Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mama the Little Hobo

Mama and one of the twins, age 14
Mama was little, never bigger than a 12-year-old kid, and her younger sister Eva, who we called Pete, wasn't much bigger. The Halloween my twin brothers Hall and Harrell were 15 they blackened their faces and went out “slamming gates”, i.e. begging at doors for Halloween candy.

It was 1944 and wartime. Everything was rationed and pickings were slim. Mama ran out of treats early. Pete was visiting and Dad was working "evening tower", which meant he wouldn't be home 'til 1:00 am, so Mama and Pete decided to dress up like "hobos" and go out slamming gates themselves. 

They blackened their faces, stuffed their hair under slouch caps, pulled some threadbare work clothes out of the rag-bag and laced some of the twins' old boots over their own shoes. They looked pretty good, like a couple of half-grown boys, totally unrecognizable.

They walked a few blocks over to a row of houses where Mama didn't know the neighbours and hit a rich vein. It wasn't long before their sacks started filling up. They were feeling pretty pleased with themselves when a familiar voice hailed them from behind. "Hey! What you fellers doing in our territory?"

They turned around to face a gang of 15-16 year boys, including both of my brothers, and they didn't look friendly. One of the twins was swinging a sock with a fist-sized load of marbles tied in the end of it. "Gimme that sack kid,” he said to Mama, “or else I'm giving you a thump on the head with these marbles."

Mama narrowed her eyes, and steam just about came out of her ears, but she didn't dare speak. She handed over her sack. "And you too," he said, pointing at Pete. Pete reluctantly handed over her sack. "Now git!" he said and he hauled off and thumped Mama one with the sock of marbles on the side of the head, catching her just above the eyebrow.

Mama reeled from the blow, then she and Pete broke and ran for home, scrambling and stumbling in their too-big-boots, mocking laughter following them.

Now Mama had an Irish temper that was scarce contained on a good day, and this was turning out to not be a good day. As soon as she and Pete got home she clomped down to the basement and sawed the last two-and-a-half feet off of an old broomstick. Then she stomped upstairs, took two aspirin, wrapped a big chip of ice from the icebox in a wash rag, put it on the lump above her eyebrow and sat down at the kitchen table to wait for the twins. Her blackened face was not as black as her mood.

It was a school night, and it wasn't long before the twins came through the door laughing and hooting, carrying several sacks of loot. They roared into the kitchen and came to a screeching halt when they saw Mama and Pete in the guise of the two "hobos" they had robbed and assaulted an hour before. Mama pulled the washcloth away from her brow to expose the purple goose-egg there, and the dried rivulet of blood.

She stood up, broomstick in hand. "Boys, it's like this," she said thumping the sawed-off broomstick into her palm with a certain slow and menacing rhythm. "You give me your sacks, and the satisfaction of beating you with this broomstick until you holler uncle, and I'm willing to tell your daddy that I ran into the doorjamb in the basement in the dark. Or you keep your candy and I tell him what really happened. It's your choice."

Well, Mama and Pete got their candy back plus some, and she bruised the twins up pretty good with that broomstick, because they were just too proud, and too stubborn, to holler uncle. She finally just wore herself out and had to quit.

I'll bet they told me that story me a dozen times when I was growing up, usually as we suited up for Halloween. Maybe that's what made me think of it now, as Halloween approaches. I wasn't even born when it happened, and now I'm old and all of them are gone, and being a sentimental old fool it makes me cry to think I'll never see, or hug, or kiss, or fight with any of them again. My only comfort is any old Russian proverb says, “Our ancestors live, as long as they are remembered.” 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mama and the Murderer

When I was a kid my Mom and I often went to visit her niece Bertha and Bertha's husband Lester and their two kids Donny and Myrna Sue. They lived a few miles from Granite, Oklahoma whose main employer was a maximum security penitentiary.

