A Castle In The Backwoods

by Samuel Smith

Just off of Highway 84 in Jena, Louisiana there stands a white painted siding house. It’s at the top of a small hill. It has three bedrooms, one bath and an attached garage. Between the garage and the house is a screened-in porch.

A furnace was attached to the house after it burned to a shell and had to be rebuilt in the early 1960s. The owner fashioned a wood-burning furnace and installed a series of air ducts to keep the various rooms in the house warm.

The small bathroom has an open flame space heater. In the winter of 1955 one of the inhabitants of the home stood in front of it to warm himself and his clothing caught on fire, leaving him with burns over 30 percent of his three year old body. Only the quick intervention of his brother, then 12, saved his life. The younger brother would idolize the elder until his death.

He saved his life. Can you really blame him?

The owner of the house was a product of the depression and maintained 50 head of cattle near Catahoula Lake, just a few miles down the highway. He also kept up a two acre garden and a pond stocked with catfish and bream out back. No bank crash would ever leave his family hungry again.

Ever the resourceful one, the owner of the home had a shop out back where he would tinker when not working for the oil company. The shop had every kind of tool you can imagine, catfish traps, trot lines, and other detritus of a life spent in the outdoors living as his ancestors did, although he lived in the modern world.

He worked for Hunt Oil for 39 years, beginning in 1938. He knew H.L. Hunt personally from when he was just a regional operator with absurd dreams of chasing down Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller. Mr. Hunt trusted him so much he once offered to make him superintendent of one of Hunt’s fields in South Texas.

Excited, he told his father who guilted him into staying close to home. For all of his ability, he lived his life like that more than he was willing to admit. It was a hereditary pattern, unfortunately.

A few years later, he was injured on the job and took a call from Mr. Hunt.

“Milton, you can sue me if you want and get a lot. But I want to make this right without all that. What do you need?”

“Just pay me while I get better and let me keep my job.”

That’s all he asked of one of the wealthiest men in the world. Honor meant something. He was a man, not a charity case. That was another trait he passed on.

He was the kind of man who, at the height of the Depression, would shoot ducks on the lake then take them around to the older folks, along with some groceries from his garden. Social Security wasn’t very far along in those days.

He had made the pilgrimage over dusty backroads from Jena to Baton Rouge to pay his respects at Huey P. Long’s funeral after the Kingfish was assassinated inside the Louisiana State Capitol in 1935. He remained a yellow dog Democrat until the day he died.

“Republicans don’t care about the poor people,” was his only political criterion. “It’ll take a generation for people to forget what they did to us.”

He was not without his own mischievous side. According to legend, the family had two Great Depressions: the first when the stock market crashed and the second when they repealed prohibition. He and his brother maintained a still out of on the old family place near Catahoula Lake until his brother died and his wife sold the land.

Once, he took his sons and his brother out to one of his hunting camps on the lake. His youngest was the first up the ladder and started getting struck at by whip snakes that had taken up residence in the camp.

The elder men had had a few libations. Being free of their Southern Baptist wives enabled them to sneak some moonshine. Alcohol and decisions don’t always go well together. So they doused the surroundings in gasoline and lit the little makeshift camp on fire.

As the flames engulfed what should have been their temporary abode, the youngest son spoke up.

“Daddy, where we gonna sleep tonight?”

The two slightly inebriated adults looked at each other.

“Shit,” they said in unison.

He was, as the old folks used to say, fond of a mirror. Well into his 70s, he’d sit and stroke his chin and say, “I’m so pretty. I wish you grandkids was as pretty as me.” On days when company was coming he’d get dressed up in rare form. He put on his immaculately polished Florsheims instead of work boots and his good coveralls. Stains were not welcome when visitors were in the house.

Then there was the matter of his hair. He had been blessed then unblessed with a thick shock of dark hair. But he would not abide gray. So on the days when company was coming he was very concerned to apply the Grecian Formula to to what was left of his mane and make sure it was a suitable shade.

Properly attired, coiffed and shod, he’d retire to his seat in the Lay-Z-Boy in the regular living room and receive his progeny and their progeny like royalty.

The lady of the house was also a bit of a dandy and fancied the finer things, such as they were available in the rural south at that time. Well, that may be overstating the case by today’s standards. She was fond of nice clothes, perfume and make-up.. She loved jewelry.

But her home was her joy. Almost a quarter of the smal house was taken up by a formal living room equipped with a piano and a couch and a couple of dark wood armchairs the grandkids were afraid to sit on. The door to that room was usually closed.

But one day a year, that room was the center of the universe. All four kids and their wives and kids would come over for Thanksgiving and eat. And eat. And eat some more. The lady of the house made chocolate custard pies, lemon custard pies and a dozen other treats. That woman did more to prevent hunger than some charities I’ve worked for. You never finished a plate that she didn’t offer to refill it. Eventually you learned to say you were full with a little bit left on the plate so she wouldn’t guilt you into accepting more.

