(An excerpt from Tanker Jimmie Leach. In this brief segment Jimmie Leach describes his family's response to the depression and his ascendance as the man of the house.)
T he tension we might assign to the uncertain parentage of young Jimmie Leach is not borne out as he relates his story. The reunited Leach’s were comfortable with a small home at 1123 Panama Street in Houston. David Leach worked regularly and the union had gained a $1/hr union wage and work was steady. David and Lena Leach lived comfortably; David was able to purchase a small habitation on Galveston Bay for family visits on the weekends. They drove off in one of David’s two Model T Fords. Jimmie’s father made home brew- the fermentation period was 11 days - and once in a while, the bottles capped ingeniously but not professionally would explode under his bed where they were stored. But that was just beer. And this was Prohibition. His father arranged to buy his liquor from a bootlegger some seven miles away. And Jimmie would bicycle there with a quart bottle and a stopper wrapped in tape and pick up the bootleg. “The bootlegger would ask, 'light or dark, I think your father had light last time,’ and he would add some brown sugar to make it dark. Sixty cents a quart.”
David took Jimmie with him when he went to play cards with his cronies. One night at the smoky alcoholic card game the bottles got put away and their place was cleaned up just before the constable arrived looking for the liquor. There was none in sight of course but when Jimmie was asked where the liquor was hidden, “Under there” he answered. Jimmie tells this with a smile as if it may be a story developed over time rather than a real memory.
Houston was a hot and steamy place to grow up. The house on Panama had a small yard in front, open to the street and a fence around the side and back with a gate to the driveway. Daddy kept his Model T’s – two of them, there. There was no grass in the back. Jimmie’s mother always kept 30 head of chickens right there. And she piped the water from the melting ice in the icebox out to water the chickens. Jimmie said, “Daddy was a carpenter and carpenter’s houses are always falling apart. But he built this little shed for me. It was under the live oak tree in the pasture on the other side that hung over the back yard fence. We always had eggs, and we had enough to eat in those days. The pasture behind us had a dozen or so cows on it but they stayed down the other end by the dairy. Some of our neighbors had cows too and they took them to the commons and staked them down while they fed off the grass there. Then they would walk them back home. This was right in the middle of Houston but the house is gone now. I always thought I was an urban child.”
"I didn't attend church regularly as a child," Jimmie said. "I went to the Black churches to hear the singing, though." But at nine, Jimmie tells us, he attended a Presbyterian revival meeting and he marched to the altar at the call and was baptized with others on the spot with water cast from a rose that had been dripped in the Baptismal font. “I was a Boy Scout at twelve,” Jimmie said. “But I had a couple of conspirator friends who weren’t scouts and I didn’t always follow the Boy Scout oath. I had a coaster wagon and we would put a gunnysack in it and go out at night and swipe the empty milk bottles off people’s porches. The bottles were out there so the milkman could pick them up for a deposit on the next day’s delivery. I would pull the wagon. I wouldn’t go up to the houses. I figured only pulling the wagon wasn’t stealing.
“We would haul the wagon full of empty bottles over to Spears dairy, on Quitman between Panama and Hardy, and sell the bottles back to the night watchman for a few pennies. Then we went around back of the dairy – we weren’t worried about the night man – and we would push under the leather flap at the loading gate and load up on milk and chocolate milk for our evening snack. We lay out back of the dairy content and full of sweet milk.”
The Leach’s Bay House was an unpainted shack with a porch up on short pilings under the new Causeway between Houston and Galveston Island. They built the Causeway at Virginia Point and to get to the shack the Leach’s got off the causeway just before the bridge and turned left under the first arch – under the road. The shack was right there, right on the flats of Galveston Bay. “When the tide was out Mother and Father and I walked way out through the flats to some concrete rubble. We sat up on the top and the three of us, and Don the dog, would serenade the drivers going across the causeway. Mother and I had to watch Daddy pretty close. He would start drinking every Friday night when we got there and wouldn’t stop until we left on Sunday,” Jimmie said. “Mommy drove us home. We had friends there. Arthur Underwood lived two shacks down. ‘Uncle’ Art was very kind to me. When the World War I soldier’s bonus was paid in 1936, Arthur bought me a bicycle. It was a Western Flyer. Uncle Art’s bonus was probably about $400 but he spent some of it on me.”
“The heat bothered me but I got used to it,” Jimmie said. “I couldn’t imagine Daddy, working all day in his carpenter’s apron. It was white, full length and had slits where he could reach inside and get his hammer and nails and level. He always wore a jacket and tie to work and had his white apron and tools in a bag. He would change clothes for the job. He was working inside some building or out in the full sun. He was a union carpenter with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. At first he always had steady work. And the pay was good. The Brotherhood negotiated a $1/hour contract back around 1920 and that wage never changed for twenty years– they never made a fuss about it.”
