Jim was a pipe-fitter by trade. He was born in Kaufman County Texas in 1882. He was low born and poorly educated but he had common sense. Jim couldn’t spell very well, but he could spin a tale and he had seen a lot which made for great story-telling. He was handy with a hammer, an axe and a shovel. These were skills you could really use back then and to my thinking they are still important. I’d rather know how to use an axe than ski on a Wii. I feel sorry for modern kids.
As the fates would have it, Jim moved away from the piney hills of Kaufman county to settle in the hardscrabble of west Texas. He moved from lots of rain to no rain; from pine needles to mesquite thorns. The only things Kaufman county had in common with Stephens county was hard times and diamondbacks.
West Texas is mean country and it will beat a man down, but if you talk to the folks who live there you find they know things that more pampered folks never learn. It’s the sun and the wind that does it . . . that and the fact that everything there will bite or sting or stick you. Jim knew about these things and he taught me, his grandson, that in this country a hat wasn’t optional and working in the mid-afternoon sun was for fools and drug-store cowboys.
Jim and his wife Mary Etta had six children. They struggled mightily through the depression, but they had a garden and their chickens. Jim always said they were dirt poor but they had plenty to eat and since everybody else was broke, they didn’t think much about their poverty. Their first real home burned to the ground during a terrible storm while the whole family and a few neighbors huddled in an old storm shelter. Some friends pitched in what they could. Jim and family began again.
They had Church of Christ faith and so doing right and making their own way was in their heart. In time they bought a little 2 bedroom home with a barely functional bathroom. It was cooled with an old evaporative cooler and warmed by gas space heaters. It wasn’t central heat and air by a long shot but on a cold Texas night you could turn your backside to the space heater and you were warmed to your bones.
Like I said before, Jim was handy and added on a screened-in sleeping porch on the south side of the house. I spent many a summer night on that porch watching the lightning bugs and drifting off to a chorus of a thousand crickets. Some nights I would watch the light show from storms 30 miles to the south in Eastland county. The rain always went south. Always.
Just outside the porch was a huge mesquite tree where at night the wild alley-cats would fight. During the day, in the shade of that tree, Jim and I would sit in a swing and he would tell me his stories. At supper time, we would go in to a big dinner of buttermilk cornbread, red beans and sweet tea. For dessert, and there was always dessert, there would be chocolate pie or sometimes German Chocolate cake. Right after dinner, at dusk, it was off to bed in the sleeping porch unless it was Friday night. On Fridays we watched boxing. . . the Friday night fights.
Oh, how glorious were those summers. I ran all over half the county without a care and no reason to care. Just be back by dark and take the snake-bite kit. Those were the only rules. It was wonderful and I feel for kids these days, cooped up with their gadgets. It’s a sin against nature.
In ’66 cancer took Jim and a few years later it took his wife of 64 years. Their old house was rented out for a few years and then fell into disrepair. The high school football stadium was across the street and so the school district bought the house for extra parking. They brought in a D-5 Cat and that was that. Gone without a trace.
I think about that little house in west Texas and what it meant. I think about my parents larger home. I look around at my own home and how each generation has done a little better. Then I think about the last two years and what it means for the future and my grandchildren.
America’s house is in disorder and I wonder if we have squandered our legacy. I pray for leadership with vision, lest the dream perish. Where have all the Jims gone?