5/10/11 - saved by the salvation army

In today's excerpt - Hal Needham, whose extraordinary Hollywood career encompassed 4,500 television episodes and 310 feature films as a stuntman, and then ten movies as director—including the iconic 70s movies Smoky and the Bandit and Hooper—was not yet ten years old and the child of a single mother when his life in rural Arkansas was saved by the Salvation Army. His experience was not untypical of rural America in the 1940s:

"During the winter the Salvation Army would bring a big truck of groceries and used clothing to town. Mom and I would stand in line to get a few pounds of beans, some lard, and a sack of flour. Best of all, they would give each child a piece of hard candy. I learned from experience not to bite into it, as it would be gone in no time. Instead, I would let it melt in my mouth to make it last longer. ...

"I don't know how we would have survived without the help of the Salvation Army. Not only did they give us food, they occasionally gave us used clothing. It didn't matter what size it was, someone in the family could wear it. If not, Mom would alter it so it fit ... kinda. I remember one time, Mom and I stood in line for an hour or more. It was bone-chilling cold, and I was shaking. After the lady behind the counter gave us our goodies and we started to leave, she said, 'Just a second,' and disappeared through a door. She returned with a coat and handed it to me. 'Try this on,' she told me. It was a bit too big but warm, and I grew into the coat before it wore out. I will never forget the tone of my mother's voice thanking her.

"Making a living and keeping food on the table were our priorities; education took a backseat. If and when we attended school, we had to walk about four miles. We went to school November through February, and sometimes into March, depending on the weather. Once winter broke we would plow, plant our crops, and cultivate them until the middle of July. We'd go back to school for a few weeks while the crops matured and then drop out again at harvesttime. September and October we spent picking cotton, gathering berries, canning food, and cutting firewood for the winter. Before we knew it November had arrived and it was time to go back to school.

"My brother Armin and I were hired as the school janitors. Our job was to arrive at school an hour early, sweep the floor, carry in firewood, and build a fire in the potbelly stove. The money was good: $2.50 a month. But there was a problem. Many days our farm chores outweighed the necessity of going to school. But we still had to walk the eight miles to and from school to do our job, which made us change our minds about being janitors. ...

"Strange as it sounds, we looked forward to going back to school, because it was a lot easier than the work we had to do at home. I had one teacher who either really liked me or felt sorry for me because we were so poor. Many days at lunchtime she would give me part of her meal, saying it was more than she could eat. As I look back, I think she brought more than she needed, knowing I wouldn't turn down her offer. I later found out she had wanted to adopt me. Poor or not, my mom would have no part of it. I often wonder where I might have ended up if Mom had said yes.

"In 2004, a few months before my mom died at the age of ninety-seven, she told me that when she was pregnant with me, she knew her first marriage was coming to an end. One more mouth to feed would only add to her problems; maybe an abortion would be best. She lived in Memphis, Tennessee, at the time, and her downstairs neighbors talked her out of it, telling her, 'Edith, you never know. This might be the child that will always be there for you.' The neighbors' last name was Brett, so my mom named me Harold Brett Needham. I was happy to take care of  her until the day she died."


Hal Needham


Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life


Little, Brown and Company


Copyright 2011 by Hal Needham


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