My mind never shut down, not even to sleep, but restlessly roved a dark dreamscape backed by a soundtrack of Lyle Lovett tunes, notably The Porch, which I’ve played endlessly because it always stirs something within me. I haven’t a clue what the song means. Something about surviving tough times, of telling naysayers and other sons-of-bitches to go to hell, but the common thread in each verse is the state of Texas.
So I tossed and turned and my legs jitterbugged with longing to follow my thoughts into the sunblasted scrublands near my hometown of Pyote, and twice I rose and paced the floor, peering out each window to see the neighborhood at night, the skies bright from reflected citylight, and I thought about writing to calm down but more than anything I wanted to sleep and so tried again. It did nothing to lull me. As the sun slashed across the eastern horizon and blackbirds ascended like a ragged cloak from their nightly roost along Big Dry Creek, I returned to the keyboard struggling to get this thing straight.
The source of my turmoil was a brief memoir my great-uncle Lonny Parker wrote while camped on the shores of Beaver Lake. It had arrived in a manila envelope, a gift from my mother, who said I would find it interesting—her term for any written archive from the family. She knew I kept a diary, and had for decades, but she didn’t know that I constantly struggled with the idea of writing, the need for it, as if life was not real unless first being mulled over, filtered, and then recorded.
A diary is a window into a writer’s soul, and Lonny’s was no exception. It was 1968. He must have been in his late sixties then, hair silvered, maybe a slight stoop to his walk. Hunched over a manual typewriter, rain on the camper’s roof keeping time with the hard clack of the keys, he wrote, On my trip to South Texas and West Texas which I started last February I wrote for my own satisfaction, sending you a copy of the high lights of the trip and ended it when I reached Kermit Texas, and the vicinity where I was raised and where I lived until I was 31 years old. I have now decided to continue this trip to make my file complete and to pass away some time. I made me notes of happenings after I wrote the last chapter, so am now trying out my memory, and that is what most of this chapter will be about, MEMORIES.
My mother said he always loved to write but couldn’t spell worth a damn, which was odd due to the fact that he rose to prominence in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Enforcement in St. Louis, Missouri. That says something about talent, skill and determination more than schooling, of which his was poor. My father said it was Lonny who led him into a life outdoors, and he tried modeling his life after him. I never knew the man.
His tale begins in 1908, when they moved across West Texas to homestead and raise cattle. Texas was the frontier, still wild and unsettled. They traveled in a covered wagon, his mother taking the reins, his father leading a pack of horses. I come from a line of true cowboys.
As I cooked dinner last night I was captivated by his tale. Enough of Lovett’s Porch song will make a man hungry for a plate of steaming hot enchiladas, and so I spent an hour washing dishes and then dirtying up the kitchen again. With Lori still not home I moved onto my own porch and sat in a chair, the air crisp and turning colder, unable to read about pioneering in Texas with four walls hemming me in. I needed space. His writing moved me, the uncomplicated simplicity of it. When I came across one line my heart skipped a beat. Sometime in the first years of our stay on this ranch our grandfather Tom Wade Parker, Grand mother and Aunt Barbra settled on a place north of ours and built a little home. Seeing my name shook me. My mother always said I was named after several relatives, a smorgasbord of uncles, not after one particular person. And here I was, staring back from the print.
Each page of Lonny’s diary opened up new vistas and questions. I’m reeling from it all, so much so that I pored over the genealogical tables my mother gave us just to see where my relatives came from. They migrated ever westward, coming from Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, the Deep South. Their sympathies were southern during the War Between the States, and one, an artilleryman, was gravely wounded at Antietam. Another came from Kansas, giving me one measure, however miniscule, of inheritance to that state. Texas was their final stop.
The places Lonny lived and worked and crisscrossed on horseback are a litany of place names from my past and present. He settled around Pyote and Monahans, bought cattle and sheep in southern New Mexico, broke broncs for the Army around Terlingua and the Big Bend area, saw his family go bust during the drought years. The cattle died, sheep consumed everything in sight like wooly locusts until only dust remained, powdery, deep, blowing like ashes on the wind. He and his brothers chased roadrunners and rabbits and killed them with well-placed stones, and dressed and cooked the rabbits over mesquite coals. They went barefoot, stopping only long enough to pull mesquite thorns from their leathery soles.
His was a world in passing, the last full generation of cowboys in my family. My father recalls saddling up at three a.m. to head down to the Pecos River to gather the cattle for branding, a ride of seven or eight miles. But even that was fading, victim of a new economy and an encroaching war. My father rode horses in his youth and flew fighter planes before he was twenty, a fact that still amazes him.
(Conclusion next week)