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Prison Narratives: ‘One Son’s Story’ by Clifton Nickens

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VOX Press‘ book, Prison Narratives, features personal stories written by prisoners at Parchman Farm. The book can be bought here.

Clifton Nickens was raised in a small farming community on the outskirts of Hammond, Louisiana. He has been married for 20 years and he worked as a field engineer in the chemical industry for 17 years until his arrest in February 2013. He is currently serving a twelve-year sentence for statutory rape.

Clifton Prison Narratives

In the year of our Lord 1961, on the 8th day of the month of January, a son, Clifton Ray Nickens, was born to Perkins Melvin and Minnie Jane Nickens Jr. at Seventh Ward General Hospital in Hammond, Louisiana. It was told to me by my parents that the day of my birth, was cold, windy, lightning and rainy; and that I was born around 2:00 A.M., in the early hours of the morning.

Our home was located in the small, rural farming community of Pumpkin Center, Louisiana. The community is located along Interstate 55, approximately four miles west of the city of Hammond, Louisiana. My grandfather had moved to the area in 1903, before the community had a name of its own. My grandfather purchased 300 acres of property on which he would raise my father, three more sons and two daughters. My grandfather then proceeded to make a living as a woodsman, cattle farmer, and vegetable farmer.

My mother was born in Mt. Herman, Mississippi, to parents who were cotton sharecropping farmers. My mother’s mother died in a coal oil stove explosion when my mother was 12 years old. My mother, her three brothers, and three sisters were then given by their father to a foster care home. My step-grandfather, Clyde Starkey, adopted my mother, all her brothers, sisters, and moved them to his farm in Pumpkin Center, Louisiana. It would be here that my mother would be raised, would eventually meet my father, and be married to him.

My father, a carpenter and vegetable and cattle farmer along with my grandfather, closed an acre of my grandfather’s property to build us a home. My father built us a small, cozy, 36’ long, 18’ wide, one room, shotgun house in which to live. The house had a tin roof 1 x 12 pine board siding, with a heavy, asphalt, roll roofing over the wood siding. The house had two doors, one in the front, and one directly opposite of it in the rear of the house. The house had five windows, two on each long-side of the house, one of those was over the kitchen sink and one window in the front of the house on the left side of the front door. The interior of the house was an open room, no interior walls or partitions. Upon entering the front door, there were two double beds to the left, two upright dressers with drawers, and a hanging rod for our clothes, on the right side wall of the room. Also on this right side wall, past the window, was my mother’s white, metal china cabinet for our bowls, plates, cups, and utensils. On the left wall, past the beds, there was a multicolored metal table, with four metal cushioned seat chairs. Beyond the table was a white, metal double sink unit, with drawers, and four doors with shelves for pots, pans, and the food. The rear wall had a white stove and refrigerator against it, also on the left side of the rear door.

Beside the kitchen sink there was no indoor plumbing, no commode, bathtub or laundry. The outhouse toilet was located out the rear door of the house, to the left, about 100’ away. We had a pump, wash, and storage shed about 50’ directly behind the house. The shed housed my mother’s white washing machine, with its swing away ringer head for pressing the water out of the wet clothes. It also stored our #3, metal, galvanized wash tub, in which we took our baths. In the spring, summer, and early fall, when there was a lot of sunshine, the tub was filled and left to heat in the sun.

We were then given baths, in the early evenings, before the sun set. In the winter, we would heat water on the stove, fill the tub, and take our baths inside.

It would be here that my father and mother would choose to raise my two sisters and I. One of my sisters, Vanessa, is three years older than I, and my other sister, Ramona, is three years younger than I. I at this time of my life am four years old, kind of tall for my age, medium build, blackish brown hair, with dark brown eyes. I was, I reckon to say, as most boys my age, who were being raised in the country, full of energy, exploring, curious, and at times rambunctious. I was a lover of the outdoors; one of my favorite places to play and explore, especially in the summertime, was under the house. Our house was about 2 1⁄2 feet above the ground, with plenty of cool shade and dirt to play in. It was here that I would hide from my sisters, playing with my dump truck, motor grader, army jeep and army men. All the time patiently waiting for my sisters and mother, so that I could reach, grab their legs, scream loud and scare them.

