From BOUND FOR GLORY by Woody Guthrie, copyright 1943 by E.P. Dutton, renewed (c) 1971 by Marjorie M. Guthrie. Used by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Okemah, in Creek Indian, means "Town on a Hill," but our busiest hill was our Graveyard Hill, and just about the only hill in the country that you could rest on. West of town, the wagon roads petered themselves out chasing through some brushy sand hills. Then south, the country just slipped away and turned into a lot of hard-hit farms, trying to make an honest living in amongst the scatterings of scrub oak, black jack, sumac, sycamore, and cottonwood that lay on the edges of the tough hay meadows and stickery pasture lands.
Okemah was an Oklahoma farming town since the early days, and it had about an equal number of Indians, Negroes, and Whites doing their trading there. It had a railroad called the Fort Smith and Western—and there was no guarantee that you'd get any certain place any certain time by riding it. Our most famous railroad man was called "Boomer Swenson," and every time Boomer come to a spot along the rails where he'd run over somebody, he'd pull down on his whistle cord and blow the longest, moaningest, saddest whistle that ever blew on any man's railroad.
Ours was just another one of those little towns, I guess, about a thousand or so people, where everybody knows everybody else; and on your way to the post office, you'd nod and speak to so many friends that your neck would be rubbed raw when you went in to get your mail if there was any. It took you just about an hour to get up through town, say hello, talk over the late news, family gossip, sickness, weather, crops and lousy politics. Everybody had something to say about something, or somebody, and you usually knew almost word for word what it was going to be about before you heard them say it, as we had well-known and highly expert talkers on all subjects in and out of this world.
Old Windy Tom usually shot off at his mouth about the weather. He not only could tell you the exact break in the exact cloud, but just when and where it would rain, blow, sleet or snow; and for yesterday, today, and tomorrow, by recalling to your mind the very least and finest details of the weather for these very days last year, two years, or forty years ago. When Windy Tom got to blowing it covered more square blocks than any one single cyclone. But he was our most hard-working weather man—Okemah's Prophet—and we would of fought to back him up.
I was what you'd call just a home-town kid and carved my initials on most everything that would stand still and let me. W. G. Okemah Boy. Born 1912. That was the year, I think, when Woodrow Wilson was named to be the president and my papa and mama got all worked up about good and bad politics and named me Woodrow Wilson too. I don't remember this any too clear.
I wasn't much more than two years old when we built our seven-room house over in the good part of Okemah. This was our new house, and Mama was awful glad and proud of it. I remember a bright yellow outside—a blurred haze of a dark inside—some vines looking in through windows.
Sometimes, I seem to remember trying to follow my big sister off to school. I'd gather up all of the loose books I could find around the house and start out through the gate and down the sidewalk, going to get myself a schoolhouse education, but Mama would run out and catch me and drag me back into the house kicking and bawling. When Mama would hide the books I'd walk back to the front porch, afraid to run away, but I'd use the porch for my stage, and the grass, flowers, and pickets along our fence would be my crowd of people; and I made up my first song right there:
These days our family seemed to be getting along all right. People rode down our street in buggies and sarries, all dressed up, and they'd look over at our house and say, "Charlie and Nora Guthrie's place." "Right new."
Clara was somewhere between nine and ten, but she seemed like an awful big sister to me. She was always bending and whirling around, dancing away to school and singing her way back home; and she had long curls that swung in the wind and brushed in my face when she wrestled me across the floor.
Roy was along in there between seven and eight. Quiet about everything. Walked so slow and thought so deep that I always wondered what was going on in his head. I watched him biff the tough kids on the noodle over the fence, and then he would just come on in home, and think and think about it. I wondered how he could fight so good and keep so quiet.
I guess I was going on three then.
Peace, pretty weather. Spring turning things green. Summer staining it all brown. Fall made everything redder, browner, and brittler. And winter was white and gray and the color of bare trees. Papa went to town and made real-estate deals with other people, and he brought their money home. Mama could sign a check for any amount, buy every little thing that her eyes liked the looks of. Roy and Clara could stop off in any store in Okemah and buy new clothes to fit the weather, new things to eat to make you healthy, and Papa was proud because we could all have anything we saw. Our house was packed full of things Mama liked, Roy liked, Clara liked, and that was what Papa liked. I remember his leather law books, Blackstone and others. He smoked a pipe and good tobacco and I wondered if this helped him to stretch out in his big easy-riding chair and try to think up some kind of a deal or swap to get some more money.
