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In Their Shoes
By Grace Halsell
TCU PressCopyright © 1996 Grace Halsell
All rights reserved.
The Beauty of Space
"The only form of thing that we directly encounter, the only experience that we concretely have, is our own personal life." —William James
"We live only to the extent that we face up to the world with all our faculties and as directly as possible." —René Dubos
Some people travel to the area the early Spanish explorers called the llano estacado or high staked plains of West Texas and say they see nothing out there, yet I always found mystery and beauty in space. Being born in a place where there was little except space had advantages. Who, I might ask, am I, amidst this infinite expanse? Not distracted by skyscrapers, television or a city's teeming masses, I early on felt a reciprocity with natural forces, especially wind.
It was a moody companion, often vindictive, uprooting houses and trees. Then lonely, soul-searching, with shrill, plaintive moans, crying itself to sleep, leaving the ground swept clean. Unseen, it demonstrated that what is most real is most hidden, inaccessible.
I am a product of that open expanse, a flat barren land with vistas wandering off like a child's imagination. And born a part of me came a built-in locomotive itch, a fugitive impulse, a driving urge to move across the plains.
Age five, I inserted the steel bit of a bridle into the mouth of a small horse, a mare I called "Tony." Not owning a saddle, I leaped onto her bareback and, giving free rein, raced over the bald endless expanse, feeling the harmony of my body blending with the onrushing mare. From the time memory serves, I experienced this joy of motion, feeling lifted above the earth, suspended yet sustained by the wind.
I would ride to areas where there was no sound other than the occasional buzz of an insect or the burrowing of a prairie dog. I saw no birds, no plants, no trees. Only the parched plains and the tumbleweeds. Once, at dusk, looking toward the darkening sky and observing the appearance of first one, then myriads of stars, I slid from the small horse, and standing, holding her head, I silently asked: what is the meaning of all that at one moment seems empty, then appears vast, never to end?
It did not often snow in West Texas. And when it did, I studied newly planted pyramids and stars on our window panes, each pattern fragile and unique. I lived in a world of fantasy, and fantasy, said Einstein, means more than any talent for absorbing positive knowledge.
We had few books, no radio or television, little or no cultural events—no opera, ballet, symphony orchestra or even a museum. Yet I was embarked on that greatest of all adventures: viewing the universe, participating in its rituals. I would dig a hole, drop a seed and in time behold a miracle: rambling vines and strange, crinkled, round-lobed leaves reaching out; later I saw the first fruit.
I lay on a pallet at night, overwhelmed by space, attempting to count the stars. I watched a caterpillar transform itself into a butterfly. Might I, also, experience such a metamorphosis, actually change my skin? On another day, I saw a mare's belly shrink and watched a strange bundle drop from her backside and a wet, improbable creature on thin, wobbly legs instinctively hobble to his mother's tits and suckle there.
I saw a bull impregnate a cow. And saw that it was the male on top of the female. The sight was thrust upon me with the force of a sudden flash of lightning or a clap of thunder. I attempted to avert my eyes, as the animals in copulation left me feeling guilty as if party to a crime. In my childhood, I was learning about a subject that was taboo, not discussed by parent to child or in open society.
Once a cow was having trouble giving birth, and my father went to assist her. He returned with his clothes bloody with the afterbirth. No one discussed "life," how it began or how it might end or if one might find or give meaning to the awesome mystery. In the year of 1928, I wore dresses Mother made from bleached Blue Bonnet flour sacks with bloomers reaching to my knees. My hairstyle was short, in a bowl style, with bangs. I was chubby, pigeon-toed, tomboyish. I had no playmates who were girls but rather was fully engaged in attempting to enter the circle and be accepted by my older brothers—Oscar Ed, seven, and Harry, nine. I was guinea pig for their games, such as one which consisted of one brother taking one of my hands as in a vise and squeezing until I said "calf-rope," a code word they invented meaning stop. Pretending to be brave, I would suffer, refusing to say their code words, preferring to endure the pain.
With my brothers, I learned to endure. With Louis, my playmate, I made a new discovery: I could lead. Because of the insights he gave me about myself he has remained in memory as I first knew him.
Newly arrived in the neighborhood, Louis, no doubt lonely for companions, walked the short distance from his large, newly-constructed two-story brick home. My brothers and I were scrubby, in rough attire. Louis, five, looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy, dressed in knickerbockers, jacket and laced-up shoes. Entering into our circle, Louis, eyeing me, also five, announced boastfully:
"I can fight better than you."
What was this, some sort of primordial instinct, to prove himself the master of another, the stronger one who would lead? He raised his mitts and I mine, my brothers gleefully urging us on. Oscar Ed, having previously christened me "Goot," now called Louis by a name to rhyme, shouting to him:
"Hoot! Get in there! Hit her, Hoot!"
Louis was lighter on his feet, but I landed heavier blows forcing Louis to bow from the fray. In retrospect, proving myself, as a female defeating a male, was instructive. I was not a breakable commodity, a doll-creature to be dressed in frilly clothes and protected. It felt good to have accepted a challenge, to have fought and wrestled in the dirt. And having gained a victory, I knew greater self-esteem.
