I expected Wiley Boehnke of Flatonia to be a skilled homemade winemaker, which he is. As such, I didn’t expect him to immediately hand me a business card, but he did.
It read: “Wiley Boehnke—Jack of All Trades and Master of Some”
The card didn’t lie.
“Through the years, Wiley’s done a little bit of everything,” Angeline, 81 and Wiley’s wife of 51 years, said.
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do to make two dollars to rub together,” Wiley, 75, said.
While he’s always ranched, he has also served in the military, worked at auction barns, kept bees and moved wild hives, raised and processed meat rabbits and chickens. For 20 years, he (and Angeline) have parked buses and cars at Marburger Farm during the antiques show.
We only talked for three hours, so I suspect the list is longer. For the record, the list should include story teller. It should not include direction giver.
When I was setting up the interview, I asked for his address.
“I don’t know. The house is where it’s always been,” Wiley, who was reared in Muldoon and began attending school in Flatonia in the 11th grade.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“North of the Catholic church,” he said.
I at least had a quadrant to grid search. I pressed for specifics.
“Momma has already planted 100 tomato plants in her garden. You can’t miss it,” he said.
Well, yes you can. The garden is tucked toward the back of their oversized lot, which also includes plenty of storage sheds, equipment, a coop to house their chickens and a table near the street where I later discovered that Angeline sells vegetables on the honor system maintaining that “anyone who steals vegetables needs them worse than I do.” (Angeline also sells Arizona ash trees that she’s dug up in the backyard and repotted. Her tree nursery, too, is on the honor system. Sometimes, though, Angeline forgets to leave a money bucket outside, so the couple finds cash tucked under rocks and in flower pots “just like an Easter egg hunt.”)
In several trips around the block, I never spotted the landmark tomato patch. Instead, I saw a woman, who despite the early hour, had been working in her yard long enough for her long, silver hair to escape its bun. She looked like someone who had the answers I needed. As it turned out, she had more than answers. She had access to the fellow I was looking for because she was his wife.
If Angeline doesn’t have a Jill of All Trades business card designating her as Mistress of Many, she should.
Angeline took me into their living room. It is packed with the accoutrements of a full life. Her quilt rack hangs from the ceiling. Surplus parts for cattle prods claim space on the bar. They are part of the repair business that occupies Wiley’s hands and time after the sun goes down.
Toys of all types signal the presence of a young child. Wiley and Angeline share their home with their daughter, Tracey and her three-year-old son Micah, who possesses the effervescent energy of a hummingbird on a sugar binge.
The phone jangled periodically reminding them of some volunteer responsibility they agreed to shoulder in the community. The beehive they keep in the back yard might have been calmer.
I opined, “It’s good to be busy.”
Wiley responded, “Oh hell no! After you’re 75, you’re supposed to lay back and relax. We never have a dull moment.”
Or a dull conversation.
When, in an unnecessary effort to break the ice, I asked Wiley, “What did you do for fun as a child?”
Angeline immediately chimed in, “Oh Lordy, do you really want to go there?”
Wiley Boehnke: Youngster Wiley’s youth was not a job, but an adventure. He and his friends hunted, fished and played with trains along with fire and couple of sticks of dynamite.
Wiley: I had hound dogs—mainly blue ticks and black and tans—and we’d go about 10 miles out of town and chase coons. While the dogs were running, we’d build a fire and drink a little…or a lot.
One night, it was really dark. We didn’t bother to bring much light, but we had plenty to drink. When we built our fire, we didn’t see the wind row that was so close. A spark got away—and set the whole damn woods on fire.
When we heard the sirens, we went gathered up the dogs and went out the back way. Whenever you’re having fun, you always need to know the back way out.
Angeline: I think that’s what inspired Wiley to be a volunteer fireman for all these years.
Wiley: We fished too, but we liked to know we were going to catch something. We would stretch a gill net across Buckners Creek and get a mess of bass and catfish.
According to the game wardens, gill nets weren’t too legal. So we’d get the fish out of the net and then stick hooks through their mouths to make it look like we caught them.
One time, we had a fellow helping us clean them. He said, “You didn’t catch these. I see marks on the gills.”
I told him, “Either shut your eyes or clean’em faster.”
Somehow we ended up with a couple of sticks of dynamite. We figured we’d just dynamite some fish—people did that.
We got up on top of the bridge and dropped the dynamite. We expected the catfish and bass to come to the top of the water like they did, but we didn’t expect the bridge to crack like it did. We went out the back way.
Nobody ever knew who cracked the bridge until now. The statute of limitations better be out.
Our fishing hole was too far to walk, so we’d ride a train. The freight train would stop in Muldoon to get water, so we’d hop on and ride to Buckner where it stopped again. On the way back though, it didn’t stop until it got back to Muldoon.
The thing is that engineers had to stop if they heard a loud noise because it meant there was a problem. Somehow we ended up with a bunch of railroad blasting caps. They didn’t really blow anything up but they made a good noise when a train rolled over them.
We’d put one on the tracks wherever we wanted the train to stop and hide in the woods and wait. When it popped, the engineer would shut her down and we’d go get on and ride back into town.
