Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1950s was a great childhood experience. It made me what I am today. Winters were Blue Norther cold with ice storms and the summers were over 100 degrees, capable of turning the front fender of my father’s Nash Rambler station wagon into a griddle. The eggs I fried on said car, turned out perfect. The butt busting not so much.
As a family unit, we would take one vacation a summer. A few times to New Mexico or maybe Port Aransas for some saltwater fishing and beach time. Most summers if money was tight, and it usually was, the go-to trip was to my grandparent’s farm. It was free.
In the summer of 1956, my father purchased a new Nash Rambler station wagon with a factory air conditioner crammed under the massive metal, unpadded dash. In the 50s, an air-conditioned car was a rarity, and I had never seen or ridden in one.
The car was baboon butt ugly, and I wouldn’t have been caught dead inside the beast except for the A.C that gave me a reprieve from the hellish summer heat. If a night was blistering hot, we would sleep in the car with the engine and AC running. Our house was not air-conditioned, as were most in our neighborhood. Attic fans were about the best we could do.
That car air conditioner was so cold, it could be used as a backup refrigerator. Yes, sir, none of that Eco-friendly coolant we have now, this was the real stuff; ozone-earth-killing gas. Eisenhower was no wimpy-ass tree hugger; he and Mamie 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 our 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 farm a few miles outside the small country town of Santa Anna, Texas. My Grandfather would take his Ford tractor, and plow, then plant diligently for days. Johnsongrass and bull nettle sprouted where Maze should have. Those were the drought years in southwest Texas and growing any crop was a miracle. Granny tended the livestock and chickens, selling eggs to city folk to make ends meet. They had seen tougher times, but no one could remember when.
There wasn’t much to Santa Anna as far as a town goes. A few churches, a school, and the ever-present chickens that inhabited the downtown area. A Dino gas station that never changed their prices on their sign, a feed store, a Dairy Freeze, and a few ma and pa stores, necessary for sustaining a dwindling population. Most of the young folks left during the war to work in Fort Worth at the aircraft plants. Most never returned. It was a town of old people.
The central, vibrant hub of the town was The Biscuit Ranch, a cafe, domino parlor, and gossip emporium. My Grandfather and his farmer buddies spent more time there shuffling dominos than farming the bone dry land. No one had money, so they played for toothpicks.
At the cafe, every order came with a sizeable buttery biscuit flopped on the plate. If you ordered a hamburger with fries and a coke, it arrived with a biscuit crammed next to your burger. It didn’t seem right, but no one complained. In Texas, biscuits are one of our main food groups.
Grandfather usually ate my biscuit because the ones my Granny made were hard within a few hours. They may have been uneatable but darn good for chunking at things. Nothing fly’s like a rock-hard biscuit. Next to my Daisy BB Gun, they were my weapon of choice.
I once knocked a hen dead out with a well-chunked biscuit from my Granny’s breakfast table. The other chickens gathered around the addled hen, making me feel awful for whacking her. I was ready to confess the deed to my Granny when I realized they were not gathered to inquire about her well-being but to peck on the offending weapon. The hen hopped up and strutted away. There is no sisterhood of chickens once you get past the yellow peep-peep stage. They all know that the next stop could be the skillet, so it’s everyone for themselves. There is much to learn from farm-educated chickens.
Over the years, it’s been my observation that there is a favorite uncle, aunt, or cousin in most children’s immediate families that they look up to. It matters not whether the adulation is deserved, kids don’t get twisted up with social, criminal, or married life. All we want is a jovial role model that makes us laugh and gives us things our parents would never approve of. The more eccentric and crazy, the better.
My favorite offender was my Mothers brother, Ray. A hulking piece of humanity with a face as red as a Nehi strawberry pop. His jaw was home to an ever-present plug of Red Man tobacco.
