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Monday, January 18, 2010

REINCARNATION

I don’t really remember when I first heard about the concept of reincarnation, but my first clear memory of it was the movie “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” with Michael Sarrazin in 1975. I remember being so excited about the movie mostly because of the 1936 Cord he drove in his previous life and how he remembered every last detail of that beautiful car even right down to the little crank handles on the dash board that rolled the hidden head lights up and down. Michael Sarrazin wasn’t so bad to look at either.

Prior to that I’d had a couple of strange dreams that seemed really important to me at that time. Sometime in 1973 I dreamed I was walking up to a huge mansion sitting on top of a hill. As I was walking towards the house I was filled with a feeling of sadness and loss as I knew the house had once belonged to me, but since I was no longer that person it wasn’t actually mine anymore. The house was unbelievably huge and seemed to go on forever as I wandered from room to room feeling sad that it had fallen into such disrepair after my death. Much of the furniture was missing, or covered by sheets, dust was everywhere and the wall paper was peeling away, or even missing from the some of the walls. The feelings of sadness just seemed to deepen as I saw more and more of my former home. When I finally made my way to my bedroom I was almost in tears as I looked at old black and white photos in ornate frames of my wife, my daughter, and myself. I held them up and looked at them wistfully because I missed them so much and I felt that my death had left them all alone. There was even some turn of the century type greeting cards wishing us a “Bon Voyage” sitting around the room. I wasn’t sure what had happened to me, but I knew I had gone somewhere and hadn’t returned.

I began to feel a sense of urgency that I must get what I came for and get out before I was arrested for trespassing. I walked to the closet and began to look over my clothes. I picked several pin stripped suits off their hooks and as I looked them over I thought to myself, “I was taller then, but I can have the pants hemmed to fit me now.” I decided I couldn’t use any of the hats, or the shirts without collars, they used paper collars then, so I decided to look at the shoes. Much to my dismay they were useless to me, not only were they too big, they were all “spats”. “I could never get away with wearing shoes like that in modern times.” I thought. With an arm load of suits draped over my arm I made my way down stairs to leave and I remembered that there was a safe behind a mirror in one of the rooms. “Maybe she forgot about it.” I thought. When I walked into the almost empty room I could see the mirror swung open on its hinges and I knew the safe had been emptied, but I walked over and stuck my hand in all the way to the back just to make sure. “Yes, she remembered.” I thought.

As I was walking down the hill away from the house I felt sad and lonely, but I comforted myself with the fact that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t stealing because the clothes had once belonged to me and I could at least put them to good use instead of just leaving them to rot.
The dream was even more bizarre because even then I knew I was gay, so why would I be dreaming of a wife and daughter?

When I woke up I told my mother about the dream in great detail. For the first few minutes I could remember my family name, but I soon forgot it. My mother suggested that maybe I’d been reincarnated from someone who’d died on the Titanic and I should go to the library and look for a book on the subject. She said many men had died on the ship while their wives and children had survived. That was the beginning of my life long fascination with the “Titanic”, and Walter Lord’s book “A Night to Remember”, but I never did recognize any names from the list of survivors, or casualties, of that fateful night. I would think that if I had gone down on the Titanic that I’d have dreams about that and not about my former home and clothes.

Within the next year I had another dream where I was on the roof of a large estate, or castle and since I’m terrified of heights the dream seemed more like a nightmare. The pitch of the roof with all its many peaks and valleys scared the hell out of me and it was a long drop to the ground. I woke up out of breath and in a panic. For some reason those two dreams stayed with me through the years. Then sometime in 2003 I had a dream where I was wandering through this grand house and it just seemed to go on and on. Every time I’d walk into one room there’d be another even larger room even more spectacular than the other. The dream was so real I could see every last detail and every piece of furniture. I don’t know where such dreams come from I usually dream about cars.

Luckily while I was selling Porsche’s I won the annual sales trip every year and I was able to go to “The Grand Hotel” on Mackinac Island, Michigan the “Stanley Hotel” In Estes Park, Colorado where Stephen King began writing “The Shining, yes, I stayed in room 217 and two trips to Germany, where on the second trip I was able to drive a new red Porsche Carrera convertible and revisit all of King Ludwig’s castles that I’d toured in my youth. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought the roof I was seeing in my dream might have been the castle “Neuschwanstein” , but after seeing it again I knew it wasn’t what I’d seen.

After deciding to quit the Mercedes dealership and accept a sales job with Aston Martin I had a free round trip ticked anywhere Southwest Airlines flew, so I studied things carefully and decided on “Biltmore House” in Asheville, North Carolina. Even though we lived in North Carolina for several years I never knew “Biltmore House” existed until I saw the credits of the movie “Private Eyes” that was released in 1980. I was stunned that I’d never heard of it, but it seems I read somewhere that it really wasn’t open to the public until 1973 and we moved from there in January of that year.

In late October, 2007 I booked the trip and had a great time despite the fact that I went alone. I flew into Raleigh and had to drive the rest of the way there, so I reserved the cheapest rental car knowing that sometimes they will run out of those cars and upgrade you for free, just as often there are times you reserve a Cadillac and they stick you in a Pontiac. When I got there my Ford Escort was waiting for me just as they promised, but the power outlet in the dash wasn’t working and I needed it for my portable GPS system. After forty five minutes of them trying to fix it they upgraded me to a Dodge Caliber, which is some kind of a crossover SUV, but definitely better than an Escort. I’d tried to book a hotel right on Biltmore Estate, but since it was full they booked me at the “Homestead Inn, or “Home” something or other. I finally reached Asheville, sometime after 10:00 PM it had rained on me most of the way, the room was a suite and fairly nice, at around two hundred thirty five dollars a night it had better be nice. It was pouring down rain and my room was on the first floor with a wonderful view of the parking lot. I kept hearing a loud noise like someone playing music too loud in their car with the bass turned all the way up. It would start and then stop and I got so mad I walked around the parking lot after midnight just to see where it was coming from and only then did I realize it was the air conditioner for my room. The next day I was upgraded to the top floor of the hotel. It was only six stories, but I had a beautiful view of the mountain just across the way.

