Saturday, January 29, 2011


A Big Chief Tablet Tale
By The Legendary Jim Parks

I learned to drive on the roads of deep east Texas. They
cut through the piney woods like random surgical scars
through undulating furry green tissue browned by fallen
needles and cones.

I'm talking about really driving, now. I'm talking about
balling the jack through the night and early morning while
my father snoozed on the back seat, farting and scratching.

Sometimes he would raise up on one hip, gripping the back of
the driver's seat with his fist and arm and peering groggy
and edgy ahead of us.

"What the hell is that?"

"What is what?"

"That stinking gawd dayim thang in front of us."

"Why, it's a cattle trailer, Daddy."

"Gawd dayim right it is. That's exactly what it is. Whut
are we doin' running down the road behind a stinkin' thang
like that, huh?"

"I don't know."

"You'd better by God be finding out. Do you know what this

"What is what?"

"What is what, what?"

"What is what, sir?"

"This is a brand new five thousand dollar 98 Oldsmobile;
that's what it is, by God. Now, put your foot in it and get
around that Gawd dayim stinkin' cattle trailer - right now!"

He would cuff me lightly on the back of the head.

I would find the courage to pass the stinking thing and pull
back in the line of traffic just before a head-on collision
with an oncoming log truck or milk tanker.

He was right about the attributes of the car. It was indeed
built for the open road. Its massive V-8 engine was
unrestricted by anything like the pollution control
equipment found on today's cars.

The four-barrel carburetor could be heard sucking in cubic
yard after cubic yard of air after the vacuum tubes and
valves opened up and it was in passing gear.

The tuned twin exhaust bellowed in spite of the melodious
mufflers and tail pipes with which it was outfitted, and the
engine and transmission were so crisply mated to the action
of the engine's back pressures that no driver could have
replicated its fabulously smooth ability at downshifting.

One need never touch the brakes until it was absolutely

I was well-schooled in all these facts. I had been
instructed at length.

"Don't jerk the automobile around like that!" He would
gesture with his high ball, having had me pull off the road
so he could freshen the drink up from a jug he kept in a
special little satchel he kept in the trunk that played a
music box version of "How Dry I Am" when it was opened.

I have a feeling that in his day, he, too, was schooled in
this art of driving at high speeds to meet a deadline.
because of the need for help.

In those days, the men in his family took a kid with them
when they were on business trips to change the frequent
flats - an estimated three every fifty miles or so - caused
from thorns, sharp gravel and rocks, rim cuts and slow

The thick tread of the Oldsmobile's wide, deeply grooved
tires gripped the soft summer tarmac of the highway like a
tree frog's toes, and it shot ahead at terrifying rates of
speed, its air conditioning system spewing icy air on the
top of your knees and freezing the sweat on your brows and
trickling down the back of your neck.

He held forth on these advantages at length. His experience
went way back there. Most instructive remarks began with
"Way back there..."

He taught me all the tricks he learned on gravel and dirt
when he was a kid.

Slack off on a curve just a little bit, then, once
committed, pour on the coal and she would track through the
maneuver, accelerating smoothly. If I encountered a skid,
countersteer into it and never hit the brakes to avoid
sliding. If anything, punch it and she would power out of
the skid. Once she was under control, gently pump the
brakes until she started to slow down.

It's the kind of nervy brinksmanship developed in the days
of mechanical brakes and downdraft carburetors. All those
tricks also worked just fine after the advent of hydraulic
brakes, automatic transmissions and wide tracked, wide
tubeless tires.

He would lay down in the seat and go back to sleep,
muttering that he wanted to be in such and such a place
before 9:30 a.m. so he could freshen up and call on his next
customer at about 10.

Thus admonished, I would burn up the highway looking out for
the flashing lights of truck drivers who warned of a speed
cop up the line. I don't remember anyone having a radio.
It was all done with flashing lights in those days.

I was just coming around a bend and up a hill, trying to
find a break where I could pass a line of three or four old
pickups doing about 40. In front of them was a little
cattle trailer. The old boy must have been hauling steers
or feeder calves to the commission barn.

Just as I openend that damn V-8 up and the four-barrel
started its whooshing sound, a damned turkey darted out in
front of the car from a farm yard.

I locked it up.

Man, white feathers and a bird about the size of a buzzard,
it all served to just unnerve me.

That car slid at least a hundred feet on the scalding hot
tar and asphalt of that road. When she started to turn
sideways, I pumped the brakes and got her back under control
for a moment. Then she hooked a wheel into the gravel at
the side of the road and started trying to turn sideways in
the other direction.

