Friday, October 12, 2012

"Pop" - Part 1
by Kenneth W. Neal

       I write about my father to tell others, particularly my own children, of an unusual and interesting man, flawed, to be sure, but outstanding in his understanding of human nature. But his story is difficult to tell apart from his own father, and for that matter, apart from me.
      It has occurred to me only recently that his story includes his father’s story and that my own story encompasses them both.
      I feel a bit awkward making my father the central character in my own life and memories, because it seems I am neglecting my mother. But there will be time and space to talk about her. She played a leading role in his life and quite obviously, mine.
Fred R. Neal (approximately 1932) with unknown lady.
      Maybe I should start with my earliest memories, not so much because they are so unusual, but because they will help to understand my father, hereinafter referred to variously as “pop,” “dad” or sometimes “the old man.”
      I was born September 26, 1935, in the “east basin” near Mannford, Okla., on an oil lease pumped by my mother’s father, Ray Ingalls. My birth certificate, signed by a Dr. McDonald, lists the place of birth in Cimarron Township, Pawnee County.
      Keystone and Mannford were my dad’s early “stomping grounds,” and some of the stories about him are from before he married my mother July 11, 1934.
      My father was a great story teller, taking great pains, not to mention time, to tell me much about his early life and his own father, Radford Andrew Neal, who died in November 1937.
      I have no memory of Radford, or “Rad,” as most called him, but I know him. That’s because pop told me so much about him.
      It wasn’t that dad consciously decided that his only child should know the family history, it was that he remembered his own father with such fondness that he constantly recalled what he said and did. The good times and the bad times were never far from his mind. I believed and still believe my father told the truth as he understood and remembered it.
      Only recently, I ran into one of his old cronies at American Airlines, who volunteered to tell me that “Fred Neal was the most honest man I ever knew.”
      That impressed me, of course, but it also reassured me that the many stories and anecdotes my dad told me were not only funny or unusual, but true.
      I struggle with how to unfold this tale, so I return to my first memory: It involves the Rock Inn and a few hazy memories.
      Some time around 1936, dad found work “running” a filling station (as they were known then and for years afterward) next door to the Rock Inn, which was just outside the old town of Keystone, now deep under the waters of Keystone Lake.
     There were cabins on the rise behind the service station and the nearby roadside cafe. The cafe was something out of a scene in the “Grapes of Wrath,” yet to be written, of course.
     But it had a juke box and a long bar common to roadside diners. That’s all I remember. I am not too sure I remember that, even. Probably my folks told me about it and that has influenced my memory.
     But I do remember this: Pop had a Model A Ford. He would start the old Ford and park it beside the station to let it warm up, which took a considerable time.
     That’s where I came in. The Model A needed to be “choked” during the warmup period to keep it running.
     A Model A had a choke rod through the firewall to the carburetor (I later learned) and dad put me in the right seat to operate the choke. When the engine begin to sputter, I pulled the choke to keep it running. That I could detect this and keep the engine running “tickled my dad to death” as they say, and he must have done this a lot because I remember it.
     Was this another case of just later hearing my folks talk about it? I think not, because I remember this detail: The knob was gone off the choke and pop had rigged a piece of baling wire with a loop on it. That detail makes me think I have an independent memory of that incident.
     I remember that mother once killed a skunk. The unfortunate creature was clinging to the screen on a window. Mom slew him with a rake. It was something like the woman who was always whaling away at a snake in the comic strip, “B.C.” of later years.
     I recall other things about the Rock Inn, but some of them are incidents that my dad told me about and those “memories” I believe were planted in my mind. Like the day when he caught me sitting on a thin plate-glass display. He grabbed me off the case and I quickly explained that “I was just daubin’ down the oil we sold today.”
     Of course that was right out of his mouth. He always talked about “daubin” something down, meaning to make a note. Still sounds more colorful to me than taking a note.
     A Mr. Sellers owned the Rock Inn establishment, cabins, cafe and filling station.
     He and I were big buddies, I guess, because one day he brought me a new tricycle. I don’t remember him, but I remember the trike.
     Some time around then, one of my dad’s constant struggles to keep the three of us alive involved a wholesale oil business.
     “Business” is kind of a stretch because it involved an old truck which he used to buy oil in the bulk for resale to filling stations.
     I never knew where he bought the oil, but it must have been from some outfit in Tulsa, maybe a refinery.
