Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Annie Golightly

I had heard of her before, but the first time I saw her was in my yard on a warm summer day. She walked around, casting a critical, but not judgmental eye on our place in the country that we call Bar Nun Ranch. It’s not really a ranch, of course. Not big enough. But I think Annie liked what she saw.  I was expecting her and hailed her from the metal-roofed building I call my office. Jan calls it the White House.

She drove the few yards in her new bright-red Ford half-ton with fancy wheels and all the accessories that cowboys tend to prefer. I found out later that her hair had been jet black, but it was now white and pulled back in a severe pony-tail. Tall, but beginning to stoop slightly, she wore jeans and a white western shirt and ivory ostrich boots with riding heels. I don’t pay much attention to jewelry, but I recall she had on a lot of turquoise. When she extended her hand and shook mine firmly and warmly with a bright smile, I knew we would be friends, but I didn’t know the half of Annie’s story. Still don’t, but I know more than some. 

Her reputation preceded her. My in-laws knew her and a lot of folks just older than me remembered growing up with her around Fairlie, Yowell, and Commerce. The mere mention of her name to any of those people always elicited a smile and a story or two of her young and wild days as Ann Milford (Anna Mac, Little Mac, etc..). Her brother was the famous Dallas weatherman and later congressman, Dale Milford. Everybody around here was proud that he was one of our own when we saw him on television every night. But five minutes into our conversation, I suspected Annie was nothing like her gentlemanly brother.

Annie loved my rustic office because, of course, it is about as cowboy as I could make it. She handed me a business card that said “Painter of Portraits, Poet/Writer, Umbrella Fixer, Goat Roper, Fry Cook, Grandma, Bootlegger, Part Time Cab Driver, Full Time Texan. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t. I was particularly interested in that part about painting. The red pickup just happened to hold a couple of large portraits she had painted. One was of a 911 first-responder that would bring tears to a grown man’s eyes. I’m no art critic, but I knew she was talented. That first meeting planted the seeds of a friendship that has blossomed over the years. I knew she had owned at least two night clubs, but did not know she had performed in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Casa Manana and that she was a nominee for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Annie was coming to see me about a manuscript she had written. Terry Mathews, now Arts and Entertainment Editor for the Sulphur Springs News Telegram, caused our paths to cross. Annie had participated (that word is too lightweight) in what became known as the Great American Cattle Drive of 1995. Her manuscript told of her adventures as the only woman drover on that drive. She had held her own with cowboys (all younger than her) all the way from Fort Worth, Texas to Miles City, Montana, a journey of some eighteen hundred miles and six months. As a veteran of my own horseback and covered wagon trip across Texas, I was impressed. We had traveled less than a quarter of that distance and we didn’t have 300 head of longhorn cattle and over a hundred horses to keep moving. And Annie was nearly sixty-four when the drive began.

I suspected that her drive was well-financed and that the participants were borderline coddled on the trip. I learned better. They endured rain, sleet, hail, high winds, a tornado, extremes of both heat and cold, and lack of funds. Worse, they endured homesickness, frustration, disappointments, and dissension. We had none of the latter and few of the former on our trip. Bad weather pales in comparison to dissension. But Annie persevered.

Annie is an unabashed lover of cowboys and everything remotely related to their lifestyle—makes no bones about it. She told me later that such unconditional love had delivered a lot of joy but also more than a few heartaches and trouble. I learned that she was once-divorced and twice-widowed. Done with changing her last name, she took the name Golightly on a dance-floor whim. I don’t recall who her dance partner was when she made that decision. She lost one house by flood, another by fire, but still managed to get all five kids raised.

During the time that we worked together on her book, I learned that she was not only famous in our small corner of Northeast Texas, but it seemed that almost everyone in the town “Where the West Begins” knew her, too. Her father was Cherokee and the heritage is so evident she became known in Fort Worth as “The Singing Savage”. She had performed for two American Presidents and two foreign ones, Governor and Ms. John Connally, Arnold Palmer, Nelson Rockefeller, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Slim Pickens, Chuck Connors, to name a few. She had performed with Tom T. Hall, Rex Allen, Rosemary Clooney (for you young folks—that’s George’s aunt), Ace Reid, Arthur Duncan, among others. She completed her degree in English and Creative Writing at Texas Wesleyan University at age sixty-three. 