They offer a personalized tour of Biltmore Estate for one hundred fifty dollars and it includes a “Behind the Scenes Tour”, a “Rooftop Tour”, and a “Guided Tour” of the house, or you can do each one for fifteen dollars each. Even though I would have liked the personal tour I decided to let good sense prevail and I bought individual tickets. After seeing photos of Biltmore on the Internet I was somewhat intrigued by the rooftop tour and knew I just had to take it. The guided tour of the house is only once a day at 4:00 PM, so I had time to walk around and eat before it began. When I arrived at the table in the grand entry hall I found out I was the only person who’d booked the tour, so I got a complete one on one tour of the house by a sweet little old lady how lucky is that? It rained on and off all that day, but during the “Rooftop Tour” I knew it was the exact roof that I’d seen in my dream. I regretted leaving my camera in the car, so I went back the next day while it was sunny enough to walk all around the grounds and take photos. I went on the “Rooftop Tour” again, so I could get some breath taking shots from the roof.

While on the tour of the house I found out some things that I hadn’t known. The house was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II and was finished in 1895 while he was still a bachelor. The two hundred and fifty room estate is the largest home in the United States. He filled the mansion with Oriental carpets, tapestries, antiques, and artwork by Renoir and Whistler. Three years later he married and they had one daughter. In 1912 they booked passage on the Titanic, but changed their plans before departure, due to a premonition of Mrs. Vanderbilt's sister. It was too late to stop Mr. Vanderbilt's valet from boarding the ship and he went down with their luggage when the Titanic sank. George W. Vanderbilt II died in 1914 of a heart attack in Washington, DC. after an appendectomy. His wife later remarried and the house was almost vacant several times throughout the years before being restored and turned into a tourist attraction and a winery.
I won’t say I had an epiphany, but it truly was like the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. All of those dreams suddenly made sense to me after all those years, was I George W. Vanderbilt II? I can’t say, but it was a very strange feeling and now my dream is to live in Asheville someday.

Monday, January 11, 2010

MIKE HUNT

When I was working at the Buick dealership in Midland back in the early eighties there was a receptionist/cashier there named DeAnn. At first I thought she was grumpy and bitchy. I would go back to cash a fifteen dollar check, which was my lunch money for the week and she would snap, “This is not a bank!” After a few weeks of hearing “This is not a bank.” “This is not a bank.” I decided I’d fix her. A friend of mine had one of those “Kitchen Witches” that was popular at the time and he gave it to me. It was just a homely little witch flying on a broom and you hung it in your kitchen for good luck. I attached a sign underneath it which read, “Our Cashier” and thumb tacked it over the sliding window in front of her desk. I figured she’d have a fit and take it down immediately, but to my surprise she loved it. We became close friends and she refused to allow anyone to take it down in all the years she worked there. She now lives in Fresno, but we still exchange Christmas cards, and she calls me every year on my birthday.

One winter morning around ten o’clock she called my office and asked, “Sam, have we had many people in the showroom today?” I said, “No, it’s been dead as hell, why?” “Well there’s been someone calling down here wanting me to page a customer over the PA system and I don’t like to do that I just don’t think it’s very professional.” “Who is it?” I asked. “Some guy named Michael Hunt. Do you know anyone by that name?” “No.” I said, “But I do have a couple of customers named Hunt, let me look.” As I flipped through my customer file I found the H’s. “No, I have a Frank and a Richard Hunt, but no Michael, but they are among about five brothers maybe he’s one of them.” “Have any of them been in today?” she asked. “No.” I said. “Well, will you let me know if you see them?” she asked. “Sure.” I said and hung up. We closed at 6:00PM and around five thirty each day I would go back in her office sit on the counter and talk to her as she counted her change drawer. She was real persnickety about that change drawer and wouldn’t allow another soul but me to be back there while she counted it. We’d catch up on the day’s gossip and just talk about whatever came to mind. While she was counting dimes the phone rang and she answered it. She placed them on hold and let out a long exasperated sigh as she threw the times back into their slot. “They’ve been calling here all damn day.” she said, as she stood up and slid the glass window back as far as it would go and leaned out and yelled across the service department. “Has anyone seen Mike Hunt?” Burst of laughter could be heard all over the shop. It was only then that I realized what they’d done. She was still leaning out the window when she yelled “Goddamnit!” Slammed the window and sat back down to count her dimes as she whimpered in frustration. I didn’t know what to say; I couldn’t laugh, I just said, “DeAnn, I swear I didn’t know anything about that. She said, “I know it, it took them all day to wear me down and they finally got me.” She was a pretty good sport about it, we all had to be around there because any one of us could be next for whatever practical joke of the day was. I laugh about that until this day and she and I still get a kick out of it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

RUNAWAYS

Do you remember the movie "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World"? I didn't see it until I was about twelve in 1967, five years after its release. It had an all star cast and couldn’t be remade today. Stars just want too much money these days it doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars were available to assemble the cast for that movie. It’s a cinema classic that can’t be duplicated. There's a scene in it that reminds me of my paternal grandparents when they moved out to California to be close to us in 1963 in my grandfather’s 1953 Chevy pickup. It was the scene with the black couple, I think they were both actors from the old "Amos and Andy" TV show and they get run off the road by another car and down the side of the mountain in the desert near Palm Springs. All of their belongings were strapped on the back of the truck and as the man fought to keep the truck under control things began "ejecting" out one at a time until they reached the bottom and the truck was almost empty. The man looks over at the woman and says, "I said it befo an I'll say it again, I didn't wanna move to Californie!" I remember blushing because it reminded me of my paternal grandparent’s and I was ashamed of them.

They were simple country people and the salt of the earth. They had very little money, but would do anything for anyone in need. I only became ashamed of them when I was a teenager. I got over it before their deaths, but I should never have been ashamed of them in the first place.