Lester was a farmer who raised mostly cotton and sorghum, but to supplement his income he kept a team of about a dozen bloodhounds who were used to track prisoners when escapes occurred at "The Pen", which was only a mile or two away.  When the warden called Lester and Donny would take their rifles out of the gun cupboard, load the dogs into crates and wait for the truckloads of deputies to arrive. Together they'd track down the escapees.

The house was at the end of a long dirt road and pretty typical for its time. In other words they had a single bare electric bulb hanging in the center of each of its four rooms, a hand pump in the kitchen sink and an outhouse. The "facilities" consisted of a two-holer at the end of a 100 foot path which ran through a cane-brake. "Cane", a wild bamboo which grows in impenetrable thickets in swampy ground all over the American south, gets about 12 feet tall. At night, when the leaves whisper and mutter and the canes creak and moan as they are stirred by the wind, a cane-brake is appealing only from a distance.

One year we visited in late October. We came to help pick cotton, which is not a very nice job, because cotton doesn't like being picked, and it bites. I was five and Myrna was seven so we weren't very good at picking cotton anyway, so while everyone else was busy we went back to the house and Myrna decided she'd teach me to drive. I sat in her lap and steered while she pushed on the pedals. However, she couldn't see the road because I was in her lap and I couldn't see the road because I couldn't see over the dashboard. We drove her daddy's pickup truck into the irrigation ditch and he had to pull it out with the tractor and fix whatever broke dropping into a four foot deep ditch full of water. I think it was an axle.

The phone rang about 6:00 the last night of our stay. It was the warden at "The Pen", with news that a murderer had escaped from "Death Row".  The deputies were already on their way to pick up Lester, Donny and the dogs.

Mother panicked. She was terrified that we helpless females were being left alone, but Lester and Bertha waved aside her fears. They'd lock the doors and set a loaded shot-gun within reach. Bertha was adept with a gun, woe betide the murderer who threatened her household!  But Mother would not be calmed or comforted. She was sure the murderer would sneak up and take us by surprise and kill us all before Bertha could get a shot off. Finally Lester told her that he'd leave one of the dogs to guard the house. The dog would bark if anyone approached.  

Mother fretted and worried constantly over the next hours.  She'd alternately peer out through the windows into the dark night, then come back to the kitchen where she fidgeted in her chair and only paid half-attention to the games of checkers we were playing.

She was scared and nervous and the coffee Bertha kept pouring into her cup soon made her need to make a trip to the two-holer. However, the thought of walking that long path in the dark through the cane-brake alone terrified her. She asked several times wasn't it time everyone went out to the outhouse? Bertha didn't take the bait. Mama finally said to Bertha, "I have just got to go to the outhouse! Bring the gun and come with me."

"I'm not going out there,"Bertha said, "Gun or no gun. Not 'til they've got that guy back in the pen." She went into the bedroom and came back carrying a coffee can. "Use this," she said, handing Mom the can. "It's what we do at night." Mom was aghast. She may have grown up in the sticks, but she'd been a townie for 30 years and was accustomed to indoor plumbing. The idea of peeing in a coffee can appalled her. She couldn't do it. Another hour passed.  She was now in real misery, but still resisting the path or the coffee can.

Finally the point came where she could contain herself no longer. The front porch was about three feet narrower on each side than the house. Bertha suggested that she go out to the far side of the house, where the porch met the front wall of the house and formed a little sheltered niche, and "water" the flower bed. She'd be no more than 20 feet from the front door, and yet she'd be out of sight should the men come up the road.

"Alright," Mama said, "but you," and she pointed at all 25 pounds of me, "are coming with me to stand guard." I was shaking inside as we ventured onto the porch, walking like we were on hot lava. "Don't you dare close that door!" Mama hissed at Bertha.

"Well, let me at least latch the screen," Bertha replied with some annoyance.

Mama drug me by the hand down the steps and around to where the porch joined the house. There was a bed of flowers edged with rocks. Mama stepped across the rocks, parted the foliage, hoisted her dress and dropped her panties around her ankles. She had just squatted down and begun her business when the  bloodhound came around the corner of the house. There wasn't time to say anything, nor did it occur to me that the old dog would stick his wet cold nose right on her bare bottom.

