Life is a Story or a Complimentary View of Life

My brother and I grew up on an historic ranch in south-central Texas. It was, as I mention in the ‘about’ section, a boy’s paradise with dogs, horses, jeeps, cattle, hunting, fishing, and thousands of acres to roam around on.  This life also brought me into contact from an early age with an array of fascinating characters, black, white, and hispanic; men who fit no mold and were often wonderfully irreverent. Germans, Czechs, and Anglos filled out the white population in roughly equal numbers, which created a fascinating dynamic within itself, but added to this was a substantial black population.  The Old South truly meshed with the Old West in Colorado County since the physical geography of the county  enabled slave-based plantations before the Civil War while, thereafter, the cattle business had flourished  on the vast prairies between the two principle river drainages that were still unfenced and unclaimed well into the 1880s. The black component added another dimension and  through the rich interplay of all these groups and the characters who inhabited my youth,  I developed an unusual facility, namely the habit of seeing and understanding the world through completely different eyes at the same time, and to accept the varied views as equally valid though they often seemed incompatible on the surface. This habit of mind reinforced my doubting Thomas nature and has since crystallized into a philosophy for understanding the world and interpreting history . I call it the complimentary view of life.

Excerpt 1: Unc and Joel

“Most of the characters that populated my youth were rooted to the land in one way or another. Many were, wonderfully irreverent, which bolstered my dubiousness. Take for instance “Unc,” as everyone called him. Unc and my father ran cattle together on one of the many pastures that papa either owned, leased, or managed; it was all the same to us at the time. Unc resembled Santa Claus. He had a ruddy complexion and keen blue eyes. He was also a bit portly and always wore suspenders to keep his baggy khaki pants up. He also stuttered. When a heat shower would come up in the summer and the lightning would start popping, he would invariably look up to the sky and, with a twinkle in his eye, say: “Rrroll them bbbarrels, you ssson-of-a-bbbitch!” Joel, his side-kick hired hand, a black man who always wore sunglasses to hide an ugly scar to his right eye, would invariably counter, “Now Mistah Warner, that be blasfommy; lightnin’ sho’ nuff gonna strike you dead one of these days,” at which point he would remove himself a respectful distance just in case his prediction came to pass. Joel, subsequent to a miraculous recovery from a love gone wrong induced injury, had gotten religion and hence his concern. His prediction of divine retribution in the form of a lightning strike, however, never materialized, but the interaction with blasphemous ‘Unc’ was constant and didn’t go unnoticed. For his part, Unc lived to a respectable old age and dropped dead one day from a heart attack without to my knowledge ever having set foot in a church during his adult years. He passed from this earthly existence with no fear whatsoever about roasting in hell for eternity. The outdoors was his church and the natural rhythms of life his only guide and comfort. You pick up on that as a kid.”

Excerpt 2: Jacob the Crow and the fire and brimstone preacher

“Good little boys do what they are told and believe what their elders tell them. I generally did what I was told as a kid but from an early age I veered toward the skeptical side of life. Too many stories.

Take religion. Our family was not a particularly religious, so it’s not like my budding incredulity was a form of rebellion against an overly spiritual upbringing. We did attempt to go to church occasionally, but this was more to keep up appearances than to satisfy deep-seated religious needs. Church was always a big production. Like most country boys, my brother and I felt awkward and self-conscious when dressed up, so it was always a struggle to get us properly washed and attired. My father, on the other hand, seemed to relish exchanging his working duds for a starched shirt and a pressed suit from time to time; he relished the contrast and it gave him an opportunity to hobnob. For mother, however, church was a serious undertaking but not for otherworldly reasons. Church was first and foremost a social event. Her ingrained sense of propriety demanded that she be properly clothed, bejeweled, and groomed for the coming public exposure; above all, a stylish hair-do was called for, requiring elaborate preparation, which, if in anyway interrupted, would upset our already strained timetable.

And so it was one particular Sunday. My brother and I had begrudgingly taken our places in the back seat of our ’54 Chevy Impala while Papa sat impatiently at the steering wheel waiting for Mama to put the final touches on her bouffant. We were running late, as usual. Finally, the back door opened, and out she came, obviously in a tizzy. Then as now, an ancient, patriarchal live oak tree overarched our whole back yard and one of its many spreading limbs dipped down to parallel the ground at a respectable height before turning up and issuing into a mass of leaves and branches over the back porch. This was the favorite perch of Jacob, our pet crow. Just as mother passed under him, with precise timing, Jacob released a slimy bomb that plopped with uncanny precision in the center of mother’s exquisite creation, which had culminated, fashionably, in an enormous bun on the very top of her head.

Mother reacted with horror and indignation, letting out a stream of very un-Sunday-like expletives directed at Jacob, who commenced to fly around the house squawking “bwekfas, bwekfas,” the only sounds he knew that any way resembled a recognizable human word. My father could only hold his sides in laughter, which made my mother even madder, but my brother and I were overjoyed, for we instantly realized that Jacob’s ungraciousness had spared us the torture of sitting through another interminably long and boring church service.

