Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What It Wuz Wuz Football

What It Wuz Wuz Football *

[*The title refers to a hilarious sketch by Andy Griffith.   It’s now available on U-Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNxLxTZHKM8]

         When I entered Reagan Junior High School, I discovered football.  It was love at first sight, and the flame burned bright until I retired, after 34 years of officiating at age 63. Subsequently the coals glow occasionally, but the fire is out.  I thought I would never forget that first day of football practice.  Now, I have only a vague recollection of the pain and torture.  It was the fall of 1936 and I had just turned 13 a month earlier.  I was a cotton-headed, fat little kid with absolutely no experience in organized athletics.  The pile shoved at me at the Equipment Room window was daunting.  I had absolutely no idea what any of it, other than the helmet and shoes, was for or where it belonged.  However, I tried to appear knowledgeable as I dumped it on the floor in front of my assigned locker.

1936 Texas Football Gear
            I undressed slowly while watching the veterans from the previous year's team gird themselves for combat.  The equipment was cumbersome and, by modern standards, unsafe.  The helmets were leather, with earflaps, and collapsible when not in use.  There were, of course, no face masks, but "nose guards" were made available while recovering from a broken nose.  Teeth were expendable because no one had thought of making the mouthpiece used in boxing an item of football equipment.  The shoulder pads were literally pads rather than the modern suit of plastic armor; their location was obvious and I probably would not have put them on backwards.  Although I had never seen a jockey strap, its position was obvious even though the need for it was unclear. Hip pads were a separate article and were tightened like cinching a saddle and worn beneath baggy canvas pants.  The cotton jersey was loose fitting even after being pulled over the shoulder pads.  The shoes were stiff leather and had oblong leather rather than round rubber or plastic cleats.  As an umpire for many years, responsible for the legality and safety of player's equipment, I often thought that I would not have permitted a player with any, let alone all, of our equipment to participate.

            Once encased in all that exotic paraphernalia, we carefully, like pack horses on a mountain trail, made our way outside.  The "practice field" was bare ground, totally devoid of grass and packed to cement-like hardness by countless generations of recess softball games and baked by the north Texas sun. First item on the agenda was calisthenics, ostensibly to loosen us up for the real practice to come, but I found the side straddle hops, deep knee bends, pushups, and leglifts ["down slowly, don't bend your knees, and hold it with feet just off the ground"] exhausting in themselves.  Then there were the "wind sprints" accompanied by excruciating chest pains.

 When we finally began real football, the blocking and tackling was duck soup compared to the preliminaries.  It was cathartic to hurt someone else rather than yourself; I quickly learned that the one who hit the hardest hurt the least, and if you knocked someone down, they cushioned you from the hard ground.  After surviving that first practice, I hurt in places I had never even felt before.  I must have lost ten pounds in two hours; all baby fat was gone and I didn't have  a belly again until I was 26 years old and an assistant professor.  Our head coach was Mr. Gibson, a lean, leathery faced man, who taught mechanical drawing and shop.  I don't think I ever knew his first name because everyone, of course, called him "Hoot."  Joe Reed was the assistant coach.           

        We played several junior high schools from nearby towns, but our season concluded with a best two out of three series for the city championship with Zundewich, the other junior high school in Wichita Falls.  There was a permanent trophy, awarded at the conclusion of the final game, that the champion was allowed to keep in the school trophy case until resumption of the series the following year.  Three successive city championships and the trophy would become the permanent property of the winning school.  For many years the two schools had alternated championships, so we were the traditional underdogs because Reagan was the defending champion. 

I remember little of that first year.  We repeated as city champions and I earned my "letter", but I can't even remember the scores.  However, I do vividly recall a friend of mine, Abe Corona, writhing on the ground, clutching his knee and groaning.  He was clipped on the opening kickoff of our first game, against Electra Jr. High.  His knee was so badly damaged that, even after surgical repair, he was never able to participate in any athletics.  One play and the end of an athletic career.  Two of Abe's brothers were fine amateur boxers, winning several district Golden Gloves championships and probably a state championship or two.  Their father was the fingerprint expert for the Wichita Falls Police Department. 

The following season is more clear, but I'm surprised at how little I remember of what was, up to then, one of the most important experiences of my life.  Mr. Gibson was gone, and Joe Reed became the head coach and "Scotty" Williamson was the assistant coach.  I played guard my first year and most of the second.  Frank "Fat" Moore was the center, Dale Howard, an end, was a star of the previous year's championship team.  Billy "Two Gun" Anderson was the star running back, R. C. West was also an end and my best friend Emmitt Lee "Chief" Defer, a full blood Shawnee was another guard.  Leon "Boots" Foster, who lived two houses from us on Travis Street, was a year behind me in school but was athletically precocious despite being fat.  I think much of his  athletic ability was inherited; both his older brothers were stars and captains of the Wichita Falls Coyotes, and Boots eventually was the same.  

At the first practice after the first game in the championship series, I was moved to end and replaced the star, Dale Howard, as "first string".  No one on the team, including me, could understand that move.  "Fat" Moore, who was not one of my best friends, made no secret of his opinion of it.  I vaguely remember that prior to the first game we had been warned that "Zundy" had been successful all year with a "hideout" play featuring a minuscule end named Washington.  On the hideout, long since made illegal at all levels, one substitute would report to the referee and two players would leave the field. One would cross the sidelines and the other would lie down inbounds on or behind the line of scrimmage.  When the ball was snapped, the "hideout" would get up and go downfield for a forward pass.  Sure enough, Tommy Washington caught a long pass with no one within 30 yards of him for a 6-0 Zundy win.

