by Bob Stewart email@example.com
Our Ishmael family clan began in America with three Pennsylvania-born brothers, Robert, Benjamin and Thomas. Oh, there are whispery rumors about their immigrant parents, but no documentation, no notes in family Bibles. Nothing.
The brothers were well into their adulthoods when the Revolutionary War broke out, but they still went to fight for their budding nation. Only two returned. Robert, born in 1738 and the youngest of the three brothers, served at Valley Forge and survived the terrible winter of 1777-78 only to be killed later in the war.
Records show that Benjamin, born in 1736, was 40 when he volunteered for a one-year hitch in the Continental Army in 1776. As often happens in time of war, he's still on records as a soldier in 1780.
Thomas, born in 1737, was a mature 44 when he is listed as a member of the Washington County Rangers, a unit charged with protecting the western frontier from the Indians.
After the war, Benjamin and Thomas left Pennsylvania for new starts in Greene County, Tenn., an area that was then considered to be in western North Carolina. Both made the rest of their lives there. Benjamin died in 1805 at age 69 and Thomas, my great-great grandfather, died in 1814 at age 77.
* * *
Fox Hunting on a Blind Horse
One thing about family stories, they just get better with each telling.
There was my third great grandfather, James Hammonds on the Stewart side of the family. He went fox hunting on a blind horse one night and suffered a grievous accident. A true story? Maybe, maybe not. But that's the way the yarn was handed down over the generations.
James was born in 1782 in North Carolina when some of the Hammond family still tacked an "S" onto their surname. His unfortunate demise came at age 68 in 1850 in Lauderdale County, Ala.
James and two of his brothers left Carolina and headed west in the early 1800s, detouring for a two-year stop in Indiana, where they found the Indians less than friendly. Feeling threatened, they resumed their trek and wound up in northern Alabama.
James and the Indians there got along just fine. In fact, he enjoyed fox hunting with them. One night he got the yen to go hunting when his Indian buddies weren't available. He took off alone riding the blind horse. Maybe he figured that since it was dark, his visually impaired horse would be in its element. Apparently not.
Some of his Indian friends found him the next day. He had ridden off a bluff and, along with the blind horse, been killed.
* * *
Mother and the Cougar
Nerva Stewart, my mother, grew up in Northeast Texas when there were real wilderness areas. She loved telling about the time she and her mother were taking a walk not far from their home.
As they passed under a large tree, Mollie Ishmael grew tense and clutched her little girl's hand tightly. "Don't look up," she said. "Just keep walking."
When they were safely out from under the tree, mother said she looked back and saw a mountain lion sprawled on a big limb mere feet above where they had just walked.
* * *
His Name Was Bubba
Our son, Ralph Quanah Stewart, got his middle name because he has a pinch of Indian blood from his mother's side of the family.
His best friend as a preschooler was Bubba, who got his name because, well, because it fit him.
Bubba was the sweetest little kid you ever saw, but he was subject to misadventures. Once when he and Ralph Quanah were just past their toddler days, their mothers discovered a fresh pile of, er, you know, STUFF in Bubba's front yard. Naturally, all eyes turned to Bubba, who squirmed, thought fast and explained away the situation by saying, "A bird done it!"
Thereafter, if anyone in our household needed an excuse for ANYTHING, the ready reply was always, "A bird done it!"
* * *
Shade the Rebel
Grandpa Shade Ishmael served in the Civil War, but he never left Texas and he didn't participate in any battles that we know of.
There's a record of him reporting for duty in Sulphur Springs in August 1861, but after that there's nothing official until he was mustered out of service April 4, 1864.
Shade, who was 38 when he joined the Confederate Army, was in the 9th Brigade of a Texas home guard unit, which operated much like our military reserves do today. Chances are he lived at home during the war and only attended training meetings in Hopkins County.
Whatever the case, he and brother Pink Ishmael wound up at Camp Roberts, an army post near Paris, Texas, on April 4, 1864, and were furloughed from duty. A record of the event notes that Shade's military appearance was only "tolerable" and that he didn't have any arms to turn in.
Shade and Pink must have been eager to get home because they hot-footed the 40 miles back to Hopkins County with only a single stop. That was when they chanced upon a ground-shaking fight between two buffalo bulls and stopped to take in the show.
* * *
Jack the Jumping Mule
Aud Stewart, my dad, once had a mule named Jack. It was an apt name, because the critter was a Jumping Jack. Unshackled, the long-eared beast could clear any barbed wire fence in Hopkins County.
To deter his adventures, Jack was usually shackled when turned loose to graze in the pasture. But even with a long chain strapped to one leg, Jack refused to stay earthbound. Dad said he could get the chain to swinging and time his jump so that neither he nor his accoutrement touched the fence on the way over.
Jack's wandering ways were a nuisance, but he was a fine work animal ─ especially when teamed with a big bay mare named Bonnie. That was why Dad put up with him as long as he did.
Jack was cantankerous right up to the end. When he was sold, the new owner loaded him into a trailer to take him away. True to his nature, Jack reared up, put his front half over the side and toppled the carrier into the barnyard. Landing on his feet, Jack seemed to be grinning as he stood there surveying the mess he had made.
For a more complete account of Jack the Jumping Mule, read grandson Jim Stewart's memoir in the ABOUT section of Aud Stewart's Geni page at J. Aud Stewart
─ Bob Stewart firstname.lastname@example.org
* * *
No Grudge Against Japanese
Odell Stewart, my brother, fought in World War II. He worked in defense plants during the early days of the war but saw plenty of action after enlisting in the Army in September 1944.
After slogging through the Philippines as the United States and its allies recaptured the islands from the Japanese, Odell served with the Occupation Army in Japan. He joked that he didn't bear any grudges against the Japanese troops in the Philippines, pointing out that their snipers could have killed him any time they wanted to -- but didn't. A bit of war humor there.
While with the Occupation Army in Japan, Odell was shocked and perhaps a bit annoyed by the public subservience of wives to their husbands. Once while standing guard, he stopped a passing couple, the woman trailing a few feet behind her husband. Odell gestured with his rifle and ordered the woman to go first. Absolutely not. Even facing a big man with a rifle, the Japanese couple would not break with tradition. Odell sighed and waved them on.
Odell didn't talk much about his time in service, but he came home with a chest full of medals. You can see them at http://www.geni.com/photo/view/2079799?album_type=photos_of_me&end=&photo_id=6000000006348148841&start=&tagged_profiles=
* * *
The Family Saint
Aunt Maggie was the saint of the Ishmael family.
Although only 15 years old when her mother, Mollie, died, she assumed the maternal responsibilities of the family. While her year-older brother, Sterling, took over the operation of the farm (father Shade had died four years earlier), Maggie did the housework and nurtured her younger sister, Nerva, and her blind sister, Omy.
Maggie married at 18 but she and her husband, John Highfield, continued to care for her two sisters. Nerva, my mother, married and moved away from the family farm, but Maggie -- who became a widow in 1934 --sheltered Omy until the blind woman's death in 1944.
* * *
A Deadly Shooting Spree
Perry Morris, a farmer near Pickton in Hopkins County, wasn't happy in 1914 when an Arkansas man nearly his age began courting his 25-year-old daughter, Lillie. However, he managed to hold his tongue and apparently accepted their marriage in the spring of the following year.
The groom, James F. Sheets was twice-over a widower with a dozen or so children and had moved to Texas when his last wife died. His pursuit of the younger woman wasn't frowned on by everyone in the community. Calvin and Doshie Maddox often allowed the couple to date at their farm home. Father Perry Morris grumbled about what he considered an intrusion into his family's life but let the matter pass.
The newlyweds set up housekeeping on their own farm in the community and all seemed to be well.
Then, between 7 and 8 a.m. on the last day of October in 1915, Morris freaked out. Maybe the smoldering anger in him finally boiled over ... or maybe it was because he discovered that his daughter was pregnant. Whatever the case, he grabbed two pistols and ran out of the house on a bloody mission.
