Category Archives: Family stories

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Church pews

Those wrestling with their demons needed barely a nudge from Pastor McGargle to leave the safety of the church pew and shuffle down the aisle to be saved. Photo by Pixabay.

On God, the Devil, and the $50 Bet

I feel certain that no one has remembered me in their prayers for a long, long time. Until recently, that is.

I passed the half-century mark a couple of years ago, and at this point in my journey, let’s face it, there’s really no reason to appeal to God on my behalf. I’m fresh out of raw human potential, having squandered it years ago, and now all I have to show for it are aching knees, an irritable bowel, and the slippery downhill slope.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to log on to Medium recently and find that one of my favorite writers, Kel Campbell, had asked God to take care of me. It was a nice gesture, and I thank Kel sincerely for thinking of me. Or . . . well, OK . . . not me specifically, but me generally, as a member of a class or type, i.e., one of Kel’s followers, which I most certainly am, because Kel is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read. That’s why I follow her. And because I follow her, I now stand a better chance of having God look out for me. I’m right there with her dogs and her husband, her sister, brother and friends, in the penultimate paragraph of her story, titled A Prayer:

Please take care of my husband, sister, brother, dogs, friends and Medium followers. (Emphasis added by me, one of Kel’s Medium followers)

I’m making a big deal out of this because it may be the first time I’ve ever been mentioned in the same paragraph as God. In the past, my relationship with God has been strained, at best. I’m frightened of Him, and with good reason, I think. He’s omnipotent and could smite me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Hell, He could smite me in one shake. Dammit, now I’m cursing in a story about God. He’s not going to like that.

My fear of God is the reason I’ve always tried to fly under the radar and escape His notice. The times when I have attracted God’s attention have turned out, if I’m being honest about it, pretty awful. He’s probably still a little angry with me for what happened when I was seven years old and my sister Misti was nine, the day she decided to answer the altar call at San Jacinto Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas.

This was about forty-five years ago, at the end of the preacher’s sermon one Sunday in September. While the choir sings “How Great Thou Art” over and over in hushed tones, accompanied, very softly, by the organ, the ushers pass the collection plates from one pew to the next. Pastor McGargle works the aisles of the sanctuary with a microphone, tending the electric cord and the wayward sheep of his flock: “Won’t you come forward today and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Unburden yourself, my friends, don’t wait. Let the blood of Christ wash your sins away. Let Jesus lift the burden from your weary shoulders. He knows you’re hurting.”

Half-crooning, half-whispering, Pastor McGargle modulates his voice expertly, pitching a tone of sadness tinged with hope. He’s sweating, rivulets flowing in the deep crags of his face, which I estimate from my vantage as being approximately 113 years of age. I note unhappily, as the hands on my watch tick past noon, that I’m missing the kickoff of the Dallas Cowboys’ home game against my most-hated team, the Green Bay Packers.

The timbre of the preacher’s voice drops an octave as he spots his prey and moves in to close the deal, training every ounce of his attention onto the tender flower wrestling with his or her demons, who surrenders with the barest nudge from McGargle and shuffles forward to be saved.

McGargle approaches, and I realize he’s fixed his crosshairs on my sister Misti, seated next to my mother and grandmother in the pew ahead of me. Misti turns to the preacher, tears welling in her eyes, her lower jaw quivering, takes his outstretched hand, and steps into the aisle. What the — ? I can’t believe this. Why would Misti risk the certain disaster of God’s attention? She seemed fine a few minutes before we left the house for church, when she punched me in side of the head and took the nickel my grandmother had given me for the offering plate. What was all this?

My mother turns to me and stage-whispers, “Sonny, go with her,” gesturing with her head for me to follow my sister. I’m sitting next to the aisle, and my mind blinds with panic when the preacher reaches for my hand. I snatch it away and cling to the wooden armrest as McGargle and my mother prod me to loosen my grip and urge me forward to unburden my soul. I don’t budge. I’ve never been baptized, and I sure as hell do not intend to be on this day. (Please forgive that curse word too, Lord.)

The thought of surrendering my will to God’s horrifies me. It is akin to the way I felt a few years later, watching the 1978 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when I realized in the final scene that Donald Sutherland’s character had been snatched by the aliens and replaced by a clone. Even at the age of seven I refuse to surrender control of myself to someone or something else, and I resist with all my being.

My stubbornness will likely result in a thrashing from my mother when we leave church, but that prospect is less onerous than walking to the altar under the dumb gaze of the congregation and falling to my knees to ask Jesus to save my soul. At this moment, I can’t imagine anything worse.

The preacher gives up and moves forward in the aisle with Misti. My mother glares at me, but she gives up, too, and turns away to watch Misti’s salvation. With the danger past, the adrenaline that flooded my system leaves me deliciously sleepy, but I fight its downward pull. I’m afraid I’ll awaken, sputtering, with my head held beneath the healing waters of the baptismal font.

I was terrified, then as now, by the thought of sensing the direct presence of God, of having the barrier between us torn away so that I’m stripped bare before the Holy Spirit —  a gross invasion of privacy coupled with crippling fear.

I’ve never submitted control of my ego to a higher power, the experience that others call being saved. I find it impossible to surrender to a force in the universe that terrifies me even though I’m not sure I really believe in it.

I remember feeling scared when I first heard the story of Job from the Old Testament Bible, at roughly the same time in my childhood. Having now read Job’s story a few times as an adult, I believe it was the ancients’ attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people. God’s answer —  that mere mortals shouldn’t question Him because they can’t fathom the nature of suffering and of the universe — is not especially satisfying. But the older I get, the more I like the story, and even the moral of the story, because it seems honest in suggesting that some things are beyond our comprehension.

But when I was seven, the takeaway from the Book of Job was simple: Better stay out of God’s way and attract as little of His attention as possible. If this is how He treats Job, His most devout servant, imagine what He’ll do to the little sinner Sonny, who shoplifts and steals cartons of cigarettes from delivery trucks while walking home from elementary school.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Job’s story, allow me to summarize it:

Job was the most devout and humble of God’s servants. One day God and the Devil were watching him from wherever they had gotten together — somewhere in the sky, I’m guessing.

The Devil said, “Sure, Job worships You like crazy now, but what if he didn’t have that nice house and beautiful family and all the material trappings of the good life? What if all that was taken away from him? I bet he wouldn’t be Your best boy then.”

God said, “Are you kidding Me? You can throw your worst at Job, and he’d still worship Me. You can’t shake that dude’s faith. He’s the real article.”

“Why don’t we find out?” the Devil said.

“Sure,” God said. “Do your worst. Job will still be My boy.”

That’s just what the Devil did. He killed all of Job’s sons and daughters. He cast Job out of his swanky house and left his skin covered in boils. All that money Job had earned to support his nice lifestyle was gone in an instant. Job was left to sit outside on a pile of ashes, covered in boils, alone and penniless. Then his old friends started coming by, saying, “Job, what the hell? What happened to you?”

Job said, “That’s what I want to know. Why God? What did I do? Haven’t I been Your most devoted servant? Haven’t I done everything You asked, and more? Why are You punishing me like this?”

Job’s so-called buddies had some ideas about what had happened. They told Job that he obviously wasn’t as good as everybody thought he was, and this proved it. He must have been sinning, otherwise God wouldn’t have done what He did. Job had been brought low because he had fallen short in God’s eyes, they said.

Undaunted, Job went about his rat-killing, doing his daily devotionals and prayers while trying to keep the sores that covered his body from becoming even more painfully infected. He continued worshiping God and giving thanks for all the blessings he’d known.

God and the Devil, watching from their secret perch, were impressed.

“What did I tell you?” God said. The Devil had to admit that Job was a righteous dude whose faith had been unshaken. “I guess You won the bet,” the Devil said, handing over fifty bucks.

“Damn right I did,” God said.

Just then He heard Job crying out, “Why God? Why me?” and it got His dander up a bit, so He pocketed the fifty bucks, looked at the Devil, and said, “Watch this.”

In a fury, God swept down to where Job sat on his pile of ashes and thundered, “Job, you dare to question Me? Where were you when I made the heavens and the mountains? When I made the light, and the water, and the earth, wind, and fire? Where were you when I wrote, through Lionel Richie, the Commodores’ disco smash Brick House?”

God was fired up: “Who do you think you are with these ignorant questions? Yours is not to understand My ways! You couldn’t begin to fathom what I know and the reasons for the way I conduct this universe. You are a lucky man, Job — today I’m going to give you your life back. Because you are a devout man who never lost faith in My greatness, even when you lost everything, I’m going to restore your beautiful children, your house, your riches, and everything you lost. But don’t even think about asking Me Why. You can’t handle the truth!”

With a terrible clap of thunder, God was gone, Job’s old life was back, and the boils had disappeared.

So, Kel, thank you for asking God to take care of me. But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rather just fly under the radar and not have Him think about me too much. Our God is an awesome God, sure, but He’s pretty vengeful, too, and His vanity makes Him kind of a sucker for a bet with the Devil.

Or at least that’s what the Bible says.


Sonny Bohanan is a writer and editor in Fort Worth, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter and Medium, and read his investigative and long-form journalism. He is a former editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The American Literary Review.

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The Lesson of a Lost Balloon

Lost balloon
Photograph by Gianni Ranati, Il Palloncino Rosso, 1957.
As it floated up and away, carried swiftly on the prevailing southwest wind, I saw that it was lost forever.

 

By Sonny Bohanan

When I was four years old, my mother bought me a helium balloon while she and my grandmother shopped in downtown Pampa, Texas. This was a rare treat. My sisters and I seldom received frivolous gifts of this sort, and I managed to get back to my grandmother’s house, riding in the backseat of her 1960s-model Oldsmobile, without popping the balloon. Moments after I stepped out of the car and ran into the side yard, zig-zagging to avoid the ill-tempered chickens that scratched and pecked at the ground, the string slipped through my fingers. Realizing an instant later what had happened, my mind raced crazily, bargaining for the tiniest fissure, a hair’s-breadth crack in the cosmos that would release a miracle and retrieve those fleeting moments since the balloon’s escape. As it floated up and away, carried swiftly on the prevailing southwest wind, I saw, with my head titled back and tears stinging my eyes and throat, that it was lost forever. I was swamped by a feeling I knew–already!–so well. A helplessness that only the child understands, a first inkling that crystallizes into something bitter, a sickening glimpse of the abyss that sometimes yawns open, revealing a vast, uncaring universe, and with it the knowledge, too monstrous yet for me to fully fathom, that we are, at the end, alone, no one to console or warm us in the chilling void that claims us all.

