Friday, September 27, 2013

Liemb Freel and His Roach Killer Boots

This is a post not about my kids, but for them.  And for you.

I remember the boots first.

Yes, I know the title is gibberish to most of you.  But Liemb Freel is an interesting name for an interesting man, now long gone.  But he’s somebody I actually think of often, even now.  There are people beyond family that are intertwined in our raising.  They are as much a part of our upbringing as our own kin or the settings themselves.

When I was growing up, our neighbors to the south were Liemb Freel Crawford (pronounced LIMfreel or LIMfrill depending on drawl and your ability to really nail the East Texan) and his wife Marguerite (marGREET).  On the biggest hill around, which maybe isn't saying a lot, he had built this enormous (or what I thought to be enormous) ranch style house with a low roof and huge porches.  It was rectangular and entirely surrounded by oaks, the only shade in the middle of two large pastures kept apart by County Road 1903.  The road number is probably more impressive than the road itself.  It was a squashy track of blacktop resurfaced so many times as to have distinctive layers, like a buttermilk biscuit.

The place was almost literally a museum, with ancient farm implements on the outside, not piled or junked, but displayed. Inside, the house reminded me of an old country store, frozen in time.  A real one, not the facsimile that places like Cracker Barrel try to put over as genuine.  Crossing their threshold was walking over a line, and directly into 1950.  There was a large riding corral at the back of the house, complete with lights.

Such places are absolutely magical to children.  Heck, to some adults.  The house smelled good, and had an air of severe oldness, but wasn’t in any way decrepit or decaying.  In fact, the home was relatively young; it was the content and the smell of it that struck you.

An aged man by that time, Liemb Freel’s house was always hot because of the raging fire in the massive fireplace.  He asked my dad to cut his wood in a certain way, not too heavy to lift or to tend.  He burned a mountain of it each year.  He preferred oak, and would start his fires with seasoned wood, but thereafter would burn green (that's freshly cut), which is smoky and quite dangerous to burn over time because of the flammable residue that builds up in the chimney.  (I mean, the stuff you can learn from a dad's blog, right?)
I think he was of Norwegian or Swedish extraction, hence the unusual name.  I'm probably just making that up, but that's the synapse that lights up right this second.

He owned unbelievable amounts of what we called The Bottom.  It was land mostly in a low floodplain cut through by Mill Creek, a tributary of the Sabine.  The Sabine, you'll remember, is what gives Texas its distinctive Eastern bulge that really helps sell Louisiana's boot-shape.  Liemb Freel and his family had lived down there in a tiny house, which to my knowledge is still in use to this day.

It was good land to run his cattle on.  And there's usually decent hunting in any bottomland, although we really never did hunt much.  He always let my dad cut as much wood as we needed down there, and everyone used as much of The Bottom as they wanted, for whatever you wanted, be it excavating huge iron ore rocks for your yard, or kidnapping unusual native plants for home use (I dubbed my mom's and Marguerite's practice “weed watching”) or poking around for arrowheads or possumberries or a good straight ash tree suitable for a bow.  It was all yours for the taking.  Liemb Freel was never greedy in any sense I could measure.

There was no visible pretension in him.  He loved children, even the little awkward, oddball idiots like yours truly.  He was always kind to me.  I spent a lot of time on his land, and frittered away cold, wet Saturdays on long walks there.  Even now, whenever I hear a crow call out, I think of walking those wet pastures on sullen, raw days.

He drove a distinctive gray shortbed Chevy truck, and drove it more slowly than I thought possible.  But there was no hurry.  Ever.  And nobody owned a truck like this.  It was relatively spartan.  No big tires.  No tinting.  No hayboards.  No winches.  No trim color.  No wrought iron embellishment.  I'm not even sure it had a radio.  It was the Jaguar E-Type of cowboy trucks.

