I hope this post does not offend anyone, but the contents of an old envelope from my grandfather brought a smile to my face and I thought I’d regale you with what was inside.
I come from a long line of image makers and storytellers, and though there are gaps here and there in the lineage, they’re not massive gaps. My great grandfather, George Pratt (I’m the fourth — and, yes my son is the fifth!), was a professional photographer in Paris, Texas before the great fire there.
George H. Pratt Sr. and George H. Pratt Junior.
Pratt Studio, Paris, Texas
He passed that on to his son, my grandfather, who, though he was not a professional photographer, did shoot piles and piles of film from the 1920’s on into the late 1970’s. He was a lineman (I think that’s what he did) for Gulf Oil and would practically live on the road while scouting and purchasing parcels of land for the next wells. We have incredible footage of the old oil boom days, not to mention wild footage of my father, his older sister (Mary) and younger brother (my uncle Joe who studied law, but is a great painter and pastel artist) as children in the panhandle town of Amarillo.
George H. Pratt Jr. working a well (date unknown).
My grandfather was a neat old guy who had a pipe consistently clenched between his teeth and a cloud of aromatic smoke wafting about his head. He loved his Jack Daniels Whiskey and when grandmother cut him down to one drink a day he basically nursed a giant tumbler filled with JD. In fact, that was part of his cure for us when we were little and had a cold or sore throat: One shot of Jack Daniels with honey. Ouch!
One of four JD labels found in the same envelope.
Jack Daniels label.
And another JD label.
He was always agreeable and had a ready smile on his face. When the family was hanging out, sitting around talking, and if the conversation wasn’t interesting to him, he would reach up and turn off his hearing aid and bask in his own personal silence. He would ride us children, one at a time, on his knee, and if we scratched his pure white hair he would feign sleep, only waking up when we stopped scratching. When he drove (he was in his 80’s) he would pull up to a stop light, wait a bit, then announce to us, “I’ve waited long enough!” He’d drive right on through it and carry on about his business. He always said that the streets in my home town were designed by a drunk man chasing a snake.
George H. Pratt Jr. in the field.
When my aunt Mary was having a slumber party (I’m assuming this was the Depression) my grandfather had “prepared” the house for the girls beforehand, replacing all the lights in their room with flash bulbs. When the girls flipped the switch and the flash bulbs popped, grandad bounded into the room carrying his shotgun, throwing open the window looking for the culprit. He used to nail peanuts to tree limbs and watch the squirrels struggle with the nuts.
George H. Pratt Jr. in the field.
He was quite a character who, for some reason, always reminded me of Humphrey Bogart. Don’t know why, but he did then, and does still in my memory where he still calls me “Bud”. He carried on all kinds of personal correspondence with various personages. One in particular was PT Hanlen, the creator of “Alley Oop!” the comic strip caveman.
What I always loved to hear were my grandfather’s stories of the wildcatter’s out in the fields of the early oil days and the conditions of the camps and hotels. Stories of guys who could find oil with their bare feet, even in the snow or with divining rods. Of rats running and sliding down the wall paper and sagging ceilings of the old hotels. The pranks they would pull on each other and how there was this neat code of honor with the various guys he knew and had to work with.
Digging about my studio recently gathering photographic material for my blues book I came across an envelope that I had forgotten that I had from my grandfather.
Using his old Underwood typewriter grandad described the contents perfectly (though, the Jack Daniels labels were also inside).
In it was an even older envelope dated 1930 addressed to my grandfather and sent by a buddy of his, F. M. (Doc) Seibert.
I love the old handwriting from that time period. Just beautiful! Inside this envelope was a two-page handwritten letter in lead pencil (or were they using graphite by then?) on Gulf Pipe Line Company – Telegraph Service stationery.
The motherlode within the motherlode.
Houston – Harris Co. Texas, July 21- ’30
Dear Lem: —
She shore is hell Lem to belong to that there “Reconstructed Assholes Corporation.” I’ll tell yer why. First. Tho it is disconcertin to have them grapes, or strawberries, or what ever it is that feller has protrudin like from the old exit; it don’t do yerself a mite-o-good to have that there joint so so of 10 inch er maybe it is only 6 5/8 a stickin there where you knows that if she makes a “head” er two she will raise a lot-o-hell. Even if she don’t ketch fire she will feel like it anyhow.
