Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Social class

The New York Times series on social class in America has, so far, been unenlightening, like more and more things in the New York Times. So far they say very expected things about social mobility, education, income, occupation and wealth. But the subject interests me.

I have been puzzling for many years over how, and why, I grew up to be a fire-breathing liberal, coming from a background that did not seem to portend that at all. I think the answer has something to do with social class. It’s hard to articulate why. Maybe this story will shed a little light on one moment in the origin of a southern liberal. That in itself would be of little interest, except that maybe there is some moment like this behind everyone’s politics.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, in Victoria, Texas—this was about 1952 or 1953—I knew this kid named Billy, who lived in a small renthouse in the middle of a 20-acre farmstead which was at the edge of town but had been surrounded by development after the Second World War. It was owned by an old alcoholic named Red Box.

Mr. Box would drink bourbon from a pint bottle while he supervised people repairing his fences, and he would say to me (one of his crew, one summer), "I've got a helluva hard gut. Hit me in the gut as hard as you can, kid." So I would. So would every other 12-year-old around. He had a hard gut. Nothing happened. It was like hitting a side of beef. He would go back to drinking his Jim Beam in the mesquite shade he had parked his pickup under and we would go back to tamping down post-holes with a crowbar.

Billy's father rented the little house on Mr. Box's land. You got there by going up a hundred yard long rutted dirt drive. The house was small and square, with a tin roof. It had 4 rooms. A windmill whumped and clanked in the back yard, filling a concrete tank which would occasionally overflow. The San Augustine grass, which we called “carpet grass” watered by the tank overflow was long and green, as was the grass over the septic tank. We were forbidden to play on the windmill derrick, but we climbed it whenever Billy's parents were gone, and enjoyed the extended vista of weeds. The east side of the yard was shaded by hackberry trees whose warty bark harbored small oval caterpillars with a sting like a splash of napalm, which were locally called "asps," a name that later led me to think Cleopatra died an even more terrible death than legend has given her.

Billy's father was by trade a butcher. He had once been a cowboy, he told us, working on ranches. Whether that was true or not, he was now a serious rodeo competitor. He kept a herd of about 15 or so calves at any one time, which he fattened up and sold when they got too big to be used for his calf-roping practice. He traveled all around Texas, going to rodeos. His event was the calf-roping. He had turned a fenced cowlot on Mr. Box's property into a practice arena, with chutes for the calves and everything; it looked exactly like a real rodeo arena except that it lacked wooden bleachers and a crowd.

Billy and I would shove and shout the calves into the holding pen and then into the release chute, for Billy's father to rope. Billy would hold a stopwatch and at a signal I would release the gate, and the calf would bolt in terror, with Billy's father's big quarter-horse pounding close behind. He would throw his loop and if it landed around the calf's neck he would snap the rope back with his right arm to tighten the slack and in the same motion he would dismount the horse which was stopping as fast as a half-ton animal can stop. The horse would always be stock-still and braced by the time the calf would hit the end of the rope full-tilt. The calf would flip backwards and usually land on its back. Billy's father would run up and tie 3 legs of the calf with a small rope called a piggin' string. He would throw up his hands when he was through, and Billy would stop the stopwatch. I had the impression that Billy's father was pretty good. He sometimes won the calf-roping events he traveled to.

The smarter calves would hasten their trip to the auction block by learning to stop when they felt a rope fall around their neck. This ruined their utility for roping practice.

Sometimes Billy would rope calves also. I envied that. I got to ride the horses, but I never got to throw a lariat rope except on foot in Billy's back yard where a big acetylene tank had been set up on a sawhorse structure so that it was cradled horizontally, one end closer to the ground than the other. The low end was considered the head, and we would stand behind the cylinder and try to rope the head, the far end. I got pretty good at it, but Billy's father was obviously worried that I would fall off and maybe get hurt if I tried to do it from horseback with a real calf.

A new lariat rope was stiff and hard. This was desirable because the stiffness of the rope kept the loop open. Billy and I mostly had to make do with old ropes in our cowboy games. When Billy's father was not around we would chase the calves on foot and try to rope them, but mostly they were too fast for us. Billy's dogs were used to being roped and would just lie down until we let them go. Billy’s father would sometimes joke that he needed to auction off the dogs.

I did not like Billy’s father much, but I liked to hang out at Billy's house. Though we did not have much money ourselves, my parents considered Billy "low-class", whatever they meant by that, and did not approve of me playing there, though they never actually forbade me to.

I liked the barn with its smell of alfalfa and oats and decay, the smell of mold and humid slow combustion in forgotten composting hay-piled corners. I liked the ropes hung up stiff on the walls with the bridles in the tack room. I liked the saddles. I liked the horses, though I was never a very good rider. The horses were used to sudden bursts of speed when kicked lightly in the flanks, which would often leave me in the dirt. I liked breaking open the big rectangular bales of hay to feed the horses. I liked the cowboy talk. I liked pushing and shoving and struggling to get the calves into the roping arena chute. Moving an unwilling calf was a sort of rough ballet, where I twisted the calf's tail and one ear as I heaved the beast in the direction I wanted it to go while it trampled painfully on my feet, as we circled in a tight thrashing mutual orbit, the sum of whose many vectors was normally not the desired direction.

Billy's father, who required that we end all statements directly addressing him with the word "sir," was a little banty-rooster guy with the beginnings of a beer-gut. He walked with a cowboy strut that I now theorize must have originated in an effort to maintain manly dignity while wearing too-tight blue-jeans and high heels. High heel boots. This distinctive swagger is typical of rednecks outfitted in hats and boots to this day. I had an anthropology professor in college who was puzzled by the cowboy walk. He was from Boston and had never seen it. I told him my Levis theory, but he preferred a structuralist Levi-Straussian interpretation of his own.

Billy's mother was a curvy, pretty woman who was very quiet and who also wore blue-jeans that were too tight, to very different effect. She dressed this way on weekends. She worked as a secretary during the week and wore regular clothes. Billy was her only child. She cried a lot, for reasons I was never curious about.

Occasionally in the course of the calf-roping, two or three times a year, maybe, a calf would break its neck hitting the end of the rope too hard. This would give Billy's father the opportunity to show off his butchering skills, and he would make a big production out of it, bringing out a satchel full of knives to skin the animal and cut it into various hunks which he wrapped in butcher paper upon which he would write things like "Pike's Peak roast" and "tenderloin," illustrating for me the mystery of animals transformed into groceries. He put the packages in a big freezer he had in his garage.

He would nail the hide to the shed until it was dry and then cut it up in strips. "Rawhide" he said. "In the old days the Indians would wet it and tie up their prisoners with it and stake 'em out in the sun. In a couple of days whatever they tied it around, would just fall right off." He paused. "I bet that sure hurt." Then he would laugh. He used the rawhide to wrap the eye splice of his lariat ropes.

One day in 1954 I remember Billy's father leaning against a fence reading a newspaper, which he rarely did, even though his son had a paper route. He was reading about Brown v. The Board of Education. His face was dark with anger. I remember it like it was yesterday.

"God-damn nigger-lovin' sons-of-bitches," he said of the US Supreme Court. "They ain't never gonna make my son go to school with no niggers. Ain't that right, son?" he said to Billy.

"Yes, sir."

And indeed it turned out to be so. And it was true for me, too. I was in one of the last classes to graduate from the high school while it was still all white, and Billy had already quit school. I heard that they had moved out in the country somewhere. And later I heard that Billy became a first-rate rodeo cowboy.

It was at that exact moment that Billy's father expressed his defiance of the Supreme Court that I became a liberal. Or maybe I already was one, and realized it then. But I can't tell you why.

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