Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Vanishing Way of Life

We arrived a half-hour early for the memorial service, so I drove past the church, through what is left of downtown Enloe, Texas, calling up memories from long ago and pointing out to wife Jan landmarks of my childhood and homes of people and businesses long gone. I’m not from Enloe, but I am from tiny Delta County, and that’s close to the same thing.

The Enloe State bank is shuttered now, moved to nearby Cooper, the county seat of Delta County (population about 2500). From the looks of things, Enloe would probably have to count dogs and cats to reach 200. The bank was robbed at least twice in the last half century as thieves saw its out-of-the-way location and lack of a police force as easy pickings. Besides the bank, Enloe had an operating cotton gin, a thriving seed processing plant, a restaurant, and a general store when my father borrowed his money there. 

I got my first car loan at that shuttered bank. Carl Adams, (I think he was bank president), gave me a shirt-pocket-sized payment book. I mailed the book back to him with each payment. Carl would figure the interest and new balance, enter it in the book, and mail it back. I still have it, marked paid in full. A rush of memories almost brought tears to my eyes when we passed the closed bank again on our way back to the church. Daddy borrowed money there for crops, cattle, equipment, and sometimes . . . groceries. I recalled this scene from my first novel: 

From Main Street in Enloe, Gray Boy and Jake looked through the front window of the Enloe State Bank at their father. Rance sat in a chair in the bank lobby close to the marble teller cages. He was restless, shifting his weight and drumming his fingers on the arms of the chair. Jake thought he looked worried, vulnerable, maybe even a little frightened. The check from the sale of the dairy cattle peeked from a bib pocket in his overalls. 

I wonder if the way of life I knew as a child has vanished forever. I grew up near Klondike, and I don’t think that a single business from my childhood has survived there. I know that my children and grandchildren will never experience the type of hardscrabble but rewarding life I had growing up in an area that represents real country life—not just rural. I am a full-blood East Texas Country Boy and there are fewer and fewer following that trail.

When we parked and walked toward the Enloe Methodist Church for the memorial service, I took a closer look at the church I had never really observed before. It was old, but maintained well and possessed of great character and charm, built in 1919 after the previous one burned on Easter Sunday. My father’s family arrived in Delta County by covered wagon in 1918. 

We were there for the service on the day before Easter Sunday. 

When I saw a friend and schoolmate from my distant past entering the church, an unexplained wave of nostalgia brought an effect I can’t properly describe—a feeling of loss combined with a sense of pride in what we once had. Since it was close to the anniversary of the church’s burning, I wondered if the old church was putting forth some type of aura. But it was probably because the church resembles the ones in Klondike I am familiar with. 

The inside was every bit as appealing as the outside, especially when it began to fill with familiar faces—some recent and current friends, but many from long, long ago. Memories almost overwhelmed me as I saw eyes, faces, and expressions that looked familiar, but drastically changed. I searched my memory for names and events associated with various people as they filled the pews. Others searched their memories as they looked at me. Faces were lined like mine, many backs bent, but they all still seemed full of Delta County grit, faces that had weathered adversity and still showed courage. And they were from all four corners of this tiny county.

Judy came over to give me a hug. She and I started first grade at West Delta together. As we walked in the school at the same time on that first day, Mother insisted that I give her one of my precious new pencils Daddy had bought from the charred inventory of the Trotman and Ward store that burned in Klondike. I didn’t feel the loss so bad when I discovered the fire had made the erasers on the pencils useless. 

Then Freddie Mike, Judy’s brother, shook my hand and I was reminded of this scene from Rivers Flow:  
The Indians loaded the bases in that first inning. When Jake advanced to third, Coach Simpson and Linc Little discussed strategy before Linc stepped into the batter's box. Linc slammed the first pitch twenty feet beyond the left field fence for a grand-slam home run.

