The Life and Times of Roy Strain Part 1

“Roy Strain was a scoundrel!” Well, maybe Margaret Belken didn’t exactly say it just like that, but she finally owned up to it. Several years ago when I was researching the murder of Dorothy Symons in Aransas Pass, Texas, Jimmy Twing gave me Margaret’s phone number and told me she would know more about Aransas Pass in the 1930s than anyone else still living. I talked with Margaret many times by phone and during one of our conservations she said, “Oh, I remember your father, alright” and her expression was just dripping with intrigue. I thought if I pursued that immediately she might clam up, so I saved it for the next phone call. At that time I reminded Margaret that she remembered my father and asked if he had a “reputation”, to which she replied that “he certainly did”.

     When I asked what kind of reputation Roy Strain had, there was a long silence and for fear of her chickening out I suggested “was he a scoundrel” Margaret was quick to reply to the affirmative and then said there were four scoundrels in Aransas Pass during the 1930s. She listed C. S. Bolton, R. R. Rice, Roy Strain, but couldn’t remember the fourth one. I asked if it might be Bill Snyder and she agreed that it was with great enthusiasm. Margaret would not volunteer exactly what characteristics were required to achieve the status of scoundrel, but when prompted agreed heartily to smoking, drinking and womanizing as the top three. When theft and fraud were mentioned, Margaret just said she didn’t know about that. Margaret Belken was a good Baptist Lady.

     I seems so strange to begin an essay on Roy Strain by mentioning his “scoundrel” years, because from the age of forty-nine until he died at the age of ninety-three, he was a strict Christian gentleman and an Elder in the Church of Christ. Probably the scoundrel days would make for better reading. When he was in his late eighties I took him to a Bayfest Celebration on Shoreline Drive in Corpus Christi and was determined to buy him a beer. It would have been his first beer since his forty-ninth year on earth, but driving down to Shoreline, he had already anticipated my intent. He said, “Bill, I’m not going to drink any beer today”. When he died at age ninety-three I’m sure he had not tasted alcohol since 1947.

     When I was a child my mother was the disciplinarian in the family and my father seldom scolded and only spanked at the instruction of my mother. I would have welcomed his five hard licks to twenty of her “best shots” any time. She used “psychological warfare” in dealing with me. “Billy Ray, go out to that Salt Cedar tree and cut me a switch”. When I returned with the switch, “Billy Ray, that switch is too little and you know it, now go out there and cut one that is big enough to spank with and you’re getting five extra licks for bringing in this little bitty switch”. She usually spanked until you cried, so common sense would tell you to cry early on, but then she caught on to that too, leaving no alternatives. Strange I never got revenge on her; my best shot was aimed at my father.

     Mamie Jewell Williams Strain, my mother, was a lifelong member of the church of Christ. Her father, John Henry Williams (I’m guessing here) was a very radical member of the church of Christ and had a reputation for going to other church’s revivals, sitting in the back and laughing loudly whenever the visiting preacher said anything contrary to church of Christ doctrine. That is the environment in which my mother grew up, so it’s no wonder she was a contender for the “straight is the way and narrow” interpretation of the Holy Bible. Church was five times each week: Bible School at 8:45AM (the term Sunday School was unscriptural, but then there were the “Anti-Bible School churches of Christ” that said all Bible Schools were unscriptural and children should be taught by their parents; wives should be taught by their husbands), regular worship usually started at 10:45AM, Sunday Evening worship was at 7:00PM as was Wednesday evening worship....count ‘em...five! To miss any of these without a temperature was a sin. My father drank.

     If I had known then what I know now, I would have drunk. Anyway, one day I decided to put Brilliantine Hair Tonic in my father’s whiskey. He had a whiskey bottle in the trunk of his car at all times as well as one in the bathroom at home. I have always liked to mix things. At that time you could buy a package of Kool Aid for one cent add water and make two quarts of delicious liquid, after putting a half a pound of sugar into it. There were things you could do by mixing soda and water. There were even little toy boats that would “go” when you mixed soda and water in them. But this time I mixed Whiskey and Brilliantine Hair Tonic.

     At first I thought I had really screwed up. The oil in the hair tonic didn’t mix with the whiskey and there were oil floaters on the surface. I was deathly afraid they would be seen before the long swallow was taken. That’s the way men drank in those days. They would throw the bottle up with the bottom pointed to twelve o’ clock and then you would see bubbles going up into the bottle until you wondered if there would be anything left. As the cap went back on the bottle there were loud exhales of breath and instant blinking of the eyes as tears began to flow followed by more wheezing and coughing sounds from the imbiber. It was a ritual. I am so grateful that by the time my generation grew up the “Tom Collins” was in fashion.

     “Not to worry!”, my father came in after a hot day on the Car Sales lot, rushed to the bathroom and very shortly there was “the scream heard round the world“, followed by several staccato thunderclaps and rolling thunders of gagging which were rapidly propelled into the kitchen were regurgitation was directed into the kitchen sink. My mother came rushing to the rescue, applying a cold washcloth to the forehead (this was her first remedy to almost every ailment listed in the Farmer’s Almanac). I maintained a very low profile.

     After determining that there was no need to summon the coroner, my mother examined the remains in the whiskey bottle and with the nose of a Blue Healer detected the faint odor of what was left of the Brilliantine Hair Tonic. Then came that awful moment. “Billy Ray, did you put Brilliantine Hair Tonic in you father’s whiskey bottle?” I was already crying. Only three of us lived there and she knew she didn’t put it there. With all the charm and innocence a six year old is capable of, I sobbed, “I was only trying to get him to quit drinking”.

