If someone had asked my granddad where he got the chaps in this photo, he might have replied, “At the gettin’ place.” His speech was rich with colorful phrases. To him, a convincing salesman was someone who “could sell eggs to a chicken,” the relationship between a person’s actions and character best summarized with “Whatever’s in the well comes up in the bucket.” And when dismissing someone unsavory, he preferred the placid “Let ’em peck shit with the crows” to a crass “Fuck them.” So many of his sayings reflected elements of the hardscrabble, rural world that shaped him.
The gettin’ place in this picture is a roadside stand in Apache Junction, Arizona. Largely known nowadays for its scenery and suburbs, back in 1947, Apache Junction was a fringe outpost east of Phoenix with a few cafés and tourist traps along the highway. Signs announced: Postcards! Indian jewelry! Pan for gold! Granddad and his family lived in the nearby town of Florence. He was thirty years old and had three kids, two more on the way. Having arrived in Arizona from Oklahoma the previous year, he cobbled together a living through odd carpentry jobs, repair work, driving a backhoe, and constantly scouted for better work. Soon after this photo was taken, he started building his family a house out of lumber he’d salvaged from a decommissioned WWII army barracks. A few years after that, they moved to Phoenix where he landed a job with Del Webb, then one of the West’s largest construction companies, and gradually worked his way through the ranks, serving as superintendent on numerous housing projects around the state, including the first phase of Sun City Arizona, the country’s first planned-retirement community. But on this day, the family was out for a weekend drive and a meal, enjoying some of their slim disposable income. This roadside stand had a rattlesnake in an aquarium, sold sodas, Mexican jumping beans. My dad was there with his two younger brothers. He was eight years old.
Look at the horse’s eye—the blank mummy stare. Look at its mouth—its dry sunken shape. And my grandfather’s relaxed posture: instead of leaning back in the saddle, straining to hold on, he’s leaning forward, the way you might when reaching across a dinner table to grab another biscuit. It’s a joke. The horse is stuffed. The only muscles flexed on Granddad’s body are the ones at the corner of his mouth that form his mischievous grin. He’s playing a trick that he knows will replay on everyone who sees this photo for years to come. But there’s something deadly serious in the image too, a sense of triumph in his smirk and posture, as if he, even at his young age, knew that no matter how bumpy the ride had been and how rough it was going to get, he could hang on, could keep hold of the reins and not get bucked off.
Thomas Gilbreath grew up poor but never hungry. Born in 1917, he was raised on a farm in southeastern Oklahoma, the second youngest of thirteen children. He and his siblings did the bulk of the farm labor, while his father, James Lee, ran a cabinet-making shop in the town of Boswell. That was the family’s primary income, and the place where Granddad learned woodworking, but they raised cows for milk and beef, grew peanuts, kept a garden, pigs and chickens to trade and eat, and a smokehouse where they stored their meat. The family mules pulled their plows, and they also pulled the family wagon when they went to sell goods at the Saturday market. As a child, Granddad rode one of those mules to his one-room elementary school, unsupervised, and tied it up outside. When he went out courting women as a teenager, he rode a horse. He met his wife Gertrude in their late teens, birthed my father and two more sons in quick succession.
Then, in 1941, Thomas followed that Okie tradition depicted in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and decided to move to California in search of work. The family made it as far as Roswell, New Mexico. While passing through town, my grandfather somehow got a lead on a job at a nearby ranch—probably while chatting with locals at a café—and spent the next six months working as a cowboy. He didn’t know how to lasso, transport, or brand them, and didn’t own chaps or spurs, but he was a quick study.
My father doesn’t remember much about their time on the ranch, but he does recall trying to cross a large desert wash in their big black car. The wash was wide and sandy, and winter rains had filled it with a sprawling but shallow sheet of brown floodwater. Granddad probably thought, “Ah, I can make this.” Then the engine died halfway.
Stranded between dry banks, Granddad stepped out of the car and stood ankle-deep in the stream. “Gurty,” he said, “you take the kids and all stay in the back seat,” then he opened all four doors so the water could rush through the interior rather than wash the car away. Granddad walked up the road to the ranch for help, and returned with a tractor and two cowboys.
When WWII broke out, the family moved back to Boswell. Home felt safe and familiar.
There was a common expression back then: “Write if you find work.” Through a friend, Granddad landed a job at Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa, testing machine guns on B-29s and other bombers, but resources remained tight. During the heart of WWII, nearly everything was rationed: cheese, butter, flour, rubber, metal, meat. In Tulsa, Dad’s family had a dog—no one remembers his name—and every once in a while, the dog would come home with a live chicken in his mouth. “Mind you, you couldn’t get chicken in Tulsa during the war,” my dad says. “White rabbit was all you ate; it’s all they’d sell. So one night I go out in front of our house, and there’s Granddad kneeling down next to this dog, trying to pry his mouth open to get this chicken out. He’s kneeling down and he looks up at me—his eyes really wide, smiling—and says, ‘You know Joe, as soon as this war is over, I’m going to break this dog of this habit.’” If Granddad knew where that dog was getting the chickens, he never admitted to it, but his family enjoyed those dinners. Granddad began drafting the designs for Douglas aircraft; then he was drafted into the Navy. When Gurty and the kids dropped him off at the train station in Hugo, Oklahoma, they were terrified he wouldn’t come back alive. He hadn’t even completed boot camp when the Germans surrendered and war ended, though as Granddad liked to tell it: “They heard I was comin’.”
When he returned in August 1945, Granddad started building a little house for his family, using money he’d earned in the military. His sister Bess visited Boswell for Christmas in 1945 and told Granddad, “You outta come out to Arizona. It never rains. Sun shines every day. All the work you want.” Very few houses had been built during the war, since most raw materials went to planes, tanks, bombs, and munitions. With thousands of soldiers returning from overseas, there was an enormous demand for housing. Granddad knew how to build houses. So he sold the one he was building, and five months later, the family was in Florence, Arizona. Ten years later, Granddad was working for Del Webb, building Sun City, and the family was living the good life in Phoenix.
“Never finished high school,” my dad likes to say of his dad with a snicker. That’s what I see when I look at this photo: not a man impersonating a cowboy, but a cheerful embrace of absurdity, of the way life can turn everything around and upside down on you, as you could do to it. I see the unwavering smirk of someone who knew that you had to be a quick study to survive, to change plans when a better opportunity appeared, and to not be intimidated by all you didn’t know and just put on the cowboy hat when offered it, because sometimes you had to tell people, “Yes, I can do that,” and then learn how to do it before the day’s work began.
Aaron Gilbreath has written for The New York Times, Tin House, The Smart Set, and Gastronomica. His Cincinnati Review essay about Googie architecture, “Dreams of the Atomic Era,” is a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011.