She leapt to her feet, letting out a scream that would have paralyzed a village of Comanches. Her panties were around her ankles, so she couldn't run, but she could hop, and hop she did, screaming "!MURDER! !MURDER!" the entire way. There wasn't a kangaroo in Australia that wouldn't have been jealous of the hopping my Mama did on her way to the front door and up the three steps. When she got to the screen door she punched a hole right through it before Bertha had time to take the latch off.

I was laughing so hard I was just about wetting my own self running behind her, trying to tell her through my laughing that it was just the dog that touched her, not the murderer.

Once I managed to explain to her what had happened Bertha and Myrna Sue began to shriek with laughter, which made me start laughing again too, and made Mama mad, which made us laugh even harder. She went in the kitchen and got the flyswatter and whipped me good, and she promised to whip me again if I told my Daddy about it when we got home. 

I promised I wouldn't tell him, and I didn't, until the year after she died. On the way home from the family reunion I finally told Dad the story. He'd taken her death pretty hard, but that day we both wept with laughter.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sun City's Original Volunteer

My Dad wasn't much of a talker, but no one could outwork him. He worked in the oil patch from the age of 18 until he was in his 50s, but he was always able to pick up a hammer and saw and build anything from a house to a chest of drawers or a set of kitchen cabinets with meticulous precision, a skill he taught both his sons.

He was tall and as lean as a greyhound and when he was working he was as focused on what he was doing as those dogs are on the rabbit when the gate springs open and they speed down the track.     

When we moved to Phoenix in 1959 he left the oil field for good, strapped on a tool belt and became a finish carpenter. Phoenix was booming and neighbourhoods were sprouting like mushrooms across the desert. Dad had no trouble finding work, when one subdivision was finished he moved on to the next.

Construction's a hard job in the summer in Phoenix. Work starts at 4:00 am and the crews quit for the day at noon. Working construction in 125 degrees F (52 C) is brutal, and the men he worked alongside were for the most part in their 20s and 30s. He was in his late 50s. They called him "The Old Man", but for all their youth they couldn't outwork him. 

Time went on and he was in his 60s and as he liked to say, he was so skinny he had to stand twice to throw a shadow. The economy was going through a bit of slow patch. A job ended as a subdivision was finished and he went looking for a new job. He'd leave about 6:00 am with his lunch box and water can, but in a couple of hours later he'd be back, having not found work. This went on for several days, and anxiety mounted in the household. My folks were ninja masters at living on very little, but they couldn't live on nothing. They worked harder than anyone I've ever known but they definitely lived paycheck to paycheck.

One morning Dad left, lunch pail and water can in hand, and he did not return until noon. As he pulled into the driveway in his little 51 Ford station wagon the anxiety my mother and I felt lifted. Dad was working again. He came in and dropped his empty lunch pail on the table with a satisfied look on his face. "I worked today," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Where?" Mother asked.

"That big new development called Sun City," he said. "They're building a thousand houses or more, it's a new deal, a whole community just for retired people."

He went off to work the next day and the next.
On Friday he came home at noon, dropped his lunch pail and a paycheck on the table and with a grin said, "Well, I got a job today, and I got a promotion too."

"What do you mean you got a job today? Mother asked. "What about the job you had before?"  

"Oh I said I was working," he said. "I didn't say I had a job."

"What does that mean?" Mother demanded.

"Well, I looked up the job foreman Tuesday morning and asked him if he needed any help. He was a smart-assed son-of-a-bitch, looked about 25. He looked me up and down with a sneer on his face and he said,  'Yeah I need a finish carpenter, but I don't hire old men.'

That made me mad, so I left and drove around there a while looking at all those hundreds of houses. All those roads go in big circles inside circles. After a while I stopped and got out and went in one of those houses. It was ready for the finish work, all the material had been delivered and was just laying there. So I got my tools out of the wagon and started to work.

