Thursday, April 25, 2013

Midland, The Tall City, 1952 - 1953

This started out as my mother's story, written from my memories, some research and a lot of making stuff up. When I reached age 12 in the story, my inner adolescent simply took it over, and Mother became a minor character. Sorry. I do hope to get back to having Willie Mae as the central character at some point. If you're at all interested in my year as a  high school sophomore, read on for the continuation  of "Mother's Story", which was interrupted by "Suzy's Guitar" last month. 
  John and Eva Gray picked Fay and me up at camp on a Saturday in July, 1952. They broke the news that my family had moved to Midland. I felt shocked. Someone had agreed to buy our house in Odessa before I left, but I didn’t realize the move would happen so soon.
 When we arrived at the Grays’ home, Mother came from Midland to get me. She declined Eva’s offer of iced tea. “Thank you, but I have so much to do, we should get back.”
 Realizing I wouldn’t be at church with them on Sunday, I hugged the Grays before we left, feeling close to tears.
 In the car, I asked, “Can we drive out to our old house so I can say goodbye?” I felt a little foolish, but desperate to see the place once more.
 Mother sighed. I was sure she was going to say no.
 “Please, Mom.” My voice broke.
 She sighed again, and turned the car toward our old neighborhood. I was glad no one had moved into the house. Mother and Kyle waited in the car while I walked around, running my fingers through the scratchy juniper shrubs in front, touching each of the five Chinese elms along Edison Street in our side yard. They were just little sticks when Daddy planted them. Now they shaded the west side of the house in the hot summertime. When I got to the backyard, I ducked into the center of the weeping willow branches and hugged my best-loved tree, hidden from sight in my old refuge.
* * *
 In Midland, Mother turned into a modest driveway at 1307 W. Washington St. “Welcome to our new home, Honey. I’m so glad you’re finally here to help me get settled.”
 I looked through the windshield at a wall that had obviously replaced a garage door, one window facing the driveway. The siding didn’t quite match along the edges. I got my suitcase and bedroll out of the back seat. My little brother followed.
 “My school is only three blocks that way. I got a new bike I can ride there when I start fifth grade.” Kyle pointed west on Third Street.
 I turned from looking at the tall buildings that loomed a few blocks to the east in downtown Midland. Kyle took my suitcase from me, and I gave him a one-armed hug as we walked to the door. Glad that he was happy with the move, I wasn’t sure of my own feelings.
 Mother opened the screen door for me as I climbed two concrete steps to a central porch, flanked by tall skinny evergreen trees. “Come see your new room. I hope you like the furniture I picked for you.”
 Excited, I entered the small living room, separated by an open archway from the dining room behind it. Our old familiar furniture welcomed me.
 “Your room is to the left of the dining room, toward the front of the house, Joe Mike’s is the room in back.”
 I walked over a floor furnace in the hall, went left at the open bathroom door and entered the first room of my own.
 “Oh, Mom,” I called, “the furniture is beautiful.” Putting my suitcase on the bed, I pirouetted, catching my reflection in the large mirror above the new dresser, then opened and closed the six large empty drawers. I sat with a bounce on the full-sized bed, running my hand over the headboard that matched the dresser. Double windows a few feet from the foot of the bed faced the street. My small cedar chest was under the side windows next to our neighbor’s driveway. Scrambling across the bed to open the door of the closet in the corner, I wondered what happened to the fancy old wardrobe that had held my clothes. A stack of cardboard boxes greeted me.
 Mother came in. “Your clothes are still packed. I decided not to buy new curtains and a bedspread until you got home so you could pick them out.”
 I walked around the bed and threw my arms around her. “It’s so nice to have my own room. I want brown organdy crisscross curtains, with a ruffled bedspread to match. They’ll look nice with the yellow walls, don‘t you think?  I can show them to you in the Sears catalogue.”
 Mother nodded and beckoned for me to follow her back to the hallway. “Come see the rest of the house. Here’s the bathroom. I’m so glad to have a bathtub. And look, cabinets for towels and toiletries.”
 I thought I’d miss having a shower, but Mother obviously liked this house better than our old one, with its stingy storage space. I kept quiet about the shower.
 Past the bathroom, another door opened into Joe Mike’s room. His new furniture was dark wood. I was a little jealous that his bed had a bookcase headboard, but I didn’t say anything.
 “Where’s Joe Mike?”
 “He’s working at the warehouse with your dad, saving money to buy a car, since he’ll be going to Odessa Junior College when school starts.”
 Mother led me across the dining room to the kitchen, which was even smaller than the one in Odessa. Our old stove and refrigerator were there. I found a glass in the cupboard and ran water from the tap, taking a drink.
 “Ooh, chlorine,” I wrinkled my nose.
 “I know. It smells and tastes bad, but we’re on city water here. It’s softer than our well water was. Be careful not to use as much shampoo, or you’ll have a hard time rinsing out all the lather.”
 I walked toward the door leading to the backyard, but Mother motioned me to follow her through another door that led to the biggest room in the house, the converted garage. “Daddy and Kyle and I will sleep in here.”
 I went down two steps into the room that held two double beds, their headboards against the wall that had replaced the garage door. Mother and Daddy’s familiar chest of drawers was against the wall to the right. My old wardrobe stood near Kyle’s bed on the opposite side. Mother showed me her favorite feature, a large closet with sliding doors. The concrete floor was painted in black and white squares to resemble tiles. An exterior door led to the side yard. A new automatic washing machine sat near the kitchen door..
 “Oh, Mom, a washing machine. No more going to the Helpy-Selfy.” I laughed.
 Hearing my chuckle, Mom looked relieved. She studied my face. “I hope you like the house, Honey. Joe Mike says we should’ve bought a bigger, nicer one.”
 “It’s fine, Mom. I’ll love having my own room, but I’m going to miss my friends.” I made a sad face.
 “I know. I’m going to miss mine, too.” She looked truly sorrowful for a moment, then brightened. “The people at church here are friendly, and there are a number of girls about your age.” 
  I went back to the kitchen and out the door into the backyard. It was smaller than the two large lots we had in Odessa. There were no trees at all, just patchy grass and a clothesline. Too bad we couldn’t have moved the weeping willow tree.
* * *
 The next day was Wednesday. Mother, Kyle, Joe Mike and I went to church that evening. The building was much larger and finer that ours in Odessa. There, our pews were built by a local carpenter, the wooden floors were uncovered and whirring fans hanging from  the low ceiling augmented the evaporative cooler in a back window. In Midland, we entered an air conditioned sanctuary from the heat. Space rose high above us to open beams, making me feel small. The coolness was reinforced by the teal of the carpet and matching draperies at the back of the pulpit. Indirect lighting shone above large windows on each side. The window glass looked like swirling turquoise water with white bubbles flowing through it.
 As we entered, the minister, Brother Kennamer, met us at the door. After introductions were made, he directed us to our Bible classes. Mother followed him in to the adult class. My brothers and I walked around the building. We left Kyle at the door marked “Grade 5”. Joe Mike reminded me that he was a college student, but would go to the high school class with me.
 “Mr. Day got me a place to stay with a family in Odessa, so when school starts, I’ll be moving there.” Though his voice sounded proud, he looked a bit scared.
 Before we entered the classroom, I took a deep breath. Six girls sat in the second of three rows of chairs. They looked up from the cluster they made as they leaned together, talking. They smiled and murmured greetings as they eyed Joe Mike appreciatively. The man who sat alone in the front row, stood and introduced himself as Brother Hejl.
 We laughed. “We have the same last name.” Joe shook the man’s proffered hand.
 “Probably not. My name is spelled H -e- j- l. It’s Czech.” I noticed that he spoke with an accent. He turned and shook my hand. His face looked as if he’d scrubbed it until it turned pink under his fringe of graying brown hair. Dressed in a suit and tie despite the July heat, he had a formal but friendly manner. “Tell the class your names.”
 Feeling shy, I waited for my brother to speak. “I’m Joe Mike Hale and this is my sister, Jann.”
 The girls smiled and some waved as we sat behind them. After Brother Hejl started the class with a prayer, the door opened again and a boy came in and sat beside Joe Mike.
 After 40 minutes of a familiar discussion of New Testament passages, class was dismissed.
 The six girls surrounded me, large smiles on their faces. One with dark-hair and a pleasant face that went perfectly with her plump figure spoke first. “I’m Ruth Ann Kuykendall, but everyone calls me Kirk. Can you come over to my house tomorrow afternoon? We were talking about having a party to make brownies when you came in.” She wrote her phone number and address on a note pad, tore off the sheet and handed it to me.
 I looked at the address. “I don’t know if my mother can drive me. I’ll see.”
 The girl next to her spoke up, her brown eyes sparkling behind rhinestone-studded glasses that swooped up on the corners. “I’m Jo Ann. If you give me your address, my mom and I’ll pick you up.” She spoke in a decisive, take-charge manner, even though she was a full five inches shorter than everyone else in the group.
 “Thank you.” I borrowed a sheet of Kirk’s notepad, wrote my address and phone number and handed it to Jo Ann.
 She finished the introductions. “This is Evelyn Hejl, Ann Kennamer, Joan Roberts and Mary Jo Hejl.”
 Joe Mike, standing by the door where he’d been talking to the other boy, motioned with a jerk of his head that he was ready to leave.
 I answered with a motion for him to come meet the girls. “This is my brother, Joe Mike. Please repeat your names for him. My memory is hopeless.”
 Each girl shook Joe Mike’s hand and said her name, their smiles widening even further.
 Joe Mike responded with a smile, took my arm and turned toward the door.
 I waved at the girls, “See y’all tomorrow, I hope.”
* * *
 At the party the next day, I learned that Evelyn, Kirk, Joan and Ann were seniors, Jo Ann, a junior. I was the lone sophomore, but they welcomed me warmly into their group. Mary Jo wasn’t there. She was home from college for the summer, working in the office at her father’s Studebaker dealership. The party was fun, but I was in awe of how nice Kirk’s house was. I’d just have to get used to having rich friends if I was going to live in a higher-class town. At this disloyal thought, I felt my heart contract, and wished  I was back in Odessa with my south-side friends.
* * *
 That Friday, we left home to go to a Cummings family reunion. As usual, Daddy didn’t go. Thursday night, I overheard Mother asking him to reconsider. “Please come with us, Joe. My family would love to see you.”
 He snorted. “Right. They look down on me and you know it. Last Christmas when I gave all the men a drink of whiskey, A.D. raised his glass and said, ‘It sure is nice to have a sorry brother-in-law.’” He drew out the word sorry with sarcastic emphasis. “I saw how red your face turned. I’ll spare you the embarrassment this time.”
 Daddy was home more since we moved to Midland, but I noticed more signs of his drinking. I wished he’d go with us but was also relieved that he wouldn’t. I felt excited at the prospect of seeing Grandmother and Granddaddy and the crowd of cousins, aunts and uncles that would surround them at Uncle Elma’s house in Canyon.
