While we digested our suppers on The Old Man’s front porch, his grandchildren chased fireflies in the summer dusk and, in turn, were playfully chased by neighborhood dogs. As always, The Old Man had carefully locked the collar of his workday khakis. He recalled favored horses and mules from his farming days, remembering their names and personalities though they had been thirty or forty years dead. I gave him a brief thumbnail sketch of William Faulkner — Mississippian, great, writer, appreciator of the soil and good bourbon — before quoting what Faulkner had written of the mule: “He will draw a wagon or a plow but he will not run a race. He will not try to jump anything he does not indubitably know beforehand he can jump; he will not enter any place unless he knows of his own knowledge what is on the other side; he will work for you patiently for ten years for the chance to kick you once.” The Old Man cackled in delight. “That feller sure knowed his mules,” he said.
Sons rarely get to know their fathers very well, less well, certainly, than fathers get to know their sons. More of an intimidating nature remains for the father to conceal, he being cast in the role of example-setter. Sons know their own guilty intimidations. Eventually, however, they graduate their fears of the lash or the frown, learn that their transgressions have been handed down for generations. Fathers are more likely to consider their own sins to have been original.
The son may ultimately boast to the father of his own darker conquests or more wicked dirkings: perhaps out of some need to declare his personal independence, or out of some perverted wish to settle a childish score, or simply because the young — not yet forged in the furnace of blood — understand less about that delicate balance of natural love each generation reserves for the other. Remembering yesterday’s thrashings, or angry because the fathers did not provide the desired social or economic advantages, sons sometimes reveal themselves in cruel ways.
Wild tigers claw the poor father for failures real or imagined: opportunities fumbled, aborted marriages, punishments misplaced. There is this, too: a man who has discovered a likeness in his own image willing to believe (far beyond what the evidence requires) that he combines the natural qualities of Santa Claus, Superman, and the senior Saints, will not easily surrender to more mature judgments. Long after the junior partner has ceased to believe that he may have been adopted, or that beating-off will grow hair on the hand while the brain slowly congeals into gangrenous matter, the father may pose and pretend, hiding bits and pieces of yesterday behind his back. Almost any father with the precious stuff to care can adequately conceal the pea. It is natural in sons to lust — yes, to hunger for — an Old Man special enough to have endowed his progeny’s genes with genius and steel. Or, failing the ideal, to have a father who will at least remain sturdy, loyal, and there when life’s vigilantes come riding with the hangman.
You see the fix the poor bastard is in, don’t you? He must at once apologize and inspire, conceal and judge, strut and intervene, correct and pretend. No matter how far he ranges outside his normal capabilities, he will remain unappreciated through much of the paternal voyage — often neglected, frequently misread, sometimes profaned by his own creation. For all this, the father may evolve into a better man — may find himself closer to being what he claims, a strong role having ways of overpowering the actor. And if he is doubly blessed, he may know a day when his sons (by then, most likely, fathers themselves) will come to love him more than they can bring themselves to say. Then, sometimes, sons get to know their fathers a bit: perhaps a little more than nature intended, and surely more than yesterday would have believed.
There was that blindly adoring period of childhood when my father was the strongest and wisest of men. He would scare off the bears my young imagination feared as they prowled the night outside our Texas farmhouse, provide sunshine and peanut butter, make the world go away. I brought him my broken toys and my skinned knees. He did imitations of all the barnyard animals; when we boxed he saw to it that I won by knockouts. After his predawn winter milkings, shivering and stomping his numb feet while rushing to throw more wood on the fire, he warned that tomorrow morning, by gosh, he planned to laze abed and eat peach cobbler while his youngest son performed the icy chores.
He took me along when he hunted rabbits and squirrels, and on alternate Saturdays when he bounced in a horse-drawn wagon over dirt roads to accomplish his limited commercial possibilities in Putnam or Cisco. He thrilled me with tales of his own small-boy peregrinations: an odyssey to Missouri, consuming two years, in covered wagons pulled by oxen, fordings of swift rivers, and pauses in Indian camps where my grandfather, Morris Miles King, smoked strong pipes with his hosts and ate with his fingers from iron kettles containing what he later called dog stew. The Old Man taught me to whistle, pray, ride a horse, enjoy country music, and. by his example, to smoke. He taught that credit-buying was unmanly, unwise, and probably unforgivable in Heaven: that one honored one’s women, one’s flag, and one’s pride: that, on evidence supplied by the Biblical source of “winds blowing from the four corners of the earth,” the world was most assuredly flat. He taught me the Old Time Religion, to bait a fishhook or gut a butchered hog, and to sing “The Nigger Preacher and the Bear.”
I had no way of knowing what courage was in the man (he with no education, no hope of quick riches, no visible improvements or excitements beckoning to new horizons) to permit him to remain so cheerful, shielding, and kind. No mailer low difficult those Depression times, there was always something under the Christmas tree. When I was four, he walked five miles to town in a blizzard, then returned as it worsened, carrying a red rocking chair and smaller gifts in a gunnysack. Though he had violated his creed by buying on credit, he made it possible for Santa Claus to appear on time.
I would learn that he refused to accept the largess of one of FDR’s recovery agencies because he feared I might be shamed or marked by wearing to school its telltale olive drab “relief shirts.” He did accept employment with the Works Progress Administration. shoveling and hauling wagonloads of dirt and gravel for a road-building project. When brought home the latest joke from the rural school — “WPA stands for ‘We Piddle Around’ ” — he delivered a stern, voice-quavering lecture: Son, the WPA is a honest way some poor men has of makin’ their families a livin’. You’d go to bed hungry tonight without the WPA. Next time some smart aleck makes a joke about it, you ought to knock a goddamned whistlin’ fart out of him.
Children learn that others have fathers with more money, more opportunity, or more sophistication. Their own ambitions or resentments rise, inspiring them to reject the simpler wants of an earlier time. The son is shamed by the father’s speech, dress, car, occupation, and table manners. The desire to flee the family nest (or, at bottom, to soar higher in it; to undertake some few experimental solos) arrives long before the young have their proper wings or before their parents can conceive of it.
