©2014 By Bob Litton
Elbert Barnett Litton, my other brother, was the most colorful one of us siblings in that there were more strange facets making up his nature. I will try to describe most of them in this mini-bio.
Elbert was born, in 1932, in Combes, Texas, a hamlet just five miles northwest of Harlingen. He and Vernon and Florence (the sister I never knew) lived their early childhood years there in the Rio Grande Valley. Vernon mentioned to me several times that Elbert was a beautiful baby; Elbert maintained his better than average looks into early manhood. It was only when gluttony conquered his will power in middle age that his appearance worsened. But other than those remarks, I cannot say much about Elbert’s childhood, especially in the Valley, because I was not there and never inquired. It is with his early teens that I must begin.
For me, the young Elbert remains almost a wraith, an insubstantial form that I encountered irregularly in my own early childhood, in Dallas. Yet I know that he was more present than that sentence suggests. For one thing, there are a few extant photographs from that time: this one here, showing him with me and Pappy (obviously made the same day as the one of Vernon and Pappy from my profile of Vernon)…
…and one (not shown) of me standing in front of Elbert and winged by a couple of boys, apparently intermediate between us age-wise, whom I no longer recognize. And I retain mental “clips” of our closest moments together.
Of the few vignettes concreted in my memory, the most telling and prophetic one is the episode of the cap pistol. Elbert had connected a couple of old wooden pieces (probably doors) in our small back yard for me and my friends to use as a “clubhouse”. One day I walked out to it and found a cap pistol hanging on a nail stuck in one of the doors; I assumed it was a gift from Elbert, which it was. But the notable thing—well, the first notable thing—about that gift was that he had left it for me to find; he did not give it to me directly: It was a characteristic action by him that would be repeated several more times over the coming decades. A few weeks later, I found the pistol again, this time on the sidewalk in front of our duplex apartment: Elbert had smashed it. And I could guess why. A day or so previously I had bought myself a pint of ice cream with some money Vernon — who by then had joined the coast guard — had sent me. Elbert, coveting the ice cream, proffered his wood-burning pen in exchange for the pint: I told him I would rather eat the ice cream. That episode, too, was prophetic, for throughout his life Elbert would continue to over-react against relatives and friends who would deny him something, regardless of how much else they had given him or otherwise helped him.
I do not recall ever seeing Elbert and Vernon scuffle, but I might well have witnessed one such fight when I was very young, or Mother may have simply related the incident to me later. At the time, we lived in a very small apartment on Noble Avenue in Dallas. It was a sort of “shotgun” type of abode, where a person entering the front door could see straight through to the back door. It had one front room, which doubled as both a living room and a bedroom; a middle room, used solely as a bedroom; and a kitchen in the rear. My memory — either witnessed directly or as described to me — is of my big brothers rolling in a knot on the middle room floor, fighting over a pair of socks, of all things! Even as young as I was, I thought that was a silly squabble.
I have mentioned (in “Vernon the Hustler”) the paucity of confrontations with bullies during my youth. Well, that was more typical of my junior and senior high years than of the grade school period. When I was in the second or third grade, there was one boy who harassed me. One Saturday, I saw this boy at the neighborhood movie house’s matinee. I was afraid to go into the theater. I went home and told Elbert about it, and he took me back to the theater, where we found the bully sitting in the balcony. Standing between the boy and the screen, Elbert told him to leave me alone or he could anticipate unpleasant consequences.
One more of Elbert’s personal traits became apparent about that time: Elbert had developed an addiction to games of chance. There was a pinball machine at the Cole and Haskell Drugstore a few blocks north of our apartment. My impression was that Elbert was in love with that machine; he played it constantly. Where he got the coins to do so, I have no idea, although it is possible he collected and sold soda pop bottles, which were all of glass in those days and could bring two cents each as a refund.