My grandfather Sam O. Fowler was born January, 1907 and he died August 1997. My grandmother was Arlena Cox who was born in March, 1907 and died in July 1988. They never had much money and were married in 1928. I once saw a photo of them soon after they were married and my grandma was in a dress that was too tight, probably borrowed, and one of those hats that looked like a horse’s feed bag turned upside down on her head. She was always really into pictures and had a “Kodak” ready at all times. Thanks to her I have many photos of family members and people from our past most of whom I don’t remember. One of my great pleasures as a child was going through my grandma’s box of old photos. I think that was when I began to learn about fashions and cars from the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. I would endlessly ask my grandma questions about the people in the photos and I learned about aunts, uncles, cousins, great grandparents and friends. When they lived, where they lived, when they died and where they were now. I was fascinated by it all.

My paternal grandparents were the greatest example of recycling I’ve ever known. My grandma kept boxes of fabric scraps to make quilts. She reused tin or cardboard boxes, glass jars, buttons and even plastic ware. My grandpa used to pick up glass bottles along the highway for their five cent return fees and later collected aluminum cans to sell to be recycled. These people were the true conservationist simply because of the poverty they grew up with. Yet for the most part they were happy as long as they had a roof over their heads and something good to eat once in a while. Call it being “Green” or just being frugal, with the current economy we may need to get back to thinking the way our grandparents did.

I remember seeing a photo of grandma taken in the 1940’s where she was holding some kind of trophy. Her apparel seemed strange to me even for someone in the 1940’s. They lived in Pyote, Texas at the time and I asked her what the trophy was for? She said, “Oh, I went to a “Tacky Party”, and I won.” “What’s a Tacky Party?” I asked. “That’s where you go to a party dressed as tacky as you can and the woman who dressed the tackiest wins the trophy.” “Oh.” I said. My father piped in about that time and said, “But when Arlena went to the party she didn’t know it was a Tacky Party.” We all got a laugh over that. That’s one thing I miss about my grandma she always appreciated a good laugh even if it was at her expense. While her photos were always kept in an old hat box her buttons were kept in an old round tin cake box. I loved looking through them even though I swear there weren’t any two that matched. It was like looking through a “Pirate’s Treasure Chest” because they were all so pretty and jeweled.

I stayed with them on their farm in Adamsville, Texas when I was five and six years old during the summer. Danny always agreed to stay too, but when my parent’s got in the car to leave the little chicken shit would make a run for the car and leave me standing there alone with my parent’s asking me if I wanted to go with them. I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother, so I stayed by myself. I remember once I was bored and I found a box of Christmas ornaments. It must’ve been July, but I decided I wanted to decorate a Christmas tree, so my grandma made my Popeye go cut down a little evergreen tree, so I could decorate it. She could be so sweet at times, but then turn around and be as mean as a snake. Once I was trying to eat a bowl of cornflakes with water and sugar on them because there was no milk, and she began to berate and belittle me about how I ate like a girl and how my parent’s hated me and loved Danny more because they left me with her and when they came back to get me they always had present’s, but only because Danny could talk them into them when I couldn’t. I was crying and trying to hold a magazine up in front of my face so I wouldn’t have to look at her and she took it away from me, so she could make me look at her while she ridiculed me. I remember feeling like shit and crying because my parent’s didn’t love me, they only loved my brother Danny. I thought I was fat and acted like a girl, so no wonder they didn’t love me.

Once she decided to paint some decorative glass bowls, the kind you put olives and pickles in for parties. I just remember one that was shaped like a leaf. For whatever reason she was painting the bottoms of them mint green. I was helping her and while I was painting one it fell off the saw horse and landed in the grass. She gave me such an evil look I just took off running. Immediately she ran in the house and came out with something to whip me with. At first I thought it was a small belt, but then I realized it was a spur and I ran even faster. She must’ve chased me around the farm house about five times and I don’t think I would have ever stopped, except she threatened to tell my father and said I’d get whipped harder. I stopped on the shady side of the house under a tree and she hit me on the legs with the spur. I remember crying, but not much. My parent’s came the next weekend to pick me up. My father noticed the funny star shapes on my legs and asked me, “How’d you get those marks?” I said, “Grandma whipped me with a spur.” He asked, “What spur?” I said, “The one hanging on the wall in the hallway.” He said, “Show me where it is.” I walked him into the house and into the hall in front of the bathroom where it was hanging and pointed up to it. It was much too high for me to reach, so my father took it off the hook and compared it to the marks on my legs. He then called out, “Arlena come here.” Grandma came in and he said, “Sammy said you whipped him with this spur, did you?” “Oh no.” she said. “Then why do the marks on his legs match this spur?” “I don’t know I whipped him with a switch off a tree.” She said. I was shocked she lied grownups weren’t supposed to lie only bad little kids lied, I couldn’t believe my ears. None the less my father accepted her explanation and never said another word to her, or me, about it. I will always remember how hurt I was because it made me feel like I had been the one who lied.

Years later I walked into the same house on my way to work and my five year old sister looked up from her bowl of ice cream and said, “Sammy, grandma hit me right here.” and pointed to a red hand print on her shoulder. Grandma said, “Oh I didn’t hit her, she started to slip in the bathtub and I reached out to grab her.” I knew grandma was lying, so I called Stacy into the next room and said, “Stacy, I want you to know I believe you and I know grandma hit you, but let’s not say anything about it OK?” She said, “OK.” It was important to me to let her know that an adult believed her and I knew grandma had hit her and then gave her a bowl of ice cream to keep her from telling.

