I learned to drive on the roads of deep east Texas. They cut through the piney woods like random surgical scars through undulating furry green tissue browned by fallen needles and cones.
I'm talking about really driving, now. I'm talking about balling the jack through the night and early morning while my father snoozed on the back seat, farting and scratching.
Sometimes he would raise up on one hip, gripping the back of the driver's seat with his fist and arm and peering groggy and edgy ahead of us.
"What the hell is that?"
"What is what?"
"That stinking gawd dayim thang in front us."
"Why, it's a cattle trailer, Daddy."
"Gawd dayim right it is. That's exactly what it is. Whut are we doin' running down the road behind a stinkin' thang like that, huh?"
"I don't know."
"You'd better by God be finding out. Do you know what this is?"
"What is what?"
"What is what, what?"
"What is what, sir?"
"This is a brand new five thousand dollar 98 Oldsmobile; that's what it is, by God. Now, put your foot in it and get around that Gawd dayim stinkin' cattle trailer - right now!"
He would cuff me lightly on the back of the head.
I would find the courage to pass the stinking thing and pull back in the line of traffic just before a head-on collision with an oncoming log truck or milk tanker.
He was right about the attributes of the car. It was indeed built for the open road. Its massive V-8 engine was unrestricted by anything like the pollution control equipment found on today's cars.The four-barrel carburettor could be heard sucking in cubic yard after cubic yard of air after the vacuum tubes and valves opened up and it was in passing gear. The tuned twin exhaust bellowed in spite of the melodious mufflers and tail pipes with which it was outfitted, and the engine and transmission were so crisply mated to the action of the engine's back pressures that no driver could have replicated its fabulously smooth ability at downshifting. One need never touch the brakes until it was absolutely necessary. I was well-schooled in all these facts. I had been instructed at length.
"Don't jerk the automobile around like that!" He would gesture with his high ball, having had me pull off the road so he could freshen the drink up from a jug he kept in a special little satchel he kept in the trunk that played a music box version of "How Dry I Am" when it was opened.
I have a feeling that in his day, he, too, was schooled in this art of driving at high speeds to meet a deadline. because of the need for help.
In those days, the men in his family took a kid with them when they were on business trips to change the frequent flats - an estimated three every fifty miles or so - caused from thorns, sharp gravel and rocks, rim cuts and slow leaks.
The thick tread of the Oldsmobile's wide, deeply grooved tires gripped the soft summer tarmac of the highway like a tree frog's toes, and it shot ahead at terrifying rates of speed, its air conditioning system spewing icy air on the top of your knees and freezing the sweat on your brows and trickling down the back of your neck.
He held forth on these advantages at length. His experience went way back there. Most instructive remarks began with "Way back there..." He taught me all the tricks he learned on gravel and dirt when he was a kid.
Slack off on a curve just a little bit, then, once committed, pour on the coal and she would track through the maneuver, accelerating smoothly. If I encountered a skid, countersteer into it and never hit the brakes to avoid sliding. If anything, punch it and she would power out of the skid. Once she was under control, gently pump the brakes until she started to slow down.
It's the kind of nervy brinksmanship developed in the days of mechanical brakes and downdraft carburetors. All those tricks also worked just fine after the advent of hydraulic brakes, automatic transmissions and wide tracked, wide tubeless tires.
He would lay down in the seat and go back to sleep, muttering that he wanted to be in such and such a place before 9:30 a.m. so he could freshen up and call on his next customer at about 10.
Thus admonished, I would bum up the highway looking out for the flashing lights of truck drivers who warned of a speed cop up the line. I don't remember anyone having a radio. It was all done with flashing lights in those days.
I was just coming around a bend and up a hill, trying to find a break where I could pass a line of three or four old pickups doing about 40. In front of them was a little cattle trailer. The old boy must have been hauling steers or feeder calves to the commission barn.
Just as I open-end that damn V-8 up and the four-barrel started its whooshing sound, a damned turkey darted out in front of the car from a farm yard.
I locked it up.
Man, white feathers and a bird about the size of a buzzard, it all served to just unnerve me.
