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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 15

...The day Jessie became a turkey killer he was pretending to be an Indian hunting wild game when he let himself into the turkey pen. He had no idea he would actually hit his mark when he threw a sharp pointed stick at the turkey. It was a shock when the impaled turkey wobbled instead of gobbled and a few steps later, fell over dead as a doornail...

Bertie Stroup Marah, the well-known artist, continues to recall her younger days in a vividly-told string of stories.

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We lived from one job to the next and moved from one place to the next. There was no assurance from day to day as to how long the work would last. Living from hand to mouth did not allow us to put anything aside for a rainy day. Every day was a rainy day—with no umbrella. Any glimmer of optimism was overshadowed by the ever gathering clouds of grim reality.

P.G., who had grown up on his family's farm, was by necessity, versatile at carpentry and repairing machinery with minimal supplies and tools. Bailing wire and rusted bolts were his best friends. He never saw a nail he couldn't straighten and reuse. He could wiggle, jiggle, cobble, paste and patch hell a mile with the best of 'em. Had we lived in a more prosperous area, he would have been easily employable. But the small farms and ranches around Weed were worked by the people who owned them and were not productive enough to warrant hiring outside help.

When the job of building fence for the ranchers was over, P.G. searched in vain for another job in the area. There was no work to be had so, at the urging of his friend, Tom Donaghe, we moved to Artesia, New Mexico where P.G. worked for a man who moved houses.

P.G. was nothing if not resourceful. He bought an old faded red boxcar that had belonged to the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and with the help of his employer, moved it onto a lot on the outskirts of town. He then converted it into living quarters for the family with its five-foot white letters "ATSF", proudly displayed on the side. Boxcars are built for hauling heavy loads and this one was no exception; it even had hardwood floors. P.G. cut openings for windows and put up partitions to make a small bedroom for us kids. Our folks' bed was in the other room, along with a cook stove, table and chairs. Even though Mama suffered from sinus headaches at that time, she kept the small quarters neat and clean. We didn't have the money to go to a doctor so she just applied Mentholatum ointment and took aspirin.

While we were waiting to move into the boxcar, we lived in a couple of one-room cabins belonging to P.G.'s employer. The cabins each had one small window and splintery wood floors grayed by time and use. The exterior imitation brick siding had been tortured by so many windstorms that it was peeling and flaking away. It was there that P.G.'s brother, Darrel, and his drunken pal, Babe Chandler, nearly killed Jessie.

Darrel and Babe stopped by to see our folks after getting out of jail in Artesia. They had been arrested for disturbing the peace in a downtown
bar with a reputation for being not all that peaceful to begin with. Both were released from jail early because they had saved the life of their halfwitted friend, Fred Johnson. Apparently Fred, highly claustrophobic from being locked up, had gotten his head wedged between the cell bars in an attempted jailbreak.

Fred had a noticeably small head, an anatomical feature that helped explain his lunacy. Maybe there just wasn't room enough inside his little skull for a sufficient blob of gray matter. He was teased by the dullards he hung around with for his looks and behavior. Often he was urged to make a fool of himself for the amusement of the foolish.

The cot Fred had climbed on to reach the window slid away from the wall just as he forced his tiny head through the bars. This left him dangling, holding onto the bars for dear life, feet thrashing like a frenzied monkey. His strength was giving out and he was on the verge of suffocation, when Darrel and Babe intervened. They held on to him until the jailer could come to the rescue.

The authorities weren't concerned with Fred's potential death. They figured it was no great loss. But the fact that it could have occurred while he was in official custody was a worry. They also decided correctly that Darrel and Babe had encouraged Fred to attempt the escape, in order to break the monotony of their jail time. To protect the reputation of the department, and save the tax payers' money, the police chief made the decision to throw all three of the louts back out of jail.

On their way to Weed, they stopped by to see us, staying in the cabin where Willie and Jessie slept. They thought it would be entertaining to see an eight year old get drunk, so they let Jessie drink some of their wine. They usually drank Falstaff beer or Jim Beam whiskey but a downturn in their finances reduced them to swigging cheap wine.

Jessie had outgrown some of the medical problems caused by his premature birth, but he still tired easily and sometimes had to rest during the day. When Willie walked into the cabin that afternoon his first thought was that Jessie was taking a nap. When he took a closer look, he realized that Jessie was unconscious. His head was hanging slightly off the mattress, his face was a pasty white, and vomit had drooled out of his mouth onto the floor.

Willie ran as fast as he could to the other cabin where Mama and P.G. sat listening as Darrel and Babe recounted their last misadventure. To help discourage the two from hanging around, Mama and P.G. were not drinking with them and besides, P.G. was supposed to work that afternoon.

"Mama, come quick!" Willie yelled. "Somethin's real wrong with Jessie, he's just layin' there."

Mama ran to Jessie and scooped him up in her arms. "Get me a wash rag, Willie." And to Jessie she pleaded, "What is wrong, baby, what have you eaten?" To the others who had hurried to see what the situation was, she yelled, "Somebody get a doctor, right now!" The color had drained from her face, which was now nearly as pale as Jessie's. P.G. ran next door to his boss's house and called the doctor.

Mama continued to caress Jessie, hold him, and talk to him while we waited for the doctor to arrive. Darrel and Babe, knowing they were about to be found out, confessed that they had given Jessie some of their wine.

The doctor confirmed that it was alcohol poisoning and treated Jessie.
Mama turned on Darrel and Babe with a vengeance of a scorned mama bear. "If you two sons a bitches ever give one of my kids alcohol again, I'll kill you. Get your sorry asses out of here right now!" She was shaking with rage.

"But Bee, we didn't know what would happen," Darrel blubbered. "We were just funnin' and he wanted to taste it."

"I won't tell you again. Get out!" Mama hissed.

They left. But like curs, they would return, crawling on their bellies and begging Mama's forgiveness. Mama never truly forgave them and that was not the last time she would run them off in spite of their close ties to P.G.

Jessie did not always court trouble; it seemed to come looking for him. Just a couple days after the alcohol poisoning, he accidentally killed a turkey belonging to the boss's hunchbacked daughter. Not only did the girl bear the burden of a misshapen body, her parents saddled her with the curious name "Moody," which in no way reflected her sunny disposition.

Moody, in her late teens, was blessed with the face of an angel and cursed with the body of an imp. Her temperament was so sweet and her face so lovely that one tended not to notice her poor twisted body. She took care of her turkeys and chickens with loving care. Willie occasionally helped feed her birds simply because he enjoyed her company.

The day Jessie became a turkey killer he was pretending to be an Indian hunting wild game when he let himself into the turkey pen. He had no idea he would actually hit his mark when he threw a sharp pointed stick at the turkey. It was a shock when the impaled turkey wobbled instead of gobbled and a few steps later, fell over dead as a doornail. He and Willie removed the stick and tried to revive the bird but to no avail.

"Mama, Jessie killed one of Moody's turkeys," Willie cried as he ran to the door.

"He did what? Come here Jessie Lee." Mama marched the turkey slayer straight to the boss's house to apologize. Moody made no fuss over the loss of the turkey, either because she had several more turkeys or because Willie and Jessie had always been nice to her and pretended not to notice her affliction. Mama always stressed not to make fun of people with deformities.

The forgiveness in Moody's soft blue eyes evoked a level of repentance in Jessie that a spanking could never have accomplished. "I'm sorry, Moody," Jessie croaked sorrowfully. "I'll help you do chores to make up for spearin' your turkey. I'm just glad he was that ugly one with patches of feathers missin' and not your favorite."


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