But those were fighting days in Oklahoma. If even the little newskids fought along the streets for corroded pennies, it's not hard to see that Papa had to outwit, outsmart, and outrun a pretty long string of people to have everything so nice. It kept Mama scared and nervous. She always had been a serious person with deep-running thoughts in her head; and the old songs and ballads that she sung over and over every day told me just about what she was thinking about. And they told Papa, but he didn't listen. She used to say to us kids, "We love your Papa, and if anything tries to hurt him and make him bad and mean, we'll fight it, won't we?" And Roy would jump up and pound his fist on his chest and say, "I'll fight!" Mama knew how dangerous the landtrading business was, and she wanted Papa to drop out of the fighting and the pushing, and settle down to some kind of a better life of growing things and helping other people to grow. But Papa was a man of brimstone and hot fire, in his mind and in his fists, and was known all over that section of the state as the champion of all the fist fighters. He used his fists on sharks and fakers, and all to give his family nice things. Mama was that kind of a woman who always looked at a pretty thing and wondered, "Who had to work to make it? Who owned it and loved it before?"
So our family was sort of divided up into two sides: Mama taught us kids to sing the old songs and told us long stories about each ballad; and in her own way she told us over and over to always try and see the world from the other fellow's side. Meanwhile Papa bought us all kinds of exercising rods and stretchers, and kept piles of kids boxing and wrestling out in the front yard; and taught us never and never to allow any earthly human to scare us, bully us, or run it over us.
Then more settlers trickled West, they said in search of elbow room on the ground, room to farm the rich topsoil; but, hushed and quiet, they dug into the private heart of the earth to find the lead, the soft coal, the good zinc. While the town of people only seventeen miles east of us danced on their roped-off streets and held solid weeks of loud celebrating called the King Koal Karnival, only the early roadrunners, the smart oil men, knew that in a year or two King Koal would die and his body would be burned to ashes and his long twisting grave would be left dank and dark and empty under the ground—that a new King would be dancing into the sky, gushing and spraying the entire country around with the slick black blood of industry's veins, the oil—King Oil—a hundred times more powerful and wild and rich and fiery than King Timber, King Steel, King Cotton, or even King Koal.
The wise traders come to our town first, and they were the traders who had won their prizes at out-trading thousands of others back where they come from: oil slickers, oil fakers, oil stakers, and oil takers. Papa met them. He stood up and swapped and traded, bought and sold, got bigger, spread out, and made more money.
And this was to get us the nice things. And we all liked the prettiest and best things in the store windows, and anything in the store was Clara's just for signing her name, Roy's just for signing his name, or Mama's just for signing her name—and I knew how proud I felt of our name, that just to write it on a piece of paper would bring more good things home to us. This wasn't because there was oil in the wind, nor gushers thrashing against the sky, no—it was because my dad was the man that owned the land—and whatever was under that land was ours. The oil was a whisper in the dark, a rumor, a gamble. No derricks standing up for your eye to see. It was a whole bunch of people chasing a year or two ahead of a wild dream. Oil was the thing that made other people treat you like a human, like a burro, or like a dog.
Mama thought we had enough to buy a farm and work it ourselves, or at least get into some kind of a business that was a little quieter. Almost every day when Papa rode home he showed the signs and bruises of a new fist fight, and Mama seemed to get quieter than any of us had ever seen her. She laid in the bedroom and I watched her cry on her pillow.
And all of this had give us our nice seven-room house.
One day, nobody ever knew how or why, a fire broke out somewhere in the house. Neighbors packed water. Everybody made a run to help. But the flames outsmarted the people, and all that we had left, in an hour or two, was a cement foundation piled full of red-hot ashes and cinders.
How did it break out? Where'bouts did it get started? Anybody know? Hey, did they tell you anything? Me? No. I don't know. Hey, John, did you happen to see how it got on afire? No, not me. Nobody seems to know. Where was Charlie Guthrie? Out trading? Kids at school? Where was Mrs. Guthrie and the baby? Nobody knows a thing. It just busted loose and it jumped all through the bedrooms and the dining room and the front room—nobody knows a thing.
Where's th' Guthrie folks at? Neighbors' house? All of them all right? None hurt. Wonder what'll happen to 'em now? Oh, Charlie Guthrie will jist go out here an' make about two swaps some mornin' before breakfast an' he'll make enough money to build a whole lot better place than that . . . . No insurance. . . . They say this broke him flat. . . , Well, I'm waitin' ta see where they'll move to next.
I remember our next house pretty plain. We called it the old London House, because a family named London used to live there. The walls were built up out of square sandstone rocks. The two big rooms on the ground floor were dug into the side of a rocky hill. The walls inside felt cold, like a cellar, and holes were dug out between the rocks big enough to put your two hands in. And the old empty snuff cans of the London family were lined up in rows along the rafters.
I liked the high porch along the top story, for it was the highest porch in all of the whole town. Some kids lived in houses back along the top of the hill, but they had thick trees all around their back porches, and couldn't stand there and look way out across the first street at the bottom of the hill, across the second road about a quarter on east, out over the willow trees that grew along a sewer creek, to see the white strings of new cotton bales and a whole lot of men and women and kids riding into town on wagons piled double-side-board-full of cotton, driving under the funny shed at the gin, driving back home again on loads of cotton seed.
