My Dad is Carl J. McKeever. The J. doesn’t stand for anything. He was born April 13, 1912, to 17-year-old Bessie and 19-year-old George McKeever. They would have 11 more children, with the last, Georgelle, arriving some months after George’s death in the 1930s as a result of a heart attack. George and his brothers were coal miners in tiny, rural Alabama “push mines,” which means they were not electrified or automated, but lit by carbide lamps and the coal cars moved by mules. It was a punishing way to earn a living.
Carl dropped out of school after the 7th grade and took a job carrying water to road workers to help put food on the table for a large family. Two years later, at 14, he began work inside the mines, laboring alongside his father and uncles. As a teenager, he did the work of a man. Every dime he made was turned over to Grandma Bessie.
At 18, Carl and the brother just younger, Marion, forever called “Gip,” were looking for a little social activity on a Saturday night when someone told them that a singing was going on at Possum Trot. New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, a couple of miles in the country out from Nauvoo, Alabama, was colloquially known then as Possum Trot for some reason. That night, Carl and Gip walked in on a group of 20 or 30 teenagers conducting their own singalong. Fourteen-year-old Lois Kilgore and her big sister Ruby, 18, were in front singing a duet when the guys entered. Carl said, “I’ll take the one on the left.” He did. As of last March 3, Carl and Lois have been married for 71 years.
Courting was almost as big a hardship in those days as earning a living. Few people in 1930 had cars, so they walked everywhere. When Carl started seeing Lois, he walked a couple of miles to the church, then walked her home, another 4 miles, spent Sunday afternoon at her house, walked back with her for Sunday evening church, walked her home that night, and then walked back home. Sometimes he got in just in time to catch a couple of hours sleep before time to get up and head into the mines.
When you’re in love, all that walking is pure pleasure. Furthermore, the two lovebirds were never alone. All Lois’ numerous siblings and their “fellers” would be in the crowd too. They would sing, tell stories, and act the fool, savoring one another’s company.
The day Lois and Carl married–March 3, 1934–a Saturday, is memorable for lots of reasons. It had rained 4 inches the day before. Carl took the train from Nauvoo to the court house at Jasper–the fare was 10 cents–to buy a marriage license. On his return, he still had to get to Lois’ house, some 4 miles across country. The wet fields and swollen river made this an ordeal, so he stopped off at Clanton Manasco’s house and asked this kindly neighbor if he would chauffeur him and Lois to be married. For the rest of the evening, the wedding party traveled in style–by car.
At the Kilgore house, dark had arrived and in the tradition of farm families, bedtime came with it. Since Carl had not shown up, the family went to bed. What time was it? Lois laughs and says, “Oh, it was late. It must have been seven o’clock.” Soon the lights of Clanton’s car lit up the yard and everyone got dressed.
They drove to Thach, a community a few minutes away on the Double Springs-Jasper highway, and got a preacher out of bed to perform the ceremony. Carl says, “I didn’t have any money, so I had to go back later and pay him.” (Paying the preacher is mighty important in our household.)
The newlywed couple was dropped off at Lois’ brother Grady’s home where they spent the night. Next day, they moved into a rented two room house at Nauvoo. On Monday, the coal mines went out on strike and it was six weeks before Carl brought home a paycheck. Welcome to hard times.
Lois would give birth to seven children, with the fourth dying after only a couple days’ life. The other six–Ronnie, Glenn, Patricia, Joe, Carolyn, and Charles–are still going strong, all of us in our sixties now. With our parents’ advanced age and all of us entering our dotage, we toy with the idea of pooling our resources and purchasing our own nursing home.
In 1961, Carl almost died from a number of physical ailments. He lingered in the hospital at Haleyville, and as the family gathered, we thought it was to bid him goodbye. We were delighted when he rallied, then disappointed when the doctors retired him on disability. The last year he worked in the coal mines, Carl’s income was $7500, the most he had ever made.
Had you told us in 1961 we would still have this gentleman with us in the year 2005, no one would have believed you. With him and Mom both still with us, still living in the house we built in 1954, and still sharp as ever, we feel blessed beyond words.
Next time you go to Nauvoo, stop across the road from the Slick Lizard barbecue restaurant. (I’m not making this up.) There’s a historical marker there, put there by several people, but mainly by Carl McKeever. It commemorates an event in 1920 when Carl was an 8-year-old and the coal miners were fighting for the right to organize. A preacher and his son-in-law fighting for the miners were killed by some national guardsmen loyal to the governor and mine owners. At the top of the marker, you read these words: “LEST WE FORGET.”
The labor movement has fallen onto hard times in America now, but veterans like Carl McKeever could tell you some stories. He will not forget.
At the D-Day Museum here in New Orleans, dedicated to the thousands of men and women who saved the world in the 1940s, you may purchase a brick for the walk leading up to the entrance to honor someone who served their country. I bought a brick for my dad, and every time I drop in on the museum, I seek it out and read it and give thanks for this old gentleman to whom I owe everything. The brick reads:
DUG THE COAL THAT
POWERED THE SHIPS
These days, Dad has trouble sleeping, so he stays in bed late in the mornings. When he gets up, he spends the first hour with his coffee and the morning mail, including the Daily Mountain Eagle, Jasper’s paper. He finds the word puzzles and works those, then putters in the yard for a while. A grandchild will drop by and brighten his day, or a son or daughter will call. Once or twice a week, some of them will pull chairs up to the dining room table and play him a game of rummy, the family’s card game as far back as anyone can remember. If you think that being 93 years old diminishes his sharpness, he will make you pay for such foolishness.
Asked his favorite Scripture verse, Carl gives the same one he has quoted for the last half century. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1) He has made McKeever a better name than the way he found it.
(If you want to send him a birthday note, his address is County Road 101, Nauvoo, Alabama 35578.)