My father had a strength of mind that allowed him to overcome things. Most of the time the sins of the father take generations to work their way out. They can be purged by a lot of therapy or by a lot of time. My father overcame his upbringing in one lifetime. In one lifetime he went from a man who was barely educated because his father didn't appreciate the need for school, to a man with sons who had degrees, and advanced degrees. A great deal of that inner toughness came from an experience when he was young. He told me one time, when I had asked about a photograph of some men and boys on horses, that when he was little he had been lost for the better part of a day.
He wasn’t very big, not in school yet, maybe 5 years old, stumbling barefoot through the south-Texas heat, tear tracks on his dust soaked face, dehydrated so he was no-tears-crying now, thorn-torn and stuck, branch-scratched, exhausted, panicked. Not snake-bit or coyote spotted yet but that was only a matter of time. The country and its hazards would wait, indifferent to his crying. His parents had sent riders out to neighboring ranches and the local men and boys had been looking for him on horseback, tough men who sometimes worked too hard at making their sons tough too, speaking a few words of German to each other and to their sons as they worked their horses through the brush. Looking for him or the little bundle of clothes they feared he would soon become. They had come out because his mom had asked and they knew her and her family. Actually, since her kin had lived in the area since 1846, they were her family to one degree or another mostly. He was her oldest, she had one in diapers, and another on the way. They knew his father and his father’s family too and so they had come but there was only about an hour of daylight left now. When it got dark he would lay down to sleep. After that he would be dead. They would bury him in Locke-Hill cemetery across from where he would have gone to school, if they ever found his body.
It had started like most days, full dark early. His father and mother groaning awake to the loud ringing of the kitchen clock. Fumbling for their clothes in the kerosene lantern half-dark. His father, Tedo, taking his clothes out of grandfather Alex’s old army footlocker. Cows milked, mules hitched to the plow, chickens fed, hay pitched but there was a calf missing. A cull probably, his father couldn’t afford better, steer probably, not a cow that might be a future moneymaker but still money or maybe winter meat and time on the hoof. My father had been sent out to look for it. It had wandered off their place into the brush on the other side of the creek that roared in the spring rains but was dry now about two miles along a buggy road from his great-grandfather’s old place. He had gone into some thick cedar brush looking for the calf, gotten turned around, and come out lost. He had been walking ever since.
That area northwest of San Antonio in the 1920s had about one house every four square miles. The ranches weren’t west-Texas big, where 40 sections is a small place, but the brush was thicker and just as thorn-mean and he was so little he couldn’t see far. It was the cattle ranchers’ own fault. When they had come in the 1830s, they couldn’t believe what they saw. Over the centuries the Johnson grass had held the soil in its thick mat of roots. The grass on the hills grew thick midway to a mounted man’s thigh in the summer and dried to natural standing hay in the winter. It was inexhaustible, or they thought it was, and open range. If you didn’t graze as many cattle as you could get someone else would. It wasn’t your land. You couldn’t pass it down to your children, so why would you want to conserve it? Men like Maury Maverick made their fortunes by slapping their brand on the half wild cattle. But they had over grazed the land. The cattle’s hooves and relentless munching had damaged the grass roots. The Indians weren’t around any more to set fire to the hay in the spring, fertilizing the soil and starting a flush of new growth for their ponies and ,more importantly, keeping the brush under control. The soil had begun to wash away until it was just a thin cover sometimes just in patches over the limestone. Now, eighty years later, in the summer the little bit of soil remaining was baked iron hard so the riders couldn’t pick up any sign.
Cedar brush would grow in the poor soil and once it had gotten started it had grown thick along with the hard, long-thorned mesquite and the white brush. Cedar from that area will eventually grow to a tree with an aromatic wood you can use to line your closet or storage chest. Live oak provides a nice hard white oak that burns like coal but even the trees have a tendency to brush out in the good years, or parts of good years, and then die back leaving small grabbing scratching dead limbs. The plants that don’t have enough soil or water or time just stay thick brush. The cedar had eventually grown so thick and it sucked so much water out of the ground that natural springs and even some wells dried up. Mesquite, huisache, and white brush weren’t as prevalent but they were meaner. Mesquite has a little leaf and a long hard thorn. The small branches break off and litter the ground under the brush. Mesquite thorns will cheerfully go through a tennis shoe and straight into your foot like it was nothing. It will eventually grow into a tree and even the brush provides a long sweet tasting bean in good years. When mesquite beans are growing the wild hogs, deer, and javelina will beat a path to the tree. Agarita brush has thorns on each blue-green leaf, like holly. It also grows a good crop of sweet red berries about every ten years but you have to pay for them in blood. White brush grew so thick you couldn’t force a horse through it. The only way to move through a patch of that stuff was to get down on your hands and knees and crawl. If a little lost boy got into that and went to sleep they wouldn’t find his bones for 50 years when the ranchers began to sell the land for houses.
At that time of year there wasn’t any surface water, mesquite beans, or agarita berries. Everything was summer dead dry. Providing nothing except sticks and scratches. Waiting for the two-week drizzle that passes for rain in October three months away. The land he staggered and stumbled over was part of the Edward’s aquifer recharge zone meaning all the water had sunk down through the limestone rock out of sight underground. Along the way it was purified and, for centuries, San Antonio was the only major city in Texas that had completely pure water coming right out of the well; but the fact that lakes of pure water were three hundred feet below waiting to gush up didn’t help the little boy. He had been “spitting cotton” dry hours before and was far beyond that now.
It was cooler now, 90 degrees not 100, but the sun had done its work sucking water from him and the country all around him. Tomorrow, if he saw it, would be more of the same. It is not unusual for 20 days of 100 degree temperatures to pile consecutively on one another each hitting the land and people like body blows. There are flowers in San Antonio that don’t start to bloom until the temperature has been 90 degrees or higher for at least a month.