 Friday afternoon we headed north. Joe Mike did most of the driving. Two and a half hours after leaving home, we arrived at Aunt Ina Rae and Uncle J.D.’s in Lubbock, where we ate dinner and spent the night. I loved being there, because we always had fun. Kyle, 10, and J.Mac, 9, went out to play catch with a football. Joe Mike and I asked permission to play with the wire recorder, making speeches and singing songs, then rewinding the wire to play back our strange-sounding voices.  In the kitchen, Mother and Ina Rae talked non-stop, laughing often as they made a fudge cake and potato salad to take to Canyon the next morning.
 As one of the younger of my grandparents’ 20 grandchildren, this was the first time I was included in an outing with the teenagers instead of staying with the adults and little children at the reunion. I was ecstatic about going to the museum at West Texas State College, where we looked at Native American artifacts from the nearby Palo Duro Canyon and a collection of early automobiles. Rue and I were the youngest, and the only girls, who squeezed into the car with our brothers, Tony and Joe Mike, and cousins Neil and Clancy. It was a day that felt “just right.” Cousins older than this group were already married. After the museum, we drove to the canyon to see for ourselves the land where the Comanche held out for so long against the Fourth Cavalry. It was a beautiful and wild place. Laughing at the boys as they sparred to be the funniest, I felt beautiful and wild myself.
* * *
 I was glad when school started and I could widen my circle of acquaintances. The school days began with me singing alto in the a cappella choir. As in Odessa Junior High, most of the kids from my church were in this class. Because we sang without instrumental accompaniment at church, we knew how to read music. Almost all of the new friends I made were in choir. I joined the Music Appreciation Club, where I could have more time with them after school one day a week.
 I liked Miss Perkins, my English teacher, who taught in a very structured, systematic way. I found I actually enjoyed diagramming sentences, though surely we could’ve studied a more compelling book than Silas Marner.
 This was Mr. Johnson’s first year as a biology teacher. He started class by saying, “I hate to alarm you, but I just read in Science that our sun is going to burn out in only a million years.”
 We got used to his corny sense of humor. The day we dissected an earthworm, my lab partner was a boy with the unlikely name of Snookie Roberts. We couldn’t find the brain, our main assignment. Kids all around us were raising their hands after they found the tiny white dot at one end of the worm. We thought maybe were looking at the wrong end, but we tried both and somehow missed it. Finally, I made a minute ball of notebook paper, put it in the mangled end of our poor worm and raised my hand.
 Mr. Johnson bent over to look at the mess through his thick glasses, straightened, gave me a brilliant smile. “Yes, that’s it,” After he turned to respond to someone else, I gave Snookie a thumbs up. My secret was safe with him.
 I don’t recall learning anything new in American history. I took a class in clothing design and joined the Future Homemakers of America. I liked the clothes Mother made me and wanted to have that skill.
 Still, a disastrous mistake occurred in scheduling my classes. As the year went on, I came to a daily fearful dread, a knot forming in my stomach as time for second year algebra class approached. I’d made an A in first year algebra but didn’t realize that I needed plane geometry as a prerequisite for second year algebra. I’ve never known why this placement happened, but it was great preparation for my later teaching career. It helped me empathize with students who felt lost in a subject matter. This was the only D I ever received, and I was relieved it wasn’t an F.
 It was an emotionally shaky year in other ways as well. On the Friday night of the football game between Midland and Odessa, I felt torn. The game was in Odessa, and some of my new friends were not even going. Midland was not the rabid football town that Odessa was. I wanted to go to the game but couldn’t stand the thought of being on the side opposing all my childhood friends. Still, I liked my new friends, and if I were going, I’d want to sit with them and cheer for my own school.
 I lay down in my room as I struggled with the feelings that flowed from these contradictory thoughts. Tears streamed from my eyes. Mother came in to tell me we were leaving to go to the game. My back was to her as she stood in the doorway. “I don’t want to go. I think I’m getting sick.”
 “Oh, no, Honey.” She put her hand on my forehead. “You do feel a little warm. Do you want me to stay with you?”
 “No, Mom. I’ll be okay by myself.” I’d never felt this kind of depression before. It did feel like an illness and I wanted to be alone so I could cry unseen and unheard.
 “Okay, Honey. If you’re sure. We’ll come right home after the game.” Mother turned, and I listened to her footfalls until she was out of the house, then let out a miserable wail.
 I crawled under the covers with my school clothes on, glad when the room turned dark, thinking of the bright stadium with friends cheering on both sides. Every imagined scene opened a fresh spring of tears. I was sure Odessa was beating Midland badly, and felt both happy and dejected about that.
 This one-night breakdown is my most vivid memory of regret and sadness over my family’s move to Midland.
 At fifteen, my first real romance blossomed. Bill Brown was several years older than I. We met at church the summer before my family moved. He bowled me over with his blond hair, soulful brown eyes and slow, shy smile. He was out of high school, had a job and drove his own car. I was delighted when he courted me, even after our move to Midland. A typical date was the night we went to see “From Here to Eternity“, then to a drive-in for soft drinks. We sat in his car in front of my house for an hour, still under the spell of the movie. Talking led to what we called smooching. I thoroughly enjoyed the fully-clothed groping Bill and I engaged in, and floated into the house in a kind of dream state. Neither the thought of  giving up my virginity before marriage nor guilt over Bill’s frustration entered my mind.
 A war raged on the Korean Peninsula, and the draft age was lowered to eighteen and a half. Bill was conscripted and sent to Ft. Bliss in El Paso. His parents invited me to go with them on the day of his graduation from Basic Training. William Stout, a friend of the Brown family also went. On the long drive west, I sat in the back seat with him. Mrs. Brown sat next to her husband, who drove. She was a small woman, with dark hair, brown eyes and a sharp, pretty face. She reminded me of a mouse as her body tensed and she emitted small frantic sounds with every passing car.
 Bill was as happy to see us as one could be in his situation, not knowing whether or not he’d be fighting a war soon. I felt cherished by this small family. I suspected they hoped Bill and I would someday marry. After the graduation ceremony and a wonderful Mexican dinner, all of us had tears in our eyes as we told Bill goodbye.
 We got into the car to drive the 350 miles back to Midland. William Stout drove and Mr. and Mrs. Brown sat in the back. Though her husband soon went to sleep, Mrs. Brown perched on the edge of her seat, repeating her earlier performance, seeming to think she could prevent her worst fears by intensifying them.
 I leaned my head against the window and tried to sleep, but couldn’t get comfortable. I welcomed Mr. Stout’s invitation: “You can lie down on the seat and put your head on my leg. It won’t interfere with my driving.”
 He was in his forties, on the other side of the line in my young mind that separated friends from adults, but he was a trusted adult. As I lay with my head on his leg, looking through the windshield at the brilliant stars of the west Texas sky, I was aware of the hard muscles moving his foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal and back, a mysterious introduction into sensuality.
 After that Bill and I had only a few dates on weekends. I was too young for him, with my heart set on going to Abilene Christian College. He wanted to settle down after his army service. The Korean conflict ended in July, so he finished his service in El Paso. We didn’t have a break-up. He just stopped calling, and by that time I was dating other boys I met in school. I ran into him and met his pretty wife at church in Odessa the summer after I graduated. My heart still melts when I think of his sleepy-looking brown eyes and shy smile.
* * *   
 My dad had the best job he’d ever had, but his drinking got worse. One vivid, painful memory is of the company Christmas party in a private dining room at the Diamond Horseshoe Restaurant. Among Daddy’s employees was Mr. Bennett, an older man who’d worked for Daddy in Odessa and went with him to Midland.
 During the dinner, “Old Man Bennett”, as Daddy called him, dropped his dentures. He had to get down on all fours and crawl under the table to look for them. All the men were drunk by then and were merciless in their laughter at his expense.
 I was excruciatingly embarrassed and wondered why Mr. Bennett was so loyal to Daddy, who loved to tease him. That may be the night that I decided to go to summer school in order to graduate from high school a year early and leave home.
 In the spring, I was assigned to write a research paper for biology class. I chose the topic of alcoholism. I learned that the disease affects people from all classes of society. The one common characteristic that alcoholics had, my source wrote, was a highly sensitive emotional nature.
 I saw the tragedy of the disease through the screen of my love for my father. I avoided having friends come to my house when he was there or might come in. His eyes were often bloodshot, his voice too loud, his attempts to be friendly or funny, silly and humiliating. The pain of my love for him in this condition felt almost unbearable.
* * *
 One of my new choir friends, Margaret Gibson, lived near me. I loved to go to her house, which was filled with music, books and art. Miriam and Malcolm, her parents were friendly and good-humored. They had a Pekingese named Wee Sing and several cats. Thanks to her mom, Margaret and I got jobs at The Book Stall, in downtown Midland, where Miriam worked full time. Margaret and I started during Christmas break. We worked mostly in the back room, wrapping gifts.
 When school convened again, we helped with inventory after class. The terror I felt standing on a ladder, counting bright Mexican hand-blown glassware, not from fear of the height, but of breaking another glass, as I did on the first day. The owner, Mrs. Mancill, was patient and kept me on until I went to college. I loved having money of my own, but usually bought so many books with my employee’s discount that I didn’t have much left in my paycheck. Ever after that, I had a weakness for small bookstores that also carry stationery and gifts.
 Margaret and I went with her parents to try out for plays at the Midland Community Theater. Her dad, Malcolm, was a good singer and played the part of Sir Joseph, the First Lord of the Admiralty in H.M.S. Pinafore. Margaret and I sang in the chorus, as one his “sisters and his cousins and his aunts.”
 Community theater gave me a wider circle of acquaintance than church, school and my dad’s employees. One night I heard another cast member ask Malcolm what his job was.
 He laughed. “I’m a geologist. Isn’t everyone in Midland?”
 It struck me with a mild shock, that people took a good education and well-paid employment for granted. The Gibsons were a refined, light-hearted family. I felt lucky to be welcome in their home.
* * *.
  The choir’s spring musical, Down in the Valley, matched my mood. Even now, when I hear the title song, it brings to mind the sad lament of the Jennie, the heroine:
 Brack Weaver, my true love, they’ve taken away.
 And since he’s been taken, there’s no night or day.
 No joy ever tarries, no heart can be gay.
 Oh, my love of Brack Weaver will not pass away.

