Courtship at El Caballito
written by: Carl Parsons
I met my farmer in high school, in trigonometry class when we were both seniors. I didn’t intend to meet a farmer, let alone this one. But I did. I had noticed that Jim Russell was slow at solving the formula problems in trig but fast as lightning at solving the statement problems, the kind we had to post on the blackboard. Our class was presided over by our school’s most famous instructor, Charles Ames, who called on us randomly to post proofs of statement problems on the blackboard (a real blackboard in those days) and then present to our classmates our step-by-step explanations of the solutions. Mr. Ames was a much feared but greatly respected disciplinarian who kept a huge demonstration slide rule hanging above the blackboard as though it were a religious symbol. Moreover, he was oblivious as to whether his students were pretty or plain, footballers or wimps. He only respected right answers and believed in public executions (well, at least figurative ones) for incorrect answers. Therefore, I was quite anxious never to go to the blackboard with an incorrect answer.
Then one day, still early in the school year, I was having trouble with an assignment of statement problems, so I asked Jim after class if he could show me how he solved them so quickly. “Sure,” he said with a pleased smile. “Tomorrow, right after lunch period. Meet me outside the library.” And off he went without another word.
The next day he showed up promptly for our appointment and took me to a small conference room in the library where we could talk. There he explained his secret technique to me. “All of these trig problems follow patterns,” he said, tapping the eraser of his mechanical pencil on my textbook, “patterns related to the trig functions. And each problem contains a clue as to which pattern and therefore which trig function is needed for the solution.” Then he pointed out some of the clues in the problems I was trying to solve.
Well, all that made perfectly good sense to me and seemed to work. “But,” I said to him, “if you don’t mind my saying so, Jim, you seem to struggle with the equation problems, which are needed to solve the statement problems. How can you be so sharp in the harder type of problems and not in the simpler?”
“Oh, I just lose interest in the equation problems after a short time,” he said. “They just repeat themselves after they have served their purpose of introducing the trig concepts. The real value of numbers and equations, after all, only comes when they stand for something, as they do in the statement problems. Then they aren’t abstractions anymore; they become something real, something you can visualize and use to solve real-life problems. Besides, abstractions just get us into trouble. Most of the world’s problems come from abstractions.”
Well, of course, that explained everything! Only a philosopher farmer would know such things. Old Hesiod would have loved this kid!
And then, before we went back to classes, he asked me for a date. And I don’t really know why, because I did not at all consider Jim my type of boy, but, perhaps from a sense of obligation, I said yes.
Now let me be very clear about this point: I, Cassandra Leigh Clark, was a popular girl in school; James Ray Russell was not a popular boy. I sang in the school choir. I acted in school plays. I danced and pranced in showy little red and white costumes as part of the dance team at our high school’s athletic and community events. I had a cute face (if I do say so myself) with light brown freckles sprinkled across my nose, and very dark curly hair. Also, I was a bit busty, like my mom, and presented a very good figure (which Mom no longer could do). I generally got good grades and never lacked for dates, usually with football players or boys popular for other reasons. Boys thought I was pretty, even sexy—those showy little red and white dance costumes! And I was going places. First, I was going to the state university (already accepted) to become—well, I hadn’t quite decided that part yet, but then neither had most of my friends. However, I was going to do something important—I knew that much—I just wasn’t sure yet what it would be.
Jim, by contrast, was pure vanilla. He certainly wasn’t homely but not handsome either, at least not in any obvious way. Average height and weight, maybe a bit on the thin side, with brown eyes and sandy brown hair, usually sun-bleached from doing farm work, and disturbed by only the slightest curl. Also it seemed as though he was always tanned, farm work again. One thing he did have going for him—he was muscular, although not like the football players and wrestlers I dated. He acquired his muscles from hard work in the fields and by hefting haybales in the barn rather than exercising with hand weights and barbells in a gym. In short, Jim was not necessarily the sort of guy a girl (at least a popular girl like me) would even notice right off. For proof, even though we had been in other classes together, as he later informed me, I had never noticed him until our trig class and only then spoke to him when I needed his help. But he claimed to have noticed me—plenty, he said.
