Submitted by:

Kay Cunningham

 

 

EARLY LIFE

 

CHAPTER 2

 

MY MISSION

 

I am part of all I meet,

Of all I do and say;

The thoughts I think, the friends I greet,

The prayers to God I pray;

They all unite to weave in me

The pattern of my destiny.

-J.W.T.

 

            I was born on the 12th day of July, 1871, by Gum Creek, near Jacksonville, Texas. Anyone who has heard me say "Dad gum it !" will get the connection. That expletive is, and always has been, my most profane utterance.

    

When I was nearly two years of age-too young to re- member my birthplace clearly-my parents moved to Coryell County, located about two and a half miles west of a little town called "The Grove," where there was a good school, even in that faraway section. My father bought a farm of 160 acres, and he had one old mare, Fly, that he used to help make the crops.

    

Father first built a log house, which was later used as a kitchen, and it was in this little log house that my brother Oscar was born. Soon after that, a frame house was built, and the family continued to increase.

 

We lived near a little stream called Flint Creek, and I was brought up on cornbread, buttermilk, eggs, flint rocks and turnip greens, with molasses-rather a substantial and hard diet. But I managed to get by on it. We could see Owl Creek Mountain from our home, looking large and beautiful in the distance. On Owl Creek grew the biggest owls in the country, and they could hoot the loudest.

    

That section of Coryell County was taken over during the War, and on that terrain thousands of soldiers were trained to fight. Later in World War II strange dusts mixed with the dust of old Coryell on the boots of these men when they dispersed for foreign service. Because of the rough timbered hills and many streams and valleys desirable for 

training soldiers in strenuous exercises and maneuvers, Coryell County makes a splendid permanent camp. 

    

As a boy I seined and fished in Cow House Creek; looked with wonder on Sugar Loaf Mountain, and tried to figure out its geologic formation. I gazed on Owl Creek Mountain, with its evergreens in winter, and waxed poetically eloquent. I tramped through the woods and over hills and dales in the magic Springtime, enjoying thrills of ecstasy as I gazed on Nature's beauty of the dogwood, redbud and black- haw, and the wild flowers in bloom everywhere. I dreamed of manhood, when I would be a great doctor and teach my patients to live in health and happiness, following the laws laid down by Moses, and the eternal truth that "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." 

     In these same surroundings, General Bruce dreamed, planned, tried out and perfected his tank destroyer unit that had so great a part in the successful conduct of the war. And then, as now, even in the midst of warlike preparations:

 

The sun kissed the rain-washed blushing skies;

The stars peeped through like angels' eyes;

The plaintive cry of the whipporwill

And the shivering screech-owl haunt me still;

But I change from them to the mockingbird,

Whose rollicking songs are gladly heard.

-J.W.T.

 

             It was a wooded, wild country in the days of my youth. Well do I remember one of the first near-tragedies of my life. I was about five or six years of age, and was sent with a can to our nearest neighbors, the Gillespies, to borrow a coal of fire. In those days, matches were not common, and the "kindling coal" was guarded on the hearth, lest the fire die out and we be without a way to rekindle it.

    

Can in hand, and hurrying on my errand, I was about half way down the wooded path when just in front of me I saw a huge bear lumbering across my path. I was terrified-so terrified that I stopped in my tracks and waited without a sound or movement until the bear had passed out of sight. Then I ran on my errand, got the fire, and hurried home with the speed of the wind.

    

It was a fright that I never forgot, but it taught me to stop and think in an emergency, which is the right thing to do in most cases.

    

A short distance across Flint Creek my father and some of the neighbors built a rough plank church called The Methodist Church, or Pope's Chapel. It was also used for a Sunday School, and for a public school in the winter.

    

I always went to Sunday School on Sunday morning, studied some in the afternoon, then got out with the other boys and chased rabbits, twisting them out of hollow trees with sticks, and throwing rocks at wasp-nests. We frequently were stung on the face by the infuriated wasps, but we went back to school next day as heroes, getting much sympathy and attention from the girls.

    

My school life began when I was six years old, and my first teacher was Mr. Cross-a kind and good man in spite of his name. He taught boys and girls alike the virtues of cleanliness and personal hygiene, and coached us all in etiquette according to the old Southern regime.

    

I well remember the ancient Blue Back Speller, and my joy when I reached "baker" and could spell all the words in that lesson.

