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The next day, I went to where she lived when she wasn't working at the New Black Rose.We talked and joked and then we made love. Afterwards she began to look sad.
When the armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, my father, John Victor Rhoads, expected to be sent home with the first contingent of returning troops since his unit, the army's seventh machine gun battalion, had fought in every major battle where U.S. troops had been engaged. Instead, it was selected to go into the German Rhineland as an occupying force to verify and enforce German compliance with the terms of the armistice. He was at Coblenz for eleven months and returned to the U.S. in time to be discharged on November 11, 1919. While in the army, he learned to gamble and to cheat at cards and dice.
When he returned to his home in Izard County, Arkansas, there was no work waiting for him except an occasional odd job entailing backbreaking labor. He decided to follow his dream of becoming a professional gambler on the road. His journeys took him to Burkburnett, Texas, a boom town in the oil fields where he wound up broke. He began working as an itinerant farm laborer by day and a gambler at night.
This took him across the Red River into Oklahoma where he met my mother, Iris Wainscott, whose family had recently moved up from Texas. Dad had gone to work for the Wainscotts; plowing, hoeing, and chopping cotton in the fields while wooing the second daughter of the house, a thing not unheard of among farmers, their daughters and the hired man. When found out, however, he was handed his clothes and told he had thirty minutes to get off the property. Ten days later he was back, hat in hand, to ask Iris to marry him. She made him promise to change his ways; no more drinking, or gambling, no more chasing women. He had to go to church every Sunday, change his denomination from Methodist to Baptist, and to embrace total immersion instead of sprinkling as the proper way to get into heaven. He officially joined the Baptist Church after which he and Iris were wed on January 22, 1922 in Granite, Oklahoma. An unseasonable thunderstorm was said to have occurred state wide on the wedding night with much thunder and lighting.
He began farming on his own shortly after. Over time he returned to gambling and drinking but kept them out of sight and away from home. He and mother, whom he had renamed Irene, began producing, along with cotton, a crop of babies, one about every eighteen months. Paul arrived November 27, 1922; Bob July 30, 1924; June on May 9, 1926; and finally, yours truly, on February 3, 1928. My port of entry into this world and this life was the Red River Township, Tillman County, Oklahoma, about eight miles south of Frederick on a tenant farm known as the Orr place.
In those halcyon days, Coolidge was in the white house, the cost of living was low, credit was easy, the price of cotton was high, poker games were plentiful, and the living was choice. Almost everything was on credit. We were on Easy street.
On Black Tuesday, October 29, of the following year, 1929, Easy street dead ended; the stock market crashed wiping out paper fortunes of the investors: Dad thought it was a mere bump in the road. He failed to see how the stock market could affect him since he had never invested his money in anything called stocks and bonds. He did all of his investing in short term speculations; cards, dice, and cotton.
Come planting time, the next spring he discovered it was difficult to obtain a bank loan for buying seed for the cotton or cash to pay the help. His poker games dried up and, in the fall of 1930 the price of cotton plummeted to its lowest level in fifty years.
We continued to live on the Orr place through the first three years of the depression. Dad continued farming, betting that any day things would get back to normal. We began casting things away; all the things we had bought on time and now payments were coming due on them. One of the first to go was the family car; not only a symbol of freedom, independence, and prosperity but a necessity for gambling, shopping, and church going.
In 1932, we moved into Frederick, where we lived on what Dad could make working at odd jobs, gambling, and nine dollars a month from his disability pension for being gassed in the war. Mother kept a garden in the back and for awhile Dad ran a poker game in a room at the local hotel where the management took a small cut.
Nineteen thirty-four was a momentous year for me; I turned six, started the first grade, and committed my first carnal sin. I was caught by the neighbor lady en flagrante, with my pants down attempting sexual union with her daughter on the bare ground in her backyard. I ran home with the girl's irate mother close behind; I reached home and jumped into bed, shoes and all, and hid under the covers while the girl's mother pounded on the front door.
When mother opened the door the woman began delivering charges against me. Mother leapt to my defense with a statement that has been with me ever since.
"My son would never do anything like that, you filthy minded woman!" she said, and slammed the door in the woman's face.
The trouble was I knew I had indeed done something very much like that. I was summoned to my mother's presence wherein I said I was innocent, and had no idea why the woman was upset. Mother knew I would never lie to her, so her belief the woman was insane was reinforced. Ever since, a hint of sin, and the threat of hell fire has been associated with "that," and to be truly enjoyed, must be done in secret with the shades drawn.