I stood there looking at all of this, which was just the tail-end section of Okemah. And then, I remember, there was a long train blew a wild-sounding whistle and throwed a cloud of steam out on both sides of its engine wheels, and lots of black smoke come jumping out of the smokestack. The train pulled a long string of boxcars along behind it, and when it got to the depot it cut its engine loose from the rest of the cars, and the engine trotted all around up and down the railroad tracks, grabbing onto cars and tugging them here and yonder, taking some and leaving some. But I was tickled best when I saw the engine take a car and run and run till it got up the right speed, and then stop and let the car go coasting and rolling all by its own self, down where the man wanted it to be. I knew I could go and get in good with any bunch of kids in the neighborhood just by telling them about my big high lookout porch, and all of the horses and cotton wagons, and the trains.
Papa hired a man and a truck to haul some more furniture over to our old London House; and Roy and Clara carried all kinds of heavy things, bedsteads, springs, bed irons, parts for stoves, some chairs, quilts that didn't smell right to me, tables and extra leaves, a boxful of silverware which I was glad to see was the same set we had always used. A few of the things had come out of the other house before the fire got out of hand. The rest of the furniture was all funny looking. Somebody else had used it in their house, and Papa had bought it second hand.
Clara would say, "I'll be glad when we get to live in another house that we own; then Mama can get a lot of new things."
Roy talked the same way. "Yeah, this stuff is so old and ugly, it'll scare me just to have to eat, and sleep, and live around it."
"It won't be like our good house, Roy," Clara said. "I liked for kids to come over and play in our yard then, and drink out of our pretty water glasses and see our pretty flower beds, but I'm gonna just run any kid off that comes to see us now, 'cause I don't want anybody to think that anybody has got to live with such old mean, ugly chairs, and cook on an old nasty stove, and even to sleep on these filthy beds, and..." Then Clara set down a chair she was carrying inside of the kitchen and looked all around at the cold concrete walls, and down at the rock floor. She picked up a water glass that was spun half full of fine spider webs with a couple of flies wrapped like mummies and she said, "...And ask anybody to drink out of these old spidery glasses."
Roy and Clara cooked the first meal on the rusty stove. It was a good meal of beefsteak, thickened flour gravy, okra rolled in corn meal and fried in hot grease, hot biscuits with plenty of butter melted in between, and at the last, Clara danced around over the floor, grabbed a can opener out of the cupboard drawer, and cut a can of sliced peaches open for us. The weather outside was the early part of fall, and there was a good wood-smoke smell in the air along towards sundown and supper time, and families everywhere were warming up a little. The big stove heated the rock walls and Papa asked Mama, "Well, Nora, how do you like your new house?"
She had her back to the cook stove and faced the east window, and looked out over Papa's shoulder, and not in his face, and held a hot cup of coffee in both of her hands, and everybody got quiet. But for a long time she didn't answer. Then she finally said, "I guess it's all right. I guess it'll have to do till we can get a better place. I guess we won't be here very long." She run her fingers through her hair, set her coffee down to cool, and the look on her face twisted and trembled and it scared everybody. Her eyes didn't look to see anything or anybody in that house, but she had pretty dark eyes and the gray light from the east window was about all that was shining in her mind.
"How long we gonna stay, I mean live here, Papa?" Roy spoke up.
Papa looked around at everybody at the table and then he said, "You mean you don't like it here?" His face looked funny and his eyes run around over the kitchen.
Clara cleared away a handful of dirty plates off of the table and said, "Are we supposed to like it here?"
"Where it's so dirty," Roy went on to say, "an' spooky lookin' you can't even bring any kids around your own home?"
Mama didn't say a word.
"Why," Papa told Roy, "this is a good house, solid rock all over, good new shingle roof, new rafters. Go take a look at that upper attic. Lots of room up there where you can store trunks and things. You can fix a nice playhouse up in that attic and invite all of the kids in the whole country to come down here on cold winter days, and play dolls, and all kinds of games up in there. You kids just don't know a good house when you see one. And, one thing, it won't ever catch afire and burn down."
Roy just ducked his head and looked down at his plate and didn't say any more. Mama's cup of hot coffee had turned cold. Clara poured a dishpan of hot water, slushed her finger around to whip up the suds, cooled it down just right with a dipper of cold water, and told Papa, "As for me, I don't like this old nasty place. 'Cause it's got old cold dingy walls, that's why. 'Cause I don't like to sleep up there in that old stinky bedroom where you can smell the snuff spit of the London family for the last nine kids. 'Cause you know what kinds of stories everybody tells about this old house, you know as well as I know. Kids swelled up in that old bedroom and died. Broke out all over with old yellow, running sores. Not a kid, not in this whole town, not a single girl I used to play with will ever, ever play with me again as long as we live in this town, if we let them find out we've got the London House seven-year itch!" Clara turned her head away from the rest of us.
Papa wasn't saying much, just sipped his coffee and listened to the others talk. Then he said, "I've got something to tell you all. I don't know, I don't know how you're going to take it. Well, I'm afraid we're going to have to live in this house for a long time. I bought this place for a thousand dollars yesterday."