Although Jim was smart as anything, he didn’t always get good grades, and he didn’t participate in extracurricular activities either. In science and math, he was among the best in our high school, and in those days, it was the biggest high school in the entire state. In anything else, however, he seemed to have no apparent interest and hence no outstanding grades, just good enough grades. But, as I soon learned, that was because he had to make choices about what to study, not because he didn’t like the other subjects or wasn’t smart enough to master them.
Jim never called attention to himself. His clothes were definitely not stylish but not outlandish either; they were plebian, strictly functional. Solid color pocket polo shirts and khaki slacks were his daily uniform, long sleeve polos in the winter and short sleeve ones at all other times. Girls seemed to pay no attention to him, not because he wasn’t good looking enough, but because he showed no signs of paying attention to them. He just went about his business with a pocket full of pens and mechanical pencils and his ever-present slide rule dangling in its case at his side. A math instructor with more heart than Mr. Ames would have loved him. And maybe he did but just didn’t show it. Jim was a straight-forward guy. Nothing but the facts, rarely showing emotions and definitely no abstractions! In a word, Jim was, just like Mr. Ames, focused.
But when he was sitting in class or walking by himself, Jim had a sad air about him, his shoulders were often tilted forward rather than held back, and when he walked, he gazed at the ground in front of him, as though he were thinking deeply about something far more serious than trig problems, as though he were haunted by great concerns. But one thing for sure, unlike most of us, Jim knew exactly what he was going to do in life; in fact, he was already doing it. James Ray Russell was a farmer.
The afternoon following our meeting, Mr. Ames called me to the blackboard, and just to the left of the sacred slide rule, I posted and then explained the correct answer for the day’s hardest problem. “Very good, Miss Clark,” Mr. Ames said with a trace of surprise in his voice. “Now, Mr. Russell, you do the next problem, and see if you can do yours as well as Miss Clark did hers.” Jim came forward, gave me a sly, knowing smile as I gave him the yellow chalk clutched in its aluminum holder. He then promptly posted and explained the correct answer to his problem, to which Mr. Ames showed no surprise at all.
So, I said yes, yes to a movie on Saturday night with Farmer Jim. And then I said yes to a dinner the next week. And before I realized it, I was saying yes to him rather often. And along the way I began to learn a lot about this quiet farm kid. Two years before, when we were sophomores, his dad had died. The family owned a small farm southwest of town in a community called Locust Hill. It was a thirty-five-acre farm on which they grew corn and hay as cash crops along with some large vegetable gardens, a fishing pond, and a flock of chickens, ten or so, and some ducks. The Russells actually grew their own food; they canned food, dried food, and froze food for the coming winter and spring, enough to last them until fresh crops could be harvested again during the next growing season. To a city girl like me, they seemed to live like pioneers. Even though Jim and I lived in the same county, less than fifteen miles apart, such a life as his was beyond my comprehension. For me, food came from the grocery store because I was a city girl.
But one day Jim’s dad didn’t come in from the fields for lunch as he usually did, and when Jim’s mom went to look for him, she found him face down in the field he had just plowed. A heart attack. He must have felt it coming on because he had switched off the tractor and started toward the house. He only made it a few feet before collapsing into the broken earth.
With the loss of his dad, Jim’s family—in addition to his mom, he had a younger sister— well, they had a tough time of it. But they didn’t want to sell the farm, which had been in the family since right after the Civil War. While there was no mortgage to worry about, there were, nevertheless, the normal costs of keeping a household going and the considerable expense of running a farm for which money is spent today in the hope of a successful harvest weeks or months later. Jim’s Uncle Edward, his dad’s older brother, who bought most of the corn and hay from Jim for his own adjacent dairy farm, helped out while Jim was at school and even lent some of his own farm hands to assist Jim during the week. But when Jim was home, he had to run the farm by himself as well as manage his schoolwork.
That left no time for extracurricular activities—no book clubs, no sports events, no science fairs (something Jim would surely have loved), and no girls, at least until now. Each morning he rose up early for farm chores and stayed up late at night for schoolwork. And so often in the evenings, when time ran short, he had to make choices about what to study and what to skip. As a result, in some of his classes, Jim gave the impression of being just an average student. Still, with his Uncle Ed’s help and a lot of his own hard work, Jim had managed to keep the farm producing an income while he was still in school and now, two years later, had even managed to hire someone to help work the fields for him during schooldays so that he didn’t have to impose so much on his uncle.