In 1936, Dad received his veteran's bonus for his army service, overseas service, and combat duty in the World War. He decided to return to Izard County, Arkansas and live off the fat of the land, raising his own food, getting in some hunting and fishing and teaching the occasional novice how to play poker. We moved to a farm Dad had rented, near Pineville, Arkansas located three miles north of Calico Rock in Izard County. The field had almost as much rock in it as dirt. There was little rain in the spring, followed by a summer of deep drought: The cotton and corn that were planted, sprouted, just broke through the surface and then died; the well went dry so we had to go to nearby spring about a mile from the house for our drinking water which mother always boiled before we used it.
Hard times suddenly got harder. Dad got in a game while under the influence; lost his money, the horse, and the family cow. He also wrote checks against insufficient funds. He had picked probably the worst time possible to go broke and into debt. Like most of Dad's plans and dreams, this one ended without success. We again gave up farming, but not poker, and moved into Calico Rock. Once again, we were reduced to trying to live off Dad's pension, and the few pennies he could scrape out of the penny ante poker games he could find.
The family needed a house to live in, but there was no money. Dad heard of a place, its absentee owner had left sitting empty with no one to watch it. We moved down the social ladder a notch and become squatters when we moved into the empty house without letting the owner know.
The house was on Calico Creek, about a mile from the town of Calico Rock; it was built at the face of a steep hill or ridge with the front end jutting out from the hillside. There were wooden pillars that supported the front of the house, and underneath we kept chickens. The hill rose from the creek bottom with tall pine and oak growing along the sides. In places the creek ran close up to the wall of the canyon-like valley. Limestone caves in the cliffs were reputed to have been used by guerrillas and bushwhackers during the Civil War and later by Jessie James.
We kids set up camp in the mouth of the cave. We fished and swam in the creek, being careful to look out for water moccasins and while walking in the woods, the copperhead. Once, on a hot day, we were trying to catch small fish that hid in the shadow of the rocks on the shallow creek bottom. Bob seemed the only one who could pull this off. He would stand behind the rock, lean over it, and stick his hand into the small cavity downstream of the rock. He caught quite a few small fish, minnows, this way. Then he pulled out a snake. He didn't give us time to identify what kind, he just threw it away as fast and as far as he could. I thought living there was a wonderful life. To mother, it was like being in prison in solitary confinement.
After a month or so, the owner showed up. He had heard someone had moved into his house so he came to see for himself. He thanked Dad for taking care of the property so well but if we wanted to continue, we would have to pay two dollars a month. Dad agreed and mother paid it out of the monthly pension check. Mother handled the monthly pension check, even to signing dad's name to it and cashing it because Dad was often gone or might lose it in a poker game while he was drunk. It was a small swindle she had learned from Grandmother Wainscott who had cashed Granddad's monthly pension check for his services during the Indian Wars. Even after he died, she continued cashing them until the state of Texas discovered he was dead and wanted their money back.
In the summer of 1937 Dad went looking for work during the wheat harvest; starting in Oklahoma, on to Kansas and then points north as the wheat ripened. He rode freight trains wherever there could be work or where it was rumored to be work. He made it to northern Kansas then gave up. He reported there were hordes of hungry men out looking with him. The horde moved north as the wheat ripened in the summer, riding the freight trains from town to town, living in the hobo jungles. As there were more men than there were jobs, most had to be satisfied with handouts from the local citizens. At first, most of the locals were sympathetic, but after awhile the men were met by the local sheriff's deputies telling them to "move on."
In the fall of the year Dad moved the family to Newport, Arkansas in the flat delta in eastern Arkansas, where I learned to pick cotton while day dreaming. With all of us working, we soon accumulated a small bundle of cash which seemed a fortune.
The cotton ran out so we moved further into the delta to Mississippi County Arkansas where we wintered over in West Ridge between the Mississippi and the St. Francis rivers. West Ridge, so named because it was about three inches higher than the rest of the county, was a little wide place in the road, with a cotton gin, a railhead where the cotton was loaded onto railroad cars for a trip up north, a post office, and the company store. Since the cotton season was about over, we kids were enrolled in school, except Paul who stayed home to help support the family. He was fifteen.
It rained about forty inches that winter and being down in the Delta, after a rain, water would remain standing for days. Mother now had to worry not only about tornados blowing us away, but the prospect of being washed away in another flood of Noah like proportions. Her worries were not as unlikely as dad insisted. There were still water marks four or five feet high on the building from the last time the levee on the Mississippi had broken and flooded the area. Before the drainage ditches were dug through the area, it had been a swamp covered with cypress trees and populated by cotton mouth moccasins.
