Max Wilton Grant engineered his way to the top of the California Company (that’s what Dad called it, though I haven’t been able to find a history of anything other than the California Oil and Gas Company that went defunct around 1910). The only place for Dad left to go was to an office, and that was just not in his nature. He was a field man. He needed to be out on the rig sites with the other men, braving the harsh winters of Casper, Wyoming, and other remote oil outposts in the 30’s and 40’s. He loved nature, and anything that had to do with the outdoors: hunting and fishing being two of the sports he enjoyed most.
Right about the time he was having to make a career decision, along came an opportunity to take a new direction. His new wife, Happy, had grown up on a ranch in south Texas as the only child of Lawley French and Mary Evie Reagan. It was 1952. Grandpa was 75 years old, and in poor health. He needed a hand on the ranch. Dad knew absolutely nothing about ranching, but he did know the outdoors, and so he and Mom decided to take the leap into the middle of Live Oak County. Ours is, among other great things, a relaxed, storytelling culture that tested Dad’s predilection for slide rules and precise calculated formulas that were, by and large, reliable (I remember him wearing a slide rule in a leather case on his belt).
Not to say that South Texas wasn’t reliable. You could count on several things if you were a denizen of the whitebrush country between 1952 and 1957, even if they were hard to measure: 1. the drought would last forever, 2. the folks in Live Oak County (and Bee County) are among the most generous friends a man could hope to find, 3. the word “rain” is part of a lost language, but can be found in the Bible next to other unfamiliar words like, “flood,” 4. telling and listening to stories is a fine way to spend an evening, and is part of the cultural baptism for Yankees (anyone who lived north of San Antone), 5. the gullies would deepen in direct proportion to the intensity of hope for a shower.
1952 was the first year of a 7-year drought. That’s the year Dad arrived to learn how to ranch from Grandpa. It doesn’t take much to feed a cow, but they can’t live on a diet of dust. Neither can deer, or quail. So, no hunting. And the river was dry, so no fishing. We used to ride out in the pasture and burn prickly pear with a propane burner. The flame would shrivel the spines so the cattle could munch the leaves of the cactus without getting the sharp thorns in their tongues. But cattle don’t get fat on prickly pear, and before long, we couldn’t afford cubes (cattle feed). So dad sold the few remaining cattle shortly after Grandpa died in the middle of the drought in May, 1956. Ranching was, for all of us, a dry, dusty business that eventually forced Dad to open Grant’s Radio, TV Repair Shop in nearby Three Rivers. Not many folks had TV’s, and those that did would often barter for service – mostly vegetables they had grown in their back yard with the help of a garden hose in exchange for new vacuum tubes and a dollop of solder.
Dad was a man of faith. It wasn’t refined, but it was real. God loved us and was taking care of us, and we were going to be just fine. My sister and I were so small we never realized how little we had. Gullies were places for dirt clod battles! The windmill was still pumping water – enough so you could climb it and slide down the cool pipe. We didn’t have AC, but Dad went to the junkyard and found an old swamp cooler and hooked it up. Debbie (my sister) and I would sit in front of it turned up full blast, eating homemade ice cream or watermelon. Drought? What drought? Poor? Not with a swamp cooler, and a Dad who could make toys out of old broomsticks and pieces of leather and string!
One of the things I remember most clearly from those days was the night it rained. I had never seen it rain before – or if it had, I don’t recall. I was four years old, and Debbie was three. We were sound asleep when we heard Dad whispering to us in the dark: “Let’s go, kids. It’s going to rain!” I jumped from bed, instantly awake, Dad scooped up Debbie and we took off. Mom must have stayed back in bed. She was probably praying that it really would rain. I was barefoot, of course, and still in my Roy Rogers PJ’s. We ran across the dirt yard (no sandburrs – even they wouldn’t grow), out the gate, down the low hill and into the great tin barn. On the way down, I smelled it – rain! Lighting forked across the sky just above the barn. We pulled the wooden gate back and ran inside.
The old sow and her piglets in the makeshift pen at the far end of the barn grunted as we settled near them against a moldy bale of hay. I was in the crook of Dad’s left arm, and Debbie was in his right. Lightning flashed, and thunder exploded just over our heads. Then the rain. Sheets and sheets of it drumming on the tin roof. We could watch it, as the side of the barn was open, supporting the slanted lower roof on 4×4 posts. We just listened and watched for awhile. My Dad transformed that massive, rusty barn into a tin cathedral. Instead of stained glass, the Lord gave us a living aquamural, complete with special lightning effects and thunderous surroundsound. What could possibly make it better? I knew instantly.
“Daddy, tell us a story,” I said.
“How do you ask?”
“Please,” my sister and I said.
Dad leaned his head back against the hay and looked out at the rain. “There’s your story, kids. Don’t ever forget this.”
Then he told us stories of Reddy Fox splashing in mud puddles until we fell asleep in his arms. To this day, I think it’s the sweetest sleep I’ve ever had, as I drifted off to the soft rumble of Dad’s voice and the new sound of rain on a tin roof.