Gem’s Gems

Excerpted from the book, Gem’s Gems — a memoir of my mother, Carmyn Gem [Morrow] Pitts.

[Her father Tom Morrow] ventured east into Madison County and ended up at St. Paul where the logging boom was in full steam. He brought his family to live first in a small house northwest of St. Paul before settling into the Casteel place, a two-story house with a bay window and porches upstairs and down, high upon a mountainside overlooking the White River Valley. They enjoyed a glorious summer in this scenic valley before cotton-picking time called them back to Texas.

Tom gathered his St. Paul crops and left Grandpa Clark in charge of the house and getting the sorghum cane to the mill. Left behind was the furniture—a wood burning cookstove, iron bedsteads and bedding, a rocking chair, table and benches, a marble-top round table, Sylvia’s “Princess” dresser with oval mirror, a small drop leaf desk, and a “matting” box with hinged lid Tom had built out of lathe for Sylvia’s quilts [Carmyn’s mother]. The family packed their “batchin’” equipment—a camp stove, a few quilts, feather bed, and feather bolsters, a white enamel bucket with plates, cups, and two serving bowls, the iron skillet, and a deep aluminum stewer Sylvia used to soak whole grain wheat overnight—into the beloved Baby Overland and headed south. Not left behind were the family cat Snowball and the German Shepherd dog “Lightnin’,” who rode on the fender.

On the journey, they stopped along the road each night and made campfires to cook supper. They would stop at a house to ask if they could get water at their spring and camp for the night. Mama made pallets for the younger children to sleep on in the truck and Papa, Durward, Douglas and Graydon slept on pallets on the ground under the truck. Once when they stopped at a house and asked to use the spring, the lady of the house brought them fresh buttermilk.

Littlefield Texas cotton-pickin’ shack. January 1929 L-R: Douglas with dog Trixie True, Graydon, Joy with cat Snowball, Tomazine “Sister,” Carmyn holding her doll Prudence, Una Mae in Durward’s lap

Upon arriving in Texas, they lived first in a cotton-picking shack at one of Sylvia’s sister’s place in Grayson County. After picking for two weeks, they moved on to another of Sylvia’s sister’s farms near Vera in Knox County where they stayed for four weeks. The shacks were crudely built one-room structures about twelve feet by fourteen feet with two windows and a door. Aunt Lillian fixed up their shack at Crosby County for her sister Sylvia and family to live in, scrubbed clean with curtains on the windows. She loaned them a coal-oil stove with an oven. They picked their cotton for three weeks and then finished the season in a shack near Morrison.

In the winter of 1928, the Tom and Sylvia Morrow family moved back to the Casteel place in St. Paul, Arkansas, but Grandpa Clark convinced Tom that the ground was too rocky for farming, so they rented a house together—the Greenway place—about 1.5 miles southwest of Springdale (near the present-day Wal-Mart). It was a temporary home for the two weeks it took Tom to find “Trouble’s End,” the name of the place in Springdale that was their first home with a bathroom and running water. Their seventh child Una May was born here. They had apples and strawberries, and were joined again by the grandparents, who again kept the house when Tom began preparing his family for another summer run back to Texas to pick cotton.

Austin Place, Springdale Arkansas August 1929 Tomazine and Una May

Tom traded the Baby Overland for a big truck, made a wooden box for the pet cat and a puppy to ride in, and the German Shepherd rode on the fender. On the journey, Sylvia and girls slept in the truck while Tom and the boys slept on pallets under the truck. Back in Texas, near Littlefield, they lived in a shack and picked cotton, but the kids all came down with whooping cough, so they couldn’t return to Arkansas until March 1929.

Back in Springdale, they discovered that Grandpa Clark had failed to pay rent at “Trouble’s End,” and had moved three miles east of Springdale to the Crane place. He had rented a nearby house, the Austin place, for Tom’s family, but it was only one bedroom. Tom closed in the breezeway to the smokehouse to provide more room, but that fall he found the Nix place with three bedrooms and a big corner porch. He moved the family there and went to Texas to haul grain from November until February 1930.

Tom Morrow with his mule team, baby on the wagon seat

 

Read the rest of Gem’s Gems! Available at Amazon.com

Lost Song

Lurking in the back of my mind, an emotional revelation waits. What it is, I couldn’t tell you. A memory from my past? An understanding about myself? About life in general, the world? I don’t know.

I think that if I waited long enough, carved away the distractions like a pending visit from one of my kids, or the telephone that might ring, or the dog barking outside at falling leaves, whatever It is might reveal itself. It might stand fully formed in front of me, shimmering in magnificence. Terrifying. Fulfilling.