His first stop on the quiet Sunday morning was the home of the Maddoxes, the couple who had befriended his daughter and her older boyfriend. Mrs. Maddox died as she churned butter on the front porch, her husband while burning brush in back of the house. Next was his son-in-law's home a bit farther down the road. With unerring aim, Morris shot Sheets dead. Marching into the house, Morris found Sheets' 18-year-old son lying sick in bed and shot him, although not fatally.
It's not recorded if daughter Lillie was home that day. Since it was Sunday, she might have been at church with some of her other stepchildren. Suffice to say, Perry Morris decided it was time to go home. He told his wife what he had done, went to a back field and blew his brains out with one of the still warm pistols.
Our connection to this bloody tale? Washington Perry Morris, the shooter, was the stepson of my great grandfather, William W. Forsyth.
* * *
The Bundling Board Slipped
When the passengers on the Mayflower splashed ashore at Plymouth, Mass., in March of 1621, three members of Grandmother Stewart's family were among them.
Isaac Allerton, John Tilley and John Howland are the Pilgrims in our and their genes were passed down to us through the Cushmans, who were influential in the voyage of the Mayflower and the development of the Plymouth colony.
One of those unions was launched with a bit of pre-marital hanky panky that cost my seventh great grandfather a 5-pound fine levied by a Plymouth court.
Thomas Cushman Jr. began courting Ruth Howland, the daughter of John Howland, in the early 1660s. Perhaps there was an extra cold winter and the bundling got out of hand, because in 1664 about six weeks before their marriage, Ruth had a baby. The next year, the court tapped Thomas for the 5 pounds for committing "carnal coppulation with his now wife before marriage, but after contract."
Surprisingly, out-of-wedlock births weren't all that rare among the Pilgrims, and -- aside from the fine -- Thomas did not suffer for his indiscretion. During his long life, he was a worthy member of the Congregational Church and a leading citizen.
* * *
My Little Blue Notebook
A fellow I worked with was convinced that my Little Blue Notebook was the source of all knowledge.
Ah, yes, My Little Blue Notebook, faithful companion for many years at newspapers where I worked. I carried it in my left shirt pocket, and the little tome contained jotted bits of information that I often needed on the job or at home. Odd assortments of facts, figures and formulas. There were tables of type sizes, how to scale photos for publication, names, dates, places and oddball trivia that I found interesting enough to write down.
It wasn't a thick notebook, just one of those spiral-ring Mead goodies like you get at Walmart. There's no way it could have held an encyclopedic volume of facts -- but you would never have been able to convince my co-worker of its fallibility. That's because each and every time someone popped a question and this man happened to be standing there, MY NOTEBOOK HAD THE ANSWER.
Someone asks: "Anyone know who the president of Paraguay was in 1923?"
Me consulting my Little Blue Notebook: "Oh, that would be José Eligio Ayala."
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, of course, my notebook wouldn't have the answer, but in a series of coincidences that defies explanation, it always did when that fellow was in proximity. After this happened three or four times, the guy started looking at me strangely. I think he was checking to make sure I didn't have alien antennas sprouting from my head because someone with an out-of-this-world notebook like mine couldn't be all human.
* * *
Zacharias and the Indian
There's a Stewart Cemetery in Hopkins County, but strangely enough it came into being when a marauding Indian was buried there.
The burial ground near the community of Oakland is named after my great grandfather, Willis Andrew Stewart, but it was around long before he arrived in East Texas from Alabama in the early 1880s. The land was originally owned by Zacharias Birdwell, a Hopkins County pioneer who laid to rest the cemetery's first resident. And that first interment could well have been his own.
Birdwell was working on a wagon near his cabin one day when he looked up to see a hostile and well-armed Indian bearing down on him at a dead run. Weaponless, Zacharias took off around the wagon with the Indian hot on his heels. Around and around the wagon they went and with each revolution, Zach yelled to his wife in the house: "Bring me my rifle! Bring me my rifle!" Apparently, she didn't hear him because Zach, who was running out of breath, was saved only when a neighbor happened by on horseback and dispatched the Indian with a single shot.
Birdwell buried the Indian in a grove on his property, and that was the start of what became known as Stewart Cemetery when great granddad Willis purchased the land.
* * *
She Broke Wild Horses, Didn't She?
Maggie Flowers broke wild horses for women to ride sidesaddle, washed her hair once a year and chugged Hadacol.
She was a spirited woman.
Maggie, who was my wife's maternal great grandmother, was born in Arkansas right after the Civil War and spent most of her life in Oklahoma both when it was a territory and after it became a state. She was perhaps one-quarter Cherokee and in her declining years, family members urged her to apply for government benefits being extended to Native Americans, but she would have none of that.
Maggie had been widowed twice when a third man came into her life. She was sitting on her front porch one day when a car pulled up. "Let's get married," said John Flowers, who had long been an admirer of the widow. "Just a minute," Maggie replied. "Let me get my bonnet."
The hardy pioneer woman outlived John by almost 20 years and retained her independent ways. When she was feeling poorly, she would take nips from a bottle of Hadacol, a patent medicine marketed as a vitamin supplement, and remark on how good it made her feel. Then someone told her that the concoction contained 12 percent alcohol. Maggie, a lifelong teetotaler, let out a gasp, poured the contents of the bottle down the drain and never touched the stuff again for the remainder of her 94 years.
And it's true, she only washed her long, luxuriant hair once a year. But it's also true that in good weather she would sit outside in the sunshine and patiently brush it clean.
* * *
Murder Most Foul
The father wearily trudged through the gate to his home, but he didn't go into the house. There was no one there. His distraught wife was being tended by friends. Instead, the man went directly to a shed in his back yard and sat down on a stack of firewood. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed. And he sat there all night, thinking and grieving.
The New York Times called it the "most brutal crime ever committed in Texas." In the quiet little town of Carthage, the popular Panola County treasurer had been murdered for the $8,335 in currency and silver in his office safe.
And the way he was murdered... Hit in the head with an ax and his throat slashed so fiercely that he was almost beheaded. The sheriff of the Northeast Texas county began an investigation and vowed to catch the killer.
There were clues: bloody footprints and the murder weapon, an ax used to chop firewood that had been sitting in the corner of the treasurer's office. But this was in 1888, long before DNA samples became a crime tool.
However, a railroad detective stationed in the area had a hunch, and he played it out. He knew a young man who loved to gamble with the crews that had almost completed building a railroad into Carthage. The clean-cut lad named Tom almost invariably lost, but now he seemed to have an unlimited supply of money and many of the bills had mysterious stains on them.
One night when Tom, who was barely in his 20s, had run through his pocket money, the detective lent him a stake and struck up a conversation, confiding that he was working on the grisly murder case and that he suspected a black barber who worked in Carthage. Tom thanked the detective and returned to his card game.
Several days later, the detective ran into Tom and asked him if he could repay in silver coins the money that the boy owed him. Tom said that he could and left, not suspecting that he was being followed. In a thicket near Carthage, Tom scratched in the dirt under a certain tree and came up with the silver to pay back the loan. When he left, the detective dug under the tree and found the rest of the silver stolen from the county treasury.
But — because of Tom's status in town — no arrest was made until the following Monday. Detective H.E. Parker then formally accused Deputy Sheriff Thomas Forsyth of the murder. At first the deputy denied the crime and attempted to blame the black barber, but when confronted with the evidence he weakened and said: "No, he is innocent. No one had anything to do with it but myself."
Tom said that he had stopped by the treasurer's office to get change for a $20 gold piece. When the treasurer opened the safe and the deputy saw the thousands of dollars in currency and silver lying there, he couldn't resist the temptation. He grabbed the ax and struck the elderly official, then struck him again — but still not killing him. Finally, a slash of his knife ended the treasurer's life.
