Here I’ve posted the rest of the second chapter from my novel, Cool Nation. The first half was posted last Friday.
The Making of a Mongrel (remainder)
Early on Grandpa developed a hatred for the sheriff in Picher, and the sheriff a hatred for him. The sheriff dominated bootlegging in that part of Oklahoma, as everyone knew. The trouble began when one of Grandpaï¿½s brothers, Jewell, began to compete with the sheriff for the sale of corn liquor.
Jewell owned a souped-up Model A that was one of the fastest cars in the county, and fast for good reasons. Twice a month he would drive it into the Ozark mountains, where some old man with a still would fill its hidden tanks with whiskey. Jewell would return to Picher after dark, outrunning ï¿½the lawsï¿½ along the way if necessary. In Picher heï¿½d pull into his little garage and drain the tanks into a larger tank that was buried underground. The whiskey was pumped up into bottles by means of a secreted spigot, and for three years Uncle Jewell prospered, supplying many of the miners, certain of the politicians, and enraging the sheriff, who could never seem to catch him or figure out where the booze was kept. Finally though Jewell was given away by some disgruntled confederate, the sheriff sent him to McAlester, and went on controlling bootlegging in Picher for the next several years. My grandfather never forgave him for busting up the enterprise, or for imprisoning Jewell.
The next summer two of the sheriffï¿½s cowpoke nephews were visiting from Wyoming, both of them in their late teens. They were hard drinkers, and one afternoon as they were emerging from a bar they saw my Uncle Galen, aged twelve, and Uncle Wilford, fifteen, coming down the sidewalk. Wilford had broken his leg working in the mines, and was hobbling along with a crutch. The two cowpokes stopped them.
ï¿½What you bet I could knock thisï¿½n down with one punch?ï¿½ the blond one said.
ï¿½I bet you cainï¿½t.ï¿½
ï¿½I bet I can.ï¿½
He did. He knocked Wilford down with one punch. Then Uncle Galen attacked him, and the cowpoke knocked him out. Apparently this kind of thing had been going on all week, but no one had complained because these were the sheriffï¿½s nephews.
Later my uncles went home and told my grandfather, who listened in reddened silence. After dark he went into the yard behind their shack on Vantage, found two rocks the size of cantaloupes, and walked across town to the sheriffï¿½s house. There he saw the cowpokes at the supper table, their backs to the window. He heaved the rocks, the window shattered, the cowpokes collapsed, and the next day they both were spotted boarding a train out of town, the blond one barely to see for the bandages that swathed his head, he being led aboard by the other, whose arm was in a sling.
A week later, on a moonless night, Grandpa and one of his brothers pistol-whipped the sheriff out behind his saloon. They both wore bandanas over their faces, neither one of them spoke, and before sending him to the hospital they made him understand that they were letting him live, this time. Then they took his wallet.
The sheriff never confronted Grandpa, who as everyone knew went about armed, and the two nephews never returned. This was justice in Picher. This was the town in which my father spent his first ten years.
My grandma, an orphan who had worked as an indentured farm servant most of her young life, was fifteen when she gave birth to Dad, having been knocked up that year by Grandpa, who was thirty. Grandpaï¿½s first wife had died in childbirth twelve years earlier, leaving him to raise his two sons alone. He wanted Grandma to help.
Barely literate, half-Cherokee, half-Irish, with her younger sisters as her only kin, Grandma had taken work at a boarding house in Picher in order to escape the miserable conditions of her servitude on a farm near Joplin. In short order my grandfather met her, seduced her, my father was born, and for as long as Grandma could endure it she remained married to the old man. That wasnï¿½t very long.
Grandma eventually left him, and that Ozark region, to move to Kansas City, to marry a man not given to whoring and brawling, and to try to realize a life that was made up of more than mere subsistence. At first Grandpa wouldnï¿½t let her take my father, insisting he be raised in Picher to become a miner. But finally, through means weï¿½ve never fully known, Grandma gained custody of my father when he was ten and brought him to the city, away from the mines.
In Kansas City then she raised him, and while she never did prosper, at least she and her husband had ample food, a fair measure of sobriety, and even a savings account at the bank. In later years, after her second husband died, she wound up buying a bungalow in Cherokee Grove, a well kept Kansas town not ten miles from the hellhole of Picherï¿½whose mines were abandoned in the 1950s, after supplying lead for yet another world war, then the Korean War, then finally playing out.
Cherokee was one of those towns that had prospered from Picherï¿½s mines, and misery. Its streets were broad, its businesses thriving, and many of its houses were large. It was one of those towns where the mine ownerï¿½s had lived and raised their families, while the people of Picherï¿½the ones who had made the ownerï¿½s wealth possibleï¿½struggled just to get by: drinking lead-tainted water, breathing lead-tainted air, shifting to survive in a town stripped of all industry, after industry had stripped it of everything it had. Cherokee was one of those towns my grandmother had despised when she lived in Picher, but Cherokee was where she moved now.
As it happened, Cherokee was the same town in which my grandfather had earlier died and been buried. I never believed it was a coincidence that Grandma settled there, so close to Grandpaï¿½s grave and presence. Like many women, she had been drawn most to the man who ignored her, not the one who worshipped her, and in the end Iï¿½ve always believed she felt a need to be near him.
At any rate, Grandmaï¿½s initial move to Kansas City deposited my father there, he later met and charmed my mother, they married, and my brothers, sisters and I were the result. Sure the Muellers are the more respectable, the more conformist side of our family. Sure theirs was once a name to be reckoned with in Kansas City. But it is our fatherï¿½s side to which we are most drawn; there lay the passion, the grit, the coarseness and the vigor. There lay the hillbilly stamp. Itï¿½s still heavy on me. It always will be. And that’s just fine with me.
As common mongrels then we were born, Baby Boomers all, about to embark on two of the strangest decades in the Twentieth Century, unaware of the social steamroller that was about to hit us, and likely better off for the ignorance.