 The sun in the morning, will rise in the sky.
 The laurels are green where the river runs by.
 The trees on the mountain are growing so high.
 But without my dear loved one, I’m sure I will die.
 Unlike Jennie, my melancholy didn’t result from losing my true love. It was that I didn’t feel at home in Midland. I didn’t know why and couldn’t express it at the time. I’d lived amid working-class, low-income people all my life. My dad, with his ninth grade education, had achieved more than most people would expect. He was part owner and manager of the Midland 66 Oil Company, the wholesale distributor for Phillips products. He seemed self-confident, but maybe he drank so much because, like me, he felt out of his element.
 I realized later that my feelings were similar to Mother’s at the same age, when her family moved from the farm near her one-room country school to the town ot Floydada. We both felt like fish out of water. Like her, I made friends who helped me cope.
  That sophomore spring, I dated a senior, Joe Cates. One day at the Book Stall, Margaret teased, “You’ve been out with Joe several times. You must like him.”
 “I like him all right. He’s a perfect gentleman, which is a good thing, because I don’t feel the slightest tingle when he gives me a goodnight peck at the door.”
 That night, after Joe and I had seen “The Greatest Show on Earth,” I enjoyed an elegant fruit plate at the Diamond Horseshoe Restaurant. He stopped talking about the movie and cleared his throat. “I probably should tell you that I nominated you to be the DeMolay Sweetheart. The vote is next week. I hope you get it.”
 I felt slightly alarmed. “What does that mean? What would I have to do?”
 “Nothing but go to the dance with me to receive your crown. The top vote-getter will be the Sweetheart, and the next four will be Duchesses in her court.”
 I’m sure Joe meant this as an honor, but I sincerely hoped it was the last I’d hear of it. How could he know that Church of Christ girls didn’t go to dances, and I didn’t know how to dance? Picking at my fruit, I murmured, “Thank you, Joe.”
 As it turned out, I was a Duchess. I was afraid Mother wouldn’t want me to go to the dance. I didn’t know how to get out of it, but she said, “I think it’s fine that you’re being recognized. I doubt you’ll fall from grace at a high school dance.”
 I was shocked to realize that I felt more strict about Church of Christ doctrine than my mother did. She took me shopping for a formal and we found one we both liked at Dunlap’s Department Store. Three layers of soft yellow tulle covered the long rayon taffeta skirt. Appliqué flowers edged the strapless top and a stole of tulle floated around my shoulders.
 Daddy came home early the day of the dance so he could see me in the dress. He repeated the same thing he said all my life when I got dressed up for special occasions. “You’ll be the prettiest girl there.”
 Joe picked me up in his father’s 1953 burgundy-colored Cadillac coupe. It had extensive chrome trim, including bullet-shaped extensions on the front and back bumpers. He was ecstatic to be driving it. The ride was like floating on a cloud.
 I carried a cascade of long-stemmed  yellow roses in the coronation ceremony. Joe wore a white sport coat and a yellow rose boutonnière. As the honored couples processed into the country club ballroom, we paused under an archway woven with tiny lights, flowers and greenery, to be introduced. The effect of the luxurious setting and having hundreds of eyes on me was numbing.
 As the applause died,  I heard a male voice say, “Mmmm…That’s what I like about the South.”  I felt like an object on display, though not entirely displeased. At the end of the long evening, my face hurt from smiling without feeling happy as I shuffled across the dance floor.
 That was in late spring. Joe graduated and got an early start on college in summer school at Texas Tech. The goodnight kiss at the door after the dance ended our dating.
* * *
 Fifty-seven years later, my son Patrick, who has a shop manufacturing hot rod parts, called. “Mom, one of my customers remembers you from high school. His name is Joe Cates. He said to call him if you’d like.”
 The name seemed familiar, but I an image didn’t come to mind until I got out my old yearbook. On his picture he’d drawn dual carburetors like horns coming out of his head and had written, “Hot Rod.” The whole DeMolay Duchess fiasco came back to me. I called him and we had a pleasant chat. He lived in Bakersfield with his British wife of 45 years and was finally building his dream car.
 He put into words exactly what I was thinking. “Talk about arrested development. I still love hot rods.”
* * *
 Most of my friends were a year ahead of me. I decided to take Junior English and World History in summer school, earning enough credits to be a senior. My way toward Abilene Christian College became clearer.
 Besides going to school that summer, I started a new romance. One Sunday morning, as I turned to leave after the closing prayer at church, the woman sitting behind me touched my elbow. “I want you to meet my son Bob. Bob, this is Jann Hale, who helped me with my third grade class in vacation Bible school. I don’t know what I’d have done without her help.”
 “It was fun, Sister Peters.” I held out my hand to the tall young man beside her and caught my breath as I looked into his brown eyes. His brilliant smile flashed from a perfect tan. He took my cold hand into his warm one. I almost forgot to introduce him to my best friend, who stood beside me. “Do you know Jo Ann Bassham?”
 They said yes in unison and laughed as they shook hands. We all moved out into the aisle.
 Mrs. Peters and Jo Ann became involved in conversations with other people as we walked toward the door, Bob hung back to be next to me and leaned close to my ear. “Would you like to go to a movie with me Friday night? Roman Holiday is opening at the Texan.”
 “I’d love to, Bob. Your mom has my number.” He was just the right height for me to look up to.
 “Okay. I’ll call you to arrange the time.” He squeezed my elbow and hurried after his mother.
 “That was quick.” Jo Ann laughed at my flushed face as she caught up with me. “I don’t know which of you looked more smitten, you, Bob, or his mother.”
 After the movie and refreshments at a drive-in restaurant, Bob and I sat in his car in front of my house and got acquainted. He was home for a few weeks from Texas A. & M., where he had one year to go before finishing a pre-med major. He showed me his senior ring, set with a diamond, and was proud of playing French horn in the famous Aggie marching band. After graduation, he’d go to an osteopathic school in Missouri.
 “When I finish my medical training, I’ll go into practice with my father in Austin.”
 “Really? Your father lives in Austin?” I’d never had a friend whose parents were divorced. My voice betrayed my feeling of shock. “I thought your mother was a widow.”
 Bob laughed and patted my hand. “I don’t even remember when we all lived in the same house. They split when I was small, and I can’t imagine them together.”
 By the time Bob kissed me goodnight at the door, I was enamored.
 The busy summer weeks raced by. I went to school, worked at the Book Stall and dated Bob. By the time he left, I hated to say goodbye, and we promised to write to each other through the coming year.
* * *
 On the last day of summer classes, I walked home in the oppressive August heat and hurried to the kitchen for a drink of the iced tea that Mother always kept in the refrigerator. There was none. Sighing with exasperation, I took out a metal ice tray, pulled the lever on top, which moved the dividers between the cubes. Cracking the ice was strangely satisfying. I filled a tall glass with ice cubes and tap water. After just one sip, I decided to make a pitcher of tea, since I knew Daddy would want some when he came home.
