Childhood of Famous Americans
JESSE OWENS: YOUNG RECORD BREAKER
This inspiring story focuses on Jesse’s childhood. Through hard work and courage, African-American runner Jesse Owens overcame racism, poverty and poor health. He won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, held in Germany under Hitler, proving that Blacks could compete at the highest level. This book, written under the name M.M. Eboch, is part of Simon & Schuster's Childhood of Famous Americans series.
Chapter 1: Saving JC
James Cleveland Owens woke up in the dark. He could hear his family stirring. Soon, Mama would make breakfast. JC sighed, remembering the day before—his fifth birthday, on September 12, 1918. They didn’t have money for presents in the Owens household, but a birthday was still special. It was one of the few days they got to eat meat during the week. Yesterday it was ham. Everyone made a fuss about JC, since he was the baby of the family. It was fun.
He lay in the dark and rubbed his chest. He felt a bump, and it was sore.
JC jumped out of bed and pulled on his pants. By the time Mama put cornbread in front of him, he’d forgotten about the bump.
He couldn’t forget for long, though. The bump kept growing and hurting. It seemed to press in on his chest, as well as grow out. No doctor lived in little Oakville, Alabama. The nearest doctor was 75 miles away, in Birmingham. But it hardly mattered. The family didn’t have any money for a doctor.
A month later, JC could barely breathe with the pressure on his chest. He wondered if he would die. He lay down, gasping, unable to sleep. He heard his parents whispering.
“We’ve got to do something, Henry,” his mother said.
“You took one of those bumps off his leg once.”
“But this one’s so big!” Mama said. “And it’s near his heart.”
“Emma—” his father started to say.
“Don’t say it!”
“I’m going to say it,” his father insisted. “If the Lord wants him—”
His mother interrupted again, her voice rising. “The Lord doesn’t want this child.”
Three of her babies had died at birth. Ten had lived, though two more would die young. Some would say Emma Owens was lucky that so many of her children had survived. In those days, many poor families lost more than half of their children at birth or in early childhood, and mothers often died giving birth without a doctor’s care.
But Emma couldn’t bear the thought of losing any child. Young JC had a special place in her heart. She’d had him when she was in her late 30s, and thought she was too old to have more children. She called James Cleveland her “gift child.”
JC finally fell asleep. Sometime later, his mother shook him awake. It was still dark out. JC looked around to see all his brothers and sisters awake and watching. A few of them tried to smile at him, but he could tell by their eyes that they were worried.
His mother picked up a knife and held it in the fire until the blade seemed to glow. She walked over to JC and looked straight into his eyes. “I’m going to take off the bump now, JC,” she said.
He felt the knife going into his skin. It went around and around as his mother tried to cut the thing loose. JC had felt pain before. It had hurt when his mother took the bump off his leg. Every winter, he got sick with what they called the devil’s cold. The coughing and burning fever nearly killed him. And once he got caught in an animal trap his father had set. But this was much worse.
JC saw tears running down his father’s face. He heard a voice that sounded far away. “Aww, Mama, no....” He realized it was his own voice.
Finally he blacked out.
When he woke, it was still dark. JC didn’t even know if it was the same night or the next. Everyone was still in the house. JC could tell from their clothes that they hadn’t been to the fields. The only time no one went to work was on Christmas Day—or when someone died.
JC knew he must be dying.
He tried to speak, but couldn’t. The family gathered around.
“I got it all out,” his mother said softly. “All of it.”
But there were tears in her eyes. She pressed a crop bag against JC’s chest. The blood quickly soaked through that one. She replaced it with another. JC kept bleeding.
They couldn’t wash and dry the bags quickly enough. When they ran out of crop bags, they used rags. Then they used pieces of their clothing. The bleeding went on all night.
In the morning, JC’s father and brothers had to go work in the fields. His mother stayed by him, mopping up blood and praying. Finally she fell into an exhausted sleep beside him. JC watched in horror as his blood soaked into her shirt.
JC tried to stay awake, but he kept passing out. Every time he woke, his first thought was, Am I still bleeding? He always was. How much blood could he have left?
JC woke to find the house dark and his mother asleep again at his side. JC heard a faint voice that sounded miles away. He tried to lift himself, and got up on one elbow. It was a dark, moonless night, and he couldn’t see anything.
He sat up, trembling with weakness. He could still feel the blood trickling down his chest. But now he could hear his father’s words.
What could that mean? JC stumbled toward the voice. It was coming from just outside the front door.