She wasn’t all bad and when I was a child I loved my grandma. When they lived in Merced I’d drop by their little rent house on my way home from school. They’d moved to another house further away when Danny and I decided one night to run away from home and go watch TV with her. We wanted to watch “The Lucy Show” and my father insisted on watching something else, so I told him, “We’ll just go to grandmas she’ll let us watch it.” “Go ahead and go.” he said. Danny and I took off out the front door and down the street. We were to dumb to realize the Lucy Show would be over long before we got there. It was already dark and we walked along holding hands while looking over our shoulders every so often. We figured if we could make it all the way to grandmas before he caught us we’d be OK. We’d already made it around a drive in restaurant called “The Golden Chicken” when we spotted my dad in our 1963 black Plymouth Valiant convertible turning the corner. He pulled along side us, reached over and opened the passenger door and said, “Get in.” We were so scared we got in the back seat and left the right front bucket seat empty. When we got home he said, “Now go to your room and take your clothes off.” Take our clothes off? He didn’t say “Take your clothes off and put on your pajamas.” He just said take your clothes off. We wondered what he was going to do spank us naked. He’d never done that before. We quickly undressed put on our pajamas and jumped into bed. Then we heard him coming down the hall he walked in flipped on the light and said, “I’m not going to whip you because your mother won’t let me, but don’t you ever do anything like that again.” Whew, we made it out of that one by the skin of our teeth. We found out later that our parents thought we’d be too scared to go anywhere in the dark, so my mother made my father search the house, yard, and car before he went looking for us, but she told him, “Don’t you whip them because you told them they could go.”

Later my grandparents moved to a little farming town named Lemon Cove to pick fruit and earn money with the migrant farm workers. I remember visiting them on the weekends and we had fun playing with some of the kids. Everyone was dirt poor, but it really didn’t seem to matter to them. On one visit I remember the first time I ever saw a boy who was like me. There was this one boy, who was a couple of years older than I and I spotted him and his dad sitting in their old pickup listening to the radio. I walked up to talk to them on the passenger side where the father was sitting and the boy was working on something in his hands and he quickly hid it from me. My curiosity got the best of me, so I walked around to his side to see what it was and he was embroidering a dish towel in one of those rings like my grandmother used. I didn’t say a word, but I remember feeling sorry for him because he felt he had to hide it. I’d done some embroidery work myself while visiting the farm and I rather liked it, too bad we couldn’t have done it together.

Years later when they sold the farm and moved into Lampasas I’d spend time with them and fix meals that my grandfather liked, Frito Pie and Tuna Pasta salad. My grandmother was more than glad to have me do the cooking and I kept them company. Her country ways were always a source of amusement to me. One day I was in the kitchen and there was a reporter on the television talking about President Nixon having Phlebitis. Grandma called to me from the living room, “Sammy Clyde, Sammy Clyde, what is phlebitis?” I walked into the living room wiping my hands on a kitchen towel and said, “Why do you ask?” Ever the hypochondriac, my grandmother said, “Well ever once in a while I get this feelin like somethin's bitin me”. I said, “Maybe a little soap and water would take care of that, phlebitis has something to do with the veins in your legs.” She just grinned at me because she knew I was making a joke at her expense.

My poor old grandfather Popeye and I were watching an old "Twilight Zone" rerun where this elderly couple in the future can go and buy new young bodies. The dilemma is that they only have enough money for one of them and since the husband has a terminal illness they decide he should go first. When he comes out as a twenty one year old "hard body" doing hand stands and she's still an eighty year old woman, they decide their love and their shared lives are far better than one being old and the other being young.
He has them put him back into his old body knowing they'll never have enough money, or another chance and they walk off at the end holding hands to whatever fate awaits them. My poor old, uneducated, sweet, simple, grandfather, who's mother died when he was two and father died when he was twelve, was sent to foster homes and helped rescue his younger half brothers from orphanages asked me, "Sammy, do you think they'll have a machine someday where you can walk in one side old and come out the other side young again?" Even at the tender age of twenty I said, "Popeye, I hope not." And he said, "Me too, my life has been hard, I wouldn't want to have to live it over again." I remember thinking how sad it was that he'd believed that you'd have to live the same life all over again, exactly as it was. Never realizing that you could have an entirely different outcome, oh the possibilities.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Soul Mates

Most people spend their lives looking for a soul mate. You see commercials on television about people finding their soul mates on Internet dating services, and people in love will describe their partner as their soul mate. Part of the Wikipedia definition of soul mate is, “The one and only other half of one's soul, for which all souls are driven to find and join.” I don’t think it necessarily means someone you have to date, marry, or be romantically involved with. I think it’s someone who loves you unconditionally and you feel an immediate bond toward. My soul mate just happened to be fifty years old when I was born on January 5th, 1955.
Ruby Estella Ragsdale was born to John and Emma Ragsdale on October 13th, 1904 the first of four children, she was my mother’s paternal aunt. I don’t know a great deal about her early life except they lived on a farm, and my great grandmother was so religious that when there was no white church nearby for them to attend, they would load the family in the wagon and sit outside the window of the colored church, so they could hear the sermon, it was that important to her. Why they didn’t go in I don’t know. I guess the races just didn’t mix in those days even though most of the farms around them were owned, and farmed, by blacks.

I can only remember three other stories about her childhood. Once when Ruby was about ten, her mother had baked the biscuits for supper that night. She sat them on top of the stove wrapped in a dish towel, and told Ruby to keep the younger children out of them. When my grandfather Clyde, who was two years younger, came home from school he took one, poked a hole in it with his thumb, and poured molasses into it, even though she told him not to. When Ruby ran outside to tell her mother he grabbed his bee bee gun propped up by the kitchen door, and shot her in the back. Years later he said, “Hell, I thought I’d killed her. She fell to the ground and flopped around like a chicken.”
One time a black family was visiting from a nearby with a very small boy. Her younger sister Agnes was so fascinated with the child’s hair, that she wouldn’t stop rubbing its head. The boy finally had enough and bit Agnes, so Agnes turned around and bit him back. Another time her mother had scolded my grandfather for farting at the dinner table. She told him, “When you need to do that go some place where people can’t see you.” So one night he jumped up from the table, ran over and threw the dining room curtains around himself, and farted. She said her mother couldn’t even get mad at him they were all laughing so hard.

