The Real King of Isabelle Avenue

We moved to Isabelle Avenue sometime in 1964. It was Pops and Mom and Max and me. Max was just a baby and my memories of that time are faint – images of Grandma and Grandpa’s house just down the street, some older girls knocking on our door asking if they could use Max as their pretend baby doll while they played house, and me meeting my very first friend. His name was Paul. He lived right across the street and was about a year older than me. I honestly have no memory of the time in my life before Paul. He was funny and talkative, and even at 4 he was the most adventurous person I knew.

Lorri and Mom and Pops in the front yard

Mom and Pop and I in Grandpa’s front yard on Isabelle Avenue. I bet Max was inside on Granny’s lap.

As we grew up he would spend almost all of his afternoons at our house. My mom was like a second mom to Paul. He tried to wrangle an invitation to dinner almost every night. He loved just about everything my mom cooked and on those nights when he wasn’t on the dinner list he would hide in the rose bushes under our kitchen windows waiting for mom to go to the sink after dinner. In the dark of the evening he would pop up and scare the bejesus out of her. Year after year he would wait in those bushes and somehow my Mom was never prepared for his sudden and startling appearances.

Mom Smiling

Watch out Mom – beware of the monster below the kitchen window!

He was the ringleader in our neighborhood. He taught my brothers how to make things explode in old pill bottles, and he made short work of just about any lock he ever encountered. I recall seeing him and Ron running out from the side yard after a loud “boom” – neither of them had eyebrows anymore. I never knew any of his alchemic secrets but I was often witness to the aftermath.

My Mom might give him a hard time but she adored him. He was the first of her “boys” that she mothered who were not her sons by birth. Each morning when we started the walk down the street to school, Mom would wait to see what Paul was wearing – she would yell, “I think you wore that yesterday – get back in the house and put on some clean clothes!” Paul never put up a fuss and nearly always did whatever she asked. Mom sometimes feigned annoyance at Paul’s constant presence, but the truth is that if he didn’t show up after school she worried that he was somewhere getting into trouble.

As I became a teenager Paul was the big brother who was always in my business. He was the one would tell me if he thought that the boy I was dating was a creep. He would often tell me who was really my friend at school and who was fake. He looked out for me even when I found his concern annoying. As I became an adult and moved out on my own it was not unusual for him to show up at my door – just to check on me and to catch up.

Minka and Paul

Paul and Minka – I was taking black and white photos of Minka for a school project – Paul dove right in. It’s one of my favorite shots of Paul.

Paul never knocked. He walked into our living room when we were watching TV, eating dinner (his favorite), or just hanging out in the backyard shooting candles out with guns. One time I was at my brother’s home while he and his wife were out of town. I was in the shower and heard someone in the living room when no one was supposed to be home. Of course, I knew it would be Paul. Just a couple of years ago I got a call from Paul – he was ten miles outside of Eureka Springs – even 2000 miles from Isabelle Avenue Paul was still popping by unannounced. The last time I saw him was at Christmas when he came over to my brother’s house. He walked right in and inserted himself into whatever was happening at that moment. Paul was always welcome in our lives. He was one of us. He didn’t need to knock.

One of my favorite adventures with Paul happened was when I was four and he was five. We were at my house watching reruns of the Andy Griffith show. Isabelle Avenue wasn’t Mayberry but the story resonated with us. Opie had been caught in a lie – his report card gave him higher grades and he was reaping the rewards – mainly a new bicycle. Once his teacher realized the mistake she called Andy into the school to tell him about the error. Opie was ashamed and felt like he had no choice but to run away from home. He packed some fried chicken and an apple in a kerchief and tied it to a stick. He sadly departed with it over his shoulder, choosing to start a new life rather than own up to the truth about his grades.

RunawayKid_(65)

The Runaway Kid – Opie plays cowboys with a runaway – he promises to keep the Kid’s secret but Andy spills the beans. Paul and I never spilled the beans to our folks.

Now I wasn’t in school yet and didn’t know much about grades, but the idea of sneaking some fried chicken out of the fridge and taking off on an adventure was pretty appealing to Paul. He talked me into coming along and we tied our food and essentials into bandanas and tied them to tree limbs and just took off. I was worried about not asking Mom for permission, I actually asked permission to leave the yard but Paul convinced me that it wouldn’t be running away if we asked before we left. So like Opie we took off on foot.

We went to the end of Isabelle Avenue and turned south on 21st Street and walked in the general direction of the Blue Angel that we could see above the neighborhood. We got to Fremont Street to the auto parts store when a neighbor spotted us. We were told to get into his truck and wait – he would drive us home after he got what he needed from the parts store.

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Our guiding angel – just down the street from the auto parts store.

In the back of that truck we made the best of it and feasted on cold fried chicken while we waited on our ride home. We had traveled 4 whole blocks and we were pooped. The neighbor dropped us off in front of my house and we continued to play in the yard until the street lights came on and my Mom told us it was time for dinner.

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At the end of Opie’s Ill Gotten Gain Andy notices that Opie is missing – we don’t know if anyone noticed that we were missing.

I am not sure if Mom knew about our adventure. I never told her and she never mentioned our absence or the missing fried chicken.

Paul knew absolutely everyone in the neighborhood and knew all their stories. He would tell of grand adventures with Michael next door or Randy down the street or someone else who might live a couple of blocks over. I call this blog The King of Isabelle Avenue as a reference to my father, but in truth the real king of the block was and always will be Paul.

 

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The last photo I took of Paul. It was my brother’s birthday and Paul was doing what he did best – catching up with the kids from the hood. I can’t picture my life without Paul in it. 

Paul left us last week. My sad heart thought it couldn’t be more broken, but like all of us who lived on Isabelle Avenue, I am struggling to come to terms with a world without him walking into my house without knocking.

I like to imagine him and Mom feasting on fried chicken watching over us.

Godspeed Big Brother.

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The Celebration of the Pre-Bicentennial

The rockets red glare, bombs bursting in mid-air, showers of sparks falling from heaven through the thick sulphurous smoke – below it was carnage. The fallen lay strewn in every direction as far as the eye could see. As the smoke cleared, a single figure becomes visible downfield. She’s clothed in red, a rifle in her hand, and she’s running for the end zone for all she’s worth. Behind her a large bearded man yells, “Die already!”
My Pop never did anything half way – he was all-in or he was out. When we started going to black powder gun shoots at the local range, it wasn’t long before he was getting Mom to make him some “leathers” so that he could play the part of a real mountain man. Almost immediately we were neck-deep in a local club called the Nevada Frontloaders – I know, it sounds like a group of bulldozer enthusiasts, but in reality it was a group who loved shooting muzzle-loading weapons – we were called “frontloaders” because the guns we fired were reloaded from the front of the barrel – the muzzle.
The sterling silver pendant worn by the members of the Nevada Frontloaders - designed by me when I was 12.

The sterling silver pendant worn by the members of the Nevada Frontloaders – designed by me when I was 12.

The Frontloaders put on a rendezvous several times a year – basically a rendezvous is a weekend shoot at a remote location with primitive camping. Initially we all loaded into the GMC camper for these weekends, but after an enlightening trip to a huge rendezvous in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, he moved us out of the camper and into a lodge – a large canvas teepee. Now camping in a teepee is not for the faint of heart – you have to carry log poles with you – very long lodgepole pine poles, I think it took about 30 of them to set up a lodge. It took the whole family and Pop’s pal Tiny to set the lodge up.
Not your typical tent-camping set-up, a teepee requires lots of friends in leather clothes to assemble.

Not your typical tent-camping set-up, a teepee requires lots of friends in leather clothes to assemble.

