Sunday, January 10, 2010


Do you remember the movie "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World"? I didn't see it until I was about twelve in 1967, five years after its release. It had an all star cast and couldn’t be remade today. Stars just want too much money these days it doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars were available to assemble the cast for that movie. It’s a cinema classic that can’t be duplicated. There's a scene in it that reminds me of my paternal grandparents when they moved out to California to be close to us in 1963 in my grandfather’s 1953 Chevy pickup. It was the scene with the black couple, I think they were both actors from the old "Amos and Andy" TV show and they get run off the road by another car and down the side of the mountain in the desert near Palm Springs. All of their belongings were strapped on the back of the truck and as the man fought to keep the truck under control things began "ejecting" out one at a time until they reached the bottom and the truck was almost empty. The man looks over at the woman and says, "I said it befo an I'll say it again, I didn't wanna move to Californie!" I remember blushing because it reminded me of my paternal grandparent’s and I was ashamed of them.

They were simple country people and the salt of the earth. They had very little money, but would do anything for anyone in need. I only became ashamed of them when I was a teenager. I got over it before their deaths, but I should never have been ashamed of them in the first place.

My grandfather Sam O. Fowler was born January, 1907 and he died August 1997. My grandmother was Arlena Cox who was born in March, 1907 and died in July 1988. They never had much money and were married in 1928. I once saw a photo of them soon after they were married and my grandma was in a dress that was too tight, probably borrowed, and one of those hats that looked like a horse’s feed bag turned upside down on her head. She was always really into pictures and had a “Kodak” ready at all times. Thanks to her I have many photos of family members and people from our past most of whom I don’t remember. One of my great pleasures as a child was going through my grandma’s box of old photos. I think that was when I began to learn about fashions and cars from the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. I would endlessly ask my grandma questions about the people in the photos and I learned about aunts, uncles, cousins, great grandparents and friends. When they lived, where they lived, when they died and where they were now. I was fascinated by it all.

My paternal grandparents were the greatest example of recycling I’ve ever known. My grandma kept boxes of fabric scraps to make quilts. She reused tin or cardboard boxes, glass jars, buttons and even plastic ware. My grandpa used to pick up glass bottles along the highway for their five cent return fees and later collected aluminum cans to sell to be recycled. These people were the true conservationist simply because of the poverty they grew up with. Yet for the most part they were happy as long as they had a roof over their heads and something good to eat once in a while. Call it being “Green” or just being frugal, with the current economy we may need to get back to thinking the way our grandparents did.

I remember seeing a photo of grandma taken in the 1940’s where she was holding some kind of trophy. Her apparel seemed strange to me even for someone in the 1940’s. They lived in Pyote, Texas at the time and I asked her what the trophy was for? She said, “Oh, I went to a “Tacky Party”, and I won.” “What’s a Tacky Party?” I asked. “That’s where you go to a party dressed as tacky as you can and the woman who dressed the tackiest wins the trophy.” “Oh.” I said. My father piped in about that time and said, “But when Arlena went to the party she didn’t know it was a Tacky Party.” We all got a laugh over that. That’s one thing I miss about my grandma she always appreciated a good laugh even if it was at her expense. While her photos were always kept in an old hat box her buttons were kept in an old round tin cake box. I loved looking through them even though I swear there weren’t any two that matched. It was like looking through a “Pirate’s Treasure Chest” because they were all so pretty and jeweled.

I stayed with them on their farm in Adamsville, Texas when I was five and six years old during the summer. Danny always agreed to stay too, but when my parent’s got in the car to leave the little chicken shit would make a run for the car and leave me standing there alone with my parent’s asking me if I wanted to go with them. I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother, so I stayed by myself. I remember once I was bored and I found a box of Christmas ornaments. It must’ve been July, but I decided I wanted to decorate a Christmas tree, so my grandma made my Popeye go cut down a little evergreen tree, so I could decorate it. She could be so sweet at times, but then turn around and be as mean as a snake. Once I was trying to eat a bowl of cornflakes with water and sugar on them because there was no milk, and she began to berate and belittle me about how I ate like a girl and how my parent’s hated me and loved Danny more because they left me with her and when they came back to get me they always had present’s, but only because Danny could talk them into them when I couldn’t. I was crying and trying to hold a magazine up in front of my face so I wouldn’t have to look at her and she took it away from me, so she could make me look at her while she ridiculed me. I remember feeling like shit and crying because my parent’s didn’t love me, they only loved my brother Danny. I thought I was fat and acted like a girl, so no wonder they didn’t love me.

Once she decided to paint some decorative glass bowls, the kind you put olives and pickles in for parties. I just remember one that was shaped like a leaf. For whatever reason she was painting the bottoms of them mint green. I was helping her and while I was painting one it fell off the saw horse and landed in the grass. She gave me such an evil look I just took off running. Immediately she ran in the house and came out with something to whip me with. At first I thought it was a small belt, but then I realized it was a spur and I ran even faster. She must’ve chased me around the farm house about five times and I don’t think I would have ever stopped, except she threatened to tell my father and said I’d get whipped harder. I stopped on the shady side of the house under a tree and she hit me on the legs with the spur. I remember crying, but not much. My parent’s came the next weekend to pick me up. My father noticed the funny star shapes on my legs and asked me, “How’d you get those marks?” I said, “Grandma whipped me with a spur.” He asked, “What spur?” I said, “The one hanging on the wall in the hallway.” He said, “Show me where it is.” I walked him into the house and into the hall in front of the bathroom where it was hanging and pointed up to it. It was much too high for me to reach, so my father took it off the hook and compared it to the marks on my legs. He then called out, “Arlena come here.” Grandma came in and he said, “Sammy said you whipped him with this spur, did you?” “Oh no.” she said. “Then why do the marks on his legs match this spur?” “I don’t know I whipped him with a switch off a tree.” She said. I was shocked she lied grownups weren’t supposed to lie only bad little kids lied, I couldn’t believe my ears. None the less my father accepted her explanation and never said another word to her, or me, about it. I will always remember how hurt I was because it made me feel like I had been the one who lied.

