Growing up in Cowtown in the 1950s was a blessing and an education. The winters were cold and the summers were so hot you could cook a hamburger on the front fender of my fathers Nash Rambler. The one thing that made our un-air-conditioned summers bearable was the tease of our annual family vacation.
My parents aka Ozzie and Harriet, usually made the destination choice, and it was always the same. They would sit us down and with a cruel smile my mother would chirp, “guess where we are going this year kids”. My sister and I would for a moment be lured into this charade and think that we might be going to Disney Land or some far off place, we would be joyous in our travels and feast on ice cream and root beer floats, have all the candy one could carry, see the big mouse. Not to be. My mother would cheerfully announce, “ We are going to Grannys’ farm”, how about that kiddos! Whoopee. The farm, again. We didn’t protest, what good would that have done. Ozzie and Harriet had made the decision for us.
That summer, my father purchased a new Nash Rambler station wagon with an air conditioner crammed under the massive metal, unpadded dash. Back in the 50s, an air-conditioned car was a rarity, and I had never seen or ridden in one. The car itself was so ugly, I wouldn’t have been caught dead inside except for the AC. It was so cold, you would turn blue if you sat next to the vents. Yes sir, none of that Eco friendly coolant we have now…this was the real stuff, ozone killing gas. Eisenhower was no wimpy- ass tree hugger, he wanted everyone to be cool in the summer. My sister and I agreed, the trip that year was going to be an event. Cruising down the highway with the windows up and freezing your toes off while inhaling thick deadly clouds of cigarette smoke from my parents constantly lit Pall Malls. We couldn’t wait.
My mother’s family had a small farm in the almost deserted town of Santa Anna Texas. The place was nothing more than a dust bowl with a bunch of chickens strutting around the streets. They called there homestead a farm, but I don’t remember ever seeing crops growing in the fields, except weeds. My Grandfather would take his rusty Ford tractor and plow and plant diligently for days. Nothing but Johnson grass and bull nettle sprouted. The cows wouldn’t even give it a look-see.
There wasn’t much to Santa Anna as far as a town goes, just a dusty main street lined with boarded up buildings, the ever present chickens, one gas station, a Dairy Queen and a few ma and pa stores necessary for sustaining a dwindling population .
The main vibrant hub of the town was Aunt Beulah’s Biscuit Ranch.
Everything ordered came with a giant buttery biscuit flopped on the plate. If you ordered a hamburger with fries and a coke, it arrived with that big white biscuit crammed next to your burger, everything got a biscuit. Now I loved biscuits as much as the next kid, but some staples such as a burger, should not be joined in foodstuff matrimony with a big white buttery biscuit. It just isn’t right. My grandfather usually ate my biscuit because the ones my grandmother fixed were no good for eating, but darn good for chunking at things. Nothing fly’s like a rock hard biscuit. I once knocked a hen dead out with a well-chunked biscuit from my grandmothers breakfast table. The other chickens gathered round the addled hen, making me feel awful for whacking her. I was almost ready to confess the deed to my granny when I realized they were not gathered to inquire on her well being, but to peck on the offending weapon. There is no Ya-Ya sisterhood of chickens once you get past the little yellow peep-peep stage. They all know that the next stop is the skillet, so its everyone for themselves.
Now it’s been my observation over the years, that in most childrens immediate family there is a favorite Uncle, Aunt or Cousin, that you looked up to. It mattered not whether they deserved this adulation. Kids didn’t get all twisted up in their favorites social, criminal or married life. All we wanted was a jovial role model that made us laugh and gave us things our parents would never dream of. The more eccentric and crazy the better. My favorite hands down was my mothers older brother, Uncle Ray.
Ray was a hulking piece of humanity with a face that was always a shade of red akin to a Nehi strawberry pop. His jaw was home to an ever present plug of Red Man tobacco. Page 3
His wardrobe consisted of the local standard issue of Dickeys overalls topped off with a Bobs Feed Store cap. He was a proud veteran of WWII having served in the Pacific Theater with the Navy. He told us many times that he had thoroughly enjoyed his job of shooting down Japanese planes from the deck of the U.S.S Hornet. He said it was like “shooting a dove in a maze field with a shotgun”, lead them a bit and blast away. That seemed to be the way he lived there in Santa Anna Texas.
