush and a smile.
That was the only announcement we had-and the only preparation my mother had-that Uncle Clyde's bride would be arriving soon.
Aunt Jennie proved to be a marvelous cook, and of course she had a special affection for me because I had been one of her pupils. She and Uncle Clyde eventually had two sons who grew up sharing the devout convictions of their parents. One of them, Ed, became one of the finest pastors I have ever known, with the largest Presbyterian in the western part of North Carolina. His older brother, Clyde, worked at Ivey's department store in Charlotte, where he was promoted a number of times through the years.
In the "Wild West" years, the eldest Graham brother, my Uncle Tom, went off to Oklahoma, where he married a full-blooded Cherokee woman. He did well for himself in cotton gins. Each summer when they came back to North Carolina for a two week-visit, driving the biggest car I had ever seen (with every kind of gadget on it), they stayed at our house. He was tall and heavy-set, and how he and the equally ample Aunt Belle could sleep in that three-quarter-size bed in our guest room remained one of the unsolved mysteries of my childhood.
Our barns had tin roofs. On rainy days, I liked to sneak away into the hay barn and lie on a sweet-smelling and slippery pile of straw, listening to the raindrops hit that tin roof and dreaming. It was a sanctuary that helped shape my character. Whenever I visit a bustling city anywhere in the world now, I like to retreat from noisy boulevards into an open church building and just meditate in the cool, dim quietness. At our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, my favorite spot is a little path above the house where I walk alone and talk with God.