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.