Wednesday, January 30, 2013

College for a Country Kid

I overheard Mother and Daddy fretting about how to pay for my college tuition.  Only a few weeks away from high school graduation in 1962, I was angry that they were taking away my euphoria before I had a chance to enjoy it – before I walked across the stage.  I had never said I was going to college, anyway.  I sure didn’t want to.

Problem was, I didn’t know what to do if I didn’t go to college.  It was time to go out in the world, and I had no marketable skills, no natural abilities.  East Texas State College was only eight miles from our front porch, but it seemed like a foreign country.   My parents expected me to go, even though nobody else in the family had.

I knew money would be tight, knew about the medical expenses and the drought that had wiped us out.  How could I add college expenses to their burdens?  I searched through the college catalog of courses and majors.  Nothing there for me.  Why waste hard-earned money? 

When I told them of my decision, Daddy stared at the floor for a long time.  He always had a habit of drifting off, staring into space.  I hadn’t inherited his ability with his hands, but I had inherited that drifting off.  He stood and motioned for me to follow him outside.

I was surprised by the tone of the discussion that followed.  No longer man-to-boy, but man-to-man. Daddy believed that praise and affection drew value from their scarcity.  “Sounds like you’re backing out on college because of money.”

“I know we can’t afford it.  I don’t know what good a degree would do me, anyway. I got no idea what to do with one.”

“That’s the point of going, Jim.  They put that college over there in Commerce for kids just like you.  Go a year.  Give it a chance. You’ll find something that suits.”

“How are we gonna come up with tuition and books?”

“You always had a job of some sort.  You help out with gas and spending money, your mama and me will take care of the rest.”  He started back to the house, then turned and came back.  He put a calloused hand on my arm.  “You make the grades, keep out of trouble, money won’t ever be mentioned again.”

I was surprised at the intensity of his expression and his words.  A little tenderness crept into a selfish boy’s heart.  But I did not answer.

He focused his one good eye on me.  “Take the chance I never had.”

I nodded. Now I had to go. Daddy has been gone for more than forty years now, and that last sentence returns to my mind often.

I found a job at City Pharmacy in downtown Commerce jerking sodas, mopping floors, and delivering prescriptions.  No skills required.  Mother cosigned a note for a ’54 Ford so that I could get back and forth to school and work. I delayed college for the summer, dreading it every day.

In the fall, I stood in the Field House, staring at a sea of tables, kids and professors.  Everybody in that gym looked smarter, more experienced, and worldlier.  Some well-dressed young man asked if I was a freshman.  I said I guessed I was about to be and he handed me a beanie.  I stuck it in the back pocket of my Levis, hoping that wearing it was not mandatory.   

First published in Memories of Old ET. 

Another review for Go Down Looking.
I have enjoyed reading all my life--have read all kinds of stuff-- this from one who thoroughly enjoys the written word. Jim Ainsworth has a better grasp of the English language than any author that I have ever read!!! When he writes of a scene or a situation he describes it in such terms that put you inside the pages of the book-- you see, feel and touch the moment. Great job, Jim.
Charlie Smith 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Old Roper and a Lost Thumb

Blood from his severed right thumb ran through the fingers of his left hand, dripped on his boots from the stump where the thumb used to be.  As the barrel-chested man walked his way through the riders in the waiting pen, the smell of blood and fear overpowered the thick haze of dust and the sweat of horses and nervous riders.  As a friend led the man’s horse out of the arena, a sense of foreboding traveled through the waiting ropers and our horses like molten lava. 

I stood in my stirrups to see inside the arena, deciphering reasons for the accident, assuring myself that such a wreck could never happen to me.  The thumbless rider's horse passed close enough for me to touch, the injured man’s eyes downcast as if praying for the clock to roll back so the thumb could reattach--so that he take back that split second mistake. 

My horse Rowdy and I were crammed into a too-small waiting pen outside the arena at Glen Rose, Texas, waiting to rope in the short go – the final round of competition, roping for a shot at a saddle or at least a trophy buckle and part of six thousand dollars in prize money.  The high point roper would also win a new Dodge dualie. 

My partner and I were fourteenth after three runs. That may not sound great, but it was terrific after two days of roping in two rounds with well over a thousand teams. I had learned that the guys in first place after two rounds almost never wound up winning a big roping like this one. So I knew we were in a good slot for some cash and a saddle. 

I didn’t have enough points to win the Dodge truck, but my partner was sitting pretty to win it, too.  I wanted the saddle more than the money or even the truck–something to pass on to my grandchildren –eternal evidence that their grandfather could handle a horse and rope.   

My partner, the heeler, was a stranger, drawn by lot.  I liked it that way, and I purposely stayed far away from him to avoid last minute coaching from a man good enough to rope for a Dodge truck.  Coaching was for practice, not during the real thing. 

