Sunday, May 20, 2012

Poppa Perry and the Snapper

Sometimes a dream can spark a string of memories. When I woke this morning I was dreaming that I was driving along a country road beside a river. In the passenger seat was an elderly man, in his eighty's perhaps. I knew him well. As we crossed the bridge he pointed to a point where the bank widened and said, "I had a twin brother. He drowned there when we were nine. I'll never forget that."

But as is common in dreams, when I woke up I couldn't put a name to the man. All day it's bugged me. All day the rolodex of memory has gone deeper and deeper into the past, searching for the face and name of this companion. Late in the afternoon I finally remembered and I know why. A week or so ago I was trying to document my Aunt Iva's second husband, and I had absolutely no luck. I don't know when he was born, when he died, or anything about him, other than what I remember. I have no photos and though I loved him and he was like a grandfather to me, I couldn't even remember what he looked like, until my memory bank finally came through about 7:30 this morning.

My Mother's older sister Iva Lee remarried after her first marriage failed. Her first husband was described as a scoundrel by my Mother, which was a category about 7/8ths of the world's male population fell into, according to Mother's high standards.

"Remember," she'd say with an expression hovering between disgust and alarm, "they're all out for one thing." Since she never explained what the one thing they were out for was I was left guessing. She often complained that she couldn't keep a cake or pie in the house for more than a few hours I thought "the one thing" must be pastry.

My Aunt Iva was Mother's sister, five years older than Mother, though she seemed older to me. Mother was tiny and ferociously neat. Iva was taller, rounder and softer. She had blond hair and gentle blue eyes and she was a cuddler. She'd pull me into her big rocker and rock me like I was a baby, even when I was four or five years old. I never got cuddled at home, so this was like pouring water on a gasping plant. When I heard the words, "Going to Aunt Iva's," I was in the car like a shot.

Iva's husband was named J.A. Perry, but I called him Poppa. Poppa Perry was a good 20 years older than Aunt Iva, and was one of the few men Mother approved of. He was a small man, as I now remember him, with a shock of white hair that stuck out at angles on his head. He wore plaid shirts and suspenders. He liked little kids and let me tag around after him like a puppy. He made me a tire swing, or at least he let me believe he made it just for me. There were grandchildren I knew little of who probably used the swing more than I did, but it was mine while I was there.

Aunt Iva and Poppa had a small farm with cows, chickens, and some big fish ponds people paid money to fish from. That was how Poppa made his money, by raising fish for people to catch. We went fishing one afternoon. My Daddy went too because Poppa wanted to catch a big snapping turtle that was eating people's fish off their lines, and it kept getting away from him.

Poppa baited a long stout line with some small perch and dropped them where he knew the turtle lay. He soon had the snapper on the line. It had a fish in its mouth and didn't want to let go. That turtle hung on so stubbornly to that fish that Poppa was able to pull it out of the water far enough so my Daddy could grab the end of it with a big gaff hook on a pole and pull it up on dry land. That snapping turtle was as big as the steering wheel of my Daddy's Pontiac car.

Poppa then walked up the bank backwards, pulling the turtle step by step away from the water. When he'd have trouble Daddy would help with the gaff. When the turtle finally let go of the fish Poppa stuck an old broom handle in front of its face. The snapper bit on the broom handle and Poppa and Daddy carried it home between them with it biting on the broom handle. It could have let go at any time and made a run for it, but it was too determined to keep biting. Poppa said a snapper wouldn't let go of something it bit until it thundered. Once we got it home he said he was going to cut its head off with an axe and make turtle soup but Aunt Iva said he wasn't going to cook a turtle in her nice kitchen.

I felt sorry for the turtle, even though it was the ugliest and meanest thing you could imagine, biting on the broom handle and sort of growling or hissing at anyone who came near. I begged Poppa not to cut off its head but to take it to a pond where there were no people paying for fishing. He said he would, as soon as I went to bed.