Ray lived on the decent outskirts of town near the old Railroad Bridge that should have been torn down in the previous decade, but was still taking the occasional train. He always said that if that bridge ever fell, he would be “squashed like a sail rabbit on highway 377”. Many years later that old bridge did fall, and his old abandoned home was crushed into kindling. Cousin Beverly sent us copies of the newspaper clipping showing the pile of rubble and a smiling Police Chief pointing at the devastation. We were all glad Ray wasn’t there at the time. I was never privy to visiting his house, or the bridge, but gathering from the quiet, just out of ear shot conversations my aunts and mother had , I was sure it was a place I would never see.
I always assumed that Uncle Ray was a farmer like the rest of the Santa Anna
clan, but I never heard him talk about the crops, or lack of rain, like the rest of the town folk. In Santa Anna, If you weren’t a farmer, then you were a cowboy, a cattleman or God forbid, a horse trader- which was pretty darn close to being worthless. Uncle Ray fell in the latter category of a broader range.
Uncle Ray drove the obligatory decrepit rusted up pickup truck like the rest of Santa Anna, but his “Sunday come to visit” ride was a 1955 Chevy Bell Air convertible with genuine Mexican crafted, red and white roll and pleat seats. The body had pin striping covering every inch, and the money shot was a full longhorn rack mounted on the front of the hood. For Texas esthetics, interior had little Mattel derringer cap pistols for the radio knobs and a big black and white ivory dice stick shift . It was the hands down coolest car in the state.
My cousin Jerry and I took a ride to town with him one Sunday in June, and it was the highlight of my summer visit.
We piled into the back seat between his two shotguns, a bowling ball and a Coleman ice chest full of cokes and Pearl beer. Uncle Ray told us to drink all the cokes we wanted, but take the church key and start “popping him some Pearl.” I was struggling to keep up the demand for Pearl because Uncle Ray could drink one in a single gulp. I couldn’t even get one sip of my coke down before he was calling for another Pearl.
By the time we rolled up to the city limits of town, the ice chest was void of beer and Uncle Ray was starting to sing. Now you would expect a big old farm boy like Ray to sing country tunes, or at least religious songs. Not this boy. He began belting out Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and Patty Paige songs like no body’s business. We had no idea he could sing so well, or drink so much beer. When he finally broke into Judy Garlands
“ Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, he had to stop the car on a dirt road, get out and do a grand operatic finish complete with hands held high in the air, hat off and a bow at the end. Cousin Jerry and I clapped and gave him a bravo for the performance. He was appreciative, but then turned to us, and in a hurtful voice said , “ my extended family has no use for the finer things in life such as music, stage plays and good booze, and that I love all them things, so they have no use for me either”. We didn’t know what in the hell he was talking about, but just nodded in kinship agreement. By then, I guess the beer had really kicked in, along with the emotion of the singing performance and his long harbored hurt feelings, so he started bawling like a baby that had lost his bippy. All we could do was look down at the floorboard of the coolest car in Texas with embarrassment. After a short gagging wretched session of bawling, he pulled out a hanky from the glove box and dabbed his tears away. He then, in a low growling voice, told us that if we ever said anything about this, he would kick our little scrawny asses and feed us to the rattlesnakes on the mountain. We nodded in agreement not to say a thing. Cousin Jerry was so traumatized by this vicious threat that he pissed in his pants and left a big wet spot on the roll and pleat seat. Of course he had just drank about ten cokes in fifteen minuets and we were sweating so much on the hot plastic seats that the pee just blended right in. No harm done.
Uncle Ray got his gas at the Dino station, peeled out in front of the Dairy Queen, and we headed back to the farm.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting in the smokehouse talking to my Cousin Beverly, who was there with her collection of Barbie dolls setting up her play house. Beverly at the age of seven, was just beginning to communicate to humans through her dolls. Her being so young, and a kid to boot, no one thought much about it.
“Just a kiddy phase” my aunt Catherine would say, she’ll outgrow it. I found her behavior strange. But I have to say, I rather enjoyed speaking to a six-inch piece of plastic that talked back. All questions had to route through the doll then to Beverly. Answers were returned the same way. We were kids. It was fun.
I told the doll, in the “strictest confidence” what had happened on the side of the road with Uncle Ray. The doll, in a squeaky mouse voice said that “Beverly’s mommy says that Uncle Ray was a big old fruit”. I asked the doll what a fruit was?
