My father ran away from home in 1935.
Many of us consider running away from home. We struggle against the milieu of adolescence while facing the hard headwinds of coming adulthood. Some of us just want to run away. Some of us think about it. Some of us plan to do it. Not Dad. He did it! Burton Lee Roberts “ran away from home”! Aided and abetted by his mother he bolted at the age of sixteen.
Here’s the story I “pestered” out of him back when I was just a teenager myself.
My dad thought his father, Gus Roberts, was a hard, stern, difficult man. He told me he never got along with his father. He used to discipline Dad with an old leather strap like the ones used by barbers to hone their razors. His sister Elizabeth shared the same sentiments in my presence on a couple of occasions. She once told my mother their father beat them with sticks. Now, I considered both my dad and aunt to be strong-willed, stubborn people. I understood why they might clash with their father but I could never excuse Grandad’s harshness.
It happened one Sunday. The family returned from church and were sitting at the lunch table-No, I shouldn’t write that-What happened had been building for a long time. On this day it erupted like a volcano. Grandad Gus told Daddy to finish his lunch and go hitch-up the mule to the plow. He was to plow their field in preparation for planting a fall crop. This was apparently a departure from what my grandparents would normally allow to be done on a Sunday. Perhaps Dad was being disciplined. But my dad and some older teenage boys had made plans at church to enjoy the cool waters of the swimming hole after lunch.
Now few places in America are hotter than North Texas in August. This change in plans brought a strong response from Dad. He told his father he had already made plans and did not want to take a Sunday afternoon, a day of rest, to go plow. They disagreed. It got heated and included the “if a boy is going to put his feet under my table then he’s going to do as I say” speech. The threat of a “whipping like he’d never seen” got my dad out the door and into the field. But he was furious. He took it out on the mule. He pushed that old black mule under the blazing sun at breakneck speed. He was going to show his dad. He would finish the plowing AND go swimming, if it killed him.
Finishing the field with a couple of good hours of daylight remaining, Dad unhitched the mule, put him in the pen, stored the harness gear and rushed by the house on his way to the creek. He was no doubt pleased with himself. But his dad wasn’t. He had watched him and was not happy with his behavior. His voice stopped Dad in this tracks. “Did you water that mule?” Grandad asked. The volcano began to rise once again as Dad made his way to the water well. Back then he would not be able to turn a valve and run water in a trough. He would have to drop a wooden bucket into their deep, cold water well, draw it up, carry it to the lot, and hand fill the trough. It would take several trips to do it right. But of course Dad was in no frame of mind to “do it right”. As he reached the trough the old hard-working mule was waiting in anticipation. In that moment Dad took out his anger toward his father on the poor old mule once again. He told me he took the bucket of water and poured it over the mule’s head. The mule fell dead! Heat exhaustion and a bucket of cold water finished him off. Well, what can I say, that’s the way my dad told the story.
Dad took off and hid from a sure beating. Grandmother negotiated a “peace treaty”. But it was done. Dad said he pulled his feet out from under Gus Roberts’ table and never put them back again. (He exaggerated that last part but that’s another story for another day.) He “ran away” from home at sixteen, aided and abetted by his mother.
My dad continues the story in this fashion. His mother took him to the army recruiter in Fort Worth where he planned to lie about his age and sign up. She would be complicit. The recruiter, anxious to fill his quota, asked Daddy how much he weighed. When he told him his guess (because Daddy had no idea), the recruiter looked concerned. He told Daddy to do exactly what he told him. These were his instructions. Go find a half gallon of buttermilk and a handful of bananas. Eat those bananas and drink that buttermilk in rapid succession. Finish them off as you enter back through the door of this recruiting office. Dad did exactly as he was told. As he cleared the office door threshold the recruiter directed him to the scales. Climbing on the scales, Dad held his breath. He was so full he couldn’t catch his breath any way. He made it, with an ounce or two to spare! He was in!
I probably should add more context to Dad’s story. The U.S. Armed Forces were not in very good shape as the year began in 1935. The decision had been made not to provide military training to the thousands of young men working in the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). They would remain civilian. So, their presence and availability would not add to the country’s military readiness. Meanwhile, many of the enlisted men and officers had begun to cycle out of the military before 1935. Numbers were down when they needed to be going up. By August of 1935 the U.S. Congress accepted the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur and appropriated much larger amounts of resources to build up the military, especially the air and naval defensive strength. Mom and I talked about this story over the holidays and she added additional context. She said the older dairy boys, older than Dad, also went and signed up for the Army at the same time. Apparently all the boys had been discussing a way off of the farm and “into some money” and independence. The Army’s stepped up recruitment provided them their opportunity. A dead mule lit the fuse! Mom said the dairy boys’ parents were not happy and were eventually able to buy their military obligation off and bring their sons home. Dad was in for the duration.
My dad’s story reminds me of a joke I first heard over twenty-five years ago. There was an eighteen-year-old young man exasperated by his parents. He told them he was leaving. When asked why, he told them he was tired of being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. He wanted his freedom. He felt he was old enough to make his own decisions. He was leaving. They asked him what he was planning to do. He responded, “I’m thinking about joining the Marines”!
Burton Lee Roberts “ran away” from home when his was sixteen. It was 1935. He was in the Army now!
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