The Day We Set The Woods on Fire

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The first 4 years of my life I was raised by baby sitters, maids and house keepers because my birth mother died of advanced breast cancer when I was 18 months old. My brother Berry Lee (Bubba) was 13 years old and my sister Marilyn was almost 5 years old. Our Dad (Pop) was emotionally devastated, but had to continue his very busy medical practice to support us and to provide as much parental support as he was able. Our maternal grandmother lived with us for several years, but her home was in Little Rock, and it just didn’t work out for her to stay with us on a permanent basis. I believe there was some significant tension between Pop and her regarding our ongoing care. By the time I was 4, Pop had met, courted and married Athie West who became our step mother. Since I was too young to remember my birth mother, Athie (Mom) filled that void in my life, and it was not until a few years later that I understood the significance of the sacrifices she made for us.

Mom had no prior experience at parenting, and she wanted only the best for us because of our great loss at such young ages. She knew about dresses and frilly things for girls and seemed to have no problems with Marilyn, but for me as a 4-year-old; it was different. I am told that as a child, Mom kept me spotless in appearance and usually wearing the latest in children’s clothing. Whenever I would get dirty playing outside, I was quickly cleaned and dressed in another outfit. I must have assumed that was the way it was supposed to be with all little boys. I don’t remember complaining about it or thinking that I was different in any way. All of that changed when I was 7 years old and the Anthony boys moved into the neighborhood.

Beryl Franklin (Berlie) and John Lee were the only sons of Beryl and Oma Lee Anthony, who also had 2 daughters, Patsy Sue and Carolyn. The Anthony’s were part of a family owned timber business in South Arkansas and North Louisiana, and they moved to El Dorado from Calion in the mid-1940’s. In addition to other holdings, they had a large sawmill in Calion with an adjoining community of sawmill employees. There was even a company store that sold all necessary household supplies and groceries. That store later became a source for John Lee and me to obtain cigarettes for our smoking pleasure at the ages of 9 and 7 respectively. Needless to say, our parents did not suspect nor know about this for a long time.

Berlie and John Lee played a great part in my growing and maturing experience as a young boy. We rode bikes together, played baseball, football and basketball depending on the mood and the season. We wrestled in the grass, mud or whatever happened to be on the ground at the time, and there was never any thought of either of our parents  trying to clean us up. We would hunt and fish together at Calion near the sawmill, and were probably under the watchful eye of some adult without our knowing it. Berlie was a year older than I, and I looked up to him for his great wisdom and worldly experience. John Lee was 2 years younger and occasionally, because of his inexperience and immaturity, Berlie and I would exclude him from our deliberations. If Berlie wasn’t available, then John Lee became my best friend!

I’m not certain of our exact ages, but somewhere around age 7 or 8, I was introduced to cigarettes by the Anthony boys, primarily John Lee. I don’t remember ever getting sick, but do remember feeling that I was a big man when I would light up, and I am pretty sure that I could look and talk tougher whenever I did light up a Lucky Strike. Even though this was an era when smoking was common-place and Pop smoked cigarettes, I did not dare let him know that I was smoking. Bubba was in college at the time and he was an excellent athlete, and I knew that he had never smoked cigarettes. I asked him once if he had ever smoked, and he said he tried it and it made him sick. Since it didn’t make me sick, I was certain that was my indication I was supposed to smoke in order to reach manhood!

One morning near lunch-time, John Lee and I were in the wooded area adjacent to their home, and decided to make a small campfire in order to make our smoking more enjoyable. Perhaps we also had in mind making some coffee which is what we had seen John Wayne and some of his side-kicks doing in the movies. As I recall, there was a slight breeze which made the lighting of the fire a little more difficult at first, but when it was well-lit, seemed to make it burn better and faster. By the time we had added a number of tree limbs and pine straw, we had a roaring fire and were thinking perhaps we needed to reduce it a bit. The more we tried, the larger the flames became; and as I was trying to stamp out the fire, I saw John Lee start crying and running towards home. He decided to leave the fire control to someone older and wiser. Not believing I was up to the task, I gave up and started running home which was only 2 blocks away. Before I reached the front porch, I heard the sirens of a fire engine and assumed it was headed our way. I don’t know why I did this, but I ran to my bedroom, pulled off my britches and climbed into bed. Mom saw me and said, “What are you doing and what is that siren I hear?” My response was, “I don’t feel very good, and I don’t know about that siren.”

The wooded area was not completely burned, but several large beautiful pines were destroyed. I wasn’t punished for my misdeeds, but John Lee’s parents were not as forgiving. He got a significant spanking over the incident. His Mom and Dad always thought I was so sweet that I couldn’t have possibly thought about starting a fire like that, so it must have been John Lee’s idea. I never let them think otherwise and still have some guilt concerning my silence.

I have wonderful memories of those days with the Anthony’s, and am grateful that they were a big part of my early maturing process. By God’s grace we did learn that cigarettes and smoking were dangerous to wooded areas and to health, and we quit smoking within a few years. The Anthony boys turned out well; Beryl Franklin became a U.S. Congressman from the 4th District and served us well; John Lee became President and CEO of Anthony Forest Products and made a significant contribution to the growth of the timber industry in South Arkansas. In that role, part of his responsibilities involved the planting, growth management and harvest of pine trees on tens of thousands of acres. He more than made up for the few trees we destroyed. I just wish I had confessed my guilt concerning the fire to Mr. and Mrs. Anthony.

Dr. John

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2 thoughts on “The Day We Set The Woods on Fire

  1. I love it! I still miss Big Beryl and Oma Lee. And John Lee.

    Confession time. I, too, smoked in elementary school. Yep… Madison Murphy and I were best friends and he smoked. So, I had to as well! That lasted the second half of the 3rd grade through the fourth grade. But, at 35 cents a pack, I couldn’t afford to buy cigarettes AND Flying Magazine each month! So, I quit purely for financial reasons.

    I assume you are talking about the woods behind the Anthony house on Madison, down the hill and across the street for your old house? I’ll always think of you three when I see those big tall trees behind those houses.

    • Those were the woods! There is a house there now but still some huge trees behind. It took me a little longer to quit smoking since we had a “supplier” at the sawmill in Calion. When we had to purchase them, they were 20 cents a pack for us, which we thought was outrageous! Thanks for your encouragement, Todd

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