Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas in Those Days - II

     In those hours and days of Christmas of 1952, on the Border in deep South Texas, big changes were in the wind.    They were not changes that a five year old could fully comprehend.  But a child a that age can sense that there are changes in the offing.  Some of it was revealed by a little less attention being given to the yard.  It was still a showplace, but there were fewer of the Mexican workers arriving to do the citrus care.    That meant fewer Tarascan Indians from Guanajuato who were driven, addicted, and compulsive in terms of gardening....heavy duty gardening. It is what they did, and still do, when they are resting.
     There was little or no grapefruit or orange production.   There seemed to be considerable reluctance among the old growers to even plant new orchards after the double whammy of the 1949 and 1951 really hard freezes.   By really hard, we are talking about single digit temperatures in some places, and long, 60 hour freeze durations.

     There were fewer pick-up truck rides in to town to buy supplies, to buy irrigation water.    Of the Water, there was little or none to buy for the mandatory irrigation that was required in the Magic Valley.   The Rio Grande was essentially dry from the prolonged drought.  It was a bit of a rough patch. 

     Another change was the frequent absence of my father's mayordomo, an older man of about 73 - 75 years, and one of the colonials from Ciudad Mier, an isolated, very noble little place up the Rio Grande a ways, where Falcon Dam was being built, about 60 miles from McAllen.  Agustin Salinas was a "colonial". and his family was from the land-grant people of the Spanish colonial period.   He was tall, red-faced, sandy haired, and blue-eyed.  He was always grumpy, but he was always kind to me.

      El Gringo Viejo would later marry into another "colonial" family of the Spanish episode in what is now northernmost Mexico and southernmost Texas.   His wife's people are some of the few who were almost exclusively established in Texas long before the Anglo entry, and who had two distinct lines from two distinct and widely separated colonising episodes....one in the 1560s in Saltillo, Monclova,  and perhaps Cerralvo.  The other line , like Agustin's, arrived during the 1749 Rio Bravo colonisation.

    My mother's talking to people about actually taking a paid position at a place that paid a pay-check was something that did not compute.   It was a novel notion, because she had always run the books and managed much of the operation of the grove-care business.  It was something she did from home, and with a pick-up truck.
     She had worked actively in the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) and had been awarded a lifetime membership due to her contributions.   She had also been elected to the position of President of the Hidalgo County PTA (about 20 school districts), where she continued to serve and then was re-elected even after taking the "paid position" with Central Power and Light (the regional electricity company).

El Gringo Viejo's mom
when she was 17.
Three years later she was
my oldest brother's mom.
And yes, her mom made the
prom dress, and on a Singer
 treadle machine. 
     She had also been asked to serve as Chairman the Hidalgo County March of Dimes fund raising efforts, a position she filled  for three successive years.  This was during the last great devastating polio epidemic (1947 - 1952).
  And, she had been named to the McAllen City Traffic Safety and Planning Committee.  The latter was an adjunct to the Planning and Zoning Committee and the Traffic people evaluated the need for school zone marking, speed limits, street repair monitoring, and evaluations of extensions including curbing and guttering and measurement compliance.   As well, they essentially managed issues such as new traffic light and other intersection control methods and police initiatives in terms of traffic patrol, collision investigation, and the dreaded electronic and radar speed assessment devices. This was all quite an honour for a girl who in actuality lived outside the city limits of McAllen.

     Putting all of that together with a very active presence as a conservative Democrat operative, a delegate to county and State conventions, and a general troublemaker against the Bentsen political establishment. She served as the precinct chairman of the largest voting precinct in Hidalgo County, and also went as a delegate to the State Democratic Convention on two occasions.   Even flew in an airplane, she did, all the way to Mineral Wells.
    As a certifiable beauty herself, she was called upon to be a beauty contest judge with some frequency, and always declared that the girl with the largest swimming suit would always win.

      She was a busy girl.

