A Road Trip With My Grandpa
“Got everything?” I ask as he stows a suitcase and small bag into the trunk of my car. He assures me that it’s everything he will need. “Okay then, Grandpa, let’s get going. We’ve got a lot of road to cover today.”
It’s 1976 and I am driving my eighty-seven-year old grandfather from his home in San Diego to visit his ninety-year old brother in Oklahoma City. We’ll leave California and travel through Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, and on to Oklahoma.
We begin our journey after breakfast and plan to arrive in Prescott, Arizona, by dinner time. The desert is unexpectedly green due to the recent monsoon rains. Grandpa enjoys our trip from the moment of departure, and starts telling me about his life, stories I have not heard before.
“My brother, Bill, is a retired preacher,” he says, “but as a young boy and man he had a quick temper. He would fight for any reason, and he was good at it.” I have never met Grandpa’s brother, nor anyone else from this side of my father’s family.
“In 1911,” he continues, “I helped install an electric sign on top of a building in downtown L.A. It was a novelty of lighted advertising because it changed. One of the sign’s advertisements was ‘Half a million population by 1915’.”
He describes how he and a partner hauled hay from the Imperial Valley to Los Angeles. “We drove nonstop. We left four bales out in the middle on the top of the load
and threw in a mattress so one of us could sleep while the other drove. The round trip took twenty-four hours and was continuous, once for twenty-nine days.”
“I had to register for World War I,” he tells me, “but was exempted because I was a foreman in the shipyards.”
After the war, Grandpa bought two Army World War I surplus Packard trucks to go into business for himself hauling fuel. He would pick up hitchhikers, and sometimes was very sleepy when he stopped for them. One time he stopped and the hitchhiker asked, “Can my dog and friend come too?”
“Can either of you drive a truck?”
“Yeah! We both can.” So they drove while Grandpa slept and woke him up when they reached their destination.
Occasionally, he found cigarettes missing, but what set him dead against any more riders was when he loaned a hitchhiker his blankets and gear during the trip and found the entire lot gone when he stopped.
But hundreds of other men also bought surplus trucks to go into business for themselves, and he went bankrupt as did many others when the competition became so stiff there was no profit left and payments couldn't be met.
Then he told me stories about my father.
“I gave your dad a Model A,” he says. “I got the car for fifteen dollars from a friend after a fire burned the back seat. I cut out the burned part, gave the car to your dad, and he had an accident with the only man I knew in that end of town.” He explains that the accident was due to skidding on gravel when the brakes were applied and not enough weight remained on the rear wheels. The man didn't send a bill when he found out my dad's father was a friend.
Next he describes how, when he was about fifteen, my father shot him in a hunting accident. “Your dad was trying to unload the gun and was sitting down with it over his lap and it went off. The bullet went through a crack in the boards between the rooms and hit me in the hip while I was standing in the kitchen.”
In Prescott we pay sixteen dollars for our first night's lodging.
“I never paid more than two dollars and fifty cents for a room like this,” Grandpa says, looking back to more than thirty-eight years in the past. “I know things have changed, but they haven’t changed all that much. If a man makes five times what his granddad made, he pays five times more than his granddad did to live. If he's twice as
wealthy in terms of wages as his father, he's also paying twice as much for things as his father did." Grandpa blames unions for that, though he is a long-time union man himself, still pays his union dues, and uses union insurance benefits.
“I went out to Las Vegas in 1914 to work for the railroad,” he tells me as we travel east the next day. “The job paid extra because no one wanted to go to the desert, but I had tuberculosis and needed a warm dry climate for my health. There was nothing at all in Las Vegas, and the rail yards were where hotels are now. You could get acres of land for ten dollars back then.”
“No one plans to be rich,” he observes. “They’re just lucky. I could have purchased Las Vegas acres and also land on Signal Hill.” Signal Hill in Long Beach became one of the world’s most productive oil fields.
“We used to try and race our cars to the top of Signal Hill, and a good one could make it all the way in high gear,” he says. “I had a friend that was notoriously unlucky. He even failed when he tried to commit suicide. But, he bought some land on Signal
Hill, fenced it, farmed it, and the last time I saw it, there was a refinery on the place and he still owned it.”
“I remember walking through the streets of Calico,” he continues, “when it was a true ghost town, when not a soul was there, before Mr. Knott bought it for his berry farm and made a fortune by capitalizing on the past.”
“Well, will you look at that!” he exclaims when we stop for lunch in New Mexico. “Those Indians are buying alcohol!” Then he acknowledges that he knows a lot has
changed since he was last in the state. I find it hard to realize that Native Americans were prohibited from buying alcohol so recently as to be in my grandfather’s memory.
As we travel, Grandpa reminds me of a little boy, an ancient one to be sure, but still like a boy going to the fair. His eyes sparkle along the way and he never misses a
thing. He may be old, but he is still lively, interested, and interesting. Yet I notice he can't walk many steps before he starts to limp and has to rest.
"Circulation", he claims. "I get a Charley horse."
How often I hear "Son of a ....., boy has this changed. I don't recognize a thing!” Then he informs me that he hasn't been over fifty miles from home for twenty-two years nor this far away since 1938.
