“Can I keep the car today? I need to go to the grocery store.”
Bill felt a twinge of guilt as she said this. It was true they needed a few groceries, but her real reason for wanting the car was to go to Ladies Bible Class.
Joe picked up the last bite of bacon from his plate, popped it into his mouth, drained his coffee cup and stood. “Okay, but I need to get to work.”
Bill stood as well. She went into the bedroom where three-year-old Kyle slept. She sat on the side of his bed as she changed from slippers into brown oxfords. “Kyle, wake up, Honey. We’re going to take Daddy to work.”
Kyle turned over, eyes squinting in his round face. “Where’s Joe Mike and Jann?”
“They left for school already, Lazy Bones. Come on, I’ll wrap your blanket around you for now and get you dressed when we get back.”
Joe waited in the brown Mercury sedan with the engine idling and the heater on against the dry, cold February air. Bill carried Kyle out and put him in the back seat, where he lay down, pulled the blanket close around him and went back to sleep. She sat in the front passenger seat, shivering.
As Joe parked in front of the lift bay at the Shell Service station which he now owned, Bill thought back to the changes of the previous year. As soon as the war in Europe was over Joe quit his oil field job. There was a huge wheat crop to be harvested on the plains. Joe thought he could make money helping to harvest it for the hungry people in the countries devastated by war. He bought an old school bus that had been converted into a camper, with a cook stove in the front and bunks in the back. He asked his sister, Nit Darden, her husband, Lon, and their son, Doyce, to work for him. Joe Mike went, too, although he was only 13. With a tractor, a truck and a combine, they went on the road. Starting in the south plains, near Floydada, they followed the harvest all the way to Kansas. Bill stayed home, tending a garden and worrying about everything that could go wrong with such an arrangement.
Joe’s gamble and hard work paid off. With the profits of the summer, he was able to buy the Shell station. He seemed much happier as a business owner than an employee.
* * *
Joe got out of the car and Bill scooted across the seat to the driver’s side. “What time should I come get you?”
“I’ll call you. It’ll probably be late. There are already two cars waiting to be serviced.”
“Why don’t I come and get you for dinner at noon, then you can bring the car back and come home whenever you‘re through.”
“Okay, but don’t come until 1:00. It’ll take me that long to get caught up here.” Joe leaned through the open window and gave Bill a peck on the lips, then walked away, whistling.
“Bye, Honey.” The arrangement was perfect. Bill would stop at the grocery store now, hurry home to put her purchases away and get Kyle dressed, then pick up Katherine Murphy for Ladies’ Bible Class at 10:00. Since Joe wanted dinner later than usual, she’d have time to make meat loaf and mashed potatoes before picking him up.
* * *
They no longer lived in the house on South Crane Highway, where they’d lived when Kyle was born and where Pop died. It felt like home, but the owner decided he wanted to live there.
For a year, they rented a house with a barn and garden space on the east side of town in a rough neighborhood. Joe bought two horses, a light bay, Penny, for himself and a smaller paint named Tony for Mike. Joe taught Mike and Jann how to ride and gave Mike the responsibility of feeding and grooming both horses. On Sunday afternoons, they rode to a neighborhood arena, where men and boys got together and practiced roping calves.
Bill smiled when she remembered how much Jann loved to ride Tony. It reminded her of when she’d raced her horse, Dunny, to school. One summer day, Joe’s nephews, Bill and James Darden, stopped to see Joe as they were driving through Odessa. Joe invited them home for dinner, and decided to show them how well his seven-year-old daughter could ride. He saddled the gentle paint pony. Jann climbed on and loped out into the mesquite-covered field. For some reason, Tony made a sudden stop, and the barefoot girl went flying over his head, turned a flip and landed on her feet in front of the horse. Joe and his nephews laughed and clapped. With a toss of her head, Jann got back on the horse and continued riding as if she’d planned the whole thing.
At the dinner table, the men teased her about being a trick rider. Jann said, “The only thing I was thinking about was how many thorns those mesquite bushes had on ‘em. That and rattlesnakes.”