 That "may" have had something to do with my move to end, especially if the "hideout" had been Dale's responsibility.   On one of the first plays from scrimmage in the second game, Tom Bill Arthur took a handoff from the Zundy Quarterback and started around my end.  As I moved in to tackle him, I learned one of the facts of football life; Bill Bell, the Zundy Fullback, came from nowhere on a beautiful crackback block and totally wiped me out.  Tom Bill Arthur went 64 yards, untouched, for a touchdown; I was embarrassed and we were behind by a touchdown.  We eventually won the game, the championship, and permanent possession of the Trophy without major contributions from me but I didn't let anyone around me for another long touchdown.

That year, 1937, the Wichita Falls Coyotes won the District Championship, and advanced through the playoffs to meet Longview in the State Finals in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.  I rode the Fort Worth and Denver Special train to Dallas, on a pass, of course, to see the State Championship Game. The Coyotes were heroic; Boots Foster's brother Erving was the quarterback and captain, "Preacher" Fleming, an All State, the tailback, Odell Dammerall, another All State, the Center and linebacker, Art Goforth, a guard who made All America at Rice and "Indian" Pritchard, a full blood Indian who was purportedly so dumb that he wrote his play assignments on his pants, was an outstanding end.  The Coyotes led most of the game, playing conservatively, but well; I remember Odell Damerall taking a lateral after a short pass to the left end for a long touchdown run (Jimmy Castledine did the same thing on the same play from a lateral from me in the 1940 Playoffs against Amarillo).  However, in the closing seconds Wichita Falls punted, and "Dandy" Dick Miller of Longview ran it back for the winning touchdown as time ran out.  IT WASN'T FAIR and it was a long train ride back to Wichita Falls.

            The Annual Football Banquet also included the two Junior High Schools.  Because we had won the permanent trophy, along with the City Junior High Football Championship, and the Coyotes had made it to the AA State Finals, I HAD to go and go in style.  I asked Virginia Smith, a pretty little brunette girl whose family was as poor as mine, to go with me on my first formal date.  I don't know how I got to her house, but we rode the bus to Wichita Falls Senior High School for the banquet and awards ceremonies.  After a forgettable meal, during which my date and I tried to appear sophisticated by watching to see which item of silverware was picked up by others before we began each course and attempting casual conversation, the Awards Ceremony began.  

The Junior High awards came first: the Zundwich letter winners were awarded their letters, then the Reagan letter winners received our letters, followed by the award of the Championship Trophy "to become the permanent property of John Reagan Junior High School." It was a heady moment. 

Saving the best for last, the Master of Ceremonies then introduced Ted L. Jefferies, Head Coach of the Wichita Falls Senior High School football team, to make the individual awards to members of the team: all letter winners were called up individually and awarded a letter jacket, complete with notation of District Champion, Bi-district Champion, State Quarterfinal Champion, State Semifinal Champion, and State Finalist modestly inscribed on each.  Everyone in the room, and there were hundreds, would have died or at least killed for one of those with their own name on it.  Mr. Jefferies then made such individual awards as "most improved player," "most inspirational player" and other recognitions of immortality.  The next to the last award was to the Team Captain of the year, an award the Fosters had a lock on.       

            The Final Event was the announcement of the Team Captain for the next season.  He was elected by secret ballot of returning lettermen, and it was a lot more important than being elected mayor, even to the movers and shakers of the community.  In Texas towns with one High School in the 1930's and 1940's there was NOTHING more prestigious than being Captain of the Football Team. 

After the naming of the Captain for the 1938 Season, Mr. Jefferies turned the podium back to the Master of Ceremonies who, instead of wishing everyone Godspeed and Goodnight, announced there was one more award.  Turning to Ted Jefferies, he said something like this, "Coach, in appreciation for leading the Coyotes to their best season ever, the Coyote Booster's Club has a present for you," and as he handed Ted Jefferies a set of car keys, the doors at the back of the room were opened to reveal a brand new Cadillac.  I wonder what they would have given him if he had won the State Championship. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

The First Bicycle

The First Bicycle

     My family never owned an automobile.  My father's hunting and fishing partners provided the transportation for those important needs, and my sister Ruby took my mother wherever she needed to go.  After we moved from 26th Street, we lived near enough to town to walk and, because my father was a "railroad man," we could get passes to ride a train anywhere in the United States.  As a result of these somewhat unusual circumstances, I had seen more of the U.S. as a sub-teenager than I had of my own home town.

            Then, on my eleventh or twelfth birthday, my parents paid a $4.00 down payment on a second hand bicycle to Les Meyers, the owner of the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Shop about a block away from our house on Travis.  Les was a local celebrity, a former professional motorcycle racer who had once won the national championship.  Shortly afterward he ran over and killed a fallen fellow racer and as all the adults said “lost his nerve."  Les had two sons, Bill and Jack, with whom I had friendly but not particularly close relationships.

            I was, of course, expected to pay off the remaining $8.00 for the bicycle.  But first I had to learn how to ride it.  To call it "second hand" was probably euphemistic.  In those days of the newly developed balloon tires and chrome frames, it looked much like the present day  10-speeds, except it was a one speed with narrow, high pressure tires and a seat that was terrifyingly high off the ground.  Undaunted, however, I set out to conquer that sucker by sheer force of will.  Caught giving it a good kicking after multiple falls, one or both of my parents threatened to return it to the motorcycle shop if I did it again.  I eventually learned how to ride it and discovered a whole new world of adventure and entrepreneurship.

            I began by conning all my mother's friends, my teachers, and anyone else I could into "taking" one or more magazines.  I've  forgotten most of the details, but somehow the required number of copies of the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Liberty, Boy's Life, Cosmopolitan, and others I no longer remember  came into my hands and I dutifully rode that old bicycle all over Wichita Falls delivering them to my "subscribers."  I can still remember Miss Dean, one of my first loves and my sixth grade teacher, thanking me for delivering her magazines and making the long ride well worth while.  I also advanced my education by reading all the magazines before delivering them.

