Thursday, January 8, 2009
Billy Ray Barnwell here, I let Udella Mabry who lives two apartments down read what I wrote for a Preface when she got back from her regular weekly hair appointment at Opal’s Beauty Palace and she said well, you have some pretty long sentences in there and you spell right good too, I was quite pleased to get both of those compliments because I consider Udella as fair and impartial a judge as they come plus you can’t hear nice things too often if you ask me, which you didn’t, but it reminded me of the only time I ever wound up anything but first in one of Mrs. Mary Lillard’s Friday afternoon eighth grade spelling bees, we would choose up into two sides and stand along opposite walls and if you missed your word you took your seat, I was always the last one standing and whichever side chose first always chose me before anybody else, it was kind of a guarantee of winning, but one time when several people were still standing, Mrs. Lillard gave me the word “material” to spell, only being a good Texan she said it like it had three syllables instead of four, I think that’s what threw me, because I stood right up there in front of God and everybody and spelled it M-A-T-E-I-R-A-L, and the whole room whooped and hollered for about three minutes, it was a day I would rather forget, prolly the low point of my entire life up to that time. Anyways, getting back to dedicating this book, if you managed to read the preface all the way through you prolly think I’m going to dedicate it to Mr. D. P. Morris, my old English teacher back in Grapevine Texas, well you would be wrong because I am not, I am going to dedicate it to Mrs. Janet Baines Brockett instead. Mrs. Brockett lived on the same gravel road we did about two miles out of town, we were the first house and she was the fourth, so we were neighbors even though it was about a mile to her house, Jimmy Wayne Oxley and Howard Griffin lived in between, Jimmy Wayne was two years behind me in school and his mother raised Poland China hogs, and Howard was the guy who later wrote the book Black Like Me even though he was white, Lord, that’s a whole story in itself, he went blind for ten or twelve years because of a plane crash he was in during World War II but one day when he was walking in his parents’ fields with his collie dog a blood clot behind his eyes suddenly dissolved, Howard’s eyes I mean, not the collie dog’s, and he could see again, and after that he said his blindness had taught him that the color of a person’s skin meant nothing, now this was a revolutionary idea in the South at the time, it was so shocking that after Howard’s book came out some local racists made a dummy and hanged Howard in effigy from one of the town’s two stop lights during the middle of the night, its right side was white and its left side was black and a big yellow stripe was painted down its back, the dummy I mean, not the stop light, and there it was the next morning, just hanging there, when everybody made the turn to go to school, personally I thought it said a whole lot more about the local racists than it did about Howard, and nobody took it down until after a news photographer from The Fort Worth Star-Telegram came out and took a picture to put in the paper. All Howard had done was he went down to New Orleans and paid to have a doctor chemically darken his skin, Howard’s skin I mean, not the doctor’s, and after wandering around the South for a while as a black man he came home, eventually his skin went back to being white and later he wrote about his experiences in a book, and his parents kept hogs just like the Oxleys, wait, I don’t mean the hogs were just like the Oxleys, I mean the Griffins kept hogs just like the Oxleys did, but they were Ohio Improved Chester Whites, the hogs I mean, not Howard’s parents. While he was blind, Howard had married Pie Holland, well her name was really Elizabeth but everybody in town called her Pie, and they had two children which he had never seen either her or them until that day he went walking in the field with his collie dog, you talk about a story. Anyways, not counting summers I rode to school with Mrs. Brockett every day of my life between second grade and eleventh grade, well Mondays through Fridays anyways, mainly because she was going there anyhow, she taught mathematics in the high school and all twelve grades were in the same building, and I would have gone with her in twelfth grade too if she hadn’t retired from teaching after my Junior year and the school hired old Mrs. Vickers, Flavill George’s mother, as math teacher when it hired Flavill as the new football coach, let me tell you she couldn’t hold a candle to Mrs. Brockett when it came to teaching, for one thing during trigonometry tests Mrs. Vickers let us use a sheet of paper with all the formulas on it, sines and cosines and secants and tangents, stuff like that, she didn’t make us memorize them like Mrs. Brockett did and as a result I can tell you very little today about trigonometry but I can still quote you the quadratic