Friday, June 17, 2011
Tex: A Special Father's Day Guest Post, by...My Dad!
(A note from Beta Dad, because I can't keep my yap shut and just let someone take over my blog, especially not my dad)
My grandpa died when I was in college. I wouldn't say that I knew him well, but like a lot of people, I was always in awe of him.
When I was growing up, we lived overseas a lot, and then on the East Coast, so we didn't see enough of our people in Montana. Grandpa was a little scary to me when I was a kid, in the ways many grandpas can be--he was big and rough and didn't talk all that much. But it was always fun to visit him and my other relatives in Havre because there would be plenty of riding around in pickups and on horseback and messing around with livestock and picking vegetables for Grandma to cook; and, when I got older, going from house to house to sit on lawn chairs and drink cheap beer (by the time I was old enough to drink, all the old guys had had to swear off whiskey for medical reasons) and tell stories. When Grandpa loosened up, he was funny and charming and would offhandedly tell these stories--like he was talking about a trip to the post office--that would just make your jaw drop.
During one of the last conversations I remember having with him, he told me about a two-car bootlegging run he had been involved in (moonshine, I guess, since this would have been when he lived in Tennessee or Arkansas), in which the driver of the other car wanted to fight him, just for bragging rights. Finally, on a pit stop, Grandpa obliged him by beating him to a pulp. When the guy recovered enough to drive, they went on with their business. But later on during the trip, the other driver still wanted to challenge Grandpa, so he tried to race him on a narrow country road. This went even worse for him than the fistfight had: he ran off the road, rolled the car, and died.
"We buried him right there at Bear Mountain," Grandpa said. "Still had two black eyes from boxing."
I was all, "Great story, Grandpa! It's just like this time when I left a frat party on my bicycle with a beer in my backpack and this chick's boyfriend wanted to fight me but I was too fast for him..." Except I didn't really say that. I usually didn't know what to say to Grandpa. I just liked listening.
Anyway, I cajoled my dad into writing down some of the stories he remembers about Grandpa for this super-special exclusive Father's Day post.
A note about my dad: he calls himself a band and choir geek who couldn't measure up to his dad in terms of badassness. And yet my dad was a decorated Army infantry officer who fought two tours in Vietnam, sported a Ranger tab and Jump Wings on his uniform, went on to be a
Defense Department spook diplomat during the Cold War, and a treaty negotiator after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Read more about Dad here)
And then there's me. After I read this collection of anecdotes my dad sent me, I was thinking about them all day long. I find it amazing that I'm related to these guys. I'm proud to share their DNA, and to think that, even if it's never necessary, I might have the courage and grit encoded somewhere in my personality to face a fraction of the challenges they kicked the asses of.
Then, as I was scraping the shit out of a cloth diaper and thinking about atavism, I slipped and almost broke one of the fingernails on my right hand, which I keep long and meticulously filed for playing classical guitar. "Dammit!" I whined.
Happy Father's Day, Dad! Thanks for sharing these memories of your paw.
by Beta Dad's Dad, aka DadDad
Guest blogging doesn’t sound like me, but I can tell, or as far as you would understand, repeat stories about your grandpa. I don’t think Hallmark had invented fathers’ day when I was growing up. Anyway we didn’t note it. For me and for much of the small town we lived in for most of my school days, your grandpa’s principal distinction was outlandish strength at work and in the stunts he enjoyed. There was plenty more to him, but that is the fathers’ day memory.
Something I have heard many times, usually from my children or grand-children in response to my stories about how we did it, is “that was then, and this is now.” When talking about my paw, we are talking the real “then.” He was born in 1905 and died in 1990. He went to school off and on until fourth grade. Paw's father died when Paw was 11 years old. I don’t know how he died, but Paw helped build the coffin. His job was to hitch up a team of horses to a hay wagon and drive his father’s body to the burying ground. He said that it was hot, and stuff was oozing out of the box by the time he got there. Paw married your grandma when he was 15 years old. He delivered his first three children at home, probably much as he assisted in the birth of calves. Only my sister, Susie, born eight years after I was and 21 years after my brother Mosey, had the help of a hospital and doctor. Maw, I’m sure did her part with all four.
I heard one of my maw’s brothers say that, before Paw and Maw were married, Paw was the only man that he had ever been afraid of (at fourteen?). Most of the old men I talked to about Paw would not have been afraid of him because they thought he was easy-going and mild-mannered. I think my sisters Moochie and Susie would agree. I, and especially my brother, might have had a bit more notion of the fear he could inspire. My brother Mosey, who was 13 years older than I, was probably not afraid because he appeared never to fear anything and was hot-tempered, but he did lose a number of fist-fights to our paw. Yet he had great respect and fondness for him as far as I could tell. He and all the old men did agree that Paw was the strongest man they knew. No matter how easy-going he may have been, I know that Paw had deep conviction that force involving tearing, jerking, pounding, bending, kicking and yelling obscenities was the most effective approach to auto mechanics and other repair jobs. I assumed that it might apply to parenting as well and, therefore, rarely tested him.
You knew your grandpa when he was already old enough and often enough injured to be bent with a bad back (and shoulders and ribs). But I knew him when he was straight and big. He was six feet tall and heavy for those days at 235 lbs. Like most people of that time he had no fat. His nickname when I was a little boy was Heavy. Many people told me he had the biggest hands of any man they had ever met.
