Half a Dozen, a Good Number


Dear Readers, I hope you enjoy this fifth installment of stories written by my mother, the McAdoo Marvel.

Six, I’d say, is about the right number of kids for a farm family isolated from playmates. It helped that we were fairly close in age. The first three were only four and a half years apart. The spacing was not as close for the last three, but still the six of us were squeezed into nine and a half years. That was too much of an age gap for some things, but we could scrape up a slight semblance of a softball game where everyone could play. And a couple of our made-up, structured games (that means they had definite rules) were designed for all six.

Most things we did couldn’t be called a game, and were by nature open to anyone who wanted to join. If you wanted to be a cattle rancher, you just gathered some tumbleweeds (Russian thistles) to be your herd, and you were in. It helped if you were sometimes able move them, too. Dried tumbleweeds are pretty stickery, so we’d get long pieces of heavy wire and bend one end to make a hook. With the thistle’s root side up, large limbs from the root were easy to reach. We’d hook one of those limbs, and drag a cow or two behind us when we moved.

We were competitive about the size of our herds. There were times we’d be absorbed in something else, not thinking about our cattle, then someone would spot a big pile of tumbleweeds in a fence corner or in a cranny of the canyon. The lucky one would dramatically proclaim, “I claim all of the land from here to here,” and name the specific boundaries. It didn’t matter that no one ever went back and got even one cow; the cattle were still spoken for.

We were competitive, too, about the looks of our cattle − sizes and shapes. Thanks to Reid, we once had an official judging. He was the judge because at 14, he already had the experience. He not only raised pigs and calves for FFA contests, he had a good supply of ribbons and awards from judging contests in the county and in other parts of the state. From his reputation in the McAdoo community, there was no doubt he was an expert. So when he decided to take us to a higher level, and teach us official judging skills, we were thrilled. Billie was his first student. Reid lined up several young cows, and painstakingly showed her points of interest – head, shoulders, legs, rump, etc. – and what she should look for in each. He’d show her the differences between the cows, pointing out the top pick in each area of interest, and explain why the others didn’t measure up. After a long session, he asked Billie which one she’d call the winner.

“That one.” She pointed proudly. Reid was ecstatic!

“That’s right! That’s right! Why did you pick that one?” He waited for her to begin her explanation. Billie’s answer was succinct, totally honest, and devastating, “I think she has the prettiest face.” Poor Reid. Sisters can be such disappointments.

We weren’t the only ones who were creative with tumbleweeds. There was Jinx Yarborough. I don’t know how long the Yarboroughs had been in McAdoo, maybe a couple of years. All I knew about them was that there were three boys, all in grade school, and their dad cut their hair. I heard grown-ups say the haircuts looked like Jinx used a bowl. And that’s how each looked – a perfectly round shock of hair on the very tops of their heads, well above the ears.

I assumed Jinx was a farmer, like most of the men I knew. But, apparently, he had other interests, too. One day, he shot and killed Bill Arthur, who had been a popular sheriff for years. Jinx took off, but someone got together a posse. As a part of the posse, Daddy was given a gun, but the search wouldn’t begin until the next morning. That created a little problem. With a houseful of kids, he couldn’t keep the gun inside. So he left it in the bar ditch in front of the house overnight. Have you ever seen a scene like that in one of those posse chases on TV? Uncle Rush, Daddy’s oldest brother, wasn’t too concerned about the unexpected behavior of one of our local citizens. When he came the next morning to ride with Daddy, he said, “I don’t think we need guns, Willie. It’s just old Jinx Yarborough.” I don’t know the details of how they found him; I only know when they did, Jinx was trying to hide his car by burying it under tumbleweeds.

Of course, anyone could be a mourner for our funerals. The deceased one lay on the back car seat (the coffin), both back doors open. Sad survivors entered through one door and exited the other, with loud weeping after viewing the “body” and commenting on “how natural” she looked. We didn’t have room for a complete traditional service. McAdoo funerals were usually held on weekends at the school auditorium because it was the only place large enough. When old Mr. Cornelius died, his funeral was at the Baptist church. Mama and Aunt Lessie, Uncle Charley’s wife, picked up the kids who were in school so the Cornelius family wouldn’t be the only ones attending. Those of us who were needed were pressed into service as flower girls. The girls held the flowers that were sent, forming two lines from the back door of the hearse to the front door of the church, or whatever. The casket was carried between the rows of flowers. It was a widespread tradition in the 1930s. I don’t know when it ended.