Years later I walked into the same house on my way to work and my five year old sister looked up from her bowl of ice cream and said, “Sammy, grandma hit me right here.” and pointed to a red hand print on her shoulder. Grandma said, “Oh I didn’t hit her, she started to slip in the bathtub and I reached out to grab her.” I knew grandma was lying, so I called Stacy into the next room and said, “Stacy, I want you to know I believe you and I know grandma hit you, but let’s not say anything about it OK?” She said, “OK.” It was important to me to let her know that an adult believed her and I knew grandma had hit her and then gave her a bowl of ice cream to keep her from telling.

She wasn’t all bad and when I was a child I loved my grandma. When they lived in Merced I’d drop by their little rent house on my way home from school. They’d moved to another house further away when Danny and I decided one night to run away from home and go watch TV with her. We wanted to watch “The Lucy Show” and my father insisted on watching something else, so I told him, “We’ll just go to grandmas she’ll let us watch it.” “Go ahead and go.” he said. Danny and I took off out the front door and down the street. We were to dumb to realize the Lucy Show would be over long before we got there. It was already dark and we walked along holding hands while looking over our shoulders every so often. We figured if we could make it all the way to grandmas before he caught us we’d be OK. We’d already made it around a drive in restaurant called “The Golden Chicken” when we spotted my dad in our 1963 black Plymouth Valiant convertible turning the corner. He pulled along side us, reached over and opened the passenger door and said, “Get in.” We were so scared we got in the back seat and left the right front bucket seat empty. When we got home he said, “Now go to your room and take your clothes off.” Take our clothes off? He didn’t say “Take your clothes off and put on your pajamas.” He just said take your clothes off. We wondered what he was going to do spank us naked. He’d never done that before. We quickly undressed put on our pajamas and jumped into bed. Then we heard him coming down the hall he walked in flipped on the light and said, “I’m not going to whip you because your mother won’t let me, but don’t you ever do anything like that again.” Whew, we made it out of that one by the skin of our teeth. We found out later that our parents thought we’d be too scared to go anywhere in the dark, so my mother made my father search the house, yard, and car before he went looking for us, but she told him, “Don’t you whip them because you told them they could go.”

Later my grandparents moved to a little farming town named Lemon Cove to pick fruit and earn money with the migrant farm workers. I remember visiting them on the weekends and we had fun playing with some of the kids. Everyone was dirt poor, but it really didn’t seem to matter to them. On one visit I remember the first time I ever saw a boy who was like me. There was this one boy, who was a couple of years older than I and I spotted him and his dad sitting in their old pickup listening to the radio. I walked up to talk to them on the passenger side where the father was sitting and the boy was working on something in his hands and he quickly hid it from me. My curiosity got the best of me, so I walked around to his side to see what it was and he was embroidering a dish towel in one of those rings like my grandmother used. I didn’t say a word, but I remember feeling sorry for him because he felt he had to hide it. I’d done some embroidery work myself while visiting the farm and I rather liked it, too bad we couldn’t have done it together.

Years later when they sold the farm and moved into Lampasas I’d spend time with them and fix meals that my grandfather liked, Frito Pie and Tuna Pasta salad. My grandmother was more than glad to have me do the cooking and I kept them company. Her country ways were always a source of amusement to me. One day I was in the kitchen and there was a reporter on the television talking about President Nixon having Phlebitis. Grandma called to me from the living room, “Sammy Clyde, Sammy Clyde, what is phlebitis?” I walked into the living room wiping my hands on a kitchen towel and said, “Why do you ask?” Ever the hypochondriac, my grandmother said, “Well ever once in a while I get this feelin like somethin's bitin me”. I said, “Maybe a little soap and water would take care of that, phlebitis has something to do with the veins in your legs.” She just grinned at me because she knew I was making a joke at her expense.

My poor old grandfather Popeye and I were watching an old "Twilight Zone" rerun where this elderly couple in the future can go and buy new young bodies. The dilemma is that they only have enough money for one of them and since the husband has a terminal illness they decide he should go first. When he comes out as a twenty one year old "hard body" doing hand stands and she's still an eighty year old woman, they decide their love and their shared lives are far better than one being old and the other being young.
He has them put him back into his old body knowing they'll never have enough money, or another chance and they walk off at the end holding hands to whatever fate awaits them. My poor old, uneducated, sweet, simple, grandfather, who's mother died when he was two and father died when he was twelve, was sent to foster homes and helped rescue his younger half brothers from orphanages asked me, "Sammy, do you think they'll have a machine someday where you can walk in one side old and come out the other side young again?" Even at the tender age of twenty I said, "Popeye, I hope not." And he said, "Me too, my life has been hard, I wouldn't want to have to live it over again." I remember thinking how sad it was that he'd believed that you'd have to live the same life all over again, exactly as it was. Never realizing that you could have an entirely different outcome, oh the possibilities.

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