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Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship


Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Cover







I was born and grew up rather unexceptionally in the prairie city of Fort Worth, Texas, my late childhood and youth coinciding with the years of the Great Depression. My family were "nice people" in the Southern phrase, Episcopalian and conservative, with quite a few of the implicit privileges pertaining to that classification, though my father's struggles to stay financially afloat in the 1930s kept us at times barely within the local Establishment's boundaries.

Lying on the eastern rim of the West Texas ranching country, the city had large stockyards and meat-packing plants, an annual Livestock Exposition with its rodeo, and many visitors who wore high-heeled boots and wide hats legitimately, because these were related to their daily work. But its underlying ethos was also quite Southern. Its mythic heroes were often Confederate soldiers, like my four great-uncles, from both sides of the family, of whom two had gotten themselves killed in battle and a third had lost a leg at Chickamauga. Many of the parents of my contemporaries in the town came from other regions, usually in the South-my own mother was born in South Carolina and my father grew up in coastal Texas with a merchant father, though his mother's people had all been ranchers.

Ranching and farming mattered far more in the Texas of those days than they do now. In Fort Worth they were a recent part of most of my friends' family backgrounds, and a number of us, after we were big enough to be of any use, spent our summers doing country work, usually for relatives and at the abysmal rural wages of Depression times. ("A dollar a day and keep" was standard, and workdays often lasted eleven or twelve hours.) My own experience of this sort was not very grand, but it meant a lot to me. One of my older cousins was married to a man who ran a stock farm of several hundred acres not far west of the city, a place that was mainly rangeland, utilized by his beef cattle, and partly creekbottom fields sowed annually to various grain crops.

There I drove an old tractor ahead of a plow, or a binder cutting ripe wheat or oats and tying them into bundles that it dropped into the stubble as it moved along. Afterward I and other workers would stack six or eight of those bundles at a time into shocks to await the arrival of an itinerant thresher, and would do other tasks that needed doing, the most pleasant of which for me-because it had the flavor of old romance-was riding out on horseback and helping to drive in feisty crossbred cattle for branding, dehorning, castration, doctoring, or shipping to market.

There were other fine things about that work. Sometimes I labored alongside talkative Mexican illegals on seasonal jobs like fence repair and firewood cutting, and absorbed from them the Spanish names of things and a stock of unseemly words and phrases. The boss himself, my cousin-in-law, though he was a rough, profane, powerful individual intolerant of weakness in others, was intelligent and had an inquiring mind. He knew much local history, for instance, going back to the Comanche wars of the region, and had a remarkable familiarity with the names and habits of the birds and wild mammals that were all around us there. Later-in part I guess because of him-I went more deeply into these subjects on my own.

And I retained an interest in the land and all that it meant. . . .

Papa had a well-regarded men's clothing store downtown, but his venerable partner, just before the Depression showed its fangs, had bought a large stock of costly merchandise on credit and had promptly died, leaving Papa with the debt during tough times, in an era when bankruptcy was still a major disgrace. A decent and generous-spirited man, he tried not to impose this situation on his family, but it was there.

Hence, for me, there was a slight element of outsiderness that might have helped to keep me from conforming to the pattern into which most of my Fort Worth crowd fitted comfortably, and might also have helped me to break loose later. There were other such semi-outsiders around, and we tended to know one another and to go our own ways after high school, though a few made the jump and became true Establishment types. People of that more standard ilk most often attended the University of Texas in Austin, joining one of three or four "in" fraternities there and getting to know ruling-class scions from all over the state, with whom they would wheel and deal for the rest of their lives. The friendships I had among them, of which there were enough, were based on having grown up in a neighborhood together and attending the same public schools, and on much hunting, fishing, and other country activity. A number of the less prosperous ones ultimately married money, and as a result made more money and became staid and conservative adults, as their parents had hoped all along they would do. I suppose my parents had hoped for much the same thing, though they never pushed me in that direction.

