Arcadia

        I spent my life as a teacher, but I might have trouble naming my own.  I guess I would look for them along US Highway 67, or in the annals of German Idealism.  Those were my schools.

        A teacher does profess to know something about what he is teaching, but our understanding of anything has to start with our own background.  What else do we know?  I claimed to teach literature, claimed to be able to read documents from a remote culture.  How could I do that?  Well, I thought I recognized my own human feelings in those far away writings.  I was careful to learn as much as I could about them, and careful not to impute my own notions into them.  Or so I imagined.  I soon had to recognize that the German Classics speak quite differently on the Rhine or the Vistula from the way they speak to a boy on the Brazos or the Red.


        Highway 67 runs southwest out of Saint Louis, that great city, twelve hundred miles to pass through Cormac McCarthy country all the way to the Rio Grande.  But for me, 67 pretty much terminates in the Texas town where I was born.  I have been through Bradey, Brownwood, Comanche and De Leon and Dublin.  Up in Weatherford is the grave of Oliver Loving, who helped Charlie Goodnight trail the stray cattle to market, through Indian territory.  It was their success drew my grandfather's father out beyond the Brazos.

        As for my mother, she had as a young woman left rural Arkansas for a college education, and had found work for a doctor in Dallas.  Driving further east on 67 will take you under
the  motto,  spelled in incandescent light bulbs across the main street of Greenville, "The Blackest Land and the Whitest People," buttoday primmed to "The Blackest Land and the Best People."  Then comes Sulphur Springs (some of her people are buried there), followed by the sameness of Mount Vernon, Mount Pleasant, Omaha, Naples, Basset, Maud, and  finally across the Red River into Arkansas where her grandparents had settled.  Just to the north lay Old Washington, where her parents got married.  That was the jumping-off place for migrants to Texas.  To the south lies Garland City, surrounded by cotton fields and wholly occupied still today by children of slaves.  My youth was spent traveling that stretch of 67, and its replacements by President Eisenhower's Interstate.

        When I got married, the little couple drove on up through Prescott and Little Rock, Newport, Walnut Ridge, Pocahontas, Poplar Bluff, and lots of other towns I can still remember well.  But we had to leave 67 for Illinois, where I was to continue my studies in German history and culture.  For a half century I thought of myself as a German teacher.  There came a time then at last when I understood that German language, literature, and history were drawing their meaning not just from the Ancients, as my teachers told me, but also from that highway.

        The scrub oak and graze back down beyond Dallas we called "West Texas," I guess because in the days of Goodnight and Loving it was just about as far west as you would care to go.  To an adult eye today it might seem desolate, oppressively hot.  I got a pair of little red India rubber bathing shoes, we lived at a cottage on the lake.  I could wade on the murky bottom.  I was not permitted to swim, but my father would let me ride his soft, freckled shoulders when he dog-paddled in the shallows.  My mother fussed when he took me out in the rowboat to run the trot line.  She loved picnics, and Texas was volatile in the summertime.  I remember her bending forward, violently beating at a grass fire with tow sacks drenched in the lake water (grass fires could get out of hand, in Texas).  For my third birthday, my older cousins Bob and Weldon Kirk gave me a watermelon with white scratches on its green rind.  That little melon still stands before my three-year-old gaze, the scratches clear as ever.  They are still quite illegible, but I know they spell my name.  That summer of 1934 is memorable for the ominous black dust cloud out of Oklahoma, symbol of the Great Depression which enveloped and smothered so many. 
I knew that I had been born into the happiest time and the best of all places.

         A sign over the gate announced that the GORMAN COUNTRY CLUB began at the wind-blown putting greens of oiled-down sawdust and sand.  My grandfather, who died the year I was born, had supplied this acreage.  My family had moved into a little cottage on the lake he had dammed up.  This is where consciousness emerged for me.  Later, we moved into his little rent house near Gorman.  I suspect those were times when my father was out of a job.  By my next birthday, we were in Abilene.  In our garage sat a man with his hat pulled down over his face and wearing an old suit, pockets stuffed with toys, candies and more of the bright orange confetti that had guided my little troupe out the front door and around the house with the help of Barbara Bently's older sister (who was in charge).  My memories of little Barbara, and also of Sonny Goodloe, are inversed from memories at the cottage.  Here in Abilene, I am participant no longer, but have become a mere observer.  I see the red hand print on Barbara Bently's tear stained cheek, and I think some little boy must have put it there.  I see my pickaninny rag doll high in the air, arms and legs outstretched above what must be a garbage truck, and I think Sonny Goodloe threw her, but maybe I did.  I see my mother's shocked face looking down as I stand on the back door step, with my bucket of horned toads.  I cannot really see what she sees, but I know it is probably blood spattered on my white, crisp shirt front.  An enlightened woman (a schoolteacher), my mother always scoffed at the idea that horned toads spit blood, although everyone else in Abilene knew they did.

