Fort Smith; Oklahoma City; Amarillo
July 4, 1973 — my stepmother Dorothy asked me how I happened to be transferred to Seattle and my father Bill who knows about my contretemps with the union said not to be so nosy. She let it drop, but she is nosy and she will get back to it.
We’re having breakfast in the dining room of the Fort Smith Ramada Inn, to which we diverted on our way west for a Burkett family reunion this Independence Day.
Bill is in his element because Fort Smith and environs is where he grew up. He tells us about the “Maddox Bell” used to call slaves in from the fields at the end of the day, donated to a Negro church “after the slaves broke up” is the way he puts it. Now it hangs in a Maddox family yard overlooking the White River.
Marlo Maddox and Andrew Jackson Burkett, my grandfather I never met, were close as brothers, my father says. Lost in memory, he recalls being five years old, trying to help his father around the blacksmith shop, tempering iron rims of wagon wheels in a water trough. A car passing by was unusual enough to stop work and run out to watch after they paved Highway 22.
The Arkansas River is tamed, he tells us, but first they had to harness the White, the Red, and the Illinois before they could get to it, as if we should know exactly what he’s talking about. With flooding controlled Fort Smith is ready for exploitation, he says.
Parking meters have supplanted hitching posts, and semis have replaced big freight wagons like his father drove before he opened his blacksmith shop, and in Bill’s fertile mind he has seen it all. This country around here is his personal property, his history, his tale to spin, and he is happy as a boy.
More July 4 — now I know Nip, 81, who steadied Bill’s hand on a mule-drawn plow and played tricks on him when he caught him asleep on a creek bank instead of fishing. Nip remembers Bill carrying a single-shot shotgun longer than he was tall after rabbits. Maybe my hunting genes came from this side of the family. We visited Nip Lester at his home on the acres of fertile bottom-land he owns now. He is tall as me, unbent by age, big shouldered, his skin coal-black, hair graying, his features finely chiseled, and his ears have a distinctive shape that whispers closer kinship than the clan would ever own to.
He has a soft, deep, melodic voice, easy to listen to as he spins baseball stories about my grandfather, the town pitcher, throwing a ball through a board fence on a bet and the drunken prizefighter who was always trying to whip Andy but never could, through several epic fistfights.
John Lester, Nip’s daddy, was close to Andy Burkett as the Maddox family, which owned Lesters back before the war. The only war a Southerner ever refers to simply as the war. John Lester pulled an old black-powder .44 on drunken strangers who got into an argument at the blacksmith shop and threatened to stomp Andy.
He held them under the gun while Andy beat one of them senseless and offered to beat the rest, one at a time. They had sense enough to depart town without any disparaging remarks about a black man holding a gun on them, Nip recalled — because they understood nobody insulted a friend of Andy’s without paying the price and they already had seen a bloody example of that price. Friend or backstairs relation? A Faulkner kind of question impolitic in Arkansas, even in the enlightened seventies.
I have the strangest feeling my two grandfathers were cut from the same cloth — bull-strong individualists who went their own way; a good friend to have, and a very bad enemy.
I finally met my other grandmother, Mrs. Burkett, with thick straight auburn hair going gray, up in a twist. She told me she once counted 41 train tunnels between Arkansas and Seattle, going up to visit some cousins. She is 81, and takes jets now instead of trains or buses. She said she and Andy were always going to go to California but never did. She finally made it after he died, when my uncle Joe and his wife Juanita and one of my aunts, Geneva, were living out there.
“Put what I couldn’t sell in a room over there and packed me three trunks and some boxes and put ’em on that bus and three days later I was in Oxnard, California,” she says reminiscently. She has traveled the whole country, she says.
“Andy was always wanting something better,” she added, a restless soul despite sticking to the blacksmith shop he turned into a garage when cars came along. “Had to raise all them young’uns,” she says, kind of sadly. “Your daddy was the youngest — and the sweetest. Still is,” she added fondly. I heard a familiar echo — because Mama always said the very same thing about Bill, even compared to her own sons.
When I told my new-found grandmother we were heading west to see if we could find something better, she beamed and said “Good!” with deep satisfaction.
Letha Vaughn, another of Bill’s sisters, reminds me of my own mother so much it is uncanny. She drives a pickup truck with a camper on it, fishes all the time and has dozens of fish stories. A true daughter of her bull-headed daddy, she takes no guff off any man — again, just like Frances. I’d like to ask Bill if he married a woman as much like the sister who helped raise him as he could find — but it wouldn’t be politic with Dorothy here.
Quite a family reunion; groaning tables full of food, stories flying thick and fast. Henry, my clone whom I first met at Jimmy’s funeral, and Joe, lean and trim and California all the way with his white shoes and maroon slacks; and his Point Mugu duck hunting stories. When I visited the Maddox descendant in her large home overlooking the White River, and got to ring the Maddox Bell, she only wanted to know one thing: had Bill taken us to meet Nip? Nip, she said, was the glue that held everything together — he put all his kids through college, and was always there if a Burkett or a Maddox needed him. “Of us all, I think he misses your daddy the most,” she said.
