Day the Mules Went Crazy
by Jim Foreman
THE FILPOT FAMILY
Most everyone living in Stinnett, with the possible exception of Lawyer Tate, was so poor that when the depression came along, they didn't even notice a change. Most of them just thought that it was simply a situation in which more people liked to eat rabbits. As for my family, we were better off than most because living on a ranch with more cattle than anyone wanted, we had all the beef that we cared to eat. My mother always had a big garden which furnished all sorts of vegetables, so all in all, we got along pretty well during those bleak dustbowl days of the 1930s. Other people weren't as lucky.
One day in the middle of a particularly hot and dry summer, a rattling old truck came limping into town and finally expired right next to the town's trash dump just across the railroad tracks at the south edge of town. As soon as the wheezing old truck gasped its last breath, the filthiest bunch of kids we had ever seen began to spew out the back like rats deserting a sinking ship. From all appearances, the couple in the cab of the truck had spawned another dirty little redheaded, short-necked kid every nine months and fifteen minutes for the past dozen years. They even doubled up on the process a few times to produce several sets of twins. They had a whole assortment of screamers, creepers, crappers, tree climbers, yard pissers, cat killers, pig screwers, hubcap stealers, fighters and farters.
They pushed the dead truck off the side of the road and let it coast down the hill into the dump where they pitched a couple tents next to it, built a fire and set up housekeeping. The wife, who looked to be about eight months pregnant at the time, still suckling a pair of twins and dragging another screamer hanging onto one of her legs made her way into the grocery store and announced that she would like to open a charge account for some groceries. In those days, it was customary for all grocery stores to sell to most anyone on credit, then add enough to the bills of those who did pay to make up for those who either couldn't or wouldn't. When Ma Filpot began to pile groceries and canned goods on the counter like she was buying for a threshing crew, Mr. Betendorf, who owned the store, told her that there was a limit of ten dollars credit for any one family. After she ran her charge account to the limit and was still way short of enough groceries to feed all of them, some of the people of Stinnett dropped by with sacks of flour, sides of bacon and an assortment of fresh vegetables.
It turned out that the people in the truck were named Rose and Bert Filpot who said that they were on their way to California to pick grapes. From what they said, Stinnett was only a stopping place for them to repair the truck, have another kid or two and regroup their forces before moving on. A few people did question how they happened to be in Stinnett when the usual route to the west was some fifty miles to the south and the direction that they were going when they came into town certainly wasn't toward the promised land in California.
At first, the people of Stinnett figured that the Filpots would be around for a couple weeks and then go on their way. However, as time went along, it became obvious that they were settling in for a much longer stay. Within a week after the arrival, they had dug through the trash dump for old lumber, oil drums, tarpaper and whatever else they could find and started nailing it together just like they owned the place. Soon, they had half a dozen shacks built around or shoved up against the old truck. Next, several hogs appeared on the place, along with a milk cow and a whole flock of chickens. People around town had reported the loss of a chicken or pig now and then, but it was impossible to positively identify any of them as the ones that the Filpots had. We finally came to the realization that the Filpots were here to stay when someone came back from the dump and reported that Bert Filpot had built a gate across the road and was charging everyone a dime to get in to dump their trash. The Sheriff said that the land belonged to old man Stinnett and since he had been dead for years, there was no one to order them to leave.
Summer passed and on the first day of school, all the Filpot kids over the age of about six showed up. Some of them claimed that they had been to school at one time or another while others had never seen the inside of a classroom. None of them appeared to have ever seen soap and water. Since there were no school records for the Filpot kids, the teachers talked with each one to see how much the knew then put them into whatever class they figured they belonged.
All the older boys were named something which ended with Bert, their father's name. There was Obert, Filbert, the twins Hobert and Herbert, Egbert and the other twins, Jaybert and Rabert. They must have run out of names ending in Bert because the two youngest were named after dogs. There was Spot and another one called Rover. The girls, of whom there was only five, were named after the states in which they were born, along with Rose as their middle name. There was Georgia Rose, Alabama Rose, Tennessee Rose, Arkansas Rose and Oklahoma Rose. The names of the girls appeared to be a roadmap of their westward travels and how long they had been on the way. If the kid that she was carrying at the time turned out to be a girl, she would probably be named Texas Rose.
Obert, the oldest of the Filpot kids, was three or four years older than me and as big as a horse, but the teachers decided that he belonged somewhere around the fifth grade in school, which put him in the same grade with me. He had a round, fat face with tiny, pig-like eyes, set close together under an overhanging brow. It made one wonder just how long it had been since his ancestors had climbed down from trees and started walking erect. Since the teachers seated kids according to the alphabet, he sat right in front of me. I don't suppose you could call Obert a bully, because bullies like to hit smaller kids. Obert never hit any of us but he liked to push us down and sit on us. I've seem him sitting as many as five kids at a time while he laughed like an idiot. His laugh was sort of like a combination between a donkey braying and a pig snorting. It came out Heee Haww, Snort Snort, Oink Oink.