One day when Jann went with Joe and Mike to the roping, she came home with her face and hair filthy, looking sulky. Joe Mike had talked her into riding a calf at the arena, and she’d landed on her face in the dirt. Bill was relieved that Jann stopped going to the roping.
During that year, Joe Mike and Jann walked downtown and go to the movie theater on Saturday, always a western. Their favorite hero was Gene Autry. They thought he looked like their daddy. Sometimes they saw Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger or Red Ryder. Every week a serial drama ended in seeming tragedy. The following week, the tragedy was averted by heroic effort for another 20 minutes.
One Saturday the two children arrived home and greeted their mother with large, frightened eyes. “Jann almost got hit by a train.” Joe Mike’s voice trembled as he recalled his fright. “We were walking home on the railroad track and didn’t see the train coming until it whistled, pretty close to us. I shouted for Jann to run, then I went this way.” Joe motioned to his right. He turned to his sister with a voice charged with anger. “Why didn’t you follow me, Jann?”
His little sister, seven, looked down. “I was so afraid, I couldn’t move. I didn’t know which way to go. Finally I went that way.” She held out her left hand. She put her face against her mother’s apron. “The train was so close I could feel the wind it made.”
Joe Mike stared intently into Bill’s eyes. “I didn’t know until the train went all the way by whether she was all right or not.” Tears spilled out of his eyes. Jann also started crying.
Bill sat on a kitchen chair, hugging one child in each arm and gave each a kiss. “Thank goodness you’re both all right. You take such good care of your sister, Joe Mike. Please don’t walk on the railroad track anymore.”
Joe used part of his wheat harvest earnings to buy their own home. He heard about an abandoned house out in the Penwell oil field that was for sale for $500, including the cost of moving it and setting it on a foundation. Built for a pumper, the man who monitored the flow of pumping wells, it was no longer needed in that location. One Sunday afternoon, the family drove through desolate fields to see it.
As they bounced along gravel roads, past abandoned oil derricks, hundreds of moving pumps and burning gas flares, Joe Mike and Jann chattered in the back seat, each claiming the things they could see from their side of the car. Kyle, stuck in the middle, was left out.
Everyone thought Jann would be the winner when she saw three antelope on her side. Joe Mike had seen a single coyote. When he spotted a herd of eight buffalo, it was clearly the grand prize of the day.
When they finally arrived at the abandoned house, Bill’s heart sank. It was buried in sand past the foundation. All the windows were broken, the doors sagged and constantly blowing sand had scoured away the paint. They went in, carefully watching for rattlesnakes.
Joe stomped on the floor, tried to shake the door frames and declared it basically sound. “After it’s moved, we’ll get a carpenter to fix the windows and doors. With fresh paint and new linoleum, it’ll be nice.”
Bill hoped he was right.
They bought two lots in a new neighborhood on the west edge of Odessa, for $250 each and built a foundation on the corner lot for the house. The extra lot was for a garden, with room at the back for a barn, chicken house and a pen for raising beef calves.
Now, a year later, Bill was satisfied with their home. Five Chinese Elms were growing well. When spring came, they would put in a lawn and garden. New houses were going up on their street. So far, the neighbors seemed like good folks. Joe Mike and Jann rode the school bus, but a new elementary school was planned for the neighborhood. In a couple of years, Jann would be able to walk to school.
Bill belonged to the Parent-Teachers Association and was a room mother for both children. That was rewarding, but her real place in the world was her church, the Southside Church of Christ. She went twice on Sunday and twice again on Wednesday.
She and Katherine Murphy were close friends. Both were devoted Christians with non-believing husbands, and each took great comfort in the friendship.
“Having you as a friend keeps me from envying the couples who sit together and share their faith,” Bill told Katherine one day as they were drinking coffee at Bill’s kitchen table.
“I know, Hale. It must be nice to worship with your husband.” Most people at church called Bill “Sister Hale.” Katherine, whose husband and son were named Bill, called her friend Hale.
“Do you ever feel guilty when you read the scripture in II Corinthians, ’Do not be yoked together with unbelievers?’ If I hadn’t departed from the way I was raised for a time, maybe I would’ve found a Christian husband.”
