Sunday, February 16, 2020

Bob's and Bill's Big Adventure

Now that we are old retired folks who spend a lot of time together, just the two of us, we often reminisce. Yesterday the subject of Bob’s Grandma Russell came up in conversation and his mind went back to that February in 1962 when he and his buddy Bill West stayed a few days with Addie Jane Mahaffey Russell in her rustic home near Cass, Arkansas, one of only three times Bob ever saw his grandma. His memory is so accurate that he can recall her exact words, and his descriptions of the scenes and events paint colorful moving murals in my mind. Although I was not there, not even a part of the Russell family in 1962, I want to tell this story so that it doesn’t get away, so our kids have a glimpse of “Bob's and Bill’s Big Adventure”.

The adventure was more than a stay with Grandma in Arkansas, so much more. Imagine two nineteen-yr-old boys driving an oil burning 1949 Pontiac Coupe from northern Colorado to Winter Park, Florida, with less than two hundred dollars between them, lured to the sunshine state by the promise of good jobs and easy living, “fruit hanging from trees, ripe for the picking”, as described by their friend Bill Hartwig, recently married and an Air Force airman. “You can stay with me and Linda while you look for jobs.” Who could resist an offer like that?

Bob Russell and Bill West graduated from Wellington High School in May of 1961 having supplemented their formal education by enrolling in a drafting course through ICS, International Correspondence School. They started their first class the night John F. Kennedy was elected. That summer they both found local jobs, Bob as a carpenter and Bill an employee of the State driving a mowing machine along the highways. Bill’s income was substantial, enough for him to buy the shiny black Pontiac Coupe from Mr. Reed, so much down with monthly payments.

Bob planned to enter CSU in the winter semester after Christmas so he quit his job as carpenter for a local Mormon church and arranged for his friend Duane Johnson to take his place. But something went awry with his college admissions and he found himself at loose ends. Bill Hartwig’s invitation suddenly seemed the answer. Bill’s mowing job had petered out with bad weather so he, too, thought a trip to Florida was a good idea. Bob's parents were not in favor of his going to Florida and Bill's mother had her misgivings but standing behind her Bill's dad, Jack West, indicated with a jerk of his thumb that he thought otherwise, that it was time for Bill to go.

In January of 1962 Bill West pulled out of Wellington, Colorado, in his twenty-year-old Pontiac coupe, his best friend beside him, headed south. That first night they stayed in a motel and the following morning ate a hearty breakfast before one of them had the good sense to put pencil to paper and realize at the rate they were spending money they would run out long before they reached Florida. Somehow they had spent half their savings and were still in Colorado! That was the last night in a motel. After that one drove while the other slept and they lived on baloney sandwiches.

The cross country trip was not straight forward, no I-70 or I-40. They meandered along two-lane highways in a southeasterly direction adding oil to the car at about the same rate they added gasoline. They found gas for 19 cents a gallon somewhere in Texas but it seemed watery. In Dallas, Texas, the distributor cap broke, and then in Grand Saline, Texas, near the Louisiana border, a valve lifter broke. Fortunately, both of these young men were good mechanics. Had they not been they would never have made it to Florida in the Pontiac.The weather was wet and cold all across the south.

Six long days after pulling out of Wellington they drove up to the Hartwig’s place, a very small rental house tucked behind a larger house in Winter Park, Florida. It’s a good thing they all knew one another well for there was no privacy, barely room to eat and sleep comfortably. Then the job search began. In retrospect, Florida in the wintertime was no place for an inexperienced young man to find a good job. The place was overrun with retirees looking for part time work and snowbirds fleeing the cold, northern states, willing to do anything to stay in Florida. And those oranges and lemons hanging from trees, ripe for the picking, they were on private property! However, there was some citrus fruit growing on the property where Bill and Linda lived and one morning Linda served Bill West a grapefruit for breakfast, even scoring the individual triangles of fruit for easy eating. When he put the first juicy piece in his mouth he discovered she had tricked him! He was eating a lemon, as large as the grapefruits back home, but oh, so sour.

Bob tried selling encyclopedias, door to door, but didn’t make a dime. Then he got a job as an electronics technician after agreeing to pay a fee to the company that found the job for him. That fee cut into his weekly wage considerably. Money was short for everyone. Linda cooked supper with whatever the guys brought home, mostly living on spaghetti. Bob became adept at sleight of hand in the grocery store, coming home with the all makings for spaghetti while only paying for the pasta. There was no meat in this spaghetti, just dried spaghetti noodles, dried mix, and tomato paste. They jokingly called it 2 for 1 spaghetti. For every two ingredients picked up at the store they paid for one. Cigarettes were a luxury they could barely afford and when Bill still hadn’t landed a job the other two smokers told Bill he’d have to improvise. He noticed the local high school kids parked their cars near the Hartwig’s back yard and they left their cigarettes in the cars with the doors unlocked. Bill took just a couple of cigarettes out of each pack he came across, not too choosy about brands.