The Old Man was an old-fashioned father, one who relied on corporal punishments, Biblical exhortations, and a ready temper. He was not a man who dreamed much, or who understood that others might require dreams as their opium. Though he held idleness to be as useless and as sinful as adventure, he had the misfortune to sire a hedonist son who dreamed of improbable conquests accomplished by some magic superior to grinding work. By the time I entered the troublesome teen-age years, we were on the way to a long dark journey. A mutual thirst to prevail existed — some crazy stubborn infectious contagious will to avoid the slightest surrender.
The Old Man strapped, rope-whipped, and caned me for smoking, drinking, lying, avoiding church, skipping school, and laying out at night. Having once been very close, we now lashed out at each other in the manner of rejected lovers on the occasion of each new disappointment. I thought The Old Man blind to the wonders and potentials of the real world; could not fathom how current events or cultural habits so vital to my contemporaries could be considered so frivolous, or worse. In turn, The Old Man expected me to obediently accept his own values: show more concern over the ultimate disposition of my eternal soul, eschew easy paths when walking tougher ones might somehow purify, be not so inquisitive or damnfool dreamy. That I could not (or would not) comply puzzled, frustrated, and angered him. In desperation he moved from a “wet” town to a “dry” one, in the foolish illusion that this tactic might keep his baby boy out of saloons.
On a Saturday in my fifteenth year, when I refused an order to dig a cesspool in our backyard because of larger plans downtown. I fought back: it was savage and ugly — though, as those things go, one hell of a good fight. Only losers emerged, however. After that we spoke in terse mumbles or angry shouts, not to communicate with civility for three years. The Old Man paraded to a series of punishing and uninspiring jobs — night watchman, dock loader for a creamery, construction worker, chicken-butcher in a steamy, stinking poultry house, while I trekked to my own part-time jobs or to school. When school was out I usually repaired to one distant oil field or another, remaining until classes began anew. Before my eighteenth birthday, I escaped by joining the Army.
On the morning of my induction, The Old Man paused at the kitchen table, where I sat trying to choke down breakfast. He wore the faded old crossed-gallus denim overalls I held in superior contempt and carried a lunch bucket in preparation of whatever dismal job then rode him. “Lawrence,” he said, “is there anything I can do for you?” I shook my head. “You need any money?” “No.” The Old Man shuffled uncertainly, causing the floor to creak. “Well,” he said, “I wish you good luck.” I nodded in the direction of my bacon and eggs. A moment later the front door slammed, followed by the grinding of gears The Old Man always accomplished in confronting even the simplest machinery.
Alone in a Fort Dix crowd of olive drab, I lay popeyed on my bunk at night, chain-smoking, as Midland High School’s initial 1946 football game approached. The impossible dream was that some magic carpet might transport me back to those anticipatory tingles I had known when bands blared, cheerleaders cartwheeled sweet, tantalizing glimpses of their panties, and we purple-clads whooped and clattered toward the red-shirted Odessa Broncos or the Angry Orange of San Angelo. Waste and desolation lived in the heart’s private country on the night that opening game was accomplished on the happiest playing field of my forfeited youth. The next morning, a Saturday, I was called to the Orderly Room to accept a telegram — a form of communication that had always meant death or other disasters. I tore it open with the darkest fantasies to read: midland 26 el paso yselta 0 love dad. Those valuable communiqués arrived on ten consecutive Saturday mornings.
With a ten-day furlough to spend, I appeared unannounced and before a cold dawn on the porch of that familiar frame house in Midland. The Old Man rose quickly, dispensing greetings in his woolly long-handles. “You just a First Class Private?” he teased. “Lord God, I would a-thought a King would be a General by now. Reckon I’ll have to write ole Harry Truman a postcard to git that straightened out.” Most of the time, however (when I was not out impressing the girls with my PFC stripe) a cautious reserve prevailed. We talked haltingly, carefully, probing as uncertainly as two neophyte pre-med students might explore their first skin boil.
On the third or fourth day, The Old Man woke me on the sleeping porch, lunch bucket in hand. “Lawrence,” he said, “your mother found a bottle of whiskey in your suitcase. Now, you know this is a teetotal home. We never had a bottle of whiskey in a home of ours, and we been married since 19-and-11. You’re perfectly welcome to stay here, but your whiskey’s not.” I stiffly mumbled something about going to a motel. “You know better than that,” The Old Man scolded. “We don’t want you goin’ off to no blamed motel.” Then, in a weary exasperation not fully appreciated until dealing with transgressions among my own offspring: “Good God, son, what makes you want to raise ole billy hell all the time?” We regarded each other in a helpless silence. “Do what you think is right,” he said, sighing. “I’ve done told you how me and your mother feel.” He went off to work; I got up and removed the offending liquids.
The final morning brought a wet freeze blowing down from Amarillo by way of the North Pole. The Old Man’s car wouldn’t start; our family had never officially recognized taxis. “I’ll walk you to the bus station,” he said, bundling in a heavy sheepskin jumper and turning his back, I suspect, so as not to witness my mother’s struggle against tears. We shivered down dark streets past homes of my former schoolmates, by vacant lots where I played softball or slept off secret sprees, past stores I remembered for their bargains in Moon Pies and then Lucky Strikes and finally Trojans. Nostalgia and old guilts blew in with the wind. I wanted to say something healing to The Old Man, to utter some gracious goodbye (the nearest thing to retroactive apologies a savage young pride would permit), but I simply knew no beginnings.
We sat an eternity in the unreal lights of the bus station among crying babies, hung-over cowboys, and drowsing old Mexican men, in mute inspection of those dead shows provided by bare walls and ceilings. The Old Man made a silent offering of a cigarette. He was a vigorous fifty-nine then, still clear-eyed, dark-haired, and muscular, but as his hand extended that cigarette pack and I saw it clearly — weather-cured, scarred, one finger crooked and stiff-jointed from an industrial accident — I suddenly and inexplicably knew that one day The Old Man would wither, fail, die. In that moment, I think, I first sensed — if did not understand — something of mortality; of tribes, blood, and inherited rituals.
At the door to the bus, The Old Man suddenly hugged me, roughly, briefly: not certain, perhaps, such an intimacy would be tolerated by this semi-stranger who bore his name. His voice broke as he said, “Write us, son. We love you.” I clasped his hand and brushed past, too full for words. For I knew, then, that I loved him. too, and had, even in the worst of times, and would never stop.