“No. I don’t feel guilty.” Katherine’s eyes flashed. “My husband is a good man. I believe Christ accepts us just as we are, in the situation we’re in.”
Bill laughed. “That’s why I like having you as my friend. You don’t let me get by with self pity. Joe’s a good man, too, and I’m lucky to have him. I adore him. I just wish he’d go to church with me.”
Joe Mike and Jann had a large group of young people at church with whom they learned social skills. The minister, Eddie Myers and his wife Chris, took a genuine interest in them. The entire congregation helped the kids navigate the difficult waters of being “in the world but not of the world,” as well as providing a foundational knowledge of the Bible. Fun-loving Bill enjoyed chaperoning their parties, often held on the same night as school dances, forbidden territory.
Jann especially enjoyed their outings to the sand hills near Monahans. There were miles and miles of beautifully-sculpted white wavy dunes that changed by the hour with the constant wind. She thought it was hilarious to be on the tail-end of pop-the-whip games. One time the momentum sent her flying over the edge of a sand cliff. She and the other kids near her landed 40 feet below, rolling and laughing in the snow-like grit.
The kids stayed out until late dusk. Hurrying back to the hayride truck where they’d roast wieners and marshmallows, Jann was in a little valley between two sand hills that each hid a fence post. She ran into a strand of barbed wire, dazing her. Later, as Bill put a bandage her skinned nose, Jann told her about the game of pop-the-whip. “Oh, Mother, it was so much fun. It felt like I was flying.”
Joe Mike and Jann asked their mother if they could have a party for the church youth at their house. Bill enthusiastically agreed and suggested a taffy pulling party.
“We used to have so much fun making taffy. The candy has to be at just the right stage and temperature when you take it out of the pot. Everyone butters their hands and rolls the candy into balls. Partners share the warm portions. Each one pulls, then rolls the strand back into a ball and pulls again until the strand cools and turns white and hard.” Bill’s hands illustrated the pulling and folding. “Then you break it into little pieces, eat it and play games.”
Joe Mike and Jann were sold on trying it. Another generation had fun pulling taffy, thanks to Bill Hale.
She played board or card games with them and their friends on Sunday afternoon between church services. A favorite was “Spoons.” She was very good at sneaking the first spoon away from the center of the table after matching all the cards in her hand. Jann was often the last to see the spoons being taken, thus not getting one and losing the round. It was a hilarious game that all the kids liked.
* * *
Joe Mike joined the 4-H Club when he was in sixth grade. He raised a Hereford steer to enter in the fat stock show. The following year, he used the money he made on that calf to buy two more. The tall and rangy one, he named Mutt. The other, short and stocky, was Jeff.
When it was time to show them, he spent more and more time with the steers, teaching them to follow on a lead rope, grooming them, finishing their feeding with rich grains. “Mr. Lee thinks Jeff has a chance to win first prize,” Joe Mike told his mother.
Bill smiled. “That would be wonderful, Honey. You’ve worked so hard, you deserve a ribbon yourself.”
Joe Mike laughed, blushing.
It wasn’t a first but a second place ribbon that Jeff won at the show. Joe Mike was disappointed, but Mr. Lee, the county agent, congratulated him. “That means only two other steers, the grand champion and first place, were better than yours, Mike. You should be very proud.”
The next day, Bill watched from the stands as Joe Mike led Jeff into the auction arena. Mutt was sold earlier that morning. This was the last time Mike would be with the pretty little calf that was his favorite. Bill saw that he looked upset and nervous in front of the crowd of parents and businessmen who bought stock for the sake of the good publicity they’d get. Joe Mike burst into tears as the auctioneer began. The tears seemed to inspire the bidding. The more Joe Mike cried, the more bids came in. Finally, Jeff brought twice as much per pound as Mutt, giving Joe Mike a nice profit for his work.
At supper, Dad was jubilant. “George Walters, the banker that bought Jeff is a customer of mine. The next time I see him, I’ll thank him for his support. I’m proud of you, Son.”
Joe Mike, his eyes still red, looked down. “I don’t want to raise any more calves.”
A few weeks later, the family was around the supper table when there was a knock on the door.
