Wednesday, June 27, 2012

O. Henry

The famous short story writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) died in 1910 at the age of 47. Apparently, he never was free from the fear that someone might find out about his three-year term of imprisonment for embezzlement. In fact, that is one reason he changed his name to O. Henry when he began to gain national attention as a clever writer, whose surprise endings were his stock in trade. Towards the end of his life, he confessed to one of his close associates that he was tired of what he called the trick of unexpected conclusions to his stories. He said he wanted to write without the device, but he didn’t live to try it.

I think he came by the trick honestly, since his life was so unpredictable and adventurous. Born in Greenville, N.C. to an ailing mother and an alcoholic father, he was raised and home schooled by an aunt, who taught him the value of a good vocabulary and encouraged his early efforts at story writing and drawing. Because his father’s medical practice was waning, Will Porter studied on the job and became a licensed pharmacist at the age of 19. He didn’t care for that line of work, though, and spent a lot of time caricaturing customers both in drawing and writing.

At about the time he became a pharmacist in North Carolina, he had the opportunity to join some family members on a huge ranch in west Texas and he lived a rugged life out there for several years, learning about roping, herding, riding, shooting, gambling and other cowboy activities. There was not much to read on the ranch, so he devoured whatever he could find, including a Webster’s dictionary. Later in life, he astounded friends by their inability to stump him on the definition and spelling of any word they found in the dictionary. And, those who have read a few of O. Henry’s stories know that he was not afraid to use unusual words in his writing.

After marrying a beautiful woman in Austin, Tex., her father got him a job at the First National Bank of Austin, where books were reportedly kept in a haphazard way. From what I have read about the accusation of embezzlement, it seems to me that his crime was being in a job for which he was so ill suited. At any rate, money came up missing; he was accused; he left the country. He spent a little while in Honduras working and observing life and learning Spanish before he returned to face the music. He was sent to prison in Columbus, Oh. for three years, where he served as assistant to the prison pharmacist.

While in prison, he sent stories to magazines under the name O. Henry and began to gain popularity and money. He sent all he made to help support and educate his daughter, who lost her mother to consumption. Upon release from prison, O. Henry went to New York City and established a very lucrative writing career. His own death was a kind of surprise ending. The funeral was held in a church where a wedding was to take place the same hour. The minister rushed through the service and those who attended could hear the celebrative wedding party in the wings. O. Henry was a writer who found his niche and stayed in it—gloriously.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Graveyard in Denmark

Learning Experience

I learned to shun the mixture of alcohol and music early in life and I wanted to share here how that good lesson was borne in upon me.

Just because I played bass horn in the high school band and could read bass music, I thought it would be cool to learn the bass fiddle. I don’t remember anyone playing electric bass back then. I heard a local barber had an old-timey stand-up bass for sale for $90, about two-weeks' salary for me as a Western Union messenger boy. I pondered the purchase during the early weeks of one summer and finally committed to ownership of the beat-up old musical instrument.

The local “orchestra” director taught me a couple of scales on the thing. The four bass strings were tuned like the bass strings of a regular guitar which I could play somewhat, so I picked it up quickly. The first group to find out I owned a bass fiddle and could play it a little was called the Hi-Fi’s, consisting of a self-taught trumpet player, a clarinetist, a drummer, an electric guitar player and, after I gained approval practicing with them once, the group had a novice bass player who owned his own instrument.

I painted the old thing black and white and put some sparkles on it. We had gigs all over the place and my bass paid for itself easily that first summer and fall. Then a group called the Modern Hillbillies notified me that they needed a bass player. The professional-sounding band had a program on the local radio station Wednesdays at noon. They were a bit more particular than the Hi-Fi’s, but their fiddle player worked with me quite a bit until I could accompany that expert group satisfactorily. We had a few out-of-town shows, one as far away as Dubach, La., and I actually got fan mail. Not that my 17-year-old ego needed any more boosting.

Shortly, Dude Bubba Dixie and his band, a local group called Bayou Dixie which had actually cut records in Nashville, notified me that they wanted me to play bass with that bunch as well. They were on a local television program at six every Friday evening. “Where do I come for practice,” I wanted to know when Dude Bubba himself called me on the phone. “Oh, we ain’t worried about that; just come to the station at about 5:30 Friday.” Upon arrival I found that Dude Bubba and his band were all older, rough looking cowboys, and I felt a bit out of place with my Hi-Fi’s white sport coat on, but they didn’t seem to care. Before each song, Bill would ask, “What gear do we do this one in fellows?” Someone in the band would call out the key and off we’d go. I knew from my own domestic circumstances what bourbon smelled like, and I certainly got multiple whiffs of that elixir during our television performances.

The Hi-Fi’s were my favorite of all the groups and I felt I was fairly dealt with money-wise by the leadership. I usually got $12-15 per performance. I didn’t do quite as well with the Modern Hillbillies, except for the rare stage shows, where I earned as much as $30 for one evening. Dude Bubba never paid me squat. I guess whatever money he made went for “refreshments.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Salt Flat Campers

No vegetation grew along the sulfur-smelling Salt Creek just north of the Louisiana border with Arkansas near my boyhood home. The oil field stream meandered lazily through the rotting stumps and logs of our wooded playground, sending out little salt water rivulets into the flat coves, bleaching the sand as white as snow at the edge of the pines and oaks. These “salt flats” were ideal camping places for the boys I ran with and we had marked our territory encompassing two of these.

Since we lived in different directions from the flats, we often set our date for camping by telephone and left for our rendezvous at various times. I worked as a messenger boy until dark, some had grocery store jobs after school, one had a drug store delivery position, and one or two had paper routes. Thus some of us arrived at the predetermined spot before dark to set up, but others showed up as late as midnight and even beyond. Campouts were not made for sleeping anyway. We always found plenty to talk about around the campfire and most of us brought interesting snacks that we shared: fried okra left from supper, boiled eggs, crackers, pickles, popcorn, bananas, apples, potato chips and other goodies. We ate and talked and giggled well beyond the arrival of the last camper. That was usually Allen, who had evening chores on his daddy’s farm.

One evening when I got home from one of our salt flat camping trips, I told Mother and Pop this story:  “Just after midnight, we heard Allen a quarter mile away, coming from the direction of their farm. At first we thought his crazy yelling was a prank to scare us, but when he didn’t let up as he got closer and we called his name, we knew something was wrong. When he got to camp, we saw that his leg was bleeding and he had little human-like teeth marks just below the calf of his right leg.

“When he finally calmed down and got his breath, Allen told us a little monkey-like creature had darted out from a thicket and grabbed his canvas pack of goodies. When he pulled back on the pack, the creature latched onto his leg and bit him. He said he had a hard time shaking it off and when he did, he started to light out for home, but saw some more of the little things in the edge of path he had just travelled, so he ran like the mischief toward camp.

“Tommy cleaned the bite mark and put rubbing alcohol on as Allen squirmed and hollered. He was fixing to tell his parents that a monkey bit him because he had no other explanation. Tommy said Allen will have to have several shots in his stomach. On the way back home today, Johnny and I saw small human-like footprints, like children’s, but the big toes went off funny.”

Of course I made this story up and told it at supper to watch Mother’s alarm grow and Pop’s skepticism turn into belief. They both swallowed the tall tale till Sunday of the next week when Mother asked Allen’s mom at church how the shots were going. I loved to spin a yarn.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012