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Her parents, Ole and Hannah Didriksen, emigrated from Norway. He was a small, wiry seaman, a ship's carpenter who had sailed around Cape Horn 19 times before he took to land for good. To the disappointment of his wife, he chose to settle in the dank Gulf Coast town of Port Arthur. The reason, he told a surprised reporter years later, was "I liked the climate." The area was a fetid, semitropical plain, littered with the steel of a booming oil-drilling industry. The first three Didriksen children had been born in Norway. Twins, Lillie and Louis, were born in Port Arthur in 1909, then Babe, then in 1915 the seventh and last child, a son. This boy was named Arthur Storm because on the day of his birth a hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, killing 275 people. It also destroyed the Didriksen home, and the family moved to Beaumont, 17 miles away, no garden spot either. They settled on Doucette, a shabby street with a trolley-car line down the center and an assortment of bungalows along each side. Some of the houses were owned by Beaumont's largest industrial complex, the Magnolia oil refinery, which sprawled at one end of Doucette Street (the other end was bounded by railroad tracks). It was a tough neighborhood of rednecks and roughnecks, nearly everyone employed by "The Magnolia." Ole Didriksen was not; he picked up odd jobs, refinishing furniture for "the rich," working at construction. In his house he installed beautiful built-in cabinets, a mantel and a breezy, many-windowed sun porch. Ole was good at his craft, though he never made much money. He was no great shakes at sports. His favorite admonition to his children was: "Get plenty of exercise and keep your bowels clear."
To hear Lillie tell it, life on Doucette was endless summertime, full of sun and games and mischief. "We was always roller-skatin', always jumpin' and runnin', we had a trapeze and circus stuff hangin' in a tree in back. We didn't never play dolls, not that I can remember. I could run faster'n Babe when we was kids, but I couldn't never jump over hedges like she done. She used to practice hurdlin' the hedges on Doucette, but I couldn't get it right." There was music in the Didriksen home. Hannah sang, a couple of sisters played the piano, Ole played the fiddle after a fashion ("Well, Poppa, he knew one song real good, I know that," says Lillie) and Babe was a wizard on the harmonica. She had mastered the instrument as a child after listening to a local radio program starring a mouth organ maestro named Castor Oil Clarence.
The Didriksen house still stands, sturdy and tight as the day Ole Didriksen left it, but it has not been painted in decades. The neighborhood has a listlessness about it, weeds grow long in the sidewalk cracks. The refinery (now one of Mobil's) is still operating, the trolley tracks are gone. Doucette has become part of a section some people call Nigger Town. The family living in Babe's old home is named Gibbs, and Mrs. Mildred Gibbs is a well-spoken woman who was recently willing, though not enthusiastic, about showing Lillie around the place. Mrs. Gibbs says her family had not known this was the childhood home of Babe Didrikson Zaharias until a year or two after they moved in. "I have made certain my children know who lived here before them," she says. "It's really a historic place. But I doubt if anyone else in the neighborhood is aware of it." Ole Didriksen's cabinetwork is still in evidence. His cheerful sun porch still welcomes the breeze. Lillie fondly touched the woodwork and walls during her visit. "Oh, my, I feel they're all still here—Poppa and Babe and my Mama," she said.
At the 1932 Olympics Babe said, "People think it is a little strange that I do not seem to be worried or nervous before I run a race. Why should I be that way? All I'm doing is running against girls." She went on to advise any girl who "wants to become an athlete and do some winning" to play against boys so she becomes accustomed to being "smashed around." She said, "The only real first-class advice I can give on how girls can be better athletes is get toughened up playing boys' games but don't get tough. There's a lot of difference there."
Whether Babe Didrikson was truly tough or merely toughened, she cut a hard-knuckled swath through much of her childhood and adolescence. She was in endless playground fights, daring kids to step over lines scratched in the dirt, punching people in the arm "to make a knot," pinching, kicking, stepping on heels. Once, in high school, a football player named Red Reynolds stuck out his chin and told Babe that he doubted she could hurt him. She punched him and he dropped to the floor, senseless as a stone. The nature of Beaumont's South End had a lot to do with developing her talent and creating her temperament. People either clawed their way up and out of the neighborhood, or they spent their lives working at "The Magnolia" or the fig-packing plant or the gunnysack factory.
One of Babe's earliest pals, and frequent opponents, was Raymond Alford, a South Ender who grew up to be a local sports hero and later was the dynamic athletic director of the city school system. Alford recalls those early days in the South End: "We went barefoot all the time and some of us never did have shoes, I guess. Everyone was poor, not on relief, but poor. We used to play every sport known to man up in the trolley-barn lot. Babe was the only girl who'd play with us—who we'd let play. She wasn't hangin' around bein' the last to be chosen. No, sir. Babe was picked among the first. We started out by playin' her in right field, where you always put the weakest ones, you know. She didn't stay there long. We played everyday, all day. Babe wanted to excel, to win, to beat us boys. I don't know now if that was because she was against men, or if she was simply against the idea of bein' feminine.
I knew that winnin' in sports was the only way I had of bein' recognized. That was one of the few ways to get ahead. I thought I could get to be a little like the rich people if I was good at sports. Like the dances at school; most people who would go to them had cars to drive and suits to wear. If you were an athlete, you could hobnob with 'em even if you were poor. Sports was a way to be equal; it was the same as for the blacks in the '50s and '60s."
It is doubtful Babe was trying to use sports as a social vehicle in those days. In the Beaumont High School yearbook, The Pine Burr, of 1928, 1929 and 1930, she appears in photo after photo of athletic teams as a squinty, pugnacious kid with straight hair and severe bangs, dressed (if not in a team uniform) in a formless cotton frock, sagging socks, flat shoes. She never wore jewelry, abhorred makeup, didn't own a pair of silk stockings or a girdle—and probably not a brassiere either. All her aspirations had to do with athletics.
At the opposite extreme was a group called The Kackler Club. In The Pine Burr they are pictured together, a demure and passive group that symbolized the popular posture of girls toward sports in the 1920s, sideline princesses. In one yearbook was written, "Athletes are our favorite boys. The real aim of this club is to provide adequate entertainment for our athletes and to do everything possible to the furtherance of sportsmanlike athletic activities."
Babe's behavior was an aberration in those times. Ruth Scurlock remembers that "Babe's excellence at sports made her unacceptable to other girls. And these frothy girls, in her eyes, were simply not useful. Babe was bucking society even then."