The Last Summer
Around 1973 our summers in the wilds of northern Nevada came to an end. That summer Grandma and Grandpa made two trips north. On the first they went alone and met Uncle Ronnie and Herb the geologist to do the required assay work. After a week assaying Ron and Herb headed north to their homes in Oregon. Grandma and Grandpa spent another night before heading south to our home in Las Vegas – at least that was the plan.
In the morning they got into the pickup, and it wouldn’t start. Grandpa was pretty mechanical so he spent a couple of hours trying to get the engine to turn over, but it was no use. By noon they made the call, they were going to have to hike out.
In the days before cell phones there were few options. The truck had a CB in it but they were down in a valley and were unable to raise any response. Since they needed the truck to power up the CB, hiking to the nearest rise was not an option either. They decided to hike to the nearest ranch homestead hoping to find a telephone. The nearest paved road was 60 miles, the nearest town, Midas, was 25 – so they headed in the direction of Midas.
We did not have “hiking” gear at the Diggins. We wore heavy work boots to protect our feet and had shower shoes for showering in the spring. Grandma and Grandpa made that trek in those heavy boots carrying as much water as they could manage in the canteens. When they came across a homestead that night, they had walked 17 miles and their feet were blistered and bleeding. The rancher let them use the phone and they spent the night. In the morning the rancher took Grandpa back to camp to get the truck running. They had to put it in 4-wheel drive, lift it off the ground, and wrap a rope around a suspended wheel several times – they put the truck in gear and did a mid-air version of a push start with the rope on the tire. Once it was running Grandpa went back to the ranch and picked up Grandma and headed for the nearest city to seek medical attention.
Pops and a buddy had driven north and met Grandma and Grandpa in Battle Mountain, Nevada – a bit over 100 miles from the mine. They were both in a lot of pain and were in no shape to drive. Once they could travel Pops got them both home safe and sound where they recovered from their ordeal. I remember running into the house to see them and both of them had bandages on both feet. Grandma said that even her blisters had blisters. Hearing the tales of their trek only magnified both of them in my view – they really were amazing, they could do or conquer anything.
Late that summer they took what would be their last trip to the Diggins with my youngest brother Ronnie. He recalls this trip as the beginning of our grandmother’s progressive illness. She had rather suddenly developed swollen joints that her doctors assumed were caused by rheumatoid arthritis. They were actually caused by a toxic drug interaction – Grandma’s doctor had prescribed 2 meds for her that were toxic together. We later learned that they were listed in the Physicians Desk Reference as toxic in combination. Even though her pharmacist tried to alert her physician to the dangers, he arrogantly insisted he was the doctor and knew what he was doing. His arrogance and ignorance cost my grandmother her mobility and nearly her life before it was over. In less than a year we would be waiting at Loma Linda as a doctor told us she might last 24 hours if we were lucky. She did last another 25 years, but her life was changed forever after that summer and our memories of our Grandma changed from those of triumph and wonder to memories of hospitals and nursing care. Being the oldest, I have always been unwilling to set aside the wonderful woman who inspired me in place of the reality of her declining condition. I needed that woman who could do anything in my life, to see her reduced to a woman who could not stand without assistance was heartbreaking for our entire family.
She fought the good fight against her symptoms – she survived because of her own stubborn will to live. At Loma Linda she told me, “This crap won’t kill me, I won’t let it”, and I believed her. As her body declined she fought on, but when I think of her whole – strong, vital, and loving life – I think of those summers at the Diggins.
Uncle Ronnie continued to keep the claim active until the mid 80s. Going there without Grandma and Grandpa didn’t seem right for us. The Diggins faded into the place where childhood memories are stored. The chapter was closed.
Our Return to the Diggins
In 2009, my brother Max and I made the trek back to the Diggins. He and Pop had made the trip a couple of years earlier – they mailed me a box of rocks and a bottle of water from the Spring that I still have at the house. They had scouted out the route and spent a part of a day up there. I was so excited to hear that they had found it – Max and I began to plot a return ourselves.
I took my vacation over Memorial Day that year and we made the drive north. We made arrangements to stay at the Midas Saloon – the very same spot where Grandma had taken me to buy a creme soda on our weekly drives for supplies and to make phone calls.