    

My next teacher, a few months later, was Mr. Battle. I was engaged in a "battle" with him nearly every day. He kept a little dogwood switch within reach and had me sit close to him. Every time I would laugh or giggle he would give me a switching with that little dogwood, until I would move out of his reach; but he never, at any time, had energy enough to follow me.

    

During the summer that I was seven years of age, I went to The Grove to school. We walked two and a half miles and I remember many incidents that occurred during those walks. One of these was indelibly impressed upon my mind. That was a total eclipse of the sun. It was some time in August, as we were on our way home from school-about five o'clock in the afternoon. It became so dark the chickens went to roost. Some people were dreadfully frightened, many of them thinking the world was coming to an end.

    

Mr. Nelson Robinson was a teacher who came to conduct our school at Pope's Chapel when I was ten or eleven years old. He was about forty-five years of age and had had varied experiences in life. He had not had much opportunity for an education, but he was a big-hearted, common-sense, practical fellow and he gave me great encouragement to go ahead and become an educated man. "Don't do as I do, but as I say you should do," he admonished me.

    

He taught us that habits formed in youth stay with one. "So don't form habits that are harmful, mean or debasing. Cultivate habits of promptness, dependability, honesty, fair- dealing and regularity while you are young and they will stay with you through life." He often warned us, "Don't chew or smoke; don't curse or drink. Those vices are costly and damaging to your character. I formed such habits when I was a boy, and they are hard to quit."

    

I had heard a man swear, and I thought it was manly and up-to-date, so I tried it for just a little while-not with much enthusiasm, however. But on the advice of my teacher I quit, and have never cussed since-unless you count "dad gum it !" Mr. Nelson Robinson passed on, but God bless him, his precepts, and not his example, have been my inspiration and guide.

    

At eleven years, I was able to solve all the problems in Ray's Arithmetic, in Davies' and Sanford's Arithmetics, and to spell most of the words in the Blue Back Speller. I could read all the lessons in the old McGuffey's series of readers, many of which carried moral and religious ideas. Text books of today do not have so many religious or ethical lessons in them.

    

Nor shall I forget my sweethearts of those days. My first was Miss Lillie Cary. I was then a little past six, in my first school, and she was about sixteen or seventeen years of age. Her name, Lillie, brought to my childish mind the beauty of the lilies. She always praised me and encouraged me to do my best. She had a beautiful face. When I talked of her at home, my mother told me about the Gary sisters and read to me a poem by Phoebe Cary. I memorized the verses with a thrill in my boyish heart. And I had no difficulty in committing to memory these beautiful words from the Scriptures:

    

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Miss Lillie!

    

Pause for reflection, you male readers, and everyone of you will recall "That Old Sweetheart of Mine." Perhaps it was your grade teacher, a high school teacher, or perhaps your Sunday School teacher who left her imprint on your mind and heart as a formative factor to influence you through the years.

    

A later sweetheart was a dashing blue-eyed girl who rode horseback over the country, always riding at a gallop. She stirred my youthful fancy and fired my imagination. I had a jingle I used to repeat during this interval:

 

My girl's name is Lula ;

Her mare's name is Beulah;

My girl is so smart

That no one can fool her.

 

    

But she fooled me. One day I kissed her, and it made me sick for half an hour, for in that kiss I made a discovery! She dipped snuff! And I was allergic to all forms of tobacco. I had tried it once and it made me very sick. So I became allergic to her, too.

    

With my natural propensity for rhyming, I used to write Valentine verses for twenty or thirty of the school boys and girls. I couldn't be sweetheart to all the girls, but my facile pen was ready to express the ardor of all the boys. The little silly rhymes in this book are remnants of youth bubbling out again in song, laughter and rhyme. (My wife is English, and reserved. She thinks these jingles should be left out. I am Scotch-Irish, and I cannot repress them).

    

One of the greatest of all gifts vouchsafed to man is the sense of humor. It adds to the joy of life, minimizes sorrow, and mitigates the strain of penance or peril. A sense of humor is more than the ability or the tendency to pass wise- cracks at the expense of others-that is a drawback to personality and not an aid. A sense of humor is really a sense of proportion, and its highest development is the ability to see your own weaknesses as jokes subject to correction.

