Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Uncle H a Christmas

Palo Verde tree
 "It was Christmas and I had told my girl friend Nancy that I would come, but when I got to thinking about my situation, I realized it would be foolish. I had no car and very little money. Most of what I earned was going to the school. I would have to hitch-hike to her home, live in their house, eat their food and would have nothing to contribute to their Christmas. I didn’t go.

Since I had planned to go to Nancy’s in Illinois for Christmas, I had not made any other plans. All of a sudden I realized that everyone was disappearing and soon I would be in Hesston alone for the Christmas break. Mom was living in Phoenix, so I decided to hitch-hike home."

Sure why wouldn’t Uncle H hitchhike – that is totally reasonable. It was only three states away and a mere 1,000 plus miles, makes sense to me – NOT!

"A friend said I could ride with him to Guyman, Oklahoma. I spent the night with him at his home in Guyman and the next morning he took me out to the highway. I got a ride before too long and rode to some other town where I again had my thumb out. After a while a guy stopped and picked me up. He was going to Tucson, Arizona. He offered to let me off at the junction leading to Phoenix, but since it was out in the middle of nowhere, I said I would ride all the way to Tucson with him.

We arrived around 10:00 p.m. after dark and he took me to a truck stop. I tried for quite a while to get a ride and when it seemed I might have to give up a man stopped. Once I was in his car and headed for Phoenix, I realized I had made a mistake. He was very drunk and was speeding down the highway in a much uncontrolled manner. I decided I had to get out at the first opportunity. A sign came up indicating some kind of junction, so I told him that was where I needed off. He questioned why I would want off there but I insisted that was where I wanted off.

I found myself out, really in the middle of no-where in the middle of the night. There was no way anyone would stop for me now. Finally a bus came along and left someone off and a car came up to pick him up. They were heading down the opposite road than where I wanted to go so I was out of luck. They did give me a book of matches which proved to be very welcome. It is cold at night, even in Arizona, at that time of year so I soon had a fire going under a Palo Verde tree. This is where I was to spend the rest of the night.

I didn’t sleep a wink however, because before long three men showed up and wanted to get warm at my fire. One had a lot of blood on his head. They said, he had fallen from a rail-road trestle not too far from there because of the darkness. We sat eyeing each other across the fire for the night. I was sitting close to the suitcase I was carrying and every time they moved I must have gotten closer to it because the one said, “ We aren’t going to bother you for what you have there “. I don’t know why I was so protective of it, because there really wasn’t anything in it of any worth. Just a few hand-me-down clothes, but it was mine and I planned to protect it. I was very happy when the first rays of morning began to show. I bid my companions goodbye, left the fire going for them and headed out.

The very first car that came along stopped and I could hardly wait to get in. He was a nice man that was headed for Phoenix, so I was in luck. He dropped me off on 7th street close to Sunnyslope and I began walking home from there. Believe it or not, my brother, W had come home for Christmas and was driving north when I put my thumb out again and he stopped to pick me up. He was really surprised to see me as I was him. No-one knew that I was coming home. Neither did I, until the last minute. I’m sure that I got my bag of candy again, though."

(As poor as they were, his mother always managed a small bag of candy for all of her one short of a dozen kids on Christmas. Gifts were not part of the Uncle H’s Christmas celebrations. Once when he was younger he made up a big story to his classmates of the elaborate Christmas presents he got when he actually only had received a small bag of candy)

"As luck would have it, there was someone in Phoenix from Hesston and agreed to take me back when I returned. I was glad I didn’t have to hitch-hike back. Mom’s house in Phoenix was right next to the Mennonite Church so that is how we made the connection for the ride."

Several things struck me as interesting in this story. My Uncle H thought nothing of hitch-hiking over 1,000 miles to go home for Christmas. The danger of such a journey came to light on his trip and thankfully he made it home safely. The other was, his unwillingness to go to his girl friend’s if he could not contribute – Uncle H was no free loader. The last, here was another time that by his wits, Uncle H always seemed to make things work out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Uncle H the Man

A childhood forms the man. Uncle H grew up in hard times. He began his work life in the third grade. He had no father but watched a mother whose every effort focused on the family unit and its survival. He always wore hand me down clothes, lived each day under the shame of a broken home that was magnified by the ridged Mennonite religious community he lived in. He was at the tail end of six brothers who set the bar high for hard work. He took on the expectation of individual responsibility that often required extraordinary effort, and this formed the man.

