AUDIE JUST DIDN’T COTTON TO IT
by Vicki Ellis Griffis
1927 found the city of Celeste, Texas between want and plenty. The community had two banks, three cotton gins, a water works, an ice factory, and a weekly newspaper, as well as some thirty-five other businesses. Most stores huddled in the shadow of the water tower. The Texas State Historical Association reported Celeste with a population of 1,022, and its high school and two elementary schools registered 500 students.
Cotton was king, and the town rose or fell with the success or failure of the crop. It was a hard time to be born the son of a sharecropper, especially one who would come and go, leaving his frail wife and young children to work for their survival.
In the book, To Hell and Back, Audie says, “We were sharecrop farmers, and to say the family was poor would be an understatement; poverty dogged our every step. Year after year, the babies would come until there were nine of us children living.”
He said it seemed as if when they could not feed the children they had, they would have another one. Audie added, “Getting food for our stomachs and clothes for our backs was an ever present problem. As soon as we grew old enough to handle a plow, an ax, or a hoe, we were thrown into the struggle for existence.” Another time, Audie said, “I can’t ever remember being young in my life.”
His sister, Nadene, told Jacqueline White in 1997, “A lot of times we went to bed hungry. We didn’t have food. Little kids expect things to change in the night. They expected food the next day. Lots of times we didn’t. It was a pitiful existence. We were dirt poor. But let me tell you, we weren’t the only ones. A lot of people were dirt poor at that time.”
The ladies of the local Baptist and Methodist churches made sure the family did not starve. After the war, Audie personally took the time to thank Mrs. Frank Barnard of the Celeste United Methodist Church, “Mrs. Barnard, I remember how you and the Methodist women brought food, clothes and medicine to help us.”
Much of the care of Audie was turned over to his oldest sister, Corinne, when his brother, Richard Houston Murphy, was born less than two years after Audie’s birth. She was only thirteen at the time. She told Col. Harold B. Simpson their life was not all sad, “Audie was a happy child. He laughed a great deal, and when he laughed his eyes just sparkled.”
She remembered how he would stand on a box as she taught him nursery rhymes and other short verses. One of his favorites was:
“Rosies on my shoulder,
Shoesees on my feet,
I am Mommy’s little darling,
Don’t you think I’m sweet?”
After reciting the verse, Corinne recalled Audie would start laughing so hard he would tumble off the box and into her arms. She would rock him to sleep many nights by singing to him. She even cut his hair, which was thick and dark brown with a reddish tinge. She said that Audie loved to tease his younger brothers, Dick and Gene, sending them crying after he played practical jokes on them. Others would testify to his practical joking, and the pleasure he derived from his little pranks. Perhaps it helped him escape reality for a little while.
As was the custom of the day, children were assigned chores at an early age. It usually began with gathering wood for the wood burning stove or pulling onions. Audie did this, as well as massaging his mother’s hands from the blisters and rips from the cotton bolls after long, hot days in the field.
Another given for the times was as soon as one was old enough to hold a hoe or pull a boll, they joined the family in the fields, or the children were farmed out to other farmers – like sharecroppers without the share.
Elnora Henry remembered babysitting Audie. She would pick cotton up and down the rows, and he would ride on her cotton sack. She said his family was always nice to her.
Dan Holt remembered seeing Little Pat, as he called Audie as a child, picking cotton at the age of five on Ed Ashley’s farm near the Lane community.
In the 1930s, farm labor paid next to nothing. For a ten hour day, picking 100 pounds of cotton brought 50 cents plus dinner, or $1.00 without dinner. Haney Lee recalled when Audie worked for him, he paid him a man’s wage, “for Audie Leon did a man’s work.”
Guess you could say that Audie didn’t cotton to hoeing and picking. As he worked his way up and down a cotton row on a seemingly endless day in the intense heat of a blackland cotton field, Audie dreamed of ways to get out of the fields, and fulfill his hope of becoming a soldier. He toiled beside his mother, siblings, and an uncle who had fought in the Great War. His uncle shared wartime stories between fits of a lingering cough, a leftover malady from being gassed while defending his country. Audie would listen intently, and daydream about joining the army. His uncle once shook him from his fantasy by telling him, “If you want to fight, start fightin’ these weeds.”
So, in his autobiography, To Hell and Back, Audie said he pretended:
“Afternoons, I would follow the veteran of World War I into the field. The sun beat down and the rows of cotton seemed endless. The weeds became the enemy and my hoe a mysterious weapon. I was on a faraway battlefield where bugles blew, banners streamed and men charged gallantly across flaming hills; where the temperature always stood at 80, and our side was always victorious; where the dying were but impersonal shadows, and the wounded never cried; where enemy bullets always miraculously missed me, and my trusty rifle forever hit home. . .I was only 12 years old, and the dream was my one escape from the grimly realistic world.”
In 1933, the Murphy’s moved to Celeste so the children would be close enough to walk to school. They lived in a converted boxcar south of town that the Katy railroad had set aside for indigents. As Audie describes it, “To say that was a home. . .no, that was no house, it was an honest-to-God shack.”
So, with cotton season ending in 1934, Audie Murphy started to school for the first time at the age of nine years old. Mr. G. W. Tillerson said after finding a report card when he was superintendent, “Audie was absent almost as much as he was present. But, looking at all the circumstances of those who were very poor during this period of history, going to school was more a luxury.”
A luxury some people could not afford . . .
To be continued . . .This is the second in a series on Audie Leon Murphy, born in Kingston, Texas, reared in Celeste, who grew up to become the most decorated soldier of World War II.
Used with permission and courtesy of the author.