The Formative Rattlesnake (The impact of SuperDogs, Rattlesnakes and Cotton Chopping on Wall Street Careers) SPECIAL FROM GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES
"I saw that rattlesnake and walked away from the farm" Granny declared. Her succinct statement was true but could not have described the broader implications. "I took my youngest baby Jim Bob and laid him on a blanket at the edge of the field, while I chopped cotton. When I came back to get a drink of water a rattlesnake had curled up on the blanket beside him."
Horrified Granny killed the snake with her hoe and said: "At that moment, I hated the farm, hated the dirt, sand, dust, heat and cold. I told Noel we would make a different life starting NOW!". She walked away from farming and changed the hopes, aspirations and dreams for her family and heirs for generations.
50 years later, while I was working Wall Street, or 60 years later in my bank President's office I thought about that rattlesnake. Today 96 years later, I still consider the implications of Granny’s decision. It was a huge change for her, considering her background. Born to farmers who moved to Texas seeking land and a future in farming, her parents and grandparents had risked all to come to West Texas and farm. Noel Boothe, (my Grandfather) came from a similar stock of people, steeped in the “land of opportunity” with a worship of the land hard wired into their psyches.
Noel answered the call to “fight the Huns” and served in WWI where somehow he survived the gas filled trenches and killing fields of Europe. Noel Boothe returned to West Texas and married the prettiest girl of the Hale family in Jayton, Texas, Lena May Hale. He had a little military pay and acquired a 160 acre farm near Girard, Texas.
Girard and Jayton were not much in the 1920's and even today don't seem much changed. The streets are paved now and they do have running water and electricity, but to my eye the essential character of that soil-bound existence still dominates. The big sky, the west Texas winds, the freezing blizzards, the burning summer days are a constant reminder that all who live there are slaves to nature. A nature that is rough and ill-tempered and she tests men and women to their limits. People who are born and bred in West Texas develop strong characteristics, they have to be strong to survive there.
Noel and Lena not daunted by the harsh environment, they were young and in love when they moved to the farm in Gerard. In their hearts they felt hope, love, a family and a future to build. In those dryland fields they saw opportunity and a hope for wealth. They had the courage to face that primitive and hostile climate, a courage that can only come with eyes blinded by young love. They had a mule, a plow and a few pieces of furniture that their folks had given them. Lena managed to make that little farm house home even though Skunks, racoons and rattlesnakes inhabited the space under the house. Chickens and a kitchen garden brought life to the yard. The place was a wood and stucco house that looked old the day it was built. There they had 4 sons.
One year after a backbreaking year of hard slavery to the soil Noel came in as the sun was setting, after harvest, put all the bills and all of their hard earned crop money on the wooden table. By an oil lamp he did an accounting of the entire year’s efforts. Granny was good with numbers and she checked his math as they summarized a year's work.
"Well, we have paid the bills, made our payments and we have $1.02 left. I declare it a great year financially." They laughed at the irony and joke that life was playing on them. A year's work for $1.02. Later when Noel was in business, he complained when the minimum wage was set at $1.00 and hour. "I've worked a year for that much." he would grump, and Granny would giggle and say, "Now Now Noel, you probably were overpaid even then!"
Making a living was hard during those days and if the climate and primitive living was not rough enough then they had to endure the “dust bowl” days and the “Great Depression”. My father (their oldest son, Melvin) told me about his father Noel working so hard on an old metal tractor seat, that he staggered in through the front door one night with a hole worn through the seat of his denim trousers. He had a blister boil so large and painful that Granny made him lay face down on the old wooden kitchen table, while she "lanced it" with a sharp knife. Noel howled when she poured turpentine on it. Turpentine and rubbing alcohol were the cure for most ills in those days. Turpentine on the chest for a cold or flu, turpentine up the nose for congestion, turpentine garble for sore throat. Turpentine and alcohol for all kinds of sores, bruises, or cuts. A rag or towel soaked with Turpentine would be heated on the old cast iron stove until it was singed and smoking and put on our chest when we got the “croup” or congestion. Grandpa Noel didn’t let a “rump” boil slow him down, and the next morning, like every other morning he was up at 5 AM, to face another grueling day out in the fields, 10, 12 or 15 hours a day. As he walked to the door, the odor of turpentine wafted through the little house. Granny would often take her four young children out to the fields, bring water, or lunch and they would do their part to help. They pulled or hoed weeds, cultivate the crops, or at harvest picked cotton from cotton bolls.