‘Growing up it was always understood that once us boys were 18 and had employment, half of our wages would go to the family until we turned 21. I wanted to go to college and I asked Mom if she would let me keep all the money I made from that point on. I told her that I wanted to go to college and the only way I knew how, was to put all the money I earned towards paying for it. She agreed to this. Up to this time I never saw any of the money I had earned from Mom hiring me out. I had worked every summer since I was in the third grade of elementary school, and many other times. All my money went directly to Mom or to the Mennonite School up to this point. I just accepted this as my responsibility to Mom and to the family. I had no regrets for this and still don’t to this day. Sure, I wished for things along the way and wanted to take part in things at school sometimes, but I felt it my responsibility to work.’

Surprisingly, in reading my uncle’s memoir there is an absence of resentment or bitterness for a childhood that was mostly missed. I read of no lazy summer days traipsing up and down the local creek fishing nor did I read of a child lying on his back watching a kite fly high against a bright blue sky. But, I did notice the deep loss and pain that reflected from his words over the loss of the father he never had. Bewilderment as to how his father could care nothing about him was evidenced by the lack of even a single simple note, card or phone call throughout his growing up years.

Uncle H married in 1956, at age 20. He sang to his bride as she walked down the aisle, I Love You Truly. Uncle H did a lot of singing during his two years of college and still sings for churches, weddings and social groups to this day. He moved to Arizona where he worked a production job at the Pope Lime Company a fruit juice company.

'After a couple years with Pope Lime Company, I decided that I needed to find a better vocation. I always liked working with my hands, and my brother P was working in a woodworking shop, which gave me the idea of becoming an Industrial Arts Teacher. I also remembered the shop classes I had taken and I always enjoyed them.

I enrolled at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. In order to attend classes during the day, I needed a job at night. So before quitting my job at Pope Lime Company I found a new one with Safeway Produce Warehouse. I went to work at 4:00 p.m. and worked until 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. loading trucks. The trucks were backed up to a loading dock and a ramp was used to get from the dock to the truck bed, which was about 18 inches higher than the dock. We loaded produce, milk products, bread and eggs onto the various trucks that would go throughout the valley and surrounding towns. We were to stack our loads for the hand carts as high as possible, hopefully as high as we could reach up and hold in place with one hand while we guided the hand cart with the other up the ramp and into the truck. Right off I dumped my very first load off the side of the ramp and onto the ground below. That first night was the hardest job I had ever had in my life. When I got home that night, I told my wife that I really didn’t think I could continue this job. I was so sore that I thought I couldn’t hurt in that many places. I went back the next night expecting the worst. Believe it or not, I got through another night. Each night got easier and after a while it became a routine.

Our house was about 10 miles north of the warehouse. I had to drive home after work, get a few hours of sleep and then drive the 20 miles to Tempe, where I went to school. Some of my classes started at 7:45 in the morning so I didn’t get much sleep. I learned to sleep between classes and also to speed read. None of my term papers were very long. I did pay a lot of attention in class and took good notes. I was able to get through school this way and graduate from Arizona State in 1962 with a Bachelor Degree in Secondary Education.’

During these same years his family grew to five with the addition of a son and two daughters. He was recruited to teach at a Technical school in Nevada, where he moved his small family. He began teaching metal shop and welding. Even though he never welded, he had done a fair amount of sheet metal work in a past job. That summer before starting his new teaching job he took a course and learned how to weld. When I read this part I thought, who is this guy who takes a job, to teach something he has to go learn, so he can teach it? This is an example of an innate confidence he had in himself that I saw throughout his writings. I have to believe that much of this confidence came from the many tasks he did as a boy. I guess he figured he learned how to do all those other jobs, so how hard could it be to learn something else, which of course, is exactly what he did.

‘When I first got to Reno High to begin my teaching, I found that they were offering three years in Sheet Metal and Welding. I had students in a third year program and a lot of the equipment was foreign to me. My third year class only had about 10 students in it so I divided them up and assigned each pair or group a specific piece of equipment to hook up, test it out, and then demonstrate it to the rest of the class. I told the third year students, that if they were using the equipment for the third year, they should know by now how to use it and would prove it by demonstrating it to the rest of us. Yes, I mean us. I was the best listener in the class. Like I say, I learned a lot the first year.’