Tom was locked in the county jail where he remained as the news of his arrest swept through town. His mother heard about the events as she was walking to the store and felt to the ground in a faint.
That night a mighty lynch mob of 400 townspeople gathered at the jail and demanded that the sheriff hand over the key to Tom's cell. They took the deputy, who offered no resistance, to a tree in front of the courthouse.
"Don't haul me up," Tom said as a rope was placed around his neck. "I want to die and quickly, too, and if you will let me get on the limb I will jump off when you tell me you are ready."
After quenching his thirst with a glass of water, he climbed a ladder and at the word of mob's leader "leaped into eternity," as a newspaper of the day put it.
And the man sitting in the woodshed crying? That was Sheriff James P. Forsyth Jr., Tom's father and my great uncle.
— Bob Stewart
* * *
A 20-pound cootie?
Did you ever have a 20-pound cootie scratch at your front door?
Didn't think so.
"Cootie" is slang for a body louse. The term originated during World War I when soldiers in trenches were plagued with the little beasties. So having one grow to 20 pounds — let alone scratch at your front door — would be unlikely.
However, I was indirectly involved in perpetuating such a story. It happened when I was managing editor of a small daily newspaper in Central Texas.
We had a noon news report that was broadcast over the local radio station. The chore of reading the five-minute news summary was usually handled by one particular reporter. He loved doing the show and would rush in from his beat, grab a handful of copy and let fly in a West Texas drawl that didn't make you think of Edward R. Murrow.
On this day something unusual had happened in an area town, and our radio reporter made it his lead item:
"The James R. Smith family had an unexpected visitor today," the reporter read from his hastily prepared and unedited story. "It was a 20-pound cootie scratching at their front door."
Those of us listening in the newsroom reacted as I'm sure the radio audience did. Sheer shock, puzzlement and then laughter.
As the reporter continued to read the story, oblivious to his inhouse audience's reaction, it became clear what had transpired at the Smiths' home.
A 20-pound coatimundi, a South American member of the raccoon family that was the rather unconventional pet of a man in the neighborhood, had escaped and was paying an unsolicited visit. Our reporter was trying to say "coati," which is short for coatimundi, and instead it came out "cootie" in every one of his references to the animal.
After our reporter had signed off the air, we informed him of his boo-boo. He wasn't at all embarrassed and joined in the laughter. The kid went on to write TV scripts for "Gunsmoke."
* * *
Squeak squeak squeak
One of my shoes is squeaking.
When I walk into a quiet room during a lull in the conversation or when the TV's not roaring, everyone turns to see where the noise is coming from.
squeak squeak squeak
It's my favorite pair of shoes, too. Well-fitting, comfortable. But on any hard surface - wood, tile, concrete - the right one squeaks with every step I take.
squeak squeak squeak
Since the left shoe is always as quiet as a sinner in church and the rowdy one chills out on bare earth, I assumed that the noise is coming from the interaction of the sole with the walking surface. So I got a good stiff brush, liberally squirted the bottom of the shoe with Simple Green and brushed the heck out of it.
squeak squeak squeak
Didn't help a bit. Nor did applying various substances to the sole. (By the way, I don't recommend floor wax for the bottom of shoes.)
I guess I'm just going to have to get used to the noise and hope that others will ignore it. Since some people say that I'm so tight that I squeak when I walk, I figure that maybe they'll just confuse the source of the noise.
* * *
The Tribe of Ishmael
If Revolutionary War vet Ben Ishmael had still been around in 1878 when Oscar McCulloch began besmirching the family name, he undoubtedly would have unlimbered his old musket and put a ball through the eugenic preacher's gizzard.
The minister launched his campaign of vilification on a cold, rainy Sunday morning in Indianapolis. His sermon that day was about the city's poor and about one family of slum dwellers in particular — the Ishmaels, a clan that he branded The Ishmael Tribe. They had taken his aid, he said, but proved unworthy it, returning to their shiftless ways before he was well out of their hovel of a home.
Charity was wasted on such families, McCulloch said. They and others like them were predestined to "a constellation of degenerate behaviors" because of inherited genetic defects. The preacher had just finished reading a book on genetics and had become an instant expert in the subject.
McCulloch wasn't all wrong about that particular Ishmael family's antisocial behavior. They were part of a wave of displaced Southern agriculture workers who settled in the Indianapolis slums during the depression-stricken 1870s. They scratched out a living any way they could, and that included accepting handouts and occasional light-fingered shopping from fruit and vegetable carts in the streets of Indianapolis.
But a family genetically flawed? Hardly. The Ishmaels were farmers in Pennsylvania before there was a United States. They helped settle the Kentucky frontier and fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and on both sides in the Civil War. They weren't all angels by any means, but the Indianapolis Ishmaels were the exception rather than the rule.
McCulloch thought differently and with his new interest in genetics he hoisted the Ishmael family's foibles as a banner for all that was evil with society. Their genes predisposed them to alcoholism, pauperism, social dependency, shiftlessness, nomadism, and "lack of moral control," he shouted from his pulpit for the remaining decade of his life.
And people listened. True or not, they listened and believed. Murder, rape, interracial marriage, inbreeding, prostitution, disease — all were attributed to the family. Others took up the crusade as a wave of eugenics reform swept the land with The Tribe of Ishmael as the prime example of why the United States should have mandatory sterilization, limited immigration, harsher criminal laws and less welfare. (The eugenicists believed that welfare contributed to the delinquency of flawed individuals.)
The demonization of the family became so complete that it was referenced by authors referring to people living in extreme poverty, criminality and degradation. "Frauds, professional beggars, training their children to follow in their footsteps — a veritable 'tribe of Ishmael,' tightening its grip on society as the years pass...," wrote Jacob Riis in 1890.
In the 1920s, eugenicists and their political buddies used the Ishmaels' Islamic sounding name as an ace in the hole in fighting immigration. Look at the despicable Tribe of Ishmael, they said — Caucasians crossed with blacks, wild Indians, Asians and who knows what else. If we let all these inferior foreigners come in, soon all Americans would be like the Ishmaels, frothed the eugenicists.
White supremacy was in full swing in the United States and the eugenicists' beliefs were fully accepted. Caucasians should only marry those who were their physical, social and intellectual equals. The result would be a superior race of Americans. Those with defective genes should not be allowed to breed. Laws allowing sterilization of "inferiors" were passed in more than half the states, and everywhere The Tribe of Ishmael was held up as an example of genetically driven criminality and degeneracy. The Chicago World's Fair of 1933 featured an Ishmael eugenicist exhibit with pictures of slack-jawed people dragged down by their inbred, racially mixed, poverty-stunted genes.
But the World's Fair would be the last public hurrah for the U.S. eugenicist movement for many years to come. A fellow named Hitler had come to power in Europe and Nazi Germany was practicing what American eugenicists were preaching. Jews, blacks and homosexuals were being exterminated with the goal of achieving a Tutonic master race. A shocked America came to its senses and The Tribe of Ishmael myth faded as generations passed. Few people after World War II knew or cared about eugenics or how the subject related to the Ishmael family.
Then, in 1977, an author named Hugo Prosper Leaming resurrected the Ishmaelites saga in a bizarre essay entitled "The Ben Ishmael Tribe: A Fugitive 'Nation' of the Old Northwest." Leaming argued that the Ishmaels were a Muslim tri-racial sect of whites, Native Americans and runaway slaves. Ben Ishmael became a Muslim of African descent who established the first Islamic community native to the United States. (That would have come as a surprise to old Ben, whose lily-white parents were Welsh.) The Ishmaelites, wrote Leaming, were a "tightly knit nomadic community of African, Native American and 'poor white' descent."
Conspiracists loved it — pure fiction though it was — and the Ishmaels were again demonized, although on a smaller scale than in the early 1900s.
