Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pistol Whippin' Bertha

               One of my long neglected projects is to look through my old family history newsletters and pull out those pieces directly related to my own branch of the family.  I keep thinking that someday I’d like to weave all these into a book.  Originally I had envisioned splitting my family history into three parts — those parts titled, in chronological order, “In Oklahoma”, “Migrations”, and “On the Farm”.  The first would be primarily my mother’s recollections of growing up in the Leach/Tahlequah area of northeastern Oklahoma in the 1920s and early ‘30s.  “Migrations” would detail the family’s movements — as migrant workers following the crops — during the era of the Great Okie Migration.  And “On the Farm” would find my immediate branch of the family settling onto a farm located west of Deer Park, in the State of Washington.  If I ever do stich all these bits into one long strip, I don’t know if I’m going to keep the above outline or try something else.  Regardless, the first thing I need to do is pull the various pieces together and see what I have.
               A lot of the material in my Family History Newsletter was drawn from thirty some hours of tape recorded interviews with my mother, Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker.  Because of that, my first thought was to have her be prime narrator.  However, since then I’ve gathered a number of other voices from a number of other of the family’s elders or their descendants.  These new first-person voices make that original approach problematic.  Currently I’m thinking of moving more toward a conventional “writer as narrator” since it would allow me to stand apart and add comments and fill in details that wouldn’t naturally come from the people telling their parts of the story in the first-person.  I just don’t know how the mechanics of this will actually work.  It’s a problem.
               As for background on the specific piece below; just before the end of 1933 the Parker family (my paternal grandparents and their children) pulled up roots in Oklahoma and moved west in search of work.  For a good portion of 1934 my parents lived in Roswell, New Mexico.  This was the first year of their marriage.  Mom would have turned 16 that year, and Dad 21 (they were 15 and 20 when married).
               Mom recalls staying at Roswell two times; the first for "several weeks" when the Parker clan was first moving out of Oklahoma, and then again for a number of months when my dad’s uncle Grover Parker, and Grover’s wife Nettie, drove back to Roswell from Buckeye, Arizona, and my folks rode along.
               Mom’s recollections from Roswell are a bit confused.  While Mom was living there various members of the Parker clan would stop by to visit as they came and went with the seasons and the crops.  She remembers quite a few small incidents, but it's very difficult to sort them into sequence with any assurance of accuracy — although it's doubtful that after seventy-five years such chronological accuracy matters all that much.  I should however point out that this version of this story is in one significant way different from the original as printed ten years ago in the Family History Newsletter.  Most of the family’s remaining elders — including my mother — have passed on in the last ten years, so some of the harsher details that were not originally included out of a concern for everyone’s sensibilities have been re-included in this script.
               At this point I’m unsure how many of these family history snippets I’ll be posting online.  One of the obvious problems with posting these as random articles is that readers will have a problem keeping track of the cast of characters.  If this were laid out in book format, a detailed introduction to each character and an occasional character refresher would likely solve that.  But posting these incidents as freestanding articles seems to create a need to reintroduce characters with each posting.  I’m unsure as to the best way to handle this.
               To sort the characters in this particular story out a bit; Alfred Wallace Parker is my grandfather and Lena Mae Shores-Parker my grandmother.  There were six boys in the Parker clan — Buster (Gravis), Owen (my dad), Jim (James), Ethmer, Sam (Vernon), and Edsel, — Buster, Buster’s wife Bertha, and Owen are mentioned here, plus, in passing, the youngest brother, Edsel.  And there are five girls — Jewel, Lula, Bula, Ruby, and Lois — none of them mentioned in this particular story.  All those not mentioned can be assumed to be wherever Alfred Wallace was at any given time.   Also playing a large part in this story is Grover, one of Alfred Wallace’s brothers.  And too, Grover’s wife Nettie — for reasons hinted at here and clarified in other stories, one of my mother’s favorites among our family’s strong cast of matriarchs. 
               And lastly, some of the word usage in this article is an attempt to record at least a suggestion of my mother’s still evident Oklahoman speech pattern.  Any constructive thoughts on how to better deal with these inflections, as well as the other problems suggested above, would be welcome.

