So where does one begin? At the beginning, of course, which was June 30, 1935.
I was born in the middle of a hot, Texas summer in Wichita Falls, near the Red River up in the panhandle close to the Oklahoma border. It's an area noted for few trees, hard red clay, and thousands of acres of cotton. The year 1935 was in the middle of the Great Depression when being poor was just the way people were, and the war with Germany and Japan was still six years away. A Ford Model A was a fairly new car, and the ice wagon that delivered blocks of ice to everybodys' homes was still pulled by a team of horses. FDR was in the White House and my dad was a Democrat.
My dad. They called him Doc, but his name was Benjamin Osborne Wilson; a man with a checkered past and little formal education, but self-taught and golden tongued. He had passed the certification test for public accountants and worked for the Ice Company as a CPA. It was a respected position and it paid the grand sum of forty dollars a week, more than twice what most men received when they were lucky enough to find work. I'm not sure, but I think he was about ten years older than my mom, and was born around the turn of the century. I don't know where or when he was born, but he had one brother and a couple of sisters. His sisters lived in Oklahoma City, and my uncle Alfred was the Chief Engineer on a rusty merchant marine cargo ship. I saw my uncle once when I was about twelve years old when his ship was at a pier in San Pedro, but I never saw him again. Alfred. That's my middle name, you know.
I know very little about my dad's family, but he told me that his grandfather
was born in a small village called Stonehaven on the east coast of Scotland.
It was a place where fishermen found a living on the North Sea and sheep ranged the
bluffs above the sea. One day my great grandfather was brought by the constable
before the town council. He was charged with stealing several sheep and in short
order they said they were going to hang him.
As he stood before them he said, "If you turn me loose, I'll be on the next ship to
America, and you'll never see me again. Arn't that as good as hanging me?"
My mom was beautiful. She was slim and wore her hair in that way so popular with 20's flappers, short and bobbed with wavelets close to the head. Lois Demme Horry, the oldest child of Gertrude and Roy Horry. She had a temper that could flair quicker than a kitchen match, and knew more swear words than a longshoreman. She loved to dance and she liked to honky tonk, and that's where she met my dad. He had a big Indian motorcycle and the two of them rode it all over north Texas until she got pregnant with my sister. I think Paula Joann was born in 1933, and I think she died that same year. I wish I had known her.
My mom and dad bought a small, white house in 1935, the year I was born. They paid $1000 for it. It was a nice neighborhood and there was a huge mulberry tree in the front yard and a vacant lot next door. My brother Danny was born there on January 30, 1937. My earlist memories are of that house. My mom would sit me on the steps of the front porch with a piece of bread slathered with homemade mayonnaise, and I would eat it slowly, looking up into the canopy of that wonderful old tree or just watching the world around me. It was all so brand new. Or was it me?
When I turned three, my mom invited Grandma and my aunts over for a birthday. I got a red tricycle and a cake. For some reason I don't remember much else about that day. It was probably a good day, though.
Every day I would take my tricycle from the porch and park it under the mulberry tree when I wasn't riding on the sidewalk, but I remember I was always very careful to get in my own yard when Mr. Wheeler came by. He carried a walking cane and moved slowly, going to the little store around the corner from our house. On more than one occasion he had whipped a youngster whom he considered too sassy. Once I saw him spank the kid who lived across the street for throwing dirt on the sidewalk and also on his little brother. He never whipped me, but I wasn't taking any chances. Funny thing is, none of the parents on our block ever said anything to Mr. Wheeler about his spanking their kids. I guess things were different in those days.
One evening some of the older kids in the neighborhood came to our door and asked my mom if I could join them in the vacant lot. They had buried potatoes inside a circle of rocks and built a fire on top of it, and they had marshmellows on long sticks. I got to hold one. What a feast! But the best part was being wrapped in a blanket and going to sleep in the lap of a teenage girl while everyone sang songs. Yeah, I guess things were different in those days.
I will never, ever, forget the summer evening when my dad gave me a whole nickel and told me I could go to the store by myself. I ran the whole way. I had to go past two houses and turn the corner, and there it was: a tiny little shack with a broad wooden porch and a wonderful smell of fresh baked bread coming from the open door. Three steps up was a huge, red metal box, full of cold water, floating chunks of ice, and tall bottles of pop. I looked them all over, but I already knew what I wanted - Delaware Punch. But I looked them over anyway, just to make sure. The storekeeper had a big smile on his face when I paid him, recognizing my first solo trip to his establishment, and gave me a piece of penny candy to celebrate my growing up. I was four, and things were definitely different in those days.
When the ice wagon arrived on our street it was a call for every kid who lived there to follow along behind, laughing
and grabbing at chips of ice that flew in all directions when the great blocks were hacked and splintered by Mr. Harmon.
He would glance at the house, looking for the window display telling him how many pounds of ice were wanted
that day, then he would use those sharp tongs to sling 25 or 50 pounds across his leather shoulder pad and deliver the
chunk to the waiting housewife. When he got to my house, Mr. Harmon used to put me up on the seat and let me hold
the reigns. I have no idea what those reigns were really for, as Mr. Harmon never used them himself. He
simply walked alongside the wagon from house to house, and I think his two horses knew the route as well as he did.