Roy Lee Harris
As with the buildings and jobs of Cliffside, so it is with my father and a lot of other friends and family members. They have gone away but not lost from memory.
My daddy, Roy Lee Harris, was born in Cliffside, June 14, Flag day, 1932. He was the last of four children born to Elijah C. and Hannah Hollifield Harris, both employed by the Cliffside Mill. Daddy showed us where the house in which he was born once stood beside the footbridge. I also remember he would take us over to the sulfur well and catch a gallon of the stinking water that many thought had healing properties.
Daddy was a pillar of our community. He’s been gone now for 25 years, and more and more now I see there’s nobody who could fill his shoes. A lot of people that knew him looked up to him. His 6-foot 6-inch, 300-pound frame had a heart to fit. He was taken from us much too soon, just three weeks before his 49th birthday.
Daddy’s life was so short but he still lives on in the thousands of photos he took at reunions, weddings, birthday parties, aerial photos of the town and of family members who have passed away. Ironically, we do not have a single photo of his funeral. I mentioned the size of Daddy just to tell you it took a large belt to hold up his britches. I remember that belt so well because it was used to help correct my attitude when I would occasionally become rebellious or disobedient. Truthfully, I reckon it was just pushing his patience too far. He had great pride for his family, lots of love, and total dedication to setting good examples for us children to follow.
Around 1963, Daddy, the youngest in the family, received the honor of obtaining property beside my grandfather. He purchased one of the mill houses from Avondale and had it moved to where it still stands. This benefited both families alike. We were privileged to roam the old farm, hear stories about family, and visit with relatives who would come to see my grandparents and sit in the shade of the chinaberry trees in the front yard about every Sunday afternoon.
There were four of us children, Bruce the oldest, myself, then Sherry, and Peggy. Looking back, we were probably a double handful. I remember we all had chores to do, that caused us to grumble some but it helped to build our respect for responsibilities. Being around Mom and Daddy almost all the time, except for school, we got to see how they earned a living for our family. They would take us with them to various places to photograph weddings, family reunions, baseball games, and such. Folks we didn’t know would come into our house for Daddy to take their portraits. I recall one time a group of people brought all their instruments and set up for promotional photos of their band. In short Daddy recorded babies, birthdays, anniversaries, youth activities, tragedies, historic occasions and everything else. He was not only God’s gift to us but also to people whose path his profession allowed him to cross. There are thousands, maybe a million, of his photographic negatives filed and stored away, most having been seen only by my Dad and God.
Photography has changed so much. We kids sometimes would sit in Daddy’s darkroom and hear sounds of equipment being used in total darkness when he worked on color photos. We’d hear the songs of the Chuck wagon Gang coming from his AM radio, or songs like “I’ve got a Tiger by the Tail” or “Setting the Woods on Fire” coming from the record player. Then for a few seconds a light would come on and I’d get to see a grey-orange image on the photo paper, then darkness again. Just the sound of the paper being placed into the cabinet beside Him as he readied the next negative for printing. You know it took a lot of patience to do that kind of work. For me, if my Kodak Easy Share takes more than a minute to print out my digital prints, I get frustrated.
After Daddy passed on, the two story structure my father designed to house his photography business—that all of us, along with the help of Cheeta Lipscomb, helped to build—sat virtually untouched for about a year before Mom decided to sell the equipment. Sure we wanted the business to continue but none of us could pick up the gift.
Now as I sit and look around at the precious family photo’s hanging on my walls, I can’t help but remember when we were children some of the times we’d be awakened at night when Mr. Nanny from the newspaper would call and off we’d go with our parents to photograph wrecks and fires in places all over Rutherford County. One night he was called to a Forest City school that was burning. My younger sister Sherry got sick on the way over there and was in real bad shape. When Daddy got back to the car we roared off to the doctor, who determined she’d eaten a whole bottle of orange-flavored baby aspirin. The doctor said the school fire probably saved her life.
I also think about as growing up, how we’d get to pretend to be driving Daddy’s old Nash. I thought it looked like an upside down bathtub on wheels. It was his first car and I’m pretty sure he just didn’t want to part with it.
One of thousands of Roy Lee’s photos documenting his community, this one of his father’s mailbox along the Boiling Springs road in Fairview. Mr. Harris worked in the mill and supplemented his income by selling fryers ($1.00 each) and Rawleigh’s Products. About 1950.