            Soon I went on to bigger and better things -- all greatly aided by that marvelous invention, the bicycle.  But with, higher income, the bikes became more fancy with balloon tires, lots of chrome, speedometer, lights, bells and horn, and any other accessory the bicycle shop stocked.  At first I rode out into the country to pick cotton, pull bolls, or any truck farm crop needing to be harvested. But, as soon as I was old enough to qualify, I had a series of paper routes (the most interesting of which  included Lake Street, the wide open Red Light District), and during high I school worked for  the Western Union. I used to boast that at age sixteen I knew every prostitute in Wichita Falls by her real name.  They all sent money somewhere, and Western Union wanted me to carry the money orders because they figured I was the most physically fit; I already had a bit of a reputation as a boxer and a junior high school football player

            The real bonanzas, though, were something that no longer exists in this age of television and instant world wide news, the newspaper "Extra."  I'm not sure how the word got out, but shortly after major disasters or other news of nationwide interest, we newspaper boys gathered at the newspaper publishers, bought numerous "Extras" (at three cents a copy), then spread out through the city on our bicycles shouting "EXTRA EXTRA!  WILL ROGERS AND WALLY POST KILLED IN ALASKA". I've forgotten precisely how much, but I made a bundle off that at five cents a copy.   The crash of the Graf Zeppelin was another winner.  Those were the biggies, but the killing of Bonnie and Clyde (Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow) wasn't bad.  They had local ties, and robbing banks during the depression appealed to many if not most of we who were blue collar workers when we could find work. The lovely thing about the "Extras" was that the money you made was extra.  I don't think I sat around wishing for a catastrophe, but I jumped at the chance to cash in on them when they occurred.


Boy Scouts of America

                   Boy Scouts of America   

          Audie and I could hardly wait to join the Boy Scouts.  You had to be twelve years old to actually become a member, but you could start going to meetings (a sort of apprenticeship) three months before your twelfth birthday.  We joined Troop 22; it was sponsored by the American Legion and met in the basement of the American Legion Hall.  Our Scoutmaster was E. B. Star, an employee of Texas Electric Service Company, and also a member of the American Legion.  Sometimes, on overnight hikes, we would sit spellbound around the campfire while he told us tales of chasing Pancho Villa all over northern Mexico while he served in the horse cavalry under General "Blackjack" Pershing.  Our Assistant Scoutmaster was Mr. Oglesby; his son Billy was a member of the troop and a fellow football player in high school.

          Once we joined the Scouts, Audie and I studied together for all the tests: Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle -- including studying for and taking the tests for the Merit Badges required for the latter three ranks.  I would like to think that we went up the ladder together, but more likely, with the cruelty of youth, I liked taking advantage of being able to join six weeks before Audie and beating him to every rank.  I do know that we both made every rank, except Eagle, in the minimum time stipulated in the Boy Scout Manual.

 I blew the latter because I had a real problem passing the requirements for the Lifesaving Merit Badge.  Audie could swim much better than I could; I had a real hangup with water, originating with my father carrying me, screaming in terror, far out into the surf in front of the Galvez Hotel in Galveston while attending a railroad convention.
          Troop 22 was the "camping" troop; we camped out at various lakes, rivers, or other exotic sites several times a month, winter and summer (there being only two seasons in North Texas).  The truth of the matter was that they were not exotic at all; there was nothing resembling the mountains, cold clear water, and pine trees of the Pacific Northwest or Yellowstone National Park in the mesquite, pin oak country of North Texas.  That didn't bother us; I suppose we figured that if that country was the choice of the Comanches, it was good enough for us.  However, we did enjoy camping in the Wichita Mountains, near Ardmore, Oklahoma, for two weeks during several summers. 

          The Wichita Mountains would be considered low hills by western standards, but they were mountains to us.  They encompassed a wildlife preserve, with numerous deer, elk, and probably the largest herd of buffalo existent at the time.  Nearby, if not part of the preserve was the Comanche Reservation, and a few aged surviving recalcitrant Comanche, Sioux, and Apache leaders were still imprisoned in adjacent Fort Lawton.  We LOVED summer camp in the Wichita Mountains; it was much cooler, the water in the rivers and lakes was clear and cold, and there were animals (reptiles, birds and mammals) and trees EVERYWHERE.  I have no idea of the sponsor of the Scout Camp there, but many of us appreciated it.              

          Our local BSA District owned a large, rustic building and campground on the bank of the channel just below Diversion Dam, thirty or forty miles from Wichita Falls. The District Administration ran a series of camps there during the summer, but individual Scout Troops could use it when not in use by the District, both in summer and at other times of the year.  We used it a lot, year round; fishing in the "spillway" below the dam was often spectacular and always exciting if you waded into the strong current.  A few people drowned there almost every year, but I wasn't afraid of the water as long as I had my feet on the bottom and my head above the surface.  I only panicked when I couldn't touch bottom and my head was under water.

"Chief" Creighton was our local professional Scout Executive and a real character.  He was huge, well over six feet and, probably, 300 pounds.  I never saw him out of uniform; he was always impressive in appearance, but more so in long pants than in Boy Scout shorts and knee length socks.  Chief Creighton, like a Commanding General, ran all the District Camps.  He also officiated at the monthly "Court of Honor" where all promotions were made.  Beginning with all the Tenderfeet who had passed the requirements for advancement to Second Class, then the candidates for First Class, Star, and Life were called, in groups, to the front where The Chief personally pinned their new rank on their scrawny, but proud, chests.  It was a heady experience for 12 and 13 year old boys, most of whom had never before been recognized for accomplishment, but it was HEAVY for promotion to EAGLE SCOUT.

