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At night, when the kerosene lamps were out, the rats stole through the cracks and onto the beds. "One night, I remember, I was lying on my back and I felt something in my bed and all of a sudden I felt it gnawing on my hand," Kelso says. "I saw it running after it bit me, and I didn't go back to sleep. You don't forget things like that."
Nor the constant sense of want that tracked the Kelsos' daily lives. In winter, the hardest months, Ben and his siblings used to hop the coal trains that groaned up the surrounding hills and fill burlap bags with coal for the potbellied stove. "Our shoes were cardboard," says Prudie. "Or plastic bags with rubber bands to hold them on."
"Can you imagine what it's like in the dead of winter not to have any shoes on your feet?" says Ben. "Your feet were so hard, so frostbitten, that your toes wouldn't move? I had pants too big and a rag for a belt. It was unbelievable."
Hunger formed the central hollow in their lives, leaving the children's bellies bloated and their wits concentrated on a constant search for food. They subsisted mainly on corn bread and pots of pinto beans boiled on a wood fire. "I knew, going to bed, that I was going to wake up hungry and stay hungry," Kelso says. "Like anything else, you gel accustomed to it." Mary Louise remembers casting for chickens over a fence in Alabama. "There was a field of chickens across the road, and I'd get a piece of corn, put it on a hook, and I'd go over there and fish for chickens," she says. "They'd swallow the corn and I'd pull 'em over the fence. Then I'd pull their heads off and make chicken 'n' dumplin's out of 'em!"
When the "fishing" wasn't good, the family could usually count on Ben and his brothers and sisters to beg a meal or two from the white families who lived, literally, across the railroad tracks that ran through town. Ben's sisters say he was an irresistible barefoot urchin, pulling a red wagon door-to-door and showing a note, written by Mary Louise, that asked for cans and bags of food. "At each house I would go up on the porch, knock on the door and hand the people the note," he says. "They'd give us a can of soup. Or beans. By the time I was nine years old, I'd really become self-sufficient. I knew how to survive. I knew when every person in town bought groceries—Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. I'd go there on those days. We used to pick through people's garbage for something to eat."
In school he routinely filched lunches from other kids until, one afternoon in the seventh grade, some children caught him and turned him in. "There are times when someone comes into your life and changes it," Kelso says. "It might be just a moment, but they change it forever." Henry Wiggins, a math teacher, saved Kelso from the taunts of his peers and the shame of expulsion, defending him as a boy who had nothing but who had persisted in school. For young Ben, Wiggins's defense of him was a revelation. Even today, about 30 years later, he chokes when he speaks of it.
"It was the first time that someone told me I was going to make it," he says. "He gave me courage. I really feel that if Mr. Wiggins had jumped all over me and embarrassed me and kicked me out of school, I may never have gone back. It made a big, big difference. You have to have something to keep pushing you, keep pushing you, someone who believes in you."
That same year, when Kelso was 13, he found another supporter in A.C. Peoples, a coach and teacher from Zion College in Chattanooga whom Kelso had met at high school football games in South Pittsburg. By then Kelso had run away from home once, returning only because he had no place to go, and he was set on leaving his hand-to-mouth existence behind. "It was like something was chasing me," he says. "I hated every second of that place. Every second. There was no future there. I just had to get out." To be sure, worse than the poverty and the hunger in his family's house, more stinging than the cold winds, were the rebukes he suffered from people because he was poor.
"When I was a kid, the poorer I was, the worse I was treated," he says. "I remember standing outside people's windows in our neighborhood, in the cold, watching television on the inside. And people wouldn't let me in. Kids and grown-ups would say, 'Get out of here!' Parents wouldn't allow me in their houses because of how poor I was. I can't understand why people treat so badly those who don't have anything. Why do people have such contempt for those who have nothing?"
When Peoples invited Kelso to live with him and attend school in Chattanooga, the boy quietly packed what few things he had and headed for the city. "It was sad," says Sarah, a younger sister. "He left with a duffel bag and a basketball under his arm."