I'm pretty sure now that the turtle was dispatched as soon as I'd said my prayers and gone to sleep. I guess the same lesson applies to people as to turtles, sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut to start with, but it's definitely a good idea to know when to let go of an argument.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A steady job at $1.25 a day

One trait I value in myself is a certain resourcefulness. Part of this comes from a lifetime habit of frugality and training in "making-do". I was raised by parents who survived the Great Depression quite successfully and never again spent a dime without thinking about it for several hours.

In 1930 a Kilgore Texas farmer accidentally tapped into the world's largest oil reservoir in his cow pasture. His discovery marked the beginning of the East Texas Oil Boom. The tiny town of Kilgore, population 200, grew to 10,000 almost overnight. In 1931 Dad was able to get work as a roughneck in Kilgore's newly discovered oil field.

For men like my Dad, who was 26 years old, the oil field provided a steady job at $1.25 a day when jobs of any kind were scarce, children were begging door to door and former bank presidents were selling fruit on the streets of NYC.

On that $1.25 a day Dad supported 12 people, as best he could. There was himself, my mother, my sister Ruby and my brothers, identical twins who were toddlers at the time. Then there was my Mom's father, who was 70 years old and had a heart condition, Mother's younger brother Lonnie, and one of Dad's brothers, his wife and two children. And, last but not least, a family friend who was old and had no place to go. The kids called him "Uncle Joe".

There was no housing in Kilgore. A tent city sprang up along the river banks. Dad bought $2.00 worth of lumber. He and the men in the family built a 12 x 12 wooden floor, and plank walls four feet high. They framed in a pitched roof with 2 x 4s and tacked wagon canvas over the entire structure. He made mother a stove from a discarded oil barrel. They had tin washtubs for washing clothes and bathing. Mother ironed with a "sad" iron, heated on the stove, using a plank set between the backs of two chairs as an ironing board. Twelve people lived in that 12 x 12 canvas-roofed shack.

They had very little, but there were millions of Americans who would have been glad to have had what they had. They ate, even if it was beans, taters, bisquits made with water and what wild foods mother and the kids could gather in the woods. Fishing in the Sabine River was more than a way to pass an idle afternoon. You could catch some big fish in that muddy, languorous stream, as long as you were careful not to step on a gator sunning himself on the bank. Possums and squirrels found their way into the family stew pot, along with the occasional raccoon, wild turkey and even a big turtle or two. When you are really hungry most anything starts to look a lot like dinner. 

My sister Ruby recalled that she and the boys had been out making "mud pies" one day when a local church group came around with apples for "deserving" children. Seeing the childrens' muddy hands and faces the church ladies deemed them "undeserving" and they got no apple. It was a memory which haunted Ruby all of her life. She probably would have forgotten a slap but that small act of smug, self-righteousness judgement wounded her so deeply she could still feel its sting 70 years later.

Lonnie and the fifty pounds of ice

My parents had three small children when the Great Depression hit. Their household also included my elderly grandfather and my uncle Lonnie, who was only nine years old when my grandmother died. Lonnie came to live with mother and dad when they were newlyweds. The household shrank and expanded like a bellows as different relatives would come to stay for a month or year, or more. For a while the household included my Aunt Eva, her husband Paul and their two babies, Eddie and Pauline. This story from that time was told and retold as I was growing up in the 40s and 50s.

Paul had a job driving an ice wagon back in the days before electric refrigeration, when food was kept cold in an ice box, an insulated wooden cupboard - which held a large block of ice in one of the compartments. This ice was delivered door-to-door by the ice-man. The horse-drawn wagon was packed with 50 pound blocks of ice separated by layers of sawdust. The horse knew which houses bought ice and which ones didn't, Paul didn't even have to hold the reins.

When the horse stopped Paul would jump off the wagon seat, run to the back of the wagon, open the door, get a firm grip on a block of ice with a set of huge tongs, heft the block out, haul it around to the back porch and into the kitchen where he'd put it in the ice-box. Sometimes he'd have to chisel away the irregular edges with the ice pick he carried in his belt so the block would fit in the box. 50 pound blocks. Over and over. All day long. It was back-breaking work.