 As I was filling the kettle, Mother came from her bedroom. When I saw her face, I turned off the water and left the kettle in the sink, realizing that not having tea was a minor problem. Mother’s eyes were red, her face drawn tight with distress.
 “Mom, what’s wrong?” I put my arms around her.
 She hugged me back and briefly rested her head on my shoulder before answering. “Ina Rae called earlier. Mama had a bad stroke last night and is in the hospital. Pack a few things. Your dad took the car to be serviced. We’re going to Floydada as soon as it’s ready.
 “Oh, no. How bad is it?”
 Mother took a deep breath, but sobs broke through her answer. “She’s paralyzed on her left side and she can’t talk.”
 My mind went blank at the thought of my grandmother, always laughing and talking, the undisputed matriarch of the Cummings clan, helpless and silent in a hospital bed. I walked toward my room to pack, which brought my mind back to the practical. “I need to call Mrs. Mancill to let her know I won’t be in tomorrow.” My plan for the start of summer break evaporated. I wouldn’t be working at the Book Stall on Saturday and hanging out with my girlfriends after church on Sunday. I faced with dread the prospect of being at Grandmother’s house without her.
 Mother, Kyle and I were on the road by four o’clock. I drove the first 48 miles to Lamesa, but was happy to give the wheel to Mother after that. Although the road was smooth and flat with hardly a curve, I didn’t have much highway driving experience, and tired quickly from nervous tension. We arrived in Floydada as the purple and orange  sunset lit the western sky over the high plains.
 We drove straight to the hospital, a modest single story building with asbestos siding. As we entered the lobby, I resisted the urge to hold my nose as a wave of alcohol fumes overtook us. Aunt Ina Rae and Granddaddy sat in black vinyl chairs with bent chrome frames. Granddaddy’s face was in his hands, elbows resting on his knees,  shoulders slumped forward. Ina Rae patted his back, her pretty face a mask of grief. Mother rushed ahead of me and Kyle. Her hands extended to her father and sister.
 “Oh, Shorty,” Mother reverted to her sister’s childhood nickname, struggling to keep her voice low in volume. Even so, a kind of howl escaped her lips.
 Ina Rae stood and hugged Mother, kissing her on the cheek. “Hi, Bill. I’m glad you’re here.”
 They clung to each other, both crying softly. As I waited for my hug from Aunt Ina Rae, I noticed Granddaddy was standing behind his daughters, looking bewildered. I went around and held up my arms to him.
 He seemed to have shrunk and he responded with a hug and pats on my back, still taller than I.. “Hello, Daughter.”
 “Hi, Granddaddy. Are you okay?” I stepped back so Kyle could give him a hug but kept talking. “How’s Grandmama?”
 “She’s bad.” He patted Kyle, then moved to give Mother a tearful hug as Ina Rae gave Kyle and me  kisses. Granddaddy took a bandana out of his back pocket and wiped his eyes. “She can’t talk or move her left side.”
 “Where is she? Can we see her?” Mother was looking down the single long corridor.
 Ina Rae, said,  “Aileene’s with her in room 12. You and Jann go on and see her, but tell me bye first. I have to go home. I left the children with my sister-in-law early this morning. J. D. picked them up when he got off work, but he’s probably pulling his hair out by now. We’ll come back in the morning. Can Kyle go with me? That would make J. Mac happy, and youngsters can’t go in the hospital room anyway.”
 Mother absent-mindedly gave her consent for Kyle to go to Lubbock. He was so excited, he was at the door waiting with his bag before Ina Rae said her goodbyes. He’d just had his eleventh birthday. J. Mac was ten, and the two boys were delighted when they could get together.
 Filled with dread, I followed Mother and Granddaddy down the hall. Just three months earlier, at his 80th birthday party, everyone had remarked how straight and tall Granddaddy stood. Now, three months later, he was bent by the blow of finding Grandmother on the floor, unable to sit up or make herself understood. Mother had her arm around his waist. I walked past them to open the door to Room 12. Reluctant to go in, I waited by the door after they entered. Mother and her older sister, Aileene hugged, sobbing. Mother wiped her eyes, turned to gently touch Grandmother’s pale face.
 Grandmother’s eyes opened. She looked afraid and lost, eyes darting around the dimly-lit room. Finding Mother’s face, she shook her head, signaling that she couldn’t find words. Her right hand closed over the inert left hand that rested on her chest. She rubbed the twisted fingers, trying to straighten them.
 Aunt Aileene turned the crank at the foot of the bed to raise Grandmother’s head.
 “Oh, Mama. I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Mother placed her hands over Grandmother’s hands, squeezing them both, leaning in to kiss her cheeks.
 I came to stand at the foot of the bed, horrified by Grandmother’s drooping face, not knowing how to respond. When she saw me, the right side of her mouth lifted in a half smile. Her right eye crinkled, emphasizing the drooping left eye. She made a sound that I took to be a joyous greeting.
 I walked around Granddaddy to stand on her left side, bent and kissed her face and nuzzled her neck, comforted by the familiar smell. “I love you, Grandmama.”
 She patted my arm. When I straightened, she closed her eyes wearily and I moved back to the foot of the bed and listened to Mother, Aunt Aileene and Granddaddy discussing next steps.
 Aileene lived on a farm in Hart, an hour away. “Since you’re here for the weekend, I’ll go home and come back during the week. Jack has a crew coming to harvest the maize tomorrow. He said he didn’t need me, but I should be there to cook and run errands for him.” Aileene laughed in a self-deprecating way.
 “Dad looks awfully tired. Has he had anything to eat?” Mother raised her voice slightly, “Dad, are you hungry?”
 He looked confused “I hadn’t thought about it. I guess I could eat something.”
 After some discussion, Mother decided to take Granddaddy to his home and make his dinner.
 “Would you like to stay here with Mama, Jann? The nurse said they’d set up a cot. After I get Dad settled, I’ll bring you something to eat.” Mother stroked my hair, her face strained.
 “Yes, I can stay with her..” I felt awed to be given this responsibility, but confident at sixteen that I could handle it.
 “If Mama wakes up and needs something, call the nurse. I’ll be here as early as possible in the morning.”
 The long night on an uncomfortable cot was a rite of passage for me. Being there with my beloved grandmother in her distress was bittersweet. I hardly slept as I listened to her labored breathing.
 She eventually recovered her speech, but was unable to walk for the remaining four years of her life. I don’t recall hearing her bell-like laughter after that August night in 1953. My grandparents, Sid and Susie Griffin Cummings, had married in December, 1895. Fifty-seven years later she became bedridden and depressed. Granddaddy spiraled into dementia. Life no longer seemed to make sense to him. She died on May 30, 1957, at age 82. He rejoined her September 2, 1958, at age 85.
 Leaving my childhood home in Odessa to start high school among strangers was a sad time. Saying goodbye to my grandparents’ house as a happy place of refuge took me to a new depth of sorrow.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Suzy's Guitar

