The Roswell Alien Museum and Research Center is on Main Street, an avenue dotted with trinket shops and ads featuring a big-eyed “alien” hawking hamburgers, gasoline, and the wares of various convenience stores. At the north end of Roswell is the New Mexico Military Institute, while the flat, brown-gray expanse of the staked plains surrounds the town, the Pecos Valley studded with a few hills and ridges lining the horizon. It’s not the Roswell I remember from decades before when the family would gather at Uncle Al’s house for Thanksgiving. There are fewer Stetsons and pickups, and more tricked-out low riders, but the memories, long-faded by the years, come into focus when a familiar landmark is spotted. And in the older part of town, the streets are lined with barren yards and the familiar adobe houses.
The GPS periodically informs us we are off the system’s grid of mapped roads, telling us to “proceed with caution,” as we track down the house where Aunt Anne and Frank Wright made their home, both of them long gone, then trace a path to Uncle Eb’s place south of town. We pull onto a dusty road that takes us to the old house, chickens pecking near the back door, where Eb, stooped and white headed now, greets us. I can still make out the handsome face, trim moustache, and sparkling blue eyes—characteristics of Eb and much of the extended family—surfacing from the now-tired and worn features of a 92-year-old man. Eb, who once stormed Omaha Beach, makes his way slowly and steadily back to his chair, and we speak of “Mom” and his father, James Franklin Allensworth, and of my late grandfather, Oliver, the oldest of eight brothers and one sister. Eb still has his wit and charm, though his hearing is gone. Our next stop is with his surviving brother, Ron, called Speedy by everybody. His body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, his speech slurred, he remains lucid. They seem pleased to see us, even grateful, though they both tire quickly.
The stories are what we are after; this may be the last time to clear up some things. As it turns out, James Wright, Aunt Anne’s and Uncle Frank’s son, remembers them better than most.
“You have arrived at your destination,” we are told, but all I can see is a dirt road and a few trailer houses planted in the grass, stray dogs barking, some of the mailboxes unnumbered. We finally figure out that it must be the one with the Ford sedan parked out front, and it is. James lives with his second wife, Cynthia, his first wife having died many years ago. (“He still calls me Mary sometimes, but I don’t pay any attention,” she says.) The ravages of time and disease have marked them both, yet Cynthia remains cheerful and outgoing. She greets us at the door, and we take our seats after she helps James in. James is frail and bent. He unsteadily pushes himself along with a walker, his white hair thin, brushed back from his face, his body wasted. The James Wright of years past had sharp features and a quick and intelligent mind. He was a reader like many of the Allensworths. Uncle James’s features have changed, but his mind, as we soon learn, is still sharp.
He settles into his easy chair, and James opens up, his eyes the familiar blue, watery but gaining a spark as he tells us what we have come to hear—his memories brought into focus by my father, Billy Lee Allensworth, who guides the conversation, seeming to flip a switch somewhere in Uncle James’s mind. My father starts by bringing up the war. His uncles Al, Eb, and Jack Allensworth took part in the D-Day invasion and served for the duration. His brother Harold died that day. Harold and James had been trained together at Harlingen, in South Texas. Uncle Clyde fought in the Pacific.
So James begins: “That war comes back to haunt me. I live on my memories; they are precious to me now, but it hurts me so. I can’t remember yesterday, but the past has become sharper, clearer to me. Some of the boys stopped at your house in Houston, Billy, on the way overseas, and we all made our way there during the hard times. Oliver always found work and helped anyone he could. We could eat there, too, food we hadn’t seen in it seemed like years. I thought the world of that man.
“Harold went to gunnery school and then overseas. They told us all to keep quiet; there were supposed to be spies everywhere. Maybe there were. So Harold didn’t call home even though he passed through Houston, too. I knew then that he would not be coming back. He died a hero’s death. Do you have his medals? A German gunner got him; I could see it in my mind’s eye. He and your mother, Billy, were close. Somehow, Eb and Jack and Al stayed together, which is not something they’d let happen often. It was because of those five brothers in the Navy, I forget their names now . . .
“I want to apologize to you, Billy. When Al died, and you were at the funeral, I turned away when I saw you coming to speak to me. I just couldn’t. Al was my best friend . . . I’m tired of funerals. I don’t go to the cemetery anymore; it hurts me so, and I can’t get around, anyway. Remember when we played baseball at Thanksgiving and Al, even after his wound, would run around those bases on his wooden leg? And the boys played in that band—we have pictures of them. Eb was always on the lookout for a violin, and he found one that played just right in a bombed-out house during the war. He brought it back with him. Al carried a Luger he got over there for the duration. The stories you have heard about Al’s heroism are true. He was quite a guy, and a real ladies’ man in his day. I think he chased every girl in the Pecos Valley when he was young . . . And Clyde—I’m sorry, Billy, nobody told you about him. It was his heart, and it came unexpectedly. One day, he was a stout fellow, the next a hull of a man.
“The Allensworths made their mark in life in a big way. You should know the stories . . . ”
James paused for a moment as if he were gathering himself, marshaling his strength.
“Grandma and Grandpa were married in Texas. She was from an old family, the Gobels, that went back a ways in Texas history. They say Grandma Gobel’s second husband, a man by the name of Banta, was killed by Indians. Comanches, probably. Texas was a wild place then. My grandfather Allensworth married my grandmother when he was twenty-four and she was fifteen. He was a handsome cowboy; she, a pretty young girl. That was the sum total of their lives then. Clyde and Ron lived the cowboy life for a while. Ron for longer, riding bulls in the rodeo. I never wanted to get near one of those bulls, I’ll tell you. But Ron was never seriously hurt.”