Not only did Obert look, smell and act like a pig, but he also ate like one. He brought his lunch in a battered old lard can and even though the Filpot family seemed to be on the edge of starvation, he always had enough food for four or five normal boys. It usually consisted of six or eight biscuit sandwiches filled with everything from sausage to onions to sand-plum jelly, at least plus half a pie or cake. On one occasion, he brought a whole watermelon to school, which he ate, seeds rind and all. I've seem him stuff a whole biscuit sandwich into his mouth, give it about two good chomps and wash it down with a big swig from a quart bottle of milk. Each sandwich would be followed by a huge belch. Some of the kids would even give Obert some of their lunch just to hear him belch. The belching would stop in ten or fifteen minutes, only to be replaced by another form of expelled gas. By the middle of the first period after lunch, there would be a pungent cloud hovering around his desk that would kill flies.
There was a timid little girl by the name of Emily Bledsoe who sat directly across the aisle from Obert. She had watery blue eyes, stringy blond hair and was so bashful that she would turn beet red for almost no reason at all. Emily always made straight A's in school and kept her notebook so neat that the teachers would use it to show us how a notebook should look. A couple days after Obert came to our school, he was stricken with the urge to expel some gas, so he leaned to one side and bounced a thunderous fart off the hardwood seat. When every head in the class spun around to locate the origin of the blast, Obert calmly pointed toward Emily.
Her face turned crimson red and huge tears flooded down her pale cheeks as she jumped to her feet and dashed for the door, wailing, "I didn't do it! I didn't do it!" Our teacher, Mrs. Benson, raced after her, trying to calm her down. Evidently Mrs. Benson wasn't too successful because Emily didn't return to school for three days. When she finally came back, she was allowed to sit completely across the room from Obert.
I spent the next three years looking at and smelling Obert's backside. When we had a fire drill, I had to follow Obert. When we went to the lunch room, I followed Obert. I endured Obert until the eighth grade when his father decided that since he had only gone through grade school and was a success in life, that was enough learning for Obert.
I didn't see Obert all that much after he left school because we certainly didn't travel in the same circles. About the only occasion when our paths did cross was when we happened to be at the post office at the same time. After I graduated from high school and went on to college, I almost never saw him again, which was just fine with me.
Several years had passed when I walked into the post office one morning to pick up my mail and there he stood, Obert Filpot, who was now the most repulsive person in Stinnett, possibly even in the whole state of Texas; well perhaps the third most repulsive, when you consider his parents, Big Bert and Mama Rose Filpot. Big Bert, who weighed at least three hundred pounds, had become known around town as "Hawg" so, it was only natural that his first fat offspring became known as "Shoat". Mama Filpot stood well over six feet tall, weighed at least fifty pounds more than Hawg and always looked as if she had just emerged from a fighting a forest fire. She not only could, but did whip Hawg's ass and throw him out of the house every time that he got drunk, which happened at least twice a week. After graduating from the eighth grade, Obert took over the family business of stealing hogs and charging people to dump their trash.
Obert always wore bib overalls and usually had at least one hand thrust down inside of them, alternately scratching himself or playing pocket-pool. Obert's gastric plumbing hadn't improved since leaving school and he now produced intestinal gasses in such quantity that he could not only fart at will, but could do so with a blast which far surpassed anything which any normal human could produce. His favorite game was "Pull My Finger".
The Filpot's post office box was just above mine and while I waited for Obert to fiddle with the combination lock to get his mail, I did my best not to breathe. The last time that he saw soap, it was going the other way. His bodily odors, combined with his gastric discharges were enough to peel paint. The whole Filpot family smelled so bad that it was claimed that whenever any of them went out to feed the hogs, they would all run to the upwind side of the pen.
Obert finally managed to work the combination, which required only two numbers to open, and removed his mail from the box. He fumbled through his mail and moved down to the window to pick up something. I took my last breath of fresh air and plunged into the fog bank of Obert smell which hung like a cloud in front of the boxes.
I twirled the knob to open the lock box, which was more or less a foolish exercise since every box used the same combination and the primary purpose of the lock was to keep the door from being left open. Mixed in among the seed catalogs, copies of Trade-A-Plane News and the Grit Newspaper was a small yellow slip, indicating that I should call at the window for a registered letter. I moved from the old cloud of Obert in front of the boxes to the new one that he had left hovering at the window.
"Sign yore name rat cheer," said Mr. Bates, the postmaster, pointing to the bottom line on the yellow slip. He then thumbed through a stack of identical letters until he came to the one addressed to me. He ripped off the attached green return card and slid it through the window for my signature. "Looks like we ain't gonna be seein' you 'round cheer much longer. Looks like the Army done gotcha, along with Shoat, Bucky Groves and most of the rest of you young studs who didn't go off to fight like real men in the big war." he added.
"Greeting from the President of the United States." the letter began. "A group of your friends and neighbors have selected you to....." Damn! I barely escaped WW-II by being born one month too late to get drafted, and now they are throwing another war just to get even with me.
Obert was right in front of me as we went through the induction process for being drafted for the Korean War, but our paths parted at that point. I never saw Obert or any of the Filpots again because when I returned two years later, the whole family had picked up and left town after the Texas State Department of Health made Stinnett close the trash dump because of its unsanitary conditions.