To foster my early education, my father arranged for me to spend the summer of 1954 with my aunt Mabel and uncle Leon on their modest Coleman County ranch in West Texas. Dad’s mother had died during childbirth, and Mabel, his older, yet still young sister, and her new husband, Leon, had taken him in. Dad had a plan in mind as he and Mom nervously watched their twelve-year-old son walk alone up the ramp of an American Airline’s DC-6 early one foggy morning at Oakland, California’s North Field.
At a speed of just over 250 miles per hour, the extraordinarily long flight took me to Fort Worth, where I visited and then stayed overnight with another aunt and uncle. In the morning, they drove me to a Trailways bus station in a rough part of town, and there I boarded a smoke-belching, white, silver, and red coach for an all-day journey to Coleman, a backwater county seat about 170 miles southwest of Fort Worth. That route through the dusty, tumbleweed-strewn towns of West Texas exposed me to a slice of Americana that I had not witnessed in my sheltered city life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dad knew that the plane ride, the bus trip, and the adventures that would unfold before me were chapters in a summer book that I would carry with me the rest of my life.
In those days, Coleman was at the heart of a bustling, if not booming, ranching and farming area. A farm bureau economist would not have described the town of five thousand as prosperous, but it was well enough off that a one section (one-square-mile) farm could support a family and bring in sufficient cash every five years or so to purchase a new pickup—if hail, drought, a heat wave, or pests didn’t destroy the year’s crops. On average, you would lose two out of every five years. The town’s many preachers were familiar with despair.
Today, the hospital is closed, many storefronts are boarded up, and a number of farms and ranches have become hunting clubs for well-to-do Dallas–Fort Worth area businessmen. Other parcels with particularly fertile soil have been bought up by corporate farming, and their old houses scraped. Undocumented immigrants show up to plow and harvest. Forgotten are the names of the original settlers from the Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee triangle who escaped post–Civil War border strife and homesteaded the area in the 1870s. On Leon and Mabel’s place, the house is gone, but the foundation, the root cellar that doubled as a tornado shelter, and the barn that my carpenter grandfather built to supplement his income as a school teacher remain, along with Leon’s tractors and other ranch machinery, now rusted and sitting like ghost ships sailing a becalmed rutted road.
A weathered one-room schoolhouse still stands at the junction of Star Lane Route and the road east to Santa Anna, just 20 miles away. But the sounds of children and the horses that they rode to school are long gone. Now and then a strong gust of prairie wind bangs the old outhouse door shut.
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My father’s plan had two goals. He sought to give his city-raised son a taste of rural America, and he hoped to distract his sister from her prolonged bout of grief by forcing her to take on the responsibility of overseeing a wide-eyed, energetic preteen boy.
Billy Jack, Mabel and Leon’s only son, was the apple of their eye and one of Coleman County’s most eligible young men. In World War II, he flew P-38 Lightning fighters, known by the Japanese as “Fork Tailed Devils,” in the Pacific campaign, winning medals and the honor of being named a “flying ace” for shooting down a number of Japanese aircraft during aerial combat. Discharged after V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day), he returned to Texas, rented an aging biplane, and flew into the Coleman County airport, where an enthusiastic crowd and a hero’s reception awaited him. During his private aerobatic show, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions unfolded when the stress of a power dive and loop snapped off a wing of the biplane. He augured into the ground in front of an unbelieving crowd. With Billy Jack gone, my father saw me as Mabel’s surrogate son for that solstice and for future ones.
My bedroom was a screened-in porch, and I expected to enjoy sleep-in mornings there. I also imagined a summer of going hunting and fishing and of riding stallions. But the morning after my arrival, Leon gave me the “rise and shine” routine at five o’clock. I shrugged it off, pulled the covers up, and rolled over. Fifteen seconds later, icy water from a ten-gallon back porch barrel rearranged my insolence. After a hearty ranch breakfast, Leon showed me the levers and foot pedals on his threshing combine. By noon, I was a ranch hand. Before a month had passed, muscle mass was budding on my arms.
Leon was never without a twinkle in his eye, and all his life he tried to make unpleasant everyday tasks a game. Years later, on reflection, some said that he was always a child at heart—that he never really grew up. Looking back on my summer visits, which took me through high school, I now know that Leon was wise beyond his years and was a rural version of a renaissance man, despite his tattered Levis, battered straw hat, and chipped-tooth grin.
For me, his standards were high. On the way to spread feed for cattle in a back pasture, we would stop at one of the ranch’s small stock ponds for shooting practice with a .22 caliber rifle. Our targets were hovering dragonflies. Leon would say, “A blind man can hit a beer can.” To improve my skill with a shotgun, he stood me behind the cab of his 1946 Ford pickup, strapped me with lariat ropes to the side rails for safety, and bounced across the furrows of his cotton fields in search of darting, weaving jackrabbits that decimated melons and whittled away at our cotton and maize. He told me that Billy Jack, in a letter sent home from the Solomon Islands, credited that exercise for gunnery skills with keeping him alive and making him an American hero.
