Friday, February 21, 2014

Chasing Ghosts in Northeast Texas

               So, as you know, the boys and I are hanging out at Hundred Acre Woods, about an hour east of Dallas.  The Buckaroo, Knightsmama’s father, the proprietor of said Hundred Acres, has progressed, post stroke, from ICU in Tyler to Skilled Nursing in a lovely Presbyterian facility in Dallas where, as a loyal Republican, he gets to enjoy the benefits of the Democrat’s Communist plot to take over America—otherwise known as Medicare.  Somehow the irony floats freely, unnetted by Conservative Consciousness.  Fine by me.  I don’t mind paying the government a bit of my salary, so that the government can, in turn, pay to help him now.  By and large, he is getting great care, making excellent progress.  My only problem is that I don’t think doctors are so much more meritorious than I or nurses or whomever to deserve the level of compensation they receive, in comparison.  But then they have the powerful AMA and I have the measly American Federation of Teachers.  What exactly is the difference between a professional association and a union? 
Clarksville, Texas, Confederate Memorial
 Knightsmama stays with her dad most days and nights, but she gets released from Dallas every few days to venture out to the woods for conjugal visits, but don’t tell our sons.  Yuck! Over Valentine’s Day Weekend, we were all able to bust out for a wonderful weekend in Austin.  We reconnected the BAT (Big ASS Truck) and to the Monster and moved it to McKinney State Park, just south of Austin for four nights.   I repaired a busted kitchenette faucet—carelessness during a freeze when The Buckaroo was in ICU.  Much fun and revelry was had by all, visiting friends, attending a dance for home schoolers, riding the bicycle (Hey, did I tell you the sun has come out and the temperatures have risen above 60?  Yea!), cooking meats on the Weber Grill, and quaffing Shiner Farmhouse Ales (in blue solo cups to fool the State Authorities and the Baptists).
            Since my little to venture to North Texas to visit with the memories of Rick Nelson and Dan Blocker in De Kalb, and with William A. Owens, in Pin Hook, spring has begun to peak from behind the bare branches of the many naked trees in North East Texas.  My spirits have lifted with the temperatures and the parting of the clouds.  It was also good, after a month of just hanging out in Hundred Acre Woods, to begin to get out and see things.  The Traveling Virus has deepened my restlessness and my curiosity.  I can’t explain it, but somehow when I visit the past, I feel like I am moving forward.  One example is my merely driving through Clarksville, Texas, stopping at the town square, featuring a statue honoring the Confederate Dead, still strung with Christmas lights.  I have to admit that at this point in my Liberal development, I am troubled by these markers.  However, I don’t know what we should do about them.  Tearing them down and demolishing them, denying their existence and the historical reality they represent seems a bit too close to censorship and political correctness run amuck.  To deny the past, to disqualify the losing side from public discourse, is a kind of intellectual terrorism.
John E. Williams, Author of Stoner
But the reason, I paused in Clarksville is that it is the home of two novelists I greatly admire.  Within two years of each other John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 - March 3, 1994) and William Humphrey (June 18, 1924 – August 20, 1997 were born there.  As was the practice and the necessity in those days, both writers eventually left Texas and made strong and sometimes brilliant careers for themselves.  John Williams won the National Book Award for his 1972 novel Augustus (which I enjoyed as much as Thornton Wilder’s Ides of March), but his novel Stoner, about the quiet and desperate life of a college professor, is one of my top five favorite novels, ever, ever, ever.  I hadn’t discovered Williams and his work until my mid-fifties.  Maybe I am pleased I could still find, in my dotage,  a novelist that can shake these old bones.
Film Poster, William Humphrey's First Novel
On the other hand, William Humphrey’s books have been in my library since my early twenties.  In Texas, Humphrey is well known as the author of five novels, three volumes of short fiction, one memoir, and two sweet brief books about fish and fishing.  While John E. Williams seems to have left Texas and the South completely, Humphrey’s first works reek of Texas.  The work of his early career was highly praised as merging the Faulkner tradition (though he was also influenced personally by Katherine Anne Porter) with a Texas landscape.  His first novel, Home from the Hills, was scripted into highly regarded Robert Mitchum film of the same name.  I think my favorite Humphrey book is Hostages to Fortune, set along the Hudson River, where he made his adult life.  It’s been almost thirty years since I read it.  As soon as this trip is over and I can retrieve my books, I should look at it again.  Way back when, I once had reason to telephone Humphrey, for a reason I cannot remember.  I spoke to his wife, who said he was away from the house in his writing shed and I should call back at lunch, which I did.  “Yes, just enjoying a sherry here, what can I do for you?”  You can see what impressed me.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but I remember envying his life, writing the morning away, taking a break for sherry and lunch with a sophisticated, intelligent wife, and then back to the desk.  Beautiful. 
