Hands to Help when the Bellies Were Empty.

Living in the poverty of Happy Hollow, surrounded by East Texas oil.
Living in the poverty of Happy Hollow, surrounded by East Texas oil.

Writer’s Tip: According to Louis L’Amour, in The Writer, “One of the best places to find stories is in the human instinct. If you want to touch people and make them feel, get down to the bedrock of emotions. The fundamental instincts we all have, dormant though some of them may be. The desire for a mate, for shelter, for food, for money – those are problems we all understand, and all of us can feel … Great need will always produce a story.”

 ***

The little town was up to its neck in mud and oil. So many had the mud. So few had the oil. The rains had been falling for weeks, and the sky was as gray as the face of a man grown old and hungry, which resembled the faces of most men who would go anywhere and do anything to escape the almighty strangle hold of the Great Depression. An endless crowd of men, grown old far before their time, had come to dirt streets of Kilgore by car, by foot, by hanging onto the side of railroad cars and leaping off when the train slowed down and eased through the town. They had heard about the oil strike through rumors and week-old newspapers, and oil meant jobs, and jobs meant a paycheck, and a paycheck meant their child could have milk at night. For so many nights, so many of them had gone to sleep with empty bellies. The only promise that life had given them was hunger, and life had kept its promise.

The streets were thick with roughnecks and roustabouts who had no idea what a roughneck or roustabout did on a rig. They would bust a few knuckles, and a few would lose a hand, learning. There were no houses and no rooms to rent, and no money if they had found an empty room with a roof over their heads. They slept in barrow ditches, beneath bridges, in front yards, in church sanctuaries, and the really poor families huddled together beneath the tainted pines of Happy Hollow. That’s what they called it. Happy Hollow. Their bellies were hollow, and nobody had been happy for a long time.

They settled down in tents, in cardboard house, mopped with melted paraffin to keep the rain out. Water could not seep inside, but the shacks were little more than tender boxes, waiting to burn as soon as the next careless match or cigarette was dropped or thrown aside. A fire could start with one breath and be a raging inferno by the next. My father went to his grave with arms scarred by a paraffin blaze.

Happy Hollow was kind of a no-man’s land. Rain. Mud. Squalor. Heavier rains. Thicker mud. Cold rains that soaked to the bone. The hungry cried. Women grew weary, then sick. Men gritted their teeth and endured. Babies died, the brother I never knew among them. Wives left and went home, if they could find a way home, wherever home might be. Theirs had been hovels without hope, shame without salvation, and men kept the drill bits turning, earning fifty cent a day, reaching down for oil that would make someone else rich. Then again, during the hard times of the 1930s, fifty cents a day could make anyone rich.

The nights were aglow with scattered embers of wayward campfires, keeping people warm when the chill of winter sagged down upon the ravines, keeping their food cooked when their tin cans still had the tracings of food left inside them. The yards were full of barefoot children, the patches on their clothes patched more than once, then handed down to the less fortunate ones. They were so thin. Their last meal may have well been their last meal. They stared into the flickering lights of the campfires with hollow eyes, wondering where they were and why God had put them in such a place and forsaken them.

The two women, one a schoolteacher and one whose mother happened to reside on a farm with oil flowing far beneath the cotton crop, walked slowly through the encampment of Happy Hollow. They wore smiles. And they carried brown paper bags packed with food. The men who worked could bring home their own meals, and did. Those looking for jobs needed a break. Their families needed supper. If nothing else, the schoolteacher and oil heiress knew a thing or two about providing supper. Not a lot, maybe. But more than enough.

There they were, two prim and proper women, two members of higher society in a town where social status was counted by the number of dresses a woman had hanging in her closet.  Two dresses, and she was welcome at the Country Club. Three or more, and she was royalty.

And here they came pushing a broken down wheelbarrow through the rain and mud, unbending and unflinching, hauling in mounds of clothes, sheets, and blankets, depositing them inside the tents and cardboard houses of Happy Hollow.

One roustabout smiled, nodded his thanks, unfolded his blanket and draped it across the top strand of a barbed wire fence. He had a home now. He had a tent. Didn’t keep out all the rain. Kept out a lot.

They found the woman on the edge of the camp, lying alone in a tent. The campfire embers were cold. The kerosene in her lamp had all burned away. They heard her before they saw her. It wasn’t really a groan. It was more like a whimper.

The oil heiress dropped down in the mud and crawled into the tent. The night was cold, the air damp, the chill numbing. The lady was lying on a pile of hay. She was trembling. Her eyes had sunken into her face. Her strawberry blonde hair was tangled beneath her head. Well, it would have been strawberry blonde if it had been washed. Mud changes a lot of colors. Maybe she was suffering from a cold. Maybe worse. Maybe not.

“You here by yourself?” the schoolteacher asked.

“Yes, ma ‘am,” the lady said. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty.

“You have a husband?”

“Yes, ma ‘am.”

“He working?”

“No, ma ‘am.”

“He shouldn’t leaves you alone like this.”

“He’s taken another wife,” she said.

The oil heiress frowned. “You married?” she asked.

“No, ma ‘am,” she said. “He just said he’d be my husband till he left, and I haven’t seen him since Tuesday.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Tuesday.”

The schoolteacher reached into her bag and pulled out a can of homemade tomato soup. “It’s not hot,” she told the lady.

“It is to me,” the lady said. She smiled and grasped the can of soup as tightly as she would have held the hand of a child.

The oil heiress drove back home, borrowed her husband’s truck, rounded up a couple of field hands to help her, and brought back a bed to Happy Hollow. The lady, she said, would never have to sleep on a pile of hay again. Neither would she ever have to lie in the cold and damp air with little more than a flour sack to cover her cold and damp body.

A bed wasn’t luxury. But it was close.

Two weeks later, the schoolteacher and heiress were back. They quietly made their way through the early darkness of Happy Hollow, handing out brown bags of sandwiches to children and giving them blankets to wrap around chilled shoulders. The rain was spitting from the sky again. Might be snow by morning.

They found the lady.

She smiled when she saw them. She was lying on a pile of hay.

The oil heiress frowned, cocked her head to one side, and asked in genuine surprise, “Where’s the bed.”

The lady shrugged. “I always wanted a permanent for my hair,” she said. “I sold the bed so I could get one.”

She looked from the schoolteacher to the heiress. She saw the puzzled looks locked on their faces. She shrugged again and her smile was even broader than before. She straightened the wrinkles in her dress and ran her long fingers through her strawberry blonde hair. “You know, I’m single now,” she said.

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