WELCOME TO THE PONDEROSA
By Don Kenton Henry
I stood on the tarmac in my dress wools already sweating in the eighty degree heat of the Rio Grande Valley. Dateline: 0100 hour, 23 November 1970. Just seven prior I had stood in the midst of a howling blizzard and twelve degree temperature in the parking lot of the Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis. Six inches of snow already covered the heart of Indiana. There I had pulled my foot locker from the back of my mother’s Chevy station wagon as I prepared to catch the first airplane flight of my sixteen year life.
Just four days prior to Thanksgiving, this day had begun at breakfast when I was escorted from the mess hall to the Company Commander’s headquarters at Howe Military School on the Indiana, Michigan border. At great expense to her, my mother had sent me there a month earlier in an attempt to change my delinquent ways, teach me discipline and set my moral compass straight. I was confronted with the charges and immediately pleaded guilty to all. “Yes” I had struck a superior officer. “Yes” I had stolen an $800 Bell and Howe projector on which to show the stag film my brother had mailed to me in a non-descript package wrapped in brown grocery bag paper and tied with white kite string. As fate would have it, I and my fellow cadets of Company B would never get to see, “Jack Hammer Man of Steel” as he went fourth and one with the cheerleaders from Pittsburgh. That was because the supply desk Sergeant became suspicious when I tried to check the sixty pound projector, zipped in a duffel bag, into the supply room the night before. The assault on the officer the same night was a minor footnote compared to the theft of the projector. The officer had intentionally dumped a metal pan full of steaming hot gravy straight into the lap of my dress pants at chow earlier that evening while pretending to pass it to me. Perhaps it was merely a case of freshman hazing but it poached my eggs and ruined a $40 dollar pair of dress wools. With considerable encouragement from others who assured me the cadet code of honor allowed for retaliation in such circumstances, I had gone to his room accompanied by what, by the time I reached the second floor of the barracks, amounted to a squadron of pubescent Army Rangers anxious to witness a beat down. As he opened his door I said, “You burnt this privates, privates, sir!” and I pole jacked him with a straight left to the tip of his chin before opening an entire can of whoop ass. But there were only two reasons a cadet could be expelled from the school. Drugs or theft. I had never, and have never, done drugs. My contention that I had only “requisitioned” the projector from the audio-visual department in an attempt to foster an esprit de corps and boost morale was dismissed, as was I. I was told I had been expelled – the military prep school equivalent of a “dishonorable discharge” and my mother was called to drive the 100 miles from our home in Finn’s Landing to retrieve me. The sun had barely risen by the time she and my grandfather arrived and, in tears and shame, loaded me into the station wagon.
Once back at home, I sat on the floral print, scotch guarded sofa in my mother’s living room, still dressed in my Sunday morning – go to chapel – dress uniform; my head in my hands too despondent with my own shame to change clothes. “Donnie, I don’t know what to do with you now. This is the third high school you have been expelled from in less than a year. You made a promise to me you would finally get yourself straight and you broke it. In the past, you have pulled some awful pranks but, by stealing, you have shamed yourself and me beyond anything previous. I don’t know that any new schools will take you and I took out a second mortgage on this house to send you to Howe and have nothing more to spend.”
“Send the little son-of-a-bitch to the Marines – they’ll straighten his ass out – that’s what I say!” said my grandfather as he paced in front of the fireplace, smoking a cigarette and wearing a suit and tie as he did every Sunday morning.
“I already looked into that daddy when he and the Edmond boys got kicked out of Rensselaer High for locking those cattle and chickens in the school overnight. The Marines won’t take him until he turns seventeen.”
“Well, hell! That’s only five more months. Let him sit on the sofa until then. He can’t accomplish any less than he’s done the last sixteen years!”
“I know, daddy. I know. Call it foolish, but I’m his mother… he’s my oldest child and I … I still have dreams of him graduating high school.”
“The day pigs fly!” he shouted as he grabbed his coat and left through the front door.
“Donnie, I said I would never, under any circumstances, let any of you kids live with your father but I just don’t know what to do with you. You cannot just sit around this house. You have to finish school. Would you consider going to Texas to live with your father?”
“Mom, I want to finish school. I know I can do it. I’ve just never tried, that’s all. I’d go live with Dad,” I told her.
“It just scares me to death. You know he gets drunk and abusive. I don’t want him to hurt you.” Her eyes were already welling up with the tears at the thought of entrusting me to the old man.
To tell the truth, it scared me a too but I pulled myself up and said, with as much confidence as I could muster, “I’ll be ok. I’m a lot bigger now, mom. I think I can handle him.”
