Stanley Vernon Litton May 15, 1928 – January 16, 2011
NOTE TO READER: Back in October 2014, I started what I called a “triptych” of my two brothers and myself. Logically enough, I began with the eldest of us three — Vernon. Not long after I had finished the first two mini-bios, I noticed a sudden spurt in “visitors” to my blog, most of whom were reading the bio below about Vernon; a smaller but still significant number of people had visited the post I had written about my other brother, Elbert.
I was pissed off, not because few had checked out my own bio and only slightly more had read Elbert’s, but because Vernon’s spike was so large — 40 views. Also, I could discern by the small amount of available evidence that the majority of those interested in Vernon’s story were, like him, pool hustlers and bullies. I pulled the Vernon post from my blog and filed it elsewhere.
Since that time I have lamented the absence of one part of my triptych and wondered if my motive had not been simply jealousy. I hated to see someone who had brought so much wrong into my life get so much attention in his death. But I will hasten to add here that Vernon did good things for me as well as bad things to me; in purely materialistic terms, I guess the good and the bad balance each other. That is the reason I am re-blogging “Vernon The Hustler” today. In spite of his faults, Vernon was, I believe, possibly the most interesting guy in Dallas anyone of our generation could have known.
(For the mini-bios of Elbert and me, check out the posts for November 2 and 9 of 2014.)
©2014 By Bob Litton
PROLOGUE: Fifteen years ago I was sitting at the breakfast room table in my sister-in-law’s Dallas home. My brother Vernon, the eldest of us three male siblings, sat facing me on the other side of the small table. Our conversation about cars was interrupted when Vernon’s wife answered the door’s chimes and returned, leading in an acquaintance, a scion of one of the oldest families in the area and a member of the school board. He sat on a nearby couch, looked at Vernon and me with a curious grin, and said apropos of nothing, “Ah, the Brothers Karamazov!”
I had read Dostoevsky’s work of that title too many years previously to recall much of it at the moment, but I did understand, I believed, the point of his allusion; for there was some correlation between us Litton boys and the three sons of Fyodor Karamazov, a sly buffoon and an indifferent father in Dostoevsky’s philosophical novel. Fyodor’s off-handed off-spring, who grow to manhood almost entirely separately, are Dimitri, a sensualist and profligate; Ivan, an alienated rationalist; and Alyosha, a spiritually-inclined monastic novice, whose Elder sends him into the world to learn to cope with its seediness. Roughly considered, the parallel had its accuracies, just not totally, of course. The reader of this essay and of a future one about my other brother, Elbert, can determine for himself/herself if our visitor’s comparison was justified. I do not intend to write a similar mini-biography about myself; this whole blog series has been mostly about me; enough is enough.
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One of the funniest ironies I ever heard in my life was that Vernon, the elder of my two brothers, was birthed on a pool table in Mexico…and that he grew up to become the most notorious pool hustler in Dallas. He gained that reputation by hustling nightly at the Cotton Bowling Palace.
I am not certain now who related to me the story of Vernon’s strange nativity: it might have been my other brother, Elbert; or it might have been Vernon’s wife, Loretta. It definitely was not Vernon or either of my parents. The surprise birthing reportedly occurred during our parents’ shopping excursion to Matamoros, Mexico, in May of 1928. (At the time, they resided in the hamlet of Combes, Texas, a short drive north of the Rio Grande.) Pappy and Mother were in a hotel in Matamoros when labor activity began. For whatever medical reason, a hard surface, not a bed mattress, was needed; so whoever attended Mother used a pool table there in the hotel. I wish now that either of my parents had told me of this incident; I could have elicited more details. I wonder if a birth certificate or its Mexican equivalent was ever completed. Considering what the future held in store for Stanley Vernon Litton, I find the anecdote hilariously prophetic.
There are many basic questions I never asked any of my family members, one of which was how my parents decided on their children’s names. My own name “Robert Carl…” I could plausibly surmise because I had one maternal uncle named Robert. And another of Mother’s brothers was named Carl Lee… (their father was called Carl Anton….). Pappy had an older brother named Elbert, and Pappy’s own middle name was Barnett (I have no idea where that originated). But “Stanley Vernon”? Where did that come from? Certainly not from any of our relatives. Loretta told me recently, by the way, Vernon hated the name “Stanley”. I don’t understand that; it seems like a perfectly masculine, connotation-free name to me. When I ponder all the instances when I failed to make such pertinent inquiries, I wonder if I really was a born-journalist or not.
