The Early Years

I was born in 1916, June the first, in the little town of Bowie, Texas. I was born in a log cabin, on the edge of Bowie, Montague County [between Wichita Falls and Fort Worth].

My parents died when I was two years old, and consequently I don't remember them. But I do remember a little of my grandmother, because my grandmother took care of me at that time.

The first two or three years of my life I really don't remember anything, but I do remember that my grandmother taught me how to read and write before I was four.

Mostly in pecans. We lived in a farm house out in the country. My grandmother had 100 acres, mostly in pecans.

(I'm sorry to kind of think and record at the same time, but I'll do my best to do this.) Grandmother

Grandmother had 100 acres of pecan trees. Some were hard shell, some were soft shell pecans back in those days. There was a creek at the edge of our property--or her property--that adjoined my Uncle Joe's 100 acres. And my brother and I also had 100 acres, north of my grandmother's farm, which also had the old house that I was born in.

My grandmother couldn't do anything, because of her old age at that time. We just lived there in this old farm house.

The back of the house was a long, long, long porch, and she had canvas there which she could pull down to keep the sun out in the evenings. It was a wonderful play area for me when I was that age.

My grandmother was always quilting, and had a quilt in one room that she was always working on. There was a squirrel up in the attic who would come down and watch my grandmother while she was quilting.

I would try to catch the squirrel, and one time I really caught the squirrel, and he caught me, and he bit me on my little finger. His sharp nails went right into my finger, too. Actually, I screamed and yelled and all that stuff and hated the squirrel from that time on.

But my grandmother said poor varmints didn't mind biting people except for self defense. She taught me more about animals after that, and said you just have to respect them.

Many, many's the time when one of my uncles would come to see their mother. The things we ate the most were pecans, because we grew a lot of them. My uncle would take his knife and cut the ends off and slice through the pecan and it would come out whole and we'd have a whole bowl full of pecans, and we'd also have some cream to go with them.

Some of the neighbors would bring my grandmother food. We didn't have a lot to eat, but what we had was rich back in those days.

And all the neighbors around would take care of my grandmother, who was also taking care of me. It was kind of a fun thing to be back in those days.

We also had a cellar in the back of our yard, and my grandmother and I spent many a night in the cellar waiting for a cyclone to go over.

I saw an oak tree get stuck by lightning when we were living there. There's lots and lots of things I observed when I was very young and lived at that old farmhouse.

And my grandmother doted on me--all the time. I was her only charge to take care of, and we had no chickens to feed or hogs to slop or cows to feed. The only things she had to feed were herself and myself. So it was a close togetherness for she and I.

Again, you know, she taught me to do many, many things, and to respect things, and to believe in God, and all those things that grandmothers try to do with their children and grandchildren.

In a way, it was kind of a lonely life, but once in a great while some of her children would send money to her, and she and I would go visit them.

My parents died in 1918. They died because of the big flu epidemic that particular year. My parents died, and three of my grandparents died at that time, leaving only my grandmother.

I also had the flu at that time, but I pulled through. And like I say, again, it gave me the chance to be adopted by my grandmother, and she raised me until I was 11.

She had her hands full with me as a little child, and she was getting on in age. She really, really, really took good care of me. We lived on this farm, and again, we had no running water, we had an outhouse, we had no electricity, and naturally, no gas.

And like I say, I hadn't seen a single airplane in my life fly over. Once in awhile you'd see a car. We went a lot of places by wagon. We'd go ten miles from where we lived on the farm to the little town of Bowie.

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Second Tuesdays. And many times I've gone there by wagon with my Uncle Joe. Back in those days they had what you'd call a "Second Tuesday." The second Tuesday of every month, people would go in and swap things, swap pocket knives for something better, and this and that. And my Uncle Joe was famous for his horse trading, and it was said of him that he could go into town with a blade knife and come back with a team of horses because of his sharp trading. But that was, you know, hearsay, because I had no proof of it.

Again, it was fun back in those days because there were no radios, to speak of--and we didn't have one--and no televisions, naturally. Just imagine all of the things that weren't there that are here now.

It's nice to think back, in those days, what you did to improve yourself, and amuse yourself, for the days you were running around. It made you closer to nature, closer to the things that later on become awfully important to you.