So I figgers that under the new regime maybe I kin help you out a little bein a specialist like I am. So Lem I am a sendin you some models that may suit your fancy.
No. 1 is what I call a interurban or city model. She kinder looms up a little a settin in the middle of a boulevard but I tell you she comes in handy in a pinch.
The Interurban City model.
No. 2 is a desert model with some features that there city model lacks. She aint shock proof as you can see. Part of the side is exposed or cut out like which gives yer a good perspective on her construction.
The Desert model.
Desert model (alternate view)
No.3 is a oil field model of what we calls a semi permanent outfit. That is she is guaranteed for the life of the field. She is more suited to a plebian kind of man that she is to a brass collared or upper crust feller but Lem she is practical.
The Oil Field model
No.4 is a shock proof model fer places where the food is heavy and well seasoned. She is also suited fer figgerin the pay roll or fer general accountin of a temperary nature. In oil field technology she might be known as a yo-yo driller’s accessery.
The Shock Proof model.
No. 5 is a kinder delicate like model known as a geophysical er torsion balance type and as their purpose is kinda alike one might say she gives results when used as a combination fer torsion balance and general results.
The Geophysical or Torsion Balance model.
I can’t just quote money on the barrel head prices Lem but if ye are interested I will go into conference with you on a minutes notice.
P.S. I have many other models to suit all requirements but we kin see about them later.
(Editor’s note: These photographs of other “models” were included in the envelope)
Page 1 of Doc’s letter.
Page 2 of Doc’s letter.
Page 3 of Doc’s letter.
Also included in the envelope was another folded piece of thin onion skin paper, this with a poem:
“THE PASSING OF THE BACK HOUSE”
AN UNPUBLISHED POEM
JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
When memory keeps me company,
and moves to smiles, to tears,
A weather beaten object looms
through the mists of years.
Behind the house and barn it stood,
a half a mile or more.
And hurrying feet a path had made
straight to its swinging door.
Its architecture was a type
of simple classic art,
But in the tradgedy of life
it played a leading part,
And oft a passing traveler
drove slow and heaved a sigh
To see the modest hired girl
slip out with glances shy.
We had a posey garden that
the women loved so well.
I loved it too, but better still
I loved the stranger smell
That filled the evening breezes
so full of homely cheer,
And told the night o’er-taken tramp
that human life was near.
On lazy August afternoons
it made a little bower,
Delightful, where my grandsire sat
and whiled away the hour,
For there the summer morning
its very cares entwined
And berry bushes reddened
in the teeming soil behind.
All day fat spiders spun their webs
to catch the buzzing flies
That flitted to and from the house,
Where Ma was making pies.
And once a swarm of hornets came
and built a palace there
And stung my unsuspecting Aunt–
I cannot tell you where.
Then Father with a flaming pole,
(that was a happy day)
He almost burned the building down,
but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade
and winter to carouse,
We banked the little building
with a heap of hemlock boughs.
When Grandpa had to go out back
and make his morning call
We’d bundle up the dear old man
with a muffler and a shawl.
I know the hole on which he sat,
’twas padded all around,
For once I dared to sit there,
’twas all too large I found.
My loins were all too small,
and I jack-knifed there to stay,
They had to come and get me out,
or I’d have passed away.
Then my Father said, “Ambition
is a thing to shun”,
That I must use the children’s hole
’till childhood days were done.
When winter’s crust was on the snow
and sullen skies were gray,
In sooth the building was no place
where one would wish to stay.
We did our duties promptly
there one purpose swayed the mind,
We lingered not nor tarried long
on what we’d left behind.
The torture of that icey seat
would make a Spartan sob,
But needs must scrape the goose flesh
with a lacerating cob
That from a frost-encrusted nail
was suspended by a string,
My Father was a frugal man
and wasted not a thing.
And still, marvel at the craft
that cut those holes so true,
The baby hole, the slender hole
that fitted Sister Sue.
That dear old country land-mark–
I’ve tramped around a bit,
And in the lap of luxury
my lot has been to sit.
But ere I die I’ll eat the fruit
of trees I’ve robbed of yore,
Then seek the shanty where my name
is carved upon the door.
I ween the old familiar smell
will soothe my jaded soul.
I’m now a man, but none the less
I’ll use the children’s hole.
So, anyhoo, I thought this was a rare glimpse into a little frontier humor.