The bowls had a hard, spiny protective covering and could cut fingers. Hand picking cotton was difficult and slow work as they drug a long bag to put the cotton in. 8 hours of this in the sun, wind and weather was painful.
The family would tiredly walk back covered with dust and sweat after sunset. Granny would start a song, to tell a funny story and even those moments seemed happy.
She would say: "Whatever I say, you say, 'Under the bed'!" Then she would say: "The preacher said a prayer!" The kids would howl with laughter as they said: "Under the bed".
"Daddy ate his pie." and the kids "Under the bed!" and so on will exhaustion chased away by laughter. My Granny was a genius at making the hardest of times, happy. In the summer the heat was stifling, and if one prayed for a breeze it would often blow clouds of dust, which covered everything, every person and filter through the house, through the walls. No building, no room, no animal and no person could escape. Granny would joke that "There is so much sand, we could save a lot of walking if we just planted the crop in the house!" Depression would never stay long in Granny's house.
In the early mornings, by lamp light, the children would wake up with eyes caked with sand and dust. Grit was in everything one ate or drank. It didn't take much to persuade Noel that they should get out of farming. He became a rural route postman. He said: “Working for the government and driving that model T to deliver mail was a luxury job, I decided the government was a great employer”.
He managed to save enough money to make a down payment on a new tangled concept...a "Variety Store" or "5 and dime store" in O'Donnell, Texas. O'Donnell had a Main Street and another street graced by the town grocery store. It was a newly formed town and new houses were being built as farmers poured into grow cotton in the vast flat sandy land. Old ranches were converting to farmland, the land was “cheap” and hopes were high for ”King Cotton” cotton empire in Dawson County.
History proved those hopes true, because in a few years Dawson County was huge, producing more cotton than any other county, of the USA. Dawson County was named: “Cotton Capital of the World”. This new wealth was good for Granny and Noel, as their "5 and Dime" was on the Main Street next to Blockers dry goods store. The Blockers were also people who gave up farming for retail. They also believed in following dreams, which they instilled in their little boy named Dan. Dan Blocker grew up to become "Hoss Cartwright" of Bonanza TV fame. Granny was happy to be the manager and owner of a "Variety Store" although she often ran over to the Blockers to ask them things, such as: "I have a customer who wants a spatula. What is a spatula?" She wore good clothes, and greeted every rough-shod farmer with a happy welcome and a deeper understanding of how hard they worked. She learned something about amortization and the time power of wealth accumulation. However many coins and bills came into her store, she hid away some, in her secret savings. When the crops were good, merchants made great profits and soon Granny had saved enough to buy a new store in the larger and "better" town of Lamesa, Texas. When WW2 and the Korean War came, business was good, and she and Noel built a beautiful home attached with an apartment complex and always drove a black Cadillac. Noel and Lena were by then, well beyond being "dirt farmers” and that big Cadillac was their statement of success to all. By the 1960's they were respected as successful "upper middle perhaps even upper class" citizens of Lamesa, Texas. Each of their 4 sons went to college, became retail merchants and each also shared and helped one another in their success. Melvin, my dad had a retail store, and also started a wholesale company and not only had his retail interests but he distributed to many other stores. They had come a long way from that dusty poor little dryland farm in Gerard, Texas. Noel, thinking he was wealthy, determined to keep his Cadillac spotless and kept a tarp over it, when he wasn’t dusting or polishing it. All the farmers drove dusty old pick up trucks in those days, but my Grandfather Papah (my mother's side of the family, the 'farming side' hit a "2 bales to the acre, of dryland cotton" one year, and prices were high, so he made what seemed a small fortune. That year established a financial base for him and thereafter he also drove a Cadillac. He considered himself a “King of the fields” and just as wealthy as those city merchants. But, the rich town folk were members of the golf club and while the dirt farmers were out at sunrise plowing their fields, the country club class met at the coffee shop to talk politics, tell jokes and discuss ways to extract more money, from the farmers. As time went on, and farmland increased in value, oil was discovered in the area and yet another class of “super wealthy” land owners emerged. The social, political and cultural contrasts changed even more. With time, the “land owner class”, became the wealthy class and the town dwellers evolved more to a sort of social populism. Cultural shifts and evolution was accentuated as Mexican, Hispanic and immigrants off of the farms and slowly moved enclaves in the towns and cities. Eventually the farmers would become the wealthiest of all and the city merchant classes grew into a kind of cultural conflict with the farmers, because as I heard Noel say again and again: “Those farmers got rich off of Government programs.” The farmers would respond with "The city people keep wanting to raise our taxes, but they would starve if we weren't growing crops and spending our money in town." It was a gentle, but real cultural conflict.