The doll said it was a boy that liked to wear pink clothes blow kisses to other boys. I told the doll that Uncle Ray didn’t blow kisses to us, but he sang Judy Garland songs.
The doll said it was the same thing and it was a sign from Heaven. Uncle Ray is a fruit. Okay, I thought, that’s fine, but he still has the coolest car in Texas and lets me chew Red Man out behind the barn. Nuff said.
My mothers’ family was never one to let a gathering of the clan go to waste. It was mutually agreed that most of the Fort Worth family had missed Easter at Grandmothers that year, so we were going to celebrate Easter while everyone was here. In June.
My cousins and I conferred about this decision and came to the conclusion that as long as there would be candy eggs and chocolate involved, we would go along with this idiotic adult celebration. It was too hot for the “monkey suits” so jeans and PF Flyers would do fine.
The Auntie’s and girl cousins went to the chicken pens and started gathering eggs for boiling and coloring. Aunt Katherine went to town and bought a bunch of chocolate bars to melt for the candy. She also came back with a huge bag of Peeps, the little yellow marshmallow chicks that contained enough sugar to keep a kid humming like a top for days. Peeps had only been out for a while, and all of us kids thought they were the best candy there was. Everything was fine until Cousin Beverly saw the bag of Peeps. She turned pale, crossed herself, grabbed her box of Barbie’s and scooted off to the smokehouse.
When we were in the smokehouse/playhouse later that afternoon, Beverly, via her Barbie doll, filled us in on the “real” story of Peeps. She said that the little marshmallow chicks were really the “reincarnated souls” of all the eggs we have taken from the chickens, and the Peeps were going to get even with us in some bad way. After explaining what reincarnated meant, it all made perfect kid sense to us. Peeps were going to kill the whole town in its sleep. Cool. Beverly’s doll made us swear not to eat any Peeps or they would come looking for us too. We agreed, but kept our fingers crossed behind our backs.
Later that evening, my cousin Jerry and I snuck some Peeps and went behind the barn and ate every one of them. There was no tiny scream as we bit the little squishy heads off, just the wonderful taste of yummy Peeps melting in our greedy cavity ridden mouths. We both agreed that Beverly and her dolls were idiots and she needed to go see preacher Wilson and get some special prayers. He said his mommy took her there, but the pastor said he wasn’t going to heal a damn Barbie Doll, so that was the end of the healing days
My grandmother said that Uncle Ray would be joining us for the egg hunt and celebration the next morning, which was Sunday, the usual day for Easter. It didn’t matter if it was June 15th, 1956, the celebration was in full swing.
After supper, which consisted of fried chicken and chunk-able biscuits, us kids retired to the back porch to plan for tomorrows egg hunt and looming attack from the Peeps. Cousin Beverly’s dolls, once again, warned us all not to eat Peeps or it would be very bad for us. We listened to her doomsday doll, then we all trudged off to get ready for bed.
Now, being summer, and hot at night, all the cousins slept on the screened in porch on pallets made from granny’s quilts. It was a bit scary because being out in the country, there was no light and that night, no moon so we used candles to see our little beds. The sounds of country crickets lulled us into la-la land.
Uncle Ray, knowing for once he was not in the dog house with his extended family, decided to drive to San Angelo and get a new suit for the Easter in June celebration. Maybe showing a cleaned up side to his sisters would help get him back into the family unit for good.
It was around 2 AM when Ray headed back to Santa Anna, and he figured he had enough Pearl in the chest to make it home. I just assume in his inebriated state, that he thought it was early morning and he wanted to get to the farm for breakfast, so he stopped on the side of Highway 84 and changed into his new, bright yellow Sunday go to Easter service suit. To top off the ensemble , he had purchased a new bright orange Wills Western Wear ball cap. Quite the dresser he was. Full of beer and looking like the grand marshal of a Mardi Gras parade, he coasted in and parked his Chevy down the road from the farm house. He was so drunk he didn’t realize that everyone was still asleep at 4 AM. He quietly made his way around to the side of the house to the screened in porch.
Now, Uncle Ray had a devilish side to him that we all knew too well. He was always scaring us kids in some way, so why not now. Dark scary night. Sleeping kids, it all made perfect sense to him.
Earlier in the day, somewhere in San Angelo, he had come across some small plastic whistles he bought as an Easter gift for the kids. Thinking that he would scare the fool out of us, he put one to his lips and stepped through the screen door onto the porch where four sleeping kids under the age of ten awaited in slumber.