It was the proud boast of the BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA that no Eagle Scout had ever been sentenced to prison (that was long before a former Eagle Scout killed 13 people with a rifle from the Bell Tower at the University of Texas (autopsy revealed he had a malignant brain tumor that "was responsible for his aberration").  Eagle Scouts were paragons of virtue, incapable of evil and above pettiness.  Promotion to Eagle Scout combined the rituals of Knighthood and Priesthood. They actually turned off all the lights except for a spotlight that illuminated only the acolyte and, of course, THE CHIEF. The only thing missing was kneeling, kissing the sword and being tapped on each shoulder and "Dubbed Sir Knight".  I'll bet Chief Creighton would have worked it into the ceremony if he had ever read about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

The first time I attended a Court of Honor that "anointed" an Eagle Scout, I knew I had to do it.  That was my most consuming passion until I accomplished it, even though it seemed, and was, a long, weedy row to hoe to a twelve year old.  I'm convinced that experience was tremendously valuable in such subsequent endeavors as Graduate School, research, and writing books.  One merit badge at a time prepared me for one course at a time, one exam at a time, one paper at a time, and one page at a time, never losing sight of the ultimate goal.  Fortunately, I didn't know all the goals to be faced at the time.         

  The first International Boy Scout Jamboree was held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1937.  Although it was in the depths of the Depression, my parents somehow found the money for me to attend.  It was possible only because my father could get me a Pass on the railroad, so there were no transportation costs, the biggest expense of the trip. Our "Jamboree Troop" was made up of kids from neighboring towns, including Electra and Vernon, as well as Wichita Falls; I suspect from the entire BSA District.

 We camped at Wichita Park for several days prior to our departure for indoctrination and learning the rudiments of close order drill conducted by my father and a few other World War I sergeants so we could march with some semblance of order when we got to Washington.  I remember it as chaotic, getting acquainted with dozens of new kids, strange new food, and the exciting anticipation of the experiences to come. Finally, the last inspection to make sure we all had the required uniforms, underwear, and toilet articles was completed and we boarded a train for the big adventure.

We carried all our possessions in a duffel bag and had our own passenger car for the entire trip.  The trip took about three days; we spent hours on sidings, waiting for other coaches loaded with Jamboree-bound Scouts.  By the time we reached Washington, the train was made up entirely of coaches of Boy Scouts, looking like troop train of miniature soldiers. 

The Jamboree campground was on both sides of the Tidal (Turning) Basin.  It was a beautiful site, open space, covered with grass and big trees along the bank.  A "Tent City" had been set up prior to our arrival and we moved into our assigned quarters.  There were thousands of Boy Scouts there from all over the world, representing most countries, races and colors, and speaking exotic foreign languages.

 Much of the free time was spent meeting and exchanging souvenirs with kids from other places. I no longer remember much about the formal program, but it was impressive.  There was a big Court of Honor, and my only regret of the Jamboree was that I missed being promoted to Eagle by Dan Beard because of lacking the Life Saving Merit Badge.  We saw all of Washington, D.C., marching to most places including The Capitol, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Smithsonian Institution. Washington was almost a small town then; almost everything was within walking distance.  We also saw Franklin D. Roosevelt from curbside as he was driven in an open car down Pennsylvania Avenue.

 On the way home, we stopped over in St. Louis and were bussed to Sportsman Park to see our first Major League baseball game.  I do not remember the score or even who the Cardinals played, but I' certain that Dizzy Dean was the Cardinal pitcher.  I returned from the Jamboree a much more sophisticated and better educated individual; it was certainly the greatest experience of my life to that point.                

I continued with Scouting for several more years, attaining the rank Of Eagle, with all the pomp and ceremony.  After finally passing the test for the Lifesaving Merit Badge, the life I saved was my own; I damned near drowned from the ordeal of jumping, fully clothed, into 10-foot deep water, undressing underwater then "rescuing" some turkey, towing him by various techniques, hauling him out of the water and giving him artificial respiration. 

          Along with Audie and several other members of Troop 22, J.C. Olney, M. D. Pearson, J. W. Moore and others, I joined the Senior Scouts when eligible, and we formed an "Explorer Post."  We continued to camp, with less or no adult supervision, but, more importantly, we discovered girls.  The regular Boy Scouts organization was strongly “male chauvinistic”; we wouldn't have known what the word meant if we had heard it, and if you thought about girls you certainly didn't admit it to your peer group. The only members of the female gender recognized by the BOY SCOUT MANUAL were Mothers and Little Old Ladies who needed to be helped across the street, thus satisfying your "Good Deed ForThe Day" requirement.

           However, the National Headquarters of the BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA recognized that the sap was rising in those teenagers, even if they were Eagle Scouts, and they were ready to rescue damsels in distress like Knights of the Round Table in preference to helping little old ladies across the street.  So we had wiener roasts with dates (girls not the fruit) -- properly chaperoned, of course -- Halloween Parties and at every other occasion we could contrive and talk some parent into hosting.   Not only were they all chaperoned, every mother KNEW she could trust her daughter with an Eagle Scout; I'm not sure all fathers totally accepted that concept.

          I eventually earned the Bronze Palm, an emblem pinned onto the ribbon of the Eagle Scout Badge and, if the rank of Eagle Scout was the equivalent of Brigadier General, the Bronze Palm was like being promoted to Major General.  I also earned the Silver Palm and had completed most of the requirements for the Gold Palm, the highest earned rank in scouting when I dropped out.  I don't know why I did that; it must have been one of my periodic rebellions against authority and the establishment.  In retrospect, I regret I didn't stay the full course, and I wish I still had my Eagle Scout Badge that was lost in a moving van fire.  