Couple of hours later a guy bout my age came around, poked his head in, introduced himself, and I introduced myself, and we agreed they sure are building a lot of houses out here. We talked a little bit, while I worked. He came by the next day too, by then I was working  in the next house. He brought his lunchbox so we sat and ate lunch together, and afterwards he said he was real interested in understanding what a finish carpenter does. I showed him how I was framing in the window and door jambs, how you miter the joints of the baseboards at the angles so they all meet perfectly.

This morning he came back again, with that smart-ass of a foreman. Seems he's the supervisor of the whole building project. He went to the foreman this morning and asked him what he was paying me. The foreman didn't know who he meant, until he described me. Then the foreman said, "What does that old so-and-so think he's doing, down there working when I told him I didn't hire old men!"

The developer brought him over to the house where I was working, and said, "Okay, son, get your tool belt on and let's see if you are as good a finish carpenter as the 'Old Man'. And Charlie, you come on up to the office. I'm making you job foreman, and we'll figure out what we owe you for this week's wages."

That job lasted a long time. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Babbs Switch School Fire

As told by Hall Cavel Jr, Charlie's eldest son - 13 February, 2009

While living in Carmi (Illinois) in the early 1940s, Dad came home from work one day to find the house next door was on fire. He asked some people standing on the street watching if the family had gotten out and they said they didn't know. Dad ran into the burning house, found the woman and carried her out, then went back in and got the child and brought it out. Boiling tar dripped from the burning roof onto him and blistered his back. He had a row of blisters as big as quarters all down his back from his neck to his hipbones.

It wasn't the first time he'd saved lives in a fire. After Hall told me about Dad's involvement in the Babb's Switch School fire I looked up the official reports on the web, the story of Dad's involvement is afterwards.

"On December 24, 1924, a crowd of nearly 200 had gathered to watch grade school children perform an annual Christmas songfest at the Babb Switch School in Hobart, Oklahoma when fire erupted. A candle placed on the top of a Christmas tree, located on the school's stage, fell into the tree branches causing the tree to burst into flames. Parents saw the fire and rushed the stage to rescue the children. The children unaware of why everyone was rushing at them began to retreat. This caused the tree to topple.

The play had been taking place in the rear of a one-room schoolhouse, the farthest distance from the one door. The fire forced the children to the rear of the stage - trapped with no avenue of escape. Parents grabbed children and ran through the flames towards the door but since it opened inward and the crush of terrified people were pushing forward the door was jammed shut. No one could escape through the windows because they were covered with wire mesh, probably to keep baseballs from breaking the glass.

Some men arrived and began pulling bodies and survivors through the exit door. The door had become jammed due to the onslaught of humanity. Within minutes the building was incinerated along with the loss of thirty-six lives. Most being small children."

Christmas Fire in Oklahoma School House Claims Lives of 33 With Five Missing.

(By The Associated Press)

HOBART, Okla., Dec. 25th; With the identification of the last victim established the rechecked death list in the Christmas Eve fire at the Babb Switch rural school, stood at 33 tonight. Twenty injured persons are still confined in two hospitals. One is expected to die and two others are in a critical condition. Funeral services for 16 of the dead will be held tomorrow.

Memorial for Fire Victims

(By The Associated Press) HOBART, Okla., Dec. 25th;

With thirty-two bodies, most of them burned beyond recognition lying in a temporary morgue in two store buildings and five others listed as missing as a result of a Christmas eve fire at the district school house at Babb's Switch, seven miles from here. Hobart citizens tonight were continuing their efforts to identify the dead.

At a mass meeting today called by Mayor F. E. Gillespie, committees were named to look after every detail of the sad task and the work was going forward systematically.

It has been decided to bury all the unidentified in a large grave in the Hobart cemetery and late today a crew of men broke the snow that blanketed the burial ground to throw up a long trench of earth. Early tonight only ten of the dead had been identified, despite the fact that the morgue was early thrown open to the public. A steady procession of grief stricken relatives filed all day long between the shrouded forms, but so terribly had they been burned that it was impossible in most cases to mark the features of loved ones.