Until I met Louis, I was on the outside looking into the world of males, my brothers and their friends. They owned .410 and BB guns and depending on their whims allowed or disallowed my tagging behind them as they hunted rabbits and mourning doves. In their eyes I was a lesser being, younger and worse, mere female. After our first encounter, however, I felt master over Louis.
Each morning, awakening, I quickly dressed and ran to his home where black Sarah—Sa-Sa, Louis called her—patiently dressed him, bending to lace his shoes. Then Louis and I climbed onto the bareback of Tony and explored the plains.
"Goot," he said, as he sat behind me, "let me lead awhile." He wanted to be up front, to hold the reins. "Oh no," I said. "I know more about horses."
Louis asked his mother for his own pony. And soon he had King. But when Louis tried to bridle King, the little horse clenched his teeth.
"Goot," Louis said, "make King open his mouth."
I placed a hand alongside his teeth, moving far to the back of his jawbone, and working from there, forced open his mouth, inserting the bit. A simple story, yet how significant for me the role that Louis played in my early life, allowing me to see a more positive picture of my worth than my brothers supplied.
Memories now seem rich, but in my own family home our possessions were few. We had no rugs on the floor. We rented a room to a boarder to get a few dollars. We ate meat only on Sundays and, for some time, we did not own a car or radio. Refrigerators and televisions had not come along. My brothers and I had two sets of clothes: those we wore to church, which after services we replaced with our school-and-play attire. At Christmas, we got new shoes, wrapped in a box and placed under a tree, along with hard candies, walnuts, pecans, apples and oranges. For the first years of my life, I saw oranges only at Christmas. As for toys, we devised our own: kites from newspapers and small sticks; sleds, made from orange crates, which we rode when it snowed, and stilts by which we elevated ourselves to ten feet tall.
Walking on stilts, I knew life as an adventure, a thrill, one that I could create myself.CHAPTER 2
A Horse Knows When You Are Afraid
"A boyish upbringing ... is the kind of education a father prefers to give his daughter; and women brought up under male guidance very largely escape the defects of femininity." —Simone de Beauvoir
My father, Harry H. Halsell, who was sixty-three when I was born, bequeathed me three legacies: the idea of willpower and courage, a motivation to travel and become a full human being who incidentally was female and, perhaps most important, the gift of time. In a sense, he created me by his awareness, his tenderness toward me, giving me an assurance that I could go out into the world as Henry James' Daisy Miller, fully prepared not only to accept but to want men in my life.
"Didn't your father ever warn you not to speak to strangers?" asked Tom Curran, head of Europe's UPI bureau back in the fifties when on a Paris-Madrid flight I took the initiative of getting acquainted. "No," I responded. "My father never knew they existed."
My earliest memories are those of my father reaching out to me, taking me into his lap, reading to me and relating stories of how he escaped from Indians. I pictured the scenes he related: when he was five, Comanches riding bareback on paint ponies careened down a hill crying death to the white settlers. I listened to his recollections of the Civil War. "I was five," he told me, "when I saw my father and grandfather returning home, bedraggled, in tattered uniforms." But the stories of Lincoln and the Civil War meant little to me. I was more interested in Comanches.
"Daddy," I would say, "speak Indian to me." And he complied with a gibberish I now imagine to have been a mixture of Comanche, Spanish, and words he created.
One day, armed with Mother's cosmetics, I climbed into his lap. "Daddy, let me paint your face like the Indians."
"All right, daughter," and he closed his eyes and sat patiently. I rouged his cheeks, ran lipstick across his forehead. Then I plaited his long white hair. Eventually I placed a mirror before his face, and, after deliberate study: "Daughter," he said, "you done good." He accented the verb in a western way of talking widely used in pioneer days.
He asked me to cut his hair. I worked meticulously. Again producing a mirror, I reaped his accolades: "Daughter, that's a fine job." If I continued such good work, he said, "you can be the best barber in the whole state of Texas!"
As I worked on his hair, he told me stories of his youth: when he was on trail drives with his father, only seven and carrying his own six-shooter, and how he had made his own way in the world since age fourteen with only the equivalent of three years schooling, and how, by age twenty, he had ridden horseback, alone, to the territory—not yet a state—of New Mexico and outfoxed the famed Apache chief Geronimo.
The year was 1880. The railway company putting down tracks to the West gave young Halsell a job guarding cattle at night, protecting them against thieves, runaway stampedes and Indian attacks. One eerie midnight on a lonely desert he drove his herd of two hundred horses and mules into a low basin, surrounded by soapweed with fuzzy tops that shone like men's heads in the dull sheen of moonlight. Halsell, looking toward an open gap, saw a long line of shadowy figures, later determined to be Geronimo and his band. Quickly deciding on a daredevil tactic, he dug his spurs into his horse and, "whooping and hollering like an army of men," darted toward Geronimo's band, and, by this surprise attack, routed the Indians.
After saving several thousand dollars, he again rode eight hundred miles on his horse, Pythias, back to Texas. There were no highways or known paths. "I had one map—the stars," he said. He killed game for food and at night slept under a heavenly canopy.