As the economy, oh so slowly, improved, my father was able to eventually "bid" successfully on a "regular" job on a switch engine in Amarillo, Texas.  We left the house on Travis Street, I've forgotten under what conditions, and moved to Amarillo.  My Uncle John owned a duplex and lived in a garage apartment on the back of the lot at 908 Arthur Street.  We rented one of the duplexes, 908 & 1/2 Arthur Street, and I enrolled in the "Lower Fifth Grade" at Sanborn Elementary School.         

The latter was a traumatic experience.  After reporting to the Principal's Office, I was escorted to my "Home Room", where I was the embarrassed center of attention of the entire class.  When we went outside for morning recess, a skinny red-headed kid came up to me and asked, rhetorically, "are you the new kid in Fifth Grade?"  When I admitted I was, he hit me in the mouth. We were immediately encircled by all the pupils on the playfield.  I wasn't sure how I came out in that encounter; but at afternoon recess I was challenged again.  I was forced to fight every boy in the fifth  grade to establish my rank in the "pecking order". I worked my way next to the top, but could never whip Murel Greathouse who became my best friend in Amarillo.  I felt better about that when he made ALL STATE for the Amarillo Sandies (I played against him in a losing cause in my final game of HighSchool football in the 1940 State Playoffs), and, especially, after he was a two time ALL AMERICAN linebacker at the University of Oklahoma.   

Uncle John and his family were interesting; he was fat, phlegmatic and a Deacon, or maybe even an Elder, in the Church of Christ.  His wife, Dolly, was a shriveled prune with a strong personality.  The prevailing family rumor was that he had met her in a house of ill repute, where she was gainfully employed, in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I had trouble believing that because I couldn't visualize Uncle John with his clothes off, let alone in a whorehouse; but Aunt Dolly was from Arkansas.  Aunt Dolly was the first person I ever knew who served hot tea.  Back then, Texans drank a lot of tea, but always in a tall glass filled with ice and with sugar and lemon, maybe, but never cream.  Everybody knew cream was for coffee.  Anyway, Aunt Dolly served hot tea, not coffee.  Invariably on tasting hot tea for the first time, her guests would say, "that's not bad or that's pretty good".  Aunt Dolly would then suck in her gut and reply, "I God, when I make tea, I make tea; and when I make water, I make water."  She would then smile appreciatively at the laughter; she knew she was funny, but never understood why. 

Uncle John and Aunt Dolly had two children; the eldest a fat girl so ordinary I can't remember her name or anything about her.  The youngest, John Sparks, Jr., was the apple of Aunt Dolly's eye.  When everyone was securely entrapped by the teacup and saucer in their lap, Aunt Dolly would summon her children. The daughter would take her place at the piano and John Jr. would strut out with a hard straw hat, a striped coat and a cane. Then, as MC, she would tell them to perform.  John Jr. would sing, while going through the appropriate gyrations, "Hand me down my walking cane, hand me down my walking cane".  After it was mercifully over, Aunt Dollie would say, "I God, that boy can sing." "Sing it agin, John Jr."  After the encore, everyone,
even the Preacher and Deacons would remember important appointments, and the entertainment would end.  I sometimes wondered if John Jr. and his sister knew any songs other than "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane."        

John Jr. was a combat medic enlisted man in WW II and, probably under the stress of combat, injected himself as well as the wounded with morphine.  He apparently became addicted or in the parlance of the time, turned out to be a "dope fiend."  I don't know the outcome of his treatment in the Veteran's Administration Hospital or the fate of his nameless sister. After his retirement from the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad, Uncle John and Aunt Dolly bought a farm in Arkansas and were never heard from again. 

In retrospect, Amarillo was a harsh environment; in addition to the mean kids, the weather was terrible.  We were there during the "Dust Bowl" times; often the sun would be totally obliterated at mid-day by dust storms.  The topsoil from Kansas, in microscopic particles, was insidious.  It not only invaded your eyes, other body orifices, and clothes when you were outside, but sifted through closed doors and windows  like an invasive, metastasizing cancer.  When we arrived there in August, it was hotter than Hades; when we left in January, it was colder than a "witches tit," in the Texas  vernacular.  I don't remember 0NE nice day in Amarillo.

 For years I fantasized that Cyd Charisse was in my Fifth Grade Class at Sanborn and was my "girl friend," but more likely it was  some other gorgeous fifth grader.  It was about then that I realized that I LOVED  girls, almost all of them.  Unfortunately, the feeling was seldom reciprocal. 

After about five months, my father "bumped" someone in Wichita Falls and we returned to our home on Travis Street.  Despite having to give up my hard-earned number two spot in the pecking order and my relationship to the queen of the Fifth Grade, I was not sorry to leave Sanborn, Amarillo and even "I God" Aunt Dolly.  When I think about Amarillo, I recall that scourge of the South, General William T. Sherman's statement while serving as the Military Governor of Texas after the War Between the States, "If I owned Hell and Texas, I would live in Hell and rent out Texas".  I can't remember anything positive about that time except that maybe it really was Cyd Charisse.   If I ever meet her, and that is highly unlikely, I'll ask her if she went to Sanborn Elementary School.  



                One of the best things about the house on Travis was its proximity to the Public Library, just across 13th Street from the vacant lot next door.  It was a red brick building in the middle of a square block of well tended lawn and shrubbery.  The grounds provided a great area for touch football and other games and four times around the block was close to a mile; I ran that every morning before breakfast for years.  But it was inside the building that I found my greatest entertainment.  

