Loose Thoughts Series: I was stunned, he was dyslexic and severely traumatized from it.

Anne could hardly comprehend it. But great aunt Ethel with all her faults would have said, “it”, Whatever was wrong with Sam, has a name.

I got wrangled into Sam’s behaviors in 1975 to the extent I swore out papers for his committal, and got stuck with the $100 fee with the county which turned up years later as a bill.

But we all got a surprise when Dr. Varner at UAB said the man was not in any way mentally ill. He was severely dyslexic and the doctor wanted to know about the trauma from his childhood over the fact he could not read.

Shirley (wife 1, my mother), Pearl (Sam’s mother), Sam in the back, clowning, Willie Mary Blan Hanchey (Harry Knight’s sister’s Freda’s mother-in-law), Carol Jean the last child of Harry and Pearl who came late and me.

The stories were famous. Sam was beaten and switched and belted until the blood ran down his legs because he was lazy and would not read. He was being bad. He was purposely, like a little ugly demon, not cooperating. Ethel well told the stories of her brother-in-law’s at-his-wits-end discipline of Sam.

The lot of them all super religious; not really a spiritual one in the bunch, but it was if you spare the rod you spoil the child.

I adored Daddy Paw, I write all the time about him. I adored him and could not have survived the Striplings of my grandmother’s family, bigots all, but in this one he was wrong. I believe his judgement must have been clouded. Certainly Ethel seemed to believe that.

As the bookkeeper for the Striping family coalmine, living in a back room, Harry (Daddy Paw) had found himself married to the boss’s red-haired blue-eyed lily white daughter. He and his family were newcomers to Shelby County, a very small-town kind of place. They were also newcomers to Alabama, a three-generation family who moved from East Tennessee with the mining company, Harry’s father Jim as foreman. James D. Knight (the D is secret, lost to time, so far), came with his wife, Mollie Rose Lewis Knight; their two children Freda Rose and Samuel Harry; and Mollie Rose’s parents — Baylis Washington Harrison Lewis and his wife Sarah Rebecca Gillespie Lewis.

Pearl Stripling and Harry Knight circa 1922. If you spare the rod you spoil the child. Having a child that could not read was a disgrace. The child was to blame.

East Tennessee people seriously stood with the Union in the un-civil war of the 1860s. That is documented in the records of the Southern Claims Commission for losses from Confederates. Baylis had a rocky start in the war: He was with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Calvary which were credited with the insane rebel yell. Baylis was apparently a great horseman and so was recruited into an elite group. But he was captured twice and ended the war in a Union uniform guarding the railroads. Maybe he could not go home so he left for east Tennessee from Georgia; or he switched sides; or he got across lines as soon as he safely could. Baylis and Sarah died within months of each other in my cousins’ house in 1915.

But they all were, overall, liberal people. After Jim got too sick to work, he and Mollie Rose with Freda Rose took an apartment in downtown, Birmingham, the magic city (my hometown aka Bombingham). Freda played music beautifully and worked full time at the theaters playing both the organ and piano – first for the vaudeville types shows and then the silent movies. She played from the time the doors open and entertained with music to fit the scene and helped support Mollie Rose after Jim died. Jim had been blown up in a mining accident and the newspapers from the time said it was thought he would not live. But that got him the foreman’s job and their move.

Jim’s son Harry (Daddy Paw) married into the Striplings, who were staunch segregationists. Grandfather Reverend Robert F Stripling taught the superiority of their kind. At least by the time it came to me, and my father Sam before me, these folks were G-d’s gift to humanity and all were red-haired, blue-eyed, lily-white and bigoted to the bone. Harry was born tan, coal-black hair and pale blue eyes and did not think white people were superior, or Catholics were going to hell.

But he believed that putting the fear of G-d into his son’s day life and his sleep’s nightmares would rid him of the badness. Ethel got him into the Paul Hayne vocational boarding school when he was maybe 12ish, I am not sure. Certainly saved his life. He excelled. He was taught hands on and could do anything.

Ever the clown, the jokester. The little boy that never learned to read became a dysfunctional adult.

But at home and among friends, he remained the clown and he remained unable to read. He was 48 when Dr Varner diagnosed the dyslexia and said he should immediately go to school to learn with new methods available. But his (fifth) wife Carlene said he needed to get back to work. More importantly, Dr Varner was unwilling to sign anything that said Sam was nuts so he could qualify for Veterans benefits. He had to go to another emergency and then used another doctor, and he buried the reports from the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital’s group report. He got his pension from the VA. Later the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union retirement kicked in, then the Social Security disability checks and addons kicked in, then the check for their minor daughter from Social Security kicked in.

