Thursday, March 06, 2014

My Dad

My dad was born 100 years ago today.  Anyone who lives long enough to say this of a parent must themselves consider the lengthening shadows of their own mortality.  But he has now been gone for almost 29 years, and a day does not pass that I do not think of him.  He was my hero.

My dad was born in the Texas Hill Country, on his grandfather’s farm, about 3 miles up Gann’s Creek from where it empties into the Lampasas River at the village of Maxdale.  The second son of Henry and Lillie, he was given the name “John L Henry” after his maternal grandfather and his own father, who himself was named after a favorite uncle.  For those unfamiliar with our state, the Hill Country is a rugged region in central Texas, characterized by rocky hills of cedar and live oaks, idyllic valleys watered by clear running streams, and home to deer and sheep and goats.  It is, frankly, the best part of our state—not necessarily for just the aesthetics, but rather for the quality of its citizens.  They are a straight-forward people who look life head-on, yet seem to appreciate the simple joys of living.  Hill Country folk tend to look west, rather than east, back to the Old South.  Slavery never tainted the region, and the defeatism and class divisions that weigh so heavy in the South find no home here.  From what I can gather, it was an egalitarian culture, with few of the very wealthy or the desperately poor.  Differences in circumstances were measured in number of acres owned, but most everybody lived much the same.  Today it is increasingly home to the elite, who want a ranch hangout or deer lease within easy driving range of Austin or San Antonio.  But back in the day, it was more of a hardscrabble place, where farmers and ranchers had to work hard to pull a living from the rocky soil.  Except for my college years, I have never lived there.  But I have spent my entire life going back there.  In his youth, my son called it "the Old Country." I like that.

My grandparents, Henry and Lillie, were grade school sweethearts, living on either side of the Lampasas River.  They were a perfectly yoked team, you might say, complimenting each other and making a happy home for their offspring. The stories that came down in our family—and those I’ve added from the cousins now long gone—all speak to the good times of a bygone era.  Decades ago, after our family had been gone from this region for many years, I sought out my dad’s kin.  Once these cousins learned I was the grandson of Henry and Lillie, then all doors opened for me, for it seemed that they were everyone’s favorite cousins.

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 dad had a lifelong love affair with horses.  My granddad and his sisters sold the farm when my dad was five.  But even at this young age, my granddad would place his son on old Star, the gentle mare that the family had for so long, and then my dad would ride down to Maxdale.  There, one of the men at the general store would bring the mail out to him, and then the little boy and Star would trot back home.  Within a year or two of his death, I remember my dad racing across our big hay meadow on his quarter horse, lariat in hand, after a steer that had peeled away from the corral.  And so, of my dad’s 71 years, at least 66 of them were spent on horseback.

The family moved around a bit after leaving Maxdale, first living on Lillie’s aunt’s place, then near Henry’s uncle.  In about 1928, they purchased a farm of their own in the Harmon community. They raised a number of crops--vegetables, cotton, grain—and had some cattle, dairy and otherwise, as well as hogs and sheep.  The family, at that time, consisted of four boys and an only daughter.  The four boys were a handful, as the saying goes.  I once talked with a woman who went to school with my dad, and whose two sisters married my granddad’s cousins.  I think she had been a little sweet on my dad.  She more or less characterized the oldest brother as the proud one, my dad as the smart one, the third son as the mischievous one, and the fourth son as the good one—and she had them pegged. 

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.

My dad was the entrepreneurial one of the bunch.  His father gave him an acre out of the corner of the place where he could raise whatever he wanted and keep the profits for himself.  From this patch my dad raised enough cotton to purchase an old roadster in his teenage years.  My dad wanted to go to Texas A&M and become a county agricultural engineer.  He graduated high school in 1932, but my granddad talked him into working for a year first.  My dad said that by the time that year was up, he knew that there would be no college in his future.  My granddad was, in fact, deeply in debt.  My dad told me once that he never knew they were poor.  The family lived modestly, but Henry and Lillie enjoyed life and each other, so much so that their children never contemplated the fact that they might be poor. 

