A Kind of Hobo

In the spring of 1928 Robert E. Howard was asked to revise a western novel for his friend, R. Fowler Gafford. Readers of Howard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, will remember the incident between “Steve Costigan” (Howard’s point-of-view character) and “Lars Jensen” (Gafford). The title of the novel was West of the Rio Grande, which Howard changed to West of the Border in Post Oaks.

While waiting for Patrice to continue his series of blog posts, I thought I’d look into the illusive Mr. Gafford. Glenn Lord was quite interested in him; he no doubt hoped to obtain a copy of the revised novel. In 1995, he asked longtime Cross Plains’ resident and newspaper man Jack Scott what he knew. Scott’s July 30 reply didn’t help much:

I remember Fowler Gafford well. I do not know when and where he was born, but I would believe it was in Brown County, Texas, around the turn of the century. I was born in 1909 and he was several years older than I.
It is my best guess that Fowler is dead and that he may be buried in Cross Cut Cemetery. I will try to check that out. It has been my opinion that Fowler passed away prior to World War II, well ahead of the 1960 date when the Social Security administration began computerization of death benefits paid.

Mr. Scott didn’t get much right, and I told Glenn what I knew at his birthday party in 2010. I’ve learned a bit more since then.

Robert Fowler Gafford was born in Hopkins County, Texas, on June 27, 1891. The 1900 U.S. Census lists him and his rather large family—father, Jim Gafford (48 years); mother, Jane (42); paternal grandmother, Martha (78); Robert (8), and his seven brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 18 down to 7—in Hopkins County, which is right next door to Red River County, where Robert E. Howard would live more than ten years later. Jim Gafford was a farmer; his children were in school.

At the time of the 1910 Census, the Gaffords had returned to Howard country. They are listed in Cross Cut, in Brown County. Eighteen-year-old Robert F. had joined his father on the farm. In 1915, a new family arrived in Cross Cut with the last name of Howard. In Post Oaks, Howard tells us that “Steve had known him [Lars Jansen] years ago in a small country village, where Lars had lived with his family on a farm. [. . .] when Steve had first known him, he had been a wild, reckless, and hard living sort of a wastrel alternating his life on the farm with a kind of hobo existence.”

True to Howard’s description, by June 5, 1917, Gafford had flown the coop. His World War I registration card has him living in Goodnight, Texas (south of Dallas, in Navarro Co.) and working as an automobile mechanic. On the line that asks, “Do you claim exemption from draft?” Gafford wrote: “Crippled in leg.” The Registrar’s Report described Gafford as medium tall, of medium build, with brown hair and brown eyes—and “crippled in leg.”

Howard, too, described Gafford in Post Oaks:

Lars was a grotesque and yet impressive figure. A giant of a man, a bone tuberculosis of his hip had maimed him for life and given him a curious lurching gait when he walked which seemed to throw his whole body out of alignment. He had a strong face, large featured and deeply lined as if chiseled out of solid rock with bold rough strokes. His small hard eyes sparkled and glinted with vivid life and the heavy penthouse brows above them, coupled with the swaying gait of his walk, lent him an almost gorilloid aspect. But above those brows rose the high forehead of a thinker.

Perhaps adding fuel to Howard’s “hobo” description of him, the 1920 U.S. Census records an “R. F. Gafford,” 28, boarder in the home of Nettie Mock, and working as an auto mechanic in Moorhead, Mississippi. Don’t know if this is our man or not, but the age and initials are correct.

From 1925 to 1928 we must rely on Post Oaks for more information on Gafford. While many of the events in the novel have turned out to be historically accurate, it must be remembered that Howard presented it as fiction, so the occurrences are certainly dramatized.

In early 1925, Steve Costigan says that Jansen “had moved to Lost Plains and was in a sort of sketchy real estate business,” but he “now aspired to culture and higher society.” That higher society was to be gained by writing. Later, Steve “heard Lars Jansen sold a story to a confessions magazine.” His mother doesn’t seem to approve of the older man, saying, “Yes, that’s what I heard. I hope you’re not thinking about taking up with him?” Of course, another writer in Cross Plains was probably more tempting than “Steve” could handle, so the two begin talking about their writings, despite “Lars Jansen [being] a rather strange and unusual figure.” But if Lars wanted to earn his living by writing, he had a problem:

 “All that holds me down,” said Lars, his eyes gleaming with the vehemence of his ardor, “is lack of education. You know, I never finished grammar school. I’ve never had any opportunity. But I know Life—I’ve lived Life to the guards. With all I’ve seen and done, I could write powerful stuff—if I just had the education. But after all, bad spelling and grammatical errors don’t matter so much—the first thing is to get the stuff across. After that, the rest comes naturally.”

