The Hillbilly’s Daughter

My dad grew up on a 300 acre farm in New Madrid, MO in the boot heel area of that state. New Madrid still is a sleepy, itty bitty town right on the Mississippi River.

His father had died from a massive heart attack when my dad was in his teens. My dad was the youngest of all of the kids and his several older half-brothers and sisters had been long moved out, on their own, with families of their own scattered all over the state of Missouri as well as in Michigan.

I have to commend my dad because he worked very, very hard from sunup to sundown, with all of the chores and the responsibilities of that farm, as well as continuing to go to high school and complete all of his homework assignments.

My dad had always wanted to be a doctor and he had received a complete full-ride, four year scholarship to the University of Missouri but the sudden death of his father made my dad’s dream an impossibility.

I do not know why the duty and responsibility of taking care of his mother fell completely on my dad’s shoulders at such a young age or why his older siblings could not apparently help him out at all.

All I know is that my dad did graduate from New Madrid High School but he had to turn down that scholarship because of the cares and the worries of taking care of the farm and his mother.

The farm was soon sold after my dad’s graduation and my dad and his mother moved up to the Flint, Michigan area for the much better job prospects. His older sisters, Frankie and Grace, also lived in Flint too, so that was another reason for their move from Missouri.

My dad first worked as a produce manager for one of the Flint grocery stores in the local chain owned by the Hamady Brothers. His sister, Grace, helped introduce him to that store’s manager because she worked in the meat department.

Growing up on a farm gave him the necessary knowledge and skills in that department at an early age and he was soon promoted to be the produce manager of the entire chain of Hamady Brothers’ grocery stores.

He became good friends with Michael Hamady, who was the Brother who was the most actively involved with the grocery store business.

My dad also later became acquainted with Jack Hamady, the youngest of the Hamady Brothers, who eventually became the only Brother left to run all of the grocery stores.

My dad lived with his mother in a small house on Lomita in the north end of Flint. He was making decent money with the Hamady Brothers but when he got the chance to start working at the Buick factory, Michael Hamady advised him to jump on that opportunity.

My dad started out on the assembly line but he was soon given the chance to become a journeyman millwright so that he could learn that specialized trade and earn more money.

Our last name is Behme, and it is a German name that is supposed to be pronounced Bay-mee. However none of my dad’s bosses and co-workers at Buick could remember to pronounce it like that so he became known as Bee-mee. And that pronunciation is how my mom, my brothers and I all learned how to say our last name.

By the time my dad married at the age of 43 and had had us kids, his Southern accent had faded quite a bit. However there were some hillbilly words that stuck to him like glue that I loved to tease him about.

My dad could never say wash or Washington right. It always came out “warsh” or “Warshingtuhn”.

One time when I was out in the driveway getting stuff around to clean up my first car, my dad asked me if I was going to “warsh” my car.

I replied, “No, Dad, I’m going to wash my car, but I can’t ‘warsh’ it since I have no idea what a ‘warsh’ is.” He yelled at me for being a smart-ass.

One time I had picked a pretty bouquet of lilacs and peonies (descendants of the peonies that had been brought up long ago from the Missouri homestead) and I had arranged them in my dad’s mother’s swan vase.

My dad said to me, “Those ‘flares’ look real pretty in my mother’s vase, don’t you think?”

I told my dad that I thought the flowers did look nice but that I had no idea of what he meant by “flares”. Was I supposed to burn them up with some matches? Again I got called a smart-ass.

After my dad’s mom passed away in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, he sold their house on Lomita and bought a house at 931 Ossington Avenue in the south end of Flint.

He built a detached garage, installed a white picket fence around the backyard and set up a garden area all along the back of the lot behind the garage.

He also transplanted the pretty peony bushes that had traveled from the Missouri homestead to the Lomita house in Flint and now to my dad’s new house on Ossington. Those peony bushes were also transplanted about 15 years later to our home in Flushing Township.

My dad could never stop being a farmer of some sort. No matter how big or small was the plot he had to work with, he was happiest growing anything.

As long as I can remember, my dad always at least grew corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and potatoes. After he bought the 5 acre plot of land in Flushing Township in 1960, his very first purchase was not to begin to build us a house but to buy a 1939 H Series John Deere tractor.

Farming and gardening were my dad’s hobbies, and I do believe he was the happiest sitting way up high on the John Deere tractor seat, combing and plowing and grooving the earth to be the nurturing home to the seeds he tenderly planted.