"You mean . . ." Mama talked up. "Charlie, are you trying to sit there and tell me that you actually...?"
"...Bought this place?" Clara said.
"A thousan' dollars for this old dump?" Roy asked him.
"I'm afraid so." Papa went ahead drinking his coffee and leaving the rest of his dinner setting in front of him to get cold. "We'll pitch in and fix it all up real nice, new plaster, and cement all inside. New paint all over the woodwork."
Clara dried her hands on her apron and then pushed her curls back out of her face and stepped over to the west back door, opened the door and walked out onto the hill.
Roy got up and pushed the door shut behind her.
Papa said, "Tell your sister to come on in here out of this night air, she'll take down sick after standing over that hot stove."
And Roy said, "Th' hot stove an' th' night.air don't hurt us as..."
"Bad as what?" Papa asked Roy. And Roy said, "Bad's what Clara was tellin' you about, that's what."
"Roy, you mind what I tell you to do! I told you to open up that door and call Clara back in this house. You do it!" Papa gave his orders, and his voice was half rough and tough, but halfway hurt.
"Call 'er in if you want 'er in," Roy told Papa, and then Roy made a run around Papa's elbow and through the front room, and he mounted the stairs outside and chased up to his bedroom and pulled the covers all up over his head.
Papa rose up from his chair and walked over and opened up the kitchen door and walked out to find Clara. He called her name a few times and she didn't answer back. But somewhere he could hear her crying and he called her again, "Clara, Clara! Where are you? Talk!"
"I'm over here," Clara spoke up, and when Papa turned around he saw that he had walked right past her skirt on his way out the door. She was leaning back against the wall of the house.
"You know your old Papa don't want anything to happen to you, because, well, I get mean sometimes, and I treat all of you bad, but sometimes it's just because I want to treat you so good that I'd... Come on, let me carry you back in the house. I'm your old mean Papa. You can call me that if you want to." He reached down and took Clara by the arm, and gave her a little pull. She let her body just go limp and limber, and kept crying for a minute.
Then Papa went on talking, "I might be mean. I guess I am. I might not stop often enough trying to work and make a lot of money to buy all of you some nice things. Maybe I've got to be so mean trading, and trying to make the money, that I don't know how to quit when I come in home where you are, where Roy is, and where Mama's at."
Clara snubbed a little, folded her arm over her face, and then she wiped the tears away from her eyes with the wrong end of her fist and said, "Not either."
"Not either, what?" Papa asked her.
"Why? I thought I was."
"Why ain't I?"
"It's something else that's mean."
"I don't know."
"What is it that's mean to my little girl? You just tell me what it is that's even one little frog hair mean to my little girl, and your old mean dad'll roll up his sleeves, and double up his fists and go and knock the sound out of somebody."
old house is mean."
"How can a house be mean?"
"It's mean to be in it."
"Oh," Papa told Clara, "now, I see what you're driving at. You know how mean I am?"
"I'm just big and mean enough to pick you up just like a big sack of sugar and put on my shoulder, like this, and like this, and then like this, and... see... I can carry you all of the way in through this back door, and all of the way in through this big, nice, warm kitchen, and all of the way..." Papa carried Clara laughing and giggling under her curly hair back into the kitchen. When he was even with the stove, he looked up and saw Mama washing the dishes and piling them on a little oilcloth table to drain.
Clara kicked in the air and said, "Oh! Let me down! Let me down! I'm not crying now! And besides, look what's happening! Look!" She squirmed out of Papa's hold around her, and slid to the floor, and she sailed over into a corner, brought out a mop, and started mopping up all around Mama's feet, talking a blue streak.
"Mama, look! You're draining the dishes without a drain pan! The water's dripping like a great big... river... down..."
And then Clara looked over the hot-water reservoir on the wood stove and nobody in the house saw what she saw. Her eyes flared open when she seen that her mama wasn't listening, just washing the dishes clean in the scalding water; and when her mama set still another plate on its edge on the little table, Clara kept her quiet, and Papa took a deep breath, and bit his lip, and turned around and walked away into the front room.
I found a new way to spend my time these days. I went across the alley on top of the hill and strutted up and down in front of a bunch of kids that spent most of their time making up games to play on top of their cellars. Almost every house up and down the street had a dugout of some kind or another full of fresh canned fruit, string beans, pickled beets, onions. I snuck into one cellar after another with one kid after another, and saw how dark, how chilly and damp it was down in there. I smelled the cankery dank rotten logs along the ceiling of one cellar, and the hemmed-up feeling made me want to get back out into the open air again, but the good denned-up feeling sort of made me want to stay down in there.
