The Sockdolager

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Jack in Texas

I was 11 or 12 for sure; definitely no older than 13.

At the time, my family was involved with a tiny “non-denominational” Christian church, the extent of whose craziness—of whose batshit locosity—was inversely proportional to its size. The leaders of this church had become linked to the charismatic pastor of a larger but compatibly batshit church located a few hundred miles away in Texas, and it was through this connection that my family became friends with the McCaffreys.

The McCaffreys lived in a small (maybe 4500 people) town in the Texas panhandle that in this piece I will call “Plainview”1. Ma and Pa McCaffrey had a son named Jack, and during the handful of trips my family took to Plainview, TX to visit the church there, Jack and I, roughly of an age with one another, became friends.

It came to pass that Jack visited our town and stayed with my family for a few days. The two of us were thick as thieves, running around the neighborhood and generally engaging in your standard 12-year-old boy mischief. Eventually it came time for Jack to return home to Plainview.

Jack’s uncle was a truck driver, and was passing through our city on his way back to the Texas panhandle. The plan was for him to pick up Jack. Mere hours before his arrival, however, somebody—perhaps Jack’s parents—floated the notion that maybe I could accompany Jack back to Plainview, hitching a ride on the uncle’s big rig; my dad would drive over to Texas—maybe a six hour drive—a week later, to bring me home.

And so I did exactly that.

Throughout grade school, and no doubt much to my parents’ chagrin, I had been fairly insistent on my career goal, which was: I wanted to be a truck driver. Specifically I wanted to drive one of the long-nosed “anteater” (or so I believed they were called) rigs, with the little sleeping room in back, which fascinated me. Though I’d largely grown out of this ambition by the time I was 12, the notion of getting to take a long trip in an honest-to-god capital-T Truck was just about the coolest fucking thing I could imagine, and it did not disappoint.

Upon arriving at Jack’s family’s home—a doublewide trailer situated on a biggish plot of land, with stables out back and a big old barn right next door—it was immediately clear that the scale of mischief on the offing here was of a sort heretofore undreamt-of by yours truly. Jack’s every tall tale about riding horses, catching snakes, and shooting varmints turned out to be basically totally true. The intervening decades have made events somewhat difficult to put together into a coherent narrative, but highlights can be sorted into two broad categories: Comically Rural and Absurdly Dangerous.

Comically Rural Highlight 1

The McCaffrey family kept two horses. I had a modicum of riding experience thanks to having been stricken with a gender-inappropriate Horse Phase around the ages of 9 and 10, and as a result was only moderately uneasy in the saddle as Jack and I, pony-mounted, walked and trotted down the dusty farm roads and across the arid fields of Plainview, TX.

Comically Rural Highlight 2

While I was vaguely able to ride a horse, Jack was the real deal; he competed in rodeos. My visit coincided with a local rodeo. By “rodeo” I do not mean the weirdly commercialized institution of scruffy lifetime Republicans attempting to straddle irritable steers for seven seconds; this was a genuine competition of riding and roping skills. Riding and roping. I promise you this: you’ve never felt like a pathetic, impotent city kid until you’ve seen a 10-year-old girl lunge out into a ring on a well-motivated Palomino, chasing down and lassoing an alarmed and sprinting calf, the girl then jumping off her mount and hogtieing said calf (which had to be at least as big as she was), all inside 30 seconds.

Jack’s event was the barrel sprint; a single mounted lap around three steel drums arranged in the ring, the key being that at each barrel you had to loop around the inside of the barrel, not a 70 degree turn but a sudden 290 degree turn, before sprinting straight toward the next barrel to do the same thing. Jack’s ability to do this was, to me, awe-inspiring, almost preternatural.

The McCaffrey family attempted to convince me to enter the same event, riding Jack’s horse. “Don’t worry,” they assured me, “she knows what to do!”

I declined.

Absurdly Dangerous Highlight 1

What was notable about the lengthy unsupervised rambles around the countryside was not just the length and lack of supervision; it was that we were armed, Jack and I. Like any god-fearing Texas family, the McCaffreys had a selection of rifles and shotguns used for recreation and pest control, and we had access to them. Thus it was that we could go out shooting literal varmints, referring to them as such. Jack, being larger and generally more comfortable with shooting at varmints than I was, carried a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun. He loaned me his own gun, a combination .22 rifle and 20-gauge shotgun—the Swiss Army knife of varmint control.

Prarie dogs were hard to get with the .22, and I never managed to get one. I do remember, however, pointing the 20 gauge up at a bird on a wire, pulling the trigger, and seeing the bird pretty much vaporize.

Comically Rural Highlight 3

While they lived in farm country, the McCaffreys were not themselves farmers. They were, almost unbelievably, diggers of ditches. The McCaffrey patriarch owned a few pieces of heavy equipment—a backhoe2, a dozer, a trencher—and supported his clan by hiring out his services as an operator of this equipment. We went out with Jack’s father on a job one day; Jack was functionally an apprentice, so he had plenty to do. I stood around and watched, kicking my feet in the dusty earth and watching the impressively hungry wheel-scoop of the trencher gnaw lines in the Plainview landscape.

They were laying lengths 12-inch PVC pipe, which came in sections maybe 20 feet long, each of which had a male and female end. For the first time, I understood why one end was termed “male” and the other “female,” and the terms suddenly struck me as scandalous.

Comically Rural Highlight 4

Jack had rescued a baby raccoon and raised up to adulthood. As I attempted to hold it, it squirmed a lot and smelled sour in my arms.

Absurdly Dangerous Highlight 2

The McCaffey barn contained a wide variety of machine tools used for the maintenance of their equipment, and, as with the firearms, Jack had unrestricted access to all of it. As a result, when two 12-year-olds got it into their head that burning through a piece of steel plate stock with an oxy-acetyline torch would be a cool thing to do, they were able to go ahead and just do it.

