Thursday, June 27, 2013

Meeting the Marlboro Man

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment, I-can’t- believe-I-did-that types of decisions when I look back on it. I had occasion to visit Oklahoma City on business several times during the early nineties and one of those visits included a tour of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, now called The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Fascinated, of course, by all things cowboy my entire life, I felt a connection, so I joined the organization.

My membership included a subscription to their magazine, Persimmon Hill (that’s the name of the site where the building that houses the museum stands). I eagerly devoured the magazine every month.
I don’t recall how much later it was, but I received an invitation to attend their annual Western Heritage Awards banquet. I also don’t remember how much the tickets were, but they were more than I was used to paying to for a night out on the town. Not exorbitant, but not a paltry sum. So I put the invitation aside. There was, after all, travel costs and the time to consider.

Then business called me to Oklahoma City again. I am not making that up. It really did. The trip was necessary. Really. It just so happened that I had to be in Oke City (that’s what Okies call it) on the night of the banquet. The coincidence was just too much—and I had already stopped believing in coincidences, anyway. I felt as if I was being called to attend this banquet. I made reservations without a minute to spare.
Jan and I felt right at home in the sea of black ties and boots, black hats, and friendly, welcoming down-home folks during the reception. When it was time for the banquet to begin, we were ushered to a front table only a few feet from the stage. We felt fortunate, but had no idea just how fortunate we were (and uninformed).

I don’t recall everyone who sat at our table, but a humble man to my left looked very familiar. He certainly looked very comfortable in his cowboy hat. I knew that I should know him but was reluctant to ask.  A classic, handsome, chiseled-face cowboy, that I guessed to be in his early sixties. He introduced himself as Bob Norris, a rancher from Colorado. 

Someone else at the table had to add that he was the original Marlboro man (there is a lot of confusion as to who was the original guy in print ads, but Bob is the cowboy who first appeared in TV commercials). An ad agency rented use privileges for part of Bob’s T-Cross ranch to shoot cigarette commercials back in the sixties. They brought along a model to be the Marlboro man.

But as Bob rode out horseback to offer assistance and expertise, the contrast between the model and Bob became so obvious that they fired the model and hired Bob. He was under contract to Marlboro for twelve years, but he told us that his conscious about the links between smoking and cancer led him to finally give up the gig that made his face famous.  

I was certainly impressed enough that he was the owner of a large ranch in Colorado (130,000 acres) and was the Marlboro man, but Bob also failed to mention that he was the grand-nephew of a guy named Gates who owned a little oil operation called Spindletop that later became Texaco.

I found out much later that Bob was chairman of the stockholders’ committee that locked horns with corporate raider Carl Icahn that led to a three billion dollar settlement with Pennzoil. He also has his own charitable foundation. What we still don’t know is why Jan and I were at the table with him and his wife. I expect there was a last minute cancellation by someone else.  

In his eighties now (and still looks in his sixties), Bob spends his winters in Arizona, but still does a little cowboy work on the T-Cross during the other seasons.

But Bob was just the first person we met. Wait till you hear who else was at our table and at the banquet. I still marvel that we had such an opportunity and that we chose (or had chosen for us) such a propitious date to attend.

Texas Scribes  Here is another installment on reading from Go Down Looking at KETR.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whose Names Are Unknown

I have always been fascinated by stories of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. I have read many books (The Worst Hard Time, The Grapes of Wrath, etc…) on both the greatest economic catastrophe and the greatest interrelated weather tragedy our country has ever faced. 

I enjoy looking at photographs taken during the period. In the faces of the folks who struggled to survive during this period, I see my parents and grandparents staring at me, telling me to be grateful for what I have.  Those feelings and my great curiosity about how these brave folks survived led me to Sanora Babb’s novel. 

Babb was born in 1907 in Oklahoma Territory. Her family later moved to the Oklahoma Panhandle. She experienced what she writes about. She taught school for a time and wrote for farm magazines. She moved to California when she was twenty-two to become an AP reporter, but the depression stopped that. Babb was usually broke and at times, homeless.

The title to Babb’s book came from an actual eviction notice: To John Doe and Mary Doe Whose Names Are Unknown. She wrote the book during the thirties while working with refugee farmers in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) camps of California.

One of her closest contacts with the FSA was Tom Collins, the founding manager of the Weedpatch migrant labor camp in Arvin, California. Collins asked Babb to keep notes of what was taking place. He was impressed enough by her writing that he passed on her research to another writer who was visiting the camp to research a novel. That writer was John Steinbeck. Babb reports meeting him twice.

It is easy to imagine that her notes played a critical role in Steinbeck's writing of The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that later took America by storm. Babb submitted her manuscript to Random House in 1939 even though the giant publisher seldom looked at agentless manuscripts. 

Co-founder and editor Bennett Cerf (remember him from the old TV show What’s My Line?) liked what he saw and sent her an advance.But Babb’s and Cerf’s plans were dashed when The Grapes of Wrath sold almost half a million copies in five months.   