When I was four (or maybe five according to my big sister), Paw had been on a custom cutter crew out of Arkansas, working his way through the wheat fields of the mid-west into the Dakotas and finally Montana. One of his jobs had been harvesting wheat on what was also one of the biggest cattle ranches in North-central Montana and part of Saskatchewan. The owner noticed Paw because he was handsome, intelligent, hard-working and the toughest guy in the area. He offered Paw a job as foreman of the cattle operation. Paw always said that he couldn’t turn down the offer because the job title was “ramrod.” Moreover, he liked the cowboy ways of Montana. He told me many times that these cowboys would get into a fight and say something like, “Alright ye sumbitch, whad’ye want to do, box or wrestle?” If someone got knocked down, the other guy would dance around as in a ring and say, “Come on ye sumbitch, get up and fight.” Where we were from in Arkansas, Paw said, when someone went down it was the boots, resulting in a head that wouldn’t fit in a bucket, or the knife and usually a one-way trip to the bayou. My brother and sister used to tell me that before I was born, Paw put the Des Arc, Arkansas bully, the area blacksmith, in the bayou himself at a community dance in front of everyone in town, including kids. They said the bully made the mistake of throwing a knife at Paw during a fight. Paw once told me the same story when I was grown, but it was some other guy, not him, in his version. He said, “I guess that’s what they mean by ignorant.” Anyway, that’s how we became Montanans. Paw preferred the style.
When we moved to Montana, Paw’s nickname became Tex. He was Tex for the rest of his life. I suppose it was his Arkansas/Tennessee accent. He had never been in Texas as far as I know. During Paw’s job on the ranch, we moved from house to house or shack to shack on different parts of the range. At times, especially during roundup (of cattle or wild horses) we had thirty cowboys in the bunkhouse. Maw cooked for all of them, baked bread and made desserts every day. It seemed to me that every other hand was called Swede, whether he was Swedish or Norwegian. They all had funny accents. Many of the others were called Frenchie and looked Indian. My favorite Frenchies were also known as Big Louis (pronounced Louie) and Little Louis. Paw said that big Louis was his favorite wrestling opponent. Louis was so good that Paw said he never beat him. Once he hid in a load of hay and jumped Louis when he drove off. He said Louis never even got off his seat, but threw Paw over his head right onto the team of horses pulling the hay. I ran into Big Louis years later when I was working in the same area. Big Louis, who never called paw Tex, said that Harold was the toughest man he ever met. “Dat ‘arold like to beat de ‘ell outta me every day.”
I heard about the fights that Paw had, but never saw them. What I did see impressed me enough as a five and six year old. Once I saw him leading a team of the biggest Belgian horses I had ever seen. One of the horses reached out and bit Paw and ripped off his jacket (Paw called any jacket a jumper). Paw turned around and hit the horse between the eyes with his fist. The horse fell to the ground, and took a long time to get up.
Another time, when he and some cowboys brought in a herd of wild horses, Paw was sitting on a horse and bet the others that he could hang himself without being hurt. He took his lariat and threw it over the corral gate (I forget what you call that high horizontal bar, but it was way up there). He put the noose around his neck and spurred the horse out from under himself. After dangling there awhile, he pulled himself all the way up by going hand-over-hand up the trailing end of the rope. He then let himself down, still hanging by the neck, and went on about his business.
My relationship with Paw, or at least to him, was probably most influenced after we had moved to town when he went to work on the Great Northern Railway as a dock rat. When I was in high school I got a summer job between my junior and senior years, also as a dock rat. Paw had moved on to the yard office. I was Paw’s height by then, but 100 lbs lighter. I became Little Tex then and through the next summer when I was again employed by the railroad as a gandy dancer. (I was on the kid gang; there was also an Indian gang, but that is another story.)
The old guys never failed to compare me to Paw. Paw had already established that I was lacking something: “God damn, ye got arms like a girl.”
The old railroad hands would say: “God damn, the best part of you must have run down your maw’s leg.”
For the two summers I worked for the Great Northern, I heard endless Tex stories:
“Old Tex is the strongest man I ever saw. I saw him throw a 100-pound sack of flour from one end of a box car to the other.”
“I saw Tex pick up the rear end of a car once.” (I actually saw him do that when our ’38 Ford was stuck in the snow.)
“Old Tex could drink more whiskey than any man I ever saw. Once I saw him drop a case on purpose and then drink it right through the box to strain the broken glass.”
“Old Tex could eat more than any two men alive.”
“Old Tex could fart louder than anyone you ever heard.”
“Once old Tex got liquored up and tore the roof right off the docks. Nobody could work. The Seattle was a day late getting out.”
One could think that a kid growing up with those kinds of comparisons might be damaged a bit. All stories about Tex were about manly deeds. A boy who was a band and choir geek couldn’t match up to any of those traits. But I think that I and everyone knew that your grandpa was unique in that regard. No one else could match him, and no one expected me to. I never felt deficient for more than a passing moment.
In his later years, Paw became softer, but he enjoyed contests of strength in other ways. I remember that when he was fifty and I was off working somewhere, he wrestled the high school kid who won the golden gloves regional championship in Chicago in the heavyweight division. I knew the kid. We called him Freight Train because he was so strong. The fight took place in a box car down at the docks. Paw won by bear hugging him until his ribs caved in. But I know that Paw was in bed with a stove up back for days. I never heard of a contest like that again, though I did hear of a real fight when Paw was 70.
Most of his later contests were like those at the county fairs when he would show off by ringing the bell on those setups where you hit the pad with a big mallet and send a weight up to hit the bell. He never failed to hit the bell on all three shots. Then he would bet on being able to do it with one hand. He always did it with either hand. Paw said it was not strength, but in knowing how to do it. He would also beat the guy who guessed your weight, usually by thirty pounds. The carny would never believe his own scale. But Paw was unique.