An aside about Tiny – Tiny’s given name is something like Donald and I have no idea what his last name is. I’ve known him for 40 years and he is married to my mom’s cousin. The subject of his actual name just never came up. He is a very large man – I think he’s something like 6 foot 8, and he always told me that he weighed more than they could read on the scale in his doctor’s office. He used to tell us he was 5 foot 20 or 4 foot 32. He is a mountain of a man. My pop met him at a shoot and immediately started calling him Tiny. To this day he drives a car with a vanity plate with that moniker. He was the guy Pop would call if he ever needed anything. Tiny was there to help fix a car or the AC, he was there to participate in Pop’s crazy projects, he was there when my mom passed. Until the last few years he would always pick me up off the ground in a bear hug when he greeted me, and I can assure you that that’s no simple feat. He has shown up on my doorstep in the woods in a 30 foot RV with no warning and he would be welcome to do so at any time – he is a prince of a man.
This is Tiny - the tiny man next to him is not tiny. Tiny is really not tiny at all.

This is Tiny – the tiny man next to him is not Tiny and also is not tiny. He is average, although that is not his name. Tiny is really not tiny at all.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the Pre-Bicentennial – anyway…
Once we got involved, Pops drug us to almost any kind of event where he could put on his leathers and pretend that it wasn’t the 1970s in Las Vegas. We went to a historical reenactment at the Old Mormon Fort – the first settlement in what is now Las Vegas. Pops had set up a blacksmith forge in our back yard (No store-bought knives or tomahawks for us!), so he was giving a blacksmith demo at the fort. He caught the eye of a reporter for the Sunday magazine in one of the local papers, and he became the go-to guy whenever they wanted stories about a family pretending they were pioneers. Over the years Pops was in articles about primitive fire starting, blacksmithing, shooting, gun building, and even a feature that talked about the practice of trading with the natives. For this article, my mom – who was always a good sport – agreed to be photographed in a scene where my Pop was trading a local Indian two horses for her. Most of the time he just made up “facts” for the reporters and they ate it up. He was in the Sunday magazines a couple of times a year and was the resident “expert” on all things “frontier” in Las Vegas.
One of Pop's first Sunday magazine features

One of Pop’s first Sunday magazine features. Notice my brother Max in the foreground pumping the foot bellows with his period appropriate sneakers. BTW – that’s my dead-shot Mama in the upper right – more on her later.

By 1975, things were in full swing leading up to the Bicentennial, and the annual 4th of July celebration would kick off a year of events recounting our nation’s glorious struggle for independence. This was about the time when the idea of historical re-enactors first become popular. People were wanting to see history replayed in a public way. Naturally, since Pop was the go-to guy concerning all things historically inaccurate in Las Vegas, he was approached to put on a reenactment at the Pre-Bicentennial fireworks display at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl. When asked, “Can you pull off a reenactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord on the Football field?” Pops answered and emphatic “Yes!”
The men-folk put on a show at the old Mormon Fort. Someone forgot to tell Ronnie that only tourists wear dark sox with a breech cloth.

The men-folk put on a show at the old Mormon Fort. My Pop is holding a rifle owned by my Great Grandpa Goodson and my mother inheriting it is probably the reason we got into this crazy lifestyle. As an aside – someone forgot to tell Ronnie that only tourists wear dark sox with a breech cloth.

This was his plan – all the men and boys in the Nevada Frontloaders would dress in their “leathers”. They could pass themselves off as “colonials” or “patriots” with the simple addition of brown tri-corner felt hats to their ensembles. Now “leathers” were not tied to a specific historical style – the idea was that you hand sewed some skins together to make shirts, loin cloths, leggings, or pants. You made something that someone with no sewing machine could have made out on the frontier, never mind that Lexington had been settled for over 120 years by the time of the American Revolution, Concord had been around even longer – they were no more the frontier than Las Vegas was 200 years later. Now of course these “patriots” needed someone to fight – Pops had a solution for that too. My mom was a seamstress and pattern cutter so all she had to do was make British red-coat costumes for all the women and girls in the Frontloaders. After all, there were no squaws at the battle of Lexington and Concord.
This is a shot I took of my Pop while he was getting ready for a photo shoot with the paper - these are the horses he was going to trade for my mother. I rode those horses growing up and he definitely got the better end of the deal.

This is a shot I took of my Pop while he was getting ready for a photo shoot with the paper – these are the horses he was going to trade for my mother. I rode those horses growing up and he definitely got the better end of the deal.

As a 13-year-old girl, I can’t say that this idea excited me. I was given a pair of white men’s trousers that had been cut off at mid calf, an old pair of tall black equestrian boots, a tri-corner hat, and an exquisitely tailored red-coat – that and my 1841 reproduction Mississippi Rifle competed my costume. Me, my mom, and about 8 other women-folk from the Frontloaders made up the terrifying British forces. One girl was actually someone’s cousin, visiting for the summer who had been convinced to come along and relive history with us at the Silver Bowl.
Another publicity shot of the Nevada Frontloaders - this was taken about 30 minutes before my Pop decided to grow a beard.

Another publicity shot of the Nevada Frontloaders – this was taken about 30 minutes before my Pop decided to grow a beard. He would not be seen clean-shaven again until the 90’s.

Now July in Vegas is hot – that’s pretty common knowledge. What you may not know is that July and August are the “monsoon” season in the Nevada desert. The name has always cracked me up – locals say it with such sincerity. Most of the local annual rainfall of four inches falls during the 27 days of the “monsoon”. Living in a place where the annual rainfall is measured in feet has probably added to my less than earnest thoughts about the “monsoon” – even so, rain in the desert, any rain is a big deal. The rains start in the mountains west of town and by the time it hits the valley floor the water is already rushing down from the mountains. The ground doesn’t absorb it and it races across the valley and it can be deadly. People who don’t see rain regularly often don’t take moving water seriously.
July of 1975 was a very bad monsoon. The 3rd and the 4th of July saw three inches of rain race across the valley. This happened at a time when the valley infrastructure had no means in place to direct water. It sounds crazy today, but they would build an underpass below grade and just close it if the rains came. City planners thought nothing of leveling big tracts of city owned desert for development without giving a thought to drainage – after all it doesn’t rain very often. On the afternoon of the third, wall of water raced across the strip – it relocated over 300 cars from the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace to multiple locations east of the strip. It all happened really fast – and by late afternoon all the water was gone – that’s why they call it a “flash flood”.
This is an image of the Strip right after the flooding on the third of July 1975 - can you say "Monsoon"?

This is an image of the Strip right after the flooding on the third of July 1975 – can you say “Monsoon”? Hey, I thought Andy Williams was busy inventing Branson in the 70’s – what gives?

As I stood in my bedroom watching the water race across our neighbor’s lawns across the street on the “low side” one thought cheered me – perhaps the fake revolution would have to be cancelled. No such luck – Pops got off work at around 4 and we headed out to the Silver Bowl for a rehearsal. Pops laid out the plan to the thirty or so male colonials and the ten girlie red-coats. The red-coats would set up in a classic kneeling and standing formation on the western 20 yard line. The patriots would rush towards us as we took aim and fired one volley. Now we were not shooting actual bullets – we had loaded our muskets with about 10-15 grains of black powder and packed it down with a wad of toilet paper. When you fired, the thought was that the toilet paper would be vaporized before it exited the barrel – but I can attest to the fact that it can survive the inferno. After our volley the whole end of the stadium filled with white smoke from the gunpowder making it impossible for anyone to see the brave patriots charging our meager ranks. As the smoke cleared we regrouped as tiny tp snowflakes fell from the sky. The British were penalized 15 yards for excessive smokiness and we started play again from the 35 yard line.
This is the kind of smoke that comes from firing black powder and toilet paper - inside the Silver Bowl the smoke just hung there.