We were country boys. Nobody had cars or bicycles and we had lots of miles to cover. There was no need to play with a toy train when we could play with the real ones—and get where we needed to go.
Wiley Boehnke: SoldierWiley served in the Army in Vietnam from 1967–69. He and Angeline had married in 1966. At the time, she was the home economics teacher at Flatonia and Wiley’s younger sister was one of her students. In those days, home ec teachers conducted home visits. That’s how they met.
Wiley: Angeline sent me some poppy seed kolaches to the base in California. The officers didn’t know what they were and when I told them, they said, “You can’t have those that’s opium.”
Opium, my butt. I crammed another one in my mouth before they could confiscate them.
Another time, either Angeline or my mother sent me a can of Solo Poppy Seed Filling. I was afraid that the Army would take that too, so I ate the whole thing. The next day I volunteered for latrine duty.
Angeline: His mother, Katy, would send a shoebox every Monday. I would send one every Friday. They had all sorts of canned goods and food he couldn’t get over there.
It took a lot of time and money. We got this picture back of Wiley. He was standing in front of big stack of cans. We looked at each other and said, “If he’s not eating it, we’re not sending it.”
Wiley: I was trading those cans. I kept my sergeant supplied with fruit cocktail and he kept me supplied with town passes.
My officers sent me out with the mama-sans every morning. I’d give them a can of food and they’d tell me where the mines had been set out overnight.
They’d get something to eat and my boys would get to stay alive one more day. It seemed like a fair trade.
Wiley Boehnke: Bee RobberOff and on throughout his life, Wiley turned honey into money.
Wiley: I started robbing bee trees when I was 15. I helped an old bee man from Muldoon by the name of Jacobs. The first day he told me after I cut down the tree to stand still and the bees wouldn’t bother me. It was either a lie or some flat wrong information. I got stung from top to bottom.
For a while I had a lot of bees, 15 hives or so scattered around. Now I just have one in the yard. It was a lot of work to have that many bees and rob bees too.
The most money I ever made, though, was robbing bees when they got in people’s walls. Me and my helper would leave here with nothing in our pockets and come home with a lot of something in them.
We’d charge folks $200 to $300 to get the bees out of their houses. We’d just cut a hole in the wall, smoke the bees out, get the honeycomb and leave them to patch their walls. One day we came home with $1,000 apiece.
When people got bees in their walls, they don’t really care what they spend to get them out. Made it a sweet deal for us.
Wiley Boehnke: Butcher The meat rabbit business scarred Wiley.
Wiley: I used to raise meat rabbits. I had 24 females and five bucks. I had to quit because they bit and scratched so bad when you handled them.
Angeline: He started raising rabbits so all of the local kids would have projects for the local livestock show. We sold them for $5 a rabbit. Now people pay $200 a rabbit for shows.
Wiley: It was a lot of work. You know if a doe had nine kits and only eight teats, you had to move the leftover baby to another doe. Rubbing Vick’s on their noses kept them from knowing they weren’t really a matched set.
Angeline: We started providing rabbits to a fellow who sold them to restaurants in Houston. It went from being a hobby to being a pain. He needed a certain number every week.
Wiley: He’d tell his customers he shot them in the woods because he got more money for wild rabbits.
Angeline: Some people have all sorts of funny ideas about how to make money.
Wiley: We don’t butcher chickens anymore either. Some woman got the City Council to ban roosters in the city limits.
Angeline: We do still have yard eggs though. We don’t sell them. We just give them to people because we don’t have a permit and don’t want to get crossways with anybody.
Wiley: The anti-rooster woman said they affected her health. Hell, the roosters were just doing their jobs, and if she’d have gotten up at a decent hour they wouldn’t have bothered her at all.
After this ordinance got passed, I went down to the city office and asked the lady at the desk, “How long until you all outlaw men? You got rid of all the roosters, so I figure we’re next.”
She didn’t even answer.
Wiley Boehnke: ChaperoneNot every one of Wiley’s jobs earned him a paycheck. Throughout her 31-year teaching career, Angeline took her home economics students on annual educational field trips that spanned several days. Wiley went along as a chaperone. At night, after Angeline had gotten the girls in their rooms—and taped the door shut so no one could exit their rooms without leaving telltale evidence—Wiley and the bus driver would sit up on night watch.
Wiley: One night the bus driver and I were laying in the hotel hall in front of the rooms that Angeline had reserved for the trip, and a drunk stumbled up. He headed straight to the room Angeline was sharing with another sponsor. There had been some kind of mix-up at the front desk.
The bus driver asked, “Aren’t you going to stop him?”
“Hell no,” I said. “Let’s just see what happens.”
Well, he put his key in the door, pushed his way in and you never heard such hysterical screaming in your life. That sponsor with Angeline had a wall-eyed fit.
The drunk comes out wide-eyed and said, “There are some mad women in there.”
And, he wasn’t kidding.
That sponsor came flying out with her bathrobe flying demanding, “Why in the world did you let that strange man come into our room?”
“He had a key,” I said. “Thought maybe you gave it to him. It’s our job to guard the doors not to judge what goes on behind them.”