When we were kids Midas had 11 school aged children in town. This was one child short of the requirement to keep their one-room school-house open. At the height of the Gold Rush there were 30,000 people living in Midas. Today there are 11 year-round residents. Summers see about a dozen more. The Saloon is the hub of the town – they serve dinner, drinks, and great conversation every night from May through September.
We ate there and slept in the guest cottage in the back. The whole town came out that night and we made connections with people whose parents and grandparents were in the area when we prospected on our claim in the 60s and 70s. Apart from Las Vegas and Reno, all of Nevada is really just a very spread out small town. Connections are everywhere. In that little Saloon I met people who lived on the same street where I bought my first home, I met a guy who knew my Uncle Ronnie, I met people who knew where our claim was because they had explored and loved those same hills. Nevada is like that.
Midas has modern homes and very old structures – the original jail still stands. Sadly the school-house burned down a few years ago. My Grandma took me to see it when I was about 8 years old and it was sad to learn it was gone.
After a night of catching up and telling stories, Max and I headed out to find the mine and make our own connections. As we left Midas we passed a colorful barrel mailbox – there are many like it up in the wilds – a home-made box that can hold lots of mail.
One of the first familiar sights we saw was a sheep herder’s camp. It has been in use as long as anyone can remember. I remember seeing these pens filled with sheep on the Jeep rides into the Diggins – the fence has been moved because the course of the creek was altered by a flood some 20 years ago – but it is essentially in the same spot.
Our first stop was Rock Creek – the very same spot where these adventures took place. The creek swells to a level that is impassable when the snow melts and the effects can be seen in the deterioration of the road.
Another view of Rock Creek Campsite – that taller brush midway up on the right was the site of our camp, the site of toilet accidents, snake sightings, and practical jokes on Uncle Ronnie.
After getting the lay of the land and comparing recollections we loaded back up and pressed on into the hills to the Diggins where these adventures took place. The site was recognizable from the road – this reversed guard rail was used to guide the Caterpillar and was probably placed here in the late 70s by Uncle Ronnie.
The original Diggins Campsite today…
The same road back in the day…
We camped to the left of the road, the Lake was to the right. Lake Minnie Haha is still there, though 40 years of snows and sediment have reduced her size considerably.
Here’s a shot of Minnie Haha in its prime taken from the opposite shore…
We built structures for working the mine on site. One of them was a grizzly. This one was likely built towards the end of our time at the Diggins.
The original grizzly was located right next to Minnie Haha – its foundation is still visible today…
Toejam creek fed into Minnie Haha at one time, but today the course of the creek is changed – it runs about 30 feet beyond Minnie Haha.
May remnants of our time at the Diggins remain – the signs of daily camp life are everywhere. The arid nature of the high desert allows metal to degrade very slowly. I found one of my galoshes over near the creek. These items are still there – it’s like our own private ghost town.
Camp life in the 60s typically took place in June and July – a bit more arid than our Memorial day trip.
This tailings pile sits on the site of the original camp – we moved camp to Rock Creek in order to make room to work with heavy equipment.
One of of the things I remember were the giant bumblebees and wildflowers along the creek. In the Spring the wildflowers are still stunning. Some things never change.
After surveying camp and finding a couple of arrowhead tips we ventured up to the spring where we would get fresh water and the meadow where we hunted game birds and shot jackrabbits (and where we shot the window out of the truck!).
Max was shooting some of these beauties…
The spring is on the hillside above the meadow. This is a view from the meadow up towards the spring on the left side of the photo. The red rock is where we got our drinking water, the dark rock halfway down the hill is the site of our shower.
Toejam Creek runs through the meadow and it was a bit marshy so we left the Jeep on the far side and hiked across the meadow and up to the spring. You can just barely make it out at the base of the hill. We spent evenings here racing the Jeep across this vast meadow and shooting up jackrabbits. Today the meadow hosts cattle and wild horses.