I was not a rebel loaded with social bitterness, but I did see early that those friends' pattern was not for me. For one thing, I was an inveterate reader and shared few of the ruling passions of their world, such as spectator sports, school spirit, and discussion of what local families had how much money. So when the time came, I attended the small scholarly college of Rice in Houston, soaked up literature and history and friendships, and have been grateful ever since for the experience and the institution.

By the time I finished my studies there we had a war on our hands and, along with several million other Americans, I went to it, another break with personal background. Patriotism was involved, of course, but I think mainly I just wanted to see the fighting. If you had grown up on tales of Rebel great-uncles and the Marines at Belleau Wood, you tended to feel that way.

At Quantico, Virginia, I endured candidates' class and was made a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, got imbued with esprit, went through artillery school, and then was sent to Camp Pendleton on the west coast, where the new Fourth Marine Division was being shaped up. This unit shipped out of San Diego in January of 1944, combat-loaded for the invasion of Kwajalein Atoll.

War is an overwhelming sort of subject and possibly has small pertinence to reminiscences concerned with a writing apprenticeship. But as a force it loomed behind my generation for the rest of our lives, and since my fighting career was pretty short, I might as well summarize it here.

Kwajalein was not a tough battle for most artillerists besides the forward observers landing with the infantry. Our guns were set up on islets within firing range of the main fortified islands, Roi and Namur, which were being pounded by naval gunfire and bombs from aircraft. I and my gun crewmen and our four 75-millimeter howitzers (toys in today's terms) spent the night on one such islet, got sniped at by two or three lingering Japanese who had to be hunted down in the palms and underbrush, and the next morning fired on Roi-Namur in support of the main infantry landing there, until friends and enemies in the beachhead, as reported by our observers on their radios, became so intertangled that we had to stop shooting. And for us that was Kwajalein, though the infantry, as usual, suffered its full quota of casualties.

Then came a sojourn at the new Fourth Division tent camp on a flank of Maui's Haleakala volcano, a pleasant time that didn't last long, for in June we went to Saipan in the Marianas. This was no atoll but a fourteen-mile strip of rough hills full of caves, cliffs, gun emplacements, bunkers, and self-confident hate-filled foemen who gave us hell on the beaches and kept it up as we pushed northward, for the whole time I was there, which turned out to be about two weeks. By then I was on the battalion staff as assistant operations officer, with a section of bright youngsters and duties concerned chiefly with surveying in new gun positions as the infantry advanced and we had to move forward time after time, in order to keep firing in their support. This involved instrument work in a sort of no-man's-land behind the front lines, where bypassed Japanese snipers, most of them fortunately poor shots, could make things interesting on occasion.

The beaches had been rough for just about everybody, but I lost only two men while engaged in that later surveying work, neither of them badly wounded, then received my own comeuppance at battalion headquarters one misty early morning, when thirty or forty disoriented Japanese, trying I think to get back to their main force, barged in on us over the top of a little hill and a brisk firefight ensued. They had the advantage of surprise, but we had a machine gun and more people and after a time the hill was quiet. I joined a group going up to check on things, but when we got among the bodies one turned out to be not a body but a live Jap playing dead, who-a friend told me later-rolled a grenade out in front of me which exploded.

The permanent damage turned out to be only the blinding of my left eye, but that was the end of my career as a combatant. After a few months in naval hospitals I finished out the war on limited duty in North Carolina, in charge of a demonstration battery of howitzers which we fired over recruits arriving from the Parris Island boot camp. I guess I was lucky, really, not only in surviving the grenade but in missing out on my division's next island fight, which was Iwo Jima. On Saipan before I got hit, only a few good friends of mine had been killed or maimed, but Iwo took a far bloodier toll.

I didn't feel lucky, though. I felt incomplete. I had been willing, and had gotten pretty good at handling the superb young Marines under my command, and at the work we did with instruments, maps, and guns. But I hadn't managed to last.


A Mexican Interlude


Fresh out of the Marines in late 1945, I spent some time at home in Fort Worth and then went to Mexico. What I had known about that country as a boy in Texas, or had thought I knew, was that it was a very romantic place-a view with sources in my region's literature, in wailed norteño and revolutionary ballads heard on the powerful border radio stations at night, in stints of summertime country work with wetback laborers who had taught me a smattering of their kind of Spanish to back up the classroom kind, in the mere existence of all that colorful foreignness so close to home.