He was a proud veteran of WWII, having served in 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, leading them a bit, and then blasting them out of the sky. He claimed to have over 50 kills. His brother said that Ray didn’t like to brag, but it was more like 200 kills. He was a hoss.
Uncle Ray drove the obligatory rusted-up pickup truck, but his “Sunday come to visit” ride was a 1955 Chevy Bel Air convertible with genuine Mexican crafted, red and white roll and pleat seats. The body had pinstriping covering every inch, and the money shot was a full longhorn rack mounted on the front of the hood. The interior had little Mattel derringer cap pistols for the radio knobs and a big black and white ivory dice stick shift for esthetics. It was the hands-down most incredible 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 get one sip of my coke down before he was calling for another beer. Those were the days when a real man could enjoy his favorite cold brew while driving a 3,500-pound tank down the highway at 70 miles per hour.
When we rolled into the city limits, the ice chest was void of beer, and Uncle Ray commenced singing. A person would expect a big old farm boy like Ray to sing country tunes or at least a few religious songs. Not this feller. He began belting out Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, and Patty Paige’s songs like nobody’s business. We had no idea he could sing so well or drink so much beer.
When he broke into Judy Garlands’ “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” he stopped the car, got out, and did a great show tune 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 family has no use for the finer things in life such as music, broadway show tunes, and good booze, and, I love all those 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 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 its bippy. All we could do was stare at the floorboard of the most incredible car in Texas.
After his embarrassing session of bawling and gagging, Ray pulled out a lovely hanky from the glove box and dabbed his tears away.
In a low, growling voice, he told us that he would kick our little scrawny asses and feed us to the Mountain Boomers if we ever said anything about this. Naturally, we nodded in agreement not to say a thing.
Uncle Ray got his gas and more beer at the Dino station, then peeled out in front of the Dairy Freeze, and we headed back to the farm.
Later that afternoon, Jerry and I were sitting under the oak trees talking to my cousin Beverly, who was setting up her playhouse with her collection of 6-inch plastic “Dolly” dolls.
At the age of seven, Beverly was beginning to communicate with humans through her dolls. She was the nontalkative and strange one of the bunch, so no one thought much of it. “Just a kiddy phase,” my Aunt Charmaine would say, “she’ll outgrow it.” I found her behavior scary, but I rather enjoyed speaking to a six-inch plastic doll that talked back. All questions had to route to Beverly through the doll; answers were returned the same way. We were kids; it was fun.
I told the doll, in the strictest confidence, about the incident with Uncle Ray on the side of the road. The doll, in a squeaky mouse voice, said that “Beverly’s mommy thinks that uncle Ray is a big old fruit. I asked the doll what a big old fruit was? The doll said it was a boy that liked to blow kisses to other boys and painted his fingernails. 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; it was a sign from above.
My mothers’ large family was never one to let a gathering of the sisters go to waste. It was agreed that because most of the Fort Worth family had missed Easter at Grandmothers that year, we would celebrate Easter while everyone was here, in June; the hottest part of summer.
Granny and a few cousins went to the chicken coops and gathered eggs for boiling and coloring. Then, Aunt Charmaine drove to Coleman and purchased chocolate to melt for the candy. She came back with a massive bag of Peeps, the little yellow marshmallow chicks that contained enough sugar to keep a kid humming like a top for days. Peeps were something new, and all of us kids thought they were the best candy there was.
Everything was humming along fine until cousin Beverly saw our bag of Peeps. She turned pale, crossed herself, which was strange because she was Baptist, then grabbed her box of plastic dolls, and scooted off to the smokehouse, locking the door.
When we were enjoying the damp coolness of the storm cellar later that afternoon, Beverly, via her talking doll, filled us in on the real and true story of Peeps.