Ruby married Earl Leager Fitch in 1932. I never asked her why she waited until she was twenty eight to marry, and I don’t even know how they met, but Earl had been married earlier to a woman who’d died. I also remember that neither she, nor any of her siblings, ever pissed and moaned about “The Depression” the way the rest of my grandparents did. Soon after their marriage they moved to Monahans, Texas, where my uncle started a trucking business, later he owned drilling rigs to drill for oil, and even had a patent on a drill collar he designed. Earl was a compulsive gambler and when they were first married he’d get involved in an all night game of “Craps”. Ruby didn’t like being alone in the house at night, so she’d walk the three or four blocks downtown, find his car, and sleep in it until he came out, sometimes at dawn. Why she felt safer in the car than she did at home, I don’t know. They built a new house on Doris Street in 1936, and his trucking business made a great deal of money during World War II helping the oil business in the war effort. His business was so crucial to the war that he was allowed to buy two new 1942 Lincoln Continental’s right after the war started, and was one of the first to be allowed to buy two 1946 models after the U.S resumed automobile production in 1945. In fact, when gasoline was rationed, he had his own gas and diesel pumps right on their property. With all the money rolling in they were able to buy all new elegant furniture through a man they knew in the Army who’s father owned a furniture store in Mississippi. They took trips to El Paso to buy clothes, and an Ermine coat, for Ruby from “The White House” department store. Ruby even took her parent’s, and my mother, on a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, at a time when billboards asked, “Is this trip really necessary?” My mother’s younger sister refused to go because her cousin’s told her, “Arkansas is too close to Germany, and Hitler will get you.” My mother said, “I was glad because that meant I had my granddaddy and the whole back seat to myself.”

In 1946 when my grandmother and grandfather divorced, my mother, age twelve, and her sister Clydene, age nine, went to live with Ruby and Earl, as they had no children of their own. I always thought Ruby must’ve learned to sew as a young girl from her mother, but it was only recently that I found out none of the girls were taught to sew. Ruby just felt it was important to learn with two young girls in the house, so she bought a Singer sewing machine in a Mahogany case, and took sewing lessons. That machine now sits in my bedroom, and I have fond memories of her sewing on it.

Mother said that living with them wasn’t always a walk in the park, even though she and her sister had all the money, clothes, and cars, they wanted growing up. Her grandmother would tell Ruby to insist she go to church, and mother would refuse simply because they told her to. Once mother and a girlfriend, who was spending the night, snuck out the bedroom window, and took one of the Lincolns, which was old by that time, and not being used. Mother didn’t realize it was low on oil, and burned up the engine. They managed to make it back to the huge barn where Earl kept his trucks and cars, parked it, and never told anyone. I mentioned it to Ruby in 1975, and it pissed mother off that I told her.

In the early fifties mother, and her best friend Sophie, drove Ruby’s black 1948 Chrysler New Yorker to Grandfalls, and went off in a pickup with some other teens. When they hadn’t come home after their curfew time, Ruby went over and got Sophie’s mother, and drove to Grandfalls, where they found her Chrysler on the town square. They parked beside it to wait for the girls to come back. They were late because the kids they went off with had driven the pickup out on the dam, and while trying to make a U turn the rear wheels went off the edge of the dam, and it got stuck. One of the boys walked back into town to find his dad to tow the truck off. By the time they made it back to the car it was after 1:00 AM, and Mother and Sophie were scared shitless they’d be in big trouble. Mother said she didn’t receive any punishment at all and Sophie’s mother wasn’t going to punish her either, until they walked in the house and Sophie said defiantly, “You’re not going to whip me!” Then her mother reached up and snatched a leather strap off the wall and whipped her with it. Earl had the first television in Monahans and built a huge tower for the antenna. My Aunt Clydene remembers being awakened late at night because they wanted her to see that they were receiving a station from San Angelo.

Without Ruby, mother and Clydene would have had no place to go when their parents divorced. Their father had to work, and their mother was too busy dating soldiers at the Midland Air Field. I don’t think Clydene ever appreciated Ruby the way mother did. Ruby was the matriarch of our family and everything always revolved around her as far as we were concerned.
I’m always amazed by people who say they don’t remember the early years of their lives. I remember when I was just learning to walk; she had a “Paula West” pink ceramic rose with green leaves, and a bumble bee, in the center of her oval Duncan Phyfe coffee table. I wanted that bumble bee so bad I couldn’t stand it, and every time I reached for it, I was scolded with a “No, no.” It only made me want it more; I now have it in my curio cabinet.

In 1952 Earl won a new white Ford in a raffle for the “Lobo High School,” and the drawing was at a Friday night football game. The crowd booed him as he walked down to give them the winning ticket, because they figured he was the last person who needed it. He took the Ford down and traded it right away for Ruby a green 1952 Buick Roadmaster. In fact that was the car I was brought home from the hospital in when I was born. Each one of us kids first car ride was in a Buick. When Danny was born in 1957, he was brought home in my parents peach colored 1955 Buick Special, and when Stacy was born in 1968, she was brought home from the hospital in my grandmother’s gold 1967 Buick Wildcat, even though we had a new gold 1969 Cougar XR7 at the time. I remember standing up in the front seat of Ruby’s Roadmaster as she was parallel parking it. “Clack, clack, clack, clack,” as her rings hit the steering wheel turning it to the right and “Clack, clack, clack, clack,” as she turned it to the left, “Clack, clack, clack, clack,” again to the right, I was fascinated, and watched her intently. I even remember once deliberately shoving my foot into the space between the seat cushions, and pretending I was stuck. Ruby had to put down her purse, and packages, and wrestle with my leg asking me, “How did you get it in there in the first place?” while I was delighted with my little mischievous adventure.

