In 1928, the year my father was born, Herbert Hoover completed his tenure as secretary of commerce and was elected president. J. Edgar Hoover was director of the Bureau of Investigation, which he would help turn into the FBI seven years later. It seemed a good time to bestow the name “Hoover” on a son for whom you had great hopes. But when the reckless abandon of the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt on the chasm of economic collapse, “Hoover” rapidly lost its currency as a name. The presidential Hoover, Herbert, was the man in charge as the nation sunk eyeball deep into the most miserable years of the Great Depression. The other Hoover, J. Edgar, used and abused the law to the furthest extent of his eccentric will for almost fifty years. These were poor namesakes; “Hoover” was not an auspicious star under which to begin.
James Hoover Lanham, however, was my father. There were other names people called him: “James,” “James H.,” “Trap,” “Ish,” “Big Chief,” “Daddy.” According to my grandmother, whom we called Mamatha, her Hoover was something of a prodigy, sitting in his teacher-father’s classroom at Bettis Academy among much older children. Her son must have been a sponge, soaking up everything he could from schoolbooks and at my grandfather’s side. From childhood on, he read, ciphered, and studied his way into joining the best, brightest, and boldest that black Edgefield, South Carolina, had to offer. As World War II ended and he neared manhood, at seventeen, an optimistic Hoover headed to Claflin College in Orangeburg to get a degree and make his own way forward.
Then another war broke out. The threat of a former ally’s Communist ideology, a “red scare,” led to the Korean Conflict. Hoover was done with college and had to go. But a technicality took him away from the battle lines and sent him to Europe instead.
There are a few pictures of Hoover in Germany. Relieved of the horrors his father had seen in the trenches of France during World War I, but also of the responsibilities of his family farm in Edgefield, he was released to become the man his buddies called “Ish.” I love the photos that show him smiling in the middle of some good time. In one he’s on ski patrol, a black man in the white snow. The wide grin on his face matches the powder he’s posed against, ready to take off on some mission—it looks more like fun than duty to me. Another picture shows him locked in a card game. There’s a cigarette hanging onto a half-cocked smile that gives away what must have been a nice hand and an even better time. I can almost hear him chuckling at the prospect of the winning bet.
Where did all of that free-flowing laughter go? I suppose the responsibilities waiting for Ish back home, once the pretty Fräuleins disappeared and farming and family became the priority, took some of that away. Life turned a corner. An ailing father and an increasingly dependent mother meant he was Hoover again.
Most of Edgefield County, South Carolina, is rural. Trees are everywhere, a sign that there’s still a priority set on pines over pavement. Significant portions of the Sumter National Forest’s Long Cane Ranger District lie within the county, making wildness accessible to those craving an escape from the persistently sprawling suburbia of nearby Augusta, Georgia. Farming and forestry provide successional diversity within the tree-dominated sea. I grew up in the southwestern frontier near North Augusta, on a ragged, two-hundred-acre family farm where we raised our own beef, grew our own vegetables, and drew our water out of cool, sweet springs. From heaven—or from a high-flying hawk’s viewpoint—I imagine that the plowed fields, pastures, and humble houses looked like a hole punched into the expanse of green. That gap in the wildness was our Home Place.
When he returned from Europe to Edgefield, Hoover worked hard to nurture the Home Place. In the midst of all the labor it took to make farm and family work: Rosa Parks took a seat and helped start a movement. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and was martyred. A president named Kennedy was assassinated, then his younger brother was gunned down. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz was gunned down, too. A revolution was in full effect and it boiled into a cauldron of war in Vietnam. The world must have seemed in utter turmoil again—but Hoover persisted and even flourished. He began a career, married, started a family, and did his part to earn full rights as an American who happened to be black. He made a name that anyone who met him wouldn’t ever forget.
I think about all of this when I imagine who James Hoover Lanham was—and who he became. To me, Hoover was everyman: teacher, coach, mechanic, plumber, cattleman, farmer, lumberjack, husband, brother, son—but mostly father. He had to be all those things because our survival depended on the plowing, cutting, feeding, loading, and fixing that made things go and grow.
“Hoover” comes from the German word Huber, and means landowner or prosperous small farmer. In this my father fulfilled his name in ways Herbert and J. Edgar did not. The Home Place was James Hoover’s country. The forests, fields, and creeks were his providences to protect. Crop failures and bottomland floods were no less a challenge when scaled down to two hundred acres than the national crises of dust bowls and Mississippi River floods were to any president. My father’s courage and leadership in the efforts to fence things up or make straight furrows meant everything for us. He seldom failed.
As soon as I was able I became a sticky shadow, following Hoover when he would allow it, wishing I could go when he wouldn’t. When he worked, I watched. When he asked, I assisted. On cold nights when the pipes froze and the water stopped flowing, I’d tote the tools or hold the flashlight while Daddy dug through the mud to find the leak that drained the pressure. I stood watching in bone-shivering awe as he worked through the discomfort of wet and cold without complaint.
I saw Daddy as some sort of superhuman being. He was a giant, tossing heavy bales of hay like toy blocks and wrestling bawling calves to the ground like they were running backs. In the woods he was a burly brown Paul Bunyan wielding growling chain saws, sharp axes, and heavy mauls like they were extensions of his own arms. He’d cut and saw and chop, yelling Timberrrrrrrr! as mighty oaks crashed to the ground. He’d sweat through his clothes in the deep February chill like it was mid-August. In warm weather the water would run off his brow in salty streams as he shredded the earth into ribbons behind his John Deere 420 tractor. He sat astride that snorting green metal beast as if it were a monstrous draft horse, urging it on with throttle and reining it in with clutch and brake. Sometimes, when the plow mired in the stubborn clay, the four-wheeled steed would protest and rear up dangerously on its big hind tires. Hoover would sit in the saddle, calm and in total control of an unruly machine that was a notorious farmer killer. No one else could handle the tractor like he did. Hardly anyone else was ever allowed to try. The only time I got to ride was when I was a little boy and he’d hoist me up to sit in his lap to steer.