As a child I observed it, noticed it, but didn’t really understand it all. Looking back now, we see essential elements of this story. Those elements are evolution, perception and conflict. Come with me to see the personalities.
As a youth I found Granny inspiring. Dynamic, great sense of humor, quick, decisive and always ready to try something new. She was a bundle of energy, optimism and she was a leader. My father, returned from WW2 and married Pauletta Middleton ( the prettiest gal in O'Donnell). She was the daughter Dewie Middleton the leader of an extensive farming family. Dewie and his wife (my maternal grandmother) had survived the depression and made it good. Their 3 children all had farms and Dewie was successful and he learned to enjoy and leverage his new newly earned “cotton wealth”.
Mamo was of traditional southern stock and related to the "Lee's" (Robert E!) and she loved a traditional household, always cooking huge delicious meals of turkey, roast, fried chicken and her table became a meeting place for the extended farm family where decisions of farming and business were made. Her house was filled with ranch oak western furniture, boots, cowboy hats boot jacks, a big gun rack with western Colt 45's and lever action Winchester 30/30 rifles and all of the trappings of farm Ranch/culture. She was a traditional woman, who loved to laugh, but who found her roots and stability in the traditions of the land. She spoke of crops, rainfall, prices and encouraged her family to wear the western tradition proudly in all that they did, they way they talked, the clothes they wore, all would reflect the “Western farm and ranch culture.” She would say: “We fought for this land, we turned it into ranches and farms and it is now bountiful. Celebrate who we are and our roots.” Her culture, her art, her music (Sons of the Pioneers), and her family were of a “western, of the land mode” different mode than Noel and Granny who evolved into “people of the world”.
My father, was a part of both cultures. He managed the cattle ranch in New Mexico, had a farm of his own west of Lamesa, but he soon learned that for quick cash, it was hard to beat a retail store. So he eventually got a 5 and dime store of his own, first in Dalhart and later in Fort Worth. The retail business made him financially successful, and while he said he always longed for a farm or a ranch, he worked so hard in retail that he never bought another one.
Granny (Lena) in Lamesa 30 miles distant had a more modern decor and her art and decor was glassware from Murano Italy, her furniture modern, her wall art reflecting her trips to Egypt, Rome or to the retail Market in Chicago. She had the obligatory Texas gun rack as well but it was on a back wall of a TV den that was a room where men went to smoke and watch baseball games. The gun rack was dominated by guns from WWI Europe, and modern Remington and Browning hunting "long guns" with old medals and commendations of family members. But it was hard to think of Granny as from the land, when I saw photos of her riding a camel in Egypt on the wall, or heard her tell stories of shopping in Europe. Once she said: “Let's all go to the World Fair in New York City” , and she managed to drag all of the uncles, aunts and cousins on a marvelous journey East.
I recall the family packed into the Cadillac driving through Washington DC, and my father Melvin said: “How to you get into this lane of traffic?” and Uncle Ira said: “Pick a new shiny car and pull in front of it, it will stop for sure.” We all laughed as we jerked into the lane in front of a new Lincoln Towncar, watching it brake to avoid a crash.