We took a trip last summer, one The Old Man had secretly coveted for a lifetime, though, in the end, he almost had to be prodded into the car. “I hate like the devil to leave Cora,” he said of his wife of almost six decades. “She’s got to where her head swims when she walks up and down the steps. She taken a bad spill just a few weeks ago. I try to stay close enough to catch her if she falls.”
The Old Man did not look as if he could catch much of a falling load as he approached eighty-three. Two hundred pounds of muscle and sinew created by hard work and clean living had melted to a hundred-sixty-odd; his senior clothing flapped about him. He had not worn his bargain dentures for years, except when my mother insisted on enforcing the code of some rare social function, because, he complained, they played the devil with his gums, or gagged him, or both. The eagle’s gleam was gone from eyes turned watery and rheumy; he couldn’t hear so well anymore: he spoke in a wispy voice full of false starts and tuneless whistles requiring full attention.
He was thirteen years retired from his last salaried job, and he had established himself as a yard-tender and general handyman. He mowed lawns, trimmed hedges, tilled flower beds, grubbed stumps, painted houses, performed light carpentry or emergency plumbings. In his eightieth year, my mother decreed that he might no longer climb trees for pruning purposes. Though he lived with that verdict, his eyes disapproved it just as they had when his sons dictated that he might no longer work during the hottest part of the desert summer days. The Old Man surrendered his vigor hard, each new concession (not driving a car or giving up cigarettes) throwing him into a restless depression. He continued to rise each morning at five, prowling the house impatiently on rainy days, muttering and growling of all the grass that needed mowing or of how far behind Midland was falling in unpainted fences. At such times he might complain because the Social Security Administration refused him permission to earn more than $1,200 annually while continuing to merit its assistance: he sneaked in more work by the simple expediency of lowering his prices. Except on the Sabbath (when, by his ethic, the normal joy of work translated to sin), he preferred the indoors only when eating or sleeping. He had long repaired to a sleeping porch of his own creation, where it was always twenty degrees cooler in winter and correspondingly hotter in the summertime; one of the curses of modernity, he held, was “refrigerated air.”
On my mother’s reassurances that she would spend a few days with her twin sister, we coaxed The Old Man into my car. Years earlier, I had asked him whether he wanted to see some particular place or thing and whether I might take him there. To my surprise (for The Old Man had never hinted of secret passions), he said yes, he had wanted since childhood to visit the State Capitol in Austin and the Alamo in San Antonio: he had read of them in books his mother had obtained when his father’s death had cut off his schooling. I had long procrastinated. Living in the distant Sodoms and Gomorrahs of the East, I wandered in worlds alien to my father in search of ambitions that surely mystified him. There were flying trips home: an hour’s domino-playing here, an evening of conversation there. Then the desert would become too still, dark, and forbidding: I would shake his worn old hand, mutter promises and excuses, grab a suitcase; run. Last summer my wife effectively nagged me to deliver on my old pledge. And so, one boiling morning in July, we departed my father’s house. He sat beside me on the front seat, shrunken and somehow remote, yet transmitting some youthful eagerness. The older he had grown, the less The Old Man had ever troubled to talk, contenting himself with sly grins or solemn stares so well-timed you sometimes suspected he heard better than advertised. Deliver him a grandchild to tease and he would open up: Bradley Clayton King, I hear turrible things on you. Somebody said you got garments on your back, and you have ancestors. And word come to me lately that you was seen hesitatin’ on the doorstep.” With others, however, he was slow to state his case.
Now, however, we had hardly gone a mile before The Old Man began a monologue lasting almost a week. As we roared across the desert waste, his fuzzy old voice battled with the cool cat’s purr of the air conditioner; he gestured, pointed, laughed, praised the land, took on new strength.
He had a love for growing things, a Russian peasant’s legendary infatuation for the motherland; for digging in the good earth, smelling it, conquering it. “ ‘Only job I ever had that could hold a candle to farmin’,” he once said, “was blacksmithin’.” Then the car come along, and I was blowed up.” Probably his greatest disappointment was his failure as a farmer — an end dictated by depressed prices in his most productive years, and hurried by land worn down through a lack of any effective application of the basic agrarian sciences. He was a walking-plow farmer, a mule-and-dray-horse farmer, a chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire farmer. If God brought rain at the wrong moment, crops rotted in the mud; should He not bring it when required, they baked and died. You sowed, tilled, weeded, sweated: if Heaven felt more like reward than punishment, you would not be forced to enter the Farmer’s State Bank with your soiled felt hat in your hand.
World War II forced The Old Man off the family acres: he simply could not reject the seventy-odd cents per hour an oil company promised for faithful drudgery in its pipeline crew. And he felt, too, deep and simple patriotic stirrings: perhaps, if he carried enough heavy pipe quickly enough, the fall of Hitler and Tojo might be hastened. He alternately flared with temper fits and was quietly reflective on the fall day in 1942 when we quit the homestead he had come to in a covered wagon in 1894; later, receiving word of the accidental burning of that unpainted farmhouse, he walked around with tears in his eyes. He was past seventy before giving up his dream of one day returning to that embittered soil, of finally mastering it, of extracting its unkept promises.
As we left behind the oil derricks and desert sandhills last summer, approaching barns and belts of greenery, The Old Man praised wild flowers, dairy herds, shoots of cotton, fields of grain. “That’s mighty good timberland,” he said. “Good grass. Cattle could bunch up in them little groves in the winter and turn their backsides to the wind.” He damned his enemies: “Now, Johnson grass will ruin a place. But mesquite trees is the most sapping thing that God lets grow. Mesquites spreads faster than gossip. A cow can drop her plop on a flat rock, and if she’s been eatin’ mesquite beans they’ll take a-holt and grow like mornin’ glories.”
One realized, as The Old Man grew more and more enthusiastic over roadside growths and dribbling little creeks, just how fenced-in he had been for thirty years: knew, freshly, the depth of his resentments as gas pumps, hamburger outlets, and supermarkets came to prosper within two blocks of his door. The Old Man had personally hammered and nailed his house together, in 1944, positioning it on the town’s northmost extremity as if hoping it might sneak off one night to seek more bucolic roots. Midland had been a town of maybe 12,000 then; now it flirted with 70,000 and the Chamber of Commerce mindlessly tub-thumped for more. The Old Man hated it: it had hemmed him in.
