Not too long before my mother passed away, she wrote her memoirs on three-hole punch college ruled paper along with photographs and assembled the contents in a 2-inch three-ring binder which she then passed on to me.
I have decided to transcribe and present her memoirs here thus allowing her to have her voice heard.
The First 50 Years of My Life
1928 to 1978
Dorothy Patricia Dobbs DeBacker
Nashville & Louisville
Joie and I loved to make fun of the way the “hillbillies” talked. They said “over yonder” and “much obliged” with a strange accent. We moved to Nashville when I was 12 years old in 1940. For the first couple of years, we lived in an old house on the Cumberland River. Every January, the land on the lower, other side of the river flooded. We could see the roofs of the houses standing in the water. I’ve been told that’s where Opryland is located now.
This house had no central heating, only a fireplace in the living room. My stepfather taught me how to bank the fire at night and start the fire in the morning. That was my job every day.
In the summer, we would walk down the rickety wooden stairs many feet above the river to play in the water. We did not know how to swim, and one day Joie fell off the wooden raft-like platform and disappeared under the float. It scared me to death. It seemed like an eternity before she came back up to the surface and climbed up onto the float. We climbed the stairs back up to the house where mother was playing bridge with friends. She interrupted her bidding just long enough to tell Joie to dry off and change her clothes. I finally learned to swim by watching Esther Williams movies. She taught me to do the back, breast, and other strokes.
During World War II, there was gas rationing. My stepfather taught me how to siphon gas from one car to another. He inserted a long hose into a gas tank and had me suck on it until the gasoline came up into my mouth. Then he would put it in the other gas tank. Since I was getting too old for him to spank, that was his way of punishing me. Since Joie never did anything wrong, she was never punished.
In the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Joie and I went to a small one-room schoolhouse in the small town of Madison near Nashville. There were two teachers. The class I hated most of all was literature, especially poetry. I love to read novels, history, and biographies. But I think poetry is boring – a waste of time.
The year I turned 14 was miserable for me. My stepfather was constantly punishing me, and fighting and hitting my mother. Aunt Bess and Betty Ann came to visit that summer and talked mother into letting me move to Tampa with them. I was allowed to go and enroll in the eighth grade. My favorite class was music appreciation. We were taught about operas. I was assigned Porgy and Bess to read and write a paper on.
On the morning of December 7th , Betty Ann, Aunt Bess, and I were having breakfast when we heard the news on the radio. I could hear the newsboys out in the street yelling, “extra, extra, read all about it!”
Betty Ann was working at the McDill Field Air Force Base. In the kitchen there, the chicken innards were put into large glass jars, which Betty Ann would bring home. Aunt Bess prepared a wonderful stew which we were eating on toast that morning. The day after Christmas, mother, Joie, and Bobby drove down to Tampa, and on New Year’s Day, we went to the beach. My mother was worried about the Japanese invading Florida, so I had to go back to Nashville. I pleaded not to go. I had to go, anyway.
Aunt Bess was teaching me to play the piano. That was something I enjoyed doing. So mother started me taking piano lessons. I finally found something I liked.
Then the next year, I enrolled at Isaac Lytton high school in Nashville in the ninth grade. I did not like any of my classes, especially physical education. Then one day, I found out that if I played in the school band, I would not have to take gym. I learned to play the clarinet. We wore uniforms and marched and put on shows during halftime at the football games. I was quite a bit happier then. When Tennessee celebrated its sesquicentennial, our school band marched in parades, participated in ceremonies, and played in concerts. That was a lot of fun.
When I was a freshman, we moved into a nicer home away from the river and rode the school bus every day. We like to sing on the bus, but the driver said for us to stop as it made him nervous. Some of us continued to sing and were forbidden to ride the bus anymore.
I had to walk to and from school on Gallatin Pike, where the Army vehicles drove by, and the soldiers whistled at us. I did not like that, so I cut across the tobacco, corn, and pumpkin fields and climbed over the blackberry-covered fences arriving at school late for my geography class. That teacher was a bigot who made nasty remarks about Jews and Catholics directed at a Jewish boy and me, a Catholic.
