Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash
My line comes down from Queen Ada, the sister of Malcolm IV, descended from King Duff, the first king of Scotland. Ada’s holdings encompassed all the land east of the Miglo River in the Valley of the Bran, in what is now the county of Fife. Malcolm’s castle is long gone, but you can still see some of its stones in the walls of the church tower in the little village of Strathmiglo. The motto on my people’s coat of arms was “Better Times Will Come.” Their name was Caesche; with emigration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it came to be spelled the way it was pronounced, C-A-S-H.
The first American Cash was William, a mariner who captained his own ship, the Good Intent, sailing out of Glasgow across the Atlantic with cargoes of pilgrims for the New World until he himself settled in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1667. His descendants migrated to Westmoreland County, Virginia, in the very early 1700s, before George Washington was born there, and then moved on to Bedford and Amherst counties. My direct line went farther south, to Henry and Elbert counties in Georgia, where my great-grandfather, Reuben Cash, was born. He fought for the Confederacy and survived the Civil War.
His home didn’t. Sherman’s troops stripped and burned his Georgia plantation, so he moved his family farther west, homesteading across the Mississippi in Arkansas when his son, my grandfather, William Henry Cash, was six. William Henry Cash grew up in Toledo, Arkansas, a community that began disappearing as soon as the railroad came through nearby Rison. He became a farmer and a minister, what they called a circuit rider, a traveling preacher serving four widely scattered congre-gations. He rode a horse and he carried a gun, and never once did he take a penny for his preachingâ€”though as my daddy told it, the yard and the barn and the stables were full of animals people had given him, and there was always enough to feed his twelve children. Parkinson’s disease sent him from this world at the age of fifty-two, in 1912.
Daddy, the youngest son and the only child still at home, was just fifteen at the time, but he supported my gjandmother until her death three years later, after which he enlisted in the army. His first posting, in 1916, was to General John J. Pershing’s command in Deming, New Mexico, and he was under Pershing when Pancho Villa came through and burned Columbus. I remember him telling me that for three nights he lay with his head in Mexico and his feet in Texas, waiting for Villa. Villa never came; Pershing had to go looking for him. Daddy’s name was Ray Cash. He married my mother, Carrie Rivers, on August 18, 1920. I was their fourth child.
Daddy had a lot, but he didn’t have money. The Depression had ruined cotton farmingâ€”already a hard, marginal living for people like him at the bottom of the systemâ€”and he had to take whatever work could be had. Sometimes none could, so he spent his days roaming with his .22 rifle after squirrels, rabbits, possum, whatever might feed his family. Given a shot, he didn’t miss. He couldn’t afford toâ€”in those days a box of shells cost twenty cents. He worked at the sawmill; he cleared land; he laid track for the railroad; and when no work was available locally, he rode the freights to wherever adver-tisement, rumor, or chance offered payment in cash. Our house was right on the railroad tracks, out in the woods, and one of my earliest memories is of seeing him jump out of a moving boxcar and roll down into the ditch in front of our door. Lots of men did that. The trains slowed near our house, so it was a popular spot for jumping to avoid the railroad detectives at the station in Kingsland.
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