Jacob’s one word vocabulary had come about like this. My brother collected bird nests avidly and had assembled quite an impressive display in our train house (later) of which he was very proud. But his collection lacked a crow’s nest. One day he spotted one in a low post oak tree and shimmed straightaway up the tree to appropriate the missing prize. The parent crows were out foraging somewhere, which made the task easier, for they would have defended the nest vigorously. The nest had one baby crow in it. You can guess the rest. He brought the nest home along with the baby crow. We fed him successfully first with a milk dropper and then with bred crumbs until he got old enough to fly at which point he was banned from indoors.

Now the morning routine at our house called for papa to get up very early, around five o’clock, and fix breakfast, which was usually no more than buttered toast and occasionally scrambled eggs that were eaten on the toast. Once properly browned, he would yell at the top of his voice, “breakfast,” at which time everyone arose to greet the day. At one point Papa had split Jacob’s tongue because, so he maintained, that would make him better able to talk. Be that as it may, Jacob, upon hearing Papa yell, or any other excitement for that matter, would commence circling the house squawking, “bwekfas, bwekfas,” which constituted his one word vocabulary.

Jacob, unfortunately, only came to our rescue on this one occasion. Our preacher at the time was tall and gaunt with sharp, bird-like features: to youthful eyes almost demonic in appearance. His head was very bald and glistened in the light of overhead chandeliers. His most noticeable feature was a big bump, almost like a tit, smack dab on top of his shining pate. He was a true old-time ‘fire and brimstone’ type. Upon reaching the crescendo of his sermon, when he assured the assembled that they would all most assuredly roast in hell for eternity if they didn’t repent and change their wicked ways, he would lean out over the pulpit and gesture frantically with his long, bony fingers. His face would turn a ghastly red, beads of sweat would gather on his forehead, while the changed angle of presentation would create the impression that the bump on his head had undergone an erection. As he ranted and gesticulated, the ladies of the church would fan ever more furiously, as if to keep pace with the rising drama of the spectacle.

My parents didn’t seem particularly moved by the preacher’s theatrics and the reader can understand that this whole exhibition did little to further a proper appreciation for religion on my young and impressionable mind. Once the service was over, life quickly returned to familiar paths. Papa continued to swear like a sailor and mama reflected on how to readjust her wardrobe (and hair-do) for the next social outing. For my part, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about hell and redemption. Once out the door, I took a breath of fresh air to get the smell of sweaty humans out of my nostrils (pre-air-conditioning) and looked forward to shedding the unwanted duds and feasting on the promised post-church meal of fried chicken and dumplings with homemade biscuits, which was tradition in the family and the one real compensation for all this falderal. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t just skip the church part and go straight to the chicken.

But I guess I took more from this whole affair than I realized. Did you ever notice how closely a baby calf watches her mama? When a cow jerks her head up high, she is signaling the possibility of danger. Her calf will notice this instinctually and forever be wary of whatever the mama was looking at. But the reverse is also true: if the mama cow continues to graze indifferently while (say) a human walks by, the calf will assume from that point on that humans are tolerable. Human calves are no different: if my parents weren’t concerned with hell and redemption, why should I bother? They hadn’t jerked their heads up at the good preacher’s words, or otherwise indicated through their deportment that they took his antics and words too very seriously, so I learned to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt.”

Excerpt 3: Cholly and the Bellboys

“One fine afternoon papa and Cholly, his black sidekick, drove imprudently deep into the Skull Creek bottom in the search of a missing bull before the low-lying, poorly drained bottomlands had adequately dried from the spring rains. As they drove ever deeper into the creek bottom, Cholly grew more anxious and implored Papa to turn around. “What we gonna do if we get stuck and it turn dark?” he said, “and the bell boys be out?” ‘Bell boys’ was his term for the timber rattlers who were common in the bottom and often grew to enormous dimensions, some over seven feet in length. But Papa was dead set to find a missing bull and didn’t take heed of his concern.  Sure enough, they had not gone very far when the truck became hopelessly mired between two enormous ash trees in a particularly treacherous mud hole in a sharp turn in the rutted path we called a road. It was late in the day and they were miles from a public road. With the little bit of daylight left they attempted to jack the truck up and place sticks in the ruts under the wheels, but to no avail. As the moonless dark descended over them, intensified by the overarching canopy of enormous hardwood trees, which formed an effective shield to the firmament above, Cholly announced, “I ain’t gonna walk outta here, bellboys ‘ll get me.” Papa replied, “Suit yourself, but I’m leaving, “ and with that he lit off.  He hadn’t gone four steps when Cholly fell in behind him, step for step, “I ain’t stayin’ here by myself; the haints [spooks] be out!” The two stumbled along like this for miles, it seemed, trying to retrace in the dark the muddy path they had driven over in the truck. But it did not take them long to get lost and disoriented in the pitch-black night. They strained to pick up the sounds of the trains at the switchyard in Glidden four miles to the north. The whistling and clanking of the steam engines and cars would float effortlessly for miles through the night air, giving a sure bearing when the North Star remained hidden. And sure enough, though hopelessly lost, they picked up the sound of the trains and struck a path toward them in the expectation that they would have to eventually strike the public road that would lead them to a farmhouse and a phone where they could call for help. In this hope they crossed a fence and stayed out into a field that appeared to be largely free of underbrush and trees, which lifted their spirits since it hastened their progress. Suddenly something struck my father at the knees, who was still in the lead. He felt a sharp sting, followed by another and another. He fell to the ground flailing with his hands and arms and crying out in surprised horror at the unknown assailant(s). Hearing this, Cholly turned tail and lit off at an angle as fast as his clubfoot would allow to escape the mysterious fiend, but to no avail. He too felt the fiery sting hit both his legs beneath the knee at the same time, and he fell to the ground yelling, “Oh Lawdy help me, the bellboys done got me!” And for what seemed like an eternity both men indeed believed they had stumbled into a den of vipers, a Dante’s inferno of unimaginable horror. But their flailing soon led to the discovery that it was wire, electrified wire that was the source of their pain, rather than snakes,  and as both men regained their composure somewhat, it suddenly dawned on them what had happened. They had strayed into the field of a neighbor who had put up, unbeknownst to them, an electric fence. Eventually, after disentangling themselves from the electrical monster, they made it to the road and a farmhouse and around midnight were able to call my anxious mother who had no clue where they were, but who was not unaccustomed to such events.The story became legendary, a mainstay of hunting camp lore from that day on.”

