The theme was supposed to be music. Most of the stories I prodded Howard about that day revolved around his life with music, its influence on him. But sitting there, listening to him talk, I realized I had very little context for his life. Just larger, swathing, concrete truths about his existence. Arkansas. East St. Louis. WWII. Guitarist. Husband and father. I decided to find out more about his foundation.
“Where were you born?” I asked.
“What city were you born in? What city in Arkansas?”
“Williford, Arkansas. W-I-L-L-I-F-O-R-D. Small town, ‘bout five hundred.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Williford was close to Hardy, where I spent so much time on summer vacations, only about 15 minutes down a crooked highway. We may have visited it at some point during our travels, but, if so, the memories are lost to me.
“Do you remember your family playing a lot of music?” I asked him.
“My dad played music. My older brother. I didn’t play much music ‘til I left Arkansas, ‘bout nineteen forty. I wanna show you somethin’.” He left the room briefly, shuffling back into the room with a small painting in his hand. He leaned forward in the recliner after sitting down, extending the painting so I could see it.
“When I moved to Arkansas, there was a gal that did, did paintings. Came into my store down there, I had a store.
“What kind of store?” I asked.
“Had a jewelry store, antique store.”
“What year was that?
“Not long after I retired. So I told her what the old house looked like, where I was born and raised. I told her how it looked the last time I seen it, which was about nineteen thirty-six. And I sketched out a little bit of it to give her an idea, to show her what it looked like, this is what she came up with, and I’ll tell you what, it sure looks like the old, the old house. Nobody lived there then. This is like nineteen thirty-six. Okay, I decided I’d do some writing on the back.
He flipped over the painting to show some writing on the back, began to read the scrawling print out loud:
“This is our old house from about 1897 to 1923. There were twelve of us, eleven boys and one girl. Eleven were born here. The first one born here was Lester in 18 and 99. Then Henry, Earl, Bus, the only girl, Dessie, then Evert, Row, Owen, Lee Otis, J.T., Howard, Carlton, Babe. Babe was born after we moved away, 1923, at the old Skoll’s place about three miles away. My dad, James Cullom Estes, worked at the old Jones Mill nearby. This was on Rock Creek, approximately eight miles south of Hardy, Arkansas. The mill was powered by a big water wheel that ran in a manmade millrace, you know what a millrace is? dugout by hand. A cotton gin, grist mill, that made meal, for bread, syrup mill, also saw mill and whiskey still. At that time they could sell whiskey. My dad told me that Mr. Jones died in 1915. After that the old mill slowly left one-by-one. Up on the hill from the mill was Jonesville. There was a post office, a couple of stores and a saloon. Jonesville no longer existed after the early ‘20’s. I had remembered the house looked like this about 1936. In 1980 I told a lady painter how it looked. She made this picture. The old house burned about 1940 from a forest fire.”
I asked about work, how family survived with the town and factories failing around them. That, it turned out, was where Dessie came in, who was quite a bit older than Howard.
“My sister lived in southwest Missouri. They raised cotton. Every so often, every fall of the year, they would come up after us, in a truck, and we’d come down, and they would let us, uh, live in a little house they had there on the farm. They had different houses for sharecroppers, and people that worked on the farm. We would live there at the start of cotton-picking season and stay ‘til all the cotton was gone. We would try to save enough money to pull us over during the winter. Wasn’t much to do where we lived. Back in those days, back in the thirties. So, we would, uh, my dad and mom and my brother would pick cotton. And you would get a dollar a hundred. Well, some people it would take ‘em all day to pick two hundred. But two dollars back in the middle thirties was like fifty now. Well, my dad would give us fifty cents or a dollar and go into town to the show. You could get a hamburger for a nickel, go to the show for a dime, pack of cigarettes for a dime. And at the end of the fall, the cotton-picking season, they’d bring us back home. My dad would have two or three hundred dollars saved up, enough to last us the whole winter. We used to get into some crap games with some black guys workin’ on the cotton farm. And uh, we’d be shootin’ craps right in the middle of the cotton rows. Tried to get into some deep cotton to where you wouldn’t be seen. Or the boss would catch up with us. We’d lay a pig-sack (dried pig skin) down, nice and smooth for shootin’ dice. I used to go across the levee and play poker with some black guys and uh, one night they had wine, and I drank too much wine, and they had to take me home. My mom nearly beat me half to death. I was ‘bout fifteen year old. One time I got a job breaking ground, plowing up a garden. This guy, he lived right near Hardy, him and his wife, I met him in town one day and he says to me, he says, ‘Are you doing anything? Working?’ I said, ‘No.’ Work was pretty hard to get. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ He said, ‘I’m goin’ into Fort Leonard Foot or Little Foot, Missouri, an army camp. I got a job there and I’m gonna be gone the biggest part of spring and summer. I would like for you to go and stay with my wife. She’ll tell you where to break up the garden, and she’ll help you.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you a dollar a day and your board.’ Well, yeah man, I jumped at that. So I stayed there for a while. Big money at the end of the week. Five dollars I guess it was. For five days of work.”
Here are a few pictures of Howard’s family when he was young. One with his folks. One with his family outside their childhood home. And the painting he described from 1980. For the sake of storytelling, I included a clip of the audio I managed to digitize from our interview.
Howard powered on that morning, like a switch had flipped. His quiet nature was inspired, propelled by stories that leapt from one to the next, many of which he hadn’t thought about in quite a long time. I felt like the worst interviewer ever, though he needed little prompting from me, and was gracious enough to answer every single question. From his childhood he dove right into the musical memories, the War, as well as the omen that struck for the second time, on a landing strip in the Mariana Islands thousands of miles removed from slower, simpler world of Williford, Arkansas.