The kid next door had a cellar full of jars and the jars were full of pickled beets, long green cucumbers, and big round slices of onions and peaches as big as your hat. So we pulled us up a wooden box, and took down a big fruit jar of peaches. I twisted the lid. The other kid took a twist. But the jar was sealed too tight. We commenced getting hungry. "Ain't that juice larepin'?" "Yeah, boy, it is," I told him, "but what's larepin'?" So he says, "Anything you like real good an' ain't got fer a long time, an' then you git it, that's larepin'."
All of our hard wrestling and cussing didn't coax the lid off. So we sneaked over behind the barn. The other kid squeezed his self in between a couple of loose boards, stayed in the barn a minute, and came back out with a claw hammer and a two-gallon feed bucket. "Good bucket," he told me. I glanced into it, seen a few loose horse hairs, but he must have had a pretty hungry horse, because the bucket had been licked as clean as a new dime.
I held the jar as tight as I could over the bucket, and he took a few little love taps on the shoulder of the jar with his hammer. He saw he wasn't hitting the glass hard enough, so he got a little harder each lick. Then he come down a good one on it, and the glass broke into a thousand pieces; the pewter lid and the red rubber seal fell first, then a whole big goo of loose peaches, skinned and cut in halves slopped out into the bottom of the bucket; and then the neck of the jar with a lot of mean-looking jagged edges sticking up, and the bottom of the jar that scared us to look at it.
"Good peaches," he told me.
"Good juice," I told him.
We fingered in around the slivers of glass and looked each peach over good before we downed it, pushing little sharp chips off through the oozy juice; and the warm sun made the specks of glass shine up like diamonds.
"Reckon how much a really diamond sparks?" he said to me.
"I don't know," I said to him.
Then he said, "My mama's got one she wears on her finger."
And I said, "My mama ain't... jest a big wide gold'un. Some glass on yer peach, flip it."
"Funny 'bout yer mama not havin' 'cept jest one ring. Need a diamond one too to be really, really married to each other."
"What makes that?"
"Diamonds is what ya put in a ring, an' when ya see a girl ya jest put th' diamond ring on 'er finger; an' then next ya git a gold ring, an ya put th' gold one on 'er finger; an' next—well, then ya c'n kiss'er all ya want to."
"Know what else ya c'n do?"
"Huh uh, what?"
"Sleep with her."
"Yes sir, sleep right with 'er, under th' cover"
"She sleep, too?"
"I don't know. I never put no diamond on no girl."
"Never did sleep with no girl, 'cept my cousin."
"She sleep, too?" I asked.
"Shore. Cousins they jest mostly sleep. We told crazy stories an' laffed so loud my dad whopped us to git us to go to sleep."
"What makes yore dad wanta sleep unner th' covers with a diamond ring an' a gold one on yer mama's hand?"
"That's what mamas an' daddies are for."
"'At's what makes a mama a mama, an' a papa a papa"
"What about workin' together, like cleanin' up around th' yard, an' cleanin' up th' house, an' eatin' together; how about talkin' together, an' goin' off somewheres together, don't that make nobody a mama an' a papa?"
"Naww, might help some."
"'S awful funny, ain't it?"
"My mama an' dad won't tell me nothin' about what makes you a dad or a mama," he told me.
"Naww. Sceered. But, I keep my eyes open wide, wide open; an' I stay awake on my bed, an' I listen over onto their bed. An' I know one thing."
"I know one main thing."
"What main thing?"
"That's where little babies come from"
"From mamas an' papas?"
"Ain't no way they could."
"Yes they is."
"You got to go somewhere to a store, or down to see a doctor, or make a doctor come an' bring a little baby."
"No, 'tain't ever' time that way. I hear my mama an' I hear my dad, an' they said they slept together too much, an' got too many kids out from under th' cover."
"You don't find little babies under covers."
"Yes you do. Once in a while you find one, an' he's a little boy or a little girl. Then this little baby grows up big, an' you find another'n."
"What's the next one?"
"Like you, or like me."
"I ain't no little baby."
"You ain't but four years old."
"But I ain't no little cryin' baby."
"No, but you was when they first found you."
"'S purty bad, all right, but maybe that's why my mama or dad won't tell me nothin' about th' covers. 'Fraid I might find some more little babies in under there, an' mama cries a lot an' says we done already got too many."
"If your mama didn't want 'em, why don't she just put 'em back in under th' sheet?"
"Naww, I don't know, I don't think you can put 'em back."
"How come your papa don't want so many?"
"Cain't feed an' clothes us."
"That's bad. I'll get you somethin' to eat over at my house. We ain't got so many covers, I mean, so many kids as you got."
"You know th' reason, don't you?"
"Jest 'cause your mama ain't got no two rings, one gold one, an' one diamond one."
"Maybe she did used to have a diamunt ring; an' maybe she got it burnt up when our pretty big house caught afire an' burnt down."
"I remember about that. I seen th' people runnin' up that way that day. I seen th' smoke. How big was you then?"
"I was just fresh out from under th' cover."
"Say, if I ask you a favor, will you tell me it?"