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Shoot First

Gunshot

My family’s feud 80 years ago left 3 men dead

© 2014  Sonny Bohanan

I found out a few years ago that my family was involved in a deadly feud in Clovis, New Mexico, during the 1920s and ’30s. David, a friend who edits the Clovis newspaper, was writing a story about the feud for the city’s centennial history book, and he asked me whether I was related to the Bohannans[1] involved. I had no idea, so he sent me what he’d written, and I asked my father and grandmother what they knew. I traced my relation to the Clovis branch of the family with the help of a genealogy website, which linked to a 1930 Associated Press story published in the New York Times.

I hadn’t thought much about what I would discover when I started researching it, and I was unhappy to learn the truth: We lost.

George Curtis Bohannan

George Curtis Bohannan

I use the term “we” loosely. I had not been born yet and wouldn’t be for another thirty years. If my friend hadn’t asked me about it, I would not have known that my great-grandfather’s uncle and cousin – George Curtis Bohannan and his youngest son, Carl – were killed in a feud with their neighbor.

The neighbor, Vernon Tate, had the winning strategy: Shoot first, and let the jury sort it out. I suppose that’s why it is known in Clovis as the Tate-Bohannan feud, and not the other way around. I can call it the Bohannan-Tate feud if I want, but it still winds up the same: My family was outgunned twice by the horse trader and county auctioneer Vernon Tate. As I researched the details, I was struck by the senselessness of the killings and by the realization that my paternal grandfather, Lester Clarence Bohanan, who was 18 at the time, had come within a hair’s breadth of being drawn into the violence.

The squabble, as my grandmother Jewel Bohanan called it, had started, unsurprisingly, with a raft of schoolboy nonsense. It ended more than a decade later with three men dead – George and Carl Bohannan, and Vernon Tate. It also left behind two widows and 19 kids with no fathers.

Vernon Tate

Vernon Tate

Tate killed George Bohannan and 19-year-old Carl on January 18, 1930. Two days earlier, Tate had shot and wounded Louis, another of Bohannan’s seven sons. The surviving Bohannan boys learned one lesson: Bring a gun to a gunfight. Four years later they shot first and killed Tate, at Citizens Bank in downtown Clovis, the same spot where he had killed their father and brother.

The Bohannan-Tate slayings are the most notorious in the city’s history, according to Clovis, New Mexico: The First 100 Years, published in 2007 by the Clovis News Journal. The 1930 double homicide caused a near-riot on the crowded Main Street, the New York Times reported January 20, 1930, two days after the shootings.

Lester Clarence Bohanan and Jewel Bohanan

Lester Clarence Bohanan and Jewel Bohanan

When word of his uncle and cousin’s deaths reached my great-grandfather Pleas (pronounced “Plez”) Bohanan and my grandfather Clarence, his eldest son, they loaded their guns into the pickup and headed for Clovis. Pleas, a quiet fellow who enjoyed a pull from his flask, had moved out West from Tennessee with his wife, Ada Catherine (Lee) Bohanan, and their children around 1916. At the time of the slayings, they lived on a farm outside Goodwell, Okla., roughly two hundred miles from Clovis.

What happened next, before Pleas and his son Clarence arrived, is the only good part of this story, to my mind. After Vernon Tate was arrested, police secretly moved him to a jail in a neighboring county, eliminating, at least temporarily, the opportunity for revenge.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

 #  #  #

The Bohannans and Tates lived in the Ranchvale farming community northwest of Clovis, and their kids – nine Bohannans and eleven Tates – had attended school and social events together for years.

The hostilities started in December 1922 with at least two fights between teenagers Carsey Bohannan and Norvell Tate. Some said the disagreement was over a five-dollar bet at a high school basketball game. In one of the fights, Carsey Bohannan hit Norvell Tate in the head with a hammer, and Carsey was arrested, convicted and served a six-month suspended sentence. The Times story doesn’t mention the severity of Norvell’s injury, but Carsey’s suspended sentence indicates it was probably minor.

This is a logical place for the hostilities to have ended. But that’s not how things go when anger hardens into hatred, and revenge unleashes chaos.

There are no news accounts of the feud between 1922 and 1930. The AP story in the Times says, “Smouldering friction between the two families continued for many years with no serious trouble until last Thursday, when Tate fired three shots at Louis Bohannan at Grier, N.M.”

The Clovis centennial history book put it this way: “Vernon Tate had made his dislike for the Bohannans known since the fights between Norvell and Carsey. Most believe that festering anger led to the violence at Grier . . . .”

Gunfire erupted outside a grocery store in Grier, a village west of Clovis, on January 16, 1930. After a car chase, Vernon Tate and three of George Bohannan’s sons had stopped to settle their differences, but instead they complicated them, and Louis Bohannan left with one hand lighter than the other.

The storekeeper had rushed outside with a pistol to try to break up the fight; Tate snatched it from him and fired three shots at the brothers as they ran to their car.

“One of the bullets clipped two fingers from (Louis) Bohannan’s right hand,” the Times says — a clinical description of a bloody mess that led to still bloodier ones.

Tate was arrested on a charge of assault with intent to kill and was released after posting $2,000 bond. Two days later, a Saturday, he was in downtown Clovis, and George Bohannan was there, too, with five of his sons. Main Street was crowded with families going about their weekly shopping, banking, and socializing. When Bohannan saw Tate in front of Citizens Bank, he grabbed him in a bear hug from behind and shouted, “Here’s the son of a bitch we’ve been looking for!”

These men obviously had little patience for the judicial system. Carsey Bohannan had been convicted and punished back in 1922, but not in a way that satisfied Vernon Tate, whose anger exploded eight years later in Grier. I don’t know who started the fight outside the grocery store in 1930, but George Bohannan didn’t wait for the wheels of justice to complete their slow turn. He would exact Tate’s punishment himself.

I’m guessing that Tate and Bohannan were a hard-headed couple of mules. They had made their stand in one of America’s last frontiers, the Llano Estacado, an inhospitable tabletop mesa larger than the state of Indiana with an elevation that reaches as high as 5,000 feet above sea level. The Caprock, as it’s called, was protected against the white scourge for longer than most of the country – until the eighteen-seventies – by Comanches, Kiowas, Mexicans, and its own harsh climate. Those who live there extract a hard living from the windblown, semiarid grassland, from their livestock, and from each other.

Bohannan and Tate weren’t far removed from a time in the New Mexico Territory when it was hard to tell the difference between the lawmen and the bandits because they sometimes switched places. William Henry McCarty Jr., who came to be known as Billy the Kid, was eight years older than George Bohannan. McCarty killed from four to nine men, including three lawmen, before Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him to Fort Sumner, west of Clovis, and shot him down in 1881.

Forty-nine years later, Bohannan and Tate were wrestling a few miles to the east, on Clovis’ Main Street in front of the bank. Tate had brought his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver when he went downtown that chilly Saturday in 1930. As Bohannan held him in a bear hug and called to his sons for help, Tate reached into his coat pocket, pulled the .38 and fired a shot into Bohannan’s stomach. Tate turned and shot him two more times “near the heart, killing him instantly,” according to the Clovis centennial book, which continues:

Vernon Tate retreated immediately into the bank, where bank officials locked the door just as three of Bohannan’s sons appeared. But the bank’s back door was not secured, and two of the Bohannan brothers, also armed, came in through it. Vernon Tate saw them and again fired his revolver. The bullet struck Carl Bohannan and sent Bee Bohannan scurrying back outside as police arrived.

Carl Bohannan soon died of his injuries. Vernon Tate was arrested, jailed and charged with murder in connection with George Bohannan’s death, but not charged with Carl Bohannan’s killing.

Tate hired attorney Carl Hatch, who later became a U.S. Senator. Hatch argued that Tate had acted in self-defense; the jury agreed and acquitted him in June 1930.

This, as you can imagine, did not sit well with the Bohannans. Tension between the families continued for the next four years until, on a February afternoon in 1934, gunfire rang out again outside Citizens Bank, and Vernon Tate was dead. Bee, Carsey and Louis Bohannan were arrested.

During their trial in July 1934, Carsey and Louis testified that Tate reached for his gun, so they shot him in self-defense. Bee Bohannan said he would have fired his weapon but hadn’t needed to. Their lawyer E.M. Grantham told the jury that the Bohannans had every right to protect themselves against Tate, who had shown his willingness to shoot first.

“It is not necessary under the law for a man to wait ’til he’s shot at before he goes after his gun,” Grantham said. The jury acquitted all three of George Bohannan’s sons.

In the twelve-year span that saw three men killed, another shot in the hand, and one struck in the head with a hammer, only the teenager Carsey Bohannan was judged guilty of a crime.

The feud ended with Vernon Tate’s death. Both families remain in the region today, and no public disagreements have been reported since 1934. Haney Tate, one of Vernon Tate’s sons, shared his memories of the feud in a 2002 High Plains Observer article.

The final trial “was not what we hoped for, but did expect,” Haney Tate, who died in 2005 at age 90, wrote. “It was probably best all things considered. . . . So much for a terrible tragedy that should never have happened.”

#  #  #

Two people in Clovis who knew about the feud revealed it to my dad, Ronal Bohanan, and to me – on separate occasions, decades apart, by asking whether we were related to the Bohannans involved.

David Stevens, the Clovis newspaper editor, asked me in 2007 when he was writing about the feud for the city’s history book. When I asked Dad, he said his father, my Grandpa Clarence, had told him about it in the 1960s. Dad was working temporarily in Clovis at the time, and a motel clerk saw his name on his ID and asked if he was related to the Clovis Bohannans. He started to notice how often people asked him about his name, and something in their manner prompted him to ask his father about it. That’s when he learned of the feud.

