Cowboy Boots

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
When I heard my mom was moving into a nursing home, I called my dad and made arrangements to talk to her. An hour later, I was on the phone with her. She was having a good day, reading a book of course. She told me she was sad that so many memories would die with her, even though she wrote an autobiography, “Uneven Footsteps”.
I told her I remember everything about growing up in Hueytown, just like she did.
She said she was afraid she wouldn’t be remembered as a good woman, that she’d just be remembered as a burden on my dad, that she’d die forgotten and forlorn like her mother and her mother’s mother before her, who lived to 97 and 98 respectively.
She asked me to write down anything I remember, the stuff she left out of her book, and share it. She is a humble southern woman, but educated and strong. She would never toot her own horn.
Mother has spent her life trapped in a broken body, living every minute in the kind of pain most people couldn’t live with, period. She was/is an inspiration to anybody who knows her, always smiling, always with a gracious word. She taught dozens of kids to read, though they supposedly couldn’t, and she was the kind of woman who tied herself to her favorite tree to keep the power company from cutting it down.
Doctors told her family she’d never live to see adulthood. She’s still ticking at 88. They told her she’d never go to college back in 1948 when she had bone transplanted from her good leg to her bad. She graduated from Auburn in 1952, then she went to Germany to teach the kids of soldiers. She met my dad there.
Had 3 children though they told her she shouldn’t have any at all.
She and my dad spent months at a time on camping trips. They went back to Europe twice.
Mother was well-travelled, despite a body warped by the polio virus she caught in the summer of 1936, during the worst of the Great Depression.
She was five years old
I’m gonna do what she asked, tell some stories about her and share them once in a while. Some of you will remember some of them, like the time an angry, pissy cat fell through the ceiling tiles while she was reading aloud from the Bible, the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den.
I hope ya’ll will read them and remember Ms. Patty. Ya’ll know if she put up with me, and “George the Shark”, she has to be a saint.
This first story is called 'Cowboy Boots'. It's a story my mother told me about her senior prom while we were in the middle of... well... another story.

Submitted: March 07, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: March 07, 2019





The summer of 1936 was hard on Mother and her family. In late June, she and both her siblings got the measles. I can’t imagine living in Alabama with no a/c that time of year and running a high fever, much less having the measles, too.

Two weeks later, they’d mostly recovered, but Mother got sick again. Pop took her to see their family doctor, Dr. Herbert Carmichael, Sr. His diagnosis was grim. Poliomyelitis. An outbreak was racing across the south like a wildfire.

Mother was in Lloyd Nolan Hospital’s polio isolation unit thirty minutes later. After three days, she’d lost all feeling and function in her left leg, but she was still alive and her lungs were okay. After another three days of observation, she went home.

Now, you gotta remember, this was 1936 Alabama. People, in general, were ignorant compared to people today, especially about medicine. Superstition still ran deep through southern culture and a good southern doctor had to be half a shaman, too.

Like the Carmichaels, father and son.

My grandparents were deathly afraid that Jake and Dit would be at risk, but Herb, Sr. told them polio was a weird disease, usually striking down one family member while the others remained unscathed. There was no pattern to the contagion.

The neighbors didn’t know that, though, or if they did, they chose to be safe rather than sorry. They sped by my grandparents’ house on Cherry Avenue holding their noses.

Can’t blame them, really, polio claimed the lives of thousands of children and left ten times as many more crippled or otherwise invalided. It was a nasty illness, especially in the south, and cost American taxpayers billions.

There was one man, though, who stopped every day to see about Mother. His name was Oliver. Now, this next part of the story is tricky, but it’s the truth, or at least truth for me. There may be people who say I’m being politically incorrect, but the truth often is. I have no malicious intent, just an intent to show some context. The old school South was anything but politically correct.

So here’s the hard part. Oliver was black. My family called black people “Nigrahs”. It sounds bad, but it was just the opposite. In southern speech, the Spanish ‘O’ at the end of a word gets pronounced as ‘ah’. For instance, Mother doesn’t say Ruido-soh. She says Ruido-sah. What my family was actually saying was “Negro”. It just came out “nigrah” in that Alabama drawl. Sounds a lot like that other word, right? But not to southern ears. We know the difference.

