Monday, June 13, 2016

Meet My People

Let me tell you a story- a story of poor white trash. The following vignettes are correctly related and true as far as I know and stem from my families habit of telling stories in general and sharing said stories with anybody- even kids who had no business hearing some of them.

The grizzled old farmer is my grandfather born in 1883 in Scott County Arkansas. The picture would have been taken in Melissa TX where dad was born. There is an old family story that one time grandfather killed a cow and after butchering it, took the meat around to the neighbors and sold cuts. A hound dog followed the wagon home and was adopted by the kids. One of granddad's last requests was to be taken to the cemetery in a wagon pulled by a white horse. Uncle Cornelius made it happen. My dad told me when he went to the funeral he didn't own any shoes so he ran behind the wagon from shade tree to shade tree to get some relief from the hot surface of the road.

To your far left is my uncle Cornelius (also called Neal). He worked at rock crushers in the Chico area for years. We never liked him as he was mean to his wife who was a favorite aunt. He was also dismissive of my dad who we thought was way better than him. I was also aware Cornelius was only a private during the war and dad was not only a sergeant but became a drill sergeant after the war.

 Sitting beside him is aunt Rilla.  Rilla taught me how to fish. Oddly, I still have some of her old fishing tackle and a scar on my thumb from cutting fish hooks off an old trotline she gave me. As I think about these memories I can smell her tackle box as plain as the coffee on my desk. 
She was married multiple times. One husband had a prosthetic leg. After his death it was left under her bed. Us cousins (as all of us kids were called) would go and sneak peeks at it and dare each other to touch it. Her last husband was named Bill. He only had one real eye. The socket with a prosthetic eye would weep constantly and he always kept a handkerchief in his hand to wipe his cheek. I bought a 1966 Ford truck from him for 300 dollars. He had bought it new and when I went to Wichita Falls to look it over it was straight as an arrow. He drove it out to Decatur for me the next weekend and wrecked it 2-3 times on the way. I recall him hitting a gas pump and backing into the guy wire of a power pole but it seems I may be forgetting another incident.
Rilla was raped as fairly young woman and had a baby as a result. She named her Margaret. Margie as she was called had 3 kids- a set of twins (a boy and a girl) and another boy who was older than the twins. The elder boy named Jay went to Vietnam. My parents sent  .22 rifle cleaning kits for his and the other Marine's M16 rifles. They also sent socks as, Their socks rot off their feet in no time! When he came home his mom would have to tap his foot with a broom handle when waking him for work because the first time she tapped his shoulder when waking him he nearly knocked her lights out. He would survive Vietnam only to get killed several years later in a car wreck.
All 3 of her kids drove amazing hot rods. The girl of the twins drove a 66 Nova. She loaned it to a boyfriend who committed a robbery in it and abandoned it in an alley in Wichita Falls. Her twin drove a 69 SS El Camino with a 396 and a 4 barrel carburetor. It was fast enough he outrun local deputies one night even though he had to stop every few miles to reattach the carb linkage. Their elder brother drove a 57 Chevy truck. They were my idols. My parents tried to keep me away from them.

The girl to the left of Rilla is aunt Bertha Mae. She died of heart failure secondary to rheumatic fever in her 30s. She weighed well over 300 pounds. She was an exotic dancer at a club on Jacksboro Highway that catered to dudes who liked queen sized women. As kids we heard about her all the time. Aunts would say things like, Bertha Mae would have loved you kids. She always wanted children but could never have any of her own; so sad... We felt like we knew her and that her spirit was always watching over us.

The lady to the far right is my granny. My dad told me she would whip him with the inner part (the bead) of a tire she cut out for that purpose. By the time I knew her she had whiskers which would scratch your face when she kissed you. She did not have a tooth in her head by then either. She dipped powdered snuff and the juice from it would run out of both corners of her mouth. One of her last snuff bottles is on my desk as a pen holder- I am looking at it as I write this. Her skin was as soft as velvet. Her hair went nearly to her waist and she kept it in a pony tail. It stayed mostly salt and pepper colored until her death and was really more black than gray. She washed it with lye soap. I know at one point she made her own but don't know if she continued to do so in later life or bought it. She could grow anything and the tar paper shack she lived in by the time I knew her, in Burkburnett was filled with plants. It was like a greenhouse. Mom would say, Give granny a stick, a rock to plant it on, a cup of water, and come back a week later and she would have something growing for you. After granddad died she married Paul, whom she met through a "Love Wanted" ad in the newspaper. Paul was known as a simple minded person who did odd jobs around town. He loved us like I don't remember ever being loved by anyone aside from my mom. He would walk around town and pick up small objects like change and discarded toys and put them in shoeboxes and give them to me and my sister when we visited. We loved getting those boxes- it was like winning the lottery. He called the little things he gave us, "play pretties". He gave us pens and pencils which were often personalized with our names and stationary and stamps to write letters to him. I don't recall ever being mean to him in any way but I wish I were nicer. He just deserved it. He was a decent and kind man- a good person.