Billy asks his cousin if he had heard of the Allensworths knowing the James family. James Wright nods and answers he has heard that before. Billy recites a story of Oliver carrying a tote sack to collect birds on a hunting trip with his father and an aging Frank James. As a boy, Oliver saw Geronimo at Fort Sill. The conversation drags a bit, then James takes it up.
“We had a beautiful place in Arkansas for a while. Daddy traded a car for it, along with what money we had, and that old farmer took it. He told his wife to load up everything they had, and they just left right then. On the way out he yelled that there was on old mule on that place and we could have him, too.”
Billy interrupts with a story: Does James remember when he passed through that place in Oklahoma? They were all gathered there for a wedding, and Dell Ray and some of the others planned a big practical joke . . .
“Yes, I remember it well. They planned to shivaree the newlyweds. They planted two sticks of dynamite in some treetops near the house and stormed the place on their wedding night. Billy, you were the one that fell through the porch. We had brought a truckload of apples from Arkansas—we didn’t know anything about raising apples and couldn’t sell those things. They were getting bad, so we just gave them away.
“Daddy fit in well with the Allens worths. He like to roam, too. We had nothing, but I got to see the West. We set off in his car. When nightfall came, we would throw an old mattress on the ground and sleep there. We fried potatoes in a pan—I still love pan fries. Daddy bought that car for seven dollars. He eventually managed to fix it up and sell it. Doubled his money, and he thought he was really doing well, but we spent the money. It was something he went on and did a number of times: He would buy an old car, fix it, and sell it. Everybody picked cotton then. I was never much good at it. My mind would wander, and I didn’t make much money for the family. That was the way it was . . .
“Like I said, your daddy always helped everyone. Oliver was wandering through a freight yard and ‘found’ a sack of potatoes once—he brought it back, and we ate on that for quite a while. Oliver always had a garden, a good garden.”
James switches gears. “What was the name of that beer joint in Galveston? The Dew Drop Inn? No, the Swanky Inn. Velma’s brother Taft ran it. You all used to go fishing down there quite a bit in the old days.”
James begins to tire.
We are joined by Uncle Cliff’s daughter Ruth, as outgoing as her late father, who was also the most outspoken of the clan. Ruth has pictures in shades of black and white and faded brown. She has pictures of a grinning Sgt. Jack Allensworth in his uniform; of all the boys in uniform in front of Grandpa Allensworth’s old house, which looks tiny, a small porch seeming barely to hang on to the slight building; of Aunt Anne and Velma, my grandmother, with her Oliver, “Mom” Allensworth beaming next to them, James Franklin, her husband, holding a pipe, wearing suspenders and his ever-present short-brimmed hat; and of the boys in black Western shirts, string ties, and black Stetsons, holding their instruments. Ron was just a barefoot kid in overalls in the photos—I forget sometimes that he is 30 years younger than his oldest brother, Oliver, who always looked distinguished, his well-groomed hair and pencil-thin moustache evoking memories of screen idols of the 20’s and 30’s. And there is a picture of Harold in his flight uniform, complete with goggles and headgear. He was killed just a month before his 19th birthday. His B-24 was nicknamed Sweating It Out, and we have a picture of the crew.
The trip was worth it. We’ve learned a lot: where Grandma Allensworth was born; how Ron got the nickname Speedy; where Tommy, Cliff Allensworth’s son, lives nowadays; and that old people, as they fade, lose touch with one another and their everyday existence, but sometimes manage to hold on to their memories, recorded in the recesses of their minds as life itself ebbs and the eternal tide changes.
As we take our leave, James thanks us all. He thanks my mother, Shirley, for organizing this trip, my brother, Bobby Ray Allensworth, for gathering a family history, and my father, Billy, for the spark that brought things back to him. And me? “It’s up to you now, to make a mark,” he says. “This is the last time we will see one another, you know.” James insists on getting up and seeing us out. (“I’ll not sit while you leave my house!”) Billy says he will be off now to his place in Meridian, Texas, a beautiful piece of country with lots of game. “Daddy—Oliver—would have loved it there,” he says. James smiles and says, “Maybe he’s already there.”
It’s about eight hours back to Fort Worth, where I make my home, and the images and words and stories come back time and again. I envy them, those old people. I envy them in spite of the hardships of their lives lived out in a Dust Bowl world. Or is it in a way because of those hardships? For those lives were made up of family bonds much stronger than we are accustomed to now. And it seems that their friendships were deeper and more realized. Every experience, the simple foods they loved, the country they saw, even the pain and struggle and loss seem more vital, on some other plane of existence that seems inaccessible to us now in a world that is less substantial, somehow ephemeral. I envy them everything except their painful lingering in a world they no longer understand.
The Southern Plains are dotted with power lines and fast-food establishments now, the ridges topped by the gigantic wind turbines that gather cheap energy, the life’s blood of a consumer-driven “lifestyle.” What’s left are the dusty little towns, the cattle and horses, the antelope in the grasslands, the reminders of life and death and old-time religion from “full-gospel” churches and occasional graveyards, and warnings that time is short, and none of us know the day nor the hour.
A black billboard appears on the horizon, splashed with bold white letters, proclaiming
it will be sudden
it may be soon
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