The Cherry Avenue neighborhood, the same neighborhood I grew up in, was the last white neighborhood before the railroad tracks. On the other side, Cherry Avenue turned into a dirt track which ran through the middle of what everybody in town called ‘Nigger Quarters’.

That’s where Oliver and his family lived in a four-room shotgun house on a half-acre lot mostly taken up with a garden, a small pen for his cow and his mule, and a small chicken shack with a rooster and maybe a dozen hens.

The mule and a wagon were his only transportation. Only city ‘nigrahs’ drove cars in those days, and not many of them. Out in the country, things hadn’t changed much with the end of slavery. Times were always hard for a sharecropper, black or white. The years of the Great Depression were no different than the years before or the years after.

That same summer of 1936, the Herring family cow died. Well, Oliver and my grandpa were buddies, or as much buddies as a white man and a black man could be in that time and place. They hunted and fished together. Pop was in the white Masonic Lodge. Oliver was in the black.

(And yeah, segregation applied to everything. Apartheid was what the South Africans called it.)

When Pop told Oliver about Mother being sick, he said she had to have milk, so he brought her some, along with a basket of fresh vegetables and a couple of eggs. Every. Single. Day.

He also brought her a red heeler puppy, which she named Toby.

Not a single white person but the preacher came to the house in the meantime.

That experience shaped mother’s view of race relations for the rest of her life, a view she passed on to her children. The sixties were hard on her, especially being a teacher.

Hard on everybody.

When I was a kid, I’d have breakfast with my grandparents on Saturdays, unless we were at the river cabin. Oliver was still driving that wagon to town every Saturday morning. He’d always stop and visit. I so badly wanted to ride to town in that wagon, but Pop and Oliver would always frown and so no at the same time when I asked.

I’ll let you figure out the why of that on your own.




As you can imagine, Mother was always frustrated growing up. She couldn’t do the things other kids did. Her left leg didn’t grow as fast as her right and it was still useless, more a hindrance than anything. She wished somebody would just cut it off. Uncle Jake had to carry her the three blocks to school on his back every day. The rest of the time, she had to hop like a one-legged rabbit to get around. To make matters worse, she had a restless soul, and she was absolutely fearless. There was so much she wanted to do, so many places she wanted to see!

She was eleven when Pearl Harbor happened. She said Pop, a Navy veteran, nearly shat a brick. He was ready to run off and re-enlist at the age of 40. Her cousin, Arnold Veazey, was already a Captain in the Army Air Corps, a B-25 pilot and flight leader. Mother thought he was the most handsome, dashing man she’d ever seen, one of her more than thirty first cousins from the Herring side of the family. Pop had three sisters and eight brothers. They were all raised in a backwoods rural area up on Sand Mountain.

Billy Herring, Jr., her favorite of those cousins, enlisted in the Army later.

She only had four first cousins from Nana’s side of the family. One of those, Billy Reed, from Vernon, immediately enlisted.

There were a lot of kids in that Cherry Avenue-Pinewood-Crest Road neighborhood. There probably still are. Everybody played outside. Girls didn’t play football, but they played everything else. Mother played first base in backyard and church softball leagues. She didn’t have to move much and Annette Miles, Rev. Buddy’s sister, always had her back playing right field.

She had a surprisingly good on-base percentage. In the beginning, she used two bats; one to lean on and one to swing one-handed at the ball.

She loved softball. She saw where she could’ve been really good at it, maybe even better than Dit. However, Pop had his guys at the Southern Railroad machine shop make her a custom lightweight bat and a crutch.

She got much, much better.

When Mother was little, Jake carried her around the bases piggyback, but she learned to do it herself, hopping on one leg, moving about half the speed of an average runner, which she figured was fair enough, being as she had but the one working leg and all.

She was old school like that. She didn’t think she was entitled to anything. God put this trial on her for a reason and her faith allowed her to face it with courage, not self-pity.

It still does.

