Do you have a great family story, one that passes Bruce Feiler’s campfire test with the emotion, the passion, and the pain to endure? Reading and writing about Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls inspired me to try my hand at writing my dad’s stories. Growing up during the depression in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and California he had plenty of adventures. My dad found the humor in every story and usually told them with tears running down his face from laughing so hard.
I want to preserve those stories for his posterity, so each month I’ll be sharing a fictionalized account of one of Dad’s stories. I’ll also share writing tips I am learning along the way. Here is my first attempt. I hope you enjoy it!
by Diana Elder, based on accounts from Bob Shults, Lorain Basset, and Christine Decker
“Bob, time to get up, you’re leaving in an hour,” his mother called from the next room.
Nine-year-old Bob sat upright on the mattress he shared with his older brother C.H. and quickly pulled on his bib overalls, his reddish blonde curly hair mussed from the night’s sleep. After a week of hard work helping his dad cut “sprouts,” the nasty shoots of the trees they were clearing around the cabin, adventure awaited. His Grandpa Shults and Aunt Christine had arrived the night before from Texas and today everyone but his mom and little sister, Helen were heading to Arkansas, just across the Oklahoma border to visit family for the day. Although Christine was technically his aunt, his dad’s baby sister, she was only two years older than Bob and the same age as C.H. Those two spelled trouble for him, he just knew it. Every time they got together he seemed to get the raw end of the deal.
Bob knew life was tough for his mom and dad. He’d heard them talking about the depression and no jobs or money. They’d moved around a lot trying to make a living. A couple of years before they’d loaded up their old truck and moved up to the three room cabin in the Ozark hills, just east of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. For the Shults children, life was one adventure after another, mixed with chores and school. Summer had just started and Bob looked forward to plenty of swimming in the Illinois river and all the swimming holes around.
Bob could smell the cornbread and black-eyed peas his mom had been cooking all morning for breakfast. These were their staple foods, along with whatever game his dad shot. Bob sometimes wished for something different. Most of the time though, he was just grateful for food to fill his belly. Piling into the trucks for the thirty-eight mile drive to the town of Lincoln, Arkansas, Bob maneuvered a window seat, much to the chagrin of Christine and C.H. He loved looking out at the rolling green hills and trying to spot a deer along the way.
When his dad finally pulled up in front of his aunt and uncle’s two story house, Bob hopped out, excited to explore and see his two year old cousin, Dale. For some reason, little children always tagged along after Bob. He just couldn’t say no and they soon came to find out that Bob would play nice. After the hugging and hellos were said, the grownups sauntered off. Aunt Lorain went to do some washing in the shade of the huge cottonwoods outside, and the men went to check out the stock, leaving the sweltering house to the children for a rousing game of cowboys and injuns, their favorite.
Bob teamed up with his little cousin Dale. Scouting out the enemy (CH and Christine), Bob peeked around the corner of the kitchen. The “cowboys” were in the next room trying to get something up on the shelf. C.H. was on a chair and Christine on his shoulders. It was the perfect time for an attack.
The stifling, summer day kept the grownups outside chatting in the shade of the cottonwood trees. Something had been getting into the livestock, killing the chickens and chasing the cows. Uncle Melvin wasn’t sure, but had a suspicion it was the stray dog he’d seen prowling around a day or two ago. He’d loaded up his 45 pistol and put it high on the front room shelf, just in case the dog came back around that night.
Back in the house, the “injuns” Bob and Dale tiptoed around the corner ready to start hollering. Bob saw Christine reach up towards the shelf. Just then Dale started whimpering and Bob bent down to shush his little cousin.
“Look here Bob, see what I have,” Christine called out.
As Bob turned around he saw what looked like a toy gun with a pearl handle in her hand. An explosion rocked the room and Bob felt a sharp blow to his face. When he put his hand up to his mouth it came away covered with blood and a tooth.
He ran screaming out of the house at the same time as the grownups came running, everyone scared to death. His dad scooped him up in his arms and pulling Bob’s hand away saw that the bullet had entered his cheek and come out under his nose, knocking out a tooth.
Bob heard his dad hollering, “Melvin, get the car, we’ve got to get him to the doctor.” Still in a state of shock Bob wasn’t feeling much pain, but he started to get a little worried as they pulled up in front of the old country doctor’s office. A visit to the doc’s office never was fun. The doc pulled out a large cotton swab and some iodine and it was all Bob could do to sit still as the doc swabbed out the two wounds and bandaged him up good. The pain of getting shot was nothing compared to the swabbing, but the worst was yet to come when the doctor delivered the awful news that he had to stay out of the water all summer. Darn Christine and C.H., once again they’d caused him a whole lot of trouble!
