Monday, October 27, 2014

Searching for a boyhood hero

Searching for a boyhood hero

I left my great-grandfather’s grave and headed north through the Kiamichi Mountains and across the Kiamichi River to find another relative I thought was still alive. A cousin who was famous in his own right.

I was surprised by the number of law offices in downtown McAlester, Oklahoma. After many stops, I found the Chamber of Commerce. They loaned me a phone directory, but my cousin was not listed.  I did have a last known address, and the chamber manager was kind enough to show me the location on a map. 

She seemed hesitant when she saw where the address was. “You sure you want to go out there? It’s rough country.”

“Rough in terms of terrain or people?”

She laughed. “Could be both.”

I wondered if I looked that vulnerable.

Peet Garnett was married to Mary Evelyn Hammock, my first cousin. As a boy, I thought she and her sister Patsy were beautiful West Texas girls—and they were. Peet and Mary Evelyn had two sons, John Bill and Rocky. John Bill was close to my age and I knew he still lived in the Texas Panhandle, but I had not seen Rocky since he was a small boy. I had, however, kept up with his career as a ranch and rodeo cowboy.  

Peet had been a boyhood hero of mine because of the stories I heard my uncles tell about his prowess as a cowboy. He wore the first truly western suit I had ever seen to a funeral and I could not keep from staring at his boots. They were not fancy, but I thought they were beautiful.

Cowboy, pretend vet and prolific writer Ben K. Green said Peet had mounted more horses than any man alive because he mounted everything that came though the sale barn in Clovis, New Mexico for many years. I knew that to be true because I had visited the sale as a boy. 

My sister claims to have looked through our aunt’s bedroom window as a child and watched Peet break the ice in a water trough so he could take a bath. This was before this rough but gentle cowboy became our aunt’s son-in-law.

From Rivers Ebb . . . A movement caught his attention and he wiped away the fog on the ice-covered window.  Sunlight reflecting off the snow and ice gave Jake a prismatic, uncertain view, but he thought he saw a man standing beside the windmill stock tank.  Still disoriented in this new environment, he rubbed his eyes and looked again.  The man was naked from the waist up and was breaking the ice on the water tank with a sledgehammer.  Jake watched as the man pulled off his boots, pants and underwear.  He hung them on a post with his shirt and stepped into the ice water.  Jake rubbed the window again, not believing his eyes.  The man dropped underwater and came up, shaking water from his dark hair.  Droplets sparkled in the morning sun as they flew from his hair and skidded across the ice.  He stepped out of the tank, shook himself like a wet dog, and put his clothes back on. 

Peet Garnett managed ranches all over Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico as well as the famous J. W. Marriott (Founder of Marriott Hotel chain) Ranch in Virginia at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains sixty miles west of Washington, D.C. In a 1989 article for Farm and Ranch Living, Barbara Sullivan said this: "That cowboy hasn't worn a store bought shirt in years. Before coming (to the Marriott Ranch), he and the missus have lived on spreads where there weren't any stores for miles."

Peet inspired the character called String in Rivers Ebb. String’s actions were so effortless, it seemed the big sorrel dressed himself in blanket, saddle, breast harness, and bridle.
As I followed the map and turned off the main road, I realized the chamber lady had been right—this was rough country. I had expected rolling ranchland befitting a lifelong man of cattle and horses, but this was heavily wooded with rolling hills and lots of rock. An unpracticed eye like mine would not have selected this area as ideal for cattle, horses or an old cowboy. Shows how much I know. 

I passed battered mailboxes until I found a place that looked like Peet. Lots of corrals full of cattle and horses, working pens, a small stone house. But the address was wrong. I figured out the sequence of numbers, retraced my path, and found the right number on a mailbox. The driveway ended at a mobile home under a covered metal shed. A handicap ramp led to the front door.

On second thought, I could see Peet spending his final days here, sitting on the covered porch and watching cowboys work cattle in the pens below. I figured the place it looked down on belonged to his son Rocky. But it was still a long way from Texas ranches in Big Bend Country, the Panhandle or the Marlboro Ranch. Little glamour here.

