I Remember When . .
| Tobias Brown was his real name, though I doubt anyone in
Holdenville knew that but me. He told me that himself. And hating the
name as he did, I considered it a compliment.
Also, I might have been the only one in this county seat town of six thousand souls who talked with Toby. I mean really talked with him. Oh, everyone teased him, made fun of him and laughed at his responses, but no one else conversed with him in a civil manner. You see, he was considered wacko, out of it and other colorful but cruel descriptions of someone who is mentally ill.
It is true that he was mentally impaired. But crazy? Not the Toby I knew, and I knew him better than anyone. Toby was confused, and with good reason. I came to understand his confusion on the many Saturday nights he came to visit me.
Toby and his wife came into the Piggly Wiggly grocery every Saturday night at eight. She shopped from eight until eight thirty. He always came to the back room where I worked at the egg counting, casing and candling table.
He helped her pull a shopping cart from the stack, selecting one that could be steered without too much wobble, and, that chore being discharged, made his way to the south aisle.
I can see him today as clearly as I could back then in the forties. He wore a sweat stained Stetson, jean jacket, jeans and boots with toes almost worn through. He was a small man. I doubt he would have weighed more than 125 pounds. He always walked with four fingers of each hand stuck down in his jean pockets, his thumbs sort of pointing in the direction he was walking.
He pushed through the swinging door, walked to where I worked amid stacks of egg crates and always asked the same question.
"How many aigs ye buy today?"
"Forty-seven cases so far, and still counting. How you doin' today, Toby?"
"Oh, bout right, I reckon."
An egg case held twenty-four dozen eggs. The approximate fifty cases of eggs purchased by the store from it's customers each Saturday represented 14,400 eggs that had to be passed over the candling box before being re-cased.
The candling box was just that, a small wooden box with two holes in the top and a light bulb inside. The eggs were passed over the holes to `xray' to determine if any of the eggs were rotten or in various stages of incubation.
It was an enormously boring job, and I cannot today swear that my mind did not wander from time to time, allowing suspect eggs to pass through the test.
Also, there were distractions. Periodically, a gallon jug was passed through the swinging door. It was my job to take the jug out back, turn the crank on the pump and fill it with kerosene. (Coal oil, we called it then.) I was never able to satisfy anyone. The customers often thought I stopped just shy of a gallon, while the store manager was sure I was overfilling, thereby sending the store straight into bankruptcy.
Also, there were often complaints that I had dripped some on the side, causing the jug and the 36 Chevy to smell of kerosene all the way home. I was considered impudent when I explained to one regular customer that as long as she used a corncob as a stopper, the jug would always smell.
Toby always observed such discourse with amusement. He was the only one in my memory who truly understood and sympathized with my `no win' predicament.
I liked Toby. He was a good friend. And smart. Few people realized how sharp he was, how much he really understood. In fact, he had been a valued employee at the Chapman ranch years earlier.
He had been a genuine cowboy. No, was is a better word. Toby was a cowboy. He never stopped being a cowboy. I don't know how many years it had been when he last worked cattle for the Chapman brand, but, in his mind, he was still there.
They say he had been the best. He started earlier and worked later than any other employee. The Chapman ranch was a big outfit, six thousand acres in a county where most farms consisted of eighty acres and were highly diversified, producing cattle, hogs, chickens, cotton and kids.
But, the Hughes county, Oklahoma unit was minuscule compared to the home place in Texas. Rumors had it at thirty thousand, fifty thousand and even a hundred thousand acres. I never knew for sure.
Toby worked it all, being so skillful and experienced that they shuttled him back and forth, wherever there were large numbers of cattle to move long distances. Among the top hands, he was the top hand.
It was said he could tell from a quarter mile whether a cow had a headache. He was rarely seen to throw a rope and miss. He worked cattle quiet and easy and took issue with anyone who did not. Toby was a cowboy.
But Toby was born too late. Just when he was the undisputed `best of the best', he found that he was obsolete. Although I'm sure it happened gradually, it seemed abrupt to him. He woke up one morning to the realization that management no longer looked to him for advice. They no longer assigned him the important, hard jobs. The ranch had changed. He had not.
They seldom drove cattle anymore. When they worked them, they were lured into cattle traps, then corrals, crowding alleys and squeeze chutes. The work was no longer performed by cowboys but by cattlemen, young men who drove pickups and knew little about horses but a great deal about leptospirosis, brucellosis, shipping fever and pneumonia. They were not skillful with a rope, but knew about penicillin, streptomycin, oxytetracycline and prostaglandin.
