Monthly Archives: September 2013

Uncle Wilbur’s Hot and Cold Hat

Wilbur Robinson was, like most Robinsons, an outdoorsman.  As a youngster he was often out fishing, hunting, or just walking around looking for adventure.  On one of these long outings he stayed out a little later than he intended.  He noticed the sun getting lower, the temperature dropping, and looked around and realized he would not be able to make it home before dark.

Wilbur did not panic; he knew how to take care of himself in the woods, even on a cold winter night like the one he was about to face.  He did feel a sense of urgency as he looked for a place to hunker down and keep warm through the night.  As he walked through the woods, he stumbled upon an old abandoned shack.  It was the perfect place to protect him from the wind for the night.

As he settled in, he heard talking outside.  It started as a murmur, but grew ever louder and clearer.  There was a group of men approaching the shack.  Just as he was about to step outside and introduce himself, he heard one of the men say something about “hiding the money.”  He paused, decided to listen to more.  He picked up a few more snippets about “the bank,” the “G-Men,” and even heard a couple of their names—Bill, George, and “Pretty Boy.”

The blood drained from Wilbur’s face as he recognized the names of “Pretty Boy” Floyd and his associates, Bill Miller and George Birdwell.  Wilbur was in his teens in the early 1930’s, the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.  Gangsters like John Dillinger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Bonnie and Clyde were wreaking havoc across the country, robbing banks, bootlegging liquor, and killing lawmen.  “Pretty Boy” Floyd had grown up in Oklahoma, and had recently gone on a spree, robbing banks in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.  Among others, he hit Earlsboro, Meeker, Maud, Sallisaw, Bixby, and Tulsa in 1931 and 1932.  In an instant Wilbur put it all together:  he had stumbled upon a gangsters’ hideout, where “Pretty Boy” Floyd had come to lay low after robbing the bank in Pawnee.

Before Wilbur could put together a plan, the door of the shack burst open and “Pretty Boy” Floyd walked in.  He saw Wilbur and immediately knew he was going to have to get rid of him.  “He’s seen our faces, he’s heard us talking about the robbery,” he muttered to his associates.

Still, “Pretty Boy” Floyd was not fond of shooting people in cold blood, especially young poor boys like Wilbur.  He decided to simply shut Wilbur outside for the night, knowing that he had nowhere to go, and that he would not survive the cold night outside.  As Wilbur huddled against the south wall, he pulled his po’ boy hat down low over his ears, and felt it warm his whole body.  He smiled; “Pretty Boy” Floyd did not know how warm his hat was.  When the gangster opened the door in the morning, he was astonished when, instead of finding Wilbur’s frozen corpse, he found Wilbur sitting there next to the shack, with the snow melted in an 18-inch circle surrounding him.

Floyd questioned Wilbur, “How did you not freeze out here?”

Wilbur answered simply, “My hat kept me warm.”

Floyd came up with a new plan.  There was a large wood-burning stove in the shack.  He decided to dispose of Wilbur by shoving him into the oven.  “That hat won’t help you much in there, you’ll be plenty warm!”

As he sat in the stove, Wilbur pulled down his po’ boy hat and smiled once again.  “Pretty Boy” Floyd didn’t know that Wilbur’s hat could cool him off too.  A couple of hours later, the gangsters opened the stove door to reload the wood, and were amazed to find Wilbur sitting there smiling, not even breaking a sweat.  They hauled him out, quite crossly interrogating him about his hat.  He simply answered, “It keeps me warm in the cold, and it keeps me cool in the heat.”

Floyd had had enough messing around.  He found an old molasses barrel, stuck Wilbur inside, and nailed the lid tight.  “Unless that hat can feed you too, you can just sit in there ‘til you starve.”  Wilbur didn’t smile this time.  “I might have really had it this time,” he thought.

It was dark in the barrel.  There was only one hole in the barrel, the bunghole that had been drilled to empty the molasses.  As he peered through the hole, wondering what to do, something poked him in the eye.  He jerked his head away from the hole, and watched as a bushy tail poked in through the hole.  It swished around a little, then withdrew.  He looked through the hole again and saw a coyote.  Then the tail came back, swished around the inside of the barrel, and withdrew.  When he looked through the hole this time, he saw the coyote licking his tail.  He realized it was licking the sweet molasses that it had fished out of the barrel.

Then Wilbur had an idea.  He got himself ready, and when the tail stuck back in the bunghole, Wilbur grabbed hold of it and hung on with everything he had.  The coyote panicked and took off running at full speed.  On and on the coyote ran, pulling the barrel and Wilbur along behind him.  The barrel bounced and tumbled over the rough ground, slowly but surely breaking apart.  As the coyote dragged it across a group of rocks, the barrel burst open, releasing Wilbur from his prison, and relieving the coyote of his burden.

Wilbur lay on the ground, catching his breath and trying to orient himself.  He had been in the barrel for several hours.  Worse, the barrel had been sitting for several years, and the molasses had fermented, and now smelled more like rum.  Wilbur had never been a drinker, so the few hours he had spent in the barrel had been sufficient for him to get quite drunk on rum fumes.

My sister Sarah (middle) and I (right) sit on the couch at Grandpa Jack's house as we listen to Uncle Wilbur tell us about his run-in with "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

My sister Sarah (middle) and I (right) sit on the couch at Grandpa Jack’s house as we listen to Uncle Wilbur tell us about his run-in with “Pretty Boy” Floyd.

