The man with the wooden leg

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

One day while watching through our doorway, I saw a man in grey work clothes drive up to the School Shop on a little red tractor. It might have been a Farmall Cub, or maybe an A. I didn’t see many tractors then; most farmers had horses or mules, which they left at home when they came over to the Shop.

The man on the tractor stopped in front of the Shop door and turned off his motor. I don’t remember how he got off the tractor, but when he got on the ground, I saw he had one regular leg and one pirate leg. On that leg, his pants were bunched up above where his knee should be, and a piece of wood like a homemade baseball bat ran down to the ground.

“Mama, come look. I want you to see something.”

“That’s Mr. Adam Helms,” Mama said.

“What happened to his leg, Mama?”

“I don’t know. Some folks say it was in a hunting accident. All I know is he lost it and now he uses a wooden leg instead. Some folks call him Peg Leg Adam. But we call him Mr. Adam.”

By the time we finished talking, Mr. Adam had climbed back on his tractor and was driving to the back of the Shop building. That’s where they had a big door where you could drive your tractor in.

“You reckon he’s going to weld some on his tractor?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mama said. “But if he needs to, I expect he will.”

I liked going to the Shop. But you had to close your eyes when someone was welding and not look at the bright white arc light. But sometimes, I would look out the other way to watch the shadows the on the wall. The Purina signs were on that wall. Daddy read them to me. One said, “Life is a grindstone that polishes some people but grinds others;” another said, “The hardest thing to open is a closed mind.”

Mr. Adam came to the Shop right often. After a while, I realized Mr. Adam used his tractor for a car. I didn’t know then how hard it was to drive a stick shift — with both legs, much less a peg leg.

“But how does he run and jump and skip, Mama?”

“I don’t expect he can do that.”

So, I tried to walk like Mr. Adam Helms. I tried to using a wooden tom walker for a peg leg but it was too long. I put an old broom handle through my belt, but it kept slipping and wouldn’t hold my weight. Finally, I got a tin-can tom walker, but I swayed like a sawmill hand. Mama said a man who could get around like Mr. Adam on a peg leg was really admirable. She was right.

As time went on, I forgot all about Mr. Adam. This week, after I asked for something admirable to write about, I did not think of Mr. Adam at first. But about 7 a.m. on All Saints Eve, a fleeting image of Mr. Adam Helms and his red tractor came to me. That was all I got, so I decided to see what else I could find out.

I made some telephone calls and learned he was buried at Cedar Grove Baptist Cemetery. On, I found his World War I draft registration card, which confirmed what I remembered: that Mr. Adam was medium height, of slender build, and had brown hair. By the time he registered in 1918, he had already lost his right leg because the answer to the question about lost limbs the form said “Registrant has lost right above knee.”

It also said Adam Timothy Helms was employed as a telephone operator. Most operators were women, I thought, so this showed that he was a man willing to work, not the least inhibited by being addressed as “Operator” by subscribers to the Polkton Telephone Company. To reach him, they picked up the gutta percha ear piece, turned the crank on the oak box that held the mouthpiece, to ring him up. The conversation might have sounded like this.

“Operator,” he answered.

“Adam, get me 989,” the customer said .

“All right, Lucy,” he replied, as he plugged the telephone cord into the female jack labeled 989. “Here you go.”

He waited until the light on the circuit went out, then pulled out the telephone jack to end the call.

After work, Mr. Adam farmed. Before he got his red tractor, you could always tell where he had run the plow, because the earth behind it showed a left footprint and a round hole. He made those prints because sometime before he signed up for the draft in 1918, something went bad wrong with one leg, and to save his life he had to have it taken off above the knee. Family legend holds that the surgery took place on the kitchen table in his farmhouse off what is now Highway 218, north of Oakdale Baptist Church.

This sounds frighteningly like it might have been a home surgery, done by home folks. I would like to think that a physician came with something to ease the pain, then to do the surgery, and to dress the wound. Anyway, after the leg was taken off, there was another matter to consider.

“Would you like me to take care of this? “ the doctor asked, nodding toward the leg.

If Mr. Adam answered, he would have said, “No, Doc. I’m going to bury my leg … In the cemetery at Cedar Grove Baptist Church.”

“Oh,” Doc said. “Well then, I’ll make arrangements for a plot, seeing as you will be laid up for a little while.”

He thanked the doctor for taking the trouble, then started to work on a new wooden leg. When it was carved out, his wife, Mary, made a cushion and then the two of them built a harness from leather he got from Jenks Goodman. He used a crutch until he could wear his wooden leg. That’s how they drove in the wagon to Cedar Grove to bury his natural leg. They brought a wooden casket. The service may have gone like this:

“Lord,” he said, “You made me this leg, and it’s been a good one … I hate to lose it. But I am burying it here, believing that one day… I will walk on it again.”

He handed the casket to his Daddy, then looked up in the sky. “If you will help me, I will walk near ‘bout as good on my homemade leg as I did on the one you made for me.”

After Mary placed the casket in the grave, Mr. Adam threw on the first handful of dirt.

He got the help he requested and kept his promise. For at least 44 years, he walked everywhere he wanted to on that wooden leg. He braked his tractor with it and could do a pretty good half-trot with it as well.

He wore the name Peg Leg Adam like a badge of honor. But when he started making his final plans, he instructed his family not to put his wooden leg in the casket.

“Why?” someone asked.

“Because I intend to use the one the Lord gave me,” he said. “I will do it, too.”

Not only did he want to walk on his natural leg, he wanted to be buried beside it as well. But years later, when he went to pick out a plot, all the spaces near that unmarked grave had been taken. So, he found one on the opposite side of the cemetery.

When Adam Timothy Helms died on Oct. 27, 1952, he was buried so that when the time came he could rise to meet the Lord in the Eastern sky, to be re-united with his loved ones … and to run and jump and skip around Heaven with the leg that met him in the air.

I know he will.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

Leon Smith

Contributing columnist