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1950s Archive

Roughing it with Gramp

Part XIV

Originally Published December 1953

Gramp always had an idea, in 1920, when he and I and Mama crossed and recrossed America, why the covered wagons went West and didn'r come back. We were crossing desert country, heading for Arizona, leaving California, and the car was roaring along the sand roads of the period when he said it. Loud. “No wonder they never went East again in them covered wagons…”

“Those covered wagons,” said Mama, “not them covered wagons.”

“I'm talkin’ Western style, gal, '' Gramp said, biting into the two-inch stub of his last good cigar.” Once they traveled these here roads, potner, they sure never wanted to try it again going that-a-way, that way East again.”

Mama sniffed the dry desert air. “You call that Western talk?”

“Mam, we ain't polished out yar in the West, but we plumb are right respectful of men and women. Ouch!”

The last was because we had hit a rut in the road. Roads in 1920 in America were pretty bad. I sat watching the desert landscape, and Mama refused to carry on any of Gramp's Western-style talk. She was angry at Gramp because she had wanted to stay in Hollywood and maybe work in the old silent movies, which weren't old then and weren't silent, as there was always a weeping fiddle and a choked-up piano to carry on with the action.

“This the way to Tucson?” Mama asked at last.

“It's the only road there is.”

Mama thought awhile and asked, “Why don't we go to Texas? I have friends in Dallas.”

I said, “I like Texas,”

Mama said, “Don't talk, Baby Boy, the air is too dry to open your mouth. You'll dehydrate.”

Gramp tossed away his last cigar butt. “Ever hear what General Sherman said about Texas, Sari?”

“I'm sure it's vulgar,” said Mama.

“Tell it, Gramp,” I said, risking dehydration for a bit of vulgarity.

“Sure it's vulgar.” Mama didn't answer, so Gramp went on. “Seems the General got angry at Texas people and Texas ways, and he got up on his hind legs and he said. 'If I owned Hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in Hell.' 'Well, said a Southern gentleman present, 'I guess the General knows where to find his friends!' Pretty good, eh, Sari?”

Mama didn't open her pretty lips. Gramp looked from her, to the jack rabbits on the road, and then at me. “Coventry?” he asked. I nodded my head, and Gramp frowned. By the rules, if Mama put him in Coventry, even I couldn't talk to him. It was a game we had played several times on the trip. Coventry meant no one talked in Gramp until Mama recalled Coventry. It hurt the old man a lot because he liked to talk, and very often I thought he was worth listening to, This time I could see Gramp was really angry. He didn't even protest. He just clammed up his mouth into rigid lines and drove the car, bent over, as if he were a jockey. At last we came to a frontier looking town called Victorville, and we pulled up by a roadside gas station and eating place.

Gramp looked at Mama as if he were giving her a last chance to say something. Then he got out of the car and ambled over to the Mexican and his wife who ran the place and asked: “Howdy, potner, anything eatable in these yar parts?”

“Could be. My wife, she make a fine enchilada, real orégano and culantra flavor. We also have it the molè de Guajalote, turkey with pepper sauce. My wife, she fine cook.”

“Any desserts?” asked Gramp, peeling his gloves and ignoring Mama and myself.

“Ah yes. Pudín de coco, and camote y piña, sweet potato and pineapple, she very fine,”

“Good, set one place for me. Any cerveza or vino?” “But of course. They are not eating?” He pointed to Mama and then to me.

Gramp looked at us and borrowed a thin Mexican cigar from the Mexican stand owner. “Sad cases, potner, real sad. Deaf and dumb. Both of 'em.”

“Sacred Virgin,” said the Mexican, crossing himself, and his wife touched her holy medals. “Deef and dumb?”

“Born that way most people think. But, it's not true. Seems they were once very cruel to an old man. A feeble dying old man who had made their life soft and easy, who had worked and toiled for them. And then, in his old age, they took his earthly wealth and turned him off, out into the cold world. The next morning they were rigid and when they came out of it, they were as you see 'em…stone deef and no tongue, dumb.”

Mama's face turned red, she choked, recovered and stared ahead of her. For years the family never got the true story of how Gramp turned Mama's act of Coventry against her. Even I never knew why she didn't shout at the Mexican and his wife that it was all a lie. But I think Mama had a code about life, and one of the rules, was, if you were beaten you took your wounds and didn't whine for mercy. Mama hated any idea of mercy, for herself, or others. So she just sat there, boiling inside. I say I guess at her reasons, for Mama would never talk about this event in our family history. It became known as the Second War of Coventry, as Mama had won the first one, a really minor war.

The Mexican came out with a soiled plate on which were two stale sandwiches, with paper-thin ham and one sad black olive on each. He also brought two paper cups of black coffee and a kind of store window doughnut broken in half, each on a crumpled piece of paper napkin.

The Mexican gestured to us, trying to make us understand, and he talked very loud, the way people do to deaf people and foreigners.