To be continued…

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Uncle H… his Father, Uncle and Grandpa

"It was summer and I was working for my brother on his farm. We were harvesting grain and had a break-down with the threshing machine. I was under the machine and had just taken a part off when it dropped and fell on my right foot. It was smarting like crazy and I was hobbling around when my oldest brother drove into the yard. He had another man with him. He said, “H this is your father.” Of course I didn’t know him and besides, I didn’t really care for him anyway. My foot was hurting badly, so I just took off for the house to give it some attention. I guess they stayed and talked I don’t know."

I know little about Uncle H’s father, my grandfather. I personally only remember seeing him once. I have heard a few stories and most of the stories do not flatter him. Recently, my mother recalled to me a scene. She was standing on the porch by the back door and her brother R was in the corral. Her dad was on the outside of the corral swinging a bull whip. My uncle R was agile and doing a pretty good job using the posts and poles of the corral to avoid the long whip. Mom says she was scared and ran inside for help and doesn’t know if her brother was ever hit.

When she told me this story I wondered who else knew the story as I had never heard it before. Families are interesting that way with their secrets. I suppose often the secrets are kept hidden because it is just too painful to talk about, or maybe the shame keeps the secrets hidden under cover. My mother was quite young when this happened and maybe that is why I never heard it.

Every family seems to have at least one quirky uncle, aunt or maybe a grandpa. Uncle H’s grandfather was a Mennonite traveling preacher (evangelist). As he aged he became legally blind, the problem - he refused to stop driving.

“Grandpa was legally blind the last ten years of his life. Even though he could no longer read his Bible, he still preached and could recite scripture from memory. He also still drove a car even after his eye sight was really bad. I remember one time when he was coming to our house to visit Mom and he almost drove over me. I was walking home from school and heard a car coming up from behind but since I was so far off the side of the road I thought all was well. For some reason, I looked around at the last minute and he was right behind me. I dove for the ditch and he barely missed me. When I got home, I asked him why he tried to run me over. He said he never even saw me. He said he always tried to stay far to the right in case any cars were coming his way." Now, there is someone who should not be driving. It seems that a simple act of hiding his keys would have solved the problem after all he was blind and would not have been able to find them.

In a farm community a man is most known by his work ethic. One might hear, “Yip, that Slim Jenkins, he holds his own”. Or one might hear about Larry Loafer, he’s a good guy, just not very dependable. My uncle H talks about his hardest jobs. They were always when he had to follow behind one of his brothers. Uncle H was often hired based on his brother’s good work ethic.

“The only times that I couldn't quite do a job as well as expected was when I was following a job that one of my older brothers had done previously. The employers were so enamored by the work my brothers had done that I had a tough time living up to the expectations. It wasn't for lack of effort.”

One last event to mention before leaving Uncle H’s school years. The family was poor but seemed to find a way to send several of the children to the Mennonite High School in Kansas. This was done a couple of ways. My mother tells how when she was ready to start her ninth grade year in high school the tradition had been for each child to stay out a year to work. The income was always turned over to the family and it helped pay the way for those who were still in school. My mother ended up staying out two years and therefore did not graduate from high school until she was twenty years old. In addition the ones in school usually had after school jobs, especially the boys. With all this effort they were still poor and this fact apparently was obvious, causing my Uncle H to stand out.

“It was during my senior year at Hesston that I was walking across the campus and my cousin, Junior, came out to meet me on the grass and said his Dad, wanted me to go to town with him on Saturday. When I met my Uncle Floyd that Saturday he said he was taking me to town so I could pick out some new clothes. I suppose I looked pretty ragged to him. Anyway, I was somewhat embarrassed and actually didn’t know how to go about buying clothes. I had never done this before in my life. He insisted that I pick out whatever I wanted since he was buying. I finally picked out one pull over shirt. It was blue and turned out to be a little tight for me, since I never tried it on. I was ready to quit, but finally gave in and picked out a pair of pants also. I felt like I was mooching from him and refused to buy any more, even though he wanted me to. We always wore clothes until they were unpatchable or really worn out, so I guess I felt mine were still okay. Mom was quite good at patching clothes. I will never forget this gesture from my Uncle, even though he didn’t remember it when I talked to him about it years later.”

To be continued…