Monday, April 22, 2013

Mignon Laird

Lately I have been rereading my book, the one about my mother and her family, looking for errors, awkward sentences, etc., and I discovered a really interesting story that I just have to share, even if it means interrupting the story of my dad’s life.  

In the chapter I just finished editing, my mother Wenonah is telling about a time when she was ten. It would have been about 1923. During that year her older sister, Kaliteyo, who was thirteen, had a toothache. The toothache kept getting worse, until a swelling developed under her jaw. One day she was riding a horse across the yard, forgot to duck and a tree branch struck her right under the jaw, knocking her off the horse. 

Kaliteyo wasn’t hurt by the fall, but the limb of the tree punctured an abscess that had extended from the root of her sore tooth completely through her jaw bone. I remember the scar. Grandmother ran outside when she heard the commotion, and saw pus and blood running down Kaliteyo’s neck.   

Well, Pauls Valley didn’t have a permanent dentist at the time – that’s the reason Grandmother hadn’t gotten help sooner, but after seeing the huge abscess she knew she had to do something. It just so happened that a dentist had just rolled into town, in a Pullman car. I found a picture of the car in a Pauls Valley. Centennial brochure. 
The dentist’s name was Dr. Laird, who lived with his family in a Pullman car which he moved from town to town. When he came to a new town, he would have his Pullman car rolled off onto a side track and stay there until he saw as many patients as needed him. Then he would move on.  

My mother told me that Grandmother let her go along when she took Aunt Kaliteyo to see Dr. Laird, so she got to see the inside of the Pullman car. She told me that the inside was really fancy. It had beautiful velvet drapes with tassles on the pull cords, and elegant rugs and furniture.  

Oh, by the way, Dr. Laird pulled Kaliteyo’s tooth, and her jaw eventually healed, even though it took a long time and a lot of follow up visits to Dr. Laird.   

The other thing that my mother mentioned was that Dr. Laird had a daughter who played the harp. She told me that she heard her play and that she was very good.  

I found out a little more about Dr. Laird from a brief note on the Pauls Valley Centennial brochure. It says there that Dr. Laird’s daughter, whose name was Mignon, went on to become a professional dancer in New York City. I didn’t look into the story any further at first. It did strike me as funny to imagine Mignon running and leaping through a railroad car, trying to practice her dancing.  

But on rereading my chapter, I got curious about Mignon’s career, so I “Googled” her. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? The first thing that I encountered was the Mignon Laird Municipal Airport, in Cheyenne, Oklahoma. She had an airport named after her! 

Digging deeper I found a book about the Katy Northwest Railroad which describes a local service they ran from town to town in Oklahoma. The book says that Dr. Laird used that service to move his Pullman car from town to town. Also, according to the book, Dr. Laird did a lot more than pull teeth. He put on “medicine shows” by which I suppose they mean he sold some kind of tonic which was supposed to heal whatever ailed you, and part of the show was Mrs. Laird and Mignon giving readings and singing, and Mignon playing the harp. It might have been at one of these performances that my mother heard Mignon play. 

In looking for information about Mignon’s career, I found a blog by a lady named Laura Haywood about the “Ziegfield Club” which was a group of ladies in New York who had performed in the Ziegfield Follies, and who would get together from time to time to reminisce. Ms. Haywood attended some of the club’s meetings and got to know Mignon Laird, who was one of the club’s charter members. Mignon’s told her that her act consisted of dancing with her harp, which she somehow managed to play at the same time.  

Mignon was also part of the cast of a broadway show called “Who Cares” which played for 32 performances in 1930. 

Finally, I found on the New York Public Library site a spectacular photograph of Mignon, playing the harp and dancing in the Ziegfield Follies!


Mignon Laird in the Ziegfield Follies - 1920's
(Files of New York Public Library)



Sunday, April 14, 2013

Don, the Bully

Don worked hard in his classes at OU, but he also worked hard to excel in sports. He not only went out for basketball, but also track. He ran the mile, the mile relay and he threw the javelin.  