In the fall of 1933, my dad, his next youngest brother and my granddad went out to the High Plains to pick cotton.  A cousin made good out there and there was work to be had.  My granddad and uncle returned home, but my dad stayed on a while in the Panhandle.   He returned to central Texas just before Christmas, 1933.  He pulled up to the farmstead and received a shock.  The place was empty—no stock in the barns, no chickens and turkeys pecking around the yard, no furniture in the house, no farm equipment of any sort.  My dad’s own personal horse and saddle were gone as well.  At some point, their kindly German neighbor, Mr. Falkenberg, stepped over and explained what happened.  After the stock market crash of 1929, agriculture prices dropped precipitously, and then leveled off.  My grandfather thought that this would be a good time to expand, while prices for equipment and stock were low as well.  The big mercantile establishment (really a bank) in Lampasas outfitted him in new farm equipment and stock.  Of course, the leveling off after the drop in prices turned out to be just a plateau before they plummeted to new depths.  My granddad was never able to pull out of the hole.  Finally, just before Christmas of 1933, the Lampasas firm arrived on the farm and repossessed everything, including my dad’s personal horse and saddle.

I have often thought about this day, my 19-year old dad standing there in the yard of their lost farm, and how it affected him.  I know this: It marked him, as the old country saying goes.  This, and the events that soon followed, marked him for life.

My dad found his family living in a nearby town.  My granddad was able to keep his old truck, and was earning a bit of money here and there by hauling for hire.  Money had to be found somewhere, for my grandmother, at age 44, was expecting their sixth child.  She had not had a child in ten years, though there had been two miscarriages along the way.  Their doctor warned her about becoming pregnant again.  My grandfather tried to borrow money for a hysterectomy, but to no avail.  And so, in late February, she gave birth to my last uncle.  Their regular doctor was unavailable, and Lillie refused the expense of going to the hospital in Temple.  Complications set it and her condition deteriorated.  At last, they took her to the hospital anyway, but it was too late and she soon died.  Her body was taken to her grandparent’s home, from where the funeral was held, followed by burial in the family plot under the live oaks, not 300 feet away.

Times were desperate.  Family members stepped in to help, as much as they could, but my grandfather resisted the breaking-up of the family.  My dad and his next younger brother took action to help the family and provide for their younger siblings still at home.  In April 1934, my dad joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government assistance program.  Half of his salary would be automatically sent home for the benefit of his family.  Within the last two years, my aunt--the sole surviving sibling--told me with tears in her eyes how it was my dad’s money that had fed them during these tough times.

The Corps transferred my dad to a camp in East Texas, where he was stationed for two and a half years, with temporary postings in the Pecos Mountains and in Oregon as well.  He learned the skill of land surveying in the CCCs.  This would be the profession he would follow for the rest of his life.  Some might say he was a self-made man, and of course, in some sense he was.  But he never loudly made this claim himself.  He never discounted the assistance and training he received from the government during the mean years of the Depression.  In later life, somewhat awash in prosperity, he never complained about having to pay taxes.  He would say, “If I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have to pay it.”  My dad was a citizen, in the best sense of that word.  And he remained throughout life, a good Democrat (though with one slip.)

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. 




elizabeth said...

The picture of your father is handsome and full of light; I can see why you are proud. I enjoyed very much your story of your family and I think many of us miss these days gone by; your Dad is an important example of the goodness of that time. Memory Eternal!

Anonymous said...

This is completely unrelated to this post. I just remembered your interest in Lukacs, and I thought you might appreciate Nicolas Gomez Davila. The title of one of his books is "Scholia on the Margin of an Implicit Text," which reminded me of your blog name. Not much of his work has been translated into English, unfortunately, but what has been translated is simply wonderful.