Thursday, March 3, 2016

Incomplete Biography of My Father Clarence Nettles

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Clarence Clyde Nettles, also known as Bosey. My father and the father of Nancy and Douglas.
This is overlong, as it should be. A life that ends naturally, in old age is not itself overlong, but its events are many. They ordered by only chronology and the participation of one individual. It would be easy to praise and to make things larger, but words spoken in remembrance that are not true have no value. The great and somber eulogies of the great and the mighty are invariably dangerous lies for they never include all the bodies and harm most people deemed historical have left in the wake of their crimes.
This is also subject to my memory which is as fallible as I am. It is open to correction, addition and completion.

Clarence was Born Aug *, 1932 in a farm house on Pine Hill Road Orangeburg County.
Family later moved to the Neeses farm. Dad said that after the harvest his father went to pay Dr Williams the rent for the year but Doc Williams said ‘This will make a good down payment on the land.”

The pecan orchard I think was already there. The crops grown on this farm were cotton, peanuts, watermelons, soy beans, okra and probably many others.
As a child Clarence said he never got to go to town. He mentioned an accident with one of his brothers and a .22 rifle which left a small scar in his forehead.

He said that during the Depression they were about as poor as most people were at that time. During World War Two his brother Woodrow went in the army as was a mechanic and served in Italy. Clarence wanted to become a waist gunner on a B-17, but the war end before he’d turned 13.  B-25s from the nearby military air field used to fly low over the farm. I wondered the other day what WWII looked like to my dad, I doubt they had magazines or many newspapers. They probably had a radio, though I can’t remember him saying anything about it. During the war German POWs were shipped over to the U.S. and Canada in the empty Liberty Ships. It guaranteed the safety of the ships and got the prisoners to places with more food and that were nearly impossible to escape from. Where were they gonna go? Georgia?
So they would march these POWs around to the farms to do labor, pick cotton, weed, plant. One guy spoke good English and talked to young Clarence. He’d lived on a farm in Germany and liked chopping wood. So my dad let him chop wood. 
It was also during the war, I think 1942, his father Henry Nettles, in his fifties had a heart attack and died.

He told a story once that the ruts in the dirt roads were so deep a driver could just take his hands off the wheel and the ruts would guide an old Model T.  He once demonstrated this on a back road at Proud Lake, where we went camping. He turned the lights off the L&M Lumber carpenter van; in total darkness the ruts tracked the wheels. I don’t know how turning the lights off had anything to do with the tracking. I guess it worked whether you could see it or not. We slept by the campfire that night in blankets, rolling over frequently to warm-up our cold sides.

The family first lived in a small wooden house his dad had built on top of stones piled up to lift it off the ground. I don’t remember seeing any motar. Later another house was built to the north. His mom lived there until the mid 1960s when Clarence took his family down for a two week visit while he framed out a house near the road for his sister Edna. Grandma lived there for the rest of her life.
Grandma’s house has a tin roof. Like in Michigan you could see rain coming, on Grandma’s front porch we watched the rain coming in over the pecan orchard. When it reached the house it pattered on the corrugated tinroof.
While Clarence was building Edna’s house next to the road we ran around on the farm. Uncle Woodrow had a big jackknife and carried a salt shaker in his shirt pocket. Doug and I each carried a big spoon in our pockets. When we wanted some watermelon three or four times each day, we’d pick one off the pile. Woodrow would cut it in half, sprinkle some salt on it. We’d eat on it awhile and then toss the rest to the pigs and watch them gobble it up. The pigs were in a pen where they could wallow to keep cool. They also had a patch in the trees where they could root. They were contained in this area with an electrified wire about a foot or so off the ground. The first time we crossed this wire Douglas reached down and touched it. He got shocked. I guess the pigs got a kick out of this, because twice more when we cut across a corner of their area, they’d be about twenty feet away paying us no mind. As soon as Doug got half a step away from the wire they’d all turn around and snort–Doug would jump right into the wire and get shocked. Pigs are smart, clever and apparently have a nasty sense of humor. They also have perfect timing. They nailed Doug twice.
Woodrow would walk us out to the field where we pulled up a few peanut plants, pick the peanuts off the roots. In the kitchen someone would wash them off then put them on the stove to boil. Goober peas, very tasty.

