Bill, fourth from the left, is my father. Joe, Graham, and Donald are my uncles. Collectively, they were known as “the Waller boys.” There were a number of other Waller boys in town, but these four, along with their brother Maurice, who died in 1952, were the.
Rob is their first cousin.
The snapshot was taken at the Fentress United Methodist Church homecoming, ca. 1980. That was the last time they were all together.
Ernest wanted a share of the chili I had for dinner. I was not into sharing.
He’s never had people food and thus has no concept of tummy ache. He also has no concept of, “It would burn your mouth.” Or, “You wouldn’t eat it. After you get one sniff, you’ll walk away.”
Or, “I don’t eat your food, so you’re not going to eat mine.”
Truth to tell, I wasn’t crazy about it myself. It came from a can. Thinking canned chili appropriate for sheltering in place, which I assumed would be like spending several years in an underground bomb shelter, I bought two cans. After a month inside I gave in and opened one.
When I say I wasn’t crazy about it, I mean it it’s okay, but it doesn’t measure up to my mother’s. Well, what does?
She didn’t use as much chili powder as the factory does. She sautéd onions, browned ground meat, and added Chili Quick. She might have used a little chili powder, but not much. Chili Quick did the job. No catsup, no tomatoes, no jalapeños. Sometimes we spooned chili over rice, but the two were never combined at the stove. Like rice, pinto beans were served on the side.
She usually delighted my father by making it for the first cold snap.
“Oh, I can’t cook,” she often said. When I disputed that, she said she didn’t cook exotic or complicated dishes. I told her she was a plain cook. For the most part, she made what my father liked, which meant she cooked what his grandmother had (for example, fried chicken unencumbered with layers of crust, homemade peach ice cream, meringue pies). There was one exception: She served only one kind of meat dish per meal. The Waller women put three meats on the table (for example, roast beef, ham, fried steak); his aunts apologized if they served only two.
My father ate everything my mom cooked, even fried liver, which he hated, but he never complained. When he wasn’t home, she cooked creamed chicken on toast. Home from World War II, he had banned creamed everything, Irish potatoes, and Spam. He got over the Irish potato phobia but not the other. My first week in second grade at a new school, I reported that the cafeteria offered a choice of ham or something else that was flat and sort of pinkish. I’d never heard of Spam.
I understand I’m not the only Baby Boomer unfamiliar with that delicacy.
Having been stationed for several months in Scotland and England, my dad also banned mutton. For a while after the war, mutton was the only meat my mom could get. She pretended it was beef.
Casseroles were not a favorite so we didn’t often have them. Once, when I was in high school—a good twenty years after D-Day—my mom came home from work with a new recipe for tuna casserole and said she liked it and was going to make it, so there. It was terrible. We ate peanut butter sandwiches and gave the casserole Desiree, our Collie. Desiree looked at it and walked away. Randy, the enormous yellow dog who lived next door, came over and finished it off. How he managed to gobble up every scrap, even soupy white sauce, and leave the asparagus I don’t know. I guess it’s a dog thing.
Back to Ernest. He was interested in the chili but ignored the green beans. Also canned. I sympathized. I love fresh green beans. The green pintos that came from my great-uncle’s Maurice’s garden on the farm were delicious. So were the mature pintos.
I’ve picked rows and rows of those, then sat at home in the air conditioning, shelling same. Most went into the freezer, as did black-eyed peas. Cream peas, rarely planted, we’re exquisite.
Uncle Maurice was generous with his produce, but gathering it could be hazardous. Once when a group of women were picking beans and peas for a Methodist Church dinner, one of them came upon a rattlesnake. The story goes that she ran but her shoes stayed put.
One year, Dick Ward, of nickel ice cream fame, stopped my father outside the ice cream parlor, then went back inside and brought out a paper sack of dried cream peas and asked my dad to plant them on his farm, where Dick had once lived. At the end of the season, my dad delivered to Dick the entire crop—one pea. The seeds were either old or passive aggressive.
Back to Ernest again. As I said, he wouldn’t have eaten the chili. But he would have snuffled it, and eating chili that’s been cat snuffled is almost as bad as eating chili that’s been cat licked. I’ve caught him licking cream cheese off English muffins I’ve carelessly set on the table beside my recliner and walked away from. I can’t be sure he won’t branch out, and that would be a certain recipe for tummy ache.
And, most important of all, I’m Ernest’s mother. I should do as well by him as mine did by me.