One day he slipped and hurt his back and couldn't lift the blocks. But jobs were scarce and he couldn't risk taking a day off. School had just let out for summer so Paul begged Lonnie to help him with the route. Little Lonnie, who at 14 years old, was five foot nothin' tall and still weighed only 85 lbs.

They struggled the blocks into the houses together for most of the day, but by the last hour Paul could barely crawl off the wagon. Lonnie was left to deal with blocks of ice that weighed 3/4s as much as he did - alone.

As they approached one of the last houses Paul said, "Lon, make sure you get a big block. This woman has a scale on her back porch, and if the block isn't 50 lbs she'll make you bring it back and get another one."

Lonnie surveyed the remaining blocks carefully and picked what looked like a big one. He grappled at it with the tongs and using every ounce of strength drug it out of the wagon.

"Did you get a big 'un?" Paul asked, from the front of the wagon.

Lonnie wiped his brow and picked the block up off the tailgate. "Oh, it's a big 'un all right!" Then he began the slow, stiff-legged walk toward the back of the house, with the ice-block in the only position he could manage, swinging on the tongs between his knees like a cross-wise pendulum, threatening to overbalance him at every step.

"Ice-man!" he yelled as he struggled up the steps, just as Paul had taught him.

"You ain't my rag'lar," the woman said, eyeing him suspiciously.

"No, Ma'm, he's in the wagon a 'cause he hurt his back."

"Well, I hope he told you I won't be cheated! Here - you sling that block on these scales. And don't you be a laying your dirty thumb on that scale or I'll slap you sideways to Satan!"

The dial gyrated wildly and gradually settled - at 49 lbs. Lonnie's heart sank.

"Do I LOOK like a fool?" She narrowed her eyes. "I pay for 50 lbs of ice, and by gum I'm gonna GIT 50 lbs of ice. You ain't cheating me! Git me a bigger block!"

He had no choice. He hauled the block down, wrestled it back to the truck, opened the door and shoved it back in.

"Not big enough?" Paul asked in dismay.

"Only 49 pounds." Lonnie wheezed.

Paul crept off the wagon seat groaning and holding his back. Together they searched through the blocks until they found one Paul was certain was big enough. He sweated as he helped Lonnie pull it out and leaned panting on the tailgate as Lonnie traversed the long path around the house again.

The block went on the scale. He held his breath. The woman watched the dial the way a hungry cat watches a mouse who is just one step from being too far from its burrow. The dial settled - 49.5 lbs.

"I do believe you take me for a fool! I will go to the office tomorrow and report you to your superiors! I PAY for 50 lbs of ice and I am going to GIT 50 lbs of ice!"

"No Ma'm, no Ma'm!" Lonnie was at the edge of panic. "It ain't no trouble a'tall. I'll get another block," and he started back to the wagon, with the tonged iceberg trying to tear his scrawny little arms out of their sockets.

"Not big enough," he gasped as he swung it up on the tailgate. "God Damn," he was nigh in tears, "Not God Damn big enough."

Paul didn't even scold Lonnie for swearing. "Get inside," he said. "Let's make sure we get the biggest one in the wagon."

Several minutes later they had separated out a massive block, and Lonnie was once more on his difficult journey to the back porch of this very particular customer.

He saw a gleam of satisfaction in the woman's eyes as she saw the block, and sure enough, when the dial settled down it read an astonishing 54 pounds. "Well that's more like it!" she crowed.

Lonnie felt a wave of righteous indignation come over him. He reached for the ice pick tucked into his belt and attacked the ice block.

"Here! Here! What do you think you're doing?" she shrieked, dodging flying ice.

Lonnie paused briefly to look at the dial and started chiseling again. Finally his pick fell silent. The dial read exactly 50 lbs. He grinned for the first time that afternoon.

"Lady," he said, holding out a trembling hand for his nickel payment. "You're paying for 50 pounds of ice, and 50 pounds of ice is ALL you're gonna GET!"