Leon Goss started his adult life on a ranch as a cowpoke at age fifteen. By his late twenties, he was foreman on the Witt Ranch, which lay southwest of Coleman in mesquite country. As with many ranches in the area, there was pasture for cattle or horses as well as fertile fields for cash crops. A foreman’s job required a variety of skills and broad knowledge.
Leon taught Sunday school, always bought the sturdiest calf at the lowest price at the county cattle auction, could break a horse, and knew which day to plant his cotton and how to treat a colicky cow, castrate and brand a calf, and suture a barbed wire wound.
It was Uncle Leon who, in a roundabout way, introduced me to hopper fishing. Late in that summer of ’54, West Texas was invaded by swarms of green, three-inch-long, tobacco-spitting, crop-eating grasshoppers. Some said that they came from Mexico; others, primarily Southern Baptists and Evangelicals, declared them the reincarnation of Satan himself. Leon called them simply Devil’s Hoppers.
We knew they were coming. Coleman’s 50-watt radio station reported their march north every day. Hoppers and the destruction they wrought were the talk of the town in the barber shop, the bank, and the Piggly Wiggly market and on the corner. Everyone knew they meant crop loss and economic catastrophe for the unlucky souls who resided in their path. In one of the town’s two greasy spoons, someone pinned a map of Texas on the wall behind the counter. Each morning, a blonde, overlipsticked, raspy-voiced waitress in a starched uniform drew a red east-west chalk line that showed the ravenous insects’ northward march up the state.
They leapfrogged. Some days their squadrons advanced ten miles, others twenty. It was as though Generalissimo Santa Anna’s Imperial Mexican army was advancing on us, and our crops would suffer the fate of the Alamo. By Tuesday, the beasts had reached Breckenridge and then Ballinger, Santa Anna, and finally, they were on us.
The bugs had an unrelenting hunger for cotton and maize. They came like the air cavalry with their Apache helicopters in the first Gulf War. Their ground troops advanced like waves of Viet Cong infantry in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.
Leon’s first weapon in our battle against the hoppers was his orange Allis-Chalmers tractor and rusted gang plows. He believed with all his soul that his chosen implement would stop the ungodly beasts. He tried to bury the first wave—plow them under—hoping perhaps that they would use their dying gasps to communicate to their brethren that they should go elsewhere. But his Devil’s Hoppers marched on. Behind the concentric rows of turned earth, bare stalks told of the ranch’s economic future.
Leon, Mabel, and I huddled together and planned our next assault on the beasts from Mexico. We decided to use diesel fuel to burn the bastards. With high hopes, we jumped into the pickup and headed to the barn for five-gallon jericans, which we then pumped full of the incendiary from our above-ground tanks.
Back at the front line in our cotton field, I lugged the cans from the truck bed and, in a panting, hysterical rush, spread an oily ribbon of fuel down row after row. Leon made torches from straw brooms, and he and Mabel followed me, turning the furrows into moats of smoky flame that darkened our brows and smudged our clothes. We expected charred hoppers and salvation, but the waves of green, munching insects kept coming and coming.
The incinerated bugs dampened the flames and formed charcoal bridges over the furrows for the endless legions. Behind them were rows of cotton stripped to the stalk; ahead lay their lunch, as they marched across the cotton and maize toward our ranch compound. At times, they darkened the sky. Up close they clung to everything, even our clothing and hair, and their tobacco-like juice stained our cheeks and shirts and pants. There was an incessant, inescapable din in the air from whirling wings and the relentless clicking of the spurs on their hind legs. An odor of charred flesh filled our nostrils. I remember my sense of grossness and disgust, but those thoughts quickly disappeared in the task at hand and the rising plumes of burning diesel.
I had never known Leon to swear. I had never known him to give up. He had dealt with the death of a son, drought, hail the size of golf balls, and floods. He was a respected deacon in the Baptist church. Young children adored him. Horses obeyed him. So it surprised me when he turned to Mabel and I and, with sweat, frustration, and diesel grime rolling down his cheeks, said, “We’re fucked. Get some buckets; we’re goin’ fishin’.”
More than a half decade later, I still marvel at the character of a man who, when faced with the despair of economic ruin, another year short of cash, no new clothes for his daughter, and more Rube Goldberg patches on his tractors, decided to look at it all as a glass half full and make the best of a bad situation. I followed Leon’s barked command, ran to the barn, and grabbed wooden slop buckets that I filled to the brim with the creepy green hoppers. Aunt Mabel threw cane poles and Leon’s plug casting rod into the back of the pickup, and we headed down Star Lane Route toward town and then went west up the big hill behind Coleman to Hoard’s Creek Reservoir.
The bass and crappie must have sensed the coming feeding orgy. Leon used the first half bucket to chum the waters of his favorite cove. He wildly threw the squirming hoppers in all directions as though venting his spleen at some unknown foe. We stood three abreast on the end of a wooden dock, watching the water come alive as the fish went berserk over his offering. Each of our cane pole rigs was baited with a humongous hopper that hung three feet below a red-and-white cork bobber. Every time the action slowed, Leon threw more hoppers into the water, and the schools of fish came back to the surface.