Around the year 1900, several miles outside the little farming community of Fentress, Texas, a boy working in the field looked up and saw a funnel cloud. He ran home, shouting that that a tornado was coming.
The family gathered in the kitchen. They were frantic. The whirling black cloud was headed directly for the house. At any second, it would hit. All they could do was pray.
So they dropped to their knees and closed their eyes, and the father prayed the only prayer he could think of:
“Father, for what we’re about to receive, make us truly thankful.”
And then he jumped to his feet and shouted, “Oh, no! That won’t do!”
The story is true. My great-aunt Bettie Waller, who had known the principals, told it while her husband, Uncle Maurice, sat by and shook with silent laughter. Last fall, while going through old pictures, I found a piece of paper with story notes written on it—in my great-aunt Ethel’s handwriting—a scrap of the history of a small place.
Epilogue: The tornado turned, missed the house, and hit the barn. Neither humans nor animals were harmed.Everyone was truly thankful.
Yesterday I shared a Juneteenth memory–roasting ears. Today I’m sharing memories of two more foods that made June special.
The first is even better than roasting ears: watermelon, which is grown around Luling, ten miles from my hometown. Corn could be frozen for use any time, but when I was a child, watermelon made you w-a-i-t. And once the season was past, that was that. It took forever for Juneteenth to roll around again.*
In 1989** a Guinness World Record was set for the first time in Luling for the longest watermelon seed-spit. The record of 65 feet, 4 inches was set by John Wilkinson, a festival attendee from Houston, Texas. Then in 1989,** a local man, Lee Wheelis, re-established the record spitting a distance of 68 feet, 9 1/8 inches. This year a $500 cash prize will be awarded to the top spitter in the Championship Contest and should Luling’s record distance be broken, an additional $500 will be added to the top prize.
In addition, “[s]pitting champions have also been featured guests on the Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, the Regis and Kathy Lee Show, and Howie Mandell’s show.”
Luling also claims to have the world’s largest watermelon. Click hereto see a picture.
But, although the Watermelon Thump is a grand festival, it’s really beside the point. The pleasure is in the eating.
I don’t have the words to describe the taste of watermelon, but Mark Twain did:
“The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented.”
The italics are mine. And Twain was right. Who could repent of eating watermelon?
(Not wishing to spread misinformation I looked it up. The Bible doesn’t say Eve repented after eating the forbidden fruit, but, all things considered, I’ll bet she did.)
My last Juneteenth memory is Aunt Bettie Waller’s birthday. She was married to my great-uncle Maurice from 1905 till his death in 1970, and I don’t think they ever had a cross word between them. That’s not an exaggeration. They were crazy about each other and spent a lot of time laughing. He was the quietest person I’ve ever known, though; when other people guffawed, he just shook. Occasionally Aunt Bettie would decide they should do something, such as air condition the house or turn a screened porch into a sitting room, and he would disagree. When that happened, she talked–quietly, mildly, just mentioning it from time to time–until, after a while, she’d convinced him it was his idea. And after it was done, he was always so pleased with the result.
She did report one major subject of discord. When their son, Pete, was very young, Uncle Maurice refused to discipline him because “he won’t love me.” Aunt Bettie pleaded: “If you don’t make him behave, he won’t know you’re his father.” Once when Uncle Maurice corrected him, Pete retorted, “Uh-uh. That’s Ma’s job.” Then one night at dinner, Pete lobbed a plate of food at Uncle Maurice, and family dynamics underwent a radical change. Everybody kept on loving everybody else.
We often celebrated Aunt Bettie’s birthday with a dinner, featuring corn and watermelon, of course–but the entree was always hamburgers. To her, that was what the angels eat.
Treated to lunch once at a fashionable restaurant, Aunt Bettie ordered a hamburger. Her host expressed disapproval, something along the lines of, “Miss Bettie, I didn’t invite you to this restaurant for a meal you can get at the Dairy Queen. Order anything you want.” Aunt Bettie wanted a hamburger.
The menu at our gatherings rarely varied. Each woman brought a signature dish. Even for her own party, Aunt Bettie made potato salad. Unfortunately, no one asked for the recipe; there probably wasn’t one. The secret ingredient was probably sugar. That generation of Wallers put sugar into everything–and still, most of them were built like scarecrows.
Aunt Bettie lived to be 101. She would have been 132 last Tuesday. She was a delight to be around, and I miss her.
I miss that potato salad, too. I wish I had the recipe. More to the point, I wish I had a big bowl of it.
And I wish I were one of the Wallers built like a scarecrow.