Not only that, but Jim had also come up with an idea. The stress of his family’s situation had caused him to look for ways to increase the farm’s income, even before his father’s death. Because he had always been uneasy about the farm being so dependent on his Uncle Ed as a customer, Jim began to explore other ways to make the farm profitable. In particular, he had begun reading about the development of intensive gardening for vegetable production in France and wanted to try it on his own farm in order to develop a second source of cash. While his dad was still alive, Jim had already proposed trying out this idea, but his dad thought the project would only detract from their other work. He was content having their farm service his older brother’s. Now, left on his own, Jim had given his ideas an initial trial. In the area where his father had died, near the farmhouse, Jim built a garden of raised beds, made his own compost, manured the soil, planted the crops closer than normal, and he was having success—more and better vegetables than he had ever grown before and in much less space, growing more than his family could use, enough to sell to the local independent grocers’ cooperative in town.
He also had the idea of combining these intensive gardening techniques with organic gardening and large-scale composting, making new soil from leaves, weeds, garbage, and manure. He tried out his ideas in the vegetable garden he had built. “The garden informs the fields,” he would say, meaning that what worked in a small scale in his experimental garden he then transferred to the farm at large. It all seemed crazy to me. And back then, in the mid-1960s, few people, even life-long farmers, knew much about organic gardening, and the environmental issues related to it were only just beginning to be discussed. But Jim foresaw a change coming and thought he could capitalize on it.
When he talked with me about his plans and his farm projects, Jim became absolutely eloquent. Other times it was hard to pry words out of him. On dates I thought, How romantic—he takes me out for dinner and spends all our time together telling me about a better way to grow tomatoes! But to be fair, he would also politely ask me about my activities—about choir and drama and dance. He even came to see me perform in a musical our school produced, somehow finding the time to do it. Generally, though, when it came to romance, Jim trailed far behind my other beaux. And, oh yes, for now at least, I had kept my other boyfriends.
On one date Jim asked, “Have you made any plans yet for college and maybe a career?
“For college, yes,” I said. “I’m going to WVU in the fall, but for a career, not really. I haven’t gotten that far yet. What about you? I suppose you’ll stick with farming.”
“For sure, I will,” he replied. “That much is certain, but I also want to get a botany degree.” Then he paused a bit before asking, “Do you think you would like life on a farm?”
Uh-oh, I thought. What is this leading to? “I’m not sure,” I replied. “Never really thought about it. I’m a city girl, you know.”
“You should think about it,” he said. “I think you’d be perfect on a farm.” I could detect that sly smile of his trying hard to curl his mouth. He fought it off and then he added, “Because you’re sturdy.”
“Sturdy!” I was shocked and a bit insulted. “You think I’m sturdy? I’ll have you know, Mr. Farm Boy, that my other boyfriends think I’m . . . well, sexy.”
“That’s okay, I think you’re sexy too,” he said with a laugh, “but those other boys don’t appreciate your true nature.”
“Oh, and just what is my true nature?”
“That of a fertility goddess.” Now he uttered this phrase without even the slightest hint of a smile, looking first into the distance as though he saw something taking shape out there and then looking directly and, I must say, rather warmly into my eyes, which by now had considerable fire in them. So that was it! Jim the Farm Boy was interested in me because he thought I was a fertility goddess—a sturdy fertility goddess at that! The pagan! He just wants me to help make his crops grow! I stopped short of asking just how this fertility magic was supposed to work, however, since I was afraid of what he might answer. But I did ask, “Is that all you think I’m good for, Jim—fertility?”
“Oh no, not just.” He was smiling his sly smile again. “You’d make a great partner too.” Then he added, “We would make great partners.” And this he said with considerable seriousness, so much so that his remark lingered with me for days. To farm boys, were “sturdy” and “fertile” the same thing as “sexy”? My city boyfriends, by contrast, displayed a great fear of fertility in their girlfriends. And partners? Partners in what?