“The gentleman sent this out as you don't like our style of cooking. It's the only gringo food I have here. La topa chisera, it is sad to be like this. Would you like to try caldo de pollo con aguacate … chicken soup with avocado, or a leettle of our rice, arroz mexicano?”

Mama didn't break the rule of the game. She wolfed the bread and ham and stale doughnut and drank the battery juice coffee after giving me my share. I was too cowed to protest. The Second War of Coventry wasn't going to be easy to live through.

The Mexican wept for us. “Try, please lady, a leettle chicken tamales, some molé de olla. Or just our eggs with black beans.”

It was no use. Gramp came out from his lunch wiping the last sign of frijoles from his face, and carrying a bottle of wine and a fistful of Mexican stogies. “Tucson straight ahead?” Gramp asked. “Yes,” said the Mexican, and then looking at us, “but these poor ones turned to stone, should you not raise the top to keep sun from them?”

Gramp started the motor, lit a stogie, and shook his head. “They don't feel a thing, compañero, not a thing.”

“FatherbloodofChrist, it is sad. You are a kind caballero to take such care of them.”

The rest of the trip into Tucson I'd rather not write about. The food along the American roadside has never been much good, but in those days, in those places, it was worse than ever. I don't know why Mama didn't defy Gramp and just leave the car and order her own meals that is, I didn't until we were near Tucson when I remembered that Mama had no money of her own. She had bought some hats in California and run out of cash, and Gramp held our fortune in his money belt hitched tight around his well-fed stomach. So we ate what he allowed us: stale bread and leftovers. But Mama didn't break Coventry. Gramp bought a Stetson and cowboy boots on tall heels-and his talk grew more and more Western, and he ate indoors and he ate the best he could find. He showed no sign of weakening in the war. He told a great many stories about us as we sat in the car. The best one was that Mama had taken a vow of silence and that she was a saint, a real saint. Mama disliked all the saints (except a few mad ones) and this didn't help the trip. Gramp really was enjoying the Second War of Coventry.

By the time we got to Tucson the trip was about to break up. I could see that Mama was going to grab me and her luggage and take a train East and home, as soon as she figured out how to get the railroad fare. Gramp also was set in his whim of iron. And he was going to finish this trip his way, even if he had to go alone through the hardest part of it-which was just ahead. He was no longer a young man, but he was just as stubborn as Mama. And Mama was pure stubborn, which meant she didn't let emotions or facts stand in her way. She was stubborn tight down to her tiny shoes.

Me? I had learned by this time that in this family when the battle flags went up, one just tried to act like an innocent bystander, and kept one eye open for a good getaway.

I knew this wasn't going to be a short war because Gramp left us at the second best hotel in town, and said to the desk clerk: “Is there a good lawyer in town?' Pardon me, I know there are no good lawyers, but one who can read and write?”

The clerk thought. “There's old man Rogers, he used to be the lawyer for Billy the Kid.”

“He sounds dishonest enough. Ever hear what Abe Lincoln said when he saw a tombstone with the markings on it: Here lies a Good Lawyer and an Honest Man?”

“Nope, what did Abe say?”

“He said, 'Since when are they burying two men in one grave!'”

The clerk laughed. “That's pretty good.”

Gramp nodded and went out. We both knew what the trip to the lawyer meant. Gramp was changing his will again. He had six sons, and daughters-in-law and grandchildren to fit, and every time life got too complicated, or he lost his temper with one in the family, Gramp Changed his will. Mama had been in and out of Gramp's will more often than a fiddler's elbow. It looked as if this time she was out again. I must say that Mama never really cared, because she, of the whole family, was smart enough to think that Gramp didn't have anything to leave the family. He had been a very rich man in his prime, but he had lived “high off the hog” as he called it, and there wasn't much left. Mama proved to be right, and while the last will was a beautiful literary document, about all we got were his bluestone cuff links, and he had long since replaced the stones with glass.

Anyway, Mama and I scooted right away to the dining room and sat down and said a little prayer and picked up the menus and ordered rich, thick steaks, fried onions, apple pie, two kinds of potatoes, and a beautiful pot of coffee with thick cream.

“Food, its wonderful,” said Mama.

I nodded and cut into steak and ate. Mama finished a pint of rich coffee after spooning in three good measures of sugar, and sighed.

“Now, Baby Boy. we've got to think of some way of getting railroad fare home.”

“You don't think we'll make up with Gramp?”

Mama took a personal oath on crossed teaspoons. “Not as long as I live and ten years beyond that!”

“He's an old man.”

“He's evil, he's vulgar, he's sensual minded.”

“What's that?”

Mama patted my head. “Something I hope you haven't inherited. All the Longstreets as far back as you can throw a vice are sensual-minded. Have you any money, Stevie?”

“A dime from Canada.”