She was also one of the most cooperative authors I ever worked with. And she knew how to market her work. Her friend Mike Cochran wrote the foreword to her book. Mike is a journalist retired from Associated Press and the Fort Worth Star Telegram who has been nominated for the Pulitzer three times, authored five books, won six Headliner awards, and the Texas Institute of Letters Stanley Walker Journalism Award (twice). Another friend of Annie’s and columnist for the Star Telegram, the late Jim Trinkle, said of Annie, “There is a happy, vibrant quality to songs as Annie sings them. Audiences . . . are moved by her personal magnetism.”

When Dreams and A White Horse was published less than a year after that first meeting, I learned that Annie knew folks at Billy Bob’s (world’s largest honky-tonk) and arranged a signing there. She generously requested (make that insisted) that I bring along my own books to sell. I needed no persuading. I had listened to her CD’s, but finally cajoled her to sing a song or two that night in Billy Bob’s, a night I will never forget.  

It was to be the last time I would hear her sing and play. A stroke stopped all that. It affected her peripheral vision and she had to stop driving. She has trouble with one arm working like it used to. She had to give up the pickup of her dreams and leave her beloved Fort Worth to be near her daughter. She can no longer paint and has to hunt and peck on the keyboard.   

I dropped by to see her in Corsicana a short while back and spent a terrific afternoon. She talks frankly about her health problems but refuses to let them get her down. She’s filled with gratitude for the life she had and the life she has left, for the love and support of family and friends. She still possesses that dogged determination that caused her to rise to the challenge of participating in a long trail drive after being told that women would not be allowed to serve as drovers.

And did I mention she’s a good cook?  I keep a jar of her plum jelly in my office refrigerator, saving it only for special occasions because Annie told me there would not be any more. I hope she’s wrong about that.

Postscript: I write my postings days, sometimes weeks, even months, in advance of publication. I wrote the rough draft of this one on February 24, 2012. I put the final touches on it at 3:30 PM February 28. I planned to called Annie and read it to her before posting the first week of March. At 5:22 PM on February 28, I got an e-mail that appeared to be from Annie, a very rare occurrence. It was her address, but not from Annie. The e-mail was from Annie’s family. She died at 3:23, seven minutes before I finished the final edits on the article. She insisted that there be no funeral, no memorial service, only to be remembered by family and friends. She will be. She donated her body to science. That’s so Annie. She knew, I expect, when she told me there would be no more jelly.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hosses and Bosses

We all sat at booths and tables in the new trendy café in a building a few feet away from the campus of Texas A&M-Commerce (formerly known as ET). We were within sight of a multitude of memories for all of us. Most had frequented the same building when it housed different enterprises during college days decades ago. The occasion was a celebration of Dr. Fred Tarpley’s eightieth birthday. He had been a Tejas sponsor as far back as 1957.

We had difficulty deciding who should sit where, but finally settled in. Music blared from two different sources (with two different songs) and we had a little trouble hearing ourselves talk. Settled in, we perused our menus. I wondered if I was the only one basing my decision not on what I wanted, but what I would wear around my waist for how long after consumption. We laughed when asked to produce drivers’ licenses in order to buy beer or wine. Jace asked the young waitress if she was joking.

Just about the time we finished placing our orders, the annoying recorded music suddenly changed. A real band scheduled to perform that night (we were there around five PM—yes, we do eat early) had arrived to “test the sound system.” Their sound came through with perfect clarity and pitch.  Wife Jan noticed the sudden change in the gathering of thirty or so lifelong friends before I did. Looking back, I think the sudden change of atmosphere in the room was similar to a hypnotic regression without benefit of a hypnotist. We were just transported back in time without thinking about it. Fingers drummed on tabletops in time with the beat, eyes brightened, feet tapped, heads nodded, and butts squirmed in time with the music. The few still standing swayed with the rhythm. The jitterbug or the push was definitely about to erupt. I wanted them to.
               You got me runnin’, you got me hidin’  
               You got me run, hide, hide run
               Anyway you wanna let it roll
               Yeah, Yeah, Yeah . . .
               You got me doin’ what you want me
               Oh baby, why you wanna let go?