Years later, I learned about love languages. Hers was food, apparently.

I also learned about high cholesterol and barely avoided adult onset diabetes. But she meant well. I’ve never been hungry for very long.

But she had.

After lunch, dessert, coffee and a couple hours to sleep off the food coma, everyone would congregate in the formal dining room. It was time to decorate the Christmas tree.

The decorations were old, even then. They were the kinds of things that were brought out, displayed for a month and then stored away for another year in a room almost no one frequented. Probably worth a fortune if they were still around at in some antique shop called “Things N’ Stuff” or some such foolishness.

For the grandkids, it was like they had been granted access to the inner sanctum.

For the mischievous ones, it was like being a gypsy in the palace. They traded knowing glances, but didn’t dare misbehave there. It was fun and relaxed, but almost reverential. They knew that they were doing something special.

The house on a hill was the antithesis of anything edgy or “cool” (or whatever it is that young people say these days). Rock n’ roll was not a part of the equation.

But the King was always there.

Every year, the stodgy, staid grandparents brought out Elvis Presley’s Christmas album. Every year the lady of the house would say the same things.

“He loved his Mama so much. I can’t believe he’s gone.”

And so they retrieved the fake Christmas trees they had bought at the Ben Franklin’s store in town from the attic and put it together.

For an hour or two, sibling squabbling would stop. It was expected that they set aside rivalries, disagreements, negative opinions about spouses and whatever else came between them.

Of course, that was a long time in this family. They were competitive. They loved each other, sure. But little brother who idolized big brother also wanted to compete with him and win. Pretty normal stuff. The two sisters got into typical sister drama, meddling and the occasional hard feeling. Nothing serious, but only seeing each other a few times a year means working out any negative stuff in an afternoon was almost not worth it.

So they all played nice for their parents. Mostly.

When the pressure got too much, they’d step outside for a smoke. Back then, everybody smoked. Including a few of the grandkids when they could get away with it and thought the folks weren’t around.

All was not always well between the man and the lady of the house, either. Almost 50 years of marriage had somewhat devolved into something of an uneasy truce. When the man of the house would suffer from sleep apnea and stop breathing his bride would exclaim, “well, breathe damn you.”

Hearing grandmother say “damn” always made the grandkids laugh. She was always a strange mix of propriety and profanity.

She was often demeaning toward him in other ways. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but he kept his distance. Who wants to get close to someone who makes you feel bad about yourself?

Sometimes he’d laugh and say with pride how mean she was. Family legend has it that his mother was even worse. He himself said once she was the meanest woman in Lasalle Parish.

But on those afternoons, it seemed like they genuinely liked each other.

Once, with the warmth and kindness that was palpable, the man of the house sidled up to his lady and put his arm around her.Together they surveyed the tribe of misfits and high achievers they had made.

“We done good, Lillian.”

She just smiled.

Family has been a mess since Genesis. Cain didn’t kill a stranger. Father’s blessing is something brothers have always fought over. Thankfully no one in that house had married their cousins or anything too backwoods.

But there were fractured marriages and broken homes and heartbroken siblings from time to time. As is usual, the better their own lives we’re going the less it seemed they needed each other. Scourge of our times, I guess.

But the real gift of those holidays was that for just a moment, they could put that aside. And the great thing about history is that it not merely instructive but also indicative. What our predecessors did, we can do too. Traits are real, but so are learned behaviors. We can look past what separates us. Not in all cases, for sure. But if you can, do it.

Because it’s all gone now. The man of the house died in 1993, killed in a car wreck driving home from his lady’s side as she struggled with Crohn’s disease in a hospital. The lady changed her diet, thinned out and lived another 15 years.

The family gets together now for funerals mainly. They’re scattered to the winds, maybe never to see each other again. When the youngest son finally got his death wish in 2015 they reassembled and reminisced. The first topic of conversation was little brother. But the holidays we spent at that house came up pretty quick, too.

That house was as close as I ever had to a home. I’ve stayed lots of places, 10 years in one right down the road. But in terms of a family homestead where we knew every holiday we’d be together, that was it.

The last time I talked to my grandfather was, fittingly enough, in the breezeway of that white house. He was 78, wracked with emphysema and barely moving.

“Son, when a man gets to where he can’t do nothing…might as well just move along.”

Made it easier a week later when I found out that he had died earlier in the day. He had run his course and knew it was time to go. He was a man, not an invalid, and he left us cruising along in the Lincoln Town Car he had bought cash while I watched him pull bills out of a shoebox as the salesman’s jaw dropped.

And he did a lot. A lot more than I’ll bore you with here.

But nothing meant more to me as a kid than knowing he was there. And you can give your kids and grandkids that gift this Christmas.

When they are in their darkest times, those memories will occasionally shine through. And that will mean more than any toy you ever fight Black Friday crowds for.



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