And I can’t forget digging the 15′ X 20′ X 10′ hole in our backyard. Daddy had served on Guam in the Air Force as a Military Policeman during the Korean war. Now he wanted to build a place to be safe in the event of another war. He bought a shovel, pick, and wheelbarrow and we all took part in the excavation—until we got to the huge boulders that still hang from the walls, which stopped us from entirely finishing the work. That bomb shelter in the side of the hill is still there. We use it for storage.
Daddy also instilled in us the importance of attending and supporting the church. My Sunday School certificate reads that on July 14, 1959, I was added to the church’s cradle roll call when I was just seven days old. My Sunday School perfect-attendance pins for 23 consecutive years are a reminder of a much larger family in which my bonds have been formed.
We also had lots of outside activity. The first movies I saw was “Zorro” and “The Sword and the Stone” at the Cliffside theater. We played games on a double-sided board daddy made, one called Fox and Geese, and another called Morris. My grandpa would come and visit and play these games sometimes. The most exciting one was called Aggravation. All six of us would play this game. The only card game we were allowed to play was 500 Rummy.
It was always important to Daddy that we maintain ties to Mom’s side of the family. At least once a year we would go visit her family in West Virginia, and go see relatives of both our families in Baltimore where Bruce was born. Most years this trip was our family vacation. Until I was in the 6th grade I thought the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Lure were the ocean. I could go on for volumes about my childhood.
I’d like to tell some about Daddy’s capacity for compassion and grief. I remember how helpless he was when he was called to a friend’s house that was on fire. The fire was so hot there was no way to help get his friends out. After the fire was put out both their bodies were found beside the kitchen door.
Another time he got the news of a man who he had gone to school with and grown up with, who had burned to death trying to rescue his family. Once we came upon a wreck where the Cliffside train hit a car just below Haynes Grove Church. Daddy got the man out and put him in the front seat of our car. Mom held a towel on his bleeding head while Daddy drove the man to Dr. Radford’s office.
Daddy showed great strength and compassion when my brother Bruce and I were involved in a car wreck in which a lady lost her life. Bruce was hospitalized over six weeks in Shelby. He underwent face surgery and several operations to both legs. I had surgery to my ankle and reconstructive surgery to my face, and then was sent to Spartanburg for an operation on my jaw that was busted into many fragments. After I spent a week in the hospital, Daddy brought me home on a Sunday morning and my Sunday School class came to visit. Then Daddy took me to see Bruce and to pray with us both.
During this tough time Daddy received help from many friends and family members. They helped care for my sisters and to help pay the bills that followed. Just a year later my grandmother’s brother and two sisters were killed in a terrible crash less than a mile from home. The next year Grandpa was diagnosed with cancer. My dad took Grandpa back and forth to Charlotte to receive radiation treatments. Grandpa passed away the next June.
1979 was a good year for Mom and Daddy: all four of us kids got married. Daddy was the best man at my wedding. He said it was the first time he’d ever worn a tuxedo. He was able to accomplish a lot of things after we all moved out. He built a car shed, replaced the old windows in the house, and brick veneered it. He was really happy.
The next summer all us kids and our spouses and two new grand babies went to Myrtle Beach with Mom and Daddy. And the following Christmas, the last one we’d spend together, was about the greatest we ever had.
Then, on May 21, 1981, came the most shocking event of our lives. My wife and I, and our daughter and my sister Peggy were returning home from the Tri-City Mall in Forest City when we were stopped by a friend standing between road flares at the upper beginnings of the roller mill curves. He told us Mom and Daddy had been in an accident and were being taken to Rutherford Hospital. We raced to the hospital and arrived before the ambulance. When it arrived and the medics rolled him in they said they’d been unable to save him, and that Mom was being taken to the hospital in Shelby. My daddy just lay there motionless and there was nothing I could do to get him back. The picture will be forever in my mind. Mom spent a lot of time in the hospital and had a long and hard road to recovery ahead of her.
For years on end these and many other memories have occupied a prominent place in my life, and many more continue to flood in. Although he’s gone, I’ll rely on his photos to help connect me to his life and times, and to the many people who have touched our family.