        At Abilene is where my little sister appeared, but she does not yet arise in my memory.  Later generations have lamented the way little girls were coddled, sheltered, abused throughout history, including my day.  My sister was a tall, slender, talented and beautiful girl.  I was admonished to take care of her.  She had many friends and beaux, at last married a very tall, dark and handsome Air Force officer.  They lived the American Dream until his flights over Viet Nam, or perhaps other things as well--but I get ahead of myself.

        Our family moved frequently.  My father tried to find and to hold onto a job.  So long as there were goods to repossess, he worked for a finance company.  He could also fill a post as book keeper in those long years before automation by computer.  In the late 1930s he served as a jobber, the middleman between tractor dealers and the tractor distributor.  I remember the Oliver Tractor store in San Benito, Texas, and I believe also the John Deere people.  My father was enthusiastic about the new hydraulic Ferguson system used on Ford tractors, well adapted to the lighter soils in Texas.  Eventually he had good and bad fortune as owner of Ford Tractor dealerships.  I touch on all this in "Tidewater to Dustbowl."  Here, I just want to explain why the highways were so important to me and my sister, fussing and playing in the back seat.  I was never at one school for longer than a semester.  Our family's many moves, together with perhaps my own shyness, cut me off from usual childhood associations.  I was the new boy in San Benito (two times), Waxahachie, Gainesville, Gorman, Dallas (also twice), Fouke, Houston, Texarkana.  Teachers did not know me.  Sometimes children play tricks on an outsider, but I cannot say I suffered especially.   I did get accustomed to solitude, unaccustomed to association with children my age.

        On the other hand, I was frequently in the company of my mother's siblings.  These were literate people formed by Robert Burns and Walter Scott, by Emerson and Longfellow, but also, whether they knew it or not, by Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism.  My mother most looked up to my Uncle Harry, a CPA and partner in Haskins and Sells, at that time one of the major accounting firms.  From him I heard at an early age how "The stag at eve had drunk his fill / When danced the moon on Monan's Rill . . .," but I also got advice like "Root hog or die," pronounced with enthusiasm and gusto.  These were children of the Gilded Age, sophisticated enough to know that Twain had meant the term derisively, but also with faith in Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal, and Horatio Alger's honest hard work.  The oldest male was Albert, who had stayed home in Arkansas where he had a mail route and subscribed to Grit, a weekly which enflamed his near pathological rage at the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal.  Albert may have been the one with whom I was most closely associated, simply because he found in me a sounding board.  The two who were most solicitous of me were the oldest sister, Pearl, a R. N. who believed in harsh practicality, and the spinster, Florence.

        My father never forgot how Pearl once offered to pay him fifty cents to wash her car (she had to pay someone, she said).  When I was six and we were living for a time in Dallas, she insisted I hawk The Saturday Evening Post at a local shopping corner.  The Post was a literate magazine in those days when the American short story was flourishing, and it offered some of the most respected authors  Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ring Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Reilly Raine (Tugboat Annie), William Hazlitt Upson (Alexander Botts), C. S Forester (Captain Hornblower), etc.  I knew my mother and father liked The Post--she read it to him in bed at night.  I have no memory of being embarrassed in my efforts to sell it--but then I can remember no particular success at it, either.  Four years later, in Houston, I sold the magazine door to door.  It cost a nickel a copy, and I think I may actually have got two cents of that.  My mother explained to me that The Saturday Evening Post relied not upon sales for its profits, but upon ads.  This of course was the early heyday of advertising.  My Uncle Harry demanded my commentary upon the wisdom of Coca Cola (the most notorious advertiser), as compared with Hershey's (which eschewed the practice).  He liked to pose such questions to me with a memorably judgmental air.  He took a profound philosophical interest in double-entry bookkeeping.  I remember his explanation of the balance sheet entry "good will," which I confess still offers me a problem in the analysis of corporations today.  My Aunt Florence may have been the only one who took a genuine interest in childhood--I remember her scolding me for my inferiority complex (Freud had become popular by the time I was about ten years old).  Aunt Florence was very generous, but like the others, properly imperious toward poor relations. 

      It was Florence who got me my first job through her employer, the Gulf Oil Company.  I got paid union wages (triple that of the less fortunate contract labor) working as roustabout on the pipelines near Spindletop, the first big oil producer in South Texas. 

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