My father, Vernon Mack Higgs, was born in a cabin on Spade Mountain near Stillwell, Oklahoma, in Cherokee country, on June 7, 1925. A distant relative who still lived in the area took Danny and me to the site once. He showed us the nearby spring where they’d gotten their water, and kept their milk cool. There was no trace left of their home (that we could see) on that shady mountainside. When Dad was nine years old, during the Great Depression, during the Dust Bowl years, his parents, Daniel and Viola, lost their modest claim. They moved to Heber Springs, Arkansas, in the Ozarks, to live with relatives. Within a year or two, his father had died. About that time, probably by no coincidence, his formal education ended with the fourth grade. He was exempted from the draft a few years later, during World War II, because he was “the sole support of his mother.” My own mother, Kathleen Elizabeth Adams, first saw him when he was about nineteen. He and another young man stopped into her school one winter’s day while they were out rabbit hunting, to warm up by the school stove. She was fourteen. “I never paid him no mind,” she assured me (sixty-four years later).
He would probably be considered “functionally illiterate” by those who use such terms, but he loved to read, and he loved to read one thing: Louis L’Amour westerns. He always had at least one going at any given time. The only thing I can recall seeing my dad write was his signature: V. M. Higgs, in an old-fashioned script. I remember the first time I ever felt protective of him, rather than protected by him. I was about eighteen years old. It was time for him to renew his driver’s license. I went with him to the county seat of Greenville, Ohio. The woman behind the counter told him where to sign his new license, and he signed it in his usual way. But then she told him that he would have to sign his whole name, just as she’d typed it. She typed up another one and set it on the counter in front of him and waited. He looked at it for a few seconds, and then looked at me, and with a nod of his head, he beckoned me away from the counter. “I can’t remember how to make an r,” he said quietly. My heart went out to him. I discreetly showed him how to make an r on a piece of scrap paper.
He and my mother never had a bank account, ever. They came out of the Great Depression, so they didn’t trust banks, and they came out of the Ozarks, so they didn’t have any money anyway. They had five kids instead. We grew up “rural poor,” although he had a steady union job. There were plenty of things we’d have liked more of, under his “sole support,” but love was never one of them. His every action and thought, and my mother’s, were oriented to taking care of the family. He often couldn’t give his children what they wanted, but he always, without fail, gave us what we needed. He was devoted to us, and we to him.