I remember him almost as a silhouette.  The 1950s-style smallbrimmed gray Stetson - I'm assuming it was a Stetson, because, I mean, why on earth wouldn't it be - the dark, creased bluejeans, the pearl-snapped, paper-thin cotton shirts.  Even in torturously hot weather the long-sleeves were always rolled down, cuffs snapped.  Liemb Freel was as thin as you can possibly imagine.  No, way thinner than that.  More.  Okay, you’ve got it now.

Liemb Freel laughed often and easily, and showed a barely-there set of teeth.  His skin was tanned hard by the sun, and was stretched tight over his face.  He had a lantern jaw, and an almost wooden appearance,  not unlike a cigar store Indian.  There were quick, happy, almost black eyes.  His hair had been black in his youth, and he kept it oiled and combed back so severely that it didn't move whether his hat was affixed or not.

But I remember the boots first.

For Texans, there is a certain fascination with cowboy boots.  We don't know where it comes from, but it's there.  It's the reason that notable bootmakers here work tirelessly to present garish pairs to visiting heads-of-state.  Really, this happens all the time.  The most capable and famous bootmaker near our old house in Houston had a pair of his boots presented to the Queen of England.  I’m completely serious.

Liemb Freel's boots were distinctive, even in a culture completely submerged in stitched leather footwear.  They were black, which was fairly unusual, and were already many decades old by the time I appeared.  Small and narrow, almost delicate, they had tall riding heels, and were always coated in a haze of dust.  This particular pair ended in rather sharp points, with a small amount of squaring in the sole.  Some folks call these “roach killers” and that works just fine if you need a colorful term.  You can certainly imagine a bug in a tight corner having little chance.

Again, going up to see Liemb Freel and Marguerite was a huge treat for me.  I loved it.  I never touched anything.  I just opened my eyes and ears as wide as they would go and turned on the tape recorder in my head.

Nothing in the adult conversation ever demanded my attention, but the talk was so ancient and mannerly and circuitous that I couldn't do a darn thing but listen intently about hay curing and down-home (and probably bogus) ways to repel snakes or about the perfect time to pick a tomato in the summer and whether it was entirely proper to put salt on a fresh peach.  They spoke of, and did, old things in old ways.  I was completely fascinated.

Liemb Freel's voice was raspy and wonderfully accented.  He would always describe some object or place being, "you know, off down yonder a piece."  The language he used was slow and almost foreign, but wholly intelligible.  It was like he spoke the Mother Tongue.  As with a lot of rural dialects, if you're really talking, you feel someone’s meaning by tone well before the actual words convey it.  (This drives Majesty absolutely insane, as we discussed a while back.)

He made his own hominy.  Now, most of you won't really be struck with how insane that is and maybe are not familiar with the stuff.  But he made corn hominy by hand in the late fall with lye (lye dissolves the husks) just as people had done in the many centuries before him.  Liemb Freel had somewhat modernized the job by constructing his own wire mesh tumbler, complete with a holder for the garden hose.  He would spin the mesh cylinder, slowly washing the caustic lye off the kernels.  I ate bowls full of the stuff, with only salt and bacon drippings to flavor it.  It is like nothing you’ve ever eaten in your life.

Like with the mesh contraption, he was hilariously inventive.  He married an old French knife to a small wooden cutting board one time and presented it to my mother.  It sort of took out the middleman.  Why in the world would you not want the two tools together permanently?  They were always used together.  He would regularly repurpose old jugs as table lamps, drilling them out and wiring them by hand.  They still work.

Early on, I remember him smoking cigarettes a lot, though I'm sure he either mostly kept it to himself or maybe cut down as he aged (and I grew).  He ended up developing some really vicious emphysema because of it.  There was an ever-present oxygen tank beside his chair, right by the hearth.  And the fire.

I think about the man sitting in that oxblood leather chair in front of his fire, thin sticks of green oak crackling and popping, and I reckon that is exactly how I'd like to spend some time when - if - I get on that far.


Anonymous said...

Ahhhhh. . . Just right.

El Comodoro said...

Thanks, ma'am. Your opinion carries some serious weight around these parts. 'Preciate it.