    

After school, in those early days, there were always the chores to do at home-cutting wood, feeding cattle and pigs, and milking the cows. I never did like to feed and milk the cows, and always got it over with as soon as possible. My mind was as busy as my hands, trying to think of some way to shorten the work. Finally I invented a cowmilker which I thought would lighten the task. It was made of soft white pine board, and was designed to have fingers of pliant rubber that would feel like human fingers. I never got far enough along with the experiment to supply the rubber fingers, but I made what I thought was a workable model and tried it on Old Spot. She resented it actively! With one flirt of her muscular leg she kicked me over, got rid of my labor-saving device, and ran away. After that, she was allergic to me-we called it "sensitive" in those days-but anyhow, Old Spot very definitely severed diplomatic relations with me. After the milker incident, whenever she saw me she would take to her heels like a mad thing, and kick and run if I tried to come close to her. However, the invention did save me labor, for one of the other boys milked her after that.

    

By the time I was eleven years old, I could hoe cotton as any of the grown folks. I was large and strong at that age, and proud of my skill with the hoe. The cotton we hoed in 1882 yielded a bale to the acre, and we did not finish picking until March of 1883.

    

About that time, I looked after the orchard, too, and would plant new trees when the old ones had "played out." We did not know enough about fruit trees and their care to combat their enemies, and the borers killed many that might have been saved. All we knew then was that the trees would die after four or five years of fruitfulness and we must have new trees ready to plant when the old ones became diseased and had to be cut down.

    

Along with other duties, I tended the bees and the honey. One morning I took out some fresh honey from the hives, and ate too much. It made me very sick, and I became allergic to honey. I couldn't even stand being called "Honey." But finally I began eating a small amount of honey at a time, to build up my tolerance for it, and gradually grew to like it again. "What's one man's food is another man's poison," commented my Mother.

    

Between school hours and home chores I had little time of my own, and much of that was used in dreaming of the future. "The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts" indeed. I gazed far along down the years as I planned for manhood and preparation for a useful career. I remember how I used to climb up on an old flat stump-too big to be burned out in the newly plowed field-and imitate different preachers I had heard. My fondness for this pastime gave my family reason to believe I was going to be a preacher.

    

But from the time I was seven years of age I had known what my profession was going to be. As soon as I could read them I began to study almanacs, hoping to get some understanding of the basic principles necessary for a medical education. David D. Jayne's Almanac contained interesting facts about the human body, with pictures of the various organs, as well as detailed accounts of the miracles wrought on these organs by the panaceas the almanac advertised.

    

My first cousin, the late Dr. Howard O. Smith, and I agreed together that we would be doctors, and our childhood motto was:

 

When I am a man, I will be a doctor,

If I can-and I can.

My powders and pills

Will be so very sweet;

And you shall have as many

As you can eat.

 

            Among those who probably were influenced by my choice of the medical profession were several boy friends from The Grove who since have gone out into the world as doctors: my youngest brother, Bert M. Torbett, who died just after graduating from Vanderbilt University; my brother, Dr. Oscar Torbett, who was here in Marlin with me for thirty years, and the two Whigham boys, Jim and Will, now well known in their profession. Also, David Homan and F. C. Green, all of whom went to school to me when I was teaching at Leon Junction and studying medicine. My nearest neighbor of those early days, Leigh Gillespie, is now a practicing physician in Oklahoma.

    

S. A. Watts, who then lived on my father's place in Coryell County, became a doctor and was on our staff at Marlin for twenty years. He was honest, efficient and dependable, and always my friend. Thus, in choosing our "way of life," we are inevitably influenced by our associations.

    

Anyone who thinks that life in a country community is tame and uneventful cannot have lived in one during his impressionable years. The miracles of life and death loom large.

    

Well do I remember the first person I saw die. It was our neighbor, Mr. Ben Gillespie. He had cirrhosis of the liver and had been tapped many times by the doctor, but finally came to the place where he no longer could be helped. One Sunday afternoon we were told that Brother Gillespie was dying-that he had but a few hours to live. The neighbors gathered at his home to give what comfort they could to the sorrowing family. I stood by and watched our old friend as he passed into the Great Beyond. It had a profound effect upon me to see his breathing slow down, then cease altogether as his eyes closed and the pallor of death crossed his face. It was a great consolation to all of us who had loved him to know that he was divinely sustained in his hour of departure by the Christian faith that had guided his life.

    

My Father said to me later, "Son, now that Brother Ben is gone, I'll have to take his place and lead the music in the church. When you are old enough, I'll train you to sing bass in my place." I did begin such training as soon as my voice had matured, and I still sing bass at church.

