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Leaving the Farm


 

        Frank (1900-1975) cherished no pleasant memories of farm work, which had not changed much since the family settled in Tennessee.  Yet plowing, hoeing and tending the stock remained the first order of the year in Texas as well, and school accommodated itself to the planting, growing and harvest seasons.  Sunday was a day for the better families to dress up and socialize at church, but e
ven on Saturdays the men would spend the morning "down at the place," doctoring the cattle, tending a crop, pruning or budding fruit trees.  Frank always remembered how the boys could not go to town that afternoon until they had first collected a tow sack full of Johnson grass roots, that being the tall, sharp bladed grass which overgrew the cotton and corn fields.

        Of a Saturday afternoon they could "go into town." The nearest mercantile community was Gorman.  The general store here was more specialized than that run by their great grandfather back in Flynn’s Lick.  Here it was Higginbotham’s, which carried hardware and farm implements only.  Grocers were separate, although still a credit business.  Since the automobile had now made its appearance, groceries were often delivered.  Out this far west, almost no roads were paved as yet, but Frank put some of his first money into a Stuts Bearcat.  His older brother sold Fords. There was a railroad depot and a post office, farmers and cattlemen stood around on the street exchanging news and views, doing deals. Their wives might be in the shops "making a trade" for a bonnet or for dress material.  By Frank's time there was even a corner drug store with a soda fountain and little metal chairs and tables with imitation marble tops. Going into town on Saturday was the family outing.  There might even be a medicine show or a traveling carnival.

        Frank started, but did not finish the eighth grade. That was already more schooling than enjoyed by anyone before him in the family. He had what they called "good business sense" (a more comprehensive understanding of law and accounting than most educated men of my own, better schooled generation). Arithmetic culminated in the "rule of three," what we learned as proportions, or ratios.  For Frank it was a nifty way of solving all kinds of tasks.  The idea was to arrange any problem as a/b = c/x.  Being good with figures, Frank took a job in his grandfather's bank while he was still a teen-ager.  A half century later, he was still able
(at my request) to sign his name with the beautiful scroll-work affected by such responsible officers.

        I have a picture of his grandfather's banks in Duster and in Desdemona.  Today the former has been removed to a nearby park, and Desdemona is reduced to just a few houses on the east side of Hog Creek.  In the oil boom years 1918-1921, "Hogtown" was a fair sized collection of shanties on rutted streets populated by land speculators, oil rig equipment vendors, ox train drivers, gamblers, prostitutes, and general hell-raisers.
  Among the latter was Frank's maternal uncle and namesake, the highly successful bully and gambler Frank Kirk. Upscale entertainment might be a traveling badger in a barrel, whose owner offered a prize to any dog that could bring him out.

        John Casper Kirk and Drusilla née Thompson  are buried in Weaver Cemetery just west of Gorman. Their son and daughter, Frank and Laura Ann, married Haile siblings (Laura Ann named a son after her brother).  The children were "double cousins," a frequent phenomenon in unsettled and desolate territory where families sought association with others of a similar raising.  I have no knowledge of the Kirks before they came to Texas.  Laura Ann had two older brothers, Lee and John.  Quite unlike her younger brother Frank, Lee and John were sober farmers and ranchers.  Lee and his wife, Aunt Ninny, lived "next door," at about 100 yards from Laura.  They had six sons and a daughter.  Two of the sons became bank presidents, one a district judge, one an admiral. In these boys one might see an ideal transition from traditional agrarian culture to the new commercial world.

         But of course I best remember the youngest, the hellion who made his fortune in wildcat oil drilling.  
Frank Kirk's enthusiastic followers included the roustabouts, mule skinners and ox drivers dependent on him , but also his own teenaged son Arnold and his sister's boys Aaron and Frank Haile.   I remember all of these men. Erin ( christened Aaron) had thin auburn hair (which he dyed), was clever, witty, a charmer and fancy dresser who boasted that he had never done a day's work in his life.  He drove a Packard or a Lincoln Zephyr, had rings on his fingers and a lady at his side, a blustering, likable, dishonest ne'er do well.  Arnold favored the Kirk side of the family. Huge, red-headed, freckle-faced, curly red hair all over his body, boisterously good-natured, he was a perfect throwback to the ancient Celts. A crisis I remember from my childhood was when Arnold was shot. The story went that he had accused a man, or had been accused, of irregularity in a card game.  Arnold was advancing upon his adversary, knife in hand, refusing to stop despite being struck five times in the chest by bullets. Arnold survived. I do not know the fate of the shooter.  Arnold followed his father’s example of wildcatting for oil, and became the proverbial wealthy Texan. His wife appeared in Time magazine as the owner of a stunning diamond necklace which spelled out in precious stones a highly improper word across her décolletage.

