CONSIDER IT PURE JOY, MY BROTHERS, WHENEVER YOU FACE TRIALS OF MANY KINDS, BECAUSE YOU KNOW THAT THE TESTING OF YOUR FAITH DEVELOPS PERSEVERANCE.
I know this might be hard to believe, but Phil was actually fishing when I was born. I was born on April 22, 1972, which was two days before Phil’s birthday. I guess he was out celebrating a couple of days early because when I came into the world at Tri-Ward General Hospital in Bernice, Louisiana, Phil was sitting in a boat fishing for catfish at Bayou D’Arbonne Lake. I was the third of Phil and Kay’s four sons, and Phil was only at the hospital to witness the birth of my youngest brother, Jeptha. Phil claims watching Jep’s birth traumatized him so much that he wasn’t sure he could ever have sex again. Of course, he says, it only took him about six weeks to get over it. I guess I’m just glad Phil was there nine months before I was born or I wouldn’t be here today.
Phil likes to joke that he named me after one of his former students, who was a good football player but had failed the eighth grade three times. The truth is that I was named after Willie Ezell, my maternal grandfather, who passed away from a heart attack when Kay was only fourteen. I was born with very long, curly hair, and Kay joked that I looked a lot like the boxing promoter Don King. When Kay was getting ready to leave the hospital, they put me out in the hall with the other newborn babies. Sounds like a good chance for babies to get switched at birth to me, but apparently that’s how they did it back then. Anyway, there was no chance of mistaking me for one of the other babies. People who walked by would stop, look at me, and then ask, “Who is that kid with all the hair?” They’re still asking that same question about me today.
Phil was born and raised in Caddo Parish in Northwest Louisiana, near where the state converges with Arkansas and Texas. His father, James Robertson, was the son of Judge Euan Robertson, the longtime justice of the peace in Vivian, Louisiana. James Robertson married Merritt Hale; we always called them Pa and Granny.
Phil Alexander Robertson was born on the family’s farm outside Vivian on April 24, 1946. Phil had four brothers and two sisters, and they spent much of their childhood living in an old log house located on land owned by Pa’s aunt Myrtle Gauss. The cabin was pretty rustic and didn’t even have indoor plumbing. But the log house came with more than four hundred acres, which is where Phil and his brothers learned to hunt and fish. The woods surrounding the farm were filled with squirrels, quail, and doves, and the Robertson boys could hunt for duck and fish for white perch and bream at nearby Black Bayou and Caddo Lake.
Pa started working in the oil industry when he was young, after black gold was discovered in East Texas and at the Caddo Pine Island Oil Field in Caddo Parish in the early twentieth century.
When Phil was in high school, his family was forced to move because Aunt Myrtle sold her farm. They relocated to Dixie, Louisiana, which is about fifteen miles north of Shreveport. Granny had suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with manic depression. Pa hoped the move would stabilize Granny’s condition. She was twice confined to the Louisiana mental institute at Pineville, where she received electric shock treatment. Her condition didn’t improve until years later, when doctors discovered that lithium could control her mental imbalance.
A short time after Phil’s family moved to Dixie, Pa fell eighteen feet from the floor of a drilling rig and landed on his head. He broke two vertebrae in his back and ruptured his stomach. The accident nearly killed him. Doctors fused the vertebrae in his back with bone from his hip and repaired his stomach. But Pa was forced to wear a heavy plaster of Paris cast from neck to hip for nearly two years and obviously couldn’t work. Making matters worse, Granny was confined to the mental hospital at the same time, so Pa was left to care for five of his children while he was immobilized.
Phil’s older brothers, Jimmy Frank and Harold, were enrolled in classes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Both of them volunteered to come home and work to help the family make ends meet. But Pa insisted they stay in school and finish their education. The family somehow survived on Pa’s disability checks of thirty-five dollars a week. Phil’s older sister, Judy, did most of the cooking and cared for her younger siblings, Silas and Jan. Phil’s other older brother Tommy and Phil gathered pecans and sold them to local markets. The family subsisted on rice and beans, cornbread, and whatever fish and game the boys could catch. Rice and beans was a staple dish at the Robertson dinner table. A hundred-pound bag of rice and several cans of beans would last for weeks. There are dozens of ways to prepare rice and beans, and the recipes could be altered by adding a simple gravy or squirrel, quail, or fish, so it was a perfect meal for the struggling Robertson family.
ABOUT THE ONLY THING PHIL CARED ABOUT OTHER THAN HUNTING AND FISHING WAS PLAYING FOOTBALL.
About the only thing Phil cared about other than hunting and fishing was playing football. The Robertson boys learned to play football in the backyard of their log home. They constructed a goalpost with oak-tree uprights and a gum-tree crossbar. Four of the Robertson boys played football at Vivian High School and later North Caddo High School (after the parish consolidated several schools). Jimmy Frank played center and guard but always wanted to be a quarterback. He taught his younger brothers how to play the position. Tommy was a track star and was the first Robertson to play quarterback, but moved to halfback when Phil made the varsity team at North Caddo High. Harold broke his elbow while playing on the freshman team and never played football again. Silas was a hard-hitting defensive back, but Phil ended up being the best athlete in the family. He was a first-team, all-state quarterback and all-district outfielder in baseball.
