Robbie Roberts weaves Tales From Yazoo and BeyondBy JAMIE PATTERSON,
Robbie Roberts describes himself as a “writer in the raw.”
The Yazoo City native recently published Tales from Yazoo and Beyond, and the work is filled with memories of a bygone era mixed with modern commentary.
It is the first book that has emerged from his pen. And with the colorful stories he has to share, it doesn’t seem like he will put his pen down any time soon.
“Writing gives me cause to rise early each day to share my thoughts and memories,” Roberts said. “The more I write, the more I like the process. It was such a surprise to find my readers responding with calls for more stories.”
It was Roberts’ 80th birthday when he discovered his passion for writing. Soon, writing developed from handwritten letters and notes to writing his stories of childhood, colorful characters and other memories.
“Now, like breathing, I can’t stop writing,” Roberts said.
The Roberts family came from Wales, traveling to the United States in 1760 to build churches. Making their way across the country, the family eventually landed in Neshoba County where Roberts’ father Jack met his mother, Josie Mae, “a brown eyed beauty with brown hair, and olive complexion.”
Afterwards, Roberts was born in 1933 in Yazoo County.
However, times proved to be difficult. Roberts admits his father was “a vagabond” who would often sneak train rides and travel across the country. Gambling was his weakness, often playing “the shell game,” guessing which half of an English walnut shell had a pea under it.
Roberts’ Uncle Wes was able to get Robbie and his mother to the Pea Ridge community in Yazoo County. Roberts was born on Fletcher’s Chapel Road on the “old Milner place.” It was there that the baby Roberts stopped crying and smiled. He never had a birth certificate.
It was in Pea Ridge that Roberts made his childhood memories; simple but memorable.
It was there that a group of geese chased Roberts under his house. Hiding from the aggressive birds, he found safety.
“Mother hearing the racket came and saved me from being eaten alive by geese,” Roberts recalls. “This was my first inkling that our world could sometimes be mean and dangerous.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Roberts to be found wandering back roads with a June Bug above his head.
“Mother tied a thread on its legs,” he said. “We would walk down the road with our own June Bug flying around and around our heads.”
The world and its progress also made it way to the rural community and the Roberts family. Roberts’ mother, who attended a one-room school house, could recall as a toddler hearing an awful noise coming down the road.
“She heard an awful racket and then saw lights,” Roberts said. “She thought the world was ending. She and her older brother J.D. started crying. It was the first car she ever saw.”
Rolling stores would arrive in the country, carrying an abundance of items. After his Uncle Wes gave him a penny, Roberts would purchase a lollipop, something he had never had before.
“How could I put into words the feelings that flooded over my little self,” he said. “…the sharp lingering taste of the grape.”
The Roberts family did what they could with what they had. At times, only a small jar of pickled beets was supper.
“We got hungry and came in to eat,” Roberts said. “There was only half a jar of pickled beets for all us children. We ate our portion, the mothers doing without, and we went back outside to play.”
When Roberts was six years old, he said his family moved from the poverty of the country to the poverty of the city during the Great Depression. It was then that he admits he became “a child of the streets.”
“There was no welfare in those days,” he said. “Our father, a hobo, was riding the singing rails to distance lands. I can’t fathom how we kept from starving…”
Roberts began to hang out with older children who taught him how shoot a sling shot and fish. They also taught him “how to be a young crook.”
“I became a thief, a lookout, in a gang of fleet-footed older boys who stole wood staves which we sold to women in the cotton mill village who used them to fire-up and cook in their cast-iron ovens,” Roberts said.
Roberts was six years old, and he sold the stolen bundles for a nickel.
Perhaps his rebel ways all stemmed from one thing. He was hungry.
“My story is of hunger; one of empty belly hunger, where nightly dreams are of food,” Roberts said.
Roberts even stole a few half-rotten potatoes that would be used to make soup. The store owner, known as Hammer Hawk, knew he stole the potatoes.
“But he let it be because of the six mouths I was trying to feed,” Roberts said.
But this was also a time when Roberts was exposed to books after he wandered into Ricks Memorial Library.
“I found a book with pictures of girl triplets in it that fascinated me,” he said. “I had never seen such, not around Yazoo. My wonderment and curiosity were piqued. Books became as magic flying carpets upon which my thirst for knowledge could wing me to faraway places, to faraway adventures.”
In the fall of 1941, Roberts was taken to the Methodist Orphanage Home in Jackson while his mother tried to get back on her feet. He would live there for five years. But he considered it a blessing.
“Their teachings in our young heads set us on a path of becoming good citizens,” Roberts said. “Good for me, this kept me from turning into a little bona fide outlaw.”
At the orphanage, he was also provided hot meals and time to play like any other child. Roberts said he enjoyed his time at the facility.
He spent his days tending to the grounds, shooting marbles, spinning tops and reading books. He bought airplane kits for a dime. He attended Sunday school and church. He caught crickets, selling them for a penny a piece. He got involved in the soap box derby, which landed him a $10 sponsorship from Harris Furs of Jackson.
“I was born a child of the Great Depression, but had a respite in the Methodist Orphanage Home for five years where I learned that life was better there than it was when I was as six-year-old thief trying to help feed my family,” Roberts said.
In 1947, Roberts’ mother returned to get him.
“I always describe what came next as going from riches to rags in 30 minutes,” he said.
Roberts’ mother had remarried and had relocated to Bentonia. In the orphanage, he had plenty to eat, shelter, a nice bed and schooling.
“In 1947, we went back to being raw-bone poor,” Roberts said. “Worse the second time after experiencing how comforting it is to have a little.”
Roberts moved into a three-room, cypress shotgun house with a tin roof. He missed some schooling so he could help pick cotton. But the hard times rolled off his back, and he was happy.
“The fact is the poor do not know they are poor, for they live as well as everyone else except the super wealthy,” he said.
As a teenager, Roberts was like any child of the 1950s. He paid a dime to watch a matinee. He ordered Coke floats at Carr’s Drug Store. And he made his way around Yazoo City, where the sidewalks were so crowded that you had to dodge people.
Roberts would later join the Army, where he would become a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I left carefree childhood behind and went forth to face the rigorous training of soldiering,” he said.
It was during his time in the Armed Forces when he met his future wife Christa in Kassel, Germany. At first, she was not interested in seeing him. But things changed. They would marry, and she would leave Germany to begin her life in Yazoo County.
But first she had to get there.
When Roberts was leaving his assignment in Germany, Christa met him at the train station.
“As the train moved, she pulled off her blue opal ring, a family heirloom, and placed it in my hand,” he said. “She told me to keep it until as were together again. She ran, holding my hand. As the train gathered speed, she finally had to turn my hand loose…”
Eleven months later, Roberts picked Christa up in a New York airport. And he placed the opal ring back on her finger. They were married four days later and would have three children. Their daughter Tina now wears that same ring.
Roberts has plenty of memories to share, and he hopes that his book will help keep the stories alive. He wants to honor the past, yet move forward into a bright future.
“These many years have been a good ride,” Roberts said. “Life, always a wonderment, an adventure, a challenge; even the ups and downs we all encounter. The road of life is not smooth, nor is it straight and narrow. Many times it runs deep, wide and complex.”