The next week we spent Saturday night, not in town as we usually did, but in Locust Hill, at a cowboy bar call El Caballito. Now I should explain that a bar in West Virginia is a place with or without food that serves bottles or drafts of watery 3.2 per cent beer, the only kind permitted in our nearly “dry” state, and such places that serve it are typically referred to as “beer joints.” Jim and I had only recently become legal drinkers of this musty brown water. My acquaintance with beer was something yet unknown to my parents and would be a special point of disapprobation for my Baptist mother.
On the night of our date, the parking lot of El Caballito was filled with pickup trucks similar to Jim’s (yes, he courted me in a pickup truck!), although all of those parked at the bar were a lot newer than his. Above the entrance to El Caballito was a carved wooden sign with the bar’s name and a hobby horse, whose stick-body seemed to pierce right through the bar’s name, all set against the green-white-red of a ruffled Mexican flag as the background.
Despite its Spanish name and pretense at being a Mexican cantina, this was the kind of bar populated by guys named Ferlin and Travis, farmers young and old who on Saturday nights escaped the drudgery of their week’s work by turning into cowboys, dressing up in brightly colored shirts decorated with fringe, closed with pearl snaps instead of buttons, and sporting embroidered filigrees of silver and gold thread on the collars and cuffs.
Yes, on Saturday nights, Ferlin and Travis and their other rural brethren, especially the younger ones, liked to don cowboy boots and trade in their worn bib overalls for close fitting jeans held up with wide leather belts into which were tooled mottos like “Don’t Tread on Me” and images of haystacks and tractors. These belts were cinched with huge metal buckles stamped with Armed Forces emblems or the names of the farmer’s favorite vehicle or favorite woman. It wasn’t always clear which of the three was most important. One buckle I saw said “Ford Man,” a bright green and yellow one just said “John Deere,” and still another said “Dinah’s Guy.”
On Saturdays Ferlin and Travis came to El Caballito from the surrounding hayfields and barns to hoot and holler and dance with the local girls, of which there were apparently very few. Most of the Locust Hill girls, it seemed, had the good sense to go into town on Saturday nights. But those few who stayed in Locust Hill were in great demand and sometimes became the causes of bar fights.
Once we were inside, I found the place noisy and smoky and dark, but it seemed clean and well maintained, from what I could see. Given the lack of lighting, however, that wasn’t much. Tonight, a bluegrass band was busily playing on El Caballito’s tiny, nearly unlighted stage, so more clapping and hooting than dancing was going on, but on other nights country singers, western bands, and even Mexican trios performed there as well, according to Jim. Some were groups actually rising up in the music world; others falling down; but most were just going unnoticed, except at El Caballito.
This was not exactly my ideal spot for a date, but the previous week Jim had taken to take me to the Rayon Room, a rather sophisticated spot on Parkeston’s South Side (sophisticated, that is, for our town), a place that specialized in delicious Italian food and great jazz music, both of which were favorites of mine. So I owed Jim this night in Locust Hill. Besides, even as he warned me about the atmosphere, he claimed that El Caballito had great food, and nowhere else in our part of the world was Mexican food available in those days. So, trusting in Jim’s recommendation, I was at least curious enough to give it a try.
A Mexican girl, about sixteen, greeted Jim by name when we entered and hugged him briefly as he kissed her cheek. She then smiled and nodded at me before leading us to a table. Nearly the only light in the room came from single candles placed on each table and couched inside a colored art glass holder, the kind made by one of our local glass companies.
“Tell me, Jim,” I asked when we were seated with menus in hand, “just how did a Mexican cantina open up in Locust Hill?”
“The owners, Julio and Juanita Ramirez and their three kids, came here one summer, about five years ago, looking for work as farm hands and got hired at the Cunningham farm just up Shawnee Highway from here. It’s the farm just below Uncle Ed’s. Well, after a few years, old man Cunningham loved Señora Ramirez’s cooking so much that he said he would give her family this old building, a service station he had run for years to supplement his farm income, on the condition that they would stay and turn it into a restaurant. Fact is, we’re sitting about where the oil change pit used to be. As you could see when we drove out here from town, our only other eatery is the Lowery Diner, so Mr. Cunningham thought it would be great if we had another restaurant in our community. The Cunninghams and the Lowerys have always been local rivals, mostly for fun on the Cunningham’s side but taken a lot more seriously in the Lowery family. Anyway, everyone else out this way, other than the Lowerys, thought another restaurant was a great idea, so some of us pitched in to help remodel the place. I worked at reroofing and painting and made the wooden sign you saw when we came in. That was just before Dad died. Anyhow, here it is. And it’s been reasonably successful ever since.”
