I’ve traveled all over the world, but one of my most memorable trips was with my family in the summer of 1956, when my parents decided to visit my grandparents on their farm in Caddo Gap Arkansas. My brothers and I shared the long bench seat in the back of our Pontiac as we excitedly drove through east Texas and into Arkansas for our first ever peek at Grandpa and Grandma’s place. It was a long ride and we got more and more anxious as we crossed the state line. Before we knew it Daddy was driving across the Caddo River and onto a narrow rocky road with many twists and turns. We glanced at an old suspended bridge that spanned the river high in the sky as we advanced into what seemed like a wilderness. Each time my father rounded another outcropping he had to honk the car’s horn to warn anyone who might be on the other side that he was advancing on the one lane road. That part of the drive was an adventure in itself.
Soon we were turning into the driveway leading to Grandpa and Grandma’s house which looked surprisingly much like their former home in the Houston Heights. Their border collie, Lady, greeted us with a wagging tail and a welcoming bark. She was soon followed by my grandparents waving on the front steps with big grins on their faces. I was so excited that I could hardly wait for Daddy to park the car and turn off the engine.
The landscape was beautiful with a profusion of flowers and fields of crops growing in the summer sun. Near the house was a big barn and a chicken coup where a cow and chickens bellowed and chirped their own hellos. A huge peach tree shaded the driveway with branches bearing luscious fruit. It was a truly idyllic scene that insured us that we were going to have much fun.
Daddy and Grandpa brought our luggage inside while Grandma showed us the rooms where we would be sleeping. The boys and I had three twin beds in a sunny room with rows of open windows bringing a cool breeze. Our parents would be in the room next door. After taking us on a tour of the house, including the basement which was something I had never before seen, Grandma announced that she had prepared dinner for us, We gathered eagerly around the familiar dining table to enjoy her famous cooking made even better with all of the fresh vegetables grown on the farm. Over the coming days we would feast on homemade biscuits, milk and butter from the cow in the barn, fresh eggs gathered each morning, fish caught in local lakes and streams and mouth watering meats and vegetables.
My grandmother warned us that we might have a visitor for dinner each evening. She laughed while explaining that a nearby family had a strange habit of sending one of their members around at dinner time with various requests. When Grandma politely asked whomever came if they like to eat dinner that person always eagerly accepted her invitation. Sure enough there was soon a knock at the door.
While we ate my grandparents told us about a diamond mine where folks had been known to find precious stones. They also related how they had found many beautiful quartz crystals on their property and urged us to be sure to take some home when we left. They talked about how much work and fun and they had experienced since they came, almost laughing with joy as they described planting and harvesting and canning the fruit and vegetables that they had grown. They promised that they would take us to visit with some of their neighbors and show us the scenic areas nearby.
We spent that first evening on their front porch that was screened in to keep all of the bugs buzzing through the air from annoying us. We were enthralled by the brilliance of the lightning bugs that filled the air with their little lights. Grandpa told us his tales the way only he always did. Grandma worked on crocheting, embroidering and sewing while promising to make me some new dresses out of the flour sacks that she had saved. It amazed me how quickly her hands moved to create the most beautiful things at the same time I could not hear enough of my grandfathers fanciful stories. I could think of no other place I would rather be.
In the following days we would accompany Grandpa to a country store where he picked up his mail each day. He would dress up for the occasion after working in the fields before we even awakened. He always brought along his pipe from which smoke filled the car with a delightful aroma. At the store he gathered his posts and discussed the local news while we sipped on sodas. It was fascinating for a little girl from a city to be in such an old fashioned place. The locals told us how the Caddo Indians had once lived in the area and that for a time there had actually been a tiny town with a one room schoolhouse.
When we returned Grandma would lead us on excursions into the hills behind their home. She instructed us in the rules of safety that meant being careful not to step anywhere without first probing for snakes with a long walking stick and checking for ticks after the journey. She demonstrated how to talk to the local birds with chirps and songs that mimicked the creatures of the sky. She made butterfly nets out of coat hangers and old cloth and showed us how to carefully catch the beautiful monarchs that were in profusion. We’d store them in jars whose lids had holes to allow the lovely insects to breathe and always we would free them after we had observed them for a time.