The front yard, guarded by a net wire fence, bordered the Perkins Nickens Sr. gravel road, which had been named after my grandfather. They were along this net wire fence, huge, virgin pine trees of massive size and 100’ tall. On this gravel road, one day a week, would come one of my four-year-old boyish enjoyments. It was my Uncle Vincent, working for the parish, grading the gravel roads, on the big, yellow, loud motor grader. He would always stop in front of our house, wave and holler to me as I stood behind and peering through the squares of the net fence. I was wide-eyed, waving back vigorously, with a huge smile upon my face. I could hear the front door of the house creak open, behind me, as my uncle stepped down from the machine. It was my mother, coming out of the house, with a cup of coffee in her hand. The coffee cup was given to my uncle, as he entered the yard and greetings were made between him and my mother. I would wait nervously beside my mother, as if I had ants in my pants for the joy I knew was coming. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, my uncle would say, “Well, I reckon I better get back to work, thanks for the coffee you all,” and begin to walk off. My heart, would stop for a moment – had he forgotten? – and just then he would turn and say, “Well Clifton are you coming or not.” My heart would start up again wildly, as I looked up at my mother for approval and she would say, “Well I reckon you can ride; but please be careful.” I would take off like a young stallion, yelling, jumping, and running towards the big, yellow, motor grader.

The time is around July or August of 1966; I am five years old. My father has not been to work for the past three or four days, because it has been raining a lot and very stormy. My father and mother are packing our clothes in a suitcase; my sisters and I are being bundled up and packed one by one through the pouring rain into the car outside. My parents finish loading everything and we drive down the 3/8 mile lane, beside our house, to my grandfather’s house at the rear of the farm. We, along with our suitcases, are brought upon the porch and into my grandfather’s house.

My grandfather’s house is on a concrete slab, with brick siding, and a shingle roof. It is “L” shaped with front, rear and side porches. My whole family is here, my uncles, aunts and my only cousin at this time, Kearney, a boy baby of one-year-old. I hear a lot of talk about the bad weather and something they are calling a hurricane. I don’t know what a hurricane is; but it has everyone looking and talking worriedly. My father says it is going to hit us by this afternoon. The women are busy cooking, keeping coffee made for everyone, and making bed pallets on the floor for everyone to sleep on. I can begin to hear the wind howling and screaming as it blows through the trees and around the buildings on my grandfather’s farm. It is turning darker outside, as I step out the door onto the porch and in between my father and grandfather. My father places his hand upon my head gently, as they stare down the lane at our house. I can hear them talking about our house and whether it will be able to withstand the storm. The wind and rain is so strong now that my father and grandfather grab me and back up against the brick wall of the porch. The rain is being driving sideways by the howling, screaming wind and is hitting the house like rocks. The sound of the storm is almost deafening to me as I bury myself into the blue jeans of my father’s leg.

I hear my grandfather say, “There it goes; she’s not going to be able to take much more on. She’s going to come apart.” I look up from my blue jean protection to see the tin roof of our house being torn apart by the howling, sheer, driving winds and rain. My father at this point tells me to go back inside with my mother and sisters. We are all fed and put to bed for the night on our thick, quilt laden pallets. I awake in the morning to the smell of coffee, biscuits, bacon and eggs being cooked for everyone to eat breakfast. I look for my father and mother, whom I couldn’t find inside. I opened the door to the porch to find everyone outside, drinking morning coffee, and smoking cigarettes. I was saddened immediately by the tears that were flowing down my mother’s cheeks and the somber look on my father’s face. I instantly went to my mother, who grabbed me, pulled me into her bosom and said, “Thank God that none of us or our children are hurt.” I begin to be filled with emotion, tears swelling up in my eyes, and overflowing onto my cheeks as I squeezed my mother tightly.