     It worked like a charm. I didn’t even get really scolded, because my mother felt that perhaps I was headed toward a ministry of the Gospel calling. She just told me not to alter the formula of my father’s whiskey anymore, because it was up to him to quit drinking using his own willpower. Otherwise in the heavenly scheme of things he wouldn’t get the credit for quitting. My paternal relationships were rather strained for a long time after that.

     Roy seldom went to church with Jewell, and Jewell seldom went to the dancehalls with Roy. I can remember going to those dances which wherever they were, you could count on it being a low, flat large dance floor with a bar at one end, tables around on three sides and screened in windows, with propped up wooden covers, on three sides. On the fourth side where the bar was there were no windows because that end had the storeroom were the cases of extra uniced beer were stored. The outer side was “one by six” wood batted siding painted white and the roof was almost flat. Although each place had a name, few had signs. The dancehall in Aransas Pass, out in the sand hills was named “The Bohemia Club”, according to Clara Tate, the tailor’s youngest daughter.

     I can remember my mother going to no more than five of these dances and at one time or another I can remember her dancing with my father and with some of his friends. They tried to get her to drink some beer. She tried it several times and just couldn’t enjoy it and then she didn’t like the silly feeling afterward. I’ve only seen her silly about three times during her life. I’m sure she had pangs of conscience afterward too. My father’s equal number of visits to church were even less spectacular.

     Why they ever got married, I’ll never know. My father was born and grew up in Indian Gap, Texas. His father was James Robert Strain who was strict, but not religiously so. I believe they came to Indian Gap as Presbyterians and at one time there was both a Baptist and a Presbyterian Church in the town. My memory is that they became Baptists when the Presbyterian Church burned. My dad began to date Lilly Williams, my mother’s older sister. They dated for three years and Lilly married a man named Basil McPherson; they farmed around Comanche, Texas for the rest of their lives. At the time the dating was going on it was not proper for an Indian Gap boy to be dating girls from Gustine or wherever the Williams Farm was at that time.

     Many boys have come home with black eyes and bloody noses for dating the girls from another community. But, evidently my father had no fear of this because when Lilly married Basil he began dating my mother; they dated for three years and then they got married. Dad told me that when he “asked for my mother’s hand in marriage”, Mr. Williams, upon agreeing to the union, said, “Well, Roy, she’s a hard worker, but she’s sickly.” What a way with words that old man had and what an introduction my mother got.

     After getting married my mother and father moved to St. Paul, Texas a few miles Northeast of Sinton, where my father rented farmland and “went bust” in two years. At some time either before or after the St. Paul disaster my father worked in the Oil Fields and I can remember my mother saying he had invented a gadget that would save thousands of dollars in the Oil Field Production business. The company thanked him profusely and then went on to manufacturing the part he designed. He had no knowledge of patents or royalties and in all fairness probably the company didn’t either.

     Roy was called up in World War I, but the war ended before he was inducted so he was notified to disregard the summons to duty.

     With two years of drought and no crop, my mother and father took what was left of their “nest egg” and moved to Aransas Pass, Texas where my father began selling Durant Automobiles. Mr. Durant would later fuse into Buick Motor Co. and when that happened my father began to work for Bill Snyder who owned Snyder Motor Co. in Aransas Pass.  They sold and serviced Chevrolets.  My dad liked the automobile business. He had a mechanical flair and the automobile business was the cutting edge of technology for his generation. He continued to sell cars until the Empire of Japan decided to bomb Pearl Harbor at which time the United States stopped manufacturing cars.

     Chalmers Livsey married my mother’s sister, Willie Viola Williams and they moved to Sinton, Texas. Chalmers bought a Durant from my father and drove it for years. The commission from the sale probably paid our living expenses for several months. Mr. Williams worked his girls so hard they were all given boy’s names by the neighbors. Willie Viola became “Bill” for the rest of her life. I had an Aunt Bill and I also had an Aunt Dick.

     When I was enjoying my second year on earth, the Great Depression began with the crash of  '29; banks closed, businesses failed and closed, men and women became unemployed, merchandise seemed to freeze on the shelves where it was last stocked and money of any kind became very rare indeed. Those wealthy with stocks of all kinds became paupers overnight and many solved their problem by jumping out of high office windows. My father had a few hundred dollars of his “nest egg” in a sugar bowl at home and loaned it to Bill Snyder who had lost everything he had because all of his money was in the bank.

     So Roy Strain and Bill Snyder continued to be scoundrels together and Snyder Motor Company stayed operative.

     My mother and father told me stories and sang the songs of the World War I and the Roaring Twenties, but my father’s father told him stories of just before, during and after the Civil War. Stories of how a group of men rode up to the farm house after the Civil War and called out the father, then shot him dead when he stepped out onto the front porch, or how the head of the family took a herd of horses to market and was never heard from again; no trace of rider, horse or the herd was ever seen again. My father said his father told him about watching soldiers round up the last of the Indians near Indian Gap and escorting them back toward the Reservations in Oklahoma, then known as the Indian Territory.

     The village of Indian Gap is at the top of a fairly steep hill and when the first Model Ts came out they had more power in reverse than in forward gear, so driver’s would drive just past the Indian Gap main street and back up to where the stores were. My father lived a life that spanned from refusing a ride up the hill with Doss Richardson because “I’m in a hurry”, and thereby making an enemy for life, to flying in a Jet Airliner to California to visit his sister and some of our Viet Namese relatives with whom my father fell in love. They called him “Amp”.

End of Part 1 - Go to Part 2