Cotton Kingfisher - The Man And The Myth

 

Cotton Kingfisher is named after two counties in Oklahoma, the land of his birth. The counties, in no particular order, are Cotton County and Kingfisher County. Kingfisher county is nestled just above Canadian County, not to be confused with Canadian Oklahoma, which is located in Pittsburg County and was so tough back in the day they called it ‘The Buzzard’s Roost’. My grandpa JE Jones came from this area, and Cotton’s mean determination and back story (moonshiner daddy, home being under water, coming West during the Depression) come from grandpa. From there, I spun Cotton into a modern day American folk hero like the ones I grew up with and loved: Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry and Johnny Appleseed come to mind. I wanted to create a modern American folktale that epitomized these heroes with a stiff shot of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie to boot. So Cotton Kingfisher was born fully formed in my mind as a real, larger than life legend that I was raised with. All I had to do was let turn him loose in America and see where he ended up. 

Grandpa JE Jones as a young man

Grandpa JE Jones as a young man

It was my intention to blur the lines between fiction and reality and make a character worthy of  the yoke of Paul Bunyan and all the others. In distinct American campfire fashion, these characters grew and grew until you couldn't tell who made what up and what made who. I remember as a boy asking my mom how Paul Bunyan pulled some of this stuff off, and she gently told me Paul Bunyan was a mythical character.  I hope this is exactly what happens with Cotton, with more tales being told about him in more and more outrageous fashion until one day he and Jael ride a giant Bison across America to leap the ocean in a single bound.

Paul Bunyan Mural

Paul Bunyan Mural

Cotton is my attempt at the modern American superhero carved out of a certain page in America’s history- the westward traveling Southern migrant worker who caught flak out West because they could not make it in their own state. Okie was a derogatory term for the dustbowl west blown Oklahoman migrant, and it was my intention to make this figure a hero, and this is where Cotton came in. The very term bust it like a mule hails the Southern migrant workers who knew how to do one thing- work. Some Westerners thought they were lazeabouts, but they bygod busted it like a mule on conservation corps, cotton fields, orchards, mills, mines, the service, and other grunt jobs just to make ends meet.

A lot of Cotton’s work experiences, everything from lifeguard to fruit picker to government worker came from my grandpa. When I was a boy, grandpa and my dad worked together at the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland Oregon, where grandpa and grandma are buried today (ironically, this is the same cemetery where grandpa’s daddy is buried). I was always excited to visit the cemetery and see grandpa and all the others hanging out near pickup trucks in green work clothes and white t shirts, smoking and talking. This favorite boyhood memory of mine became the crew at Glacier park in their ‘government greens’ in Bust It.

There is also a great deal of the hobo culture in the book, once again my attempt to canonize another iconic American figure as folk hero. Hobo slang is all throughout the book, as is the hobo way of life: "You see there is a difference from a hobo and a beggar and the difference is that a hobo chooses the life of a gypsy and earns his way in it while the bum just finds the wandering life like a leaf blown in the wind without no purpose and he's got no shame in beggin" (Bust It Like A Mule, pg 19). I remember hearing stories about my grandpa hopping the rails with his buddy ‘Arkie’ ( 'The only thing worse than an Okie is an Arkie'), and this was my tip of the engineer cap to another day and age out of my grandpa’s wild adventures.

Hobo I don't know

Hobo I don't know

After I had finished the book, I dedicated it to my grandpa, but realized this was not quite what I had meant. What I had meant was not a literal interpretation of my grandpa JE Jones, or a book specifically to or about him - it was bigger than that. It was the embodiment of his all American Southern born Westward blown tenacious, sometimes mean, indefatigable spirit that would wear your ass plumb out if you got in his way. This encompasses not just my grandpa then, but a whole mess of people with the same stubborn American will. This is why the dedication now reads ‘In the spirit of my Okie grandpa JE Jones’, who I dare say is busting it like a mule in the land where the world began in his government greens even now as we speak.

Grandpa busting it in an orchard. Back of the photo reads "Another day another $ /Maybe".

Grandpa busting it in an orchard. Back of the photo reads "Another day another $ /Maybe".