My father buys a house and three acres of land. The new house is 3 1⁄2 miles away from my grandfather’s farm at the north end of the community. The hurricane had destroyed our home and my father decided not to rebuild it. The new house is rectangular, as our old house was. However, it has a front porch, a separate kitchen, separate living room, two bedrooms and a bathroom. We have an indoor commode, lavatory, bathtub, and all have hot water in the faucets. Maybe moving isn’t so bad, maybe good things can come from bad things! But I still miss our old house and grandfather’s farm. Oh, no, what about my weekly ride with Uncle Vincent, on the big yellow, noisy, motor grader? Our new home is on a gravel road; but it is a dead end and does he come up here to work? Well, to my surprise, Uncle Vincent did work on our road, my rides continued as usual, and I was learning to adjust to our new farm.

The next two years of me being seven and eight years old were filled with much growing, maturing, exploring, responsibilities and work. My 7th year of age would see me begin school at Hammond Elementary School. There were none of my cousins here; they all went to Ponchatoula schools, where the rest of the community went except for the northern part, which went to Hammond. I began to explore the surrounding woods, creeks, ponds, and the Natalbany River, which ran 1⁄4 mile behind our house. I became an avid runner, running through the wood trails, along the creek banks and on the sand bars of the river. It was in the first and second grades that I discovered, and became passionate about, running track. I was the boy to beat at all the track meets in the 50 and 100 yard race. I won many trophies, ribbons and awards. I also excelled in long jump, short jump, and the relay. I would go on to compete until my 4th grade year.

My father and I started clearing trees from the land to make fields for planting and grass plots for grazing. He would cut down the big oak and pine trees, de-limb them, then I would drag and stack them on the stumps to burn. It was my mother, sisters, and my job to keep the pines stacked and burning. We were also given the job of clearing the perimeter fencing of all trees, brush, and shrubs. We were repairing the fence to prepare for the calves that father would put on the grass plots.

My 8th year found me helping building hog pens for three female pigs, who we named after my mother’s three sisters: Rosie, Barbara and Laura. They were not to be used for breeding, but for slaughtering, which we would all do as a family. We built new chicken pens, with roosts and laying boxes for about 30 chickens. We raised chicks and killed chickens for our winter food supply. We spent the early spring clearing, plowing and planting our vegetable garden. We spent the summer months picking vegetables, sitting under the huge live oak trees in the backyard, and shelling peas, beans and shucking corn. On large wooden tables we would wash, sort, clean, cook, can in jars and store in the canning shed everything we had harvested that summer. It wasn’t always work; my father, mother, sisters and I would take a big watermelon to the river. We would bury the watermelon in the cold sandy water and it would chill while we swam and played.

Dad would then take the watermelon, cut it open; oh how red, juicy it would be, with that sweet wonderful smell! We all sitting waist deep in the cool, clear, running water would eat our watermelon laughing and having fun.

In 1970, I turned 9 years old and the year began with me going to the doctor for my hearing. My teachers, along with my parents had discovered that I was hearing impaired. It would take many trips to the doctor, much school missed and much expense to my parents, before they found out that I had lost the coverings off of my eardrums. It had been four years earlier, when I had the measles with a high fever for several days and severe ear infections. It was the combination of all the illnesses that ruptured my ears and caused my hearing loss. It would be from nine years old, until I was fifteen years old, that I would undergo five major ear operations. This would put an end to my normal boy childhood, my swimming, my running, my friends; all fun activities stopped. The operations would require that I have my head shaved, my ears kept dry at all times, including no excessive sweating. No loud noises, no sudden jars like running, jumping, no swimming. No hollering, no sneezing, no sucking through straws, no holding your nose, etc. I felt like my life had just been taken away from me and I should just stay shut up inside or walk gently around outside, with my hands in my pocket.