"Kids say your mama got mad an' set her brand-new house on fire, an' burnt ever'thin' plumb up. Did she?"
I didn't say anything back to him. I sat there up against the warm barn for about a minute, hung my head down a little, and then I reached out and kicked his bucket as far as I could kick it; and a million flies that had been eating the peachy juice, flew out of the bucket, and wondered what had hit them. I jumped up, and started to throw a handful of manure on him, but then I let my fingers go limber, and the manure fell to the ground. I didn't look him in the face. I didn't look anywhere special. I didn't want him to see my face, so I turned my head the other way, and walked past the pile of manure.
I played around our yard some and talked to the fence posts, sung songs and made the weeds sing, and found all of the snuff cans the London folks had throwed out into the high weeds around the house for the last ten or fifteen years. I found a flat board, and loaded the cans onto it, and crawled on my hands and knees, pushing it like a big wagon, in and out and all along under the weeds, and it made a road everywhere it went. I come to deep sandy places where the horses had to pull hard and I cussed out, "Hit 'em up, Judie! Git in there, Rhodie! Judie! Dam yore muley hide! Hit 'em in easy! Now take it together! Judie! Rhodie!" I was the world's best team skinner with the world's best team and the world's best wagon.
Then I made out like I delivered my load, got my money, turned all of my horses and mules out onto their pasture, and was going to see some of my people. I slipped on loose rocks lying around the corner of our house, made the white dust foam up when I stomped through our ash pile, and when I got to the top of the hill, I saw the boy next door standing on top of his manure pile watching more flies get fat on the slice of peach. When he seen me he made a hard run down off of the pile, jumped up onto a sawhorse and yelled, "This is my army horse!"
I clumb up in a broke-down wheelbarrow and hollered back at him, "This is my big war tank!"
Then he sailed down off his sawhorse and tore up on top of his manure pile, and said, "This is my big battleship!"
"War tanks can whip ole battleships!" I told him. "War tanks has got fast, fast machine guns! Battleships cain't go 'less they're in water! I can chase Germans on land!"
"But you cain't shoot but just a hunderd Germans! Yer ol' war tank ain't got as many bullets as my big battleship!"
"I can hide in my war tank, behind a rock, an' when ya start to git off of yore ship, I can kill ya, an' ya'll die!"
He ripped down off of the manure pile, darted behind his barn, and after a little while, he poked his head out of the hayloading door up in the top door. Then he hollered, "This is my big fort! I got my cannons an' my ship tied up down here under me! Yer ol' war tank cain't even hurt me! Ya! Ya!"
"Ya! Yerself! Yer ole fort ain't nothin'!" I pulled myself up out of the wheelbarrow and clumb up onto the first limb of a big walnut tree. "Now I got my airplane, an' ya don't even know what I can do to ya!"
"Cain't do nuthin'! Yore ol' airplane ain't even as high as my fort!"
"I can git up higher!"
"I'm still higher in my fort than yore ol' airplane! Cain't drop no bumbs on me!"
I looked up above me and saw that I'd come to the high top of the tree. The limbs was already swaying around so much that the ground below me seemed like it was a rough ocean. But I had to get up higher. "I c'n git up as high as I wanta! Then I c'n dump out a big bomb on toppa yer ol' crazy fort, an' it'll blow ya all tao pieces, knock yer head off, an' yer arms off, an' yer both legs off, an' ya'll be dead!"
The few limbs in the top of the tree weren't as big as a broomstick, and the wind was whirling me around up there like I was the last big walnut of the season,
Mama slammed our back door and I kept real quiet so she wouldn't see me up in the tree. The kid's mama walked out of her back door with a bushel basket full of old cans and papers, and my mama said, "Say, wonder where our little stray youngins are?"
And his mama said, "I heard them hollering just a minute ago!”
They, stood under my tree and asked each other little questions. "Ain't these brats a fright?"
"I tell you, it's a shame to the dogs the way a woman's got to run and chase and wear her wits out to keep a big long string of kids from starving to death."
I looked down through the shady limbs and seen the tops of the women's heads, one tying a hair ribbon a little tighter in the wind, the other one holding her hair by the big handfuls. The sun shot down through my tree, the light places hit down the back and shoulders of my mama, and the forehead and dress of his mama, and the whole thing was traveling. I felt the sun humming down hot and heavy on my head. It was a crazy feeling. The thing was whirling, moving all around, and I couldn't get it to slow down or stop. I grabbed a better grip on the little limber limbs, and ducked my head down and closed my eyes as tight as I could, and I bit my tongue and lip to keep from crying out loud. It was dark all over then, but my head was splitting open, and everything in me was jumping and pounding like wild horses running away with a big wagon with only one or two loose potatoes rumbling around in it.
I yowled out, "Mama!" She looked all around over the lot. "Where 'bouts are you?"
"Up here. Up in th' tree."
Both of the women caught their breath and I heard them say, "Ohl For heaven's sakes! Hurryl Run! Go get somebody! Get somebody to do something!"
