At Home on the Range

On November 3rd, I had the honor and pleasure of returning once again to Rotan, Texas to meet the participants of the “No Hill for a Stepper” essay contest and to award prizes to the winners. In my mind, they were all winners in one way or the other but I will need to expand that in a future blog. Each participant was given a free copy of my book along with my deep appreciation.

First, we had a reception for the contestants in the school library. Here’s what I told them.

 “The world belongs to those who show up. Not only did you show up, you participated and THAT gave us a glimpse into the high quality of your character.

 My advice to the readers of No Hill for a Stepper is to resolve issues early on. Your essays showed that you are capable of doing that. You are ahead of the game.

“No Hill for a Stepper” is the story of Cono Dennis, my father who spent some of his most memorable years here in Rotan.

But it is today is when your book begins!

Anne and I spend hours going over your essays and we enjoyed every minute of it. The hard part of course was determining first, second and third places.

Because all the entries were in the essay division, there is more money allocated for the prizes.”

 First prize is $100

Second is $50

Third is $25

And these will be awarded in a few minutes at the pep rally.”

(Cash prizes were made available from the donations received at my October book launch. Thank you for that!)

It was Friday night football, the last game of the season and for two of the participants, seniors John and Darrell, it was truly their last game at Rotan. Not only that, I learned that it was the last year of eleven man football for the Hammers. Next year Rotan will become a six-man team.

Moving on now to the Pep Rally. The entire school district, including the elementary school, entered the gymnasium. I was handed the microphone, stood at the center line and said the following:

 “I am here in Rotan, Texas where, in 3rd grade, Cono wore his first pair of boxing gloves.

In Rotan, where he chased a calf down Main street with his friend, Dorothy.

 – where he met Gene, his best childhood friend.

– where Cono shot his first bobcat and learned about bootlegging. 

– where he picked lambsquarter weeds for his mother to boil for supper.

 – where he learned about ranching from his grandfather Ike, a true texas cowboy.

 Here, where he learned not only about bullying but about how to handle it, and

here where his father was arrested in a café for stirring his coffee with the barrel of his pistol.

 Rotan, Texas is where Cono learned to love football as much as he learned to love the man named H. Govan, who called him “Kid Dennis”.  (everyone cheered at this!)

 Rotan, Texas, where the land is vast and where the folks sized you up from boot to hat, if, that is, they were lucky enough to own both.

 Rotan, Texas, where Cono learned to never give up, where there is NO hill for a stepper.

“No Hill for a Stepper” was Cono’s story about the time leading up to the age you are now. But that was HIS story. Today, I am here because of new stories. I am here today and to honor the participants of the No Hill for a Stepper essay contest.

 I would like to say to ALL of you. Today is where your book begins.

 And with that thought in mind, I would like to introduce you to to the winners. When I call your name, will you please come up to receive your award.

 For 3rd place :  Kyndra Vaught

                                             2nd place winners (tie):  Darrell Buratti,  Ramya Sunku







                      And First Place winners (tie):  John Flores,   Brandy De La Cruz








The crowd cheered while I felt overcome with emotion. There were many reasons I felt the way I did.

“A legacy” Superintendent Ruffin had told me earlier. “ I truly believe you can tell a lot about a person by looking at his/her legacy.    This I think reflects on your upbringing.  Therefore, I can say that your father was truly a kind, warm and reflective person.”  Yes, he was.

I went to the game and set up my books to sell to the Yellowhammer fans.  All the while, I was freezing from the weather only to be warmed by the kind folks that came to talk to me.  One man strolled by my table and said, “My boy won second place.” You could see the pride in his face but more so, you could hear it in his voice. I introduced myself and briefly had a chance to speak with him. “He’s a good boy,” he said. Yes, indeed.

The Rotan Yellowhammers won their last game. The scoreboard, under the signage of “in honor of Cono Dennis”, read, Rotan 12, visitor 2.

No hill for a stepper. And they were ALL steppers.

(Stay close! Their essays are coming soon and will move even the hardest of souls.)

A shock from the past moves me forward

Wayne and Elnora

There goes that universe again!  After all the hard work we put into the book tour in Temple, Texas, I was disappointed to see the low turnout for the evening adult event. But there was a reason and now I know what it was.

I was speaking with the few attendees about my book No Hill for a Stepper, a coming of age story about a young boy (my dad, Cono) who grew up with a brutish and violent father in west Texas during the Great Depression.  My grandfather died when I was five years of age, therefore my memories of him came only from those of my father’s.