"Punch it! Punch it!" He yelled it and slapped the back of
my head.

I got the damned car straightened out and I was cruising
along about fifty before he asked me, "What the hell

"Oh, a turkey ran out in the road in front of me."

"A turkey ran out in the road in front of you."


"Yes what?"

"Yes, sir."

"A turkey ran out in front of you in the road?"

"Yes, sir, a turkey."

"Gawd dayim, boy. The hell with a bunch of turkeys! Turkey
or smaller, run over it. Hawg or better, dodge it!"

"Yes, sir."

"You got that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir, it's just that..."

"Thank you."

"I just..."

"Thank you. Just don't jerk the automobile around."

I clammed up.

He spared me the business about the brand new five thousand
dollar 98 Olds.

So that Monday we made it into that old east Texas county
seat right on time. It's a place filled with rusticated
stone buildings, a place where a revolution, a land grab,
began long ago.

All the roads lead to the knob of a hill where the old brick
and stone courthouse sits like a wedding cake. It could be
located in a rural county of western Pennsylvania, upstate
New York or the hills of Tennessee or Alabama.

You can get anywhere in the world from that courthouse and
know that those folks stole the whole thing fair and square.

The old man checked into his motel, got cleaned up and went
on downtown to see his customer. I fiddled around the
swimming pool long enough to get tired and ready for a nap.

When I woke up, the old man was mixing a drink and listening
to a side of jazz on his little portable record player. We
were going to stay until the next morning because he had to
explain to his customer's banker how they could deal a car
load of his automotive products at deeply discounted prices
by acting as the drop shipment point for that area. The
credit was right, the terms were right and it was time to
move in that market.

I was grown before I figured out that the old man was
actually a silent partner in these deals, cutting himself in
for a share of the action in addition to his commission.
Some folks call it buying the order.

We walked down the highway on raw cut red dirt to a barbecue
place and he showed me what the stakes driven in the ground
beside the road meant to the equipment operators. The
engineers had marked them to show what grade and slope to
cut with their blades. Then they would be back with the
surveyor's transit and rod to check the work.

He was that kind of dude. He was always explaining that
kind of stuff to me, how credit worked, who really owned the
new cars on a dealer's lot, or how billboard advertising was
really paid for, how and why new road right of way was
chosen - through donation much faster than by condemnation -
all that jazz.

He was an old school man of the road.

When we got back, Fred came by the motel for a drink. Fred
was a wheel at his customer's place of business.

They talked for awhile, then they decided to go to the
bootlegger's to get a jug of whiskey.

Now, in those days that part of the world was dry. You
couldn't buy liquor or any kind of alcoholic beverages
anywhere in certain counties. Or so the fiction was
maintained. The truth was that bootleggers operated
throughout the country. You could buy it all at these
country houses back off the road - for a price.

It was a pretty steep price, but Fred was buying.

We headed out a county road to a house with a Seven-Up sign
on the mailbox. That was how they marked them, usually,
some kind of soft drink sign.

At this place, Chief's, you pulled around the back of the
house in the yard to a little conversation area under a
screened-in shed where there was a barbecue pit and several
tables made out of wire spools placed on their sides.

Chief was sitting there dressed in overalls smoking his
corncob pipe. In front of him was one of those giant
Canadian Club bottles they used to display in liquor stores.
People dropped their change in it for luck when they left.

It looked kind of surreal, Chief sitting there barefoot, an
Indian less than five and a half feet tall with a huge
cowboy hat, smoking a corncob pipe, and a totem of a four-
foot brown Canadian Club bottle standing before him.

Add to the vision the fact that we were out in the middle of
this dense pine forest in the back yard of an old country
house with a gallery around it and all the gear for hog
killing and raising chickens, and it starts to get to you.

There were hunting dogs in pens in the back, the kind they
use to run down wild boar.

Pit bulls.

These were the big woods. The Big Thicket Leadbelly sang

They struck a bargain for two jugs of bourbon, then they got
to drinking out of the bottle and swapping lies with Chief.

Fred asked my father if he knew Chief was a Kickapoo.

"A Kickapoo?"

"Yeah, Chief is a Kickapoo, a medicine man."

Chief showed no reaction. He just sat and looked straight

Fred said, "Till I met Chief, here, I just thought the
Kickapoo were some kind of deal in L'il Abner, you know, in
the funny papers. But, no, they were a real kickass tribe
up in the Staked Plains and Kansas and the Panhandle and
all. 'Bout as mean as the Comanche or Sioux or any of 'em.
Ain't that right, Chief?"

Chief still said nothing.

