My origin story isn’t something that happened to me. It happened to my father. I inherited it.
Kelly Blanton was one of eight sons and two daughters of Ruth and Emmett Blanton, all red-headed. They’d joined the Depression-era dust bowl exodus from the North Texas cotton belt, heading to California’s Central Valley. They were a farmer family escaping drought and mineral depletion and erosion of already marginal soil, looking for Paradise.
When they got here, conditions were not as advertised, jobs not as pluckable as the ripe oranges promised on the fliers that drew them. When they were lucky, the Blantons lived in farm labor camps built by the Farm Security Administration, all of them in one room, the kids in one shared bed, an outhouse shared with everybody else in camp. They were glad to get it.
Like so many Dust Bowl children, the Blanton kids rose early with their parents to pick cotton before school, because morning dew made the cotton heavy, so even the tiniest kids could make more money at five in the morning than they could in their second shift, after school.
My dad and his brothers and sisters got a real, close-up education in economics. They understood the price of things, what they cost.
Maybe that explains what happened. Or what my father, Kelly, told me happened. The story changes, depending on what’s been happening when he tells it. Or when I hear it.
Here’s one version.
One hot night, twelve-year-old Kelly was playing on the dirt outside their Hooverville tent with his best friend. Let’s call him Buddy. It was better to stay out at night playing in the dirt than to go to bed with all those brothers and his sister, somebody always wetting the bed—you knew who you wanted to sleep next to and when you didn’t get that spot you’d rather lay down outside in the dirt because you weren’t going to get a bath before school and you didn’t want to go in smelling like urine.
So. Kelly and Buddy were playing marbles in that dirt late at night when Buddy’s mom came out of her next-door tent and said, “I need you to get rid of Daddy.”
Buddy’s daddy was a sweet man. He liked to kid with the boys in the cotton field. In fact, he may have done more kidding than picking. But when he’d been really drinking, he was hardly in the field at all.
That was the problem. Buddy’s mama could no longer afford a sweet, lazy drunk who not only did not carry his own weight, but also consumed what she and her son produced. The money for food. For dust bowl people, there was no greater crime than taking resources away from those who earned it and needed it. It was a matter of desperate economics.
She said, “Take him thirty miles south and leave him on the side of the road.”
Buddy begged her. Wasn’t there some other way?
His mama said No, and she meant it.
So Buddy and Kelly each grabbed a piece of the passed-out, sweet-natured drunk and half-carried, half-dragged him to the back seat of a rusty five-seater.
Buddy was crying so hard it was clear that Kelly would have to drive. At twelve years old, he engineered that jalopy down the highway, even as Buddy’s daddy woke up and bellowed and vomited and begged the two boys not to do this.
Between Buddy and his daddy, snot and salty tears flowed. Kelly drove, silent, scared. And when the odometer told him it had been thirty miles, he pulled the car over, grabbed Buddy’s daddy by the feet, and dragged him to the highway’s shoulder by himself. Buddy’s daddy made a lot of noise, but he was too drunk to resist in a meaningful way.
Then Kelly turned that car around and drove Buddy back to the camp and his waiting mama, Buddy accusing him of terrible things on the whole drive home.
The next morning, before light, Buddy and his mama had moved out, leaving trash all around behind, like this was some squatter camp and not official, where the nice people lived. Kelly never saw his friend again.
This is one of several versions of the story I have heard over the years.
When I ask him about it now, Kelly says, “I learned the world is hard. That’s how I got the grit in me.”
My father is gritty. He does the hard things he thinks are necessary, things other people won’t do. He prides himself on being tough enough to survive. He believes that the grit that got in him as he grew up between train tracks and a cotton field gave him the fortitude that would pay off in the end.
He grew up out of the dust, went to college, became a fifth-grade teacher, married a smart, pretty girl, a farmer’s daughter, earned his doctorate in education, became superintendent of schools, cofounder of an internet company, and many other things. There are several chapters to his story. His toughness, his grit, did carry him through.
Seven decades later, he says that story is all you need to know if you want to know him. But what does that story mean? What does it mean to be the kid who dumped Buddy’s father?
Maybe you think it shows a lack of sensitivity. After all, we don’t know what happened to Buddy after this, growing up without his father.
But maybe it means that some kids, growing up in a world that doesn’t see them as actual children, bearing the pressure of economics on their backs, will crumble, will never rise up. Maybe it means that other kids in such a world will develop this skill of doing the math, choosing the practical option, even when it does harm, too.
My father has had brilliant successes and painful failures, mostly provoked by this tough resolve to do “what needs doing”. He doesn’t second-guess much of this.
I said before that this is my origin story, too, though I wasn’t alive when it happened.
It’s gotten in me, like the grit in the dirt and the air around the fields that my father breathed in his whole life. It’s lodged in my lungs, making me short of breath sometimes.
I don’t think I would have loaded up Buddy’s daddy, dumped him by the side of the road. I don’t think I could have. But I also don’t think I’m as tough as my dad. And often I regret that.
This story is at the heart of Copy Boy, the reason why I wrote it.