When I was in college we drove down twice over Thanksgiving. We stopped by the Salley Chitlin Strut twice, but my dad said he couldn’t believe anybody could properly clean and cook a couple thousand pounds of chitlins, so we never ate any. On one trip the license plate of his truck made the national TV news. 
We visited the General Store in North, on the main street. Inside were 3-4 old men sitting around a potbellied stove shooting the breeze. The shelves behind the counter were full of shoes. I completely forgot about this until ten years ago I walked into a museum display about Maya Angelou. There was a General Store. I had been trying to behave myself and not talk too much, but as soon as I saw the museum General Store I blurted out, “Where’s the shoes? There’s supposed to be shoes on the shelves behind the counter..” I think somewhere between North and then I’d read about General Stores and the shoe display. So much is gone, or in ruins or just waiting.
On my last trip with Bazyl; Clarence, Jeremy stopped at the old cotton gin near the road junction. Clarence told us that he once spent the night there with one of his brothers. The gin had a break down, their cotton hadn’t been ginned of seeds, bailed and weighed, so they stayed with it until the next day when it was fixed and their crop processed.

Clarence dropped out of high school during or after the 11th grade to join the Air Force.
In the Air Force, “They pulled all the colored guys and me out of the line and made us all cooks.”
He was in the Air Force for one enlistment. Stationed in Texas, Mather Field near Sacramento, California and Selfridge AFB in Michigan. This was during the Korean War. We asked him what he’d done in the war. He said he made sandwiches for the crews flying over there. He said he never flew in an airplane the whole time he was in the Air Force. Trains and buses only.

During a weekend pass he met Clara Jean  at the Lafayette Coney Island restaurant in downtown Detroit. There’s a famous Coney Island in Detroit. The one they met at is right next door.
Clarence at this time looked a lot like the young Elvis Presley. This wasn’t much of an advantage because Elvis wouldn’t be famous for another couple of years.

They eloped. I think in Toledo, Ohio. When Jean’s parents,  Catherine (Roman)  and Charles  found out, they were not happy. Clarence quickly became a Catholic, he’d been a Baptist, and they were married in Our Lady Queen of Apostles in Hamtramck on Conant Street. Clarence and Jean lived upstairs in the attic bedroom of Charles and Busha’s house at 5093 Prescott Ave in Detroit (about 250 feet from the Hamtramck line). Clarence found work as a carpenter.
(Catherine Kate, was Busha to us and Charles, JaJa was grandpa. Babushka is Polish for grandmother, Busha is American baby for the Polish word. )

Nancy was born in 1953, (me) William (Randy) in 1955 and Douglas in 1957.
Clarence made quick progress as a carpenter. He learned quickly and got good at it.
When I asked him about dropping out of high school he said the only regret he had was “I wanted to learn Algebra.”
I found this strange, so I asked him, “You’re building a house, it’s 50 feet long, how many floor joists?”
He immediately said 38. “OK, how’d you come up with that?
“3/4 times the length + 1.”
“You just did Algebra. You’ve been doing it your whole life.”
“Where’s the ‘x’?”
“The x is the length of the house, the y is the answer.”
“Well I’ll be.”
I’m sure he could’ve aced high school Algebra. As a carpenter he’d been doing Algebra everyday all day.
He could show you how to read and use a framing square like it was a computer. He knew to an absolute certainty how to layout rafters quickly and accurately. He’d  then gang the boards together, cut them all at once, so they would meet dead center in the middle of a house, the beak cut outs would fit the top plates--and overhang  was even, the angle cut plumb. If there was a soffit, the tails were already cut for that. This is really really hard to do. I’ve done it a few times but, I never it did fast and I usually had to do a lot of fussing. When Clarence did it, the ridge was straight, the tails were all even. A 1-by facia board could be nailed to them and be arrow straight.
I used to hang gutters with him. I’ve lived in California for more than 30 years, I’ve fixed a lot of gutters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gutter in California that was properly pitched.
He had a couple of old aluminum body Porter Cable saws. They’d remove the guards and cut off the shoe plate past the blade. This is so they could cut the lower plate out of a door opening flush with the first stud. It also made the saws dangerous. I ‘borrowed’ one from him, knowing I would keep it as a family heirloom. I have a faded scar on my right leg where it jumped back out of a piece of wet lumber I was using to build a loft bed for a couple of punk rockers in New York City in 1979. I took a cab to the hospital got a few stitches and ent back and finished the bed.
These saws had high RPM, inadequate brakes. My dad would use his fingers on the side of the blade to stop it from spinning. It’s an heirloom-there’s about 20 things you need to know to safely operate one. I was missing at least one. When he had to use a handsaw he was good there too, knew how to sharpen them. The Porter-Cable was the first widely used power saw.
What I learned about carpentry from my dad was primarily that all of it was possible. He’d just do it or if he’d not done that particular job before, he’d figure it out. Every time I swing a hammer I was trying to seing it like him. I would do little things, tree houses, fix things at my grandmother’s house. In college I was working a minimum wage job in the cafeteria loading the Hobart dishwasher. I suddenly realized that I had  skills, I was a carpenter, handyman. I started calling up landlords. I went from $3.25 an hour to $8.
In 1991 we built a darkroom in my backyard. He wanted to try a gambrel barn roof, so we made one of those.
In 1993 he helped me frame out the kitchen extension I added to our house.

