Thunder Butte

December 04, 2008

Christmas Cowboy Daze


My Dad as well as my Uncles Joe and Neal used to tell me stories when I was little about riding ponies across the windswept prairies near Thunder Butte when they were growing up. It was exciting, all these stories told by my relatives who, at least in my mind, used to live in the olden days—just like the cowboys on TV. That was my introduction to cowboys, and I wanted to be one. I used to prop a child's straw cowboy hat on my head and strap on my plastic six shooters. Then, I'd climb on my mount – usually a stick or a broom handle – and gallop about my suburban San Francisco Bay Area yard terrifying my sisters and our dogs. And, then, one Christmas when I was about eight, my grandmother, bless her kindness, thought it would be a really good idea to get her California grandkids a pony.

I remember the great excitement I had on that Christmas morning about the idea of having pony rides, and not just at the amusement park, but whenever I wanted. I pulled out my plastic revolver, strapped it to my hip, cocked my cowboy hat over one eye and sashayed out back to take possession of my trusty steed. My cowboy daze didn't last long.

The pony's name was “Peanuts,” the kind of name that suggested a gentle, hooved companion, and maybe the kind you would feed peanuts to or bits of straw from the palm of your hand. But just as quickly as these thoughts passed through my mind, the reality of a bucking monster that would just as soon bite your hand off as nibble on peanuts set it. As my Dad tried to tie a harness to the pony, it just reared up, raising a ruckus and waving its hooves about wildly. My Dad did all he could to calm the animal, but it just seemed to want to attack him. The wild beast seemed to tower over me. My Dad tried to get me on top of it, but it quickly threw me off and then stepped on me to make matters worse. Crying, that was the end of the cowboy romance for me. From then on, I tried to steer clear of the pony, but it would charge every time I went out into the backyard. I became adept at hopping over the fence at the last minute in a sheer panic, always thinking that these were indeed my final moments in this world.

I was so terrified of Peanuts. Every time the creature saw me, it reared on its hind legs and threatened me with a nasty bump on my head or worse. It was a wild animal. I think my Dad had the idea that the pony and I would eventually get right with each other. He was so convinced of it that he gave me the job of seeing that the pony was secured in his pen every night with fresh food and water. Instead, when I got home from school every day, I would get down on my knees and pray. I'd beg God to just please get the beast back in his pen without my help. Then, all I would have to do would be to slip out the back door, sprint to the gate, and fasten it just in the nick of time before the pony would notice me and come charging. It only worked about twenty-five percent of the time, so I guess God was listening to somebody else's prayers most of the time.

Although we tried to keep the pony in the backyard, it kept breaking out. More than once my Dad had to go chasing the pony down the street to keep it from taking off after and terrifying the neighbors. Once, one of the neighbors, Mr. Taylor, came looking over the fence to see if my Dad was about. The pony immediately charged, broke through the fence, and chased him all the way down the street. Mr. Taylor never came back. Never. Even after we got rid of the beast, which we were eventually forced to do after about three months because even my Dad could not control the thing. This was all a surprise, of course, because he had grown up in the Cowboy Days, hadn't he?

--Mike Crowley

Editor's Note--Merry Christmas!
Mike Crowley Thursday, December 04, 2008 | (3) comments |

December 01, 2008

And Now the Fun Begins

In the summer of 1941, I had decided to travel to California to seek my fortune. Having made the decision and since people told me that I would need identification, I visited Father Now, the pastor of the Catholic Church in Glad Valley. After some visiting with Father Now, between us we made up a baptismal certificate showing my date of birth and parentage.

The good father had to take my word for all of the entries on the certificate because, as he explained, the original church , which had been located in Brayton, had been blown away in some type of cyclone and all of the church records had been lost. After obtaining the baptismal certificate, I hitchhiked to Mitchell where I said goodbye to an old girl friend. The thing that sticks in my memory most was the temperature in the shade outside my hotel room. It was 110 degrees at midday.

I then got out on the highway and started hitchhiking to California. I had about $18.00 left. The first car that came by stopped. It was a 1935 Ford sedan containing three middle aged men (in their thirties). All three were en route to Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank, California, to work on airplanes for the war effort. I agreed to give the driver, the owner of the car, $15 to cover my share of the gasoline.

I think it took about two days with the men driving alternately. They would stop for food when necessary, usually a sandwich when they got gas. After the first day, my last three dollars had shrunk to fifteen cents. So from then on, when they stopped to eat I just pretended to be sleeping.

On our arrival in Burbank they let me out on a street corner in a semi business area. I remember the incident clearly. I had fifteen cents in my pocket, the sun was setting, it was getting dark, and I was scared. I didn’t have an address or a phone number—nothing. That may be the reason that for the rest of my life I have felt desperation when I have reached in my pocket and found no money.

On a corner in the distance, I could see what appeared to be a medium size hotel. I walked into the hotel lobby, sat in one of the easy chairs, and tried to figure out my next move. After several hours, I asked the desk clerk if he had any objection to my sitting there. He seemed like a decent, middle aged man who was easy to talk to. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him Faith, South Dakota, he turned, picked down a room key, handed it to me and said. "I’m from Faith. You get some sleep, and in the morning I’ll send you to a friend who will give you a job.

The next morning, true to his word, the desk clerk, who owned the hotel incidentally, sent me to a bowling alley a few blocks down the street. There was a nice little restaurant in this bowling alley, and when I talked to the manager, he put me to work immediately as a "fry cook."