Freddie was the inspiration for Linc. Freddie and Judy are originally from Klondike, and Judy married Ted, an Enloe boy, the brother of Bob, the man we came to honor. Lanny, her oldest brother and also a great athlete, sat in the pew just in front of us. Those kinds of connections filled the small church. Bob’s family has deep roots in the community and I saw many other families represented who had been in the area for generations.

It’s hard to describe the actual memorial service. There was reverence without formality. I saw no ushers, no funeral director. As the pews filled, church members appeared with additional chairs. Flowers appeared and were carried to the front. A man played the piano without looking at sheet music or the keys, often carrying on conversations with the people seated behind him. He signaled a surprised member of the audience to come up and lead the singing. We sang two verses of Amazing Grace and I’ll Fly Away without hymnals. 

When the minister stepped to the pulpit to present the obituary, he made a lighthearted joke about taking up a collection while he had a full church. I looked at the bulletin board that said attendance on Sunday last year was 23 and this year 24. Bob’s nephew, a minister and Judy’s son, delivered a warm and humorous eulogy for his uncle. Bob had been an outstanding athlete, family man, a gregarious friend to many, and a citizen who returned to his roots in his final years.

Outside after the service, I got a hug from a relative of Bob’s who had been my client many years ago. She and her husband were special, memorable people. They had invited Jan and me to their farm to pick roast’n’ ears almost thirty years ago. There were too many connections to recall here, too many faces that I connected to memories and not names and vice-versa. 

After the service, an acquaintance from another state, impressed and surprised by the uniqueness, the genuineness, and the warmth of the service told me that gatherings like this reminded him why East Texas was his favorite part of the state.  I started to explain the history of the old days of competition between Enloe, West Delta (Klondike), East Delta (Charleston), and Pecan Gap, schools long ago consolidated into Cooper. But well, you just had to be there back then to understand those jam-packed gyms and the friendly but intense rivalry between the four schools of Delta County.

As we drove away, I told Jan I would never forget the service. Maybe it was the way that folks just knew that church members would step up to the plate with food, chairs, music, and whatever else was needed in spite of the absence of a funeral director. Maybe it was that feeling of celebration of life rather than sorrow at death that many services talk about, but few achieve. Maybe it was because I lamented about a way of life that is vanishing while rejoicing because Bob’s services proved that some of it still remains. 

Calico Joe

It’s fashionable to say that you don’t read John Grisham, even when you do. He has had a few real stinkers and the literary critics hate him, but audiences continue to love him. Give me audience over critics any day. Old friend John Ray brought one of Grisham’s latest books to me the other day called Calico Joe. If you think this doesn’t sound like a legal thriller, you are right.

John (John Ray, not John Grisham) knows about my love for baseball and for real events portrayed in fiction. This book fills the bill on both counts.  Although Joe Castle, the major leaguer at the center of the story, is fictional, he is supposedly based on Ray Chapman, a player who was killed by a pitch.

I did not say that Joe is killed in the book, so I haven’t spoiled it yet. But Grisham does such a good job making his first baseball book (Painted House had a hint of baseball) believable, I started to wonder what I was doing to miss this significant event in 1973. My twenties went by like a blur, so I figured this was one more thing I failed to notice.

I was almost relieved to see that Joe was fictional. As I read, I was reminded of two of my favorite players as a kid.  Herb Score and Rocky Colavito.  I liked Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Pee Wee Reese, but I needed modest heroes (the strong silent type) and Rocky and Herb filled the bill.

Their backgrounds also fascinated me. Herb was run over by a truck when he was three and later had rheumatic fever. That gave hope to this little runt of a kid (me) who dreamed of playing major league baseball. Like John Grisham, I played Little League and high school ball, but never came close to being good enough for college ball, much less the majors.

It also helped that Colavito and Score came to the Cleveland Indians at the same time and just when I was most in awe of baseball (from nine to twelve). Unlike Grisham, who favored the St. Louis Cards, the Indians were my favorite team. The two players struck a friendship that would last a lifetime. I figured I had something to do with that.