There was a building boom in the 1950s, Clarence framed a lot of houses, later he built apartment buildings.  I don’t know when he started running crews as foreman, but it couldn’t have been very long after he started.
My dad told me a few stories about building projects on the farm and while he was in the Air Force. I can’t remember what they were.
Some people can figure things out, others learn a job and do that job. My dad figured things out.
When I got my DNA analyzed for genealogy, I learned that some of my dad’s ancestors reached England 8000 years ago. They walked, the English Channel was dry land. When I learned that the name Nettles comes from a small hill settlement, near an iron age fort, in Wiltshire called Nettle-comb-tout I saw that it was about 40 miles from Stonehenge. The connection is simple, we built Stonehenge.

What everyone who knew him will remember is when he drove anywhere he’d wave his arm to point out all the many jobs he’d done in the vicinity.
After a couple of years living at Busha’s house, our family moved to a cinderblock house on Long Avenue in the NE corner of Livonia Michigan. I think I remember the house as looking ugly to me even when I was a baby. We had a swing set, a dog named C**, an old Ford–that got stolen. All of these memories have a strange baby twist to them. I remember Nancy, Doug-maybe, and me looking out the storm door window at the driveway.
Later my parents bought a pink Rambler. They didn’t want pink, I guess few other people wanted one either, so they got a deal. Clarence and Old Man Joe, decided to fix the car by spray painting it powder blue in Joe’s garage. Old Man Joe was always joking around, once he mashed an overripe cantaloupe on cap my dad was wearing that Joe thought silly. He would instruct by pointing and repeating, “Do dat, do dat, do dat.” Ff you did dat right, he’d let you know, “dere you is.”
My dad drove stumpy little vans owned by his employers, when he was ready to take on more of his own jobs he bought used a black 1965 Ford pick-up truck with a 289 V-8 Engine. This engine alone made it exactly like a Ford Mustang, except it was still a pick-up truck. By my father’s sensibility and my own, this made better than a Mustang. I remember riding to jobs, my feet up on the metal dash--no seat belts listening to WEXL country music in Detroit.
When that died in 1973, he bought a new powder blue Ford pick-up. I resurrected the old black Ford, propped up the rusted out bed with 2x4s, installed salvaged seat belts and started driving it to school. I’d fly into the dirt student parking lot and slide into a space. Very Road Warrior. Another kid told me he had been too embarrassed to drive his pick-up to school until I’d made pick-ups truck seem cool. Cool? It worked, gas was cheap and I had the keys. From a life of experiences exactly like this, I realized that although my dad often seemed difficult to get along with, his skills and willingness to figure out how to do things made him interesting and attractive, but only to people practical and smart enough to understand. Everybody else didn’t much matter.
My parents argued a lot, too much, but they appreciated their complementary strengths. Clarence could build it or fix it, Jean could take care of the paper work and organize the politics. A dog I left her with got out of the yard on Five Mile and fell in with a delinquent. When the dog catcher picked them up they’d murdered a chicken, which grew in importance from a child’s pet to a prize rooster as the court date neared. Mom said that judge just kept looking at her, trying to remember where he’d seen her before. Probably mayor Harvey Moltke campaigns. “I guess he finally decided I must be somebody, because he turned around, cut the chicken owner off with ‘it’s against ordinance to keep poultry within the city. Case dismissed.’

