The Billy Bob Secret... To: LIFE (Be Proud of Where You Come From)
Be Proud of Where You Came From Jesse Jonah White was born on October 24, 1969 in a rundown (lower) middle class home in Cook County, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The story I was told was when I opened my blue eyes for the first time I saw my Father and I smiled. I was the third of four children with a younger brother arriving a year and nine months later named “Watie” Cherokee for “war paint”. Looking back it was a fitting name!
My parents were quite opposites, my Mom’s parents were of Jewish descent and lived in Germany prior to the Nazi’s taking over. They were a very well to do family and were able to immigrate to the United States before Mom was born in 1936. They wound up settling in Chicago. Their luck changed and somehow, they lost their family fortune while my Mother was quite young, banishing them to middle class. After my Mom met my Father, even middle class was out of reach!
My Father, John was born in Philadelphia in 1937. His birthday was 3 days before mine and he always said Mom didn’t give into the pressure to have me 3 days earlier so I would be born on the same date, October 21st! What a story my Father had. Dad lacked a strong father like figure in his life. His father was of American Indian descent, a raging alcoholic who was never home, his mother worked for the government and stayed at home watching her son when she wasn’t working to feed him.
Dad had Indian ancestry from several blood lines. His great aunt Sally (who gave him his Indian name, 5 Bears) was full blooded Cherokee and a great great grandmother had made the Trails of Tears march to a Reservation in Oklahoma. My Father identified himself as Indian. When very young, my Dad was sent from Philadelphia to a Cherokee Reservation school in Oklahoma which he attended for several years. This is where my Dad found his calling, as the persecuted yet resourceful Indian, a self proclaimed image that would identify him his entire life.
I can’t say I’ve met anyone outside our family who grew up Indian. I’ve met many who grew up on a reservation, however none who really grew up Indian. We sang Indian songs, worshipped Indian religion, ate like Indians, lived as Indians. Our animals all had Indian names; we slept in everything from teepees to wigwams to finally a log cabin. We respected nature, we were taught to respect fire (we had trouble with this one) we were taught broken Indian languages. I guess we grew up as a little tribe of Indians trying to adapt in the white man’s world.
One very major flaw that my Father had which I blame partially on his Indian heritage was that finances were not on the radar screen of his priorities. I remember about third grade when I was beginning to learn what money was, I asked 5 Bears, “How much money do you make?” 5 Bears said, “I don’t know, go ask your Mother“. So I ran over to her and asked her the same question. Mom told me, “Your father makes $6.00 an hour“. I said “that sounds like a lot of money“, Mom said, “not to feed six people it’s not”.
My Father, I would come to learn was quite proud of never asking for, or making money. I would later read about different tribes of Indians from the Northwest who would have the “potluck” rituals where the tribe would come together and give their possessions to others to bolster their status. Whoever ended up with nothing was declared the winner. Sometime later, I would ask Dad if he believed in those rituals because of the way he was always working for free or giving things away. His answer would be just a smile. He was very proud that we were poor, no question about it. Growing Up Different
There were six of us. The oldest sibling was my sister Karli, who wouldn’t have much to do with the rest of us. She was trying to be normal, I guess. Next there was three brothers, the oldest, Mark, nine years older than me; I was in the middle and my younger brother Watie. The three brothers were very close growing up and some of my fondest memories of my childhood were spent with my two brothers. The oldest, Mark: The under ambitious, couch potato, shade tree mechanic. The middle brother, “Bony - Joney”: The skinny, afro headed, wild boy that lived in the woods. The youngest, “Watness - McDuff”, was referred to by Dad, as “The little chubby baby-bear who was always reading books”.
My parents, John and Ella, both shared one common interest. History! I must say I also inherited this desire to learn history from my parents. My Mom and 5 Bears being very extreme people were over taken by history. Our house and sheds and car trunks were all full of books, thousands and thousands of books. We did not have any money for dinner but in the back of the truck there will be a good book (or two) on the Minoan civilization, or some other tidbit of history. I have so many memories of my Mom and 5 Bears reading late at night, in the bathtub or behind the house on a log. Always reading books! It is sad to look back at it, they spent too much of their lives reading. I have the feeling that anything that is overly extreme is unhealthy. You can get too much of anything. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot, and that falls true for everything in life.