There was another complication. Every cow on the ranch now had a number, and every calf, vaccination, illness or movement was recorded on pocket notebooks and turned in at the ranch office.
Toby could not read or write.
They tried to accommodate him by giving him new duties. Fence and cattle checking were increasingly done from a pickup, sometimes even from an airplane. Pasture management became a major enterprise. Toby tried to make the change, but he didn't get along well with the big tractors pulling Bush Hog pasture mowers. The things made a terrible noise which wore on his nerves intolerably. He couldn't talk or reason with the tractors as he had with a horse. Besides, the tractors would sometimes run right into things he didn't want them to. It didn't work.
He found himself working less than full time, then, not at all.
He was the proudest of the proud, and, although his two children were grown, he felt any man worth his salt supported his wife and made her feel safe and secure.
He tried desperately to find employment suitable to a top hand. And then he tried to find any kind of employment. But being small and frail looking, no one would hire him for common labor. Being unable to read or write exempted him from most jobs. He found nothing.
Being a proud man who always did more than his share, he became depressed. He grew forgetful and withdrawn. He gave up the seemingly useless routine of daily `checking' on previous applications. He withdrew.
His depression grew. He became even more frail. The day his wife took a hot, backbreaking job at the Holdenville Steam Laundry, his mind closed down.
Mrs. Brown never forgot what a good husband he was. She did not blame him for their poverty. She began to care for him as she would one of her children. But he could not live with his failure.
His mind seemed to erase the recent past. He had no thoughts of the changes that made him a non-entity. In his mind, he was always going on a cattle drive on Monday morning. He would cheerfully tell anyone who asked, that they were moving 600 Hereford cows to new pasture come Monday or that the company had sold 300 replacement heifers that had to be gathered for the buyer.
Everyone thought it was funny. Everyone but me. I thought it cruel. I almost hated those who did it most often.
On Saturdays, they would gather around Toby and ask him what his plans were for Monday. He would describe plans for some cattle drive. They would laugh at his fantasy. Toby seemed not to notice.
I noticed. Toby was a friend of mine.
Then came a Saturday I will remember for as long as I live. Toby and Mrs. Brown came in at eight on schedule. He took the south wall, his fingers stuck in his jeans, his thumbs pointing at him and could not look away. He was different. This was not the same Tobias Brown.
Today, his eyes focused normally. They had always stared ahead as an unseeing person. The change was striking. I quickly looked away. Besides, I had work to finish before the egg truck came at nine.
"How many browns did you get?" he asked.
"Six cases of brown eggs so far today, Toby."
"Brown aigs taste better than white aigs," he said. "Stronger taste."
"Some people say there's no difference," I said, "but I like them better."
"Know something else? I'll bet you ain't never got any brown aigs with thin or soft shells."
I had never thought about it before, but he was right.
Unlike other Saturdays when he stood and stared straight ahead while talking with me, he paced back and forth, looking through the swinging door at the crowded aisles of farm wives stocking up for another week.
He turned and looked back at me. "Ol brownie have her calf yet?"
"Yes, had a bull calf. A real zinger, too."
"White faced, ain't it?"
"Yes, Toby. How did you know?"
"You said she was bred to Elmer Lankford's Hereford bull. A brindle cow bred to a Hereford always has a white face calf. Tell you somethin' else, too. I'll bet it has a red spot on it's neck or face."
"Yeah," I answered. "Around it's right eye and down it's jaw a ways. How did you know?"
He turned, grinned at me and said, "Them's things I know about."
Toby was different tonight. He was animated, lucid, articulate and there was the thing with his eyes focusing normally.
"I bought a new horse," I said. "He's reddish roan with a big white spot on his belly. Horses are cheap with so many work horses going to market. Tractors are going to take over this country, Toby. I bought him for $25."
Toby walked to the egg table. The subject whetted his interest.
"Is he a good horse?"
"He's pretty, but he's got a bad habit. They didn't tell me about that before I bought him. When I leave the barn with him, he goes a little ways, then wheels and runs back to the barn. Left me laying on the ground in a bed of sandburs."
Toby laughed. "Don't fight im. Just keep reinin' im back. Don't beat on im, but don't give in. Out wait im, and he'll give it up. Work together. Don't let him think it's you against him."
"He's pretty hard mouthed, Toby. Should I use a steep or shallow curb bit?"
"I always used a hackamore, myself. Never did like a bit. How would you like to work all day with a big hunk of steel in your mouth. Make their mouth sore and they won't like workin' with you."