The War of the Mashed Potatoes

There was a mashed potato war in our family. On Sunday after church the aunties and uncles and cousins would arrive at our house laden with chickens and roasts, salads and jello, cakes, pies, green bean casseroles and the ubiquitous cornbread, red beans, bisquits and red-eye gravy. (The uncle's pockets also usually held small silver flasks of whiskey which they hid from Grandma and their wives.)

The house and porches overflowed with arguing and laughter. Smoke curled up from the men's cigars and tantalizing smells of frying chicken or roast beef made our bellies growl as we waited for 2:00. Finally the aunties would begin to scurry in and out of the steaming kitchen to load the trestle tables Dad and his brothers had set up, inside or out, depending on the weather. Once we all were seated (kids had to sit at a smaller table) Grandma would stand at the head of the big folks table and say an extended thank you to Jesus. When the smaller kids started to cry from starvation she'd quit so we'd sometimes pinch a little one to make them bawl. She'd pause, everyone would give a hearty "AMEN!", fall to and start filling their plates.

The mashed potato war between my Mama and Daddy's Mama was over two things, consistency and the Bible. Mama's potatoes were not so much mashed as pureed. She went at a pot of cooked and steaming potatoes with all the fervent zeal of her religion. Mama had always been a bit of a thorn in Grandma's side, and seeing as how my late Grandaddy had been a Baptist pastor and the whole family was Baptist, Mama did the worst thing possible. She went and got herself converted to Seventh-Day Adventism, kept Saturday as the Sabbath and claimed Baptists worshiped the Pope, which really got Grandma's back up. This photo was taken at a family reunion in we think 1952, and is of my Grandmother Josie Smith Cavel and most of her childrens' spouses. From the expression on her face and my mother's face (light-coloured dress front row) it looks like a knife fight could have broken out between them at any time.

Butter, milk, salt and good hard exercise was what Mama used to whip five pounds of potatoes into a bowl of cloud-like consistency that rarely passed around the table before it was emptied at Sunday dinner. On the other hand Grandma's potatoes were (Mama said dismissively) lumpy. She liked to leave little chunks of potato in them, so they "don't feel like wallpaper paste in your mouth," she'd say a bit sourly, passing on Mama's potatoes.

The Bible part of the potato war was in how Grandma "seasoned" hers, with bits of fried bacon and bacon grease, and served with red-eye gravy. This meant of course that Mama would not eat them, as Seventh-Day Adventists believe it is sinful to eat the cloven hoofed pig or the succulent catfish, squirrel, possum, or rabbit that occasionally turned up for Sunday dinner, courtesy of my brothers, uncles and cousins who had long guns and spent Saturday afternoons in the woods. And of course Grandma would no more leave the bacon grease out of her mashed potatoes than she would make a pilgrimage to Rome. As far as she was concerned if God hadn't meant for her to put bacon in her mashed spuds he wouldn't have made the pig so tasty. 

Grandma's bowl of "lumpy" potatoes would be passed around and Mama would hand it on, lips pulled tighter than a banker's purse strings. While I was a little Adventist child on Saturday morning, on Sunday afternoon I had a Baptist stomach. I loved Grandma's lumpy potatoes, and the red-eye gravy dumped over them, but if I got any it was a quick mouthful off the spoon from Grandma in the kitchen, after a round-the-corner check to make sure Mama was arguing Sabbath Day religion with one of the aunties. At the table I ducked my head and passed on Grandma's potatoes or there'd be righteous hell to pay later.

One week Daddy would make an enemy of Grandma, by scooping up a huge portion of Mama's potatoes and practically licking the remnants from his plate. The next Sunday he'd made an enemy of Mama, as he dove into his mother's dishpan-sized bowl of "lumpy" potatoes, seeking here and there a ribbon of grainy bacon dripping among the white hillocks. For Daddy was a Baptist, and as he was fond of saying, "One good thing about being a Baptist is a man can eat whatever he likes."