I Could Have Been an Only Child
When I was nearing my 80th birthday in 2013 my 96 year old mother contracted a severe urinary tract infection and became almost comatose. She was in and out of hospitals, nursing homes and home care for several months.
Reluctantly, my wife and I visited her on several occasions but only once was she able to communicate with us. After some time my wife asked me why I didn’t grieve for my mother. I gave that some serious thought and did an analysis of my life with my mother.
I was born out of wedlock in 1933 when my mother was just sixteen years old. My mother had given me the first name of my biological father, the middle name of her maternal grandfather and her surname. My birth certificate read Roy Clarke Leggitt. However, her mother hated my father Roy Young so much she would only call me Jay. My mother’s parents had just had a baby daughter born less than two years before my birth. It was also in the Great Depression and the beginning of the Dust Bowl. My grandmother wanted to put me up for adoption but her mother, my great grandmother absolutely would not permit it. So, when I was about nine months old my grandmother arranged for my mother and me to live with an older couple, Sam and Bonnie Purdy, about 30 miles away. My mother became their au pair girl. She enrolled in the local high school and graduated in 1936. Rather than explaining my illegitimacy both my mother and I took the surname of Purdy and everyone locally assumed both my mother I were their children. Thus, my mother became my sister!
At this time western Oklahoma was in the midst of the dust bowl. In short, the family lost their farm. They sold the remaining livestock and equipment for next to nothing and followed the John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath bunch to California in September of 1937. We settled in the San Joaquin Valley just south of Fresno. For the first year or so we picked cotton and fruit moving from camp to camp. However, after a year or so the family realized that selling fruit was much more profitable than picking fruit. We set up a fruit stand on US Highway 99, just south of Selma, California. For the first few months we lived in a shack behind the fruit stand. In 1939 I started the first grade and enrolled as Samuel James Purdy – I was still called Jay since it fit in with the James. Later in early 1940 the fruit stand was so profitable we were able to rent a house a couple miles from the fruit stand. A few months later we built a restaurant next to the fruit stand. In late 1940 we sold the fruit stand and moved the restaurant several miles south on Highway 99 to Tulare, California.
Things were going so well Sam bought a brand new 1941 Ford sedan and we took a road trip back to Oklahoma to visit my mother’s family and to Arkansas to visit Sam and Bonnie’s family.
While in Tulare, my mother met a man named Leonard Smith whom she would later marry. (Leonard had two teen-aged boys. He also had a young daughter about my age living with her mother in Texas. He was fourteen years older than my mother.) After a few months the restaurant burned down. We had lived in the rear of the restaurant so we lost all of our personal possessions.
In early 1941 we moved back to Selma a few miles from where the fruit stand had been. Sam and Bonnie bought a combination filling station, grocery store and furniture store.
Life there was very comfortable. Even though I was only a pre teen-ager, Sam and Bonnie treated me like a young prince. I had a bicycle, roller skates and even a 22 caliber rifle.
In late 1941, just before World War II started, my mother eloped with Leonard, with whom she had kept up a secret romantic relationship. It didn’t mean much to me that my sister had ran off and got married. However, in the summer of 1942 Leonard and my mother had decided to re-establish their families. They had driven to Texas and stole Leonard’s eight year old daughter from her mother and returned to their home in Las Vegas, Nevada. In the summer of 1942 they went to a court in Fresno and were awarded custody of me. Shortly thereafter Bonnie had to tell me she was not my mother, in fact, my sister was my mother and I had to go live with her and Leonard’s family in Las Vegas. When school started that fall in Las Vegas I enrolled in the fourth grade with my name as Jay Clark Smith.
uring the remainder of the war and the late 40’s my mother and Leonard had a son and two daughters, all about two years apart. My step-sister and I were over nine years older that the oldest one. In the subsequent eight years the family moved frequently sometimes living in tents and trailer houses. I went to a total of thirteen more grammar schools and five high schools. My step-sister Clara and I both left home in our senior year of high school. Clara had married and Leonard and my mother had gone back to the trailer house life to find employment in north central California as a carpenter. I didn’t want that life style so I moved in with a cousin in Modesto, California, changed high schools and graduated in 1951.
For the next few months I worked as a shoe salesman, operating engineer, laborer and carpenter. In 1952 during the Korean War I joined the United States Air Force. In 1955, just prior to my first marriage I officially changed my name back to match that on my birth certificate, Roy Clarke Leggitt.
Many years later my step-sister and I discussed why we didn’t feel close to her father and my mother. After several years of thinking about it we finally realized that they were too busy raising their new family to devote much attention to us. We were able to take care of ourselves. In fact, when I was just 12 years old my mother got me a job picking berries so I could buy my school clothes. From that time on all the way through high school I worked all summers and after school as a janitor and shoe salesman the last two years.
From this, I now realize why I am not grieving for my mother as she nears death.
Now, back to the title of this piece, I Could Have Been an Only Child.
I wonder what would have happened to me had I my mother had not taken me away from Sam and Bonnie.
Very probably I would have had a much better educations in my early years. As successful and Sam and Bonnie were I probably have taken a college preparatory path in high school rather than the general academic path I did take. I had no expectation of going to college after graduating from high school.
I would have probably gone to some college. I may have been in college when my name came up for the draft. (As it was, I had already signed up for the Air Force for a reporting date of November 1952 when I was drafted by the Army in July. Fortunately, I was allowed to wait for my enlistment into the Air Force.)
Based on how well I actually did in college I probably would have had a very successful education and future employment. As it was, after commissioning as an officer in the Air Force through their Officers Candidate School program, I took night courses for four years and finished off with two full semesters graduating from the Alaska Methodist University, magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Natural Sciences in 1965 .Four years later I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Information Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology under the Air Force Institute of Technology program.
My military career was quite successful. I began as a radio operator, then as a shift chief a non-commissioned officer in charge, communications officer, section chief, branch chief, division chief, unit commander, and deputy director, communications-electronics staff officer.
Had I got to college as an only child, because of the Korean War, I may well have participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and had a successful military career probably advancing to a senior grade. As it was, I served seven years enlisted and fifteen years commissioned in the Air Force, retiring as a major in 1974.
Who knows what my life would have been as an only child? As it was I had a second career in the computer industry and successfully and comfortably retired in 1992 at the age of 59 ½.