July 6, 1973 — Texas now. The air is unbelievably clear, the sun burns dry, and humidity is a word forgotten on the Arkansas border. Your sweat cools you without the need of air conditioning. But you are constantly in need of cool tall things to drink.
I answer an urge I have seldom had: to sit in the sun and write. I even sought shade in the gardens of Fontainebleau. But today the sun seems cleansing while kids frolic in the motel swimming pool. We are at an Amarillo Holiday Inn. Harry is secure in a big, cool kennel and Wanda and Junky the cat are snoozing in our Texas-size room. I sit here writing and drinking icy 7-Up.
Today, incredibly, I spotted a car with New Hampshire plates on Amarillo Boulevard. I had just about given up on New Hampshire; they seem to leave home less often than Washington Staters. I popped the clutch, clearing the dashboard clutter with acceleration, and went in hot pursuit to confirm. Wanda said you are crazy, you know that? But we’ve even seen Hawaiian plates already, and I had to be sure.
We ate chicken shortcake — potpie over corn bread — all you can eat, and I ate two full bowls, west of Oklahoma City. We toured the “Cowboy Hall of Fame” and I bought Crimsoned Prairie by SLAM Marshall in the gift shop; good reading about the Indian wars.
At the museum there were portraits of key warriors at Little Bighorn, complete with their quotes about the fighting. I only remember Rain in the Face — not a bad name for a duck hunter.
The forests receded when we rolled into Oklahoma, and the sky got bigger all day. Wanda asked if these were the high plains and I said they must be. West Oklahoma earth was red as Georgia clay and plowed fields seemed fertilized with clotted blood. Each time we topped a ridge, we saw a longer vista ahead. We were on old Route 66 for a good long way. It was well dark by the time we passed the Texas border, incredibly unannounced by any neon billboard that we saw; didn’t know we were in Texas until we stopped for gas. The stars were bright and close as we pushed on for Amarillo.
Pearl Fenton was the Maddox descendant who built her house on the best view of White River Valley and now is watching it fill up with subdivisions. The Negro church that was given the Maddox Bell was on Pleasant Hill between Barling and Fort Smith. Pearl rescued the bell after the entire congregation moved to northern cities for factory jobs and the church was abandoned.
Almost to the Rocky Mountain Time Zone, I keep thinking of the family reunion. Louis Vaughn, my first cousin, told me he brained his school principal with a glass paperweight over an insult, and of fights his brother Clarence pushed him into. Of sending a squadron executive officer off the Forrestal flight deck in a jet bleeding hydraulics because he did not want to redline the plane and have to stay on the ship to unload it. His wife and our grandmother were waiting for him in Norfolk; the jet made it.
The dinner table rang with stories of how Bill topped his father and the Maddox clan swapping campfire lies. At age eleven, he told this: with one shell he fired at geese up the river, and the recoil picked up some ducks down the river. The empty shell popped out of the gun and killed a rabbit, and the recoil knocked him into the river, from which he waded with his pockets full of fish.
His story is still being told in hunting camps around Fort Smith, the family agreed, so I come by my writing talent naturally. His tale topped, for sheer windiness, Letha’s story about the stringer of fish she lost; carried off by a giant bass after it gobbled up, in one bite, one of the three-pounders she’d caught.
Letha’s tale sounded almost plausible compared to my grandmother’s contribution about the Stuttgart duck hunter on a day so cold that frozen mallards rained out of the skies, almost knocked him out, and got him arrested for taking over the bag limit…
Bill told me the reason Fort Smith is becoming so much like everywhere else after being missed for so long by “progress” is that a man is never satisfied and needs to always be changing things.
That struck a chord; I am never satisfied. The Bureau of the Census, contemplating 1890 population distribution figures, declared the Frontier officially closed 53 years before I was born. That seen, the Holiday Inn and Stuckey freeway mirages were as sure to follow as extirpation of the Plains Indians way of life so a Transcontinental Railroad could be built. Which leads me to wonder what else was exterminated so I can burn gasoline down “good grade and alignment,” 400–500 miles a day.
If I were a working writer, the old windmill, vanes robbed of wind by a fresh red-and-yellow Stuckey’s billboard, would be the roadside thing I chronicled. Or two tourist families in Stuckey’s yesterday: one, pavement-oriented, the adult urging her spoiled brats to settle on one kind of souvenir to collect at each stop and end all this hand-wringing. The other, rural, father growling no, his son could not buy a tanned rabbit skin “’cause you can go in the backyard, shoot a jackrabbit and tan one of those things yourself.”
At the Cowboy Hall of Fame we looked at paintings of Western scenes too huge for any reasonable room, priced from $3,000 all the way to $28,000. One huge canvas that spoke to me showed Canada geese fighting the teeth of a blizzard like those flocks above the Susquehanna near the Turnpike Bridge…
The sun’s belly flattens as it perches on the Holiday Inn ridge pole. These days facing the downing sun will end in New Mexico. I will turn north, the sun on my left elbow, burdened as a modern-day Forty-Niner with boat trailer, pregnant wife, dog and cat. The air cools rapidly and one little boy leaps out of the pool shouting, “I’m freezing! Freezing! Freezing! Freezing! Freeze, freeze, freeze!”