My year in Small-town Rule High School: Twilight Musings Autobiography
Elton D. Higgs
I don’t remember all the details of my family’s move from Abilene to Rule, TX, in the summer of 1955, but I’m sure it must have been once again because of my father’s ill health (cancer) and the need to be near my brother Otho and his family. They had moved to Rule a couple of years earlier to establish an appliance sales and service store, with a jewelry repair service at the back of the store. For me, it was a radical change in culture, and the year I spent there introduced me to experiences that I would never have encountered in Abilene.
Rule was a small town of around 1,500 people, surrounded by small farms. It had a couple of blocks of stores on the main road through town, a cotton gin at the edge of town, and a farming economy that depended on rain and good crops. The high school had about 100 students in it, and the focus was much more on athletics than on academics, as is common in small towns in the South. My graduating senior class had only 21 students, so my previous experience in a “big high school” of several hundred students identified me as a sort of egghead nerd who had never been exposed to the close-to-the-ground life of a farming community.
Athletic games were great social events for the whole town, and boys who played football were minor celebrities. I remember the star of the team was one Sonny Wharton, a good-looking lad who led the pack of boys in my class. Since I had never played football and was not very big, nobody thought it strange that I didn’t volunteer to join the team; but those qualities were no hindrance to my going out briefly for basketball, and then a few weeks of running track. I was pretty much a flop as a basketball player, but I might have had some success at track if I had known how to train. As it was, when I was running my first (and only) 220 yard dash competition, I didn’t pace myself and found my legs giving way, and I skidded several yards on my belly on a cinder track. I had scars for years afterward from that incident. That brought an inglorious end to my athletic endeavors. The burly coach at the school gave my brother Otho a concise assessment of my athletic abilities: “He’s the most uncoordinated 18-year-old I’ve ever seen.” Just as well I had other places to shine.
More to my taste and abilities was participating in the drama team. Since the pool of actors was small, we prepared only a one-act play for the regional drama competition. I learned my lines and was ready to go, but the afternoon of the affair, I was running a fever, and it was all I could do to get through the play, let alone do a quality job. It turned out that I had chicken pox, and I was out of school for a week. Happily, my other drama roles had better results. One of my electives was a Future Farmers of America class (there was a scarcity of alternatives), and one of the activities was a little radio drama on farm safety. Our team went to the state competition and won first place! Who would have thought it? My final thespian venture was the senior play, a farce in which my role as a father involved lathering up my face and pretending to have hydrophobia in order to scare away an unwanted suitor for my “daughter.” The audience loved it!
There was, however, a cruder side to my taking the Future Farmers course. Every class member had to join the school’s FFA chapter, and traditionally that meant going through an initiation of the sort that only high school boys can devise. Like all such unpleasant initiations, it hinged on humiliating and intimidating the new guys, and their showpiece exercise was to have them strip to their birthday suits, get down on all fours, and pretend to be hogs being judged. Each of us had a handler shouting instructions on how best to display our porky selves. The faculty leader was present, but he merely laughed nervously and looked on. I survived the ordeal, but the image of it is indelibly etched on my pictorial memory. At least my enduring without complaint made me accepted by the guys, even if I was basically a city boy.
I held several jobs during that year, the first of which was helping my brother Otho in the installation of appliances and TV antennas. Poor TV reception in Rule meant that many people chose to install an outdoor antenna on their housetop or atop a 60-foot tower with a rotator so that it could be turned 360 degrees to catch the signal from a particular station. Those who couldn’t afford such luxury had to make do with a “rabbit ears” indoor antenna, which usually brought in only a “snowy” picture. I learned some basic electronics in helping install those devices, and that has been a valuable asset ever since. I also clambered on rooftops and climbed up some of those 60-foot towers, which gave me the confidence when I needed to do that for myself later on. (I even installed my own rooftop antenna with a rotator on it at the first house my wife and I bought.)
My work experience with Otho was not without problems. On the lighter side, one time when we were installing a rooftop antenna during the winter, with some snow still on the ground, I was up on the roof following instructions from Otho on the ground. At some point, I started sliding on the wet roof and didn’t stop until I hit a snowdrift down below. When he was assured I wasn’t hurt, Otho burst out laughing, and he enjoyed telling that story for months afterward. He said I just slid down smoothly as if it was a joy ride of some sort. I suspect he wished he had been able to film it.
But another action on my part almost cost him a finger. He had installed a telescoping tower on the back of his pickup to use in raising home towers and accessing them for servicing. While we were in transit, the telescoping tower segments were held in place by a wire wound around the overlapping legs of the segments. The wire had to be taken off, of course, when the tower was ready to be cranked up. One day, the tower seemed to be stuck when I tried to crank it up, and Otho climbed up to see what was wrong. Unfortunately, I had failed to remove the restraining wire, but I kept applying pressure to the crank while Otho was trying to find where the bind was, and the restraining wire snapped and the tower shot up a few feet with great force, catching Otho’s thumb and almost completely severing it. I remember Otho hollering something like, “Elton, you’ve ruined me!” Somehow he managed to keep the thumb from coming completely off, wrapped his bleeding hand with some rags, and drove to the hospital, where they managed to get his thumb sewed back in place. He recovered, but my terrible error rather soured our work relationship for a while.
Another job came from Novis Owsley, the dry goods store owner down the street from Otho’s shop,. They were good friends, so Novis (Mr. Owsley to me, of course) dropped in frequently to the store. One day, he asked me if I would be willing to come in early each morning, before school, and sweep out the store and take out the trash before the store opened for business. I consented, and I spent some good hours listening to popular music on the radio and enjoying being there by myself. I still remember some of the hit tunes of the time that I became familiar with, like “Que Sera, Sera” and “Love and Marriage Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage.” Then, when the fall cotton harvest time came around and the “braceros” (migrant workers from Mexico who picked cotton) would come into the store to buy basic clothes, Mr. Owsley needed someone who could speak enough Spanish to service these workers, and my basic Spanish was sufficient for the job.
So I became a dry goods salesman, along with two classmates who also worked part time. Sammy and Sharon were “an item” at school, so they obviously worked well together, and the three of us became fast friends. Sharon was a sweet Southern girl who showed affection to everybody. Her pet name for me was “El-twan,” and she used it regularly. Sammie was a pleasant but serious young man, and easy to work with. Between us, we sold quite a few clothes for Mr. Owsley. (Some years later, I was surprised to find out that when Sammie and Sharon went away to college, they split up and did not get married as everybody expected.)
My final job in Rule was as a school bus driver. That required me to get a chauffeur’s driving license, which stood me in good stead when two years later I applied for a college outdoor maintenance job which required a special driving license. I drove the afternoon bus to take the kids home. My route included both town and country stops and took me about an hour to complete. A couple of times, I got supplementary work driving the bus for out-of-town sports events. One of those times was to transport the girls’ basketball team, and I asked for one of my friends to go along with me. The principal was understandably reluctant to permit such a thing, for reasons I think I was too naïve to understand at the time. Finally, however, he gave in, based on my solemn promise that my friend Herbert would never be out of his seat next to me in the front of the bus. Bus driving certainly added to my experience and skills in a significant way.
At the end of the year, I was declared to be the valedictorian, based on both my Abilene High School and Rule High School grades. My family had a little celebration after the ceremony at our house, and I remember my brother Otho coming up to me with some advice: “Elton, stick to your books.” By which he meant, don’t try to make you way in life doing anything that requires great coordination or practical skills. I took his advice and pursued an academic career, but I’m also glad that I gained more from my practical experiences in Rule than perhaps he thought I had.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)