          Even though my father did not graduate from high school (I'm not sure he even got there), he was well educated.  He was an avid reader and immediately obtained a Library Card.  After accompanying him several times while he selected and checked out books, I was ready to strike out on my own.  I obtained my own Library Card and attempted to check out some books.  I had been reading the ones my father checked out prior to that.  The Librarian refused to let me check out "Adult" books on a "Child's" card and sent me downstairs to the Children's Section in the basement.  Boy, the shelves were loaded: The Bobbsie Twins, The Rover Boys, and even the entire Horatio Alger series for the advanced readers.  But I wasn't interested in anything available for kids.  I returned home, frustrated and possibly, but not likely in tears, and told my father what had happened.  "Good old Dad", in his overalls, immediately marched, with me in tow, over to the Library, up the stairs and to the checkout counter.  In a commanding but not particularly loud voice he said to the librarian behind the counter, "This is my son, he can read and he has my permission to check out any book in this Library". 

I never went down to the Children's Section again, but I haunted the Main Library.  Early on I got hooked on authors.  I checked out Captain Blood probably because the title was promising.  After finishing it, one by one I cleared the shelf of everything written by Rafael Sabatini; after Riders of the Purple Sage all of Zane Grey's followed suit.  Not in order, I consumed the complete works of Alexander Dumas, Rudyard Kipling (including the poems), all of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not just the Tarzan series, but the good ones like The Mucker, Voyage to the Center of the Earth (one of the first and still among the best Science Fiction novels), Mark Twain, and James Fennimore Cooper.

           No doubt I missed some of the subtle nuances because of my youthful naivete; I enjoyed Gulliver's Travels without knowing anything about Jonathan Swift or realizing it was a satire.  To me it was just a good, well written story.  The same was true of the works of Charles Dickens; I was totally engrossed in them as descriptions of life among the poor in England, not as condemnation of the socioeconomic structure of contemporary England in Dickens' time.  I guess there was sex in some of the books I read, Sabatini's heroes were always saving beautiful young women from pirates, Zane Grey's taciturn cowboys invariably rescued the rancher's daughter from the outlaws, but they were much less explicit as to the precise way the rescuee showed her appreciation to the rescuer than in later novels.  The point, however, is that whatever happened was part of the book and had nothing to do with me.  I suppose the reason that Librarian would not let me check out adult books was that someone in the management structure was afraid some young boy would read something that would turn him into a "sex fiend" or at least encourage masturbation.  Boys that age do very well on that score -- about the same with or without encouragement.

          Catholic is the best description of my early taste in literature.  I wanted to read EVERYTHING in the Library.  Later, I discovered murder mysteries through S. S. Van Dine; after finishing off his shelf, I went through Agatha Christie and various others.  Then I discovered Roy Chapman Andrews, Richard Halliburton and other "true" adventure stories such as the books on East Africa  by Osa and Martin Johnson.  I was late into Hemingway, but once started, I couldn't stop.

          Because of my compulsion to read everything, I had to learn to read fast and long.  I preferred to read a book in one sitting.  I even read Gone With the Wind nonstop even though it took me almost two days and all one night.  I still prefer to read a book from cover to cover, but seldom have enough time. That's one of the few pleasures of transcontinental and, especially, transoceanic flights.  You can start a book and finish it without ever putting it down, even during meals.  As a matter of fact, you don't even notice the meals if it's a good book.

          My early reading habits have made things much easier for me professionally than they otherwise would have been.  It started in elementary school: since I read at the adult level, everything in the textbooks was boringly simple.  Also, I had already read about everything covered in history, geography, and literature.  I always knew more than the simplistic coverage at the fifth grade level provided.  That sometimes got me into trouble when the teacher didn't; if I challenged something in the textbook, always defended by the teacher, and proved it wrong with a book from the library, the teacher almost always took it as a personal affront and I was branded  a "Smart Alec."

 In a high school English class the teacher, Miss Ida Jane Collins, as I'm sure she subsequently regretted, asked me for my reaction to the day's assignment "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe.  I said that I wondered whether he wrote it while drunk or during a hangover.  She became visibly agitated and demanded that I explain myself.  I then pointed out that Poe had been expelled from West Point, married his first cousin, lost several jobs because of his excessive drinking and died from it shortly after the death of his teenage wife.  The class howled with laughter and Miss Collins, taut but under control, told me to leave the room. 
A  few minutes later she appeared at the stairwell where Iwas sneaking a forbidden smoke, and, with tears running down her cheeks, asked me how I could do such a thing to Edgar Allen Poe. In retrospect, I wonder whether she knew of the seamy side of that tainted genius.  I know the other kids didn't, but they loved it.  Incidentally, I don’t remember Miss Collins ever calling on me again. 

I eventually learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time, just answering the questions on the quizzes, and content that if there were not many challenges at least I never had to study.  I never took a book or assignment home from Fourth Grade through High School.  English composition was "duck soup"; I never bothered to learn the rules of punctuation or even what a "gerund" was.  I could "diagram a sentence" correctly almost by instinct.  I had read so much well written prose, that I just knew what was bad when I saw it.  Themes and book reports were sometimes a problem, especially the first assignment with a new teacher.  They usually couldn't believe that a kid in their class could write that well, so I was viewed with, at best, suspicion or, at worst, accusations of having copied the report, theme, etc. from some book.

 I have always enjoyed writing, doing it easily, fast, and, I think, well.  I attribute it almost entirely to that early immersion in reading; I suppose I owe the Wichita Falls Public Library and, especially, my father a belated vote of appreciation for their encouragement.  Thank God there was no television then, and I never cared for Comic Books.  I didn't even listen to Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy, The Shadow (" who knows what evil lurks in the night?  The Shadow knows") or The Lone Ranger on the radio if I had a good book.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Depression Years

The Depression Years

Because my family had probably never even heard of the New York Stock Exchange, the events of October 1929 didn't mean a thing to us.  It took a while, but one of the first results of the incipient GREAT DEPRESSION was the virtual cessation of shipment of anything by rail.  Now, that got our attention. My father was "bumped" from his regular run by someone with more seniority and went on the "extra board." Soon he was on the "emergency board," where he went months without work.

