In 1999, my wife and I looked at a house to purchase in Mingus, Texas, an old nineteenth-century mining community mid-way between Fort Worth and Abilene. The house was a wooden two bedroom structure that had been moved from New York Hill along the main highway to 113 East Grant Town Road. The caretaker and brother of the woman that had lived in the house was named Bill Tiblets. He and his wife lived next door to the house we would buy. Bill said, “Set a price on the house.” We did, and for $35,000 we had a 1913 Arts and Crafts house with about one-quarter of an acre upon which I planted a vineyard of forty-four Cabernet franc, Cabernet savignon, and Syrah grape vines, most imported from California vineyards. The vineyard flourished over the next four years and we still have a car boy of the Cabernet sitting in the dining room.
Bill Tiblets had lived in Mingus all of his life, been postmaster, and had operated a steak house, “Will’s Steakhouse,” for many years before he retired. He was tall, pleasant, well-groomed, and friendly. Bill became a close friend of mine and so did his wife, Will, for whom the steakhouse was named. They had four sons, Larry, Jody, James, and Charles, and the kind and friendly attributes of their father and mother were ingrained into their behavior.
Bill, however, in his early seventies, was partially impaired by the concoction of old age and hard work. He had osteoarthritis and from time to time had to use a scooter to get around in the house and yard. Each week or so, he would call me and invite me to come over to his home next door and have a toddy. It would be a toddy of Old Granddad whiskey with Seven-Up or Coca-Cola. We talked and I found out that during World War II, he had been stationed in Brownwood, Texas, for training, and that his wife, Will, had come down to stay with him. Accommodations were so sparse in Brownwood with Camp Bowie nearby, that they rented out a clean chicken house in which to reside for a couple of months.
As time passed, I could tell that Bill was in a state of physical degeneration, becoming less and less mobile. Still, however, he would walk as best he could. One day, he and his sons came over to the house and we went outside to see the old steakhouse that he had owned. The steakhouse was across a nearby creek that used to have crawdads and bullfrogs when the climate was wetter and cooler, back in the 1930s and 1940s. Bill, his four sons, and I picked up relics from the cafe that had burned down (a case of arson): spoons, forks, knives. Brenda and I had already picked up some Buffalo-style platters in the rubble. We use them to serve steaks to our guests. But, on that day, Bill, his sons, and I reflected on the steakhouse so many people enjoyed. Bill said that people would fly into the landing strip on New York Hill and come down to their steakhouse to eat. Will’s Steakhouse was also known as Little Lowake, a steakhouse near San Angelo that was as popular in Texas as The French Laundry in California.
As Bill’s degeneration worsened, he walked less and less, motored more and more. We still had our weekly toddies. He continued to joke. He tolerated the local minister’s visits to insure his passage to the afterlife would be comfortable, although, like me, Bill professed skepticism at such things as heaven and hell. He much preferred the company of his family and friends while alive to thinking of reverie beyond the grave. Bill worked in his wood shop and plant nursery in his last days.
Our houses, as I said, were next door: the Tiblets a brick house, ours the wooden Arts and Crafts of 1913. Pecan trees bordered our property with a 100 foot vacant grassy lot between us that we kept mowed. Larry, Bill’s son, trimmed around the mesquite and pecan trees. The vacant lot had been a parking lot for a dance hall in the 1930s and 1940s. The pecan trees would seasonally give both our families a sufficient harvest for munching, perhaps a pie. We could see each other across the lot and we would talk almost daily.
One fall day, Bill drove his scooter to the pecan trees between our homes. I saw him through our kitchen window. He sat briefly under the shade of the trees, warming in the sun, and then he wiggled out of the scooter, got on his hands and knees and picked pecans. His impairment prevented him from bending over from the scooter. I called my wife to the kitchen window. “Bill is picking pecans on his hands and knees,” I said quietly. He would put them in his pockets and occasionally empty the nuts into a bag attached to the scooter. Over the next few weeks, Bill would pick every few days or so, easing himself down from his machine.
Bill possessed the good in mankind, the deep-down drive to keep going, despite pain, to maintain a simple but necessary ritual of harvesting pecans when ripe or making a pie for the holidays or feeding the horses or cattle. Necessary toil. I saw Bill on his knees that day, but he was a thousand feet tall, decked in finery, and crowned with an ancient helmet of self-possession to duty, until the end of his time, his day, his life.
Bill died later that year. We all will have our end, but until that day, we need to get out of the chair and harvest the fruit on the ground, on hands and knees, if necessary. Like Bill.
I raise my toddy everyday and toast to my friend, Bill Tiblets: “A votre exemple.”
Bill’s children and widow have moved from their home on Grant Town Road in Mingus. Will lives in Gordon, Texas, a few miles east of Mingus, and her children have all built homes nearby on top of a hill, overlooking Interstate 20. The Arts and Crafts home Brenda and I lived in for four years has been sold. The present tenants have let the vineyard lapse into semi-chaos, but when I drive by on the way to the post office I do see Cabernet franc vines robustly staying alive. We kept the Mingus house for a couple of years as we moved to our ranch. We got a good price for it since I had cleaned up the dead trees and had planted the vineyard. I miss the house and so does Brenda. Bill’s children are settling in on the hill and each son has the drive and initiative of their father: construction, home repair, accounting, water plant worker, and other skills. Brenda and I talk about Will and Bill and our life next door to them in Mingus, but the one topic that always comes up is Bill Tiblets Picks Pecans.