“Oh, Lord Jesus,” his father went on. “Please hear me. This saving means everything. She’ll die if he dies. And if she dies, Lord, we’ll all die—all of us.”
JC crawled to the doorway. He could feel his blood coming in spurts, and knew that he hardly had any left. He felt a glowing kind of haziness. It scared him more than he’d ever been scared before. His head spun, but he dug his fingernails into the wood floor. He pulled himself toward the open doorway. Outside, his father was on his knees, praying.
“She’ll die if you take him from me. She always said he was born special. Please don’t take him from me, Lord. I’ll do anything—the hardest thing—to pay you back.”
JC must have made a noise. His father turned to him, still kneeling, and reached out. “JC!” Even in the black night, JC somehow felt his father’s eyes looking into his own. “Pray, JC,” his father said. “Pray, James Cleveland.”
JC cleared his throat. “What should I say, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, JC, just pray.”
They knelt together, side by side, and prayed. Finally, JC’s father lifted him in his arms and carried him back into the house. The bleeding had stopped.
In the morning, JC could sit up easily. By dinnertime he was eating like a mule. The following day, he could walk around. By the weekend, he was helping in the fields.
“He may be sickly in body,” JC’s father said, “but our boy has a strong spirit. If he survived that pain, he’ll survive anything life has to offer. Pain won’t mean nothing to him now.”
MILTON HERSHEY, YOUNG CHOCOLATIER
After a tumultuous childhood, Milton started work at an ice cream parlor at age 14. At 18, he opened his own confectionery shop – and lost it six years later. After a string of failures, he finally found success – and went on to start a school for underprivileged children that remains to this day. This book is part of Simon & Schuster's Childhood of Famous Americans series.
Milton’s First Job
Milton bounced into the kitchen and greeted his mother and aunt. Mattie offered her cheek for a kiss. “You are cheerful this morning.”
Milton grinned. “No more school!”
“Milton is nearly fourteen now,” his mother said proudly. “It is time for him to choose a career.”
“You finally got your father to give up on the idea of more schooling?” his aunt asked.
Milton shrugged. “We can’t afford it.” Henry Hershey was the only one who was disappointed about that. Milton did not add that his teacher thought he should leave. The teacher said that Milton would never learn anything.
Mattie gave Milton a glass of buttermilk. “So what will you do with yourself now?”
His aunt chuckled. “Isn’t that just like a boy?”
“But you will have to make a decision soon,” his mother said. “You are a man now.”
Milton nodded, his mouth full of popover.
“I suppose you want to be a farmer, like your father,” Aunt Mattie teased.
Fanny snorted and went back to making a broom. Milton shook his head. “I’d like to work in town, maybe as a shopkeeper.” Visits to the city had always been a treat. How fun it would be to live there!
His aunt nodded. “That is respectable work. We will see what we can do for you.”
Milton laughed. “No hurry.” He was glad to be out of the one-room schoolhouse. He would no longer struggle to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.
“When I’m a businessman, I’ll buy you a house in the city,” he told his mother. “And you won’t have to work so hard anymore.”
She smiled. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t work. But I’ll look forward to that house. Perhaps something with two stories, and a big wraparound porch?”
They built their dream house laughingly. Milton imagined it filled with all the latest gadgets. “We’ll have gas put in, and lights in every room. No more carrying a lantern around! I’ll get you one of those new carpet sweepers, and a washing machine with a hand crank.”
Fanny shook her head. “I wouldn’t know what to do with such things.”
The door swung open and Henry Hershey strode in beaming. “Well, my boy, good news. I have found a job for you.”
Milton stared at his father with his heart sinking. What kind of job would Henry think of as a good?
Henry tossed his hat aside and sat at the table. “Yes, my boy, I only wish I had been so lucky at your age. You will be joining an honorable profession.”
Milton forced himself to ask, “What is the job, Papa?”
“You, my boy, will be a printer’s apprentice! Samuel Ernst has agreed to take you on.” Henry leaned forward. “It is a perfect opportunity. If you work hard, you may yet become a writer or even a newspaper editor.”
Milton wished his father would give up on that dream, for both of them. He knew his father and Mr. Ernst had a long-running argument about Henry’s writing. Mr. Ernst said Henry’s stories were not suitable for his religious readers. Henry took the criticism in his good-natured way, but he always held out hope that the next time would be different.
Why should Milton have a better chance? He didn’t even have his father’s storytelling skill. And the printer’s shop was in Gap, a small town, not the bustling city. Still, it was a job away from the farm. It might not be so bad.