Even Daddy, determined to be the “Man of the House,” found it hard to defend Willie Tharpe after Willie set the bed on fire, sneaked the dogs in the house, and left us with a maddening infestation of fleas that Christmas. Though he never acknowledged his embarrassment, Daddy never invited Willie to sleep in the house again. Periodically, Willie would drop by for a visit or to see if Daddy had any work for him. Daddy usually scrapped up a job that earned him a few dollars and didn’t qualify as a handout. Willie was way past ninety when I knew him. A Choctaw Indian born in Florida, he told a story of shooting his step-daddy with a shotgun when he was only nine to stop him from beating his mother. The pair hurriedly buried the body. His mama helped him pack a few things in a goat-cart, for his escape. Willie fled Florida, making his way west till he reached Dorcheat Bayou in Northwest Louisiana. Dorcheat looked so much like home, he settled.
He made his living as a mule-skinner, working a team of mules in the timber. He was known for his expertise with a bullwhip. The object of the whip was never to hit animals, just to direct them by cracking it near their heads. Willie Tharpe had made occasional appearances during all during Daddy’s hardscrabble childhood his gifts of game and food earning the family’s everlasting gratitude. Sometimes he’d hang around a few days to fix the roof, butcher a pig, or help put in a crop. Willie Tharpe, with his gifts, fascinating stories, must have been a God-send to Daddy’s family enduring grinding poverty, near-starvation, and hopelessness after his mother was left a widow with seven young children.
Willie lived in the pre-cursor of the RV, a shack he could hoist onto his 1949 Ford Truck and move whenever he chose. The next December, during an ice-storm just before Christmas Daddy decided that he and Billy needed to check on Willie. They found his ancient truck/shack parked on the banks of Dorcheat Bayou. Knowing there wouldn’t be any heat in the shack, he feared finding Willie dead in the twenty degree weather. He strode up and banged on the door of the shack. No answer. He opened the door, a bit and called out, “Hey! Uncle Willie! Are you okay in there?”
“Uhhhh! Come on in!” About a dozen dogs lunged at him from beneath a mass of covers, desperate to get at Daddy and Billy. A naked Willie, waving his trusty shotgun followed them, cursing and swatting the dogs intent of killing the intruder.
Willie struggled into his “overhalls” and other rancid clothes while Daddy made a campfire and coffee. They visited a while. Willie planned to spend Christmas that year with Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel. Satisfied that Willie hadn’t frozen and had expectations of shelter and hospitality for Christmas, Daddy complacently went on his way. I don’t believe he could have said the same had he tried bringing Willie home for Christmas a second time.
Uncle Albert lived in what would now be called a rustic cabin. Back then, it looked like conglomeration of two old houses it actually was. The front part was log, the back still unfinished graying lumber. The front room was a bed-sitting room with a fireplace whose hearth extended out into the floor. A large bedroom and kitchen completed the house, with the obligatory porch stretching across the front. They drew their water from a well and enjoyed an outdoor toilet. They’d lately upgraded and gotten electrical power, which greatly enhanced their lives. Someone had given them an old TV. It was now the center of their lives.
Willie was ensconced in the living room. He was “down in his back” and chose to sleep sitting up in a rocking chair in front of the dying fire. The dogs specifically invited not to sleep in the house, were unhappily sleeping without Willie, a very upsetting situation for them. They set up a ruckus a few times, requiring Willie to curse loudly at them and pound on the shack.
Hopefully, settled for Christmas Eve, Willie wrapped in his quilt and dozed restlessly in front of the fire, uneasy without the protection of his dogs. Not a great believer in “Peace on Earth,” he’d concealed his pistol handily beneath the quilts. After some time, Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel, snoring away in their bedroom, were awakened by a hail of blasts. “POW! POW! POW!” Willie was firing at the walls and cursing furiously! His hosts dropped to the floor in their bedroom. Uncle Albert shouted through the door, afraid to come out till the gun was empty.
“Willie! Willie! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! You’re in the house! Don’t shoot!” Satisfied Willie was awake, he finally ventured out. The room was a shambles! Bullet peppered the walls and blown out the screen of their precious TV. “What in the hell happened in here, Willie?”
Willie didn’t have a politically bone in his body. “Oh, them G—- Damned %^#$%&*s was a’stealin’ my gas an’ I blowed ‘em to Hell!”