A Diamond In The Dust

By: Mike Powers

[Note: The following is an unabridged copy of a speech the author delivered at the 9th Annual Bionic Gavel Club Banquet, sponsored by Toastmasters International. The banquet took place on October 19th, 2018 on the Diboll Unit.]

As I began today, I’d like to welcome all of our wonderful guests and thank you for coming, but I’d like to especially recognize the mothers among us. I suspect that many sons feel the same way about their moms as I do: that you moms are underappreciated, under-rewarded saints. To that end, I’d like to tell you about a “Diamond in the Dust”, my own mother, Carolyn Powers.

On April 6, 1941, a spirited baby girl was born into a gritty family that comprised her daddy, Dewey, her mother, Anna, and her two much-older brothers, Gene and Gerald. Dewey was a hard-workin’, hard-livin’ roughneck who had moved his family through several hard-scrabble, wind-blown West Texas towns before finally ending up in Brownfield. This was the last place old Dewey had thought he’d end up. He and Anna actually had dreamed ever since their honeymoon of starting a chicken ranch so the family could settle down in one spot and really get to know their friends and neighbors. Instead, every couple of years, they were pulling up stakes and moving on to the next one-horse town.

Anna was a head-turner, but also a loving mother who worked just as hard as her husband helping the family keep body and soul together. Housekeeping was a full-time job in this land where you could come back just a couple hours after cleaning and write your name in the dust that had already collected on the coffee table. The oil patch paid the bills, though, and she kept her family together through booms and busts of the black gold springing up from beneath the derricks where Dewey worked. Onto this scene appeared the little girl they would name Carolyn. Of course, I always knew her as Momma.

Early in life, Mom was subjected to loss and hardship. Why, by the end of her first year of life, the United States would be dragged into World War II by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her two brothers, Gene and Gerald, were already both of age, and they enlisted into the air division of the United States Army. After basic training, they were both assigned to duty as bombardiers and shipped to the European theater where they would fly long, slow missions over the most dangerous skies in the war - hostile Germany. Gene, the older of the two, would return home at the end of the war suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was never again the same fawning big brother Mom had known before the horrors of war.

When my mom was just nine years old, her mother went to a revival meeting that had come to the town and took a religious fever. To clear her conscience, she made confession to Dewey of an indiscretion that had already been over for several years. After unburdening her soul, Dewey, who did not share the same Christian impulses, took a shotgun out to the derrick where the adulterating man worked with every intent to shoot him down. But Dewey had already been betrayed again. Anna had let her former lover know that she was going to confess the affair, and ever since that moment, the man had started packing a pistol. When he saw Dewey climbing the ladder onto the rig, he pulled the shooter and killed him. The sheriff conducted a brief investigation, ruling it justified homicide when Dewey’s body was found with the shotgun. The man who killed him never spent a day in jail.

It can hardly be expressed the impact this had on Anna and her young daughter. Anna would live the rest of her life tormented by the guilt of the blood and betrayal on her hands, never marrying again as if to show Dewey that even if she’d fallen short while he was alive, she would prove her faithfulness to him for the rest of her own life. Momma only knew that her dearly beloved daddy and the bread-winner of the family was no more. The hard life she’d already known exclusively had just gotten a lot harder. Early on, Mom would learn how to pinch every penny and the Value of working hard for a living. Moreover, she would always teach her own kids to change what needed changing and not worry about the rest.

Mom’s high school years were spent in San Antonio. Anna had carved out a living for herself by buying a renovated colonial home that had been sectioned into six apartments. She and Carolyn lived in one and rented out the other five. Also, the other five usually happened to be single mothers themselves, and Anna supplemented the rental income by babysitting for these women. Anna had learned how hard it was to be an unmarried mother, and she did what she could to help others in the same predicament.

Mom was an excellent student at Jefferson High School, but she took a greater pride in making the Lariette Squad. The Jefferson Lariettes were famous for their skills with the lasso. Mom had grown up to be just as pretty as her mother, and between this and her gregarious nature, she never wanted for a date to the sock-hops and Sadie Hawkins dances of her day. She left several broken-hearted suitors in her wake, choosing instead to marry a man her own age that charmed her off of her feet, a young man that had enlisted in the Navy and would begin serving when they graduated in May of 1959. And they would marry, but not before Mom and her best friend, Penny, spent that summer adventuring up north in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which at that time was an exotic and glamorous locale, especially for a Texas-tumbled young lady. She would never forget the tales of that summer, nor how she and Penny would sneak around to scare each other to death after watching the break-out horror movie, “Psycho”. After returning to San Antonio at the end of the holiday season, my dad, Dennis Powers, came home for a well-deserved leave. He took the opportunity to ask Mom if she would marry him, and she said she would. After the nuptials, the newlyweds moved to Pearl Harbor, where Dad was stationed, and began their new life: on base in government housing.