“We'll tip the waitress with that after we sign the check. Finished?”


“Well, let's go find railroad fare. I'll do anything within reason.” Her eyes teared and she held me to her. “My poor baby. I'll do anything, even scrub floors.”

Mama talked of scrubbing floors, but when she really got on her knees, I remember, it was always to show some gentleman what a poor little woman she was, looking up at the great big man. I don't think Mama ever found out how to scrub a floor. Anyway, we felt better after the food, and we went out into the dreadful sun of Tucson. The sun hasn't changed much, and the same people seem to walk the streets today…It's hot, dry, stark, and everyone is tanned, serious, and making a lot of money (except those who don't care to get rich) in oil, cotton, hay, or minerals.

I don't know how Mama cased Tucson, but about four o'clock she said to me as I sat reading the local paper in the hotel lobby; “We're going to tea. You see that big mountain outside of town, where there used to be a fort? Well, a charming lady lives under that hill and she wants to meet some of the grandchildren of the Lost Cause.”

“What cause?”

Mama slurred her voice a bit. “The Wah between deh States.”

I was fourteen years by then (don't let Mama calling me Baby Boy fool you), and I knew enough history to know our branch of the family called it the Civil War and not the War between the States. I looked at Mama.

“Stop looking at me, Stevie, like your grandfather. I only phoned her and said the word Longstreet.”

“In what accent?” I asked.

Mama said briskly, “Come up and wash your hands, you damn Yankee.”

I have never been a fighter. I followed Mama upstairs, got washed, combed, and brushed. Then Mama told the hotel clerk we would be at Mrs. Rodney Clark's, and would he please get us a taxi.

I no longer cared how Mama would pay the taxi, but she only said, “Put it on our hotel bill,” and gave the taxi man a smile and added, “and figure in a dollar for yourself.”

Mrs. Rodney Clark's was a beautiful old place of colored pink clay and red tile roofs and gardens and fountains kept cool by use of lots of water.

Mrs. Clark was young and pretty and raised dogs, and said she was “right glad you all had phoned that you all were visiting us all.” I remember best her Chinese cook, who served a very fine tea in the shade of a vine-covered patio. Mama and I were still catching up on our meals. There was a kind of omelette chasseur paysanne with ham, veal-styled paupiettes, and a real kind of zabaglione with Marsala. The Chinese cook came our to meet us, smiling, and when Mama said, '“This is really very good,” he bowed and hid his arms in his sleeves and said. “I cookee boy on big boat for velly fine people. So happy you likee.”

“It was divine,” Mama said, “the best food we've had in a long time.”

I saw Mama had her fingers crossed and that Mrs. Clark was very earnest in her hunt for our pasts. She said: “I've been here, buried, just buried alive, just planning food and cleaning house, while Fred, that's my husband, worries over his cotton here. But now, Mrs. Longstreet, we'll talk of the past.”

I went out into the sun, hoping it would kill me, because I had a feeling Mama would fail to get the railroad fares.1 still dream at nights, sometimes, about this time and how brave Mama was.

After a while Mama came out looking very pale, and I wondered if the lunch had disagreed with her. She took my hand, hard. “Stevie, it's a phone call from the hotel. Gramp's been hurt. Bad.”

“What happened?”

Mama bit her lip. “He fell down some stairs going to see the lawyer. Mrs. Clark is sending us back to the hotel in her car.”

We found Gramp groaning in bed, a bandage around one eye and a doctor twisting one leg. while Gramp howled. Gramp looked up at us and held out a hand.

“I'm dying, Sari. I want to say I'm sorry. Real sorry. Kiss me before I go.”

“Gramp! Oh doctor, how bad is it?”

The doctor stopped pulling. “Well, he's got a nasty knock over one ear. And this leg isn't going to be easy to walk on. And maybe there are some internal injuries. I can't tell yet, and…”

Gramp moaned. “Am I going to die in peace?”

The doctor bandaged the leg tight and said he'd be back, and Gramp sat up in bed and even let Mama talk him out of a cigar. “It's all my fault, Sari. I went and changed the will, and felt so bad about it that I went back to change it, and I'm not used to wearing cowboy boots, I guess, but I fell head over teakettle. Well, you can't leave me now, Sari. Not until I die. Then you'll have everything, and don't say bad things about me when I'm gone.”

Mama took off her hat and punched Gramp's pillows into shape. And it's hard to believe, but a week later we were all on our way to New Orleans the Second War of Coventry forgotten. At least until now, when I record it. Gramp was a pretty battered man, but game. And even black and blue he knew how to make us happy, now the war was over.

As we waited for the ferry to take us across the brown mud stream across which the spires of New Orleans sang in a yellow sky, he said to us, “It's a lucky thing I bought that cowboy hat and cowboy boots. If I hadn't fallen down those stairs we wouldn't be together now.”

Mama patted his hand and I could see Mama was back on our side.