It's dark when we leave the cookhouse and walk back to the bunkhouse. All the guys are outside, sitting around a roaring fire. Oscar and Buck, Oscar's sidekick, move over on the bench. Dad and me sit down. Sandy, Dad's foreman, says, "Howdy Billy. Howdy Frank."
Sandy is sitting on an old wooden barrel, poking at the fire with a stick. He lights his pipe. The smoke curls up and disappears into the blackness. I look around and most everybody is smoking a cigarette or pipe. Someday I'm gonna smoke a pipe: that's what a real man smokes. Everybody is watching Sandy so he starts talking. "Before anybody starts telling us a bear story there's something that needs to be cleared up."
Done Gone Broke Charlie asks, "What's that?"
Sandy smiles, "Frank has gotta tell us how he met up with Alma and married her."
Everybody is laughing now and a voice from the other side of the fire says, "Yeah, Frank,
how did a broken-down old stiff like you get hooked up with a beauty like Alma?"
We all look at Dad. He's got a gleam in his eyes: he's got something to pull. He stands up and says, "Well, I'll tell ya. She chased me all over the country and when I got sick in bed and couldn't run no more, she caught me."
Nobody laughs and Sandy says, "Come on, Frank. You gotta do better than that."
"All right. All right. I'll tell ya all about how it all happened."
My ears jump straight up in the air: I always wanted to know how Dad and Mom met.
"It was back in '28. I was building a railroad through the Oklahoma Panhandle, a real God- forsaken country back in those days. Guyman was the only town in that neck of the woods and it weren't much. One Sunday I decided to go look for water. I throwed the water barrel in the back of my truck and took off. I must of drove 20 miles before I saw a windmill. I left the paved road and followed an old dirt road back up to the farmhouse. That was the sorriest spread I ever saw in my life. It had a broken down old house with boards running from the roof to the ground, giving it a lean-to effect on the side, probably the kids bedroom. The granary was clapboard and not high enough for a little kid to walk in standing straight up. The barn was rotting. The corral was falling apart. One thing, the old farmer had lots of kids and a few chickens. Him and all the kids come out to meet me. Must have been 7 or 8 little kids."
Dad walks over and sits on the bunkhouse steps. We all shift in our seats to face him. "I asked the old farmer if I could fill my barrel from his well. He said he would be pleased if I did. I asked him how long he lived there. He said he come down from Illinois in '05, homesteaded the place and had about 7 good years. Then the drought hit. When the rains started up again the hail wiped out one year's crop and the locust got another. All his cattle died from disease that nobody could name. Just one thing after another hit him. Now he was feeding his kids on sowbellies and other government surpluses. He wanted to go to California but didn't have the means to do so. He had the saddest tale I ever heard. Finally, his wife called him into the house. The kids all watched me pump water into my barrel."
Dad stopped talking and lit up a cigarette. He blew out a cloud of smoke and continued his story. "After I filled my barrel I stood up and looked around. There was this boy standing on the other side of the corral. He'd been standing there ever since I been there. He had on a pair of old raggedy bib overalls, a dirty work shirt, tore-up work hat, and he was barefoot. He was skinny as a rail, all his clothes was three sizes too big. I figured he was 12 or so, much older than the other kids. He never said a word he just stood there. I decided to see if he had a tongue. I pointed over to the cooling cages and asked what the cages was for. When he told me that those was monkey cages my chin dropped down and bounced off my chest; that weren't no boy, that was a woman, a woman with a smart-aleck mouth. Well I couldn't think of nothing else to say so I rolled my barrel over to the truck, loaded up, and drove back to camp."
Oscar asks, "Was that boy Alma?"
"Yep, although I didn't know her name at the time. The next Sunday I pulled my truck around to the cookhouse and loaded up with foodstuffs. When that old farmer, his name was Bill Hager, saw what I brung he invited me to dinner. Well, over the next couple of months I got to know Bill Hager real well. He grew up on an old wore-out farm up near Moline. He worked and starved on that old farm until the bank repossessed it. Then he went to Moline and got a job in a foundry. That job was pure hell. He worked pouring molten metal into casts sixteen hours a day. The heat was terrible and took all the hide off a man. The sons of bitches that owned the place worked everybody to death in a few years and never paid enough to live on.
"Well, Old Bill met a woman who just come over from Ireland. She worked for a rich family taking care of their kids. They worked her night and day and never give her enough money for shoes. Both Bill and that Irish woman was in the same boat--having their life's blood being sucked out of them by the rich sons of bitches that run this country. I tell you some day the working man is gonna rise up and."
Sandy interrupts, "Frank, tell us about Alma."
"Oh, yeah. Well anyway Bill and Anna Riley, that was her name, heard about land free for the taking down in Oklahoma. So one day they packed up their belongings and left Moline without a backward glance. They homesteaded and built the farm, buildings and all, their selves. Alma was born in 1910. She was the boy on the farm because the boys weren't no good. She worked with Old Bill just like a man would."
Dad gets up and walks over to the fire. He looks into the fire and thrusts his hands into his pockets. Our eyes follow him. "One Sunday I went over and told the family that my job was finished and I was leaving for a new job up in Wyoming. I wasn't ready for the sorrow I caused. The whole family, little kids and all started moaning and crying. Even Old Bill got tears in his eyes. I couldn't take no more so I walked out to my car. Alma followed me. I never talked to her after the time about the cooling cages. Now she was following me with tears in her eyes. I didn't know what to do so I asked her if she wanted to go with me. She said yes so I told her that I would ask her daddy's permission. She told me she already had his permission. We drove to Guyman, found a justice of the peace, and got married that night."