Wilbur staggered home, and had quite a lot of explaining to do to his mother, Iva Della, when, after having been gone for two days, he stumbled into the house, reeking of rum, holding his po’ boy hat in one hand and a coyote tail in the other.

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Fishing at Falls Creek

A week at Falls Creek is a summer staple for Oklahoma teenagers.  Over the course of my junior high and high school years I made several trips with Crestwood Baptist Church, where the Baker family attended.

Crestwood Baptist owned a cabin at the head of the trail to the Devil’s Bathtub.  This meant that there was a steady flow of foot traffic in front of the cabin all afternoon, as campers, sponsors, and camp staff enjoyed their recreational time.  Behind the cabin sat a large pond that was great for fishing on hot Oklahoma summer afternoons.

We always brought fishing gear since the pond was only several yards behind the cabin.  One afternoon, Uncle Steve said, “Let’s go fishing.”  I noticed he had grabbed a fairly small fishing rod, but I was not particularly surprised since he usually caught small fish anyway.  I was thrown off, though, when he headed for the front door instead of the back.  We sat on the front porch, where Steve pulled out a one dollar bill from his wallet and tied it to the end of the fishing line.  We set the bait out in the middle of the path and waited.  As someone approached and bent over to pick up the money, Steve would twitch the rod, pulling the bill just out of reach.  Then he would laugh and explain, “We’re fishing for men!” (Matt. 4:19).

The pond sat directly behind the cabin about 25 yards.  Trees lined the bank, which had an abrupt three-foot drop down to the water.  The trees provided relieving shade, but sometimes got in the way of casting and maneuvering.  Once, as Steve fished down the bank from me, I cast up the bank in the opposite direction.  The plan was to pull my lure parallel to the bank, about 8 feet out into the water.  Unfortunately, one of those trees got in the way and my lure sailed straight into its branches.

“Won’t catch many fish in the trees,” remarked Steve.

“Uh-huh,” I replied, trying to tug the lure free.

I decided I would have to change my angle of attack, so I tried to pick my way up the bank.  There were several trees between myself and the stuck lure, some of which were perched precariously on the edge of the bank.  At each one, I had to reach around the trunk and pass the rod around the tree before continuing up the bank.

One of these trees was quite flimsy, sat right on the edge, and grew outward over the water.  I stretched to reach around it, and my foot slipped.  I tried to catch myself on the tree, but it would not take my weight.  As I tumbled to the water, my foot caught in the roots.

steveI splashed into the water, hanging upside down from my foot, clinging to my fishing pole for no reason other than obstinacy.  My life flashed briefly before my eyes, for I was upside down and underwater from my head to my thighs.  I looked up and saw the surface of the water, the tree above, and the sky beyond.  I pulled myself up high enough to get my head and shoulders above water, but not high enough to see over the edge of the bank.  I held myself there, thinking Steve would be waiting there with his hand out to pull me up.  Instead, I heard laughing coming from where Steve had been sitting.  He hadn’t moved.  He later explained, “I just thought, ‘He’s an athletic boy, he’ll get himself up.’”

Growing impatient, I yelled, “Some help, please?”

“Oh,” Steve hurried over.  He reached out and pulled me up, trying to hide his laughter.  “We might as well quit now that you scared all the fish off.”

Being a Robinson himself, Steve couldn’t wait to tell the story to my mom when we got back from camp at the end of the week.  He still enjoys telling the story, and always introduces it with the question, “Have you ever seen that movie about ‘Saving Ryan’s Privates?’”

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Leon’s Pet Fish

Uncle Leon Robinson grew up in Pawnee, OK, only a few miles from the sheep farm where he now lives, and where the family campout is held these days.  There was a pond where he used to go fishing not too far away, and he caught quite a few good bass in those days.  One day he caught a monster.  It was so big he couldn’t stand to let it go without showing it to someone, or else he would just be accused of telling one of those Robinson fish stories.  So he took it home as proof.  When he got there, it seemed a shame to waste such a big fish by killing it for dinner, so he decided to keep it as a pet.  He put it in a 55-gallon barrel that sat at the corner of the house catching the rain off the roof, where the fish could stay comfortably, and Leon could show it off to anyone who stopped by.

Leon started to feel bad about keeping the fish cooped up in that barrel, so he decided he would start taking it on walks for some exercise.  Early in the morning, while the grass was still wet with dew, Leon got up to take the fish for a walk.  By running a stringer through the fish’s mouth, he could keep it on a leash, and the fish would flop along in the grass behind him, getting its oxygen from the cool morning dew.  Leon started with short walks—only a few minutes at a time—before returning the fish to its barrel.  He gradually worked up its tolerance, until the fish could stay out of the barrel for 10 minutes at a time, then 30, then an hour.  Leon even stopped using the leash, and the fish would flop right along the grass with him on its own.

Leon

Unable to bring himself to do much fishing since the loss of his favorite fish, Leon spends most of his time these days passing wisdom to the next generation.

One morning as they went for their walk, they came to an old wood slat bridge that crossed a creek.  There were gaps between the transverse slats, but the longitudinal running planks for driving on were solid all the way across.  He walked across, the fish flopping along behind, staying on the running planks.  All of a sudden, the fish slipped sideways, fell off the running planks and through the slats, and splashed into the creek.  Leon rushed downstream to catch the fish, and the fish struggled to swim toward the bank.  But all that time spent out of the water had changed the fish, and Leon cried when it washed up on the bank at his feet, drowned.

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