James L. Cowles

© Copyright 2019 by James L. Cowles

Photo of the Cowles family.
I remember always being leery of him, even though he was my father.  He was a little man, about 5’9” and always wore a hat to cover his balding head.  He was forty years old when I was born and although I’m sure he loved me, he never told me until he was very old and near dying.  He apparently was of a generation who held emotions in; one thing I could never understand.  Neither my mother, or father ever really hugged me, but I know both had very hard, unenviable lives when they were younger and I seriously doubt they were ever hugged themselves.  I missed out on that important part of life; sometimes that makes me sad.
My mama had two stepmothers by the time she was a young girl.  Her mother and her first stepmother died young themselves; the early 20th century was devoid of medicine, especially in rural areas of Kentucky.  My daddy apparently had the same situation as mama; I remember when he told me that although he was only around three years old when his mother died, he could still remember sitting on her lap as she sang to him.  When he was a young man, he worked in a rock quarry in Edmonson County; it was hard work, especially for someone slight of build like he was, but he endured it.  When his mother passed, his father came to Louisville to work for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, leaving him behind to live with his Aunt and Uncle.  He had several younger full and half brothers and sisters whom I loved, but he didn't talk about which were full and which were half.  It was obvious to me his young life had been very tough. 
After he grew up, daddy followed my granddaddy to Louisville and eventually worked for the L&N himself.  He worked there 44 years, retiring at age 65.  Mama had passed just three years earlier from stomach cancer; her last months on this earth were pure hell.  Daddy had a temper that could come in a flash and that made living with someone like him difficult at times; I often wonder if dad’s temper had anything to do with my mother’s early demise.  To my knowledge, he never struck her.  I do recall one time as a boy, when his anger reached a peak and he drew back his hand as if to strike her.  She looked him dead in the eye and called out his name, followed by, “you better not even think of it.”  Mama always had his number and he always backed down quickly.  I remember a time when he came home from work and told us he had had a very hard day and he intended to lie down for a while before supper.  Mama’s response was, “You can lie down if you want to, but we are going to eat supper right now.  If you don’t want your food to get cold, you had better come and get it.”  He came to the table and as I remember he had a very good appetite. Sunday was friend chicken day, along with mashed potatoes and green beans.  We lived in Louisville, Kentucky and mama’s fried chicken beat the Colonel’s all too pieces.  Daddy and I would vie for the gizzard, a tasty treat and whoever got it would leave the other to eat the heart.  Mama always baked pies and cakes on those Sundays and it was not unusual for her to do so once or twice during the week.  Custard and chocolate were my favorites.
My youngest sister tells me she remembers a time when daddy whipped me so hard with a razor-strap, she passed out.  She used the adjective, “mean,” to describe him and said the whipping was caused by my simply telling him I needed a mute for my cornet.  Honestly, I do not remember that, but I know he was tight and pinched every penny that passed through his hands.  As I've said, he got angry quickly at times and yes, he used a razor strap to discipline us kids, something that would be considered child abuse in this day and time.  I walked on eggshells most of my childhood, trying to keep my grades up and especially, not “sass” him, neither of which was easy.  I was successful most of the time, but other times I paid the price.
Now, my daddy was not an evil man; not even close.  There was a good side to him as well.  He bought me an electric train on my 8th birthday and he took me to buy that cornet mentioned earlier, when I was about the same age. I loved that horn and played it all the way through high school, even getting into a crack ROTC band with it.  He also bought me my first 26” bike and although I’m sure those “major” purchases were prompted by mama’s insistence, I don’t recall him ever complaining about them. In fact, I remember how proud he was to give them to me.  He also relished the fact that as an L&N employee, he and his family could ride the train free and several times he took me to his birthplace, Brownsville, Ky.  I remember with fondness the time we walked to a fresh water spring that he used to drink from when he was a boy; we walked on that road between Rhoda and Chalybeate one very hot July day and the asphalt of that old country road was literally melting beneath our feet.  We stayed with Uncles and Aunts and he took me to croquet tournaments, which were a pass-time at night there in Rhoda.  Tournaments were held behind the general store and Dad bought me ice-cream to help me cool off when I got sweaty hot.  He and I walked all over that county, most of the time being picked up by someone who stopped to ask us if we wanted a ride. Good country folks, everyone bent on helping their fellow man. Daddy always knew them, or one of their close relatives.  At home in Louisville, he’d often take me with him when he rode the bus to town to buy a suit for himself, or conduct business and we’d end up in a picture show, watching a few western movies together, eating popcorn and enjoying the air conditioning.  Afterward, we’d stop for a hamburger before catching the bus or trolley home. 
Once, when I was very young, probably about six years old, my dad came home carrying a chicken upside down, holding it by its legs. I felt sorry for it and wondered what was going on.  Mama had prepared a tub of hot water and had it sitting on our back porch and I was shocked when daddy grabbed the chicken by the neck and began twisting it, wringing it until its head popped off.  The headless chicken jumped all over our yard, leaving a bloody trail over everything it touched.  I remember crying; I thought that was a very cruel thing to do to a chicken and as a matter of fact, I still do.  Mama dipped the lifeless chicken into the hot water and let it soak for a time, then began pulling the feathers from its body.  I had never seen either of them do anything quite this cruel and it startled me; but later, I must admit, I ate the chicken and enjoyed it.  They explained they had merely cut out the middle man, who normally would have butchered the chicken; I prefer letting the middle man do it.  I saw many of my relatives do this over the years, more than once and today I often wonder why I’m not a vegan.  
My daddy was a deacon and an elder in the church and he would often lead the congregation in prayer.  I believe he was searching for truth and I always hoped it would make him a better person.  I do know that his grandkids loved him, but then, he never disciplined them; seems that’s the way it always works with grandparents.  As to the church making him kinder, that didn’t work.  When he got much older, some of the wind went out of his sails.  He was kinder, easier going but never apologetic.  I do believe he had reflected on his life and was sorry for many of the things he had done, but I also believe he came to be an intemperate person quite naturally; I know it left a mighty big impression on me and as a result, I always tell my kids I love them. To my knowledge, my daddy never drank liquor; oh, I’m sure he tried it, but it was not a habit in our house.  Later, I myself was a spanker, but after my children got a bit older, decided not to do it any longer.  Although I do hug them, I am still in fear that somehow I have inherited a bit of that “angry stinkbug” my father often displayed; I find myself guarding against that at every turn. 
Daddy passed at the age of 89, closing in on 90.  He spent his last days in a nursing home and after a while, became accustomed to it; he settled in, realizing that no one in the family could take care of his needs.  He preferred to be in his own home, but that just wasn’t possible.   Like his father, he married again after mom’s death, but strangely, his wife was in a different nursing home than he; she had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know him.  He simply couldn’t stand that.  The remedy seemed right to him; just move to a separate nursing home, so that’s what he did.
I prefer to remember daddy in a good light.  He and mother raised four children in hard times and although I feared my dad’s temper, there were certainly more good times than bad.  When I see them both again, I will say, “I love you” and I’m sure they will repeat the same to me. I believe we humans are constantly making baby steps, improving our understanding of true love and brotherhood.  There may well be a divine plan, but I think it’s more a God-given human attribute allowing us to become more like Him over time. I’d dare say that many have experienced what I experienced as a child; some believe we’ve changed for the better because we have more knowledge, primarily from the internet and television, these things somehow lighting a divine spark within us.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do believe we are being educated over our entire lifetime and perhaps someday we’ll understand it all a little better.


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