It won’t come, though. I know this because I’ve felt this way before. It never comes, at least, not lately. Now when I need it the most.

In the past, it came with LSD and mescaline. It came with sex. It came when I pounded out the last bars of “The Long and Winding Road” on the piano and tears ran down my face. It came when I reeled off the walls, tequila rushing through my veins, and the truth was made known.

This is different.

I get nowhere with booze. Won’t even consider psychedelics or sex. I can’t look at a piano, much less sit down to play one.

This is like singing, something I once did well. Singing came out of me like some truth too profound to express any other way. I can’t sing now. My voice is old and broken. In my dreams, I can sing. In my dreams, I’m also younger, lovely, strong.

When I try to sing, my voice breaks around middle C, something I noticed after one of several surgeries and which I assign to a tube being forced down my throat. Vocal cords pushed aside, deformed or broken. I want to open my mouth and let a pure note emerge, then another and another until the last note shines off into the distance. I feel it inside me, waiting to come out.

One of my expectations, now that I think on it, was to surround my older years with the things I had no time for when I was young, things like painting where my brush would drift over the paper spreading colors into magical swirls and hues. Things like strumming a guitar again, forming chords that drifted off into the evening air. I would sing along, remember “Scotch and Soda,” “Girl from Ipanema,” “Turn Around”…

I can still paint. I have the supplies. The method has become rusty, but if I applied myself, I could remember how to make shadows while the paper is still damp. I could let orange fade into indigo along a sunset horizon.

Somewhere in all that is the thing I can’t quite reach.

His Fight, Our Fight

According to the brief description that accompanied this photo that crossed my Facebook timeline the other day, the funeral of Pretty Boy Floyd drew the largest attendance of any such event in Oklahoma history. The image gives me goosebumps, almost puts a lump in my throat. It’s not the coffin—I can’t even discern where it is. It’s the people, backs straight, their attention focused entirely on the dead man.

On what he represented.

My dad sometimes talked about Pretty Boy Floyd although at the time of Floyd’s death, my dad was only seventeen. For him, like so many, Floyd stood as a heroic symbol to survival in their times. Dust bowl, economic depression, most of all the shift of worlds. From the independent farmer working alongside his wife and children to wrest of living from the land to the new reality of the need for money and consequently, jobs in town.

Giving up the farm and its creeks and horses and the smell of fresh cut hay. Learning to work for someone else. Breathing exhaust. Street lights burning the dark. Rigid hours to serve someone else’s profit. Dependent on the dollar instead of the land.

There were men who couldn’t make the change. Men who rebelled, who clung to the old ways. Men who’d rather die than portion out his life in the 9 to 5. They didn’t willingly give up the tradition of their fathers, but rather borrowed money on the hope of better times, more rain, abundant crops. The loans came due before better times arrived.

According to his biography in Wikipedia, “[Charles Arthur] Floyd was viewed positively by the general public. When he robbed banks he allegedly destroyed mortgage documents, but this has never been confirmed and may be myth. He was often protected by locals of Oklahoma, who referred to him as ‘Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.’” He was thirty when he died.

Floyd’s robberies of banks made him a target for the fledgling FBI and the true manner of his death became one of the agency’s earliest cover-ups. After he was downed by rifle shot, another agent shot him with an automatic weapon at point blank range. Not widely known at the time, the unfairness of his killing nevertheless was understood at a visceral level by the common man.

Woody Guthrie, a native of Oklahoma, penned a song about it in 1939, five years after Floyd’s death. Called “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” the song has the form of a  Broadside “come-all-ye” ballad opening with the lines:

If you’ll gather ’round me, children, a story I will tell ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an Outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well.

The lyrics recount Floyd’s supposed generosity to the poor and contain the famous lines comparing foreclosing bankers to outlaws:

As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam, You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.

Many other artists have recorded this song, among them Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and James Taylor as another generation’s anthem to the tragedy of corporate takeover.

It’s easy to see Floyd as a martyr. In his short life, he did what so many others wanted to do. Like the young Chinese man who dared to stand in the path of an oncoming tank, Floyd like similar ‘criminals’ of the early 20th century defied the banks and credit systems that threatened everything that mattered in rural American lives. They instinctively understood they were being swept into a capitalist system that had no sense of morality, no obligation to human circumstance. They fought back the only way they knew how.

The battle that cost Charles Floyd his life has not ended.

~~~

 

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Boy_Floyd