She called him Black. He called her Kiddo. Keith Leroy Black and Johnnie Dorris McSpadden.
I called them Mom and Pop though they were not my parents. They belonged to my soulmate but treated me as their own. This compilation is my song to them in gratitude for enriching my life. It is a three-part symphony...
Thus opens a story that—and of all the books I've ever read in my generously long life, this has never happened—fills my mind with a background line-up of many of my decades-old favorite cowboy songs. Nearly all the chapters are titled with Western-swing-era songs. For instance, the first chapter title: "Yellow Rose of Texas," where we meet Dorris (with two r's, she always says) in Lubbock, TX.
Dorris has grown up poor, one of seven children of her tenant farmer father and his wife, hard-working parents who care well for their family despite the challenges of working a farm. Unable to attend college, Dorris nevertheless feels lucky to have graduated from high school and have a clerking job at Montgomery Ward.
Now, in February, 1940, Dorris is 22 and dreaming of becoming a real lady who wears fine clothing and shoes, like her mother's clothes from long ago that are packed in a trunk in the attic. She walks into a college party her cousin has invited her to. Through the noise and clamor of the packed house, she hears singing, loud applause, and learns that Blackie is in the living room. She's met the handsome singing and trick-riding cowboy—a friend of her cousin, Truva—and she's heard him sing on the radio. He's a nice guy, small compared to his big guitar, but she loves Blackie's wavy dark hair, the charming grin that makes her think he has a secret, and his rich tenor voice.
As Dorris moves through the crowd into the living room, Blackie starts to croon Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Rousing applause encourages him to sing several more songs. When he takes a break, he spots Dorris leaning on a wall. She catches her breath as he seems to look into her soul.
"Hi, Blackie. Remember me? I'm Dorris with two r's." she says.
"I remember you, Dorris with two r's," he replies, "I asked Truva to invite you." He paused and then said, "You look like a Kiddo to me, though, as in Kiddo with two d's."
Dorris didn't mind.
"Most people call me Blackie, but you can call me Black."
Thus began their lifetime together, the man who almost became Roy Rogers in Hollywood and the woman who dreamed of becoming a lady.
Throughout their lives, Black and Kiddo were oral storytellers. Kiddo also kept a diary for decades while Black began writing his stories in his 80s. Thus, they bestowed upon their loving daughter-in-law, Brenda Clem Black (who married their youngest son Russell Owen Black), a huge cache of their history with which to compile their story.
Without reservation, I invite you into the pages of Black & Kiddo: A True Story of Dust, Determination, and Cowboy Dreams to walk with this salt-of-the-earth couple as they meet whatever life brings their way—the trials and the victories. Be near as they, in return, give back their rich rural values: love of family, friend, and neighbor, and hard work. Enjoy the wonder and fullness of their lives. And, if you listen closely, you may hear the music that accompanies the words as you read.
Black's award-winning short stories have been read on NPR's "Tales From the South" and published in anthologies. Black & Kiddo is her first full-length book, a creative nonfiction about her in-laws, the product of eight years of research and writing and twenty years of thinking. A nursery entrepreneur and former family and children's therapist, Black divides her time between a rustic farm on a Civil War Battlefield and a modern mountaintop aerie near the wild Buffalo River, both in her home state of Arkansas.
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