But here we are, February 7, 2014, standing in a light sprinkling of sleet at four in the afternoon, walking around a statue honoring the brave state’s righters, observed only by the unperturbed countenances of  dozens of abandoned store fronts and those not abandoned offering junk antiques cheap, and I am thinking about dead writers who once got out.  Generations of ghosts.  I pointed the nose of the BAT toward Paris to chase more ghosts.
Clarksville, Texas, Empty Storefronts
After a night in the Holiday Inn Express catching up on HBO’s latest series, True Detective, staring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and after a morning taking advantage of the stationary bike and elliptical machine, I wrapped myself in my fleece jacket and rainbow hat, warmed up the truck, and headed out on farm road 195 in search of Pin Hook.  “Pin Hook?” you ask?   Pin Hook is one of those disappeared places commemorated only by a road sign and somebody’s insistent memory.  In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, there grouped a few farmers and their supporting community, a school, gristmill, cotton gin, blacksmith.  Nowadays, there is a sign, a stretch of road, and barbed wire fences enclosing pasture land.  A ranch called Loma Alta appeared to be the dominant economic element. If there is anything else, I missed it.   I could be wrong.  I didn’t spend much time there.  I drove there, only, again, as part of a pilgrimage.
Road Sign for Pin Hook Texas
Pin Hook was the home community of William A. Owens (November 2, 1905-December 6. 1990), my friend and, as I sometimes say, my second father.   Like William Humphrey and John E. Williams, Owens got the hell out of Texas. Born in 1905, he grew up in a fatherless home (his father died three days after Bill was born), scratching a living from the worn out soil.  But he grew up with an appreciation for music and reading, and slowly, slowly, he was able to improve himself.  He enrolled in Paris Community College, then a local normal, then Southern Methodist University (studying under Henry Nash Smith), and finally the University of Iowa, where he earned a doctorate and was befriended by painter Grant Wood.  Following World War II, Owens enrolled in creative writing courses at Columbia University and soon became a professor there, eventually becoming Dean of the Summer School.  Owens published three novels, but his fiction was never as well received as that of Humphrey’s or Williams’.  He published several volumes dedicated to Texas folk tales and music.  Although his book Slave Mutiny became the official basis for Spielberg’s film Amistad, Owens is most highly regarded for his five autobiographical works:  This Stubborn Soil; A Season of Weathering; A Fair and Happy Land, Tell Me a Story; Sing Me a Song; and Eye-Deep in Hell.  At this point in our trip, all my books by him are in storage, so I can’t pull out quotes to entice you into his books.  But I can tell you that fourteen or so years I knew him, he was continuing to receive notices from people around the world telling him how much his book This Stubborn Soil meant to them.  In some ways, it is a primer on the Greatest Generation, the movement from rural poverty to urban sophistication, from provincialism to worldliness, from cotton picking, wooden shacks, cotton mouth water moccasins, and biscuits and molasses to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and Book of the Month Club Alternate Selections.
William A. Owens in College
Although I had visited Paris and Commerce before—where he had begun to extricate himself from the clutches of Texas’s red dirt—I had never travelled to Pin Hook.  Since there really isn’t much left there except the “there,” I stared at the land and imagined a year-old boy tethered to a stake by a thin rope to make certain he did not wander off while the adults were picking cotton.  I listened to a far away piano, the family treasure, playing hymns.  I watched for the ghost of a youth hiking through woods to an old tietacker’s to borrow a book, rare in these parts, another classic of English fiction, introducing an amazing world far, far away.  I saw this barefoot teen sharing rows of cotton with people of color, a generation or two from slavery, whose culture he loved, whose culture he would attempt to preserve in academic texts, novels and memoir.  Although This Stubborn Soil is recognized classic, my favorite just might be the short novel, Look to the River,  a gentle novel of hope and forgiveness, imbued with Owens' love of the land and of the folk cultures of Texas.

Then I explored my way to a small cemetery down a narrow county road and found his parents’ graves.  The ashes of Bill Owens and his wife Ann reside in a beautiful courtyard in the Episcopal Church in Nyack, New York.  Bill’s parents rest beneath an winter bare tree in Lamar County.  
Graves of William A. Owens' Parents
Charley Owens and Jessie Ann Chennault Owens Rhodes Smith, real pioneers, the tough stock who braved everything, who broke open a hard earth, survived—well, only she survived—until their children could move up or out.  To know Bill Owens is, for me, to also know his parents, especially his mother, who taught him love and determination, and somewhere she also taught him something about compassion.  Bill could recognize a lost, wandering boy, a wondering boy.  He could see the future that the boy could hardly imagine, point him in the right direction, provide some lessons that he would surely succeed at and grow confident with, then let him go.   So I stopped by the graves of my friend’s parents.  I told them, in case they had not heard before, that they had done well.  Their son, this ghost, had inherited from them that miracle that is a soul tough and determined and a soul still tender and loving.  Maybe it is a gift better than books.  

Soundtrack.  Al Green:  "Take Me to the River."

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