His stories always had a bottom line: courage can be a shield, fortitude builds character, hardships are blessings in disguise.
His stories also endlessly drove home one theme: you can struggle and become what you were meant to be. Or, as he always put it, "Fight a good fight. Any old log can float downstream." I heard his litanies so often I began to believe that I could go anywhere, knock, ask, seek, and doors would open. I was never told not to climb trees, roll down haystacks or engage in fisticuffs. I never heard, "be careful." In fact, he never seemed to concern himself about our safety. Once a goat chased my brother Oscar Ed, butting him in the behind while our father sat on a fence laughing. On another occasion Oscar almost killed himself tumbling from a tall tree. Another time I sank and almost drowned in a cesspool. We were simply told, "A few hard knocks are good for you."
When he gave us a task to do, he somehow made it into a game. Once he seated my brothers and me before tin tubs filled with fresh corn on the cob. "I'll give any of you a dollar"—a huge amount of money, it seemed to us—"for every ear of corn you find that has an uneven number of rows on it." We shucked all the corn before we learned that every ear has an even number of rows: twelve, fourteen, maybe sixteen, but never thirteen or fifteen.
Always, life was out there to be lived: "Daddy, let's build a big fire," or "Daddy, let's sleep outdoors, under the stars." As we looked heavenward, he related how he grew up "on a raw frontier" and how he began to read widely, becoming self-educated. He quoted to us from Socrates and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe. He quoted long sections of Milton and talked of Pericles, Plato and Homer as if they were next-door neighbors. "We are all sojourners," he said. As for me, there was no reason that I should not start on my journey. "Travel, daughter," he urged. "Get the benefit."
As I look back, I doubt my father had more than fifty dollars when he urged me to travel, to see the world. Yet, as he knew, an idea firmly planted in the mind represents the first step of a journey, motivation being more important than cash in hand. How his words would ring in my mind: "Travel, daughter. Get the benefit." It became a part of my agenda. I wanted to "get the benefit" long before I knew the meaning of the word.
At mealtime, my father, who never dealt with the mundane, took us on flights of fantasy. "Daughter, did you ever see the Panama Canal?" In those days, we were in the depth of the Depression, my father was too old to get any regular kind of job, and we often had only rice to eat. Yet, he clearly was not thinking of the problems at hand nor worrying about them. "Daughter," he once asked, to get my attention, "were you ever on a great ocean liner?" I studied his white hair and sparkling blue eyes. Too baffled to reply, I wondered: what is he talking about? He knew I couldn't have been on a great ocean liner. Yet, even without replying, I was indeed in mind and spirit transported to another world, with the sea around me and I looking out on a vastness of rolling waves. He taught me to live within my imagination as well as in that realm we term reality.
It was my father who taught me how to swim, who took me to my first football game. When I was twelve, he bought an ancient Dodge for two hundred dollars and taught me how to drive. I became his chauffeur. His assumption always was that I would be proficient.
Coming in from junior high, I often found my father sitting at a card table in the backyard under an apricot tree, surrounded by birds, writing his memoirs in longhand. In his late seventies, he yearned for others to share his exhilarating experiences that spanned the time from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman.
I was thirteen when he published his first book, Cowboys and Cattleland. Saying I'd learn more traveling with him than in a classroom, he took me out of school to drive for him. We traveled around Texas, and he sold copies of his book to libraries and individuals. Often I was embarrassed, watching him set up a card table on a downtown street, displaying copies of his book and hawking them for a dollar a copy. By the 1980s, they had become collectors' items, selling for a hundred and fifty dollars a copy.
When he died in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 4, 1957, The New York Times headlined his obituary:
Harry H. Halsell, 96, Indian Fighter, Texas Rancher who Once Outfoxed Geronimo Dies— Was Author of Nine Books.
The Times story stated facts about his life that seem incredible to those of us living with the amenities of modern life. After working in the territory that later became New Mexico, he rode horseback north to stake out land on the Cimarron River in Indian territory. This was twenty-six years before the formation of the state of Oklahoma.
"A cowboy could simply stake out or claim land by being there and calling it his own," he told me. "Free grass and cheap cattle made it easy to get rich." In 1888, he had a money belt filled with gold, and he returned to Texas.
When he was twenty-eight, he married Julia, thirteen years his senior and the widow of his uncle, Glenn Halsell. My father and Julia were married for twenty years. He managed large ranches in Clay and Wise counties and lived the life of a wealthy rancher and banker. He was being touted for governor.
Then he saw my mother. He left his vast fortune, which by this time would be valued in the tens of millions, to Julia and her children by her first marriage. Marrying my mother when he was forty-eight, he lived another forty-eight years, many of them as difficult as his early days on the frontier.
Yet, I never heard him suggest in any way that he regretted giving up his wealth. Rich or poor, he remained the optimist, always able to make a joke. Fortified by a sturdy personal faith, he rarely found coincidence in any event but rather viewed the remarkable circumstances of his life as part of a divine plan.
Excerpted from In Their Shoes by Grace Halsell. Copyright © 1996 Grace Halsell. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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