Marty and Ron Bohanan, 50th wedding anniversary

My parents, Marty and Ronal Bohanan

Grandpa told Dad that when his father Pleas learned George and Carl had been shot, they loaded their rifles in the truck. Pleas also brought his old .44-40 pistol with an octagon barrel, the one he kept under his pillow at night.

“Your Grandpa (Clarence) was just a big kid, and he was pretty darn worried about what was going to happen when they got down there,” Dad told me. “I think they had full intentions of shooting somebody.”

My grandmother, Jewel (Grice) Bohanan, Clarence’s widow, lived in Amarillo, a two-hour drive from Clovis, from 1940 to 2014, when she died at age 98. About a year before she died, she told me what she knew about the feud. It ended in 1934, a year before she and Grandpa were married, but he later told her about it. If he hadn’t, she might not have understood why she lost a good customer in the 1970s, when she was a hairdresser in Amarillo. The customer, who was from New Mexico, had brought her young son to her weekly appointment, as usual, and she told Grandma they had visited Clovis the previous weekend.

Jewel Bohanan

Jewel Bohanan

I will let Grandma tell the rest of the story.

“She had the little boy with her, and all during the time I was fixing her hair, he was saying, real low, ‘Bohanan will kill you.’ He was just saying it, to no one, ‘Bohanan will kill you. Bohanan will kill you.’

“She was a very nice lady, and I enjoyed her company. She usually stayed and visited for a while, but she never came back after that.”

 


 

[1]The reader may notice the surname spelled two ways in the text: Bohanan for Pleas’s line, and Bohannan for George’s. Pleas Bohanan, who was my great-grandfather, shortened the name by deleting the second ‘n.’ My Grandpa Clarence Bohanan’s younger sister Annice told my Grandma Jewel Bohanan that she remembers her father changing it when she was young, experimenting with the spelling until it pleased him. “He just thought it didn’t need all those ‘n’s in there,” Grandma told me in 2013. I agree with Pleas, even though I’ve come to believe that it is impossible to get rid of the extraneous second ‘n,’ because people insist on putting it back in. There is also a third spelling – Bohannon. The New York Times article quoted above, in fact, switches inexplicably to that spelling of the surname in its final four paragraphs. I didn’t quote directly from those paragraphs, so the ‘Bohannon’ spelling does not appear in the text above. However, the two branches of the family represented in this story descended from Clayborn B. Bohannon (born in 1830), who was my great-great-great grandfather. The family lived in Putnam County, Tennessee, about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, and both Pleas and George changed the spelling of the surname when they moved out West.

Bibliography

Bohanan, Ronal Lee. Oral interview 2013.

Bohanan, Roxana Jewel (Grice). Oral interview 2013.

Stevens, David. “Trials, Tragedies: Tate-Bohannan violence ‘should never have happened.’ ” Clovis, New Mexico: The First 100 Years, 2007.

The Associated Press. “Father and Son Killed in New Mexico Feud.” New York Times, 20 January 1930.

Wallis, Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, 2007.

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A son’s lifelong search to live up to his father

Ron Bohanan and Sonny Bohanan at Texas Rangers baseball game, 2012

My dad, Ron Bohanan, and I attending a Texas Rangers baseball game in 2012.

My father, Ronal Lee Bohanan, was a union ironworker for almost 30 years before his body reached the point that he could no longer outwork the younger men.

Dad takes great pride in all he does, which is one of the reasons he was such a good ironworker. He worked equally hard whether the job was lofty, such as setting the antenna on a television tower 2,000 feet in the air, or lowly, such as stooping all day to “tie rods,” a back-breaking job in which he twisted a strand of wire around two intersecting pieces of rebar, high-stepped over the rebar, then tied the next one, over and over all day, preparing a concrete slab to be poured. The rebar inside the concrete made it exponentially stronger, but it was Dad’s least favorite job, he said, and it finally drove him to give up ironworking for good when he was about 55 years old. (He’s now 75.)

I knew some of his co-workers for decades, and I labored alongside some of them when Dad took me to work with him. They were welders who could lay down a perfect bead, high-wire artists who worked without safety harnesses almost half a mile in the air. Because of the heavy nature of their work, the heights they often worked from, and the combination of skills they mastered, I think I can say without stretching the truth that ironworkers, to a man, considered themselves first among the crafts, and that some of the boilermakers and sheet metal workers, the plumbers, painters and electricians that populate construction jobs even agreed, at least secretly.

The danger they faced gave ironworkers their place in the pecking order, I think. My friend Rick Storm of Amarillo, a Vietnam War veteran who worked many years as a union painter, including jobs my father was on, once told me that only a fool would mess with the ironworkers on a job site.

Ron Bohanan in his backyard in Amarillo, Texas.

Ron Bohanan relaxes in his backyard in Amarillo, Texas.

After work, however, with a few belts under their belt—that was a different story. Ironworkers not only thought of themselves as the hardest-working craft, but also the hardest-drinking and the hardest-fighting. No doubt they were. And, 20 years after my father retired, they probably still are. After risking death all day on top of a tower, my father and his buddies seemed unintimidated by the thought of fist fighting.

Certainly there were ironworkers who didn’t drink and fight, but the ones I knew, including Dad, went to the beer joint, as they called it, most days after work. Though he’ll want to backhand me for saying so, my father had several bar fights that I know of when I was growing up, and though they’re not really discussed in the family, I feel certain that he came out the winner because of the snippets I’ve gleaned through the years. Also, I’ve seen and felt firsthand the injuries that result when grown men fist fight in bars, and Dad never had any such injuries that I knew of. After he reads this, I’m sure I’ll find out for certain, if he doesn’t throttle me first for telling things that are better left in the past.

He had plenty of job-related injuries, though. He once had the lower part of his leg run over by a crane, and that leg still gives him trouble. He had the pinky and ring finger of one hand cut off, though a doctor was able to reattach them. He can’t bend those two fingers, but otherwise you’d never notice a thing.

There was a decade or so when my father built television towers almost exclusively. He traveled the country with a crew of men and their wives and girlfriends, all of whom I came to know well—Ron Waldron, Darrell Girty, Royce Hawthorne, and Paul Lollar. My mother, Marty Bohanan, and my sisters and I traveled with him for most of that time, until moving every few months began to affect my older sister Misti’s grades in math. Amarillo had always been our home base, and so Mom, Misti, Kathy, and I settled there while Dad continued to travel the country.

I was 16 years old when Mom, Kathy, and I moved for the summer to Florida, near Orlando, where my father had already been working on a tower for a few months. I worked with him more that summer than I ever had before, and I went to the top of a tower for the first time. I had been working construction for a few years by then, but nothing had prepared me for the feeling of stepping out of the tiny two-man elevator, which was nothing but a steel-mesh cage, onto an I-beam nearly 2,000 feet above where we had parked the truck that morning.

My heart racing, I clung to the steel beside me and inched out along the beam until I felt confident to look around and breathe and admire the view. It’s impossible to describe seeing the sun near the horizon early in the morning from that height. Or watching from above, after Dad pointed it out to me, a long cloud formation suspended hundreds of feet in the air that mirrored perfectly the shape of the river below it, moving ever so slowly, like a pillowy snake, toward the sea.

As a boy I idolized my father, as all boys do. I thought there was nothing he couldn’t do. Even at the age of 16, a time of life when we become smarter than our parents, I understood that I would never know the things he knows.

Ron Bohanan and Sonny Bohanan in Amarillo, Texas.

Dad and I in Amarillo, Texas.

Certainly there are things my father cannot do, things he can’t say to me that I wish he had or would. But I try, with all my might, to live up to the father I’ve come to know in my later years, a friend now, but still my guide, a man to look up to who shows me—always—how to approach life when it throws its worst at me. The deaths of my two sisters, Misti and Kathy, far too young. The passing of my grandparents, Ray and Cora Lee, Clarence and Jewel, and my uncles David and Casey, my aunt Jo, my friends. Accidents that leave loved ones crippled in body and mind. Betrayals by friends for reasons I don’t understand.

I am writing about my father, because it is Father’s Day, but these things are just as true of my mother. Though I know that they feel the same turmoil I do during these painful times, they move through the day with a mixture of humility and pride and take care of the things that must be done, care for the people who must be cared for, with never a word of what it’s cost them because that’s the way many of their generation were raised. No poor me.

Despite all the times as a child, and even as an adult, that I wished my parents were not this way, so steadfast, so bound by duty, responsibility, and doing the right thing in every instance, I have come to see that this is what stands between us and the terrible abyss, this is the thing that allows a family to go forward in the face of the tragedy that comes to us all.

As a son I believe, I know in my heart of hearts, that I’ll never live up to my father, that I’ll never be as good as I should have been or could have been. Only through the grace of my own children have I been able to overcome this feeling because they allow me to see the question from the perspective of a father rather than a child. Each of my three children—Kali, Harper, and Travis—has shown such a capacity for love, for helping me in my times of need with a word or gesture, a simple expression of love, that I now see that it doesn’t matter if I feel unworthy, or if I feel that I should have done more or been a better father or son.

All that matters is that we never give up, and keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep caring for one another. Even when my sister Kathy dies, as she did on May 29 of this year. Even when I lose my temper, or fall short of the things I want so badly to accomplish.

All that matters is that we try, for each other.

Sonny Bohanan of Fort Worth writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Goodbye to a treasure: Jewel Bohanan, 1916-2014

My grandmother said she didn’t see the point of all the fuss and medical procedures for a woman of 98 years. “It’s time to leave it to the kids,” she said. And so she did.

Jewel Bohanan

Jewel Bohanan

Fifteen months ago I interviewed my grandmother, Roxana Jewel (Grice) Bohanan, for about an hour and a half by phone. It was her 97th birthday, and we talked until my phone battery died and forced us to hang up.

For three or four years before that, I had been writing down the dates and names, places and stories that Grandma told me, and I took the opportunity of her birthday to flesh them out and write an account of her early life on the family’s homestead near Goodwell, Okla.

The last time I saw my grandmother was at noon Tuesday, June 17, 2014, as she lay in a hospital bed on the seventh floor of Baptist-St. Anthony’s hospital in Amarillo. She asked me about graduate school and how much time remained in my pursuit of a master’s degree, and I held her hand before I left. It was the same hospital where she had worked for 41 years as a volunteer. She started in 1968, on the day the hospital opened, and in 2009 she decided to give up her weekly shifts in the gift shop, at age 93.

