ENOUGH TO GRAY A MOTHER’S HAIR
by Vicki Ellis Griffis
When I think of the way boys entertain themselves, I shudder. I thought we were daredevils growing up, riding dune buggies over Lake Five in Greenville, riding the railroad tracks with our cars, and swimming in ponds complete with turtles and snakes. But when I read the accounts of Audie Murphy and his friends as adolescents in the 1940s, I am amazed any of those boys lived to be grown.
Warning Kids, “Do not try this at home!”
In an interview with Bryan Woolley in The Dallas Morning News, “Audie had more nerve than anybody I ever knew,” boyhood friend Neil Williams told him. “One time him and Monroe (Hackney), his best friend, and Robert Cawthon climbed the water tower, to that platform that goes around the bottom of the tank, and Robert and Monroe was sitting there with their legs dangling over the side, and they noticed Audie wasn’t with them. They went all around that tank looking for him, but he wasn’t there. Then they saw this little ladder that led to a big ball on top of the tank. And Audie had climbed that and was sitting on that ball, right on the tip top of the tower.” He laughed, “We would often slide down the guy wires that anchored the tower to get down.”
When the weather was good, trips up the water tower were almost nightly occurrences. Mr. Hackney said. “Sometimes we would just sit up there and look around. Sometimes we would throw rocks at the honky-tonk that was down below. The rocks made an awful racket on the sheet-metal roof, and the patrons would flee into the night.” Mr. Hackney added, “It was just something to do.”
According to the book, “Audie Murphy, American Soldier,” one of Audie’s friends told Colonel Harold Simpson that on a few occasions they would stage a .22 shootout using trees for shields. Amazingly, no one was “seriously” hit these exchanges of lead, which sounded to me like some were hit.
Audie and his boyhood friends lived dangerously and played rough. They were not content to limit their marksmanship to animal targets. Audie, more than the others, often engaged in a deadly game of Hunt County Roulette. It was a tribute to Audie’s skill with a rifle that his friends volunteered to let Audie shoot things off their heads, and it was a tribute to Audie’s courage that he was unafraid to reverse the role and become the target for boys less skilled with a gun than he.
Monroe Hackney recalled that he and Audie shot Big Little Books, comic books (3-1/2” by 4-3/4”) out of each other’s hands at about 40-50 feet. Since they both thought the target too large, changed to shooting cigarettes out of each other’s fingers.
Gene Murphy said his brother often shot snuff boxes the size of a silver dollar out of his hand and cans off his head at 30-40 feet.
Another friend, Ray Brewer, reported that Audie jumped off a 2” X 12” rafter 15-20 feet high into a storage elevator filled with cotton seed. The danger of suffocation did not keep him from accepting the challenge.
Other feats that would gray a mother’s hair were the popular past time of hopping on and off fast moving freight trains, climbing telephone poles without the aid of leg spikes, driving swarms of bumble bees out of clover patches, and wading across armpit high, fast flowing swollen creeks even though Audie was not a strong swimmer.
Martha Hackney, Monroe’s wife, told Mr. David Harrison of The Roanoke News, “There was the time they drove the car that belonged to Monroe’s parents into a lake when they were probably too young to drive. Another time, the two men rode horses out into a lake. Audie Murphy, who couldn’t swim, fell off his horse, and Audie almost drowned until Monroe pulled him out.”
On the lighter side, In a personal interview with Johnnie Nell Williams Robinson, she laughed when we mentioned Audie and Monroe swimming. She said that as a young woman, she had seen the boys swimming in the Hackney pool without a stitch of clothes on. Johnnie blushed and was quick to add, “We really couldn’t see anything!”
Although the dangers were many, the acts were part of growing up and having fun in those days when boys had to become men way before their time . . . .
To be continued . . .This is the fifth in a series on Audie Leon Murphy, born in Kingston, Texas, reared in Celeste, who grew up to become the most decorated soldier of World War II.
Photos Courtesy of Audie Murphy Research Foundation
Used with permission and courtesy of the author.