I felt compelled to write this last week, a departure from the blogs of the last year.

                I was made by Socorro Zalapa Negrete, an artisan in Paracho, Michoacan, Mexico. He was pleased with me, but after I stayed in his shop for several weeks without selling, he decided to take me to Morelia, to the busy Saturday market. Once there, he polished my wood, tuned my strings and put me on a stand alongside other guitars from his shop.

                A young man approached the booth, hand extended, dark moustache stretched tight above his smile. “Hola, Señor Negrete. Remember me, Roberto Loeza? The instrument you made for me has served me well and beautifully.” He bobbed his head in respect.

                Socorro bowed as he shook Señor Loeza‘s hand. “What a pleasure to see you again, Señor. How may I be of service?”

                Roberto turned, gesturing toward a blonde woman who towered behind him. “This lady is a guest in my home from California, here in Morelia to study Spanish. She wants a guitar as a gift for her daughter. I told her I knew the best maker with the best prices. Señor Negrete may I present Señora Juana.”

                The three exchanged pleasantries. Socorro made a sweeping gesture with his arm, taking in all the guitars. “Please, Señora, feel free to try the instruments.”

                The lady lowered her eyes. “Roberto, I know nothing about choosing a guitar. Can you advise me?”

                Roberto and Juana circled the booth, surveying all the instruments. Roberto picked up the guitar next to me, strummed and tuned it with minute turns of the keys, inclining his head to listen to the tone. After playing a few notes of classical music, he repeated the process with three other guitars before grasping my neck and strumming my strings. I sang my best. I longed to go to California with this beautiful gringa. I wanted to be her daughter‘s present.

                Juana rewarded me with a smile. “I love the way this one sounds. Such rich bass notes.”

                Roberto agreed and began to haggle with Socorro over the price. “Besides this guitar and a case, Juana wants an extra case for her son, who already has a guitar. What is the very best you can do for her? Can’t you go lower than 75 American dollars? That’s over 116 pesos. Make it 100.”

                Señor Negrete loved making guitars but hated selling them. With a frown, he picked me up and strummed my strings. I knew I’d never feel my back against his chest again. I sang with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation. I was going to California! He seemed to be on the verge of lowering his price, but Juana stepped forward. “Señor, $75 is a good price. Thank you.”

                Socorro put me in my comfortable leather case with its red felt lining for the short journey to Roberto’s house. That evening, Juana asked Roberto to play me for his wife Laura, their two young sons, Mauricio and Robertito and three other gringos from the Spanish program who’d come to a dinner party at the Loezas’. Everyone agreed that I was a beautiful instrument with a rich tone.

*             *             *

                The next time I was taken from my case, slender fingers lifted, tuned and strummed me with a light, nimble touch. A young version of Juana smiled broadly as she lovingly turned and stroked my wood. “Thank you, Mom. It’s beautiful and I love it.” She kept playing, trying all the chords she knew, strumming intricate patterns  with the fingers of her right hand.

                Juana breathed what seemed to be a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you like it, Suzy.”

                I’d passed the most important test of my short life. Suzy liked me.

                When Suzy played me, I could feel the beat of her heart, a blissful experience. But occasionally her heart would race until it seemed it would burst from her chest. Despite her ragged breathing, she’d put me down carefully. As she went into a seizure, the scream that tore from her throat felt like it might blast us both apart. The attacks left her weak and pale. They left me resonating with compassion, hoping she could go on playing so I could console her.

                One night when I was left in the corner of the living room, I heard Juana crying as she told Fred, Suzy’s dad, that a counselor from the college had called her at work. “He said if Suzy’s seizures can’t be better controlled, she can’t continue classes. The college administration is worried about liability. I don‘t know what she’ll do if she can‘t go to school.”

                The counselor for handicapped students was able to smooth the way for Suzy to stay in school. After she graduated from Porterville College, she and I went on a trip to Los Angeles, where she tried to sell some of the ballads she‘d written with my help. I thought she was very courageous to try, though she didn’t succeed.

                For a time, I was with Suzanne in Sacramento State before she transferred to San Francisco State. It was there that she finally found a good neurologist at U.C.S.F. hospital. For months she took tests to prepare for surgery to remove the seizure focus area from her brain, even as she kept going to classes. Still, she found time to tune me and caress my strings. I like to believe that singing along with me enabled her to live alone in the large city, study for her degree in cultural anthropology and prepare to undergo surgery.

                After surgery, we were elated as the seizures stopped. She finished her degree and was employed as a caregiver. Sometimes she played me and sang to the old lady she took care of. When the old lady died, Suzy had a hard time finding another job.

                She didn't like taking the new psychiatric medicine prescribed for her after surgery.  "I hate the way it makes me feel," she whispered, strumming my strings. "I'm going to stop taking it."

                 Without those drugs, she wasn’t sure of her own perceptions. She heard things that no one else could hear. I felt her fear when she played. Her friends suggested that she go back to be near her family for support.

                Living with her in her late grandmother’s old house was hard. She strummed me in a state of fear and delusion, from a different reality. She heard rocks talking to her. The hum of the refrigerator so disturbed her that she unplugged it and used ice chests to store her food. She no longer wanted to be called Suzy. She was now Suzanne, always worried and afraid. My resonance comforted her, drowning out the auditory demons. I was glad of that, but missed my fun-loving girl.

                Twelve years after surgery, the seizures returned. Suzy came back with them, free from the dreadful delusions. She was serene and content most of the time. When her heart raced, warning of a coming attack, she would calmly put me down, stretch out and wait for the horrible storm in her brain to pass. Afterwards, she calmly dealt with the resulting wounds, such as bites in the lining of her mouth or bruises from thrashing around.

                She reached the age her mother was when she brought me from Mexico. Her musical laugh rang out on her birthday. “I never thought I’d live to be 40. Now I’m even older.”

                She took guitar lessons and spent happy hours practicing new techniques. I felt ecstatic. Then, three years after the seizures returned, a last fearful attack stilled her precious heart and the music in her fingers. I took refuge in the darkness of my case.

                In the time since then, Juana occasionally lifted me out and clumsily tried to play me. But it made us both sad and lonely.

                Then, a few days ago, Juana took me out and placed me in the hands of another loving mother, Nancy Wills. “I want to donate Suzy’s guitar for a raffle to raise funds: half for your high school guitar students to go to the state meet and half for the Lindsay Art Association. We can do the raffle at the concert next Saturday night.”

                Hearing this, I vibrated with joy. Perhaps my long dark days were over.

                Nancy strummed and tuned me. I’d never been held with such expertise. “Oh, my, it has a wonderful tone.” She frowned. “It’s not holding the tune, though”

                “I haven’t replaced the strings. Suzanne’s been gone for more than ten years.” Juana’s voice trembled. She was smiling through tears brought on by my voice.

                “That’s probably the problem. I’ll restring it. Also, it might just be nervous after being in the case so long.”

                How right she was. After she restrung me, she let one of her advanced students, Saul, play me. “I knew you were looking for a guitar. Try this. It’s from Paracho.”

                Saul looked a little regretful. “I do like it, but I just bought another one.”

                The eight boys in her honors class all played me and loved the way I sounded. The only girl was last. She played a few chords and then went into a flamenco riff that thrilled everyone, especially me. Her fingers felt just right.

                The girl turned to Nancy and said, “Oh, Mom. I love this guitar. Can we buy it?”

                Nancy gave her a brilliant smile. “We’ll see, Kathrynne.”

*             *             *

                Nestled in Kathrynne’s arms, I saw Juana enter the Museum/Gallery for the Saturday night concert. I knew she was anxious to learn what Nancy had decided about my value as a fund-raising item. Nancy didn’t keep her waiting.

                “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to buy the guitar for my daughter, Kathrynne,  rather than raffling it off. I don’t think we’d raise more than $300 with a raffle. I know the guitar is worth more, but that is all I can afford. Would that be satisfactory?”

                Juana’s smile broadened. “That would be fine. I can’t tell you how happy I am that it will be with you and your daughter. It belongs with a girl. May I take a picture of Kathrynne with it?”

                It was a wonderful evening as my strings happily rang out in an ensemble of expert young musicians, feeling Kathrynne’s nimble fingers and beating heart. As planned, Kathrynne handed me to a young man as he walked to the soloist’s chair, settled in and introduced his piece. “My name is Joseph. A couple of years ago, I was very sad about losing someone in my life. But I was very happy at the same time. I struggled for weeks as I sat with my guitar and wrote music to express my feelings. I’m going to play part of that music now. I call it Acceptance.
                As Joseph played his beautiful composition, I could feel Juana’s heart expanding from across the room, tears flowing down her face. Suzy seemed to hover near. Just as Jose said, I was sad and joyous at the same time. My rich vibrations mingled with Juana’s feelings Acceptance healing us both.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jann's Memories, 1949 - 1952

Chapter 17

When school started again, I felt well enough to start junior high. It was a big change, going from class to class throughout the day. Seventh grade was the only year I got into trouble in school. We weren’t assigned seats, and I liked to sit in the back of the room and talk to my friends. For this, at various times throughout the year, Mr. Horton, history, Mr.Stockton, math, and the speech teacher whose name escaped me along with his boring lectures on the International Phonetic Alphabet, all gave me “licks” with wooden paddles drilled with holes. To Mr. Horton and Mr. Stockton, this seemed to be a symbolic exercise to get my attention. Both were quite gentle with the paddle. I returned the favor and paid attention in their classes.

The speech teacher walloped me hard, three times. It seemed like my feet left the floor with each lick. I didn’t feel at all repentant as I walked back to my desk and sat down gingerly, then glared at him through tears.