In 1963, my brother, Matt, became their first child. He was born in Honolulu. This should have been an occasion for great joy, but not long after this, Dad was caught in an act of adultery and turned over to military justice. He was dishonorably discharged from the service after making a truly promising start to his career. Worse, he badly damaged his relationship to Mom, and things went sour. Perhaps because she had lived through the turmoil of what had happened to her own parents, Mom decided to forgive him. The family moved to Tampa, Florida to make a new start. That’s where I was born in 1971.

The first five years of my life, I can remember two things - we had a whole lot church and a whole lot of nothing’ else. While I can’t recall personally this episode, my brother would tell me the story of how, when I was about two, things were so tight that Mom and Dad went to work in the orange orchards picking fruit. The pay wasn’t great, but lots of free oranges were a perk. Matt would recall the ways oranges were eaten and prepared with the same haunted look in his eye Bubba had as he regaled Forrest with tales of shrimp - “Orange juice, orange bread, orange marmalade...” But everyone always recalled these times fondly, because my family was faithful and attended church to worship the Lord.

We were drawn back to West Texas by the oil boom in 1973. By the time I turned three, we were living in Odessa. It was around the time that I turned five that I remember Mom all of a sudden refused to go to church any more. I would be 23 years old before I found out that this was because Dad had strayed again, this time with a member of the same church they were attending. My mother, who’d had such a strong faith in God her whole life, now became angry at her heavenly Father, and she refused to darken the door of a church for the next 35 years.

Mom was charming and elegant beyond her life’s experience, and these qualities served her well as she took up other pursuits. She began dabbling in politics and researching our family tree. In the age before computers or Ancestry.com, she managed to trace the Powers line all the way back to a soldier in William the Conqueror’s army, which invaded England in 1066. I can’t tell you how many dusty libraries, county courthouses and spooky cemeteries Mom visited in this endeavor. Two things were clearly important to my mother: She wanted us to know where we came from, and she was willing to lead others to a future she believed in. To that end, Mom and her lady friends joined the Ector County Republican Women’s Club.

They breathed life into the Grand 0l’ Party at a time when Republican candidates couldn’t win, buy or steal a seat in Southern politics. To my eyes, it seemed like this amazing group of women single-handedly transformed Texas from Dixiecrat followers of LBJ into the Deep Red Republicanism of Ronald Reagan, who took Texas in 1976 when he lost his first bid for the White House, and took it again in 1980 when he won it. The ladies included my Mom’s dearest friends. There was Johnnye Davis, a lady who reminded me of what my grandmother must have been like in the Brownfield days. She’d married oil field trash, but that roughneck had made himself a millionaire several times over with derrick patents, to become an inspiring American story. There was “Aunt” Mary Lou Parsons. Her family had made good in the boom, too, owning and operating a casing business. She also made THE best peanut brittle you ever tasted. These blue-haired old ladies changed the face of Texas politics.

Even in old age, Mom would take out a carefully preserved letter of recommendation from John Ben Sheppard, one of the first Republicans elected to the Texas Senate since Reconstruction. In it, Sen. Sheppard wrote, “If Carolyn told me she could walk on water, why, I’d start selling tickets to the show.” Just for the record, Mom never made any such claim.

Also, through her activities, I had the privilege to shake hands with Reagan, both Bushes, and many other lesser political celebrities. In fact, at a fundraiser in Midland when I was fourteen, I was using the restroom when the keynote speaker, Former President Gerald Ford, came bursting into the room with two Secret Service agents. And that, my friends, is why I can honestly stand in front of you today and say, I have peed with a President.”

Despite Mom’s love of community and devotion to her family, tragedy would follow. Her oldest son, Matt, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 17, and he would struggle with the disease the rest of his life. At age 44, he had a liver-kidney transplant. Despite fighting valiantly to recover, he’d spend most of the last four years of his life in the hospital, passing away at 48. In the meantime, her other son, myself, would get himself locked up in prison in this state she loved so much. But, it was while at the Stevenson Unit in Cuero, Texas that I got to attend a Kairos Walk, where prison volunteers like all of you put on a 4-day spiritual retreat filled with food, fun and faith. Longing to share this experience with Mom, I asked if she’d go on a Kairos Outside Walk. She said, “Yes, on one condition. They have to let me smoke.” Getting an answer letter a couple of weeks later, I found out, they DID have a smoking area.

In the meantime, her other son, myself, would get himself locked up in prison in this state she loved so much. But, it was while at the Stevenson Unit in Cuero, Texas that I got to attend a Kairos Walk, where prison volunteers like all of you put on a 4-day spiritual retreat filled with food, fun and faith. Longing to share this experience with Mom, I asked if she’d go on a Kairos Outside Walk. She said, “Yes, on one condition. They have to let me smoke.” Getting an answer letter a couple of weeks later, I found out, they DID have a smoking area.

The weekend of her Walk, I prayed and prayed. On Monday, I waited anxiously for mail call. Sure enough, I had a JPay, the closest thing a Texas prisoner has to email. It began, “The Prodigal daughter has returned...”

For the last five years of her life, this woman known so well for her service to community and love for her family would become even better known for her love and service to King Jesus. On March 27, 2017, Carolyn Powers passed away. The woman that I’d always suspected was a long-lost daughter of a king had finally gone home to be in the palace.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez