The best part of writing about Pineywoods Louisiana is how my books open the door for others to tell me their stories. Most of my historical fiction comes from actual stories told by my friends, both old and new. This is especially true with A Spent Bullet, my 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers book.
My cousin, Harold Iles, who was a Sugartown 12-year-old during the huge 1941 Army war games involving half of all U.S. Army forces just prior to Pearl Harbor.
The following story in my favorite chapter of A Spent Bullet and was related to me by Harold Iles. A few years ago, he and I sat on a picnic bench at Grant Christmas Tree Farm and he regaled me for hours with stories of growing up in a time long gone but not forgotten.
His story of the hams is a favorite that I’ve told to thousands of folks. It encapsulates all of the qualities of the good people of the part of Louisiana I love called the Pineywoods. I simply moved the story from Sugartown to Bundick and had Ben Reed play the part of Harold.
Many of you missed getting a copy of A Spent Bullet since it was released shortly before our African sojourn. If so, you can easily order it or any of our other twelve books at My Book Table.
I was back in the Pineywoods this week at Sugartown Cemetery as cousin Harold was buried beside his wife Mildred (She’d died just before Christmas) and surrounded by the graves of his brother Leo and generations of Iles men and women.
Harold Iles, Sr. was an officer in the Korean War and therefore received a full military burial. The echo off the surrounding pines of the bugler playing “Taps” is etched in my heart. I thought of a saying I’ve always used, “Sooner or later, every Iles comes home to Sugartown.”
Rest in peace, cousin Harold. You were a man who lived and died with your faith and a good name.
I’ve inserted his touching obituary at the end of this blog post.
Chapter 23 from A Spent Bullet: Coals of Fire
His mother awakened Ben the next morning. “Baby, wake up. I got a job for you.”
He heard the pounding rain on their tin roof. “Still coming down?”
“It’s been steady all night.” She caressed his hair. “I need you to go with Peg back to where the food was buried. The Corporal said there’s several barrels of hog slop. It’ll come in handy for the pigs.”
An hour later he and Peg were on their way down Tram Road. Dolly slowly pulled a slip on which they could load the barrels. There were two barrels and they returned in the downpour.
At the barn he parked the slide by the hog trough. He got out a short-handled shovel as the pigs crowded around in eager anticipation. Peg returned to the house to dry off and momma joined him. She waved at the stench of spoiled food. “Whew, that’s strong.”
His mother took the shovel. “Let’s get to the bottom of this and get inside.” Much to the delight of the squealing pigs, she scooped out scraps into the troughs.
About a foot down, the shovel struck something. Putting down the shovel, Momma began scooping out the food with her hands. Ben climbed up on the barrel to help her. It was nasty work but neither of them were finicky.
“Momma, it looks like a pasteboard cover.”
She pried her fingernails under the edge of the cover. Pulling it loose, she leaned in for a look at what lie underneath.
“My Lord, lookee there.”
Trying to see, Ben nearly fell in. “What is it?”
She stepped to the side and he climbed up. “It’s full of baked hams.”
Fresh cooked country hams. Ben asked, “Do you think they’re still good?”
She picked one up, sniffing it. “Smells fine to me. They’re baked and should be eatable.”
Ben peeled off a jerky-like strip, chewing on it. “It tastes fine to me. Why’d they throw this good meat away, Momma?”
She removed one of the hams, examining it closely. “Probably the soldiers got sent out before they could serve the hams. They’ll be gone for a week.”
“What are we gonna do?”
She glanced off down the hollow. “We’re going to make a whole lot of folks happy.” She pointed to the barn. “Go get the wheelbarrow and line it with some fresh feed sacks. I’ll get the girls and we’ll start drawing water to clean the hams.”
She wiped her hands on an old towel before heading to the house For the next hour, they washed, cleaned, and developed their plan for distribution. Momma said, “Time is of the essence. I also want to send some of the sugar and coffee.”
Elizabeth drew a map of their neighbors, dividing it into four parts as Peg and Momma laid the clean hams on a sheet. “There’s fourteen hams.”
Ben asked, “How many are we going to keep?”
Momma nodded. “One.”
“One? We found them. We ought to keep more than one.”
She lifted his chin. “We didn’t find them. That soldier told us about them.” She patted his head. “Besides, if we keep two someone won’t get one, and a second one would probably ruin before we finished it.”
Elizabeth circled the names of four neighbors and handed it to Ben. “You’ll enjoy handing hams even more than eating them.”
Ben licked his lips. “I’m not sure I’d enjoy anything more than eating fresh ham.”
