In the days when a politician would make a promise, then keep it. The Traveler’s Story.
July 10, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Honey Island was hammered together on a high patch of ground between Cypress and Flat Cypress creeks, and when the waters rose after heavy rains, the unincorporated town was left stranded on an island. Hardwoods surrounding it were a dense forbidding wall, a refuge for the lost and wayward. Runaway slaves found a home back beyond the backwater bayous. Outlaws waited to ambush the unsuspecting who rode the cypress canebrakes. Civil War deserters fled to Blue Hole and Panther’s Den in the Big Thicket, and Jayhawkers hid back among the shadows, subsisting on bee honey. It was a place where no one asked questions, no man ever looked upon another with an accusing eye, and no army could find them. Descendents of Confederate draft dodgers were still living in the dark woods almost a century later. Native Americans, unable to avoid the march of civilization, made their last stand among the pines – isolated from farms and sawmills and smokestacks.
The Sights: The trees of the Big Thicket are among the world’s largest, and the plant life among the smallest. Hidden away in the dense hollows of the thicket are at least twenty-one varieties of wild and exotic orchids, and the soil holds the world champion eastern red cedar, black hickory, holly, red bay, yaupon, sparkleberry, common sweetleaf, and silver bell.
The Setting: A National Park study revealed: “The forest contains elements common to the Florida Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp, the Appalachian region, the Piedmont forests, and the large open woodland of the coastal plains. Some large areas resemble tropical jungles in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Vera Cruz.” It was an uncommon land that bred common men with common sense.
The Story: As far as Owen Williams was concerned, being a politician was a helluva lot easier than ripping up logs in a Big Thicket sawmill, so he became one. He had grown tired of rafting those giant fallen trees down Village Creek and the Neches River to the circle saws of Beaumont, and he found that he could do just as well making promises while standing on the stumps he had left behind. It took a shade more guile and a double helping of grit and gumption, but Owen Williams had about as much of both as God had given any man and any man could stand.
The old logger, however, had lived a simple life back in those thick piney woods around Honey Island in deep East Texas, and he was seriously stricken with a bad, almost terminal, case of naiveté. Owen Williams even believed that when a politician stood up before his fellow man and made a campaign promise, he was pledged before God and everybody not to break it. So he had traipsed off to the State Legislature in Austin bound and determined to battle for and pray for and vote for the most important issue that his home district had ever faced.
The doubters said he had about as much a chance of winning as he had of bottling up an April rainstorm and holding it until August when the burnt crops really needed it. Besides, the legislators didn’t really give a damn about families going hungry in the Big Thicket.
Owen Williams, however, had vowed to change their minds, and old Owen was a man of his word if nothing else, full of spit and vinegar if the grit and gumption played out, and it never had. The doubters didn’t pay much attention to the old logger’s campaign vows. They just voted him in because he was a good man, and they waited with sympathy until the day Owen Williams came dragging himself and his broken promise back home.
The good folks of Honey Island generally kept their knowledge of politics stuck somewhere out between the potato patch and the chicken coop, back with the compost and fertilizer where it belonged. There was simply no reason to keep up with any bigwig who was too sophisticated and too busy to drop by the thicket and visit for a spell, and Warren G. Harding certainly never had.
Most remembered that frosty autumn morning when Owen Williams came hurrying into the sawmill commissary, shouting, “We’ve lost Harding. Harding’s dead.” One old man was virtually moved to tears. He trembled. His chin quivered. He sadly shook his head and mumbled, “Now, who the hell do you suppose will take the time to bring us our medicine?”
Owen Williams was stunned, and he frowned. “Did you hear what I just told you?” he asked. “Warren G. Harding is dead.”
“Oh,” the old farmer replied as he dried his tears on the back of a well-scarred, well-callused hand. “When you said Harding, I though you was talking about the Watkins liniment man.”
“Warren G. Harding was President of the United States.”
“He never did a damn thing for my rheumatism,” the old farmer said as he pulled himself away from the potbellied stove, hitched up his suspenders, and limped on home.
For a time, Owen Williams served as sheriff, then as justice of the peace of Honey Island. His weddings caused trouble for some, and his jails kept others out of it. He tied a few knots, and he loosened a few. It was demanding work all right, but it kept him out of the splinters and sawdust of the lumber mills.
One afternoon, as Owen Williams sat rocking on his front porch, a young man drove up in his brand new, washed down, rust-free Model T automobile. A beautiful young girl sat by his side, and she was blushing. She had to be the bride, Williams decided. The young man’s eyes were crossed, and he had a lisp when he talked, but the girl didn’t seem to mind at all. In the Big Thicket, getting married was a lot like going fishing. You caught whatever you could hook, and you didn’t throw anything back. The pond didn’t have that much water in it anyway, and you never quite knew when it might run dry.
“You bring along any witnesses with you?” the justice of the peace asked.
Owen Williams yelled to a worker over at the mill, and the lumberman sauntered across the dirt road, wiping the sawdust off his sweating face, to watch the nervous young man and the red-faced bride hear the proper words and make the proper vows and seal it with a kiss so bashful and quick that neither of them tasted it.
The justice of the peace looked down, and the cross-eyed groom was holding out a twenty-dollar bill. “But I only charge three dollars to marry up folks,” Owen Williams said.
“Thith ith all I got.”
“Then it won’t cost you anything at all,” Owen Williams said with a smile, since he hadn’t had seventeen dollars worth of change since the chiggers found their way to East Texas, and old Owen couldn’t remember the last time he wasn’t scratching. “Shoot, I was only killin’ time anyway.”
But the young man shoved the twenty dollars into the JP’s shirt pocket and turned away. “Keep it,” he said. “You can give me back my theventeen dollarth when you get it.”
Owen Williams said that he would.
Early the next morning, while dawn was having more trouble breaking than a hard boiled egg, he was awakened by a heavy knocking at the front door. He opened it and saw the young man standing on the porch.
“You want your change already?” he asked.
“No, thir,” came the reply. “You can keep the whole twenty dollars.”
The young man grinned. “It wath worth it,” he said, and, somehow, his eyes didn’t seem so crossed anymore.
Owen Williams liked the idea of helping people, and that, he guessed, was why he finally decided to go ahead and run for the State Legislature. The homefolks had one serious need, and that became the sole plank in his campaign platform. He talked about it everywhere he went, and he stumped on street corners, shouted above the hum of circle saws, and tramped at night back through the pines to the campfires beside moonshine stills. He didn’t approve of them, but then, Owen Williams knew he couldn’t say much against free enterprise and get elected, not in Honey Island anyway.
He collected his votes, received a few more than the next man, and rode off to Austin. He had made one promise, and, as far as he was concerned, his friends were expecting him to keep it, and he couldn’t let them down. Their way of life depended on it. Their way of life depended on him.
He fought the way he said he would, and he dared anybody to oppose that one desperate need that hung low and hungry over the edge of the Big Thicket. Nobody did, and Owen Williams returned to Honey Island, walking wearily into the commissary.
“Did you do it?” a logger asked.
“What’d you do?” asked a stranger.
“Talked ’em into changing squirrel huntin’ season.”
“So’s a man can feed his family when the table’s bare.”
“When you goin’ back to Austin?” the logger asked.
“I ain’t,” Owen Williams said as he ambled over to the counter and spent a nickel on a soft drink dripping with splinters of crushed ice. “There ain’t no reason to.”
He bought a box of shells for his squirrel gun and walked on home, which had always been better than Austin, and he found supper sitting on an oak branch before the sun ever dropped low enough to get tangled in the limbs of the thicket and disappear.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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