We detoured to Eastland County so he might take another glimpse of the past. He slowly moved among the tombstones in a rural cemetery where his parents rested among parched grasses and the bones of their dear friends: people who had been around for the Civil War; God-fearing, land-grubbing folk who had never dreamed that one day men would fly like birds in the sky or swim like fishes beneath the sea. Though he had on his best suit, he bent down to weed the family plot. I kneeled to help; my young son joined us. We worked in silence and a cloaking heat, sharing unspoken tribal satisfactions.
We drove past stations he recognized as important milestones: “Right over yonder — the old house is gone now, been gone forty years — but right there where you see that clump of them blamed mesquites, well, that was where your brother Weldon was borned. 19-and-15, I reckon it was. We had two of the purtiest weepin’ willers you ever seen. I had me a dandy cotton crop that year.” We climbed an unpaved hill, the car mastering it easily, where the horses or mules of my youth had strained in harness, rolling their eyes under The Old Man’s lash. “This durn hill,” he said. “I come down it on a big-wheel bicycle I’d borrowed when I was about fifteen. First one I’d seen, and I was taken with it. Didn’t know no more about ridin’ it than I did about ’rithmetic. Come whizzin’ down so fast my feet couldn’t match them pedals: didn’t have sense enough to coast. Wellsir, I run plumb over in the bar-ditch and flipped over. It taken hair, hide and all.” He laughed, and the laugh turned into a rasping cough, and the cough grew so violent that veins hammered at the edge of his sparse hair, and the old face turned crimson. Through it all he joyously slapped his leg.
We stopped for lunch in a flawed little village where my father had once owned a blacksmith shop. The café was crammed by wage hands and farmers taking their chicken-fried steaks or bowls of vegetable soup seriously, men who minutely inspected strangers and muted their conversations accordingly. Weary of the car and the road, The Old Man chose to stand among the crowded tables while awaiting his order. He was grandly indifferent to the sneaked upward glances of the diners, whose busy elbows threatened to spear him from all sides, and to the waitress who, frowning, danced around him in dispensing hamburgers or plates of hot cornbread. “Tell Grand Dad to sit down,” my teenage daughter, Kerri, whispered. “He’s all right,” I said. “Well, my gosh! At least tell him to take off his hat!”
The Old Man startled a graybeard in khakis by gripping his arm just in time to check the elevation of a spoonful of mashed potatoes. “What’s your name?” he inquired. The old nester’s eyes nervously consulted his companions before he surrendered it. “Don’t reckon I know you,” my father said. “You must not of been around here long.” Twenty-some years, the affronted newcomer mumbled. “I had me a blacksmith shop right over yonder.” The Old Man said. He pointed through a soft-drink sign and its supporting wall. “It was in the 1920s. My name’s Clyde King. You recollect me?” When the old nester failed the quiz, my father abandoned him to his mashed potatoes. “What’s your name?” he inquired of a victim mired in his blackberry pie. My twelve-year-old son giggled; his sister covered her humiliated face.
He walked along a diminutive counter of ketchup bottles, fruit pies, and digestive aids, reading only those faces grizzled enough to remember. An aging rancher, deep in his iced tea, nodded: “Yeah, I remember you.” The Old Man pumped his hand, beaming. “I was just a kid-of-a-boy,” the rancher said. “I was better acquainted with your brother Rex. And the one that run the barbershop. Claude, wasn’t it? Where they at now?” The Old Man sobered himself: “Well, I buried ’em within three weeks of one another last month. Claude was seventy-eight and Rex was seventy-four. I’m the only one of the King boys still kickin’. Oldest of the bunch, too. If I live to the eighteenth day of next February, the Lord willin’, I’ll be eighty-three year old.” “Well, you look in right good shape,” the rancher said.
When The Old Man sat down at our booth my daughter asked, too sweetly, “Grand Dad, you want me to take your hat?” He gave her an amused glance, a look suggesting he had passed this way before. “Naw,” he said. “This a-way, I know where it’s at if this café catches a-fire and I need it in a hurry.” Then he removed the trespass to his outer knee and slowly crumbled crackers into the chili bowl before bending to feed his toothless face.
His bed was empty when i awoke in an Austin motel shortly after sunrise. He could be seen in contemplation of the swimming pool, turning his direct gaze on all who struggled toward their early jobs. Conversing with a black bellhop when I claimed him, he was full of new information: “That nigger tells me he averages a dollar a head for carryin’ suitcases. I may buy me some fancy britches and give him some competition. . . . Folks sure must be sleepyheaded around here. I bet I walked a mile and didn’t see two dozen people. . . . Went over yonder to that Governor’s Mansion and rattled the gate and yelled, but didn’t nobody come to let me in.” “Did you really?” I asked, moderately appalled. “Thunder, yes! I’m a voter. Democrat, at that.” Then the sly country grin flashed in a way that keeps me wondering in the night, now, whether he really had.
We entered a coffee shop. “Lord God,” The Old Man said, recoiling from the menu. “This place is high as a cat’s back. You mean they git a dolla eighty-five for two eggs and a little dab a bacon?
I smiled: how much did he think our motel room had cost? “Well, the way things is now, I expect it run ten or twelve dollars.” No, the price had been thirty dollars. His old eyes bulged: “For one night? Lord God, son, let’s git us a blanket and go to the wagon yard!”
“This here’s a heap bigger place than I thought it would be,” he said in a hushed voice as he inspected the polished chambers of the Texas House of Representatives. He read the faces of past governors hanging in the rotunda, pointing out his favorites (selecting three good men and two rank demagogues). He stood shyly, not having to be reminded to remove his hat, when introduced to a few stray legislators and when led into Governor Preston Smith’s office. Probably he was relieved to find the Governor was absent, for The Old Man had never prospered in the company of “big shots”: a big shot may be defined as one who wears neckties in the middle of the week or claims a title; I was never certain what fine distinctions The Old Man made in his mind between a United States Senator and a notary public.