Don was exceptionally strong in his arms. He had boxed since grade school, and he worked on improving his arm strength. He told me once that he used to do 300 push ups every night. When I was little I asked him why he didn’t have big muscles like weight lifters, and he told me that they weren’t a strong as they looked. He said that he had beat one of the weight lifters at OU in arm wrestling. 

Apparently Don didn’t quit fighting at OU, and from what I can gather he was short tempered and used to push people around. I didn’t find that out from him. It was Jim who told me that Don's brother Boyd had pulled him aside once or twice to tell him that he couldn’t keep bullying people and succeed as an adult.  

Don still spent his summers in Fay while he was in college, and he was something of a hero there, especially after he made the basketball team. When I went to stay with my cousin Bud in Fay, his dad, Uncle Check, told me that Don worked at a dairy one summer, and that he could unload ten gallon milk containers out of a truck without taking down the tailgate. I guess working on the farm helped Don stay in condition. He told me once that the hardest work he had ever done was to dig a well by hand.  

Don at Aunt Laura's Dairy in Canton, Oklahoma
(Cousin Marvin Gunning on L, Laura on R, Don next to Laura)

One summer Don had a job surveying for the county, and he told me a funny story about an old farmer he met that summer. What Don was supposed to do was to measure the dimensions of each farmer’s fields. He had a chain of a certain length, and he was supposed to walk along the fence line and count the number of chain lengths on the sides of each field.  

Don said as he walked up to one farmer’s house, he saw the farmer sitting out on his porch in the sun. The man told Don that the sun was good for his arthritis. He said that his boys worked his farm now, because he hadn’t been able to work for several years because of the arthritis. Don asked if any of his boys were around, that he was going to need someone at the other end of his chain. The old farmer said his boys weren’t there, but he’d try to help. 

Don said that the old farmer walked slow, but they eventually walked around every field, and the farmer kept going, even though the chain was heavy and sometimes Don was almost dragging him along. Don said he was feeling guilty about putting the old farmer through such a hard day’s work when they finally got back to the house, but to his surprise the farmer had a smile on his face. He thanked Don for putting him through the work out, and said that he hadn’t felt better in years.  

I don’t think Don continued his boxing matches after he went to college, but he didn’t lose his self-confidence. Uncle Check told me another incident that happened at a rodeo they went to together. Check said they were sitting in the first row, and that one of the cowboys tossed a bucket of water on the ground in front of them, splashing mud up on their pants. He said that Don said something to the cowboy about what he could do with his water, and the cowboy said, “Why don’t you make me?” At that point Don stood up to his full 6 ft, 4 inches, and started to climb over the fence. The cowboy retreated.  

I used to try to imagine what Don was like in school. The stories I heard of him as a young man portrayed him as cocky and belligerent, a person totally different from my father. I never once heard Don raise his voice, let alone lose his temper. He was always calm, gentle, and understanding. He never seemed to assert himself, but people respected his opinions. He was well liked by everyone who knew him. He was a supervisor in his job, and he was elected to positions of leadership elsewhere. He was on the vestry at church, and he was president of the Petroleum Accountants’ Association of Oklahoma.  

Don did tell me one story about why he had changed his personality. He said there was a boy at OU, a member of the track team, who admired Don for his prowess in sports, but Don considered him a pest, so he bullied him and tried to run him off. He said that in spite of Don's attitude though, the boy kept trying to make friend with him, so he gradually decided that he was wrong. He told me, “I just decided I didn’t want to be that kind of person anymore,” and he and the young man became friends.  

This story is another example to me of Don’s ability to change. I think that was the most remarkable thing about my father. A lot of people try to change or improve their  personalities, but very few are able to accomplish it. Don did, not just once, but over and over again.



Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Don in College

Here’s a letter that Don wrote to his dad in Enid the summer after his sophomore year in high school. As usual he was spending the summer in Fay. His mother was there too and also his little brother Everett. His older brother Boyd had stayed in Enid with Grandfather that summer. Boyd had just graduated from high school, and had a job in town.
To: Mr RB Gunning, 803 E Elm, Enid Okla., June 10, 1931
From: Don Gunning, Jn 11, 1931, Fay Ok.  