     I don’t know whether it was before or after the Rock Inn days but I remember him telling about it. The business probably didn’t last more than a few weeks or months. Most likely, it lasted until pop could find a job.
     And, as he constantly told me when I grew older, jobs in the 1930s were scarce. Most of us have read that unemployment in the great depression years was as high as 25 percent. One in four men, most of them responsible for families in the days when women didn’t work, were unemployed.
     Pop turned 18 in 1932. Imagine how hard it was for a young man to find a job when grown men with families would work at anything just to eat.
     One of the characters my dad ran across as a gay blade around Mannford was Hugh Ingalls, known by the family as “Bud.”
     Bud was my mother’s younger brother and about the same age as pop.
     I don’t know the dates, but my dad’s family wound up on a farm not far from my mother’s family on the oil lease in the east basin.
     Mom was the oldest child in her family, and Bud was the second born. She was 18 months older than dad, a fact he never let her forget.
     Pop and Bud were “running around” together and both considered themselves ladies men and so talked about the “gals,” hardly an unknown sport among young men.
     With times so hard, pop told me, “Bud and I agreed that we would not waste our money on girls that wouldn’t put out.
     Then I showed up dating his sister.” The punch line was delivered with a knowing look.
     This is as good a place as any to try to describe pop’s manner. I have thought about it all my adult life and have written thousands of words but I have yet composed an adequate description of him.
     He had a marvelously expressive face. I had only to glance at him to know what mood he was in. He was a marvelous story teller but more than that, his actions and gestures were accompaniments; indeed, at times he was funniest without uttering a word.
     He raised eyebrows; he winked; he grinned; he cussed. His language was filled with metaphors, similes and he had nicknames for everyone that many times perfectly described his targets.
     He had the barnyard scatology down pat and like Mark Twain said in a slightly different context, he had the music of swearing. He didn’t overdo it and he fitted his stories to his audience. He had the knack of telling off-color stories with substitute words for those commonly thought to be vulgar. He used his audience’s own thought processes.
     For example, he would innocently offer to tell a riddle to “see how your mind works.” Your job, he would explain, is to finish this rhyme: “If a half bottle of wine makes a girl half tight, will a whole bottle make her - - - - tight?
     In a light-hearted conversation, he had a way of feigning misunderstanding. The word or phrase he misunderstood always sounded like a risque phrase. 
 But I digress. Back to Keystone.
     Young people, dad told me a jillion times, had to manufacture their own entertainment because times were so hard.
     He said that most every Saturday night they would gather at someone’s house for a “play party.” I never asked what they were playing, but I can imagine.
     There would be music. Homemade, of course.
     I haven’t told you yet, but pop was by this time a pretty fair musician, having more or less taught himself to play the guitar.
     He also could play a few “breakdowns,” or “hoe-downs” on the fiddle. I later learned these fiddle tune were descendants of Scottish reels. Grandpa Neal, who was Cherokee Indian and Scottish, taught these to dad.
     I of course learned to play the guitar a little, mostly to second pop who was playing boogie-woogie along with all the popular songs of World War II by the time I was 10 or 12. More about our “fiddling,” as he called it, later.
     Dad and Mom met at one of these play parties, apparently, and nature took its course.
     My dad, according to his cousin, Woodrow Wilson Ervin, had to beat the women off. I can attest to that, even in his later years. I must say that in Mom he got the pick of the women around Mannford and Keystone. Mom was a beautiful woman.
     Wilson, also my lifelong friend, filled me in on a chapter in dad’s life. I know that from the brief story he told of me about it, that he was very ashamed of the episode.
     My dad had four brothers and four sisters. He was in the middle of this brood. He had a brother, Jim, who was nine years older and another brother, Junior, who was nine years younger.
     Jim, as dad later told me, was “not much.” In fact, his exact description was one I heard often: “He was as sorry as cinchbug shit” which I detected was fairly bad. Jim naturally ruled the roost as far as pop was concerned. Being nine years older, there was not much doubt who was physically the boss.
     I know from my own experience that Uncle Jim was very high tempered and emotional.
A word here about the Ervin family. My father’s mother was Mary Elizabeth Ervin before she married Radford. She had one brother, June. They were orphaned at a very young age and were raised by John Ervin’s second wife, Mandy, a woman I vaguely remember.
     June Ervin had several children. Wilson I have mentioned. He was closest to my dad. Wilson had older brothers. I hope I don’t libel anyone here, but my memory is that Ray, one of Wilson’s older brothers, and Uncle Jim, managed to steal some chickens in about 1930.
