“We were the luckiest generation in the world.” So says Charles Freeland James of Sandy Lake, known to his family and friends as Free.
He and his wife, the former Dorothy Mae Taylor, have indeed been blessed with a multitude of good things. They have never been without a home, a vehicle, or food. Their children have proven to be nothing but a blessing, eventually providing them with seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Free and Dot have been able to fill their modest home with many beautiful things, and have traveled across the country several times, and to Europe. And they are now, at age 84, living in good health and contentment.
Pretty lucky, huh?
Sure, if you define luck as something you get when you work hard virtually every day of your life. That’s actually how Free sees it, with his parents’ experience as a backdrop.
“My parents, Harlan and Esther James, were married in 1925,” Free said, “and from then until 1936 he never had a steady job. He just knocked around doing whatever he could do for a buck. He sold farm bureau insurance and Watkins products. He also worked as a tenant farmer, and chipped stones for curbs in Mercer for the WPA.”
Free gained not only a work ethic from his parents, but also a positive spirit.
“When they talked about the Depression to me,” their oldest child Cheryl said, “they never once conveyed to me that this was the worst thing that ever happened to them. They always made it sound like it was a fun time for them. Grandma said, ‘So and So had sugar, and So and So had butter, so we would make cookies.’ They looked at it as a community time.”
Finally, in 1936, Harlan got a steady job at Cooper Bessemer.
“He was bringing home $16 every week,” Free said. “We were wealthy.”
Dot’s experience during the Depression was quite different.
“My father graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1916,” she said. “He and Mom were married in 1918. She was a teacher. I don’t remember the Depression like Free does, because my dad’s company, Meadow Gold Dairy, moved my parents from Wisconsin to Sandy Lake, gave us a company house to live in, bought the coal and paid for the telephone. Dad had a job all through the Depression.”
Free started generating his own paychecks before he was big enough to reach the cross-bar handles of a reel push mower.
“I was mowing the lawn around that big house up on the hill,” he said. “I had to get down on the handle and shove it a few feet, then stop and rest. I was getting a buck for mowing it, so I was going to mow it if it killed me.”
When Free was eleven years old, his family moved from Mercer to Sandy Lake.
“I looked around the first day I was in school here,” Free said. “I spotted Dorothy Taylor. She was like the cutest thing I ever saw.”
Free’s “whatever-it-takes” attitude endured even when “whatever it took” was decidedly unpleasant.
“The first job I ever had away from home,” Free said, “was on a farm for a couple of old bachelors brothers up at New Vernon. It was the year that I turned 16. I stayed there through the week. They had bedbugs. These two old guys were paying me a buck and a half a day, nine dollars a week. Well, I wasn’t about to quit that job. I don’t know whether or not you’ve ever slept with bedbugs, but those things are fast. You’d have them crawling all over you, and if you turned the flashlight on, they’d be gone.”
When he returned home to start his senior year, he got a part-time job as signal operator on the New York Central Railroad.
“They had a lot of guts hiring a 16-year old kid to do that job,” Free said.
The following year was quite a year for Free and Dot. First they graduated from high school; then Free joined the Navy and left for boot camp at Bainbridge, Maryland. But the thing that made it truly a banner year was their marriage on September 23, 1944.
It turned into quite an adventure. Free got a three-day pass to come home from Bainbridge. He took a train from Lancaster to Pittsburgh, arriving just in time to run across the street and catch a Harmony Lines bus for Sandy Lake. He didn’t know that his dad was driving from Sandy Lake to the train station to get him.
“We had him paged in the train station to tell him I’m already home,” Free said. “Luckily the preacher lived just across the street. We got married about 11 o’clock that evening.”
Their first home together in Newport News, VA, was another adventure.
“Remember those old tourist cabins?” Free said. “We had half of one of those.”
It had no running water, and just a little potbellied stove that was too small to hold a fire through the night.
“I’d have to get up in the morning and throw Kerosene in on some coal,” Free said, “and throw a match in it, and that old pipe would get red clear into the wall. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn that place down.”
“I bought new sheets,” Dot said, “but I didn’t want to put them on that old mattress. So I lined it with newspapers and then put my new sheets on top of them.”
“Every time you moved a finger all night long there was paper crackling,” Free said.
“The next morning all that paper came off,” Dot said, “and my new sheets went on the mattress.”
To make matters even more interesting, Free’s brother Stan went down and lived with them a month.
“We hung a blanket up and he slept in a cot at the foot of the bed,” Dot said.
Dot moved back home when Free was reassigned for further training. After that, Free shipped out to the Pacific to serve on a mine laying ship. But the war was over, so the ship was used in mine clearing operations in Japanese ports.
“But I never saw any action, and never even saw a mine explode,” he said.
While he was away, Dot lived with her mother and worked at the five and ten store and a restaurant in Sandy Lake. During the 1945-46 school year, she taught at one-room Lytle School with no qualification except an emergency wartime teaching certificate.
“I had 21 kids in eight grades,” she said, “and I had never even seen the inside of a one-room country school before. But my mother had, and she was a lot of help to me.”
When Free came home, he used the GI Bill to learn auto repair at Perrine Oil in Mercer. Then in 1949, he got a job delivering mail on a route that had been established in the horse and buggy days.
“It was just 31 miles, so delivering it in a car, I was done at noon,” Free said. “So I got a chance to work at a lot of other things.”
He installed TV antennas for Clair Rupert’s television business and worked at an auto repair shop. He even attended barber school in Erie, and cut hair for a while. Eventually, however, his mail route grew too long to continue these jobs.
“Every time someone retired,” he said, “they added that route to mine. It got to the point where I could barely make it back to the post office before it closed.”
Together, Dot and Free created an exciting living and learning environment for their three children: Cheryl (born 1947), David (1949), and Rita (1952).
They provided their kids not only the basics of food, shelter, and clothing, but also such things as ponies and horses, the only kid-sized gasoline powered vehicle in town, and the only bicycle built for two around.
“Our place was the neighborhood amusement park,” Cheryl said.
Way back in the 1960s, Free and Dot took their kids on a six-week cross-country trek, all the way to California.
“I had a $500 car and a $500 trailer,” Free said, “and I borrowed $500 from the bank to go.”
“The kids still talk about that trip,” Dot said. “We stopped and saw everything.”
When at home, they filled their lives with music. Dot played piano and organ, and Free played the Hawaiian and acoustic guitars. That continued a musical legacy that came from their parents. Dot’s mom sang in theaters for silent movies, and her dad played cornet in college. Free’s mom played piano and organ.
The love of music flowed down to the rest of the family. All of their children and grandchildren played instruments, ranging from piano to flute, clarinet, trombone, saxophone, string bass, trumpet, tuba, bells, and voice. Among their musical achievements are a degree in music education, 27 years of playing in a bluegrass group, membership in the Cleveland Orchestra chorus, a role as an entertainer in Branson, Missouri, and the formation of a barbershop-type family singing group that sing the National Anthem at many sporting events.
As if all of this weren’t enough, Free also earned his pilot’s license when he was in his fifties, and developed phenomenal woodworking skills after he retired. Dot pursued a passion for collecting costume jewelry from garage sales. And through the years, they remained very active in their church.
“I think we’ve just led an ordinary life,” Dot says.
Yeah, right. How lucky can you get?
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010