Here's where I stand : a memoir /

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Main Author: Helms, Jesse.
Format: Book
Published: New York : Random House, c2005.
Edition:1st ed.
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Chapter 1 My Family in Monroe Nobody growing up ever had better home folks than I did. My boyhood days were golden. Monroe was the kind of place where you knew just about everybody and just about everybody knew you. The Monroe of my childhood was a community of about three thousand, surrounded by farmland. Today, it is a thriving small city; it is the county seat of North Carolina's fastest-growing county, and among the twenty-five fastest-growing counties in the United States. Down through the years, countless farms have given way to new homes, yet my hometown has never, to me, lost its attraction, and it never will. Even now, after all these decades, when I see that ancient town clock facing all four ways atop the Union County Court House, or when I ride through what is now known as the historic district, I see those familiar buildings of my boyhood days. At those moments, my memories instantly become as vivid as today's headlines. In the late 1740s, three Helms brothers--George, Jonathan, and Tilman--migrated from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and the Union County area. Both my mother, Ethel Mae Helms, and my father, Jesse Alexander Helms, who were not related, could trace their respective Helms roots back to those pioneers. I am a part of the seventh generation of Tilman Helms' family to claim "Sweet Union" as my birthplace. (Nowadays the Helms listings in the local phone directory take up several pages, and scores of kin attended a family reunion organized some years ago.) There were five of us in our immediate family: my late brother, Wriston, who was five years older than I; my sister, Mary Elizabeth (Lib), who is eight years younger; and our parents, both now deceased. There was never a moment when I did not know that my parents loved me and my siblings. My mother might be described as a homebody. Other than being in church with us on Sunday morning, there was no place where she was happier than in her own home. She quietly took care of us and encouraged us by creating an environment where we were free of worry. She taught by example and was devoted to making sure we were well fed with vegetables from her garden and chickens from her little flock. One year during the Depression she even bought a cow to make sure that we would have enough fresh milk. Somehow, she managed to stretch every resource far enough to take care of us--and have something to share when my father found someone in need of a meal. During the Depression, my dad served as both chief of police and chief of the fire department at the same time. By covering both jobs, the town of Monroe could provide my father a monthly salary of just $65. As little as that was, we somehow always had the essentials that we needed. Therefore, we considered ourselves exceedingly fortunate to have plenty to eat and a warm and comfortable home. So, to me, the good old days in Monroe were indeed the good old days. I don't suggest that there weren't occasional difficult times, but they were more than balanced by the good fortune of being surrounded with people who cared for us and for one another. We were poor, yes--awesomely poor by today's standards of poverty. The Great Depression was a fact of our lives, just as it was for the rest of the country. We knew that fortunes had been lost, and our own local bank had to take a bank holiday to prevent a run on its holdings, but we were no strangers to simple living, and our economy was tied to agriculture more than manufacturing. We stuck to the basics and hoped for the best. All of us worked at whatever jobs we could find to bring in some extra money. At age nine I got my first job sweeping the floors at the offices of The Monroe Enquirer. I was proud of that job! My friends were doing the same thing, delivering groceries, helping out at the local stores, helping to sell eggs and vegetables--and all of us turned out to pick cotton in the fall. The schools closed so we wouldn't get behind in our classes, and out we went to pick the snowy crop and deliver it for ginning. It was not an easy time, but it was invaluable to me, and to a whole generation of people who would be asked to give so much to their country in the years ahead. But, of course, we could not have imagined any of that back then. We were living in challenging days, days of love and hope--and, as it turned out for so many young people from Monroe, we were living in days of opportunity. I will never forget the delightful aroma of my mother's fried chicken every Sunday after church. Like many other families, we raised chickens in our backyard, and there were those painful moments when I realized that my pet chicken was next in line to become Sunday dinner. But, after a while, I became accustomed to the realities of life. I tried to learn to dismiss from my mind each episode involving the fate of one of my pets and concentrate on my mother's good cooking. One instance in particular comes to mind with some frequency--a late-night experience when I was awakened by the unmistakable aroma of frying breakfast bacon and scrambled eggs--hours after everyone should have been asleep. I couldn't believe that it was already getting-up time, but the aroma from the kitchen commanded me to slip out of bed and investigate. I saw my father busily setting the kitchen table and pouring coffee for two strangers, both poorly dressed and unshaven. Just as I entered the kitchen, my mother handed my father two plates, each filled with scrambled eggs, Mama's homemade biscuits, and generous helpings of fried fatback. The two strangers began to gobble down the food, pouring homemade molasses on two or three of Mama's biscuits and gulping down the hot coffee. I heard one of them say "Thank God" for the kindness of my father and mother. It was later that I understood the meaning of what I had seen, an unforgettable lesson during the heart of the Great Depression. It was a painful time, when jobless men caught rides unnoticed in empty railroad boxcars, desperately seeking work in an effort to somehow survive and find jobs enabling them to provide food for their families. We caught sight of them sometimes when the train pulled into the station down the hill from the courthouse. They kept to the shadows because they were breaking the law by hopping on the train. But that night, when I entered the kitchen and my father firmly instructed me to go back to bed--after presenting me to the two men as "my son, Jesse Junior," I had no idea that my father was supposed to have put these