Halls' story of Charlie Cavel's involvement in the event:

On Christmas Eve night, 1924, Dad was working as a fireman in the grain elevator at Hobart (OK). He and the fire crew, including Orville Grider, were called to the Babbs Switch School, which was on fire. They tried to open the school's only door but the door opened inward and people had packed up against it in an effort to escape. When they couldn't open the door they chopped through it with their fire axes, and were able to start pulling people out, but many people died, and as a result legislation was passed requiring that the doors on all public buildings in Oklahoma open outward.

As an aside, Hall Cavel Jr. married Deloris June Grider, daughter of Orville Grider, who worked as a carpenter at the grain elevator in Hobart and went out with the fire crew to the Babb's Switch School Fire. Charlie and Orville worked together for a few months in 1924, and 27 years later when Hall Jr. told Charlie he was marrying a girl whose surname was Grider, Charlie remembered working with Orville well enough to describe him perfectly; i.e. short, skinny and blind in one eye.

The Mystery in the Field

Cavel House Built by Grandad Fred in 1911

This is a story I heard numerous times as my Dad, Charley Hall, and his brothers sat around and talked after meals. It must have happened when Dad was about 11 or 12, as the family was living in the house on Highway 7 near Velma then, and that's where the story took place.  

The boys had been told by their Dad to clear and plow a previously unbroken field. They had cleared the brush from the field and were plowing (with a mule). They were picking out rocks and throwing them in a pile at the edge of the field as they turned them up. After several passes across the field one of them remarked that the rocks they'd been picking up seemed to lay in a regular pattern, a series of circles. This piqued their interest, and they began to pay more close attention to the position of the stones. 

Soon it was clear that the rocks were not only laid in circles, but that the circles got closer together as they neared the middle of the field. By the time they got to the middle their boyish imaginations were on fire. The final ring of stones lay in a small circle a couple of feet across. They were sure they had found the spot where the famous Jesse James' gang had hid their loot. (Apparently everyone in Oklahoma and Texas had a theory about where this stashed treasure lay - my Granddad Clark used to go hunting for it every summer.) 

The boys dug the rocks from the middle of the circle and found a large flat stone. They pried it up, to find a stone-lined vault, a fold of calico fabric and another rock beneath. At this point they ran to get their dad, sure they'd found treasure and were bursting to uncover it. But when he arrived he scolded them, saying they had disturbed a child's grave. He made them replace the stone on top and cover the hole back in. He then sent them to clear a different field and told them to leave that one alone.

One thing the Cavel boys did not do was disobey their father. They dared not investigate their find further. But in the night they went out and set up markers in the adjoining woods, took sightings and made notes, so that in the future they could come back to the spot. 

Before the farm was sold, which must have been after my Granddad Cavel passed away in 1941, the brothers went back to the site. They hunted up the markers in the woods and paced off the steps. With great expectation they dug where they'd found the vault some 25 years before, but there was no sign of it. There was nothing but dirt. They rechecked their markers and notes, and paced it out again, which brought them to the same spot. 

They were as mystified as men as they had been as boys, but for a different reason. Now they couldn't understand what had happened to the rings and the stones. They speculated endlessly; had their father moved the markers, had they paced it out wrongly somehow, had he dug the whole affair up and moved it? Whatever happened, the secret went to the grave with someone. 

After I discovered Kizziah Crouch's family origins I began to read about the culture of the Tuscarora people. They were described as light-hearted people, who easily bore every misfortune except one, the death of a loved one. They considered the departed still part of the family, and when they moved they carried generations of ancestor's bones with them.

The Tuscarora burial was in a cypress-lined vault in the earth. The body was laid on a bed of boughs, covered with boughs and roofed over with bark. It was left until the bones had been entirely cleaned by "the little creatures of the earth", then the bones were taken up and placed in a clay jar. They were kept in the home, or buried nearby, to be taken up when the family moved on. I found record of one Tuscarora family, long since melded into the "White" community, having moved through four successive states, still in possession of a great-grandfather's bones 75 years after his death. 

