Rebecca West: Words & Music

My Secular Side

by Bob West

My spiritual journey was just beginning. The most amazing and exciting part, plus the refiner's fire, was yet to come. But before I share all that, I will go back and bring you up to date on the rest of my story.

Main Street, Newbern, Tennessee

The photo above was taken of Newbern, a small town in west Tennessee, around 1950. It probably looked very much the same when I arrived 18 years earlier about a quarter of a mile away in a small house at the end of South Monroe Street across the road from the Newbern Cemetery. I was the first of four children born to Alton and Ethel West. They named me Robert Alton, Jr. My family called me Junior. Others knew me as Alton. Here is a photo taken of us years later. I was small for my age and self-conscious about my size. As you can see, for the photo I was trying to look taller.

West family Photo

Left to right in the back row is Mom, Janie, Dad, and me. Gaylon and Linda are in the front row. I think I must have been about 13 years old in this photo.

Here I am at six years old in the first grade at Newbern Grammar School. As you can see, I was very happy that day.

Bob West in 1938

I had an interest in drawing before I started to school. It wasn't long before I was copying cartoons from discarded newspapers. I was encouraged and my interest in art grew as relatives told me how well I could draw. One of my best memories of childhood is of people gathered around, making requests for pictures and watching me draw them.

For a few years we lived on a farm a few miles out of town. I worked in the fields and tried to do as much as the adults. One day when I was nine years old, I picked 210 pounds of cotton. Not many adults picked more than that. More difficult for someone my size was carrying a nine-foot sack of 50 pounds of cotton across the field to have it weighed, and then emptying it myself into a wagon with high sideboards.

At two cents a pound, I earned $4.20 that day, which was a lot of money in 1941. I could tell that my parents were pleased and others were impressed. People said I was a hard worker. I began to feel that whatever acceptance and approval I received was earned by working hard and doing a good job. Therefore I became a workaholic and a perfectionist.

I remember the boredom and loneliness of those fields, especially when we were chopping corn or cotton. Day after day, all day long I walked and swung a hoe to weed and thin the young crop. The row I was working on seemed to go on forever, disappearing over the horizon. When I got to the end of it, I knew I would have to turn around and come back on another row. Not much to look forward to except quitting time.

I learned early to dislike games. Apparently, I wasn't a very good player. It seemed like I was almost always the last one picked for a team. Occasionally there was a worse player present. I didn't get picked last that particular day, but it was small consolation.

Sometime during my childhood, my parents bought me an oil painting set. When we visited relatives on Sunday, I took my oils along. While my cousins played games, I sat alone and painted pictures of the scenery.

Here is a photo of me drawing a picture of my brother Gaylon in 1944. He was posing as a gangster with a (make-believe) cigarette in his mouth and a (toy) gun in his hand.

Bob draws his brother Gaylon

During early adolescence a friend and I tried smoking grapevines. Later I was offered a real cigarette. After smoking another time or two and trying to keep it secret, I asked myself the question, "Why am I hiding to secretly do something I don't like doing?" It didn't make sense to me, so I stopped.

Later, my grandmother asked if I had started smoking yet.

I replied, "No, Ma'am."

She said, "You will. All the boys do."

I thought to myself, "Not me! I'll show you!"

After that, anytime I was tempted, that memory saw me through. I never smoked again. Thank you, Mama Hale!

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