Seventy Seven and Counting, It’s Been a Wild Ride

The following is a piece of memoir I read to SouthWest Writers here in Albuquerque a few years ago. Thought you might appreciate it as a part of our getting to know one another process.

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 In his heart, he knew it was a stillbirth.

The bright October sun streamed through the tall windows of a second-story apartment, sharpening the smell of blood and sweat and afterbirth in the little bedroom. The physician hoisted a newborn by its ankles to deliver a series of slaps to the tiny rump. Nothing. No reaction at all.

Although the baby was small—only five pounds—the delivery had been difficult, complicated by the mother’s severe toxemia. The small-town family doctor delivered another loud smack. Harder this time. Still no response. He laid the still form on the bed and swabbed its mouth with gloved fingers. No obstruction there.

As the clock ticked away precious seconds, he motioned the midwife assistant forward, and together they frantically labored over the inert child. Nothing worked. After placing his stethoscope to the still chest one final time, the man glanced at the exhausted mother lying on the bed. Her pretty features sagged from illness and exhaustion.

Judging her more or less out of it, he swiped his damp brow with a forearm and turned to the anxious father perched on a windowsill on the far side of the room.

“I’m sorry, Travis, but it’s not unexpected given Birdie’s condition. She’s the one we have to worry about now.”

The father stood and pressed thumbs into the corners of his eyes. His shoulders slumped. “Was it a boy?”

“Yes. You have to be strong now…for your wife’s sake.” He sighed from weariness and sorrow. “I know you were hoping your son would grow up to be a first baseman, but—”

“WAAAHHH!”

They whirled at the sound of an angry wail and saw the midwife holding the baby. As they watched in astonishment, she calmly removed her finger from its little rectum and handed the squalling child to the doctor.

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I’d heard that story all my life but didn’t really accept it as anything other than family legend—until I met Mrs. Ward four decades later. She had been the midwife in that little Oklahoma drama.

My father did not get the first baseman he wanted from that child. What he got, instead…was me. My mother recovered from her illness and lived to bear a daughter and twin sons. She passed away peacefully twelve days shy of her ninety-seventh birthday.

I have speculated many times over the course of my life on the psychological implications of drawing my first breath in that manner. You see, I’m often accused of being anal-retentive.

 

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A WORD PICTURE OF MY HOMETOWN, CIRCA 1949

Broken Bow is a lumber and farming town situated in the rolling hills and green forests of the “Little Dixie” Baptist bible belt of southeastern Oklahoma. The town sits nine miles west of Eagletown, an important Indian trading community on the Arkansas border back when the two states were known as Indian Territory. Eagletown, now reduced to no more than a non-descript service station, huddles beside the highway as busy travelers whizzz past without noticing.

Broken Bow began life as an Indian village called Con Chito. Over the generations, it waxed and waned and died and revived until two brothers by the name of Dierks incorporated the community in 1911, naming it after their hometown in Nebraska.

The town of roughly 2,500 souls fastened itself to the narrow blacktop highway coming in from Arkansas and the railroad tracks paralleling it. Most commercial businesses clustered along the two paved downtown streets running north from the highway and a couple of graveled roads pacing them on the east and on the west. The Dierks Lumber Company sawmill, the town’s largest employer, lay on the other side of the railroad tracks where the highway turned south and ran twelve miles through open farm country to Idabel, the McCurtain County seat, and beyond to the rich river bottoms. From there, it crossed into Texas after another twenty miles.

Broken Bow was the kind of place where no one knew his own address. A family lived three blocks east of the feed store and one block south, second house on the left, or some such descriptive direction. There were no street signs when I was a child. And no postal delivery…except for rural routes. Town mail was collected from rented boxes or the free general delivery window at the post office.

Generations of children measured their growth by running down the sidewalk on Main Street and jumping to touch the rafters of the wooden overhang protecting pedestrians from the blazing sun or heavy rain squalls. The drug store on the uphill corner of this block-long shaded section boasted a soda fountain, making it a magnet for the younger set.

The town’s most popular Saturday night pastime was parking head-in to the curb along the main drag, as near the drug store as possible. Entire families sat in their cars and trucks to indulge in some serious people watching until it was time for the picture show half a block down on the other side of the street. This was a good way to keep up with budding teenage romances and the state of the neighbors’ marital relationships. Sartorial splendor was considered anything beyond a gingham house dress and bib overalls.

The Broken Bow High Savages annually engaged the Idabel Warriors in the “Little River Rumble,” one of the oldest football rivalries in the state. Back then, the schools were segregated, of course, and remained that way until 1964. In fact, although we were in the midst of the Choctaw Nation, I don’t recall attending class with any Indians except two boys a few years behind me. However, the school secretary was a Native American…a Hopi import from distant New Mexico. For what it’s worth, the first year two black players were permitted on the team, Broken Bow High won the championship in their division.

I fondly remember the town as an easy-going, not much happening place where my grandmother and I would rock on the porch in the early summer evenings, while my grandfather sliced open a plump, red-meat watermelon. The setting sun would catch in the topmost branches of the chinaberry tree in the front yard and play among leaves ruffled by a gentle breeze. Often, as heat waves slowly dissipated on the asphalt highway and the delicate scent of roses and hydrangeas and morning glories flooded the porch, we’d hear a family on the far side of the railroad tracks harmonizing familiar gospel songs. Sometimes we joined right in. I’ve always wondered if they could hear us as clearly as we heard them.