Pistol Whippin’ Bertha

A Story from
the Enkey-Parker Family History Newsletter

told by Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker
written by Wally Lee Parker

(1933 — 1934)

               We left Haskell, Oklahoma, on the 17th of December, 1933, with Owen’s dad, Alfred Wallace, pulling a four-wheel trailer behind his Hupmobile.  With sideboards, the trailer was big enough that we could throw everything on it — bedrolls, clothes, dishes, whatever we had.  The family dog, an old German shepherd named Bruno, would stand on top of the load and bark at anyone coming near.
               The Hupmobile was a big car — one of those open top touring cars — but there was so many of us we must have had other cars too.  But other than Uncle Grover’s car, I just can’t recall.
               Buster, the oldest of the brothers, had a car.  But Buster and Bertha was gonna take Bertha's mother with them.  She was blind and in a wheelchair.  It was decided that they would come later, after the rest of the clan was settled in — mostly I think because Owen’s dad plain hated Berta’s mother.  And I don’t know why that was – though I suspect it was just part of a much deeper feud.
               Our first long stop was at a tourist camp in Roswell.  All the cabins were one room.  A separate building held the camp's toilets and showers.  Alfred Wallace rented two cabins, one for the girls and one for him and Lena Mae.  Owen and I shared a cabin with Jim and Ethmer.  Uncle Grover and Aunt Nettie had their own rig — a small house-trailer they towed behind their car.
               It was cold weather then.  All the men went out during the day — hunting for jobs they said.  At night, after they'd ate their dinner, they'd come over to our cabin, sit around on the floor, bed, and what, and talk.  If I wanted to go to bed, I'd have to crawl along the wall and get in the bed that way.  And, of course, the toilets was outside, so if I needed to go, I had to crawl over everybody to get out again.
               One night Aunt Nettie was in the cabin — and all the guys, too.  The men was talking, and one of them let it drop.  He said something about shooting prairie dogs.  And then he said, “Yeah, you done a lot worse at shootin' then that old guy we saw in that movie today."
               At that, all the guys stopped cold.
               Aunt Nettie jump up, hauled out of the cabin, and yelled, “Grover!  Get yourself out here!"
               Grover lowered his head and walked out.
               Grover," Nettie started in, "you men is supposed to be out hunting for jobs!  And you're out shooting critters and going to movies while us women is setting in these cabins!"
               She was mad about that for the longest.
               We weren't there all that long till Buster, Bertha, and Bertha’s mother — we all called her Misses Holt — showed up.  Buster found some work at Roswell and decided to stay.  With Misses Holt in that condition, I don't think they wanted to keep moving all that much anyway.  The rest of us moved on, ending up at Buckeye, Arizona.
               After being in Arizona for a few months, Uncle Grover and Aunt Nettie decided to move back to Roswell.  It may have been that Buster had written a letter telling there was work available.  It may have been that we all liked New Mexico more than Arizona.  Whichever, Owen and me wanted to get on our own for a while — get away from the bunch for a while — so we went back to Roswell with Grover and Nettie.
               Part of the time Owen worked tending orchards, working the hay, irrigating crops and such for an old farmer just outside Roswell.  That same old man — just to show how young we was, this old guy was maybe in his forties — had me come in to take care of his house — cleaning, doing dishes and such — whenever his wife was away for a few days.  When he didn't have work for us, we'd be about chopping cotton and such for other people around there.