        It just may be that something of the old cavalier is still perceptible in such fellows. They were swashbucklers, carrying and carried by good nature and self confidence, always ready for a scrap, however ill-prepared. Obviously, their line had by this time survived some pretty tough transitions, yet they individually seem never quite up to it, holding to their rambunctious ways. My own father was one of those with whom the times had caught up. He was an experienced cowhand, a good companion. He had a fancy signature, a Stuts Bearcat Roadster, a fur coat, and a pin-stripe suit, but no credentials beyond the rule of threes, "a smile and a shoeshine."  More was not really needed in the prosperous, expanding 1920s.



         But Frank's generation was called upon to make a transition no less demanding of courage and perseverance than his grandfather's transition from the planter's son in pastoral Flynn’s Lick to cowhand on the dry, windblown range beyond the Brazos.  Frank made his start in the new economy with a job for Burroughs Adding Machine Company. It was a large and growing firm (today's International Business Machines), with which he might have gone far had not the Great Depression intervened. Even then, he was not without a job, but now with a finance company, repossessing goods mostly from the blighted farms where he had grown up--tractors, cattle, mules, even goats to be loaded onto the nearest train and shipped to markets at cruelly deflated prices. Back in the better times while he was working for Burroughs, one of Frank's clients had been a Dr. Adams in Dallas.  In that office Frank felt called upon, in breach of company policy, to leave a note on the desk of a secretary, Nell Gooodson   

 

    Perhaps having subsequently become more ambitious, Frank joined his brother Rudolf
at the Haile Airport in Austin (you can still call it up on the internet).  There was money to be had "barnstorming," giving instruction, or just taking sightseers up for a flight.  Crashes were not unusual, Rudolf was injured in two.   It was a dangerous way to make money, and Nell put a quietus to it. Frank returned to traveling for finance companies, then for the farm implement companies Oliver and John Deere. When I was a little boy he was employed by Bull Stewart, distributor of the new Ford Tractor, which attempted to replace the traditional massive weight of the tractor by use of a sophisticated hydraulic system.  Frank, a naturally enthusiastic man with sentimental attachment to agrarian life and was especially gifted with "a smile and a shoeshine" for dealing with people, worked as jobber between distributor and dealer.

       America's economy had much deteriorated since Frank had entered it.  By the time he had a growing family the Roosevelt "Great Depression" had fully set in, and the radical statist intervention popular world wide in the 1930s kept making things worse.  With the war in Europe, however, aircraft factories were established in Texas cities.  The many of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had left the country with a military quite inadequate to President Roosevelt's antagonism with Fascist ambitions overseas (although American bounty was generously supplied to the Communist Soviet Union).  The importance of air combat had been made clear while Frank was still in his teens--and he had acquired some experience in that area.  When war came to Europe the Roosevelt administration set about aircraft procurement.  Frank was prompted to open an "aeronautical trade school" in Houston, which gave an edge to people hoping for jobs in the booming plants in Dallas and Fort Worth.  It taught simple skills like reading blueprints, using electric drills and rivet guns.  Soon he opened a second school for Negroes.  Here is a photograph of my father at a graduating ceremony.  It may not appear so unusual today, but was in fact quite remarkable during World War II.

 

        After the war, demand for aircraft workers white or black fell rapidly. Frank had got enough ahead to buy into a Ford Tractor dealership in Texarkana. Whether this move reflected the fertility of the Red and Sulphur River bottoms, or Nell's fondness for "home" would be hard to say.  This was still the era of family farms, for which the light-weight, Ford-Ferguson was ideal.  We moved into Nell's girlhood home, the old Tom and Molly Goodson house pictured earlier. In Texarkana he accumulated enough capital to buy ou tright the Ford Tractor dealership in Eastland, Texas, the major town just a few miles from his boyhood home, where his mother still lived.

       It turned out to be a catastrophic move.  His attempt to return to his roots in the dusty home territory was foiled by the terrible drought of 1950-54.  It was not so severe back in the East Texas and Arkansas woodlands, but many of the farmers in the Cross Timbers and further west were ruined.  No longer a young couple, Frank and Nell sold their home in Eastland and moved to the new metropolis Houston.  He was able to work as an accountant and she could unroll her impressive diploma from the College of Industrial Arts, as well as her Arkansas teaching certificate.  When she retired, they moved to Dallas to be near her siblings. 
They had retained a peanut farm they had acquired in better days at Desdemona.  They kept it leased to peanut growers.  Frank  frequently drove the hundred or so miles to Desdemona to take care of details like irrigation and covercrops.  He even acquired a horse he could visit and offer an apple when he was there.  A victim in his last years of Parkinson's disease, Frank finally had to forego even that little pleasure.