In 1959, I think, Clarence and Jean made a deal with a developer who was building a subdivision on what had been a farm in Livonia between Five Mile Road and Bell Creek (Says Bell Creek on the map. Everybody I ever heard mention it just called it ‘the Creek’.)  The deal was that Clarence would framed the house as part of the downpayment. The house was at 15932 Brentwood Ave, Livonia, Michigan. The family that moved in next door  were the Duthies, five children. They became our friends..
 Clarence fixed up the basement, built a garage. When a large tree in the backyard died I remember him and some friends digging out the stump.
While we were living in that house Clarence worked on and off for Walter Shoshaki (sp?) who owned L&M Lumber. Later my dad ran a framing crew building an apartment complex in Westwood for Kaufman & Broad. Later I worked for Eli Broad photographing his art collection.
I remember going with my dad out to some jobs, always on a weekend. One place was just the deck of a house, no walls yet. He walked around and pointed out where all the rooms would be and how he thought it could be done better. I thought of this later when I learned about spatial reasoning. We were standing on the deck of this house discussing rooms that weren’t even there. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember understanding how his changes would turn hallway space into larger bedrooms. Clearly I was his son and that it was no surprise that our ancestors had built Stonehenge.

Other jobs he’d take me on where remodeling basements, putting up paneling, drop ceilings, installing a bar. Others were kitchen remodels, replacing the old painted wooden cabinets with new ones faced in Formica. We’d go to these cabinet shops that were all clouds of particle board dust stinking of formaldehyde glue,  burnt plastic and contact cement solvent.  On one job my dad was installing trim molding along the floor. He’d ask me for a tool but was so focused on what he was doing he’d stutter and say the wrong thing. Like say, ‘screwdriver’ when he wanted the chisel. I’d hand him the screwdriver. He’d get mad. “Goddamit, you should know what I want and have it ready.” After that, even before he got the chance to ask I’d hand him what he was about to ask for. OK. Then I started handing what he needed next before he’d even thought about it. This pissed him off; what could he say?
People seemed to be angry all the time. Angry seemed normal. It doesn’t solve anything, I think some people can’t even imagine not being pissed off at something or someone. It was like everything in life could be better if only you would be better.
Drinking. Everybody seemed to drink. I remember other moms coming over to the house, or my mom going to their house and it was always, “Hi hon, want a highball?’ I remember big parties where some guy, not the same guy, just another one of those guys who was supposed to be ‘on the wagon,’ or ‘he’s cutting down, only one drink.’ Of course you know the rest. When I attended AA meetings many years later with a friend, I had two reactions, first, almost everything the members said I was already familiar with. Nobody with a drinking problem ever ‘cuts down’ or has ‘only one.’ My second reaction was happy amazement to be in a room full of ex-drunks. I never thought I would see the day.
My dad got in a lot of trouble because of drinking. He drank a lot, but he wasn’t an alcoholic. If he hung out with drunks, he’d drink. He would go to bars, come home really late, drunk and get in a big fight with Jean. Once when I was in college I was sent to the Birdcage Bar on Fenkell to find him to tell him something. He was sitting with an old Polish guy wearing a ridiculous green plaid suit, little Swiss Hat. “Hey, let me  introduce you to my son. He goes to the University of Michigan.”
The old guy looks me up and down,  “Nah, he’s not so smart. I’m smarter than he is.”
And I thought, why would my dad want to hang out with a fool like this instead of with his family?

