April 25 2012
Forget about property. Let’s get down to cases.
In 1949, Oklahoma was just a decade or so past the worst of the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s. The Great Depression had ended; a world war had come and gone. Most Okies that were vulnerable to being driven from their homes by weather or banks had long ago left for California. Of those remaining who had not been kicked out by circumstance, the able and the adventurous had gone to California, too, to work in war-time shipyards and aircraft factories. That left the old and the infirm and the Indians and folks with oil wells. Then my folks moved to Okmulgee.
They had married during the Great Depression, my mom and dad, she just out of high school and him just two years ahead of her. Photos show a handsome couple. She was a cheerleader and ROTC “sponsor,” a kind of girls’ auxiliary for the high school junior officer corps of the day. She had black hair and grey eyes and a nice figure. She was pretty. He was handsome, a football and basketball star with wavy blonde hair and a ready smile. While she finished high school, he and a friend, Jack, set out to make do as best they could in the mid 1930s: they started up a little logging operation in the swamps and along the bayous of north and central Louisiana. They had a team of mules and a wagon. They’d go into the swamp with the mules, cut down as much as they could, chain the logs and mule-drag them onto dry ground. At nights they’d sleep on the front porches of the Negroes who lived in and around the swamps and along the bayous. Once they had a wagon load they’d drive the mules into Shreveport and sell them to a black man who had a lumberyard. This fellow was a good businessman and he was honest and gave Dad and Jack fair price for the trees. It was common knowledge that he had a silent partner in the business, a white man who owned the local Ford dealership. This was pretty much the way black folks had to do business, but old man Harmon made out ok, it seemed.
Anyway, while Dad logged, Mom lived at home with her folks and finished high school at Fair Park, where Dad had gone and where I went twenty years later. Her father, Ernest, worked for the Kansas City Southern Railroad, a line which ran between Kansas City and Shreveport. Shreveport was a railway hub in those days and the KCS had a big yard down in the West End. Ernest had started working for the railroad back in the ‘teens, before the first war, finally exchanging a life as a sort of ne’er-do-well Kansas cowboy for that of a solid married working man once his wife, Elva had presented him with three kids; there would be five but one, the baby Buddy, died in the 1918 flu epidemic.
Ernest had a good job; he was foreman of a repair crew in the yards and he worked right through the Great Depression. That made it possible for him to support a household of his married children and their families and the two children who were still in school, my mom and her younger brother. So, once Mom graduated and she and Dad got married, she just stayed there and Dad moved in. That household was eight all told: Ernest and Elva; Mom and Dad; sister Blanche and her husband Carl, a carpenter; brother Ralph who fooled around with radios and his wife, Juanita, a student in a nursing school. Dad’s folks lived on the outskirts of town with his two brothers, Ted and John Allen, and his sister, Ruth. Dad’s father, Floyd, had grown up on a farm in East Texas and married over there, where my dad was born. By the late 1930s, he had brought my grandmother, Madie (Mary Jane), and the family into Louisiana, to Shreveport where he found work at the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory as a snapper. A snapper was the guy who came around and nailed shut the boxes of lights the cutters had set out. Dad was the oldest child, so in 1937, when he and Mom got married, Ted and John Allen and Ruth were all still in school.
I don’t know too much about Dad and Mom’s early married life except that they were young and handsome and full of life. There are stories of big dances out at a swimming park near Cross Lake where bottles were thrown and knives pulled. Dad played a kind of semi-professional baseball in those days and their “team” would travel to little towns in Texas and Arkansas and play the local lads for half the gate. Wives would come along with baskets of fried chicken and bottles of illicit beer and sell them at the little ball fields. There would be the occasional dispute over money, either between the teams or among the women, and a hasty retreat was beat now and then. Dad said that Mom was the best pistol shot he had ever seen; they used to go riding out around Cross Lake sitting up on the back of Uncle Ralph’s Model A and shoot at mail boxes. Mom never missed Dad said, no matter how fast Ralph drove. My favorite picture of my mother was taken during WWII; Uncle Carl was home on leave from the SeaBees and Dad was over in the Philippines so there are Mom and Carl just back from hunting squirrels and Mom in her rolled up jeans and her left hand on the rifle at her side looks as comfortable as
Annie Oakley—or Bonnie Parker, whose personality, I have since come to think, was probably closer to Mom’s than was Annie Oakley’s.
The war came and it finally caught up with Dad, even though he was married with a kid and worked in a defense industry; by the middle of the war he was cutting glass at L-O-F in Shreveport, logging long behind him. He got drafted in late 1944 and we moved up to Kansas to be with Mom’s mother in Baldwin City, a small farming and college town about 50 miles west of Kansas City. Ernest had been killed in 1940, just months before I was born. He was scalded to death when a high-pressure steam line broke in the round-house where we and his gang were working on an engine. Elva had gone home to Kansas and was running a small café. We spent the rest of the war and a year after up there; Mom worked in a factory making ammunition boxes and I just ran around this little town of about 1200 living a kind of life that only exists now in Steven Spielberg movies—before the aliens arrive.
When Dad got back from Japan, where he had served in the first US Army unit to set foot on Japanese soil, we went back to Shreveport and Dad went back to the glass factory. He had turned down a commission and a career in the Regular Army. They took up with old friends, some changed by the war, Dad told me later, but others still the same. They danced and drank and smoked and the men in the glass cutting trade kept an eye on which plants were open and which were closed. I started school in Shreveport, at the same grade school my dad had attended but then we moved to Arkansas when the L-O-F plant shut down. Soon enough it was back to Shreveport but not for long. In the winter of 1948-9, we left Shreveport for several years. First stop and fateful, was Okmulgee, Oklahoma.