Saturday, December 23, 2017

My Dad

One of my wonderful cousins (not sure if they think I'm wonderful, just know that all my memories of them are!) asked me to tell them a little about my memories of my dad. So, weird writing being what I do at Christmas at odd times, that is what I'm doing.
Joseph Elwood Bell, Sr. was born in a small town in Arkansas and then moved with his family to Pratt City, AL (just outside Birmingham until it was taken into the expanding city, then blown apart by the great tornado a few years ago). His father worked for Tennessee Coal and Iron, which would later be taken over by U.S. Steel. His mother raised the two boys and one girl, and had another pair of twin girls a few years before Dad's daughters were born. They lived next to the track, but definitely on the wrong side of Pratt City's society. Granddaddy was a poor working man and had some of the societal and personal problems poor working people had. "Elwood" was the oldest child, and dealt with that a lot more than his younger siblings, I'm sure. There were one or two stories we won't share that were really bad about those times, but that's part of a family, too, right?
My grandmother got the family into a church that didn't believe in drinking and did believe in being excited about God. Their family has been changed for 5 generations by her choice of Birmingham First Church of the Nazarene.
Dad was an outgoing man. The only enemies he had were people who had proved themselves to be enemies to him. He didn't agree with what a lot of people did but still loved them. But he remembered things for a long time, too.
As a student, he had trouble. Looking back as an adult, it was probably a lot of things- ADD, boys being boys in our education system, being from a poor family, and speaking too honestly at times. He told me of one time when the teacher was upset with him and sent him to the office. The person there used a ruler on his hands for over a half hour, beating one hand until it almost bled, then letting it rest while working on the other. My father continuing to learn, then supporting and working with the teachers with his children at all is a testimony of God's grace after that.
Our family read. Jean and Ann would have to tell you what they know about that, but when I was here, we all read all the time. Dad read a lot more quantity- lots of war, westerns, politics and occasionally other things. Mom would get a book and almost fall in love with it reading it- Dad just whizzed through them. I remember the first adult book I read (besides the Bible), which I still own- Churchill's History of World War 2. I had children's books, but everyone else read from the big room (at the public library downtown, where my memory is that we went most Sunday afternoons), so I wanted to as well. (again, if you haven't been there, go online and look for the mural in the downtown library live, or online at
He worked for ACIPCO (American Cast Iron Pipe Company for the uninitiated. Look it up- great story, great company, even today!) for 43 years. He started in production- pouring iron, I believe..
This was one of the great traumas of our family's life. He was getting on one of the intra-plant trains (ACIPCO was, of not still is, the largest pipe plant in one location in the world!). Those trains went about 5 miles an hour from one part of the plant to another. But as Dad got on, he slipped, and his leg went under the wheels. Jean was 2 /12, and Mom was pregnant with Ann. They thought they were going to lose him. His leg was cut off below the knee, and he had one leg the rest of his life. Perhaps another day I will talk about how that changed my life which began almost 15 years later. But he and mom both talked about how, in the days before a lot of employee protection, ACIPCO took care of him all that time, and gave him jobs he could do his whole career.
But by the time I was in school, he had become an electrician and worked in the powerhouse. I think he just had to keep the power running for at least half his job. He worked repairing electrical grinders during the week, but on the weekends when he worked, he would take his 10" black and white TV and a stack of books to work, and best I could figure, read all the books and watch about 6 hours of TV in 2 days. What a life!
ACIPCO was a big part of our life. Our doctors and dentists, banking, and before me grocery shopping all happened there. It was truly a mill town, but a NICE mill town. Now living in a county which had over 30 textile mills, I can categorically say that conditions were better at ACIPCO than any of these. There's an article online about John Joseph Eagan and ACIPCO and Wayne Pipe Company. Dad was rightly proud of his job and company.
He was informed. He always read the paper from front to back, and one of the nightly news shows each day. And Alabama football, and where the Alabama players played in the NFL. How else would some destined to love the Chiefs start off cheering for Snake and the Raiders? He had opinions about everything, and I had most of those until I was at least 25.
Pride is a good word. Dad was proud he had been a Marine. He enlisted and went into the Marines when war came. He was already dating Mom- I don't know what the deal was, but they were joined either before or during the war in a way that never left them. I'll talk about Mom another time, too. But he joined the Raiders while they were still on Guadalcanal, and I have a certificate where he helped take a Japanese battleship when they took over the Japanese navy at Tokyo Bay. Mom and Dad both believed until they died that he would have died in the invasion had the A-Bombs not been dropped, along with hundreds of thousands of Americans and possibly millions of Japanese.