As our time drew near to rope, we were soon able to count heads in the chute and see which steer would be ours, but I didn't want to know if he was fast, ducked, went left or set up.  Sounds strange, but I usually roped better not knowing. Knowing caused me to anticipate something that might or might not happen. Be ready for the unexpected was my philosophy.   

When we were third in line, I counted heads until I came to our steer.  I recognized him whether I wanted to or not. A pup – ran straight, good strong horns.

Once roped, he always followed the head horse like he wanted to nurse, and lifted his heels to be roped like an obedient puppy.  Luck was with us. The heeler grinned when he saw him.  “We got this thing won.”  I didn’t want to count our chickens before they hatched.

Rowdy, who really did not enjoy expending the energy to go from zero to about 30 MPH in a few seconds, surprised me by backing into the head box like a gentleman. We were in a short arena and that meant we had to get our business done quickly before we ran out of room. I nodded for the steer. 

The steer left, but Rowdy stayed put.  I spurred him lightly, but he still did not move. I slapped him on the butt with my rope and he exploded out of the box.  Caught off guard and off balance, I tried lifting my loop to swing, but it would not come up. The slap had hung a spur.  When it did come up, the loop was in a figure eight. No time to straighten it, so I threw it anyway and it bounced harmlessly off the steer’s horns.   

The little steer was so compliant that he turned left as if I had roped him and was pulling him. The heeler rode up behind him and easily roped his back feet. It was a useless gesture, of course, and one that heelers were not supposed to perform.

I supposed he did it to show his contempt for his header—me.  The gentle little steer mocked me as it trotted past me and entered the stripping chute.  The heeler rode by as I re-coiled my tangled rope. I nodded and said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.  I didn’t need no Dodge truck.  Didn’t need no money or saddle, either.”  The heeler wasn’t smiling.

It wasn’t the first time I had come close and failed. I tried to blame my mistake on seeing that fellow lose his thumb, but that was just an excuse. I rode out of the arena and tried to console myself that at least I still had both thumbs.

This review is for Go Down Looking:
I thought it would be impossible for Jim to write another book that lived up to the standard he set with his Rivers trilogy, but I was wrong. This one is even better. It completes the story of the Rivers family; it makes you feel the music. J. A. Cross "jamx" -

Friday, January 18, 2013

She Kept Going

Saturday marks the twelfth anniversary of Mother's passing. This is the eulogy I delivered in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Commerce. 2012 would have been her hundredth year.

Mother was just fifty-seven when Daddy died. A few weeks later, she asked me to say something nice at her funeral. I did not want to talk about death and funerals. When my brother died three years later, she asked me again. I promised her I would if she wouldn’t mention it again. She never did.

How do you put someone’s eighty-eight plus years of living into only a few minutes, especially if that someone is your mother?

She is the last survivor of eighteen children born to Lee and Mary Pearl Alexander. As a child and adult, she was known for her mischief, strong will and sense of humor.

Her life has been full of tragedy, but also triumph over adversity. She married and raised children during the depths of the Great Depression and World War II. She lost her first-born son just before he turned two to illnesses that would be minor problems today. But, she kept going.  She had other children, and focused on them and her husband. 

She almost died giving birth to conjoined twins who were stillborn. My father was very ill in the same hospital at the time she was giving birth, and had been given little chance to live. They both kept going.
His twenty-year battle with illness devastated them physically, emotionally, and financially. She lost Daddy at fifty-nine. But, she kept going. 

Three years later, she lost my brother Eddy in a plane crash. He was only thirty-four. Again, she kept going. 

She married Deb Hooten in 1973. Only a few years later, an automobile accident left him partially paralyzed for the remainder of his life. But, she kept going

She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and lived the last twenty years of her life battling this crippling disease. She had two hip surgeries, thyroid surgery, a brain tumor, numerous hip dislocations, and many fractures, cuts and abrasions caused by her efforts to keep going

I mention these adversities only to show Nadelle’s strength. She persevered. What about the bright side? We grew up dirt-poor. She struggled, along with Daddy, to be sure that we never really suffered. And we didn’t. Unless you can call getting rained on regularly in your living room suffering. I remember coming home from basketball games on cold nights and finding the house frigid, but a warmed brick or iron was always in my bed. That was Mother’s love.

I was grown before I ever paid any attention to the term “unconditional love”, but Mother understood it long ago. She knew how to take our disadvantages and shortcomings and make us believe they were assets. I know that she had me convinced that being small for my age was such an incredible advantage that I actually felt sorry for the biggest kids.

I once heard grace defined as a gift from God – unearned merit – the gift of love we don’t always deserve. When I reached adulthood, Mother’s grace always gave me more credit than I deserved. I used to joke that if I were ever sent to prison, Mother would say three things:

1.      He’s innocent and doesn’t deserve to be there and I will spend my last penny and the last breath in my body to get him out.
2.      He is unquestionably the smartest and best person in that awful place, including the warden.
3.      Doesn’t he look good in stripes.

