Otis Shaw died last week at 112 years old. I went to the funeral at the old Methodist church in Washington, Arkansas. His brother Truman played Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” by ear at the funeral. He learned a lot of music by listening to albums. When I got home, I looked up this interview I did with Otis a decade or so ago.
I found Otis Shaw on the steps of the Pioneer Grocery in Washington, Arkansas one recent Saturday. He cut a modestly measured chew from the corner of a Brown’s Mule plug and poked it back into his jaw. His blue eyes contrasted strikingly with his weathered face, which was surprisingly free of wrinkles for a centenarian. I asked for an interview about Washington’s past and he agreed to talk.
DF: When and where were you born, Mr. Shaw?
OS: Oh, call me Otis. I was born here in the country west of Washington, down yonder off 195 just a little ways from the Bois D’Arc Creek. December 19, 1898.
DF: You seem to be in remarkably good health for a person over a hundred years old.
OS: Yes, the Gazette has done already sent a lady up here to talk to me about that. Did you read what she wrote?
DF: No, I missed that.
OS: Well, it was a while back about my hundredth birthday. Get you a copy. What I told her was that I didn’t eat much meat; maybe that’s why I have not died yet. Sometimes in the fall, I’ll eat sausage with my eggs if someone kills a hog and wants to give me some, or a little bacon, but most of the time it’s vegetables. I imagine sausages are so good, they will make you die if you keep on eating them. You got to be careful of things that taste too good. Collards all winter. Sweet potatoes when I can get them. I love pinto beans and cornbread. Plenty of onions and peppers and tomatoes. Sometimes in the fall, crackling bread. People will bring me fish, sometimes. I don’t pay no attention to exercise, but I walk four or five miles a day just doing what I do around the place. I walk up here and sit on the steps a time or two a week. I just got eight acres, but it keeps me plenty busy. I plow a mule. I’ve got a big black mare mule out of a Percheron from a mammoth jack. I still milk, too. I got several guineas and some banties.
DF: What about your family, Mr. Shaw—wife, children?
OS: No, sir. I told you to call me Otis.
DF: No family living?
OS: You need to get you a copy of that Gazette article that was done on my 100th birthday. I didn’t ever marry.
DF: Tell me about your family.
OS: My Papaw, Otis, didn’t talk much. He was real old when I was a boy. I think he was about 50 when my Pappy was born, and my Pappy was nearly 40 when I came along. But Papaw loved to take me and my brother Truman in the wagon way off down on the Bois D’Arc Creek to a place he called the Cat Hole. You know, I can’t find that swell in the creek now to save my life. There was a hermit that lived down beyond the Cat Hole, and he kept it cleaned out. His name was Eddie Rice and he had him a pet rooster that could do tricks. I don’t know what become of him. Some said he died in Bossier City in a rest home. I mean, it was a good-sized pool down in there, north of 195, sand as white as them clouds. And there was some big old mud cat in there. We’d come home with a stringer every time and Mamaw would have the grease hot when we got there. She’d hear the wagon coming and put the lard on the fire. She didn’t have to holler, “Did y’all catch any?” She knew that if we was going to the Cat Hole, we’d be home with something to eat. That woman could cook, now! She’d cook them catfish and bream and sometimes grindle just right and have hush puppies, sliced onions, radishes, big old fried potatoes and some kind of vegetable, greens or beans.
DF: But did he ever tell you anything about his past?
OS: Oh, yes. You’d kind of have to piece things together. He would just kind of hint at things, you know. Like he took care of Jim Bowie’s two pack mules for him. He said they were great big old white mules with blue muzzles. He said they’d be 17 or 18 hands high. Big old mules. Papaw said them mules had heads the size of pickle barrels. Every time he come through here, Jim Bowie would have them mules packed out with deer and bear and sometimes small game. And from the looks of him, he ate plenty well, too. Papaw said he was a big bald-faced man. They got pictures of him over yonder at the gift shop. And he talked about how good Jim Bowie could throw a knife. He said he could strike a match throwing one of them swords James Black made for him at 25 yards. He said one day while he was grooming one of them mules, Jim Bowie hollered at him from down yonder at the edge of the Royston property and said, “Otis, come here, I want to show you something.” When Papaw got there, Jim Bowie was sitting on a stump with a little bitty pin knife open. A salamander was kicking up dirt about as far as from here to that catalpa over there and he threw that knife before that thing’s head came out and the knife got there at the very same moment the salamander’s head did and Papaw said he never saw a man laugh as hard as Jim Bowie laughed as that thing flopped around with a pin knife through its head. Papaw didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but he said that day he laughed to hear Jim Bowie laugh.