My cousin Linda and I had traveled from Fort Worth to Amarillo to see Grandma after she was hospitalized, and I’m thankful we did because she died Thursday, June 19, 2014, at age 98 — two days after we returned to Fort Worth. As I drove home, Linda and I reluctantly confessed that we didn’t think we’d see her again.

A year ago, I felt sure that Grandma would live to be 100 and beyond. In fact, I predicted it in the story I wrote for her 97th birthday. She was right, as always, when she happily pointed out, “Who knows, I may be dead by then.”

Clarence and Jewel Bohanan

My grandparents Clarence and Jewel Bohanan in an undated photo.

She was spry and whip-smart right up until the day — or night, actually — of her accident. She lived in the house in the Western Plateau addition that she and my grandfather, Lester Clarence Bohanan, bought in 1974 when they left San Jacinto, about the same time my parents, sisters and I did. Grandma drove her car, attended church and family gatherings, and remembered every birthday, from the oldest to the youngest, with a card bearing a small sum of cash inside. She had been to a family funeral in Guymon, Okla., and climbed the stairs into the church just a couple of days before she fell.

I presume Grandma’s cause of death is listed as pneumonia, but in truth her demise was the result of falling in her darkened bathroom 10 days earlier, on June 9, when she got out of bed in the night. She broke her left femur near the hip joint and her left humerus near the shoulder. The next day she had surgery to repair the broken bones. Her surgeon, Dr. Risko, inserted a rod in her femur and screwed a metal plate to her humerus, exceedingly delicate operations because her bones, after decades of osteoporosis, were as brittle as eggshells, he said.

Grandma didn’t wake up the first day I visited the hospital — she was exhausted after her surgery and was having to get out of bed and stand up every day if she was to get better. The next day Grandma was awake and lucid when I visited, and she said she didn’t see the point in such fuss and medical procedures for a woman of 98. “It’s time to leave it to the kids,” she said matter-of-factly.

Grandma was tough to the end, stoically enduring it when a young technician put a blood pressure cuff on the wrong arm and pumped it full of air, squeezing the left arm where she’d just had surgery. The young lady finally understood what she had done and removed the cuff, but Grandma was still suffering when I arrived a few minutes later. When she told me what had happened, I was slightly outraged and told her I would be sure the charge nurse knew what had happened. Grandma said, “I think she felt really bad about it.” Ha! Yes, I’m sure she did.

While in the hospital, Grandma contracted pneumonia caused by aspirating food, and her body was unable to fight off the infection. The day before she died, Grandma told her respiratory therapist that she was too weak to submit to the forced-oxygen treatment, which Dad likened to holding your head outside the window of a car that’s running 80 mph. It was the only treatment with a chance to save her, and she said, No, enough.

On the day she died, my parents, Ron and Marty Bohanan, and Dad’s younger brother Jerry moved her to a hospice facility, where she received doses of morphine and Ativan to relieve the pain and agitation of her final hours of life. She was resting comfortably a little before 10 p.m. June 19 when her breathing became erratic. She died a few minutes later. During the few hours she spent in hospice, Dad said, she seemed to have returned to childhood, speaking to her siblings, calling out to her oldest brother Roaten, who lived to be 93 but had died 11 years earlier. Grandma outlived all of her siblings, which made her feel lonely, so perhaps she was dreaming of early life on the family’s Oklahoma homestead as past traumas were erased forever.

I’m grateful that I had the chance to visit Grandma and talk to her during her last week. And I’m happy that she was in possession of her mind right up until the end, because she made the decision to stop the machines that were doing the work of breathing and other critical functions her body was no longer able to perform.

I wasn’t surprised by her decision. She was fiercely independent yet gentle, smart, sweet, and funny, the only person I’ve ever known who never spoke ill of another, never acted with vengeance or anger, at least when I was around, which was a lot during our 50 years together. Instead, she practiced the ideals of her Christian faith without being a prude or a scold or a hypocrite — that truly rare thing. If I’m defining Grandma by what she didn’t do, that’s because describing what she did takes so little time: As far as I could tell, she always did the right thing. My grandmother Jewel Bohanan wasn’t a saint. She just seemed like one.

— For my grandmother, Roxana Jewel Grice Bohanan, may she rest in peace.
April 18, 1916 – June 19, 2014
Born outside Goodwell, Oklahoma
Died in Amarillo, Texas

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She’s a true Jewel: My grandmother turns 97

Jewel Bohanan

Jewel Bohanan

Roxana Jewel (Grice) Bohanan, my paternal grandmother, was born 18 April 1916 on her parents’ farm, five miles northeast of Goodwell, Okla., where her father had filed a homestead claim on a quarter section of land.

She lived in the Oklahoma Panhandle throughout the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, then moved in 1940 to Amarillo, Texas, after two of her three children were born. She’s lived in Amarillo ever since.

Jewel recently turned 97, and I called her after work that day to wish her a happy birthday. We talked for about an hour and a half, until my phone battery died. I want to share some of the things we talked about and the details of her early life that I’ve compiled from her memories in recent years.

Grandma didn’t care a whit about turning 97. “I feel just like I did yesterday,” she said. “I never did worry about age.” She had been to a birthday lunch at Furr’s cafeteria with my parents, Ron and Marty Bohanan, my sister Kathy and my niece Jewelee. She was, as always, in a good mood when I called.

She told me that she’d had to renew her driver’s license, which was expiring on her birthday. The Texas Department of Public Safety had sent a reminder notice telling her to bring her birth certificate to their office because of her advanced age.

“I didn’t have to drive or take a written test,” she said, “but I had to take something to prove I was born.”

That was a bit of a problem – born on the farm, she’s never had a birth certificate. She wrote a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau to see if they could help and received in return a document that listed her parents’ names and hers and confirmed her age at the time of the 1920 Census – three and three-quarters years. She took it to the DPS office, along with her Social Security card, school records and a passport she had obtained 20 years ago (hoping to go to Europe) but had never used.

The papers were in order. Her license was renewed. She will continue to drive herself to Paramount Baptist Church on Sundays and to the grocery store and to take her friend their weekly Bible lesson from church. She doesn’t drive much, and never at night. She used to be 5 feet 3 inches tall, but because of osteoporosis she is now 4 feet 11 (well, almost) and sits on two pillows to drive. She’s had one fender-bender that I know of in the last 50 years.

Her driver’s license is valid only until 2015, instead of the usual six years. “When you get this old, you just get a license for two years,” she said. “I’ll be 99 when it expires. So who knows what will happen then? I may be dead, who knows?”

I very much doubt that. She still maintains her tidy, attractive home in southwest Amarillo. Until four years ago she volunteered several days a week at the Baptist-St. Anthony’s Hospital gift shop. She was there the day the hospital opened, in 1968, and stayed for the next 41 years, doing whatever work was needed. She piled up 38,000 volunteer hours in the gift shop, in the library, sterilizing surgical instruments, assisting nurses on the floor, and playing taped messages about disease care for the hospital’s Telmed line. She retired at age 93.

Grandma married Lester Clarence Bohanan in 1935. She graduated in 1939 from Oklahoma A&M College in Goodwell (now Oklahoma Panhandle State University) with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and a minor in math, and she earned a teaching certificate. They moved to Amarillo the following year. She never taught school.

“Your grandpa didn’t want me to teach,” she told me. I asked if she had wanted to. “I mostly wanted to keep peace in the family,” she said. Some of her friends through the years had wondered whether she felt unfulfilled. “No,” she said, “I had plenty of responsibility at home.” She began volunteering at the hospital when she was 52, then got her hairdresser’s license at 58. She worked at two salons for a period of about four years in the 1970s; afterward, she cut and styled hair in her home at the request of some of her customers. Through the years she also crafted beautiful handmade quilts and afghans for every member of the family.

Jewel Bohanan, Jerry Bohanan

My grandmother, Jewel Bohanan, with her son Jerry Bohanan, at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Oct. 20, 2012, in Amarillo.

Grandma has outlived her husband, her nine siblings, most of her friends, her daughter Jo Dickinson, and one of her granddaughters, my sister Misti Knox. She has four remaining grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Her grandfather and great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, on opposite sides. I asked the secret to her longevity, and she said, “I really like getting up and getting out and being around people.” She added, “Maybe I just made a good choice of genes.”

Indeed, her parents lived to be 79 and 80, and her three oldest siblings – May, Roaten and Lawson – lived to age 93. But I think her approach to life has played a part, too. I’ve never seen my grandmother act with bitterness or self-pity. She loves to laugh. And I’ve never heard her speak ill of another person.

Grandma’s parents and grandparents

Her mother, Roxana (Pilgrim) Grice, was born 22 May 1885 in Alabama. She died in 1965 at the age of 79. Her father, Lawson Ross Grice, was born 16 October 1877 in Gilmer County, Ga. He died in 1958 at the age of 80.

Roxana Pilgrim attended school only through the second grade in Alabama. She and her family came to the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1903, when she was about 18. Her parents, George Washington Pilgrim and Camelie (Smith or Schmidt or Smythe) Pilgrim, filed a homestead claim, but they let the claim go and moved to Eastland County, Texas, near Ranger.

Roxana’s mother Camelie was orphaned in Louisiana when her mother died of smallpox and her father died fighting for the North in the Civil War. A couple took Camelie in, employing her to take care of their children. “I think she was 7 years old,” Grandma said. When the Civil War ended, Camelie’s aunts found her living with the family. The man she was working for took her by wagon to Alabama, where her aunts lived. He hid her possessions along the route, and she had nothing when she arrived to meet her aunts. She met her future husband, George Pilgrim, in Alabama. Her aunts were more sophisticated than she was, Grandma said, and they didn’t approve of George Pilgrim. So he and Camelie wrote notes to each other and hid them in a tree.

Their daughter Roxana was a small woman, like my Grandma. She not only did the housework, but also helped in some of the heavier chores outdoors, such as repairing the fence and planting trees, Grandma said. She had very little luck growing trees on the plains, because it required hauling water from the windmill to irrigate them.