Pappy severely abused Vernon at least once, as my brother related to me at least three times. (Vernon had poor memory concerning matters about which he had already informed me.) The one episode he so often recounted occurred before I existed. Vernon said that our sister, Frances Vivian, whom I never knew because she died nearly two years before I was born, had accidentally locked the door to an outhouse and Pappy yelled at her, maybe even struck her. Vernon spoke up, screaming, “Daddy, don’t hurt her. She didn’t mean to do it.” Thereupon, Vernon recalled, Pappy kicked him in the chin. The first time Vernon related that anecdote to me, when we were both middle-aged, I pondered the possibility of that scene, and responded, “Pappy never hit or whipped me. To me, he wasn’t a bad daddy, just a no-daddy, since he was seldom around.” But Mother’s youngest sister Mary buttressed Vernon’s story a couple of years ago when she told me, “Bill Litton was a brutal husband and a brutal father. That’s why Vernon started lifting weights, because he wasn’t going to let Bill do that to him ever again.” (“Bill” was a moniker Pappy — whose actual name was “Haywood Barnett…” — picked up somewhere. That is another of the strange family facts for which I never sought an explanation.)
Vernon and Pappy lifting the exercise weight my big brother made for himself out of a steel bar and concrete. It is hard to imagine, from this photo, that Vernon was using the barbell to make himself strong enough to whip Pappy.
Vernon did in fact take up weight-lifting as a quasi-hobby; he did it too much for it to be classified as an “exercise routine”. Weight-lifting became an art form for him, almost a religion. Initially, taking into account that our family was borderline-poor, Vernon made his own barbell by pouring concrete into two large tin cans and sticking a steel bar between them. I have a small photo of Vernon and Pappy holding a barbell — one end held in the air by a teenaged Vernon and the other resting on Pappy’s head. That photo is suffused with a tint of irony. Vernon used to stand in front of the dressing table mirror and flex his arms, admiring his developing biceps, much as I would stand there whisking a cap pistol out of my scabbard, imagining myself to be Gene Autry.
Another of Vernon’s favorite activities was motorcycle riding, maintenance and, eventually, sales. In his later years especially, he had a motorcycle retail store out near the White Rock Lake spillway in Dallas, where he sold not just the vehicles but accessories as well. However, considering the paucity of walk-in customers, I believed that shop was just a cover for his sports bookmaking avocation. Still, he was pretty busy trading in luxury cars and high-end recreational vehicles.
Vernon and his first wife, Mary Ann, in 1955
Ironically, that motorcycle shop was positioned almost exactly where Vernon had a serious accident about three decades earlier. He was taking me to the junior high school. We were eastbound on Garland Road which lay beside the spillway. Suddenly a woman in a car darted out in front us from a side road. Vernon did not want to stop suddenly, for that might have thrown us into a spin and no telling how much harm. He slowed down as carefully as he could so that we were going only fast enough to keep upright: I was even able to dismount on my feet before the impact. Vernon would have been unhurt, too, except when the cycle overturned, the kick-starter gouged the calf of his left leg. Vernon cried out through excruciating pain, “Bobby, get this damn thing off me!” I lifted the cycle off him, and somebody in the crowd that had gathered went to a nearby business to phone for an ambulance.
Both of my brothers garnered reputations as ruffians in their teens and twenties, but Vernon was the one who made a regular avocation of it. He was, I have been told by others, a founding member of a neighborhood gang called the “Lakewood Rats”. I have no notion what those guys did; I didn’t even know they had existed as a gang until two decades after they had disbanded. It was, I imagine, just a way for a group of males, with not much else other than muscles, to explore their own identities. However, one day when I was in high school, I was walking down the sidewalk of Abrams Road, right in the middle of Lakewood, when I saw Vernon crossing the street with about a dozen fellows following him toward a parking lot behind a building that abutted the country club’s golf course, and I assumed they were seeking a secluded spot where Vernon and one of the others could engage in a fist fight. Also, after joining the Coast Guard in his late teen years, Vernon punched out a non-com officer; and, as the officer fell, his head struck a pipe, killing him. My brother spent two years in a federal prison in Louisiana for manslaughter.