With so much more space to grow things at our Flushing Township home, he planted rows upon rows upon rows of a newly created special hybrid of corn that had been developed in the 1960’s called “Illini Extra Sweet”.

It had been developed by the University of Illinois and my dad had applied to be one of the test farmers for that hybrid before it was released and sold to the wider agricultural market.

Oh that corn was so sweet and tender and delicious! After that first year of trying that new hybrid, my dad never planted another variety again but just that Illini Extra Sweet.

Every summer my dad would put up a sign in our front yard listing the prices for either a half-dozen or a dozen ears of that special corn. More often than not, even before my dad would put out his sign, we would have many people knocking at our door, asking if that corn was ready to be picked yet.

My dad’s corn was so popular that for several years after he died, people would still stop by and ask if we were going to continue planting his corn and when we told them no, they would sadly and dejectedly return to their cars and leave.

One year my dad got a commission from the Mansour Brothers, who owned a much smaller chain of local grocery stores, to provide them with as much cabbage as he could grow.

He ended up with so much cabbage that year, it filled our very large 2 1/2 car garage from floor to ceiling. And that powerful cabbage reek constantly filled our house for days as well.

We were all very, very glad when my dad made many trips with his trailer and hauled off every head of that cabbage out of the garage. I never cared much for cabbage after that.

Every year my dad made his own sauerkraut in huge crocks in the basement. He also made sweet pickles and dill pickles in other crocks in the basement before he canned all of those things and added them to his large set of pantry shelves he installed in the basement.

His pickles were delicious! I had tasted other neighbors’ and relatives’ homemade pickles but theirs were always a bit soggy and bland tasting compared to my dad’s always crispy and flavorful pickles.

He also canned many jars of chow-chow, which is a yummy Southern pickled relish. My dad’s chow-chow had green and red tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and other spices and ingredients that I can no longer remember. But it was a very tasty treat to put on top of our hot dogs and hamburgers.

My dad was the one who taught my mother how to cook, although the student never caught up to the teacher except in how she fried chicken. In that one dish, my mom’s chicken far exceeded my dad’s.

Because of my dad’s hillbilly background, us kids grew up with a lot of dishes not normally served on the dinner tables in our friends’ homes. I clearly remember my early glimpse of this culture gap when I was five years old and in kindergarten.

My dad made pigs’ brains for dinner at least 3 or 4 times a year. He made them almost like making scrambled eggs. I grew up loving them and I didn’t know that other people would consider them to be gross and disgusting.

One time in kindergarten, one of my new school friends asked me what were we going to have for dinner that evening. I said, “My dad’s fixing us pig’s brains!” and I almost began to drool thinking about how good they are.

My friend replied in horror, “Pig’s brains?? Yewww, that’s disgusting! How can you eat something that gross! Bet you can sound just like a pig too because you eat their piggy brains! Yuck, I don’t want to play with a pig anymore, go away!”

Shocked and bewildered at her reaction, I asked her, “What’s wrong with pig’s brains? Don’t you eat them too?”

My now ex-friend exclaimed, “No way, we don’t eat piggy brains and I don’t know anybody who does, you’re the only sick person who eats something that gross! Now go away, piggy! Oink, oink!” And she ran away to play with somebody else who apparently never ate pig’s brains either.

Later that evening as the smell of that delicious dish wafted throughout our whole house from the kitchen, I told my mom I didn’t feel well. I guess I thought if I never ate any more pig’s brains, then maybe my ex-friend would want to play with me again.

But while I was lying on my bed with my empty tummy rumbling in protest, listening to my family enjoying their dinner, I decided that I didn’t need that little girl as a friend anyways. So I happily joined my family and wolfed down my pig’s brains.

One time when I was in my teens, my dad was in the kitchen happily making a big mess of some kind. I was at the dining room table reading the newspaper when my dad came in, with a strange, smirky smile on his face.

He put a plate in front of me, gave me a fork and told me to dig in and eat what he had just fixed.

I poked at what looked to be meatballs as I dubiously asked him, “What are these things?” I had learned early on to always get specific answers on anything my dad plopped in front of me.

He replied, ‘They’re good! They’re mountain oysters and they’re a Southern delicacy. Try them, you will like them.”

I immediately shoved the plate back at him as I yelled at my dad. “Mountain oysters? You want me to eat pig’s balls? Are you kidding me? Dad, you are gross! I am not going to eat the testicles of no poor pig, yuck!”

My astonished dad asked me, “How did you know mountain oysters are pig’s balls?”