"Can't you just climb down?" Mama asked me.
"No," I told her. "I'm sick."
"Sick? For God's sake! Hold on tight!" Mama got up on the wheelbarrow and tried to climb up to the first limb. She couldn't make it any higher. She looked up where I was sticking like a 'possum in the forks, and said, "It's a good twenty-five feet up to where he is! Oh, Lord, goodness, God, I wish somebody would come along! Wait! There's a ,bunch of kids yonder along the road at the bottom of the hill! You stay here and talk to him. Tell him anything, anything, but don't let him get scared. Just talk. Hey! You kids down there! Wait a minute! Yes, you! Come here! Want a dime each one of you?"
Five or six mixed colors of kids run up the hill to meet her, and every kid was saying, "Dime? Golly, gosh, yes! Whataya want done? Work? Whole dime?"
"I'll show you, here, down this alley. Now, I wanta know something. Do you see that little boy hanging up yonder in the top of that tall tree?"
"Shoot a monkey!"
"Cain't he get back down?"
"No," my mama told them, "he's hung up there or something. He's getting sicker and sicker, and is going to fall any minute, unless we do something to get him down."
"I can climb that tree after him."
“Yeah, but you can't do no good; them little old weak limbs won't hold nobody else."
Mama was pulling her hair. "You see, you see, you kids, don't you? You see how much gray hairs and worry you pile on to your old mothers' backs! Don't you ever sneak off and pull no such a stunt as this!"
"I never would chase my folks up no tree."
"Shut up, ijiot, she didn't say that."
"Shh. What'd she say?"
"She said don't get hung up in no tree."
"I been hung up in every tree in this end of town."
"Shut up, she don't know that."
"Hey, guys! These lowest limbs is stout enough to hold us up! See here! You just got to watch out and keep your feet in real close to th' top of th' tree, an' not out on the limbs when you hit a fork! Okay, Slew, you're the littlest, skin up in there far's you can; climb right up next to him! Sawdust, you're next littlest! Flag it up in there and stop right under Slew!"
Slew and Sawdust skint up into that tree. The little one's head was up as high as my belly, and the next kid was right under him.
"We're up here! Whatta you wanta do next?"
"Buckeye, you got long arms and legs; you stand yonder a-straddle of them two wide limbs!"
"I'm here 'fore you got it said."
"Thug, you set yourself down right here low to the ground. All of you watch; maybe if he falls, you can at least make a grab and try to ketch him'."
"What's th' rest of us gonna do?"
"Rabbit, an' you, Star Navy, you too, Jake—you three run yonder to that lady's wellhouse, an' take yer pockit-knife an' cut that rope, an' git back here in nuthin' flat!"
Three kids aired out over the hill, come out lugging a long piece of rope.
"Okay, here, Thug, you hand this on up to Buckeye. Buck, you shoot it on up to Saw, an' Sawdust, you wheel'er on in to Slew! Got a good holt on 'er, Slew?"
"Yeah! Whattaya want me to do with it? Tie it around his belly?"
"Yeah! But, first, you'd better'd put the end, th' knot end, up over that fork there where he's hung! That's her! Throw loop around his belly now!"
"Okay! He's looped so's he never could git loose, even if he's ta try!"
Then the main foreman of the gang took off a little dirty white flour-sack cap, and rubbed the dirt and sweat back off of his head and told Mama and the other lady, "All right, ladies. Yore worryin' days is over. Keep yer britches on. That kid'll live to be a flat hunderd."
"The rope won't slip or break?" Mama asked him.
"Good wet rope." The kid was watching every move that the other kids made.
"Okay! We're all set!" one kid yelled down out of the tree.
"We're ridin' high, an' settin' purty!" another one talked up.
Then the ramrod said, "Rabbit, Star, Jake, you three guys take th' tail end of this rope, an' back off out across down th' hill yonder with it. Pull it good an' straight. 'At's her. Okay!"
"She's straighter'n a preacher's dream."
"Thug, you, up there! Hold onto th' main rope! You grab 'er, Saw, you too, Slew! Now, let me git a grip on 'er down here on th' ground! You three kids down the hill there brace yer feet, dig yer heels, dig 'em in! You wimmen folks jist rare back, take a big dip of snuff, an' tell some funny stories! We ain't never dropped a kid yit, an' this is th' first time we ever got paid a dime fer not droppin' one!"
"Look what you're doing."
"Okay! Worry Wart, you, Slew! Now! Lift his legs up loose from the forks! Hey, help, make him help you. Lift 'im plumb up! 'At'saboy! Jist let 'im hang down there!"
"Man's unhung much's he can be unhung!"
"You guys down th' hill! His weight's on this rope now! You let it sit tight, real slow, then as I feed th' rope through my hands, why, you three birds come a-walkin' up th' hill, see? Like this, see, an' she slips a little, an' you walk a little, an' she oozes a little bit more, an' you walk up a little closter!