After reading some of Gafford’s/Jansen’s work, Howard/Costigan “was amazed at two things—at the blind, latent force which groped in Lars’ work, and at Lars’ atrocious grammar. Many of the simplest words were misspelled and, as for style and diction, Lars had no knowledge whatever except for such as comes naturally to the embryonic author.” Despite this, “there was power there, struggling and halting, groping for life and expression, chained down by ignorance, stumbling over the stones of bad English.”

Around February 1928, after having several pieces rejected, Lars went to Steve:

“Say,” said he, “you know I wrote a novel, West of the Border, a story of the modern west. It’s been turned down by a couple of publishers, but it’s good. But I can’t seem to express myself as I’d like to. And I’m handicapped by my lack of grammar. If you’ll rewrite it for me, we will split it, fifty-fifty, all but the movie rights. I want the full dramatic rights.”

Steve agrees, but “could not interest himself in it, and he wrote on it only when he could drive himself to it.” He thought that the “plot was good, with some strong situations,” but knew that “his revision, while possibly better than Lars’ ungrammatical wanderings, was not of any classical order.” He completed the rewrite and gave the product to Jansen. That May, “Lars announced that West of the Border had been rejected by the publishing company to which they had submitted it.”

In Steve’s final rant in the novel, he says, “I don’t see no future for him [. . .] Lars will work on and on, and maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll sell his stuff to the confession magazines, but I doubt it. [. . .] Maybe Lars will be lucky and make a stake somehow in his business or some other business, and get educated and do like he wants to. I hope so anyway. But now he’s off on a new tack. There’s been a great revival meetin’ at Lost Plains and Lars got converted, and now he wants to preach.”

Farmer, mechanic, real estate agent, preacher—whatever Gafford was doing for income didn’t stop his writing altogether. The September 28, 1928 Cross Plains Review carried “The Price of Vengeance” by Gafford; on August 9, 1929, “Retribution of Vanity” appeared, and there may be other pieces buried in those pages.

In February 1929, Robert Howard told his friend Clyde Smith about an experience with Gafford:

Last night the Sunday School class had a party and I had to get drunk to rid myself of Fowler’s importunities to go. He said he figured on he and myself being the life of the party. Hokum. Strange what a difference a few snorts of white corn makes in people’s attitude toward you. After I had reached the point where I wanted to go, they didn’t want me.

At the time of the 1930 Census, Fowler (age 38) had working at yet another profession: insurance salesman. That summer, he made a bid for a little respectability, as reported in the Abilene Morning News for July 31, 1930:

CALLAHAN COUNTY PRIMARY RESULTS

Complete returns in Callahan County on the democratic primary of last Saturday show the following in contested races:
[. . .]
TAX ASSESSOR—E. M. Smith 1,624; W. R. Thompson 1,061; R. Fowler Gafford 107.

Following his resounding electoral defeat, Gafford put his hobo shoes on again and headed west. The 1932 El Paso City Directory lists “Gafford, Fowler R.” as “Watchmn Troy Steam Lndry” with a room at 1431 Texas Street. He would live the rest of his life in that west Texas town, and it appears he kept in touch with his younger friend in Cross Plains. One letter from Robert E. Howard to Gafford survives. It is dated May 20, 1934, and was probably unsent. In it, Howard explains why he’s not interested in helping Gafford start a “writer’s school” (see Collected Letters, Vol. 3).

Sometime between 1933 and 1935 Gafford changed jobs again. The 1935 El Paso City Directory lists Gafford as a clerk at Tri-State Motor Co., living in a home at 1405 E Yandell Blvd. The 1940 U.S. Census has Gafford with yet another job, bookkeeping in T.R.C. office, and a wife, Clara L. His 1942 Draft registration lists his work as “Surplus Commodity Commissary,” whatever that is. Following the war, Gafford made the papers in relation to yet another occupation:

TEXAS OFFICIAL BARS 11 UNION ORGANIZERS

The Texas secretary of state today refused to issue organizer’s cards to 11 representatives of two unions which a state investigation found were “Communist dominated.”
Secretary of State Howard A. Carney yesterday cancelled all cards which had been issued to representatives of the Distributive, Processing and Office Workers of America and the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.
[. . .]
Cards held by [. . .] Robert Fowler Gafford of the IUMMSW [. . .] were cancelled.
[El Paso Herald Post – Dec. 30, 1953. The same article, under the headline “Organizer Cards Refused To Red-Dominated Unions,” appeared in The Brownsville Herald, same date, other papers as well.]

And that’s where the trail ends. Robert Fowler Gafford died on October 24, 1957, at his home in El Paso. He is buried at Restlawn Memorial Park, El Paso Co., Texas.