I remember just after Danny was born, Ruby sent mother the money for us to fly from Denver to Monahans. It was a prop plane, and you had to walk up hill to your seats because the rear sat lower than the front. The stewardess made a big fuss over how cute I was, and they had to put a pillow between me and the seatbelt. I’d watched enough television to know planes crashed, and I didn’t like it one bit. I kept leaning forward and crying dramatically into the pillow, until they gave me some gum to distract me. Ruby and Agnes drove us back in Agnes’s maroon 1953 Buick Super because it was newer than Ruby’s car, and had air conditioning. Somewhere along the way I needed to “Tee tee” and Agnes finally pulled the car over to the side of the road, so I could go. When I got out and saw cows in the pasture, I didn’t want any part of it. No matter how much they begged me, I kept saying, “No Agnes, mode, no Agnes mode.” I wouldn’t pee until they got to a gas station so I could use the commode. Then as the gas station attendant was filling up the car, he started talking to me, and I had to tell him about the exploding clock from “Howdy Doody” which scared the hell out of me. I would hide my face in the sofa until mother told me it was OK to look. I walked around in circles saying, “That clock scare me death, that clock scare me death.” They thought it was hilarious. Agnes never seemed to be upset that Ruby was my favorite. On the trip Agnes would try and get me to come over to her when Ruby was driving, so I wouldn’t distract her. I would just move in closer and say, “No, mine Ruby, mine Ruby.”
Ruby always had Wrigley’s Spearmint gum in her purse and it was a rare treat for us because we either swallowed it, or it ended up in our hair. She kept toys and puzzles at her house for us to play with and whenever we visited there was usually a trip to one of the stores downtown like “Whacker’s” where we got a new toy. Other times we went to the “Jack & Jill” shoe store for new shoes where they put your feet in an X ray machine to see if they fit correctly. Going to see Ruby was always a joyous occasion. She used to make hamburgers for us that were better than anything you could get at a restaurant, and my favorites like spaghetti and “cob on the corn”. When I was grown, she’d always made her special chicken salad sandwiches on wheat bread, for me and my friends served with Lay’s potato chips and a dill pickle wedge.

Earl used to take me downtown with him for coffee, and I got to put nickels in the miniature juke box on the wall in each booth, and flip through the song list, then we’d go to the post office to check box 817 for their mail. After he traded the Buick for an air conditioned, metallic fawn, 1959 Pontiac Bonneville, he took Danny and me with him and left us in the sitting outside with the engine, and the air running, so we wouldn’t get hot. I guess he must’ve run into someone he knew, and got to talking, and stayed longer than he’d planned. Danny jumped into the front seat and started yanking on the gearshift lever making engine revving noises. I knew from television that he could possibly put the car in drive, and cause it to take off, so I reached over and turned the car off. Danny said, “I want it on!” and started it again. I said, “No, I don’t want the car to get hot, so we need to turn it off just roll your window down.” and turned it off again. He started it again and said, “I want it on!” That was when I reached over, turned it off, and removed the key from the ignition. He began fighting me to get it back, and we ended up in the floorboard wrestling for it. Neither of us had rolled any windows down, and by the time Earl came out we were sweating, crying, and covered in dirt from the floor mats.
When we got home Ruby lit into him as she was stripping our clothes off while running water in the bathtub. “What were you thinking leaving two little boys in a car with it running?” Well I left the air conditioner on for them.” he said meekly. “I don’t care!” she said, “You killed one of your dogs by leaving him in a car with the windows rolled up. Don’t you ever do that again, you hear me?”

I don’t know why, but back then little old ladies always thought kids needed laxative, and there was always a foil packet of chocolate Ex Lax in her Frigidaire. She would only allow us a tiny piece, and we always begged for more, but she cautioned us on the fact that it was medicine, and we were to never take any of it ourselves. One day Danny and I were wearing our yellow matching pajamas, with feet in them, and playing with our little mint green plastic 1958 Plymouths on her coffee table, driving them around and around the oval. I heard a loud gurgled fart, as Danny stopped, his eyes grew wide, and then he hauled ass for the bathroom. I never saw him move that fast, but it was too late, he’d shit his pajamas, and Ruby had to strip him down and put him in the bathtub.

Whenever we’d leave, whether it was going to San Antonio, or moving to California, or Germany, Ruby would stand in the driveway and blow kisses and wave, until our car was out of sight. I would watch her and wave back through the rear window with tears in my eyes as we drove away. I loved her so much, she was the only person in my life who I ever believe really loved me.

Sometime in the late fifties Monahans changed their zoning laws, and they wouldn’t allow Earl to have the gas and diesel pumps for his trucking business, so they sold the property in town, and bought a place on the Stockton highway across from the “Lobo” drive in theater. We thought it was cool when we were kids because you could see the movie screen from their house. Sometimes Ruby would take us out on the front steps when we begged her, so we could watch the movie, but with no sound it wasn’t much fun, so we soon tired of it. Earl ran his trucking business for a few more years, but he got lung cancer, and lost all their money. There were men in town that owed him twenty five thousand dollars at the time, but never paid him, and soon he had to sell all but one of his trucks and cars just to try and keep the house. The only ray of hope they had was that Earl might sell a drill collar he’d designed, and had a patent on. Ruby talked about it a lot, but it never happened. I once typed a letter to her on an old “Royal” typewriter she’d given me telling her how I hoped Earl would sell his drill collar soon so she could buy a new car, and pretty dresses, like she used to. My parent’s read it, and told me not to mail it. I was only ten, and didn’t realize just how dyer their financial situation really was. You just can’t take peoples hopes and dreams away, we all need something to hang on to.

When we left for Germany in April, 1966, Earl was bedridden, and when we went in to tell him goodbye, mother cried, because she knew it would be the last time we’d ever see him. He died in October of that year. After that, the bank allowed Ruby to sell the house, rather than foreclose on it, and it gave her enough money to trade in the old Pontiac, and buy her a used white 1964 Chevrolet Biscayne. She gave much of her furniture, including her beautiful Duncan Phyfe dining room set, to a man who’d once worked for Earl, and helped her move. She also gave him Earl’s elderly cocker spaniel Pete, but he ran away soon after that, and was never seen again. Things were pretty grim for her for a few years, but finally she had a chance to buy a small trailer house that was on the property owned by Agnes. When the zoning laws changed in Monahans Agnes and her husband Sonny owned a house with a trailer park on it. The city allowed the trailers to stay until someone moved, but no other trailers could move in. Eventually there was only one left, and Agnes built a small strip mall that included her beauty shop, cleaners, and a barber shop. That little pink and silver trailer stayed there until they sold the property in the late 1970’s. Then Ruby sold it and moved into a brand new government assisted apartment, where she had enough money to have carpet put down, and get a window unit air conditioner. I don’t know how she survived it all; I know Agnes must’ve helped her financially at times, if only Earl hadn’t gambled away most of their money.