Grandma said she wishes she knew more about her parents’ early lives and their ancestors. “When people would start asking questions about genealogy and the family, Mama would say, ‘You might find some hanging by the neck, but you won’t find any hanging by the tail.’ ” She didn’t subscribe to the theory that humans descended from primates.

Roxana’s husband Lawson Ross was called Lawson when he was young and Ross when he got older. After 1912, most people called him Moose because of his spirited allegiance to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party – officially the Progressive Party. Lawson Ross received an eighth-grade education in Georgia, which was unusual for the time. “He stayed longer than he would have because he had tuberculosis of the bone,” Grandma said. When he was a child, the disease destroyed a section of shinbone in his right leg and left a sunken hole about midway between the knee and ankle. His cousin told Grandma that the family poured whiskey into the wound to disinfect it, and that you could hear the poor boy scream “all over the mountain.” The bone grew back together. But it left the leg several inches shorter than the other and he had a pronounced limp the rest of his life.

Lawson Ross’s parents, Lawson M. Grice and Jane Banther Grice, married in 1856 in Rutherford County, N.C., then moved to Georgia, where my great-grandfather was born. L.M. Grice arrived in the Oklahoma Territory between 1903 and 1905, but his wife Jane had died en route. L.M. Grice also fought in the Civil War, but for the South. He and two of his sons – Lawson and Tom – filed separate homestead claims in the area that would become the Oklahoma Panhandle. L.M. Grice died in the fall of 1914 while living in a house on Lawson and Roxana’s farm.

Lawson Ross worked in a packing house in Fort Worth before he came to the Oklahoma Territory. In 1905, he homesteaded 160 acres between Guymon and Goodwell. About 30 years later, the area was the epicenter of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in American history, the Dust Bowl.

He and Roxana married 01 September 1907, two months before Oklahoma was admitted to the United States. They had 10 children. All grew to be adults except their third son, Grady, who died just before his first birthday.

The children were born like clockwork, every two years or so, from 1908 to 1926. All but one of them – their oldest son Roaten – were born on the homestead.

Grandma’s siblings

May Camelie Jane, the oldest, was born 27 May 1908. Her dad sometimes called her High Pockets because she was tall and slim, though she didn’t like the nickname.She graduated from Panhandle A&M College in Goodwell and moved to Amarillo in 1938. She was married to Elmer Ray “Bud” Emanuel and worked as a saleslady at C.R. Anthony’s.

Roaten Hadley was born 18 October 1909 in Breckenridge, Texas. He was born on his parents’ return trip from Eastland County, where his maternal grandparents George and Camelie Pilgrim lived. Lawson Ross and Roxana had traveled there in a covered wagon to return the horses the Pilgrims had left behind in Oklahoma when they moved to Texas.

George Lawson was born 21 June 1912. Lawson had an amazing memory, Grandma said, and remembered the names of the horses his parents had taken to Texas when Roaten was born. He moved east of Hardesty in 1944, and farmed and ranched there until his death in 2005.

Kermit Ross was born 02 May 1914. Ross was a headstrong fellow like his dad, who called him Priest. “We’d play church,” Grandma said, “and he was always the preacher.” During a reunion I attended about 25 years ago at Grandma’s house, he told a story about a dustup that occurred when he was in his early 70s. He was announcing a Hooker (Okla.) High School baseball game and had caught a foul ball when a kid about 18 to 20 years old tried to take it away from him. Ross wouldn’t let him have it, and the kid called him a red-headed son of a bitch. The young man discovered, as Ross laid into him, that those were fighting words.

Roxana Jewel, my beautiful grandmother, was born 18 April 1916.

Woodfin Grady was born 28 April 1918. Grady died 11 April 1919 of summer complaint, or acute dysentery.

Ernest Ray was born 23 January 1920. Ernest was killed 12 April 1945, on Cebu Island in the Philippines during WWII. He was in the Army, Americal Division. He and his little brother Gale (aka Bill) were in the same division. Ernest was buried on Leyte Island in the Philippines; after the war they brought his body back to Guymon, and his final burial was there. His father gave him the nickname Eck, short for Ichabod Crane, because he was so tall and skinny.

John Gale was born 06 August 1922. Gale’s father nicknamed him Bill Blowhard because he talked so much and told outrageous stories. The name Bill stuck, and that’s what everyone called him the rest of his life.

Gene Francis was born 31 March 1924. The middle name Francois was engraved on Gene’s headstone instead of Francis because Bill had tricked him into thinking that was his real name. Gene’s wife Betty Jean obviously thought that was his middle name too, Grandma said. “I have thought I should tell her, but it doesn’t really matter now.”  Gene’s nickname was Teddy. He was very small for his age as a child, and when he was learning to ride a horse his legs were so short that his feet stuck straight out. “He looked like a teddy bear,” Grandma said.

Joyce Geraldine, the baby of the family, was born 03 May 1926. Her dad called her Daughter, as did Gale, Gene and Ernest, Grandma said. Like her two sisters, she lived in Amarillo.

Grandma’s husband

Clarence and Jewel Bohanan

My grandparents Clarence and Jewel Bohanan in an undated photo.

Lester Clarence Bohanan, my paternal grandfather, was born 05 January 1912 in Putnam County, Tenn. He would be 101 if he were alive today.

His parents, Pleas and Ada Catherine (Lee) Bohanan, left Tennessee and moved out west around 1917. They went first to Colorado and stayed with a family there through one cold winter, then moved to Eva, northwest of Guymon, when Clarence was about 5 or 6. They moved south of Goodwell around 1930, Grandma said.

My Grandpa, the oldest son, had to quit school to help support the family. His father Pleas had blood poisoning in his leg, and he couldn’t work when it flared up each year. Grandma already knew Clarence’s sister Annice when she met her future husband about 1933. When Grandma started college, Clarence went back to finish high school in Goodwell, she said. He also took some college courses.

I asked Grandma if she had been swept off her feet by the dashingly handsome, young Clarence Bohanan. She laughed and said, “He was handsome when he was older, too.”

Grandma was 19 when they married on 20 July 1935. Grandpa was 23. “Mama and Papa were real upset that I got married before I finished college,” she said. “They didn’t like having their girls depend on somebody. Mama was 22 and Papa was 29 when they got married, so you can see why they were upset with me for getting married at 19.”

After her daughter Jo was born in 1936, Grandma left college for a couple of years, then returned and graduated in 1939, six months before my dad was born. During this time, Grandpa worked for the railroad and was often out of town repairing tracks.

Grandma and Grandpa moved to Amarillo in August 1940 and lived in the San Jacinto neighborhood, where they raised their three children. Grandpa first worked at the zinc smelter and then at the Texaco refinery. They moved to the Western Plateau neighborhood in July 1973, and he retired from Texaco the next year. Grandpa worked as a school crossing guard for a couple of years in the late 1970s until his health deteriorated. He died of a viral brain disease on 05 April 1981, a month before I graduated from high school. He was 69.

Grandma’s children and grandchildren

Clara Jo (Bohanan) Dickinson was born 26 April 1936 at a house in Goodwell where Grandma and Grandpa lived after they got married. Jo died of lung cancer in January 1996 in Amarillo. She was 59. Jo, who had previously lived in Albuquerque and Denver, worked many years in Dallas before living with Grandma in Amarillo during the last months of her life. She has two daughters – Linda Dickinson, who lives in Dallas, and Lisa (Dickinson) Corso, who lives in Butler, Pa., with her husband Mark Corso.

Marty and Ron Bohanan, 50th wedding anniversary

Marty and Ron Bohanan on the occasion
of their 50th wedding anniversary.
Oct. 20, 2012

Ronal Lee Bohanan, my father, was born 11 November 1939 at Roxana and Lawson’s house in Guymon. Grandpa was out of town working for the railroad when Dad was born, so Grandma had moved in with her parents. Ronnie lives in Amarillo with his wife of 50 years, Martha Dell (Robertson) Bohanan. They had three children: Misti Len (Malone) Knox, who died of a brain aneurysm on Dec. 13, 2007, in Amarillo; Ronal Lee Bohanan Jr. (but everyone calls me Sonny), who lives in Fort Worth; and Kathy Sue Bohanan, who lives in Amarillo.

Jerry Ross Bohanan was born 20 December 1942. He is a bachelor who worked as a computer programmer in a variety of places, including Saudi Arabia and Houston. He lives with my grandmother in Amarillo. He likes to read and play the guitar.

Oklahoma: The early years

The land that would become Oklahoma – and all or part of 14 other states – was acquired by the United States in 1803 for less than three cents an acre, as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The area included most of the Great Plains, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and doubled the nation’s size. President Thomas Jefferson and his successors used the land to forcibly resettle the Native American tribes. But the government systematically took the land back as white settlers poured westward. By the start of the Civil War, the Indian Territory had been reduced to roughly the boundaries of the future state of Oklahoma, and it was erased completely when Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907.

The Civil War also played a part in Oklahoma’s development. During the 1850s, northern Republicans had tried repeatedly to pass a federal homestead law but were blocked by southern Democrats. To prevent the spread of slavery, the Republicans demanded that western lands be opened to independent family farmers. The Democrats wanted the lands settled by slave-owners, fearing (correctly) that free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites, like my family. The Republicans got their way when the South seceded and its representatives left Congress in 1861.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, opening millions of acres of unappropriated federal land to immigrants, landless farmers, single women and former slaves. For an $18 filing fee, homesteaders received 160 acres of free land, so long as they lived on it, built a home, made improvements, and farmed it for at least five years.

The Homestead Act afforded my great-grandfather, his father and his brother – along with millions of others who moved West seeking opportunity – the chance to acquire a tract of land large enough to sustain a family farm. The tremendous demand resulted in a series of land runs, most famously in Oklahoma in the 1880s and ’90s. During the homestead program’s first 70 years, about 40 percent of those who filed a claim succeeded in getting title to the land. Many of those who failed were unprepared for the isolation, blizzards, unrelenting wind and extremes of heat and cold on the Great Plains.

Lawson and Roxana Grice were among the survivors. Through hard work, determination and sheer grit, they raised their children and, for more than 30 years, farmed in an area that had previously been dubbed No Man’s Land by white men who had no idea how to find water on the Llano Estacado and considered it uninhabitable.