In 1951 or 1952, Elbert was drafted for two years into the army. He was stationed in Austria, where he honed native hustling skills by selling his cigarette allotment to fellow GIs at a premium price. He visited Spain and Switzerland; in the latter he bought Mother a bullet-shaped, standup glass clock in which you could watch all the parts operate. He also bought me a watch with a glass back in which I could watch all the parts move. (I cannot imagine what those gifts say about Elbert’s psyche.) I have a letter which he wrote to Mother, asking her what kind of china set she would like. He said he wasn’t flush with cash, but he wanted to buy stuff for her at prices much lower than they were in the U.S. He also requested that she send him a toddler photo of me so he could have an Austrian artist copy it in oil paints.
Elbert was, in fact, much closer to Mother than were either Vernon or I. After his discharge from the army, he spent a couple of days mixing cement and gravel and, layering that admixture between blocks of refuse pavement, constructed a retaining wall to protect Mother’s little house from a creek’s threatening ravages. Mother had bought the house not many months previously and had not paid enough attention to its surroundings; for the stream — which ran close by one corner of the structure — amounted to not much more than a trickle most of the time but would become a torrent when good rains fell. Also, after Mother left Dallas to work at a cafe in the mountains of Colorado, Elbert took charge of her 1950 Nash Rambler station wagon, and he gave it a new paint job…with a little help from me.
As for schooling, Elbert dropped out after the eighth grade. He had a problem with his vision, I believe. I do not know if the issue was dyslexia or not. He could print well enough, but was backward when it came to cursive; and he did not enjoy reading anything other than sports odds and erotica. However, he was always extremely careful when it came to figures. One day, when we were both in our middle years, we discussed some bookkeeping matter related to his carpet store business, and he told me, “I never make a mistake when it comes to numbers!”
While I was in the air force, Elbert became acquainted with an expert carpet-layer named Charlie. Elbert was selling used cars at the time, but he came up with the idea that, by joining his own salesmanship aptitude with Charlie’s speed at his trade, they could make a bunch of money by underpricing competitors. They started out their carpet store business by selling mill seconds, dropped patterns, and used carpet. After a few years, they discontinued stocking used carpet.
Elbert was not a hard-drinking or smoking man, although he would down a few beers at local dives, with the carpet layers and salesmen, after the store closed. However, he was a sybarite: he loved pleasure and glitter and was addicted to gambling. He had not the patience to attend to his business all the hours that were needed; he made frequent trips to Las Vegas and Reno; and he frequented the expensive “gentlemen’s clubs” in Dallas. He always bought Cadillacs. His eye for food was bigger than his stomach…for a while…and then it was the other way around.
Elbert also preferred paying prostitutes to wooing a wife. One day, while I was newspapering in Monahans in the early 1980s, a prostitute left his Dallas apartment. Shortly afterwards, Elbert left also, carrying about $80,000 on his person. When he got to the parking lot, he was accosted by a man who showed a handgun and demanded Elbert’s money. Elbert started fighting the stranger, who pushed him against a railing on the apartment house’s porch. Then Elbert pulled a gun out of his pocket, and the two started shooting. Elbert was hit in the torso. But the assailant was hurt even worse; he managed to get into the passenger side of a car where his comrade was waiting, but then slumped over. The would be thief’s partner pushed him out of the car and drove away. An ambulance came and transported Elbert to a hospital, where he was placed on an exam table. He wouldn’t let anybody disrobe him, demanding that the attendants summon the manager from his store to come and assume control of his money. Elbert lay there on the exam table, his arms crossed tightly over his pile of cash, until the manager arrived. When I discussed the episode with Elbert a few years later, he told me, “I didn’t realize at first that I had even been hit. Bumping against the railing hurt more than the bullet did.”
To finance all his “high-rolling”, as he called it, Elbert was constantly on the lookout for ways to make a fast buck…faster. He and Charlie got snookered into investing in a so-called marble mine in New Mexico; I never heard of what happened to that scheme, but it obviously did not pan out.