This is the kind of smoke that comes from firing black powder and toilet paper – inside the Silver Bowl the smoke just hung there.

In our street clothes we worked out the spacing for the show the next day. The Astroturf was wet and it was almost walking on top of a blister. After a quick walk through we met on the sidelines where Pop told us the plan. The British would take that first volley and then make a hasty retreat as the patriots charged forward. Our job was to fire, retreat, and fall down dead on the Astroturf as toilet paper shots rang out behind us. It was going to be a rout – there would be no survivors.
As Pops went over the details I looked down at the plastic turf at my feet – I was standing right near the edge of the fake grass behind the visitors bench. As I pressed my feet into the turf I saw water spill out at the edge – the Silver Bowl is built in the flood plain known as the Vegas Wash and all that water had passed around and under the stadium. As I looked closer, I saw something move, and then I saw more somethings move. I locked onto the movements and saw dozens of smallish light-colored baby tarantulas squirming in the wet Astroturf! Apparently they lived under the plastic fake grass and all that water had forced them above ground. Needless to say, I freaked out and tried to stomp on them before they could crawl on me. I pushed the toe of my shoe into the turf over one and I watched in amazement as it just crawled right out from under my shoe – the rigidity of the astro turf seemed to give it enough wiggle room to get free. This was my worst nightmare – the place was crawling with them. As we drove home that evening all I could think about was the next evening when we would march out on that field – I was going to have to play dead on plastic grass with creepy fuzzy alien-looking spiders everywhere! My skin crawled every time I thought about it.
There were dozens of these delightful creatures everywhere -

There were dozens of these delightful creatures everywhere – I considered wearing a has-mat suit under my red-coat.

The next evening we would reenact that famous heroic battle there under the lights of the Silver Bowl. As we got dressed in the locker rooms I mused that we British had about as much chance tonight as the UNLV Rebels football team would have in that very stadium playing just about any opponent that fall. Yes, it would be a rout, but would I have the courage to be a brave little soldier and drop dead in that spider infested turf to celebrate my nation’s birthday?
The British lined up on the Patriots 35 yard line. They fired their volley and the Patriots charged from the end zone. My mother played the part of the general – let’s just say for complete historical inaccuracy that she was General Cornwallis, anyway, she was the head red-coat in charge. I watched her as we turned to run up field towards the 50 yard line. The patriots fired, but instead of dropping dead my mother reloaded – right there at midfield. She raised her rifle and fired. Boom! Immediately 4 patriots dropped dead! My father growled, this wasn’t in his very carefully crafted fake history plan – but once you’re dead, you’re dead. You can’t get up – you have to stay dead.
My mom could sew up a storm - she made her dress, these drapes and even helped upholster that couch - a real renaissance woman. She could also kill 4 rebels with a single load of toilet paper.

My mom could sew up a storm – she made her dress, these drapes and even helped upholster that couch – a real renaissance woman. She could also kill 4 rebels with a single load of toilet paper.

This break from the plan gave me hope so I reloaded and fired into the crowd of Patriots – but alas, no one fell. Shots rang out from about the 45 yard line and I saw my mother fall. Rifle at the ready, I scanned the field and saw that I was the last red-coat standing. More shots rang out and I just couldn’t make myself fall. (Everyone knows that muskets in that time were notoriously inaccurate.) The fear of spiders proved to be more potent than the fear of my Pops. I turned down field, rifle in hand, and made a run for it. As I crossed into the end zone and ran under the uprights the fireworks show started overhead. As all eyes in the stadium left me and looked skyward, I could still hear my father yelling in the distance, “Die already!” I chose not to die that day and didn’t stop running until I hit the locker room.
When this man chases you across a football field, you had better haul ass if you don't want to die with the spiders.

When this man chases you across a football field, you had better haul ass if you don’t want to die with the spiders.

We had done the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord proud and tarantulas still give me the creeps, even today.
Belated Happy Birthday America!

Grandpa and a Schwinn Bicycle

On my 6th birthday I got my first bike. It was purple and had training wheels. It was a classic 20″ girls Schwinn. That bike meant freedom to me.
This is not my bike, but mine looked just like this only it had streamers and embarrassing training wheels.

This is not my bike, but mine looked just like this only it had streamers and embarrassing training wheels.

I was not allowed to cross the street to play in a neighbor’s lawn without Mom’s permission. I was not allowed to go next door to see if Susan Cunningham could play unless Mom said it was OK. I was not allowed to ride on the asphalt of Isabelle Avenue until I could ride without training wheels. Once I could ride that bike, the asphalt that lay between me and the rest of humanity, as I saw it, would disappear. Riding in the street and crossing the street would be the same thing. Riding on Isabelle Avenue would lead to riding on 21st Street, and that would lead to riding on Ogden, and then Cervantes where my pal Connie lived. In no time I would be pedaling to Stewart’s Market just down the street from her house – the whole world would be open before me, if only I could get rid of those training wheels.
This is my first grade photo, my mom loved ringlets. On school photo day I pretended to like them too. I never looked like this except on school photo day.

This is my first grade photo, my mom loved ringlets. On school photo day I pretended to like them too. I never looked like this except on school photo day. I wouldn’t cross the street looking like this…

Losing the training wheels was a bit of a “catch 22”, This sidewalk was peppered with dips for driveways about every 30 feet. Getting up to speed on the sidewalk was a challenge. I had tried raising the wheels to the next notch to get a sense of balance, but those dips did me in every time. If I asked Mom she would feign busyness – cooking, cleaning, reading, caring for 2 toddlers, eating bonbons. I was sure that she was perfectly content with me limited to the boundaries of the sidewalks, out of her hair, but unable to get into any real trouble. Pops was no help. He came home from work every night and planted himself firmly in front of the TV – he rarely moved from his Strato-Lounger until after I went to bed at night. I had been riding with training wheels for months now. I seemed destined never to leave Isabelle Avenue.
This is how I felt riding down the street with training wheels. On another note - have you ever seen a lawn so smooth as this one?

This is how I felt riding down the street with training wheels. On another note – have you ever seen a lawn so smooth as this one? It’s like Astroturf.

Most days when I got home from school I would get my bike out and ride the sidewalk the wavy 100 feet to Grandpa’s house. He worked on the railroad and was gone on Mondays on a run to Yermo, California. He worked around the clock on Monday so he came home Tuesday morning and was off until Wednesday and Thursday nights when he worked as an engineer in the switch engine downtown. Grandma worked 9 to 5, so Grandpa took care of the cooking and cleaning and was always around to spend time with. I never knocked, I walked right into his house – unless the door was locked – then I looked into the mail slot to see if he was in the living room. Working irregular hours, Grandpa was an afternoon napper. He worked on one schedule and lived on another.
About once a week Grandpa would take my bike into the back yard and check the air pressure in my tires. He had a compressor back there and he was a stickler for proper tire inflation, even if you still had training wheels. He would check my tires weekly until I left Las Vegas at the age of 25. One one afternoon he asked me when I was finally going to learn to ride that bike without training wheels. He was just home from Yermo and was still in his striped overalls and Wellington’s. I told him that no one would help me and that learning on the sidewalk was just not working. He said, “I’ll help you,” and took my bike out back and removed those stupid training wheels and threw them in the trash.
This is my grandpa in his work clothes. My grandma taught me how to iron his engineers cap. I make it a rule never to wear a hat that you need to iron.