With the milk from the cow and the meat from the yearly calf, eggs and fryers from the chickens, the annual pig's contribution of hams, pork chops, sausage, and everything but the squeal, and vegetables from the garden, we lasted for a while. Eventually, however, in what would now be termed a cash flow problem, they could no longer make the house payments and the bank reluctantly foreclosed.  THAT WAS NOT A HAPPY TIME.

Fortunately, one of my father's friends, a senior engineer on the railroad, Mr. Littrell, owned a truck farm on Petrollia Road and a house on 20th Street.  He kindly let us move into the house as part of a sharecropping arrangement in which we farmed for a share of the crops.  I sometimes read with amusement some millionaire athlete's quote, "we were poor but I didn't know it."  We were poor and we all knew it.  It didn't take a genius to comprehend that one pair of Thom McAnn shoes shared by three males was not luxury.  My brother dropped out of school about that time, either because he didn't have shoes or to bring in money from caddying at one of the golf courses.  I wore J.C. Penny's tennis shoes to school, but had to take them off as soon as I got home so they would "last.”   

The house on 20th Street was small even by the standards of that time.  The street was, and still is, unpaved; there were no houses across the street, just some bare ground and weeds and then the railroad tracks.  A couple of hundred yards to the right was the flour mill, a source of grain for your pigeons from the sweepings of the freight cars and occasional excitement when there was an explosion in the mill. 

Betty Cantrell, a beautiful girl who married a serviceman and moved to Oregon and later became a lawyer, law professor and influential Oregon legislator lived on the corner.  I confess, though, that I was more intrigued with the boy with six toes on each foot who lived two houses down the other direction.  He was amazed to learn that everyone didn't have six toes; all the men on his father's side of the family did.  He would have been proud if anyone could have told about polydactylism and eugenics.

Apparently Mr. Littrell had made some other arrangement for his farm the first summer we were there.  We (my father, a neighbor, and  I, and occasionally my brother) spent the entire summer in a tent on Lake Wichita fishing for a living.  We had more than five miles of "trot line" permanently in place.  Every evening we seined gizzard shad for bait and ran the trot line, taking off the fish and rebaiting the empty hooks.  We caught lots of fish, mostly catfish (including one sixty-four pounder), that we took into town to barter for other food.

In September, I reentered the real world.  The railroad tracks across the street were the demarcation line determining whether one went to Carrigan Elementary School or the more prestigious Stephen F. Austin.  Once again, much to my dismay, my mother prevailed -- this time on the administrators of Austin with the reasoned explanation that it was much closer -- and I began Third Grade there.  The school was better, two stories and squeaky  clean; the teachers were better, more interested in teaching than in keeping the little bastards under control; and the pupils were cleaner, better dressed and not nearly as tough (most of the Carrigan girls could have whupped most of the boys at Austin).

            However, there were some real tough boys who lived just across the tracks and they made my life miserable.  Most, if not all, of their fathers worked at the flour mill and they thought they owned the railroad tracks and all the spilled grain in the empty boxcars and beside the tracks.  There were more than a few confrontations when I attempted to get food for my pigeons or even walk along the tracks to my despised violin lessons.  "Here comes Little Albert with his violin" they would chant, and I would throw the damned fiddle down and come out swinging.  I don't remember ever clearly winning any of those fights, but eventually they began leaving me alone.  Only one of those kids graduated from High School and several of them ended up as alumni of State Pen rather than Penn State.

            My father was spending his days at Mr. Littrell's farm, getting it ready for spring planting.  That involved plowing up the remnants of the previous year's crops and harrowing the plowed ground, all done with a "Georgia Stock" and a mule. I spent most of my Saturdays there -- even working people took Sunday off, unless you worked for the Railroad (which my father was doing less of all the time).  I deviled my father into letting me learn how to plow.  That mule was something special; he knew I was a child and took every available advantage.  Half an hour before lunch and "quitting time" in the afternoon, he would begin his ploy.  When we reached the corner of the field nearest the barn, he would stop, waiting to be unhitched from the plow.  When, instead of that happening, he was whacked with the traces and told to "GO," he would groan and, oh so slowly, pull the plow up the right side of the field.  When we reached the corner and turned left, he would pick up speed.  By the time we got to the next corner, he was heading for the barn and going full bore.  I would be hanging onto the plow and trying, not always successfully, to keep it in the ground.  Rounding "Third Base" and heading for "Home," we would be almost flying.  If, when he stopped at the corner, I refused him again, he would turn his head and look me reproachfully right in the eye; occasionally he would even bray his displeasure. I learned a lot from that mule; he knew his job and did it well, but he didn't take any crap from anybody--especially from some snot-nosed, barefoot kid. 

The Littrell farm was a "truck farm"; we grew vegetables: green beans, blackeyed peas, English peas, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons and, worst of all, okra. There was lots of stoop labor in planting, weeding and harvesting the crops, but the okra had an added discomfort.  The hirsute okra pods are intensely irritating to human skin and the effects are compounded by heat and, especially, sweat.  Crawling down the rows as I picked the okra, I would occasionally wipe the sweat off my face.  That was a mistake; in a few minutes the wiped area began itching, and when you scratched it, it itched even more.  Next, you realized you had scratched your bare back (we didn't wear shirts while working in summer) and soon your back was on fire. The only salvation was a dip in the pond at the back of the farm.

The latter was a rarity in North Texas; it was deep, probably 40 feet, and crystal clear.  Its origin was a gravel pit, but I suspect they tapped an underground water source.  The water was cold, even in summer when the ambient temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  It also contained several huge large mouth bass that were always cruising around, creating an insurmountable challenge for me, but one my father surmounted. 
I caught several of their offspring on worms turned up by the plow (the fish went into the frying pan),  but my father figured it out.  He caught a grasshopper, impaled it on a fish hook, and,
without any weight, set it adrift on the surface of the pond, while lying on his belly so the fish couldn't seem him. It didn't drift far before one of those behemoths engulfed it and he hauled it ashore.  That was the first BIG BASS I ever saw; we didn't weigh it, but it was surely more than five pounds.