“I can’t imagine who that could be.” Bill opened the door. “Oh, hello, Mr Walters. Come in.”
George Walters entered with a box of packages wrapped in white butcher paper. “I thought maybe you folks could use some beef. I bought more than my family can eat.”
Bill’s hand covered her mouth in surprise. “Oh, my. Thank you so much.”
Joe hurried forward to take the box, then handed it to Joe Mike, who was right behind him. “Here, Son, put this in the kitchen.”
Turning to Mr. Walters, Joe shook his hand vigorously. “We’re much obliged to you, George. Can you sit down and have supper with us?”
Mr. Walters took a step backwards. “No, thank you, Joe. I have more deliveries to make.” Seeing Joe Mike coming back in the room, he added, “Don’t worry, Mike, none of that meat is from Jeff. It’s from another calf I bought that day. Jeff made such good steaks, I kept them all for myself.” He laughed.
Embarrassed, the family laughed with him. Bill closed the door behind him. “Isn’t that nice. He paid so much for that meat and then he gave it away.”
Dad explained, “It’s all about advertising. That’s the way business works. Oh, boy, I can’t wait to try those steaks.”
* * *
Jann was in fourth grade when she joined 4-H. The county home demonstration agent, Mrs. Carter, gave her a ride to the meetings in Penwell on Saturday mornings. For projects, Jann helped Bill in the garden and canned some of the tomatoes they raised. She sewed an apron and a hot pad on Bill’s treadle sewing machine, and embroidered some pillow cases to enter in the county fair, along with canned tomatoes and fresh green beans from the garden.
Bill took her to the fair after school to see all the exhibits. “Look, Jann. You got a blue ribbon on your hot pad. That’s first place!”
Jann, who was the youngest member of the club, couldn’t believe it. “Mrs. Carter liked my straight seams. Oh, I got a white ribbon, too, third place on my tomatoes. And the green beans got a second. Red, white and blue.” She laughed, fingering the silky ribbons. “These should be yours, Mother. You did most of the work in the garden.”
When summer vacation came, Jann went to 4-H camp. Bill helped her pack a small suitcase and a bed roll made of two quilts and a folded sheet with a little pillow inside. “Take your bath in the afternoon before the evening meal. Put on clean clothes then. You have enough clothes for five days. Keep track of your things.”
There was a lump in Bill’s throat when she put her little girl on the school bus to go to Alpine, Texas, in the Davis Mountains. The other girls on the bus from her club were teenagers and ignored the shy younger girl. Even when they arrived at the school gymnasium where they stayed with 4-H members from all over west Texas, she was still the youngest and was left alone.
She felt slightly sick going up a mountain road for the first time, to the McDonald Observatory, where they saw the big telescope and had an astronomy lesson. She liked the key ring she wove for Daddy from thin strips of blue and white plastic, but her favorite day was when they had a riflery lesson. She learned to shoot a .22 caliber rifle and gun safety. The girl next to her, only a little older, was friendly. When Jann shot and hit her small paper target, the other girl said, “Good shot.”
When Jann got off the bus back in Odessa, Bill hugged her fiercely. “I’m so glad you’re home safe and sound, Darlin’.”
“I am, too, Mother.” Jann said seriously. Years later, Jann told her mother how lonely she was during that first separation from her family. “I hardly talked to anyone the whole time. I was a little too young for that experience.”
Two years later, in sixth grade, Jann was thrilled to be asked to join an eight-member Girl Scout troop that included her best friend, Patsy Robbins. Bill went with them and their leader, Mrs. Ivy, to Carlsbad, New Mexico. The girls earned a hiking merit badge for their walk down into the immense caverns.
On the trip to Carlsbad, Bill listened with pleasure to Jann chattering with the other girls as she followed Mrs. Ivy’s car, one girl beside her and three more in the back seat.
“This is the first time I’ve been outside Texas.” Jann’s voice was elated as they crossed the state line.
“Me, too.” Patsy and Frieda Lankford piped in unison.
“I’ve been to Oklahoma lots of times. In fact, I used to live there.” Quita Ivy, the scout leader’s daughter, bragged. Later, Bill was surprised when Mrs. Ivy revealed she was a Republican. Bill didn’t think she’d ever met one before.