He knows as we drive towards the place of his youth and his brother that he is unlikely to find any surviving friends, and probably no relatives he has ever seen, yet he
is not depressed at the thought of being a sole survivor, just anxious to get on with the business of living. To what does he attribute his eighty-seven years?
"Nobody lives to be as old as I am," he says.
Somehow it makes me self-conscious when he is quick to open a door for me or insists on picking up the tab. When we stop at a motel for the night, he is also quick to explain that I am his granddaughter and that I am taking him to see his brother in Oklahoma City. From a habit of opening my own doors, I find myself starting to wait for doors to be opened for me, and amused when he explains our trip so that no one will mistake it for a May-December thing. A true gentleman, he always wears a hat, and takes it off as soon as he goes indoors.
Grandpa has four drinks every day for his ‘health and heart’, two before lunch and two before dinner. When we stop for lunch I have to open the car trunk so he can have his nips which are stowed in his small bag. Sometimes I feel funny standing there while he downs two quick swallows of Jack Daniels in front of a restaurant's big window, but his doctor approves of this practice. He does everything his doctor tells him to, and has lived with a bad heart for fifteen years.
“But I never use salt, and I gave up smoking my pipe. I have bacon and eggs only twice a week. I was raised on eggs, milk and pork. I didn't even like beef as a kid, but we all worked very hard.”
Grandpa used to live in Higgins, Texas, and it’s been sixty-eight years since he was last here. He is very disappointed to see his grandmother’s ranch in Higgins. An uncle died only a few months before we get there. An aunt he has never met lives alone in a house on the ranch, but all the grandeur is gone, and he feels the place is a wreck. The old home's bottom walls remain, built back into the bank near the creek. It’s roof and some of the other materials were used in the new house, a small cement type home. Gone are the swimming hole, orchard, milk house, walnut grove, neat corrals, barn, and grass fields. Houses have been built on nearby hills.
“I used to play in the buffalo wallows as a little boy,” he says, “not the fresh ones, but ones with grass growing in them. We would hide in them and yell to each other.”
He remembers his mother died at the farm when he was thirteen, and that the family was split after her death. “She was the second of nine girls and two boys,” he says. “Her remains were shipped to Kansas. My brother and I stayed at the farm until
our dad was settled in Colorado Springs and then we joined him there. I was eighteen when I left the farm.”
Grandpa is quiet for a while as we leave the Texas panhandle and cross into Oklahoma
As a young boy, Grandpa lived in Jefferson, Oklahoma.
“About three hundred Indians would camp outside of the town,” he recalls. “The guys in town would set a stick in the middle of the street with a penny wedged in top. Any Indian that could shoot out the penny, could keep it. They did it, and they kept it!.”
His ninety-year old brother, Bill, lives in the outskirts of Oklahoma City in a nice brick home provided by the church for his retirement. He drives his own car and has a seventy year old girlfriend. When he takes her home after a date, she waits for a reasonable amount of time and then phones to be sure he has made it home. She also calls every morning to be sure Bill has made it up that day.
The brothers have a lot of similarities. Both are very old and wear hearing aids. But, in spite of the aids, they can't seem to hear each other the first time one speaks and yell loudly to be heard the second time. They share a room at night, take their aids out at bedtime, and somehow understand each other’s normal voice the first time, every time. Both are thin and alert, have heart conditions, and occasionally flick their fingers in the same nervous way. They revel in recalling the events, places, times and dates while telling their stories, and figure out and piece together what each remembers separately.
The changes Grandpa has seen over his lifetime, and how well he remembers so many details amazes me.
Reminiscing about how their father joined in the great land rush when the government opened the Oklahoma strip to homesteaders in 1899, they tell me the following story about my great grandfather.
“Dad was always very interested in race horses, including breeding them, and he had a very fast mare. Everyone lined up at the border at high noon to wait for the starting gun. He and his mare got off to a very good start and he staked a claim near El Reno. The next morning he found another man on his newly claimed farm. The man offered him two hundred and fifty dollars for his land and, thinking he could easily find another claim, he took the money and raced on, but by then even the slower ones had found their land and he never found another claim. Now there are oil wells all around El Reno, site of Dad’s original land claim.”
It occurs to me that this is the third time my family has missed being part of an oil boom!
In another story, Grandpa describes how he did some covered wagon traveling in Kansas and Oklahoma. Once they were caught in quicksand and had to unhitch the team, move it to dry land, extend a rope to the hitch, and pull the wagon out. Another time they lived on a river bend, there was a flood, and the river rose and filled the bayou behind the house. A horse was hitched to a boat to pull them to safety.
During their story swapping, Bill observes: "It's a lot farther looking back than it ever was looking ahead."
I meet many members of my family for the first time during our stay in Oklahoma, and learn that a family reunion is still celebrated every year in Kansas. That’s where my great grandparents met; she was a school teacher and he was the police judge. They claim that those in the family with the name of Dalton are descendants of the infamous Dalton Gang, but no one knows for sure.
Long before the stories end, and well before I am ready to say goodbye to my newfound family members, it is time for us to end our visit. I will miss their still untold stories, but I know that Grandpa has many more in store for me, and I can’t wait to hear them! Maybe I’ll drive a little slower as we head west down the road back to California and home.