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I left my home in Wharton at sixteen, but no matter how poor I was, and I was often very poor, I always managed to return for a visit at least once a year, and whenever I met with friends or relatives on those visits we inevitably got around to: "Do you remember when," or "I wonder whatever happened to ..."
I was the first grandchild born into the extended family that surrounded me in Wharton and Houston. On my father's side I had a grandmother, a stepgrandfather, an aunt, three great-aunts, a great-uncle, a great-great-uncle and first, second and third cousins in abundance. On my mother's side I had a grandfather, grandmother, two aunts, three uncles, three great-uncles, four great-aunts and many first, second and third cousins. Also, nearer the coast in the towns of East Columbia and Angleton were other great-aunts and cousins.
I was fond of all of them, and particularly close to my mother's mother and father, her younger sisters and her brothers. The backyards of our houses joined and we were always, it seemed to me, visiting each other.
Whenever my mother and her sisters got together, sooner or later, one of them would ask: "I wonder why the boys [meaning their brothers] are like they are?"
As the years went on the questions were somewhat rephrased, and became more concerned and urgent, because by then the boys, now grown men, had begun in earnest their wasted, tragic lives. Wasted tragic lives, I had by twelve observed, seemed nearly always to occur to at least one male member of the families we knew, but to have the only three sons of a family turn out so was most unusual. The town, too, seemed to realize how unusual it was, and for many years seemed as obsessed with that question as we were. For my family learned from well-meaning friends that it was out of our hearing a much discussed topic, and to our faces, from time to time, each of us was asked the question, put in a studied, casual, offhand way, "What has happened to the Brooks boys?" or "Where are the Brooks boys now?" or "Do you stay in touch with the Brooks boys?"
I seldom hear that question now, because my father and mother and her immediate family are all dead and except for two cousins that live in Houston, anyone else related to the boys (as we continued calling them even when two of them lived to their early sixties) are dead, too, as well as any friends that knew them. When I visit with the cousin from Houston who remembers them as vividly as I do, we will still at some point ask once again, "I wonder why the boys turned out the way they did?"
Fifteen, or ten years ago, even, a number of people living in Wharton would have known them, or heard of them through their parents. They would have known, too, that the handsome, stately house on Richmond Road, now visibly neglected, with the huge cypress tree shading the front gallery, and the fruit market and general store to one side of its front yard, had once been owned by the Brookses, and was still called the Brooks house, although it had been owned for fifty years by another family, the owners of the fruit market and the general store.
I thought of the Brooks boys recently when I was sent a picture taken in 1928 of my eighth-grade class. I remember well all but four of my classmates pictured there, know in some measure what happened to those I remember and realize that none of them that are living any longer live in Wharton so that even if I wanted to ask again what happened to so-and-so, or do you remember when -- there is no one in town I could ask these questions, or no one to ask me about the Brooks boys.
I was the youngest in my class and in the picture almost every girl is at least a head taller. It occurred to me that this slight young fellow (still eleven years old -- twelve in March) had already decided he wanted to be an actor, although it was still only a secret wish confided to few people. I had told my mother and father and overheard them one night on their front gallery -- my father always called it the gallery, my mother usually referred to it as a porch -- discussing this desire, "notion," they called it, and reassuring themselves that I would grow out of it. I didn't. Indeed the determination grew stronger each year thereafter, so that when I graduated from high school, at sixteen, I refused to even consider going to college and insisted that my Depression-burdened parents send me to New York to a dramatic school, which they did, though first insisting that I wait a year to be sure it was still what I wanted to do, and then substituting Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, for New York, "You are too young to be turned loose in New York, Son."
The only plays I'd seen were those performed by the Dude Arthur Comedians, a tent show that came to our town once a year for a week, Florence Reed in a stock company production of The Shanghai Gesture in Houston, Vilma Banky and Rod La Roque (two film stars whose careers had been ruined by the advent of talking pictures) in a touring production of Cherries Are Ripe, also in Houston. Then, too, there was the Wharton Little Theatre, formed when I was a freshman in high school, and where I saw productions of Coquette, The Silver Cord, Sun Up, Enter Madame, George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers and a melodrama, Gold in Them Thar Hills.
When I was a sophomore, Eppie Murphree, just graduated from college, came to Wharton to teach speech and put on plays in high school. I found a way to tell her my ambition to be an actor, and, to my relief, she took it very seriously. She cast me that spring in a one-act play, about three college roommates, one of them having a serious drug problem. I was cast as the young addict. I knew a lady in town that I was told was addicted to paregoric, but that was the extent of my knowledge of drug use. However I got my ideas for the behavior of this young man (there is a scene in which he confesses to his unsuspecting roommates that he is an addict and has a kind of fit before them, since he needs a fix and he has no money for drugs), it must have had some effect, for when the performance was over the judge called Eppie aside and asked, "Is that Foote boy afflicted or is that acting?" She assured them it was acting and they gave me first prize for best actor.
Eppie saw to it that I was cast in all the plays she did in my sophomore, junior and senior years, none of them memorable, but they kept me acting.
Where did all this start? I remember walking in summer evenings, with my parents and my brothers, the smell of honeysuckle everywhere, and we would often pass a small Victorian cottage, on whose porch a distinguished white-haired gentleman would be seated. He and my parents always exchanged greetings and once after we were a few yards away my father said, "That's Mr. Armstrong and he was in the cotton fields of Mississippi when he got a call to come to Texas and preach."
"What does that mean, Daddy?" I asked.
"What does what mean, Son?"
"Getting a call."
"He's a Baptist, Son," he said as if that explained everything.
"Is that why he got a call, because he's a Baptist?"
"Well, now ..."
"Can only Baptists get a call?"
"No, honey," my mother ever patient said. "Methodists can, too, and Presbyterians and Episcopalians."
"What about Holy Rollers?" I asked.
"I expect they can, too, darling," Mother said. "I just don't happen to know any."
"Why do they call them Holy Rollers?" I asked.
"I don't know, precious. Do you, hon?" she asked my father.
"No, sweetheart, I don't; preachers have a hard life," he added as if to discourage any of his sons from the notion of getting that kind of call.
"Do Holy Rollers have preachers?" I continued asking.
"I wouldn't know, sweetheart. I'm sure they do," my mother said.
"Maybe they roll around, and that's why they are called Holy Rollers."
"Maybe so, honey."
When I was eleven, I got a call, so to speak, not to be a preacher, but an actor. It came to me as clearly as I presume Mr. Armstrong's call came to him that acting was what I wanted to do. And I never wavered from that call either until I began writing, some ten years later, and the desire to act left me as suddenly as it had arrived.
Copyright © 2000 by Sunday Rock Corp.