Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fifty Years in a Thousand Miles--the Final Installment

Final Installment--Part 10—Oklahoma and home

Bob Messenger gave me instructions on the phone as I neared his home in Hollis. He is a long time friend from my post-college days in Tulsa. We worked for Pan American Petroleum as junior accountants. We soon learned we were both country boys and working in the downtown environment behind desks on the 7th floor of the Oil and Gas Building made us feel like fish out of water. We were friends from the get-go.

Back in those days, Bob had a ’46 Plymouth coupe with a 327 Corvette engine and he took me on many weekend trips to Oklahoma City and other locales. He was an upbeat, funny, friendly guy who loved to drive and loved to have fun, loved people, the perfect counterpart to my shyness. We clicked. But Bob got drafted and sent to Vietnam. I left my job shortly after and moved back to Texas.

I saw him briefly when he flew into Dallas after his discharge, but then there was no contact for close to forty years. But one day in about 2004, he and Sharon drove into my driveway. He had come to a book signing for my second novel. Charlotte and James Hilliard from Jasper were here for the signing and were also visiting our home. I was so astounded to see them all and so busy with arrangements for the signing that I still regret not having more time to visit and rehash old times. 

Bob and Sharon’s son Mark became a fan of my books and now owns them all. I had never met Mark, but I knew a lot about him and his impressive family. His son Jaco had just finished competing in the National High School Rodeo Championships in Cody, Wyoming. (I got to meet Mark this year when he and Bob came to my place after attending the Fort Worth Stock Show cattle auction.)

Bob and Sharon had remodeled her old family home in tiny Hollis and Bob waved me into the driveway. He looked about the same as he had ten years ago and a decade younger than I know he is, but said he was having a little trouble with feeling in his feet. 

They took me on a tour of the house and explained the changes they had made to the old home Sharon had grown up in. It was quite a contrast. Sharon told me that Bob had spent hours without success looking for a picture of him and me standing by that Ford coupe. 

I did not know that Bob had experienced some heart problems and had had two surgeries since I last saw him. Had to have part of his aorta removed and part of it went down into his leg, necessitating yet another surgery.
He had at least two strokes on the operating table and almost died. Medicine prescribed for high cholesterol had also had an adverse impact. The ordeal left him without some feeling in his hands and his feet.  And his brother died of heart failure while Bob was in the hospital.

But Bob was still Bob. Welcoming, cheerful, and optimistic.  Through it all, he maintained a sizable cattle and ranching operation. Sharon works in real estate and insurance.

We drove to downtown Hollis and the Boomerang CafĂ© for lunch with some of their friends. Hollis, like most small towns in this part of the country, is shrinking. Their church has shrunk from 600 members to less than 70. 
Then to Ken Bartlett’s home. Ken is a retired farmer nearing ninety. Bob said Ken had a reputation as a man who never got dirty and never let his equipment stay dirty for long. He had a cabin in his back yard filled with a very impressive collection of western saddles, tack and memorabilia. When I saw a picture of Richard Farnsworth on his wall, I told Ken about meeting Richard in Oklahoma City at the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Bob loaned him his copy of my Biscuits Across the Brazos book. A few days later, Ken ordered all nine of my books. A few weeks after that, he called and left a message on my phone.  “Hello, Mr. Jim, this is Ken Bartlett in Hollis, Oklahoma. I want to tell you right now that I’ve never enjoyed books as much as I enjoyed yours. When you pick one up, you can’t put it down. They bring back old memories. You write the way things really were.”  I kept that recorded message.

We spent the afternoon telling stories of old times and new, then I reluctantly left before dark, thinking I might make it home and not have another night in a motel. I got into another big rainstorm just outside Hollis, but made it through. 

By the way, do you recognize that name, Bob Messenger? Remember Father Bob from Rails to a River?

As I traveled familiar territory toward home, I felt good about the trip. Had I really covered fifty years in a thousand miles in a trip that lasted less than three full days? You be the judge.

I tried to compose a few scenes from the memories as I headed toward home. Let’s see . . . a reclusive Oxford scholar with a menagerie of exotic animals; a farmer who built a successful flying service in the middle of nowhere—who flies famous people around the country—whose wife has been a world traveler who went to high school with one of my favorite cowboy actors who happens to have been born on the same day and the same year as me; a murder; a professional cowboy who managed one the largest ranches in the state for over two decades; another professional cowboy who writes novels endorsed by the great Elmer Kelton; a near death experience in one surgery, a miraculous healing from another.  Hmmm  . . . let me think. Are there some stories there or not? Check out Circle of Hurt. You might see one or two scenes that look familiar.

As I pulled into my driveway, the CD I had played intermittently on the road made its way back to Red River Valley and I had made my way back home. And I was still alive.  

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