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Open Features: The Hired Man

Can you tell a good honest man just by looking at him?

Mollie Mercer Hewett tells a fine South Georgia tale.

This is Mollie's first contribution to Open Writing. We hope to bring you more of her well-crafted stories.

I was raised on a farm in South Georgia. We drew water from a well, had no electricity, no indoor plumbing and grew most of what we ate. Hard work and being kind to those who were down on their luck was one character builder my parents believed in. I thought we were poor but there were those that were even poorer than we were. In the late 40's and 50’s, we didn’t lock our doors, and the windows stayed open all summer long just in case there was a breeze blowing. We were always thankful for rain and for a lovely cool breeze.

I remember one time my dad and my six brothers were sitting on the front porch waiting for my mom, my sister and I to holler out, “Dinner's ready, come and get it.”

We had set the table with our everyday dishes, because they were the only ones we had and none of them matched. In those days it wasn't the dishes matching that was of great concern. It was what food was going to be on the plates that mattered most of all. We made sure no one broke a plate so that everyone had one of some color, along with a fork, spoon and a glass of ice tea. The ice tea was “iffy” depending on whether or not the “ice man” had run that day and delivered his usual 25 cent block of ice. Sometimes he’d come every day and then again it might only be once a week.

One thing about my dad I recall distinctly. He always wanted a butter knife and a napkin, which most likely was a dish cloth from a box of detergent. He always spread butter on his bread and knew where to place his knife afterward. And he used his “napkin.”

But this particular time as I recall, they did not rush out to the back porch where the bucket of water sat next to an enamel wash basin and a bar of Lifebuoy or Lux soap. Hanging on a nail beside the shelf was an old mirror so smoky that you could not tell if your face was still dirty, but it made do. And of course we never heard of spreading germs, because we all dried our hands and face on the same towel every day. However, it was changed every night. And there was a comb and a hat rack, because men folk didn't wear hats at the table and they most certainly combed their hair.

That was the routine when dinner was ready and the table was set. The table was about seven feet long and about two and half feet wide.

A long bench that my dad made himself graced each side of the table. At each end of the table there were ladder back chairs with a woven cane bottom. I recall looking at them with a kind of sadness in that they were worn out. The cane bottoms were torn with age. So my dad just replaced the cane bottom with a nicely cut piece of wood. It served the purpose.

A few minutes went by and no one rushed in to “wash up” to eat. My mom, sister and I went out to investigate the situation. There stood a stranger talking to my dad. He asked my dad if he could spare a stranger a meal that he was mighty hungry.

My dad said, “Yessiree, young man," but to save your pride, don’t you think you should earn your meal?"

"Well," said the man, "what would I have to do?"

"See that 50 gallon drum sitting over there," my dad said as he pointed toward the woodpile? "The wood has to be cut to length for the cookstove. If you will split that wood to fill that 50 gallon barrel you can have all you want to eat and take some for your supper."

As the man started for the woodpile, my dad said, "On second thought, just wait until after we eat. Come on in and we’ll set another plate for you. Then after we are finished eating we will sit over there under the shade tree while you cut the wood. And then we’ll head back to the field to chop cotton."

This guy was a real log splitter. He went to work like you’ve never seen, slinging that axe splitting the wood. But before he finished my dad decided we'd head back to the field and told the man he would come back and check on him in an hour or so.

One of my brothers asked my dad if he thought that man would fill that barrel with wood. “Yes, son, I know an honest man when I see one. He will fill it and heap it up. I just feel it in my bones.” My brothers all chimed in and said they did not believe that the man could do it.

However, when we came back to the house that afternoon, sure enough there was the barrel stacked high and running over. Dad said, “See I told y’all he would do it. You see children, your dad has lived a long time and knows a good honest man when he sees one.”

One of my brothers walked over to the barrel and pushed it over as my dad watched in total amazement and embarrassment. The man had turned the barrel upside down and placed a few pieces of wood on top making it appear it was full and running over.

Then my oldest brother asked my dad if he would know a bad man when he sees one from now one.

"Yes, I will, but bad men are few and far between. Because most men are good most of the time. You see children, that man will no doubt be a bum all of his life. Because dishonesty will never get you anywhere in life. Sooner or later it will catch up with you.”

Then my dad said, "Why don't we all go down to the creek and catch us a mess of fish for supper? Another man down on his luck just might smell them cooking."

© Written and compiled solely by Mollie Mercer Hewett

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