But finally in 2009, the Ishmaels got a champion. Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor of Literature and History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, made it his task to the Tribe of Ishmael. Using fact-based and the resources of the Internet, Deutsch debunked Leaming's essay and laid out the true history of the Ishmael family. He exposed the eugenicists' smear campaign for what it was: a tool to accomplish the goals of a misguided and hate-filled group of people.
So — for my third great uncle, Benjamin Ishmael, and the rest of the family — I say thank you to Nathaniel Deutsch for writing "Inventing America’s 'Worst' Family (subtitle) Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael."
* * *
The Garage-Floor Treatment
You've heard of the Sunshine Treatment, haven't you? That's when a mechanic at a shyster garage finds nothing wrong with your car and simply parks it in the back for the day. Then when you come to pick it up, he tells you that the flapdoodle was broken but he fixed it and that'll be $73, please.
I just used this "repair" on my Toro Super Blower. Only my version was the Garage-Floor Treatment. I converted the blower to vacuum this morning to pick up some dad-gum leaves, plugged it in and turned it on. Nothing, nada, zilch. Maybe the extension cord was unplugged. Nope. Maybe the outlet went bad. Nope. Dead, dead, dead. Jiggled the Toro, slapped it a couple of times, roundly cussed it. Still dead.
I left it on my garage floor and went to eat lunch. I returned later to put out the machine for the garbage pickers. Maybe someone electrically inclined could take it apart and fix the switch — or whatever was the matter with it. But before hauling it to the curb, I plugged it in one more time.
The thing ran perfectly. Unplugged it, plugged it in — perfect. I couldn't get it to foul up. I spent the afternoon sucking up leaves without a bobble. My Garage-Floor Treatment worked just fine. I think I'll charge myself 73 bucks.
* * *
A Witch in the Attic
My wife has a witch in her ancestral attic. Yep, a real live witch . . . Well, actually, a real dead witch since she lived in Scotland back around 1700 — but a witch nonetheless.
Janet Harestanes (that's how they spelled Hairston in the old days) must have been a rounder because she was constantly in trouble with church authorities in Dumfries, a town south of Glasgow where Robert Burns is buried. She first appeared before the presbytery in 1699 on charges of witchcraft and charming. We don't know what her specific offenses were, but they could have been for something as trifling as folk healing or practicing veterinary medicine. Witchcraft and charming allegations cut a wide swath back then — sort of like a disturbance-of-the-peace charge nowadays.
Old Janet was lucky to have lived when she did in Scotland because a few years earlier, her perceived mischief would have been punished by burning at the stake or branding. Fortunately, the country was entering the age of enlightenment and tales of witchcraft were beginning to be greeted with raised eyebrows. The usual punishment around the turn of the 18th century was banishment from the community.
As a repeat offender, Ms. Harestanes got chased around quite a bit. She showed up in Glencairn, just north of Dumfries, in 1704 and annoyed the clergy so much that they issued a public statement decreeing that no one in the parish should harbor her.
Janet hit the road again, and guess where she went. Back to Dumfries.
Don't you know the clergymen there were glad to see her? Maybe not, because in 1709 Mr. Andrew Reid, the minister of the Kirkbean church, filed a deposition against Janet, accusing her — among other things — of causing his newly built house to come tumbling down "in the twinkling of an eye." The good Mr. Reid escaped that catastrophe without injury, but the very next day on his way to Edinburgh he was caught in a flood and almost drowned.
That was just too much bad luck to be coincidental, and Mr. Reid immediately fingered Janet Harestanes as the Wicked Witch of the West. The minister needed proof, and he knew how to get it. He hauled Janet into church and made her repeat the Lord's Prayer. Sure enough, she stumbled on almost every line — proof positive that she was a witch. What's more, some of the townspeople testified that Janet had made them sick after they got into arguments with her.
The verdict: Guilty, guilty, guilty.
Her punishment: Banishment — again.
It's not recorded what mode of transportation Janet used to leave town, but villagers no doubt checked the contents of their broom closets to make sure everything was secure.
* * *
"To err is human"
“A book may be very amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity."
— Oliver Goldsmith, 1766
"Nonsuch micemeat, 67 cents per pound."
— Newspaper ad, 1973
By Bob Stewart
To err is human, they say, and we newspaper people are human. Oh, Lordy, we're human.
When you make an error on your job, only a handful of people know about it — perhaps only you, the customer and the boss. When a newspaper guy goofs, everyone and his second cousin chortle over the poor clod's blunder.
Our greatest grief comes from typographical errors. With no trouble at all, we can convert "mince meat" into "mice meat." You can see how easy that is — simply leave out the "N."
Sometimes we even go to the extreme of substituting one word for another. In literature that's called a Malaprop. What we call it isn't printable. The following sentence once appeared in the account of a Wichita Falls high school football game:
"The Rowdies scored first as Walter Ingle raced 24 yards just as the buzzard sounded ending the first quarter."
Once upon a time, the lines of type in newspapers were printed from single pieces of metal. When the back shop started shuffling those lines around, all sorts of evil things happened. For instance, a printer took one line of type from an obituary headline and another from a crime story and come up with the following:
Montague man better
Advertisements with their many items and prices were particularly susceptible to line-bobbling gremlins. A Central Texas newspaper once had the following ad:
"Ladies handbags, Reg. $7.00 and Tax, Special $9.00 and Tax."
As you can imagine, the merchant asked for and got a correction. But the gremlins were working overtime that day, and the little ad with the correct price was introduced thusly:
Getting a line of type out of place in a news story happened quite often. Most of the time the incorrect combination came out as gibberish, but — woe is us — on some occasions the lines of type "read."
In a story a few years ago, The Associated Press told about the daring escape of an American, Dykes Simmons Jr., from a Mexican prison. Here's how one paragraph went:
"Simmons says that, dressed in a nun's habit, he walked from the prison among visitors to a waiting car which sped him north and across the latrine."
We press card-carrying journalists can (and do) blame most boo-boos on mechanical difficulties. But there is one category of errors that (blush) spring full-grown from the fertile minds of us Fourth Estaters. We get in a hurry. forget that de noun am connected to de verb, and proceed to shred our syntax.
"Walter Reed Hospital officials said President Eisenhower was now eating gelatine dessert, which he consumed with relish."
Gelatin and relish. Now isn't a that a yummy combination?
Or how about:
"As a tribute to the late mayor, the first car in this year's parade will be empty."
No driver? Remote control maybe.
Body-type errors like these are bad enough, but when they appear in big, bold headlines, managing editors come roaring out from behind their desks screaming, "Oh dear. I fear we have made an egregious mistake." (Or words to that effect.)
A South Texas newspaper once carried a story in its morning edition concerning church bishops debating long into the night on the controversial issue of birth control. The headline read:
"Bishops grapple with birth control all night."
Think the poor headline writer didn't hear about that the next day.
Yes, we newspaper people are human. We are mortal and err. But like old Oliver Goldsmith said, an occasional absurdity doesn't ruin a good book. But, then again, Mr. Goldsmith was never a newspaperman.
* * *
What a Ham!
The Hammond line on the Stewart side of our family goes back to 868 A.D. when a band led by the Danish chieftian Ham crossed the North Sea and landed at Holkham on the Northern shore of what later became known as Norfolk (North Folk). This is about 30 miles northwest of present Norwich. Hamond was buried in a proper Viking tumulous near Snoring, Norfolk.
Thus the name 'Ham-mund/mond". Ham’s name is recorded in monastery. During World War ll the mound had to be leveled in order to build a military airfield. Hamond's bones were dug up and he was found to be very tall with red hair. Broken Vikings swords and other weapons were also found in the tumulous. The original family has remained in this same location for over eleven hundred years.
Doors and Gates
It's happened again. Another door broken, this time the front storm door.
Seems like every time we have a visitor of the service or delivery variety, we wind up with a broken door or gate. What gives with those people? Do they do it on purpose?
