Wednesday, June 08, 2011

More on "my own louts": A rifle as a Texas madeleine

Some of you may recall that I posted on my father's brother's unexpected death. There had been a bit of unfinished business regarding his possessions; and so on my recent trip to Texas, my brother and I drove over to Houston to collect those things and, if possible, figure out what to do with them. I've recently found out a little more about one of these objects that, in conjunction with my recent reading of John Graves' Goodbye to a River, has me thinking about the history of the place where I grew up and, as Graves so eloquently puts it in his book, "my own louts."

Among those possessions are two shotguns and a rifle. The shotguns, according to a friend of mine who also buys and sells older guns, aren't anything special--he agrees with my calling them "varmint killers"--but the rifle is a Winchester made in 1903. It's been in thinking about this rifle over the past couple of days that I've been filled with a flood of family and community memory.

Some boring reminiscing follows, below the fold.

Since my grandfather was born in 1907, I'm thinking (though I have no proof) that the Winchester originally belonged to his father. I can't say for sure because, to be honest, if I had ever seen these guns before, I have no memory of them now, and I remember no talk about them. I knew Grandpa had guns, though, because we'd hear the occasional story about his having to shoot raccoons or, on occasion, coatis that were getting into the hen house. But aside from my dad's occasional coon hunts with high school friends of his, we weren't hunters. But the rifle. That takes me back to a time when Oak Hill wasn't on the frontier, but it was still pretty wild: the last black bear in the area, people said, had been shot only in 1900; and if one reads between the lines of this article on Oak Hill, one can see that it was pretty rough around the edges, too (really: ask yourself what a place must be like that has 70 people and 4 saloons; something else it doesn't tell you is that that limestone for the state capital was quarried out of one of the hills by prison labor--hence the name Convict Hill, given to that hill), and would be for much of its first century.

(Case in point: When my dad was a boy (this would have been in the mid-to-late '40s), after school let out the kids would have rock fights between the "clean" kids and the "dirty" kids. The "clean" kids were the ones who bathed more than once a week.

My daddy was a "clean" kid, I'll have you know.)

Oak Hill was just becoming a more-or-less respectable place to be from when I was a boy growing up in the '60s. Most of the kids I went to elementary school with were like me: not farmers, but a generation removed from that life and never to return to it, and often living on land that had been in the family for a generation or (in my case) three. But the son of the man who shot that last bear was a friend of our family, as his father had been (their property adjoined each other), and I was growing up on land with dense stands of "cedar" trees (which are really junipers) and had deer and fox and the occasional bobcat, while across the road was another thousand acres where, somewhere down in a limestone canyon, a mountain lion lived. You get the idea: combine undeveloped land held for generations, a family who loved to tell stories about people whose relatives at least were still alive, and one boy who loved running around in those woods and possessed of an overactive imagination, and you have someone who, when he first read certain passages in Faulkner, understood them at a subconscious level before he could have told you in an articulate fashion what Faulkner was actually saying.

I'm going on and on about all this because that Oak Hill is gone except in memory. Forty years ago, my family thought people were nuts for building a subdivision west of us; today, all those hills, all the way out to Dripping Springs, 30 miles away, are filled with people on one- and two-acre lots enamored of Hill Country living. Driving around that part of the county can be a melancholy experience, to the point that, for a longer time than I can remember, I'd not thought much about those times before me that, when I was a boy, didn't feel all that distant. But something about hefting that rifle--no desire to shoot it, mind you, just holding it--filled me with something a lot sweeter than melancholy.


R. Sherman said...

Where my mom lives and where I spent the last of my elementary school years and then middle and high school, there was nothing but woods behind the house and intermittent streams and big oak trees. We were less then a mile from bluffs over the Mississippi and used to run all over the countryside with BB guns and later .22's, shooting stuff.

Now, I can sit on my mom's patio and see a subdivision of 3500 square foot homes, the last in a line of such stretching all the way from St. Louis.

I get really down, when I think that the kids in those houses sit in their basements playing XBox without knowing all the fun we had.

I understand, they call it "progress."


John B. said...


It's an old and familiar story, ours is. Like I say in the post, I'd not thought a whole lot about the old stories about that place; I'd get tired of saying, "There used to be a _________ there." But reading Graves and holding the rifle reminded me, though, that saying a little about those times is much better than not saying anything at all.

The Mrs. once said to someone in reference to me, "He's never forgotten where he came from." By that I think she meant my immediate circumstances (not well-off; a sketchy student; etc.); but today I got to thinking, No, I'm also from a place, not just a family--indeed, my family had a long history in that place.

All this is to say, on down the road I'll have some things to say on occasion about my own louts.

R. Sherman said...

He's never forgotten where he came from.

That's high praise, my friend. That forgetfulness is what's wrong with our transient society. There's no connection to a place anymore.

I know I sound like some sort of 19th Century romantic, but dammit, place means something.

BTW, this post is inspiring me, though I've been musing about Comp 101 of late.