Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tales of Bob Lee and Arliss Lee: The Blurry Line Between Fiction and Truth

Those of you who read my novels (thank you) will recognize the name Bob Lee Boggs. There is a hint of him in the first two novels and much more about him in Rivers Ebb. Bob Lee waved once as he danced his way through the snow toward Jake and String. Jake’s cousin had always carried twenty or thirty extra pounds, but it was evenly distributed.

His character is even more important in *Go Down Looking, my fifth novel. “Damn, Jake. I babysat you for six months and you didn’t get thrown in jail once. Let you out of my sight for a little bit and here you are in the hoosegow.”

 I’ve never tried to hide the fact that the character named Bob Lee was inspired by my cousin, Arliss Lee Edwards. Arliss was one of those “bigger than life” characters who seemed more suited to fiction than real life. There are hundreds of stories about him.

He was eight years older than me, and lived five hundred miles away in the Texas Panhandle. The stories, however, traveled the distance back to my home in Northeast Texas regularly and Arliss became a sort of legend in my boyhood mind. He wasn’t a bad boy in the traditional sense; he just did things that inspired laughter and more than a little tongue-wagging.

We moved to the Panhandle when I was fourteen and the distance between Arliss and me was reduced from five hundred miles to about thirty miles. Our house was literally in the middle of nowhere (twenty miles away from a paved road) and you could not distinguish the front from the back.

You could see one small shack from our place if you knew where to look and the sand wasn’t blowing. It seemed to me that we had moved to the moon. The only people I knew out there were Arliss and his family.

Arliss sensed my fear and misery and would sometimes take me for a ride in his ’57 black Chevy. I will never forget the rooster tail of dust that Chevy left on the dirt road that led to our house, or watching Arliss “peg” the Chevy’s speedometer and take the needle around to the other side; or watching him land a small plane on a farm-to-market road just for kicks.  

Irresponsible for a man twenty-two to take a boy fourteen on such a wild ride? Even reckless? Yep. But Arliss sensed that lifting my spirits was worth the risk. Most men of that age have little time or patience for a boy as immature as I was.

Panhandle distances and my parents’ sympathy gave me a lot of latitude when I began dating. I remember stopping at an all night cafĂ© on Route 66 on the outskirts of Vega late one night. Arliss sat alone in a booth, having a piece of pie and a glass of tea.

We had both been out courting, and it gave me a sense of camaraderie with my older cousin. He regaled me with rapid fire jokes until my sides hurt from laughing. I still repeat at least one of those jokes (my all-time favorite), but I can never match his storytelling skills.

I grew to love my new home and enjoyed the growing relationship I had with my cousin. But my parents were never really happy out there and we moved back in less than three years. I was bitter again.

I found myself afoot on the last night before we moved, and Arliss tossed me the keys to his new Chevy (or was it the ’57?). 

In my mind, it will always be the ’57, but what matters is that he loaned a very nice car to an unhappy, angry kid not quite seventeen so that he could have one last fling before leaving the life he loved behind.

I also can’t remember if I actually heard the argument he had with his father when he bought a new car or if I have been told the story so many times it has become a visual image to me. I do remember his famous words after being severely dressed down by my uncle. “Don’t know what to tell you, Dad. Just work hard and save all your money.” That still makes me laugh.

I saw him only at funerals and rare reunions after I left the Panhandle until I began occasionally traveling to Amarillo on business more than three decades later. I always made it a point to look him up. The visits were always entertaining. I got to know him man to man and found him to a very complex character.

He, like a lot of us, struggled with balancing discipline and praise when raising children. He had trouble showing affection or expressing his deepest emotions to those he loved most.

We shared a tendency to speak our minds and to see things in black and white and not in shades of gray. We were both stubborn when our minds were made up. Our tendencies often led to words best left unspoken. Talking about it helped.

During one of my business trips, Arliss and I parked near a grain elevator between the place where he grew up and the farm where I lived during my Panhandle years. It was an overcast, cold, and of course, windy day—a good time to reminisce.

I recalled memorizing the exact miles from the main highway to the turnoff that led to my house because it was easy for a boy used to corner posts and big trees as landmarks to get lost. Out there, all roads looked pretty much the same.

We talked about how the grain facility office served double duty as a community center back in the day and the time I saw my parents dance there for the first and last time. And about how I grew to love the big sky, arid air, and wide open spaces carved up into square and rectangle giant farms and ranches with little distinguishable features to the unpracticed eye. I even grew to be comfortable with the more or less constant wind.

But my parents never adapted. They missed giant shade trees, landmarks, creeks, and bois d’arc fences. They wanted a farm measured in acres instead of sections—one they could farm with one tractor—one you could “get your arms around”. Maybe a few cows. The roots of their youth called them home.

On the day of our talk, I had just had a business book published and Arliss knew about it. He said he wanted to buy one for himself and one for each of his “bull barn” buddies.

I appreciated that, but told him that this was a business type of book written for a target market. I doubted that he or his friends who farmed would find it useful or interesting. Besides, the publisher had not provided any copies for me to sell.

He turned to me as if I had insulted him. “You wrote it, didn’t you?”

I nodded and he pulled out a roll of bills, started counting twenties before he came across a hundred. He handed the hundred to me and said, “How many will that buy?” That gesture describes him about as well as anything could, I think. I made sure he got his books.

We kept in touch over the years until health problems that had plagued him a large part of his adult life overcame his indomitable spirit.  I was honored when his wife and children asked me to serve as a pallbearer. We left for the Panhandle at once.

Next week: High Plains Tribute—My recollections of what happened when I saw Arliss for the last time.

*Save the date. Go Down Looking signing party is May 9. Invitations will be mailed and available on my website

Find the Flow . . . Hear the Music


pwhite said...

Yes Arlis and I (Jim's sister) were just a month apart in age. I can remember visiting West Texas and spending time with our cousins. You see Arlis's mom and our mom were only a year apart in age. There were 12 children. I can write a book on stories about Aunt Jimmie and our mom. I wrote a folklore paper in college that highlighted so many of those tales . My professor was a black author named Dr. Brewster. He ask if he could use my paper in his folklore novels . Not sure if he ever did.

Unknown said...

Jim. Sounds like Arlis Lee is one on those characters I would have loved to hang out with - and not just as a kid. Life is short, we need laughter - we need the Arlis Lee's to keep us sane. As you know I am not a writer but I am writing skits in an attempt to be funny. Ironically, having grown up in East Texas, I have fictionalized a West Texas cousin named Bill Bob to carry the load of crap that I and my friends did (or would have liked to have done)when we were young. Sounds like Arlis could be my fictional Bill Bob. Next time I'm with you, would like to hear more! The writing is great.

Unknown said...

I really enjoy reading about your experiences with dad. As you hint at, he was a hard shell of a man with a soft, candy center. Good deeds aplenty and most done anonymously. Never asked anyone to do something he wouldn't do himself. I miss him everyday. Mostly, I wish more of his character would have found it's way into me. Thank you, Jim.

justin r. gardner said...


My name is justin gardner, I married jaci ( arliss' daughter) 8 years ago. I didn't get the opportunity to meet arliss, but I've heard many stories which none where boring... wish I could've have met him though.... even though I didn't get to meet him I know he was and will always be a darn good man.. really think that the people that knew him, had there lives changed once they did meet him.. terribly sorry for everyone's loss ... also all the Edwards family are very good people and I'm thankful I met his daughter she's definitely changed my life in many ways (lol) ... I love her to death ... (love you jaci Dee)