Oliver Victor Kemp
1891 - 1971
A short essay about my granddad
(originally written in the mid-1980s)
Copyright © 2000
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He was already old when I first met him, bald and shiny on top, and heavier than he ought to be. But then, that's how granddads usually come.
One of my first memories is how much I loved for him to ride me around the neighborhood on his shoulders every evening after supper. From that vantage point, I learned many of my first words. (I still remember him teaching me "light" and "moon.") Had I paid closer attention to him during the thirty years I had him, he would have taught me much more about using words, for he had a good command of the language.
He was a farmboy, raised on Sand Mountain in northern Alabama, the son of a Confederate Army veteran, William Hamilton Kemp (dubbed "Stubborn Bill" by my grandmother), and his second wife, a pretty woman named Lucy Ann Howard, whom Granddaddy said was known as the best cook in Blount County. His glowing descriptions of his mother's cooking so impressed me as I was growing up that it became one of my goals to learn to cook as well as she must have done. (I didn't.)
When he was growing up, he hunted the woods around his farm and became quite proficient with a rifle. Once, he was up on the river hunting with an old muzzle-loader, but had overloaded it and was afraid to shoot it. About that time a friend happened along and asked him if he could try shooting it (most likely at Granddaddy's urging). Why, of course, he could. His friend ended up flat on the ground.
Although in later years he completely reversed his views about war, during the time World War I was raging, he felt it his duty to join the army. He was sent to France to train riflemen. Later, my dad asked him if he could really shoot all that well. Granddaddy told him he could shoot six bull's-eyes with five shots. How? The men were given five shots, but a sixth cartridge was allowed in the barrel. Granddaddy told me that some of the boys he trained had never shot a rifle in their lives, and sometimes he had only one day to train them. The next day they'd be sent to the front.
After the war, he bought a 300-acre farm in Blount County, in an off-the-map place called Fowler's Hollow, a few miles from his father's farm. He worked hard growing his crops and raising horses, cows, hogs, chickens, and his two boys. He cut timber and hauled it by wagon to the heading-mill to sell, working so hard that his tall frame got really thin. Then, for whatever reason, he sold the farm (most likely because the farm work was too much for him to handle single-handedly), and he moved his family to Birmingham, where he lived and worked until he retired.
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If he had kept that farm, he could have been a millionaireliterally. Through approximately the 1970s, the present-day owner said he had earned a million dollars in royalties from strip mining on that land.
That idyllic little hollow must look a lot different than it did when Granddaddy owned it. Now there are junkyard strip-mining tailings everywhere, looking like low, black mountains from a distance. You can see some of them in the background in this picture.
A few "reclaimed" sections along the unpaved road through the area have been smoothed into odd-shaped hillslike a bumpy golf course with huge artificial bermstoo poor to grow anything but broomsedge. The farmhouse still looks to be in good shape. Near where I took this picture was a palm tree stump that had been found in the strip mining and deposited on the property. It was a conversation piece (almost identical to the palm tree stump that is on display outside the Birmingham Public Library), and was actually a big lump of black coal in tree stump shape, about two to three feet across. The distinctive markings of ancient palm tree bark were plainly visible around its side.
I can't even guess what Granddaddy would have done if he had known a treasure in coal was lying beneath his land, but I'm sure there would have been a lively conflict between his practical instincts and the abiding enthusiasm he had for unspoiled nature. He was the most ardent appreciator of flowers, trees, and nature I ever knew. He enthused equally over the Great Smoky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, over cultivated roses and a handful of field flowers. Plowing and planting were in his veins. He attended an agricultural college. After he retired to Pensacola, he would still dig up plants when he revisited northern Alabama and bring them back to plant in his yard. It made no difference to him that some of those plants weren't suited for Florida.
Some of his plants still survive; the stand of sweet shrub that's the wrong kind and doesn't smell sweet at all, the mountain laurel and wild azalea that still bloom every year; a yellow poplar too large to reach our arms around now. One crop of his that didn't survive, though, was his best one: watermelons. I don't know how he coaxed his little Florida sand-patch into doing it, but he grew the sweetest watermelons anyone ever tasted, ever.
Heaven help any overnight guest who didn't fall asleep before he did; his snoring was in a class all its own. And when it came to talking, he outclassed even his own snoring. He gestured so descriptively with his hands that people said if you tied his hands behind his back he wouldn't be able to talk. His jokes and his tales, the true variety and the tall, were limitless. One story would remind him of another, and another. But nobody minded; he was an Alabamian and could really string em out.
He read constantly and could quote numerous famous and obscure writers practically word for word. He loved history, right on up to this morning's newspaper. He knew the Bible better than any other writing, and he had such a deep respect for it that he considered it the final authority on any subject. He was a prolific writer of "Letters to the Editor." His favorite subjects (or targets) were crooked politicians and devious preachersparticularly the preachers since everybody already knew about politicians. The world, as he saw it, was black or white; no wimpy shades of gray for him. He was never afraid to call it like he saw it.
In one of his letters to the editor he wrote:
Only fools and those who promote false teachings resent a critical analysis of their statements. One without courage to call into question what he believes to be an error on a vital matter is unworthy.
He pretty much lived by those words.
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His mind long refused to recognize his body's birthdays. One time not long after he had retired and moved to Pensacolaand this was hilarious to me, the agile young teenager, when it happenedhe tried mounting my horse bareback like I did, swinging up Indian style from the ground. After a few unsuccessful tries, he finally made it up, but overshot and landed in a heap on the ground on the other side of the horse. He wasn't hurt, but he didn't try it again. About that same time, he tried a running-grab on my rope swing in order to swing up high like he'd seen me doing. He didn't have the strength to hang on. He wasn't hurt, physically, but my mother told me years later that afterward, he went off by himself and cried.
In the hospital a few days before he died, a nurse told us she had given him his medicine and thought he hadn't swallowed it. She told him to quit holding the pill in his mouth, to swallow it. He told her he already had. "No, Mr. Kemp," she insisted, "you didn't swallow it." Somehow he gathered up enough strength to raise himself up in bed, and he told her in no uncertain terms, "I don't lie!" And he didn't.
When I was growing up he spoiled me thoroughly, in that special way only a grandfather can. He'd give me almost anything I asked for (which wasn't much or often). But the one thing I wanted most was something he wasn't able to give me: another thirty years of being a granddad for my children just as he had been for me.
Oliver V. Kemp, with granddaughter, Carolyne
(That's just a big piece of candy
in that kid's cheek, folks!)
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