FIRST BATTLE OF CULTURAL CONFLICT
Granny and I shared a love. Granny loved hamburgers, corny dogs and super dogs. It created one of the first real cultural conflicts of our family branches, although I did not recognize it as such at the time. One day mom and I were in O'Donnell and Mamo was cooking up one of her traditional feasts for the daily lunch when Papa, Uncle Benny, Uncle Bob, Aunt Coot, Aunt Peg and various cousins would sit for the family "dinner". We called lunch dinner in West Texas and we called evening dinner supper. Most confusing for me now a city boy from Fort Worth. Her efforts cooking corn on the cob, turnip greens and squash, with fried chicken and homemade dinner rolls created delicious aromas. All of that was to be mixed with farm talk and strategy over the big table to be gathered around. But I had a better offer.
Granny had invited me to Lamesa to run the popcorn machine and the front cash register in her 5 and dime store, and then she and I would go to the Super Dog drive in and have french fries and as many super dogs as we could eat. The conversation while gorging ourselves on junk food was a discussion of Granny and I going out and hunting jackrabbits that night by spotlight plugged into one of the six cigarette lighters of her new black Cadillac. She would drive and hold the spotlight and I would shoot my automatic Remington 22 rifle and see how many Jackrabbits we could bag. Poor Mamo, standing and cooking in her kitchen in O’Donnell, simply could not understand how I could reject her luxuriant traditional hospitality of a feast of home cooking for a super dog and a popcorn machine. And today looking back 60 years later, I would possibly make a different choice. But the main difference then was Granny's dynamic and joyful personality. Because ever since the "rattlesnake" she had lived her life with exuberance and joy, in gratitude to the heavens and to herself for escaping the slavery and drudgery of farm life. She had chosen "her way" and made the world hers...laughing every mile as she travelled her path. Granny was a person that seemed to make every chore a happy experience, she worked at being happy and making life for all around her one of joy. My choice was to get away from the farms, the boring talk about boll weevils and worms in cows , escape the little town of O’Donnell and get to Lamesa, because with Granny there, it was busting with fun and energy. The cultural conflict was there, when I could not define it as such.
Those thoughts flashed through my mind, when 60 years later, Uncle Benny, Mamo's youngest son died at 88 years old, I found myself in Lamesa, Texas living in a time machine of memories and sorting out the cultural differences. Bennies son Colt still lives and works on the farms, first settled and farmed by Papah and Mamo. On Mamo's farm there is her house and remains of an oil well that Boone Pickens drilled years ago until it went dry. Oil or the prospect of it can make even mediocre farmers and ranchers seem better. They still live, prosper or suffer with the whims of nature, but now with the added variance of the changing prices of oil. Indeed the day before I went to the funeral home to see Benny in his casket, a hail storm had wiped out crops in that area. Another year for naught for the farmers. But, reports said the price of oil had gone up a little.
My mother (now 92) and I drove around seeing the sights of Lamesa. Granny's house and apt complex still lovely. Her store on the town square, now an insurance business. But the “great” super dog drive inn was closed.
That little place had made a good living for some person escaped a sandy dry land farm for over 40 years. It was vacant, walls and the building falling down, reflecting the death of a person’s livelihood and dreams. When a dream dies, when the dreamer dies, so do institutions. That is why some towns die and others flourish. One environment encourages “visions” the other has no visionaries to lead.
The memories of Granny and I in her black Cadillac putting mustard on a fresh hot homemade super dog. You know there is a difference between a Corny Dog and a Super Dog. Corn dogs are made of cornmeal, Super Dogs are made with flour meal and a touch of sugar. I only know of a few places that make Super dogs now, one in Post, Texas, another in Slaton...but trust me Super Dogs are superior....especially in your Grandmother's black Cadillac and hearing her laugh and telling contagiously funny observations of life. Indeed being with Granny was a unique cultural experience, a celebration of life. From those “super dog” and “popcorn” machine days with Granny, to the “Jackrabbit hunts” when we would laugh and drive and shoot until midnight together, we created a treasury of memories. Years later as I got out college I learned the difference in cultures when I visited my two Grandmothers.
While visiting Mamo she wanted me to drive her out to look at her farms. She said "You come to West Texas, and live with me, and someday I will leave you the farm". The idea was to live and enjoy her life and wait the years and eventually be a farmer. It was not without some appeal, as before Papah's death I hoped to inherit the ranch in New Mexico...but would have to earn the ranch or the farm by waiting and by adopting their culture, their dreams. It had been hinted by Papah that the ranch would be mine to enjoy some day.