Score was called the left-handed Bob Feller, who threw the fastest pitch in baseball back then.  But, when I was thirteen, a batter drilled a line drive into Score’s face. The ball broke some facial bones and injured an eye. Everyone, including me, figured his career was over. He made it back, but then injured his elbow and never returned to the top of his game.

He had a successful career after his playing days in broadcasting.  On his way home after being inducted into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame, he was run over by another truck and suffered trauma to his brain, chest and lungs and fractured the orbital bone around his eye.

Tall and handsome Rocky Colavito was a hitter. He dropped out of school at sixteen to concentrate on baseball and signed with the Indians farm club when he was just seventeen. He worked his way up and in 1958 he had forty-one homers, just one behind Mantle. He hit over forty the next year too. He hit four homers in a row in 1959. Then the Indians traded him to Detroit.

That trade begin the legend that became known as the Colavito Curse on the Indians. So many bad things happened to Cleveland after they traded him that Terry Pluto wrote a book about it.

What does all of this have to do with Calico Joe? It kept me from giving away the plot. And this book is just as interesting as the real-life stories of Score and Colavito. Thanks, John (Ray, that is).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Firstborn Son

The switchblade and the cross on the cover are pivotal in the book’s first scenes as a twelve-year-old boy uses both to protect his younger brothers from a thief who turns out to be their uncle. Both, by the way, belong to the man who inspired the book. He made the cross as a boy. 

Meet Ben Tom Lawless. I kept sporadic notes on the stories he told me, committed to memory the bizarre scenes I witnessed. But I never really believed they would find their way into print. The journey from those scattered notes and memories into a novel is difficult to tell. And the novel was somewhat painful to write. 

I try to write what I know. Some authors would say that’s a coward’s way out—that we should write about things we dream or stories pulled totally from our imagination. They say that’s real creativity. Maybe, but I think most novelists conflate true life stories into fiction. Most write from personal experience.

But for Firstborn Son, the early scenes are told vicariously. I am not the protagonist; I wasn’t there. But I’ve heard the stories told many times and few know the character who inspired Ben Tom Lawless as well as I do. I was there for many of the later events, so I only had to bend my rule about writing what I know.

There are lessons to be learned here. Ben Tom Lawless is an enigma—a creative, multi-talented genius who also does things that defy logic. He’s not well-read (well, hardly read at all). But he is an artisan possessed of an innate talent for creating, building, drawing, or repairing almost anything—a God-given talent that compensates for his almost impossible upbringing, attending dozens of schools, and his lack of what most would call “scholastic skills”. 

He also has an incredibly generous spirit. And he practices his munificence even when it is detrimental to himself and those he loves most. He is possessed of acute business acumen. He has great ideas, knows certain things about starting a business and how employees should be motivated. But his business insight is more than offset by decisions and actions that defy common sense and normal business practices.

The extreme deprivation he suffered as a child causes him to keep things long after they have lost their usefulness and value. His sense of generosity causes him to pay too much for things he purchases. A walking contradiction, right? 

He has a “mother- hen” complex with an insatiable desire to physically and spiritually nourish and protect not just his wife and children, but his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, even cousins. Even strangers, con-men, and criminals are welcome under his wings.  If a human snake bites him, he welcomes it home again.

I think all these inconsistencies can be traced to his very difficult childhood. His brothers succumb to the negative experiences and influences of their childhood, but Ben Tom takes the opposite direction.
Read about Ben Tom and tell me what you think. What can we learn from this man? 

One experienced writer complimented the writing, but said she felt “bruised” after reading the first few chapters. I’m still trying to make up my mind if that was a compliment or not.

If you read this book and Rails to a River, you will see how they connect. If you follow my books, you will probably see more of both Ben Tom and Tee. 

Here is a sampling of what other early readers are saying about the book:
Firstborn Son is a "can't put it down" book. Jim Ainsworth has delivered another wonderful story, leaving you with wanting more about this family.

Ainsworth is my new favorite writer. Great story of how circumstances affect our lives. Loved the book.