"The Day the
Monkey Got Loose
from the Carnival and Bit the Sheriff"
mined from County Histories by John Troesser
"County histories agree on two unspoken points:
Every life is interesting and
the harder the times, the more interesting they seem."
memorable title of this piece is an actual entry on a page called
"Remember when…" The page is from a county history (whose name has
regretfully been forgotten).
If you are unfamiliar with county histories, they are serious-looking
tomes so heavy that they're usually the only books left after the
tornado levels the rest of the library.
The eye-catching title was an early form of what is now universally
known as a "teaser." Sadly, there was no elaboration included about
the monkey-sheriff confrontation. Did the sheriff die an agonizing
death? Did the monkey get sick? Did the sheriff shoot the monkey?
The monkey's owner? Was it monkey business with malice aforethought?
Only the people who witnessed the incident know the facts - and they
aren't talking. That's why county histories seldom become best sellers.
Locals know the story and might bring it up once or twice a year.
Details differ among the listeners/ storytellers but no one's looking
for a fight, so most of the time all parties just smile and nod (knowingly).
A county history is a sort of a local Who's Who. Sorting out who's
who and (whenever possible) putting people in their place are favorite
County histories can also offer some families a rare chance to tell
the world their side of the story. The books can settle old arguments
- or instigate new ones. Conventional thought says: If it's published,
it might be true, but, if someone paid to have it published - then
it must be true!
Reading many county histories is like one of those federally funded
projects studying chaos. If you read enough county histories, then
certain patterns start to emerge.
People of a particular county - whether they're recent immigrants
or transmigrated Oklahomans - will, in a short period of time start
exhibiting similar traits based on their new surroundings and local
geography. Winds and floods will roughly forge them into a new sub-group
and intermarriage smoothes the seams.
first thing you'll notice about county histories is that NOBODY had
it easy. Bankers and merchants got rich and fat, but they usually
died early. Undernourished cotton-pickers didn't get fat and got to
enjoy their miserable existence decades longer. It's nice to know
everything equals out.
County histories agree on two unspoken points:
Every life is interesting and the harder the times, the more interesting
In previous generations, near-constant battles with drought, flood,
coyotes, Indians, disease, insect plagues, wars, snakebites, shootouts
with rivals, train wrecks, low cotton prices, fires, and poisonings
by family members left survivors happy just to be able to sit and
read a book without interruption.
A woman's tombstone in what most of us would consider a God-forsaken
corner of Gonzales County has two separate inscriptions. On the left
side was the familiar quotation from an English poet:
" …that there is a corner of the world that is forever England"
and on the right side was: "It was a good life."
The woman's death was prior to the medical miracles that we now take
for granted. She had lived her "good life" when living to adulthood
was a major accomplishment. It's hard to imagine a very good life
in those hard times, but who will argue with the autobiographical
histories will never be used as textbooks and besides keeping the
wolf from the publisher's door (or proping a door open), they're usually
consulted for genealogical purposes only. But they're an under-appreciated
gold mine of fables, proven proverbs, incidents and adventure stories.
One of the advantages of living in a nomadic society is that distant
county histories sometimes appear in local libraries. See if there
are any when you next go to your library.
Remember the Gonzales County grave and think of the epitaph in the
© John Troesser
shoe horses, don't they?"
February 23, 2004