Boy’s Life—Rick Perry

Before he was fighting for the governorship of the second-largest state in the country, Rick Perry was just a kid from Texas.
Perry, age six, on his family farm in Paint Creek in 1956.

I don’t really have a hometown, and it’s just the peculiarity of where I grew up. It’s not a town. It was sixteen miles to Haskell, the closest place that had a post office, and if you went into Haskell today and said, “Rick Perry is a hometown boy,” they’d go, “No, he’s from Paint Creek.” It’s a very broad area but with very few people. For instance, my dad was a county commissioner. This is a county that’s nine hundred square miles, thirty miles by thirty miles, and his precinct was a quarter of that and there were about 350 registered voters.

We lived on a gravel road. If you drove up in May and it had been a nice, wet winter, it could be one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen, with wildflowers and green grass, the fields fallow, getting ready to be planted. It could be one of the most beautiful places or it could be one of the most desolate, brutal, uninviting, and uninspiring places. And that was generally a function of the weather.

The people who were adults that lived through the early fifties in West Texas, I think, are some of the most principled, disciplined people in the world, and faithful. Because every day they got up, it was dry. And the wind and the sandstorms. This was before the days of deep tilling, and the sky would become like before dawn in its darkness—and this is in the middle of the day. Huge clouds of dust would roll in from the west. The only time I ever remember seeing my mother cry as a young boy was—they rarely ever bought anything, and certainly didn’t buy anything new, but she had bought a new couch. And there were places in our house that you could see outside through the cracks by the windows, and this dust storm came in and there was a layer of dust all over that new couch. And it just, you know, kind of—it was a hard life for them.

Ours was a little bungalow-style house. It had water that came in, but there was no indoor plumbing in the sense that we think of today. We bathed on the back porch in the number two washtub, and there was an outhouse, and that lasted until ’57, ’58, when Dad built indoor plumbing. We were rich, but not in material things. I had miles and miles of pasture, a Shetland pony, and a dog. I had the best playground you could imagine, but I didn’t have a lot of playmates because we didn’t have neighbors. I can’t tell you where the closest male was that was my age. It would’ve been miles away. There were a couple of young girls who lived, oh, a quarter of a mile up the gravel road. But I spent a lot of time just alone with my dog. A lot.

My dad always referred to that part of Texas as “the big empty.” His family has been out there for multiple generations. They were all tenant farmers. My folks, neither one went to college. My mother worked as a bookkeeper at a gin in Stamford. Dad farmed. When they were building Lake Stamford, he ran some heavy equipment there, but basically he was a dry-land cotton farmer. All the parents in that community worked a lot. But my mother and father were also square dancers. So I sat in lots of National Guard armories, where there would be folding chairs all around the sides, and the kids would be sitting in the folding chairs or talking or outside playing, and the parents were in there dancing. There was a guy who did the calling. His name was Marshall Flippo. Marshall Flippo. I don’t know why that name sticks with me. But he was a renowned square-dance caller. You know, “Skip to my Lou, my darling” and all that. That is the only pastime that I ever remember my parents being involved with.

We were fairly self-sustaining. Mom was a very, very good seamstress and still is. She made my sister’s clothes; she made a lot of my shirts. Now, with blue jeans we wore Levi’s. But when I went to college, Mother still made my underwear.

We had chickens. We milked our own cows, churned our own butter, had a garden, you know. Mother pickled and canned a lot of things and kept them in the storm cellar. Potatoes and different things she would grow and what have you. And we’d probably go to town once a week, on the average, generally on Saturday, to buy the staples, things like beans and flour. Now, Dad had some chickens that he kept in a pen, and I guess they must have been special chickens, may have been roosters, I don’t know what. But one time I let them out because I thought it was cool to watch the dogs chase the chickens, and the chickens got killed. My dad really whipped me. Bad. The worst I ever got in trouble at home was letting those chickens out.

There were three things to do in Paint Creek: school, church, and Boy Scouts. That’s it. And it was plenty. So that community was so close-knit. The scoutmaster was also the superintendent of Sunday school, he taught a Sunday school class, he was also president of the school board. There were two churches. There was a Methodist church and a Baptist church, and they were very intertwined. Methodists sprinkle, Baptists don’t. That’s all the differences that we as kids saw. And you know, the interesting thing for me is that we were no different from anybody else. By and large, everyone was the same. And so, from a “What did you learn in Paint Creek?” perspective, it’s that, you know, we were all equals. 
As told to Jake Silverstein on March 30, 2010

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