I knocked on the front door and a friendly face appeared behind the screen door. I blurted my name and mission. “I’m looking for Peet or Rocky Garnett. They’re my relatives.” Up to this point, I really expected another blind alley. I had not found any information about my great-grandfather’s death (other than his tombstone) and I knew finding Peet or Rocky was a long shot at best.

The man laughed. “My kinfolks, too.  Sorry, but Peet’s dead. Lasted less than three months after Mary Evelyn died.” He pushed back the screen door and stuck out his hand. “I’m Rocky’s brother-in-law. You probably passed right by his place. Want me to take you over there?”

I was shocked and a little ashamed to learn that Peet had left this earthly plain without my knowing it. 

“Any chance of Rocky being home?’

“I happen to know he is. Get back in your truck and follow me.”

Next time: Rocky’s place.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

True Story or Family Legend

Sometimes when I find myself wrestling with a difficult decision or when I get stuck in a rut, a change in routine or environment helps. Routine works for me, but sometimes the same tracks  get a little deep and I hit high center. I have become a homebody, a routine person. Packing and planning trips were never my favorite chores and I just couldn’t seem to crawl out of the ruts. 

I planned a visit to one of my favorite (and oldest living) cousins to get more details on a fascinating story he told me about my great-grandparents. My mother had told me her father’s father was buried in his yard when he died because “the creeks were out” and there was no way to carry the body to town. When I related that story to a friend, he did not understand “creeks were out”. 

Before automobiles, roads were dirt trails and many rivers and creeks did not have bridges. With no way to preserve my grandfather’s body, they buried him in the yard. I have heard that from enough family members to believe it. He died in Texas, was buried in Texas, but one of his sons removed his body and buried him in Oklahoma years later.  My research said he was in Antlers.

I had never heard the story of how he died until the cousin I planned to visit told me my great grandfather had been killed and my great grandmother took vengeance on his killers. The story sounded sort of far-fetched because I couldn’t imagine the very small woman in a picture I have taking vengeance on anyone. 

But, then again, I had tried to prove or disprove a similar story from the other side of my family without success for thirty years before I found a bonanza of information in an unexpected place from an unexpected source. Turns out the unlikely story was true. The story I uncovered resulted in a novel. That was enough incentive to follow up on this one. But before I could visit my cousin for more details, he succumbed to old age at 93.

Irritated with myself for delaying my trip until it was too late and for missing the chance for one last visit with a remarkable relative, I packed enough clothes to last a couple of days and left for Oklahoma a few days later. I was reasonably certain my great grandfather was buried in the Choctaw Nation in what I assumed was a Choctaw cemetery. That would prove his heritage as a Choctaw and would authenticate (somewhat) the story that his son had removed him from his Texas grave. I hoped for another fluke that might lead me to the details of his death.

I left without GPS or even an Oklahoma map, but I knew where the Red River was and I figured I could stop and ask for directions when I crossed the state line. I didn’t have any plans after that. I stopped in Hugo and spent a couple of fruitless hours looking for information in the Choctaw Heritage Center. 

At Antlers, I was directed to the city cemetery, which was not exclusively Choctaw. I found an Alexander (my mother’s maiden name) stone within minutes. Memorial Day flags were still on veterans’ graves, so I thought my search would be easy if he was truly there. He was a Civil War vet.
I parked and walked between graves for two hours paying special attention to flags. Nothing.  

Then, just as I was about to give up and leave, I saw a stone leaning against a cedar tree in shade so dark it was almost hidden.  It was my great grandfather’s stone, complete with the Southern Cross of  Honor and his rank as a sergeant in the Texas 9th Cavalry of the Confederate States of America. Folks putting out flags had apparently missed it.  It was only twenty feet from where I parked. 

It told me he had died in 1895 at age 51. Death at such a young age might lend some credence to his being killed, but not proof. I will have to do more research to know for sure. His wife spent the rest of her life in Texas and is buried in Klondike. Had she really killed the two men who had killed her husband? 

He was buried in the Choctaw Nation, in Pushmataha County, but that did not prove he was Choctaw. The rest of my research for the day ran into brick walls, so I headed north through the Kiamichi Mountains and across the Kiamichi River to find another cousin I thought was still alive.