A few minutes late, a man in his mid seventies walks into the Historical Railroad Museum, sits down and says, “I’ve been waiting to talk to you. I knew your grandfather,” he said. “And he loved his son.”

It is hard to describe my immediate feelings to his statement. First, I had never known anyone outside of the family who knew Wayne. I wanted to hear more, more! And I did. This man, Alton, often with moisture in his eyes, recounted his memories of the Wayne he knew.

Meeting Wayne  around the age of thirteen, Alton remembered Wayne’s notorious fighting abilities -how quickly he could pull a knife out of his pocket and have it opened before anyone saw it.  He talked about Wayne’s aptitude for math and his undefeated skill in dominoes. Since Wayne could tell his opponent three plays out what the score would be, Wayne never played dominoes for money with his friend opponents.  Alton told me of Wayne’s generosity with others (throwing a dollar bill out the window for the town wino) and of his dry sense of humor. And, Alton talked about the intense pain he was in from his spinal arthritis.

Most of these things I already knew. What I didn’t know was that Wayne was proud of his son and bragged about Cono’s intellect and his boxing ability. What I didn’t know, was that a stranger I had just met had given me a new perspective on my grandfather based upon his own memories.  Remembering his wit, kindness and intellect, Alton looked up to the Wayne he knew with admiration and deep respect. “Times were very tough back then in Rotan and in Temple,” he said. “Maybe he was trying to make damn sure his son could take care of himself, kinda like the song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

Does my new knowledge excuse the way he treated my father when he was a young boy? No. Some of his behaviors were worse than inappropriate in those early years. But it does tell me that my grandfather made very positive impressions on other people and has reminded me that the core of his heart was not evil. Sometimes I wonder if, on that evening at the Historical Railroad Museum, my grandfather sent Alton to help me see his other side.

Had there been a large group that evening in Temple, the possibility of speaking to Alton would have been greatly hindered. But because of the limited number of attendees, I was given the gift of another person’s perspective on a man I thought I knew but who now I know even better.

A book launched Texas style…

Since I have “friends” now, I’m reblogging this post from 2011. It was a special day for me, indeed.

No Hill for a Stepper book launch

Carolyn Dennis-Willingham


No Hill for a Stepper was  launched Texas style with  James “Slim” Hand as our  special musical guest.  Singing the songs of Cono’s era that would have made Bob Wills and Gene Autry proud, the music was the perfect foreground for our hill country setting. What an evening!  The word for the evening was “surreal” as I saw the efforts of the last 3 1/2 years come to the end of just a beginning. I cannot begin to thank all of the attendees who supported me although I certainly tried! Plus they donated sacks of coins that I will give to the winners of the students in Bell County for the “No Hill for a Stepper” essay contest.  Payin’ it forward as they say.

To the crowd of over seventy people, my heartfelt acknowledgment of my father was this:

“No Hill for a Stepper”  is my father’s story. While my mother, during her lifetime, was thirsty for life, she spoke mostly about her present and her future.  My father focused more on his past.  There were reasons he did so.  First, because he wanted my sister and I to know how very different his life was compared to ours. Pat and I didn’t have to pick lambsquarter for our meals and we didn’t have to live in a dugout for our shelter.  But the other reason he talked so much about his past, especially in his later years, was that he had something to resolve before he died.

As many of you know, my father was very much aware of this novel. A pen guided my hand in response to the things he recounted to me. Dad talked. I listened and wrote and wrote and and I recorded. Never in my life would I have been able to make up his story on my own.

Cono is here tonight, along with my mother.  They are here in the photos and in the songs that James Hand is playing. They are here in my spirit and in my heart. Together, Mom and Dad are where all questions are answered and all things are resolved. They are now where things are no longer discouraging but instead, they are where things are copacetic.  

My father did not live long enough to see the final product. So Dad, here it is – the final product I told you I would finish. “If I  tell you a rooster wears a pistol, look under its wing.”

And then, my fellow supporters joined me in singing Dad’s favorite song, “Home on the Range,” loud enough for him to hear.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

My much anticipated and overly planned book launch for “No Hill for a Stepper” is around the corner. Yes, there will be food, drink and music so my attendees should not be to “upset” to throw in some change. Right?

You see, the spare change is not for me. Really. All the nickels, dimes and hopefully quarters will be collected for a good cause. We are hosting an essay contest to three independent school districts here in Texas. Going with the theme of the book, students can choose between these topics: “What do you do if you are bullied”, “How do you handle difficult situations at home”, or “Interviewing a grandparent about their past”.  The winner will receive prizes including a mason jar stuffed with as many coins as we collect. Why coins you ask?  During the Depression, Cono rarely saw a real dollar bill.  It was all about coins – saving them, spending them or even making the mistake of swallowing them.