    In any regard, the lack of tractor noises in ever increasing lengths of contiguous time, and the sharp lessening of the "bracero" documented workers, and some of the other not-so-documented  workers, and the increased amount of time we spent "in town" and with me wearing shoes gave the impression that something was going on.
    We went to Edinburg, the county seat, one morning, and my father stopped at a bank.  He came back to the pickup-truck, put some documents in the money safe he had bolted into the cab of the truck, and then he took some other papers out and had me follow him across the main street to a land title and surety company.  There he put down two 100 dollar Yankee greenbacks, which a clerk took.   She returned about three minutes later, and said, "Here's your title, all sealed, signed, and now delivered and a few dollars change.   You make sure that if you want to buy any more property you come and see us."   She was thinking that with the losses to the citrus, my father might want to buy some suddenly cheap irrigated farming or orchard property, and she was making a reasonable offer to serve in the financing of such a purchase.  He was only 42 years old at the time.
    He answered my inquiry by saying, "No, as good as I feel right now, I think that I'll never want to be in debt for anything again." He had just paid off a 4,000 Yankee dollar purchase of 20 acres of land (with mineral rights) on the outer northern edge of McAllen, Texas.  Within 15 years, that property would sell for many, many times more than that, (with my father keeping the mineral rights), when we moved the entire family up to Central Texas.  To-day, of course, it is Gone With the Wind....an unidentifiable four city block area of commercial and townhouse development...now considered a "mature" development.   It fronts on the 2nd busiest non-highway boulevard in Hidalgo County of Texas, a block away from the busiest urban interior intersection south of San Antonio, Texas
    Another norther had blown in, reminding one and all that nothing good comes from the north in Winter, and we drove back to the homestead.  Dust was everywhere, no rain, no citrus, just cold dryness.   From 1951 through 1953, McAllen registered about 12 inches of rain, down sharply from a three year normal total of 60 inches or so.  The crickets were so thick in downtown during the 1952 election campaign period that my mother and her co-workers had to spend a half-hour sweeping out crickets from the doorway and access...enough to fill a 55 gallon drum....just to clear a path to the front door of the Democrats for Eisenhower / Nixon campaign headquarters.  There was even more dust blown in on the October early northers.

     But, back to the Christmas thing.  The lady had locked the door of the titled office although it was still morning.  Things were shutting down early because it was "Christmas Eve'n" after all. This was going to be a long day.   Because?   Well, because we had to go home, line up the firewood, with everything turning colder, and then bathe, and then dress for mass. It was Wednesday,  the 24th of December, 1952.
    And...we needed to go to midnight Mass at St. John's Episcopal, about a mile south of our farmstead.  Services would begin with carolling at 11:00 pm, and then the "celebration of  Holy Communion", ending at around 12:45 am.  That was a long run for a 5 year old.  It also marked another change, because my father had finally decided to carry on with the Christian and Bonesteel part of his family's tradition, my mother acquiescing because she had been familiar with the Episcopal Church in Winchester, Tennessee, where her mother attended as a girl and preferred to attend.
   My mother's father was more of a fire and brimstone fellow, and he liked the camp and tent meetings.  He was about three steps up from a snake-handler or foot-washer.  Camp and/or Tent Meetings  also required less regular attendance.  His granddaddy had been, however, a duly ordained Methodist minister who said grace over two Methodist churches in Franklin County, Tennessee before and after the War, and had also served as a clergy resource (chaplain) to the Confederate Army for the duration.   Lots of funerals.

     In any regard, I remember being astounded by the fact that our little church was completely saturated.   Folding chairs were being brought out, every corner was filled, and we had almost 500 people at mass.  Sixty percent of them were not regulars, but they came because of the Episcopal "show" with fancy music, ancient English liturgy, the vestments, candles, carolling, the "coming in processional and going forth recessional".  and so forth combined to make a scene that :"looked like" a Christmas service.  Of course, it "looked like" a Christmas service because it was sincerely done as such by Father Rollo Rilling, a sainted vicar, and the acolytes, choir, organist, lay-reader, all bedecked in glorious vesture and the equally wonderfully bedecked congregation.  In those years all females wore wonderful mantillas or hats and "Sunday-go-to-meeting" duds.
   My parent went up to take communion, but not El Gringo Viejo and his middle brother.  The oldest went, because he had been confirmed already, and in those days unconfirmed children could receive a blessing at the communion rail, but no sacramental administration of the Eucharist.