She filled his tote sack with four hams, small bags of sugar, and a tin of coffee. “Now head out to Aunt Emma’s, the Spurlocks, the Ortegos, and swing back by the Tates.”
He sat the sack down. “I don’t want to go by the Tates. Those boys are always mean to me.”
Momma said, “Well, I bet they won’t be after tonight.” She popped him playfully on the behind. “Now get a move on.”
The hams were heavy and only became heavier as he walked the half mile to Aunt Emma’s. It was nearly dark and the barking dogs and chattering guineas brought the old woman to the door. “Who goes out there?”
“It’s Sainty Claus.”
He lowered his voice. “Ho Ho Ho.”
She closed and latched the door. “Who is it?”
Ben sat down his sack, cupped his hands and gave his best quail whistle, followed by, “My name’s ‘Bob White’ and I’ve got somethin’ for you.”
She opened out the door. “Ben Reed, you’re gonna get shot coming up to a widow woman’s house in the dark.”
He hefted this sack onto the porch, putting his hand under it to make it shake.
Aunt Emma drew back. “It’s not a snake or nothin’ live, is it?”
He lifted the ham out, holding it aloft with both hands. She set her lantern down and knelt. “My goodness. It is Christmas.” Her eyes glistened in the lamplight. “Where’d you get that?”
“It’s a gift. A gift from our uncle.”
“Your uncle. Which one?”
She glanced up. “From the soldiers?”
He pulled out the sugar, then the coffee. “There’s more.” She made him relate about the soldier’s visit and their discovery. Aunt Emma clasped the ham to her breast like a child. “Son, tell your momma how much I appreciate this.”
“Aunt Emmer, I’ve got to be going on my other rounds.”
Before he could make his getaway, she pulled him close, leaving an overpowering whiff of sweet snuff, stale coffee, and ham grease. “I don’t want you to never forget this night, and what your momma did. She truly knows that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
There was no escaping her grasp. “Pearline and Levon Reed done given you a good name with good deeds like this.”
She loosened her grip. “It’s your job not to mess it up.”
“Yes Ma’am” Lifting his sack, which was now one-quarter lighter, he hopped off the porch. “I’m on my way to the Spurlock place.”
“God bless you, child.”
Ben had to agree: this giving away stuff felt pretty good. Maybe not as good as a slice of baked ham, but good in a different way.
The next two visits were just as fun as Aunt Emma’s. The families were delighted with the ham, sugar, and coffee. By the time, Ben left these homesteads, he’d been hugged, squeezed, and nearly kissed to death.
A cold chill of dread came over him as he neared the Tate home. He didn’t expect a warm welcome from the dogs nor the humans.
The three older Tate boys loved tormenting younger kids, especially Ben. The last thing he wanted was to be even remotely close to their place.
Walking by a stump hole, he thought how convenient it’d be to toss the last ham in and kick dirt on it. Some varmint would eventually eat the evidence.
Then he recalled the infectious joy on his momma’s face. This compelled him to continue to the Tate home. First, he had to get past the dogs, which had a deservedly mean reputation for biting strangers and neighbors alike.
He reached in the bag, pulling loose a strip of hide from the ham. A few steps later he broke off a stout sweet gum limb. I’ll use this carrot and stick approach. Maybe one’ll work.
The dogs began cutting up as he neared the gate. He hollered “Hallo” and heard them stop before a series of low growls began nearing in the dark. Tossing the meat strip in their direction, he sprinted for the safety of the porch.
A muffled voice answered. “What’s going on out there?”
“It’s your neighbor, Ben Reed. I’ve got a gift for you.”
“Ben. Levon Reed’s boy. Your boys know me.” Ben whispered, “They ought to know me as many times as they’ve whupped me upside the head.”
“Come up on the porch and show me what you’ve got.”
The door cracked open, and a bare-chested bear of a man stood looking down on Ben. Behind Mr. Tate, he made out the shadowy silhouettes of several children.
He flashed the lantern in Ben’s face. “Boy, what you got in that tote sack?”
As Ben reached into his sack, Mr. Tate motioned for Ben to stop. He never took his eyes off Ben. “Boys, do y’all know this little pip squeak?”
“Know him well, Daddy.”
The man nodded at Ben, who reached into the sack, and with the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, held up the ham. “My momma sent this over for you.”
Mr. Tate stepped back, obviously ill at ease. He squared his shoulders. “You tell your mother we don’t need no charity.”
“It ain’t charity, Sir. You done paid for it.”
