John Snyder recalls his unusual childhood in the Carolinas.
“Well, I thought I would just tell you all some stories,” said author John Snyder, AB’56, hanging his suit jacket on a chair at 57th Street Books and looking up at the dozen or so people who’d come out to hear him read. It was a Tuesday night in late February. On the table in front of him were several crisp copies of his book, Hill of Beans: Coming of Age in the Last Days of the Old South (Smith/Kerr, 2011), a memoir detailing his childhood in the mountains and flatlands of the western Carolinas. “It takes me up to the age of 17, when I came off to the University of Chicago,” Snyder said. With a chuckle, he added, “which is somewhat of a miracle in retrospect.”
Much of the book centers on Snyder’s father, Ted Snyder, a brilliant, impatient man. “He could do anything, and he was incredible at mathematics,” Snyder said. “He took the North Carolina surveyor’s test and made the highest score ever made on it.” The elder Snyder was also a farmer, builder, oil painter, and published poet—the book’s endnotes reprint a poem from his Rustic Tales of the Carolinas. Snyder’s father also gave the book its name: “Daddy was sure none of us would amount to a hill of beans,” Snyder recalled, “which he told us over and over. I think he was so intelligent that by comparison we”—Snyder and his three brothers—“weren’t really in his league.”
Snyder’s father was 50 and living in a mountain cabin he built himself when, in 1931, he married Snyder’s mother, a 32-year-old schoolteacher from the low country. Before the wedding, “they corresponded for ten years,” Snyder said. “My mother kept all his letters, and they’re all signed, ‘Sincerely, Ted Snyder.’ Not your conventional love letters.” Relating one from a week before his parents’ wedding, Snyder said, “He is up in the mountains, and he writes down to her and says that he has sawed off a section of a calf’s horn to make a wedding ring. ... He said that was cheaper than reaming out a dime.”
Not unlike his father, Snyder has done a little bit of everything: after his College graduation, he joined the Navy, became a glass and china buyer for Bloomingdale’s, spent 15 years in research and development for a carpet manufacturer—obtaining seven patents—and retired in 2001 as an executive director at Morgan Stanley, where he worked for 21 years. Throughout his career, he’s been a sculptor of found mechanical objects retrieved from junkyards and roadsides and fields. The author of two off-Broadway plays who splits his time between New York City and North Carolina, a few years ago he “finally got around” to writing down his childhood memories.
At 57th Street Books, Snyder recounted stories about summer afternoons and adolescent mishaps and eccentric maiden aunts. He and his brothers spent several school years in Greenville, South Carolina, living with his father’s two unmarried sisters, one of whom carried a .25 caliber Colt automatic pistol. “When she thought she heard people in the garden at night,” Snyder said, “she just went to the window and fired off a few rounds at random into the yard.”
Before Greenville, he and his brothers lived with their parents in tiny Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. “One day a big black LaSalle limousine rolled up at our lake, and out of it got an old lady with white hair and a cane and a chauffeur.” She turned out to be Mrs. S. B. P. Snell, owner of the Princess Ulelah Inn in Clearwater, Florida. “She said she wanted to build an inn in the mountains,” Snyder said. His father sold her 100 acres and built her a lakeside resort; it opened in 1939 as the Robin Hood Inn. But a year later it burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, but no one was ever caught. “I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the window across the lake,” Snyder said, “and I saw the hotel on fire from end to end.”
If not for that incident, Snyder said, his family might have stayed in the mountains forever. But in 1943 his father bought a 1,000-acre sharecropper farm in Walhalla, South Carolina, where they lived until he went to college. “Daddy’s idea about the farm was that it was two-and-a-half miles outside of town and it would keep us away from the bad influences,” Snyder said. “And he would work us.” The work turned out to be both strenuous and peculiar. The family spent a summer trying to overturn an empty concrete silo so that Snyder’s father could convert it to a tractor garage and cow shed. “We dug all summer,” Snyder said, “excavating around the perimeter, 30 feet in diameter. We got down over our heads, as kids.” But after buying “the biggest screw jack on earth” and borrowing two others from the railroad—and then chopping down a small forest of saplings and stacking them alongside the silo to act as a “giant hydraulic cushion” as it toppled over—the silo never fell. It leaned, but as it reached “about the angle of the Tower of Pisa,” Snyder said, it started to crack. His father told him and his brothers, “‘Fill the hole up; we’ll just leave her like she is.’” It still leans.
Snyder ended his talk with what he called “the real question”: “how did I ever get to the University of Chicago?” A high-school girlfriend’s parents told his father about the place. “Well, Daddy divided all people into two classes: either jackasses or double-struck jackasses.” Most schools, he thought, didn’t teach anything useful. But Chicago’s reputation and football ban, and the nuclear reaction under Stagg Field, won him over. “So my brother went after the tenth grade,” Snyder said, “and then I went. And then my youngest brother applied, and Daddy walked over to the fire and burned his application and said, ‘Two communists is enough.’”
Snyder’s audience laughed, and so did he. “Well, that’s enough stories, probably.”
Preview for Hill of Beans, a memoir by John Snyder.