A shock from the past moves me forward

Wayne and Elnora

There goes that universe again!  After all the hard work we put into the book tour in Temple, Texas, I was disappointed to see the low turnout for the evening adult event. But there was a reason and now I know what it was.

I was speaking with the few attendees about my book No Hill for a Stepper, a coming of age story about a young boy (my dad, Cono) who grew up with a brutish and violent father in west Texas during the Great Depression.  My grandfather died when I was five years of age, therefore my memories of him came only from those of my father’s.

A few minutes late, a man in his mid seventies walks into the Historical Railroad Museum, sits down and says, “I’ve been waiting to talk to you. I knew your grandfather,” he said. “And he loved his son.”

It is hard to describe my immediate feelings to his statement. First, I had never known anyone outside of the family who knew Wayne. I wanted to hear more, more! And I did. This man, Alton, often with moisture in his eyes, recounted his memories of the Wayne he knew.

Meeting Wayne  around the age of thirteen, Alton remembered Wayne’s notorious fighting abilities -how quickly he could pull a knife out of his pocket and have it opened before anyone saw it.  He talked about Wayne’s aptitude for math and his undefeated skill in dominoes. Since Wayne could tell his opponent three plays out what the score would be, Wayne never played dominoes for money with his friend opponents.  Alton told me of Wayne’s generosity with others (throwing a dollar bill out the window for the town wino) and of his dry sense of humor. And, Alton talked about the intense pain he was in from his spinal arthritis.

Most of these things I already knew. What I didn’t know was that Wayne was proud of his son and bragged about Cono’s intellect and his boxing ability. What I didn’t know, was that a stranger I had just met had given me a new perspective on my grandfather based upon his own memories.  Remembering his wit, kindness and intellect, Alton looked up to the Wayne he knew with admiration and deep respect. “Times were very tough back then in Rotan and in Temple,” he said. “Maybe he was trying to make damn sure his son could take care of himself, kinda like the song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

Does my new knowledge excuse the way he treated my father when he was a young boy? No. Some of his behaviors were worse than inappropriate in those early years. But it does tell me that my grandfather made very positive impressions on other people and has reminded me that the core of his heart was not evil. Sometimes I wonder if, on that evening at the Historical Railroad Museum, my grandfather sent Alton to help me see his other side.

Had there been a large group that evening in Temple, the possibility of speaking to Alton would have been greatly hindered. But because of the limited number of attendees, I was given the gift of another person’s perspective on a man I thought I knew but who now I know even better.

A book launched Texas style…


Since I have “friends” now, I’m reblogging this post from 2011. It was a special day for me, indeed.

No Hill for a Stepper book launch

Carolyn Dennis-Willingham


No Hill for a Stepper was  launched Texas style with  James “Slim” Hand as our  special musical guest.  Singing the songs of Cono’s era that would have made Bob Wills and Gene Autry proud, the music was the perfect foreground for our hill country setting. What an evening!  The word for the evening was “surreal” as I saw the efforts of the last 3 1/2 years come to the end of just a beginning. I cannot begin to thank all of the attendees who supported me although I certainly tried! Plus they donated sacks of coins that I will give to the winners of the students in Bell County for the “No Hill for a Stepper” essay contest.  Payin’ it forward as they say.

To the crowd of over seventy people, my heartfelt acknowledgment of my father was this:

“No Hill for a Stepper”  is my father’s story. While my mother, during her lifetime, was thirsty for life, she spoke mostly about her present and her future.  My father focused more on his past.  There were reasons he did so.  First, because he wanted my sister and I to know how very different his life was compared to ours. Pat and I didn’t have to pick lambsquarter for our meals and we didn’t have to live in a dugout for our shelter.  But the other reason he talked so much about his past, especially in his later years, was that he had something to resolve before he died.

As many of you know, my father was very much aware of this novel. A pen guided my hand in response to the things he recounted to me. Dad talked. I listened and wrote and wrote and and I recorded. Never in my life would I have been able to make up his story on my own.

Cono is here tonight, along with my mother.  They are here in the photos and in the songs that James Hand is playing. They are here in my spirit and in my heart. Together, Mom and Dad are where all questions are answered and all things are resolved. They are now where things are no longer discouraging but instead, they are where things are copacetic.  

My father did not live long enough to see the final product. So Dad, here it is – the final product I told you I would finish. “If I  tell you a rooster wears a pistol, look under its wing.”

And then, my fellow supporters joined me in singing Dad’s favorite song, “Home on the Range,” loud enough for him to hear.