Besides, I thought to myself, he claims to live on a ranch now. A place he called, “The Ponderosa”. That sounded pretty cool to me. I tried to imagine the two of us riding across the valley into the camera lens, me on a big appaloosa, just like Ben and Little Joe. Bonanza! That’s what it would be! Just like Bonanza!”
“Well,” she said, breathing a deep sigh as though acquiescing to the inevitable, “you know your father doesn’t have a phone. We’ll have to wait until noon and call the pay phone at that tavern and – when he comes in – they’ll give him the message to call us back.”
“I know mom. I know. Make the call.”
I sat on the sofa not moving and inch until she did. She told Rosita, or whoever it was that answered the phone, to please have Don Henry call her. It was a family emergency. The woman at the other end assured her she would and I sat there another hour until the phone rang. My mother took the call and explained the circumstances to my father. He asked to speak to me. I walked into the dining room and my mother handed the heavy black phone to me.
“So Junior,” he began. When my dad had been drinking his voice always slowed into a slow rendition of John Wayne – ‘The Duke’. “So Junior . . . ya wanna come to Texas!”
“That’s right, dad. I want to come to Texas. I need to finish school.”
“So ya wanna live on the Ponderosa, do ya?”
“That’s right. That sounds pretty neat to me, dad.”
“All right. Then tell your mother to get your delinquent little butt on a plane and to let me know when you’ll be here.” With that he hung up and the loud dial tone was all I heard. Minutes later, in tears, mom booked my one-way flight to Texas.
I had been the only passenger on the connecting Southwest Airline flight to McAllen from Houston, the last leg of my journey. There was no gate at the McAllen airport in 1970. The plane just pulled up as close to the one building where the public normally waited to pick up passengers or the latter purchased tickets and waited to board. But at 1 a.m. that building was totally dark – everyone having left at midnight or earlier. All I could see was almost total darkness as I waited to depart. The one flight attendant remained seated at the front of the plane and the pilot opened the door to the passenger cabin and operated the mechanism to engage the ramp. He motioned me to exit and followed me down the ramp. Once there, he opened the luggage compartment, took my foot locker out and deposited it next to me. “There you go, kid. Welcome to the Rio Grande Valley!”
“Yes, sir … Thank you, sir,” I replied.
Before I knew it, he had boarded the plane, pulled the ramp up and had the plane roaring down the runway to Mexico, Laredo or some other exotic destination. He left me standing on the tarmac staring into the darkness of the airport grounds. No one was there to greet me. No one was there to greet anyone. Where was I was? Where was McAllen, Texas, anyway? How could it be so terribly hot in late November I thought, as I loosened my tie and the itchy wool collar of my shirt. Boy, mom was not going to like this I continued thinking as I thumbed the quarter in my pocket she had given me for the purposes of calling her collect if there were a problem. Who would she then call? Rosita at the cantina? As I was preparing to drag my foot locker in search of a pay phone, I peered down the long sidewalk bordering the parking lot. At the very end, ever so faintly, shone the red glow of a cigarette. “Dad? Dad … is that you?”
“Junior. Get your butt down here!”
He hadn’t forgotten or gotten too drunk to pick me up after all!
I drug my locker down to him and followed him over to the trunk of a dusty old Plymouth from the early sixties. Every inch of it – including the window – was caked in south Texas dust. It was impossible to tell the paint color of the car. To the eye, it was mud beige except where a clear spot had been wiped in the dust on the windshield in front of the driver’s seat. Dad threw my locker into the trunk of the car and we were loaded up and off. He pulled a bottle of Jim Beam off the floorboards and put it between his legs. Then he uncorked it and took a long pull. Neither of us said a word as we drove through the streets and downtown. I had to unroll my passenger side window and wipe the dust from the windshield in front of me in order to see anything. A clock on the McAllen State Bank said it was 77 degrees. Palm trees were everywhere and it was looking like Paradise to this small town boy from Indiana. Pretty soon we had passed out of town and into the countryside. About five miles out, we turned left off the highway onto a dirt road next to an orange grove. The moonlight reflected off the oranges as the Plymouth dipped into and was almost swallowed by giant chuck holes. As we dipped and rose at a snail’s pace, I came to realize how the car had become so dusty. “Boy, the Ponderosa must be in a really remote place,” I thought.
The car took a right turn along an irrigation ditch and the oranges gave way to grapefruit. Finally, we came to a stop beside a huge azalea bush next to two shacks – one large and one very small – alongside the ditch. I remained seated in the car as the old man got out. “He must have to take a piss,” I thought.