Doug told me later that our mom started drinking when we were in junior high school. I didn’t have any idea until my last year or two of high school. She was an alcoholic. She couldn’t stop.
I came up with a mostly goofy, but practical idea. There are people in the world who should never drink alcohol. It’s a long list. It pretty much includes every type of person on the planet except maybe Swedes and the Swiss. Since then I learned that some Swedes are binge drinkers and I’m not even sure about the Swiss. Of course this list includes my dad, me. When he would go to South Carolina he would be around his family who didn’t drink, so he didn’t drink. He told Jeremy recently that moving down to South Carolina and not drinking probably saved his life. He was happily surprised he reached 80 years old. 

After several good years Clarence and Jean wanted to build a bigger and better house. Because Clarence was such a good carpenter, the thinking was sweat-equity would cut the cost. This idea became the house at 15942 Harrison Road, just around the corner from the Brentwood house. My dad designed it and drew up the plans.
The lot was 100’ wide, the house was 70’ long. Full basement. We used to ride bicycles in it. Beautiful house. Of course it took longer and cost more than they’d planned. 
Within a couple of years of moving in work was slow, money was tight. A lot of arguments.
Clarence tried to run a business digging trenches for foundations and waterlines. He bought a machine. Business can be difficult. I’ve only recently learned that the only way to succeed in a business is to learn from a mentor. Working hard, figuring it out, using your own money...usually isn’t enough.
 I remember some big fights. My whole childhood I remember fighting. I remember thinking it was all pretty pointless.

I guess the house payments were too much, we had to sell that house and move to another smaller house on Five Mile Road. The fights continued, my dad lived somewhere else part of the time. My family just couldn’t get along. My dad went to work for Burroughs Computers. He did repairs and maintenance, was friends with the guys he worked with.

Frequently during this time, Clarence was living somewhere else, Nancy had an apartment, I went to college, then New York City. Only Doug was still living in the house with our mother. Right after I came back from two years in Montreal, on my way to California, Christmas 1981 she died at home from sclerosis of the liver.
Clarence moved back in and started to fix up the place to sell it. He fell on a ladder on the front porch breaking his back. Horrible pain. He was airlifted to the University of Michigan hospital. The pain was so bad he said he repeatedly ask them to just kill him. He made a slow recovery.
He said that the doctors told him he would never walk again, but “I showed ‘em.” I seem to remember that he could’ve done more physical therapy but didn’t. He hobbled around with a cane the rest of his life. After he sold the house he moved down to the farm for the rest of his life. I think over the course of my dad’s 83 years, he lived away from South Carolina for only 34 years.
When he moved back, he had a trailer moved to where it now sits, about 100 feet from the house his father built in the 1930s when they moved to the farm.