So, if my “brothers” and sisters spare their change at the upcoming book launch, at least three students in Texas will be a little richer and hopefully a lot more encouraged. As they move forward and upward in life, they can smile and stand proud and tall as they click the left side of their cheek and say “Ah, that was NO HILL FOR A STEPPER!”

Standard issue? Nope.

It’s funny how these shoes are “standard issue”.  Except for the boots, the outside casing of this uniform and my Army haircut, there’s nothing standard about me.   I didn’t grow up with “Good morning, Cono” smiles or quiet and calm conversations around the supper table. Maybe, we just learned not to speak our mind.  Especially since one or two of the minds around the kitchen table might not like our notions.  If somebody were to peek in the window at suppertime, they’d have seen four mouths that moved due to chewing, not from that risky pastime called “talking”.  In fact, if we tried to catch each word that came out of our mouths, especially at suppertime, there wouldn’t be enough to fill a soup bowl.  And if we were counting on words for our nourishment, well then, we would have starved plumb to death.

I grew up believing that conversation cost money and since those were hard times, Mother and Dad tried to save every penny they could.  So if Dad were to tell me, “Son, please leave the pie in front’a Ike’s plate,” it would have cost fifty cents and we could have put that half dollar towards new shoes for Delma.

Red boxing trunks

A couple of months ago I had gone home for a short leave, showed Dad my red boxing trunks with “Kid Dennis” stitched on the bottom left. He eagle-eyed my trunks with jealous know-it-all eyes, but when I showed him my eight ounce gloves he held them in his hands like they were newborn pups, carefully feeling the fine leather and laces. Then, for whatever reason, I said, “Here Dad, you can have them.  I’m not fighting for the Army anymore, no how.”  He looked up at me from the couch he was sitting on, rubbed his index finger back and forth around his thumb and said, “Then, next time ya come, bring another pair and I’ll spar with ya.”   Well, I’ll be damned, I thought.  That son of a bitch still isn’t done hitting me.   Hah! “Denny Dennis,” the once carnival boxer doesn’t stand a chance.

from “No Hill for a Stepper”- Chapter One

Chapter 1: San Antone, Texas: Lackland Army Air Force Base

          “You don’t really know much when you’re born, but that’s where it starts alright, whether you like it or not. When you’re just a little suckling pig on your mamma’s teat, all you really want to know is that the teat will keep filling up so you can start suckling all over again. Once you reckon the food’s always gonna be there when you’re hungry, you move on to wondering whether you’re gonna be kept safe from harm and warm when it’s cold. As you get a little older, you find out that maybe there isn’t always going to be enough to eat after all, and you won’t always be warm either. This is especially true if you were growing up during the Great Depression in Texas, in the western part, where any stranger is sized up from boot to hat—if, that is, they’re lucky enough to own both. Texans trust themselves first and foremost, and then maybe one or two of their kinfolk, as long as they’ve found that trust to be right as rain, if the sun can set on their words. I grew up trying to figure out who to put in which category: those I could trust and those never to turn my back on. I learned what I know from watching those who crossed over and the others who stayed on their own side.                      I did both.”

A Depression? Again?

I didn’t know Cono early on. I was born seven years later. But when he held me that first day, I learned right away that he was someone like me, the one from the litter who fought their way up. Slow, steady and watchful, the slow days of winter and the long days of summer kept us both hopeful that our family would have a few more dollars in their pocket. But that was back in the 30’s. And you’re telling me it’s happening again? Shoot, we thought we were all done with scratching in the dirt for something to eat. A’course, Cono and I don’t have to worry none about that anymore. We’re together in the great beyond looking down on you good folks. He’s sitting on a soft recliner cloud right now and he’s yellling over to me, “Pooch, tell ’em it’ll work out jest fine. No Hill for a Stepper.”

Cono Dennis – An Unlikely Hero in the Making

Cono Dennis, his sister Delma & Pooch - late 1930s

Cono’s coming of age story will squeeze your heart and tickle your smile. It is a story of human triumph and hard won dreams.

Who knew a young boy could be this deliciously clever while facing some of the toughest things in life?

Better yet, his uncanny ability to turn his difficulties into advantages will have you wearing a sly smile while rooting for this modern day Tom Sawyer.

A true story –