Excerpt 4: We gotta  be of the same mind

“Papa had bought a full potload {truckload] of bulls at a discount, some old and useless, but most because unruly and even dangerous as crossbred bulls are wont to become at that stage of their lives when still serviceable as bulls, but nearing the end of productivity.  The idea was to stag them, turn them out in a river bottom pasture, put on a couple of hundred pounds of weight each and then sell them in six months or so for a quick turnaround. A good plan in principal, but in practice not so good. Stagged bulls are not the same as oxen. Oxen are castrated at an early age before the testosterone flows and so have no recollection of their manhood. They are usually docile and grow large and fat because no energy wasted fighting other males and chasing heifers. Stagged bulls, on the other hand, are what the old-timers called ‘proud cut.’  No longer able to reproduce, they still have stirrings of their manliness, and often grow even more cantankerous and unruly.

And as summer turned to fall, the day came to gather them from the pasture they had been turned into the previous spring and haul them to market for the anticipated profit. Three trucks with trailers lumbered into the pasture before the break of day with the morning dew still heavy on the grass and the six cowboys unloaded a pack of excited cowdogs and their already saddled horses. A heavy fog hung over the landscape and as the grey, dull sky began to show some signs of color, the fog begin to lift from the bottom below to reveal a frightening sight. The stags had come up from the river bottom below to face their adversaries.

Clifford Austin was one of the cowboys whose job it was to pen this crowd of snorting, angry stags eager for a fight. Clifford had been a cowboy for hire all his life and despite the system of segregation he had grown up in, had earned a begrudging respect. Astride his horse, he was a full equal. This time, however, he rode a young mare which had not yet conceded fully that Clifford was her master. Seeing the stags that had come up to meet them and do battle, Clifford leaned over to his mare, and gently said, ‘Now Molly today you and me gotta be of the same mind  or it’s gwina turn out bad for us both.'”

Excerpt 5: Ol’ Herb and the outlaw bulls

“It was in the depths of the Great Depression and a man did what he could to earn a little hard cash. Papa’s neighbor, Mr. Auerbach, had two rogue Brahma bulls that he could not pen. He offered papa $10 a head if he could pen them and haul them to market; good money for the times. Papa called on a black cowboy by the name of Ol’ Herb to help him from time to time and though beyond his prime was still as  good as they come. He was the one people called on for the really dicey jobs. They saddled up their horses and with a couple of good cowdogs, set out to pen the bulls. They found them in a stand of open post oaks. Spotting the riders and with the dogs on their tails, they broke and ran, each taking a different course, heading for thicker brush and safety. Papa yelled to Herb, “You take the brindle and I’ll take the muley,” and each headed off at a full run with their ropes ready in hand. Herb was the first to catch his bull, making a good throw with the loop of the rope settling effortlessly around the neck of the fleeing beast. Herb hadn’t lost his touch. But just as he threw slack and the noose tightened, the bull darted around one side of a post oak tree and Herb and horse, ducking limbs, slid to the other side at a full run. The crashed together on the other side when the tree pulled slack on both, slamming the horse with rider and bull together in a horrible collision. The force of the blow brought both horse and bull to the ground in a tangled heap and launched Herb through the air a good twenty feet where he struck the ground with such force that he was knocked out cold and appeared to be dead. In the meantime papa had lost his bull in a thicket and returned to help Herb but found instead the bull and horse still entangled and Herb no where to be seen. Papa quickly cut the rope binding the two beasts together and called for Herb. He found him under a yaupon bush nearby and rushed to his side and tried to revive him. He finally came to his senses somewhat but without saying a word began bucking and pitching on all fours like a rodeo horse. Then he keeled over and died. A hard way to earn an extra dollar but an appropriate demise for a man who had spent his life on horseback dealing with outlaw cattle.”