Henrietta, Texas: In our town, perhaps the grandest house belonged to Paul Hawkins, where he lived with his wife and three pretty daughters: Paula, Shara, and Kay.
The house was grand because Paul was the town’s Undertaker.
Much of that grand house was for storing bodies, preparing bodies, and holding services for bodies. At my grandmother’s service, my stern-faced grandfather broke down. “Maud! Maud!” He called her name over and over, reaching out for her. It was wrenching, having to draw him away. His mind had been addled by a fall from the horse; that was a part of her death, but that’s another story.
With compassion and with grace, Paul Hawkins dealt with such things. A thin, hyper-active fellow, he’d also turned the extensive once-stables behind the house into a shop, and restored antique furniture. I don’t think he needed the money; I think he needed to always stay busy.
And so, his entry in the Pioneer Reunion …
The Pioneer Reunion, in October, that’s rodeo season in Texas, and the biggest event in Henrietta. We schoolkids loved it, already chafing from the schooldays. A parade every day, rodeo every night, dances afterward, and during the days, free barbeque, art shows, and fiddling contests on the courthouse lawn.
On the first day, the parade is just the ‘Horse Parade’. That is, the parade consists of different groups of ‘riding clubs’, riding through our town’s streets, on horses. Who are these riding clubs? Why did they have a club to ride horses?
I wish I’d thought to ask these questions then, long ago. But then, the fish probably never thinks to question the water.
The horse parade always left horse poop on the street, which gave the marching bands something to consider on the next morning. Usually our own high-school band and two or three others from neighboring townships, plus officials waving from cars from the dealership, and … floats!
The floats are a big competition. For about three weeks before the event, volunteers from civic groups build frameworks around jeeps, then put in flooring, then cover the whole thing in crepe paper. Add children or girls in costumes, bingo bango bongo, a float!
Paul Hawkins was Henrietta’s foremost float-builder. He always offered space and shop tools for some float, I think maybe Kiwanis Club, but he also built his own, invariably named Paul’s Sweethearts, and upon this float rode the three daughters Paula, Shara, and Kay, waving like queens.
“You’ll never notice fringe on the saddle of a galloping horse.”
Paul Hawkins had design theories. Some worker worries about there being too-little crepe-paper fringe. Paul shakes his head, saying, “You’ll never notice fringe on the saddle of a galloping horse.” Meaning not to worry, it needn’t look perfect. I wonder, now I think about it, about how he prepared the bodies for the open-casket ceremonies.
Except when professionally grave, so to speak, he was always jovial. Always a smile, always sharp-witted, often joking and joshing, and good friends with most everybody. Maybe he had to be. But even so, it amazed me then and now that everybody liked Paul Hawkins. He was especially great pals with our dentist, and my uncle, the long-time town doctor.
Doctor Hurn, my uncle was called. As a child I never called him “Uncle Robert.” Nor did any of my cousins. Growing up, we knew him as Uncle Doc.
Uncle Doc and Paul Hawkins were great friends. Maybe they worked on floats together. Maybe it was from being in the Minstral Show all those years. Maybe it was from Uncle Doc passing off former clients to become Paul’s new clients.
So when Paul needed some serious surgery, he asked Uncle Doc to do it. Uncle Doc hesitantly agreed. And then, on the day of the surgery, as they wheeled Paul in a wheelchair down the hall, to show his appreciation, as they neared the surgery door he started yelling — so that everybody in the hospital could hear — yelling at my Uncle Doc.
“I’ve changed my mind!” yelled Paul. “I’m not going! Don’t wheel me in there! You’ll kill me!”
He paused, and then, with an evil grin, as they wheeled him through the doorway, he called out once again.
“Our partnership is off! You hear me? Our partnership is off!”