The Littrells lived on the front of the place, in a brick house and on a paved road.  They had electric lights and indoor plumbing but a well with a hand operated pump in the back yard.  That well produced the same cold liquid crystal present in the pond, far superior to the "store bought" water in the house.  I don't know what the Littrells did with their (major) share of the crops, but we took ours home and used it all.  We ate all we could fresh and my mother canned the rest (in a pressure cooker in "Bell Jars").  The black-eyed peas "didn't sell" so we ended up with several hundred jars of canned black-eyed peas. The rest of the year we had black-eyed peas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I got so sick of them, I wouldn't eat one for more than forty years, even on New Year’s Day when eating black-eyed peas is supposed to bring you luck in the upcoming year.

Those days were bad for all of us, but they must have been horrible for my mother. Probably for the first time in her life, she didn't have a cow, no room for a garden, and no pig pen (even though one would have fitted well into the ambience of the neighborhood).  With her boundless energy, she must have been terribly frustrated with so little to do.  Lacking all the "farm" products, we were forced to buy milk, eggs, bacon and such staples as flour, cornmeal, and even lard "on credit" at the nearby E. E. Wilson Grocery Store.

Even though it was dismal all the time, there were occasional low points that were even worse.  One that stands out in my memory was when we had to, in the Depression euphemism, "go on relief" and accept sacks of groceries from the Government.  It was the first and one of the few times I saw my father cry.   He was humiliated at having to accept charity when he was able, even eager, to work. 

Another salient low point was when my father's back "went out" while he was plowing.  Someone brought him home, screaming from the pain every time he was moved.  The Doctor diagnosed it as prostatitis; my mother was convinced it was a delayed attack of gonorrhea caught from some fancied French whore in Paris during World War I.  I suspect it was probably a slipped disk, but, whatever it was, it sure caused trouble.  Somebody had to keep up with the work on the farm or we were in REAL trouble.  My brother and I managed to take care of it until my father recovered sufficiently to resume his duties; my learning to plow paid off. 

The proudest I ever was of my father was an event that happened during that period.  Following the then-famous but now largely forgotten "March on Washington" by veterans of World War I, Congress passed a bill authorizing a "Bonus" to veterans of that war.  My father received several hundred dollars ($500 to $700 -- I don't remember the exact amount).  On receiving the Government check, he immediately marched to the grocery store, signed the check and handed it to Mr. Wilson, saying "I'd like to pay my bill."  We owed Mr. Wilson more than $300; how he "carried" us and numerous others when all the groceries were going out of the store and no money was coming in, I don't know, but I hope all his customers were as ethical as my father and that he died rich.

            Subsequent to the Bonus Check windfall, things gradually began to improve; but we weren't out of the woods by a long shot.  My father began to work more frequently on the railroad, so we stopped sharecropping the Littrell's farm.  My mother found a house for rent in a much better neighborhood (1207 Travis Street and across the street from the Public Library) for $30 a month.
With NO  regrets, we left the little house on 20th Street. More than forty years later, while driving through Wichita Falls, I left the Freeway and found 20th Street.  Nothing had changed: the street was still unpaved, no houses across the street, just the railroad tracks and the flour mill, and the house looked  exactly like it looked when we moved out of it. (I'd bet even money that the hole in the cheap wallboard wall that my brother Bill made with his fist in a moment of frustration is still there).  Our daughter, Elisa, said "Dad, why are we stopping here?"  When I answered "A long time ago, I lived here," she said "Now I understand why you work so hard.”  

            Every thing on Travis Street was much better.  We had a fenced (large) back yard with lots of room for chickens, but not for cows and pigs.  My sister Ruby, who could never stand to be
far from our mother (the two even shared my mother's last and her first  pregnancy)  bought a house at 1307 Austin Street, a block and a half away.  Ruby had, and until her death in her eighties, CLASS.  Where she found it, I don't know, but it was there.

There was a vacant lot next door, between us and the unoccupied 13th Street, that my mother quickly appropriated by right of imminent domain (a legal term meaning she occupied it
and defied anyone trying to take it away from her).  Once again she had a garden; all the vacant lot was soon productive, the parts of the backyard not devoted to chickens were not wasted. My father became a flower gardener, of all things.  His lawn was immaculate and his pansies, grown from seed, were legendary.  The chicken manure (we called it what it really was) no doubt contributed significantly to both gardens.  The Sahara-like vacant lot soon became a veritable Garden of Eden:  tomatoes,  bell peppers, green beans, English peas, onions, squash, even okra and, (ugh) black-eyed peas flourished. 

My mother was "back in business."  We never knew how many people were going to be at the large dining room table for any meal, but the more the better.  If my mother decided there were
too many for the available food, she would go into the back yard, throw out a little corn and say "Chick, chick, chickee."  Before those dumb fryers knew what was happening, she would grab one, wring its neck,  pick it, and have it in the frying pan before it quit quivering.

Somewhere along the line, our landlord, no doubt impressed with what my parents were doing with the place, offered to sell the house to them.  My father, burned and scarred by losing the
house on 26th Street, would not even discuss it.  Somehow, my resolute mother worked out a deal with the owner to buy the house for $1,000, no down payment and $30 a month -- the rent payment.  My father didn't learn for years that we were buying, not renting, the house.  I don't know what, if anything and probably nothing, my mother did for or with the owner to get that deal, but it certainly was well worthwhile for the Sparks family.