Mother played tennis, too. She had a killer serve, and she could return about half, so she broke even in her matches. I never saw her play softball, but I saw her play tennis at the courts in Midfield. She was good, but she could never beat Aunt Dit, which really pissed her off.

They did not get along, as you might be suspecting.

So back to the war.

Mother’s buddy and next door neighbor, Bobby Mauldin, an only child, died on Okinawa. Several boys who had enlisted at 18, but before they graduated, came home and went back to school, which must’ve been weird for everybody involved.

Arnold Veazey was promoted to Major. In early 1944, he took off from an airfield in North Africa for a bombing mission in Italy. He never returned and was listed as M.I.A.

Mother was devastated. She cried for two days.

The other two cousins, Billy and Billy, both made it home. I have no idea of what their time in service was like.

Otherwise, Mother had a fairly normal life during the war, all things considered. However, in 1946, after the armistice, a new surgeon with military experience repairing battle-broken bodies came to Birmingham. His name was William Shannon and he was an expert at bone transplants, something new that came out of the war.

Dr. Herb got Mother an appointment in early 1948, after she stopped growing. She was seventeen, and she had an academic scholarship to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University, starting in the fall.

Her life was about to change in more ways than she could ever imagine, but she had a more immediate concern. It was called senior prom, and it was a really big freaking deal for the Hueytown High class of 1948.

For Mother, it was even bigger. Not only had she never been kissed, she’d never even been asked out on a date!


Cowboy Boots


Mother took me with her everywhere when I was little, unless she was working, and sometimes even then. She let me ride in the huge front seat of the ‘58 Ford with auto transmission she bought with money she earned tutoring dyslexic kids and substitute teaching. That was back in the day when the government let people make their own mistakes and the insurance companies be damned. There weren’t any factory-installed seatbelts and child-seats hadn’t even been dreamed of yet.

One summer day, Mother left my brother and sister with my grandmother, then she and I set out for the huge Farmer’s Market on Finley Avenue in west Birmingham.

I loved that place. That was big time adventure for me at that age, five or six. I loved watching people, asking questions, seeing new stuff.

I was Little Joe Cartwright in my head as we drove past endless miles of steel mills. I had my cowboy hat. I had my six-shooters and even a canteen. I was ready and we were headed to Injun Country.

The only thing I was missing was a pair of cowboy boots. Mother would never buy me any, no matter how much I begged. I watched every western on tv and at the movies when I could talk somebody in to taking me. I pestered her constantly to buy me a pair to match my six-shooters and hat.

She always said no.


Because she said so.

I was a persistent brat, though.

I watched a thunderstorm brewing up ahead, then I asked her for the hundredth time at least, “Hey, Mom, can I get some cowboy boots if I save my allowance and buy them myself?”

She sighed, tapped her fingers on the Bakelite steering wheel for a minute, then she simply said, “No.”


We drove on, me with my arms crossed on my chest and a big-time pout on my face, her watching the storm roll in with some concern now wrinkling her brow.

It started raining before we hit Finlay Avenue. Within seconds came a downpour the likes of which I’d never seen before. A real frog-choker, Pop would’ve called it.

Finlay Avenue was lined by ditches through which side streets had to pass. We were on one such side street in a black neighborhood. By the time we hit the ditch, it was filled to overflowing. Mother tried to go through it, but the car stalled, and there we sat, watching the torrent swirl around and past us while rain still fell by the bucketful.

“What we gonna do now, Momma?” I asked her, too clueless to be concerned. I splashed my sneakers in the slowly-rising water and laughed.

I laughed a lot as a kid.

She let out a big sigh and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel again, something she did a lot when she was thinking.

“I guess I’m gonna get wet,” she said, sounding resigned to it. “You’re gonna stay here and guard the car from Injuns, okay, Buddy?”

Darn tootin’ I would!

“I can do that,” I said, serious as a heart attack. Instantly, I was squinting, trying to see through rapidly fogging windows.

The rain eased up about half a minute later. Mother bowed her head and mumbled a quick prayer.

