Life, Death, Memories and the Open Road

I wrote this on July 29th while driving with my roommate through New Mexico. We were taking my Hyundai Santa Fe to Santa Fe, crossing an item off my summer bucket list.

The broken white lines and telephone poles zip past.
New Mexico’s landscape rises and falls, grasslands and scrub brush.
The mountains are distant and we’ve not yet hit the desert.
And I think about road trips made my Papaw and Mamaw Hale, in the wide sedans we used to sail like ships across the hill country highways of Central Texas.
Papaw was Truman Preston Hale, a true Texan, a man of deep love and few words.
Tall with vice grips for hands, made strong by decades of hard work, but a mechanical mind every bit as sinewy despite only a few years of formal education.
His weathered but warm face was always crowned with a Western hat, felt in the winter and straw in those brutal Lampasas summers. A Stetson Open Road is what I remember though I don’t know that he had a preferred model.
He always looked forward to seeing us, always made a point to full his pockets with loose change, soft orange candy peanuts, chewing gum and hard butterscotch candies wrapped in cellophane.
He never went far without a coffee can for spitting tobacco juice into, and he always had a pocketknife at the ready.

When we emptied my grandfather's chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

When we emptied my grandfather’s chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

Those same vice-grip hands were equally at home fishing, shelling pecans from the tree in the yard, fixing cars, hand-mixing the world’s best milkshakes with just a spoon and a tall aluminum glass, or giving a 6-year-old grandkid’s knee a squeeze on a road trip as we zipped through small towns like Hico, Evant and Adamsville.
He took my dad on road trips as a boy. They saw the Grand Canyon and who knows what else, my dad, no doubt sitting like I did – staring at the lazy gliding buzzards in those impossibly vast Southwestern skies. Maybe he gave my dad a wink and a squeeze on the knee or a tousle of his hair – my Papaw’s love language I guess.
We never talked much. But I always knew where I stood with him, nonverbally. Still, I would have loved a day inside his head, or to take a trip like this and see the land through his eyes.
I remember my last few visits with him, in a nursing home in Temple. He was moody from the pain and didn’t want to eat the bland food. A notoriously picky eater with a cast-iron stomach, I can’t count the times I saw him consume meals of just tamales and piping hot black coffee.
I tried to have the conversations there that we didn’t have before. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember and now I teach kids how to write and tell stories, so I place an enormous value on words. But it seemed forced and he was in pain sometimes and seemed confused at others.
And we didn’t need the words anyway. We knew where the other stood, I believe. Right until the end. I would rub his silver hair on top of his head, up where the Stetson Open Road used to sit, and pray silently.
And every now and then as I’d walk by his bed, I’d feel a light tap on my knee, and when I’d turn to see him smiling, I could read every word on his face.
The road stretches on and we’re still an hour or more from Santa Fe. Dramatic clouds fill a towering sky, in every direction, as far as I can see.
My face and t-shirt smell like Old Spice aftershave. I was running low on my more expensive cologne and saw the familiar bottle in the grocery store. If it was good enough for Papaw, it will do the trick for this trip at least.
I’m in the passenger side as my good friend has driving duty and I’m still full from lunch of coffee and green chile stew.
I want to lay back and rest my eyes, so I cover my face with a Texas Rangers ball cap. Can’t help but think an Open Road would do this job better.
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3 thoughts on “Life, Death, Memories and the Open Road

  1. Truman says:

    Corey, I loved your reflections on Papaw Hale. This certainly rekindled many great memories for me. I could clearly see him as I read this wonderful post. Truman P. was a simple man with a deep love for his family and especially his grandkids… a feeling that I certainly have grown to share. Thanks for this beautiful tribute. Dad

  2. firstpersonshooter says:

    Thanks a lot Dad. I just added a photo to go with it today. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. annhale2013 says:

    Corey, I loved this. You did a great job of portraying your grandfather. We did lots of traveling when we were little, but it was always inside Texas to visit relatives. If there were tourist sites along the way, we’d stop occasionally, but the major intent of the trip was the visit. Even our first Six Flags trip was attached to a visit to Daddy’s aunt in Dallas, Jewell Turner, whom he called “Aunt June.” We stayed with her overnight, then went to Six Flags the next day.

    Our first trip outside Texas was in the summer before my senior year in high school. We had friends, the Calloways, who lived in North Carolina. They were like family, and we had not seen them since Mr. Calloway retired from the army at Fort Hood and returned home. One reason that we had never traveled much previously was that Daddy always worked for himself or at a job when any vacation would be without pay. That summer, though, he took time off from his air conditioning installation work for us to make a trip to North Carolina that lasted more than three weeks. The Calloways had been trying to get us to come to North Carolina for some time. They also wanted to introduce all of us to their family and friends. During that visit, Daddy received several job offers, and the Calloways would have loved for us to move there. But the ties of home and family were, ultimately, too strong, and the trip to North Carolina would be the first of several trips there as a family, as well as two Daddy and I would make together.

    On those first trips, Daddy was the driver–period. He was uneasy with crowds and disliked being in heavy traffic. Mom and I were the only other licensed drivers on that first trip to North Carolina, but when we went to Oklahoma the next year, your dad had received his license, and he did drive part of the way, although we traveled on back roads rather than major highways for much of that trip, just as we had done when we went to North Carolina the first time. The Interstate Highway System was far from complete, so when we could get on an interstate, we didn’t stay on it for long.

    I’m sorry you don’t remember your Papaw’s stories. He loved to tell them about his experiences when he was young or his time in the army. He also loved jokes and teasing the people he loved. You might remember this. It was one year at Spring Ho. We had all gone down to Sulphur Creek to see what was for sale at the flea market (and get some icy watermelon juice to drink). As we walked along the sidewalk by the creek, here came Daddy on his scooter. He had ridden it down Chestnut Street to the creek and come to find us. Several of us decided to walk back home with him instead of riding, When he started up the incline, his scooter lost power and stopped. I got behind him and started pushing the scooter up the incline to the street, huffing and puffing all the way in the July heat. Suddenly he shot forward so fast that I nearly fell face down on the dirt trail. He had been faking the loss of power! He laughed about that for most of the trip back to the house, then retold it numerous times during that weekend.

    Aunt Ann

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