Growing Up on the Road with A Texas Lady


I did a lot of summer hitchhiking between rigs in the Texas oil patch, and one July scorcher on the road between Kingsville and Raymondville, this woman in an old Cadillac picked me up.

We drove a ways and she finally said, "Well, are you gonna tell me where you're headed and everything about yourself, or are we gonna sit here mile after mile and stare at bug juice on the windshield?"

I was on that self-conscious line between being a boy and a man, and unless someone broke the ice I didn't have much to say. The woman had broken it to smithereens. I laughed and told her my name and where I was from and where I was going.

When I was through, she nodded her head and said, "In other words, you don't have anything particular in mind. You're between rigs and hoping to find a crew that'll take you on. Right?"

"Yes ma'am."

We got friendly, talked all the way to Brownsville. Finally Miss Leona said, "Gonna be hard finding work on the border. This drought's got everybody beggin' for a payday. You seem like a straight kid. Why don't you throw in with me and make some real money?"

I looked at her. She was still a good-looking old gal, a bit hard and brassy -- hair was too yellow to be believed -- but her eyes were nice. Reminded me of my Aunt Marguerite. "Just what is it that you're up to?" I asked.

Miss Leona slapped my thigh with the back of her heavy-ringed hand. "No good!" she cackled.

I giggled my James Dean giggle, as much from nervousness as amusement. "That still doesn't tell me anything, Miss Leona."

"Hummm," she mulled. "I guess there's no reason to beat around the bush about it. I run an escort service, provide female companionship to traveling men."

She eyed me taking this in. She saw my ears turn red. I hated it my ears were such a dead giveaway.

"It ain't what you think, Billy."

"I'm not thinkin' nothing."

"Yes you are."

"Well, what is it that you have your girls do?"

"I don't have no girls. I'm the girl. I'm the president and sole employee of my company. I rent myself out to the gents, but it's strictly on the up and up. I'm a party girl, that's all. If you're lookin' for chummy good times, I'm your gal. If you're a lonesome fella that needs a lady on his arm for a little roadhouse dining and dancing, that's Miss Leona's ticket.

"But that's as far as it goes. A nightcap, a peck on the cheeand adios at the hotel room door. That's all most mature men are interested in anyway, and they'll pay for it. Billy, I bought this Cadillac new. You could have one yourself."

"I don't want a Cadillac. I want a college education."

"You could have that same as the Cadillac."

"I don't see how I would fit in."

"I need what we call a door boy."


"Yeah. Six times out of 10, I'll end up having a nightcap with a guy in his room, and seven times out of 10 he'll try to put the move on me, even though that's not part of the agreement. Nine times out of 10 I can handle the situation. I mean I can get my money and get out without any trouble. It's that 10th time I need help. A guy gets insistent once in a while. That's where the door boy comes in."

"Lady, all the money in the world wouldn't get me to do that. No siree. I can't go back to school all black and blue. Whew! That's just askin' for trouble."

"No it ain't. All you have to do is knock on the door and say, 'Mother?' You know, 'Mother' with a question mark behind it."

"Aww, come on."

"That's right. Just call for 'Mother?' In the meantime I'll be sayin', 'Oh, that's my son! Please sir, unhand me. What will my son think?' It works every time. Even the meanest guys get all flustered and give up. Usually they hide in the bathroom while I straighten myself up and leave."

I turned her down.

Off Miss Leona went to work the border hotels and bars. Off I went to the oil-patch cafes, where I hoped to find a driller looking for hands. It was bad that year. There just wasn't much action anywhere. I looked for days, went up and down the border. I couldn't even get a job in the citrus harvests. I got down to the last change in my pocket before I dug up the note with Miss Leona's hotel number on it and called her.

Things went along copacetic for us.

It was just as Miss Leona said it would be, except that I found myself knocking on room doors every date she dragged up. I had to hang out in hotel bars and lobbies, because once Miss Leona and a guy started up to a room, I had to watch the clock and count the minutes and, if necessary (which it always was), knock in time to save Miss Leona from the clutches, so to speak. The guys all ran true to form. I didn't have to face them.

Leona split 70-30, which I thought was fair and square since all I had to do was rap on the door and say "Mother?" I was thinking, Jeez, what a swell way to work your way through college. Beats roughnecking. I'll do this next summer, and the next 'til I get out.

But then one night in Eagle Pass this guy didn't go for it. He didn't figure I was Leona's son. He opened the door and pasted me a good one. Miss Leona got the same. He took our money and beat it.

When we came to, Miss Leona was abject with apology, and I sorely appreciated that. But I told her I had just soured on the job, that it wasn't up my alley and that I had best be getting back to college. And that's what I did.

Back in San Marcos, I worked nights in a gas station and mornings in the chow line and slept in class.

One day a check for $1,500 arrived in the mail. It was from Miss Leona, who was carrying on in El Paso. It was what she owed me for the summer. "My son," she wrote, "It's always 70-30 between us. Love, Mom."

Billy Porterfield wrote this reminiscence for the Cox News Service.

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