That car slid at least a hundred feet on the scalding hot tar and asphalt of that road. When she started to tum sideways, I pumped the brakes and got her back under control for a moment. Then she hooked a wheel into the gravel at the side of the road and started trying to tum sideways in the other direction.
"Punch it! Punch it!" He yelled it and slapped the back of my head.
I got the damned car straightened out and I was cruising along about fifty before he asked me, "What the hell happened?"
"Oh, a turkey ran out in the road in front of me."
"A turkey ran out in the road in front of you." "Yes."
"A turkey ran out in front of you in the road?"
"Yes, sir, a turkey."
"Gawd dayim, boy. The hell with a bunch of turkeys! Turkey or smaller, run over it. Hawg or better, dodge it!"
"You got that?"
"Are we clear?"
"Yes, sir, it's just that..."
"Thank you. Just don't jerk the automobile around."
I clammed up.
He spared me the business about the brand new five thousand dollar 98 Olds.
So that Monday we made it into that old east Texas county seat right on time. It's a place filled with rusticated stone buildings, a place where a revolution, a land grab, began long ago.
All the roads lead to the knob of a hill where the old brick and stone courthouse sits like a wedding cake. It could be located in a rural county of western Pennsylvania, upstate New York or the hills of Tennessee or Alabama.
You can get anywhere in the world from that courthouse and know that those folks stole the whole thing fair and square.
The old man checked into his motel, got cleaned up and went on downtown to see his customer. I fiddled around the swimming pool long enough to get tired and ready for a nap.
When I woke up, the old man was mixing a drink and listening to a side of jazz on his little portable record player. We were going to stay until the next morning because he had to explain to his customer's banker how they could deal a car load of his automotive products at deeply discounted prices by acting as the drop shipment point for that area. The credit was right, the terms were right and it was time to move in that market.
I was grown before I figured out that the old man was actually a silent partner in these deals, cutting himself in for a share of the action in addition to his commission. Some folks call it buying the order.
We walked down the highway on raw cut red dirt to a barbecue place and he showed me what the stakes driven in the ground beside the road meant to the equipment operators. The engineers had marked them to show what grade and slope to cut with their blades.
Then they would be back with the surveyor's transit and rod to check the work.
He was that kind of dude. He was always explaining that kind of stuff to me, how credit worked, who really owned the new cars on a dealer's lot, or how billboard advertising was really paid for, how and why new road right of way was chosen - through donation much faster than by condemnation - all that jazz.
He was an old school man of the road.
When we got back, Fred came by the motel for a drink. Fred was a wheel at his customer's place of business.
They talked for awhile, then they decided to go to the bootlegger's to get a jug of whiskey.
Now, in those days that part of the world was dry. You couldn't buy liquor or any kind of alcoholic beverages anywhere in certain counties. Or so the fiction was maintained. The truth was that bootleggers operated throughout the country. You could buy it all at these country houses back off the road - for a price.
It was a pretty steep price, but Fred was buying.
We headed out a county road to a house with a Seven-Up sign on the mailbox. That was how they marked them, usually, some kind of soft drink sign.
At this place, Chiefs, you pulled around the back of the house in the yard to a little conversation area under a screened-in shed where there was a barbecue pit and several tables made out of wire spools placed on their sides.
Chief was sitting there dressed in overalls smoking his corncob pipe. In front of him was one of those giant Canadian Club bottles they used to display in liquor stores.
People dropped their change in it for luck when they left.
It looked kind of surreal, Chief sitting there barefoot, an Indian less than five and a half feet tall with a huge cowboy hat, smoking a corncob pipe, and a totem of a four'foot brown Canadian Club bottle standing before him.
Add to the vision the fact that we were out in the middle of this dense pine forest in the back yard of an old country house with a gallery around it and all the gear for hog killing and raising chickens, and it starts to get to you.
There were hunting dogs in pens in the back, the kind they use to run down wild boar. Pit bulls.
These were the big woods. The Big Thicket Leadbelly sang about.
They struck a bargain for two jugs of bourbon, then they got to drinking out of the bottle and swapping lies with Chief.
Fred asked my father if he knew Chief was a Kickapoo.
