Half Broke Horses

Some excerpts from Half Broke Horses, a “true life novel” about author Jeannette Walls’ maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith (1903-1967), who grew up in the frontierland of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico during both World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the advent of the car, the plane, and indoor plumbing.  Smith worked as a ranch hand and ranch manager,  a maid (in Chicago), and a teacher (and janitor and school bus driver) in one-room schoolhouses, and she sold bootleg alcohol from her house, raced horses, played poker (and won), drove a model T (and a Kaiser, and another Ford), was an aficianada of small airplanes and flew in them, slaughtered animals, raised two kids with her husband and equal partner Jim Smith, … and she broke horses. She was resourceful, practical, thrifty, dedicated, not one to suffer fools, and a very hard worker.

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“The parents of my schoolkids included cattle rustlers, drunks, land speculators, bootleggers, gamblers, and former prostitutes. They didn’t mind me racing horses, playing poker or drinking contraband whiskey, but my showing some compassion to a sister who’d been taken advantage of and then abandoned by a smooth-talking scoundrel filled them with moral indignation. It made me want to throttle them all.”

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“Once when some milk had spoiled and I was feeling ambitious, I did make cottage cheese the way my mother made it when I was growing up. I boiled the clabbered milk and cut up the curds with a knife. Then I wrapped it in a burlap sugar sack and hung it overnight to let the whey drain out. The next day I chopped it again, salted it, and passed it out at supper. The family loved it so much they wolfed it down in under a minute. I couldn’t believe I’d worked so long over something that was gone so quickly.

“‘That was the biggest waste of time,’ I said. ‘I’ll never make that mistake again.’

“Rosemary was eyeing me.

“‘Let that be a lesson to you,’ I told her.”

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“[Rosemary] was particularly intrigued with Mormon underwear and wondered if it really gave the Mormons special powers.

“‘That’s what they believe,’ I told her, ‘ but that doesn’t mean it’s true.’

“‘Then why do they believe it?’

“‘America is a free country,’ I said. ‘And that means people are free to believe whatever cockamamie thing they want to believe.’

“‘So they don’t have to believe it if they don’t want to?’ Rosemary asked.

“‘No, they don’t.’

“‘But do they know that?’

“Smart kid. That, I came to see, was the heart of the matter. You were free to choose enslavement, but the choice was a free one only if you knew what your alternatives were. I began to think of it as my job to make sure these girls I was teaching learned that it was a big world out there and there were other things they could do besides being broodmares dressed in feed sacks.”

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Once they moved (briefly) from the ranch to Phoenix, during WWII, life changed:

“We had bought ourselves a radio that we could listen to all day long now that we were living in a house wired for electricity. At first I thought that was just grand, but it meant that for the first time I was also listening to the news every day, and about every day, it seemed, there was a report about some crime or other in town. People were always getting robbed or having their cars stolen or their houses burgled if they weren’t getting raped, shot, or stabbed. A Phoenix woman named Winnie Ruth Judd — known as the ‘Blonde Butcher’ and the ‘Trunk Murderess’ because she’d killed two people and put their bodies in her luggage — kept escaping from the insane asylum she’d been sent to, and the news was always filled with accounts of possible Trunk Murderess sightings, along with warnings to the citizenry to lock all doors and windows.

“So I kept my pearl-handled revolver under my bed. I also bought a little twenty-two pistol to carry in my purse along with [a $10K check she carried with her to buy land]. Every night I made a point of bolting the doors, something we had never done at the ranch, and I slept on the outside of the bed I still shared with Rosemary, keeping her next to the wall so if anyone got through the locked doors and attacked us, I could fight them off while Rosemary escaped.

“‘Mom, you’ve become such a worrywart,’ she said.

“Rosemary was right. On the ranch, we worried about the weather and the cattle and the horses, but we never worried about ourselves. In Phoenix people worried about themselves all the time.”

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