By the time we came back from Germany in June of 1968, she was pretty well situated, and she’d come and stay with us in Lampasas for weeks at a time when my father was in Viet Nam. We always missed her when she left, and loved having her around. Stacy was an infant then, and she always helped mother around the house while she was occupied with the baby. We moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina when daddy returned, and we stayed there until he retired in 1973, when we moved back to Lampasas. The year I graduated, my mother and I decided to open up “Sonny’s Pizza”, named after the pizza parlor on the “Sonny & Cher” show. We weren’t exactly setting the world on fire, even with our wonderful spaghetti recipe. I think she paid me the first three weeks we were open, but after that I was working for nothing. She even bitched when she had to give me gas money, and we were driving my fucking car back and forth to work, what the hell was she thinking? I had to go to the bank to borrow money to get my car repaired, and have the money to have my jaws wired shut, to loose weight. We’d both gotten fat as pigs while running the place, just eating out of sheer boredom. I swear the only reason the banker gave me the loan was because as I was driving to the bank I passed a fire station, and one of the guys noticed flames coming from my rear axle, as I pulled up and parked in front of the bank, a fire truck came screeching up behind me, and started putting out the fire. A huge crowd gathered and it was quite a sight. When the banker asked, “What is the purpose of this loan?” I said, “To get my car fixed.” You couldn’t deny that, he gave me the loan.

I began loosing weight rapidly after my jaw was wired shut. There are only so many things you can run through a blender, and drink with a straw. In the middle of all that, my mother suddenly told me I was moving. Out of the blue just like that, she couldn’t afford me anymore. What the fuck! Here I was slaving my ass off for her for free, unable to speak properly, and she’d devised a plan to get me out of the house. Behind my back, she’d asked Ruby if I could move in with her in that tiny trailer, and my uncle Sonny found me a job as a maintenance man at the Colonial Inn for one hundred twenty five dollars a week, I was heartbroken. I asked, “When do I have to go?” “Tomorrow.” she said, and took me to the store to buy me shaving supplies, toothpaste, and deodorant. It was so late in the evening we had to buy them at a convenience store, because all the other stores were closed. I packed my car until three in the morning, and our poodle Jocko, followed me in and out of the house every step of the way. The next day July 18th, 1974, I left early while it was still cool, and drove my battered old white 1967 Thunderbird to Monahans.
I got the job at the motel, even though the manager looked at me as if I were some kind of freak because I couldn’t open my mouth, and I had to sleep on the fold out sofa in Ruby’s tiny living room. Eleven days later the newspapers announced that Cass Elliot had choked to death on a ham sandwich. Even though it wasn’t true, Agnes insisted I go to her dentist, and have my jaws unwired, she paid for it. I’d dropped from two hundred ten pounds to one hundred sixty five, so I guess it worked, but it ruined my teeth.

I was devastated at being thrown out of the house, but Ruby and I got along fine, and I soon found a new freedom I hadn’t had when I lived with my parent’s. Even though I worked at the “Colonial Inn” for an eight hour shift during the day, and pulled another eight hour shift at the “Town & Country” convenience store at night, I found a way to have weekends off, so I could party at the gay bar in Odessa. I was nineteen at the time so it didn’t bother me much, but I soon realized what a luxury sleep was. I actually enjoyed my time with them and we grew even closer in the time I was living there. I even was able to buy a champagne colored, 1970 Cadillac Sedan De Ville. I’ve never owned another car that meant as much as that one did. Agnes had to co-sign the loan at the bank with me, but she did it.

I lived there about nine months before I moved to Odessa for a while, and then joined the Air Force. After that fiasco, I moved back to my parents for three months before moving to Midland in March, 1976. Midland is only sixty five miles from Monahans, so it made visiting them very convenient over the next twelve years.
Later in life, the only way I can describe Ruby is that she was like a Texas style Katherine Hepburn. She was full of piss and vinegar, and always voiced her opinion about things while shaking her perfectly manicured, red fingernail, either in the air, or at you, for punctuation. She was a staunch Democrat, and nothing could get her going like politics. One Christmas, as we were driving to Lampasas, she was sitting beside me in the front seat reading the newspaper. Whenever she found something she thought interesting, she would read it out loud. She read a story about nursing home abuse to me, and said, “I’m not going to a nursing home.” She was in her mid seventies by then and just to make conversation I asked why not?” She just said, “I don’t care how bad I get, I’d rather die than go to a nursing home.” I said, “Well Ruby, mother and daddy still work what if you got to the point you couldn’t take care of yourself?” “I don’t care, I’m not going,” she said. Again I asked, “Why not?” “Because they dope those old people up to where they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, that’s why!” she said, while shaking her left index finger in the air. I laughed so hard I almost drove the Cadillac off the road.

She’d slap you too, not hard, just a little pop across the cheek, if you smarted off to her. Once mother, Danny, and she, came to the Cadillac dealership to see me, and I said something to her, and she popped me across the face. I’ll never forget the look of shock on Danny’s face. He hadn’t been around her like I had, and I just laughed. She didn’t mean anything by it, but I don’t think it set too well with her doctor when she did it to him when she was ninety four.
I always knew just underneath that tough as nails veneer, laid a heart of pure gold. Often some of my friends and I would drive over to Monahans to see her, she’d always have a batch of sandwiches made for us. She’d notice we had our “roadie cups”; we always had a bottle of Bacardi rum, Coke, and Dr. Pepper, out in the car. She’d look at us and ask, “You boys drinking whisky?” “No Ruby, you know we don’t drink whisky, its rum.” I’d say. “Well you’d better be careful drinking and driving” she’d scold, but before we left she’d always insist on filling our cups with ice for the trip back.