The swinging door flew open, and one of the boys who always teased Toby the most cruelly came in for an armload of paper sacks.
"Hey, Toby," he called, an evil grin on his face, "Going on a cattle drive Monday?"
Toby looked at him as he would a crippled child and then patiently explained. "They don't go on cattle drives anymore. They haven't been doin' that for a long time now. They move em in trucks and those new trailers you pull behind pickups."
Toby's response had not been satisfying to his tormentor. He left with an armload of sacks.
"Well," said Toby, resetting the worn Stetson just so on his head, "Reckon the wife's bout got her groceries bought. Better get on up there."
Toby smiled, touched his hat brim in a friendly half salute and walked through the swinging door.
As busy as I was, a moment later, I walked to the swinging door and watched Toby and Mrs. Brown leave the store.
The store closed at nine. By nine-thirty, the eggs were loaded onto a truck, the store was clean and the unsold produce was put away in a walk-in cooler and covered with damp clothes.
My 38 ford balked for a while before finally starting. It was nine miles out to our farm on Sandy Creek in the Hickory Grove community. On the way home, my mind went back to Toby, his focused eyes, the logical conversation, his patient treatment of the young man who sought entertainment by teasing a man he thought to be crazy.
Later, in bed and too exhausted to sleep, I stared at moonlight coming through the open window beside my bed. I listened as a thousand frogs, crickets and other creatures sang a chorus I loved. I struggled for answers. Maybe Toby's mind had healed. Like a broken leg or a cut finger. Yes, that was probably it. I could think of no other explanation. Toby was definitely better. His recovery was satisfying to me.
Sunday mornings started early. There were cows to milk, livestock to feed and other chores to do before Church. The Hickory Grove Baptist Church was located seven miles east and two south of Holdenville. Thirty locals assembled each Sunday morning so faithfully that, if one had been absent, someone would have gone to check on them.
Services went on as usual, but I remember none of it. The windows were raised, a piece of wood propped under each to hold them up, and I sat close to one, enjoying the breeze that flowed in. I remember sparrows singing, or rather fighting, outside the window and swirls of sand blowing in the dirt road that passed the white framed building on the south side.
And I thought of my friend Toby, wondering of the transformation that seemed to have cleared his mind and relieved his tormented soul.
The afternoon was filled with a game of follow the leader with four of us on horseback. The leader would jump creeks and climb steep banks, trying to ride places the others couldn't go. When we became hot and sweaty, we jumped naked into tanks that people now call ponds. We dived, splashed water on each other and searched the bottom for mussel shells.
And I thought of Toby.
Monday mornings came quickly and sooner for me than for many others. I was required to help the `butcher' fill the meat case before going on to high school at eight. I was at work at 6:30 and was slicing bacon a few minutes later.
At 7:15, as I sliced bologna, a young lady came down the aisle. The store was open, but it was not normal to have customers this early. She walked straight to the meat counter, leaned on it and looked at me. I shut off the slicer, wiped my hands on the white apron and asked if I could help her.
"Are you Clayton?" she asked.
She waited a few moments, seeming to search for words. "Toby died yesterday."
I did not respond. I could not.
"Mrs. Brown wanted you to know," she added, turned and walked back out of the store.
I do not know who she was. I had not seen her before and have not seen her since.
A half century has come and gone. Much has changed. Of the thirty people who regularly attended the Hickory Grove Baptist church, only Homer and Imma Lee Langford remain. The church building is no longer there. The Piggly Wiggly grocery is now a funeral home.
But one thing has not changed. I still think about my friend Toby. I am now certain that his mind did not heal itself. New cells were not grown to replace damaged ones. The change on that Saturday was dramatic. I can think of as many theories as anyone, but the fact remains, I have no idea what brought the change.
Often, through the years, I have wished that I could go back and, in some way, tell Toby that his friendship was important to me, that it made my life richer and that he had value as a good person. It troubled me that I could not do that.
And now, a half century later, I realize that he knew. And Mrs. Brown knew. It's a satisfying thing to know that. I am a better friend because of Toby. I am not now embarrassed to tell friends that their friendship is important to me.
I am certain I'll miss Toby until the day I die. I hope they gave him a good horse to ride and a herd of cattle to wander through. To Toby, that would be heaven.
Clayton Adair, Class of 1954 (Clayton attended Moss 1942-53 and graduated from Holdenville - 1954)Girard, Kansas 66743 (316) 724-6176 Office