The chatter was incessant as they checked into the La Caverna Hotel in the little town of Carlsbad. It was the first time that several of the girls, including Jann, had stayed in a hotel.
The chatter stopped the following morning after walking for awhile in the immense grandeur of the cavern. “I keep forgetting the top of the cave is not the sky.” Bill heard her daughter tell Patsy in a lowered voice.
“I know,” whispered Patsy. “Wasn’t it scary when they turned off the lights?”
They ate in the underground lunchroom. From there, they took an elevator ride that took more than three minutes to reach the surface. “Now I’ve ridden two elevators. One at the La Caverna Hotel and this one,” Jann proudly told her mother.
* * *
With chickens and a milk cow, Bill earned a little extra money from selling eggs, butter and buttermilk. From this, she paid Jann for churning the butter. With their roots in farm families, Joe and Bill always had stock and raised food, but Bill was tired of milking the cow when Joe was delayed at work.
One day, after Bill had spent half the day cleaning out a chicken coop and came in the house hot, tired and filthy, she decided it was time to approach her husband with a question. “Do you think the work and expense of having animals is worth it, Joe? We don’t save much on food, and we make very little money on selling the produce.”
“I know, Honey. Maybe we won’t buy any more after these die off. I just finished building the barn a few months ago.”
Not long after that, as the wind howled louder than usual at dusk, rattling the doors, Jann squinted out the kitchen window, watching the willow branches whip in all directions. Looking beyond the willow tree, she said, “Mother, where is Daddy? Is he milking?”
Bill looked up. Her daughter’s voice had a strange hint of panic. “No. He called to say he’d be late.”
“Mom, I can’t see the barn.”
Coming to stand beside her, Bill also peered out the western window. Sure enough, she could see neighbors’ lights that were usually blocked by the barn. “Oh, my word. Everything out there has blown away.” She ran to call Joe.
After the wind died down and they could go out safely, they found that the sheet metal siding from their out buildings was scattered all over the west end of Odessa. Joe scoured the area for days, picking up the pieces. The night of the storm, with the help of neighbors, they gathered, slaughtered and dressed the injured hens by flash light, since the electricity was out by then. The poor cow stood patiently in the lee of the water tank.
Joe laughed. “I guess you were right about getting rid of the livestock, Bill. I’ll take the cow to auction next week.”
* * *
As Jann approached adolescence, her mother longed to buy her some nice ready-made clothes. She decided to answer an ad looking for a baby sitter. Betty Jones, who placed the ad, worked in an insurance office. Bill couldn’t understand how her husband could’ve deserted her and their toddler son, Alan. He was a beautiful and pleasant child, and Bill’s whole family grew to love him in the years she took care of him. Betty was reserved almost to the point of coldness. Bill felt sorry they didn’t become friends, so she could stay in touch with Alan after he started school.
Bill delighted in taking Jann to the department stores downtown to shop. If her baby sitting money didn’t cover what they chose, she’d put the items on layaway and pay them off in a few weeks. She still made most of her own clothes, teaching her daughter to sew as well. The two grew close in sharing a love of soft fabrics, earth-tone colors and well-cut clothing.
One day when Jann got home from school, her mother was cutting leaf shapes from several old felt hats. “What are you doing, Mom?”
“I’m making a belt for my new green gabardine dress. I collected these hats from the church rummage sale.”
Jann helped her cut felt leaves of gold, brown, orange and tan to sew on a grosgrain ribbon. Bill put on her new dress and tied the ribbon around her waist. She strode back into the room swiveling like a model on a runway.
“Beautiful, Mom. What a good idea, perfect for fall.”
The years in Odessa were happy ones for Bill as she watched her three children grow and thrive. In 1950, Joe sold the Shell service station in order to buy into a partnership with his old friends, Homer and Roy Johnson. He’d be manager of Midland 66, the wholesale distributor for Phillips petroleum products in Midland, 18 miles east of Odessa. For two years, he commuted to Midland, until Joe Mike graduated from Odessa High School in 1952. That summer, Jann went to church camp for two weeks. When she returned, everything had changed for her family.