Why Did I Leave the Plow in the Field and Look for a Job in the Town?

Adam Van Winkle

A (creative) essay on moving from poverty and gun violence in Texoma country to poverty and violence in Chiraq.

After the Civil War, town laws forbade women from being out of their houses on Saturday nights because there were so many shootings in Whitesboro. It had a little boom because it was fortunate enough to get part of the measly 400 miles of new track the Confederacy laid during the war. Boomtowns come with bars and guns.

By the time I came along, Whitesboro was a dry-town. No bars, no beer in the grocery store or gas stations. There weren’t any laws prohibiting anyone being out on Saturday night, but the only crowd you’d find would be newly-driving teenagers getting out of their parents’ houses. After the Civil War, they say, there were six stores, three along Main by the city well and three down Union, toward the old post office. Clinnon’s was the only real store left that wasn’t just some old lady’s hobby business or a florist or a farm insurance agency. Its sign boasted it “The biggest little store in town,” which was universally true given it was the only store for so long.

Whitesboro isn’t called Whitesboro because only white people live there. It was a sundown town, with one of those signs up that said Nigger, don’t let the sun set on your black ass. There had been many freedmen that came in with the boom, but when one was accused of rape and then tarred and lynched and signs were then hung, the rest caught the Great Migration out. Many came here, to Chicago.

But the white in Whitesboro comes from Ambrose White, the second real settler in the area. I have no idea why it wasn’t named for the first settler, Robert Diamond.

Maybe Robert Diamond was black.

Whitesboro wasn’t always called Whitesboro. Its very first name was Wolfpath, when the government took it from the Indians.

We lived in a ranch house on the northeast side of town, just off Highway 377, which runs all the way north to the place I was born, Madill, Oklahoma. We were white, of course. All our neighbors were white, of course.

My stepdad’s daddy had bought 178 acres of pasture and farmland halfway between Whitesboro and Madill, nearly on the lake. Six acres were vegetable and fruit patches of varying sorts. Forty to sixty beef cattle were kept at any given point. The back lot, closest to Dutton’s place which did run all the way to the lake, housed a pretty sizeable pecan orchard. There was a big blackberry bush in the middle of a row of cattails on the ridge of a creek bank that divided our place and Dutton’s.

Our place isn’t exactly right. My step-dad’s daddy bought it and paid for it and died there of colon cancer. His wife, Essie, was still alive and lived in the farmhouse with all of it shut off save her bedroom, the kitchen, and a sitting area with a big radio. Rooms sat vacant. Sealed off. After his daddy passed, my step-dad took up the mantle of the farm, and we spent nights and weekends working all of it.

Before he died, his daddy told my step-dad, Huneycutt, that second marriages and stepchildren weren’t real family. My step-dad, when he was still my step-dad, used to apologize he couldn’t give me any piece of the land even though I’d worked the place more than anyone in the family living save him.

Years later, when Essie met my wife, she said, as she had before, she loved me “as much as my real grandchildren,” which is really a complement.

When my step-dad’s brother, Kenneth, was in his forties, he decided to buy the trailer that sat across the lot from the house. He had had polio as a kid, and so when he got sick, he just kind of sat around the trailer and drank Old Milwaukee’s Best. Huneycutt would visit his brother there, Sunday afternoons after farm work, and drink terrible beer with him. He died on a Sunday morning. Essie called his phone to get him to come across the front lot because she’d made breakfast. He didn’t answer. She found Kenneth in the trailer’s long hallway, face down, his nose busted open and nearly cut off from the air-conditioning grate in the middle of the trailer’s carpeted floor where he’d collapsed. Too much water on the brain and the heart.

Essie was born in 1922 when they still had those signs up in town. My step-dad was born in 1949, when they still had those signs up in town. My mom was born in 1960, when they still had those signs up in town, though she was in California where there weren’t sun down towns.

Now mom is married to an accountant. They live in a new construction monstrosity in a suburb. I’ve never seen it in person.

According to the dead purchaser of the property, my then step-dad’s family farm, the Huneycutt farm, was to go to his son from his first marriage. That would not be me.

But my step-dad’s kid who got it all turned out to be a piece of shit. Eventually, he was shot in a robbery of some trailer park by the lake. He and the guy he was with weren’t even taking money or cars or anything. They were taking brake fluid from tool sheds and Sudafed from bathrooms by breaking window screens and reaching into medicine cabinets because a trailer house bathroom is just that small and there’s always a little window. They were getting stuff to cook bad meth so they could try to sell it to buy beer and good meth.

So he died on a different Sunday morning.

That was after Mom married the accountant—husband number three. She was now Mrs. Van Winkle-Huneycutt-Mackey.

Even though they were divorced, I’d still swing by to visit Huneycutt when I was in from college. We’d sit on the porch and drink beers, which he would have done whether I was there or not because this was when he’d become a functioning alcoholic. He’d get drunk and tell me I meant as much as a real son to him, and he wished he could leave me something. He meant it as a compliment.