My homes. Again, my grandmother and I lived on this farm until one day it was too much for her to take care of, and we moved to the little town of Bowie. [Click here to go to the little town of Bowie, today.]

Our first home there was an old three-story frame house about three blocks from my Aunt Martha's house. So my Aunt Martha could come up from time to time to see how we were getting along.

I had a lot of my toys up in the third floor of the house. I could play up there because my grandmother could not climb the stairs to see what I was doing. Every once in a while my Aunt Martha would come up and try to see if I was doing things that were naughty, in her mind.

My grandmother and I lived in that home for just about a year, I guess. Again, she had no money, and her children kept groceries in the cupboards for us, and so forth and so on.

Our next place we moved to was a little house about four miles away there in the little town of Bowie, and one-half of the house was occupied by my Uncle R.D.'s girlfriend [laughter]. Back in those days, most people had a mistress. But I didn't know it at the time. His mistress was very close to the family, and nobody knew back in those days what was happening.

But my grandmother and I lived in that one-half of the house. Again, we had no running water. We had an outhouse in the back on the creek. We did have electricity in this place. And it was about, oh, I guess, half a mile from what we would call [laughter] downtown Bowie, because Bowie was a small little town of about 2000 people-and all-all white.

Signs of really bad times. There was one highway that went through the town. And at each end of this town there was a sign on the highway-in great big bold letters (the sign was probably about ten feet by 20 feet) that said: "Any nigger caught here after sunup might not see sunrise the next day." And the same sign was on the road going into Wichita Falls, and also on the road going into Fort Worth.

Again, it was a lily-white town, and in this particular town you didn't have fountains saying "white" or

"colored." But for me as a young child, in Wichita Falls, I went over to the colored fountain to drink because I thought it might be colored water. My grandmother explained that colored water was for people with black skins to drink.

It was really, really, really bad back in those days, with the oppression of the black people . . . .

My grandmother and I moved to quite a few houses in Bowie, because, again, I don't know where her money came from. In 1925 and 1926, it was in the depression era. Nobody had any money, and almost everything was by barter. If you had a chicken, you'd share your chicken with the neighbors, and vice versa.

We lived about one and a half or two miles away from school, and I would walk to school in the morning and walk back in the evening. No one had any money. It was just amazing how much poverty there was back in those days. People were called dirt farmers. Everyone had 100 acres, but all they grew were maybe some vegetables for their own home, or maybe to barter for something from someone else. And it was really, really, really tough times.

It was back in the time when all the banks closed. And my grandmother had, I think, saved up $87 (and that's an arbitrary figure), and she lost that due to bank closures. It was rough times.

My uncle left his farm and joined my Uncle Joe in Houston, because Ford had opened an assembly plant in Houston and was paying people $5 a day to work there. And $5 back in those days went a long, long, long way. Later on, when I moved in with my uncle, he was making $10 a week working for the Houston pipeline. And raising a family of four people-four of his own kids, and me and my brother. So, it was just one of those things.

Church. My grandmother and I went to a lot of churches: Presbyterian Church, Baptist Church, Episcopalian Church. But my grandmother never did put herself into one church, because she disagreed with the philosophy of a lot of them. And I went along with her because I had, really, no choice, but I did learn to believe in God and Jesus Christ back in those days. (And you'll have to excuse me for saying "back in those days" a lot, because it all was back in those days, in 19 and 25, and 19 and 26.)

When I was living with my grandmother, and I was eight, nine, ten years old, I finally got her permission to sell papers there in the little town of Bowie. I was selling the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Dallas Morning News. It was five cents a copy, and if I sold one, I got three cents of that five cents. And if I sold 20 papers, well, I made 60 cents, and 60 cents bought a lot of stuff.

We went to the store very little, because people just brought my grandmother things. But I never will forget the time we were in Bowie, and my grandmother saw a sign in the window of one of the grocery stores saying "New Sliced Bread." And she bought a loaf for, I think, a nickel. And it was the first time in my life I had ever tasted anything other than biscuits and cornbread.

A four-ounce Milky Way. I had a friend in middle grade school--his name was Percy Sellings—and his father owned the theater there in Bowie. And every now and then he would give me a pass to go to the theater. Every once in awhile he'd buy us some candy and--probably about a four-ounce Milky Way

(three for a dime)--and that was the best thing I'd ever tasted in my life. And another thing he bought me one time was a nickel milk shake--a chocolate milk shake--and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was the most tasty thing I'd had in my life.