"Oooh," they say, "that's a nice door. I think I'll break it."
This time the culprits were a couple of furniture delivery people who brought my wife's new electric reclining chair. Cooperatively, before they arrived I opened the storm door and locked it in position with the doohickey at the top.
The guys did a nice job of setting up the chair and while I was paying one of the them, the other left and closed the storm door. Now the piano hinge is warped and the door won't latch properly. The galoot must have grabbed the handle and tried to yank the door shut without disengaging the brace. Mr. Strongman.
Not the first time it's happened, but most often it's my backyard gate. One visit from a service person and something about the gate is broken. Usually — like the storm door — it's the gizmo that holds the gate open. In this case, it's one of those latches that you step on to push a bolt into a retainer buried in the ground. Then you step on it again and a spring pops the bolt up to release the gate. But do the service people notice that something is holding the gate open? Nooooo. YANK! And it's broken.
The same with the latch that holds the gate shut. You've got to slide the bolt out to open the gate. That's beyond the ken of some people. "Ugh! Gate closed. Me open." YANK! Gate broken.
One time I got so mad after a meter reader broke the latch for the umpteenth time that I wrote a nasty letter to the gas company. That was productive. They actually knocked a couple of bucks off my bill to pay for the damage.
Saaaaay, I wonder if the furniture store...
Whack! Whack! Whack!
My late brother-in-law had a mid-level management position in Washington and sometimes the dirty work of telling employees that they were no longer needed fell to him.
On one occasion the firing of a worker was even more difficult than usual because the individual was handicapped.
He had an artificial leg.
Carl, my brother-in-law, broke the dismissal news as gently as possible and thought he had done a good job because the man just nodded and left.
However, although the ex-employee wasn't mad at Carl for firing him, he did harbor a grudge against another boss in the building. The man headed directly for that guy's office, took off his wooden leg and beat him over the head with it.
* * *
John Calvin Hammond, my great grandfather, didn't serve in the Civil War but he lost his mind because of it.
Born in 1845 in Dugout, Tenn., he was the sixth of 11 children and, like others in his family, he trained as a blacksmith and plied his trade in shops from Tennessee to Alabama to Texas. The events leading up to John Calvin's mental breakdown began in one of those shops, probably in Alabama.
As the war waxed and waned, the Hammond smithy shop repaired wagon wheels and shoed horses for both Southern and Northern military forces. Sometimes brother Clemons Hammond, two years older than John Calvin helped out in the family shop.
Clemons, who went by "Clem," was a private in the Confederate Army, enlisting at Centre Star, Ala., on Jan. 1, 1864. It's unclear whether the incident that led to Calvin's insanity occurred before or after Clem joined the army. In those days, soldiers often temporarily laid down their rifles and went home to put in crops or, perhaps, to help out in a family blacksmith shop.
We can only surmise what happened in the shop that fateful day because John Calvin never talked about it except to his wife, Emma. Years later, she would make mention of the incident in explaining John Calvin's mental breakdown.
It was a bright spring day and the war seemed far away as Clem, who wasn't married, banged away on the anvil while John Calvin took a break in the house. Suddenly, the hammering was punctuated by a sharper sound — the crack of a rifle shot — and a round went zinging over Clem's head. The Tennessean grabbed an old pistol that he had been working on and took aim at his attacker.
Click, click, click. The pistol wouldn't fire.
The reason Clem had been working on the gun was because it was contrary. Sometimes the weapon would fire, and sometimes it wouldn't. And at this strategic time it wouldn't. As the assailant, who was crouched behind a rail fence, reloaded and prepared to fire again, Clem yelled to his younger brother for help.
John Calvin looked out the door and instantly took in what was going on. "Lay low," he shouted to Clem and reached for an old cap and ball rifle hanging on the wall. One shot later and the attacker fell to the ground mortally wounded. It was a Union soldier.
That's one version of the story. Another is that John Calvin was working alone in his shop when two Union soldiers stopped to have a shoe repaired. There was an argument and John Calvin shot one of the troopers. Again, brother Clem was blamed.
Whichever version is correct, one thing is for certain. John Calvin was never prosecuted for the killing. Clem shouldered the responsiblity.
And, technically, Clem wasn't accused of the killing either, although that was what he was being hunted for when he was captured by Union forces on April 10, 1865, in Pulaski, Tenn. He was charged with being a guerrilla and for robbery. After a speedy trial, he was sentenced to 10 years' hard labor. The young man was taken to a military prison in Nashville where his family says that he was poorly treated because he wouldn't tell who killed the Union soldier.
Perhaps so, perhaps not, and whether his treatment in prison contributed to ill health is not known. However, soon after his confinement Clem was admitted to the prison hospital and died there on July 8, 1865, of what the army said was Remittent fever, which then was thought to be a specific illness marked by high bodily temperatures but is now known to be a symptom of many medical conditions.
Clem went to his grave at the age of 22 with the secret that it was his brother, John Calvin, who shot the Union soldier, but John Calvin paid a high price. It cost him his mind.
Two years after the war, John Calvin married Emma Brown and they moved back to his native Tennessee and started a family. Times were hard during Reconstruction but the Hammonds were doing well with earnings from his blacksmith shop.
Then more tragedy struck. John Calvin's and Emma's 5-year-old son, ironically named Clemons, came down with influenza and died. Two years later, the same disease took the lives of another son and a daughter.
After the losses, John Calvin moved his family to Texas where he continued to work as a blacksmith. As he grew older, it preyed more and more on his mind that his brother had died for a deed that he had committed. He began behaving erratically and finally his family was forced to commit him to a mental institution.
He showed little improvement, but eventually was released to be cared for by his family until he died at the age of 58 on Dec. 13, 1903, in Emblem, Texas.
His family always blamed his mental illness and relatively early death to his feelings of guilt about his brother's fate.
(Editor's note: Many of this generation of the Hammond family spelled their surname with an "S" on the end, including John Calvin.)
* * *
Praising the Lord and cussing Yankees
"A tall, straight-nosed Scotsman, (Willis) Stewart had two passions: the Confederacy, which he had served as a cavalryman under Gen. Bedford Forest, and the Presbyterian Church. A zeal for religious freedom had brought Stewart's parents to America, and that same spark had brought him to the Texas frontier."
Thus wrote a journalist in 1985 in a feature story about the Texas cemetery that bears my great grandfather's name — and he had him pegged. Willis went to his grave praising the Lord and cussing Yankees.
Willis Andrew Stewart was born in Lauderdale County, Ala., in 1846 and was only a year old when his dad died. An only child, he and his mother, Martha Ann, went to live with her mother, who was also widowed.
However, the grandmother — Mary Herman — was more fortunate than Martha Ann because she had two strapping sons, four healthy girls and undoubtedly several slaves to keep the family farm going. I say "undoubtedly" because there is no record of the Hermans owning slaves, but that's just the way it was in the 1840s in Alabama. In this environment, Willis grew to be a man deeply devoted to family and righteous in his beliefs. The extended family worked hard and gave thanks for their prosperity when they worshipped at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Rising Star.
Then came the Civil War and the 18-year-old Willis rode with the Confederacy's 11th Alabama Cavalry during the last months of the bloody struggle. Unharmed physically but forever changed emotionally, he came home to burned barns and devastated fields. Under the yoke of Reconstruction, he set about putting in the spring crops with Union soldiers all about. Some blamed the Yankees when the family's Cumberland Presyterian Church mysteriously burned one night.
Willis suffered the loss in silence, and continued work to restore the family farm. He got a helpmate at the age of 20 when on Dec. 18, 1866, he took Nancy A. "Nannie" Phillips, 22, of Center Star, Ala., as his bride in a marriage that was to endure for 53 years.
While Willis and Nannie were building a family of seven children in Alabama, some of their relatives — the Birdwells and the Hermans — were picking up stakes and moving West.