"Just walk along slow, keep a tight rope, take it easy. Okay, Slew, he's down out of yore reach! Sawdust, keep th' rope stretched under th' pit of yore one arm, an' guide th' gent down past you with the other arm!"
"He's slidin'! Easy ridin'!"
"Keep 'im slidin'! Easy on th' ridin'! Guide 'im on down to where we git th' six dimes! You ladies can be goin' to th' house to git out yore pockitbooks."
Mama said, "No, thank you, sir, I'll stay right here, if you don't mind, and see to it that you get him down right. Are they hurting you, Woody?"
"Not me!' I told her back. "This is lotsa fun. Got lotsa kids to play with now!"
"You hold on tight to that rope, mister fun-haver!" the other lady was saying.
"I will!" I said to her. "Mama, do I get a dime, too?"
I come down past the last kid on the last limb and when I got both feet on the ground, I forgot all about my headache and sun-stroke. I laughed and talked with everybody like I was a famous sailor just back from sea. "'At wuz fun! Hey! I wanta do it all over agin'!"
Mama grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled me home. I was fighting every step of the way and yelling back, "Hey! Kids! Come an' play with me! Come an' see my wagon road! I wanta dime, too, Mama!"
"I'll dime you!" she told me. "You kids wait right there. I'll get your six dimes for you."
wanta dime! I want some candy!" I was letting it out.
Another kid said, "It was yore tree!"
"It's yore yard!"
"Yeah, an' it was even yer mama's dimes!"
And just as our back door flew shut with me halfway caught with my neck sticking out, Mama grabbed a better handful of me, and I yelled, "It was my sore head, it was my dizzy head!" And Mama jammed the door shut, and I didn't see any more of the big bunch of awful good smart kids. Regular tree unhangers.
Mama took my shirt and overhalls off, stripped me down to my bare hide and spent about an hour giving me a bath.
"Come on, young sprout, I'm putting you off to bed. Come on."
"I'm comin'; I feel good an' warm in my new clean unnerwear."
"You know, Mama, I never do like for you to do anything to me, like make me mind, or make me stay home, or make me drink milk, or take a bath, but I hate most of all to have you put a new pair of unnerwear on me. Then, after ya do it, I like you a whole lot better."
"Mama knows every little thing that's taking place in that little old curly head of yours. You're my newest, and my hardest-headed youngin."
"Mama, what's a hard head?"
"It means you go and do what you want to."
"Is my head a hard one?"
"You bet it is."
"What's a youngin?" I asked Mama. "Am I a youngin?"
And Mama told me, "Well, it means you're not very old"
She pulled the covers up around my neck and tucked me down into the bed good.
"When I get up to be real big, will I still be a youngin?"
"No. You'll be a big man then."
"Are you a youngin?"
"No, I'm a big woman. I'm a grown lady. I'm your mama." I started getting drowsy and my eyes felt like they was both full of dry dirt.
I asked Mama, "Wuz you good when you wuz first a little baby?"
And she rubbed my face with the palm of her hand and said, "I was pretty good. I believe I minded my mama better than you mind yours."
"Wuz you just a little tiny baby, this big?"
"An' Gramma an' Grampa found you in under their covers?"
Mama's face looked like she was trying to figure out a hard puzzle of some kind. "Covers?"
"That boy that clumb up on his barn door, he tol' me all about married rings, an' all about where you go an' find little babies. Youngins.
"What did you say?"
"All 'bout married rings"
"This ring is pure gold," Mama told me, holding up her hand for me to see it. "See these little flower buds? They were real plain when your papa and me first got married... But why don't you ever go to sleep, little feller?"
"You know who I'd marry if I wuz gonna marry, Mama?"
"I haven't got the least inkling," she said. "Who?"
"You couldn't marry me if you wanted to. I'm already married to your papa."
"Cain't I marry you, too?"
"I told you why. You can't marry your own mama. You'll just have to look around for another girl, young man."
"Mama, do you know somethin'?"
"Well, like, say, like what that little ole mean kid acrost th' alley asked me?"
"Well, he asked me how many married rings you had on."
"So I told him, told him you didn't have but one gold one. No diamunt glass one."
" And he said ever'body in town would git awful, awful mad at you for losin' yore diamunt'un"
"An' he said, 'Where did you lose yore diamunt 'un at?' An' so, I told him maybe it got lost in our big house fire."
Mama just kept listening and didn't say a word.
Then I went on, "An' he asked me how come it, our big perty house got burnt up. An' then he asked me if—if you struck a match an' set it on fire..."
didn't answer me. She just looked up away from me. She looked a hole
through the wall, and then she looked out through my bedroom window
up over the hill. She rubbed my forehead with her fingers and then she
got up off the edge of my bed, and walked out into the kitchen. I laid
there listening. I could hear her feet walking around over the kitchen
floor. I could hear the water splash in the drinking dipper. I heard
everything get quiet. Then I drifted off to sleep, and didn't hear a