This is my grandpa in his work clothes. Note the shiny work boots. My grandma taught me how to iron his engineers cap. I make it a rule never to wear a hat that you need to iron.

Grandpa rarely left the house in his work clothes. He was a button down kind of man who wore tailored slacks and a sport coat to eat at Denny’s. He was not ashamed of being a working man, he just chose to leave those working clothes in the hamper when he got home. He also was a quiet man, not given to public laughter or displays of emotion. I have written a lot about my Grandmother with the huge personality. If Grandma loved me fiercely, Grandpa loved me deeply.
This is my grandpa dressed for yard work. Notice the creases in his trousers. He gardened dressed like this.

This is my grandpa dressed for yard work. Notice the creases in his trousers. He gardened dressed like this.

Grandpa grew up around women – a lot of women. He was the youngest of 7 children and had 5 older sisters. His mother’s twin sister was a fixture at their house as well. He was in the constant company of women who were crazy about him. He grew up understanding how to relate to women, not in a vulgar way, but in a way that connected easily.
Grandpa on his family farm in Nebraska sporting overalls and a no-iron hat.

Grandpa on his family farm in Nebraska sporting overalls and a no-iron hat.

My Pop used to complain that when he was in high school he hated to bring a date over to the house for dinner – that she would spend the next week talking about how much she liked his father, not exactly what he was after on a hot date. In his later years I remember taking Grandpa to the grocery store. We were in the checkout line and the checker was really agitated with the customer ahead of us. She was a very large African-American woman who was loudly expressing her frustration at a customer who didn’t speak English. As we approached the front of the line my inclination was to keep my mouth shut and get out of her way. Grandpa greeted her warmly, “Hello my lovely Delores, how is your day going?” She caught her breath and they just chatted as she checked us out. As he walked ahead of me she put her hand on my shoulder and told me that my grandpa always made her feel good when he came through her line – she just loved him. He had that effect on the nurses who helped to care for him, on my brother’s wives, on the neighbors, on me. I was his only granddaughter, this first Carter girl born since his sister Olive in 1915. He doted on me and I adored just being in his presence. He was a strong and thoughtful man who had no problem putting you ahead of himself. He made me and everyone he met feel valued and important.
On this rare afternoon he took me out to the asphalt in his work clothes – overalls and t-shirt. He held onto the back of the seat of my bike and ran down the street behind me as I pedaled as hard as I could. I could hear the “stomp” of his workbooks as they hit the pavement. As I sped up I could only hear the rush of the wind in my face. I yelled back at him, “Don’t let go, I’m afraid!” He yelled back, “Too late! You’re on your own!” Upon hearing this I felt the urge to brake, but feared that I would topple over if I slowed down. He ran after me and yelled to keep pedaling, so I did. I did slow down and turn back towards him, only to see him still running towards me in his work boots. I raced back his way and he wheeled his arm in a huge circle like a first base coach telling a runner to round the base, so I pedaled on past him while he clapped and smiled.
Me and Grandpa in the kitchen. He was pretty crazy about me, and I thought he was pretty awesome too.

Me and Grandpa in the kitchen. He was pretty crazy about me, and I thought he was pretty awesome too.

He gave me wings that day, and it wouldn’t be the last time. When my Pops told me that there was no need for a girl to go to college, Grandpa told me about his missed opportunity at an education and urged me to go. When Pops laughed at the idea of a Fine Art degree, Grandpa told me to do whatever I could to make a career doing something I loved. When I felt I needed a change and wanted a fresh start Grandpa assured me that it was the right choice – to move away from him. When his health declined after a stroke, I told him I wanted to move home to be with him, to care for him, he told me no. He never once put his needs ahead of mine and as I consider the magnitude of that I am humbled.
Here Grandpa gives me a vision of the world from a standing position on the couch - he always encouraged me to aim high.

Here Grandpa gives me a vision of the world from a standing position on the couch – he always encouraged me to aim high.

When I was about 7, my neighbor across the street started taking me to church with her family. She tried to explain to me how much God loves us, how he loves us no matter what we have done, that we can never do anything that will make him stop loving us. I pondered this and thought about my Grandpa and it all made sense. When I think of him today it still does.

George Birthington’s Wash Day

“It’s George Birthington’s Wash Day!” I can still hear Grandma saying that on her birthday – “I’m a day older than George Washington, you know.” She would have been 98 years old today. Just looking at this quarter today makes me smile.

A quarter from the year that Minnie became Nana.

A quarter from the year that Minnie became Nana.

I’ve written a lot about how inspiring my Grandmother was to me and how empowering it was to have someone who never saw a challenge too big in my corner, but Grandma also confused me sometimes – she had a slew of Grandma-isms – some of them I understood, and some have meanings that still elude me today.

“Bring the whole fam-damily” – This meant everyone was coming to dinner. I have heard other people use this, but as a teen I thought this was her best sidestep to swearing about company she wasn’t so thrilled about entertaining. Grandma always said she didn’t have company, if you were at her house you were family so you could get your own coffee. Make yourself at home and clean up your own mess. Effortless hospitality.

Coxes Army - circa 1942. If this crew showed up for dinner...

Cox’s Army – circa 1942. If this crew showed up for dinner it took more than a bucket from the Colonel to feed them all.

“If you don’t stop that I’m gonna give you back to the Indians!” – I would hear this if I pestered her for candy in the grocery checkout or if I interrupted her on the phone.  I sometimes wonder if this had to do with her Grandpa Pyeatte. He was a Cherokee Indian. He chose to live as a white man instead of claiming head rights and land in Oklahoma. I guess being a Cherokee in the 1880s wasn’t nearly as cool and hip as it is today.

This is my Great-great Grandpa Pyeatt - So was Grandma going to give me back to this Indian?

This is my Great-great Grandpa Pyeatte – So was Grandma going to give me back to this Indian?

Other than that – I’m clueless. In my imagination she was dropping me off at those tepees on Route 66 in the middle of Arizona. I recently discovered an old hillbilly song that used the line – may be it was a song she liked. Grandma liked cowboy music. More and more I think it was the song. It’s one of those questions I never thought to ask. Maybe her grandpa said it to her and she never thought to ask. I think I should say it to my great-niece and just not explain it to her – that’s what family is about after all, passing on tradition.

Maybe these were the Indians Grandma was going to take me back to - that doesn't look so bad...

Maybe these were the Indians Grandma was going to take me back to – that doesn’t look so bad…

“Well Happy Cigar Butts to You!” I think this was Grandma’s way of calling someone an asshole in front of the grandkids. I have no solid evidence except the tone and context of the many times I heard her use it in traffic. I heard her say it to a co-worker who she talked smack to, to her sister Muriel who she had a blunt and somewhat cynical rapport with, and to a jerk who cut her off in the parking lot at the grocery store. I left her a note on her car one time using the phrase – pretending to be someone ticked off about her parking crooked – she laughed and laughed about it, I was kinda clueless. Another enduring mystery.

"I'm on a break - go cigar butt yourself!"

“I’m on a break – go cigar butt yourself!”

My Grandma collected things – lots of different things. Most of them fell into the category of something she called “What-nots” She collected purple glass. I remember driving though Cedar City in Utah with her and Grandpa on the way to Panguich to go fishing. We stopped for breakfast and walked into a junk store because Grandma saw glass in the windows. She could pick up a piece of old glass and check out the seams and weight and tell you with absolute certainty that it would turn purple in the sun over time. Her windows were filled with this kind of glass.

This is some of Grandma's purple glass. I have collected it my whole life as well. Her pieces are the most special though.

This is some of Grandma’s purple glass. I have collected it my whole life as well. Her pieces are the most special though.