He marveled at the expanse of grass on the Capitol grounds, inspected its flower beds, inquired of an attendant how many gallons of water the grounds required each day, and became stonily disapproving when the hired hand did not know. In the archives of the General Land Office, he painstakingly sought out the legal history of that farm his father had settled in the long ago. He was enchanted by the earliest maps of Texas counties he had known as a boy.
That night he sat on his motel bed recalling the specifics of forgotten cattle trades, remembering the only time he got drunk (at age sixteen) and how the quart of whiskey so poisoned him that he had promised God and his weeping mother that, if permitted to live, he would die before touching another drop. He recited his disappointment in being denied a preacher’s credentials by the Methodist hierarchy on the grounds of insufficient education. “They wanted note preachers,” he said contemptuously. “Wasn’t satisfied with preachers who spoke sermons from the heart and preached the Bible pure. And that’s what’s gone wrong with churches.”
A farmhand and apprentice blacksmith, he had not been smitten blind by his first encounter with my mother-to-be at a country social. “I spied another girl I wanted to spark,” he grinned. “Next day, I seen that girl and several others go into a general store by the blacksmith shop. I moseyed over like I was out of chewin’ tobacco. Lord God, in the daylight that girl was ugly as a mud fence! I couldn’t imagine wakin’ up to that of a-mornin’.” He laughed: “Then I taken a second look at Cora — she was seventeen — and she had the purtiest complexion and eyes and . . . well, just everthing.” Scheming to see her again, he pep-talked his faint heart to encourage the boldness to request a date. “Didn’t seem like I’d ever do it,” he confessed. I’d go up to her at socials or church and make a bow and say, ‘Miss Cora.’ And she would bob me a little curtsy and say, ‘Mister Clyde.’ Then I’d stand there like a durned lummox, fiddlin’ with my hat, and my face would heat up, and I couldn’t think of a consarned thing to say.” He laughed in memory of the callow swain that was. “It was customary in them days for young women to choose young men to lead singin’ at church. I know within reason, now, that it was to help tongue-tied young hicks like myself, but I was pea-green then, and didn’t know it. One night Cora picked me. Lord God, it excited me so that I plumb forgot the words to all the hymns I knowed.” One could see him there in that lantern-lighted plank church, stiff in his high collar and cheap suit, earnest juices popping out on his forge-tanned forehead, sweet chaos alive in his heart. His voice would have quavered as he asked everyone to please turn to Number One-Forty-Three, while matchmaking old women in calico encouraged him with their wise witch’s eyes and young ladies with bright ribbons in their hair giggled behind fluttering fans advertising Sunday School literature or pious morticians.
“Somehow I stumbled through it. Never heard a word the preacher said that night: I was tryin’ to drum up nerve to approach Miss Cora, you see. Quick as the preacher said ‘Amen’ to his last prayer, I run over fat women and little kids to git there before I got cold feet: ‘Miss Cora, may I have the pleasure of your company home?’ When she said, ‘Yes, if you wish,’ my heart pounded like I was gonna faint!
“Her daddy — ole man Jim Clark, Lord God, he was a tough case — he didn’t allow his girls to ride in no buggies. If you wanted to spark a Clark girl. you had to be willin’ to walk. Wellsir, I left my team at the church. Walkin’ Cora home I asked if I could pay a call on her. I never dated no other woman from then on. There was another young feller had his eye on Cora. Once I had paid her three or four courtin’ calls, I looked him up to say I didn’t want him tryin’ to spark her no more. Because, I said, I had it in mind to marry her. ‘What’ll you do about it?’ — he got his back up, you see. I said, ‘Whatever I got to do. And if you don’t believe me, by God, just you try me!’ He never give me no trouble.”
The Old Man revealed his incredulous joy when, perhaps a year later, his halting proposal had been accepted. “Do you remember what you said?” my intrigued daughter asked. “Durn right! Ought to. I practiced on it for some weeks.” He laughed a wheezing burst. “We had just walked up on her daddy’s porch one evening and I said” — and here The Old Man attempted again the deeper tones of youth, seeking the courtly country formality he had brought into play on that vital night, reciting as one might when called upon in Elocution Class in some old one-room schoolhouse — “ ‘Miss Cora, I have not got much of this world’s goods, and of education I haven’t none. But I fancy myself a man of decent habits, and if you will do me the honor of becoming my wife, I will do the best I can by you for always.’ ” He bowed his head, hiding his tears. “Grand Dad,” my daughter asked, “did you kiss her?” “Lord God, no!” The Old Man was sincerely shocked, maybe even a bit outraged: “Kissin’ wasn’t took lightly in them days.”
BETWEEN AUSTIN AND SAN ANTONIO we drove through San Marcos; a prominent sign proclaimed that Lyndon B. Johnson had once earned a degree at the local teachers’ college. “That’s a mighty fine school,” The Old Man said. I remained silent. “Yessir,” he said, “a mighty fine school.” Only the purring air conditioner responded. The Old Man shifted elaborately on the seat. “Why, now, I expect that school’s as good a school as the Newnited States has.” By now he realized that a contest was joined: whatever joke he wished to make must be accomplished in the absence of my feeding straight-line. “I doubt if that Harvard outfit up yonder could bold a candle to this school,” he said. “I expect this school would put that Harvard bunch in the shade.” My son, less experienced in such games, provided the foil: “Grand Dad, why is it such a good school?” “Got to be,” The Old Man said. “It learned ole Lyndon to have sense enough to know he couldn’t get elected again.” He enjoyed his chortle no less for the delay.
“Didn’t you like President Johnson?” my son asked.
“Naw. LBJ told too many lies. I wouldn’t a-shoed horses on credit for him.”
“Who was your favorite President?”
“Harry Truman. Harry wasn’t afraid to take the bull by the horns. Wasn’t no mealymouth goody-goody in him like in most politicians. Ole Ike, now, they blowcd him up like Mister Big and all he ever showed me was that silly grin.”
“Did you ever vole for a Republican?” my son asked.
“Yeah, in 19-and-28. Voted for Herbert Hoover. And he no more than put his britches on the chair till we had a Depression. I promised God right then if He wouldn’t send no more Depressions, I wouldn’t vote for no more Republicans.”
“Do you think God really cares who’s President?” I asked.