Come spring, Dad decided to try his hand at sharecropping. He signed up to plant fourteen acres of cotton and to split the proceeds of the endeavor with the alleged owner. The amenities were a three room shotgun house, an outdoor privy, free land to raise a garden, and credit at the company store against the coming year's proceeds
Schools allowed corporal punishment of the students, boys more than girls. There were two teachers, a woman and a man. The woman teacher punished all the girls and usually the younger boys. The older boys, above nine years old belonged to the male teacher.
Before the male teacher's arrival, the school was noted for a general lack of discipline, rowdiness, bad language, and poor citizenship. Passersby reported being stoned, cursed, and taunted by students. On his first day there, the male teacher took the foot rest out of a desk, carved a handle on one end of it, drilled a couple of holes to let the air through, and dubbed it, with a little humor, the Board of Education. Then he taught the rowdies just who was the meanest man they would ever meet. Anyone who acted up, sassed a teacher, used profanity, was caught smoking, got into a fight, didn't say "yes, sir" or "ma'am" or "no sir" or "ma'am" when speaking to a teacher or an elder, said anything mean or ugly to anyone, didn't do his homework or was lazy and shiftless in class got to meet the board of education.
I received three whipping in one day, certainly not a record, but it did show a certain precociousness in one so young.
Bob and his friend got the worst whippings of any student ever while we were going there. One of them had taken the teacher's cigarettes from his coat which was hanging in the classroom. Later, the teacher missed them. While going around outside the school, he found Bob and the friend smoking his cigarettes. They refused to confess.
The teacher beat Bob and his friend with the paddle leaving bruises from their heels to their shoulder; bruises that turned deep purple and then yellow before finally fading. Bob yelled while being beaten, but didn't cry. Several girls, including June in the class that had to watch, did cry. I was too frightened to cry.
Dad went to see the teacher. Dad related the teacher explained to him, he had lost his temper and would try not to let it happen again. Dad said he explained to the teacher that in the event it did happen again to any of his kids, he would come back and kill him.
Dad continued to promote poker games at which he presided as the "house," the banker, and a co-player. Just before Christmas. Dad lost all his money in a game, and we had to forgo any presents that year, but mother managed to cook a good dinner with things at home. We had roast chicken, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, and hot biscuits. When we returned to school, all the kids in my class had to stand up and declare what Santa Claus brought. When it came my turn, I had to admit I didn't receive anything. I didn't tell them that Santa's two aces couldn't stand up to the three fours the winner held in a game of stud poker.
We lived on the edge of a swamp. Drainage canals were dug into the swamp area which was lower than the ground where we lived. We used to follow a foot path along the edge of the ditch into the heart of the swamp. There, the water stood just about year round. There were patches of high ground throughout the swamp where larger oaks or other hardwood would grow. Cypress grew in the swamp itself. There were very few clearings there. It was good hunting in the area with plenty of squirrels. Blackberries grew along the paths and in the summer there were more than we could pick or eat.
In the fall, a new unified school district was started in the area with a new high school and junior high opening at West Ridge where we lived, and an elementary through the sixth grade at Etowah about seven miles away. I was the only one lucky enough to go to Etowah.
I began fantasizing that year on a more or less permanent basis. Now I had continuing fantasies, like chapters in a book. I probably picked the habit up from Saturday serials at the movies which we went to see on Saturdays after picking cotton all week. After seeing one, I would imagine how it would come out the following week. I also remembered where a particular day dream had ended, so I would pick it up later at that spot. I didn't tell anyone about my fantasies; I thought I was the only one who ever did it and it was a sure and certain sign of incipient insanity, and if anyone found out they would come and get me and put me away. No matter my fear of discovery, fantasizing took over a major part of my life. I tried not to but I constantly found myself in a kind of coma, my attention captured by the pleasure I found in a make believe world. I was all the things I wasn't in real life, and possessed of all the things I didn't have.
I palled around with a boy in class, about my age, height, weight, and level of frustration. At school one Friday in October or November, when the weather was turning but it wasn't quite winter, we were messing around. We knocked pecans down from the trees that had shed their leaves but not their nuts. We threw rocks at the clusters of pecan to knock them down and then picked them off the ground to eat. My friend began complaining of stomach cramps which we thought were probably brought on by the pecans. He left to go home, saying he didn't feel good. The next Monday, I learned my friend had died over the weekend from a ruptured appendix.
Excerpted from Sinner, Sailor by T. R. Rhoads Copyright © 2005 by T. R. Rhoads. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 28, 2010
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