Our family moved from Chicago, Illinois to the county where I live now, Calhoun, in western Illinois. I remember the move; it was the summer of 1977, very hot. My older brother Mark was about a sophomore in high school. He had convinced 5 Bears, that he could keep this old vintage model school bus (with a large Blue Bird picture on the side of it) running, so 5 Bears bought it. It was then loaded down with all of our family’s possessions including, but not limited to, clothing, bicycles, car parts, china, boxes of books, four children, 18 sheep, 2 dogs and toiletries. This was truly a sign that the Beverly Hillbillies were moving in when we arrived in Kampsville, Illinois. Oh, I almost forgot, I had a pet snapping turtle.
Since we did not have a plan when we arrived, we slept in the bus (on the straw) with the dogs and the sheep. Funny thing is we were so oblivious to our way of life, that none of this seemed unusual. I remember playing with Watie in the back of the school bus with the sheep and wondering why so many people were looking in the bus at us. “Gee Honey have you seen the new neighbors?” The local bank (Bank of Kampsville) let us park the school bus in the parking lot. Guess they figured the side show would be good for business.
As you can imagine, Watie and I would run around like wild children. No shoes or shirts, maybe shorts! We didn’t know any different, how times have changed. Before long, 5 Bears found a pasture to keep our flock of sheep. This gave us more breathing room in the school bus! Then we found a small 1 bedroom, abandoned house (that had a huge hole in the floor of the living room) where we could stay for free. I can’t remember if it was Watie or me that named the house “the Spider House” after the infestation of brown recluse spiders. Our beds were sheets of plywood resting on top of cinder blocks. Not a lot of protection from the spiders. I really didn’t know how bad ass these spiders were, until one bit 5 Bears.
One night a brown recluse bites 5 Bears. I can remember hearing him say “ow” as he smashed the brown recluse into his hip. The next day 5 Bear’s hip gets sore and a hole starts to emerge where the spider had been crushed. Anyone else would have had a massive lesion from the poisonous spider bite. The histolytic toxin typically rots a hole in the flesh all the way to the bone! All 5 Bears had was a little sore and blood. If it had been me or Watie, it would have been different. Shortly thereafter Spider House was torched.
Now I want to take a moment, to draw a picture of my Father, 5 Bears. He had been given bone crushing genetics by the Great Spirit! His shoulders were broad, his legs were thick, his skin very impervious to nature. At almost six feet tall he weighed about 250 pounds. One night we were all sleeping (all 5 of us!) in a fourteen foot Shasta trailer in the middle of wintertime. Spider house was burned to the ground by the Village of Kampsville, because it was condemned. So we moved into this tiny camper. The three brothers slept in one bed with a large dog (an Irish Wolf Hound named Samson) for heat, and Mom and 5 Bears were sleeping at the other end of the camper under a buffalo hide. The temperature dropped to well below zero and 5 Bears arm froze to the wall of the camper. When we awoke 5 Bears was trying to pull his arm off the wall. I think the veneer on the paneling came off and stuck to his forearm. 5 Bear’s genetics was so tough that he didn’t even wake in the middle of the night when his arm stuck to the wall, only when he had to get up to go to work did he notice.
In 1979 5 Bears was able to put a down payment on 40 acres with an old log barn from the 1840’s. This property was about five miles away and cost an incredible figure $15,575 - such an incredibly huge sum of money at the time. This became our homestead and where some of my most precious growing up memories took place. Once we moved there we were officially living in the country. Kampsville as contrast had 400 people. In the summer of 1979 we began chinking the logs of this cabin with clay and putting a stone foundation under it. By the end of the summer we made the big move from the 14 foot Shasta trailer in town to the cabin in the woods. Our first night was very memorable. There was quite a thunderstorm and the log cabin didn’t have any working doors on it. In the top of the old barn was a loft. We had taken some old carpet, which we found by the river and laid it on top of the loft. Down below one of our deaf, elderly sleeping dog named “Caka” laid in the hay. In the loft slept Watie, my Mom and me. Out in the Shasta trailer slept Mark and 5 Bears. In the middle of the night, this thunderstorm rolled in, and the tenant of the cabin came back to sleep, a mountain lion. Mountain lions are very rare here, this one used the old log barn as a hideout when the weather got bad. Anyway, this big cat walks into the cabin and eats Caka’s food out of her bowl. Undoubtedly smells us, strolls out through the front door and lets out a loud scream to let all of us know in the cabin and in the Shasta trailer that it wasn’t happy with it’s visitors! I jump up off the carpet and almost roll out of the loft onto the floor below. Mark rolls out of bed in the Shasta trailer and opens the trailer door to shoot his Ruger .22 pistol up in the air. The mountain lion wasn’t too impressed as it just walked up the hill. We tracked it the next day in the mud, but not all the way up into the timber! 5 Bears poured some cement into one of the tracks in the mud which we kept in our kitchen for years to come. Every now and then the mountain lion would come out of the woods to let us know he was around.