She told me it was the iron in the glass, and that it was only used in glass production until 1905. In the desert people would buy old glass and put it on their roofs to make the purple come out more. Today there are dealers who expose these bottles to ultra violet light to increase the depth of the purple and it’s almost garish. I think it makes an actual antique look fake. Seeing the violet in old glass takes years and that’s part of the magic.

Grandma collected plates, not collector plates, just plates that belonged to people she knew. I remember her getting a package on her birthday in the mail, it was some dinner plates her cousin sent from a set of china that had belonged to their grandmother. She had them hung just below the ceiling though the kitchen and her living room. There were probably over a hundred of them. She gave them to me when I bought my first home and they survived an earthquake hanging on the wall – it sounded like I was inside a giant wind chime.

These are not my grandma's plates, but there were some of these in her vast collection.

These are not my grandma’s plates, but there were some of these in her vast collection.

This is another thing I so wish I had taken the time to ask Grandma about so that I would have some clue about where they all came from. When I graduated from High School my grandparents sent me to spend a few weeks with my other Granddad in Virginia. It was a precious gift – letting me get to know my mom’s family. Grandma sent my mother’s step-mother Pearl a crocheted afghan as a gift. Pearl asked me about what my Grandma liked and I told her about the plates. She gave me a dinner plate that had belonged to my great-grandmother’s family. My mom was surprised to see it on her mother-in-laws wall after that trip.

My grandma was a knitting fool. Sometime in her 40s she went through a time when she had a lot of nervous energy. It was about the time her hands began to shake. Her doctor suggested that she find something she could do with her hands to calm her down. She decided that she wanted to learn to knit. She didn’t start with a sweater or scarf. She dived headlong into knitting argyle socks. When she went for her next check up her doctor was stunned to see the myriad of spools of yarn – but the knitting was working – her nerves were settling.

Never one to sidestep a challenge - argyle it was!

Never one to sidestep a challenge – argyle it was!

When I was born she decided to make me a Christmas stocking – not just a red sock with a white heel and toe. A stocking that had my name and birthday knitted right into it, a stocking with a Santa with an Angora beard, a stocking with a decorated Christmas tree on one side.

I have this always up in my hallway, so I can see it when I get up every morning all year long.

I have this always up in my hallway, so I can see it when I get up every morning all year long.

When my mom became a grandma, I found the pattern – it was something she made up from a really basic stocking. All of her notes and marks made perfect sense, she should have been designing these things. Each of my brothers had one too. I wish I had learned to knit so that I could carry on the tradition for her. I love my stocking so much that it cannot be stored away eleven months of the year – I need it to be out where I can see it. It makes me smile. My grandma was a freaking genius!

Not everything she made was quite so special. My grandma crocheted all the time. She made the classic granny square and put together diagonal patterns. She like to use variegated colors in the centers. I have several of these gems around the house, mostly made of wool. They remind me of Grandma’s house so ugly or not I love them.

This is not my sweater, but my sweater was this bad. I never photographed it, hoping that it's heinousness would depart from my memory.

This is not my sweater, but my sweater was this bad. I never photographed it, hoping that it’s hideousness would depart from my memory.

To celebrate the Bicentennial she decided to crochet me a granny square sweater out of red, white, and blue yarn. It was heinous. The only place I ever wore it was to her house. I always told her I loved it. I always lied. She loved to see me in it so I pulled that thing out a couple of times a month. A part of me wondered if she was messing with me. You know, I’m pretty sure she was messing with me.

Happy George Birthington’s Wash day to you and yours, and if you don’t like  it you can kiss my Cigar Butts!

The Candle Shoot – from Isabelle Avenue to the Ozarks

I mentioned in my post The Candle Shoot that I host a memorial Candle Shoot in Pop’s honor every year on the Saturday closest to his birthday. This year as in the two previous we were blessed with wonderful and unseasonably warm weather, almost like Pops was watching over us.

The Stone House Shooting Gallery – by candlelight

This year, my God-brother Jot (I don’t even know if that is a real term or not, but we have used it since Jot was born) joined us – it was great to have someone else there who knew Pops. When Jot talks about the old days he refers to Bruce, his father, as “Dad’ – my  father, his Godfather, is “Pops”. Pops gave Jot his very first gun, a Remington .22 rifle, when he was a youngster. They were fixtures in each other’s lives even though they lived in different states. When Jot’s father passed away, Pops hopped in the Jeep and drove to Winslow to be there for Jot and his younger brother, they were just 10 and 13. Pops made a promise to be there for Jot on the day he was baptized and he never imagined that he would need to keep that promise – but he did. Over they years they stayed in touch even as they lived on different sides of the country. When Pops learned that Jot was living just a few hours from me he even gave me treasures to bring home to him.

This is our family a couple years before Jot came along - my baby brother Ronnie is the bun in the oven. Mom sure looks like she likes Max - she really did.

This is our family a couple of years before Jot came along – my baby brother Ronnie is the bun in the oven. If Mom sure looks like she likes Max – it’s because she did. Why did she let me out of the house wearing those sox?

Bruce and Pops had been friends since I was a toddler – they both worked at the Nevada Test Site, or the Proving Grounds, as it was called in the 1960s. Bruce is a part of my earliest memories – vague ones of him playing chess with pops while I played in the living room on Isabelle Avenue. Bruce was pretty stylish – tapered slacks and a pompadour. I remember thinking he might be that man from the TV with the guitar who wiggled a lot.

This is not Bruce. I often got people in my real life confused with those inside the televisions set when I was a child - heck, I thought Jackie Kennedy was my Mom.

This is not Bruce. I often got people in my real life confused with those inside the television set when I was a child – heck, I thought Jackie Kennedy and my Mom were the same person.

Bruce got married and moved away to Winslow, Arizona – you know the place with the street corner with girl in the flat-bed Ford (Jot hates that song). When Jot was born we made the trip to see his baptism – it was the first time we were ever in a church. I was eight and my brothers were 3 and 5. When the congregation started singing Max sang the only song he knew by heart – Old MacDonald – he sang it loud and proud. I couldn’t sing because I was giggling so hard.

Bruce and Jot - spiffy sideburns.

Bruce and Jot – Bruce was way cooler than Elvis. Jot is a bit taller than this now – otherwise he looks pretty much the same.

Growing up the family came for visits – Bruce, his wife Penny, Jot, and his little brother Jed. The adults would go out for a night on the town and I would get the job of babysitting them along with my little brothers – me and 4 boys. Yikes!

When we drove east to see Mom’s family a stop to spend time in Winslow was always on the itinerary coming and going. I think Jot and Jed looked at the house on Isabelle Avenue as a place of strange wonders. A place where you might find a small parrot peeking out of Pops’ beard, where there might be a 20 foot teepee in the yard, or where you might see a cannon fired in the middle of the street. Talking to both of them as grown men, it was clearly a special place and we weren’t almost like family, we were family.

Mom and Pops among the muskets in our front room on Isabelle Street.

Mom and Pops among the muskets and skins in our front room on Isabelle Street.

Back to the Candle Shoot. It was great to have good friends and family there. My friend Candy helped me set up and was out running errands when she called to see if I needed anything. I asked her to pick up a few emergency candles and she showed up with a full case of those wedding candles that they use in candelabras – they burned slow and I have enough candles to last at least a decade.

Caleb takes a shot.

Caleb takes a shot.

