Robert E. Winterton Sr., 33
San Diego, California

Hard-scrable sharecropping and an accident that injured his father teach one boy the qualities of being a Mason.

A cloud of dust rising from the far end of our long dirt driveway was always the first signal that Dad was coming home after a long day’s work. We lived on what could best be described as a hard-scrabble farm of 40 acres which we sharecropped with the owner. But, of necessity, Dad had a day job with the irrigation district. During the summer months, my three brothers and I plowed, weeded, and irrigated the truck crop.

Dad’s return home always meant the total operation would go into high gear. He was the most energetic human being I have ever known in my life. His return home meant that a major portion of the work would now be accomplished in the few hours between his arrival and dark.

At 13, I was the oldest. Bill was 10. Ray and David were little kids. They played more than they worked. But, this day, we all stood under the cypress trees watching Dad’s old car rattling down the driveway. But this time something was wrong. Dad was not driving his car. Someone else was bringing his car home. Another car was following the driver to take him home.

Dad had been in a serious accident. We didn’t see him for weeks, and when we did, he couldn’t walk. He wore casts, tape, and bandages all over his body. He had a broken collarbone and shoulder, seven broken ribs, two crushed vertebra, and a broken hip. He would mend in his bed for weeks to come. None of us had ever seen Dad in bed; none of us had ever seen him asleep.

Even though I did the milking and fed the stock before leaving for school, Dad rose long before I did; and I was fast asleep before he got in bed. Looking back, I realize Dad worked 16 to 18 hours a day, and we kids never gave a thought to the sacrifices he and Mom made in order to provide a livelihood for their country family.

With the accident, everything in the world seemed to change. There was three times as much work to do as before because, whether Dad was available or not, the weeds had to be pulled, the corn had to be suckered, the squash, beans and peas had to be cultivated and irrigated, then picked. The advent of summer vacation didn’t ease the pressure a bit, and I could tell by Mom’s attitude and the food she put on the table that Dad’s unemployment made for economic sacrifices.

Then, one day, a roostertail of dust rose behind a little white car as it cautiously approached our house. It had the county seal on the door and was driven by a middle-aged lady who seemed all business. We stood and gaped as she knocked on the door and entered at Mom’s invitation. We had never seen her before, and strangers were an uncommon sight. We lived so far in the country the Sunday paper (when we could afford to subscribe to it) arrived on Monday. At night, we could not see the light of another house in any direction, and the dirt road that took us into town was some distance from the house. We seldom saw a strange car and, even then, just driving by, not coming for a visit. We went back to work but were soon interrupted by Mom’s call. Dad wanted to see us at his bedside. We were dirty and sweaty from working but lined up like stairsteps beside Dad’s bed, staring at the welfare worker with her hair in a bun seated on the other side of the bed. Mom stood at the foot of the bed. My father was a man of very few words, but from his position on the bed, he looked at the four of us and said, “Boys, this nice lady is from the county. She’s offering us some money so Mom can put some store-bought food on the table.”

My immediate reaction was one of wonder, awe, and excitement. Offerings of store-bought food were few and far between, even when Dad was working. How good could you have it? Money for free! My father continued “I wanted you boys to be here for my reply.” He then turned his face to the lady and said, “Miss Kelly, I thank you very much for coming to see me and making the kind offer. But, you see, we have four strong boys who know how to work. We’ll have fresh milk and eggs and vegetables and occasionally even a fat hen when she quits laying. Thank you very much, anyway, but give the money to someone who really needs it.”

As Miss Kelly adjusted the stack of papers on her lap and rose to leave, I couldn’t quite focus on the scene for the dampness in my eyes, and I felt the warmth of a tear making its way through the dust on my cheek. It was not a tear of disappointment or unhappiness. I was, all of a sudden, filled with pride. My father believed in me! My parents trusted in my ability. Even though I was only 13 and my brothers were younger, my father believed his boys could run the farm. And we did!

At that point in my life, I had received a transfusion of confidence and pride. My father had taught me something about individual responsibility that would be a major factor in my personal philosophy for the rest of my life.

When Thanksgiving rolled around, Mom actually invited Grandmother and Grandfather for dinner. On Saturday afternoons, I worked on a turkey ranch, and for Thanksgiving, I brought home that year’s largest tom turkey. Father was on his feet now and sat at the head of the table. My Grandfather, as always, said the blessing. The table was piled high with food. When Grandfather asked God to bless the hands that provided the food, my brothers and I snuck a peek at each other. I, again, felt a feeling of great pride rise in my chest, and I have never, ever enjoyed a meal more than that one.

When Dad was finally well, he returned to work again. He had never missed a day of work even through the Great Depression, and his recuperative absence took a toll that would only be regained by more 16-hour days. He continued to work that way until he died at the age of 68.

When I recount my Masonic heritage and my personal standards and philosophy, I occasionally mention my maternal Grandfather and Uncle, who were members of the Fraternity. My father never joined the Lodge. But upon careful reflection, I realize he was the first Mason, by action if not catechism, I ever met.