Grandma’s parents lived the first years of their married life in a dugout, where three of their first four children were born. Her grandfather, L.M. Grice, lived in a house in their yard, and after he died, in the fall of 1914, the young family moved into the house. Grandma was born there in 1916.

Fire displaces family for a year

The family lost the house in June 1924. Grandma was eight years old, and she and her mother had just finished baking bread when the burners flared on the kerosene stove, igniting the wallpaper. Her mother knew that she needed to put dirt on the fire, but there was no time to run outside and dig up the hard ground. A sack of flour was sitting nearby, and she threw it on the fire, hoping to suffocate it. Instead, it fed the flames, which climbed up the wall.

She and her two oldest children, May and Roaten, who were teenagers, rushed the younger kids outside and pushed the family’s Buick touring car away from the burning house. My grandma sat on the running board of the car holding her baby brother Gene while Roxana, May and Roaten ran in and out, saving what they could of the family’s possessions.

“They got precious little out of the house,” Grandma said. “Most everything burned.” Roxana’s sewing machine and a few quilts were all they could save.

Lawson Ross saw the smoke from the farm where he, Lawson and Ross were working, about three-quarters of a mile south. By the time they arrived, it was too late.

“None of us had any shoes, but it was summer,” Grandma said. Then she remembered: May did have one shoe but lost the other one in the fire.

The family slept on the ground that night. The next night, they stayed at the house of Tom Grice, her father’s older brother, and his wife and stepdaughter. The arrangement proved unworkable, and the family was back to sleeping on the ground the following night. Eventually they moved into a house in the country that had been vacant for some time. They slept on straw covered with quilts.

My great-grandfather wanted his children back in the Goodwell school district before the fall term started, so he rented a farm about three miles north of Goodwell and made a crop there that year. Then they rented a house southeast of town until summer.

In the meantime, he had acquired two old one-room houses, moved them onto his property and joined them together. One year after the fire, in June 1925, “we moved back onto the old home place,” Grandma said. “The house was open and windy, but we were back on the farm.”

In 1926, her father built a new house, where the family lived for the next decade. It has since been moved to Guymon, she said.

Daily life on the farm

Lawson Ross rented and later bought the quarter section across the road from theirs, bringing his total to 320 acres. The additional land was needed to make a living dryland farming in that cold, semi-arid climate, where precipitation averages about 18 inches a year.

The family’s main crops were winter wheat and grain sorghum, which they called maize, Grandma said. They sold the sorghum as livestock feed; it grew well in the Oklahoma Panhandle because it doesn’t require much water and can survive long, hot summers.

They harvested the winter wheat in the summer, usually June. Two horses pulled the header, which cut the wheat, and two horses pulled the barge, into which the heads of grain were discharged. Then they threshed the wheat and sold it. Her father bought a tractor when Grandma was 15, and she and Ernest, who was 11, drove it while the older boys were working for wages on other farms. It cut the wheat and threshed it.

The family also grew watermelons, and one year they grew barley. Occasionally they grew sorghum cane and sold it, probably when sugar was expensive, because it could be milled into molasses and sweetener.

Their livestock included horses for riding and for working, 12 to 24 head of milking cattle, and half a dozen hogs. Each spring they’d buy 500 baby chicks. When her father butchered the hogs, he shared the meat with their neighbors, Grandma said. They sold eggs and cream.

Grandma didn’t usually have chores before school, except to help her mom in the house. Her father and brothers did the morning milking. After school, she put on her overalls and milked cows, gathered eggs and pulled weeds for the hogs to eat. She carried in buckets of water from the windmill so they’d have enough in the house for that night and for breakfast. It was her job to fill the reservoir on the side of the stove so they’d have warm water for washing dishes and bathing. In the summer, she hoed weeds in the field. Once, after Roaten had sharpened all the hoes, she stepped on a blade and cut her bare foot badly, and still has the scar today. Blood soaked through the bandanna they used to wrap the wound, though it never became infected.

Their windmill pumped cold water into a trough inside the well house and into a nearby earth tank for the cattle. They refrigerated the milk in the trough. “One thing we had was good water,” Grandma said. One day the windmill quit pumping, so her dad pulled the rods out of the well, and started pulling the pipe, too. He lost his grip and it slipped back down into the well, far from the surface.

“They shined a mirror to reflect the sunlight down into the well, and they could see it, but they couldn’t get anything deep enough to catch it,” Grandma said. The situation created a hardship for months, requiring the family to haul water from another windmill on the land they rented across the road. Day after day Roaten and his brother Lawson tried to lasso the top of the pipe so they could pull it from the ground. Finally, at home for lunch one day during harvest, Lawson ran into the house, yelling, “We caught the pipe!” His father, who liked to take a little nap at lunch, jumped up, and “we were all celebrating,” Grandma said. They were able to repair the well and soon the cold water was flowing again.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl

The family didn’t have electricity or a phone, and the area had no surface water to speak of. The Ogallala Aquifer, a vast, shallow water table beneath the Great Plains, was their only lifeline. It provided all the water they needed for their consumption and for their animals, but with no electricity, they couldn’t irrigate their crops, which failed during dry years.

The Ogallala was first tapped for irrigation in 1911, but large-scale pumping of the aquifer didn’t start until the 1930s, when Roosevelt’s Rural Electric Administration brought electricity to family farms. The number of irrigated acres increased dramatically after World War II thanks to cheap, efficient electric turbine pumps. The aquifer, one of the largest in the world, stretching from South Dakota to Texas, took millions of years to fill. It has been depleted in less than 100 years in some areas, including the Texas Panhandle.

But that is a current-day problem, and one that my great-grandparents didn’t create. The problem they faced, after 25 years of farming the prairie, was two-fold: a worldwide economic depression that started in 1930, coinciding with a prolonged drought after decades of farmers plowing the virgin topsoil across the Great Plains. The deep-rooted native grasses that had kept the soil and moisture in place for eons during drought and high winds were gone. The ground dried up and blew away on the prevailing southwest winds. The roiling, black clouds of dirt reached as far as New York City and Washington, D.C., and much of the soil wound up in the Atlantic Ocean. “We had dirt storms that, by the time you’d swept to the door, you had to start again,” Grandma said. “Sometimes you needed a shovel. Farmhouses weren’t real tight like houses are now.” The years 1934 to 1936 were the worst.

April 14, 1935, a Sunday, dawned clear and beautiful. Grateful for the sunshine after weeks of dust storms, Grandma and her parents and siblings had driven northwest of Guymon in the truck to see her older sister May’s new baby, Roxetta. The temperature dropped around mid-afternoon. My great-grandfather noticed a huge black cloud on the horizon to the north. He hurriedly got the family into the truck, and they tried to make it home before the storm arrived. Grandma was in the back of the truck with her little brothers Bill and Gene, and the storm caught them as they drove east on a country road.

“It was dark as night,” Grandma said. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Papa had to stop the truck on the road, and we sat there until it lightened up enough that he could see to drive.” They saw a farmhouse and were about to stop for shelter, but the storm had finally passed and they continued home instead. It came to be known as Black Sunday, the most famous and severe of the many “black blizzards” of the Dust Bowl.

The years of blowing dirt took a mental, physical and financial toll on the families of the plains. Many simply abandoned their land, and others were foreclosed. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the plains states, the largest migration in American history. About 200,000 of them moved to California, the genesis of the term “Okies” and the subject of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Grapes of Wrath.”

My great-grandfather sold his farm in 1936 to a man named Jess Jones, but he continued to farm at a place he rented about 40 to 50 miles away, east of Hardesty, Okla. Grandma said she wasn’t sure exactly why he sold the farm. By this time she had been married for a year and was living in Goodwell — her farming days were over. She guessed that her father probably needed the money; perhaps his debts had become insurmountable by that point of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He and Roxana eventually moved to a house in Guymon, where my Dad remembers him keeping a cow and selling the milk to people in town. My great-grandfather “Moose” would walk the cow to a vacant lot and stake it there to graze while he went to town and argued politics at the coffee shop, my Dad told me. “He loved a good argument,” he said.

“I need to leave knowledge of what happened”

I will be 50 years old in June, and I’m thankful to have the benefit of my grandmother’s wisdom at an age when I can appreciate it. Only in the last decade have I talked to her at length about her life and about times of trouble in my own.

“Each little problem that we have, it shapes our character,” she told me last week. “It makes us who we really are.”

When her brother Bill died in 2007, she explained that he had been the last of her siblings. Most of her old friends were gone too, she said. I think she was telling me of a particular loneliness she felt. We have talked about the death of her little brother Ernest, who was killed during World War II when Grandma was 28. Last week she told me another story about Ernest, who was four years younger than she.

“Papa gave all of us nicknames,” she said, “and I was Deweldy.” Like Jewel-dee, except with a “D.”

I asked why her father called her that. “He came in from the field one day where Ernest and I were playing,” she said. They were pretending the rocks and sticks were cars, driving them in the dirt.

Her father said, “Ernest, you shouldn’t be playing with a girl.”

Ernest, who was very young, said, “Papa, Deweldy’s not a girl.”

Afterward, her Papa called her Deweldy. Until April 1945. “He never called me that after Ernest died,” she said.

After my wife Nancy’s sister took her own life in 2002, I told Grandma about the unbearable anguish and guilt Nancy and I felt. I still remember what she said: “Some things you never get over. You just have to learn to live with them.”

Five years later, my sister Misti died. I was in the hospital room with my Mom, Grandma and other family members when the life-support machines were removed. Misti’s heart fought stubbornly for 45 minutes, beating more and more slowly until finally giving up. Having my parents and Grandma as examples at such times has helped me to understand the way forward.

So I talk to Grandma as often as I can about her life, her parents and grandparents and siblings, the things she has seen and done. I think at heart I’m asking her to teach me the lessons she has learned. She graciously endures my questions and answers them thoughtfully.

“I need to leave the knowledge of what happened in our lifetime,” she said, “because I wish I knew more about my parents, particularly Mama’s family. It’s too late now. That’s one reason I don’t mind telling you. Whenever we leave this world, our stories and what we did with this life leave with us. Unless somebody tells what happens, there’s no history of it. It’s just gone.”

