Patrick Henry Polk III and his brood had been waiting six weeks for their welfare check. It was the worst winter anyone could remember. Henry Polk was 49, destitute, and disabled by a bad heart. He was a rock mason and cedar chopper by trade, though Henry acknowledged that he hadn’t “hit a lick at a snake” in months. Piece by piece, he had sold his chain saw, then his tools, and finally his furniture to feed his wife and seven children. They had stuck him in a hospital in Stephenville and scared the fool out of him with that talk about putting a plastic valve on his heart. And that’s when Henry Polk did the only thing he could think to do: he put his wife Cynthia and the seven children, ages 4 to 15, in their ’67 Chrysler station wagon and he hooked ’em . For most of September and October, they lived in their station wagon, cooking and camping on creek banks, accepting handouts from churches and charitable agencies, sometimes stopping to visit relatives as they zigzagged through the cedar breaks of Chalk Mountain, Sipe Springs, Glen Rose, Valley Mills, Cranfills Gap, Lampasas, Marble Falls, and Liberty Hill, moving mostly south toward Austin, where Polk was born and lived most of his life.
By late October Henry was too sick to go on, and so was the baby, Kathy, who had a congenital heart condition. The transmission had fallen out of the station wagon, and they had traded it for a ’67 Buick. By Thanksgiving Polk was in Brackenridge Hospital in Austin and Mrs. Polk had applied for welfare. Polk left the hospital a few days later, complaining that they wouldn’t let him smoke. By now there was nothing left to sell, so Polk and two relatives went down to Onion Creek to look for some fern that they could decorate with holly and sell for Christmas wreaths. Sliding down the creek bank, he felt the familiar flash of pain in his chest and stomach. “The Claw,” he called it: just like that wrestler on TV. A week before Christmas Polk was back in the hospital and they were talking again about surgery. By now the family had received $336 in emergency food stamps, and social workers had helped them locate a four-bedroom house in South Austin that would be covered by a federal housing program. But the welfare check for $225 still hadn’t arrived.
Damned if Henry Polk was going to spend another Christmas in a hospital. He didn’t trust hospitals, or doctors, or the city of Austin for that matter. “You know that song, ‘My Kinda Woman’?” he said. “Well, that’s Austin to me. I know ever’ pig trail in it. You take a woman and seven kids and turn ’em loose in this town with no protection, you just as well tell ’em to go jump off a cliff. I told the doctor that, but he never savvied what I was saying. He just wasn’t wearing the right pair of shoes. Long as I can move my hands and feet, there ain’t no way I’m gonna let ’em cut me open.”
Over his doctor’s objections, Polk checked himself out of Brackenridge and went home for Christmas. It was a good Christmas. A Baptist church furnished dinner for the Polks, and a Catholic church brought toys, clothing, and certificates for some groceries and a tank of gasoline. One of Henry Polk’s older sisters, who lived a few blocks away, and some other cousins, nephews, nieces, and in-laws found enough used furniture to make the house livable, and Henry borrowed a hammer, saw, and nails from a neighbor and built a kitchen table from an old door and scrap lumber.
“We was all together, that was the thing,” said Cynthia Polk. “It was like a miracle.” At 32, having given birth to eight children and buried one, having survived two major operations of her own and enough trauma to fill a Russian novel, Cynthia Polk found miracles in the commonplace. She was a woman of faith, moxie, and country wit. When the kids bellyached about something they didn’t have, the price of a movie for instance, she would turn it on them and say, “Gimme a dime’s worth of dollars and you can keep the change.” She was physically enormous—after the birth of her six-year-old, Jimmy Joe, or J. J. as he was called, her weight had soared and remained over 225 pounds—but she was amazingly pliable, good-humored, and, in a rough way, pretty. Cynthia Polk had married Henry Polk nineteen years ago, when she was thirteen.
On Christmas, as any other day, the Polks clustered together like immigrants in steerage. When they ate, they ate together at the large homemade table. When daddy and mama sat in the living room, the kids congregated there. When the older kids played outside, they checked in every few minutes, reporting on the whereabouts of each member of the family. Four-year-old Kathy, who had epilepsy as well as a heart condition, was seldom out of her mother’s sight: the family rule was that she would never be left alone, not for a minute. “If something was to happen to this baby,” Cynthia said, “they’d have to put me in the grave with her.”
Almost everyone in the family had medical problems. Lanette, the beautiful five-year-old with the blond ponytail and imp’s grin, had a blood disease one doctor had diagnosed as leukemia. Henry Polk’s mother spent $39 on a long-distance telephone call to Oral Roberts, and within a week, through the miracle of faith in Jesus and AT&T, she was pronounced cured. “The doctor couldn’t believe it,” Cynthia said. “He accused me of switching babies on him. No doctor cured that baby. It was the Lord.” Colann, the thirteen-year-old, suffered from occasional convulsions; Cynthia Polk called it a form of epilepsy, though this had never been confirmed. Colann also had a hearing problem. Debby Sue, the brash, chubby eleven-year-old,