“Wish me luck,” she said, “I’m going to find a phone and call your Pop,” then she was out the door, her 110 lb. body severely buffeted by churning water and any debris it carried. Her thin summer dress was instantly soaked, clinging like plastic wrap. She grabbed a hold on the back door handle, then slowly worked her way to the back of the car. Once she was out of the ditch, she limped toward the nearest house. She looked back at me once, waved and smiled. I wiped away a clear place on the window with my bare arm and waved back.

The house my mother went to was an old row house, not much better than Oliver’s. Dingy, peeling paint. Saggy roof. Crooked stove pipe. An outhouse. Tiny, narrow, fenceless lot.

Mother used a dilapidated handrail to help herself hobble up the stairs to the porch, then she knocked on the torn screen door’s crooked aluminum frame. Two seconds later, she disappeared inside. Maybe five minutes after that, but what seemed like an hour to me, she came back out accompanied by a tall, skinny, grizzled old black man with a ragged umbrella. He escorted her all the way back to the car and made sure she got in safely, then he gave her a smile and a nod before he turned and walked back to his house with what I think of today as a stoic dignity.

Mother rolled down her window.

“Bye Mr. Johns,” she yelled. “Thank you so much!”

He gave a brief wave in response without looking back.

I decided I liked him because it was obvious she did.

And almost everybody loved my momma. She treated everybody with respect until they pissed her off.

Mother shook her head like a dog, flinging water, then she hugged herself as she started shivering. “I called your Pop,” she said meanwhile. “He was in bed, but he said he’d call Mr. McKinney, or somebody, to come help us out. Shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes, or so, Buddy.”

I liked it when she called me that.

“Okay,” I replied, but I wasn’t sure how long that actually was.

“What do you want to do until somebody gets here? Play a game? Hear a story?”

“I want to hear a story.”

“What story do you want to hear?”

I eyed her shrewdly. “The one about why I can’t have cowboy boots.”

She rolled her eyes, but I could hear the gears grinding in her head, like on a cartoon. She was stuck with me for thirty minutes at least. There was no way I’d just let it drop without a why. I’ve just always been like that.

Nana said it was because the devil was in me.

She was probably right.

Mother finally shook her head and let out a lengthy sigh. She could be a drama queen sometimes.

“If I tell you, will you promise to never tell another soul, not even your dad?”

“Why not?”

She glared at me. Those topaz eyes could cut you deep.

“Look, do you want to know why or not?”

I just nodded and kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t stupid and I really did want to know, you know?

Her eyes searched mine for a second, then she started talking.

“Senior year in high school, there’s this dance in the spring called prom, which is short for promenade.”

“Ew,” I said wrinkling my nose. Dancing was stupid.

“Just be quiet and listen,” she said in her I’m-being-patient voice. “If you interrupt, I might not start back up, okay?”

I made the lock your lips sign, then threw away the key.

She smiled briefly, then continued, “It’s supposed to be for couples, so a boy has to ask a girl to go with him, or a girl has to ask a boy. You see?”

Yeah, okay. I got it. Yuck.

She glanced at me and I nodded again.

“Good,” she said, relaxing a little, then she went on with her story:

“So… this prom… I’d never been asked by a boy to go anywhere. I waited until the last week, hoping I wouldn’t have to go with your Pop because nobody would ask me.”

She moved the rear view mirror until she could see herself, then she tried to fix her hair, her nose wrinkling the whole time.

“I talked it over with my friends… you know… Ms. Mary (Knight Roberts), Ms. Ruth (Hammond Thigpen) and Ms. Annette (Miles Eberdt). There weren’t many boys left.

Mary said I was gonna have to ask one of those remaining boys myself, take the ball in my own hands, so to speak, but I was really, really nervous. That was easy for her to say. She’d already been dating Billy for two years. He was three years older than us and he already had his own little house in Sylvan Springs. Annette said the only one left that didn’t smell bad was Dudley Gilmore, so that’s who I decided to ask. You know the Gilmore house. It’s that big old place on Warrior River Road down past the ‘Y’. I’ve showed it to you a few times.”

She’d finished with her hair and was putting on fresh lipstick. She seemed to be waiting on an answer, so I said, “I remember. It’s white with a green roof.”

Mother nodded as she kissed a Kleenex and stuck it back in her gigantic purse.

