Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Where the Jackrabbits Were

Here's one of my favorite pieces of writing.  It was written by Bill Moyers for Newsweek magazine and published on October 21, 1974:

Where the Jackrabbits Were    

 When I was born in 1934 my father was making $2 a day working on the construction of a new highway from the Texas border to Oklahoma City.  We were living in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma in an area known as "Little Dixie" because so many people had come there from Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
     I have not spent any time in Oklahoma for years, although my childhood impressions were sharply etched in my mind and I have always felt that men like my father, coming to maturity in the '20's and laid low by the '30's, were a special lot; they were born before Oklahoma was admitted to the Union and the state took shape around their labors and losses.  They had no option but to cope, and their experiences fueled a whole generation's determination not to repeat them.  As "Adam Smith" wrote a few years ago, "it is the first generation off the farm that provides the longest hours and the most uncomplaining workers." It wasn't sheer ambition alone that drove my crowd in the '50's to hallow the success ethic; we had memories

     I went back last week and the memories were still there.  My father, who is 70 now, came up on the bus from Texas and we drove from Oklahoma City down through familiar parts of the state.  His brother, my uncle Harry, still lives in Pauls Valley, an hour south of Oklahoma City; he and Aunt Emily have moved into town from the farm they rented and worked for more than a quarter of a century.  Even at 68, however, Uncle Harry can't stay away from the land; partly to earn money--their old-age assistance is less than $200 a month--and partly from habit, he hires out when someone needs him.  "I'd make good w in those days he and my father and men like them qualified to vote in local elections by helping to build country roads-two days wages if I could just find the work," he said.  This summer he took a hoe to 100 acres of soybeans and earned $2.50 an hour, which he says "was a big help to Momma and me when the inflation bug hit."  They still grow potatoes, corn, tomatoes and okra, and at lunch Aunt Emily served strawberry cake and three pies.
     A late afternoon sun the size of a prospector's imagination was hanging in the sky as we drove out to their old farm.  We turned off on a levee along the Washita River that Uncle Harry had built with a team of mules; in those days he and my father and men like them qualified to vote in local elections by helping to build country roads--two days of work to qualify if they brought a mule, five if not. "There was a time during the Depression when the only meat we had to eat was jackrabbits we caught in the fields," my father said.  "And sometimes," Uncle Harry added, "we'd fun alongside 'em to feel their ribs to see if they were fat enough t'cook." Uncle Harry has never been able to pull a Republican lever when he votes; he always thinks of jackrabbits and Herbert Hoover.
     The old house to which Uncle Harry brought Aunt Emily from Little Dixie in 1030 is still standing in the fields a hundred yards from the river, abandoned and beginning to fall apart--a simple frame house with two bedrooms where eight children were born."I couldn't even afford to buy this land when it was selling for $200 an acre 30 years ago," Uncle Harry said, "Now they're gettin' $2,00 to $3,000 an acre for shoppin' centers and stuff like that."  He signed and said: "Even in the worst times I couldn't leave it.  It almost killed Momma and me, but this place needed us as much as we needed it.  They got bulldozers now, and they don't need us anymore."
     My father and I drove on southeast through an Oklahoma that is changing fast and prospering, in ways to be discussed in this space next time.  But now we were putting the past together again.


    My father's parents married in Tahlequah, in what was then Indian Territory, in what was then Indian Territory, and moved south of the Red River into Texas, to farm the waxy black land.  Grandfather died of pneumonia in 1916 and two years later the family returned to Oklahoma with a new stepfather.  They owned four mules and two wagons, a buckboard buggy, two milk cows, two calves, a pig and some chickens.  The January weather was cold and wet and it took them two days to travel 30 miles.  After they had ferried the Red River near Frogville the two young mules got stuck in the muddy bottom land, became scared trying to get out, and turned the wagon over into the muck.  My father, who was then 12, and his brother Harry tried to recover some of grandmother's canned fruits but they failed.
     They settled in Choctaw County, not far from where the "Trail of Tears" had ended years earlier for the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Creek Indians who had been forcefully removed by the U.S. Government from their old lands in the Deep South.  Sadness and hardship were the lot of most people, red men and white, who tried to impose their hope on the realities of nature in this part of the country, and the incident on the Red River wa only a harbinger of difficult times to come.  Men swore and watched helplessly as it rained when they didn't want it and didn't when they desperately needed it.  Their wives cooked on wood stoves and washed clothes in black pots and buried children who couldn't survive the diphtheria and malaria and bore more who did; twin daughters born to my mother both died, one of whom might have been saved had there been a doctor or medicine nearby.  When the flu and pneumonia struck, people wrapped asafetida gum in a cloth around the necks of their ailing kin and waited often in vain.


   In the winter they shook with the cold and in the summer they sweltered.  My father and his brother used to scoop 15 tons of cottonseed a day from a wagon onto the conveyor belt, in 110 degrees, for 50 centsa ton each.  That was a temporary job when the gins were running and the rest of the time they tried to farm, always on another man's land--fourteen hours a day behind a team of mules.  My father wanted to stay with farming but he had to give up shortly before I was born.  He had expected to get half a bale of cotton to the acre on 35 acres, but it rained all of July and half of August and the boll weevils came like an Old Testament plague and it was over; he went to work on the highway.  Eventually he got a job driving a truck for a creamery--$15 and expenses for a six-day week--and we moved to Texas.  One by one his own brothers--except for Uncle Harry--left the land, migrating to California and into the pages of a Steinbeck novel.
    In recapturing the past last week, we were not trying to do so in some idealized way, to make thins what they never were, nor to escape; a 70-year-old man who has buried four of his five children doesn't extol the good old days, and I still have places to be.  We were looking, instead, for landmarks to share again after years of separate journey, and in ordinary places, while there was still time, we found them.


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