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"I Hear You, Charlie" by Alan Erwin

Charlie is sympathetic to the occasional undocumented traveler seeking work.
Charlie is sympathetic to the occasional undocumented traveler seeking work.

Hi, I'm Alan Erwin from Amarillo. I've just read “The Time It Never Rained” by Elmer Kelton.

So, Constant Listeners, picture this: An endless landscape, flat and unbroken, stretching unadorned and undifferentiated to a far-away horizon. The ground is brown, dusty and lifeless; the sky is blue and cloudless. The hope for rain nowhere found, felt or sensed. Now imagine this landscape is in Texas. I know; it's hard to believe.

During the 1950s, Texas experienced a multi-year drought that devastated farming and ranching in much of the state. It was so extreme in the western parts of the state that cattle ranchers culled their herds and began raising crops more suitable to the land and resources available.

This is the backdrop for the central character of our book, Charlie Flagg. Charlie is an old-time rancher trying to hold onto his land, his family and his livelihood during an unprecedented drought.

Charlie has a few cattle left on his land, but his main cash crops are sheep and goats. While not as satisfying for him as the cattle he prefers, he has to pay the bills. Charlie refuses to accept any government assistance as so many of his neighbors have, and as they urge him to do. As Charlie replies, “What I can't do for myself, I'll do without.”

Charlie cares deeply about his family, wife Mary and son Tom, his ranch hand, Lupe Flores, his wife Anita and their children. Everyone is working to keep the ranch afloat during this trying time.

Charlie is also sympathetic to the occasional undocumented travelers seeking work. He respects and identifies with anyone trying to take care of their own. Though Charlie does not generally hire these (mostly) men due to the potential legal issues, he still wants to do what is best and can't turn his back when someone needs help.

At one point, three men show up looking for work and Charlie has to turn them away after giving them food and water. Saddened that he couldn't do more, one of his hired men, assisting with the sheep shearing, tells him “half the word is hungry...a man can't cry for all of them.” Charlie knows this, but it still hurts.

Time goes by, the drought lingers and worsens. Charlie's efforts to keep things afloat become more difficult. Despite repeated friendly urges to sign up for government assistance, he refuses.

Sadly, just as Charlie feared and expected, the administrators of the program begin to find problems. Many of his fellow stewards of the land are found to have committed grievous errors in their interactions with the assistance programs. Some knowingly, but most inadvertently and faulted because of new interpretations of the guidelines. Charlie, ever skeptical of “free” help, is relieved he is not impacted by these problems. Nevertheless, he feels the pain of his peers. Everyone is just trying to survive in a difficult time.

Toward the end of the book, Charlie is talking with one of Lupe's children about a familial situation. The conversation veers toward different ways such a problem might have been handled over the years. When Charlie realizes that the times have changed, he says of himself and the other old-timers “He's an old gray headed man livin' in a young man's world, and all his benchmarks are gone.”

As one old gray headed man to another, I hear you, Charlie.

I'm Alan Erwin for the HPPR Radio Readers Book club.

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