I had a fire pit out in the yard near the shooting table and Jot would tell stories while we took turns shooting. I think young Caleb was inspired by Pops just a bit. After shooting candles for a couple of hours he suggested we try something more difficult than shooting through the wick of a candle. First it was 3 inch black targets by candle light with open sights – very tough and he kicked my butt. Next 1.5″ targets on an optic green background in the dark. I didn’t even bother. I had shown him a pile of coins that had been shot including a nickel that Pop shot and he was excited by that idea – let’s shoot quarters in the dark! Caleb, my friend Judy, and I all decided to give it a try. We placed a flashlight 30 feet from the target as our only light source. Judy hit a dollar coin and then folded a quarter. I was three for three – two of which I put clean holes in – Caleb matched me and added one for his girlfriend as a souvenir, but he was just getting started. Before the night was over he would put a hole clean through a dime!

This is exactly the type of shooting Pops loved. He had an idea once that it might be possible to split a bullet in two by shooting at the blade of an axe and hit two targets at the same time – he built the target and pulled it off. Finding a more difficult challenge was a part of his DNA – the more difficult and outrageous the better.

Pops sported a mountain man look long before the teepee went up in the front lawn.

Pops sported a mountain man look long before the teepee went up in the front lawn.

Pop seemed to have been born without the usual sense of caution that keeps us from doing crazy things. Linda his cousin always talked about their adventures with BB guns. She says, “When we were kids he would have me hold a wooden match in my fingers and he would shoot it with the BB gun. It never occurred to me that he might miss and hit me. He never missed. I always trusted him.” Funny thing, when we were kids and desperately wanted that Red Ryder BB Gun, Pops told us they were more dangerous than a real gun because kids treated them like toys – wonder where he got that idea?

Pops used little Linda for target practice - she was happy to help out.

Pops asked little Linda for help with his target practice – she was happy to oblige.

This year’s Candle Shoot was just the right mix of nostalgia, challenge, and fun – it was missing only one thing, and that was Pops – but he was certainly there in spirit.

I think we did the old man proud.

Pops and the Grass Cutting Machine – A Story of Hope

I hadn’t planned on writing a post about race, but as I perused Facebook this morning and saw all the MLK quotes and memes. It made me think about what my experiences in the 60s and 70s, the attitudes I heard growing up, and how things changed over the years.

Remember the show “All in the Family”? That was our house – my Pop was a younger version of Archie Bunker. He also had a ridiculous chair that no one else was permitted to sit in.

Pops Chair was almost this ugly.

Pops Chair was almost this ugly.

When first I started school I remember picking up that he did not care for me to have friends who looked different from me. My very first school friend was a girl named Frances who was from Mexico and spoke no English. We communicated by drawing pictures and walked home from school together every day. She lived on the next block over. Pops made it clear that she was not welcome at our house and that he was glad to live on a block completely composed of people who were white like us. I remember thinking that if he got to know Frances that he would like her so much that he would love for her to live next door! It made me feel a little sick inside to know that he did not feel the same way. Mostly I felt sad for Pop – Frances was a wonderful person and he would never know that.

This was about as much diversity as Pops was willing to tolerate in the 1960's

This was about as much diversity as Pops was willing to tolerate in the 1960’s

In 4th grade – about 1970-71 – I was asked to write a report on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I went to the encyclopedia to look him up and he wasn’t listed anywhere. Our Britannica set was from 1948, so that was understandable. I asked Pop about him – and he was not happy to discuss the subject. He spit our a string of epithets and curses in regards to Dr. King, it angered him that I would even be asked to write about King. He told me a crazy conspiracy story about a n****r who planned to fake his own death and come back from the dead on Easter. The plan went wrong and now he was a martyr. I knew I would get nothing useful from Pop.

I vaguely recall listening to him talking to a pollster on the phone about who he was planning to vote for in a presidential race – I cannot recall the year. I only recall him saying that he had no idea, now that someone had shot his choice – I have always hoped he was talking about Bobby Kennedy and not George Wallace, but to be honest I’d bet it was Wallace that inspired that reaction out of him.

In 1972 forced busing was instituted in Las Vegas to finally fully integrate public schools. Schools in African-American neighborhoods were converted to “Sixth Grade Centers” and the students in that neighborhood would be bused every year except sixth grade. White kids were only bused in sixth grade. Some committee somewhere thought this hair-brained arrangement was equitable.

This was Boston - but it happened in Las Vegas too.

This was Boston – but it happened in Las Vegas too.

My Pop was not on board with the idea either, but for other reasons. He could hide his Archie Bunker-ian tendencies by saying that busing made no sense – we lived three blocks away from a perfectly fine elementary school. Behind closed doors his language was somewhat more colorful. His solution to the problem of having his kids bused to “N-town” was to place us into a Christian school for the duration of the year that we would be bused. The irony of this was totally lost on Pops. He also declared about this time that if any black family (my words, not his) moved onto Isabelle Avenue, that the neighborhood would be ruined, unsafe, and that we would have to move.

That day finally came in the mid 80’s, long after Archie Bunker was consigned to syndication. The house across the street was purchased by a family of four relocating from Zaire. Isabelle Avenue was to be their very first address in the United States. They were totally unfamiliar with American culture, American cuisine, and American lawn maintenance. They cut down the shady elms in the front and back yards and built a huge fire pit off the back patio. The did not cut their front lawn at all – in fact they seemed to revel in it’s lush depth. I’m not talking about grass four or five inches deep, I’m talking about grass grown tall like wheat ready to harvest. It came up over their knees and was waist deep in places. The back yard did not require any mowing or harvesting because they brought in a young goat and kept it back there.

Grass this tall was too deep for Isabelle Avenue

Grass this tall was too deep for Isabelle Avenue

Lawn maintenance aside, they were a lovely family. Each Sunday they wore bright white clothing to church. Mom, Dad, son, and daughter looked like something out of another time as they walked to the car. They all were very polite, uncommonly so. The young boy wandered over to our yard one day when mom was picking the strawberries out of her garden. He was completely fascinated by their bright color. Mom picked a basketful and sent them home with him. Anyone who talked gardening was a friend to mom.

At Easter time they butchered the goat and roasted it in the pit in the back yard. They walked across the street to invite Mom and Pops, but they politely declined. Pops could talk a big game, but when it came down to it he could not be rude to someone face-to-face when he was sober. As summer started it became clear to the family that letting the lawn grow like a crop was not the accepted method of landscaping in their new neighborhood and the dad came across the street and knocked on our door. Pops answered and the gentleman asked, “Mr. Carter, could we kindly borrow your grass cutting machine?” Pops replied, “No.” The neighbor said, “But we need to cut the grass, it is far too long.” Pops responded, “No, you can’t use the mower because it is too tall, it will bog down the blades.” The man left and returned to his house with a puzzled look.

Pops came out of the backyard and headed across the street with the weed-eater and showed his neighbor how to use it to shorten the lawn enough to mow it. Together they weed-eated, mowed, edged, and watered the lawn. It was a thing of beauty to see the neighborhood finally fully integrated.

They lived on Isabelle Avenue for many years. They were so very kind to Pops when mom died. In the early part of this century housing values went through the roof. Houses that sold originally for twenty or thirty thousand were selling for ten times that. The family from Zaire cashed out and moved on. Pops stayed put even though I urged him to think about selling and buying some thing closer to me. Those worries about integration taking down housing values seem pretty silly now. I think America is a great country and love the idea that the first black family on the block made a killing in real estate!

In 2008, Nevada changed its presidential primary to the caucus format. My pop and his wife volunteered to be delegates to the state convention. Initially they had supported Hillary Clinton (Democrat or not this shocked me – that Archie Bunker could support even the idea of a female president) but as delegates they were obligated to cast their votes for the candidates that won from their local caucus. They were Obama delegates. Not only did they cast their delegate votes for Obama, they started volunteering for his campaign. This was the first time my Pop had ever participated in the process beyond casting a vote or accepting a yard sign. The man who wouldn’t permit me to attend a school in a black neighborhood was now supporting the man who would become our first black president!