I worked in that restaurant for something like three weeks. Every day I would ask the customers where Alameda, California was. Nobody had ever heard of Alameda. Several people told me that the only Alameda was The Alameda (Alameda Street), in downtown Los Angeles. I had the address of an aunt in Alameda and I was pretty sure now that it was nowhere near Los Angeles, as I assumed it to be when I started this adventure.

After about three weeks, someone advised the restaurant manager that I was underage and serving beer. Since that was against the law and he could lose his license, he had to let me go. Armed with three weeks pay from the restaurant, I went to the nearest bus depot and bought a ticket to Alameda.

What an eye opener. California was l o o o ng. It took all day to get there on the bus; California was also not paved with gold. The Greyhound bus came to Oakland and drove through the most awful looking streets, with old tenement type houses and arrived at the Greyhound bus depot on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. What a let down! The dirtiest, dingiest city I had ever imagined. From there I caught a number 58 Key System bus to Alameda. I was en route to 2303 Buena Vista Avenue and was so worried that I would miss the address, that I got off the bus at Ninth Street and walked the last 14 blocks to my Aunt’s house.

My aunt, Mabel VanSicklin, was pleased to see me. She ran a rooming house where I soon became friends with all the tenants, young couples for the most part. They treated me like the family pet. They showered me with food, took me sight seeing, and when I didn’t have them entertaining me, I went to movies with my cousin Lester Petersen, who was the same age as me.

After about two weeks, and unable to find a job, I got a telegram from Lockheed, in Burbank, where I had left an application. The telegram read, "Report for work on Monday." I had just time enough to catch the bus back to Burbank.

In Bakersfield, California, I received a telegram, on the bus, from my new friends in Alameda. They had a "wonderful job waiting for me, come back at once." So, in all my new found ignorance, without any other information, I turned around and rode the bus back to the Bay Area.

I tried very hard to conceal my disappointment when I found out the job was "floor boy" in the Oakland Garage on Harrison Street. This was a multi-story parking garage. When customers would enter to get their car, a floor boy would rush to the upper levels and rush the customer’s car down to him. Several times per day customers would call in to have their car delivered to their home or other places around the Bay Area.

I soon became a very doubtful asset to that garage. I wrecked several expensive cars and I kept hitting the manager for raises, and he kept giving me raises. This routine kept on for several months. 'Then the foreman found out that I was making more money than he, and the manager found out that I had never, in my entire life, ever had a driver’s license. End of the job. I was fired.

My next job was with a drayage firm, Kellog Express. I greased trucks. After a short time, hating every minute of the job, I told them I was quitting, so they made a truck driver out of me and I started ferrying double semi trailers back and forth from the docks in San Francisco. That job was interesting and it was pretty decent money, but the war was on then. We would have to run trucks at night without headlights, and under the more severe blackouts we would be kept off the streets entirely. In those cases we would have to wait, sometimes for hours, in the truck depot, or wherever we were when the sirens sounded, sometimes for hours for the blackout to be lifted, just so we could drive home.

From the day war was declared (WWII that is), I had wanted to enlist. I wanted to fly a plane, but on enquiring of a recruiter, I found out that if I didn’t work out as a pilot I might wind up in some very miserable job. I decided the Navy was a good place to stay off my feet, so I enquired and someone told me that if I enlisted back east or in the Midwest, they would send me back to California for boot camp. So, on the basis of this "bar room" information, I decided to go back to South Dakota and enlist in the Navy.

During the late summer, my mother, brother Joseph, and my sister Cecilia had come to California, had gotten jobs, and my mother had rented a large house on Encinal Avenue in Alameda. My mother immediately went to work in the Richmond Shipyards, Joe took a job tending bar at the Bank Club, and Cecilia worked in the restaurant at the Alameda Hotel.

At the time I had a 1934 Packard straight eight convertible. After work one night, I stopped at the Cochran-Celli auto dealers. When a salesman came out, I handed him the keys. I just gave him the Packard. Recently I saw an ad selling this same model car for $250,000.

The next day I took the bus to my brother Neal’s ranch near Faith. Then I went to Mitchell where I enlisted in the Navy, but I had to wait a month until they called me to duty. While waiting for the Navy to call, I stayed with Neal and his wife Dorothy. Neal had a little black horse that he wanted to break (tame) for Dorothy, so he gave me the job. Well, that black horse was pretty, smart, fast, and a son of the devil. He bucked and he fought, he struck with his hooves, and he bit anything or anybody he could reach.

After about a month, I got a telegram from the Navy with railroad tickets and instructions to report for physical exam in Omaha, Nebraska. Needless to say, I was tickled to death to escape from the damn black horse. Among other things, from all that bucking, I was bleeding from the rectum all the time. I didn’t want to say anything because I was afraid the Navy would reject me if they found out I was busted. I confided to a friend on the train and he advised me of a sure cure. "Get a small bottle of castor oil," he said.

The train stopped at almost every town to pick up cream cans, so at the next stop, I ran to the drug store and bought a four ounce bottle of Castor oil, ran back to the train, drank the bottle of Castor oil, and ran to the bath room for the next two days. But, the bleeding stopped.

Finally we arrived in Omaha, I passed the physical, and I was sworn in on March 13, l942.

--John (Gene) Crowley
Mike Crowley Monday, December 01, 2008 | (0) comments |