“I reckon not,” The Old Man said. “Look at what we got in there now.
What did The Old Man think of this age of protest and revolt?
“It plagues me some,” he admitted. “I got mad at them young boys that didn’t want to fight in Vietnam. Then after the politicians botched it so bad nobody couldn’t win it, and told lies to boot, I decided I wouldn’t want to risk dyin’ in a war that didn’t make sense.”
It was suggested that no wars made sense.
“Maybe so,” The Old Man said. “Bible says, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ Still yet, the Bible’s full of wars. Bible says there’ll be wars and rumors of wars. I don’t think war is what all the ruckus is about, though. I think young people is just generally confused.”
“They don’t have nothing to cling to,” he said; they had been raised in whiskey homes; their preachers, teachers, politicians, and daddies had grown so money-mad and big-Ikey nothing else counted. Too much had been handed today’s kids on silver platters: they got cars too soon and matching big notions. They went off chasing false gods. Well, didn’t guess he much blamed ’em: they didn’t have nothing waiting at home except babysitters, television, and mothers that cussed in mixed company or wore whiskey on the breath.
“I seen all this coming during the Second World’s War,” The Old Man said. “People got to moving around so much with good cars. Families split up and lost their roots. The main thing, though, was the women. Women had always stayed home and raised the kids: that was their job. It’s just nature. And the man of the family had to be out scratchin’ a living. But during that Second World’s War, women started workin’ as a regular thing and smokin’ and drinkin’ in public. Triflin’ started, and triflin’ led to divorces. I knowed then there was gonna be trouble because somebody’s got to raise the kids. You can’t expect kids to turn out right if you shuffle ’em off to the side.” There was little a divorced man could say.
“I’m thankful I raised my family when I did,” he said. “World’s too full of meanness and trouble these days. Ever’ other person you meet is a smart aleck, and the other one’s a crook. Them last few years I was workin’ for wages, there wasn’t one young feller in fifty willin’ to work. All they had in mind was puttin somethin’ over on somebody. Down at the creamery docks, the young hands would slip off to play cards or talk smut or sit on their asses any time the bossman wasn’t standin’ over ’em. They laughed at me for givin’ a honest day’s work. I told ’em I’d hired out to work, by God. I wouldn’t a-give a nickel for any of ’em. Didn’t put no value on their personal word, I’d lift them heavy milk crates — lift a dozen to their one — and when the drivers come in and their trucks had to be swamped out and cleaned, I’d look around and be the only hand workin’.” He shook his head. “They didn’t care about nothin’. Seemed like life was . . . well, some kind of a joke to ’em.
“Now,” he said, “I think the niggers is raisin’ too much sand. Maybe I’d be raisin’ ole billy myself if I’d been kinda left out of it like them. I dunno: it’s hard to wear the other feller’s shoes. But I just wasn’t raised up to believe they’re supposed to mix with us. It don’t seem natural.”
“Dad!” I said. “Dad . . . Dad . . .”
“Oh, I know,” he said. Impatience was in his voice. This was an old battle fought between us many times without producing a victor — even though we had selectively employed the Bible against each other.
“You still mowing Willie’s lawn?” I asked.
“Ever’ Thursday,” The Old Man said. “Durn your hide,” he chuckled. Then: “Naw, Willie’s moved off to Houston or some place.” Willie was a male nurse and had been the first black man to move into my father’s neighborhood eight years ago. Not long after that community despoiling, I visited home: great were the dire predictions having to do with Willie’s staying in his place. Six months later, we were sitting on the front porch. The black man walked into the yard. “Hey there, Old Timer,” he said.
I stiffened: surely The Old Man would burn a cross, bomb a school, break into “The Nigger Preacher and the Bear.”
Instead he said, mildly, “How you, Doctor?” “Can you do my lawn a couple days early next week? I’m having some people over for dinner Tuesday night.”
“Reckon so,” The Old Man said. “Whatcha gonna have to eat?”
The black man smiled and said he thought he might burn some steaks on the grill.
“You can tip me one of them beefsteaks,” The Old Man said, looking mischievous. “I’m a plumb fool about beefsteak.”
They laughed; the black man complimented my father on his flower beds before giving him instructions on exactly how he wanted his shrubbery trimmed. The Old Man walked with him across the street to inspect the particulars. When he returned to ease back into his chair, I said — affecting the flattest possible cracker twang — “Boy Hidy, if that chocolate-coated sumbitch don’t stay in his place . . .” The Old Man’s grin was a bit sheepish. “I wouldn’t mind ’em if they was all like ole Willie,” he said. “He works hard, he keeps hisself clean, to my knowledge he don’t drink and I don’t believe he’d steal if he was hungry.” Then came one of those oblique twists of mind of which he was capable: “I don’t take his checks though. I make ’im pay cash.”
Now, some years later, we were approaching San Antonio: “I always figgered this for just another little ole Meskin town except for havin’ the Alamo,” he said. Soon he was marveling at the city’s wonders, at the modern office buildings, old Spanish-style homes, green parks and easy-riding rivers. The Old Man happily waved to passing paddle boats as we idled under a tree at a riverfront café, laughing through the tears at himself when — mistaking a bowl of powerful peppers for stewed okra — he spooned in a country mouthful requiring a hard run on all available ice water.
He approached the Alamo with a reverence both enthusiastic and touching. “Right here,” he proclaimed — pointing to a certain worn stone slab — is where Travis drawed a line with his sword and told all the boys willin’ to die for the right to step across. All of ’em stepped across except Jim Bowie, who was sick on a cot, and he had his buddies carry him across.” Just why he had selected that particular stone not even historians may attest: the much-restored Alamo must make do with the smaller original artifacts and the wilder romanticisms. Indeed, where much of the blood was spilled, a prestige department store now stands. He moved among display cases containing precious bits and pieces of a more vigorous time: wooden pegs serving purposes later to be preempted by metal hinges, square-headed nails, early Colt rearms, crude chisels and hand-operated bellows, arrowheads, saddlebags, oxen yokes, tintype photos, the earliest barbed wire, a country doctor’s bag with crude equipment such as an old uncle had carried in the long ago. He assembled his descendants to explain the uses of each relic, carefully associating himself — and his blood’s blood — with that older time and place. He came to a new authority; his voice improved. Soon a group of tourists followed him about, the bolder ones asking questions. The Old Man performed as if he had been there during the siege. Choosing a spot on the outer walls, he said with conviction that “right over yonder” was where the invaders had fatally broken through. (“Daddy,” my daughter whispered, “will you please get him to stop saying ‘Meskin’?”)
