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.