Bill recalls a memorable incident at a park. While looking for a space to park the car they noticed one corner where no one had parked. They checked it out, didn’t find any signs prohibiting parking, so they drove in and got out of the car. But it wasn’t too long until they discovered there was a flock of nearby gulls who were scooping up snails then dropping them onto the car, hoping to break open the shells and make a meal of the snails inside. If you didn’t want your car dented you didn’t park in that corner of the park. I particularly like this memory of Bill’s because he is a birder, and now I know he was a birder way back then.

After a few weeks of living on the edge, realizing good jobs were nowhere to be found, and learning that the Hartwig’s landlord was complaining that he had rented his property to two people and now there were four living there, the fellas made the decision to leave Florida and drive north to Anderson, South Carolina, where Bob’s older sister Mary was living with her husband, Barron Simms, and their dog Hector. They left Florida with a few dollars in their pockets owing the last month’s payment to the job agency.

Within a day of arriving at the Simms’s Mary found jobs for the both of them, soda jerk for Bill and gas station attendant for Bob. The only thing she has ever told me about the two weeks the guys lived with her is that when she went to wash their clothes she threw away their underwear – the washing machine couldn’t save them. Hector was a purebred beagle show dog, prone to running away from home. His short legs would hold out for the first 50 yards or so before he slowed. On one of his escapades Bill chased him down, grabbed him by the nape of the neck and his tail and carried him that way back to the house with Hector trying his best to reach back and bite Bill.

One night after supper Barron was seated at the head of the table and Bob directly across from him, his back against the glass-fronted china hutch. Bill was on Bob's right. Bob had a deck of cards and they were trying to prove or disprove telepathy. Bob would hold up a card so only he could see it and sharp-eyed Barron would give a subtle nod or movement to his head indicating Bob should tilt the card slightly so that the reflection in the glass behind him allowed better viewing. Then Barron would hem and haw, saying "I see a diamond...yes, yes, I see a three of diamonds!" Then Bob would slap down the card showing it was indeed a three of diamonds. Bill was flabbergasted. They all had a good laugh at Bill's expense that evening.

While working at the gas station Bob discovered it was a cover operation for a gambling ring.

Nobody cared much about what he was doing with his time so he took the opportunity to rebuild the car and outfit it with four new tires. After two weeks of seven twelve hour days Bob saved the entire $80 wages. Bill saved all his money too and sometime in February the two of them took off for Arkansas where they planned to visit Bob’s widowed grandmother before continuing on to Colorado.

Meanwhile, they discovered that the license plates on Bill’s car were about to expire so Bill asked his mother to order the plates and send them to Cass, Arkansas.

The trip from Anderson, South Carolina, to Cass, Arkansas, was uneventful and smooth riding on those new tires. When they arrived in Ozark, Arkansas, they asked directions to Cass. As they pulled into Cass they saw a group of men butchering a hog and asked them how to get to the Russell place. “Nobody smiled,” remembers Bob. He explained he was the youngest son of Doyle Russell so they reluctantly gave him directions to Addie Jane’s place. Bob admits he and Bill looked a little like hippies with their long hair and goatees. Mary Simms cut their hair in South Carolina but apparently they "went to seed" rather quickly.

That night they slept in the unheated leanto room, under feather beds, where they gazed at the stars through the cracks in the roof. It was cold - so cold in that unheated room that Bill went back out to his car and brought in their sleeping bags. They stuffed them under the quilts and feather ticks with just their noses exposed. Early the next morning Grandma Russell called to them, “Get up, boys, the good Lord has provided us meat for breakfast.” The neighbors who butchered hogs the night before had come by to check on Addie and brought along some meat to feed the visitors.

Grandma Russell cooked on a small rectangular stove which she fed hickory sticks to maintain an even heat. She was 79-1/2 years old and had been living alone since January of 1960 when her husband Elias passed away. When Bob and Bill arrived unexpectedly Addie was living in her front room having walled off the other rooms with Army blankets hung across doorways. She cooked the boys a breakfast of fresh pork steaks and fried potatoes, balancing the skillets on that narrow stove, at the same time warming that small room comfortably. They stayed with her for several days while they waited for the license plates to arrive in the mail. Bill asked what they could do for her and she told him he could chop firewood. He asked how much firewood she needed and she answered, “Well, Bill, I will always need firewood.” So he started chopping. That is the memory Bob told me about today.
He said someone had brought his grandma a stack of hickory staves, slats from an old fence. They were about half an inch thick, three inches wide, and four feet long. Hickory is very hard, not at all like pine, more like metal. Bill’s experience in the Colorado Boy Scouts had not prepared him for chopping hickory with a hand axe. He would hit a piece of hickory only to have it bounce out unscathed and he would have to chase it down before he could chop at it again. Slow going.

On one of the days they were in Cass they went over to Seldon’s home, just over the hill from Addie Jane’s. Seldon was the eleventh of Elias and Addy's twelve children , Bob’s uncle. He had a bunch of kids and Bill has always liked kids. They had a fun time that day and Bill was always referred to later as “that nice Mr. West”. Another day of that visit Bill and Bob drove into Ozark to eat in a diner. The waitress who came to their table took a long look at them and asked, “What do you Yankee boys want?” Bill told Bob he thought those days were behind us and Bob told him, “Not here, they’re not.” It may have been that day in Ozark that the license plates arrived. Bill put them on his car, they said their goodbyes to Grandma Russell, and once more headed west. That was the last time Bob would see his Grandma Russell.