Some settled in the Oakland community of Hopkins County, Texas, and wrote back glowing reports about the fine soil and plentiful wildlife. Finally, in 1880 after the crop was harvested, Willis saddled up and left his wife with a houseful of kids (including my grandfather, James William) and headed off to see if his relatives' tales about Texas were true. He liked what he saw and rode back to Alabama to work another year on his farm to raise money to move his family to Oakland in Northeast Texas. Here's how Bill Porterfield, the Dallas Times Herald reporter who wrote the Stewart Cemetery story, tells it:
"The Stewarts came by train from Alabama, and they must have made a sight when they got off at the depot in Black Jack Grove, now Cumby. Willis and Nannie had brought with them Willis' mother, . . . their seven children and a couple of ex-slaves, Abraham and Chloe, who had chosen to remain with the Stewarts after they were freed. Abraham and Chloe brought with them a small son."
They built a two-room log cabin, and it was there that the deeply religious couple started evening Bible studies and singings that eventually led to the founding of the Oakland Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Life in Texas was good for the Stewarts, but even in the 1880s it could still be a dangerous place. Along about the spring of 1885, Abraham was breaking land behind an old Georgia stock one-horse plow when an Indian slipped out of the timber and struck him from behind with a tomahawk. The Stewart children heard Abraham screaming and sent their father to help. Willis killed the Indian with a rifle shot, but Abraham died of his wound. Willis buried both the former slave and the Indian in what came to be Stewart Cemetery. Today, neither grave is marked.
Reporter Porterfield again: "Curiously, there was but one Stewart buried in the Stewart Cemetery, and she was Willis Stewart's mother, Martha, who was, of course, only a Stewart by marriage. ... Recently, great-grandson A.T. Stewart dug up her dirt (it was all that remained of her) and carried it to Lauderdale County, Alabama, where he placed it beside the 137-year-old grave of her husband, James William."
Willis and Nannie lived in Oakland for the next 40 years, raising their childen, farming their 301 acres of land and becoming pillars of the community. The old Rebel died Dec. 20, 1920. He was remembered at his funeral thusly:
"In his daily life, he was a plain, unassuming, unobtrusive man, polite and courteous to all. He believed in honesty, morality, and industry and was of a charitable and sympathetic nature. He ... favored better educational facilities and endorsed and supported all attempts at bettering the social and moral standing of his community. He was a loyal member of the Oakland Presbyterian Church for many years and was one of the strongest supporters of that church in his community. He frowned on misconduct of any kind by anyone and his influence has been of much benefit in molding the characters of many.
"On all matters that arose that affected the body politic, he was always to be found entrenched on the moral side of the question.
"He was a successful farmer, a good financier and though he began life very poor, yet by hard work, good management and fair dealing, he had amassed a sufficiency of this world's goods to afford him ease and comfort."
— Bob Stewart
* * *
The Big Shake
Newlyweds Michael and Angelique Branom were quietly slumbering in their cabin during the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 1811, when they were jarred awake by an unfamiliar rumbling noise.
The Branoms, who were way out among the twigs on the Stewart side of my , lived near the Mississippi River in the Missouri Territory, a wild but developing area where Michael earned his living in the Little Prairie community as a farmer, hunter and trapper.
Born in 1775 in South Carolina, he had managed to reach the advanced age of 36 without marrying. Then in December — the very month we're talking about — he took as his wife 18-year-old Angelique Tirard of the neighboring town of New Madrid. Angelique had come to Missouri with her parents from her home state of Indiana.
When the Branoms fell asleep the previous evening, they little realized that they were soon to become participants in one of the most momentous natural disasters that the world had ever known — the New Madrid Earthquakes.
The series of four quakes that extended into February of the following year began with the rumbling that awakened the couple. They ran outside and clung to each other as the ground in the direction of the Mississippi River "rose like a great loaf of bread," as Michael later described it.
As it turned out, the Branoms were standing only a half-mile from the epicenter of what some scientists have determined was an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale. As a comparison, the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was only a smidgen stronger with a reading of 7.8.
Before the horrified eyes of the couple, the "loaf" burst and great quantities of sand, water and a black sulfurous vapor were thrown out. All around them, great fissures split the earth. Trees toppled. Farm animals panicked as they tried to find safe haven. Literally acres of land disappeared into the Mississippi River.
Through it all, the Branoms stood safe and their cabin remained intact despite cracks in the chimney and shifting of timbers. But Michael had seen quite enough in his introduction to earthquakes. Like almost everyone else in the community, he was ready to head for safer ground. He caught one of his still frightened horses, put his wife and a few provisions on its back and picking his way through the fissures led the animal away from the area of destruction.
Because of the lack of communications in wilderness times, historians have never been able to determine how many people were killed in that initial quake, but it is known that most of the fatalities occurred on water as riverboats capsized, tossing passengers into the roiling Mississippi and its tributaries.
The Branoms were spared to raise a family of two boys and a girl. Angelique died in 1839 at the early age of 46 in Stoddard, Mo. Michael continued to farm and hunt in southeast Missouri until 1860, when he died at 85 in Dunklin County, just north of his rendezvous with history almost a half-century before.
* * *
My father-in-law weighed only a couple of pounds when he was born two months early, and he was small for his age when he started school in the rough-and-tumble Galveston of the early 20th century. The big boys picked on him and once after a particularly rough day he came home crying.
He got some tough love from his family.
"You've got to fight back," they told Ralph Newberry, "or you'll be bullied the rest of your life."
The boy saw the wisdom of that and the next day when one of his antagonists challenged him he said, "Just a minute."
He put down his books, took off his glasses and removed his right eye.
You see, Ralph had an artificial eye necessitated by a run-in with a Spanish dagger yard plant when he was 3 years old. He was ready to fight, but his opponent wasn't. The tough kid had no idea that there were such things as artificial body parts, and at the sight of someone taking out an eye, he gasped and fled the scene of battle.
After that incident, the naturally gregarious Ralph quickly gained acceptance at school for his newfound combativeness and, yes, his physical uniqueness.
* * *
Like many youngsters of that era, Ralph's formal education ended early and he went to work full time, first going to sea as a maritime worker and then settling into the grocery business, an occupation in which he had long worked parttime as a stock clerk and delivery boy. He became a trusted employee of John Meyer's grocery in Galveston, respected as a friend and in the trade as an expert butcher. Customers sought him out for his knowledge of meat products and his finesse with a butcher knife.
When Meyer died unexpectedly in 1936, Ralph discovered that he had been left the store in the man's will. The hard worker, assisted by his wife, built the store into a popular stop for Galveston grocery shoppers.
Among the customers were members of prominent Galveston families. The Newberrys carefully tended to their needs, including providing mint for one customer's mint juleps. The family might not have enjoyed their drinks as much if they knew where the mint came from. My wife recalls being sent by her mother to pick mint from where it grew around the backyard water faucet. "Be sure to wash the dog pee off," her mother always warned. Seems the mint was also a favorite visiting spot for the family dog.
Life settled into a happy pattern for Ralph and his little family. Galveston was a fun place and they enjoyed it.
* * *
A busy grocery store does not run by man and wife alone, and through the years there was a steady stream of employees. Among them were a set of brothers, youngsters eager to work but innocent to the world. They were less than well-to-do, and their part-time jobs at the store helped the family with its grocery bill.
Ralph, who had a mischievous sense of humor, liked the boys but wasn't above playing tricks on them. One day while Boogie, one of the brothers, was putting cans of beans on a shelf, Ralph pointed out that there wouldn't be enough room for all the cans.
"Hmm," he said, "what we need is a shelf-stretcher. Why don't you go over to the drugstore and borrow theirs." Boogie obediently trotted off. All the merchants in the area were good friends, and the druggist immediately picked up on the joke. "Darn," he said, "I just loaned mine to Sam over at the liquor store. Why don't you go ask him for the stretcher when he's through with it?"
