Monday, 23 December 2013

Chistmas in those days...

     On the Border, deep into the southernmost part of Texas, life was generally pleasantly boring.   Weather and social events of a predictable nature seemed to be the important things that were at the centre of activity and conversation.   These seemed normal, for although the area was semi-arid in large part, irrigation provided the backstop for an agricultural industry that was as advanced as any in the world. 
     So, King Cotton and its diseases, advancements, marketing, ginning, and transport was terribly important.  Each calendar year meant that some grower in the Lower Rio Grande Valley would deliver the trailer-full of lint staple that would be the "This Year's First Bale of Cotton in America".   At times my father would grow cotton, planting in January or early February and awaiting the squares, then bolls, and then the popping  out of the bright white, tightly packed strands of fibre.  Bugs, too much rain, not enough rain, salty Rio Grande water when the flow was low, salty but clear well water when the Rio Grande had too little water to pump up into the intricate system of canals, falling prices for the "white gold" , lack of labour to do the hand-picked harvest and the hand hoed, plant by plant nurturing....enough to make any man's or woman's head truly spin.
     There was nothing more ridiculous, I think, that casting one's future into the hands of such a fate as what one encounters in farming.  Then there were few, if any subsidies.  Some people played the Soil Bank game, being paid money from the Central Government for not growing crops....the Bentsen Enterprise people did well at that kind of farming.
    Later there were declarations for drought relief and then other programs for flood relief, and then programs for falling commodity price relief, and other silly, counterproductive government meddling.   But, up until the mid-1950s, farming was pretty much a daily game of high-card draw.  If  the Devil drew a higher card than the farmer, the Devil won.
     We are in 1952, following two very hard freezes....1949 and 1951....that had frozen in the Turning Basin of the Shrimper Fleet (340 shrimp trawlers) down at Port Isabel on the coast.    The combination left-hook, right-cross had pretty much destroyed 9o per cent of the producing tree-stock in the Valley's citrus belt.  My parent's business in the grove care field changed from being a lucrative, if exhausting, adventure in the caring for hundreds of acres owned by absentee essentially a stump removal service.

.Above -  A group of Tarascans from Guanajusto.
These men were all from the village of Yurrira.
 Guanajuato,and had been involved in or relatives
 of the "Cristeros" fighters who defended the
 right of Roman Catholics t0 worship and
 maintain theirreligious practices in Mexico.
  It was a general uprising throughout the
 Nation commanded, symbolically from
 Guanajuato,the Centre of Mexico. The men
 were excellent workers, punctual, clean,
 honest, and expert in matters of irrigation
 and pest and plague control. 

Centre - A group of men from Nuevo Leon
 State emptying their long-sacks...each
 containing about 90 - 100 pounds
 of freshly picked bolls.

Lower -  One of our men who tended the
 3 draught horses and 4 Guernsey milk cows.
  The trees are on our home acreage just north
 of McAllen.   They are Valencia Orange about
 5 years old.  So, they would be placed right
 around my birth, Spring of 1947, as are
 the upper two photographs.
     That was the backdrop of our Christmas during the Christmastide that connected 1952 with 1953.  Everything was a disaster.   So everything was normal.  Eisenhower had won the Presidency, meaning Texas and Lousiana would retain their tidal mineral rights some distance off-shore, and that peace would be in the offing over in Korea.   My father had made a good harvest of cotton, in spite of the on-going drought.   And he had made a good crop and price on tomatoes.  My mother had been sought out and asked to take a new job as an outfacing company representative for the "big" region wide Central Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of Central and Southwest Power.   It would be a cheesy, high-paying position with a company auto and everything.   She would start in May, 1953.  And, of course, my mother's father was not speaking to her because she and my father had voted Republican in the presidentials.  After all they had done to us during the Reconstruction,  don't you know?

     But, although those pictures on the left seem almost tropical, it is Christmas.   Dull, 84 degrees, no television, only radio, black and white movies that we go to see four or five times a year, at most.   That was a bit strange, because we lived less than 300 yards and across the paved road  from a drive-in movie, where my oldest brother worked as an usher and cashier. He also worked down on the Main Street right in the Middle of McAllen, Texas at the Palace Theatre, a real top drawer place where my brother wore a uniform like a prince of a royal house of Europe might wear....and they gave him a special flashlight, too.

    This was a talented brother.   He played football and played tuba in the band, during the same games!  He was also a real master in the decoration of a Christmas Tree.   When people saw our tree, they actually offered to pay my brother Milton to come to their house the next year to "do us one the same.''  My mother was very much a Tennessee Anglo traditionalist, so we would have a selected log for Christmas Eve from our prunings of the past year (plenty then, due to the freezes), and a mantle full of long, boot-socks for the three boys and displays of religious, nativity related images, candles, and various cards from friends and family, far and near.   A few close friends would be there every night from the last week of advent until the Epiphany.  The socks stayed up until the 6th of January, and really good friends would drop by and put small goodies into each of the appropriate socks.  Everything smelled pretty smoky by that time.
     Although all were good friends, my favourite was Mac Hobson, deputy postmistress for the McAllen district.   She was also a neighbour, living behind the Palms Drive Inn Movie Theatre.  So, while the number of times my parents might have driven over to have a night at the movies were few, we did avail ourselves sometimes of eating Mac's popcorn and watching movies from her stoop, hearing everything on a slight delay from the 200 or so car-speakers, 200 yards away, and just across the gravel road.