Jimmie got to know the Depression slowly but he got to know it firsthand. There was less and less work for David. Jimmie knew the family was having trouble with the bills. “My first bike, before Uncle Art gave me the Western Flyer, was a Stawana that Daddy bought me,” Jimmie said. “It was shiny and had a horn and was very fancy and I think it cost him $50. But I remember the bicycle man – Mark Collimore – saying, ‘Hey Dave, how about a little money on that bike you bought?’” And then it was gone, back to Mr. Collimore.
The depression was subtle. “I knew we were in trouble yet we still had a black maid,” Jimmie said. “Cal Humphries, daddy’s black bootlegger, came around regularly. I had a Houston Post paper route and made about $35/month to help the family. Daddy helped me with the heavy papers on Sunday. But I lost that. I was in grade school when Roosevelt became President in 1933, after Hoover. He began the CCC – Civil Conservation Corps and the WPA – the Works Progress Administration. I tried to join the CCC but they wouldn’t take me because I was an only child and they were limiting the participation to those who had more than one child. We went around to Spears dairy and got day old milk for ten cents a gallon.” David Leach was soon pulling Jimmie’s coaster wagon from Panama to the Hampshaw building to pick up free canned food. They were packing food nearby but they didn’t put labels on the cans – they just stamped the cans with an ink stamp but often you couldn’t read the contents. “Those mystery cans were what we would get at the Hampshaw building and we didn’t know what we were going to be eating until we opened the cans,” Jimmie remembers. David dug ditches for the WPA. But he still arrived at work in his jacket and tie. The government man would size up his workers each day. “You, you and you,” he would say. “You work here.” “And you,” – he pointed at David Leach in his coat and tie – “you are the boss."
“My father lost his dignity when he drank,” Jimmie said. “We had a boarder, Brad. He was a fellow carpenter of my daddy’s, he was married to a lady on Panama St where we lived in the house we lost at 1123 Panama. His wife had remarried and lived a few doors down the street but Brad`was unmarried a few years and he was our roomer and took his meals with us and momma did his laundry along with mine and my daddy’s. Momma took in laundry and ironing during the depression. She only had a third grade education but she was a tremendous woman. She wrote pretty good hand. You would not judge she was illiterate by looking into her writing or his speech. In my youth I can remember Uncle Brad on Panama St reading to me the funnies, he would help me with my homework more than daddy did; he was a member of the family. And when we lost our home and moved out Uncle Brad went with us and he and daddy were both out of jobs and looking for work. Daddy and Brad had a habit of going to Wills drug store – where they sold beer. And Daddy had a habit of mouthing off about how tough he was. Brad and Daddy got in a few fights at Wills. The dairymen there would always beat them up and Daddy would arrive home all knotted and bloody. And Mama would mop them up. One day he was telling Mama how tough he was and she said, ‘Why don’t you go down and tell Tracy Beeks that?’ Mr. Beeks was a sizable longshoreman. So Daddy’s drunk and he goes down in front of Tracy’s house. He shouts, ‘Tracy, you’re a no good son-of-a-bitch.’ I was trailing him. Tracy stuck his head out of the house and said, ‘Why are you saying that, Dave?’ Daddy repeated it and Tracy decked him. I don’t think Daddy ever won a fight.”
Jimmie had been able to walk to all his schools from the house on Panama. But there was no money for clothes and shoes, Jimmie’s wardrobe was worn to near rags. “My mother swallowed her pride,” Jimmie said. “She wrote a letter to Mrs. Brown, ‘Jimmy needs new clothes. Please refer us to the proper authorities.’ Mrs. Brown sent me to another school that was serving as a commissary and I got clothing. Roosevelt’s programs had men making clothing and shoes. But all the shoes were the same. Same yellow rubber soles sewn onto black uppers. Right and left weren’t different. They were one size. Wearing them made you look like you were on welfare. I wouldn’t take those shoes and I asked the woman if there was anything else. She directed me to a shelf of used shoes. But some of them were good shoes and I got shoes and I got some nice used clothing. Wearing them, that gave me a little dignity that I think I had learned from my father,” Jimmie said.
In Jimmie’s first year at Jefferson Davis high school in 1936, he had one job, and then another that helped out. Over at Chiddix Service Station near Hardy Street, he made 25 cents an hour changing oil and filling gas tanks. “Do you remember the pictures of those old gas pumps?’ Jimmie said. “There was a long glass bulb head high and you would use a hand pump to push the amount of gasoline the man wanted up into the glass reservoir. Then you put the nozzle into the gas tank of the car and opened a valve. The gas drained out into the tank. You had to get that hose completely emptied out, or, oh my, the hose would soon crack and the gasoline would spill onto the ground.”
