The extended family on my mother’s side used to hold an annual reunion, which I never attended. In between these festivals there was an occasional funeral that attracted a fair number of close relatives. I was present at one such event in 1973, involving numerous aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, second cousins, etc.
The family was gathered at the farmhouse of one of my grandmother’s brothers, Uncle Fred, and his wife, Aunt Jolene, in the heart of Oklahoma, near El Reno. Uncle Fred’s farm was on the banks of the Canadian River, or one of its tributaries, I never knew which. The farmhouse was hand built, with pieces added on over the years as another kid was born or a special need arose. Like many of the houses in that area, it featured a large wrap-around porch, most of which was screened sufficiently to keep most of the flies inside.
On the afternoon of the funeral, while the women folk were all in the kitchen preparing the post-burial feast, the men folk were all gathered on the screened porch, perched on several chairs and an old sofa that had once lived inside, but were still a few years from the trash heap.
One of my cousins, William Rex McKay, Jr., was known all his life as Billy Rex. He was about three years older than me, and we had been acquainted, though never close, since our teens. His father had died when Billy Rex was a boy, so he took on responsibilities far beyond his age.
At this point in his life, Billy Rex had given up running the family ranch in northern Texas and had entered the banking business, and with ambition and ability had risen to a position of great importance. He still wore cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, though grander and less dusty than those he had worn as a boy. His boots were now resting on the low table in front of the sofa and his hat was tilted forward over his eyes.
In the course of conversation, Billy Rex said to me in his Texas drawl, “I hear you got your PhD.”
From my chair across the porch, I proudly responded, “Yes, I did. I finished up last year.”
Billy Rex scrunched down on the sofa a little, and enquired, “What’s it in?”
“Psychology,” I replied.
He slid down a little more, stuck his boots out a little further, and pulled his hat down a little lower, so he had to tilt his head up in order to see me. “Tell me,” he said, and paused dramatically, “Can you make any money at it?”
I didn’t have an answer at the time, but looking back with what I know now, I could have said, “Nope. Not much.” But I think he already knew that.