Dad was not proud of the troubles he had growing up but was proud to be from Pratt City, Birmingham, and Alabama. He was proud of the football team (who wouldn't be?), of his church (most of the time) and of his children (Always). He always thought he married above himself, and the love he gave my Mom was the wind in her sails. He loved his sisters, and always took up for them with others, although he didn't always understand some things that happened. He was very proud of his younger brother Raymond, especially after he got back in church!
He was funny. He was silly. He was outspoken. He was truthful rather than diplomatic. He loved strongly and probably talked too much a lot. On occasion, he was a big gossip. He probably spent hundreds of dollars a month calling folks in the evening. He would call his brother and sisters (of course!), his daughters and their families, his old Marine buddies, relatives from here to California, church friends, work friends... I never remember him being absent from us, but I remember hearing about someone else's life, joys, and troubles almost every night. If he thought you needed to be told something, he would do it, and if he believed in you, someone had to prove him wrong.
He could be loud and get mad. Teresa and I tell our kids that I am much better at those things, but I get them honestly. But eventually the love and good would outweigh the mad. He spoiled all three of us and all his grandchildren.
He was born in the south in 1923 and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He had prejudice, but in reality, he was more against people not doing what they could than a person's color. I remember when one of the family had an interracial relationship that everyone was afraid of Dad's reaction. He reacted with love for the friend and pride in his family, as he always did, surprising some a great deal.
The honesty comes in here as well. I have honestly told the story for years. Growing up, I was privileged to go to Episcopal Church of the Advent in downtown Birmingham from 4 through 4th grade (we can get into that later, too). But as we drove past everywhere, he was the tour guide (which I inherited, I'm told!). However, he didn't just tell the good stories. He took me past the 16th street Baptist Church and the nearby park where demonstrators were fired upon. He took me to the bus station where "that man" turned dogs on the riders. He took me by Legion Field (where Alabama still played its big games at the time) and by the next-door now torn-down National Guard armory, where water cannons were used on demonstrators. He told me the bad stories, as well as the good.
Football was a big thing. I think that was how many good people in Alabama found some pride int he midst of really bad times. Changing your whole society, even if it is right, is never easy. Alabama went through tremendous struggles in the early 60s- but I have since learned that other places did it a lot later, just not as openly. Having a winning football team gave the state (well, except the Auburn people! :) )something to cheer for, even in dark days.
For a while in my life, my grandmother lived in the projects right across from the stadium, which gave us free parking! Dad would work as an usher some games, which got us in, and at other games, he would find a way to "buy" a ticket which we never brought home. But I saw LOTS of football! I sat next to drunken college students in blowouts and went to the Tennessee games as well. My cousin Murphy Young (my aunt Vertrees, his mom, was a Murphy) was a well-heeled alum, at least to us, and did get us in some things from time to time (even a party at that afore-mentioned armory). I said hi to Coach Bryant and he nodded once (huge for me, still!).
Mom usually took me to school, and dad usually picked me up (well, until I went into 5th grade, when a bus did both from the nearby public schools- interestingly enough, we had to hire a bus company to take me through 6th grade-the limit for a public bus was 3 miles or more- I lived too close!). We spent hours talking about all sorts of things, and I still treasure those conversations.
He also bought cars. The best I can figure, he would buy 1 new car every two years. He always thought he made a great deal, and the car dealers were always glad to see him. But as far as I can figure, he made car payments every year until I was about 24. He bought me an Olds Omega when I was 17, then my last car was a Cavalier when I was 21. He got into a lease with one of those and was mad about that until it finished.
He was proud of me and loved me. I always knew that, even when I messed up. He didn't even know about all the ways I messed up, but every time as a child and an adult that I told him about something (because I remember almost everything wrong that I ever did!), he would talk to me, often tell me he did know at least some of it, and we would go through and get over it. Him being proud of me was probably one of the biggest things in my life. Him loving me was one of the most constant.
He loved the two girls in my life, Angela Graham Morrow, and Teresa Smith Bell. He loved Teresa from the start. She tells about being asked which team she was for (didn't make the mistake my aunt Wanda Moody did on that!), but that wasn't a thing. She knew he loved her. In fact, both sets of parents (hers and mine) told her if we got into a fight that she could come to their house. (?) They would get in silly arguments and play fight, but she was his daughter.
He was proud of my life and ministry and very proud of his only Bell grandson, Stephen. His last trip up to NC was for Stephen's baptism in 1997.
He died of a massive heart attack in 1998. I still miss him every day. And if there are any good things in my life, I'm sure that they are because of he, my mom and family Teresa, my friends and the Lord. I am proud to be Junior to him.


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