My dad was born in the Territory of New Mexico in June of 1911, some seven months before it became the forty-seventh state. He had a terrible childhood. I don’t have much first-hand knowledge since he almost never talked about it. There were five girls and two boys, he was the youngest son. His parents were homesteading ten acres of hard scrabble on the Texas border near the town of Rogers. They were trying to scrape out an existence where the average yearly rainfall only yielded a crop about once every seven years.
The requirements of the Homestead Act were that the occupants were required to live on the property for five years, to make improvements by building a dwelling, and the cultivating the land. In those hard times, only a few families were able to hold on for five years. Many farms were abandoned within the first two or three years and oftentimes nearby families would move in and continue to work the land in an attempt to complete the five years required in hopes of combining it with their own.
That decision to work two homesteads was blamed for the tragedy that befell my dad’s family. The family living on the adjoining homestead had finally given up and were abandoning their place. My grandfather decided that he would try to work both farms. He took three of the kids: his oldest daughter, his middle daughter and my eight-year-old dad to the new farm. He left his oldest son and three daughters to help my grandmother work the one they were on.
This is hard to talk about.. and it left life-long scars, not only for my dad but for his entire family. My grandfather started sleeping with his oldest daughter… and she became pregnant. My grandfather was arrested for raping his own daughter. There was a trial, he was convicted and was sent to prison. The sheriff came to the farm and arrested him while they were working in the field. The only time I ever heard my dad talk about this was when a relative asked dad if he remembered how he felt that day. My dad finally said. “Just happy”. I’ve heard from other relatives that my granddad would hit you with whatever he had in his hands if he was mad. More proof of that legendary “Cox temper”.
So… with the old man in prison, my grandma eventually lost both homesteads and the family was scattered to the winds. My dad started living with his older brother… quite a bit older, actually. (I think 8 yrs., but I’m not sure). And I don’t know really know what happened to the other siblings and my grandma. Dad never talked about this very much either. I do know that when my dad was eleven, he and his older brother got into a fight and my dad won the fight. His brother kicked him out…. So, at eleven years old, my dad was out in the world on his own. He started work, as a man, on the Heart Ranch in Texas. (the second largest ranch in Texas). I’ve seen pictures of him when he was eleven…. and he looked like a man. There was nothing boyish about him.
My dad and I had a really stormy relationship, and now that I’m older I can see how I could have been more understanding of my dad and of his views of parenthood. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a smart-ass, which got me into a world of trouble with dad. His view was: he was the Dad, that By God that meant he was the “boss”, and anything that challenged his authority meant he wasn’t being respected and that was not to be tolerated. My brothers, and of course my little sister, got along with my dad a whole lot better than I did. Dad would say something that we all knew was ridiculous and my siblings would bite their tongues until they got outside and then giggle about it and go about their business. Why couldn’t I do that? Why couldn’t I see that he needed us to respect him… why was I such a pain in the ass?
There was a quirk about him that was always dangerous… especially for me. Anytime you asked permission to do something, even as simple as going across the street to play with a friend, his first answer was always “No”… it was expected, and then the ritual would start… you would go through the reasons why it was no big deal… you’d be right back… etc. etc. and then he would eventually, although grudgingly, say “Okay”. Ninety-five percent of the time, that was the predictable outcome…. BUT… every now and then you would ask and it would be as though you had committed the most unforgivable offense. He would come down on you in a very bad way… sometimes violently. “How dare you talk back to me”… and the full force of his anger and violence would rain down on you… it was terrifying. So… ninety-five percent of the time, it was easy as pie to sweet talk dad into almost anything, but always lurking in the background ……not pretty when that happened.
In hindsight, I wish I had understood my dad better when I was younger. He died before we ever patched up our differences. I’ve talked to my brothers and sister about their relationship with dad. It’s shocking that their view and their relationships with him are so different than mine.
It wasn’t until I became friends with John Huston, in the last year of his life, that I realized how much I loved my father and could look at our relationship in a different light. It took me lots of years to get there, but I finally tried to write a song about our relationship… I haven’t played it in years and I listened to it the other day… I’d like to revisit it someday. It’s on my Acoustic Eclectricity album….. “To Say Goodbye”.
- To Say Goodbye Ronny Cox 4:45