But that was at the end of his life of excitement, once he got the money he did fine for his life’s duration. My story was about his trauma and how trauma, now called PTSD, was his life. His time in the Navy that saved him, cost him life. Asbestos gave him Mesothelioma.

His sister was lamenting until she died about his calling her to ask her how to spell a word. She recounted to me more than once and could not grasp until almost the end of her life that he really could not use the dictionary to look up with some words. Some words he could not get past the first letter.

Anne described his beatings, his treatment. They were part of her and her sister Nell’s trauma. Seeing the aftermath of his whippings. All in the name of G-d. Worst thing that could be said about Harry. He learned about Sam’s diagnoses and at least he was so contrite. I did not get to visit much in the nursing home but I was glad that he came to respect Sam and he was apologetic somewhat.

Harry had suffered for Sam’s shortcomings – his disability. It had to be Harry’s fault. Harry’s blood, Harry’s ancestry. The Striplings did not have those kinds of bad people. I have written often about Harry’s conforming to the views of the Striplings, taking all the blame they dished out, at least in public, and when he was with the family, saying what they wanted said. Until he could not anymore. Then the world fell apart for Harry in the Great Depression. As a minister in the small community, besides his full-time accounting, bookkeeping jobs, he organized food sharing from the church and he invited the Black community. The Striplings ended Harry’s life as he knew it. He had to move away with his wife and three kids.

Harry lost his family and his community support over his beliefs. It cost jobs, his work, his church. He collapsed.

And, this is about learning that Sam was simply dyslexic. And whipped until traumatized.

I was stunned when the doctor explained to me that all of this clowning, all this misplaced inappropriate anger, could be alleviated. Or at least the trauma of not being able to read could be eased with a tutor and a copy of Fun With Dick And Jane, the first year reader. Long story short he did not get the help. But he did begin to try to forgive himself for living.

My favorite photo of Sam with his dog Jack.

Then I thought of Sam’s sister. It had been easy to label her a nut case. Sister was an outsider in her dilemma. She was in “his” town, “their” town. Their very small town and she was an outsider.

This 1975, 72-hour observation of Sam led to the meeting with Dr. Varner. I had signed him in and would be the one signing him out. Yes, his wife was there and has countless signed and sworn-in-the-court records, which I have copies of. But she had her goals and I had mine. I loved my Daddy Sam and I did not know to what extent I was being used as a pawn in many ways. Pawn or helper, as you wish.

There was a fight at one of the bars on Graymont Avenue across from Legion Field – either the Goal Line or the Tide and Tiger, I wonder if something was said. Apparently the fight started around the pool table. I cannot say who started it. Both of Sam’s eyes were black and his cheek and nose were bruised also. I only heard the man fell at some point during the fight. But, man was dead. Sam had committed manslaughter. These were Sam’s home bars and there were countless witnesses to vouch for his side of the story. It was self defense and that was the end of that – thanks to Charles Howard, Esq. who got Sam out of a lot of issues through the years. A nasty chip on his shoulder? Certainly. Killer? Well, I guess. But don’t blame mental illness unless you want to blame the environmental trauma and PTSD suffered because of people who did not know and could not understand learning disorders.

His dear sister came to grips, in her last months, about Sam’s disability and his need to get help to use a dictionary. She also had lamented her late sister’s abandonment by a husband who went elsewhere; as auntie said about him, “he strayed.”

As for Sam, what a waste. What a terrible, awful, horrible thing to have taken a life, and I know he cried over the man even to his death. What heartbreaking losses for everyone.

They are all dead now. I loved them all. They taught me lessons that they all had hoped to learn and bring change to make lives better. No one thing in any of their lives should define them. And moreover, their mistakes should not be imposed on the subsequent generations.

We make our own choices – we are only the parts of our elders that we choose to embrace.

Nothing runs in the family except love. Be love.

Cherie Lynn and Daddy Paw

Sam and Harry and all made peace and certainly did love. The last years of Harry’s life, Sam went and got him from the nursing home and he went back to the house for dinner and an afternoon.

I was supposed to visit Harry one evening and did not make it. I thought I would go the next morning, I was passing through on my way to Hong Kong. Harry died over night. He got me to stay for a funeral.

Sam had every blood test every behavior analysis and Dr Varner took the time to go through years of records. I could see – Harry saw, Ethel saw. Pearl was too far gone with Parkinson’s and its issues. There was healing once folks got to just loving folks, in truth.


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