In June of 1932 my father graduated from high school. He had grown up in the little town of Casey, Iowa, where his parents worked a small farm.
The Great Depression was hard on the land there, and money was tight, so when a pupil had the basic skills, they were handed a diploma and wished
well. And gone.
He and a friend wanted to celebrate this passage, so they decided to take a trip. In America, adventure is to the West, and so they hopped a freight
train. They each had purchased a WW I Army greatcoat, a long, heavy woolen garment that served as tent, sleeping bag, and backpack, and the
pockets were stuffed with sandwiches made by their mothers.
They rode and rode and rode, unable to sit down or to sleep, until the train stopped in a big railyard one night. They had to get down, walk the kinks
out, find something to eat. The lights of a town burned near, they walked toward it, staggering a little. They crossed a busy street, walked through
a neighborhood of small bungalows. The air was thick with the scent of blooming lilacs. The night was cool and promised cold.
A man called out from his porch, asked if they were on the road. Yessir, they said, and he offered them the porch for the night. In the morning the
man’s wife cooked them a big breakfast, and they walked on. They came to a fast-flowing river, saw mountains rearing up, for the first time in their
They were in Livingston, Montana, where I live now. They found work on ranches nearby, haying, laboring, and after a few weeks they headed back
home to Iowa.
My father had seen the West, though, and he loved it.
Poor as his family was, poor as the farmers were in the Great Depression, the teachers my father had told him he could find another life, one freer and
more interesting. If he got a good education. My father knew he would. But he had no money, so he planned to join the United States Navy as soon as
he could. and save most of his pay. But he had to be eighteen, and that was a couple of years away. Work was hard to come by, but there was some, if
you looked hard, and special skills always help.
My father was Welsh, built like a fireplug, and he had been a champion wrestler. So he found work in a carnival, wrestling all comers who wanted
the twenty-dollar prize. He wasn’t terribly big, but he was immensely strong, and he knew the properties of olive oil.
The carnival was owned and run by a man called Ten-Cent Jack, and such a carnival in those days usually had a mangy lion, a patched tent, games
of chance that weren’t all that chancy, and a passel of dancing girls who of course were also whores. The carnival would pull up to a grove of trees
near to a couple of small towns, a site recommended by local Lawn Forcement (fee negotiable), and open for business by evening.
It was a time-sensitive business, in that the carnival could stay until the local pecksniffs got wind of it and the People of Decency provided fell
shrieks which reached the ears of Lawn Forcement. Forty-eight hours was about usual.
My old man was undefeated, and I know this because Ten-Cent Jack was not a fool, and had dad lost to anyone, Ten-Cent Jack would have hired
the victor. Just like that.
Dad rassled in season, and did this and that–I heard mention of “the railroad” but no more, and in time he was old enough for the United States
Navy, which he joined on October the first, 1935.
I was and am very proud of my old man and his time spent working for Ten-Cent Jack, and that early professional experience was to have some
effects for the rest of his life. And those effects, upon my mother and her father, most signally, are for another post…….