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By Donna Flood
Chapter 20 - Bitter Wine

I had sipped the bitter wine of poverty and the sweet wine of wealth, and believe me the later was more desirable. The few years between our Osage homes and Chilocco were so filled with difficult days it can only be guessed at how our family survived.

Mother and Dad had always worked together as a team, but after we left the ranching area this changed. Vee earlier had worked the cattle in pants and boots. Now she was wearing white uniforms for her café work. The beauty of her long, shining black, hair, twisted into a bun made the uniform look like it was a statement in fashion designed for the woman. She was slim and well built and the glow of her skin made many a plain woman wish to gayly give her a twisting pinch, so jealous of her were they. Instead of fostering that jealousy she skillfully turned it to bring those into her court of admirers. Vee had a way with the public and enjoyed working. What she considered to be friendly service, Leon saw as flirting and this infuriated him. Their quiet battles escalated to finally reached the point of violence.

“Where’s Mama?” One of the boys was rummaging around in the kitchen looking for food.

“She gone! She took Sister and she’s gone!” I was fourteen and, suddenly, I was the only adult in the house.

“Where’s Dad and Uncle Dennis?” My younger brother asked.

“Looking for Mother, I guess. Dad hit her with his fist and blacked her eye. Gramma put her on the bus and said she has to stay away from this town for a while.”

The following days were probably the saddest in my life. No one was aware of what was going on with my brothers and me. The café was closed, out of any food, and there wasn’t anything in the house except cornmeal, flour, and baking powder. I did know how to make cornbread so this is what I did. A friend whose mother was a missionary with a calling to service as what was called, an anointed one. Truly, I think she was because she taught me how to gather dandelion greens and this is how we ate.

There was a dishpan under the sink and I filled it as full as I could. The boys didn’t complain about their meager diet and seemed happy to have something to eat. The cooked greens with a sprinkling of vinegar were good with the cornbread. There was some molasses in the cabinet and that changed off the diet a little. This went on for about a week. My cornmeal was running low and I did not know what to do next. It never occurred to me to go to my Native Grandmother and I heard nothing from her. She didn’t drive and our phone was no longer working, so she couldn’t call.

Uncle Dean came in the front door one morning and had a worried look on his face, but as usual didn’t say anything about our parents.

“Are you kids okay?” He asked.

“Well, just barely,” I told him how we had been eating. He didn’t say anything but took us to a restaurant where we dined on hamburgers and fries. Things were looking up a bit.

Mother’s return was a blessing, of course, but it was a mixed blessing. All we could think about and cringe against was the fighting Dad and Mother had done and what we feared would happen again.

“Leon, please, whatever you want to do?” When Vee returned, she pleaded with Dad. “We must keep our family together.”

Vee had effectively disappeared from the area for a while and that alone must have been enough for Leon to believe she was not going to put up with any more abuse. It was never learned how Leon managed to bring his wife back, but it was through our Grandmother, I’m sure, who knew what town and where Mother had fled. Essentially, Leon was never a violent man. He wouldn’t even spank the children. What caused him to suddenly become a changed, unreasonable man? For whatever the reason he was now beat and blessed peace again reigned in our world.

The bitterness of having to live in the area was now softened for all of us. Without the continual fighting and peaceful living everything returned to the way it had been and life was suddenly peaceful again. I asked Dad years later what motivated him to strike Mother.

“I saw your brother going to school one morning, crying because his shoes were worn out and he had no shoe laces. Something inside me snapped and I just lost total control. The playing at working a café with no profit, not even enough to clothe you children caused me to snap.” Lee was honest to a fault and this must have been his reasoning.

We began a series of moves after that, to Mother’s, mother’s farm and things were good for a while. The drought starting circa 1952 and ended that. No water, no garden, only dry blowing sand and we moved to Tonkawa in the abandoned Prisoner of War camp. Our poverty was so heavy even the extra work Uncle Dean brought in just gave a bit of relief. My Dad worked in a foundry. Mother worked in a café and I painted the souvenirs for Uncle Deans business. The more I painted the more I was paid, so often, the night was about gone before I finished. We all worked on the crafts for saleable souvenirs, but the adults were more able to endure, although Dad would often drop into a chair and go to sleep. I was too tired and sleepy to stay awake in class. School work was picked up to take home for four days a week. I managed to study at home, and then, on Friday gave my work to the teacher to be graded. Straight A’s at the end of the year couldn’t be counted because I had not been in class for the required number of days, according to Oklahoma law. There wasn’t any counseling in those days so I was unaware that what I was doing wasn’t acceptable. Working day and night with my artwork, helping with my baby brother while Mother worked and doing a form of, unheard of then, home schooling, wasn’t something that was allowed. Instead of letting me know this wouldn’t work the school simply waited until the last minute, and then, informed me I would get no credit for the year.