"That's why Chief, here, sells this bootleg whiskey and wine
and stuff. He's selling that Kickapoo Joy Juice, don't you

Chief yawned and pulled his pocket watch out of the bib of
his overalls.

"Hey, Chief," Fred said, "what kind of medicine do you

Chief looked straight at him and straight through him, as
if, to him, he no longer existed.

"Medicine is medicine," said Chief. "I'm making it now.
You may never know. In fact, my guess is you will never

His eyes were as black as onyx and there were very few
whiskers on his face, deep etched from the sun and pain and
worry. The cowboy hat had a funny crease on it. It was
pinched in the front of the crown. The rest of it stood to
its maximum height.

In the light of the gasoline lantern, I suddenly realized
that Chief was in no way a white man.

Chief was a medicine man for sure.

He stood up and scratched the instep of one bare foot with
the nails of the other.

Pointing to one of those triangular-shaped hatchets embedded
in a round of pecan log standing on end, he said to me,
"Son, grab that hatchet and hand it here."

He kept his gaze levelled on Fred. He took the jug from my
father's hand and took a polite drink. He handed it back.
He stuck his other hand in the pocket of his overalls. They
fitted very loose. You suddenly wondered what he had in
that pocket.

I handed him the hatchet.

"Thank you, son. You know, Seminole has a meaning. The
Seminole people were all kinds of tribes, but they fled to
Florida because the Army was chasing them. Co-lon-neh and
Sharp Knife would not leave them alone.

"Seminole means 'I ran away.'"

Chief pitched the hatchet up and caught it, letting it make
a hammer head stall in the air before his eyes.

"They say it will turn the opposite way on the other side of
the Equator because of the rotation of the Earth. I believe
them," he said.

"This roofing hatchet reminds me of the one my father used
to use to make medicine. He used it to keep me from
catching cold."

He laughed grimly.

"You see, my father was a drunk. He was a blood, a
Kickapoo, but the bottle had him. This was in Kansas. We
lived in a tarpaper shack beside the Santa Fe tracks. It
was cold."

He smiled and tossed the hatchet up to catch it again after
it did its dainty little hammer head stall, its murderous
blade lined up neatly to do some business if thrown or

Chief chuckled.

"I had no good clothes, just the ones we got from the
churches. They humiliated him for being drunk. They would
give him over to some preacher to put him on the Jesus road
and make him pure and holy and take away the demons that
made him want to be drunk."

He gave Fred another one of those hot, penetrating stares.

"They made him paint the stripes on the street with a brush,
then the curbs. They handcuffed him to a lawnmower and made
him mow the lawn of the courthouse and jail and the city
hall. They made him wear clothes with stripes on them."

He shrugged.

"He kept drinking. He drank until the day I found him dead,
sitting in his chair in the tarpaper shack beside the
railroad tracks.

"Anyway, back to what I was going to tell you. He used to
go out in winter and find a den of skunks. They would be
hibernating. They couldn't quite wake up. He would chop
into the den from above with a hatchet like this. Then he
would kill a couple of the damned things and skin them. He
would rub me down with their stinking fat and put about four
or five layers of clothes on me and send me to school that

Fred and my father exchanged glances.

"I guess that kept the other kids away from you," he said.

"Yeah, as the little school house heated up from the coal-
burning stove, that room would fill up with the smell of
skunk and all the kids would move away from me. No virus
would get to me because the white man's disease was far, far
away from me. My father made medicine, you see."

After a moment in which no one laughed and no comment was
made, he said "Good" in Kickapoo warrior dialect.

"Fred," he said, "say goodbye. Say good night. Is that
enough medicine for you? Go away. Say good night."

"Aw, come on, Chief, I didn't mean no..."

Fred edged around, standing sideways to him to protect his
nut sack and his vital areas. There was much of the
truculent hip-slung, squint-eyed slab-muscled warrior left
in all three of these war veterans.

They could fight at any moment.

There was no one there to stop them.

"Fred," he said calmly, "say good night."

My father and I turned to go to the car, the five thousand
dollar 98 Olds, and after a moment, Fred followed.

We got almost all the way back to town before anyone said

"You know," Fred said, "it's true. I had never really heard
of the Kickapoos until I met Chief."

"Do tell," my father said. "They say Wichita, Wachita,
Ouachita, Watashee and Waxahachie are all variations of
dialect for the same meaning, which is 'myself.' The
Spanish explorers would ask them what they called
themselves, and they would tell them 'Myself.'"

"Well, that's some kind of medicine," Fred said. He waited
for a laugh. When there was no laugh, he clammed up.

We dropped him off where he had parked his pickup behind the

© 2008

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