“Your sister, Aunt Grace, warned me a long time ago that if you ever fixed me mountain oysters, to never, ever eat them and then she told me what they really are. I gagged then and I’m going to gag now!”

And I ran into the bathroom where I endured several minutes of dry-heaving while my idiot father cackled maniacally in the dining room.

Because we lived out in the country, we had a lot of large and small game all around us. My dad hunted deer and wild turkeys and smaller game like pheasants, squirrels and rabbits.

He tried to get us to enjoy hunting with him but the first time I used his shotgun, I ended up on my butt with a very sore shoulder from the recoil. I never liked using his rifle or his shotgun after that.

I also hated to see those cute critters shot dead from the guns. I remember one time, when I was only about three years old, trying so hard to pet a rabbit back to life that my dad had brought home after a hunting trip.

So whenever my dad would be cooking away in the kitchen and he would later make this grand presentation of whatever it was he had fixed, I learned to always ask what it was he was trying to make me eat now.

The first time I asked him, he lied and said it was chicken. So I happily grabbed a thigh and was chewing away when I suddenly found a small round metal ball in my mouth.

I spit it out into my hand and I suspiciously asked my dad, “Since when do you kill chickens with a shotgun?” When he started cackling because he had pulled a fast one on me, I got mad and I eventually got him to admit that he had made me eat squirrel, grrrrr.

My dad was the one who taught me how to hunt morels and wild asparagus in the spring. In the winter time he taught me the tracks of the many different animals that showed up around our five acres.

My dad taught me how to whistle, even though my grandmother always said that whistling girls never came to any good. I soon learned how to whistle just like the bob-white birds that frequented our meadowed acres when I was younger.

It always made my dad laugh to watch me patiently whistle a bob-white almost all the way up to the house out of the fields. That poor confused bird would walk around and around, trying but failing to find either the mate or the rival that was persistently hounding it with whistles.

My dad also taught me how to love baseball, especially the Detroit Tigers. One of my earliest memories is of me in my pajamas sitting with my dad on the back steps of our house on Ossington on a summer evening, listening to the Tigers on the radio.

I would sit with my arms all curled up around one of his legs, with my head nestled on his knee, while he smoked cigarette after cigarette, cursing the stupid plays and the stupid umps and then yelling with glee whenever the Tigers scored a run.

My dad taught me the names of all his tools, even though some made me laugh, like monkey wrench. He also taught me how to use his tools and how to do simple home or car repairs too.

My dad also taught all of us kids how to fish when we were all very young. He gave each of us these super long bamboo fishing rods that had just a line and a hook. I always imagined those rods were just like what Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn used on the Mississippi River.

We made many trips each year fishing on Big Mud Lake down in Fenton, both during the summer and in the winter as well. Big Mud Lake is now more commonly called Lake Ponemah.

My Aunt Grace owned a pontoon boat that she kept moored on Big Mud Lake and several times during the summer, we would all drive south and have a grand day of fishing.

We always had several big buckets full of perch and sunfish. And for some reason that I never understood, after those all day fishing trips, with those buckets of fish all sealed up and ready for us to take home to gut and scale, we would always go to Frank’s Tavern for fried fish dinners.

I had always long assumed that those wonderfully crispy, crunchy fish fillets were the fish that we had just caught. I pictured my dad taking the lids off of our buckets of fish in the trunk of our car while the cook in the kitchen took his pick. And then that cook turned our fish into those delicious meals for us.

One time I embarrassed myself to no end when I made a remark to our waitress to please tell the cook what a great job he had done cooking up our fish we had just given to him.

She gave me a funny look. “Your fish? What do you mean your fish?” My dad started laughing as I stammeringly tried to explain to the waitress, “We just caught two huge buckets of fish out of the lake and the cook fixed our fish for us, didn’t he?”

Then the waitress joined in the laughter of my dad and now my mom as I sat there, fuming, because I didn’t get the joke and I definitely did not like being laughed at either.

They were all still chuckling as they explained that the fish that Frank Tavern’s used didn’t come from our buckets but from their fishmonger in the city of Fenton. Ohhh. Please excuse me while I hide under the table in embarrassment.

Frank’s Tavern was a quaint little place. It was located down a twisty dirt road, in a squat summer cottage that was almost, but not quite, right on Big Mud Lake.

It had been turned into a summer time only restaurant in the 1920’s. Back then and up until the 1970’s, all of the many lakes, including Big Mud Lake, around the Fenton area had summer-only cottages surrounding them. So Frank’s Tavern catered to just the summertime crowds.

