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Column: Tough childhood helped woman learn to work
Johnny Vardeman

Charlene Layton, a Hall County woman, has done everything in her 85 years from hoeing acres of corn in the mountains to assembling parts for Harley Davidson motorcycles and Boeing 747 jets.

The various jobs she has held provide many memories as she reflects in her retirement. But perhaps the most vivid is when she and her husband Hoy helped jump-start famed NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s racing career.

That was years ago in Kannapolis, N.C., when Earnhardt, Layton said, didn’t have enough money to finance his budding career on dirt tracks in North Carolina. He needed $600, and the banks would loan him only $300. So the Laytons provided him with the other $300, part of what they had received as a wedding gift from Charlene’s father-in-law.

When Earnhardt’s career took off, Layton said, he returned the favor to both the banker and the Laytons by presenting them with brand-new black Chevrolets.

Charlene had what could be described as a hard-scrabble childhood. She had four sisters and five brothers and grew up on mountain land around Murphy, N.C. Their father was a hard taskmaster, she said, requiring the children to do their part of farm work and other chores. Her father worked at a sawmill in what she called practically a wilderness at the time.

One of the chores Charlene and her sister Kathalene had was hoeing the corn. Once she had to tend the whole 35 acres by herself. She was still hoeing after dark. Charlene had to saw up pine trees to earn enough money to buy her shoes.

“Some people say they were poor as dirt,” Charlene says, “but we were poorer than dirt.” Three children would sleep a heavy feather mattress. When she wanted to turn over, Charlene said she would holler “shift,” and everybody would turn over at the same time.

An older brother, who nicknamed her “Shoddy,” liked to play tricks on her.  Once, he talked her into licking a frost-covered mailbox while waiting for the school bus. Of course, her tongue stuck to the mailbox just as the bus arrived. The same brother would pull her loose tooth, tying a string to the tooth and a pig’s leg, then causing the pig to run.

Charlene reached only the seventh grade in school and left the mountains to take a job in a textile mill in another part of the state. She worked there 20 years, mostly as a “poker,” because the machine she operated “poked” cloth into wash cloths.

That was where she met her husband, a Navy veteran, and they were married for 65 years until he died last year.

They had moved to Gainesville in 1972 because, she said, it was fairly free of alcoholic beverages, having bad experiences because of them as a child. Hoy worked in Atlanta while she took jobs in Hall County. One of the first was at a poultry plant, where she couldn’t keep pace with an assembly line. She said shoveling manure as a child on the farm was easier than working in the poultry plant.

It was at AMF Potter-Brumfield that she found her groove, doing about everything. The work was so precise she had to use tweezers to place the 52 parts in starters for jets and motorcycles. If one piece was out of place, she’d have to start all over again. But she could do any job they threw at her and do it faster than anybody, Charlene said.

That job ended in 1983, and she eventually joined Moreno Press in Oakwood making Georgia’s first lottery tickets. Once she worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for six months, getting a $500 bonus. “But it did a number on your legs on that concrete floor,” she said.

Charlene has been a race car fan dating back before the Earnhardt Sr. days. Her favorite driver is Martin Truex, she likes Dawson County’s Chase Elliott, but can’t stand Kevin Harvick.

Charlene likes to share the abundant stories of her experiences, and a friend suggested she write a book. That isn’t happening.

In retirement she appreciates the toughness she acquired growing up on a farm in the mountainous woods of western North Carolina. Her father was rough on the children, but she learned how to work hard and hold a job.

“What I learned, I learned on my own,” Charlene says.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, or His column publishes weekly.

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