He fled the hard times and all he could find were more hard times. The Traveler’s Story.
July 11, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Kermit rises up between the White Sandhills and Blue Mountains, a hard land that dared mankind to venture upon its precarious plains, then rewarded those tough enough to stay. When the town was patched together in 1910 and named for the son of Theodore Roosevelt, Kermit had only three houses, a four-room hotel, and a courthouse. Lack of rain drove the homesteaders away, and long, thirsty droughts brought too many lean years to the sun-baked land.
The Setting: But in 1926, Roy Westbrook’s Hendrick No. 1 blew in, and the dry earth was soaked in oil. Those who stayed with Kermit during the hard times became the benefactors of good times. The Hendrick pool eventually had six hundred wells producing 350,000 barrels a day, and the cattlemen’s windmills were being replaced by wooden derricks. The boom revolutionized Kermit and fueled the prosperity of Winkler County, which became the eighteenth largest oil producing county in Texas.
The Sights: The Medallion House is the last survivor of the first three homes built upon Kermit’s soil back in 1889, and the Carpenter’s Gothic-style house has been restored as a pioneer museum. The Moorehead Derrick is a grand reminder of the oil discovery that ushered an era of wealth into the region, and the White Sandhills have become a prime recreation area for those who journey westward with their off-road vehicles to ride the hills and dunes so far away from a beach
The Story: The old man fled the hard times that draped themselves across the northland like a funeral shroud and headed west, hoping to find his utopia just beyond the gritty apron of the next ledge of limestone. He wasn’t looking for much, just a chance, and it had been an awful long time since he had had one of those. Anything, he decided, would be better than the miseries he had left behind in the soup lines of Detroit. Once it had been assembly lines, but those were shut down, and he had been shut out of a job so long that he figured his social security number was nothing more than a worthless piece of paper stuck deep in a pocket that had become threadbare from carrying around a diamond-studded, but empty, money clip. The old man had already worn out his last pair of shoes walking the streets and looking for a help wanted sign. All he found was the road out of town, so he took it.
He pawned his diamond-studded money clip and a ring his daddy gave him, and he decided that he would just keep on driving until his dollars and his gasoline ran out, then he would settle down – wherever the hell he was – and earn a living or dig a grave.
It wasn’t much of a choice. But then, it was about the only choice that anyone had in a land where men would work all day for a slice of day-old bread, sleep in a cardboard shack, and steal potatoes from a family’s garden, but never their last one.
West Texas stretched out before him like a bad case of indigestion. The old man wasn’t used to the wide open spaces, and they made him feel almost as lonesome as he was hungry. Back in Detroit, there had been tall buildings to shade and shelter him from the burning summer sun, and he could always find somebody to keep him company, even if it was only the stranger standing next to him in the unemployment line.
But now he was being swallowed up by an empty land, and the roadway rolled endlessly on before him. The old man drove for miles and miles, and all he saw were miles and miles. Nothing in front of him. Nothing behind him. He could turn back. But why? It was in late July when the old man eased through the badlands and pulled up onto the Caprock. It was high ground. It was still flat. He stopped at the small cafe that hugged the highway as it cut apologetically through Kermit.
The old man walked inside, sweat dripping from his armpits and his shirt looking very much as though it had been slept in, which it had. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel out of place. The jukebox was bragging, “I’ve got the hungries for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line.” The coffee was hot and fresh, and the waitress wasn’t.
A rancher sitting alone on the stool smiled and nodded as the old man sat down. He was familiar with people just passing through. Always everyone in town was. The highway, it sometimes seemed to him, only ran one way, and that was the wrong way out of town. The rancher cocked an arched eyebrow when he heard the old man ask, “What kind of a chance does a man have of gettin’ work out here?”
“Depends on what you want to do.”
“I’ll do anything, sometimes more of it, and sometimes less. But if there’s a payday at the end of the week, I’ll do the best I can to do more of it,” the old man said. “I been doin’ less for a long time now.”
He wasn’t proud. A man is never proud when his stomach is growling, and he’s too old to learn another trade and sorry because he didn’t learn one back when he had the opportunity but not the gumption. Besides, he had seen something in Kermit that made him want to stay awhile. Primarily, what he saw was the needle on his gasoline gauge flirting with empty.
“Ever worked on a ranch?” he was asked.
“Ever been around cows much?”
“I’ve never even been around a steak much.”
The rancher took his toothpick from the brim of his hat, stuck it between his teeth, then reached over and picked up the old man’s hands. They were scarred and creased with dirt that time and hard work had ground deep into the skin. The calluses were like the dull end of a cattle prod and yellow. The rancher nodded his approval. “I can use you,” he said.
“You don’t even know my name.”
“Your hands tell me a lot more about you than your name ever could,” the rancher said as he slipped off the stool and tossed a quarter onto the counter to pay for both cups of coffee.
“I’m not even from Texas,” said the old man softly.
“Neither am I,” confessed the rancher as he headed for the door.
The old man followed, smiling his way out where the sun tripped awkwardly over the Caprock and buried itself somewhere beyond the mesquite trees that were too thirsty to grow and too stubborn to die. They were much like the old man himself. And, for awhile at least, it seemed as though they belonged together.
The work lasted all day and sometimes far into the night, but the old man didn’t complain. Others did. As one told him, “A man can shore stay all night quick at this ranch.”
Another swore, “It took me a month to dig the danged postholes. It took me another month to cut the danged fence posts. And I ain’t found the holes since.”
“Too much wind and too much sand.”
“You could dig ’em again.”
“Hell, he ain’t payin’ me to be no prairie dog.”
The old man wiped the grime and sweat from his face and asked, “Won’t the cows get out?”
“They could, but they won’t.”
“He had to sell ’em to pay off the mortgage on the ranch. But he’ll get ’em back as soon as he gets enough money.”
“When’ll that be?”
“When he sells the ranch.”
The old man frowned. The long hours and that dreaded August heat were taking a toll on his body and his ambition. One was worn down and the other worn out. The harsh country bothered him. More often than not, he felt like a foreigner in a land that nobody understood. He stood at sundown and watched as a young cowboy grabbed a pick axe and began digging into the parched earth, pulling up an armload of mesquite root for firewood.
Another hand methodically removed the harness from his horses and left them grazing around the foot of a metal stock tank. In the shank of the evening, he listened silently to the rusty voice of the windmill, creaking with a melancholy despair as the soft summer breeze slapped gently against its blades.
“We used to have two windmills,” said the rancher as he smiled, “but we had to shut one of ’em down.”
“There ain’t enough wind out here to keep both of ’em runnin’ this time of year.”
The cowhand picked up a pail and climbed quickly up the stock tank’s ladder. At the top of the windmill tower, he turned the great wheel with his hands until fresh, clean water began pouring into his bucket.
The old man nodded toward the dry arroyo that wound around the tank and asked, “Does it have any water in it?”
“Only when it rains.”
“When Noah had the flood, we got two inches.”
The old man grinned and asked, “That creek got a name?”
“We call it Jose Creek,” the rancher answered. “You spell it J, O, S, E, but we pronounce it Hosay.”
The old man sadly shook his head and walked away.
“Where you goin’?” the rancher asked.
“Back home to Detroit.”
“Why would you do a thing like that?”
“I’m sorry,” the old man mumbled. “I thought I could make a go of it. I really did. But I just can’t live in a country where you have to climb for water, dig for wood, and spell hell with a J.” He and the sun left the Caprock about the same time. Only difference was, the sun came back the next day.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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