“We lived in an unpainted house”


    ... this house, at the
edge of a woods so deep that I would never have thought to ask what lay beyond. From the woods we could hear coyotes, though my daddy called them wolves. And birds, like the whippoorwill. Squirrels lived in the woods. One day two boys in my mother’s school caught a baby and sent it to me. We called him Bushy and raised him on a bottle. One winter day my daddy was on his horse at the far south end of the farm, across Caney Creek, looking for stray cattle, when a norther blew up and it started to get cold. He reached in his jumper pocket for gloves he hoped were there and pulled out Bushy, sound asleep. Tucking the undisturbed pet back into his pocket, my daddy chuckled, as he always did when he told it. So the stories I heard were not about boys’ adventures, but about animals that live in the woods. And we talked: behind the stove in the kitchen to be warm, where no grown-up person came. I was one of the animals until the day I was sick in bed with Bushy beside me, asleep again in a felt hat. Then I wanted something more. The moon!

photo:  J. F. Hall and his four sons: Willie, Clayton, Clarence,

           and eldest Allie.  Gladys will observe them all.

    Today it seems a beautiful, secluded spot with the edge of the woods standing off at just the right distance. Why would my parents have wanted to leave? The clearing opened only to the north, toward where my daddy’s people lived. For a while a telephone wire ran all the way, and my mother said one of the happiest days of her early married life was when they couldn’t afford to pay for it any more. Then Aunts Lelia and Vera and “mamma and papa” couldn’t call Clayton to come do this or that, take us here or there. And when cotton or corn stalks weren’t too tall, a window on the north afforded a view of the long, dusty road. She might see it was Miss Zona’s big black car. Without explaining why, my mother said she’d go out a side door and hide in the barn loft till she knew the car had gone. Then she’d find something good to eat on the kitchen table. 

     Birthday photos in the “Chines
e album” (July 28, 1940) show my party with Doyle and Dwight Cain, and Larry and Albert Jr. Delashaw. Only I was barefoot, and cried because my balloon burst. Behind a Chinaberry tree, wood rails of the cow lot; beyond the gate, Johnson grass, higher than a man’s head. We didn’t move to Tulip, were living still at the Red House where the Marshalls, Hopes and Sanchezs lived. Gladys will cherished from this house the memory of a spring morning: At an east window her son, just tall enough to peer over the sill, turned and asked, “Mother, didn’t God make the world beautiful?” In those hard years, she watched Deets Dorough, the land agent, drive through the yard she swept and planted with petunias and zinnias. When Clayton was unable to hoe the grass from an entire field, he hoed the row-ends first; those driving by might think he was doing a good job working the land, and Gladys helped.

    Sometime we only think we remember, because of a picture or a story often told. I don’t remember looking at the tall stovepipe that rose from the “German heater” at church to the highest point of the peaked ceiling. They said my eyes, as I lay on the pew between my parents, traveled up and down. Later, I was fascinated by stovepipes to such an extent that Uncle Dilly, the second Christmas he was in our family (1940), gave me a stovepipe section wrapped in the reddish-orange paper the hardware store used. As the time approached, PaPa, my grandfather Alvin, writing from Cooke County, included a reassurance for me. In another letter, shortly after my first Christmas (1936), my daddy had written to him, “Gregory has certainly been entertaining us for the past two rainy days.... We are almost silly about him. He is growing and seems to be perfect.”

    They are “trash trees,” the Chinaberries, but I remember them closer to our house, with the oak and cedar of the woods set away in the distance. Soft, fast-growing, brittle, they die soon, but come again with dark green, lace-like leaves and marble-sized yellow berries clustered. Flowers in spring are like handfuls of small blue stars; their fragrance recalls my earliest memories of this house, more, thankfully, than the cold cooker’s kerosene fumes.

     One autumn evening, after the crops were in, my mother returned from Parker Grove. She crossed “Caney Creek bridge” and rounded the “sand bed corner” to see that our house at the top of a “gentle hill”— was gone; the mover had come that day. Her brother Ray was visiting. We spent that night a greater distance from the woods, in the middle of an open field, but definitely on the way to a spot where the Plummers’ house had stood, between the Roach house and the Wisely house—out on the public road. More than a venture, it was a risk, and my mother knew that she had done it. Aunt Loraine said we were “crowding in,” and planted a privet hedge; after three more years it won’t matter because Aunt Edna’s family had moved to a place on the corner.

     A special time each year was when my daddy put up a wood stove in the room where we would spend most of the winter. Because of the angle the pipe had to enter the chimney, and to keep the stove a safe distance from the wall, a double turning of elbows was necessary, making the arrangement far more interesting. Then the warmth would come as the stove “roared” and spots on the side showed “red hot.” My daddy would take the poker then and move the wood and coals inside to make the glow subside. But the room stayed warm and for supper we might have cornbread crumbled in a glass of cold milk which we ate with “big spoons” around the fire.

    Reaching toward the barn behind our house, a
ditch was working its way into the river’s first bluff, so old and deep (call it a gully) that large trees had grown in the bottom. One was an oak. Tributaries had formed and could be explored under low, overhanging branches. Underfoot, the sandy soil

was often moist. In the upper-most reaches other families on the place had dumped their trash, consisting mainly of glass jars not reused and tin cans rusting. Sometime a bottle of unusual shape

or color might wash down and become embedded. In one of the shaded tributaries, under hog plum and a black walnut, with a low limb that served as

a hitching rail, Doyle and Dwight Cain and I had our hideout. A barrel retrieved from the dump, laid on its side, sheltered our useful items, and treasures: a brown snuff bottle, a worn out curry-comb, another jar for marbles, some Carnation milk cans. I don’t remember that the proximity of the dump detracted any from this hidden world. A boy could be totally out of sight to anybody at the barn, and beyond, lower on the hillside, more trees spread out to east and west. Even the horses we tied were hidden. I hadn’t started yet to see wild west movies at the Best, so how unlike our rail was to the one outside the Red Light didn’t matter, until everything changed one day, though I only knew it later.