     I know that was the year because pop was 16. Jim and Ray talked dad into trying to sell the stolen chickens at Keystone. Dad was not in on the theft, or at least he never admitted it, but as luck would have it, the rightful owner was in Keystone and spotted his chickens.
     The jig was up, as they say. My dad wound up being sentenced to 90 days or so in the reformatory, which in those days was at Granite in Western Oklahoma.
     Pop told me about the chicken stealing episode as soon as I was old enough to understand, but he naturally only gave the bare details. He was ashamed. In later years, I grew to understand what a profound mark this experience made on him.
     Until the day he died he had a healthy respect, nearly fear, of “the law.”
     He was very proud that in 50 years’ driving, he never had a moving violation.
     Wilson laughed about my dad’s “fugitive” years, which actually covered a few months.
Jim and Ray, always ready to “help,” caused this.
     Dad, according to Wilson, was near the end of his sentence and was a trusty at Granite when the older guys talked him into going home, that nobody would miss him. Well, he did and they did.
    Wilson tells of the police showing up at the Neal farm house near Keystone. Pop was not there, but had been, and grandpa knew where he was. When the cops pulled up in front of the house, grandpa saw them and went out the back door to the fields to avoid fibbing to the police.
     Wilson contends that his father, dad’s Uncle June, had a talk with the boy and convinced him to give himself up, take his medicine and get the “outlaw” business behind him. He did. Apparently, this little taste of life in prison did the trick. Pop went straight. Very straight. During this life of crime, pop assumed the alias of “Freddie Hughes.”
     That reminds me: Dad was born Rufus Leslie Neal Feb. 17, 1914, in Stidham, a little burg near Eufaula, Oklahoma.
     Then why do we call him Fred? I gather that the name Fred R. Neal sort of developed. I always knew he didn’t like his birth name. In later years, when I ran into one of his ancient relatives, one old guy seemed to take great pleasure in telling me that “his name was really Rufus, you know.”
     I knew that he had taken to calling himself Fred as a teenager but when Wilson told me the Freddie Hughes story it occurred to me that taking the name Fred might have had something to do with the brief flirtation with “crime.’’
     Anyway, his entire family always called him Fred from my earliest memory. Maybe they agreed that Rufus was a bad selection.
     Pop had four brothers and four sisters.
     Adaline was the oldest. Then came James Henry, May, Evelyn, Fred, the twins, Virgil and Virginia; then Charles and Junior.
     To me all these people were known as Aunt Addie, Uncle Jim, Aunt May, Aunt Evie, Uncle Virgil, Aunt Virgie, Uncle Charley and Uncle Junior.
     I believe my Uncle Junior’s full name is Junior Earl Neal, but no one ever called him Earl to my knowledge. I can only speculate that he might have been called Junior after grandma’s brother, although I have always thought his name was June.
     Enough of the cast, for now.
     Dad started “thumping” as he called it, on the guitar as a boy in West Texas. How did he wind up in West Texas? You have to know a bit about Radford Neal to answer that question.
     My dad’s name could have been Tom Joad. Pop said grandpa had made money in 1919, which was a good year for cotton, and spent the rest of his life trying to do it again.
     He had come out of Arkansas to Oklahoma about the turn of the century, married my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Ervin, and set out to farm.
     He farmed for nearly 30 years, moving from one “place” to another. He was at times a share cropper and at times a tenant farmer. In fact, my dad referred to various times when they farmed on tracts belonging to other people. The “Tweedy place” sticks in my mind, but I can’t say where it was or when the Neal family farmed on it.
     But cotton was grandpa’s big crop. He raised corn at times, but my dad’s stories about the farm were about planting cotton, weeding cotton and picking cotton. Pop fled the farm as soon as he was old enough, but he always had a fondness for it.
     In later years, my dad became a champion tomato grower and in his backyard at Sand Springs, where he had a greenhouse, a water well and a well-cultivated garden of about 40 by 80 feet. One year he made a deal with a local grocer John B. White (if you like me, call me John B.) to take all his tomatoes. Early tomatoes sold at a premium, but as the season wore on, the price of tomatoes went down.
     Pop brought my daughter Julie into the operation. They saved to take a trip and dad sold more than $500 worth of tomatoes in prices ranging from 40 cents down to 10 cents a pound.
    Still, every year, he grew a stalk of cotton.

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