       I suppose I inherited my father's sentimental attachment to that rainless sand, but in the years after his death I gradually disposed of the peanut farm he had bought and finally even of the rocky hill he had inherited.  In the meantime these patches of Texas soil provided the possibility of a little closer study of that world.  One time, when I was buying grass seed, my daughter and son-in-law came with me to the Turner Seed Company in Breckenridge, Texas. In discussing seeds with Mr. Turner--planting seasons and drought epoch, the general harshness of West Texas life in general, I remarked that "You killed my old daddy, God damn you, kill me." I think Mr. Turner recognized the quotation (from "Rye Whiskey"), but Constance and Richard naturally attributed it to my dotage, and still do.

        As for Texas, naked came we into that world, and naked came we hither.  R.T. had been able to salvage very little out of post-war Tennessee. One might guess that any culture in 
R.T.'s Duster, Texas household came from his wife's family, the Richards of Nashville, Arkansas. About the best one can say of R.T. himself is that he was enterprising and shrewd.  He became a well-to-do banker and land holder.  The same goes for his son Fate.  Although I did attend a Kirk reunion in a little town near Eastland, I know next to nothing about Drusilla Thompson and John Caspar Kirk (buried at Weaver Cemetery near Gorman). Their daughter Laura Ann was the ideal of reticent feminine elegance, but she did have spunk.  I remember how she voted "dry" in the Eastland County election on alcohol sales, in the face of my mother's superior argument in favor of  "wet." Laura conceded that Nell's reasoning was correct, but stuck to her own "dry" vote, because "it is the right thing to do." Lest I depict her as too retiring, I record that she was an excellent marksman. I watched her  in her sixties hit a feral cat in the head with a 22. caliber rifle at forty yards. Her generation still deferred to their men, but sustained them intellectually and whipped them at dominoes. 

        Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother's elegant parlor where she and her brothers Frank or sometimes  John or Lee, and usually her sister-in-law Pearl sat at the ivories, patiently clicking them over and over.  "Six-five'l make fifteen, John."  "Your down Laura."  I was given black wooden dominoes with which I built oil derricks beneath their table.  On my horizon might be a red Folgers coffee can where someone spit tobacco juice, or my Aunt Pearl's cloisonné receptical for snuff juice.  Sometimes Pearl
(Fate's sister) had a pint fruit jar of prickly pear juice at her side, which she regarded as very healthful.  Pearl had a kind of white parchment face, but ruddy cheeks, and thin auburn hair drawn so tightly back into a knot that it made her squint.  She spoke hard language ("Take a stick a stow' wood atter her."  "Snatch that bitch bawld headed.") and was quick to use her good natured but forceful husband to get her way in her little town of Gorman.   What a contrast with my pious and proper grandmother, a studious Bible reader.

    Unlike his own father, mine was gentle and especially protective of his son.  I suppose the best Frank did by me was to marry into literacy, and to revere it.  He loved to read, but mostly together with my mother.  So far as I know, literacy is a quality which no previous generation of Hailes had shared.  Might this history have done better to pursue the literate Goodsons or the Cranks or the McClures a little farther back?  By and large, they were less well to do, so that their record is more obscure. --Why, you may ask, do I count literacy so important? I think that the Hailes did not really lack ambition. On the contrary, they are a hard-working, enterprising line. It is just a shame their aspirations were so limited. Yet how could they have aspired to more? What did they know?  Frank obviously knew that his was a century of technology--he had his sports car and flew his biplane.  I would guess it never occurred to him that Werner Heisenberg and Robert Oppenheimer were his contemporaries.

        Nicholas the chapel builder in Baltimore seems to have been receptive to a higher calling. He lived at a time when popular evangelistic fervor had made the riches of ancient Hebrew culture accessible
, for a brief moment.  As to Nicholas's Dustbowl offspring, however, what did they know to aspire to?  To put it perhaps more harshly, what had they to say to one another?  Well, they could speak of everyday objects and concepts, after the fashion of Caliban.  Language is a wonderful metaphor in itself, but its ultimate transport is beyond the common and the immediate into the memorable metaphors of our three-thousand year written heritage.  Writing even permits us to probe beyond writing, into prehistory.  Without our books we live hand to mouth, in the shallow day to day.  Without books we are zombies, at best.  At worst, watchers of TV and video games, toys of tyranny.

        Frank's family was the product of four centuries assimilating the vast American continent, a dozen generations on frontiers, from the Tidewater westward. The old cultural treasures had been too heavy for the oceangoing vessels of the seventeenth century, and far too burdensome for the trek across mountains and forests and deserts in the New World. A chimney sweep who remained in London might still have had some inkling of that world of intellect, be it only at a longing distance, the child of the dustbowl had only his Bible.  However expansive and inspiring the Great Plains, literacy was the only window on civilization.  The Hailes, by the time they had made it out to Texas, and had made it in Texas, found themselves in woefully narrow surroundings. Yet of about the same age as Frank and his siblings were
the sensitive writer Katherine Ann Porter, born not forty miles  south of the Sabana, and the astute historian Walter Prescott Webb, who grew up about twenty miles to the north.  So a leaven remained, and no doubt still does today, in my own even less literate, pitiable world.

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