Lee Chronicles Little Captain John

Lee_review_06232016John E. Lee, Jr. 2014. Born Rich: In a Time That is Gone Forever. Aliceville, Alabama.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

How do you honor your past? In the Hiemstra family it was common knowledge that the farm was a better place to raise kids because it provided the time and space for children to play, get to know the family, and develop life skills that are often taken for granted. The simple acts of preparing garden soil, planting seeds, tending them, and watching them grow to maturity, for example, teaches hard work and patience in the face of adversity, attributes often neglected in the city.

In his memoir, Born Rich, John Lee Jr, known by those who knew him best as Little Captain John—because he was a junior and his father was known locally as Captain John—chronicles his life in form of short stories about growing up in Darcy, Alabama. These stories are neither boring nor random but instead outline the folk wisdom often expressed in rural families, as Lee explains:

“My family did not always have an abundance of food … but we never really went hungry … I was never a fashion trend setter … but I always had clothes on my back … I haven’t lived in mansions, but I have never been homeless … I had a storybook childhood … I have endless opportunities that enriched my life and challenges that strengthened me.” (vii)

It is hard to remain a spectator in your own life when you know that food won’t go on the table unless you grow it, clothes won’t be on your back unless you sew them, and the roof over your head won’t keep out the rain unless you repair it.

Still, self-reliance has its limits—crushing poverty removes the means to maintaining this standard of care. Part of the uniquely southern experience is to recognize one’s advantages, as Lee observes:

“… much of my childhood revolved around black friends, playmates, workers on our farm and just neighbors. Whites were a distinct but privileged minority in the rural area of Alabama where I grew up.” (ix)

Part of the life lesson of growing up in the Lee family was to value the sense of connection to the community and obligation to those less fortunate (14). Thus, self-reliance and a compassionate character need to be balanced, if one is to live a Christian life in the midst of trying social circumstances (22).

Lee’s memoir bears reading on at least two levels. The first level of reading, which corresponds closely with the primary title—“Born Rich”, follows family life primarily over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen through the eyes of the young man living it. Against a backdrop of family anecdotes dating to the nineteenth century, Lee writes formative and humorous stories about misadventures of a farm boy learning agricultural wisdom, running small businesses, and participating in community life.

For example, what’s the difference between sweet corn and corn for grain harvest? Lee writes:

“Roastin’ ears were ears of corn that were pulled still tender and juicy—good for eating but not mature enough for grain.” (72)

What’s the difference between grits, meal, and flour? It depended on how closely the stones in a grist mill were set together in grinding corn (222).

The second level of reading, which flows from the subtitle—“in a time that is gone forever”, follows more subtly from the detailed descriptions of rural technologies, as seen through the eyes of a seasoned economist. Lee notices, for example, the influence of the construction of new road or rail-line on local businesses (23-25) and notes the demise of the share-cropper system as employment picked up after World War II (195). What is surprising perhaps is the extent that the rural economy in Alabama was as dynamic as it was during this period—causal observers often picture the rural south as being trapped in a screen-set for Gone with the Wind,[1] which is certainly not the case. Because of the attention to technical detail of Lee’s accounts, this memoir could easily be mistaken for a case study of rural life and economy.

Having studied the cattle industry during my own doctoral research, I found Lee’s comments about raising purebred Shorthorns fascinating.  For example, how long is the gestation period for a Shorthorn cow? 270 days (199). What do you do when a cow gets screwworms? Lee writes:

“…screwworms [were] nasty little worms that hatched from eggs laid by flies in wound in a cow’s skin. Sometimes we had to tie a cow down and pick out the worms with tweezers, then pour a thick protective medicine into the wound.” (200)

How would you like to be assisting with this operation when you were in high school?

John Lee, Jr’s Born Rich is a memoir of family anecdotes, rural stories, and descriptions of community life in Dancy, Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. Written primarily for a family audience (the paperback is a limited edition not available online), this memoir is nonetheless of interest to students of rural development and regional studies of southern agriculture. In my case, I just found it a great read—perhaps you will too.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gone_with_the_Wind_(film).

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