“Dad – you gotta pee or something?” I said through the window.
“Get your trunk out, Junior. We’re at The Ponderosa.”
The Ponderosa! How could this be the The Ponderosa? There was no balcony! Hoss and Hop Sing weren’t running out to greet us! This was two shacks – the smaller one barely bigger than an outhouse in the middle of a dust bowl next to a ditch! Perhaps my descriptions are a little too critical. On closer scrutiny, I could see the larger one did have a shingled roof and a window air conditioning unit on the front side which would turn out to be the one bedroom of the three room house consisting of no more than maybe 7 or 800 square feet. And it did have a screened- in back porch to which I drug my locker. A lizard crawled across the screen door. I had never seen anything like that in Indiana. “What is that, Dad? Is that an iguana?” I asked, taking a step back.
“That’s what they call a gecko. It is like a chameleon.”
He opened the screen door, put a key in the lock of the heavy wooden door behind it and pushed it open. He then held the screen door and told me to, “go on in”. I did so, dragging my locker and setting it down on the floor of the back porch. The porch entered directly into the kitchen and the light was on in there so I had a clear view through it to the door of the bedroom on the opposite side. My eyes made their way back across the floor of the kitchen when I noticed something on the floor in front of the refrigerator door. It was a puddle of something. A puddle approximately ten inches or so in diameter glistened on the otherwise white linoleum. My father stayed back, not saying a word as I, hesitantly, inched closer to the doorway of the kitchen. The refrigerator and the substance were just about three feet beyond. I stood in the door jamb staring down at the bright red puddle. By now, it was past 2 a.m. and I had been up for twenty hours. At a sub-conscious level, I believe my mind had already acknowledged what my conscious mind was not yet ready to accept. I stepped the rest of the way forward and lowered myself to one knee. Slowly, I placed the index finger of my left hand into the red pool which was about a quarter inch thick. I tapped it few times and as I pulled away, I could feel that it was tacky and sticky to the touch. My conscious mind had processed the reality.
“Dad! This is blood! This is blood on your floor!”
Not looking up at my father who himself had moved to the entrance of the kitchen door and was now leaning against the jamb, I peered more closely at it. He said not a word as I saw something in the middle of the puddle. It was a dark sport that appeared flush with the surface of the floor. I put my finger on it and rubbed away the blood.
“Dad! There’s a bullet in the middle of this blood. There’s a bullet stuck in your kitchen floor! It looks like maybe a 38. Someone has been shot here!” Now I looked up at him, incredulous. Still he said nothing. Ever so nonchalantly he took a long drag on his cigarette and looked up, exhaling into the low ceiling of the kitchen. “Dad! Someone’s been shot in your kitchen. What happened here? Do you know what happened here?” I begged.
“Yeah … I know. I got the call from your mom saying you would be in around 1 a.m. and I figured I better get some sleep. So I set my alarm for 12 and went to bed. Somewhere around 11 or so, I awakened to hear something in my kitchen. So I got up and stuck my 38 in the back of my britches and opened the door to my bedroom and looked in the kitchen. And there was two Mezzkins rummaging through my refrigerator. One tall, thin one and one short stocky one. They looked up as I came in through the doorway and I said to them, “No man has ever left my house hungry. Now if you boys want to sit yourself down at the table, I will fix you something to eat – but no man comes into my house and starts rummaging through my property!
“Well, the short, stocky one looks up, gives me the finger and says, “f – you, gringo!” So I reached behind me, pulled out the 38 and shot him through the calf. Then I says, “Now you boys wanna set yourself down or do you want to show yourselves out?” With that, the tall skinny one jumps over the shorter one and shoots through that screen door like his pants were on fire and the other one hobbled after him as fast as he could. They disappeared into the grapefruit grove behind the house.”
I remained kneeling. I stared at the slug in the floor, trying to absorb the surreal image and story my father had just related to me. Ok. As I recall, an occasional bad guy had been shot at The Ponderosa. But somehow this didn’t seem so romantic. After dwelling on it, and still kneeling, I looked up at him and said, “Ok, dad. Bad guys break into your house, start going through your things and acting threatening. So you shoot one. I get it. I totally get defending yourself. But why . . . why in the world would you leave this mess, this blood on your floor for it to be the first thing your sixteen year old son sees when he steps off the plane into his new home?”
“Well, Junior,” he said, taking another long drag on his cigarette, but now looking down at me with a stone cold poker face, “I figured you might as well know what you’d gotten yourself into . . . Welcome to the Ponderosa.”