Owen Lee Parker 1933 

               I liked the Roswell area.  Carlsbad Caverns were close.  And up in the mountains in the Hondo Valley, that's where Billy the Kid was in prison.  Some decayed stucco buildings was still standing.  There was a monument — writings covered by glass.  It seems like it told how Billy had escaped from there.
               In Roswell there was a man who owned a gas station with a small store inside.  He also owned a nearby barn that had been converted into two apartments.  Buster and Bertha were already living in the lower apartment.  We rented the upper.
               One time I was at the farmer's place doing some chores — washing clothes, ironing — and the farmer said to me, "I got this old rooster running around here I'm gonna get rid of.  When I kill it, instead of me throwing it away, do you think you could cook it?  If you’d get some use out of it, you can have it."
               I wasn't about to turn down some free food.  "I'll just pressure-cook it!"
               After gettin’ it home, I had to pressure it for the longest.  And all this time Bertha kept coming upstairs and saying, "Gosh, that smells good” — or "I'll bet that's gonna taste real good."
               Since I didn't have much in the way of silverware, Owen had bought us four forks and four spoons.  And I was so proud of them ‘cause they all matched.  When that rooster was done I took one of my new forks, stabbed a drumstick, and took it down to Bertha.  And I never did get my fork back.
               There was an apple tree long-side the road where I’d walk by.  When them green apples were comin’ on, Ever little bit I'd pick a bunch and take `em home to fry ‘em. for farmers all around there.  That's how we got from job to job.  Walking.
               It was there at Roswell — and I'm not sure if that was the first or second time we stayed there that year — that I rode a bicycle for the first time in my life.
               It seems like every so often some of the relatives would stop by Roswell when they was coming or going, so I just can sort it out.  But whenever it was, one of the kids — it might have been Sam — had a bike.  So we was all out there trying to ride it.  I was doing pretty good.  Seems like the road was hardtop, either blacktop or hard packed gravel.  There was loose gravel along the side.  We wasn't use to gravel on the roadside since all the country roads `round home in Oklahoma was dirt.
               Anyway, I was riding along and the kids started hollering.  "There's a car coming!  There's a car coming!"  So I turn my head to look.  The wheels hit the gravel and I spilled.  Got scratched up pretty good.  But I kept at it until I learned to ride — without looking back anymore.
               But that's the only time I rode a bicycle till we got moved up to the farm in Washington and got a bike for the kids.

Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker — 1933

               Living in that apartment above Buster and Bertha might have not been the best.  I had a temper and — ‘cause of the way I was raised — a willingness to fight at the drop of a hat.  And Bertha was always turned funny to my way of thinking.   So we weren’t a good combination.
               Uncle Grover and Aunt Nettie were living in Roswell at that time.  They was building themselves an new trailer out front of the building we was living in — getting ready to head back to Arizona I think.  But I can't remember where in Roswell they was actually staying when not working on the trailer.
               Hard feelings was pretty thick in the family right then.  Part of it might have been that Bertha had decided to move a bunch of her extra furniture upstairs and stack it in one corner of our apartment.  Maybe Uncle Grover and Aunt Nettie was staying with them and they needed the space.  I just don't know.
               Something I ‘spect that had Bertha upset was that they had been living there first, but since we'd moved back to Roswell the people who owned the apartments and the gas station with the little store in it had started having us babysitting their little girl.  And then they'd have us watch the store, pumps, and such when they wanted to go out someplace.  Because of that they'd give us a discount on the stuff — milk and the like — that we bought at their store.  So maybe that discount irritated Bertha some.
               But what I think irritated Bertha the most was the way Alfred Wallace was always acting toward her mother, Misses Holt.  I can’t recall why the old lady was in a wheelchair.  As for her eyesight, it seems I’d heard she was blinded when making soap at home — blinded when some lye got splashed in her eyes.  Whatever, Owen’s dad never had a kind word to say to the old lady, and often just the opposite.  I guess it was to get back at him that Bertha started rumoring to the neighbor’s around Roswell that some of Alfred’s daughters had cold black hair ‘cause their real dad was the longtime black foreman Alfred Wallace had working for him back on the Haskell, Oklahoma, farm.  In the 1930s you didn’t even hint something like that to a southern white unless you wanted to see your own blood.  Alfred Wallace was with the rest of the clan in Arizona right then, but Grover, Owen, and likely even Buster knew if what Bertha was talking around ever got back to Alfred Wallace he would likely beat Bertha to death.  I had a temper, but Pop Parker’s was worse.  So Nettie and the others tried to tell Bertha to stop.  But Bertha being young and bullheaded, she just didn’t have the sense to listen.
               Anyway — as it was, I tended kids for a lot of the neighbors, so all the kids knew me and would come up to our apartment — though the back door and up the stairs — to hang out.  Whenever a bunch of kids was over, we'd do all kinds of things.  We'd whittle things out of wood, paste paper things together, color pictures, make dolls — anything that seemed to entertain the kids.
               This one time I decided to make some wooden guns for the kids.  I'd already made one or two, and when the kids saw them they all wanted to see how I’d done it.  So they was all gathered around the table in our apartment to watch.  I didn't have enough chairs to sit all the kids, so I pulled some of Bertha's chairs down and sat them near the table.
               What I was doing — Owen had this old handgun.  A .32 caliber I think.  I took that gun, laid it on a board, and traced around it.  Then I'd take the board, lay it across a couple of chairs, and saw the gun shape out.  I'd fix a clothes-pin to the back of the gun.  A rubber band could be stretched from the tip of the barrel back to the clothes-pin so when the clothes-pin was opened the rubber band would snap in the direction the gun was pointed.
               The kids was so excited about the guns they started making quite a racket.  That caused Bertha come up the stairs to see what was going on.
               "I don't appreciate all the noise up here," she said.  And then she saw the kids sitting on her chairs.
               "You kids get out of my chairs right now!  I want my chairs stacked up just like they was!"
               I told the kids they didn't have to get up.  But they was all scared of Bertha, so when she'd go to pull the chair out from under them, they’d get up. 
               She went around the table like that, till she got to me.  And I warned her.  "Don't do it Bertha."
               She said, "You're gonna get out of my chair.  If you don't get out, I'll yank you out!"
               "I'm telling you not to do it Bertha!”  I was already boiling.  “Just don't do it!"
               She took hold of the chair, jerked it, and that's the last I knowed.  When I could see again, I saw that I had grabbed that .32 caliber and was beating the hell out of Bertha with it.
               The kids were all running around and screaming.  Some of the kids run downstairs to get help.  Buster, Aunt Nettie, and Uncle Grover was all out front working on the trailer when all this started.  It took all three of them to pull me off Bertha.  Somebody was pulling the gun out of my hand.  And there was Bertha, blood running down the side of her face.
               About that time another neighbor come banging through the door and yelled for everyone to let me loose.  About then Bertha grabbed the gun from where it'd been dropped and whacked me on the leg with it.  So a bunch grabbed Bertha and dragged her screaming down the stairs.
               When Owen got there a bit later, Buster was downstairs cleaning the blood off Bertha.  I don't know where Owen had been, but somebody went and got him.  And seeing him come, that's when Buster came back up to the apartment.
               Buster and Owen went around a bit.  The men had to pull them apart.
               About that time the owner of the place showed up.  He asked around, figured out what had happened, then yelled, "All of you who don't live in this apartment, get the hell out — and I mean right now!"
               Buster pointed at me and said, "I'm gonna go.  But I'm gonna turn her in to the cops.  I'm gonna turn her in and have her arrested."
               The owner said to Buster, "'Fore you do, let’s go out and have us a little talk."
               We didn't hear what the owner said, but later the owner’s wife told us that he’d told Buster.  "You might just end up hurting your wife more than you hurt Lillie.  Your wife was gonna dump Lillie out on the floor with Lillie pregnant.  How's that gonna sound to some judge?"
               As far along as I was, I don't think any of us figured that was any real concern.  Maybe the owner was just trying to calm things down and thought that would be a good out for everyone.  The owner knew I was pregnant ‘cause it was his wife who took me to see a doctor there at Roswell when I wasn't feeling well.  And the day of the fight was the first anyone in the family, other than Owen and Aunt Nettie, knew about it.
               Buster took off walking into Roswell anyway.  Me, Owen, and some other people went down to the gas station and waited for the police to show up.  They never did.
               A few days later I found what was left of Owen’s gun in the stove.  I guess Bertha had snuck upstairs, found the gun, and throwed it in there.
               After all that Owen and me moved out of the upstairs apartment and into a tourist cabin.  We lived there until winter was coming on and the farm work had pretty well died down.  That’s when we packed up what little we had and hopped a bus for the J. B. Cooper ranch near Buckeye, Arizona — where the rest of the Parker clan had settled in for the winter.
               And you can bet no one in the family was ever dumb enough to tell Alfred Wallace everything that has been going on in Roswell.  I know he found out most things sooner or later, but I’m pretty sure if he’d found out what Bertha had been saying the outcome wouldn’t have been good for either of them.

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Lina said...

Fascinating stories from the 30's! It's a real treat to read first-person accounts from this time period, thanks a bunch for taking the time to interview Lillie and save her voice for future generations to hear.

Michele said...

Thank you so much for the story. I remember Alfred and Mae as a small child. My grandmother was married to Alfreds brother Morgan and lived in Oktaha OK. I would so love to know more about our family that moved to CAli. I am working on a family history and any information is appreciated. Thank you and if you do publish,, please let me know as I would love a copy.