Comically Rural Highlight 5

We spent the bulk of our days wandering the fields around Jack’s house. One contained wheat, which Jack assured me was tasty, and could be chewed like gum. I demurred, but did take a certain pleasure in holding a stalk between my lips and feeling like a real badass.

Absurdly Dangerous Highlight 3

Disposal of the McCaffrey household’s garbage was handled via incinerator, which at the time I hadn’t realized was not merely a dire-sounding weapon used by supervillians. An incinerator was an actual thing, it turned out—an enclosure in which one incinerated things. The enclosure, in this case, was concrete-lined hole in the ground, maybe four feet across and 30 feet deep. Jack and I created a firebomb made of wadded rags soaked in kerosene and duct-taped into a lumpy ball. We lit it on fire and dropped it into the incinerator, watching the orange ring of light off the concrete walls descend as it fell burning into the bottom.

I have no idea why we did this.

Back to the Point of All of This

In retrospect, what is most notable to me about the trip’s curriculum is not its wild deviation from what pretty much everybody I know would consider safe activity for unsupervised 12-year-olds. No; what I still find remarkable about my friendship with Jack and my trip to Plainview, TX, was that at no point was I made to feel like a city boy. Jack had 20 pounds and a couple inches on me, was way, way stronger, but didn’t seem to feel like he had anything to prove at all. I had no idea how remarkable that was until years later, when as a teenager (and perhaps to pay off the kharmic debt accrued in Plainview) I was humiliated in classic city-boy/country-boy fashion on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Jack had ample opportunity to make me feel foolish, and never did.

At the end of the week, my father came to pick me up and drive the 250 miles home. I never went to visit Jack again, nor did he visit me.

The utter incongruousness of that strange week with the rest of my adolescent narrative meant that it rapidly faded from memory, and years passed during which I didn’t think even once about Plainview and the McCaffrey family and Jack.

And then quite suddenly and for no real reason, bits and pieces of the story started coming back. And I started thinking about Jack, and me, and the unlikely trajectory of our lives that had led them to cross over for one week in which we were inseparable best friends, best friends who would never speak again, nor have any reason to, nor have anything in common at all ever again.

Because while the details might have been negotiable, even at 12 I was an inveterate nerd; I was already destined for computer science classes at the local high school, and college after that. I had been an effortlessly voracious reader for 5 years by that point, had in fact brought a selection of nerd paperbacks with me to Plainview, and my appetite for ridiculous fiction would only grow, encouraged (and, significantly: funded) by my parents, both of whom held advanced degrees from fancy colleges3. Even at 12, it was almost inconceivable that I would become anything other than than the CRT-tanned anorak I became; some details may have been negotiable—for example, whether of media franchises whose names begin with “Star,” I would prefer Trek or Wars4. But the broad strokes were already painted. Even the statistically unlikely years of religious wacknuttery could only postpone my metamorphosis into a standard-issue 21st Century Nerd, who writes his Feelings on a Website.

And the same was true for Jack. He came from a family of heavy equipment operators in rural Texas, and would one day operate heavy equipment for a living himself. He would fill out and up and become bearded and ruddy-faced, marry young and for life, and have strong feelings about his personal relationship with Christ.

We each would become these people, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

And yet in the face of that cold fact stands that one week in Plainview, TX. The more I think about it, the more unlikely it becomes. Did Jack really have a pet raccoon? Did we really catch a bull snake in the yard and keep it in a plastic drum with sand in the bottom for a few days? Did Jack’s mother really put two nearly pubescent boys in the bathtub with each other to rinse the day’s salt and dust from their skin, free to regard one another’s wet bodies unselfconsciously and free from any shame? Did I really ride a pony across a dusty TX field, the sun hot on my head and untanned skin? Am I remembering the tiny barn kittens accurately? Did that bird really disintegrate as dramatically as I remember it disintegrating, when I pulled the trigger on Jack’s 20-gauge? Did Jack really engage me in a sly and lengthy discourse on my sexual experience, asserting that he had done it with a girl he knew, but that you didn’t really need a girl to do it and that the two of us could in fact do it right here in this otherwise unoccupied doublewide, that he would be the girl, if I wanted? Was I really seriously invited to participate in a rodeo? Am I correct in recalling the pneumatic suspension of the seats in Jack’s uncle’s big rig, adjustable for the weight of the occupant, seats that bobbed up and down almost nautically under the uncle’s bulk, but did not so much as budge what mass my scrawny body possessed? Did any of this really happen?

I can think of no explanation for this other than yes—it must have happened all roughly as I remember it. I am not imaginative enough to make it up, and even if I were, I can’t think of a reason to do so. The Plainview narrative does not serve as a source of entertaining stories to tell over expensive cocktails in the big city where I live.

That anomalous week accomplishes only this: to stand as stark evidence that we all have way less control over the sweep of our lives than most of us prefer to think. We all eventually and inevitably become some minor variation of an ur-person, a version of a self whose extent is determined well before we are aware there is any determining going on.

Plus or minus our weeks in Texas.

  1. As is true elsewhere on WHTC, the names of places and individuals have been changed. However, I feel compelled to note that Plainview’s real name was so hilariously countrified and hick-ish that if I were to use it here, I would very likely be accused of mean-spirited city slicker exaggeration. Also, there is a real town of Plainview, TX, but this Plainview does not refer to that Plainview.
  2. A Case 510C, to be precise.
  3. This did not prevent their descent into religious wacknuttery, but it probably helped keep said descent short, as descents go.
  4. As it turned out—Blazers.