The baby in granddad's lap is my dad. He had a third grade education and didn't get his driver license until he was 40 years old. He got his first job as a turkey herder at 9 years of age. He served in the Army as an air defense artillery man and more or less an infantryman in France and Germany. We have a cool picture of him with his head bandaged. He was at the invasion of Normandy + 3 days and fought all the way to Hitler's old retreat at Berchtesgaden. I asked if he ever killed anybody during the war. He replied, Well, you just don't always know. You're shooting at shapes really- moving shapes and they go down but everybody else is shooting so you don't always know. I knew though- that he did know. He crewed a half track with twin .50 caliber machineguns and a centrally mounted 37 mm cannon which were for antiaircraft work. I asked if he ever shot down a plane. He replied, Nah, never shot one down directly but 4-5 left trailing smoke pretty heavy.
He dabbled in dice but was an expert pool player and would hustle in pool halls around Fort Worth. He was oddly equally good at 9 ball, snooker and straight pool. When asked what game he wanted to play he would reply, Make it easy on yourself. When I was little, he took me to the pool hall on the square in Decatur and also a domino parlor. Old guys there would give me chewing tobacco and wait for me to get sick. I never did. The pool hall  was run by an elderly white haired gentleman. His hair was the whitest I have ever seen- literally whiter than cotton. For years into my adulthood I could recall his name but couldn't right now if my life depended on it. It thrilled me to be there. It smelled like leather, stale beer, old building and tobacco. It also seemed a little dangerous.
Dad was buried in the same cemetery as his father- the same cemetery where he ran barefooted from shade to shade following a horse drawn wagon that carried grandfather's body. I rode to that cemetery in a new Cadillac limousine which the driver oddly showed me around beforehand while telling me some of it's specs.
At the funeral were multiple women who were way too upset considering the fact that no one knew them. Maybe coincidentally, there were also several unknown women's phone numbers in his wallet.
He was a life taker, a life maker and a heart breaker. I still have his pool cue. I still have the 12 gauge shotgun that killed him.

Two things I learned writing this: Rilla is buried in an unmarked grave as her headstone was blown away in a tornado. There is a child named Randal missing from the picture- he only lived one month. Why were we never told about Randal? Yes, children died all the time back then- but stories would be told and they would be remembered- especially in a storytelling family. Was the memory just too painful- too heartbreaking? Did the birth nearly kill granny?

 The two things I think of as I write this are:
Some things you just can't make up. 
Did any of these people ever think their lives would play out how they did?


RPM said...

That's some old school Texas stuff right there. The hardships our families faced everyday just a generation or two ago would kill most of this generation and our kids. I remember my Granny telling me about coming to Texas in a covered wagon from Mississippi. That is just unfathomable now.

Those women didn't have all their kids in a nice clean hospital with plenty of drugs, either. My great grandmother had 7 kids of her own. I bet she went to bed with a baseball bat.

The Donald said...

Wow. That would make a good mini-series on TV. I think either my Mom or my Dad was born at home. I know my Mom's folks' [farm] house didn't get indoor plumbing until she was 4-5 years old. I'm not sure about rural electrification, though she did used to tell me they had kerosene lanterns. As a teenager, I remember exploring my maternal Great-Grandparents' decaying farmhouse (when it was still part of my Grandfather's farm) with my cousins. The GGs were long passed, but the home was fairly large, 2 stories and on a hill, with a hand-pumped water spigot out front. It wasn't ornate, but it was beautifully sited, and there were remnants of wallpaper in the parlor that at one time would have been kind of upscale. Recently, one of my cousins sent me some fam history info that suggested my GG might have been fairly well-to-do in the post WWI years, but got wiped out by the Depression.

Dad was raised in a small town. His maternal grandfather had been Police & Fire Chief, and the home where my Grandmother grew up was one of the stately homes in town, in its day. His grandfather died when Dad was only 3, so he really didn't get to know him. I don't think that my paternal Grandparents were the pillars of their community, but they were reasonably well known and respected - my Grandmother worked for the local insurance agent, played piano & organ for her church (as well as for the local funeral home). I was always treated well by the townspeople when I would visit during summers.

I was fortunate to get to know all of my grandparents - I was 18 and just beginning college when I lost my first Grandfather, both Grandmothers in my late 30s, and my other Grandfather when I was 42.

el chupacabra said...

Mike- True on all that and Ha! to the baseball bat! I bet you are right. As far as I know all granny's children were born at home but it is something I need to confirm. When dad was born (in the 20s) it wasn't uncommon for the last child (or last children) to be born in a hospital after a string of home births. I intuit this may be true both because it was becoming more common generally but because there might have been a sense they had already beat the odds since mom had lived through the other births- they didn't want to press their luck. These are opinions though- based on what I have heard. My childrens great grandmother though was born in a hospital but her younger sister was born at home- granny (as she is also known) actually helped with the delivery. Her homecoming game date had to be cancelled for it!

Don- Good stuff. Sounds like you have enough info to track down details and there are probably books of history of their areas that would have info you didn't know and pics you may have never seen.