A few years later, Charlie sold his half of the carpet store to Elbert and moved up to Montana, where he could hunt deer and open up a bingo parlor. Elbert partnered with Charlie in the bingo parlor, which was reportedly so much contrary to the local culture that it went under, too.
Then there was the “Silver Queen” episode in Dallas, an “enterprise” in which a woman lured a bunch of wannabe high rollers into an ostensibly legitimate enterprise involving the extraction of silver from used film and collecting it for sale. It turned out to be a headline-making pyramid scheme; but before Elbert found out about it, he had already sunk some of his money into it and had advised some of his salesmen to do the same.
Meanwhile, Charlie had moved to North Carolina, which at the time supposedly was showing some promise for real estate development. Charlie talked Elbert into investing in a project there, too. By this time, Mother was so fed up with Charlie’s leading Elbert into venture capitalist gambles that she urged Elbert to stay away from Charlie. Because of her intrusion into his affairs, Elbert did not speak to Mother again until a year or so before she died. His silent treatment just about drove her to distraction, and she just about drove me to distraction by constantly urging me to intercede on her behalf.
Finally, Charlie asked Elbert to gather $50,000 for the last step in their real estate development project. Elbert borrowed a paper sackful of cash from friends. However, a serious hurdle remained: the IRS requires reporting money transfers in excess of $5,000. Elbert wanted to get around that requirement, so he talked his salesmen who had checking accounts to go to their banks and get cashier checks for some amount just under $5,000. The wife of one of the salesmen worked at a local bank: she, too, obtained a cashier check. However, a watchful bank security person noticed her and her husband both getting the checks. The feds closed in. They interrogated everybody involved, but eventually filed a money-laundering charge only against Elbert. The local federal prosecutor, after hearing Elbert’s story, was convinced that he had not been trying to launder illegal money, and recommended that her Washington bosses drop the charge; but they were more strict, and Elbert got a five-year probated sentence. I did not have a checking account, so I was free of suspicion. However, the salesman’s wife lost her job at the bank.
Not long afterwards, the recession of the late 1980s and early ’90s negatively affected the housing market, including carpet sales; and that, combined with Elbert’s predilection for sleeping late and virtually ignoring business, caused him to sell what little he had remaining in the business. It also affected our relationship. We had been sharing an apartment for nearly a year, and one day we had a minor quarrel regarding our rent-shares. As he had done with many others among his relatives and friends, Elbert told me to move out and he started giving me the “silent treatment”, communicating with me only during the period we had to arrange for Mother’s term in the hospital, her cremation, the memorial service, and the distribution of our inheritance. I much regretted his holding onto that silly attitude and tried a few times to reach out to him, but he usually hung up on me. It was sad, to me, because I always had found it easy to converse with Elbert, while almost every discussion I had with Vernon was either one-sided or devolved into a quarrel. But I had witnessed this absurd behavior in Elbert so many times that I was not going to allow it to affect me the way it had affected others: after a month or so I quit trying to contact him.
Oh there were more adventures in my brother’s life, but this profile is already longer than I intended it to be. I just want to add that, from an early age, Elbert seemed to admire “police characters”…or simply “characters”, as he called them. He had a favorite doodle that he would entertain himself with during idle moments. Unfortunately, I do not have an original, so I have tried to duplicate, below, his “character” cartoon as closely as I can recall it to have appeared. This blog site’s followers who have been reading most of my posts might recognize the similarity between Elbert’s conception of a “character’s” nose and that of one of the comic book crooks I depicted in my post of last June 29 titled “Bob’s Wee Art Gallery II”:
Elbert died, of a blood clot, the day after Thanksgiving Day, 2010 — fifty-two days before our brother Vernon died.
Now I am the last of my immediate family. I never imagined their absence would affect me deeply, but I feel very much alone.
The Brothers Litton at Mother’s memorial service
Elbert, Vernon and Robert
(the only photo of the three together)