I get the idea that they were interested in the larger world around them, and not just obsessed with getting the crop laid by, as important as that was. A town aunt enabled my granddad and his sisters to receive an excellent education at the Wedemeyer Academy. The sisters went on to graduate from college. My granddad took a keen interest in politics—perhaps too much so. He was on the school board for the little rural school down the road from their last farm. My grandmother came from humbler means, and worked in a department store to help support her widowed mother and unmarried sisters. Quite by chance, I discovered an article she submitted to a journal in 1916. During the 1920s, they owned a victrola and would occasionally dance around the parlor together at night. Lillie was a joyous Christian, faithful to her church. She usually sang while she worked. She could play the musical instruments available to them—piano, organ, violin, accordion, French harp, etc. She bobbed her hair in the mid 1920s.
My grandmother doted on her oldest son, which caused him to hold himself aloof from his brothers. This attitude insured that he would be the brunt of pranks instigated by my dad and his next younger brother. What one wouldn’t think of, the other would. Sometimes they would enlist the services of the good-natured fourth brother, though they could just as easily turn their attentions to his discomfort, as well. These stories are legion in the family, but two of them stand out as favorites—and both concern my oldest uncle’s courting days. One night, my uncle had a female guest over to the house. The other children were instructed to stay out of the way, and leave the front parlor to the young couple. My dad and his next younger brother climbed up the ladder into the attic. They took a cat with them as they went. There they opened the stovepipe coming up through the attic from the parlor. As it was warm weather, there was no fire in the store, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to stuff the cat down the stovepipe. The courting downstairs quickly broke up amidst the screeching cat and the soot. My dad shimmied down the ladder and out the back door as quick as he could. His partner, however, was rolling on the floor of the attic, convulsed with laughter. By the time my uncle had composed himself enough to effect an escape, it was too late. My granddad was waiting at the foot of the ladder, belt in hand. Another story had the two brothers sneaking off to the barn as the older brother was preparing to ride off to visit a neighbor girl. Before their brother could leave, they got a water hose and gave his horse an enema. The results were as you would expect when my uncle mounted his horse and spurred her on. And then there was the story I learned only in recent years. My grandparents and the younger children had gone into town. Left at home alone, my dad and his younger brother gave each other Mohawk haircuts, stripped down to nothing or next to it, then spent the day galloping around the neighborhood bareback, whooping and hollering as the wild Indians that they were.
While stationed in East Texas, my dad met my mother. He saw her at work in a field as he drove down a country road. Today, my nephew owns that very same pasture. I cannot think of two people as different in background and temperament as my dad and mother. And yet, they made a good team. He could put things together and make things happen, while she would see that they hung on to some of it. In her own way, my mother was a great woman, but this is not her story I’m telling today.
Her immediate family was poor, though it had not always been so. Her great-grandfather had been prosperous, a gin-owner with close to 800 acres of land. But there were many grandchildren, and so this turned out to be of no great advantage to my mother’s father. He compounded things by marrying—at age 16—the daughter of one of his grandfather’s sharecroppers. My mother’s father was a quiet man, peculiar in the peculiar ways of his very peculiar family. His new bride was of a different sort—domineering, opinionated, stubborn, and not a little crazy. The well was poisoned early in her relations with her mother-in-law, and with six children in nine years, their lives never rose above the bleakness of a Southern sharecropper’s life. Unlike my dad’s family, there are no stories of good times or amusing anecdotes—only the struggle to live.
My mother’s mother doted on the two youngest children, and more or less ignored the others, including my mother. My mother’s next youngest brother was best of the lot, and the only one who emerged from that family seemingly unscathed. He was a prince of a man, who died all too soon. The others—including my mother—carried the scars of their upbringing. She was not particularly self-reflective, and was often deeply suspicious of those outside her immediate family circle. She did not understand people that were different from herself. Looking back, this is such a contrast with my dad’s open and easy manner with everyone. Only after his death did I fully realize the extent that he had moderated her inclinations. But like I say, they were a good team. And if I am still living and blogging in five years, I will tell her story more fully, and (I trust) more sympathetically.
Her mother never liked my dad. As my mother was packed and leaving home to make a life with with my dad, her mother followed her daughter out to his roadster, telling my mother that if she left with that man, then not to ever come back. He was twenty-two, she seventeen. The newlyweds returned to Central Texas at first, but my dad soon discovered that conditions were even worse there than in East Texas. And so, they did return to my mother’s home—my dad with no visible prospects. My mother’s mother worried about this no-good son-in-law. Her solution was to sew him a cotton-picking sack. He took one look at it and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know I’m not going to do that.” He realized that there was no future in it, as they say. His mother-in-law took it that he was too good to pick cotton. She quipped to a kinsman, “I don’t know what John is going to do. We already have a President and a Governor.” No, she never warmed up to him, not even when she died in the house he built her, cared for by the daughter she ignored. I doubt she would have changed her mind had she lived to see him end up supporting the better part of her family, at one time or another, for the rest of his life.
My dad got a job as a surveyor with an engineering company based in Tyler, Texas. Soon, he was managing their operations in Arkansas. My dad always had on-going side ventures. He built or remodeled a couple of houses in Arkansas, moving his dad and sister and youngest brother into one and renting the other. He purchased a Lion gas station and grocery story. My mother ran the store and pumped gas while he was surveying. Back home in East Texas, he starting running a few cows on my mother’s family place (actually owned by her grandmother.) One by one, he also started buying out all the heirs. By the time he was 29, he and my mother owned the entire 200 acre farm that her great-grandfather had given her grandfather. Other farms have come and gone, but this one—known simply as “the Old Place”—is sacrosanct.
In 1946, my dad and mother moved back from Arkansas. In that year, he founded his own land surveying business, with this August marking our 68th year in operation. He was a hard worker and his company grew quickly. The 1950s and 1960s were the period of greatest expansion, with surveying crews working in a number of states. His largest project involved surveying a pipeline route from the outskirts of Philadelphia to the outskirts of Chicago. My dad gained a reputation as a fair man who treated everyone with respect. He enjoyed poking fun at pretense, and always dressed in plain work khakis, or in later years, jeans. He commanded great loyalty from his co-workers and never asked them to do anything that they did not see him do first. He was my great example of how one is to treat their fellow man.
My dad loved his work, and he pursued it relentlessly. But at heart, he was a cowboy. And so, our lives revolved around the farms, cattle, and the feeding and care of same. In 1962, he purchased his last farm, which we simply referenced as the “the big place.” He spent the last 20+ years of his life, working on this ranch, first part-time, and then full-time in his “retirement.” Unlike most, this was a real working ranch. Most of the time I spent with my dad was in going back and forth to these farms, feeding or just checking on the cattle. For someone who grew up around cattle all their life, I know as little about them as anybody. I was never interested, and it simply never “took” with me. I did, however, relish the time spent with my dad and the conversations we would have along the way. I would have been happy with far fewer cows and more of my dad. This is not to criticize him, for he could not have been anybody else than who he was. He and my brother were closer, I would think. But for the last ten years of his life, at least, I was the one who was with my dad more. And in the last year of his life, after my brother's death, I think we came to understand each other better than we ever had.
On occasion, I have had people tell me that I remind them of my dad in some way. This is getting more and more infrequent as time passes, as there are fewer people living who knew him. Any commonality is probably accidental at best, as I can never be the man he was. But I would always smile and thank them, not admitting that this was, in fact, the greatest compliment I could ever receive, nor could I admit that I would always choke-up a bit inside, as well.
Memory Eternal, Dad.