At age sixteen, he entered the labor force full-time, plying the trade of moulder in a small foundry called Athens Stove Company. There he earned the grand total of fifty cents per day for an eight-hour shift of back-breaking, blazingly hot, hard work. In 1934, during the years following the 1929 stock market crash, men took whatever job they could find and were grateful for whatever honest wage they could earn. So was he.
In 1939, he married a modest, hard-working girl of German ancestry. He supported her on just twelve dollars per week living in half of a rented house. Their first child, he named "Jaquetta," an Indian name he admired from the Cherokee. She was born in 1940, and a few years later they moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where wages were better. There he worked in another stove foundry and was active in establishing a labor union. Rather than being drafted into the Army during World War II, he took his father's advice and enlisted with the U. S. Navy. Afterwards, he moved his family back to Athens, Tennessee near relatives. Four-year-old Jaquetta's arms had to be pried from his neck where she clung and cried when he left Norfolk, Virginia Naval Base enroute to war in the Pacific.
He served as second class boatswain's mate, piping admirals and captains aboard ship. Of the many stories he told about the war, I best remember one concerning a group of Japanese prisoners being transported aboard their supply ship to the nearest U. S. base. Enmity between the American sailors and their prisoners was as intense as the sun was hot on deck. A prisoner begged for water. One sailor cursed him and vowed that he would get no water from the American GI's. But this 5' 7", 158 lb. second class boatswain's mate from the farms and hills of East Tennessee arose and spoke in few, but forceful, words. "That might happen," he said, "but only over my dead body. This man's thirsty, and no man on any American ship will die of thirst because we ARE Americans." Then, he gave the prisoner as much water as he wanted to drink.
Fifty years later, a comrade from his ship said of him, "If all Nippers are as good as he was, then they must be mighty good people!"
Such instances were typical of his quiet, but unyeilding, courage. Like the Rock of Gibraltar, he stood, unshaken, when threatened with a shotgun held by a crazed old neighbor trying to force him to leave his own garden. Armed only with a pitchfork, he calmly warned like a rattler ready to strike, "Mr. Hennessee, if you pull that trigger, I put this pitchfork in your heart." Mr. Hennessee turned, left the Nipper garden, and went home with his loaded double-barreled shotgun pointing meekly toward the ground. That old crumudgeon never threatened anyone else in the neighborhood again.
On another occasion, he pulled a young teen-aged boy, Charlie Miller, from a wrecked, overturned car lying across the road from his house. Everyone feared that the demolished car would burst into flames before the four passengers could be removed. He carried the bleeding, lifeless body a safe distance from the car, even though the teenager was taller than he was. Returning home, afterwards, blood-smeared, he said, "I can never do that again."
With love and devotion, he and his wife reared their two daughters, helped countless relatives and friends out of work, sick, old, or just plain needy. He was known for growing the largest, most delicious tomatoes to be found anywhere, for knowing the best sloughs where crappies hid at Watt's Bar, for catching the biggest fish, cleaning and sharing them with family and neighbors, and for being absolutely unbeatable at checkers. He died on March 27, 1995, in Athens, Tennessee after many years of hard work, honesty, loyalty, and devotion. I will always remember this person and the stories told me on his front porch. He is gone now, but not forgotten. The person I most admire is my maternal grandfather, Robert Thomas Nipper, but affectionately known as Papaw Tommy.
[NOTE: This story was written in 1997 by my son Shane Ratledge to fulfill a senior English assignment in speech at Cleveland High School. Shane has so many of my father's traits and mannerisms that I feel as though Daddy lives on through him.]
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