     Our house had all the appropriate Saints, peering accusingly from the walls from their pr0fessionally framed and mounted  places.  It being Christmas, the nicer china became de rigueur.   A nice sterling service was also shined-up along with crystal, even for breakfast and no-visitor situations.   Nuts of all kinds, and smallish yellow apples, spicy fragrances, all such things were part of the mix.
     The d├ęcor was early farmstead, mixed with family heirlooms of the finest quality New England furniture traditions....a high-boy, low-boy and bed, all matching, brought from New York to Minneapolis, supposedly having been made in during the last quarter of the 1700s.  There were a lot of "family pieces", along with the knick - knackery that American families collect over a few hundred years on a new Continent.   We had closets, and storge attics, and attics of junk and stuff....if only any of it could have spoken of what it had presenced....goodness gracious.
    My father said that his father had told him that his father had told him that all the really fine stuff from England  that the first of our surnamed  forbearers had brought had pretty much been dispersed by Luther, the father of my father's father.   It had been dispersed to earlier uncles and cousins, as the family had moved from Massachusetts and Maine, then on to New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and finally northeastern Pennsylvania.
    Our back room was the brick part of the house, and also was where the fireplace was placed.   It was the "family room" where we would eat and listen to the radio, and play table games.    Folks would come without announcement or invitation all during the last week of Advent, right after we had the tree up.   They would gather for eggnog and warmth (it there were any rare chill) by the fireplace, the room would fill with pipe and cigarette smoke. All the way through until the Epiphany, friends would slide a little something into the three boot sock, neatly labelled with the name of each brother, things like a really nice, keep-forever Old Timer pocket knife, an older brother scored a nice, tough  and useful Timex watch.
Miss Mac Hobson and right is Danny, the world's
nicest gentleman horse in history.  Atop Danny is
 El Gringo Viejo when he was still a somewhat
human bean.   In the background is
a third portion of the front porch
of our McAllen farm house.
c. - 1951
     One of my biggest childhood faux pas, of many, was hovering around our fairy Godmother, Mac Hobson.   She was one of those women who was always smiling.  She was also the deputy postmistress of the McAllen Post Office and the McAllen collection centre (the largest south of San Antonio).   She was a single woman who also raised and nursed sick and emotionally troubled and/or abused horses.  At one time she kept the stand-in horse that was used as a  substitute for Roy Rogers's Trigger when he needed spelling or was tuckered.   Trigger's sub had "psychological issues" and Mac would agree to take such animals for boarding, care, and counselling.  She might have been the original "horse whisperer".   She had a way with the four legged beasts, and her personal mount, Danny was also a patient horse who seemed to sense the ills another horse was suffering.   He got along with everyone, man or beast. 
    Our mother allowed that she was highly educated at some Ivy League university, had lost her brother to a disease, and her father to a heart attack. Although she had a number of men who expressed interest in her...for long-term arrangements like marriage, she seemed to be content as she was...perhaps to avoid further abandonment by men to whom she felt close.  She made up one of eight or nine single women in the county who were well-set to well-to-do, attractive, and settled in their way.  Mac seemed to like boys like my brothers and me, and horses.   There was never anything ever untoward in her association with us, so this is not some kind of a "tell-all" post. 
    My indiscretion at the age of five was to have sidled over while she was playing chess with my oldest brother, with about 15 family and friends in a well furnished but pretty tightly-fit  after supper crowd in the fireplace room.   Then, during a lull in the game, I blurted out the totally prohibited taboo of all taboos...."Aunt Mac, How old are you?"
    The room filled with the overwhelming noise of total, absolute, deafening silence.   The-world-just-ended silence.   In those years it was different, even for an indulged and spoilt child.   My mother made it over in three strides, and grabbed me up by the first arm she could pull loose from my shoulder.  After she had beat the blood out of that arm all over my head, she started in with the hammer....
     Okay...okay...maybe it wasn't quite that bad, and Mac did intervene.   "Nola, Nola goodness, you have three boys, you should know that they are almost human by now.  There's no meanness in this little King"  She played on the fact that the Mexicans who worked with my Father always called me Rey David  (King David), "Let me tell him about what he did wrong."   And she screwed my arm back on and made the hammer disappear.  Then she picked me up and we went to the fireplace where she whispered, "I'm three times older than your brother Norman and less than twice as old as your brother Milton.  Now, Saturday you have to tell me how old I am. Okay?"   Of course, being lugged around by the Faery Godmother and whispered secrets and having my arm screwed back on all on one night was bribe enough.
     "You're the luckiest child the Yankees left behind, pumpkin-head," my mother informed me as Mac and I warmed at the fireplace.   Never again did I ever ask any female of any kind how many moons had graced her presence on this Earth.  Being a bit precocious, El Gringo Viejo did figure out the age by the next Saturday, as was rewarded with an "all-by-myself-ride" back to Mac's house on Danny, while she rode one of her "patients" a good ways back.

     Perhaps we can fill in other parts of my childhood on the farm during this Christmastide.   These are the days for remembering.

El Gringo Viejo