Tag Archives: Texas Panhandle

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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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.

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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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The rest of the story: Hassled by the heat in Happy

Andy Taylor takes the gun from Barney Fife

Read this next: Life in the Fast Lane: Confessions of Tommy Don Tumbleweed

My old friend David Stevens reminded me recently of a story I wrote about 20 years ago when I  was a reporter at the Amarillo Globe-News.

It was the best job I ever had — because I worked for David, and because we cherry-picked the best stories each day from among the 85 towns of the Texas Panhandle. You can’t make up Ralph Erdmann, the pathologist who faked autopsies for years and said whatever the prosecution wanted at trial to get the conviction. Or Stanley Marsh, the millionaire wastrel who created the Cadillac Ranch and other works of outdoor guerrilla art in and around Amarillo and who has come to an ignoble end after suffering a debilitating stroke and being charged with paying underage boys for sex. Or the corrupt district attorneys who had a taste for drugs and for the drug-seizure slush funds at their disposal.

The story I’m thinking of is nothing so serious as all that. Just the opposite, in fact. It was a throwaway weather story, an attempt to illustrate a particularly windy day in February when the tumbleweeds, dead after three months of winter, snapped and took off by the thousands across the plains.

David was my editor and asked me to do a story from the perspective of a tumbleweed. So I grabbed my camera and took off south from Amarillo to find some. I got about thirty miles before I spotted my prey — dozens of them bouncing across the highway toward the town of Happy. I turned off to follow them, parked my car downtown and got out to take pictures.

I walked the one-square-block downtown for about five minutes, snapping photos. There wasn’t another soul outdoors; not a car moved. I saw a GMC Jimmy parked on the street in front of the bank, with a tumbleweed stuck under the wheel. I realized that was the image, and the ending, I needed for my story and I took several photos from the middle of the street.

I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see a policeman in a light-brown uniform walking toward me, his aviator sunglasses cinched down tight and an unhappy look on his face, in clear violation of Happy’s motto (“the town without a frown“).

He was about 5-8 and skinny, and asked me what I was doing. I was a little embarrassed to explain the stupid story I was writing for the newspaper, but I did, and I thought that would be the end of it. He didn’t believe me. “Why are you taking pictures of the bank,” officer Barney Fife asked me, and I looked to see if he even had a gun. He did.

“I’m not taking pictures of the bank,” I said. “I’m taking pictures of the tumbleweed stuck under that car.”

He gathered himself to his full height. “You need to get back in your car and leave.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

He sniffed. “You have anything that proves you work at the Globe-News?”

I didn’t have any business cards. The Globe-News was way too cheap for that. So I showed him my Texas DPS press card. He asked for my boss’s name and phone number, so I told him. He wrote them down and said, “Wait here. And no more pictures,” then walked back across the street to the city office to make the phone call.

While I waited I took more pictures, and when he came back out, he was irritated.

“I told you no more pictures,” he said. “I need you to get in your car and leave.”

I chuckled and shook my head, walked back to my car and drove to the newsroom to turn in my film and write my story. David said he had in fact talked to the cop and confirmed my idiotic story. I guess officer Fife didn’t like some nosy newspaper reporter coming into his town and stirring up tumbleweed trouble.

Working for David meant always putting your nose where public officials thought it didn’t belong. He had my back when sheriffs, lawyers, criminals, school board members, mayors, etc., called to complain because, of course, David had put me up to most of it. He can’t resist a good story.

About a month ago, he wrote a recommendation letter for me, and that’s how he reminded me of the tumbleweed story. Here’s part of what he wrote:

“When I think about Sonny Bohanan’s creative writing ability, I think about
tumbleweeds.

“That goes back to 1991 when Sonny was a rookie general assignments reporter on
my regional news staff at the Amarillo Globe-News.

“Sonny wrote dozens of weather stories – mostly about tornadoes, ice storms and
heat waves – but the most memorable was his day-in-the-life account of Tommy
Don Tumbleweed, one tragic example of what can happen when wind gusts hit 50-75
mph in the Texas Panhandle.

“Tommy Don broke free from a rural fenceline that day and headed toward his
dreams of the city, but his adventure ended in the grill of a GMC Jimmy.

“I knew Sonny had taken the assignment seriously when I received a phone call
from the police officer assigned to Happy, Texas, who wanted to know if I had
instructed a reporter to follow a tumbleweed around town.”

Thank you, David, for assigning me to follow a tumbleweed around, even though it nearly got me thrown in jail. It wasn’t the first time, or the last. Those was the days, my friend.

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