It was only open Fridays through Sundays from 4pm to 9pm, from May until October. They served homemade pies of all kinds, little mini loaves of homemade breads and their delicious homemade cole slaw with their fish and steak dinners. They also bottled their own homemade tartar and steak sauces and later they also sold them to their appreciative patrons.

And the inside of Frank’s Tavern was quaintly unusual too! The old wooden slat floors sloped down at a somewhat steep angle from the bar part in the front to the restaurant part in the back of that old summer cottage.

Through two open doorways from the bar area, down those sloping floors was the restaurant part. It only held about 12 small 4-top tables crowded in, with a jukebox at one end, and a beverage center at the other end.

There was no air conditioning for the longest time so everyone sweltered because of the summer heat and humidity from the outside combined with the heat from the kitchen.

But at some point the Tavern owners decided to install window air conditioners. Unfortunately the already existing windows were too small so a hole had to be cut in the only area of the wall that had room for it.

The wife of the original owner of the Tavern was a really good amateur artist and several of her oil on board and canvas scenes of lakefront living were placed on the walls. But I never could figure out how they were “hung” because they looked like they had been super-glued to the walls.

The air conditioner was installed underneath and to the side of one of those pictures. The lower left corner had to be cut out of the picture to accommodate the air conditioner because the picture could not be moved or rehung.

A decade or two later central heating and air conditioning was installed when the owners decided that it would be profitable to have the restaurant operate on a year-round basis. At that time the hole in the wall was patched but that small portion of that one picture that had been removed could never be restored.

My dad took us ice fishing a couple of times but us kids hated it. First of all my dad would scare the bejesus out of us by driving his ’54 Buick right out onto the middle of the ice-covered lake. We would always open up the back doors and leap for the shore whenever he would do that.

It didn’t matter to us that there were many other cars safely parked on that ice, we were not going to stay in a car on top of a lake we knew from past experience was very deep with a swift undertow of currents in many spots. Uh uh, no way, sorry Dad!

The other problem with ice fishing, is that no matter how well bundled up we all were, we would eventually get very chilled. And no matter how hard my dad coaxed us that it was perfectly safe to climb in his car and get warmed up with the car heater, we absolutely refused to leave the shore.

So he would yell at us for whining that we were cold and he eventually always had to leave much earlier than he had planned. Ice fishing was always a disaster for both us and him.

One of the most important lessons my dad taught me, not by words, but with his deeds, is that you have to be always willing to help somebody out.

When we were still living in the south end of Flint, so I was most likely 8 or 9 at the time, my dad took us three kids kite-flying at Broome Park.

One minute he was standing behind us watching as we were finally able to get all of our kites up and flying, and the next minute he was running like mad across the park to where some other kids were now screaming.

We all three watched in surprise and amazement as my dad, without hardly slowing down at all, scooped up one of those kids who had been inexplicably on the ground. He took off running again with that boy in his arms, yelling something we could not hear at those other kids who were running along with him.

Then they all ran out of the park and disappeared. My younger brothers and I all gaped at each other, as we stood there, now unsure of what we should do.

Keith wanted to take off after my dad, but I grabbed him by his coat sleeve and told him no, Daddy would get mad at us if we didn’t stay here where he could find us again.

Eugene started whimpering what if Daddy never came back and I reassured him that he would too come back, he wouldn’t just leave us here. But those reassurances started feeling like lies the longer my dad stayed away.

Just when our little nerves almost broke and we started to panic, we saw our dad slowly make his way back to us across the park.

He was walking very slow and he was breathing really hard. We didn’t think about this then but our dad was over 50 years of age at that time and he was still a three-pack a day smoker.

As he got closer and closer to us, we could see that he had blood all over his shirt and his pants. Eugene started crying because he thought those boys must have hurt Daddy bad.

When he finally reached us, he sat down on the park bench by us and we patiently waited for him to catch his breath better before we began to pester him with all sorts of questions.

He finally told us that he had noticed that those boys were playing with a couple of golf clubs, taking practice shots with an old golf ball.

One of the bigger kids was practicing his golf swing when, unbeknownst to him, the youngest of that group, his little brother, came up too close behind him just as the older brother reached back in the middle of his swing.

The golf club hit the younger brother smack in the middle of his forehead and he went down to the ground. That is when my dad took off in his mad dash across the park.

The kid was bleeding all over the place and he had passed out so my dad scooped him up, told those kids to tell him where the little boy lived and to come with him.

