21 February 2002

My friend Jim read about this technique called Babysign in which you teach children to use a simplified sign language so that they can communicate with you before they have developed the physical and mental ability to speak. If nothing else, Jim thought, it will cut out a lot of that crying if they can let you know what’s bothering them or what they want. So he learned the sign language and taught it to his twin granddaughters and his wife, who is pretty much raising the girls, and of course the kids started speaking many months (a year?) before they were supposed to and are now learning everything so incredibly fast because they had this head start, etc. etc.

I got to thinking, if I had had a grandfather like him to give me that kind of head start, I might have made something of myself. As it was, when I was five years old I could count and had the alphabet down, but Mother refused, yes refused, to teach me how to read and I wasn’t smart enough to teach myself like Milton did sitting there in front of his father while his father read from the Bible. Owing to his seating location, he could read only upside down, but we assume that sometime before he went blind he made the transition to the missionary position.

At that point in her life my mother was an ex-schoolteacher. She took it up again in 1948 when I was about to start the second grade and we moved to an oil camp out from Notrees, where she discovered that 1) life as a housewife “out from Notrees” was terminally boring and that 2) the schools out there paid the highest salaries in the state.

For persons unfamiliar with west Texas oilfields, when you are “out from Notrees” you are in utter desolation – a camp of four oil company houses huddled about five miles out on a caliche road that hits the paved highway between Notrees and Kermit right off the caprock a couple of miles west of Notrees. Notrees is about halfway between Odessa and Kermit, a distance of about 55 miles, and was given its name in an exuberance of oilfield irony…or in this case inverted irony, the proper name for which I seem to have forgot. How about “truth”? The fauna were cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, coyotes, horny toads, rattlesnakes, and the occasional gila monster. Oh yeah, and some birds, by far the most interesting of which being the scissor-tailed swallow. The flora were mesquite bushes, yuccas, prickly pear cactus, goathead stickers, and occasional tufts of some grass-like stuff. The horizons were distant.

In the late forties, Kermit was thriving and Notrees was on the way up to its peak in the mid-fifties when it and Goldsmith both had small elementary schools educating the oil camp kids although these schools were not opened until after we left Notrees, so mother drove us kids into Kermit where we went to school and she taught.

There were two incidents of excitement and one memorable moment during the year we lived in Notrees. The first exciting incident was the time when, displaying great bravery and savagery I slew my first rattlesnake, only to have my father point out the absence of rattles and fangs, “Those are just ‘is teeth,” when I displayed the corpse even though it sure had seemed like a rattlesnake when it was moving.

The memorable moment occurred one afternoon when I got home from school and was poking around in the garage and saw something new, a box about three feet by two feet by one foot high composed of a frame of one by two inch wooden slats covered with chicken wire. At one end there was this counterweighted cylindrical device that would move up and down to cover and uncover a hole to the outside if you turned the box over, which I did repeatedly, trying to figure out its purpose. It was years later that it dawned on me why Mother was able to serve quail fairly often that winter. All I knew at the time was that Daddy sure didn’t want me talking about this thing to anybody. Trapping quail was illegal in Texas in those days although many country folk did it to put meat on the table. I figure by now his sordid history of quail trapping is covered by the statue of limitations. Besides, he’s been dead for thirty years, so go fetch him, copper.

The second exciting incident was the car catching fire on the way to school one morning. I happened to look down at the floorboard and notice flames licking up through the hole where the brake pedal went through. Yes, kids, in the ’47 Ford, the connecting rods for clutch, brake, and accelerator just went through open holes in the floorboard. I immediately brought the fire to Mother’s attention, and she stopped the car, hustled Becky and me a good many yards away, went back to discover that there was too much fire for her to get her fingers under the hood to get to the release lever so that she then could scoop sand onto the fire.

So she left us sitting under a mesquite bush with strict instructions not to go back to the car while she trotted off down the road to the highway and flagged down the first car, whose driver brought her back to us where we sat in enormous disappointment that the car had not blown up in her absence nor even become a modest pillar of fire. Once the car had stopped, the fire went out before it had involved more than the carburetor, the wiring, and the exterior engine oil. Even so, when the Samaritan arrived the car was, although still intact and cooling, inoperable, and he gave us a ride into Kermit. At which point the story became dull enough that I remember nothing else except that the garage that had fixed the car the previous day quickly agreed to fix it again, free.

But I digress. Mother refused to teach me to read when I was five because she didn’t want me to be bored with school and also because she wanted me to be a “normal” kid. How could she have known so early? More importantly, since she obviously knew I wasn’t normal when I was five years old, why the hell didn’t she realize that I needed every bit of help I could get and that having a head start in reading might have made all the difference? Then again, I’d probably have been insufferable. OK, more insufferable.

And to be fair, when I was seven, she bought the brand new 1948 edition of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, which declared its purpose on the frontispiece: “To inspire ambition, to stimulate the imagination, to provide the inquiring mind with accurate information told in an interesting style, and thus lead into broader fields of knowledge, such is the purpose of this work.”

I guess it did all of that, except maybe for the ambition part. At any rate, I began devouring it immediately, focusing mostly on the pictures for the first couple of years but somewhere along there realizing that the text was more interesting…at least when I wasn’t killing rattlesnakes.

I look back at killing those snakes with shame, not that I killed all that many of them. In those days, folks felt that the indiscriminate slaughter of any animal we deemed dangerous or undesirable was justified. True, had one of the snakes bitten me, I’d almost certainly have died. This was before the antivenin was developed, and I was a small child. But still, I’d feel much better about it if only I’d killed them for food.

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