He smiled then and said, “If looks could kill, I‘d be dead.”

It was the first time I heard that expression, the only thing I remember from seventh grade speech class. I stopped talking to my friends in class, regurgitated speech material on tests and got a B, but the look he commented on was the last one he ever got from me.

* * *

One of my friends, Julia Grove, approached me in the hallway one spring day.

“Want to spend the night with me Friday? You can bring what you’ll need to school that day and ride the bus home with me. My dad will bring you home on Saturday afternoon.”

I liked Julie but didn’t know her very well. I knew she lived in the country and I thought it would be fun. “I’ll ask my mom. I think it’ll be okay.”

We rode the school bus 40 miles to her home, a company house in the oil field where her dad worked. It was almost dark when we got there. Her parents didn’t talk much, but made me feel welcome. Julie was an only child, and they seemed like a very close-knit family. After a delicious supper, Julie and I read Nancy Drew mysteries by the light of a Coleman a lantern, then talked late into the night in her cozy bed.

The next morning, Julie’s parents gave her permission to take a .22 rifle and drive an old pickup out through the mesquite wilderness to hunt jackrabbits. As we bounced across the field I was impressed that she could drive. When a rabbit jumped up in front of us, she threw on the brakes. The cloud of dust following us became even bigger and overtook the pickup as Julie jumped out and grabbed the rifle from behind the seat. She leaned on the open door to draw a bead on the animal through the open window. I felt overawed when she shot the bounding animal. She was the most self-confident girl I’d ever met.

* * *

Odessa Junior High included seventh, eighth and ninth grades. My favorite teacher, Miss Wynn, taught history and social studies. She’d been Joe Mike’s favorite also. The two of them seemed to have a mutual admiration society, and I believe she favored me for his sake. It was through her encouragement that I kept my grades high enough in eighth and ninth grades to be in the National Junior Honor Society, which she sponsored.

One day in April, 1951, an announcement on the public address system said that we were not to go to lunch at the usual time. A speech to congress by General Douglas MacArthur was broadcast in our classrooms. This was MacArthur’s farewell address to the nation. Miss Wynn made it obvious to our eighth grade social studies class that she disapproved of President Truman because he relieved the heroic general of his duties as Supreme Commander of the U.N. Forces in Korea. I didn’t know anything about the war in Korea or much about MacArthur, but I was moved by his speech, which ended with a quote from an old army ballad that he remembered from his West Point days early in the century:

“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” And now, like the old soldier
of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old
soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty."

I was glad when the speech ended and we could go to lunch. I was starving.

* * *

Joe Mike went out for football in his senior year, when I was in ninth grade. As a 140-pound center, he got to play only occasionally, since the first string center, “Tiny” Etheredge, outweighed him by 100 pounds and could plow through the opponents‘ defense line after hiking the ball. Odessa High School was the only one in town, and the people were crazy about football . The team did well that year, and played Lubbock at home in the semi-final match for the state championship. We were among the 22,000 people in the stands.

My parents were with Daddy’s friends, Roy and Helen Barnes. I felt embarrassed, and Mother seemed chagrined, that Daddy, Roy and Helen, like many people there, drank whiskey from bottles they carried in brown paper bags. At an earlier game, Helen drank to the point of yelling slurred obscenities at the referee. I vowed I’d never sit with them again and felt bad that Mother had to. I took Kyle to the students’ section to watch the game with me and my friends.

Odessa lost by one point in the last seconds of the game. Hoarse and dispirited, I made my way out of the stadium, my hand on Kyle’s shoulder in front of me. Suddenly, the crowd surged, pressing in on us. Kyle’s panicked voice came from in front of my belly, where he could hardly breathe.

“Help. I’m being squoze. Help me.”

With difficulty, I managed to elbow a space on either side and to resist the push from behind by digging in my heels. I picked him up and carried him to the parking lot where we met Mother and Daddy.

As we drove home, I worried about Daddy’s state of drunkenness, thankful that this was a home game. I blushed as I thought of his driving to the Midland game a few weeks before. Cars were lined up bumper to bumper for the entire 18 miles. In a fit of impatience, he pulled out to pass, then drove onto the left shoulder, dust boiling up behind us, where we stayed until a merciful driver let us back in line.

As my ninth grade year continued, forty cases of polio were reported in November, 1951, fifty more in December. Ten people in Odessa died from polio. The halls and classrooms at Bowie Junior High were almost empty as fearful parents kept their children home. I earned my license to drive sooner than I expected, because testing was expedited for the few students who attended driver’s education class during the epidemic.

Early in December, four boys from Joe Mike’s class drowned in a horrific storm while duck hunting on Lake Texoma. I lay awake all night, confronted with the possibility of dying young. One boy in the boat survived, managing to hang on through the freezing night as, one by one, the other boys sank under the dark waves. With morbid fascination I read the news reports that went on for months as the bodies were found and recovered from the huge lake. The survivor lost 20 pounds overnight, his thick layer of fat probably saving his life. Joe Mike told us a few weeks later that this boy’s hair was growing out white. I still marvel at his courage, to hang on through that awful night.

* * *

Of my numerous friendships, the one with Faye Gray was special. She was Joe Mike’s age, the oldest of my friends, but we were close friends for years. I now suspect that her parents encouraged her to take me under her wing for the sake of mentoring me in Christianity. John and Eva, her dad and mom, were one of the devoted couples whom Mother envied for their common faith.

I’d achieved my adult height of five-feet-nine-inches by this time, and enjoyed being in the midst of their tall family. John was six-and-a-half feet tall, Eva was about my height. Faye was five-ten and Charles, her little brother, hadn’t achieved his full height, but towered over Kyle, who was the same age. I thought John was an attractive man despite scars on his face and hands.

“What happened to your dad to make those scars?” It took courage for me to ask Faye, but she didn‘t seem to mind.

“When we lived in east Texas, he worked as a pumper on the night shift. His job was to go around to oil wells near Tyler and record the output of the pumps. One night as he opened the door of a pump house, there was an explosion. His face and hands were burned and his clothes caught fire. He climbed up to an open water tank, leaving flesh from his hands on the ladder rungs. He jumped in to extinguish the fire, then had to climb out and drive himself to the hospital. It was the middle of the night and no one else was around. He was in the hospital for a long time.”

I’d never admired a man more than John Gray. He sat next to Joe Mike in church and pointed out the bass notes during singing, teaching him to read music. On Sunday nights, the boys practiced leading singing. John and other song leaders stood behind the boys and held their hands to show them how to direct the beat of each song.

Joe Mike became a star bass in the high school a cappella choir and the boys’ quartet, which sang in programs for service club meetings on a number of occasions. I felt proud, sitting in the audience as he sang a solo at a St. Patrick’s Day concert. As he took a bow, his crew cut, dyed bright green that day, practically blinded the audience. He loved the laugh it got.

When Mr. Day, the choir director, went to teach at Odessa Junior College the following year, he offered Joe Mike a scholarship Because he could live at home and study in a supportive environment, a gentle start on my brother’s college education.

Joe Mike and I both loved going home with the Grays after church on Sunday. Eva prepared dinner ahead of time. Faye and I set the dining room table with fine china, sterling silver and crystal. We helped get the food on the table and washed dishes after the meal. The Grays lived in a modest house in a Sun Oil Company compound, but I learned much about gracious living from them.

Sunday afternoons, we drove around with Joe Mike, searching out interesting spots in which to take pictures of one another. We liked a small park in Midland with sculptures of cupid-like angels flanking the gate. In our church clothes, including hose, high heels, hats and gloves, we posed like movie stars. It felt good being us.

The Grays invited me to go on a weekend fishing trip, a new experience for me. I spent Friday night at their house. We arose while it was still dark and drove east toward Lake Sweetwater. Faye, Charles and I watched from the back seat as the sky lightened and the sun peeked over the horizon, level with us on the flat prairie. We stayed in a cabin owned by the Riggs family, members of our church.

I felt wonderful to be in the presence of a relaxed, patient man. John offered to teach me to fish, but I didn’t really like it. What I did like was rocking along in the boat with him and Faye and Charles, listening to John’s deep voice explaining to his seven-year-old son how to bait the hook and cast the line.

Faye would be going to Abilene Christian College in the fall. In April, John and Eva took us to Abilene for High School Weekend, an opportunity for prospective students to get acquainted with the school. We toured the campus, including Zellner Hall, which would be Faye’s dorm. Mary Titsworth, the dorm mother, shook hands with John and Eva, but paused to hold Faye’s hand between her own, smiling into the girl’s eyes.

“I look forward to having you here, Faye. Let me know if you have questions or if I can help you in any way.”

She liked to be called Mrs. T. With white braids encircling her head, she seemed almost holy in her sweetness. Imagine my surprise a few years later, when I arrived at the dorm late for curfew. She met me at the door with a frown, as articulate and dramatic in her censure of my behavior as she had been in welcoming Fay as a prospective student.