“It’s government ham. Army waste.” Ben handed him the ham. Mr. Tate gingerly took it and sniffed it as if it might be poisoned with strychnine.
Ben said, “It’s a gift from my family to yours.”
“Because that’s what neighbors do for each other.”
Mr. Tate squinted. “How’d y’all git it?”
“We found it and a bunch more that the Army threw out.”
“What about the others?” Ben didn’t like the look in the man’s face. It reminded him of how a dog looks when another has more in its bowl.
“We gave them to our other neighbors. Folks like ya’ll.”
“You gave them all away?”
“All but one.”
The man’s face softened. “Your momma only kept one and gave us one.”
“Yes sir.” He pulled out the sugar and coffee. “This is yours too.”
Mr. Tate opened the coffee tin, taking in a deep whiff. “We ain’t had coffee since my wife died last year.” His voice broke. “I really appre…”
“Mr. Tate, if you or one of your boys will hold those dogs, I’d best be going.” He backed away.
“You dogs git under that porch and stay.” Mr. Tate thundered and the dogs whimpered before slinking under the house, tailed tucked.
He put his huge hairy hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Son, you tell your momma something for me. I ain’t never had anyone give me something this nice. It means the world to me and my family.”
Ben heard the catch in the man’s voice. “If there’s anything you and your folks need, me and my boys will help.” He nodded his head. “Won’t we, boys?”
The boys, now arrayed in the doorway, echoed, “Yes Sir.”
As Ben trotted away, he knew he was safe. Safe from the Tate biting dogs and safe from the Tate brothers. Ben knew his days of being tormented were over.
He couldn’t get out of his mind the look on the man’s face as he held the ham. It all reminded Ben of a Bible verse. It was something that Jesus said about heaping coals of fire on your enemies’ head by being kind.
He wasn’t sure where the verse was, but he’d seen it back in the Tate family yard.
He hurried home, light on his feet as he crossed the swamp. He couldn’t wait to tell his momma about his rounds and get a big ham sandwich with a cold glass of milk. His stomach growled. Hang on, there’s a sandwich waiting on us.
He wasn’t sure which would feel best: a juicy baked ham sandwich, giving away coffee and hams, or heaping coals of fire.
Today was a day he got to do all three. That made it a good day. A really good day.
OBITUARY FOR HAROLD ILES, SR.
Harold Edward Iles Sr. June 18, 1931 – March 17, 2018 Harold Edward Iles, Sr., fourth generation native of Beauregard Parish, born June 18, 1931 in Sugartown, LA, son of the late Edward and Tressa Perkins Iles passed away in a local care facility Saturday, March 17, 2018 at the age of 86.
Harold was a graduate of Sugartown High School and received a B. S. degree in Animal Husbandry in 1953, from McNeese State College. At this time, he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Army in 1953 and served with the 25th Infantry Division and 7th Infantry Division while in Korea as 1st Lieutenant.
He married Maxine Stroud of Florien on April 16, 1955.
Harold surrendered his life to Christ at the age of 10 years and was baptized in Ouiska Chitto Creek. He was ordained as a deacon of Murray Street Baptist Church on January 25, 1959 and was member & deacon of Eastridge Baptist Church. God and family were the most important to him and he loved giving of himself to others.
He is survived by son, Harold Iles, Jr. (Patricia); daughter, Mollie Iles Miller (Ronnie); sonin-law, Mike Dickson; grandchildren, Travis Miller (Lisa), Joan M. Kelley (Galan), Diana Dickson and Evan Iles; great-grandchildren, Kaylee & Kelsie Miller, Justin & Matthew Rodriguez, Kenadi, Kiera, Mollie & Maddie Kelley; nieces & nephews, Ann Glass (Berkley), Ricky Iles, (Cindy), Nancy Iles, Sam Iles (Denise), Kathy Benkert, Rhonda Orazio (David), Johanna Westermeyer, Lisa Sass (David) and Raymond Commander (Connie).
He is predeceased by his parents; wife of 62 years, Maxine Stroud Iles; daughter, Susan Iles Dickson; great-granddaughter, Avery Faith Kelley and brother, Leo R. Iles and wife, Anne.
Visitation begins Sunday, March 18, 2018 in Johnson & Brown Funeral Home – Iowa, from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. and will resume Monday in the funeral home from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Funeral services are Monday, March 19, 2018 at 2 p.m. with Rev. Alan Weishampel officiating. Burial will follow in Sugartown Cemetery. Memorial donations may be made to the Eastridge Baptist Church Building Fund, 5400 Highway 397, Lake Charles, LA 70615.