*Watermelons are available all year in grocery stores now, shipped in from Elsewhere. No waiting. Small. Bland. They’re not the same.
** The paragraph from the Thump webpage was copied and pasted into this post. I assume one of the dates reading 1989 is a typographical error.
Sunday night, and I’m watching Ben Hur on the local PBS channel. I saw it the first time on a Saturday afternoon at the Rita Theatre in Del Rio, Texas, in 1961. The movie was released in 1959, but Del Rio was an out-of-the-way place, and films didn’t travel as quickly then as they do today.
It’s a beautiful movie. The highlight is the chariot race that pits the main character, Judah Ben Hur, against his childhood friend, later enemy, the Roman Messala.
My friends and I didn’t go home raving about the chariot race, of course. The story was about friendship and betrayal and hatred and revenge and forgiveness–mature themes–and if we appeared too much interested in the race, adults might think us childish. Nine-year-old girls don’t like to be thought childish.
Watching tonight (for the fifth or sixth time at least), I think how silly we were. The chariot race is magnificent. Andalusian horses and Lippizans, pounding hooves, blades on the hubs of Mesalla’s chariot cutting through his rivals spokes, cars tipping, drivers flying out, being dragged and trampled, Messala lashing Judah with his whip, the crowd cheering…
One critic wrote that chariot race “will probably be preserved in film archives as the finest example of the use of the motion picture camera to record an action sequence. The race . . . represents some 40 minutes* of the most hair-raising excitement that film audiences have ever witnessed.”
Moreover, it was done without the aid of sophisticated computer software. Those were real men, real horses, real dangers. I’m glad I grew up before special effects became easy, when we were still capable of being impressed and saying Wow!
A Baby Boomer, I’ve had a lifetime of Wows! When I was five, Charlton Hestonparted the Red Sea. Wow! When I was nine, Alan Shepard traveled into outer space. Wow! When I was ten, the Absentminded Professor ironed Flubber onto the soles of high school basketball players, and they bumped their heads on the gymnasium ceiling. Wow! When I was eleven, John Glenn orbited the Earth. Wow! When I was eighteen, two Americans walked on the moon. Wow!
Older people told stories that elicited Wows, too. In 1910, my great-uncle and -aunt, Maurice and Bettie Waller, and Aunt Bettie’s best friend, Miss Annie Barber saw a stage performance of Ben Hur. After sending students home early–Aunt Bettie and Miss Annie taught together at a rural school–they and Uncle Maurice traveled by horse and buggy fifty miles north to Austin, saw the play, and immediately headed back home. They arrived just in time to open school the next morning.
When Aunt Bettie told me that, I was so impressed. Bouncing over a hundred miles of gravel roads in a horse-drawn buggy in less than twenty-four hours, just to go to the theater–that was a big deal.
But even more impressive–there was a chariot race. Two real chariots and two real horses. On the stage.
To read what other A to Z Challenge bloggers wrote on Day B, click here.
* The chariot race scene lasts for nine minutes. I’m not sure what the critic’s reference to 40 minutes means.
Five Sons of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Waller Are Servicemen
The Record is glad to present in its Service Men’s Corner this week another group of five fine young men, all brothers, now in the service of their country.
These are sons of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Waller of Fentress. An interesting and significant feature of this story is that the young men pictured here are first cousins of the five Graham brothers that were featured in a recent issue of the Record, all being in the service. Their mothers, Vida Waller and Bruce Graham, are sisters and their fathers, Ed. Graham and Frank Waller, are cousins.
The Waller brothers pictured above are as follows: Joe Waller, U. S. Navy; Pfc. Maurice Waller, overseas; Pfc. Bill Waller, Hd. Co. 32 A. B., Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; Cpl. Donald Waller, Base Weather Station, Luke Field, Phoenix, Ariz.; Pfc. Graham Waller, Co. B. 155 Inf., Camp Shelby, Miss.
The above pictures and script appeared in the San Marcos Record of January 29th and are reproduced here by the permission of that newspaper.
Mr. and Mrs. Waller and their sons are due thanks and admiration of all Americans for the sacrifices they are making for their country.
Source: Lockhart (TX) Post Register, 1943
Joe, Donald, and Graham served in the Pacific. Bill and Maurice served in Northern Europe. All returned. Bill came home deaf from bomb concussion and spent the next twenty years telling curious children that his hearing aid was a telephone. In 1967 and ’68, a new surgery being taught at the VA hospital in Houston restored his conversational hearing.