    It had been a splendid event, and we left to drive back to the farm, about one mile away.   Although sleep was tugging at me, I kept spying all over the northern sky for Santa, his sleigh, and the reindeer.  My oldest brother asked my father, "Did you find those traps?"   to which my father said that he had found them and oiled them up and set them at the back door.
    "What are the traps for" asks a dumboe five-year old.
    "I'm going to put a couple of coyote traps in the ashes of the fireplace to see if we can catch Santa Clause," said my oldest brother, matter-of-factly.
     We continued driving.   Finally I said very emphatically, '' That is not good! Santa Clause won't leave us anything and if he can't leave, he won't be able to go to Mexico and the other places."
     To which, as we trundled on in our Jeep Wagoneer (box-style station wagon), Milton responed, "We'll be able to sell him to the circus for over a thousand dollars.  And we can make really good deer and possum sausage with the reindeer, and maybe we even sell the sleigh."
     My mother asked very seriously, "....But who could possibly want a sleigh down here?  It never snows."
     By that point I figured that the planning was done and the deed was going to be a fait accompli by sunrise.   Terribly dismayed, I could listen as Milton deployed the coyote traps inside the fireplace.  He washed up a bit, and joined his two younger brothers, in the low ceilinged Blue Room outback, cracking a window and a door and turning the gas stove on to the lowest possible safe setting.  Before many tick of the clock had happened, El Gringo Viejo was asleep to the world.   On really cold nights, the three boys would all sleep in the "oldest boy's" room, which was on the ground floor of a two story building, the second story being the quarters, (quite nice) of the farm's governess, Guadalupe.

     The next morning, before sunrise, I chased into the kitchen, where my father, as usual, was busy making his breakfast for everyone....oatmeal and butter and milk and brown sugar and scrambled eggs and bacon...a little molasses and tangerines, already sectioned.   Lupe our maid from Puebla and my mother were doing something in the living room, but my interest was in the fireplace.   "Did you and Milton catch Santa Clause?"  I asked cautiously.
     "Well son, the fireplace is right there.  Do you see Santa Clause?"
     "No, sir."
     Then my father suggested, "Maybe he was hung up in the chimney.  Milton is checking to see right now with the tall ladder.
     I immediately ran out and did in fact see my brother, on the ladder, peering into the chimney.   As soon as he saw me, he immediately began to descend, shaking his head.
    "Did Santa Clause get stuck?"  I inquired quickly.
    "No.   He's just too smart for us.  The traps snapped shut last night, but no Santa."
     So, running quickly back inside. I all but flew to the fireplace, where the Lincoln and Washington andirons faced each other perpetually (poor Washington) and peered into the scene of the crime. "Careful!  You're ruining the footprints" Milton admonished.
      I moved a bit to the side.  There, leading away from the fireplace were tiny bootprints, a bit smaller than the size of my shoes at that time.  And inside towards the backwall of the fireplace, two coyote traps, both closed, and between them two small bootprints deep into the ashes, neither four inches long.   It was a marvel.  The middle brother grogged in, yawning, came and looked at the crime scene, and declared, "That's weird."

      As we worked on our breakfasts, it was noted that Santa had drunk most but not all of his Coca-Cola, and had eaten most but not all of his pecan pie slice (almost a quarter) and oatmeal cookies.   I maintained a bit of a silence while the "older ones" speculated that Taffy and Tippy had been barking around 03:15 and that must have been when the reindeer were on the roof.

     That was the Christmas that Santa had brought the middle brother a beautiful J&R 410 single-shot shotgun.  It was a real beauty.   My gift was a real live drag-line and a dump-truck that had wheels, shovel-pulley, and everything.  Milton received a lot of really dumb, big-boy stuff because he was going to be something called a junior, in something called High School, next year.  I was to be going into the 1st grade at the new David Crockett Elementary.   But that would be months away, I still had to play and try to figure out why Milton wanted to sell Santa Clause to the Circus.

       It was a long Christmas Day, To-morrow, more scenes from the farm on the frontier, during the magical times of Christmas.   But for right now, my mother is lighting the Yule log.  All the Christmas lights are on, and the really showy, very traditional 9 foot tree is ablaze with different coloured lights, icicles, Angels' hair, and ornaments.   Andrea Herrera, the maid of my God-parents has come with her delivery of several dozen of the best tamales in the history of this Planet.  Several of her family are in the back of the pickup, with four or five huge washtubs full of covered, steaming tamales...some of chicken...some of shredded pork...even some of ground beef mixed with venison or javalina.   Her family would make this round every Christmas or Christmas Eve'n, delivering to friends, family, and to a selected batch of preferred Anglo families....It was an honour of the highest nature.

      Ah! There's my mother again.  She's put candles everywhere, people are coming over to play 42 and/or canasta.  The house smells like pine boughs, rum and eggnog, fireplace warmth, and Bing Crosby singing some thing called "White Christmas".  Maybe Mac Hobson, the magical 'good witch' who was a real horse whisperer and equestrian psychologist (for real) will come, but I shan't ask her age this time.

El Gringo Viejo