She said that the little marshmallow chicks were the “reincarnated souls” of all the eggs taken from the chickens, and the Peeps were going to get even. After explaining what reincarnated meant, it all made perfect kid sense to us. Peeps were going to kill the whole town. 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 Jerry and I sneaked some Peeps, went behind the barn, and ate our fill. There was no scream as we bit the little squishy heads off, just the excellent taste of yummy Peeps melting in our greedy cavity-ridden mouths. We agreed that Beverly and her dolls were idiots, and she needed to go see preacher Wilson and get some special prayers. He said his momma took her there, but the preacher said he wouldn’t talk to a darn Dolly Doll, so that was the end of the healing days.
At supper, Granny informed everyone that uncle Ray would be joining us for the egg hunt and celebration the following day, Sunday, the usual day for Easter. It didn’t matter if it was June 15th, 1956; the festival was happening.
After supper, which consisted of buttermilk fried chicken and chunk-able biscuits, we kids retired to the screened-in porch to plan for tomorrow’s egg hunt and the looming Peep attack. Cousin Beverly’s doll, once again, warned us all not to eat Peeps or it would be horrible death for us all. We listened to her doomsday doll, then trudged off to get ready for bed.
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 city light and that night, no moon, so we used candles to find our beds. The sounds of crickets and the breeze blowing through the Mesquite trees lulled us into la-la land.
Uncle Ray, knowing for once he was almost not in the dog house with his 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 raise his respect-o-meter a few bars.
A shopping trip, a chicken fried steak at Woody’s Drive-In, and a visit to the Fishing Shack for a few beers made for a long day. It was around 2 AM when Ray headed back to Santa Anna. In his semi inebriated state, he thought it was morning and he wanted to be at the farm for breakfast, so he stopped on the side of Highway 84 and changed into his new, bright yellow sear-sucker suit. To top off the ensemble, Ray had purchased an orange feed store ball cap. Quite the dresser he was.
Ray parked his Chevy down the road from the farmhouse. Full of beer and looking like the grand marshal of a Mardi Gras parade. He was so tired he didn’t realize that everyone was still asleep because it was 4 AM. He quietly made his way around to the side of the house to the screened-in porch.
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. A moonless night, sleeping kids, it all made perfect sense to him.
Earlier in the day, in San Angelo, he had come across some tiny 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 lay in fitful semi-slumber.
The scene was right out of a movie. We all awoke at the exact same moment, hearing the squeak of the screen door; we froze in fear. The Peeps were coming to do their foul deed. I was so scared I started getting hot and itchy and could hear Jerry whining on the pallet next to mine. We all lay there, stiff as a plank with eyes closed, waiting for the end.
Uncle Ray, a former 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 lodged. He was gasping for air 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-in porch into the flower bed, rolling twice then turning on the after-burner. Cousin Jerry and little Charmaine 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. Ray, arms flailing, was attempting to get her attention for some help.
Seeing cousin Beverly about to get her head bitten off by the giant Peep, I cried out, “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 spits it out. He turned around, ready to kill the one who had whacked him. He then realized I had struck him and possibly saved his life, and he started laughing.
Beverly, too afraid to escape, 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 aunties 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. High noon was here.
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 by Judy Garland’s “Mister Sandman.” We kids 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 her plastic Dolly Doll. Ray bent down on one knee and leaned in close to Beverly. The doll, in her squeaky mouse voice, asked uncle Ray if he was a big fruit? To which he replied, “I’m as fruity as Carmen Miranda’s hat.” Aunt Charmaine yelped, “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 most incredible 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 agreed. He hunted eggs with us, sang show tunes all day long, and even took us behind the barn for a chew of Red Man and a few sips of Pearl.
He drove off that afternoon, convertible top-down, waving and singing Doris Day’s big hit, “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 discussed, but everyone felt 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 twelve, I received a Christmas package in the mail, which is quite a great thing for a kid. My mother watched as I ripped it open and lifted out a record album.
The cover picture showed an overweight woman wrapped in a towel. The title was “Let Me Tell You About My Operation.” This made no sense to me; who would send me this flaky album?
My mother gasped and 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.