There was more to Hoover than the physical. He threw arcane quotes around like chunks of wood. He loved Beowulf and knew enough German to sound like he’d made good use of his years in the military. The guttural tongue came naturally to him, and I’d try to imitate it at school to impress ten-year-olds who didn’t know any better. An auf Wiedersehen dropped here or a guten Tag sprinkled there made me sound worldly. Being an Edgefield country boy in sophisticated suburban Aiken, I needed all the help I could get.
In our house—brick ranch, tinted somewhere between orange and red, the hue of sun-faded clay—you were likely to hear the words “igneous,” “rift,” and “inclusion” mixed in with conversations about cows and classroom behavior. Rocks and minerals collected from near and far were visible almost everywhere. My father was constantly gathering “specimens”: quartz, feldspar, mica, schist, and other old things with odd names. He would morph into a geologist and explain how the newest find came to be millions of years ago, and how it had settled where it would later be found. A collection of fossils, arrowheads, and other artifacts that he’d collected made the house a museum. From time to time he pulled out a mysterious little sack that was supposed to hold a precious jewel mined on one of his expeditions. We all hoped it would be cashed in one day to make us rich, kind of like we were the Beverly Hillbillies—but black.
At a hefty six feet two, Hoover was an imposing presence. His stature, booming voice, and take-no-shit attitude were necessary to deal with the seventh- and eighth-graders he taught daily in his earth sciences classes. For an unruly herd of hormonally confused kids, a certain intensity is required. The sharpened edge of his attitude was also probably essential, given the resentful peers and constant bouts of bias he faced as one of the few black men teaching in Aiken County, with a level of education that surpassed that of many of the white people he called peers.
Sometimes the intensity followed Daddy home. When it did, it would turn into a darker, deep-brooding emotion that could boil over into fits of fussing—or worse. I don’t remember curse words being thrown about, but whippings could come at the other end of a transgression deemed worthy of a belt or switch. Whoever dared step over Hoover’s firmly established line was quickly renamed: a “fool,” a “bastard,” or someone who “didn’t have the sense they were born with.” It didn’t matter who the offender was. It could be an unruly student tossing spitballs or a dawdling driver improperly signaling a turn. It could be an uncooperative cow that refused to be corralled or one of us kids spilling a drink. Almost always there was a “Grief!” (no “good” came with it). I learned at an early age to circumvent the fussing and avoid the whippings at any cost. Mamatha advised me to work hardest at obeying her son Hoover. Obedience, she said, would merit his favor and soothe his wrath. It was a sure way to heaven, too. I sought every opportunity to be the obedient son, with pleasing my father an ever-present priority. Our mother seldom raised her voice above the level of a hissing pressure cooker. She listened patiently to many a fuss and often seemed to be a calming influence—the perfect counter for when Hoover’s temper took over.
I’d like to think Hoover was mostly happy as our father. Sometimes you could hear it. His laughter was a bass drum rolling. It beat hard when a bream took the bobber under or the collies herded the cows without command. Sometimes you could see it. His bright, crooked smile was a full moon shining. Our little sister Jennifer, born late in the parenting schedule, made him grin frequently. He doted on her endlessly for the near decade that he knew her. The way I tried to make the drum roll and the moon shine was to have Hoover’s good name mirrored in all that I did. For others to say “That’s Hoover Lanham’s son” was praise worth more than almost anything to me. But in his last few years, the laughs were too few and too far between. Maybe none of us laughs enough.
Daddy died in April 1981. Back then, the spring mornings were full of gobbling turkeys and barking foxes. The month he left the Home Place for the last time was a season of gentle rains that recharged the aquifers that fed the Home Place spring but somehow still left an unrecoverable emptiness.
One night when I was thirteen or fourteen, Daddy was working late to repair the brakes on our ’65 Ford Fairlane. There’s always an infinite supply of work to do on a farm and a finite measure of money with which to do it. Sometimes the cars had to go to a mechanic to get repaired but usually not before Hoover did his best to find a lower-cost solution. Daddy lay on the cold ground underneath the car, with disassembled auto parts splayed around him. I stood there holding a work lamp, ready to hand him whatever tool he asked for. It was like assisting a surgeon. He’d say “9/16-inch open end” and I’d rummage through the junky toolbox as quickly as I could to meet the demand. It made me feel useful and good to help.
As always, Daddy worked hard but that night it felt like nothing was going right—time after time, something that he had assembled had to be taken apart or readjusted. I could feel his frustration growing and knew there were other things weighing on him that he’d never speak of. In the shadows and coolness of the evening, where it seemed nearly impossible to me that anyone would be able to put back together what lay apart around us, I wanted to help with more than the proper tool. I wanted desperately to tell Daddy not to worry, that whatever lay scattered elsewhere, everything would be okay. I wanted to tell him that I wouldn’t let him down. I wanted to tell him that I loved him. But I didn’t—I never did. We worked on in silence, like always, saying only what was necessary to get the next thing done. There was just the metallic clinking of the tools and what I wished I’d had the courage to say hanging somewhere in the night.
Adapted from an excerpt of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham, to be published by Milkweed Editions in September 2016.
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