He tipped his hat to us
By Clif Knight
The Knight brothers were an inquisitive bunch. We took notice of every living human being or animal that passed by on the narrow dirt road in front of our farmhouse in rural Clay County, Alabama.
We dropped what we were doing and ran to the road to see something we’d never seen before – a pair of oxen pulling a wagon piled high with an odd assortment of farm implements.
The driver was an old man who stood when he spotted us and tipped his worn felt hat to acknowledge our presence. He wore baggy overalls and dairyman’s boots and held a whip in his right hand.
“His name is Riley Spears,” our mother said. “He and he and his wife are going to be our new neighbors.”
We learned a lot more about Mr. Spears when he showed up at our back door with a letter in his hand a few days later.
“He can’t read or write and needed someone to read the letter to him,” our mother explained. It was from one of his three sons, each of whom served in the U.S. Army during World II.
They had purchased a13-acre adjoining farmstead in 1947 as a means of getting their parents off the mountainside farm they lived on in the Shinbone community, where there was no running water or electric power.
The old man’s farming methods were a throwback to the 18th century. His tools were handmade, and his family’s sustenance was limited – for the most part – to a milk cow, a hog, a few chickens and garden vegetables.
His oxen had minds of their own when pulling a plow. When they got tired, they simply dropped to the ground and took a rest. When his whip lashes failed to get them up and going, the old man would simply walk to his house and sit down for a rest of his own.
Another sight to see was his hog rooting around inside a pasture fence in the company of the oxen and milk cow. A triangular-shaped wooden yoke prevented the hog from straying outside the barbed wire fence.
The Spears’ were our closest neighbors and always welcomed our visits They had a big dinner bell hanging on a pole in their back yard, and we were on notice that if we heard the bell ring we were to respond in a hurry. When we visited, we carried our battery- operated Zenith radio. We’d tune it in to the Grand Ole Opry and listen to country music while sitting on their big front porch. Us siblings would soak up adult conversation with special interest in family histories and their struggles of eking out a living on a poor Clay County farm.