Looking back, when I was that young, everything was so fun.

I got a job at the Bowie Hotel, shining shoes and carrying luggage. And most people carried their own luggage, because I was so skinny they felt sorry for me. And one thing I did a lot of was play dominoes with the people who were there. I was very, very, very good at dominoes. And the men liked to play dominoes with me because I was really competitive for them.

And I got my glasses. During that time I got shot in the eye with a BB gun, and I needed glasses. But my grandmother couldn't afford them. And one of the men who I played dominoes with--a visitor at the Bowie Hotel--went out to see my grandmother and told her he would buy glasses for me. He would take me into Fort Worth to buy them, and stay overnight, and show me the train station. We'd go down by train. And my grandmother said that was awful nice, but she didn't want him to go out of his way to do that. But he told my grandmother that maybe one day--and back in those days they called me Willis-Willis can return the favor to someone who is down and out.

And I got my glasses. And it just shows to go you that there are a lot of neat people in this world, and you don't know until you just look around.

My mother had two brothers, one by the name of Frank, and one by the name of Elbe. Uncle Elbe lived in a little town called Petrolia. So did my Uncle Frank, for that matter. There were probably 85 people who lived in this dumb little town. And my Uncle Elbe owned a little restaurant. Back in those days, it was called a café. And a general store where you could buy groceries and clothing, and feed, and you name it, and a filling station. In fact, my uncle owned the whole dumb town. And he spent all his time in the café as the cook.

Once in a great while, he would let me come up and spend the summer with his kids. He had four daughters, and he liked having me around because I was the only boy for them to play with.

Later on, he had a little boy, name of Weldon. At the time I used to visit him I-- I visited him, I think, for two summers in a row--I went out by train and he picked me up. The town was really a barren nothing of a town. No trees, and a lot of oil wells.

The holes were still there, and it was a wonder that a lot of kids or animals didn't fall into those abandoned oil wells.

As kids, we used to take great big rocks, and anything else, and drop them down those wells and listen for about three minutes before they finally hit the very bottom. And we'd climb up and down the derricks. All those things that kids should not be doing but, but ah, no one was around but us, so we did that.

And when I went home, back to my grandmother's, my uncle always sent along clothes. He had Florsheim shoes back then, and I had a pair of new shoes, and clothes for school, and all those things my grandmother couldn't afford to buy me.

So, in a way, I had a lot of help when I was a little kid working-- I mean staying--with my grandmother. And it's fun for me to kind of look back, back in those days, at all the things that happened to me, and to really appreciate the things that did happen to me.

When I was about eight years old my grandmother and I went up to visit one of her sons in Hardborough, Oklahoma. He had 40 acres of farmland, and he raised broom straw. Broom straw is what you make brooms out of, and he had barns with slats to dry the broom straw, and it was a fun place for kids to play. He had five kids, and they were all older than me.

Eat the hearts out. My uncle also had a lot of farm animals, and he raised rattlesnake watermelons. He raised rattlesnake watermelons, and also blue moon and star melons. Really, really delicious. You would go out into the fields and just hit the watermelons with your fist and break them and eat the hearts out, and it was a nice thing to do.

My uncle also had a lot of farm animals. He had lambs and pigs and chickens, turkey, cattle and horses, and all those things that farmers had back in those days.

It was my birthday, and my uncle asked me what I would like to eat for my birthday. And he said, "How about some lamb?"

A bad memory. Without realizing what would happen, a few minutes later a little lamb came by and he grabbed the little lamb and cut its throat. Well, you can imagine what happened to me that night, because I didn't eat the lamb. All I can remember is the lamb's throat being cut. And to this day I have never really liked lamb. Just the thought of the lamb brings back the thought of that poor little lamb having his throat cut.

It's amazing what you can remember. And some of the things you forget, well, I guess you really should have forgotten. But I never did forget this poor little lamb having his throat cut.

But, my grandmother and I really did enjoy spending those times with her son, George. They had a really nice family, and I kind of hated having to go back to Bowie after visiting with those nice, wonderful people.

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