DF: Did your grandfather ever say anything about the knife-maker James Black.
OS: Some. He knew him and felt sorry for him. He was blind toward the end, you know, and lived with Dr. Jones and them. Kind of pitiful. Papaw played with his children and said he pumped the bellows for him sometimes. He said James Black could tell Bible stories better than anyone he ever heard. He said he learned more Bible at James Black’s feet than he did at the church.
DF: Do you know the story of how James Black was blinded?
OS: Several versions. My Papaw said Mr. Shaw, the man Black worked for, might have been somehow mixed up with our folks, I don’t know. Anyway, he was a strange man. Papaw said he was a brooder and that he thought himself better than anyone in Washington. He wouldn’t want no one fooling around with his stuff. He sure would not have approved of anyone as a fit mate for his daughter, Miss Ann. He whupped James Black when he was bad sick with high fever. But Papaw said his eyes was already bothering him before that. Maybe being close to the hot fire all the time and so forth kindly cooked his eyes. He went all over creation trying to doctor his eyes, but he got to where he couldn’t see nothing. Couldn’t remember nothing either
DF: Did your grandfather ever say anything about the Civil War?
OS: Yes, he did. He was right proud of raising money to help our wounded troops at the end of the war. He said they had a big old shindig and raised mighty near $50,000 to help those boys. The war hero I admired most was a colonel in the Hempstead Rifles, Dan Jones. I used to work for him on his place up where the Golsten’s live now—right behind the May place where that park superintendent lives now. He was real old and I plowed for him when I was young and did livery work a right smart. He had the best walking horses in this part of the country. He had him a great sorrel horse that he would ride around the place with a cup of coffee in his hand and he would never spill a drop, that’s the truth. That’s how smooth that horse walked. He had a dozen gaited mules, too, little bitty things, out of standard jacks and pony mares. His wife was an artist named Birdie Warder Jones. She was a pale gray-headed woman from way down below the Red. Her people had money. I got a little painting of willows she gave me hanging over my settee. She was mighty good to us. We didn’t have to worry about nothing.
DF: By “us” who do you mean?
OS: Me and Truman. Dan Jones said the Hempstead Rifles used to have to kill their own meat during the war. Once in awhile they would get jerky from Camden or maybe sometimes smoked ham. But most often, they had to kill their supper—possums and what not. One night Dan Jones was out stalking a little yearling sow when a great big painter cat knocked him down—that’s right, jumped down on him out of a sapling, sure did. Knocked his gun slap out of his hand and was fixing to chomp down on his neck. Dan Jones had a piece of raw hide hanging out of his powder pouch and he snatched it out and, with one hand on one end and the other on the other end, he pushed it into that painter’s mouth like sticking a bit into a horses mouth. Then he come a-straddle that thing, and commenced to hollering and scooting around through the saplings. When his fellow soldiers come up, there he was. They thought he was riding that thing like in a rodeo. He got quite a reputation. He wore a tooth of that painter in his hatband till the day he died.
DF: Excuse me, but what is a “painter”? Is that a panther?
OS: You heard me right. P-a-i-n-t-e-r. You don’t see them around here no more. I seen two in the Florida swamps. You know, I was mighty-near forty before I ever rode in an automobile. It was a ‘39 Nash, a pretty light green one that a man from Dallas come driving through here in. He said he’d give me and Truman a ride if we’d wash his car for him. Of course, we was all for that deal. I thought me and Truman was going to jump out of that thing when he got it up to about 35.
DF: What has kept you in Washington all these years. Have you ever wanted to live anywhere else?
OS: I hate traveling worse than the devil hates conversion. I got my dog, the mule, the animals. I got stuff to do. I like to sit by the fire in the winter. I read a lot, till my eyes play out. I like my church. I go up here to the oldest Methodist church on this side of the Mississippi. We got a good preacher. That man can preach, now. Knows hardware, too. We have a good time. Singing is good. You know, unity in the church is illustrated by the sound of singing. If it sounds unified, like one great voice, or two in cooperation, you know the people is in unity. Romans 15:5 says we ought to have a spirit of unity among ourselves. Naw, I don’t want to go nowhere.
(Otis got up and walked to the edge of the porch and got rid of a little tobacco juice. When he looked back at me, his eyes said, please let me enjoy my Saturday, now, so I did. I later found out from other Washington residents that his just younger brother Truman lived with him. He had taken care of Truman all those years. Truman is a savant who can wonderfully play any musical instrument given him. His instrument of choice now is the harmonica, which most people in Washington call a French harp. He can also recite long passages of scripture, some say the entire New Testament).