Saturday, April 15, 2017

George Singleton recalls the days of his childhood friend 'Uncle Tony'

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Recalling days with old Tony” was originally published in the April 3, 1997 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

Uncle Tony was an old man who didn’t have a family to look after him in his old age so my father, who had known him for many years, took the old man under his wing, so to speak, and looked out for his well-being. A small house was built nearby and Uncle Tony took up housekeeping. The food he ate came from our table. There was always plenty prepared, so there wasn’t any bother when two or three extra were around at mealtime.

My darling mother was an outstanding cook and supervisor of the kitchen. When mealtime came around, there was almost always an extra guest or two. Many wanderers and vagabonds that came that way knew this and when they were in the area, they always showed up around mealtime. My dear mother never turned anyone away hungry.

As a child, Uncle Tony had been a slave. As close as anyone could calculate, he was born around 1848, give or take a year or so. He was in excellent physical condition despite his advanced age. He could walk with the best of them; 10 or 12 miles at one time didn’t phase Uncle Tony. He had a special church that he liked to attend, which was 10 or 11 miles one way from where we lived. He didn’t think anything about walking to this church each Sunday and return. My father insisted that the old man ride one of the horses that we had there on the farm. He refused, because he said that he didn’t want to be bothered with the animal.

One year for Christmas, Uncle Tony became the proud owner of a new blue serge suit. This suit came complete with a white shirt, necktie and a new pair of shoes. Giving him the new shoes, was thought to be a waste of money by all who knew him because no one ever saw the old man ever wearing shoes. Winter or summer, the old man would walk around barefoot; ice or snow didn’t phase Uncle Tony. So, he would dress up in his new suit, complete with necktie, and walk barefoot the distance to the church he enjoyed going to.

To please my father, who had raised a considerable amount of heck because the old man wouldn’t wear his new shoes that had been bought for him, Uncle Tony would put on his new shoes and wear them a short distance from the house. Here, he would pull them off and hide the shoes until his return trip home that afternoon. He would put them on and come walking proudly up the road as though he had worn them all day long.

This went on for several weeks until my father got wind of what the old man was doing. My father proceeded to follow Uncle Tony to the place where he would always hide his shoes. My father took the shoes and hid them in the barn for several weeks. Uncle Tony searched far and wide for his lost Sunday shoes, only to find out later that my father had them all the time. During the time he had the shoes hid, my father would question the old man about how his shoes were wearing. The answer was always, “They wear so good, I hardly know I got them on.”

As a small boy of six years of age, I learned much from this gentle old man. I tasted my first tobacco in a corncob pipe the old man had secretly made for me. Each time I smoked the crude pipe, my dear friend would tell me that I should swallow the smoke. I would get terribly sick, and I suppose this is why I never cultivated the habit of smoking. Looking back, I believe the old man knew what he was doing; he stopped the habit before it started.

I would spend many hours in the evenings after the work day was completed, and after the supper meal had been eaten, I would sit and listen to the many tall tales that Uncle Tony retrieved from his outstanding memory.

As a younger man, he had worked for the Ringling Brothers circus as a laborer. During this time, he had picked up several small magic tricks that would entertain me for hours on end. Always, he would tell me that one day when I grew older, he was going to teach these tricks to me. The magic tricks and the many tall tales from his circus experience kept a small farm boy spellbound and wide-eyed for hours on end.

My father, out of necessity, was a self-trained blacksmith. He did all the work that he had to do to keep the farm equipment in a small shed out near the barn. Many times, during the cold days of the winter months, he would sharpen his plows and repair his farm equipment and that of the neighbors, for spring planting and the farm year ahead.

On one of these cold winter days, everyone was huddled around the small fire in the blacksmith forge to try and keep warm, all the while keeping a good bull session going also. Uncle Tony was there also, barefoot as usual. My father had just heated a piece of iron to be used in the repair of a plow point. He had heated the iron red hot and had cut a small piece off the larger piece. The small piece of the red hot iron had fallen to the dirt floor of the shop almost unnoticed.

Everyone there began to notice the burning odor of what appeared to be skin or leather burning. To everyone’s amazement, Uncle Tony had stepped backwards on the piece of red hot iron. The burning odor was from the burning skin of the old man’s foot. Uncle Tony’s foot was so tough that he hadn’t really noticed that his foot was on the red hot piece of iron.

This tale was told and retold many, many times by those present that cold day there in the small blacksmith shop. During the remaining years of the old man’s life, hardly a day passed that Uncle Tony wasn’t reminded and kidded about him standing on the red hot piece of iron.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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