Saturday night we went to a student presentation of the opera “Aida.” I was totally overtaken with the hope of someday being a student in this school. The next morning, we worshiped at the College Church of Christ, across the street from the campus. The cornerstone inscription read, “Founded in Jerusalem, A.D.33.” I’d never been in such a large church, and the singing captivated me. Going to Abilene Christian College. became my ambition and my vision for the future.

In 1950, Daddy’s old friends, Homer and Roy Johnson, offered to sell him a share in a new wholesale gasoline distributorship they were starting. He sold his Shell service station and started commuting to manage Midland 66 Oil Co. He and Mother decided to keep living in Odessa until after Joe Mike graduated from high school in 1952.

That summer, Fay and I went to church camp on the Pecos River near Iraan, Texas for three weeks. We had a great time, meeting kids from all over western Texas. Church and Bible study, swimming, hiking, volleyball and campfires kept us busy and happy. Food was spartan. Goat meat, donated by local ranchers was barbecued for lunch and dinner, with ranch beans, coleslaw and white bread. Breakfast was oatmeal and prunes. I was so happy being with other church kids in a scenic outdoor setting, I hardly noticed the food.

While I was at camp, Mother and Daddy sold our house, bought another in Midland and moved. It was a shock to return from camp to a different house, different church, different town. I thought I was prepared for the move, but I wasn‘t.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jann's Memories, Age 8 to 12

Chapter 16

I was eight when Daddy bought the abandoned house in the Penwell oil field and moved it onto a corner lot on West Third Street in Odessa. Daddy’s excitement and enthusiasm were infectious. He hired a carpenter who replaced the flooring, repaired the windows, installed a new dark shingle roof and light gray asbestos siding and painted the trim kelly green  I don’t recall a time when Daddy seemed as happy as when he came home to our little rental on the south side and reported daily progress on the house.

One day after work he took us with him to check on the front porch and sidewalk that were poured that day. The work was complete. We’d be moving in soon.

Going someplace with Daddy was a rare treat. When he was happy, all was right with my world.  The mood changed quickly when we got to the house. The work on the sidewalks was fine, but the names of neighborhood children were gouged in the wet cement.

“I’ll be damned.” Daddy’s face turned almost purple as he read the most prominent name, running the entire length of the sidewalk, from the steps to the street. “I’d like to get my hands on Billie Yvonne Derrick.” His voice dripped with sarcasm as he pronounced Billie Wy-vonne Derrick. “I’d wring her neck.” .
I shrank back from Daddy’s anger but had to grin behind the hand I clapped over my mouth when the image of my grandmother wringing a chicken’s neck came to mind. I wondered if Daddy could really wring a child’s neck and whether she’d run and jump around without her head like chickens did. He’d never spanked me, and I was pretty sure he wouldn‘t wring Billie Yvonne Derrick’s neck. I decided then and there that I would never write my name in wet cement and that I would never make friends with Billie Yvonne Derrick. I never did, though she was only two years older than I and lived across the street for six years.

I held Mother’s hand as we walked up  the steps and entered the living-dining room combination. The windows were covered with Venetian blinds. “I’ll make sheer curtains to go over the blinds.” Mother liked to share with me what she’d learned in home  economics.

The floor-covering was linoleum with large pinkish flowers and dull green leaves.  “This will look good with the dusty-rose couch and chair.” Mother turned to face Daddy. “I found a nice mahogany dining set at Wright’s today. It's only $15.” Her voice was excited. I’d been with her to the used furniture store and knew she longed for the table and chairs we saw there.

I breathed a sigh of relief when Daddy smiled and said, “Good. Sears called today. The furniture we ordered is in. They’ll deliver it next week.”

He went to a gas valve and turned it on. An awful smell hissed out. I held my nose. He turned it off quickly.

“Good.” Daddy looked satisfied. “They got the gas hooked up.” Our heater, a small one with a line of blue flames in front of clay panels, would go in that spot.

Mother and I went to the kitchen behind the dining area. Plain tan linoleum covered the floor and the counter that ran along one wall. Two windows and a door opened to the back yard. Mother put a finger on her chin, studying the small space. “Our kitchen table will go under the windows, but there won’t be room for all of us to sit around it.”

“That’s okay, Mother,” I piped up from the door. “We’ll have our new table in here.” I gestured toward the dining area.

We followed Daddy and the boys to the front bedroom, which was large enough for two double beds. Kyle and I would continue to sleep together in one. Daddy and Mother would share the other.

Mother looked in the small closet in the corner. “This is awfully small, Joe. We need to look for a wardrobe.”

Daddy sighed and took a step into a narrow hallway. Gesturing to a larger closet to his right, he said, “We have this one. It’ll be enough for now.” He entered the bathroom to his left. I followed him, pleased to see new fixtures and paint.

We heard Joe Mike yell from the small back bedroom. “Look, Jann and Kyle. My room has cowboys and bucking horses on the wall.”

Mother looked pleased. “Do you like it? Katherine Murphy helped me do it.” She had pulled off quite a coup, keeping her wallpapering project a secret.

“I knew about it cause I came with her,” Kyle laughed, “but Mama told me not to tell and I didn’t.” He looked at Mother for approval and she rewarded him with a hug.
* * *
After we moved in, Mother bought a cherry wood Philco radio-phonograph console and records from the Sears Roebuck catalogue with babysitting money. I remember music albums by Bing Crosby and Arthur Godfry, and a Bugs Bunny story.

Mother still did our laundry at the Helpy Selfy. Every week she ironed a large washtub full of clothes, mostly Daddy’s work uniforms. She set up the ironing board near the radio and listened to Art Linkletter or “The Life of Helen Trent,” a soap opera. Sometimes she sang as she worked, either hymns from memory or with records.

This humble house became the essence of the word “home” for me.

One of my first memories of living there was finding an extra edition of The Odessa American on the front walk when I arrived home after school. The paper usually came in the morning, and I felt apprehensive as I unrolled it that afternoon. A band of black bordered the page, and the huge headline announced that President Roosevelt was dead. All my life, and all of Joe Mike’s life, Roosevelt was president. As World War II wound down, I heard many people say as it ended, “What a shame that Roosevelt didn’t live to see the end of the war.”

I was in third grade and  Joe Mike was in sixth when we moved to our new house. We rode a bus to Northside Elementary School. How scary it would’ve been not to have a big brother with me. I followed him like an adoring puppy, trying to do everything he did.
* *
The following year, Joe Mike went into junior  high. He went out for track and field. In the front part of the vacant lot next door, he and some neighbor boys set up a broad jump and high jump course in the sandy soil to practice.

I watched the boys jump for awhile before volunteering to help them place the crossbar between nails that marked the height on each side post. I decided I could probably clear the bar, on the lower levels, so finally got up my courage to ask, “Can I try?”

“Okay, but you’ll have to wait until we finish this round. You can have a turn when we start over with the low bar.” Joe Mike was the boss, since the whole thing was his idea. He used his own money to buy the materials to build it.

After all the boys jumped as high as they could, knocking the crossbar off on their last try, they moved on to the broad jump pit. I stayed behind and put the crossbar on the first peg and jumped it easily. I was moving it up to when Joe Mike  called me to hold one end of the rope with which they marked the line for beginning the  broad jump
“I’ll hold it, but you have to give me a turn, too. You said I could try the high jump and then you left.”
Joe Mike rolled his eyes, but agreed.

I was better at broad jump than high jump. We also tried pole vaulting, but I didn’t vault much higher than I could jump, intimidated by the long pole and the drop into the sand on the far side of the high bar. Still, I had fun practicing, planting the pole and lifting my weight off the ground with the momentum of a running start.
* * *
I followed Joe Mike’s lead in teasing our little brother. One day after school, Kyle watched as I played jacks on the front porch. Joe Mike came out of the house eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“Kyle,” his voice was raised in alarm. “You have garments on your back.”

As Kyle squirmed, trying to see over his shoulder, feeling his back with his hands, Joe Mike grinned and winked at me.

“Where?” Kyle looked worried.

I didn’t see anything alarming on his back and didn’t know what garments were, but I decided to ally myself with power. When Joe Mike said, “They’re all over you,” I nodded.

Kyle jumped up and ran in the house, crying for Mother’s help. I followed.

Mother picked up the four-year-old and hugged him. “What’s the matter?”

“Joe Mike said I have garments on my back. Get them off.”

“Oh, Honey, garments are just clothes. We all have garments on our backs.”

I laughed, understanding Joe Mike’s joke, but not at all concerned about Kyle’s feelings.

Later, Joe Mike teased Kyle again about having garments on his back. Wanting to show my knowledge, I said, “So do you, Joe Mike.”

Kyle grinned and nodded. “Yeah, Joe Mike. So do you.”

“Yes, but you have ancestors, Kyle.” Grinning, laughing, pointing at the little boy.