It was right out of a scary movie. I assume we all heard the screen door squeak at the same moment and froze in fear. The Peeps where coming to do their fowl deed. I was so scared I started getting hot and itchy. I could hear Jerry whining like a little pup on the pallet next to mine. We all lay there with our eyes closed, waiting for the end.
Uncle Ray, being a championship smoker with a prize winning hack, chose that moment to expel a drunken cough, and when he did, he sucked the plastic whistle down his throat, where it stuck. He started gasping and trying to speak, but it came out as a “Peep-Peep-Peep”.
We all sat up at the same time, seeing a “Giant Yellow Peep” standing there with its wings flapping wildly and chirping. That was it. I dove through the screen porch into the flower bed. Cousin Jerry and Kay made their own hole in the screen and took off down the dirt driveway screaming. Cousin Beverly backed into a corner, held up her dolls in both hands and commanded the big Peep to “go back to hell from whilst it came.” Of course all Uncle Ray wanted to do is get that damn whistle out of his throat so he could breathe.
Seeing cousin Beverly about to get her head bitten off by the giant Peep, I cried, “I should not have eaten those sweet little Peeps behind the barn I’m sorry Beverly”. I had to save her so I grabbed a shovel from the flowerbed and ran onto the porch. I made a mighty swat right onto the back of the Big Peep, hoping to take it down in one whack. When I hit the peep, the whistle dislodged from Uncle Ray’s throat and he spit it out. He turned around ready to kill the one who had whacked him. Still in his drunken state, he realized it was little Phil that had whacked him and possibly saved his life, and he started laughing.
Beverly, too afraid to escape, had wet her self and passed out cold on her pallet.
I was so relieved to see it was Uncle Ray and not a “Giant Peep from hell” that all I could do was give him a big hug. He was laughing so hard he was crying after realizing what he had done to us. The whole house was awake and on the porch. The auntie’s gave Ray holy hell for this antic and told him to get out now. He said he would but first he had to “clear the air” about some things. First he told my mother and her sisters that they all had corn-cobs up their butts and didn’t know “ crap from fat meat” about the finer things in life. He then broke out into Ethel Merman’s version of “There’s No business Like Show Business” followed up by Judy Garlands “ Mister Sandman”. Us kids just sat and listened to some great vocals, and it didn’t matter if it was coming from a Giant Peep. When Ray stopped singing, Cousin Beverly walked up to him and held out a Barbie doll. Ray bent down on one knee and leaned in real close to Beverly. The doll, in her squeaky mouse voice asked, “Uncle Ray are you a big fruit?” To which he replied. “I’m as fruity as Carmen Miranda’s hat.” My aunt Kathryn hissed, “see I told you so” to the rest of the cast on the porch. Us kids didn’t care, Uncle Ray could sing his ass off and still had the coolest car in Texas.
We had a good June Easter that Sunday. Uncle Ray asked that he be allowed to stay for one last celebration and his sisters finally agreed. He hunted eggs with us, sang show tunes all day long and even took us behind the barn for a chew.
He drove off that afternoon waving and singing Doris Day’s version of “Que Sera Sera”, a perfect departure to end a perfect day. The family stood in the road listening to the fading song until the dust trail settled. No one said anything, perhaps it was too much to talk about at that time. Supper was quiet that night. Beverly left the dolls in the smokehouse and grandmother made a buttermilk pie to comfort everyone. It wasn’t spoken, but everyone felt that they wouldn’t see Uncle Ray for a long spell. His way of life, didn’t fit in Santa Anna Texas in those times.
We went back to Fort Worth the next day and didn’t hear much about Uncle Ray for quite a few years.
When I was thirteen , I received a Christmas package in the mail, which for a kid is quite a grand thing. My Mother watched as I ripped it open and lifted out a record album.
The cover picture showed this overweight woman dressed in a towel. It was titled “ Let Me Tell You About My Operation”. This made no sense to me, who would send me this flaky album? My mother gasped as she said “Oh my God, that’s Uncle Ray”. I looked real close, and sure enough, it looked like him, but I still didn’t believe it. I opened the small card in the package and read “To my favorite nephew Phil, I still have my cool car and like my Pearl. Enjoy the songs”, Auntie Rae. I listened to the album on the hi-fi and fondly remembered that crazy Easter in June of 1956.