      It was either in summer after July the Fourth, or after Christmas, when we had firecrackers. We discovered a full-grown cat hanged from a limb of the oak by a double strand of baling wire. The cat had been dead some days, from the smell, which makes me think it was Christmas, or we’d have found it sooner. Waiting on my horse, I was without comprehension when one of them, Doyle or Dwight, inserted firecrackers between the teeth and ran back. I didn’t go close to see; remember, in fact, no sympathy for the cat. For years after I could approach the tree alone to gaze at the empty noose of rusted wire; it set a boundary for that familiar, secret place, and gave tangible meaning to a loneliness

I’d come to know.      

       Among all the boys at school, Doyle was the fastest horse by far. I too learned to gallop on all fours and imprint fresh hoof marks in the sand, with Carnation cans beat down. Full initiation meant drinking a mixture of two juices, kraut and beet, and saying it was good, but I refused.

I am Gregory,

four years old; Ray, my uncle. Our house was still (that last night) located at the edge of woods, not far from Caney Creek bridge. It had a long porch in front where my tricycle ran. We were there just before sundown when light was leaving the trees, and heard it, the Whip-Poor-Will. I don’t know why he said it. “I think I’ll get my gun and shoot that Whip-Poor-Will.” I protested furiously.

    My mother all her life continued to be partial to her brother Ray; to me he was cold and distant. When the war ended he brought back a curious, layered rock from the Pacific. It is embedded in one of the fountains now, where dark algae cannot hide its subtle colors.

    And I’m planting trees. A few of the great cedars remain. Transplanted seedlings have grown to more than twenty feet. Sometime I plant oaks in rows to frame a view from where I stand, still looking out from windows of the Red House.

“My Dad would have approved...”

e-mail in September 1999

Ray and Dean and spouses Ruth and “Dilly” (center) - “Playing Bonnie & Clyde” at Lawton, Oklahoma  (1945)


    [Ray to] Greg: Yes, I am aware of the picture you sent but thought that no copies had survived. Am glad to set the record straight about the picture. The question is, why do you think it was staged? I can testify that everyone in the picture was “stoned” except me. I had to take the bottle away from them to preserve their dignity as the picture clearly shows. My Dad would have approved of how I handled the situation, I think.

    ... be sure to explain why you had a collection of stove pipes when you were a kid and took them with you everywhere you went. Does the collection still exist? Enough for now. Ray

    [Gregory to] Ray. Thank you for your message. Joe had seen the picture, too. I think it was he who thought it staged. Maybe he’s truly shocked by [the copy of Dean’s] poignant letter; maybe my way of seeing good in true confession isn’t shared. I’m glad you were willing to tell me the truth about the picture.... The story becomes consistent again, your saying, I mean, that you believe your Dad would have approved. Yes, I’ve already included the stovepipe fixation in the story. Dilly gave me a section, probably the first Christmas he was in the family. PaPa had hinted in a letter that “old Santa” just might bring me one, and that he’d “make sure Ray didn’t get it.” He also cautioned Gladys and Clayton not to aggravate me because it causes a “bad disposition” in a child. Wanda wrote in 1939: “Dad said Gregory was more civilized than he’d ever seen him. He told about him (Gregory) saying something about a spanking breaking his heart. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we don’t have a genius in the family, would you?” When you were sitting with us on the porch of this house the evening before it was moved to this location, we heard the whippoorwill in the woods, about sundown. You said, “I think I’ll get my gun and shoot that whippoorwill.” I protested furiously. Isn’t it strange the way I’ve carried since that evening the impression of you as someone cold and distant?  Maybe I should be asking your forgiveness. 

    [Ray to] Greg: Wow, did I make a boo-boo of a mistake in my last message by not making it clear that what I said about the picture was intended to be said with tongue-in-cheek in answer to your question to me to explain the picture to my Dad or whoever asks. My thought was to answer the question in two ways, (1) assuming there was no staging and (2) assuming the picture was staged. My previous comments were meant to be Ray`s attempt to explain the picture assuming no staging. Ray was very deceptive and told all those lies in an effort to look better than he really was. At this point the outlook for “no staging” was doubtful.

    If we assume that the picture was staged (and it really “was staged”, in spite of my previous comments) then we have to try to recreate the atmosphere that existed that night in Lawton when the picture was made 54 years ago. World War 2 had just ended and people were beginning to feel better about themselves and their prospects for the future. We were all in a friendly family environment after having supper and playing some card games. It was almost bedtime when Dilly came in with a bottle of wine. He may have served a glass of wine to us but I`m not sure about that. Anyway Ray took the bottle and pretended to take a long drink from it, then he pretended to be drunk and danced around the table some until Dean said “Wait a minute, I want to get a picture of this.” So we all pretended to be “loaded” in a fun situation and someone took the picture. In explaining the picture it is important to keep a sense of humor in keeping with the situation. It may be a test of your literary craftsmanship to create the true environment that the picture deserves. Ray.