As you can imagine amenities at the White house were a little behind the time. The only running water we had was a hand pump and virtually no plumbing. We cooked on a wood stove, however later we got power and used an electric skillet for a lot of the cooking. You could never beat the Old Dutch cook stove, however. I can remember running out to the barn in the morning and stealing 8-12 brown eggs from a pissed off and pecking hen. The whole time Watie would be stoking the cook stove with kindling. We would have old, stale bread which we would bite a hole in the middle and with a tad of butter on the bread, cook an egg in the hole. We named this breakfast “Egg in the Hole”. Wat figured out to put multiple eggs on the bread so it had a French toast look to it - we always had plenty of eggs if you were brave enough to reach in, under hostile hens to get them!
When I lay in bed at night and think back on all the experiences we had growing up this way, I always fall asleep with a smile on my face.
The old log cabin, (the White family revived from the dead) had been previously built straight on the ground without a foundation. The white oak logs were infested with bugs to such a degree that Watie often said, “this isn’t a house, it’s a bunch of termites holding hands!…” When it rained, Watie and I would take up our position with the pots and pans. The roof of our house leaked in 6-8 spots if it was raining and 20 spots in a downpour!
As the rain kept coming, Watie and I would make our rounds with the bucket, pouring out the overflowing dishes. Slowly, the rain would recede and the dripping would slow down…drip…drip……. drip…………..drip. What fond memories I have, oddly enough. Contrary to the local gossip, our house didn’t have a dirt floor. Although it did our first summer we lived there. We poured concrete over the dirt and set large slabs of limestone all around, which Watie & I drug out of the creek. 5 Bears was in charge of the masonry crew (Mark, Watie & I).
One particular limestone slab is on the floor of the doorway. It’s thick and smooth from being water worn over the years. I watched our beloved Irish Wolf Hound Samson die on that rock, one winter night. Our old log cabin was originally hand hewn in 1840. I’m sure if the logs could talk they would have many stories. Abraham Lincoln was rumored to have spent the night in the log cabin across the creek from ours, one winter night. He practiced law in Pittsfield (about 30 miles north) and traveled through our county from time to time. It was during this phase of my life, that I felt I was growing up in the wrong century. I’m sure Father, 5-Bears, felt the same. When I was 12 years old, there was one piece of modern machinery that I embraced…the chainsaw! I was a wild child with my 017 Stihl chainsaw! In one day of cutting, I could cut a month’s worth of firewood and carry it home.
I had several close calls with the chainsaw, but I have always been respectful of its blade and have never cut myself with a chainsaw to date.
Fast Forward As far as technology goes, many of my principles still remain the same from that era of my life. I still cut and burn firewood to heat my home.
Other things, such as using a computer, I’m still a hold-out on. Yes, you heard me right; I have never forced myself to use a computer! This fact amazes my peers in business that I am still computer illiterate. But I did adapt to use a cell phone. My assistant bought one for me in 2005 and it sat on my desk for some time before I embraced it. I text my sales force and associates so often in a single day, that I could not conduct business without one.
Yes, I am a more efficient business person with a cell phone, but consequently I tend to use it too much. If I could go back in time, I don’t know that I would have picked it up off my desk! A decision that I have mixed feelings about.
Back to 1979 Behind our house we built an outhouse. Not a very good one, might I add. To cut down on the smell the outhouse was located quite a jaunt from the back door. One night in the middle of wintertime, Mom went out to use the outhouse. Our neighbor, Mr. Mountain Lion let her know he was there in the woods! It was then decided by the family, that we would move the outhouse much closer to the back door! The smell would be tolerated; this was the word coming down from the top (so to speak)!!