One Thanksgiving after mother and daddy had moved to Big Spring, Texas, mother had several relatives at her house, and I brought over my copy of “Somewhere in Time” for us to watch. The ending is sad, yet beautiful, as Jane Seymour awaits the dashing Christopher Reeve in heaven after his death, while the magnificent John Barry sound track is playing. Later I went out to wash mothers new Buick, and Ruby came out just to get some fresh air, and sweep the drive way. It took me a while to be able to bring it up without crying, but finally I said, “Ruby, you remember how that lady was waiting for him in heaven? That’s how I want you to be waiting for me when I die.” I was barely able to get the words out without crying. She propped the broom against the house, shook her finger at me and said,”You just better be sure and be there!” I stood there laughing with tears streaming down my face.

After Agnes passed away Ruby seemed content to live there in Monahans alone, but by then she was ninety one, and mother didn’t want her so far away, because by then my parents had moved to San Angelo, and mother wanted to be able to look after her. After some persuasion she moved to an assisted living center, and gave up driving at the age of ninety two. It was a nice place and she had her own apartment, and even some new furniture. Ruby loved anything new, and thought the microwave was the best thing ever invented.

Just after her ninety third birthday, she had a cold and wasn’t feeling well, so I bought her a box of gourmet cookies, and took them to her. When I knocked on the door her voice came through loud and clear, “Who is it?” “It’s Sammy.” I said. She said, “You’ll have to go to the desk and get them to get you the key so you can open the door.” Why can’t you open the door?” I asked. It sounded like she was right on the other side. She said something I couldn’t believe, “I’m on the floor, and I can’t get up to open it.” I asked her to repeat it, and she said again, “I’m on the floor, and I can’t get up to open it.” I walked down to the desk and told the lady what she’d said. She looked at me in disbelief. That just wasn’t something that Ruby would say, or do. When we opened the door, she was lying at the foot of her bed, face down, in her night gown, with a pillow beside her.
We made sure she was OK, no broken bones, or anything, then I picked her up under the arms, and carried her to a chair in the living room. We got her some juice, and a cookie, then the lady from the desk went to call the doctor. Ruby started telling me what had happened. “I lay down on the foot of my bed because it was already made up to take a nap, and I dropped my pillow, when I reached for it I fell off, and couldn’t get back up. I tried calling my niece, but I didn’t have my glasses, and after the operator gave me her number, I couldn’t see to dial the phone. My heart sank, “Ruby don’t you know who I am?” I asked. She looked at me as if trying to recognize me and said, “No.” I said, “I’m Sammy.” The look on her face changed immediately, and she asked, “Did you get that job at Haverty’s?” The ambulance came and they took her to the hospital, and found out she was suffering from oxygen deprivation. She went down hill fast, and was almost unresponsive; they didn’t expect her to live. Mother and daddy had to go to Andrews, to check up on my grandfather Sam, who was in a nursing home, and mother told me I’d better go by and see Ruby in the hospital, because she was afraid it might be the last time I’d get to see her. I dreaded going I just didn’t want to see her like that. When I walked into the room she was lying there asleep, and a fresh food tray was at her bedside. I guess all my years of taking care of sick friends kicked in, because I turned on the television, cranked up her bed, and slid her food tray in front of her. I said, “Ruby you’ve got to get up and eat something. You can’t just lie there, set up and eat something, so you can get better, and get out of here.” It took me a little while, but soon she was letting me feed her. We started out with sips of iced tea, then peach cobbler first, since she was fond of sweets, then some of the meat, about that time mother walked in. When she’d left Ruby was alone in a dark room, unresponsive, and when she returned, there she was with all the lights and television on, eating and talking to me. I didn’t say anything to mother at the time about the look of shock on her face, but later she told me,”I fully expected to come back and find her dead, and when I walked into that room I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She wouldn’t have done that for anyone else in the world but you.” Soon after that she was out of the hospital, but could no longer live alone, so she moved into a nursing home. It was her decision, and she seemed to rather enjoy it. She once told me, “Do you know what we had for dinner last night?” “What?” I asked. She said, “Hot Dogs! Can you imagine them feeding these old people hot dogs? Hell most of them don’t have any teeth, the very idea!”

By Christmas of 1999, I’d moved to Fort Worth, and when I drove down and picked her up at the nursing home to take her to my parent’s for dinner, she walked right along beside me rolling her oxygen tank behind her. As we got in my new car, the nurse said, “Oh you’ve got one of those new Beetles, I just love those cars.” Ruby shook her finger at her, and said, “Yes, he sells them in Fort Worth, go buy one from him.” We had a nice visit, but after dinner Ruby looked at her oxygen tank, and saw it was getting low. She said, “That boy told me it was full, I guess he thinks old ladies are stupid. I hate to go, but I guess you’d getter take me back.” I drove her back, and as we were walking to her room this young girl behind a desk asked, “Mrs. Fitch did you have a nice Christmas with your family?” “Yes I did, but I had to come back early because that boy told me my oxygen tank was full, but it’s almost empty, and that makes me damned mad.” she said, shaking her finger. When we got to her room she gave me a hug, and a kiss, and put her hands on my shoulders, and as always, scolded me about my drinking. I said, “Ruby this might be our last visit, do you want to spend it gripping at me?” She said, “No honey, but if something ever happened to you I just couldn’t stand it, and think what it would do to your poor mother.” I drove away with a heavy heart, knowing it probably would be the last time I’d ever see her. She died June 14th, 2000, four months shy of her ninety sixth birth day. Before she passed away mother told her, “Ruby, I don’t know what I would have done without you.” She patted mother’s hand and said, “I don’t know what I would have done without you either honey.”
These days I’m not sure if there really is a heaven, I hope there is, but I’ll know I’ve arrived when I can see my Aunt Ruby waving and blowing kisses at me.