Chapter Three

It was winter time in North Texas in 1939 and my dad was gone.  He had gone to California to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and told my mom he would send for us as soon as he got settled there.   She was to sell the house and bring my brother and me in a few months. Well, it didn't happen that way.

She sold the house and waited to hear from my dad, but the months wore on and although he was working, there was some reason each month why we couldn't join him.  We went to live with Big Mama, but there really wasn't room with all the others there as well.  My mom cryed a lot and then she would get mad.   What a temper!  One day a letter came from California, and after she read it she tore it up and threw it on the floor.  That evening a man in a dented, rattling roadster drove up into the front yard of Big Mama's old house and Mama went out and got in, all dressed up.  She waved at me and the roadster rattled off down the street.   I remember the green dress she was wearing as the car turned the corner and went out of sight.  Grandma called it it a honky tonk dress.  My grandma hugged me as I watched and cried, and I remember her telling me to hush when I asked her why I couldn't go.  Mama didn't come home for several days, and when she did Grandma yelled at her all the time.  A few days later the man in the roadster came back, but this time Danny and I were tucked in with all our clothes and they drove us to a farmhouse somewhere between the little Texas towns of Charlie and Burkburnett.   We were going to my Aunt Hettie's and Uncle John's, where Danny and I stayed for the next year.  I have no idea where my mom was during that time.

Texas can be severe.  There were no trees, and the wind scouring across the hard red clay covered everything with a fine coat of red dust.  You could taste it, too. For miles around it was flat prairie, and where it wasn't a sea of grass it was either rows and rows of cotton or corn or it was fields of wheat.  There was a road that turned off of the state highway; it was hard-packed red dirt and deeply rutted, and it led straight as an arrow to a single ugly house several miles from the paved road.  It sat out there on those midwest plains surrounded by cotton fields and nothing else.  No neighbors, not a school nor a church in sight, just that one lonely and very ugly farm house.  Now, years later, I wonder why anyone would choose to live there.   I remember how flat that plain was and the huge clouds that always stood so high in the sky, most of the time white and distant, but sometimes they turned an ominous swirling black with flashes of lightning between them.   It didn't rain often, but when it did it hit like a fire hose and made instant rivers of mud.   That part of the world is awful.   Ask anyone who has ever lived there.

There was a well in the side yard and a three-holer outhouse at the end of a path through heavy prairie grass and weeds.  The house itself was built about three feet off the ground, and there were always chickens and dogs under it either trying to stay out of the whipsaw winter winds or, later, the following summer, away from the blistering Texas sun.   Of course there was no electricity, and the kerosene lamps were lighted only when they were really needed in the evening.  It was expensive to burn kerosene, you know.   Aunt Hettie made her own soap in a huge iron kettle that was in the front yard and every few weeks she would wash clothes in that same black kettle.   Jack drew water from the well and filled it, and then he would drag gunny sacks full of corn cobs from under the house so she could make a fire.   Years later, when I saw a cartoon depicting the Witches of MacBeth, I immediately thought of her and could see her standing over that boiling pot with a huge wooden paddle, stirring the clothes.  Sometimes the soap she made was so harsh it turned our skin bright red!

Over in the little town of Charlie they had a nickname for my uncle; they called him Talking John, and he was known by everyone who did business in town.  Talkin' John and Hettie had four kids, all older than me.  Jack was about five years older than me, then Rita Faye and the next was Lucille. Merle was the oldest.  One day, Aunt Hettie loaded everyone onto the buckboard that Uncle John pulled into the front yard and we had a grand time being pulled by two mules, Daisy and Dan, as we headed for the grand metropolis of Charlie.   A black man helped us tie up the team outside a store.  He lurched a little and my aunt said to him, "Are you drunk so early in the day, Joe?" He just smiled and stood there as we got down from the buckboard, and I asked Jack why the black man had yelled to the people inside that Talkin' John was here.  Jack said it was because his dad never said a word to anyone.   Well, he talked at home, and I watched rather wide-eyed as my Uncle John wandered around the store silently pointing out bags, cans, boxes and other supplies.  He was followed by the store keeper and two young men, and as he pointed, the owner wrote it down and the clerks would grab whatever it was he had indicated, and take it out to the buckboard.  When it was loaded Talkin' John asked the owner how much it came to, and paid him.  So he did talk, and I still don't know how that particular sobriquet came to be his.