After a day of adventure we headed back to Midas for another evening at the Saloon – we headed home the next day and took a more eastern route through Elko where we encountered this confusing signage configuration…
So Close, but Yet So Far
The summer of 2011, the year after Pops died, we decided to make another trip back. Both of my brothers wanted to make the trip and we wanted to introduce the Diggins to the next generation of Carters. Max, his youngest son, and I would ride up and scout the route in from the east via Elko. Ronnie and his kids would join us the next day at the highway and we would all travel into the Diggins together from the west.
The Saloon in Midas had no vacancies so we stayed the night in Elko before heading into the Diggins. We had mapped the routes in and out on a GPS on our 2009 visit so it was as simple as selecting the location from our POI list on the Garmin, or so we thought.
In the distance you can see snow on the peaks of the mountains – this looks pretty innocuous, but up close the snow caused issues that we had not anticipated.
As we got higher into the mountains the snow became more ominous. We would take a route and find it blocked by snowdrifts 6 feet deep. It seemed we would spend a fair amount of this trip backing down hillside trails. Eventually we decided to just go to the top of a hill and take a look back to see if we could find a way through.
The hilltop afforded us this view…
We sent Brian out to scout ahead and we drove down the hill – this is true offloading. At one point we were driving over sagebrush 3-4 feet deep. but we managed to get to the road below.
Once we hit the road we drove through a quaking aspen grove and into a meadow. We could see that the road was being cleared ahead of us. We met up with Bob – a miner from a family who owned the nearby Falcon Mine claim. Our grandparents knew the Falcon owners as neighbors. It was another small town Nevada connection.
Bob and his crew gave us a tour of the Falcon Mine and Camp – they had a permanent camp, something I think we would have had eventually if my Grandma had not gotten sick.
One of Bob’s buddies offered to guide us towards our claim – the water levels were high and eventually we had to give up. They had also tried to get in from the west through Rock Creek earlier in the week – getting to the Diggins was just not going to happen on this trip.
This video shows a bit of our adventure to find the mine – we didn’t get there but we had an amazing day.
On the way out of the hills we encountered some of the wildlife that makes this area so very special…
Like all my trips, I indulged my passion for rocks – the Diggins is the place where I fell in love with rocks – the variety there was and is so stunning.
Beyond the Diggins
One of the things I take away from our adventures in the north is a sense of independence and self-reliance. I like to think that I have followed in Grandma’s footsteps and found a path by trying things I never imagined I could do. I still love a challenge and I know I got that from her. Her powerful influence on me as a young girl informed the way I think about women and about myself.
Furthermore, I believe these experiences have shaped my brothers as well. They were younger, but the experience of living in the wilderness – hunting, working, exploring – has shaped us all.
Recently my brother Max wrote a post about a sexy tractor. My eyes filled with tears as I saw his granddaughter riding on a tractor with his wife Karen – one of the captions read “Karen showing that she can do anything”. I thought back to how much that image meant to me, and now Alexa will have that same image of a wonderful crazy woman who can do anything. I hope that one day Alexa can share that same wonder and independence with her granddaughter.
This is a wonderful gift, more precious than any gold or silver you might dig up – and it’s a gift I hope is passed down forever.
Just looking at these photos is making me long for the hills – I feel the need to get back to my roots, I hope that we can make that trip again soon and take Alexa with us.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
My Grandma and her Cherokee Indian mother all decked out with the new car at the Auto Laundry.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Same car, same day, same Pop – with his aunt and uncle in the lawn in small town Las Vegas.
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.
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.
Here’s Grandma – on the trunk of her Chevy – a quarter century after that first trunk shot on another Chevy.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
As a child of the 60s, I had a front row seat to the changing roles of gender in society. Sometimes they were about serious stuff like Moms working – sometimes they were about things that didn’t really matter at all.
My mom had terrible problems with tonsilitis when we were young. Max and I got sick pretty often, we would give it to mom. We bounced back but she didn’t. One of us would get sick and pass it on, about the time we all got well one of us would get sick again. It was a constant recurring cycle that only got worse once I started school. Our family doctor told her that a tonsilectomy was pretty serious for an adult, but was simple and safe for children. Max and I could have ours taken out at the same time, all we had to do was wait until Max was old enough and we could break the cycle.