The tune-up for the band with this 1959 Jimmy Reed classic didn’t last long, but it was enough to refresh some memories of the way this fun-loving, caring group of people used to be and still are. It brought a feeling. I came along only a few years behind them, but Jan and I felt we had caught a really good glimpse of what it must have been like to have been part of this fine group of people we so much respect and admire during the fifties, a great decade. They remain youthful in appearance and especially in manner, but time seemed to reverse as we swayed to the beat of that old classic.

I started to title this The Brotherhood, but that would not give due credit to the Bosses. I know in advance that I will get a fact or two wrong on this piece and I know that I will be quickly, but kindly, corrected. There were thirteen social clubs on the campus of ET during the forties and fifties. The Tejas Club was formed in 1946 and affiliated with Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity thirteen years later.

I never joined a fraternity or social club. I am reminded of what Groucho Marx said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” But that doesn’t explain why I was not a joiner. I had plenty of excuses: no money, part time job, I was a commuter, etc…  But many of the Tejas guys had the same circumstances. They didn’t let a few obstacles stand in the way of forming bonds that have lasted a lifetime.

Many of the Hosses are country boys like me. Most had to struggle to pay for tuition and books; many left college or enrolled for the first time after serving their country. Many would not have been in college had it not been for the GI Bill. All have Tejas nicknames. At least, the ones I know do. I knew many by name and reputation but knew little about their group until Jan started working with them through her campus job. We were honored with invitations to many of their social functions. As we left the home of John and Peggy Moss in Pecan Gap one evening a few years back, I asked Jan if she had ever seen a finer, more fun-loving, successful, warm group of people in her life. Both of us appreciated being included.

When my first novel (In the Rivers Flow) was published in 2003, Hoss Jace Carrington (another Delta County boy) sent a copy to Kendall Wright (a Cooper native), a Hoss who lives in Alabama. Many scenes in the novel occur in Delta County. Jake Rivers, my protagonist, plays on a baseball team the first year Little League came to Northeast Texas. I did not know that Kendall, in college then, was an assistant coach for one of the teams. Even though I had changed character names, he sent me a letter identifying every one of the characters (by their real names), which team they played for, what positions they played, and even where they are today. He even brought me a photo of all the coaches during that wonderful era.  

I am not only impressed with the kindness, generosity, warmth and friendliness of this group, but would be remiss if I failed to mention their leadership. There may be exceptions, but this group is made up of successful folks, not just in wealth, but in life. They formed an endowment for ET and quickly grew it to one of the largest on campus. They served and continue to serve in leadership positions all over the country, and I am sure I don’t know the half of it. I am privileged to be included as an honorary member.

You say I didn’t explain who the bosses are? You must not be married.

Warning: Commercial break. Go Down Looking, my next novel, update—copy edits complete, content edits approved, front cover approved, layout approved. Next step is spine and back cover. Then I will receive the first bound book for one last chance to change anything.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Funeral in the Country

I attended a funeral a few weeks ago, an increasingly common occurrence in my life. I knew the deceased, but not well enough to really expound on the quality of her life and legacy. I won’t even mention her name, because these are my private feelings and I’m just not qualified to speak with authority about her or her family. Many things about death are public, but I think most of the most important things are private.

I knew all of her children (there are eight) and most of their spouses—some just by sight, some through business or social interaction. It’s fair to say I was friends with one or two. One once worked in my small western wear store many years ago; another two or three were my clients when I had a CPA firm. I have bought goods and services or transacted business with a couple more. I’m not sure the rest of the children would recognize me on the street. I state all of these non-qualifications because they matter to what I am about to say. These are thoughts more from an observer than a participant. I went to the funeral expecting to pay my respects to the deceased and her family.  But I received much more than I gave.