“I do not,” Kyle’s voice trembled and his eyes welled with tears
Again not knowing the word but now understanding the game, I followed Joe Mike’s lead, teasing in a sing-song voice, “Kyle has ancestors. Kyle has ancestors.”

He ran to Mother again in distress. She comforted him and scolded Joe Mike and me as we laughed. Thus I improved my vocabulary but not my compassion.

One day Mother made lye soap. After boiling lye and lard together, she poured it into a flat enamel pan, which she  put on a chair outside to cool. She cautioned us not to touch it. Joe Mike and I decided it looked like the caramel candy Mother made at Christmas time. Joe Mike took the wooden spoon Mother had left resting on top of the soap and pretended to take a bite, saying, “Yum. That is delicious.”

I followed suit.

Kyle actually put some of the soap in his mouth. Fortunately, the burning started immediately, and he spit it out without swallowing any.

Hearing his wails, Mother grabbed him and gave him a sip of vinegar.

“Rinse like this.” She swished some in her mouth. “Spit that out. I want you to take a little more and swallow it.” She followed the vinegar with an egg white. Kyle lost a layer of skin off his tongue. Horrified when I understood that our sweet little brother could have died, I lay awake for a long time that night. Our teasing stopped after that.
* *
The summer after I finished fourth grade, Joe Mike, Kyle and I all had our tonsils removed on the same day. Dr. Wood, the one who delivered me, recommended the surgery because we had frequent sore throats. The three of us checked into the same room in the hospital. When Mother went with Kyle to the operating room, Joe Mike and I jumped on our beds, laughing. They brought Kyle back, pale and asleep. I was next. Mother walked beside my gurney to the operating room. An ether mask was put over my face and the next thing I knew, I woke up, back in our room. Mother was sitting on the bed with Kyle, patting him and singing.

I tried to say something and couldn’t because of a terrible pain under my tongue. I expected to have a sore throat, but I hardly noticed that because I couldn’t move my tongue without hurting myself.

“Mothuh, theh’s a knot unduh my tongue.”

She came quickly to my bedside. “I know, Honey. The doctor couldn’t get your tongue out of your mouth, so he clipped it. When you were a baby, he said you were tongue tied , but it never was a problem.”

“Bud I could talk bettah befoah.” I cried.

“It’ll get well , Honey. Don’t worry.”

She was right. After the doctor took the stitches out, my speech was back to normal.

When Joe Mike woke up, he looked at Mother accusingly. “You went with Kyle and Jann to the operating room, but I had to go by myself.”

At that moment, I think Mother wished she’d scheduled the operations on different days.
* * *
I began to be more interested in school. Our principal, Mr. Turner, came to our fifth grade class one day and asked if anyone would like to work in the cafeteria every day to earn their lunch. I eagerly raised my hand and he chose me. The job required that I get a blood test. It was the first time I remember going to a doctor’s office. The ladies who cooked our food on site every day were very nice to the kids who worked there. I felt quite important, serving plates to all the other fifth graders as they came through the line.
* * *
On Mothers’ Day that year, 1948, nervous and elated, I walked up the aisle of the Southside Church of Christ as the congregation sang, “Just As I Am.”

“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”

I whispered to Eddie Myers, the minister, that I wanted to be baptized and took a seat on the front pew. When the song was over, he motioned for me to stand, and asked, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only begotten son of God?”

Shivering with nervousness and excitement, I answered, “Yes.”

The small church had a baptistery behind  the pulpit. There were curtains that were usually open to show a painting of the River Jordan. A small dressing room was on each side of the baptistery. Eddy Myers motioned for Joe Mike to follow him to the room on the left.  Mother came from the congregation and led me to the room on the right.

Mother and I were both nervous as I took off my yellow Easter dress and put on a white chenille bathrobe that had weights sewn around the hem. Mother held my hand as I climbed the steps. Joe Mike stood on the other side of the baptistery, grinning and holding the cord to the curtains, now closed. Brother Myers was already down in the baptistery. He guided me down the steps to stand in front of him facing Joe Mike as Brother Myers faced the congregation.

  He placed a white handkerchief in my hand as Joe Mike opened the curtains. Brother Myers raised his right hand, saying, “Upon your confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

He took my hand with the handkerchief, put it over my nose and mouth, put his other hand behind my head, and lowered me under the water. Mother and Joe Mike watched from above, she behind me and he in front. When I came up, Joe Mike closed the curtains. I could hear the congregation singing the last verse of “Just As I Am.”
“Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O, Lamb of God, I come! I come!”

  The dripping chenille was very heavy as Brother Myers helped me climb to where Mother waited. Wearing waders with his dress shirt, tie and jacket, he turned and took Joe Mike’s hand as he went out the opposite way.

I shed the robe and Mother wrapped me in a towel. As she helped me get dressed, I felt ecstatic. Sixty-four years later, I read in Mother’s journal her memory of that day: “Jann said, ‘Oh, Mother, Jesus is so sweet.’”

This marked my entry into the young people’s group at the church. We attended Bible classes twice on Sunday, usually had outings between those services and parties on Saturday night. Church activities comprised a large part of my education. That summer I went to church camp near Iraan, on the Pecos River, about 100 miles south of Odessa. I made friends from all over the state, including counselors who were students at Abilene Christian College. Going to college there became my ambition.

Devoted and idealistic, I took Mother as my role model and more or less rejected Daddy as such. My parents’ values offered my brothers and me a stark contrast. I had complete faith in Church of Christ doctrine, growing up with a very black-and-white way of thinking.
* * *
When I started the sixth grade that fall, there was a teacher shortage in Odessa. Our principal, Mr. Turner, taught our class for the first few weeks. It was as if someone turned a light on in my head. For the first time, I understood why I was in school, and I loved it. Having a man teacher as I approached puberty probably contributed to the change. He was kind but serious about learning. I felt inspired.

When our new teacher, Mr. Weinert, arrived, no one in the class could understand a word he said for the first several days. He was from Wisconsin, and we just couldn’t get his name. In west Texas, we didn’t say a word like Weinert with a long I sound. We’d say Wa-a-a-nert. After a time, our ears and his speech adjusted.

I was aware of presidential politics for the first time. The day after the 1948 election is clearly etched in my memory. A rare snow covered the school playground when Mr. Weinert came out to get the class at the end of recess. He’d been listening to the news on the radio. His face and voice registered shock, punctuated by vapor clouds made by his breath in the cold air, as he announced that Harry S. Truman won the election.
He wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Arriving home that afternoon, I looked for the Odessa American. The front page featured a photograph of the grinning president holding up the New York Times with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Mother and Daddy talked about it at supper. “I don’t particularly like Truman, but at least he’s not as much a damn yankee as Dewey.” Daddy laughed.
I didn’t know “yankee” was a word by itself.
* * *
In sixth grade, all my friends and I had boyfriends. Mine was Gary Hinds. He had a shy smile that I liked. He and I were both quite tall for our age. His nickname was Biggy because of his huge hands. He could grasp and pick up a basketball in each hand. Sometimes on Saturday, we would meet in front of the movie theater and sit together, too shy to touch, even in the dark theater. I liked his shyness. He made me feel small and he liked me.
* *
In April, I walked home from school in a wind storm, sometimes turning around and walking backwards to protect my face from the stinging, blinding sand. Arriving home, I collapsed onto my bed, out of breath and exhausted. Mother called from the kitchen, asking me to set the table for supper. I dragged into the kitchen and she looked up, registering alarm.

“What’s the matter, Hon? You look like you don’t feel well.” She put her hand on my forehead.

“My ankles hurt. Feel my neck, Mom.”

Mother’s worried look intensified as she probed two large lumps, a couple of inches behind each ear, near the hairline.

“Ouch. That hurts.” My voice faltered as I opened the silverware drawer.

“I’ll set the table, Honey. You go back and rest. Tomorrow I’m taking you to the doctor.”

The diagnosis was rheumatic fever. The treatment was six weeks of complete bed rest. I was shocked. Six weeks seemed like an eternity to me, and I wondered what missing so much school would mean. Mother visited the school to talk to Mr. Weinert, who assured her I could finish sixth grade by doing the weekly assignments he would bring to the house.

I didn’t feel ill and those weeks were among the most pleasant of my childhood. Mother, who’d wanted to be a nurse, indulged me with impeccable care. She communicated love in the ways she tended my needs: daily baths, fresh line-dried sheets, meals brought to my bed on a tray. I appreciated her friendliness to the classmates who visited regularly.

Lying beside the open window, sheer curtains moving with the mild May breeze, I read notes from my classmates that Mr. Weinert delivered with my weekly assignments in math, history and language arts. I knew my friends’ notes were writing assignments, but most seemed sincere and some were even entertaining. Sometimes he assigned crayon drawings for my encouragement. Every day the mailman brought a bright get-well card from Aunt Jewell.

I enjoyed the time so much, it’s a wonder I didn’t become a hypochondriac. At the end of six weeks, I was happy to leave the bed behind and return to my favorite summer activity, roller skating in the neighborhood.