from September, 2004
My great-grandfather, Orville Slack I, was born in a cave; my grandfather, Orville the Second, though born in an adjoining cave, worked his way up to a sod hut; Papa, or, as he was known to the residents of panhandle country, Orville Slack III, climbed the social ladder by purchasing his own shack; and I, through my ingenuity and work ethic, now live in a small bungalow in the small town of Border, Oklahoma, which abuts the larger town of Progress, Texas, which is not that far from Liberal, Kansas.
But as one of our brilliant American thinkers has put it, “Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife.” Before Groucho Marx made this observation, the famous French gardener, Voltaire, is quoted as having said, “Behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law.” Woman, wife, or mother-in-law: the point is that without the guidance and comfort of a succession of females, my forebears would have been total failures.
Who were these women?
Orville Slack I, my great-grandfather, was born to an immigrant Englishman and his mistress, a remarkable woman of Mexican descent. Marguerita Slack fended for herself and her son, Orville II, by mastering the art of riflery. Legend has it that she could shoot the burning end of a squat cigar out of the mouth of a deputy sheriff at fifty paces—quite a feat, considering the shortness of her legs. There was not a bank teller in panhandle country, so I’ve heard it said, who did not fear Grass-Widow Slack, as she was also known. In fact, a good part of an aspiring teller’s training came to consist of mastering the art of prayer.
At the age of 16, Grandpa Slack married a woman of American Indian descent. Sacajawea Slack was to bow-and-arrow hunting as her mother-in-law Marguerita was to bank borrowing. Her other notorious skill was the ability to guide U. S. infantry units through rattlesnake country—a skill, they say, that she had learned from her own great-grandmother.
In fact, it was on one of her expeditions that she came across a large group of Mormon women headed for the Promised Land. From this troop of lustful, lonely ladies who had answered Brigham Young’s ads, she chose her daughter-in-law, a black woman who had answered the wrong ad, thus inadvertently joining these ladies. This is how Orville Slack II became betrothed to my grandma, Matty Slack, and, as a wedding gift for her, purchased the sod hut that he suddenly found himself unable to pay for.
It was in this sod hut that Papa was born into a pool of English/Hispanic-American/ Indian/black Mormon genes. Grandma Matty, however, was a woman of industry who believed in the American Dream. Not long after her marriage to Grandpa, she insisted that he improve their standard of living by moving from the sod hut to a shack at the edge of Border, Oklahoma. How she earned the money for this purchase I do not know. There were, of course, theories. All I can say with any certainty is that shortly after she gave birth to my father, Orville Slack III, she left town with a Bible-toting circuit-riding Methodist minister who peddled snake oil on the side.
Papa was more fortunate, undoubtedly because of his firm commitment to the Protestant work ethic, which he had heard about at a revival meeting presided over by his mother’s secret lover. On one of his infrequent trips to Waco, Papa met and married Sarah Cohen, who, we later learned by reading her secret correspondence with a former boyfriend attending a yeshiva, was of Jewish ancestry. My mother, Sarah, came to this marriage with a small dowry, allowing Papa to climb the ladder of success.
It was Papa’s success that allowed me to make it through the sixth grade. At that time I met a charming woman of Asian ancestry, who, on the occasion of our first romp in the dried alfalfa, urged me to make her an honest woman. Unfortunately, Mother Sarah would have nothing of it. Though I would not go so far as to call her prejudiced, I sensed that she wanted me to marry someone more like herself. Thus I was forced to apply my family talent to the situation and beg off the planned matrimony. This fact, together with my mother’s longevity, is why I have remained a bachelor to this day.