“I worked up the nerve to ask him three days before prom. Mother and I had already made me a dress. It was beautiful. It was burnt sienna in color, with dark ivory lace. She said it was a good color on me.”

She put away her lipstick, re-adjusted the mirror, then said, “I was sure Dudley would say no, but he didn’t. He said yes.”

She turned her head and looked me squarely in the eye. “I thought I was gonna pee myself.”

I knew exactly what that felt like, so I laughed.

Mother’s teeth were chattering, now, as she hugged herself again. She was always cold.

“He came to pick me up in his daddy’s old Model T pickup truck. He got there early, so he had to sit on the porch with your Pop, which was probably painful, while Mother helped me with my shoes; dark ivory flats. The smaller pair had just come the day before and the left shoe from it was a little loose, so she made a bandage for my heel to take up the extra space.”

Reflexively, I looked at her feet. She always had to buy two pairs of shoes and she never wore heels like other women.

Whenever it was just the two of us, Mother told me a lot of stuff I really didn’t want to know. Most of it was about her personal life before she met my dad.

She was frowning at the ceiling now, her eyes half-closed.

That made me nervous.

“I had made up my mind about something you won’t understand, but I’m gonna tell it anyway. It’s the main point of the story.”

I just shrugged and said, “Okay.” I really wasn’t sure what she was talking about.

She laughed a little. “You’re the only one I can tell, anybody else would just judge me negatively.”

Hmmmm… Something told me I might be squirming during this next part.

She glanced at me, gave me a wicked grin, then she started:

“I know you don’t know what this means, but I was supposed to start Auburn in the fall. I had been to Dr. Shannon. You remember him, right?”

My right hand went to my right knee without me even thinking about it. It still hurt.

“Yeah, I remember,” I said. “He put the cast on my leg when I stepped in that hole and broke my knee.”

She nodded, then continued, “He was doing surgery on my legs right after graduation, so I could heal and recover some before I started Auburn. I’d be stuck at home all summer, mostly in the house, so my only chances to get experience with boys before college would have to come in the next six weeks.”

She took a short breather as another downpour roared around us. With the windows all fogged, it was like I was in a cocoon. I was digging it.

After a minute, she glanced at me twice, gnawing on her bottom lip.

“I thought Dudley was my only shot to learn anything,” she finally went on. “I didn’t talk to anybody but Mary about it because she was the only one of us who’d actually, you know, done anything with a boy.”

She was wrong. I didn’t know. I had no clue what she was talking about, but I listened anyway. I was pretty content for the moment right where I was. I liked the connection we had at times like these, though I couldn’t have put words to it then.

“I told Mary I wanted to go as far as I could go that night. We put together a plan. Billy would get a case of beer, then the four of us would go back to Billy’s little house after the dance. We’d drink some beer, have a little fun, then Mary and Billy would go to bed and leave me alone with Dudley.

I told her to leave me a condom on the nightstand.”

I wasn’t squirming, yet, but I had a feeling it was coming.

“Mother got my shoe fitted and I went to the mirror. I thought I looked prettier than I had ever looked. I tried to stand up straight, but when I looked down, it was so obvious that my left leg was eight inches shorter than my right I cried.

That took another fifteen minutes to fix.

Poor Dudley. Pop was a man’s man and Dudley was a little wimpy.

When I came out on the porch, Dudley and Daddy both stood. I would swear I saw tears in your Pop’s eyes for a second, but I was probably just wishing.

Dudley had a big smile on his face, but he was wearing a too-small hand-me-down suit and a checkered bow tie… and he had on cowboy boots. I didn’t know what was worse, going to prom with Dudley, or going with your Pop in his coveralls, but we’d made a plan and I was determined to stick with it.”

I wished she’d just get to the point so we could move on to something else.

Anything else.

“Anyway, Dudley pinned a white camellia corsage his Momma had made on my chest with some un-helpful hints from your Pop, then we left.

Prom was at the gym, so it wasn’t but a three minute ride and we got there right on time despite my tearful delay.

