THE OFFICE – They are now hanging on the wall here, a large set of cattle horns. Having been flooded out of our happy home for the last 50 years by Hurricane Harvey, we have moved to new digs. Going through boxes, I came up with this set of horns which had adorned my old office. The brief backstory and why you should care: My mother’s grandfather was a Texas rancher, and back then the big meal of the day was lunch. So each day Oscar Jones would come in and sling his dusty, sweaty cowboy hat on the dinner table. My grandmother, a child at the time, thought that was disgusting, so she sought out the ranch butcher and they selected the cow, bull or unicorn, with the best horns. It was butchered and the horns were mounted in the ranch house’s front hall. Each noon Oscar could come in and toss his hat on the horns instead of on the cornbread, black-eyed peas and bull tongues.
I know this story because, as a child, I was forced to accompany my mother to visit relatives back in the hinterlands. It was a dreary, wet and gray afternoon and the ladies were discussing Uncle Edgar’s gout or Aunt Susie Jane Alice Maggie’s second husband’s lynching or some such thing. If there is anything a 10-year-old doesn’t want to hear, it is family tales, so I went rummaging in the garage and came upon two separate horns, and brought them in, curious. “Oh, my. Where did you find those?” Aunt Babs Sharon JennyJoan asked. And then they told me the tale. I took the horns home and the next Christmas there was this big box under the tree with my name on it. The box contained — oh, you are the sharp one – the horns all cleaned and mounted.
The reason I bore you with this family tale is that every family, including yours, has tales, objects, photos and rumors that are in danger of being lost. Tick-tock. Uncle Marvin, who knows all the inside skinny on your aunts, uncles and illegitimate cousins, is not looking well. Grand Ma keeps drooling oatmeal on her bib, so you should update her obit.
But the point is, you need to get their oral history before they pass on to that Great Walmart in the Sky. My mother and her sister, Aunt Jane, were a goldmine of family tales, but I waited too late. They did tell me that their father, Lynn Cox, for whom I am named, started out as a 19-year-old railroad conductor in Texas and ended up as vice-president of the railroad. One day my mother and grandmother were riding on his train and a cowboy said he wouldn’t pay for a ticket. Lynn Cox opened a window on the moving train, stuck the cowboy’s head out the window (this was before a/c), slammed the blinds down on his neck and began to kick him, then hauled the poor guy to the platform between the cars, threw him off the train and tossed his bag. My grandmother was screaming and my mother was crying. Ah, you don’t get good family stories like that anymore.
There is a problem of recording some tales, because as the years go by, people’s memories fade and they lose, they lose. Where was I? Oh, yes. The Medal of Honor winner. I was writing a newspaper obit about a late veteran, and the widow sent in info, including that he had received the Medal of Honor. Hey, that was big news, but a quick investigation showed he hadn’t. Now, either the old soldier was stretching the truth or the new widow simply got it wrong. OK, what’s the opposite of serendipity? A friend from Oklahoma decided to look into his ancestry. “I discovered most of them were outlaws.” My wife’s father had a very interesting life. After he died she put together a book, interviewing relatives, friends, going through old clippings and photos, and handed them over to a journalist (I didn’t qualify) who wrote a fine book which will be handed down to our offspring and theirs.
We now come to an important point, and I don’t have a good answer. Like many of you, I have old photographs of ancestors. I know who they are, but if I stick a note on the back of the photograph, Scotch tape only sticks a few years, some photos are too fragile to be written on the back. My grandchildren will be sifting through pictures, unattached notes, and probably toss the whole lot. Here is my great-great-great etc. grandfather, married 1836, with a long white beard, scowling, looks like a Mormon elder with constipation. We refer to him as “Chuckles” Kuykendahl. Someday the grandkids will ask: “Who’s this guy? Looks like a Mormon elder with constipation. Toss.”
Many families have an elderly aunt who can spin tales of bygone days. Get her to talk into a tape recorder and write down her memories, which you will probably lose. Usually it’s impossible to check the accuracies, so go with the more colorful version. Here’s a last one. Euphemia Ashby (I can’t find her real first name) was standing on her front porch during the American Revolution with her two smallest children. Her husband, Capt. Stephen Ashby, “captain of foot,” (infantry) and her two eldest sons were off fighting the Red Coats. A group of British POWs came slouching by. A young British lieutenant broke away and asked Euphemia if he could have a drink of water. “Under these circumstances,” she replied, “I would gladly give a drink of water to the entire British Army.” The young lieutenant smiled at the situation, got his drink, and marched on.
I didn’t tell you about Lynn Cox conducting a train between Houston and Dallas when a drunken cowboy peed in Lynn’s coat pocket. But you can probably beat that one.
Lynn Cox is at firstname.lastname@example.org