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Life is good with two kids, so let’s keep it that way

baby-in-crib

It was an easy decision to stop having children.

My wife Nancy and I already have one of each possible kind: a daughter, Kali, age 7, and a 5-year-old son, Harper.

We’ve reached that happy stage in our lives where they are capable of pouring their own cereal and milk on Saturday mornings while mom and pop sleep for another hour — two hours if I can swing it.

They can turn on the TV and find “One Saturday Morning,” the pap that passes for cartoons since Disney bought ABC and dumped Bugs Bunny and the other Warner Brothers greats.

They can clean their rooms, help with the dishes, spend hours at a time outdoors, creating free time for their elders. When we go to the swimming pool, they can actually swim. They can ride their bikes and work in the yard. We can eat at a restaurant without crying fits. It’s been almost three years since I changed a dirty diaper.

In short, life is good.

We decided it should stay that way, so last summer we gathered up the high chair, car seat, electric baby swing and most of the baby clothes for a garage sale. It was touching to see the expectant couples looking over the items, planning for the arrival of their own little ones. I grew almost wistful watching them.

A few days later, a coworker brought his twin baby daughters to work. He and his wife had come to pick up his paycheck, and each was carrying one of the 6-month-old pudglings.

The father and mother looked happy together, radiant even, and I found myself drawn to them and their fat little beaming youngsters. I held the babies, knowing I would never have another of my own.

At home, Nancy and I were celebrating my 34th birthday. Friends from out of town were visiting with their baby and 6-year-old son. They were moving to Los Angeles, and I privately felt sorry for them and their young family, heading out to the vast wasteland of L.A.

After they left, I walked past the bathroom door and heard Nancy let out a small cry from inside. Her voice sounded frail, and I feared she had fainted. Rushing into the bathroom, I saw her holding a little scrap of paper with thin purple lines on it. Two lines. The second one meant she was pregnant.

Travis Chance Bohanan was born Feb. 19, 1998, at a hospital that has eight words in its name — it used to be called Wichita General. He’s a lucky boy. He’ll never want for attention, with a 7-year-old sister who loves to hold him and a 5-year-old brother to teach him the finer points of Transformers and X-Men.

It was an easy decision to stop having children.

* * *

Travis Bohanan celebrated his 15th birthday on Feb. 19, 2013. This column was originally published March 3, 1998, in the Wichita Falls Times Record News, two weeks after Travis was born. Sonny Bohanan was city editor of the Times Record News in 1997 and 1998, and his column appeared weekly on the editorial page.

 

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Holding this thing together: 50 years of wedded bliss

On Love and Marriage

Bohanan family timeline

Mom and Dad 50th anniversary front page

Marty and Ron Bohanan, 50th wedding anniversary

Marty and Ron Bohanan on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.
Oct. 20, 2012

Each Sunday, the newspapers print the wedding and anniversary announcements side-by-side at the back of the features section. The arrangement gives a false impression of inevitability, as if the young newlyweds need only look across the columns of type to the facing page to see themselves as loving grandparents celebrating a half-century of wedded bliss.

What the newlyweds don’t know is that the old couple across the page argues every week after church about whether to take the freeway or the side streets as they drive to lunch. They don’t know that their own grandparents have been a hair’s breadth from divorce every day since they both retired.

All marriages are happy. It’s the messy business of living together afterward that causes  all the trouble — the sacrifices, the exhaustion and frustration of raising kids, the betrayals and compromises that are required to keep two people from killing each other for 50 years.

These things are not for the newlyweds to know. They are smiled upon by the sweet bird of youth, and thank goodness for it, otherwise no one would ever get married, and you and I would never have been born. What a dreadful world that would be!

Yes, love is for the young. Commitment — now that’s something different. We’ve all been in love, but how many of us have done what was necessary to make this thing work no matter what, till death do us part? Damned few, that’s how many.

So it is important that we celebrate Ronal and Marty Bohanan’s 50th wedding anniversary. They have kept the promise they made on October 20, 1962, during a small ceremony at Hobart Street Baptist Church in Pampa.

They’ve also endured three children, more than a dozen moves around the United States, blizzards, a fire (I’m really sorry about that), heart-breaking deaths, decades of hard work and, now, six grandchildren. And somehow they’ve made it look fun — because it has been, mostly, thanks to their resilience and good humor. As Dad has told me many times in recent years, as I go through the same things, “This too shall pass.”

I think that philosophy is a necessary foundation for any successful marriage.

But what do I know? I’m divorced.

Ron and Marty Bohanan, 1963, Pampa, Texas

Ron and Marty Bohanan in 1963 at the home of Marty’s parents, Cora Lee and Ray Robertson, in Pampa, Texas. Their car, a 1960 Pontiac, is at right.

Sweet bird of youth

Mom was 20 when they married, and Dad was 22, soon to be 23. They were probably like those newlyweds in the newspaper, who can’t keep their hands off each other long enough to snap the photo. They had no wedding photo, so I can’t prove that, but I remember a good deal of kissing every day when Dad came home from work. He’d plop down in his recliner, and Mom would sit on his lap, wrap her arms around his neck, and smack, smack, smack they’d go.

Ten people attended their wedding, including themselves and the preacher. Their parents ­— Clarence and Jewel Bohanan of Amarillo, and Ray and Cora Lee Robertson of Pampa — were there. Dad’s younger brother Jerry was the best man. The maid of honor was Carolyn Robertson, who was married to Mom’s older brother Dudley. It was strictly a family affair.

The ceremony was on a Saturday evening at 7. Afterward, the newlyweds drove to Amarillo and checked into the Townhouse Manor, a motel on Amarillo Boulevard and Polk Street, across from the old St. Anthony’s Hospital. They went dancing that night at the nightclub where they met, whose name is lost to the ages. Misti stayed the night in Pampa with Nanny and Granddad, as we called Mom’s parents.

The next day, they picked up Misti and drove to Albuquerque, N.M., where Dad had a job loading trucks on a freight dock. He had been living there with his sister, Jo Dickinson, and Mom and Misti moved in too until they found an apartment.

Neither Mom nor Dad had yet found the occupations that would sustain our family over the next few decades. Dad had dropped out of high school, then did a three-year tour in the Army, followed by a variety of jobs. He was selling insurance when I was born, in 1963. He started working as a union ironworker when he was 24 or 25, and he made a career of it for 28 years, until he was in his early fifties and his body said, “No Mas.” He bought a liquor store and worked in the whiskey business, as he called it, for a dozen years until retiring just before he turned 65.

Mom had several retail jobs before becoming a hairdresser in 1970, a profession where she was in high demand for nearly three decades. Her services were passed down from her original clients to their daughters and, eventually, to their granddaughters. She retired in February 2001 after falling on the ice at Home Depot, breaking her arm and both hips and ending her career. On occasion, when one of Mom’s former clients dies, she is  called upon by the family to style the deceased’s hair, and to apply her makeup, for the open-casket funeral.

Work began at an early age for Mom and Dad. Dad starting showing up at the Amarillo Country Club at age 8, gathering with the other boys early on weekend mornings and waiting for one of the club members to hire him as a caddy. Dad could barely lift a bag of clubs, and he tried to stay out of harm’s way when the competition got too fierce, like the day when the Catholic boys whipped the thunder out of the Protestants.

After his Army tour, Dad worked at a welding shop and a freight dock, sold insurance, delivered milk. He also worked at Affiliated Foods and at the zinc smelter, both in Amarillo.

Mom got her first job at age 14. She worked at a drug store in Pampa, at the cosmetics counter, where she learned to smoke and drink coffee so that she could meet with vendors and order the store’s beauty products. When she was 17, she moved to Amarillo with her mother and Dudley and worked at Woolworth’s jewelry counter, and later at Custom Laundry and Cleaners and at Doche Cleaners, both in Amarillo. She left her job at Malone Cleaners in Pampa to get married.

The “Army way”

Mom and Dad each had a previous, short-lived marriage. Neither of them graduated from high school. They last attended Amarillo High School, when it was still downtown on Polk Street.

A few years ago, when Dad met a man about his age, the guy said, “Don’t I know you from Amarillo High School?”

Dad said, “I don’t know, I was there on a Wednesday. Which day did you go?”

He stopped attending school regularly during his sophomore year and hung out in the pool halls, hustling dominoes and pool. He and one of his friends, Jimmy Smith, decided to enter the Army on the buddy system, and Grandma and Grandpa, no doubt glad to get him off the street, signed the papers so that he could ship out before his 18th birthday.

Just before they were to report for duty, in January 1957, Jimmy slipped on the ice and broke his arm and couldn’t enlist. “Some guys get all the luck,” Dad said.

After basic training at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Dad was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., and trained as a radar specialist, a skill he never used. He shipped out to Mannheim, Germany, on a troop ship that took 11 days to cross the Atlantic.

He arrived in Germany around the first of July 1957, at the height of the Cold War, and he was there nonstop for 29 months. He entered the Army at age 17 and got out, to his relief, at age 20. “It’s hard to grow up in the Army,” he said.

Those who know Dad won’t be surprised to learn that he had trouble adhering to the “Army way,” and at one point he got in a fight with his sergeant. When he finally got his travel orders to go home, he nearly cried because this time he got to fly instead of being sardined on a troop ship. The Army took his weapon and field equipment and relieved him of his duties, and he wandered the fort for the last three weeks with the other short-timers until he shipped out.

The plane touched down at McGuire Air Force Base, near Fort Dix, about 18 hours after taking off from Frankfurt. It stopped twice en route to refuel and allow the men to eat — once in Scotland and again in Newfoundland. When they arrived at McGuire, the troops walked into the terminal as the jukebox played “God Bless America” by Connie Francis.

Money makes the world go ’round

Like our parents, Kathy, Misti and I also learned about work and money at an early age.

When Kathy was 5 or 6 years old, she would ask Dad when he came in the door in the evening, “Did you have fun at work, Dad?”

“No, I didn’t have fun at work!” he’d bark, and we’d hide our giggles. But the message about work was clear – it’s no laughing matter.

We kids all had jobs by the ages of 13 or 14, and by that time we were living in a nice, three-bedroom home in south Amarillo. But the early years of our family were more precarious, and some of my most vivid early memories have to do with money.