Two hours later, our poles were shattered and we were worn out from lifting fish after fish onto the dock. Our throats were hoarse from squealing and laughter. Mabel backed up the pickup to the dock’s edge and lowered its tail gate. We took off our shoes, stepped into the cool water up to our calves, and then filleted bass and crappie until our fingers ached and our arms cramped.
On the drive back to the ranch, Leon stopped in town for ice, and then stopped again where Star Lane Route dipped and crossed a low, wooded ravine in our back pasture. He jumped out of the truck, disappeared up the shallow draw into a mesquite thicket, and returned five minutes later with a broad grin and a case of Pearl beer on his shoulder that he had borrowed from the local bootlegger’s stash.
Leon turned toward me as he threw the case of Pearl into the pickup bed. His voice rose to a high emotional pitch and he blurted out an often-repeated phrase in Coleman County: “Vote dry for the Baptists and elect a wet sheriff. They owe me.”
We stopped once more, this time at a threadbare, rusted-tin-roofed ranch house about a mile and a half from our place. It was our nearest neighbor. I looked beyond the warped barnyard fence and saw rows of stripped cotton and a maize field that held no grain. Mabel got out of the pickup and paused to straighten her shoulders and to gather her dress and composure. I remember a last flick of her hand through her hair as she set her sun bonnet. She opened the shallow, wire compound gate and strode proudly up a short gravel path toward the neighbor’s front door, knowing heartache lay ahead.
There was a long wait before Lucille Green swung open the front door, her eyes red from her tears. Mabel didn’t let Lucille speak. She instead put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Screw the hoppers. We’re having a fish fry in an hour. Bring what you can.”
In May 1996, I received a rare call at my dental office. It was a favorite cousin in Coleman. “We’re all well, but your Uncle Leon died yesterday,” she began. “He was planting cotton, but didn’t feel good. He came out of the field early for supper, parked his tractor uncommonly close to the ranch house, and said, “Take me to the hospital.” Leon passed away a few hours later, eighty-six years young.
Seven years passed. My dad and I flew to the new Dallas–Fort Worth airport, rented a car, and made the 165-mile drive west to Coleman, this time much of the way on an interstate. We visited Aunt Mabel, the cemetery where my grandparents, Leon, and Billy Jack are buried, and ate some good barbecue at TJ’s. The next day, we went by the abandoned schoolhouse where my dad had learned his ABCs. We left a day later, in first light, as the purple wall of a blue northerner descended on us, drove south past San Angelo and through the Texas Hill Country in a pilgrimage to the Alamo.
A year later, another call alerted me that Coleman’s Sheriff Robbins had taken Mabel’s car keys from her after she ran a stop sign and crashed into his patrol car at an intersection near her home. Three months later, she died in her sleep at age ninety-four, a few hours after feeding her chickens and her pet catfish in the pond just down the road from the original ranch house that had been built by the grandfather I had never known.
How does an adult remember the vivid details of things that happened over a half century ago? Perhaps it was the human spirit of people fighting for their lives that was etched into my young brain. Perhaps it was the memory of crisp bass and crappie fillets that had been dredged in a flour-and-cornmeal batter and then dropped into a huge cast-iron skillet of bubbling lard, only to rise minutes later cloaked in a golden crust. It could have been the smell of the oval hush puppies dipped in melted freshly churned butter that Mabel called “little yellow life boats,” or maybe neighbor Lucille Green’s vinegary coleslaw, or perhaps even the buzz from the bottle of frosty Pearl beer that I swigged behind the barn.
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Today I chase fish all over the world with a fly rod and use artificial flies that imitate all sorts of insects that fish eat. I particularly enjoy fishing grasshopper hatches with a variety of imitations, such as the legendary Dave’s hopper, the Joe’s hopper, the parachute hopper, the Quick and Easy hopper, a foam hopper, Fat Alberts, and a huge red-and-black Chernobyl hopper, to mention only a few. I carry a dedicated fly box filled to the brim.
Several years ago, I was fishing the remote Emperador Guillermo River in Chilean Patagonia. My fishing partner and I, along with a fly fishing guide known to us only as Geronimo, parked our truck, crossed a barbed wire fence, and walked through a mile of chest-high purple wildflowers and waving grass on our way to a place on the river where it pinched and ran along the base of a rocky cliff. Suddenly, Geronimo pointed ahead with a deeply tanned forearm and finger and said simply, “saltamontes” (grasshoppers). Each step forward flushed hundreds of clicking, swirling grasshoppers that milled around our heads. Their translucent wings reflected dancing rays of a morning sun that was climbing higher into the sky.
My mind flashed back fifty years or so to charred fields, visions of Aunt Mabel and Uncle Leon, and that dusty, drink water Texas town. I smiled and knew that the trout would be willing, that friendships would be cemented that night, and that good wine and a great meal awaited us back at the estancia.