There were even family links of a sort, through my father's mother's people the Cavitts, who had ranched in the South Texas brush country along the Nueces and Frio Rivers. In my time the only surviving relative who knew a lot about this family, having grown up on their ranch, was a warm, bright, old-maid schoolteacher known as Cousin Nora, who for some private reason would not talk about the Cavitts at all. But my father knew quite a few tales that he recounted to me over the years, tales heard from his own mother who had been a child alongside Cousin Nora on that same ranch. These involved not only family eccentricities but Indian raids during which women and children would huddle within a dark house as their men stood on guard outside, forays out of Mexico by the vengeful adherents of colorful, deadly Juan Nepomuceno "Cheno" Cortina, and rustlers and feuds and killings. . . .

One of the stories had been told to Papa not by his mother but his father, who had had no part in it but had tried to help its survivors. And that is the one that fascinated me most when I heard it, and still does.

My grandmother's oldest three brothers had fought in the Civil War and one of them had been killed. The two who came home, one with a peg leg, took up ranching again along the Frio, but within a few years, as the country filled up and the open-range grasses grew skimpier, they moved on west. A younger brother, however, born too late to go to war, remained on the old family land as a rancher. He was known as Monte Cavitt because of his fondness for that card game, and at the age of forty-five he married a Mexican woman much younger than himself, to the disgruntlement of his staunchly Anglo female relatives-I still have a rather caustic letter one of them wrote about this union. Later family ladies never talked about Monte around me, if for that matter they knew anything, and except for Papa I would not have known his story.

Monte's wife died while bearing their third child and only son, and he kept on ranching and raising his children. The older daughter, even when quite young, was said to be the equal of any vaquero at handling horses and cattle. But a few years after the mother's death, a convicted murderer broke out of jail in one of the region's towns, came to the ranch, killed Monte with an axe, raped this daughter, then about fifteen, and stayed for a few days until an alerted posse rode in and lynched him.

My grandfather went down there from up the coast where he lived, made some sort of arrangements for the children's future, and kept sending money. But the older girl's story tailed off into fog a couple of years later, when she married a man named Navarro, a vaquero by report, and they were thought to have moved to Mexico, though nobody seems to have known for sure. And a part of my fascination with the whole affair has derived from the possibility that I have a few Hispanic cousins down there in northern Mexico or the South Texas brush. . . .

I don't suppose the disastrous tale of Monte Cavitt and his family can be called in any way romantic, but somehow I fitted it in with the Indian and bandit raids and the music and all the rest, and managed to maintain a rosily nostalgic view of our southern neighbors' country up until my own war, nursing it even through the standard grubbiness of tequila-flavored expeditions with college friends to the sin towns across the Rio Grande.

This attitude more or less peaked out for me in the summer of 1940, when I went with a classmate to the timeworn, populous hacienda of his mother's people not far from Linares, riding the last few miles on horseback through rough country with an escort of three armed men.Copyright© 2004 by John Graves

Product Details

Graves, John
Random House
New York
Authors, American
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Series Volume:
no. 49
Publication Date:
May 4, 2004
8.52x5.88x.98 in. .98 lbs.

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History and Social Science » Americana » Texas

Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Used Hardcover
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Product details 256 pages Alfred A. Knopf - English 9781400042227 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A] thought-provoking work....Despite abbreviated characterizations, Graves is a master of visual detail, and his journey unfolds with the picturesque clarity of a film."
"Review" by , "A gentle, civilized memoir, as comfortable as an eiderdown but not without a certain goatishness....Exotic but identifiable experiences into which readers can pleasurably insinuate themselves."
"Review" by , "[An] engagingly dry memoir....Graves' art is so deft that readers used to bullet points may wonder when he'll get to the point — but that's a lesson in itself."
"Review" by , "[Graves] is much more than a regional writer, as evidenced by this memoir....Graves's often wry comments are sprinkled between the journal entries, as Old John reflects on Young John."
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