We went on a few trips. Niagara Falls, around Michigan, South Carolina. He used to take Doug and me fishing on this little lake. You’d put $5 through a slot and take out a row boat. I don’t think we ever caught anything. It was just sitting in the rowboat. Very relaxing. We also went ice fishing. There was no capilene or fleece, we’d wear this worthless cotton long-johns with panty-hose underneath. The panty-hose was warm. We caught a few fish. My dad was a great carpenter, terrible fisherman. Didn’t matter. When I went fishing with Busha, we’d be on the water at 5 am, three hooks and be pulling up these small pan fish. It was all work. With my dad it was more like meditation.
When he came out to California to visit his fourth grandchild, we took a few trips. Through the gold rush country and then down Owens Valley. We drove all the way to Mendicino to see redwoods. “I made a lot of decks out of redwood lumber, I wanted to see the trees,” he was telling the guy who lived two doors away from us in Los Angeles. Mitch jerks his thumb over his shoulder, “This is a redwood.” But it wasn’t big.
My dad ended any interest in the Republican Party when we were on our way to Yosemite National Park and the Republicans in Congress shut down the government and closed all federal land.  He and I took my dog Spike up to Whitney Portal and then to Death Valley. If it’s old and rusty and people worked hard with it or around it, we were interested.
Candace, my wife’s father, insisted we borrow his Lincoln to drive down to Mexico. My dad asked, “So where’s the border?” It was right next to the road. He then wondered if the people standing around were waiting for nighttime to cross. “Let’s ask.” So I pulled over. My dad thought we were nuts.
A guy walked over, sure, he was crossing tonight. Had a job and family; had returned to Mexico to visit family. It’s harder to cross now. My dad had learned that a lot of people in Los Angeles crossed the border. Undocumented people are far less likely to commit crimes than citizens, so living near them or hanging out on the border with this is pretty safe.
When Doug visited Los Angeles people would speak to him in Spanish. We never realized until then that he looked Latino. I showed my students a picture of Doug when he was about 12 years old. “That looks like Walter!” they all shouted.  I’m near certain, but as yet unable to prove, that we are part American Indian, Catawba Sioux. (This is a group of American Indians who met DeSoto in about 1540 in the Rockhill, SC area. They are also the Indians who in 1568 wiped out the early Spanish fort San Juan near the Catawba village of Joara in what later became North Carolina. They spoke the Sioux language, same as the plains Indians that included Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. We built Stonehenge, but it was our cousins who wiped out Custer.) This is also based on how my dad, my brother Doug and other family members look. Asians have often asked me about my cheek bones and facial structure because they recognize something Asian.  My dad had Asian/American Indian sweat. He could work a full day in the heat and come home smelling  a bit salty from his sweat, and  of sawdust. I learned later that Asians and American Indians don’t get stinky as fast as Europeans. Doug and Clarence usually smelled better. I start stinking after 8 hours.
As well there are many oral stories passed down in disperate branches of the Nettles family. I also think that we are very likely part African-American. This never talked about. In Orangeburg there is a term for this, ‘brass ankles,’ meaning tri-racial.
All of this most likely happened between 1629 when the Nettles arrived in Gloucester County Virginia and Bacon’s Rebellion 1676. During these early years of English colonization there were very few English, ‘white,’ women in the colony. The population consisted of English, English indentured servants (white men working for a period of years to pay for their passage to the New World after which they could start their own farms,) African slaves and American Indians. During this time the social barriers between both classes and races were less rigid than they would be later.
I wonder if my dad’s complaint that ‘I never got to go to town’ and being made a cook in the Air Force wasn’t because somebody thought he was too close to the color line.

About 15 years ago my family and Clarence  drove around South Carolina looking for Nettles history. We went all over. In Camden--I wanted to speak to a Bill Nettles, he directed me to another Bill Nettles  and Bill Nettles, Jr at Nettles’ Cleaners.
My dad was in the car grousing, “What’s he doing in there? You can’t just walk up to people and start bothering them….”
I was inside meeting Bill, Jr.  “Hey dad, someone wants to meet you. This is another William Nettles.”
“Oh my God and he’s white. How’d that happen?” Oh, yeah he’s a relative.
When I got back in the car I got chewed out for my impertinence. When he finally let up I told him what I’d learned. As soon as he got back to his trailer, he was on the phone to his sister Edna telling her what we’d found out.

We poked around a lot of graveyards, Genealogy is pretty interesting until you realize it does just go backwards, it spreads outwards. Plus it’s not just people named Nettles, it’s Hunt, Hughes, Williams, and that’s just Clarence’s grandparents. Nettles is not so bad because there aren’t many people named Nettles, not compared to Williams. At the Kershaw House we learned about Captain William and brother Solomon Nettles and what they did in the American Revolution.
On James Island less than a couple of hundred yards from Fort Sumter we visited the remnants of Fort Johnson. This is where my dad’s great grandfather David Nettles had served in the Confederate Army as a ‘mechanic’ and where he died of Typhoid Fever in January 1865. My dad said no one in the family had ever learned the details of what had happened to him. In his trailer will be a couple of water worn bits of brick–fragments of Fort Johnson.  The big tree and brick building in the upper left corner of the photo collage is the powder magazine that is still there.

I’d better finish wrap this up. I’m sure there’s a lot missing and I know I’ll remember something important later. Please share your memories, (correct mine) and get them written down. I’ve got genealogy, we’re having my dad’s DNA tested, we’ll know more about our ancestry including what percentage Neanderthal we are! I’ll share whatever I have with the family.

Rest in peace dad.

Thank you. I learned a lot from you, the good, the brave, and from your mistakes as it is the duty and responsibility of every child.


No comments:

Post a Comment