One year, I must have been about 5, Mom and Dad bought me a pair of suede cowboy boots, and I was so excited to wear them for the first time at the Tri-State Fair in Amarillo. As it always did in September, the weather had turned cold and rainy, and puddles had formed everywhere on the gravel midway. It felt good to wear my new boots, even if I had to be a little careful because I didn’t want to get them muddy.

That year I was finally big enough for the Magic Carpet Ride, a six-lane slide with two giant humps. You’d sit on a burlap sack and glide down a polished plastic lane. The first time I rode it, I went airborne over the first hump, and it knocked my breath out when I “whumped!” down on my tailbone. I slid to a stop at the bottom, jumped up, exhilarated and out of breath, and ran over to where Mom and Dad were watching from behind the metal barrier. “Can I ride it again!”

“Sure, go ahead,” they said, and off I went, running up the three or four flights of stairs and racing past anyone ahead of me. I rode the slide four or five times, incredulous each time they said I could do it. I knew we didn’t have the money for such frivolous things, and I hurried so they wouldn’t change their minds.

About a year later, when I was in first grade, they bought me an electric football set for Christmas. Actually, Santa gave it to me, they said. But on Christmas morning, I realized my parents had bought it. What a complicated feeling of guilt and love washed over me in that moment. Mom and Dad actually loved me enough to buy me an electric football set! And deep inside I was afraid that this gift would be the undoing of our financial solvency.

I had already inherited from my parents a lifelong dread of living beyond my means.

School daze

We were a tight-knit family when I was in elementary school, thanks to our living accommodations during much of that time. Dad was a union ironworker who traveled the country with a five-man crew building television towers. Mom, Misti, Kathy and I traveled with him during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

When we were on the road, we lived in a 35-foot travel trailer that had a living area and kitchen in the front, my parents’ bedroom in the back and a bunk bed in the middle for Misti, Kathy and me. Kathy and I slept on the bottom bunk, and Misti slept up top. The bedrooms were separated by a tiny bathroom.

It took about four to six months to build a tower, and when one was finished we would move to the next city. As a result, I don’t remember all the elementary schools I attended. Amarillo was always our home base, and sometimes Dad worked there in between tower jobs. I went to three different elementary schools in Amarillo (Oakdale, San Jacinto and Coronado). During that time, we also lived in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas; Farmington, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Springfield, Mo.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Gary, Ind.; and Middletown, Ohio, where Misti started first grade.

When Dad was working, we had plenty of money. One time he came home flush with cash and he and Mom headed to Montgomery Ward’s and returned with a microwave oven. Revolutionary!

It came with a cookbook, and Mom followed the directions to a T.

“The first thing I cooked in it turned to stone,” she said. “It said to cook the carrots this many minutes and the broccoli this many, and it all turned to stone. I put the hot dogs in a bowl with a little water, like it said, and they all blew up.”

Conversely, when Dad was laid off, or when the weather was too cold, snowy, wet or windy to work, he didn’t get paid. When we were in Colorado Springs, in 1972, it seemed to snow every week that fall. I remember trick-or-treating in waist-deep powder in the trailer park, and we gave up after knocking two doors. We were already soaking wet and freezing.

I enjoyed the snow, getting to slide down the hill at recess during school, but Dad worked so little that we were down to our last $25 just before Christmas. Mom loaded me, Kathy and Misti into our 1966 Ford Galaxie and headed for Amarillo. Dad stayed behind to finish the job. The snow piled up as we headed south on Interstate 25, and when we reached Raton Pass, the police stopped us because we didn’t have tire chains. With no money for a motel, we spent the night in the car on the side of the road.

Mom started the motor occasionally to run the heater, but she couldn’t leave it running long or we would have run out of gas. She had brought blankets and some food, so we didn’t freeze or starve. We were grateful when the sun came up and the pass was finally cleared and we were able to continue south. For the next eight hours, our world was reduced to the few dozen yards ahead of us as we crawled through the blinding whiteness that blanketed the High Plains all the way to Amarillo.

The next day, Mom enrolled us in San Jacinto Elementary School, then went and found a job at Wanda’s Beauty Salon on Martin Road.

When I look back now, with the benefit of nostalgia and a warm computer, the forced togetherness seems a source of comfort, like a womb that protected us from the outside world.

But as we kids grew older, the arrangements became unworkable. When I was in fourth grade, I remember being at Nanny’s house on Christmas Eve and overhearing my mom say that we were about to move again, and I ran into the living room so that no one would see me burst into tears at the prospect of being the new kid at yet another school. In hindsight, such a nomadic life made me and my sisters more resilient and adaptable. We all developed a glib tongue and a thick skin that helped us survive the bullying and hostility that all new kids face.

I think this made me, Kathy and Misti closer than we might have been. We made up stories and nicknames for each other. I called Kathy “Rickshaw” because she wore her hair in a long braid down her back, and I once brought her to tears when I pretended to cut it off with scissors.

By the time Misti was in sixth grade, she had fallen dangerously behind in math at school. Mom told Dad that we needed to stop switching schools and that she and my sisters and I would no longer travel with him. That’s when they bought the house at 3601 Lewis Lane in Amarillo, in 1973, the summer before I started fifth grade. That house will always be home to me. I lived there for 10 years – still the longest I’ve lived any one place. Misti, Kathy and I all graduated from Tascosa High School while living there.

Obey the rules and miss the fun

Once we moved to Lewis Lane, our lives became more settled. Kathy, Misti and I finally had the chance to make friends. Mom came home from work every day and made dinner and drove us where we needed to go, made us do our homework and insisted, as best she could, that we follow the rules.

We didn’t always follow the rules.

Misti had a penchant for sneaking out of the house. In ninth grade she was caught sneaking in, sort of. When we were getting ready for school one winter morning, Mom noticed a trail of dead grass, starting where Misti had backed in through the small bathroom window and stepped on the fuzzy toilet lid cover. The grass trail continued down the hall to the girls’ bedroom.

It was a fascinating, dangerous cat-and-mouse game that we played with our parents, and that my kids have played with me. Misti got caught that time, and I slipped out of the house and off to school as Mom gave her hell.

Misti also wrecked Dad’s truck when she was about 15. Mom and Dad were out of town, and Misti was trying to sneak it back into the garage when she mashed the driver’s side into the door frame. She left it parked in the garage as though nothing had happened, and all hell broke loose when they got back in town.

Misti had chutzpah and derring-do, because I never would have stolen Dad’s truck. (I did wreck his car once — sorry about that, too.)

I also burned down an abandoned house across the alley from Grandma and Grandpa’s on Kentucky Street, in Amarillo. I had stolen matches from Grandma’s kitchen, and Misti and I were playing in the vacant house. I was about 6 years old and Misti was 8. I began striking matches and throwing them onto a mattress that had the stuffing falling out of it, to see if it would catch fire.

It did.

Large flames erupted quickly, and I panicked, running into the alley with the thought of getting the hose across the alley to put it out. Soon, the Fire Department was summoned, and the Amarillo TV stations followed. That night, as my parents watched the news, I saw the camera pan across the crowd that had gathered, and there was Dad, his hand clamped like a vise around the back of my neck. I thank God now that the news crew was there so that he didn’t kill me. The house burned to the ground.

Kathy was the youngest and learned a lot about what not to do by watching Misti and me. She was the only witness to those times when Misti and I tried to kill each other, and she once saved me when Misti was choking me in a rage. They shared a room, a hell which only Kathy can imagine.

One of the ways she had of getting back at Misti was diabolical. Mom took off Mondays to clean the house, and each week as she ran the vacuum cleaner under Misti’s bed, it became tangled with a mess of clothes hangers that had been thrown under there. Every Monday when Misti came home from school she suffered a tongue-lashing (or worse) for having thrown the hangers under her bed yet again.

I’m not sure where Kathy was standing to enjoy these episodes. You could hear Mom shouting through gritted teeth from anywhere in the house.

We laugh to keep from crying

Yes, Mom could be tough. You have to be to raise three kids, work all day, prepare all the meals, clean the house and run a car service for teenagers.

Dad is tough, too. For years, he worked 2,000 feet in the air without a net. His leg was once run over by a crane, and another time two of his fingers were cut off. A doctor sewed them back on, but he was never able to bend them again. And eventually his shoulders gave out, forcing him to retire from ironworking.

They also have a lot of soft spots.

Mom loves Elvis, having come of age in the 1950s, and she owned all his albums. (I’m so sorry that they were stolen that summer after I graduated high school. My fault — again.) She was at work the day he died, August 16, 1977, and her best friend, Barbara Self, called to tell her the bad news. After work, Barbara came over with a six-pack of beer and they sat in the kitchen, drinking, commiserating and crying.

Mom also cried on her 30th birthday. Misti had made her a cake with black icing, and Mom’s sister Darla and Darla’s friend Mary Ann came over to celebrate. The black icing did it. Mom cried and everyone teased her about getting old.

In July of 1969, Mom and Dad invited friends over for the moon landing. Dad set up our TV in the yard, and the adults gathered around to watch the first steps on the moon. We kids were playing nearby, and Dad called, “Son, come here!” I ran over and watched as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the lunar surface and uttered his famous lines. I looked up at the “real” moon and squinted, thinking I should be able to see tiny black dots where the space module and the astronauts were. I looked at the TV and back at the moon, trying to reconcile the two. Eventually I ran off and started playing again.

Dad also enjoyed putting a rubber snake or spider in his lunch box for Mom to find when she cleaned it out at night, and he once traumatized the whole family while we watched the thriller “Wait Until Dark” in our darkened living room. At the climax of the film, one second before the intruder leaps to grab the young blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn, Dad jumped up from the couch and screamed, causing panic and serious bladder-control problems.

Mom and Dad’s softest spot has always been reserved for the family. They have never given up on us, no matter how tempting we made it.

Through the years, they’ve held together an extended family that would scatter to the winds without them. Their house is the place where we gather for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter — anything that requires food and a place to eat. They are accustomed to taking care of all of us.

That’s why I’m taking this opportunity to say, Thank you. And I love you both. You are an inspiration.

————————————-

To Mom and Dad, on the occasion of your 50th wedding anniversary, October 20, 2012

By Sonny Bohanan

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