Taking a last look, he said, “Ma bought me a book on the Alamo. I must of read it a hundred times. I read how them damn Meskins done Travis and his brave boys, how ole General Santa Anna had butchered all them Texas heroes, and I promised myself if I ever seen one of them greaser sons-a-bitches, why, I’d kill him with my bare hands.” He laughed at that old irrationality. “But did you notice today, half the people in that Alamo was Meskins? And they seemed to think just as much of it as we do.”
Now it was late afternoon. His sap suddenly ran low; he seemed more fragile, a tired old head with a journey to make; he dangerously stumbled on a curbstone. Crossing a busy intersection, I took his arm. Though that arm had once pounded anvils into submission, it felt incredibly frail. My children, fueled by youth’s inexhaustible gases, skipped and cavorted fully a block ahead. Negotiating the street, The Old Man half-laughed and half-snorted: “I recollect helpin’ you across lots of streets when you was little. Never had no notion that one day you’d be doin’ the same for me.” Well, I said. Well. Then: “I’ve helped that boy up there” — motioning toward my distant and mobile son — “across some few streets. Until now, it never once occurred that he may someday return the favor.” “Well,” The Old Man said, “he will if you’re lucky.”
Three o’clock in an austin motel. The Old Man snores in competition with jet aircraft. On an adjoining bed his grandson’s measured breathing raises and lowers a pale banner of sheets. Earlier, the boy has exorcised his subconscious demons through sheet-tugging threshings and disjointed, indistinct private cries. The Old Man snores on, at peace. Night battles never plagued me, he once said in explaining his ability to sleep anyplace, anytime. I never was one to worry much. What people worry about is things they can’t do nothin’ about. Worryin’ always seemed like a waste to me.
The bridging gap between the two slumbering generations, himself an experienced insomniac, sits in the dark judging whether he would most appreciate a cold six-pack or the world’s earliest sunrise. Out of deference to The Old Man, he has known only limited contacts with those bracing stimulants and artificial aids for which his soft polluted body now begs. The only opium available to him the layman calls “memory” — a drug of the most awful and powerful properties, one that may ravish the psyche even while nurturing the soul. Stiff penalties should be affixed to its possession, for its dangerous components include disappointing inventories, blocked punts, lumpy batters, and iron buckets of burden. It is habit-forming, near-to-maddening in large doses, and may even grow hair on the palms.
I remembered that we had compromised our differences in about my twentieth year. My own early assumption of family responsibilities proved healing: in the natural confusions of matrimony, one soon came to appreciate The Old Man’s demanding, luckless role. Nothing is so leavening to the human species as to gaze upon the new and untried flesh of another human being and realize, in a combination of humility, amazement, and fear, that you are responsible for its creation and well-being. This discovery is almost immediately followed by a sharply heightened appreciation of more senior fathers.
We discovered that we could talk again. Could even sit at ease in long and mutually cherished silences. Could civilly exchange conflicting opinions, compete in dominoes rather than in more deadly games, romp on the lawn with our descendants, and share each new family pride or disappointment. For some four years in the early 1950s, we lived in close proximity. The Old Man came to accept my preference for whiskey as I came to accept his distaste for what it represented; he learned to live with my skeptic’s atheism as I came to live with his belief that God was as tangible an entry as the Methodist Bishop.
The Old Man was sixty-six and I was twenty-five when I went away for good. There were periodic trips back home, each of them somehow more hurried, fleeting, and blurred. Around 1960, it dawned on me that The Old Man and his sons had, in effect, switched roles. On a day I cannot name, he suddenly and wordlessly passed the family crown. Now the sons were solicited for advice or leadership, and would learn to live uneasily in the presence of a quiet and somehow deeply wrenching paternal deference. (Weldon, you reckon it would be all right if I got a better car? Well, now, Dad, I believe I’d go slow on that. Maybe you don’t see and hear well enough to drive in traffic very much. Lawrence, what would you say to me and your mother goin’ back to the farm? Now, Dad, why in the world? People have been starving off those old farms for fifty years. What would you do out there in the sticks, miles from a doctor, if you or mother got sick?)
The heart of the young blacksmith continued to beat in that shrinking frame, however. He could not drive a car anymore: he nodded off in the middle of the sermon at Asbury Methodist; meddlers had barred him from climbing trees. He remained very much his own man, however, in vital areas. Living by his sweat, The Old Man saved an astonishing amount of his paltry pensions and earnings, fiercely guarded his independence, took pride in his age, seldom rode when he could walk, tended the soil, ate well, and slept regularly.
On that motel bed slept a man who, at age twelve, had fallen heir to the breadwinner’s role for a shotgun-widowed mother and eight younger siblings. He had accepted that burden, had discharged it without running off to sea: had drawn on some simple rugged country grace and faith permitting him no visible resentments then or later. He had sweated two family broods through famines and floods, Great Depressions and World Wars, industrial and sociological revolutions. Though a child of another century, really, he walked through the chaos and tediums of his time as determinedly — as Faulkner wrote of women passing through grief and trouble — “able to go through them and come out on the other side.”
The faintest dawn showed through the windows when The Old Man sat up in bed, yawning: “Lord God, is it dinner time? Must be, you bein’ awake!” He examined my face: “Didn’t you get no sleep?” Some. “How much?” Three or four hours, I lied. “You ain’t gonna live to see fifty,” The Old Man predicted. “What you ought to do is buy you a cotton farm and work it all day. I bet you’d sleep at night, then.”