One dark, windy day Uncle John came in early from the cotton fields and we all gathered on the front porch to see where he was pointing.  It was a black funnel going up into the clouds, and it slowly swept across the plains halfway between Charlie and Burkburnett, coming in our direction.  It moved fitfully and in jerks, lurching like the black man in town, but the general direction never changed.  We watched it quietly from the front porch, and finally Uncle John turned and waved his arms to us.  The wind picked up and slammed into the house as we left the porch.  Rita Faye took my hand and Lucille picked up Danny, and we all hiked up towards the three-holer and past it, heading to the mound of dirt which covered the root cellar dug there.  The wooden door was very heavy and lay at a shallow angle, covering a dark hole in the ground where Aunt Hettie's Mason jars that she had put up were stored.  When the door was unbolted and we were inside, it slammed shut and Jack put a heavy bar across it.  It banged and rattled continually as the wind tried to tear it off.  It was dark, the wind was screaming, and I was afraid because everyone else seemed afraid, although no one said anything.  We huddled together and Rita Faye held me tight.   It was not a good time for a five year old, but I must have gone to sleep finally, because I remember being carried out of the cellar the next morning as we climbed into the sunlight.  It was calm; the house and barns were still standing, and the chickens were scratching in the yard, waiting for some one to throw them some corn.   Only the three-holer was gone.   Not a board nor a piece of it was left.  Gone with the Wind.   Great name for a movie, eh?

Early one Sunday morning in the Spring of 1940 my Aunt Hettie and cousin Lucille packed a couple of baskets with food.  Rita Faye helped me put on shoes that I hadn't worn for a long time, and I got to wear one of Jack's old shirts that he had outgrown.  He told me it had been a church shirt, but I had no idea what that meant.  I had never been to church.   After breakfast it was just starting to get light outside, and I was excited as I climbed into the car as the sun came up, only to be told by my cousins that I would have to sit on the floorboards and wouldn't be able to see outside as we drove away from the farmhouse.  We drove over dirt roads for a very long time, or so it seemed to me, a little kid.  Finally, we stopped at a creek which Merle said was Gilbert Creek.  Uncle John and Jack got out and took heavy boards from atop the car which they placed over the rushing water so we could drive across.  On the other side they collected the boards and we continued along the side of the creek, finally driving up a small hill where we parked at the top.  How that hill ever got to the flat plains of north Texas is a mystery, but it was there.  There was also a church up there, and a lot of other cars and wagons were parked outside.  That was the first time I ever went to church.

I don't remember the service or what happened inside that morning, but I'm sure it must have been a Southern Baptist church, else why would my Aunt Hettie have been there?  I do have a vivid memory of what happened after the service.  Lucille and Rita Faye got the baskets of food out of the car and my aunt took me and Danny around to the back of the church.  All the families were there, and we found a long table under a pecan tree near several others.   We were at the top of a grassy slope which dropped down to the same small creek we had forded earlier.  What a place to play! And there were other kids my age, too!  It seemed that at every table or blanket spread on the grass someone put a chicken leg or a piece of cake in my hand, but I was much too enthralled with the opportunity to play with other kids to pay attention to mere food.  I joined a group of kids just as a couple of watermelons were pulled from the cold creek and split for all of us.  Two boys, about eight or nine and obviously brothers, promptly spit in one to keep the rest of us from eating from that one.  No matter; I wasn't interested in food anyway.

Many years later as the pictures of that day rolled through my mind I thought back on it, and I think everyone there felt just as I did, regardless of age.  Uncle John was looking at horses and mules with the other men, and I even saw ol' Talking John laugh once.   Everytime one of them said, "Republican" they would all spit.  And of course, my Aunt Hettie just sat in a circle of women and talked all day, and she certainly laughed more than once!  I adored my oldest cousin, Merle, but she was holding the hand of a tall boy and talking with a group of others the same age.  I tried to follow Jack and his friends, but of course a ten year old didn't want me around during a rock throwing contest.  At least he was nice about it, and introduced me to a little boy only slightly older than me.  He and I threw rocks into the creek and said we were also having a contest.  Darned if I can remember who won.  Rita Faye had two girl friends and the three of them mostly just giggled and pointed at boys.  I'm pretty sure Rita Faye got kissed by the older brother of one of her friends, too.  At least I saw her red-faced and yelling, "I did not!"  So she must have, right?

Church was fun.


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