If you wanted to be a part of our digging a hole to China, you joined the digging crew. It’s understandable why Doris, usually, and Theresa didn’t join in. Doris probably tired, on the first day of digging, of hearing plans about a separate "crying room" for her. The room, in fact, the whole project, was Reid’s idea, though we all thought Doris cried too much. And Theresa was too young to dig. As far as how long it took us to get to China, we probably were no nearer than a couple of inches down when we abandoned our project.

Reid definitely had ideas. He was the one who came up with the plan to baptize the chickens. Knowing there were different kinds of baptism, we called all dominickers (black and white spotted) Methodists. As such, they were lucky; they were only sprinkled. The unfortunate ones were either Church of Christ or Baptist. They got the full treatment, complete immersion.

Poor Sally the horse was the taxi when we had a yen for that. There were designated places for passenger pickups. We never used a saddle, just a rein, so stops had to be at such places as the mailbox and certain spots along the lot fence. We had to climb high enough to slide onto Sally’s back behind the driver. We’d ride to the next stop, where the first passenger had to leave, and the next one would get on. Long-suffering Sally would walk ‘round and ‘round until we were tired of the game.

Sally actually was Reid’s mare, given to him when he was very small by Uncle Ralph, one of Daddy’s older brothers, who died before Reid was two. But we all thought Sally was part ours. Reid fell off her a couple of times, breaking the same arm each time; that caused some trouble in the Marine Corps because he couldn’t give a proper salute. We were all proud of Sally for her compassion; she would stop when Reid fell, and wouldn’t move until he was on his feet.

Occasionally, on a Sunday afternoon, we’d walk to the home of Uncle Charlie (Daddy’s brother, six years older), about a mile away. There we had five cousins, giving us a good-sized group. When we were young, we’d split up according to age. As we got older, we had more group games. That’s when the “monotony” began. That was our name for Monopoly. One game lasted all afternoon, and was always chosen as the game to play by Rudolph and Wanda. Without fail, there were numerous interruptions for Rudolph and Wanda to point out the rules, with condescending chuckles about our ignorance. We weren’t sure that Monopoly had ever included some of those rules, but it was their game. We had more fun when the whole family went for night visits. That was the time for games like capture the flag and hide-and-seek.

Our favorite, though, was outlaws and sheriff. Somehow, one person would be stuck as the sheriff – no one wanted the part. When that was settled, the others would yell out names, “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “John Dillinger,” “Clyde Barrow, “Baby Face Nelson,” etc. You had to be fast, or all the real outlaw names would be taken. I don’t know how we knew the names. At that time, neither family got a newspaper or had a radio. Other than their names, we knew nothing about them. We didn’t have a clue as to what made them well known or why they were outlaws. Usually, our crime was stealing chickens.

There is one inherent problem with an even number larger than two: there’s always one who is the oldest member of the younger half. That was my slot, and it can be a precarious position. Certain magic words uttered by either parent – “Don’t let the little ones” – instantly transformed me into a “little one.” I was four months closer in age to Reid (the oldest) than to Theresa (the youngest). Only 19 months separated me and Billie, and I was exactly 2 years older than Doris. But when those fateful words were said, logic went out the window.

One summer, Daddy leased pasture space for our cattle from the Pitchfork Ranch, and made periodic visits to check on the cows. When we could, we went with him. He dropped us off at one of the ranch windmills to play while he made sure the cows were okay. As he began to drive away, he called out those awful words, “Don’t let the little ones climb the windmill.” I climbed the windmill at home whenever I wanted, and no one even noticed. But as one of the little ones, I was grounded. I didn’t argue, however. When authority was passed to Reid and Louise, they were the same as the real parents.

For a time I thought only my older siblings were guilty of putting me in the “little” category, then I remembered the tricycle. Since those were the Great Depression years, there wasn’t enough money for each child to get big gifts. The bicycle was a Christmas present for Reid and Louise. By the time we younger ones learned to ride it, tire tubes were only a memory. We packed the tires with cottonseed to keep them “inflated.” The age-specific gift idea was used when Santa left a tricycle one year; it was for me, Doris, and Theresa. I was already much too big to ride it, but it was for the “little ones.”

No matter how many you are, there comes a time when being alone is important. I remember all the afternoons lying in the shade of the house, with only the dog for company. The tractors were so far away the sound of them was just a throb, but it was the only sound to be heard. When I’m asked – usually in a group setting – to concentrate on the most peaceful moment I’ve ever known, that is what I think of.

I was always alone in a grown cornfield – corn above my head, completely hidden. It was in a cornfield that my thoughts took me, for the first time, to my own mortality. I realized that those who had cared for me would miss me and mourn for a time. But that time would end, and it would be as if I had never lived. Sobering thought, which I told no one.