equation thanks to Mrs. Brockett, X equals minus B plus or minus the square root of B square minus four A C over two A, and to think some people actually say what good is algebra. Mrs. Brockett would tell me things on the way to school, for instance she told me about her grandfather who was a Southern Baptist preacher back in the early days of Texas before there was even such a thing as Southern Baptists, he supposedly baptized Sam Houston, stuff like that, and she got all upset at the thought that her daughter Genevieve had gone and married a Presbyterian but after visiting her daughter and son-in-law she seemed so relieved, she went to church with them and saw that Presbyterians preached the Scriptures too so she decided that they were just Baptists who have a little money, Presbyterians I mean, not Genevieve and John, although John was an architect so I suppose he had money, and also Mrs. Brockett’s son Delwyn became chairman of the board of Gulf Oil and whenever it was that Queen Elizabeth came over to Canada and dedicated the St. Lawrence Seaway Mrs. Brockett got to sit on the same platform with The Queen thanks to Delwyn. He was really Ernest D. Junior but I guess they called him Delwyn so they wouldn’t get confused at home and he went to Texas A&M and got a geology degree and eventually he married Francis Sammons from over in Keller and they had a son named Belmont who went to Duke University and years later after Delwyn retired from Gulf Oil they moved to the Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club in Boca Raton Florida and eventually it was bought out by British Petroleum, Gulf Oil I mean, not the Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club or Boca Raton Florida. But back to Mrs. Brockett, she drove her old two-tone green 1949 Pontiac with both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road and she wouldn’t look anywhere else for all the tea in China, I know because I tried to get her to many times, but the thing I love most about Mrs. Brockett was after she retired from teaching I visited her in Arlington Texas when L.B.J. was in the White House, and I said, “Mrs. Brockett, you were a Baines weren’t you, are you any kin to Lyndon Baines Johnson?” and she said, “Oh, yes, Billy, I thought you knew that,” and I said, “Well, have any of the White House historians contacted you?” and she said, “Yes they have, but I told them they didn’t want to talk to me, they should go talk to the other side of the family,” and she wasn’t real happy that Lynda Bird or Lucy Baines one, I can’t remember which, had brown eyes instead of blue eyes like the Baineses and she told me how she and President Johnson’s mother, Rebekah Baines, were first cousins and how they used to go shopping together when they were young ladies before either one of them was married, we’re talking 1906 or 1907 here, and how Rebekah Baines was so stately and so dignified and that it was like being in the presence of royalty to walk down the street with Rebekah Baines and then Mrs. Brockett got a faraway look in her eyes like she was remembering something she hadn’t thought of in a long time, something she would rather forget if she could, only she couldn’t, and what came out of her mouth was “And then she had to go and marry that trashy Sam Johnson” and need I remind you she was talking about the father of the man who was then president of the United States and who if he had had a son in addition to his two daughters Linda Bird and Lucy Baines would prolly have named him Bird Baines, L.B.J. was so self-centered even his wife and dog had the initials L.B.J., Lady Bird Johnson and Little Beagle Johnson respectively, but L.B.J. the dog’s pups were called Him and Her and the president later got his picture in the newspapers when he picked up either Him or Her by the ears, I forget which one, dog I mean, not ear, and one time he even showed photographers the scars from his gall bladder operation, Lyndon’s operation I mean, not Him’s or Her’s, you talk about a trashy guy, I guess it’s true that the apple never falls far from the tree. Anyways, that one statement of Mrs. Brockett’s, plus the fact that A she may have been the first woman to graduate with a degree in mathematics from Baylor University in Waco Texas and B she lived to be 92 years old and C one day in the car on the way to school this woman whose whole career involved numbers shocked me by reciting from memory the first twelve lines of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard” complete with the beetle’s droning flight and the moping owl complaining and D when I came back from my hitch in the military and told her I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior she said, “You know, don’t you, Billy, that only a Southern Baptist minister has the right to baptize you,” is why I have decided to dedicate this book to the memory of the one and only Janet Baines Brockett, because they don’t make people like that any more, or if they do I haven’t met any, and this is Billy Ray Barnwell signing off.