On the yelled order from my dad, the older brother ran home as fast as he could to tell his mother to quick call for an ambulance and it arrived just a few minutes after my dad had brought the hurt little boy home.

The mother had the older brother go and stay with some neighbors while she went inside the ambulance with her youngest son. After making sure the older boy and the other kids had gone to their homes, then my dad came back to us.

He praised us for staying put and I stuck my tongue out at Keith behind my dad’s back.

We found out later that that kid had to have a metal plate put in his forehead because his skull had been smashed to pieces. The mother called my dad up and profusely thanked him for his quick thinking on getting him home and into an ambulance so quickly because the doctors had said that he most likely would have died there at the park.

My dad always tried hard to help out many people in whatever ways he could. My grandma lived in the north end of Flint and across the street from her lived a very much older woman named Mrs. Woodman. She lived in a teeny tiny little 1-bedroom house. She tried to keep a garden but because of the many trees that surrounded her house that kept her garden in shade, most of the things she planted never grew.

So my dad always made trips every two weeks each summer into Flint to see both my grandma and Mrs. Woodman, bringing them huge, bulging bags of the many varieties of produce from his garden. In the winter time he always brought them jars of the many things he had preserved in the autumn.

He would always slip a few dollar bills here and there in each of their houses too because he knew if he handed them outright to my grandma and Mrs. Woodman, they would refuse to take the money. So it became a game to them for him to sneaky-hide the money without them catching him red-handed.

My dad taught me a lot of things, some taught to me on purpose and others were the lessons I learned just by watching how he interacted with other people.

My dad could sometimes be a rough and gruff person with a bad temper. He frequently had some extremely archaic and out-of-touch ideas about how to raise girls and boys and about the roles that men and women had in our changing society. But he always had his heart in the right place even if he had some difficulty showing it at times.

My dad also had a great sense of humor. He loved telling jokes only a little bit more than hearing a good one.

One time I had to follow him in my car as he drove his tractor up to a John Deere dealership in Birch Run, about 30 miles away. On our way back home, my dad asked me if I wanted to stop and get a beer at Dave’s Den, the local yokel’s tavern about 2 miles from home that my dad frequented.

Surprised, because that was the first time he had ever seemed to treat me as an equal of sorts, and even more surprised that he wanted to have a beer with me, I told him, “Sure, sounds good” in the most blase tone.

We walk in and half a dozen voices shout out, “Behme! Where the hell have you been hiding?” And soon he was in the middle of a group of guys his age, telling them one joke after another, making them all laugh so hard.

He flirted with the waitress as he ordered a beer for me and one for him. I just sat back and watched this man be the life of the party.

Who was this guy? He looked like my dad but I have never seen this gregarious, flirtatious, back-slapping, rapid-fire jokester before.

My dad was a grump most of the time. We all dreaded 3:30 in the afternoon because that is when my dad walked in the door from work and we never knew what kind of a mood he would be in. We all walked on eggshells because we didn’t know what that one little thing would be that would set off his temper and then his yelling.

So as I sat back watching these facets of my father that I had never seen to this degree before, I started getting pissed. After that one beer, my dad told one last laugh, slapped the last back, and then told me to c’mon, let’s go home.

After we got in my car, I suddenly punched him, and punched him hard, in the arm. “Owww! What the hell was that for?”

“Why aren’t you ever like that at home? I have NEVER seen you like that, glad-handing people who are doubled over laughing at your jokes! Who was that in there because I want to trade him for YOU!”

My dad chuckled embarassedly. “Well, when I come home from work, and you kids are all squabbling over something, and your mother starts in with her complaints and all I want to do is yell and scream that I just want some peace and quiet. At least in there I feel like I can be myself.”

I thought about that as I drove the short distance home. “Dad, I’m sorry, I guess I never thought about what that must be like for you and I’m sorry I punched you in the arm. But you know what? You made me proud to have you as my father when we were in Dave’s Den.”

My dad gruffly told me to never mind, don’t worry about it, just get in the house. But I think I made him glad that I had said that.

My dad was always very proud of his Southern roots and heritage. If anybody ever mockingly called him a “red-neck” he would retort back, “Yes, I am a red-neck and I’m damn proud of it too! I earned my red-neck by working hard out in the fields and there’s never been one damn thing wrong with being a hard worker!”

I was always proud of my dad and his achievements and proud to have learned some very important life lessons from him. And I will always be proud to be the hillbilly’s daughter.

Series H John Deere

1939 Series H John Deere Tractor, identical to the one my dad owned

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