I couldn’t dance, really, back then, not like I can, now. That seemed to be fine with Dudley, so we just stayed at our table and watched and visited with our friends until Mary and Billy said they were going home early, about ten. I told Dudley we were going with them and he said okay, so we left and followed them to Billy’s little house in Sylvan Springs.”

She stopped for a second then. Almost immediately, a knock came at my window. I looked at Mother and she nodded at the window lever. I opened it. There was a smiling young B’ham police officer standing there waist deep in churning water.

I liked cops.

Back then.

“Howdy pardner,” he said, then he bent down so he could lean in the window and see Mother. “You okay, ma’am? Can I call you a tow truck?”

She smiled and said, “No, but thanks. I called my daddy about fifteen minutes ago and somebody should be here soon to help us out of this mess.”

“I’ll just stay here in my car, then. This ain’t the best neighborhood.”

Mother’s jawed clenched a little at that, but she still gave him a sweet smile and said, “Thank you ever so much, officer. That would make us feel so much safer,” but she rolled her eyes at me.

Like I said before, Mother wasn’t afraid of much but snakes and having a child die before she did, the same two things she’s still afraid of today as she moves into a nursing home.

The officer slogged his way out of the ditch and I rolled up the window. A light drizzle still fell from heavy, leaden skies.

“So where was I?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she answered herself before I could. “We were going back to Mary and Billy’s. Well, when we got there, we decided to play bridge while we drank a few beers. Me and Mary against Dudley and Billy. We beat the pants off ‘em, just like we always beat Billy and your dad.

Afterward, Mary and Billy excused themselves and went to Billy’s bedroom.

That just left me and Dudley. I grabbed his hand and we moved to the couch.”

She frowned and gnawed on a fingernail for a second. “I had to make the first move. Dudley was either uninterested or clueless or both, so I kissed him. His eyes opened wide for a second and he didn’t respond, but then he did and things moved along like they’re supposed to.

We made out for a while, then I took Dudley’s hand, led him to the bedroom. I got on the bed, but he said he had to pee and went to the bathroom.

I took off my dress, but had trouble with my slip and bra. I finally got them off and was sliding off my panties when Dudley walked in. He was tall and skinny and very white… and very naked, though his hands were over his crotch. He stared at my little boobies for a second and I stared at the cowboy boots he’d put back on for some reason.

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing.

Dudley turned red and ran out.

Before I could put my clothes back on, I heard the truck start up and drive away. That was the end of my senior prom date. I guess it was okay. I got some kissing practice, but I was also a little disappointed.”

She looked me in the eye. “Are you ashamed of your Momma, now, Buddy?”

I wasn’t sure what any of what she said meant, but I knew what I was supposed to say back. I said, “No Momma,” and solemnly shook my head.

She searched my eyes for a second, then she nodded.

“I didn’t see Dudley again for about a dozen years, at his mother’s funeral. I dodged him until after the service. He walked straight over to me and there was no way I could avoid him, but at least he was smiling. He put his arms around me and said, ‘Thank you.’

He let me go and I looked at him kinda funny and I said, ‘For what?’

‘For making me realize I’m a homosexual,’ he said, then he smiled and walked away.

I just stood there for a minute with my mouth hanging open, thinking, ‘Great. The first time a guy saw me naked it turned him queer.’”

Mr. McKinney showed up soon after, pulled us out of the ditch and got us going. We went on to the Farmer’s Market. Something like that would never deter her. I don’t remember that part of the expedition, but I’m sure I had a blast.

Dudley became a teacher, like Mother. I don’t know where he taught. Homewood, maybe. I cut his grass two summers in high school. He and his lover lived on Kenilworth, near the Browns, but on the other side of the street.

I got paid five dollars for cutting the grass.

Mother warned me to never go in Dudley’s house.

I never did.

The world was different back then, but not as much as people think. Some things never change.

Did I say Mother went to the U of A, too? Well, she did. She did graduate work in child psychology.

I never asked her for a pair of boots again.

In fact, I’ve never worn cowboy boots to this very day and I live in New Mexico. For all I know, it was those damn boots that made Dudley queer. I’ve known a lot of men who wore them over the years and I ain’t taking no chances!




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