Love You More Than Life: Country Roads


I was born Jessica Farrel of Tyler, Texas in February of 1983. It became a bargaining chip between Mom and Dad that if his choice of ‘Jessica’ was my legally registered name, her choice of ‘Farrel’ would be what I went by.

I like to think I was a pretty bright kid…Fairly solid in my understanding of right from wrong. So when I was old enough for Mom to make the startling confession to me that had I been born male, my name would have been Whatley, my moral code was quick to sound off.

She claimed it was distinguished.

I smiled politely, chasing images of sandbox torture out of my mind.

country roads farrel debaltzo she is chayil love you more than lifeMy earliest memories revolve around a sprawling 200-acre ranch right outside of Lindale, a horse-and-buggy town that in the 1980s had a Piggly Wiggly, a post office, and a drugstore to speak of. A driveway just under a quarter of a mile long connected an old country road to our creek bridge that was flanked on either side with the American, Texas, and Christian flags, and rumbled hospitably when driven across. Beyond that, a fork in the road split our land into two destinations: To the left, a red clay path traveled uphill and alongside a twelve-acre lake that was framed by trees and shimmered brightly in the setting sun; and to the right, a roughly paved driveway crossed over a loud, ragged cattle guard that our 2,000-pound bull, Amtrak, paid no mind to and got himself stuck in when I was three years old. A few hundred yards further, the road paused in front of a large front yard with a lone oak tree and the red brick house that it shaded, and it was there, on that lonely stretch of County Road 437, that the Amis family called home.

My grandfather on Dad’s side, or Grandaddy as I knew him, had bought the ranch in the late 1960s for my grandmother, Billie Dean, to enjoy while he stayed on the road chasing his dreams of being an oil tycoon. Often described as abnormally brilliant, hard-working, and hell-raising, he spoke the language of risk-taking fluently and succeeded at it regularly, notorious for never doing anything with less than unapologetic flamboyance.

Grandaddy graduated from Texas A&M University in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science in geology and a Second Lieutenant’s Commission in the Army. With World War II raging, he transferred to the Army Air Corps, where he served as a bombardier in a B-17 Flying Fortress, earning himself eight medals for his service, including the Flying Cross. In 1945, he returned home to west Texas and married his childhood sweetheart, Billie Dean. That year, he also returned to his first love of drilling oil wells and became a top geologist for Shell with offices in Oklahoma and North Texas. He was a natural-born gambler, made for the line of work he adored, and in the mid-1950s, he quit Shell and struck out on his own, dragging his wife and son through feast and famine to make his longtime dreams a reality.

Dad, only eight at the time, rarely saw Granddaddy and was primarily raised by Billie Dean. Granddaddy had absentmindedly, but lovingly dubbed Dad “Bubba” at birth, and told Billie Dean she was responsible for him until he was fifteen, at which time he’d take over. But at fourteen, the relationship was stunted when they noticed something was obviously wrong with Dad — While playing defensive line for his junior high football team, he often found himself tackling his own teammates. It was the first sign of choreoretinitis, a rare and degenerative eye condition that began as a blind spot in the center of both eyes and would continue to grow until even his peripheral vision was mostly gone. By his late teens, he would be classified as legally blind, still able to see shadows around him, but unable to make out who or what they were.

After that diagnosis, Granddaddy never made good on his promise. He spoiled Dad, providing him with everything he needed and wanted and then some, but he rarely showed him respect and even more seldom said “I love you”. To others, and often even to Dad, he was quick to make it clear that he hadn’t gotten the son he’d hoped for.

But that never stopped Dad from trying to earn his acceptance.

Grandaddy, however, was too busy to really care. In 1973, he struck gold in North Texas when he took a gamble on 260 acres of open field that ended up yielding over a dozen surging oil wells. Within the same year, they made him a multi-millionaire.

In 1977, Billie Dean suffered a heart attack in her sleep and died. She was found alone in the family home, propped up in bed with her Bible in her lap, her finger resting near an underlined verse in Galatians about fathers and sons honoring one another.

Granddaddy, unfazed, continued to run his life and businesses in Texas, Colorado, and Alaska as he always had.

By this time, Dad had moved home to East Texas after his own stints in Denver and Alaska with an interest in a much different trade — The cattle business. He began breeding and raising Santa Gertrudis cattle, studying their genetics in depth, and eventually developed his own bloodline, the “Amtrak”. He regularly attended sales in Fort Worth, but refused to walk with a cane or let anyone know he was blind. Instead, he would wander through the pens after-hours, guided by a ranch hand, to run his hands over the bulls’ backs and legs and determine by feel what he couldn’t by sight. He was kicked more than once, often leading to broken ribs, but to him, it was worth it. Over time, he became an authority on the breed, winning a series of prizes for superiority and serving two years as President of the Premier Santa Gertrudis Association. Yet no matter how many accolades he brought home, Grandaddy continued to dismiss both him and his passion as a waste of time and money.

Years passed, Dad diving further and further into the life of a rancher and Granddaddy evolving more and more into an impetuous wildcatter. It seemed the more restless Granddaddy’s heart grew, the more settled Dad’s became — He and Mom both grew up in Tyler just a stone’s throw from one another, but didn’t find each other until much later in life. Mom, an independent and witty firecracker to her core, graduated from John Tyler High and spent two years as an Apache Belle at Tyler Junior College before escaping to Dallas, eager to leave her abusive upbringing and family dynamic behind. She stayed there for over a decade, eventually accepting a gig as a pharmaceutical rep for five years before growing tired of the big city life and moving back to Tyler.

country roads farrel debaltzo she is chayil love you more than lifeThey met in 1980, ironically enough on a blind date, and he quickly wooed her with his larger-than-life personality and his optimistic attitude, despite his handicap. And although he often whisked her away to black tie galas and cattle shows in Fort Worth, sent her on expensive shopping sprees in the heart of Dallas, and rubbed elbows with the country music superstars, billionaire cattlemen, and political dignitaries of his time, his proposal to her was without fanfare: Sitting atop what had once been his parents’ kitchen counter, he was just a simple, humble country boy in blue jeans and muddy work boots with a heart on fire for his hometown redhead. They were married on Valentine’s Day of 1981, and although Mom was told it was unlikely she would ever have children of her own, along I came almost two years later to the date.

It was quickly noted that I seemed to be the only thing besides oil that could hold Granddaddy’s attention. Soon after I was born, he followed the advice of wise counsel and created a legal trust to protect not only the money still pouring in from his wells, but also his property rights. His conditions for passing it on left it primarily to Dad, secondarily to me, with my joint access granted at age twenty-one. He was determined to show me the world he’d once promised, but never delivered, to Dad, but Dad didn’t seem to mind. For the first time in their lives, they’d found middle ground to come together on and to love on even more: Baby Whatley-turned-Farrel Amis.

Little do we realize at such a tender age that life, in all its beautiful twists and tragic turns, and the world around us have already begun to shape us into who we were, or weren’t, created to be.

For many, it happens far earlier than it should.

For me, it was three months old.

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