Maybe there is hope after all - people really can change.

Maybe there is hope after all – people really can change.

I recall during that election that Pop spoke so excitedly about Obama and even mentioned the monumentality of electing a black president. He seemed proud of his country as he watched it come to pass. It was like I was listening to a different man.

I can’t say how this change happened, it probably was a process. I’m sure that time had a lot to do with it, but I also think a sweet family with an overgrown yard might just have been a catalyst for change.

Almost Like Part of the Family – From the Ozarks to Isabelle Avenue

As a photographer, sometimes I like to look at photos and sort them in non-linear ways, I think you can learn more about how you see the world by breaking them up in sets that have atypical things like color or objects in common.

A few years ago I started going through my Grandma’s old Cox family photos. I started sorting them by family members and began to notice a pattern. I noticed an awful lot of snapshots that included an important part of the family – the family car. The history and migration of my family can be traced through those photos of the Coxes and their cars.

1920’s

My Great Grandfather Charlie Cox and his boys pose in their work clothes by the car.

My Great Grandfather Charlie Cox and his boys pose in their work clothes by the car.

This photo was taken in the late 20’s in the Ozarks. It looks like the boys were coming in from working in the fields north of Branson, Missouri. Charlie started his life on a farm in Missouri and this looks to have been taken in the area where he grew up.

This is the earliest image I can find with family members posing on a vehicle.

These lovely Cox ladies are dressed up and posing on a railroad hand truck - I have some other railroad shots with a similar look that were taken in Branson, Missouri.

These well dressed Cox ladies are dressed up and posing on a railroad hand truck – I have some other railroad shots with a similar look that were taken in Branson, Missouri sometime around the turn of the 20th century.

My ancestors were mostly farmers but they also worked on building the railroads in Missouri and Arkansas. This family heritage would be carried on by my Great Grandfather Charlie Cox during the Great Depression when he packed up his family and left the farm to follow the work made possible by the building of the US Highway system. Charlie started life on a farm with horse-drawn implements – his children would be the first generation to live their whole lives in the automobile age. Cars were becoming less and less of a novelty and more of a staple of everyday life in America. Even so, the car was a point of pride to them. Rather than gather around the mantle or on the porch, the Coxes were more likely to gather around something with wheels and a motor.

Here my Grandma and her brother pose on the back of a tractor.

Here my Grandma and her brother pose on the back of a motorized tractor. The dress for this occasion was casual.

Grandma was one of 8 siblings and I have always wondered just how a family of 10 moved around the country. I recall stories about a caravan of a couple of cars and all their possessions on the open road. When the siblings were together I often heard them argue about where they lived in a particular year. Grandma told me she went to 17 schools before she called it quits in after her freshman year. It seemed that only the 3 sets of twins had a sibling born in the same town.
Grandma at about 14 sits on the bumper of the car in a summer dress.

Grandma at about 14 sits on the bumper of the car in a summer dress.

This looks to be a different car but the background still looks like the old homestead. I recall grandma talking about an old Model T, but apparently it was not beloved enough to share the spotlight in family photos. Her life seemed to be lived on the bumper of a Chevy. It makes sense – if they didn’t have a permanent home to gather around maybe the family car was a bit like a home on wheels – it was a constant in their life, like the TV was to my generation.

1930’s

Minnie on the running board - circa 1933

Minnie on the running board – circa 1933. This seems to be more of a shot of the car with Grandma as an accent or afterthought.

Yet another sedan – with Grandma in a gingham dress surrounded by palm trees – definitely a California shot. She would have been about 16 or 17 in this shot and had already quit school to go to work to help support the family. It seems as though they went through cars fairly quickly traveling back and forth across the country.

This next car must have been something special – everyone seems to want to have their photo taken with it. It seems to have been a car that the family obtained while they were all still together in Van Nuys, California.

Granny on the trunk of the family Chevy - circa 1932

Granny on the trunk of the family Chevy – circa 1932 or 1933. She often jotted down her age on snapshots.

I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask about this group of photos, so all I really have are my own impressions. This first shot looks like Grandma got dressed up to climb up on the trunk – she looks like she’s in her Sunday best.

Grandma's brother and Ernie Foltz on the back of the same Chevy

Grandma’s brother Leonard and Ernie Foltz on the back of the same Chevy.

Same road, same car – different people. These two shots almost look like they took turns taking each other’s photos on the back of that Chevrolet. On this particular day the car was the star. Was it new to the family?

Grandma and two siblings on the running board of the Chevy

Grandma and her brother Leonard and her sister Muriel on the running board of the Chevy.

Same Chevy, different time and place – but still an occasion to dress up for the photo-op. Thinking of the year – this was in the depths of the depression and I know that this was a period of time when Grandma’s family traveled as her father followed the work. The one constant in their lives were the relationships they had with their siblings. They changed schools, addresses, states, churches, jobs – but they all went through it together.

Grandma and her cousin and best friend Noni - dressed for the occasion.

Grandma and her cousin and best friend Noni – dressed more formally for this occasion. The Chevy looks pretty nice too.

If I were to tally up all the appearances of each member of the family in the old photos to see who was pictured the most, the family car beats out any single family member by a pretty wide margin.

Grandma and her Mother at the Auto Laundry with the Chevy

Grandma and her Mother at the Auto Laundry in Van Nuys, California with a slightly nicer car in 1934 – again they dressed very nice to be at the car wash.

My Grandma and her Cherokee Indian mother all decked out with the new car at the Auto Laundry.

Here Grandma checks out her makeup in the rearview mirror.

Here Grandma checks out her makeup in the rearview mirror.

Same car, different outfit – perhaps in front of their home in California. Grandma was 19 and would make only one more cross-country trip with the family before she settled in Hollywood to start a family of her own.

Grandma in her bathing suit with...a car

Grandma in her bathing suit with…a car – it looks like a 1938 model.

Grandma married Grandpa in 1938 and settled in California. She told me that her mother was a very strict Pentecostal who never permitted her to wear heels or to dance. For her, this time right after she married after the Depression was one of the freest times she had ever experienced. She never was very modest and I remember her gardening in shorts and a bathing suit top. Seeing this shot of her surprised me because of how conservative her upbringing was. She was completely comfortable in her own skin.

1940’s

Twins Eula and Beula pose with their niece Doris Jean in front of a snazzy convertible.

Twins Eula and Beula pose with their first niece Doris Jean in front of a snazzy convertible.

The car was the key to mobility for families making the trek west and it was integral to my family and their connections. Charlie literally built the roads his children would travel to stay connected throughout their lives. All but one sibling would settle in the west in either Nevada or California. This shot is one from a road trip to visit family.

The Cox siblings managed to see each other pretty often – hop in the family car and head down the highway. As their families grew they would often swap kids for the summer. None of the Coxes ever knocked on a door when they came for a visit – their home was your home and visa-versa. Just come on in and make yourself at home. Maybe their nomadic childhoods made a change of scenery almost natural for them.

Eula and Beula take a shot together with the convertible.

Eula and Beula take a shot together with the convertible.

I don’t know who’s car this was but I do know that my Great Aunt Beula loved her a fancy car. I bet it was hers – she liked to have the fanciest of the lot.

Grandma poses with my Pop in front of the family car in Las Vegas.

Grandma poses with my Pop in front of the family car in Northern California

Here Grandma and Pop pose in front of their sedan at a family gathering in California in the early 1940’s. Her family made the drive from Nevada to spend the holidays together.

Eula and her husband Bob strike a pose.

Eula and her husband Bob strike a pose.

Same car, same day – It makes me think that Grandma and her sister Eula took turns with the camera. The sign behind the car says “Missouri Mule” – wonder what that was about?

My Great Uncle Newt on base in Washington State before he shipped out to Europe.

My Great Uncle Newt and a buddy on base in Washington State before he shipped out to Europe.

My Great Uncle was a real live war hero. He landed in Normandy and drove a tank destroyer during World War II in Europe. He sent my grandmother this photo before he shipped out – a memento of a soldier, his buddy, and a car.

Here's a shot Newt had taken with his vehicle in Normandy - even in wartime it was rare to see a Cox without a vehicle of some type.

Here’s a shot Newt had taken with his vehicle in Normandy – even in wartime it was rare to see a Cox without a vehicle of some type.

After the War Newt moved into the railroad shack my grandparents rented in Las Vegas – it was about 400 square feet with a garage in back. He worked with my Grandma for a couple of years before making his way to Northern California where he settled down. He made the trip to Vegas often – he would stay at Grandma’s and take us out to the Showboat for strawberry shortcake. Well into his 70’s Newt would show up on my doorstep in Oregon as he made the drive north to Pendleton to reconnect with his army buddies. I loved driving that highway with him and hearing tales of his travels along that same highway with his siblings.

1950’s

My Pop and our cousin Randa in Las Vegas.

My Pop and our cousin Randa in Las Vegas in about 1951.

Some of the siblings came to Vegas for Easter in the early 1950’s – photos were taken to mark the occasion in the front yard – of course the cars were in the frame. Baby Randa was the 4th generation in the family to have her photo taken with the family car.

Beula, her husband Tommy, and my Pop in the  lawn on that same day.

Beula, her husband Tommy, and my Pop in the lawn on that same day.

Same car, same day, same Pop – with his aunt and uncle in the lawn in small town Las Vegas.

Grandma and Grandpa with his sister Olive in front of their beloved '49 Chevy

Grandma and Grandpa with his sister Olive in front of their beloved ’49 Chevy

In 1949 Grandma and Grandpa bought their very first brand new car. It was a Chevy. Grandpa waxed it every week, Grandma loved to drive it. They had left behind the tiny railroad shack they started their lives in Las Vegas in and soon would be living in a brand new custom home on Isabelle Avenue. The girl who moved 17 times in 9 years had resolved to settle down and put down deep roots. This child of the Depression was experiencing real prosperity.

Grandma and Grandpa take a drive in the Chevy in the desert outside of town.

Grandma and Grandpa take a drive in the Chevy in the desert outside of town.

The ’49 Chevy is the car they would drive to visit family in Missouri, Nebraska, and California. It’s the car my Pop would learn to drive in. It’s the car they would park in the driveway of that brand new house that they had both worked so hard for.

Grandma takes a break at the butcher shop and leans on her favorite Chevy.

Grandma takes a break at the butcher shop and leans on her favorite Chevy.

Here’s Grandma – on the trunk of her Chevy – a quarter century after that first trunk shot on another Chevy.

Here’s that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to “customize” it while his folks were out-of-town. That’s Isabelle Avenue in the mid 50’s

When Pop got his license Grandma and Grandpa bought a new Chevy and they became a 2-car family. One weekend while Grandma and Grandpa were in California visiting siblings Pops decided he wanted the ’49 to have a bit more of a “custom” look. He chopped the cab, frenched the headlights, and removed almost all the chrome and door handles. He never finished the conversion but spoke about that car like a long-lost love for the rest of his life.

1960’s

Grandma's 1963 Impala Super Sport

Grandma’s first great nieces with Max and…Grandma’s 1963 Impala Super Sport

In 1963 Grandma and Grandpa celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Grandpa bought her a stunning metallic blue Impala as an anniversary gift. When visitors came to the house they were almost always photographed in front of it. Here’s Randa and her sisters Janice and Dara, along with my brother Max in 1965. They are sitting in my little red wagon.

The drives to Nebraska ended after Grandma’s brother Clyde passed away. Grandpa’s family was from Nebraska, but they preferred to fly in for visits. All the siblings were now in the west and could be near each other with just a day’s drive.

Grandma drives a Bulldozer and poses for a photo - circa 1968

Grandma drives a Bulldozer and poses for a photo – circa 1968

This is Grandma at her most vital – working the Caterpillar Tractor at their mining claim in 1968. She was eager to learn to operate it and rarely let anyone else behind the wheel. She could drive just about anything short of a tank. Driving was something she enjoyed, even if she was driving a bulldozer.

1970’s

1976 - Grandma and Grandpa's first new car since 1963 - a lime green Ford LTD.

1976 – Grandma and Grandpa’s first new car since 1963 – a lime green Ford LTD.

By 1976 Grandma was starting to losing her mobility. Grandpa chose this land yacht because it was easy for her to get in and out of. It was their first Ford and the first car they would own that Grandma would never drive. They took this photo the day they brought it home from the dealership.

The last LTD - 1977. It had a 460 and got about 8 miles per gallon.

Eula, Grandma, and Beula during a visit in Las Vegas. The last LTD – 1977. It had a 460 and got about 8 miles per gallon.

The very next year Ford announced that they would be reducing the engine sizes in cars beginning in 1978. Grandpa decided that he had to get a car with a big block before they were gone forever. Grandma and Grandpa had a dream of retiring and getting a travel trailer. They hoped to camp and fish for weeks and months on end – but that was not to be. Grandma’s illness made it impossible for her to do the simplest things. By 1980 she would only leave the house to go to the doctor. This 1977 LTD was the last car she ever rode in. This is the last time she was photographed with a car.

Grandma’s siblings continued to make the treks up and down the highway with great frequency well into the 90’s. My Great Uncle Claude would pop up at almost any important occasion – he looked like he wasn’t steady enough to walk, but he still drove cross-country. The last time they were all together was for my Grandma’s 80th birthday in 1995. She had dementia and hadn’t recognized me in some time – but when her brothers and sisters walked into the room she beamed. She could no longer articulate what she was feeling, but her face glowed. Her sister Beula had passed away a couple of years earlier – but everyone else was there. It would be the last time I saw any of them except for Grandma. Their zeal for the open road was not shared by the generations that followed. I lived in Oregon for about a decade and my Uncle Newt made that drive more than any other family member – it was in his DNA to hit the road and go see his family.

My Pop became accustomed to family making their way to his door and I think a lot of his cousins probably shared that experience. Their vagabond parents had done enough driving to last for their lifetimes too.

I’ve rarely had my photo taken with an automobile. I suppose that the family car is more of an ordinary appliance these days. It’s basic transportation – not the vehicle that opens up the world and all its opportunities before you.

These days I live in the Ozarks less than an hour from the place where my Grandmother was born, the rest of my family remains in Las Vegas in the west. My siblings and I see each other a couple of times a year and I usually fly out to see them. I made the drive once after my Pops death and I cannot imagine making that drive without a lot of company ever again, and I think that may be the key. The Coxes made those treks together. They were not lonely drives across the desert, they were sedans filled with family and all that goes with that.

I think that we stand on the shoulders of those who endured the Depression and the War and built the roads that connected us as a nation. Even in this tough economy, things are easier for us. We stay in touch online. We share photos on Facebook. We talk and text without worrying about long distance charges.

Looking at these photos has me waxing nostalgic. Maybe I should put on my best dress and hop on the hood of my Jeep – I could post it on Instagram.