A couple of long days on the road brought them back home safely to Wellington, tired and broke. By April Bob had joined the Navy and would soon leave for boot camp. Bill could not pass the military physical due to heart problems from rheumatic fever. He enrolled in a school in Denver to study Industrial Arts, rooming in a boarding house with strangers. So “Bob's and Bill’s Big Adventure” came to an end….or did it? I think I need to amend that title to “Bob's and Bill’s Big Adventure – the Florida Caper” for just as Tom Swift had “…And His Flying Lab”, “…And His Atomic Earth Blaster”, “…And His Ultrasonic Cycloplane”, Bob Russell and Bill West have their “Cozumel and the Mayan Ruins Trek”, “Bonneville Salt Flats Adventure”, and “Ham Radio and Antennas Experiment”, and more.The cartoon below, borrowed from the Internet, aptly depicts the relationship of these two guys, Bill and Bob, and why they've shared such interesting adventures throughout their lives. Carol West and I are happy to be a part of it all. Oh, one last thing, Bob says they didn't meet any girls on their trip, not one!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"From There to Here", Frances Russell wrote her autobiography.

Frances Russell, my mother-in-law, wrote her autobiography in the 1980s, writing it longhand on lined paper in the evenings after supper was over and the dishes done. Relying on her seven-years-older sister Ola May to provide details of the family’s early life, Frances created an entertaining journal which she titled “From There to Here”, beginning with her parents’ wedding in Oklahoma in 1910 and ending with present-day life for Frances in Colorado in the mid 1980s. After she completed the biography she Zeroxed a couple of copies for family to read. Upon finishing his reading her older son, Kenneth, the apple of his mother’s eye, told her that she had left out “the good stuff.” He suggested she rewrite her life’s story and put in some of the more juicy details about her life and that of the family. So, she rewrote her story and I have copies of both versions. What I found is that in doing the rewrite she severely edited portions of the narrative. Yes, she did add some details that were fun to read, some “juicy incidents” but she also deleted details that I wish she hadn’t. Below is one example, her description of that time in 1954 when her two older children graduated from high school in Wellington, Colorado, then moved to Denver to live with their Aunt Bertie, their dad’s oldest sister, so they could find jobs and attend college.

Excerpt from original writing……..

Kenneth and Mary moved in with Bertie the day after they graduated. I was still working at Woolworth’s lunch counter. They packed up at home and came by and told me goodbye. Their both moving out at once left a terrible empty place in our lives.

It was not a happy trio from the beginning. Trying to blend the lives of two independent, headstrong teenagers and an old maid aunt very set in her ways was nearly an impossibility. The kids went along with her weird, unreasonable ways for two months when she threw one of her mad fits at Kenneth. He had dared to disobey her and went to a movie. He picked up Mary from the drug store on his way home. 
She (Bertie) was furious because Kenneth had disobeyed her. She walked down to the drugstore, a distance of seven or eight blocks. It was raining and by the time she walked back both ways, she was soaking wet. She had insisted that Kenneth and Mary were never to open the door when someone knocked, that is, until they found out who was knocking. So, when she started banging on the door they ignored her, until Kenneth peeked out and saw who it was. When he opened the door she started swinging at him. She smacked him a good one. Somehow Kenneth managed to keep his cool, and instead of hitting her back he packed up and moved out. He slept in his car that night, then went over to my folks in Arvada and moved in with them. He liked this much better. Him and Daddy would sit and play canasta of an evening.

Bertie went all out to do things for Mary after Kenneth left. She helped Mary get a scholarship to Denver University. Mary continued her job at the drug store. She enrolled in DU and rode the bus to school and back.

It was while she lived with Bertie that she had to have her appendix out. Mary still owned a calf here on the farm. It was shortly after Mary was home from the hospital that we butchered the calf and took the meat down for her and Bertie.

Revised edition……

The year went fast, and the next May both Mary and Kenneth graduated, both with high honors. Kenneth got a scholarship for four years of college.

That summer was somewhat of a disaster. Since jobs were impossible to find around here, they both went to Denver to live with Doyle’s sister Bertie. She had promised that with her help they could get good jobs. The so-called good jobs were working in a drug store for Mary, and for Kenneth it was delivery boy for a hamburger place in Aurora. She did help Mary get a part scholarship. Kenneth entered CU that fall, and Mary entered DU. We’ll just say it did not work out for Kenneth to stay with Bertie so he moved in with my folks. Before the school year was over Mary also couldn’t take any more and she moved out.

Have you ever written a long email only to hit the wrong button and have it disappear? If so, you know that your rewrite will be much shorter and succinct for who approaches that second writing with the same enthusiasm and patience? That’s what I see here in Frances’s “From There to Here”. Her original writing has more emotion, more gusto. I'm so glad we have both versions.