November 8, 2011 by Annie McCormick
Mr. James Tomlinson was born on January 3rd. On his next birthday he will be 89. He went to the doctor a few weeks ago and the doctor wanted to know if he drove. James told the doctor he did: 25 miles.
“He looked at me like I shouldn’t be driving. He didn’t say anything,” Mr. Tomlinson said. “If he did say something it wouldn’t do any good because I have to drive.” This is the spirit of Mr. Tomlinson. He does what he has to do but also what he wants to do.
His family lived on their farm, five miles east of Winslow at 1323 Sunset Road. At that time, Sunset was a dirt road and without electricity until after WWII. He would walk a mile or so to McDaniel school. He said that some kids had to walk 2 or 3 miles and had to carry a lantern since they left home before it was light. One of the teachers at the school boarded with his parents and James went to school early to build a fire to warm up the schoolroom. Little James got 25 cents a week, which was lot of money then (“You could buy five cokes,” he exclaimed.)
Mr. Tomlinson remembers people being closer back then. If a family wanted to build a barn they’d get the logs together and the neighbors would come out and build it. The women cooked the dinners. The community would “help one another.”
He spent 15 years in Oakland, Calif., after WWII as a stock cutter for a lumber yard before moving back to Arkansas. Eventually, his father moved to a house with 40 acres on Wexel Drive in Winslow. Mr. Tomlinson sat in this house in his recliner as he talked of hummingbirds, plants, the summer heat and how most of the people he knew were now “down below.” Before he sold a portion of his land, anyone coming up the street was either arriving to see him or they were lost. This is a quiet place.
Mr. Tomlinson worked 22 years as custodian of Winslow school before it was closed, which offered up a few good stories. At graduation, kids painted things on the outside wall of the school. “My daughter was good for that, too,” Mr. Tomlinson said.
No dirty stuff, of course, just the graduating year. One year, the superintendent at the time was going to make sure the painting didn’t happen again. He got someone from the nearby cafe to be the night watchman. The kids found out and painted it beforehand. “They outsmarted him,” Mr. Tomlinson laughed.
The school had a coal boiler. Mr. Tomlinson explained the boiler and how the heat went to the radiators. The kids weren’t allowed to sit on them but the teachers could. When the teachers smelled gas he’d say “keep your butt off of the stove and it wouldn’t leak.”
The kids were more courteous back then and he says he got along with all of them. “You get some of the kids mad at you and they’d do more harm than you could fix.”
One third-grade teacher had to keep replacing the pencil sharpener, which broke every week for some mysterious reason. As custodian, Mr. Tomlinson had to order new ones and they were expensive. It turns out that the kids were sharpening screwdrivers or something in it. After that, the third graders had to go to the neighboring classroom to sharpen their pencils. He was disappointed about Winslow school closing. “They had a good grade school I think.”
James Tomlinson doesn’t like to talk about it a lot but he earned two bronze stars in WWII. “I earned it,” he says, because “I got banged around a little bit.“ He joined the service when he was about 25 and was transported to Europe on the Queen Mary. In Italy, he was assigned to the 91st Infantry and stationed in the Italian Alps. For him those mountains were simply “Cold, cold, cold.”
Mr. Tomlinson fought on the front lines and he still has dreams. “You never get over the dreams and stuff you still have. You know, things happened, and you still dream about it.” He thinks that’s why former servicemen commit suicide. “They just let it get to them.” Veterans of his era didn’t talk about their experience, especially those in active combat. He seemed to still be a bit uncomfortable relating his stories. “I never say much about it.“
Back behind the lines was a “holding place” where American prisoners who had deserted the front lines were kept. James was a guard. Before he arrived he would get to a place and have boots ordered. Before the shoes would come in, he’d be moved somewhere else. The first snow was on guard duty. He heard someone yell, “Soldier!“ He answered “Yes sir?“ It was the company commander who asked him, “Where in the world did you come from?” Soldier Tomlinson had replied, “Well, I thought the States.” All he had on his feet were the canvas leggings and street shoes. The commander said “well that’s a disgrace,” sent him to the camp tent and instructed him: “Don’t you get out until you get some boots.” Soldier Tomlinson didn’t get into any trouble for it. He said the commander was a pretty nice guy because he laughed about the situation.
He didn’t keep in contact with anyone after the war. “My best three buddies, they didn’t make it back.”
Mr. Tomlinson lost his wife, Ruby, and his son about three years ago. He has a daughter and two granddaughters. He says he gets depressed sometimes and doesn‘t have a lot of visitors, but is a regular at Winslow Community Meals. He likes dinners at Meals. He thinks the food is good and there’s plenty of it. He’d like to see a few more people down there.
He reminisced about a cannery near Miller’s Chapel. When he was a kid, during the WPA days, there was one big room, near a spring. One person ran it to show people what to do. It had cookers and sealers for tin cans. He remembers his parents fixing things one day and taking it there the next day. There was a wood stove, and you had to take your own wood. He would like to see the Winslow Cannery going again.
He also thinks something like a community center would be good. “Make a night club out of it,” he chuckles. “You’d get rich in a hurry.”
He pointed out his new refrigerator. Somebody told him it was too big and he didn’t need a new one. He said, “yeah but I wanted it.” He trades his car in every few years though people tell him he doesn’t need to. He‘s proud to wear his baseball cap with its military emblem on it. He earned it. “You have to stand up for yourself, you know?”
He seemed to enjoy the visit and as I was leaving he told me, “Come back sometime and I’ll tell you another big one!”