My piano teacher played the organ in the Methodist Church my stepfather attended. She invited me to play the piano with her while she played the organ. When [my grandmother,] Beanie found out about it, she said I was going to hell for entering a Protestant church.
Every Saturday, the Grand Ole Opry performed hillbilly music at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where Joie and I would go with our friends. I did not care for that music, but I did like Minnie Pearl. She was funny with her straw hat and the price tag hanging down. Other nights of the week, classical music, operas, plays, and ballets were performed there.
Mother took us to see Jose Iturbe, Victor Borge, Ballet Rus de Monte Carlo, and other performances. I fell in love with Opera after attending a performance of La Bohème at the Ryman Auditorium.
During the opera season, I spent every Saturday listening to the radio performances from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Joie and I spent summers in Louisville. Beanie, Joie, and I would walk downtown to shop and go to Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire movies. We would eat lunch in a cafeteria and go to another movie. The movie theaters were air-conditioned and had clouds and stars on the ceiling. During intermission, an organ came up out of the floor and entertained us with music. We rode the streetcar back home.
I never knew [my grandfather] Jojo’s family, but one time while we were downtown with Beanie, she took us into a music store owned by his family. My great-grandfather Constantine Kollros was a musician. He taught music, had a band, and composed music. I had the sheet music and played it on the piano. It was the Kentucky Shorthorn March that he had written.
Beanie took us to the Irish wakes. I remember going to funerals with her, and sometimes there would be lots of her relatives at the house. They would all be laughing and talking at the same time, drinking bourbon and ginger ale which they let me sip from their glasses. One time when I had cramps, Beanie made me a hot toddy made with hot water, bourbon, lemon, and sugar. It really cured my pain. I made the mistake of telling Mother about it, and she was furious. When I was 17, Joie, Roseann, and I went to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby with two dollars each to bet on the races. We bet on the jockeys we thought were the cutest. Sometimes we won, and sometimes we lost. Also, I had my first mint julep. In those days, they didn’t say anything about underage kids drinking and gambling.
Roseann Heil was a cousin we got to know when we were teenagers. We spent time together in Louisville, and she would come to visit us in Nashville.
The summer I was 18, Uncle Arthur took Joie, Roseann, and me to the theater in Louisville to see live performances of The Merry Widow operetta and the Desert Song.
One summer, when I was visiting Beanie, Uncle Arthur walked in unexpectedly. He had driven from Tampa in his green coupe with the rumble seat. A few minutes later, mother walked in. Then one after the other, Kelsey, Sally, Betty Ann, and Aunt Rose entered. Beanie nearly fainted.
Uncle Arthur bought gasoline for his car at a filling station that gave away free green colored plates with so many gallons of gas. Now those plates are known as Depression Glass and are quite expensive.
When my stepfather started making more money, we lived in better houses. Mother spent her time attending club meetings, playing bridge, and going to and having parties. My stepfather began hitting her more, and she would take Joie, Bobby, and me to Louisville to get away from him. He would come and talk her into returning. This went on a few times until, finally, they divorced when I graduated. We were living in a beautiful house on the river again. This house was across from a lock where small boats would enter to be lowered to continue the trip down the river. Larger boats like the Idlewild from Louisville had to turn around and go back.
Jojo died in 1947 after many angina attacks. I loved Jojo but never really got to know him.
After I graduated and my mother and Bob Coarsey divorced, we were moved to a house near Vanderbilt University, where Joie went to school. Joie, Bobby, mother, and I slept upstairs and rented the two downstairs bedrooms to university students. One young man told my mother he was a Jew and asked if she would rent to him. She said, of course, she would.
I took a civil service exam and got a job in Washington DC. Mother started dating Pierce Askew.
I changed trains in Cincinnati, where my mother had wanted me to study piano. I knew I could never play well enough to perform professionally. Maybe I could be a piano teacher, but I didn’t want to do that. So I took the train to Washington when I was 19 years old.