"Yeah, Chief is a Kickapoo, a medicine man."
Chief showed no reaction. He just sat and looked straight ahead. Fred said, "Till I met Chief, here, I just thought the Kickapoo were some kind of deal in L'il Abner, you know, in the funny papers. But, no, they were a real kickass tribe up in the Staked Plains and Kansas and the Panhandle and all. 'Bout as mean as the Comanche or Sioux or any of 'em. Ain't that right, Chief?"
Chief still said nothing.
"That's why Chief, here, sells this bootleg whiskey and wine and stuff. He's selling that Kickapoo Joy Juice, don't you see?"
Chief yawned and pulled his pocket watch out of the bib of his overalls.
"Hey, Chief," Fred said, "what kind of medicine do you make?"
Chief looked straight at him and straight through him, as if, to him, he no longer existed.
"Medicine is medicine," said Chief. "I'm making it now. You may never know. In fact, my guess is you will never know."
His eyes were as black as onyx and there were very few whiskers on his face, deep etched from the sun and pain and worry. The cowboy hat had a funny crease on it. It was pinched in the front of the crown. The rest of it stood to its maximum height.
In the light of the gasoline lantern, I suddenly realized that Chief was in no way a white man.
Chief was a medicine man for sure.
He stood up and scratched the instep of one bare foot with the nails of the other.
Pointing to one of those triangular-shaped hatchets embedded in a round of pecan log standing on end, he said to me, "Son, grab that hatchet and hand it here."
He kept his gaze levelled on Fred. He took the jug from my father's hand and took a polite drink. He handed it back. He stuck his other hand in the pocket of his overalls. They fitted very loose. You suddenly wondered what he had in that pocket.
I handed him the hatchet.
"Thank you, son. You know, Seminole has a meaning. The Seminole people were all kinds of tribes, but they fled to Florida because the Army was chasing them. Co-lon-neh and Sharp Knife would not leave them alone.
"Seminole means 'I ran away."'
Chief pitched the hatchet up and caught it, letting it make a hammer head stall in the air before his eyes.
"They say it will turn the opposite way on the other side of the Equator because of the rotation of the Earth. I believe them," he said.
"This roofing hatchet reminds me of the one my father used to use to make medicine. He used it to keep me from catching cold."
He laughed grimly.
"You see, my father was a drunk. He was a blood, a Kickapoo, but the bottle had him. This was in Kansas. We lived in a tarpaper shack beside the Santa Fe tracks. It was cold."
He smiled and tossed the hatchet up to catch it again after it did its dainty little hammer head stall, its murderous blade lined up neatly to do some business if thrown or swung.
"I had no good clothes, just the ones we got from the churches. They humiliated him for being drunk. They would give him over to some preacher to put him on the Jesus road and make him pure and holy and take away the demons that made him want to be drunk."
He gave Fred another one of those hot, penetrating stares.
"They made him paint the stripes on the street with a brush, then the curbs. They handcuffed him to a lawnmower and made him mow the lawn of the courthouse and jail and the cit hall. They made him wear clothes with stripes on them." He shrugged.
"He kept drinking. He drank until the day I found him dead, sitting in his chair in the tarpaper shack beside the railroad tracks.
"Anyway, back to what I was going to tell you. He used to go out in winter and find a den of skunks. They would be hibernating. They couldn't quite wake up. He would chop into the den from above with a hatchet like this. Then he would kill a couple of the damned things and skin them. He would rub me down with their stinking fat and put about four or five layers of clothes on me and send me to school that way."
Fred and my father exchanged glances.
"I guess that kept the other kids away from you," he said.
"Yeah, as the little school house heated up from the coal'-burning stove, that room would fill up with the smell of skunk and all the kids would move away from me. No virus would get to me because the white man's disease was far, far away from me. My father made medicine, you see."
After a moment in which no one laughed and no comment was made, he said "Good" in Kickapoo warrior dialect.
"Fred," he said, "say goodbye. Say good night. Is that enough medicine for you? Go away. Say good night."
"Aw, come on, Chief, I didn't mean no..."
Fred edged around, standing sideways to him to protect his nut sack and his vital areas. There was much of the truculent hip-slung, squint-eyed slab-muscled warrior left in all three of these war veterans.
