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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 7

...The following day I was wearing a ring with a little red stone that someone had given me. The stone was cut glass, I am sure, but I treasured that ring. I was playing outside in the sand, poking a stick at what I later learned was a scorpion. Suddenly, the stick broke and the scorpion wrapped itself around my little finger. In terror, I started slinging my hand to get rid of it and the ring, along with the scorpion, flew off my finger....

Famed artist Bertie Stroup Marah continues her autobiography which vividly brings the flavour of the West of yeteryear.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit

To see some of her pictures click on

After our parents' showdown in Weed and their marriage ended, my brothers and I stayed with Daddy infrequently. As a government trapper, he moved around a lot so we couldn't visit him as often as we would have liked. He was also working in some isolated places, in camps that were not fit for young children.

The first time we stayed with Daddy after the divorce he came to Weed and took Jessie and me to Ora Grande where he was trapping during the day and tending bar at night. Willie opted to stay with Mama that particular time.

Daddy took us with him to check his trap lines and then kept an eye on us while he tended bar. He was living in a room in the back of the bar and that's where we slept.

One night he scolded me for drinking the rest of a Coke from a bottle left by a customer. Daddy rarely scolded me and I was hurt and mad at him. When he put me to bed in the backroom that night, and after I had cried myself into dry hiccups, I decided to make him think I had run away. After Jessie went to sleep, I slipped out of bed and crawled beneath it—as far as I dared to in the dark.

As tears streamed from my eyes into my ears where they demanded the attention of my fingertips, I thought of how I missed my mama, which brought forth even more tears. Before crying myself to sleep on the cool floor, my last thoughts were, "Daddy, you're gonna be so sad when you can't find your little girl." Unfortunately I wasn't awake to see if he was sad or not when he came in, scooped me up, and put me in bed to finish the night on a soft mattress.

The following day I was wearing a ring with a little red stone that someone had given me. The stone was cut glass, I am sure, but I treasured that ring. I was playing outside in the sand, poking a stick at what I later learned was a scorpion. Suddenly, the stick broke and the scorpion wrapped itself around my little finger. In terror, I started slinging my hand to get rid of it and the ring, along with the scorpion, flew off my finger.

Although I was not stung, I ran to Daddy, crying and screaming, "A worm got on my finger and took my ring." The tears flowed as we searched among the tumbleweeds and red ant mounds for my ring. We never found it. My sorrow at losing my ring reminded me of my bigger loss; my mother wasn't here. So that brought on more tears.

My daddy must have felt overwhelmed trying to care for two children, four and six, because shortly after that he took us back home to Mama. I was so glad to see her. She hugged and kissed me as though I had been gone for years instead of weeks. Jessie was glad to be back with Mama, too, but in a couple days he started crying for Daddy. He seemed to miss Daddy more than any one of us and never accepted his absence. I tried to comfort Jessie. I missed Daddy too.

When I was five years old Jessie and I were with Daddy for about a month. We stayed with him in the house in Estancia where I was born. As we dug through boxes of old musty possessions I was comforted to find things that belonged to us when we were a family.

I spent some time that summer playing with the neighboring kids who lived across the road. Their last name was Shirley. The family had a mean hunting hound that had to be tied up because it would bite anything that moved. It belonged to an uncle, Austin Shirley, who seemed to have an equally bad disposition. Years later I would learn that part of his peculiarity was the result of his experience as a World War II soldier. He was a survivor of the Batan Death March. But at the time I thought his temperament was influenced by an incident I overheard Daddy and Mary Shirley discussing.

"What's wrong with Austin," Daddy inquired. "He seems out of sorts lately."

"Well, you know he's not been the same since him and Donald came back from trapping camp the other day. While they were out there, Austin came down with the mumps and when the swellin' went down on him, he got real sick. His private parts were causing him a lot of pain and it didn't help none for Donald to accidently doctor him with horse liniment instead of the rubbin' alcohol. Guess it was dark in camp and Donald couldn't make out the difference in the bottles. Austin ain't talked much to anybody since."

Whatever the cause, we kept a respectful distance from both Austin and his dog when walking to the earth tank behind their corrals. Both this tank and the metal stock tank gave off the mossy odor of water, a smell I loved as it promised life in the dry prairie.