As the family filed into the Cowboy Church, I tried to get a glimpse of the children I knew but had not seen in a long time. Then something changed in the big sanctuary. It wasn’t the music; I think it actually stopped; it wasn’t anything anybody said. For me at least, it was as if the family brought not only their sorrow, but their shared memories of happiness, sadness and hardship and it filled the big room with an aura that went to the ceiling, settled, and gently spread itself on all of us. Yes, I know that usually happens for close friends when families enter at the beginning of a service. But that’s why I mentioned those non-qualifications before. It surprised me when the warm feeling settled on me and I felt a sense of reverence and awe.

I don’t know how many were seated before the family entered, but I would guess there were at least three hundred, probably more. The family filed in for a long time, eight children, nineteen grandchildren and thirty-eight great grandchildren, the obituary read. With spouses, the immediate family had to be close to a hundred. Now, the church was not only almost filled to capacity with people, it was filled with memories.   
The children and grandchildren told stories of a fun-loving and just plain-loving wife, mother and grandmother. By the time the service was done, the family had succeeded in bringing together a Church of Christ pastor, a Mennonite choir, and the Cross Trails Cowboy Church, a Southern Baptist Outreach.

As I heard the eulogies and stories, I felt that a strong message was being conveyed, that there were many lessons to be learned from this woman’s life. Yes, I know there are lessons we can learn from every life, but something special was conveyed to me that day. Maybe it was because of my country upbringing and the culture I revere and love. I’ll bet my hardscrabble—tough times—raised in poverty upbringing with just about anybody and raise them a plate of red beans and cornbread. You can only beat me if you had parents who did not love you. On that score, I was a rich boy. This woman’s children probably also suffered more than their share of deprivations, but they were also raised rich on love. 

Another thing. I’m country and proud of it and this funeral made me even prouder, because I think it’s fair to say that this woman, her husband and most (or all) of their children were and are country, too. And they are justifiably proud of it. I know at least one son is cowboy to the core. I hardly recognized him without his hat. He’s figured out how to make a good living doing something he is good at and loves.

And look at what this country couple accomplished. Eight children. I have no way of knowing, but I’ll just bet they didn’t start out to raise eight. One was on the way or had just been born when the husband was reported killed in the service of his country. That turned out not to be true, of course, but he did lose an eye. Can you imagine the pain of loss she endured until he was discovered alive? And what about his sacrifice, loss and pain?

Those of us who have raised kids or are raising them know the financial burdens and the tremendous time involved in raising two or three (yes, the rewards are greater than any sacrifice), but eight? Times were tough, but they raised them all. That meant that the children all had to pitch in and help with their own upbringing and I’ll just bet that is one of the reasons this family is so close. After the kids were all grown, the family managed to pull together a fun-filled family reunion every year, diligently attended by most of the descendants and a few dozen of their closest friends. This couple showed that you don’t have to be rich or famous, urbane, or even sophisticated to make your mark in this world, to have a positive impact. They showed that in the beginning, during the process, and at the end, it’s all worth it. What a legacy and lesson for us all.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