I was in Kindergarten when the time came. I was at an age where I was all about playing with Barbie. I loved all the accessories. The first Barbie I had was a hand-me-down from the neighbor across the street. It was a Midge doll. I didn’t really care for her. She had brown hair and freckles, I thought she looked too much like me, I hated my freckles. My mom loved her for the same reason I hated her. My mom’s name was Barbie and she loved the idea of a fashion doll, so she was thrilled when Midge came our way.
Skagg’s Drug Store rand a trade-in promotion when the new Barbies with the twisting waist came out. Bring in your old Barbie, and get the new one for a buck and a half. I knew mom liked Midge too much to let me trade her in so I managed to get Grandma to take me to trade her in for the newfangled twisty Barbie. Mom saw me with the new Barbie and I could tell she wasn’t happy that I made the trade, not because Midge was a wonderful doll that might be worth more than a discounted Barbie, mostly because she hoped having a beautiful doll with my features would be good for me. Me – I wanted the twisty waist and was glad to see the freckles gone.
Max had just gotten a GI Joe and I was smitten – I mean Joe came with all kinds of cool accessories. Guns, knives, goggles, scuba gear – you name it Joe had it. Next to Joe, Ken was a wimp. The thing that put him over the top for me was that Joe could do one thing Ken couldn’t – he could ride a horse. I guess Ken could as long as he rode sided-saddle with his legs sticking straight out, but how much fun was that? I was wishing that Skagg’s would have a Ken trade-in. I wanted a Joe! I asked my mom for one and she told me that GI Joes were only for boys. I just didn’t get that, after all why would it matter. I could play with Ken and he was a boy. Eventually I just started playing with one of Max’s Joes.
What does all this have to do with tonsils? I’m getting there, I promise.
My brother and I went into the hospital together. It was a Catholic hospital and many of the nurses were nuns. I had never seen a nun before and my first impression was that they were kind of scary. As soon as we were admitted to the hospital they wanted a blood sample. I had never had anyone take blood before, and having a tall nun in a black habit come at with a huge needle freaked me out. She grabbed my arm so I pulled it away and locked my fingers together behind my head so that she could not get at the inside of my elbow. She called for help. Two more nuns, a doctor, and my mother came and forced my arm open while I kicked and screamed bloody murder. Max sat on the stool next to me wide-eyed watching this all play out. I think I was upside down facing the floor when they finally got my elbow open. Things had not started well.
That night my Grandma came to see us after work. She would stay with us until we fell asleep. She brought some things to keep us occupied with her. She brought Max’s favorite GI Joe along with a new accessory kit. For me she brought me my very own Joe sailor with a scuba diving kit. I was ecstatic – so far it had all been worth it.
I could hardly sleep that night, not because I was having surgery in the morning, but because I couldn’t wait to wake up and play with my very own Joe. Sister Helen came in to get us ready to go to the operating room. I asked if Joe could go with me and she told me that he was a boys toy, I should be playing with a girls doll. I know I shot her a look, no nun was going to tell me what to play with. I hugged Joe close in case she decided to take him from me. Max and I both had our Joes as the wheeled us to the operating room. They told me to count backwards from a hundred and I think I might have gotten to 96 before I was out.
When I woke up I had the worst sore throat of my life. It hurt to even try to talk. Worse yet, Max had his Joe, but mine was nowhere to be found. The nuns asked me how I felt, but had no interest hearing about my missing Joe. They offered ice cream as a distraction – at least that’s what I thought at the time. No one thought that finding my Joe was a priority.
Grandma came by again to spend the evening with us, finally someone who understood the urgency of my situation! She hunted down that nun and got my Joe back for me. I think she may have given her a piece of her protestant mind while she was at it. I ate some ice cream and tucked Joe under my pillow for safe keeping. Grandma made sure all my accessories were safe – now I could go to sleep. Late that night Max woke up and needed to go to the restroom. I pushed the call button and a male nurse came into the room. Max insisted that a man couldn’t be a nurse, only girls were nurses. He would wait until morning when a proper nurse could be found.
In the morning Max, Joe, Joe, and I were discharged with sore throats and lots of accessories. Mom’s throat issues got a lot better, I developed a healthy skepticism of nuns, and I got my very own GI Joe.