One day we helped pick peaches. Grandma and Grandpa wore long pants and flannel shirts with sleeves that covered their arms even though it was exceedingly hot. They tried to convince us to cover ourselves but we did not want to get too warm. Before long we learned that getting the peach fuzz on our skin was a painful experience and we took their advice to cover ourselves.
We visited the family that had a habit of coming to dinner. Even as a Catholic girl whose friends came from very large families, I had to admit that I had never before seen such a large number of children from on mother. It seemed like Mrs. Weehunt had been perennially pregnant for about twenty five years. Their house was so small that I found it difficult to imagine where everyone slept. The yard was filled with old abandoned cars that did not appear to have any reason for being there, but my grandmother had warned me not to stare. In fact, she insisted that Mrs. Weehunt was a gracious and refined woman who deserved our total respect.
Another day we drove even higher up the mountain to sit with a lady that my grandparents called the woman on the hill. She held court from a rocking chair under a tree., chewing on tobacco as she spoke and periodically spit into a tin can. Grandma had warned us to use the bathroom before going there because the lady did not have indoor plumbing. In fact, we learned that very few of their neighbors had graduated to modern facilities. That was the first time I learned about an outhouse and my grandparents embellished the experience by telling about the outhouses of their youth and the hilarious things that had happened inside them.
Each morning Grandma took us to gather the eggs in the hen house. Then she turned us over to Grandpa who taught us how to milk the cow. At first it felt strange and even a bit icky to pull on the teat, but soon my brothers and I became experts and would not have missed an opportunity to show our skills. We were becoming addicted to farming and living off of the land.
Grandma used all kinds of creatures for dinner. Her specialty was creamed squirrel, a dish that I declined to even try. My brother Michael, however, told me that it was delicious. On anther occasion Grandma decided to have fried chicken and I was quite excited for that. Little did I know that she was going to go outside and wring the neck of one of the fowls. I watched that tiny women who was not even five feet tall and never weighed over a hundred pounds chase down a chicken, grab it by the head, and break its neck with one twist of her wrist. Then she chopped off the head, plucked the feathers and cleaned it for cooking. I was fascinated, in awe and disgusted at the same time. The fried chicken was incredible!
One day we went to my grandparent’s favorite fishing hole. They told us to stay in the car until they felt that it was safe for us to follow them. We waited and waited but they never came back so I screwed up my courage and went down a path that appeared to go to the lake. Suddenly I was screaming as I saw water moccasins poking their heads out of the water in a profusion that seemed endless. I have often believed that my aversion to snakes of any kind began on that day. Grandma chided me and then rushed me back to the car and I never again disobeyed her.
We were quite sad to leave knowing that we might not see our grandparents again for at least a year. My father had wanted to visit Chicago and Wisconsin as long as we had come that far. It was time to go. On the last night the two men spoke of something they called desegregation that would soon affect the lives of school children in the south as black children would little by little be allowed to attend school with white children. Somehow it did not sound like something that would be bad, but I could tell that they worried that there would be trouble.
We finished our trip up north in the Midwest. I became curious about all of the talk about integration. I already knew that black people had to ride in the back of the bus when we rode to downtown Houston. I never really understood why that was so, or they there were different water fountains and bathrooms for whites and “coloreds.” I had never really noticed that there were no black children at my school but I didn’t think it would be a bad thing at all to let them come be with us. Kids were kids as far as I knew. Then in Chicago I saw that black people were eating in restaurants with us and riding on the trains as well. It puzzled me that it was different from the rules where I lived. I had yet to learn about slavery and the Civil War, but even in my very young mind something felt amiss about it all.
When we went to Wisconsin my father wanted to purchase some of their famous cheese. We stopped at a tiny store in the countryside. We waited in the car with our mother and suddenly I noticed a sign over the door of the place that read, “No Dogs or Indians Allowed!” I thought of those incredible native Americans that I had seen in Oklahoma and I became very sad that anyone would treat them so badly. I still had a great deal to learn about history but somehow my naivety was gone. I had become painfully aware that some people were not treated as fairly as my family and I were. I thought about how poor my grandparents’ neighbors were and I think it was the very first time that I felt a sense of gratitude for the luxuriance of my own life. The vacation was not only fun, it was an awakening.