One summer day I started across the dirt road to play with the Shirley kids. Suddenly, I was stopped by the rattling of an enormous rattlesnake coiled before me in the middle of the road. I stared hypnotized at that rattler whose forked tongue quickly flicked in and out. Our eyes locked for a few seconds. Then my brain kicked into gear, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" I screamed. "A snake!"

Daddy came running with a shovel. "Just stay back, Bertie," he cautioned. He killed the snake, and then gathered me into his arms in a bear hug. I always liked it when Daddy, who was such a tall man, swept me up from the ground into his strong arms. I felt safe and liked the sound of his slow reassuring voice. Jessie also appreciated his size and strength. He once told me he felt the safest and happiest when he slept beside his Daddy.

After the rattlesnake scare I spent part of the afternoon with the Shirley clan watching baby chicks peck their way to freedom from eggs placed on the floor in sunlight. It always seemed a miracle how they changed from sticky wet little creatures into lovable balls of fluff on toothpick legs.

Mary Shirley was a generous woman who made us feel welcome. Her kitchen held delicious aromas: the yeasty smell of baked bread and the sweet scent of fresh milk stored for sale in metal cans out on the cooler porch. Whenever she decided to prepare homemade ice cream, Daddy furnished the ice and elbow grease. While he cranked the handle of the ice cream maker we hovered eagerly. Our reward: sweet creamy ice cream flavored with fresh fruit and vanilla.

Daddy was at a loss on handling kids, and we took full advantage of his inexperience by extorting bribes in exchange for good behavior. One Saturday night we hit the jackpot when Daddy wanted to go to a dance and leave us with Grandma Tracy. Recognizing an opportunity, I said sweetly, "Daddy, I've been lookin' at a teddy bear in the drugstore and boy, I would love to have it."

"Well maybe we can get it for you for stayin' here with your Grandma."

"If she gets a teddy bear, then I want a pocketknife." Jessie chimed in. "But I want it tonight."

The deal was brokered and Daddy agreed to go the drugstore right then to get our bribes. After giving us our booty but before he could make his departure, Jessie proceeded to renege on his part of the bargain. He tuned up and started crying.

"But Daddy I don't want the knife anymore," he squalled. "I want to go with you."

"No, Jessie, "I'm goin' to a dance, you can't go this time."

As Daddy went out the door Jessie threw his knife down and ran after him, screaming, "I wanna go! Let me go!"

I then witnessed an unusual event. Daddy spanked Jessie. After the butt warming, I retired to Grandma Tracy's bed with my ill-gotten gains and said not another word.

That summer, when Daddy was at work I would walk from our house, across vacant lots to Grandma Tracy's house. I would stay until he came home with Jessie, who usually went with him to check traps. In addition to trapping, Daddy was operating a bulldozer to earn extra money from ranchers building earth tanks. The one time he took me with him on an excavation job, I got sick on cantaloupe and Hershey bars. I also took my shoes off and cried when the sun-baked rocks burned the soles of my feet. Daddy had to climb down from the bulldozer to carry me to the shade of a cedar tree. The only thing I liked about the whole experience was sleeping under the stars that night and listening to Daddy tell us stories until we could no longer hold our eyes open.

I spent the rest of those summer days playing around Grandma's house and occasionally walking downtown to the daigstore for an ice cream cone. I liked to eat Grandma's homemade jam and bread as I sat in her front-porch swing.

I remember my grandpa Jack Tracy only because he seemed mysterious to me. With his gray hair, brown eyes, and weathered dark skin, he looked like an old Indian. He didn't talk much and occasionally tipped the bottle a bit more than Grandma approved of. One of the few times my brother Willie came with us to Estancia, Grandpa got out his old black Chevy and took Willie and Daddy's younger brother, Waylon, who was Willie's age, out driving. The headlights—mounted on top of the fenders—provided a handhold for the boys, who sat still as mastheads astride the headlights. Behind the steering wheel, Grandpa gave them a wild bone-bumping ride across that ocean of prairie. It didn't matter if they saw jackrabbits, coyotes, or sheep on those rides—the exhilaration of that fender-surfing proved excitement enough.


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