He died, the ranch was sold and I inherited his "Hat" and his boot-jack instead. I cherish the "Hat", it is of great value to me. It was a "Stetson 25" the top of the line 'dress' hat in 1950. Papah's sweat stains are still inside the hat band, endowing it with more value. I learned several things from that Hat when I got it instead of a priceless mountain cattle ranch.
1. A dead man's promise loses power when he or she is gone
2. Never live your life waiting upon someone else's fortune, they will come to control you
3. Recognize that there are always others, who covet the hard earned treasure of a smart man
4. Sometimes a $25 Hat can be of great value to your spirit and your life
To get the ranch or farm I would have to compete with Uncle Benny and perhaps other relatives who had adopted the “culture of the land” and who had been waiting for years for “their” land. They had a tenderness for land and nature. One day, I recalled riding in Benny’s pick up and he had farms, ranches, cattle to manage and I thought him a strong, busy man. He stopped the pick up by an old windmill, and said: “Look there, it is one of my friends, I drive by and see every day.” I looked and there was a little rabbit there, by the windmill nibbling on the grass. It surprised me that "Uncle Benny, this tough cowboy" could be so tender and find such beauty in a little rabbit. With that I realized how much that he had learned to love the land and his life there. I realized that those personalities “out on the farm” were so integrated into land that that they would never move elsewhere. Benny had not visited a city in decades, indeed he would have been lost, perhaps bewildered in a city. He did not need city life nor want it. The country farms the ranch land and all that they represented, was their adopted way of life. It was their adopted culture. Yes, they wore denim jeans, cowboy boots and western hats, but for them it was not a costume, it was their culture.
In contrast, when I was just out of college, I traveled to Lamesa and visited with Granny, her first question carried with it an assumption. An assumption rooted in response to the formative rattlesnake 40 years earlier.
"Now that you are out of college tell me what business or company you will run?!"
It was partially a question but also sort of a declaration.
I was stunned, "Granny I don”t even have a job yet!" She laughed and said "You will not have a job, you will be the President and owner of your destiny...mark my words I see it."
Then she asked again: “What company will you be running?”
I was so amazed that she already had expectations and a vision of my success. She would not be thwarted by sandy droughts farmland or rattlesnakes...those snakes would be attached to the land forever.
She saw what would happen to me, far from the rattle snakes...that I would eventually be the president of banks, would invest, create several companies and would chart a destiny that would take me around the word many times. I would learn like the Super Dog lady to dream, build, create and then move to better things. Do something, learn from it, build upon it and then build another, bigger and better each time.
By asking that question, or making that declaration, she filled me with confidence. She defined the destiny that “her family” would have, to dream and build and take risks. Granny never promised me a "store", indeed in her mind, I was far too talented for that. I thought, “If she has that much confidence in me and assurance that this will happen, perhaps I can achieve.” Indeed, I had no choice, because my Granny had “seen” it. She defined it when she killed that rattlesnake, picked up her baby and made her husband follow her to a new life.
“Just let me know when you get your first company, I’ll come and celebrate with you.” she gave as a final “punctuation” to her idea.
A few years later, a bank I organized had a gathering of hundreds of people, to celebrate the opening. Jack Williams a prominent auto dealer in Fort Worth stood up and looked at the beautiful glass and brick 3 story atrium building and in a loud voice, said: “SOMEONE HAD A DREAM!” and as the crowd applauded I looked out and saw my Granny’s face in the crowd. The crowd was applauding me, but she was the real “dreamer” in this crowd. She wore a ‘knowing’ smile…something about rattlesnakes and moving forward, and finding, making a destiny. She knew. Our eyes locked in a deeply knowing moment. I quickly wiped away a tiny tear in my eye.
The formative ‘rattlesnakes’ in life can create destinies that can be most rewarding and satisfying…for those willing to pick up and move forward.
Uncle Benny was buried in the deep sands of a remote almost windblown cemetery of the lands he coveted so much, the land that he gave his life, sweat and blood to. His children and grandchildren will live there and find beauty in the sunsets and joys of that life. No doubt the little rabbits that Benny enjoyed and the rattlesnakes he respected will guard that little ‘hard to find’ cemetery. It all seems to work out as it should.
Alas, I miss those super dogs with Granny.