Somewhere down the line, a light went off over Boogie's head, and he came back to the grocery store sputtering. Ralph treated him to a soft drink — after he was through laughing.
In addition to stocking shelves, Boogie and his brothers made deliveries in the store's Dodge pickup. The bright red vehicle was a prize possession because it was wartime and good vehicles were hard to come by. One day two of the brothers were making a grocery delivery to a business near Seawall Boulevard, which runs along the top of Galveston's famed 17-foot-tall hurricane barrier.
They parked the vehicle in front of the store and delivered the bag of groceries. When they came out, no pickup. They scratched their heads and looked all around. Then a horrible thought hit them and they peered over the Seawall. Yep, there it was 17 feet below, nestled nose down among large pieces of granite at the bottom of the wall.
The thing that's miraculous about this story is that when a wrecker hauled the pickup out of its predicament, the vehicle started and was drivable. Ralph never determined which of the brothers was driving the Dodge that day, but he strongly suspected Boogie.
Oh, here's another part of the story. Years later, Boogie became Ralph's son-in-law when he married Ralph's other daughter, my sister-in-law.
* * *
Ralph enjoyed the interaction with his customers, who came in all varieties. There were the ones who quietly selected their grocery items, paid for them and left. Then there were the others, like the woman who visited one day soon after an A&P supermarket had opened just down the street.
"Ralph," she said, "that new A&P has tomato sauce three cans for a quarter. How much do you charge?"
"Eight cents a can," he responded.
"Well," she said, "will you match A&P's price?"
"All day long," Ralph deadpanned.
* * *
Then along World War II.
Ralph, the small child, hadn't grown that much over the years. In 1943 he was 5-7 and weighed 122 pounds. It was the height of the war and at age 34 with a glass eye and three dependents, the grocer was reclassified as 1-A by the local draft board. He took one look at the notification and decided he had rather be at sea doing something he knew rather than marchng on the ground, so he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, as did two of his brothers.
The task of the Merchant Marine during the war was to transport goods and services for the military. Ralph worked in engine rooms of tankers carrying fuel oil from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast. It was a dangerous job. German submarines stalked the convoys, occasionally picking off a ship. It's little known but worldwide the Merchant Marine suffered a higher percentage of war-related deaths than any other U.S. service. The attacks were not publicized because of wartime secrecy.
Fortunately, ships on which Ralph worked were never hit and he came out of the conflict without a scratch.
* * *
Back in Galveston after the war, Ralph grew tired of the grocery business and longed to do something different. He heard about a farm for sale in Brazos County and decided to become a farmer.
He paid $4 an acre for 400 acres of land near the community of Edge, selling his Galveston grocery store to raise the money.
The outdoor life suited him and his family, but it was also enforced isolation. Edge of the world, the family joked. Ralph was basically a city boy and he and his wife had two growing daughters who were ready to start socializing. So after five years of farming, he sold the land for $35 an acre, nailing down a nice profit, which he invested in another grocery store in nearby Bryan, where he was to spend the rest of his life.
* * *
Among his first visitors in the Bryan store were two tough-looking men who said they were in the grocery supply business. They informed Ralph that he would buy his butcher knives from them, paying a certain amount monthly. Ralph firmly declined their offer, explaining that he only used a certain kind of German cutlery.
They left and he found out later that the men represented the Southwest version of the Mafia. Perhaps Ralph's determined manner prompted their departure. Or maybe they sensed the .25-caliber Beretta in the cash drawer near his right hand.
Ralph had come a long way from the little boy who was bullied in elementary school.
* * *
One of Ralph's passions was golf. Both he and his wife had played since their days in Galveston, and both were quite good. Ralph's work as a butcher had given him well-developed wrists and he had a natural swing.
My wife recalls a pro-am tournament in which her father was paired with a local banker, who was middle-aged and a bit on the pudgy side. Opposing them were a couple of flat-bellies in their mid-30s.
Smelling easy money, one of the men edged up to the banker and said, "Why don't we make this interesting? Say we put $20 on the round."
The old banker thought for a minute and said, "We wouldn't have a chance like that. You two are bound to have low score. Why don't we play best ball by the hole? Maybe we'll luck out and win a few."
That was agreeable and my 5-foot-7 father-in-law teed off on the first hole, a par four. Whack! The ball took off in a majestic arc, settling 250 yards or so in the middle of the fairway. If that wasn't enough to give the opposing golfers a moment of doubt about the wisdom of their betting, Ralph's second shot settled the matter when his ball hit the flag and dropped into the cup for an eagle.
"I forgot to tell you," the banker told the two slack-jawed golfers. "My little friend can hit the stemwinding snot out of a golf ball."
My wife said her father came home that night with his pockets bulging with money.
* * *
Not only was my father-in-law a top-notch butcher and a fine golfer, he was also an excellent judge of character. When his daughter told him that she was marrying me, he said, "Not a raggedy-assed newspaperman!"
* * *
Oscar the Cat
Oscar the tomcat watched intently as the squirrel poked around in the grass only a dozen or so feet away. His white body tensed and his black tail twitched as he prepared for a lightning-like dash that would spell doom for his hapless prey. We watched from the back porch as the drama unfolded.
Oscar had come to live with us several years before as a gift from the Japanese family that lived next door to us in Irving. One night the wife and two children visited, young cat in arms. The husband had completed his graduate work at a local medical facility and they would be unable to take Oscar back to Japan with them. Would we give him a home? We agreed and as they tearfully bade him farewell, Oscar ignored them, hiked his black tail and wandered off into the kitchen in search of food.
That was Oscar, an independent sort. He was never a house cat but roamed free, going and coming as he pleased. The Japanese family had obtained him from the local animal shelter and at that time dogs and cats did not have to be sterilized for adoption. He was fully empowered and took advantage of his attributes. Sometimes he would be gone for several days at a time, but he always came home.
The squirrel that Oscar was stalking wouldn't be the first conquest that he had made. He was a throwback to the felines of the jungle — long, lean, agile and deadly. He began his version of final jeopardy, raising one stealthy foot at a time and inching forward until the squirrel was within his kill zone. Then he sprang, a projectile focused on his prey.
Oscar had been so intent on the squirrel that he failed to notice that the creature was in the next yard, safe behind a chain-link fence. The cat groggily picked himself up while the startled squirrel scampered to the safety of a tree. Then — noticing us on the porch watching him — Oscar gathered himself and majestically stalked away as though nothing had gone wrong in his hunt. "You didn't see that," he seemed to be saying. "That didn't happen. You didn't see that."
Oscar began staying gone from home for longer and longer periods, only coming home for occasional rest and relaxation. Once he showed up at our back door during a snowstorm. We let him in and treated him to leftovers from the fridge. While we were petting him, we noticed that he had ear mites. It was nothing new; he had been plagued by them previously. Our home treatment was mineral oil, a few drops in each ear. But, oh, how he hated it. I carried him to the front porch and held him while my wife did the deed. Oscar was VERY unhappy. When I put him down, he gave us a baleful glare and marched off down the snowy sidewalk, waving his black tail in anger.
It was the last time we ever set eyes on him. But over the years we did see more than a few white cats with black tails around town. Oscar obviously had stayed active.
* * *
How NOT to cut off a tree limb
We have a Chinese pistachio tree in the back yard, and at 10 or 12 feet where the branching begins there was a solitary limb growing straight up. Apparently the limb got a late start in tree life because it was always shaded by foliage and struggled mightily to get to the sun. Sadly, it didn't make it and died.
So this morning I decided to cut off the little limb that couldn't. Actually, it wasn't so little, only 3 or 4 inches in diameter but 15 or 20 feet long. Because of the limb's hard-to-reach location, I decided to use a hand-powered, labor-intensive saw on my pole pruner.
I plotted my attack. The limb was attached to one of the primary branches of the pistachio, therefore in the finest tree surgeon tradition I needed to make a 45-degree cut. OK, I had access for that if I employed my trusty stepladder. (No, I'm not going to tell you that I fell off the ladder.)
