Tag Archives: Amarillo

Fiction excerpt: ‘The World Drops Beneath You’

Tool belt

An excerpt of my short story “The World Drops Beneath You,” published in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press). Get the anthology on Amazon to read the story in its entirety, or read it on Medium.

The World Drops Beneath You

© 2016 Sonny Bohanan

The red lights of the television tower pulsed on and off in the distance, a constellation of dying stars lined up single file, like good soldiers, to wink out in unison. Jake stared at the glowing embers and drifted along the edge of sleep as his father drove through the early-morning dark. His mind snapped to attention when Pop turned up the radio for news of the war: Nixon had announced he was bringing home 25,000 troops over the next year. A momentary tingle of hope raised goose bumps on Jake’s arms and the back of his neck, but he realized a heartbeat later that the decision wouldn’t affect the draft notice folded in his back pocket.

Riding to and from work each day, Jake had silently rehearsed how to tell Pop that his lottery number had come up. But when the time came to say the words, his throat grew thick, and he choked on the bitterness he felt at having invited the war into his life by dropping out of school. Words were useless now. They couldn’t stop the chaos that seeped nightly from the television like poison gas—riots and political assassinations erupting across the nation, the latest wave of troop replacements disappearing into a jungle no one had heard of until it arrived in their living rooms.

As Pop drove, the darkness slipped away imperceptibly, leaving traces in the corners and shadows of things, spies behind enemy lines. He turned the pickup in at the job site, and the headlights picked out three men drinking from Thermos cups at the concrete base of the tower. Pop and Jake usually arrived fifteen minutes early to drink coffee, but it was already five-thirty.

“Couldn’t get Shorty out of bed?” Stony said as they stepped out of the truck.

“You can see the boy needs his beauty rest,” Pop said.

Wally, the boss, tapped his watch with his shortened right index finger. “All right, let’s get up there.”  The finger had been sliced off at the knuckle twenty years earlier. When Jake was a kid, Wally had made him laugh by inserting it into his nostril so it appeared to be planted three inches deep.

They cinched on their tool belts, and Pop turned to Jake. “I want you to go up top this morning and install the brackets for the co-ax cable.” He opened a box to check that they were the right size, and handed it to Jake.

“Did you get the elevator running again?” Pop asked Wally.

“Yeah, but you’ve got to control it from the ground,” Wally said. “The wiring’s crossed, and I couldn’t get the damn thing straightened out. We need the electrician out here.”

It was July 20 and already hot at sunrise. The men were working on a Sunday because a series of spring tornadoes had damaged the crane and knocked out the electric power for more than a week, putting them behind. They had less than a month to finish the tower, which rose nearly 2,000 feet above the High Plains to transmit the signal for the ABC affiliate in Amarillo.

Jake started to sweat—he had never been all the way to the top. The men had finished installing the elevator two days ago, and no longer had to climb the ladder hand over hand for 180 stories. It took Pop and Wally, the most experienced of the crew, half an hour to climb it wearing their tools. The elevator’s steel mesh cage ascended the tower in two or three minutes, but only two men could fit inside it.

“You want to ride on top?” Pop asked.

“I don’t think so.” Jake had seen Stony and Gilvin ride on the elevator roof several times. They were the youngest of the crew except for Jake, and were given the shit jobs.

“It’s safe,” Pop said.

Jake glanced inside the elevator at the loose wires sticking out of the control box and said nothing.

“Hell, he’s scared,” Stony said. “Me and Gilvin will do it.” They climbed onto the roof, and Jake carried the box into the elevator cage underneath them. Wally stepped in beside Jake.

Pop stayed on the ground to run the controls. He lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth, and the one on Wally’s belt squawked, “You got me?”

“We got you.”

“Let’s go.” Pop punched a button and the elevator lurched, rising slowly at first, then faster through the center of the alternating red and white sections. Jake’s stomach tightened as the world dropped beneath him. Seen from below, the guy-wires tethered to massive concrete footings were taut, inch-thick cables that cut a straight line from ground to tower. But from above, Jake could see that the cables in fact drooped in tremendous arcs, the tensile force that held the tower in place unequal to gravity’s ghastly power. The sight gave Jake a sick feeling. The laws of physics, so straightforward on the ground, were warped and unreliable at this height. He reached behind him and secretly inserted his fingertips through the steel mesh, gripping it to steady himself.

The rush of the elevator cooled the sweat on his forehead. A thick morning haze permitted him to look directly at the sun, deliciously pink like a scoop of neon ice cream sizzling and melting along the bottom where it sat on the horizon. Wally spoke into the walkie-talkie and stepped out of the cage when the elevator stopped. He lowered himself into a sitting position on the beam, his legs dangling on either side.

Jake’s stomach swam as he followed. He set the box on the small elevator platform and stuffed as many brackets as he could fit into his tool belt. He tightly gripped the steel next to him with his right hand before stepping cautiously off the platform onto the I-beam, which was about two feet wide. Showing Jake what to do, Wally marked the steel with chalk, drilled four holes, and quickly attached one of the brackets with metal screws. He finished in a couple of minutes and handed the drill to Jake.

“We need one every ten feet,” he said. “Just work your way down. Go ahead and do one, and I’ll watch you.”

Jake attached the drill to his belt and stepped down the ladder to a spot he judged to be about ten feet. He was sweating profusely, soaking his T-shirt as he worked the tape measure.

“Take you all day to do one,” Stony said, amused, from atop the elevator.

Jake avoided looking at the ground while he measured ten feet and marked the holes. He clamped his legs to the beam and held on with his left hand while drilling with his right, barely gaining the leverage he needed to pierce the steel. He took a socket wrench from his tool belt but fumbled it, made a swipe for it and missed, almost losing his balance. Wally cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Headache!” The wrench clanged twice against the steel as it fell, then, seconds later, a third time. The tiny dot on the ground that was Pop dove for cover under his pickup truck. . . .

Read the rest of “The World Drops Beneath You” in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press). The book is available at Amazon.com. The full story is also available at Medium© 2016 Sonny Bohanan

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Sonny Bohanan is a writer and editor in Fort Worth, Texas. Read his writing portfolio or follow him on Twitter. He was an editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the American Literary Review.

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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.”

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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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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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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.

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

By Sonny Bohanan

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