She would, of course, say the same thing about my sister or any of her grandchildren or great grandchildren.
Some years ago, I was going through some of Mother’s things. She had been in and out of nursing homes for quite some time. A few material things were lost or given away with each relocation. As I looked through her possessions, it dawned on me that everything she owned now fit into a small chest and ottoman. I was overcome with emotion as I asked, “How could more than eighty years of living be reduced to this?” 

But those two pitiful boxes full of material things is not her legacy. She left something much more valuable. This family is her legacy. She filled our lives with grace and unconditional love. 

Mother, I know you are listening. I am glad your pain is over. For Pat and myself and all of your family, I say thank you. We love you. Job well done. Rest now and go with God.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


A double treat –a movie and a book. The book was originally called The Wettest County in the World, but when the movie came out as Lawless, the book was republished using the movie title. Memo to movie producers: It’s okay to do that to any one of my books. 

The action here takes place in the twenties and thirties.  As many of you already know, this is an era that fascinates me, so I was eagerly looking forward to both the book and the movie.

Matt Bondurant, the author, based his novel on the lives of his uncles and grandfather. So it is a novel based on a true story. That’s the kind I write, so that made my anticipation even greater. It’s also about bootleggers, and as many of you know, purveyors of the movement of spirits played a big role in Go Down Looking.

My bootleggers were products of the forties that plied their trade in the fifties and through the seventies in Northeast Texas. They mostly peddled bottled liquor bought in wet counties and transported (usually across state lines) into dry counties. Some made and sold a little moonshine around here, but not many.

The Bondurant brothers distill their own liquor in hidden mountain stills in Franklin County, Virginia, and transport it across wooded mountain trails. They don’t call it moonshine, but usually refer to it as mule, white mule or corn.

As I got to know the Bondurants (Forrest, Howard and Jack) in the pages of the book, I thought of the Newton brothers, said to be the most successful bank and train robbers in history. Their escapades mostly took place during the period 1918-1924, but they were still going at in their dotage.

A movie, The Newton Boys, was made about them in 1998. In a documentary done when they were all old, one of the brothers described their lives thusly, “We were rough old boys.” The Bondurants were surely rough old boys, too.

Was my anticipation for Lawless rewarded? Yes and no.

Bondurant is a fine writer. His second book was made into a movie. None of mine have been, so what do I know? I write this review not as a writer, but as a reader. He chose to tell the story both directly and indirectly, using a technique I have seldom seen.

The story is told through the eyes of the brothers, but also through Sherwood Anderson, a real novelist, reporter and chronicler of the era. Anderson comes along after the major events of the book have taken place, primarily trying to tell the story of the Bondurants and a female bootlegger named Willie Carter Sharpe, who attained legendary status in Franklin County.  

The problem, as I see it, is that the Anderson chapters are interspersed with the story that takes place many years before Anderson comes along to report about it.These chapters delve into the writings and the mind of Anderson, including his relationships with Faulkner and especially Hemingway who seems to have been a nemesis for Anderson. Hemingway seemed to be fond of chastising writers he deemed to be lesser (i.e. all other writers), using satire. Anderson bore the brunt of his ridicule at least twice.

It sounds fascinating on the surface, but I was disappointed when the author told me something in advance (through Sherwood Anderson) that I wanted to find out in later pages of the book. He doesn’t give away the plot totally, but the information provided is much stronger than typical foreshadowing.    

The movie, wisely I think, omits any mention of Anderson, focusing instead on the story of the Bondurant brothers. And the story told by Bondurant is gritty and unforgiving, evoking comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. He cuts his ancestors little slack. But fear not, the book contains three love stories.

Here, I think the screenplay writers made a mistake. They left out the most tragic and heart-rending love story, the one involving Howard, choosing instead to focus on the loves in Jack’s and Forrest’s lives. They probably did this because Howard was already married when the story really begins, taking away the un-requited love aspect present with Jack and Forrest. But Howard’s tormented relationship with his wife and child is haunting.

Spoiler alert! I also was disappointed with the Willie Carter Sharpe character, a fast driving blockade runner woman with diamonds in her teeth. She sounded fascinating, but in the end, she is only discussed by Anderson and does not interact with the Bondurants.

My minor criticisms aside, this is a book and a movie I recommend. I expect Academy Award nominations for the movie and the book has already been named as one of the fifty best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Another review for Go Down Looking from Bill Thompson. Ainsworth is a truly gifted writer who brings his characters to life in a most believable and interesting way. He describes his books as "fiction based on true stories" and unveils his characters and plot lines in such a way that the reader cannot distinguish where the truth ends and the fiction begins, or vice-versa. I'm a devout Ainsworth fan, and find it hard to believe that we have not seen his novels transformed into screenplays and featured as made for television movies. Like most readers, I've already cast all the characters in my mind and can see their faces and hear their voices in Ainsworth's prose. I highly recommend Go Down Looking and Jim's other novels. If you haven't read them, you are truly missing a wonderful experience.