Which makes me wonder. Kizziah Crouch and Enoch Jones Smith had a little girl named Mahalia who died between the ages of five and ten years. Could the "grave" the Cavel boys discovered have been the temporary resting place for her little jar of bones? And if so what happened to them? Perhaps they were dug up when Kizziah Crouch Smith Carter died in 1921 and placed in her coffin with her? 

I am puzzled by Kizziah Crouch Smith Carter's position in the Velma Cemetery. She is buried in an aisle, not in the row of graves. She lies in the aisle between the plots of her children William Wesley Smith and Eliza Ann Smith Seely, both of whom died years after she did. I thought for years she might have been buried first on the farm, and moved to the Velma cemetery later, maybe when Granddad and Grandma left the farm in Velma years before they sold it. They moved to Hastings in 1935, and both WW Smith and Eliza Seely had died and were buried in the Velma Cemetery by then. But I now have a copy of Kizziah's death certificate which states she was buried in the Velma Cemetery the day after her death.

I may be letting my imagination get the better of me, but it's one explanation for where the "child's grave" went, but I can think of no good reason why Granny K herself is buried in such an unusual spot. She is the only person in the entire huge cemetery who is buried in an aisle. 

In the last few years the descendants of Randolph Carter have placed a stone on her unmarked grave, for which I am very grateful. I feel a deep connection to her for some reason, in part maybe because I look a good deal like her but even before I'd ever seen a picture about her I felt a connection to her. I asked Dad what she was like once. It was one of the few times in my life I ever saw him tear up, but his eyes filled with tears which he brushed away before saying, "She was wonderful." 

Come Lord Jesus!

Uncle Arthur aged 15

I heard this story many times in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, recounted my Dad Charlie Hall Cavel, and uncles Arthur and Dick Cavel.  It must have taken place when Charlie was 14 or 15 years old, so 1917 or 1918.
Charlie, Arthur and Dick were driving a herd of cattle from Velma (OK) to the rail head at Chickasha (OK). One evening they had corralled the cows and camped for the night. After a while they heard singing and shouting and, being naturally curious, they went to see what was going on.
Well, from some distance they could see a group of 30-40 people having a religious meeting under a brush arbour, lit by torches on poles stuck in the ground a few feet from each corner of the arbour. So the boys climbed a big tree just beyond the reach of the torch light and watched as the preacher worked his congregation into a fervor of religious enthusiasm. The worshippers became more and more energized under the influence of "The Spirit". 
Soon they were running up and down the aisles, jumping the plank benches, throwing their arms in the air, imploring in loud voices, "Come Lord Jesus! Come Lord Jesus!"
Accustomed to the sedate dignity of the Baptist service, this hullabaloo struck the boys as comical, and they saw the opportunity to have some fun.  They began to shake the limbs and branches of the tree. Arthur, who was about 20 years old at the time, lowered his voice as deep as he could and shouted down from the tree, "I'm a comin'! I'm a comin'!" 
On hearing this announcement the worshippers began to scream and scattered into the night, including the preacher.  Not a one waited to welcome the coming of the Lord.
If their father (who was a Baptist pastor) had ever learned of this stunt he'd have soundly whipped them all. I'm betting they didn't tell it openly until after Granddad's death in 1941, but while I was growing up they repeated the story again and again as evidence of what scoundrels they had been as teenagers. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

My Bunch

The Clark Side

My Mom, Mattie Clark, age 40

My Mom's father, Henry Clark

Mom's brother Ossie (O-See)

Mom's sister Fanny Clark

Mom's brother Henry Calvin Clark Jr

Mom's sister Eva Clark

Mom's Uncle Levin 
Mom's Cousin Marvin Clark

The Smiths and Cavels

G-grands, Wm John Cavel & Susan Ann Shave 1907

My Dad Charlie Hall Cavel, about 40

My grandparents- Josie Smith and Fred Cavel

My Dad about 65
Josie's mother my G-granny Casiah Crouch Smith abt 1900

Casiah Crouch Smith Carter 1920