My Native grandmother had continued to talk to me about going to Chilocco Indian Boarding School. A number of things had happened outside of the problems within our family and I was feeling like a horse in a pen while a man with a rope carefully, but surely stalked me.

Mother had grandmother Bell’s treadle sewing machine and she began to teach me how to sew. The teacher in Home Economics was a wonderful role model and she worked tirelessly with the girls. Before long, clothes would never again be a concern. I always had too many, it seemed. This along with the art work, school work, and painting made me feel like the little boy in Holland who kept his finger in the dam to keep the ocean from pouring through.

“They arrested our neighbor boy. I guess he’s going to get some prison time for the rape of that girl his friend and he picked up.” Mother was reading the paper.

“Oh my goodness! He tried to give me a ride that same day.” I blurted out.

Mother and Dad looked at me slowly and with an anxious reaction. What was happening in my world, they had not understood. When I was younger, cousin Weldon, was always there with us, but now I was a girl alone, so much of the time. It was just an open invitation to any of the boys, who were out for no good and this was a pressure to cause me anxiety. Walking home from school, being alone in the house, or even studying at the library was a time, when I had to be cautious. I did have some friends who were protective of me, but I couldn’t depend on them, all of the time.

This event my parents read about in the newspaper was now, at last, what made them agree for me to attend Chilocco. My school work not being counted, for the year didn’t set well with Dad, either. His anger with the school, the law, and everyone involved, who were using their power to punish me for my trying, he felt was unfair.

Mother and I stood in the office of one of the massive stone, Oxford looking buildings, Hayworth Hall, at Chilocco where we were to speak with the principal.

“This is the federal government,” the principal at Chilocco told me. “We are not governed by state law. If you did the work, received the grades, then, by all means we can count it.”

With that statement I was enrolled at the school. There was regimen left over from the time it was a military school, the rules were expected to be obeyed and there was loneliness for family, but for all that, the school was still a wonderful experience. No longer was there a fear of something or someone coming into my world, unannounced and unwelcome. The school was heavily guarded at all times and if a person was careful to do all that was expected, a wealth and beauty of living was available. The resort like conditions returned me, for a time, to the place on the prairie where I was before and had been happy. For me, the school was, indeed, a light on the prairie.

Weldon was in Europe while in the army and he began to write me letters of his visits there during his time off. I supposed he identified with me because I, too, was in an institution like the army. In the packet from Nice, France there was a hand-embroidered scarf with a map and the town marked by the needle work. In my mind I could see the narrow streets, the blue Mediterranean Sea, the shops and old buildings Weldon described to me.

Another time he sent me a lovely purse made by the monks in an Italian monastery. The tiny scroll work in gold on the dark leather was special, I thought. The gift was kept for many years until the gold was almost totally worn away.

Weldon talked about the city of Rome, Italy and said the Americans were not very popular at the time, while Communism was a force. He said the army men were warned not to go alone on the streets at night. Weldon described the dark streets and the fear that someone might be lurking around a corner, so there might be a dangerous attack and I could see it all in my mind.

Just when my world at Chilocco was closing in on me a letter would arrive from Weldon. There, too, was the five-dollar bill to accompany the letter. I didn’t need money but change could buy a ten-cent Coke at the Flaming Arrow, where we went to dance and socialize in the evenings.

One of his letters arrived to tell of a sad event with the death of his buddy from an explosion of some sort. The happening had nothing to do with the war and was an accident that shouldn’t have taken his buddies life, Weldon told. Weldon’s personality, seemed to take a change after that. A decided difference in his attitude was evident from the things he wrote, as far as disappointment with the goals, he had hoped to meet, were concerned. Was there something in his heart and mind to take him back to, when he was a boy, and looked upon his Mother as she lay dead on the floor of her bedroom?

No matter how hard the family was struggling and how there were small goals captured, the bitter wine was about, to again, be poured out.

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