As for my personal relations with Vernon, they never were very close, for I usually found it difficult to have a relaxed conversation with him. He would always approach our talks as contests of will rather than as exchanges of experiences and knowledge. You see, he had a developed case of the alpha male syndrome. He felt that he always had to be right; he could not stand even good-natured ripostes. It was usually easier just to listen to him or to leave him. However, it was not for that reason that there were extended gaps between our times together; there were several other conditions that kept us often separated, but they mostly did not have anything to do with our affections toward one another; so I won’t take up space with them here. And, weirdly, it wasn’t until I was into my middle years that I realized that Vernon’s problem was the alpha male syndrome: He always had to be the top dog, with his paw on top of everybody’s head.
On a couple of occasions Vernon embarrassed me in front of my friends in the coffee shop: once when he reacted violently to my disagreeing with him about what I should do with my wrecked car, and once when he was declaring to some people at another table that I had a college degree but didn’t know how to do anything. (While there was much truth in that, it wasn’t necessary to loudly proclaim it as he did.) Also, he tried — and to a certain extent succeeded in — cheating me and Elbert out of our inheritances. And (this is the rottenest instance of all) he either sold or gave away the books I had stored in one of eight boxes filled with my little library, some of which were irreplaceable and all of which were invaluable to me, only because he needed a cardboard box in which to store some car parts.
He would get almost insane with rage when he perceived me as saying something that was intellectual: “I’m smarter than you are Bobby, even if I didn’t finish high school.” Eventually, though, near the end of his life, he softened and allowed, “You’re more intelligent than I am, Bobby.” And all through those years I never really cared whether my brothers were more intelligent than I; they both, having had to learn to live on the streets at very early ages with little formal education to arm them, had developed high levels of what are commonly called “street smarts” — and that’s what it takes to really survive in this world, if simply surviving is what is most important to you.
On the other hand, Vernon paid my $1,500 fine after I had pleaded nolo contendere to driving while intoxicated. He helped me out with much smaller amounts on several other occasions. Also, he helped me change residence twice; and I stayed in his wife’s home for over a year during a financially embarrassing time in my life. And I believe, although there is no way to prove it, that being the little brother of Vernon and Elbert Litton protected me from no telling how many bullies at school. So, you see, Vernon did bad things to me and good things for me, a situation which was archetypically ambiguous.
On a couple of occasions since Vernon’s death, my sister-in-law has described him as “mean”. That is a concomitant of his alpha maleness, I believe. He had developed an underlying mean streak, combined with an almost funny sentimentality, from childhood on. He liked to keep dogs, particularly pit bull terriers, as pets; and he would encourage the development of their natural tendency to threaten, if not fight. I don’t believe he ever put his dogs into fighting pits; he didn’t want them to be hurt; it was just that, if anybody else had mean pit bulls, he wanted his own to be meaner, at least potentially.
Vernon was mated with Loretta for dozens of years, yet I couldn’t tell if he actually loved her. He admired her, sure, and bragged about how nice she was; but I never saw him embrace or kiss her. Also, on two occasions he said to me, on the phone, “Bobby, I love you.” I didn’t respond to those words; I just paused a few seconds and then changed the subject. I had no idea what “love” meant to him, and I wasn’t sure what love meant to me either. Nor did I want to ask him to define it for me, for I suspected that my invitation to a colloquy would end up in a shouting match.
One day, while Vernon and I were sitting on the couch in Loretta’s living room watching a movie on cable TV, Vernon asked me, “What is your favorite movie, Bobby?”
That question took me by surprise; I needed time to think about it, but I rushed myself. “Jeez, Vernon, I have several favorite movies. I’ve never taken time to determine which I liked best. It kind of depends on the genre and what mental space I was in when I saw them.”
“Mine is My Fair Lady,” Vernon calmly declared.
“Well, I’ll be, Vernon! That is certainly one of my favorites, too. How odd that it is your favorite!”
I would have thought his favorite would be Rocky.
There is no way to fully understand people, especially one’s own family…when they are self-contradictory and dysfunctional.
Vernon Litton as he liked to view himself circa 1954. The pit bull dog Vernon has on a leash was named “Killer”. I don’t recognize the while pit bull. Vernon had a white pit bull named “Pepper”, which was Killer’s sire, but Pepper was slightly larger than Killer, so the dog above could not be he…unless Killer “took him down a notch or two”.
POST SCRIPT: I intend to write and post a mini-bio of my other brother, Elbert, in the near future…not for a little while, however. I just do not think it would be wise to publish so much family history very close together. The bios need to be near enough, though, for readers to readily gauge how much the Litton brothers and the Karamazov brothers are similar and how much they are different. Stay tuned!