I would never have made it as a pioneer. Are you kidding? I haven’t camped out since 1974, and even then, it was under duress.
One of the last times my husband and I camped out, we stayed at a lonely, desolate campground close to Indian burial mounds in Mississippi. The only other campers at our site were two skinny, jittery, malevolent-looking guys who refused to speak to us when we dropped by to say hello (this was my husband’s idea to calm me down: get to know the neighborhood! Then she’ll feel better! Yeah!).
Unfortunately, one of our new and ominously silent neighbors bore a distinct resemblance to Elmer Wayne Henley, a Houstonian of recent mass-murder fame. Waving our arms and calling out loud good-byes, my husband and I slunk back to our tent. There, we spent the remainder of the long night expecting a sudden and excruciating death by machete or ax or Swiss army knife. When we awoke the next morning, though, Elmer Wayne and his sidekick were gone. For years, I thought of them every time I saw a Wanted! poster.
Even so, I’m pretty sure that being a pioneer would have been much worse than that last camping experience. I am also positive that being a pioneer in Texas would have been worse than settling almost anywhere else in this country. The state’s weather veers from brutally hot to bone-chilling cold, the wind spits dust and tumbleweeds, and the rivers and lakes breed poisonous snakes that frequently go into politics.
By the time my family moved to Texas in 1954, the environment was still harsh — but at least oil was being discovered and air-conditioning units were mass-produced. Our family lived in a small ranch house on the edge of Wichita Falls in a neighborhood teeming with children. We played hopscotch on the sidewalks and proved our mettle by stepping on red ants barefooted. When the endless summer days grew too hot and blistering, we retreated into our houses, which were cooled by overworked air-conditioning window units, and watched TV.
TV! That showed us another world beyond the barren expanses of the Texas horizons. It was like reading, my other, preferred escape. But books opened an interior world that was my own, while TV channeled a presumably real world that existed somewhere else in black and white, where people dressed more formally and spoke an orotund language distinct from our own broad, flat tones.
People on TV had exciting lives unlike, say, mine. They led three lives. They got run over by cars (some of us never got over Sarah on The Edge of Night, who threw herself in front of a car to save her daughter. This probably defined motherhood for a generation of American girls). They got to meet Bat Masterson and Davy Crockett (which meant they were probably pioneers, but never mind. Child or adult, my strong suit has never been consistency). They got to run elegantly down steep, winding staircases, like Loretta Young, and swirl around in skirts that defied the laws of physics; when you lived in a one-story rancher and only owned one petticoat, your staircase-and-swirling odds were tragically low.
Also, there were game shows like To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret, where sophisticated contestants cracked and snickered at languid witticisms I never quite understood. They lived in a very different world from mine — that much I did understand. That’s why they dressed in black and hailed taxis and lounged around and joked about drinking. (In our own mostly Protestant neighborhood, only the Catholics drank; this is why I always considered Catholicism the religion for people who liked to have more fun than Methodists. As my mother commented darkly, this was why Catholics had more babies and would probably take over the world. Also, you only wore black if somebody died and I didn’t ride in a taxi till I was 20.)
This all brings me to Kitty Carlisle Hart, who is really kind of the point, even if it took me millennia to get to it. (Lack of concision is right up there with lack of consistency in my long list of character flaws.) Anyway, for years, I watched Kitty Carlisle and resented her, since she was so glamorous and so what would have been called la-dee-dah in my neighborhood. I comforted myself that Kitty Carlisle probably couldn’t stomp on red ants barefooted or hula-hoop as well as I did, but somehow I knew I wasn’t holding trump cards. “The glamorous Kitty Carlisle Hart” is how they always introduced her; this was always my cue to head to the kitchen and do some revenge eating of ice cream.
It wasn’t till years later that I began to read about Carlisle that I realized she was a very accomplished woman. A singer, actress, benefactor, married to Moss Hart, proposed to by George Gershwin, acted with the Marx Brothers — and the daughter of a calculating, social-climbing mother who tried to marry her off to European royalty. Like all people you want to easily resent, she turned out to be far more complicated and sympathetic than you wanted to think.
But, best of all, I once read that Kitty Carlisle Hart began every day by staring into the mirror and announcing, “I forgive you, Kitty!” Forgiving yourself — now that was as foreign a concept to my stern Protestant childhood as uttering bon mots and hailing taxis. No wonder Kitty Carlisle seemed to be enjoying herself so much.
“I forgive you, Kitty!” I announce to the mirror now and then. And I mean it. Because the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized Kitty Carlisle Hart and I had something in common: She would have sucked at being a pioneer, too.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about the moment in life when everything changes