    

A tragedy in our community about that time had an abiding influence on my life. Old Mr. Ferguson, who lived in our community, was a very good neighbor, but he went on periodical drunks. At those times he would not know what he was doing. One night, when he was drunk, he went to the home of a neighbor and tried to break into his house. Mr. Hobdy, the owner, called out to him, but the prowler did not answer. He was too far gone to sense the situation. The owner of the home called out again, and when he still received no reply, he shot at the introducer and killed him.

    

My Father took this occasion to warn me, saying, "Son, Mr. Ferguson was naturally a harmless old man, and it is a shock to Mr. Hobdy that he killed him. But it is done and cannot be helped now. Let this be a lesson to you, my boy; don't ever touch intoxicating liquor. It does nobody any good, and it does much harm in the world. Promise me, Son, that you will never touch it." And so I promised. It was a pledge that did much in helping to form my character.

    

Another tragedy occurred in our midst that I will never forget. Gene Graham, a likeable youngster, was overly proud of his biceps development. He was always boxing or fighting. Whenever I had a stye on my eye-which was quite often when I was ten or twelve years old-he would invariably call me a fighting name. We'd fall to and pommel each other for twenty or thirty minutes-a painful experience to me, combined with the stye! But I was determined to defend my personal dignity and believed in "fighting for my rights."

    

Well, Gene came to a tragic end. One day he called a much smaller boy a bad name. The infuriated youngster jumped at him with a knife, stabbing him to the heart. It was all so sudden and the circumstances were so familiar to me, that I was impressed. Then and there I decided never to make a disagreement worse by fighting, but to defend myself with verbal resistance and argument, if possible; otherwise to keep silent.

    

So much for Pope's Chapel and its "Schoolhouse by the Road." Mr. Nelson Robinson continued to encourage me, and when the term was ended he advised me to go to his brother, Tom Robinson, about two and a half miles farther up the creek. Here was a little school-house called Flint Creek School or "Hide-Out School," because it was hidden in the woods. I went there for two sessions, with my old- time friend, Tom Morgan. We rode horseback and the books we carried were text-books on Algebra, Geometry, Astronomy, Physiology and Hygiene. They opened a broader vista before me.

    

I took my examination at the end of that term and was given a second-grade certificate, though only fifteen years of age.

    

At the close of this school term, in the spring of 1887, previous to the State prohibition election in August, a well- attended debate on the prohibition question was held in the old Flint Creek school-house, with Tom Morgan (afterward a lawyer in Marlow, Oklahoma) and myself on the affirmative side. Our teacher, Nelson Robinson, and a Methodist preacher named Art Williams, took the negative. Tom and I won the decision with such uproarious pedal applause that some of the planks in the floor gave way. In denouncing the licensing of liquor, I closed with these lines, in my most dramatic style:

 

Licensed the poor man's home to sell;

Licensed to fill this world with woe;

Licensed to make this earth a hell,

And fit men's souls for hell below.

 

            I frequently went to church services just to hear the preachers, some of them being rather outstanding. One, a very eloquent speaker, was Stump Ashby, who once had been a clown in a circus. After a spectacular conversion, he finally fell from grace and eventually quit preaching to become a leader in the Populist party. Later, he became one of the leading Anti speakers in the prohibition election of 1887. I remember that on one occasion he imbibed too much of the liquor under discussion. He was debating with Rev. H. A. Boaz, later elected to bishop, who was then a very eloquent young orator on the Pro side. Stump had been drinking, and when he got up to speak he became nauseated. He felt that an explanation was in order, so he said with a slight hiccough, "My fellow citizens, the arguments of my opponent always make me sick at the stomach."

    

We were all encouraged to adopt teaching as a career, and a number of students in that little school out in the woods did decide on teaching as a profession and spread themselves out over the State to help train the rising generation. In the summer, I taught my first school, which was at Eagle Springs, the boyhood home of Pat M. Neff, later Governor of Texas. It was then that I became acquainted with him and also with his mother, a wonderful woman who gave me encouragement toward high ideals and worthy ambitions - the kind of advice that had been such a help to her own son.

    

"Mother Neff" was very kind to all aspiring young men, and adopted me as one of her boys, in whom she was greatly interested. Her sterling character, her counsel and kindness, were ever an inspiration to me. When I left to go to Medical College, Mother Neff laid her hands on my head and gave me her blessing.