Phil and Kay started dating when she was in the ninth grade and he was in the tenth. She assisted the Robertson family at times by giving them food from the general store her family owned in Ida, Louisiana. Phil and Kay broke up during the Christmas holidays the year they started dating because Phil didn’t want a girlfriend interfering with hunting season. But then Kay’s father passed away the next May, and Phil attended his funeral. They started dating again soon there after.
After finishing high school, Phil received a football scholarship from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, where his brother Tommy was already playing for the Bulldogs. Kay moved there with Phil and completed her senior year at Ruston High School. She was pregnant at the age of sixteen with my oldest brother, Alan. Phil and Kay moved into the same apartment complex where Tommy and his wife, the former Nancy Dennig, lived, which made the transition to college a lot easier. Phil was redshirted his freshman year at Louisiana Tech but then won the starting quarterback job the next season. He was ahead of Terry Bradshaw on the depth chart.
In his book It’s Only a Game, Bradshaw remembered Phil: “He’d come out to practice directly from the woods, squirrel tails hanging out of his pockets, duck feathers on his clothes. Clearly he was a fine shot, so no one complained too much.”
During one practice before his senior season, Phil saw a flock of geese fly over the practice field. Phil looked up at the geese and thought, “Man, what am I doing here?” He quit the football team a few days later, handing the starting job to Bradshaw. Bradshaw later led the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl championships and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Phil stayed at Louisiana Tech and earned a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1969 and a master’s in 1974. He spent the rest of his fall days in the bayou, hunting ducks and squirrels, instead of throwing touchdowns.
TO BE HONEST, I CAME ALONG AT A DIFFICULT TIME IN PHIL’S LIFE.
To be honest, I came along at a difficult time in Phil’s life. After he earned his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana Tech, he was hired to teach English and physical education at a school in Junction City, Arkansas. Phil spent most of his time fishing, hunting, and drinking with the guy who hired him. They were doing some pretty wild and crazy things, and Phil was reprimanded a few times by the school board for his boorish behavior. He quit his teaching job before they could fire him and signed an eighteen-month lease to run a honky-tonk at the bottom of the Ouachita River near El Dorado, Arkansas. Phil was drinking a lot and spending very little time with us. Kay was so worried about Phil that she began working as a barmaid at the honky-tonk to keep an eye on him.
When Phil and Kay were at the bar, they’d leave Alan, Jase, and me with Aunt Rose, who was my favorite babysitter. She wasn’t actually our aunt, but in the South, when you’re a kid you’ve got to put something in front of the name of any adult you talk to. It’s a sign of respect, and having good manners is a big thing for us Southerners. Aunt Rose made clothes for us and took good care of us. I loved that woman.
There was another babysitter that I didn’t have such warm feelings for. The only thing I remember about her is that she would always try to feed us Raisin Bran. Not that there is anything wrong with Raisin Bran, but I just happened to hate it. I would refuse to eat it, and she would lock me in the closet! Unfortunately for me, I spent a lot of time in the closet that summer. I’m not sure if Jase actually liked Raisin Bran or if seeing me locked in a closet was enough of a deterrent to make him eat it, but he seemed to be her favorite and immune to the closet torture. I’d complain to Kay and she would always say, “Why don’t you just eat the Raisin Bran?” I guess I was stubborn even as a little kid.
There wasn’t much Kay could do about it anyway; she was just trying to keep our family’s head above the water. Phil’s bar was nothing more than a low wooden building attached to a mobile home. He was the bartender and cook. He served fried chicken, pickled pig’s feet, and boiled eggs. Occasionally, he’d cook venison or wild boar. But more than anything else, Phil just drank a lot. Phil’s sister Jan was so concerned about his drinking that she brought a preacher, William “Bill” Smith, from White’s Ferry Road Church in West Monroe, Louisiana, to his bar to try to save him. Phil took one look at the man and said, “Are you some kind of preacher?”
Smith said he was a preacher, and Phil asked him if he’d ever been drunk. Smith admitted he used to drink a few beers.
“Well, what’s the difference between you and me?” Phil asked him. “You’ve been drunk and I’m getting drunk right now. You ain’t putting the Bible on me.”
Smith left the bar, and Phil went back to drinking.
One night, Phil was arguing with the bar’s owner and his wife. He was drunk and threw the woman across the bar and beat both of them up pretty badly. When the police arrived to break up the melee, Phil slipped out the back door. Before he left, Phil told Kay she wouldn’t see him for a while. Then he stayed in the woods for several weeks while the authorities were looking for him.
Phil left Kay behind to clean up the mess. The bar owners eventually agreed not to press charges against Phil, but Kay had to give them all the money they had earned while operating the bar. She was broke and unemployed. She moved our trailer to a spot close to D’Arbonne Lake near Farmerville, Louisiana. Kay got a job working in the corporate offices of Howard Brothers Discount Stores in Monroe, Louisiana, which, ironically, was owned by Korie’s family. Our lives were beginning to intersect when we were just babies. God had a plan.
