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.


  1. Fabulous story!

  2. What a great story! Really evocative of the time and the place and the fear of the bogeyman - and the coffee can! Loved it.

    Made me laugh, too!