“That’s an amazing story,” I offered.
“Not only that, the hostess who greeted us is the Ramirez’s younger daughter, named Rita. An older daughter, Rachel, went back to Mexico about a year ago to get married. And their son, Javier, is the one I who helps me on the farm.”
“And the name, El Caballito, what does that mean?” I asked.
“’Hobby horse.’ I think that’s because the Ramirez family wanted everybody to make this spot their own favorite place to go, to become their hobby horse, so to speak. But, as I was working on the sign, I discovered something else—that hobby horses are also symbols from ancient times of good luck in agricultural communities. I believe the word literally means ‘tiny horse,’ but I’m not sure about Spanish. I’ve stuck with Latin; need it for botany.”
I thought to myself, Hmmm, I’ve stuck with French; need it to be considered a popular girl. Jim was damn practical about everything.
Finally, a young but rather weary-looking waitress made her way over to our table through the rustic revelers and their cigarette smoke (lots of people still smoked in those days). She too was supposed to be a Mexican señorita, costumed in an off-the-shoulder white blouse for which her bosom was inadequate (I thought) and a full but rather short black skirt imprinted with pink camellias, for which her legs were too skinny (my opinion, again). Other than the costume, she was clearly a local girl. But like the hostess Rita, she knew Jim right away and brightened up considerably when she recognized him.
“Why, Jimmy, how are yah?” she asked, snapping her chewing gum as she spoke. “You ain’t bin in for a while. Is this the little girlie keepin’ you so busy that you can’t come see me no more?”
“You could say that,” Jim replied with another of his sly smiles. He smiled those so often that it was often hard to tell when he was really being serious. Then he looked at me and said, “Cassie, this is Wanda Williams. We went to school together, from first grade, starting at the same elementary school, the one we passed coming out here. And, Wanda, this is Cassandra Clark. I’m one of her many boyfriends.”
“Yeah, we went tuh school tuh-gether ‘til I quit to work here. But no matter. Anyhow, nice tuh meet ya, Cassandra. Now, what can I get for you two lovebirds?” We ordered chili rellenos platters along with some draft beer.
“That it?” Wanda asked, smacking her chewing gum some more. Jim confirmed our order, and then Wanda gave him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek before she departed with, “I’ll be right back with the beers, you guys.” And very soon she was.
When Wanda kissed Jim, I saw a look on his face similar to the one I had seen the first time he kissed me—part embarrassed, part proud. His neck and cheeks appeared flushed, even in the dim candlelight.
As soon as Wanda dropped off the beers and moved out of gum-smacking range, I piped up with, “So you know Wanda really well, huh, Jim? Kissing cousins, I guess?” I just couldn’t let this moment pass by without inflicting some torture on my favorite farm boy. “And just why does she think we are lovebirds—since I have so many other boyfriends? Just who told her all that, Jim?”
“Wow, that’s a lot of questions, Cassie!” Jim replied, pretending to be overwhelmed. Then he resettled himself on the unpadded wooden chair. “But as I said before, we sort of grew up together—the Williams farm being right next to ours. And she is the first girl I ever kissed. As for the lovebirds, I think she just assumed that part.”
“And just when was this first time you kissed her?”
“Third grade,” he replied shyly.
“Third grade!” My eyes widened. “You kissed her in the third grade?”
“Okay, and then what?”
“And the sixth and seventh grades too.”
“So, you two do know each other really, really well, then would you say?”
“I suppose so. But I should add that when I kissed her, it was always on her birthday.”
“Well, aren’t you a sweetie? Kissed her on her birthdays!”
“That’s right.” Jim now had the broad grin of somebody about to announce a checkmate as he leaned toward me and whispered, “but I kiss you on your mouth.”
- Locust Hill: Chapter XII - May 7, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-II - April 6, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-I - March 5, 2023