Kay was handling payroll and employee benefits. Phil finally came home and got a job working in the offshore oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Kay was happy our family was back together again.
During the time that Phil was working at the offshore drilling sites, Kay had to put us in a day-care facility while she worked. I was only three years old, but even then I was always trying to impress my friends. One day I decided to do something that had never been done before—climb up the slide backward. I shimmied my way up the slide while the other children oohed and ahhed. Once I got to the top, I turned to raise my hands in victory and to prove once and for all that I was king of the playground. I made a minor tactical error, however. That slide was slippery, and I fell eight feet to the ground right on top of a tree root. The teacher called my mom, who rushed me to St. Francis Medical Center, where they found I had shattered both of the bones in my thighs. One of the bones was splintered all the way from my knee to my hip.
I WAS ONLY THREE YEARS OLD, BUT EVEN THEN I WAS ALWAYS TRYING TO IMPRESS MY FRIENDS.
Being in the hospital was kind of fun because I got lots of attention and sympathy. What was not so exciting was the nearly full-body cast they had to put me in to keep me immobilized until the bones could fuse back together. They had to put me to sleep to insert a pin in my leg to hold the bone together. The cast completely covered my broken leg and went halfway down the other leg. It came all the way up to my chest, so I could not move at all from my waist down.
Word somehow got to Phil. I’m not sure how it happened since cell phones weren’t invented then, and even if they were, Phil certainly would not have had one. At any rate, he found out and rushed home from his offshore job. He came to the hospital and started yelling at Kay for letting me break my leg, as if there was anything she could have done about it. At that point in my life, it didn’t seem like Phil was really interested in us kids, but when I got hurt his concern was evident. He even spent the night in the hospital with me until I was allowed to go home. I don’t know how he, Kay, and I all slept in that little hospital bed, but we did, and I felt loved and cared for, despite our somewhat nomadic existence up until this point in my life.
One of Phil’s friends, Jerry Allen, owned a car dealership. Jerry brought me one of the roller seats that mechanics use to work on cars. I rolled around our trailer on the seat for three or four months, bumping into everything in the house. My aunts and uncles tell me they still remember me rolling around the seat in the yard, trying to keep up with my brothers and cousins. I must have looked like an ape trying to navigate the creeper with nothing but my arms! I remember that part being pretty fun, but my brothers just remember the smell. They say that cast stunk like crazy! You can imagine the smell after a summer in the Louisiana heat in a full-body cast. The doctors cut a hole out of the back, and Alan remembers having to carry me to the bathroom every time I had to go. It was rough. I probably should apologize to him for that one.
Also, I learned a difficult life lesson: sometimes in trying to be king of the playground, you could end up off the playground for about six months if you’re not careful. In other words, as it says in the Bible: “Don’t think of yourself [or climb] more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).
Things were okay for a while, but Phil was still drinking a lot, and one rainy night during a drinking binge, Phil told Kay he wanted her to take her sons and leave. He said he was sick and tired of all of us and wanted to live his own life. We spent the night at my uncle Harold’s house, and then the church helped us get a low-rent apartment.
I was really too young to remember many of the details, but I know Kay was very worried that she was about to lose her husband and her sons were about to lose their father.
WILLIE’S BEANS AND RICE
You can be creative with this. Don’t worry about doing it exactly the way it is written. If you don’t have an ingredient, make it anyway. I make beans every time we make or buy a ham—the ham bone is the key. You will find hunks of that ham when it cooks off the bone that you never knew existed, and they are delicious. Never throw a ham bone away!
1 pound dry kidney or pinto beans
1 ham bone with as much ham left on it as you want (I buy one that is honey glazed, take the ham off for sandwiches, then use what’s left for beans)
10 cups water, divided
1/3 cup olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon for frying
a couple of slices of bacon, cut up
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 bay leaves (if you don’t have any in your cabinet, don’t worry about it)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (less if you are feeding kids)
1 tablespoon parsley flakes (again, don’t sweat it if you don’t have them)
1 teaspoon Phil Robertson’s Cajun Style Seasoning
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced (add more if you like sausage, or a different kind if this is too spicy)
a pinch of brown sugar
2 cups long-grain white rice
Louisiana Hot Sauce
1. Rinse beans and transfer to a large pot with ham bone and 6 cups water. Make sure the water covers all the beans.
2. In a skillet, heat olive oil and cut-up bacon over medium heat. Sauté onion, garlic, bell pepper, and celery for 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Stir cooked vegetables into beans.
4. Season with bay leaves, cayenne pepper, parsley, and Cajun Style Seasoning.
5. Bring mixture to a boil and then reduce heat to medium and cook 4 to 6 hours, or until beans are tender. Check every 2 hours and add more water if needed.
6. Cut sausage into slices and brown in skillet on medium heat with a teaspoon of olive oil.
7. Stir sausage into beans toward the end of cooking time and continue to simmer for thirty minutes.
8. Add brown sugar to taste.
9. In a saucepan, bring 4 cups water and rice to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve beans over steamed white rice and add plenty of Louisiana Hot Sauce.