Soon Jimmie got another job he liked better right next-door at Mr. Sayres’ tiny feed store. Mr. Sayres had corn and seed and fertilizer and all the supplies the local folks like his mother needed for their animals and little gardens. He would mix up special feeds himself. He wasn’t very prosperous at first, though, and when he sold a sack of grain or a barrel of corn he had to run to the supplier to replace his inventory. Jimmie minded the little store for him by himself for 25 cents an hour while he did deliveries and got supplies. He had chickens and made capons; he actually operated on the chicken and got rid of the balls to get a very husky chicken. He had an 1100 pound funnel-like food mixer. “I was 15 years old when I went to work for him and I would dump in the 1100 pounds to make horse feed and chicken feed and I would bag it up. He a stencil made and I had to stencil, ink stencil and I sewed up the bags and in those days I could muscle a 110 pound bag of oats over my head; at 15 or 16 years old I was in excellent shape handling those big bags,” Jimmie said. Jimmie noticed Mr. Sayres never ate any lunch and one day he didn’t ask him why, but just said that I think Mama would make him a plate of lunch every day if he desired it. Mr. Sayres said that would be fine and he would pay her 25 cents for the lunch. “It was plain fare for Mr. Sayres, but it helped us out, Jimmie said.
“The end of my world came quickly. First one Model T was sold, then the other. The shack at the beach – sold. Even my Western Flyer was gone. Then one day the letter came from the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation. They were calling the note on our home and we were going to be evicted. The bank was taking the house. We hadn’t paid and couldn’t pay the mortgage. We were going to be on the street within days.”
Lena Ellen Curry Leach wouldn’t be evicted. She was too proud to have her family and her belongings spread on the dirt in front of the house so that all her neighbors would see her failure. She found a rental for $15/month in the country about two miles up the road from the Chiddix and Sayres places. It was not quite a shack, but it was unimproved. It had one spigot in the kitchen, one spigot outside and outhouse out back. It bordered on a swampy pasture. One of David’s friends, a black man with an old Model T stake truck moved our three loads of belongings out to the new home. Lena Leach paid him $15 and that was a lot of money in those days. The Leach’s stayed there from 1937 to 1941.
“I couldn’t walk to school from there so I quit school,” Jimmie said.
“You know we didn’t have the sensitivity we have today about things like ‘depression’. This was Texas, rural Texas, 1937. For us survival was the issue – food, clothing and shelter. I think we were all depressed some. I thought it was the end of my world, but it wasn’t. When I look back on those days I can see that I could have figured out a way to stay at my classes. I was clever enough.”
Jimmie tried to get a job by going down to the Houston Ship channel and signing on as a mess boy on one of the ships. The Southern Steamship Lines had the State of New York, the State of Louisiana, the State of Texas, all coastal freighters. Nobody would hire him, he was too young and they didn’t have work and he didn’t have a Copeland Card. Nevertheless, Jimmie went to the Union Hall and there were many, many sailors there. They were all older and out of work. He asked the man at the desk what a Copeland Card was and how he could get one. The man kind of smiled – he was nice to Jimmie - but he said, “You don’t want to get a Copeland Card. These union men won’t want to work with you.” The card had a record of where you had worked and if you got fired and if you got drunk or arrested, and it would give information so a ship could choose one man over another. The union seamen didn’t want that; they wanted to get on a ship just through the union hall. “I never got on a ship,” Jimmie said.
Jimmie kept on working for Mr. Sayres and Mr. Chiddix. Mr. Sayres was actually prospering some. David Leach helped him build a new place about two miles from his little place near Hardy St. Mr. Sayres was a Texas A&M graduate and had been an engineer in the first war. He began branding his feed products as “Hearty” – a take off on the name of Hardy Street. Then Mr. Sayres bought Jimmie a new bicycle and offered that Jimmie could pay him back over time. “And I could get from the new home in the country to my job at his feed store down the road," Jimmie said. “I would stay there sometimes. We had visitors who had cut through the floor and stole feed from the new store and put a bag of feed back over the hole. One friend and I sat with a shotgun over that hole through a couple of nights. We never caught the culprit.”
“And I could get back to school. At school I rejoined the Junior ROTC and I got my first military training. It was all about military government, discipline, dress codes, courtesy and citizenship. And in 1938 I went over to the armory and signed up for the National Guard. I was 16 and I lied about my age.”
“So we were a family that fell into poverty through no real fault of our own. I hated to go to the commissary for the free shoes and clothing because of the shame I felt at being poor. My father hated to do WPA work because he was proud to be a carpenter. My mother, remember, she did the hard things as my father became less able to support us; she wrote and asked that I get clothing, she moved us out of our house so we wouldn’t be homeless on the street, but the place we moved to out in the country was little more than a shack. I am certain my parents felt shame and guilt and depression. But these were decisions they made and the things we had to do.”
Publication Granted by The Leach Family and Matthew Hermes PhD.