He almost hopped into his trousers from a standing position, amazingly agile in that fresh hour he most cherished. Noting my inspection he asked, “Reckon you can do that at eighty-two?” Hell, I said, I can’t do it at forty-one; The Old Man celebrated this superiority with a pleased grin. The previous night he had insisted on playing dominoes past midnight in the home of a favorite nephew. Lanvil Cilbert, talking it up like a linebacker: Say you made five? Why, that makes me so mad I’ll play my double-five — and gimme fifteen while you got your marker handy. . . . I forgot to tell you boys I run a domino school on the side. Got a beginner’s class you might be able to git in. Back at the motel he had again explored the distant past until his grandchildren yawned him to bed. Old Man, I thought, what is the secret? What keeps you interested, laughing, loving each breath? I remembered his enthusiastic voice on the telephone when I told him I had given my son his middle name: “I’m puttin’ a five-dollar bill in the mail to buy him his first pair of long pants. Put it up and keep it. I want that exact five-dollar bill to pay for my namesake’s first long pants.” Grand satisfactions had visited his face earlier on our Austin trip when my son brought him a gigantic three-dollar pocket watch. The boy had shoved it at him — “Here, Grand Dad, this is for you, I bought it out of my allowance” — and then had moved quickly away from the dangers of sentimental thanks and unmanly hugs.
As we started down to breakfast, The Old Man said, “Why don’t we take Bradley Clayton with us?” Sure, if he wants to go. The Old Man gently shook the boy. “Namesake,” he said. “Wake up namesake, you sleepyhead.” The boy rolled over with reluctance, blinking, trying to focus. “Git up from there,” The Old Man said in feigned anger. “Time I was your age, I had milked six cows and plowed two fields by this time-a-day.”
“What?” the boy said, incredulous.
“I’ll make you think what!” The Old Man said, then repeated his improbable claim.
The boy, pulling his wits together, offered The Old Man a sample of the bloodline’s baiting humor: “Was that what made you rich?”
The Old Man whooped and tousled the boy’s lair, then mock-whipped him toward the bathroom. We talked late on my final night. The Old Man sat in his jerry-built house, on a couch across from a painting of Jesus risking retina damage by looking directly into the celestial lights. Pictures of his grandchildren were on the walls and on the television top, along with a needlework replica of the Dead Kennedys appearing to hover over the U.S. Capitol, and a Woolworth print depicting a highly sanitized village blacksmith. One of his sons, thinking to please The Old Man, had given him the latter; while he appreciated the thought, he had been amused by the artist’s concept. “Lord-a-mercy,” he had chuckled, “the feller that painted that thing never seen a horse shod or a blacksmith shop either one.” The painting revealed a neat, sweatless man effortlessly bending a horseshoe as he worked in an imposing brick edifice surrounded by greenery, while little girls in spotless dresses romped happily among gleaming anvils possibly compounded of sterling silver. The Old Man enjoyed comparing it with the realities of a photo made in the 1920’s. showing him grease-stained and grimy in a collapsing wooden structure filled with indescribable debris.
His hands — always vital to his lip movements — swooped and darted, described arcs, pointed, performed slow or vigorous dances according to the moment’s chin music. Just before bed, I asked in a private moment whether he had any major regrets. “Two,” he said. “I wish I could of done better financially by your mother. I never meant for her to have such a hard life. And I wish I could of went to school.”
On the morning of my departure, he was spry and fun-filled. Generally such leave-takings were accomplished in tensions and gloom; for a decade the unspoken thought had hovered that this might be the final goodbye. Last July, however, that melancholy tune was but faintly heard: The Old Man was so vigorously alive that I began to think of him as a sure centenarian. I left him standing on the front porch, wearing his workman’s clothes, taking a friendly fist against what be would do if I didn’t write my mother more often. Six weeks later, he gathered a generous mess of turnip greens from his backyard vegetable garden, presenting them to his wife with the request that I concoct her special cornbread. A few hours after the meal, he became dizzy and nauseous. “I just et too many of them turnip greens,” he explained to his wife. Persuaded to the hospital for examination and medications, he insisted on returning home on the grounds he had never spent a night in a hospital bed and was too old to begin. The next morning, in great pain, he consented to again be loaded into my brother’s car.
The Old Man mischievously listed his age as “sixteen” with a crisp hospital functionary filling out the inevitable forms. He ordered nurses out when a doctor appeared, extracting a promise from my brother that “no womenfolks” would be permitted to intimately attend him. When the examining physician pressed his lower abdomen, The Old Man jerked and groaned. “Is that extremely sore, Mr. King?” Well, yes, it was a right-smart sore. “How long has it been that way?” About ten days, he reckoned. “Why didn’t you tell me?” my exasperated brother inquired. The old eyes danced through the pain: “Wouldn’t a done no good, you not bein’ no doctor.”
He consented to stay in the hospital, though he did complain that his lawnmower and supporting tools had been carelessly abandoned: would my brother see that they were locked in the backyard tool shed? Then he shook my brother’s hand: “Weldon, thank you for everything.” He shortly lapsed into the final chills and fevers, and before I could reach home he was gone. I saw him in his final sleep, and now cannot forget those magnificently weathered old hands. They told the story of a countryman’s life in an eloquent language of wrinkles, veins, old scars and new. The Old Man’s hands always bore some fresh scratch or cut as adornment, the result of his latest tangle with a scrap of wire, a rusted pipe, a stubborn root; in death they did not disappoint, even in that small and valuable particular. No, it is not given to sons to know everything of their fathers — mercifully, perhaps — but I have those hands in my memory to supply evidence of the obligations he met, the sweat he gave, the honest deed performed. I like to think that you could look at those hands and read the better part of The Old Man’s heart.
Clyde Clayton King lived eighty-two years, seven months, and twenty-five days. His widow, four of five children, seven of eight grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren survive. His time extended from when “kissin’ wasn’t took lightly” to exhibitions of group sex; from five years before men on horseback rushed to homestead the Cherokee Strip to a year beyond man’s first walk on the moon; from a time when eleven of twelve American families existed on average annual incomes of $380 to today’s profitable tax-dodging conglomerates; from the first Presidency of Grover Cleveland to the midterm confusions of Richard Nixon. Though he had plowed oxen in yoke, he never flew in an airplane. He died owing no man, and knowing the satisfaction of having built his own house.
I joined my brother and my son in gathering and locking away The Old Man’s tools in that backyard shed he had concocted of scrap lumbers, chipped bricks, assorted tins and reject roofing materials. Then, each alone with his thoughts, we moved in a concert of leaky garden hose and weathered sprinklers, lingering to water his lawn.