Dear Father: Well I guess I had better write you a letter. I meant to write you sooner but this is the first time I have had a chance. I have plowed and howed a lot while I have been here. We milk ten cows. I ran the whole row this morning, but I got done and it is raining now. I saw Mamma Sunday a little while at Fay, but don’t know when she will come out here. Gene went to town yesterday and Everett came out with him. I am learning him a lot of things, he can’t milk a bit. He tried to last night and barely got the bottom of his bucket covered.  

Somebody down here died and Gene went to help dig her grave this morning at 8 and didn’t get it done until one thirty. This rain is getting worse and it’s hailing a little bit. Everett saw Virginia Parks Sunday and they had quite a time. How is Boyd? I wish I was up there with him. If you ever see a job up around there between now and time for school to start I would be glad to come home. I like this all right but I would rather be up there with you and Boyd. Is Boyd going to Norman (OU) next year? Tell him to write me a letter & tell me what he has been doing. Write a letter to me and tell me all the news and how you are. I’ll write every time I have time. Harold is sending a letter in the same envelope to Boyd. (Harold was one of Don’s cousins) 

Your son, Don. 
Scrapbook 9, P 1 

I probably should have put this letter into the blog about Fay or into the one about Don in high school, but it does fit here too because it shows Don’s attachment to his brother Boyd. I think Don’s respect for Boyd is partly what inspired him to turn down his football coach’s plan to keep him in high school another year, and to go on to college instead.  

Anyway, in the fall of 1933 after he graduated from Enid High, Don did enroll at OU, and he moved in with his brother Boyd. Boyd was quite enterprising. He had to be, because his father couldn’t afford to send his sons to college charging 15¢ per haircut. When Don got to OU in Norman, Oklahoma, Boyd had established two sources of income. He worked as a kitchen boy for the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house, and he also operated a laundry and cleaning delivery service for the sorority houses. When Don arrived they expanded the laundry service, and Don also went to work at the sorority house washing dishes.

Don and Boyd, about 1940

Don majored in business, and went out for basketball. After watching Don play at the first practice, OU’s basketball coach at that time, Hugh McDermott, pulled Don aside and told him not to waste his time, that he would never make the team. But Don had decided he was going to play basketball at OU. He had overcome obstacles in high school football, and he figured he could do the same in college. Don worked hard all that year, improving slowly and refusing to give up, and by the start of basketball season his sophomore year, he had made the team.  

Paying for tuition and for room and board at OU was tough, but with hard work and determination Boyd and Don kept themselves in school. Working around sorority girls was a definite plus. Boyd dated one of Kappa girls, Eleanor Adderhold, whom he later married, but Don decided that he couldn’t afford to date. When he became a star on the basketball team several of the Kappa girls asked him out, offering to pay the expenses, but he turned them down. He wasn’t going to let a girl pay his way.  

That didn’t dampen the girls’ spirits though. The sorority sisters all went to his games, sat together and cheered for him. They even made up a little ditty for him: 

To our athlete
So big and brave
About you constantly
We all rave.

 OU Basketball Team - 1937
Don in back row, 3rd from left

Boyd's girl friend Eleanor was a tall girl, and she was on the Kappa basketball team. Don watched her play, and then offered her some pointers. Since she was tall she got a lot of rebounds, but when she came down with the ball, the girls from the other team would take the ball away from her. Don advised her to hold the ball in close to her chest, to stick her elbows out sideways and to swing back and forth to force the other girls back away from her. She tried it, and it worked! She had no more trouble losing her rebounds. In fact, the other girls started calling her “Elbows Adderhold.” 


Eleanor, with Don, Grandmother and Grandfather Gunning

My dad has always been my hero. I admire him for so many reasons, and these stories are starting to illustrate some of them. When I was little I admired him most for his athletic prowess and strength, but as I have grown older it is his other qualities that amaze me the most. First was his determination. He made the OU basketball team and became a star through grit and determination, even though his coach actually discouraged him. Second was his ability to make up his mind and to stick to his decision. He decided that he couldn’t afford to date in college. Sounds reasonable, given his circumstances, but how many guys could have carried through on it? I certainly couldn’t, especially if I had been a campus hero, actually being asked out by girls.