If having my head shaved in preparation for the surgery and being ridiculed by all the children at school wasn’t bad enough, it was being taken into an operating room on a stretcher, a wire mask with cotton gauze on it being placed over my mouth, and either being hand poured on it. The ether was overpowering, I was being told by the nurse to count backwards, and all the time struggling to breathe until I lost consciousness. The surgeries were all twelve hours long, with a full day in the recovery room, before being moved to a room for a couple of days and finally released back home. I would spend a week at home, always having a large 7” x 7” x 2” thick bun over my ear and a head band. I had to attend school like this, no playing, no P.E., just standing around like a foul smelling, sore wrapped, bald headed reject. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out of it again. I became even more discouraged, depressed, and hopeless when I went back to the doctor. He removed the smelly bandage, cleaned, checked my stitches that were from my sideburn into my lower rear part of my ear and horribly, unbearably said that the operation was a failure. The skin grafts that he had placed inside my ear didn’t stay attached; they tore. I wanted to run out of the office screaming, “No, not again, I can’t take it anymore.”

However, it was not my decision, I was only a child and my parents, along with the doctor, decided to try the operation again. Well, for my right ear I had three surgeries and for my left ear I had two surgeries of which none were successful. It was finally ended when I was 15 years old. I explained to my parents that I was willing to live with my impairment, I didn’t want to go through any more surgeries; and they agreed. It was a breath of fresh air to my soul, like coming out of a tight, musky, damp, dark tunnel, and breaking forth into the light, life and fresh air again.

It was the Christmas of my 10th year of age that brought a breath of fresh air to my bewildering life that had begun as a 9 year old child. My family always looked forward to Christmas, especially my mother, who would cook for a week prior to Christmas Day. She was prepared for everyone that would come by, beginning the night of Christmas Eve until the night of Christmas dinner and beyond. However, two days before Christmas, after supper my father gathered us all in the living room to talk to us. My father, explained that my mother’s oldest sister and her husband, Uncle Kiddeboo, Aunt Loraine Anthony and their three boys and four girls were in a very poor way. My father asked us all to give our presents, plus extra they had bought, and all the food Mom had prepared to them. He said they didn’t know we were coming and that Christmas morning we would load everything into the old blue Falcon station wagon and surprise them.

Uncle Kiddeboo was a tenant dairy farmer for a large dairy farm in Greensburg, Louisiana. It was about 30 or 40 miles north of where we lived. It was about 4:00 A.M., Christmas morning, and we all got out of bed, loaded all the presents and food into the station wagon and took off. We were all so excited, jolly, we sang songs and talked all the way there. We arrived at the home about an hour after daylight. My father, instead of knocking on the front door, took handfuls of large gravel rocks from the driveway and threw them continually upon the tin roof. It didn’t take but a moment for us to hear running and hollering in the house. My uncle came to the front door. It swung open; there he was no shoes, no socks, no shirt, blue jeans barely on, hair all out of place, a week’s old beard on his face, a shotgun in his hand and hollering, “Who in the hell is that rocking my roof, I’ll shoot your ass.”

My father yelled, “Kiddeboo, man you ain’t gonna shoot nobody, you know that ole gun don’t work.” He said, “Perk, Perk, is that you, man come on in, hey Lorraine, it’s Perk, Minnie, and the kids, put on some coffee, we got company.” We unloaded the station wagon, took all the presents and food inside and went through greetings for what seemed like an hour. My uncle, my aunt and all my cousins were speechless and most were crying as they received all we had brought to them. It was a wonderful day, we helped milk and played with all the calves, goats, and chickens all day. It had been the best Christmas that me and my family ever had. It brought our two families closer together than we ever had been before. Love is an amazing attribute that can’t be outdone, nor does the memory of it fade away. This was an awesome end to the 10th year of my life. A year that had its trials, hardships, and at times failures; but the end mightily outweighs the means.

However, as with seasons, so are our lives; the 11th year of my life would bring new burdens, trials, sadness and sorrow for me, my family, and the Anthony’s.

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