They could fight at any moment. There was no one there to stop them.
"Fred," he said calmly, "say good night."
My father and I turned to go to the car, the five thousand dollar 98 Olds, and after a moment, Fred followed.
We got almost all the way back to town before anyone said anything.
"You know," Fred said, "it's true. I had never really heard of the Kickapoos until I met Chief."
"Do tell," my father said. "They say Wichita, Wachita, Ouachita, Watashee and Waxahachie are all variations of dialect for the same meaning, which is 'myself.' The Spanish explorers would ask them what they called themselves, and they would tell them 'Myself."'
"Well, that's some kind of medicine," Fred said. He waited for a laugh. When there was no laugh, he clammed up.
We dropped him off where he had parked his pickup behind the motel.
It gives me a funny feeling to admit that in my travels since I have come to think of medicine as something caused by the totality of events and the way people speak to one another and treat each other.
Because that trip to east Texas was really the beginning of my taking out from home to head west and live the way I have always lived ever since.
It was a Friday afternoon when the trouble started, as it always did. My mother had come home from her job and was busy getting dinner ready to put on the table. She called the lounge where she knew my father had been drinking steadily all afternoon long after he dropped me off at home.
I heard her tell him she was just about ready to put dinner on the table. He should come on home if he wanted to eat with the rest of us - at least eat a fresh home-cooked meal with the rest of us.
I knew what he was telling her by the expression on her face. "I think I'll just have one more drink."
It could only mean one thing. He would finally wind up at home several hours later and refuse to eat "that slop" she had kept warm in a Pyrex plate in the oven.
He would demand milk toast.
So, she would prepare slices of toast and heat up milk in a pan. Then she would throw the toast into the pan and let it soak for a short time and serve it in a bowl.
There has never been a messier, more disgusting thing for a drunk to eat than milk toast. But it was even worse than that. It wasn't cooked correctly.
He would go to the stove and fling each piece of toast back into the pan, making milk slop out all over the place. When it was finally done to his satisfaction, he would make a pig of himself with the sorry stuff, slurping and belching the whiskey past its nasty, glutinous mass.
This Friday, my mother wasn't having it.
She heard him yell to the bartender, "I ain't here."
That's when she left in her car, which was the five thousand dollar road beast he had worn out before he got the one he was driving, and headed for the lounge.
They say she never slowed down when she came of the highway, just plowed into the rear end of the five thousand dollar 98 Oldsmobile. The collision drove both cars through the cinder block wall. It turned over the pool table. It knocked over and shattered the juke box, scattering all the little 45 rpm records across the tile floor.
Drunks scattered and ran everywhere like the cockroaches they were. No one wanted to be there when the cops arrived.
My father poured his drink in a go cup and walked out on the highway in an attempt to hitch a ride to the house. No one was helping him.
A kid came by on a Mo-Ped, so he cold cocked him, got the damn thing going and rode it home.
He was just mixing himself another drink when the cops came to take him away.
I took out. I carried a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a little aluminum skillet and a fork and jack knife. I camped out in a pasture in a creek bottom until morning when I woke up to find a couple of wetbacks sitting on a dry rotted log looking at me.
They got to laughing, asked me for tobacco, which I had plenty of for smoking in a little pipe. After they had cigarettes, they rolled the first marijuana I ever saw.
They showed me how to smoke it. Man, I got high as could be. I thought of the "peace pipe," and I cracked up. You could have scratched your head and I would have lost control laughing about it. I had a little transistor radio tuned to rock and roll. I began to hear parts of the music I had never heard before. Everything made sense to me.
Suddenly, my world became very, very beautiful.
That's when I got hungry. They took me back to another camp deeper in the woods. It was my first trip into a hobo jungle. What a culture shock. I was about to learn all about the roads men take and make. Very few of them are paved.
I stuck around a couple of days before I caught a west bound to San Antonio, or so I thought. The damn thing broke up half way there. I was learning. But within a few days, I was on the California coast.
How I got there and the people I met during those few days is the stuff of my life. All this here is just sorry history.
2008 - Parks