American Bloomsbury and Woods Burner

I am reviewing two books because they are related, even though only one is fiction and they are by different authors. I first read Bloomsbury three years ago and was intrigued. If you have ever read or quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Louisa May Alcott (and almost all of us have), this book should fascinate you. It’s not an academic treatise, but a fascinating story about their lives, loves and work.
Did you know that these transcendentalist folks lived and were close friends in the small town of Concord, Massachusetts? They also interacted (in many interesting ways) with Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Margaret Fuller (known as the best read person in New England) and other famous thinkers and writers, including former presidents. You won’t find, for example, from watching the movie Little Women that Alcott’s father didn’t believe in owning property but had no reservations about living (usually rent-free) in houses owned by others. The Alcott family also lived in a commune for several years where Alcott failed to take on his share of the work. He was dependent on others’ generosity most of his life until Louisa supported him and the rest of the family through her writing.
Did you know that Thoreau sometimes went by another name? That he also was dependent on others (primarily Emerson) most of his life? That he made pencils in his father’s pencil factory?
I enjoy biographies, especially when they are written in compelling narrative. Think David McCullough. But this book is more than a biography of famous folks. Susan Cheever masterfully weaves the relationships of these famous people into a fascinating tale. You will not just read about how brilliant they were, but how vulnerable, sometimes naïve, and yes, sometimes ignorant in certain areas. Cheever neither disparages their weaknesses nor lauds their brilliance; she just tells us about them. I was especially surprised and pleased by the balanced treatment she gave the period leading up to the Civil War, especially since Cheever lives in New York. Did I come away thinking less of these great people? No, I just see them as more human.
Speaking of naïve, did you know that Thoreau accidentally (and probably negligently) set fire to the woods near Concord in 1844? The fire destroyed almost 300 acres of beautiful trees. “I once set fire to the woods . . .  It was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it.” –Thoreau’s journal, 1850. John Pipkin takes this true tale and turns it into a very entertaining and informative novel. When I met him at a book fest in Tyler, Texas and heard what his book was about, I thought of American Bloomsbury. After reading Pipkin’s vibrant Woods Burner, I pulled my old friend American Bloomsbury off the shelf and read it again. You won’t be disappointed by either book.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pulling the Trigger on a Book

As an author, I am intrigued by what causes readers to buy and read a book. The vast majority of authors, even those with big publishers, are responsible for marketing their own books. And the old 80/20 rule we often spoke of in business is closer to 90/10 in writing. That is, 90% of books are sold by 10% of the authors. Those of us in that lower echelon (way lower) are handicapped (I am assuming here that I am not alone) in that we can’t figure what triggers the buying impulse. Even a few of my loyal readers often wait months, even years, after one of my books is released to buy it. That confuses me, but I have no right to complain because I can’t figure what triggers my own buying impulse when it comes to books. In my old financial planning days, I used to tell clients that books were investments, not expenses. I still believe that to be very true.
I am a list keeper and always have been. I plead the fifth when asked how many books are on my list.  Think “so many books, so little time”.  And I honestly don’t know what makes me finally pull the trigger to buy. I know I buy when my stack of un-reads starts to get low, but I sometimes make strange selections from the list. Even after I buy them, I sometimes read them in weird order, often giving preference to the newest ones.  
Why? Age on a novel doesn’t take away its luster. I usually put books on my list because I have read about the books or authors somewhere else. Sometimes, it is a referral from a friend or a stranger I admire or a review I have read. Often, they make my list after I read another book by the author that I enjoyed. I also buy many award winners, under the sometimes false assumption that some committee of readers has vetted the book for me. That works only about half the time. Sometimes, it is abundantly clear why the book was selected. Other times, I am confused as to how the book won an award. Some award winners are really tough reads. If I feel that an author has made the book needlessly difficult, I usually avoid his work in the future.
The embarrassing part is that I may not read all the books by an author that I sincerely admire. Why not? I should. If the author is good once, chances are he will be good almost every time. Remember William Gay, the author I admired enough to travel across several states to spend an afternoon with him? When he asked me if I had read all of his books, I had to admit that I had not. I rectified that as soon as I returned, but why had I not already read everything this great writer had written? I think I did not want to be disappointed in case his prior or subsequent work did not hold up to the high bar I had set for him.
I plead innocent to reading books because the author is a household name and I want to be part of the “in” crowd. If fact, I read few best-sellers. Jealousy, you say? No, I admire best-selling authors and seek their counsel. Possibly, I am on an internal quest to find the great undiscovered author. More likely, I probably seek to find the author who really “speaks to me.”
I want to be friends with my books, so I follow Shakespeare’s advice: Neither a borrower nor lender be. I have broken that rule a few times, but not too often. My friend and mentor Dr. Fred Tarpley does not hold books, he caresses them. I look at the read books on my shelves as old friends that I can turn to on a moment’s notice, and the book I am reading now as an intimate friend. My next post will offer a review of two of those friends. In the meantime, what causes you to pull the trigger on a book? Let me know.