weary, hungry men under arrest. These two strangers were called "hobos." Hobos violated the law when they slipped aboard empty railroad boxcars. They were penniless, their clothes were ragged, and they often were approaching starvation, so perhaps they decided the risk was the best of their limited options. Years later, when my father and I talked about those men, he said, "Son, I guess I was supposed to throw them in jail--but what good would that have done? These people were trying to find work so that they could feed their families." In short, they needed a helping hand, not punishment for doing their best to find work. My father said he felt vindicated when he got a postcard signed by those two men reporting that they had found work in nearby Charlotte helping to keep the streets there clean. Years later, my parents received a box of oranges from Florida with a card signed by one of the two men. "Best Wishes," it read, and "Merry Christmas to you and your wife. You saved two lives that night." My dad was an imposing figure--six feet five inches tall and tough when he needed to be. But I remember him as kind and gentle. He taught me to respect people, no matter what their circumstances. He enforced the law even when some of his friends, even a fellow church member on occasion, violated the law. He lived the way he wanted to teach me to live. Once, when I was about five years old, he was walking with me toward the swimming hole on my grandfather's farm when we saw a turtle sitting up on a fence post about three feet from our pathway. He stopped, pointed to the little turtle struggling to get off the post, and said to me, "Don't you think we'd better help that little fellow get down?" He reached over and put the squirming little turtle on the ground, then said, "One thing is for sure, that turtle didn't get up there by himself." He looked at me for a minute, then added, "None of us gets very far by ourselves." He paused, looked at me, then said, "Son, that's why I hope you will try to help others when they need it." My dad never got past the fifth grade in school, but he was the smartest man I ever knew. There was the time when I was home from college and I went to visit my dad at the police station. The phone rang. Dad answered it, and I heard him say, "Mr. Bob, I'll be right there." Then he added, "I'm going to bring my son." Mr. Bob met us at the door of his grocery store and said, "I was broken into last night and a slab of fatback and some dried beans are gone." My dad thought a minute, then said, "I guess a lot of people are hungry these days. Let me see what I can do." Minutes later I was in the front seat of the police car riding proudly with my father as we set off to solve the break-in. In a very few minutes we parked in front of a house. My father got out and went up on the porch, where he knocked on the door. A man's voice from inside the house said, "Mr. Jesse, you looking for me?" My dad responded, "Robert, you know why I'm here. I want you to get that fatback and the other things that you took last night when you broke into Mr. Bob's." The voice inside responded, "No, Mr. Jesse, I ain't got no fatback. I don't know what you're talking about," to which my father said, "Yep, you do, and I believe you took it because you and your family were hungry." Robert hesitated, then opened the door, shook hands with my father, and said in subdued desperation, "Yes, sir, that's how it was. My family was hungry." My father replied, "Robert, get what remains of that fatback and dried beans and let's go see Mr. Bob and apologize." When the stolen goods were offered to Mr. Bob, he hugged this man who had robbed him, then handed back the fatback and dry beans, saying, "When and if you and your family get hungry again, come in the front door of my store and tell me." I remember thinking how much kindness my father showed as he handled this problem and how Mr. Bob responded with love and sympathy. This wisdom marked his whole career. My good friend Bud Nance said his definition of "police brutality" was my father telling his mother that Bud had been caught misbehaving. That was true for most of the kids in town. Parents in those days could be counted on to administer their own discipline and have their children make restitution for any damage or loss. Around the time of my father's funeral another man who had struggled to feed his family in those Depression years revealed an agreement my father had made with him. The man had a small still and used the money from the "white lightning" he brewed and sold to take care of his children. Mr. Jesse told the man he knew the still was his source of income and he would ignore its existence as long as the business didn't expand. That arrangement held, and while it did not follow the "letter of the law," it was true to the spirit of kindness that made my father unique. That wise and caring man was my leader and my teacher, and I loved him dearly. He made clear the difference between right and wrong, and I was expected to do right. When I was five years old, I was playing with a boy who lived a block over from us. We got into a little dispute, as little boys are inclined to do. He called me a "white cracker" and I retorted with that "N" word. My dad had happened by and heard what I said. He reached down, took my hand, and led me into our home. Gently he taught me a lesson I've never forgotten: "There's nothing you did that made you white, and there's not a thing he did that made him colored. Son, I don't want to hear you say that word again. Do you understand?" I said, "Yes, sir." I've kept my word ever since. I don't care anything about the color of skin; I want to know what's in the head and what's in the heart. His instruction on respecting "womenfolks," as he called them, was just as plain and direct. When I was old enough to date, he simply reminded me that the young lady I was about to go out with was somebody's sister and I ought to treat her the way I would expect someone to treat my sister. The Fourth of July was an occasion that our Monroe neighbors always celebrated with enthusiasm. Being the son of the fire chief was a decided advantage for me on July 4, because my friends and I were among those who enjoyed the parade from the back of the fire truck as we waved our way through town. We loved every minute of it. It was during one of those times of celebration that another lesson burned indelibly into my consciousness. One year the Monroe merchants got together for a big sales promotion and purchased an automobile that was to be given away at noon on Independence Day in a special ceremony at the courthouse. Excerpted from Here's Where I Stand by Jesse Helms All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.