Down Lifes Highway The Times, The People that Impact Our Lives
Life is a gamble; everyone has a seat at the table the day they arrive. I got here at the worst of times; the country was in a depression, a single mom with only a small shack without utilities to live in and food so scarce that the rats avoided our place. A Cajun kid coming up in an English world. I failed the first grade, my tongue twisted backwards. It seemed impossible to me that I would ever master English. I have a very clear memory of those early days. The hand I was holding didn’t have that old ace in the hole or so it appeared. Life offered little hope but I was a dreamer, still am. I had choices. I learned early they all had consequences.
The years have flown by. I’ve lived a charmed life; lady luck has been around every corner. I’ve been extremely fortunate but I’ve never counted my blessings in gold or material things. It’s been family and the many folks I’ve known Down Life’s Highway that have given my life true worth.
It’s uncanny how often I’ve found myself in a position to meet some of the country’s most famous people. With my memories I could write many pages on the subject. To me however, what made life interesting was the wonderful, charming characters, the common guy or gal, who has had that something special or different. I’ve surrounded myself down every step with colorful people from old gun-toters to con artists to judges etc. Even today, I enjoy the times spent with special people. In fact, every Wednesday I break bread with true, honest to goodness men and women just for the hell of it. We have no agenda. Each face is a story. A group uniquely different, all professionals and people of character. Each with a different story who plays the hand dealt them, dealing with life and death and the good or bad in people’s lives.
When I was a boy, a couple of times a year a tribe of Gypsies would pitch their tent at the corner of Youngswitch Road and Highway 13. I lived just down the road but was warned not to go around the Gypsies. Mom would say they might carry me off and she would never see me again. I would get just to the edge of their camp with enough room to run if I had to. I remember once I spotted a little dark skin, black haired boy and we waved at each other. We did this every day until one morning they were gone. That was an early example of two totally different cultures and how we kept our distance.
It was in the mid-1950s that I formally met my first Gypsy. What a trip knowing that guy turned out to be. Because of my early years and the Gypsy camps, I had a special interest and was intrigued by their lifestyle and secrets. I often thought about the little boy and how we had, in some small part, forged a friendship. I wondered what had become of him and where life had led him. My new Gypsy friend replaced that little boy in my mind. I was interested in knowing everything about his life and the culture of his people.
Russell ‘Gypsy’ Suggs, probably in his 20’s when we met, became one of those many unusual, colorful people that have marked my life and that I describe as colorful characters.
Russell said as a boy his family was nomads, never making roots. His Gypsy kin had finally settled down in East Texas. He took me to meet his Mom, Dina, in Longview. She was a real Gypsy lady, who earned her money as a fortuneteller. He gave her a hard time in a joking way. They spoke a language I didn’t understand. I brought him to meet my family. They spoke a language he didn’t understand.
Russell followed in the Gypsy tradition, earning a living on his wits. When his sleeves were rolled one cuff up, he wasn’t working, when they were down chances were that both arms were lined with watches to sell. He could make a living hanging out at Elmer’s Drive Inn, peddling watches. Claude Wimberley, Cal Broussard and many more considered him their friend. Sheriff Chester Holt gave him a letter he carried as a reference when on the road.
He had married a beautiful lady, Juanita, from Texarkana, who also came from a Gypsy background. Every summer in the early years they went on the road with their children and relatives to pick crops in California, Florida and other farming states. On the road Russell sold watches and jewelry that he got from Charles Nacol on consignment. He and Charlie battled constantly. Nacol would scream and cuss but he liked the guy. Gypsy sold a lot of merchandise. He always wore a diamond stick-pen and sold many like it.
He and Nita raised a great family of good Christian people. A few years ago Nita, who had waited on Russell hand and foot, didn’t respond when he whistled for his morning cup of coffee. While stepping out of the bathtub, preparing to attend church services, she had dropped dead from a massive heart attack. Russell never was the same afterwards.
Their daughter, Teresa, who has her mother’s good looks and also her strength, has now lost her husband, her mom and her 17-year-old son Jacob. who died in an auto accident a few months ago. He was a carbon copy of his grandfather, with that great personality but had a stronger work ethic. Now she’s lost her dad. Teresa also goes to bed every night worrying and praying for her wayward daughter and wondering where she is.
Russell died March 25. Services were held at Claybar Funeral Home Thursday. He has been laid to rest next to his beloved Juanita at Forest Lawn. He is survived by sons Troy, Johnny and Gary, daughters Diana and Teresa, five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and his sister Ronnie. His 81st. birthday would have been this week, April 3.
I look back on the life we traveled. He once made me an honorary Gypsy when I out-sold him in watch sales while we were on the road. Another memorable time is while attending a car auction in Tyler with car dealers Leo Brown and Leon Slayter, we spent one Friday evening with Elvis Presley at Joe Hamond’s Roundtop Club in Gladewater, Texas. We spent the night in Longview and so did Elvis. He appeared on the Louisiana Hayride the next night and we headed home in one of Leon’s auction cars, a 1954 Ford that had a busted block. We never made it, because of our problem however, we sold many of our ‘personal’ watches. I will always be a little bit Gypsy because of Russell and his family. Good people weave in and out of every culture regardless of their roots.