Strange Folk

The bad dad and the good.

Following my grandmother’s failed first marriage to a man best described as a narcissistic thief and liar, she and my mother were in emotional and financial ruin. Unable to recover her position of advantage as the owner of a successful Northside bar, my grandmother became a bookkeeper for a firm having offices in the Burk Burnett Bldg. in Ft. Worth, at one time the tallest skyscraper in the city. And she was very good at it. In the years she worked there, neither any company accountant nor any outside auditor questioned her ledgers. Still, their circumstances were considerably reduced and only a miracle or a hero could change that.

No miracles were worked, but a hero came in the person of my grandmother’s second husband, R. P. _________ , who hailed from Winnfield in Louisiana’s Winn Parish, the traditional home of the former Long family Democratic political dynasty. And although there were no miracles, R. P.’s work ethic and personal stability might well and reasonably be considered miraculous, given his own appalling upbringing. R. P., for example, actually had neither a middle name nor a middle initial and was known as “Mac” by his Texian friends and co-workers and as “Hot” (short for Hotshot) by his family and friends in Louisiana. The letters R and P were lifted from the atrocious Christian name visited upon him by his father W. P. __________ in the exercise of his own best quality – plain damn meanness.

But for the fact that we have his family in Birmingham, Alabama going as far back as the early1800s, we might well have deemed W. P. to be literally as well as figuratively a bastard, not to mention being the very soul of irresponsibility. He was the kind of man who would not only walk away from anything he found disagreeable at the drop of a hat, he’d snatch the hat off whoever’s head to make it happen. When it came to family life, he would disappear for days, weeks, or even months and then expect dinner to be on the table when he returned.

W. P. came to Louisiana as a laborer in the employ of the Louisiana and Arkansas Railroad as a Gandy Dancer working side-by-side with sons of previously indentured Asian coolies and African-Americans not terribly far removed from slavery. He was tough, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, ignorant, and ornery as they come, but he wasn’t stupid and was able to work his way into a job as Fire Boy, which, as with most things, didn’t last long. He quit when they ran into an especially large bull on the track and the locomotive was knocked off the rails. As the story goes, the locomotive went off the track one way and W. P. took off the other way and into the Louisiana swamp never to be seen again by the folks at the Louisiana and Arkansas.

By age 81, W. P. was a deeply hardened Louisiana swamp rat making a living in whatever way he could. According to my grandmother, there came a day in 1960 when neighbors began to worry over not having seen the man in a while. They didn’t know where he was or what might have happened, but they knew it wasn’t good because when they went over to his place they found his dogs were loose and they got no answer from the normally loud-mouthed bounder when they shouted out for him. After searching for a few hours, they found him flat on his back in the swamp. He had been felled by a stroke while running his lines three days before.

When my grandmother and Mac got word that W. P. was in hospital in Winnfield they went to see him as soon as they could, albeit less for the old man’s sake than to support other family members, including Mac’s younger sister. On arriving, they found him all worked up and hospital staff well past tired of dealing with him. He was angry about something and wanted to go home. Everybody on the floor knew he was mad and nobody knew what was he mad about. After some soothing words from my grandmother, he finally fessed up to her, at first in soft tones.

“I want to go home and I want to go right now.”. he said. When she asked him why he was so pissed off, he told her it was because the place wasn’t clean – That he had gotten cooties and he had gotten them there. And when she had the temerity to point out that hospitals prize cleanliness and are not likely to be so infested, he lost it and started yelling, “Goddammit, woman! I told you I got cooties! And I got ’em here! And I know I got ’em here ’cause I haven’t been with a woman in six months!.. Now get me the Hell outta here! And I don’t mean now! I mean right now!”

And, just as he no doubt knew they would, all involved agreed it might be best to let W. P. have things his way.