Cerf backed off her manuscript, saying it was too much like Steinbeck’s book. She was also rejected by Scribner’s and Colliers. Steinbeck’s editor at Viking sent her a letter indicating no interest in publishing a novel that would compete with their star writer.

So the manuscript sat unpublished for more than sixty years. The story of Julia and Milt Dunne that begins with their struggles in Cimarron County of Oklahoma and migrates west to California remained untold. How does it compare to Steinbeck’s great novel? Read it and judge for yourself.

If your group is looking for a speaker, contact me through my website, or by e-mail  Here are some auditions your program chairpersons might want to review.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Under the Porch

Daddy was sick a lot when we were kids and doctors could not determine the problem.  He spent the better part of four years going in and out of hospitals and Mother almost always stayed with him.

I was the youngest child, so she usually took me with her. I went so often that I still get a little nauseous when I enter a hospital. I remember sitting in Janes Clinic in Cooper, watching the door that led to the stairs, afraid that every footstep was someone coming to tell me that Daddy had died.

That scene was repeated so many times that I had nightmares about it. He lost about a quarter of his body weight during one particularly bad time, but only missed work when hospitalized. His face stayed contorted with pain a lot. He could not keep any food in his stomach long enough to gain nutrition.

Desperate, he and Mother decided to go through an extensive diagnostic program at a hospital in Dallas. They sold virtually everything we owned to pay the cost.

The day he was scheduled to leave, I hid in my usual spot underneath our tall front porch. The dirt was cool there and it was a good place to shoot outlaws through the cracks in the boards. I watched through those cracks as our driveway filled with cars. Nobody gave me details; I just sensed that something ominous was happening.

When the time came for Daddy and Mother to leave for Dallas, (which seemed like a foreign country to me), he asked all the relatives and well-wishers to give him a few minutes alone with his kids. They left the house and stood by their cars in the driveway, reminding me of a funeral procession.  I know now that most thought he would never return.

Mother sent Eddy, my brother (six years older) to find me. Even when his calls became impatient, then threatening, I did not come out from under the porch. But my hiding place was well known.

He crawled under the porch and dragged me out. Everything I had dreaded waited for me in the living room of that old, drafty, leaking farm house we lived in. My whole family was standing in the living room. Mother’s eyes were red and held a look of desperation I had seen in hospitals before as she stood beside Daddy’s bed.

My sister Trish was sobbing. Daddy’s copper colored skin could never look pale, but it looked faded. He looked less powerful in his best khakis and shirt than he did in his usual overalls and brogans. The man I had looked to all my life for protection, a bastion of strength and authority, the man I wanted most to please in my short life, looked afraid.

Mother lined us up and I was sure this was the end. I bolted to return to the porch, but Eddy caught my shirt and held me. The line was oldest to youngest and Daddy hugged Trish first and told her he loved her. I should pause here to say that we were not a hugging family, nor did we express our love much in words. Somehow, however, our parents made sure it was never doubted. Not for a minute.

Hearing love expressed by my tough-as-nails daddy, the hug, were ominous signs for a small boy. I lost it when he hugged my brother and spoke of his love. I blubbered against his shoulder as he dropped to one knee to hug me and tell me he loved me.

He put a hand on each of my cheeks and told me he would be back. Things changed then. I believed him. He told me not to stay under the porch so much and to help my mother and my brother and sister. As I recall, he went through a list of my daily chores and told me he was counting on me to keep them done.

I had seen Daddy cry only a few days before when he came out of a doctor’s office. He waited until we were in the car and then whispered to Mother that the doctor said he probably had stomach cancer.  His voice broke when he gave her the bad news.

I wasn’t supposed to hear, but I did. But on the day he left for Dallas, his were the only dry eyes on the place, the only smile.

Time has claimed many of the details of that day, but I will never forget the smell of him, the feel of his rough hands on my cheeks, the sound of his words, believing him when he said he would return.

It’s good that we did not know what heartaches were in our future that day, how much more suffering Daddy would have to endure. There was a lot.

The best doctors in Dallas were not able to diagnose what was wrong, but a few months later, Dr. Olen Janes in Cooper did. He performed surgery and Daddy’s pain and suffering appeared to be over. It was not cancer, just an abnormality in his digestive organs.

I was at a ballgame in the West Delta gym the day he came home after the surgery. I think Trish found me in the crowd and Aunt Hildred took us home. I was almost embarrassed as I walked into my own house. In the kitchen, I saw something I had not seen in a very long time—Daddy seated at the head of the table (though my memory says he was on the wrong end).  He was eating a breakfast-supper, eggs and ham and homemade biscuits, food he had not been able to digest in years.   

Daddy left us before he was sixty. More than three decades after his death, he returned as Rance Rivers in Rivers Flow.  Jake saw Rance leaning against a cattle trailer, arms folded against his chest. When Jake looked at him, he unfolded his arms, put a finger and thumb on the brim of his hat, and tugged slightly. Jake took a deep breath. The Rivers’ Flow was back. Rance returned in Rivers Crossing, Rivers Ebb, and Go Down Looking. I think he would smile and tug on his hat brim at that.