Up I go and the work begins. Saw, saw, saw, saw, saw, saw... Funny how that saw gets harder to use the older it gets. When I was about three-quarters of the way through, I moved to the other side of the tree and started cutting on the victimized limb at the same 45-degree angle. The amputation was going to be nice and clean.
Saw, saw, saw, saw, saw, saw... At the halfway mark it dawned on me that something was wrong. Eeek! I forgot that a 45-degree cut on one side of the limb required the cut on the other side to be an OPPOSITE 45 degrees. What I had was a V-shaped cut. But the lumberjacking was a success because when I gave the limb a shove, it came crashing straight down.
Now all I have to do is cut up the dismembered limb — which with its pointed tip would have made a nice lance for a knight — and eliminate the strange looking notch in the branch of the mother tree. I think I'll use my power pruner this time.
— Bob Stewart
* * *
Those old shears
Many years ago when my father died, I picked up an old pair of horse shears that had been "stored" on the ground in the back of a shed on the family farm. Even when I was a kid they hadn't looked like much — blades black when they should have been silver and handles with only a smidgen of paint left. Now they were in even worse shape with a half-inch or so of one of the blades broken off.
When I got home from the funeral, I ground off the good blade so that it matched the broken one. Then I smeared the shears generously with grease and tossed them into a box. That, too, was many years ago. Today I was rummaging around and found the shears. Their condition hadn't magically improved.
Having nothing else to do, I took the shears apart and cleaned them with a wire wheel mounted on a grinder. Then I gave the blades a few strokes with a file and bolted them back together. As a test, I tried them on an old T shirt that served as a cleaning rag. Voila! They cut the cloth easily.
And well they should have. Later I researched the shears on the Internet and found that they were 10-inch Wiss Inlaid Dressmaking Shears. They date back to as early as 1912 because that's when Wiss began making inlaid scissors. The "inlaid" refers to the handles being made of "malleable alloys" and the blades of high-carbon steel.
And all those years I thought those shears had been made to cut horses' manes.
* * *
In The Can
Aluminum beer cans were considerably stronger when they were introduced 50 years or so ago, and the way they opened was different, too. Instead of today's pop-top lid, you used your thumb to push a perforated part of the top into the container.
We once arrived at a party in Corpus Christi to find people gathered around our host as he contemplated his right hand, the thumb of which was firmly wedged in the top of a Coors aluminum beer can. If he tried to pull the thumb out, the sharp edges of the aperture threatened to cut him. And — just like in the Coors ads — the beer was Rocky Mountain frigid. His thumb was getting awfully cold.
In those days I carried a largish pocketknife, so I whipped it out and punctured the aluminum can to drain the beer. Then I cut off the bottom of the can to reach the bottom of the drinking hole and bent the edges back so that the host could extract his thumb.
He was grateful, but pointed out that I had wasted a full can of beer!
* * *
Three Wheels and an Anchor
I've always felt and acted about 20 years younger than my calendar age, which led to problems when I was in my 30s. (But I digress.)
Hard work? No problem. In my retirement years, the longer I dug in the garden, the stronger I felt. Yard work was something to be enjoyed — up until a couple of weeks ago.
It was while I was mowing the lawn that I noticed old age setting in. After a round of the yard, I felt winded. What? This shouldn't be. The grass was sparse after the long, hot summer and the beloved push mower was humming like a Jaguar.
I finished the yard, although each circuit of the yard seemed more laborious than than the last. Mopping my brow, I put the mower in the shed.
That's when I noticed.
My shed has a raised threshold, so I have to elevate the front wheels of the mower when I put it up. I rolled up to the threshold and canted the mower onto its back wheels. The right front wheel spun merrily as it was hoisted into the air. The left front wheel stood stock-still, frozen.
Yes, I had mowed the yard with three good wheels and one anchor. A little sandpaper and Lubriplate soon had the balky wheel whirling freely, and a trial run around the yard proved everything was back to normal.
Ah, it's great to be young again!
* * *
When I was a kid, we baled hay the old-fashioned way — with a mule-driven baler. My job was as puncher and tyer. It was supposed to be a two-man job, but since the going pay was 40 cents an hour, dad got more bang for his buck by having me do both jobs.
The hay baler was an elongated machine with a mule or horse up front going round and round to provide compression power. At the back, a man called the forker tossed hay onto the baler's table. Another worker gathered great armsful of the sneezy stuff and pushed them into the throat of the machine where they were compressed into bales of hay.
At regular intervals, the feeder would position a grooved block to separate the hay into bales. As the hay went through the machine, a tyer on one side inserted lengths of wire through the blocks. On the other side, a puncher returned the wire to the tyer through the next block. I simply hopped over the baler to do both jobs.
Here's what the rig looked like:
That feeder's job is one that I didn't want. If he should be too slow getting his arms out of the machine when the hay was being compressed, his arms could wind up in the middle of a bale. But I never saw an accident during my time with our outfit.
Well, I'll take that back — if you count hornet stings as accidents. A man riding a rake pulled by two horses or mules made rounds of the field and dragged the hay to the back of the baler. A couple of times a season this unfortunate individual would disturb a nest of hornets and get stung. Fortunately, none of the men stung proved seriously allergic to the stings.
The baler was mobile so that it could be pulled from field to field. This meant that the ponderous machine had to be elevated to attach metal wheels . There was a winch with a crank to do the job, but this was time consuming and, besides, we had two brothers who did the job a lot quicker. These fellows looked like Hoss Cartwright on the old Bonanza TV show. They would get on opposite sides of the baler and hold up the hundreds of pounds that the baler weighed while the wheels were positioned. Strong guys.
Hay baling was hard manual labor, but that was all farmers of that time knew. The work was broken by a hardy lunch, and at the end of the day a plunge into the stock tank washed away the dust and fatigue of the day.
* * *
I Kept It Under My Hat
This afternoon while on our daily walk, I felt an odd, fluttery sensation under my hat. Hmm, I thought, must be sinus. So I ignored it, and we continued our stroll.
Then... there it was again! What the bleep? I took off my hat and inside was a huge mosquito that had been feasting on my less-than-well-adorned head. How it got there, I don't know. I had put on my hat before we left the house, and we don't normally have indoor mosquitoes.
But the weirdness doesn't end there. As my wife and I gazed into the hat, The blood-laden mosquito wobbled aloft and flew (I swear) right into my wife's extended open hand, where she terminated it.
Top THAT one.
* * *
Mentioning no names, but someone other than myself in this two-party household accidentally flushed a toothbrush down the toilet. The predictable happened. Messy, messy, messy.
After the usual fruitless efforts with a plunger, we called a plumber. He surveyed the situation, made sure that it wasn't a clogged sewer line and went to work with an auger. Five minutes of work and out came the toothbrush.
"Can I still use it?" I asked with a serious tone. The look on the plumber's face was almost worth the $125 I had to pay for the job.
* * *
For a couple of years now we've been having trouble with our back yard flooding and water creeping onto the patio. Seems like every very-occasional rain has to be a cloudburst rather than a nice steady soaking.
Well, I decided to do something about it. Since my input with the rain gods is on the weak side, I opted to channel the floodwaters to the side of the back yard and away from the patio.
Dig, dig, dig... A trench here, a trench there. I wasn't concerned about the appearance of the yard because flooding, heavy shade and lack of consistent moisture had just about killed off the grass.
My main trench was one from the front of the patio to the side fence. That, I thought, would divert floodwater from the roof gutter downspout to the side of the yard and from there to the street. No more porch flooding.
Yesterday we had a half-inch downpour and I was able to see the fruits of my labor. Guess what... The yard is lower at the front of the patio than on the fence side. My trench was tilted the wrong way. Yes, dear friends, I succeeded in diverting more water onto the patio instead of less.