For the rest of his life Bob sported two dimples, one that came naturally and the other a result from the accident. Losing the tooth from the crowded bunch on top gave him beautiful straight teeth, not a bad reward for having survived a gunshot at the age of nine (even if he did miss cooling off all summer in the water).
I grew up with this story, often asking my dad about the small scar under his nose and in the dimple of his cheek, but memory can be fleeting and I hadn’t thought to ask enough questions.
I had a summary from his life history to go on, but it was pretty much just a summary, not a lot of details to bring the story to life. I needed more information if I was going to write a good story.
First, I reviewed what I already had. Then, I fleshed out the details of the story be creating a scene.
1. Start With What You Already Have
Everyone involved in the accident is long gone, but luckily, I had histories from Aunt Lorain and Aunt Christine who each gave their own accounts of the shooting and provided details to flesh out the story. Here are the three accounts of the shooting:
Bob: In about 1936, we took a trip to Arkansas to visit Dad’s sister Lorain and her husband Melvin. Christine and I were in the house, and everyone else was outside when she found a pistol Melvin was keeping handy for a stray dog that had been around. She picked it up and said, “Look here Bob, look what I found,” and just as I turned, she pulled the trigger. The bullet entered my left cheek and came out under my nose. We rushed outside screaming with blood streaming down my face. I was taken to the doctor’s office where he swabbed out the wound and bandaged it. It didn’t bother me much but I couldn’t go swimming all summer!! (from “My Life Story” by Bobby Gene Shults, circa 1970’s)
Aunt Lorain: In the summer of 1936, my Dad, William Huston Shults came to visit us. Leslie lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma so Dad stopped there first. Then the next day came on over to Lincoln to visit us. I was washing out under a shade tree in the backyard. So Christine, C.H. and Bobby was playing. Went into the house and Christine found the pistol up on a shelf where Melvin had put it. We had our bed out in the yard to sleep the night before. Stray dogs had been chasing our cow, so Melvin said if those dogs come, I’m going to shoot them. So next morning he just took his pistol and laid it up on a shelf. When Christine seen it she thought it was a toy. They made toy pearl hand guns for kids to play with. Cowboy style to shoot Indians with. So Christine said, Bobby look what I found. Just as he turned to look, she pulled the trigger. Bullet hit Bobby just under the nose in center of his upper lip. Came out his jaw, making him a perfect dimple. They came running out of house holding his mouth bleeding. so Leslie and Melvin took him to doctor. Just cleaned the wound out with swabs and sent him home. He got along just fine, minus one tooth. (from “Memories” by Lorain Shults Bassett circa 1970’s)
Christine: Lorain & Melvin lived in Arkansas, just across the Oklahoma line in Lincoln. Papa, me, Leslie, C.H. and Bobby went to visit for the day, the grown up’s were all outside. Me, C.H., Bobby & Dale in the house. Something had been killing their chickens and Melvin had a loaded 45 pistol up high on a shelf. C.H. saw it, he got up on a chair, I got on his shoulders & got the gun. Bobby & Dale had their back to us looking at a picture, I said Bobby look what I have, he turned just as I pulled the trigger, the bullet went in his cheek and out below the nose above the lip. Now he has two nice dimples. I’m the one who had to have treatments with a doctor. (“1925-1944″by Christine Shults Becker, circa 1970’s)
Each account is a little different but gave me three perspectives for my story. They all wrote their recollection of the event many years later, so it’s expected that they all remember it a little differently so long afterward.
After gathering the memories and stories that you have, you can move on to adding details and fleshing out the story.
2. Flesh Out the Details by Creating a Scene
In a writing class, I had learned that a good way to enliven family history is to create a scene. To do that you need to pay attention to characters, the setting, dialogue, and plot. This story is mostly plot driven, but I still wanted to add details to bring it to life. Google Earth let me take a look at what the area looks like now and Google searches gave me facts like the distance between Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas.
Researching the small stuff helped me create a clearer picture in my head and bring the story to life. I learned so much more about this favorite childhood story and can’t wait to write more of the adventures of cowboy Bob.
Do you have a great family story just needing to be told? Try your hand at writing a scene with characters, setting, dialogue and plot. I promise you won’t regret it. Best of luck in your family history endeavors!