Leaving The South for Wyoming

In January 1961, the entire student body at my Indianola, Miss., grade school assembled in the gym to watch John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on a black-and-white television. For our entire sentient lives (we were too young to remember Harry Truman), the only president we had seen was Gen. Dwight D. (for dour) Eisenhower. I was in the fourth grade. We were not sure why, but the inauguration of someone young, not bald and with a beautiful wife was exciting. I will always remember the moment, just as I remember another moment on November 22, almost three years later.

Shortly afterward, our family decamped for Buffalo in a new Ford Falcon station wagon. This stalwart vehicle afforded just enough room for two parents, a fat Cocker Spaniel (Eliza Doolittle), an intrepid black cat (Pinkle Purr) and a squabbling nine-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister. Well, maybe not enough room.

We stopped in Texas to visit cousins; sort of a wake because we were the only family members to ever forsake the South. I don’t remember much more until we got to Ayres Natural Bridge near Douglas, where we had a memorable picnic. I strongly encourage readers to take the time to go there for a picnic.

There were no interstate highways yet. It was the venerable U.S. 87 all the way through Wyoming. Chugwater, Glendo, Glenrock and Midwest all had motels, cafes and truck stops, mostly boarded up now.

The motives for this big move were not fully disclosed to the minors occupying the back of the Falcon. “There is a church here which needs Dad” was the principal explanation. No one talked about the death threats when Dad tried to integrate a Presbyterian church in the Mississippi Delta in 1960. But there was a lot of enthusiastic buzz about the hunting opportunities in Wyoming, a subject of real excitement, primarily for the fellow driving the car.

Dad was pretty dang happy in Buffalo. The church elders were relieved to give him two months off in the fall to run a hunting camp. The money he made outfitting was money the church did not need to raise. This was a comfortable symbiosis.

Dad threw himself into the community, volunteering for Red Cross, Little League, community entertainments, etc. He joined a fast-pitch softball league in Sheridan. He raised money for a huge addition to the church. Busy guy. Plus, he ran a deer and antelope hunting camp on Crazy Woman Creek. I stuffed envelopes every weekend for his Wyoming and Alaskan hunting brokerage. First class stamps were 4 cents, with Abe Lincoln depicted.

Not busy enough, Dad called up a hunting buddy in Mississippi to buy a little wilderness retreat south of Ten Sleep, a canyon hideaway on the South Fork of the South Fork of Otter Creek. I think it was about 320 acres, deeded, with a beautiful live creek.

The first time the family went to see this property, Dad was driving a 1950s Jeep pickup with a camper shell. Mother and Dad were in the cab and Lisa, the pets and I were in the back. Somewhere after we went through Ten Sleep, the clutch linkage broke. Out in the boonies we were. Most people would have turned around and headed back to town. But, if you are a talented driver, you can work your way through the gears without a clutch, although starting and stopping in gear is a pain. The alternative is to keep going, rowing through the gears.

So, if you are driving along a ranch road and you approach a closed gate, you can gear down to a crawl, let your passenger (this would be your darling Southern wife) open the door and slide out to open the gate, circle around until the deed is done, then drive through the gate, wait for that lovely Southern bride to close the gate (which could be very difficult), circle and circle and wait until she is ready to grab the door handle and heave her beloved slender ass into the front seat, slam the door, and await the next ordeal.

Folks, this was decades before someone invented “sliders,” that is, sliding doors which enabled the prisoners in the truck bed to communicate with the people in the cab. Here’s the picture from the bed: Dad is driving. Mother is the passenger. We love them both. Dad forces Mother to jump out of the moving Jeep. Mother does her best, struggling to keep her balance, runs over to open the gate, let Dad drive through, struggle with the gate, close it, wait for the next pass, yank open the door, jump in.

Wouldn’t this have been so much easier to understand if everyone had Blackberries or iPhones? Dad to kids: clutch failed. Kids: what is a clutch? Dad: never mind. Your mother has to open gates. Kids: why? Dad: quit asking questions.

We were bawling abjectly in the back of the Jeep. I don’t know if this qualifies as PTSD stuff, but we were badly stressed out in the back of that Jeep. Life as we knew it was suddenly irrational.

Jeeping bumpily along the prairie, we came to a shack occupied by two middle-aged women. The earliest homesteaders built sod houses and some more fortunate ones used logs. This hovel was made of both. Dad loved nothing more than befriending misfits, a trend I loathed as a youngster and find more and more interesting as I age. These old (to me) gals might have been lovers, or maybe just eccentrics, but of more importance to me, they were fantastic cooks. The opportunity to shut down the Jeep afforded two important benefits. We got to eat something other than the dreadful survival rations stashed in the back of the Jeep, and we got to find out what had been going on with the mom-torture on the prairie.

The tears had mainly dried by then, but Lisa and I were so freaked out by Dad’s horrendously cruel treatment of Mother that we were fearful of him. Watching your father torture your mother is pretty close to a 10 on the cruelty-panic scale.

When Dad opened up the back of the truck, raising the lid of the camper and dropping the tailgate, he must have noticed two badly-frightened expressions. We did not know “OMG,” and we would have had our mouths washed out with soap if we had uttered such a phrase, but that’s about what we were thinking. I bravely stammered something about “why is Mother having to open gates?” fearing God knows what backlash might visit such impudence, but the whole story came out.

OK, in a few short years we go from watching JFK on TV to bumping across the prairie in a clutch-less Jeep. Then what?

We got to the property boundary. Cross the last fence and we are on our land. Then, we see the road carved into the canyon wall, straight up on the right, straight down on the left. The last contractor hired to work on the road got his D-4 in a bind, thought he was going to die, backed out of the canyon and went home. There is a U-turn at the bottom of this road where a WWII Jeep lies upside down. We got out and walked while Dad crept the Jeep down the steep road.

There were washouts which we later repaired by hand, driving steel posts into the grade and packing boards and old furniture and junk behind the posts, then shoveling and packing dirt. No wonder I have a compulsive work ethic.

There is no real moral to this story. We, a totally white family, left Mississippi to escape racism, finding a completely different life in Wyoming. Working our fannies off to help with the church, run a hunting business, and fix up a remote semi-wilderness property was just a different reality — one free of KKK death threats, mainly apolitical. And lots of hard work, building fence, fixing road, rebuilding a line shack and an outhouse, dodging rattlesnakes.

And, I caught trout in that creek.

 

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Published on May 17, 2011

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