A day in the life of the ‘Desperate Six’

Don McAlavy

Back in the summer of 1922, there existed in Clovis a gang of young boys called the “Desperate Six.” The gang got started when four eighth-grade boys asked two third-grade boys to join them.
This is Travis Anthony’s report:
“We felt highly honored to be in a gang with ‘big boys,’” Anthony said. “Actually they picked us two small boys for ‘stoogies’ to wait on them, but of course we didn’t know it then.
“They had us search the alleys for bottles and buckets, which we washed and sold to the grocery store and collected enough pennies for the older boys to go to the Lyceum on Saturday evenings.
“Early one Saturday morning the gang stopped by the house and told me to come with them. They had nothing in mind except to find adventure. George (one of the eighth-grade boys) told us to wait outside a little grocery store where his folks bought their groceries and we would try to buy something on credit. In a few minutes he returned with a large plug of chewing tobacco and a big sack of candy Easter eggs. We walked out of town and started across the vast expense of open prairie covered with cactus and white flowering yucca plants.
“George finally stopped us and, taking out a large pocket knife, cut the tobacco into chunks. He handed me an overly generous chunk and then one to little Billy. Looking at us neophytes, George asked ‘You guys ever chewed before? This chewing will make a man out of you. Ain’t that right fellows?’ And the rest of the gang nodded in grinning agreement.
“ ‘Now,’ George said, ‘spit as little as possible; that way you’ll get full benefit of the flavor, and above all, don’t just hold it in your mouth — chew on it!’
“Well, I was chewing it rapidly and occasionally swallowing some of the bitter-tasting juice. In a short while Billy and I got sick. Still feeling bad, George divided the candy. I got three bilious green eggs and two dirty yellow ones for my share. I quickly gobbled down the sickening sweet eggs.
“That was a mistake. Along with the tobacco juice and the sugar juice I quickly emptied my stomach.
“After we recovered some, George decided we should go to the Santa Fe Lake, which was two miles south of town. It was the sewage disposal lake for the city of Clovis and the Santa Fe Railroad shops. The wind brought the strong smell of raw sewage. Reaching the shore the stench was potent. I finally mentioned I was thirsty. George said, ‘Well, there’s a whole lake full of water. It won’t hurt you.’
“The big boys stretched out on their stomachs and put their heads over the water and pretended to drink and smacking their lips. ‘Boy that’s good,’ one said. Billy and I laid down partly in the water and drank about a pint apiece. It tasted awful! We felt it unmanly to complain about the taste.
“Then George dared Billy and I to go swimming. I was never one to refuse a dare. We stripped and played around in the foul-smelling stuff. An hour later we came out with our hair encrusted and plastered to our heads from the oil, sediment and human wastes on our bodies. We got out of the water and put our clothes on and George took my new straw hat and slung it out into the lake. Mama would kill me if I lost that hat. I swam out and retrieved it. The bigger boys had gone back to town. About sundown I arrived home.
“I hedged a while when Mama question how I got so filthy. I finally broke down and admitted that I had chewed tobacco, ate candy eggs, thrown up, and not only swam in the Santa Fe Lake, but drank the water from it. The more I admitted the more horrified she became. ‘You’ll probably die of typhoid fever!’ she said.
“There was not a bathtub in the house. Mama placed a wash tub on the stove and filled it with water. She make me strip down and take off my little straw hat. She found a bar of homemade lye soap and placed the tub on the floor. ‘Now sit down in that tub and scrubbed off that filth!’ she said. About that time my posterior came in contact with the bottom of the tub that had been in direct contact with the top of the stove. Wow! I went straight up!
“After 30 minutes I emerged and looked like a new boy! Mama had the castor oil bottle in her hand and made me take two tablespoons of it. As the thick castor oil flowed down in one continuous movement, I thought, ‘Gee, what a day!’”

Don McAlavy is a history buff who lives in Clovis.