Years later, the farm was bought by Vista Pointe development, a silly name considering Vista and Pointe mean the same damn thing. It, along with Henderson’s two hundred acres on the east side, is now a series of uniquely laid but similarly planned two-story flagstones with fancy cedar decks and porticos and pavilions made from the same cedar groves we used to cut from for fence posts. A couple of lucky couples paid more and got a pecan tree in their yard. The rest of the orchard was cut down.

Mom lives in a flagstone in the suburbs, with cedar decks and porticos. It’s big, I’m told. She and her husband have four guest rooms, “for all their kids,” because Mom has me and my sister and he has a boy and girl of his own. Apparently his kids don’t really like him. My sister and mother never got along. I’ve never been to their flagstone. Maybe they’ve turned one of the guest rooms into an accountant’s office.

My step-dad Huneycutt still lives in that little ranch house, just off 377. To recap: His brother who had polio and drank himself to death is gone. His son, a meth head, was shot and is gone. So he drinks more and more, wondering when he’ll be gone, too. I bet his liver runs from his genitals to his chin. I haven’t visited lately.

The kids I teach and coach these days grow up a lot like I did. Don’t get me wrong: being city kids means they’ve probably never been shoulder-deep in a cow’s ass, but I’ve come to see the city is a lot more like the country than would initially appear.

See, somewhere in there, after college and after I went back to Whitesboro where I didn’t really have a home anymore, just scattered people and developments, I decided to follow a girl to grad-school in Southern Illinois. Carbondale was beautiful country, like where I grew up used to be before all the lake developments. Then I fell in love with another girl—a nicer, sweeter girl. She is from the north suburbs, so when we graduated we came to Chicago to teach.

We’ve bought and are remodeling a Dutch Colonial on the North Side, about two miles from Wrigley. It reminds me of a Wisconsin or Minnesota barn, all octagonal on top, not like a pitched-roof Texas barn. We’ve got a little country garden in the backyard, with okra and tomatoes and jalapenos. I teach on the Southside.

What that means: The neighborhood I teach in, South Chicago, is all poor and black and Puerto Rican and Mexican and Colombian and Cuban families. Apparently, after the Chicago Fire and up through the World War II, it was a rich white neighborhood. Not now. I don’t know why this is.

Maybe the poor minorities put up a sign that said, “Cracker, don’t let the sun the sun set on your white ass.”

Three students from our school were shot in the last year. Two of them were my students. They were just walking to school, doing nothing that justified being shot at. Then, during my team’s baseball practices last spring there were two shootings that occurred within two blocks of our field. Two kids got shot in a house across the street from our school because of something they posted on the internet. On a single Thursday night in early summer, fiteen people were shot on the south and west sides of the City. None of those died that night, fortunately. Neither did our three students, by the way. They were luckier than my ex-step-brother, and rightly so, since they are so much more innocent.

Still, maybe they should keep the women and children inside on Saturday nights here in Chicago.

I grew up, there in the south, on the farm, pretty comfortable with guns. They hung on the wall. They hung in the rear window rack of the Ford farm truck. We carried .32 revolvers on our hips around the pasture in the summers when the cottonmouths and copperheads were bad. I almost caught a ricochet from my step-dad when he tried to shoot a chicken snake on a log once. We used to shoot the snapping turtles in the pond by the farm house with .22 rifles so they wouldn’t eat Essie’s ducks or geese, or the little perch and crawdads I fished for.

I know a guy down there in the country with a .50 caliber bolted to the bed of his truck. For fun. He shoots up cedar trees and hillsides on his Oklahoma dirt farm.

Some fools have pointed out that city schools are unfairly represented—that there are actually fewer school shootings in urban areas than in rural ones. This is factually true. There are less shootings inside schools here. And there’s good reason for that, these agitators will argue: supply. Country kids, they say, with poor judgment have a lot of guns around for all the snakes and turtles and such.

But this is a complicated fact. None of our three students or the two killed across the street or the shootings within two blocks of our practice field are classified as school shootings because they did not happen in a school. In the city there are less school shootings because they’ll shoot you outside of the building in the broad daylight.

Bully for technicalities.

And besides, there must be guns everywhere, because shootings keep happening everywhere.

The reality is Whitesboro and South Chicago are a lot the same. Kids grow up the same. Sure, they may be black and Latino instead of white. They live on crowded city blocks instead of spacious town and country lots. But they grow up the same. Their parents’ get divorced. The population is deeply religious. The population is wary of outsiders. The population is (generally) homophobic. Parents get divorced again. Parents are alcoholics. Kids are drug addicts. People get shot over drugs. There are guns everywhere.

The last one is what trips me up about these different populations. Divorce and drugs and poverty: that shit’s everywhere you go in the world. But the guns…

See, growing up in Whitesboro, I know why those country folk have guns. But I don’t see any snakes or snapping turtles in the city. What’s there to shoot at in the city but each other?

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Adam Van Winkle was raised in the country and lives in the city. His fiction and writing probably falls into what would be called “New South” these days, but for him, it’s about the folks, the characters, the places, that raised and fascinate him. He admires greatly the fiction and characters of Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike and Raymond Chandler and Tom Waits and American folk and blues standards. His writing has been rejected by publications all over the country.