Our new (mountain lion resistant) toilet would be located in the new “bathroom” in the back of our log cabin. The new toilet facility was designed by my Mother and built by 5 Bears (head carpenter and in charge of plumbing). It basically consisted of a large wooden chair, with an oval hole. A 5 gallon bucket would be placed directly under the hole. 5 Bear’s idea of “facilities” was a tad behind the times. Once the 5 gallon bucket was full (hopefully not to the rim) the wooden chair would be lifted off the bucket. Watie and I would dig holes (under a walnut tree) in the sheep pasture and dispose of the contents. This became one of the most undesirable chores we ever had to do (especially when the bucket was completely full). You never wanted to wear “good” clothes when “emptying the toilet”, just in case of the occasional splash on your leg! When it was my turn to empty the toilet, I would check the “bucket level” in the morning. Hopefully not too full and I could wait until after school, gambling that 5 Bears wouldn’t overflow it before I got home!!
Years later, 5 Bears, made a “modern” version of our toilet. This one used the same bucket, same delivery method but was equipped with a lid!! Of all of our “living arrangements” the toilet was the worst. There was always an awkward feeling, showing one’s company the 5 gallon bucket! When emptying the bucket I was always surprised how much toilet paper 5 Bear’s company used. Mom had taught Watie & I not to waste toilet paper, only use 3 squares at a time…..
We had a very primitive (and limited) array of indoor plumbing. Our family dug a well in the floor of the kitchen. This was done by hand, shovel and bucket. We fashioned a crude sink and hand pump (just like the Ingalls used on Little House on the Prairie). The water from the sink, drained out through a pipe to the creek.
In the next (log room) from the kitchen, was the “sauna room”. This room contained a wood stove filled with black igneous stones from Lake Michigan, with an open water tank on the side. Watie & I would take turns filling up 5 gallon buckets in the sink and carrying them into the sauna room to fill the water tank.
A fire would be built in the stove to heat the water. If the fire was really hot, the water would boil over into the top portion of the stove. This would fill the room with steam. Watie and I would have contests to see who could sit on the brick ledge in the sauna the longest. I don’t remember who usually won.
There was a bathtub set across the room from the sauna stove. The tub was set on the floor and a steel pipe drained the hot water from the sauna stove to the tub (by gravity). Cold water would have to be carried in from the sink. This chore belonged either to Watie or me. Our bath nights were on Tuesday and Thursday when it was cold outside. In warm weather, Watie & I just bathed in the creek. This was much, much easier than getting the stove fired up. The only downside was stepping on the occasional water snake lying on the still warm rock in the dark.
I remember once in 5th grade slap dab in the middle of winter our old cabin had very little insulation. The only real warm spot was by the wood stove (or in the feather bed with our big wolf-hound, “Samson”). Anyway everyone was gone except for me and my brother Mark. Don’t know where they were – off on a trip or something I suppose.
It was about midnight and we were very hungry! Only thing was, we had no food in the house, I mean NO FOOD! When regular people say there is nothing to eat, reality says otherwise. But in our case we had nothing. No rice, no butter, no millet, no meat, get the picture - old Mother Hubbard wouldn’t have been jealous.
Outside in the barn however, we had chickens. In the day, they are Real Fast Food – hard to catch. At night it’s a different story! Sneak up on them with a flashlight in their eyes, and they will keep still, then you can grab them by the ankles. If the flashlight batteries were weak, as ours always were, the chickens would make a run for it. I was a master at catching chickens. Hunger is a strong motivator!!! Next the hatchet! “Thank you for choosing “Slim Pickins”… may I take your order?” “Yes, I’d like a combo meal #3-” (that is the big Rhode Island Red, 3rd from the end of the rafter!)
So Mark and I threw some kindlin on the Old Dutch oven, while it is catching and heating up the plates, we run out into the snow. Don’t ask me why, but I went out barefooted. Guess I had perfected this “getting dinner from the fridge” system so well that I didn’t plan on being out in the “real” cold too long. Moments later Mark and I are frying real tough red chicken meat! We ate a chicken each, that night. It is impossible for me to explain to a normal person who has never been really, I mean, really hungry before. The primitively, satisfying feeling to have a warm chunk of tough protein in your stomach when it’s below freezing outside and you can see your bare footprints in the snow. I guess this conditioned response was embedded in my D.N.A. a half million years ago.
Chickens are such a pain in the ass to raise, if you have a garden and kids – take my word for it. Invariably the kids leave the chicken coup door open and the chickens tear up the garden! For some reason, I still raise chickens. However I haven’t eaten one for 25 years that was home grown. It all goes back to that cold winter night, always good to have a “Plan B”.