“I knew Robert E. Howard” Essay
Due to the passage of time, there are precious few people who are still around that can make the statement that is the title of this post - “I knew Robert E. Howard” Essay introduction. Norris Chambers is one of those few.
Norris Roe Chambers was born September 6, 1917 to Dr. Solomon Roe Chambers and Martha Jane Williams Chambers on the old Rushing farm about six miles southeast of Cross Cut. His older brother, Thomas Spence Chambers was 20 years older than Norris and his sister, Effie Deoma Chambers was 18 years older. Thomas’ oldest son, Clifton Harold, was only about four months older than his uncle Norris.
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Dr. Chambers quit practicing medicine and opened a drug store in Cross Cut where the family lived for several years. It was during this period of time that the Howard lived in Cross cut and Dr. Howard became close friends with Dr. Chambers. The drug store burned and he rebuilt the two story building, but decided to try his hand at farming instead of operating the store. In 1918 the family moved to Galveston County and operated a small vegetable farm. A shipping company in Hitchcock bought and shipped all the vegetables that Dr. Chambers could raise. Tom Chambers and his family also moved to the area and operated a small vegetable farm.
It was in this locale that Norris and Clifton spent their early years. In 1924 the vegetable shipping business closed and Dr. Chambers moved back to the Cross Cut area on the Rushing place. Tom followed soon and opened a service station and garage in Cross Cut. It was after this return to the family homestead that young Norris met Howard for the first time.
Norris and Clifton graduated from the Cross Cut High School in 1935. Norris attended Brantley Draughon College in Fort Worth and later worked for W. Lee O’Daniel Flour Co. He later did oil field work, farmed and operated a country radio repair shop. He also worked for awhile on the crovwpA.
In 1939 Norris married Ella Sudderth and they lived with his parents on the Rushing farm. When the war preparedness program started in 1940, he worked on the construction of Camp Bowie, an army camp in Brownwood. In 1941 Norris got a job in Civil Service at Duncan Field in San Antonio as a clerk-typist. Because of his electronic experience, he was able to transfer to the shops as an Aircraft Electrician. In 1942 Norris and Ella’s first child was born, Ella Diane. In 1943 they moved to Grand Prairie where he worked for North American Aviation as an aircraft electrician. Their second daughter, Patricia, was born in 1944.
In early 1945 Norris and Clifton joined the U. S. Maritime Service and were sent to Catalina Island, California for basic training. After completion of basic training, Norris was sent to Hoffman Island, New York for training as a ship’s radio operator and further training as a gunner. Norris passed the requirements for radio operator and was issued an FCC radio telegraph license. However, before shipping, overseas the war ended in August and he returned to Cross Cut.
Norris worked for Otis Elevator in Dallas for awhile and opened a radio repair shop in Grand Prairie. He later sold this shop and opened one in Brownwood. In 1947 he accepted a job at Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft in Fort Worth in electronics. Ella and Norris built a house near the plant where they still live. Another daughter, Veronica, was born in 1955 and a son, Roger in 1957 Norris retired from the bomber plant in 1974 and operated a printing shop for several years.
Norris will be turning 94 next month and wife Ella will be 90 in December. I think you’ll agree that the pair have led quite a long and fulfilling life together. Here’s hoping there are many more pleasant years in their future.
I thought it would be interesting and informative to have Norris share his thoughts on Howard with us, so I contacted Norris and he was agreeable to answering some questions about his friend Robert:
TGR: When and where did you meet Robert E. Howard for the first time?
Norris: I spent the first six years of my life in Galveston County and the Howards visited us there. But I can’t say that I really remember Robert during that time.
TGR: What were your first impressions of him?
Norris: We visited the Howards soon after moving to the Cross Cut area in 1924. They lived in the same house in Cross Plains that is now the Robert E. Howard House Museum. I don’t remember any impression, one way or the other, at that time. Three or four years later, when I became interested in reading, he loaned me many books, including Tarzan of the Apes. He treated me well every time we visited and was friendly when they visited us. I liked him.
TGR: Everyone has read that Robert in good physical shape. Did you find this to be true? Did he exercise regularly?
Norris: I believed Robert to be in good physical condition. I think he exercised regularly. I don’t remember him being sick at any time.
TGR: In the past certain people said Robert was a loner and didn’t have many friends. We know today that is not true. Do you recall meeting any of his friends? If so, which ones?
Norris: I did not know Robert’s friends although he did speak of them often. I met his friend Lindsey Tyson whose sister was my school teacher at Cross Cut one year. I did see some of them at Robert’s residence but I never really knew them. Since Robert was considerable older than me, I was not included in his exploits with friends.
TGR: What was a memorable moment during your friendship with him?
Norris: A memorable moment was when he introduced me to several writer’s magazines and let me know that I could make money typing manuscripts for writers. It was at this time that he let me do some typing for him.
TGR: Did you read a lot of his stories — I know you typed some of the Conan tales for him. What did you think of him as a writer?
Norris: I bought some Weird Tales magazines at the used book store and read his stories. Sometimes Dr. Howard brought one by for us. We also got a copy now and then of the Fight Stories. I remember doing some typing on A Gent From Bear Creek. I really liked to read his tales.
TGR: How did you learn of his death?
Norris: My dad and I were working in the north field when an oil field pumper, Bill Bacaum, came and told us the bad news. We went to Cross Plains but there were so many people at the house we didn’t stay long. I believe the funeral was the next day.
TGR: We know the church for the double funerals was packed full. Were there a lot of people at the cemetery as well? Did Doctor Howard or anyone else offer any last words at the graveside?
Norris: I did not go to the cemetery in Brownwood. I never heard it mentioned, but since Brownwood was about forty miles from Cross Plains by the old roads I would guess that not too many attended the graveside service.
TGR: Do you have any recollections of Mrs. Howard? I know she was quite ill, but I guess she had some good days.
Norris: I remember Hester very well. Dr. Howard called her “Heck.” She usually referred to him as the Doctor, or Doc. Mrs. Howard was well liked in the community. A girl in our class was named Hester and she said she was named for Mrs. Howard. My mother liked Mrs. Howard. My parents and the Howards lived “next door” to each other in Cross Cut. This was before I was born. For some reason, Dr. Howard [Baptist] and Hester [Methodist] belonged to different churches in Cross Cut. I posted the church rolls on my Cross Cut website. Also, a picture of my 1935 graduating class.
TGR: I know you spent a lot of time with Doctor Howard after Robert passed away. What was he like?
Norris: I spent a lot of time with Dr. Howard, after the two weeks I stayed with him to help him with Robert’s closure (notifying his friends and correspondents of his death, etc.). He was a little absent-minded. I remember one time we started to Brownwood from our place and he forgot to shift from second gear on the Chevy. I finally brought it to his attention after a few miles. But generally he was very alert, was a good driver, and a very interesting talker. After I married Dr. Howard was very fond of my wife, Ella, and she fixed many meals for him when he would come by after we had dined. He was present the Sunday morning we left for San Antonio for my new job. His remark as we prepared to drive away was, “They’ll never be back.” He was right – it was the beginning of a whole new way of life for us and for many, many others.
In 2007 when Norris came to Howard Days, Leo Grin accompanied him on a tour of the Howard House, while Howard videographer Ben Friberg shot the video below. Watch and listen as Norris reminisces about Robert E. Howard. This is truly a fascinating piece of Howardian history.