Saturday, August 22, 2015

Newlyweds, 1941

After my parents were married, in 1941, they lived in an efficiency apartment on 25th Street, east of Classen boulevard in Oklahoma City, in case you are familiar with the area. Aunt Kaliteyo lived about a block away, with her daughter Lahoma. (See blog entry for Oct. 5, 2011, The First Chickasaw Princess)

My mother, Jim, had quit her job at the state capital on the insistence of her brothers because jobs were scarce and it wasn’t considered right for a woman to work if her husband had a job. It would have been especially embarrassing to her older brother Snip, who was in the state senate and had got her the job in the first place.

At first Jim was busy writing 300 thank you notes for her wedding presents. Snip had invited the whole county to the wedding, and the first thing he told her when she and Don returned from their honeymoon was to be sure to write those thank you notes. She kept a record of her gifts, and she saved the cards in a scrap book. I still have them. She saved some of her gifts, like a serving tray made by Joe Raines. He pieced it together using several types of wood from trees growing in Pauls Valley. She also saved a mirror, a gift from the women she worked with, that magnified your image.

A lot of the gifts though were pieces of cut glass, candle sticks, clocks – I don’t know what all, but things which cost a lot of money, but weren’t really good for anything but show, so Aunt Helen gave Jim a clever idea. Aunt Helen was Snip’s wife. She suggested that she take all these gifts, exchange them for cash and then go buy some nice china, so that’s what Jim did. My parents never entertained, so the china was still just used for show, but it was a good idea. I have the china now, displayed in a china closet. It’s beautiful, but my wife Sarah and I don’t use it either. Maybe my kids will. 

Anyway, Jim tried to keep up with her friends, and she volunteered at the United Provident Center down town, which provided relief for the poor, but still she was alone much of the time and stir crazy. She told me that was when she learned to play solitaire. Don taught her to play to give her something to do with herself.

After a couple of months Jim found out she was pregnant, so then she had a new baby to plan for, and Lahoma would come by after school and tell her about her day. She was ten. I have a picture of Jim and Don with Lahoma on the Ferris wheel at the fair.

Meanwhile my dad, Don, was still working at Peppers oil refinery, and he didn’t like it one bit. Mr. Peppers had promised to move him into the office after he got his accounting degree, but months had passed, and Don was still working out in the refinery. The work there was hard and dangerous, and Jim said that he had nightmares about it for years.

Don gave up sports when he got married. He had played football and basketball in high school, basketball and track in college, and AAU basketball after he graduated. He was good enough that his coach at OU, Hugh McDermott, offered him a job coaching there after he graduated. I used to wonder if he missed sports, but he never mentioned it.

Both my parents kept up with their families. Jim’s sister Kaliteyo worked as a cashier. She was good at math, and later worked at the Skirvin Hotel coffee shop down town, but I don’t know where she was working in 1941. Snip, of course, was in the senate, and was building a law practice in Pauls Valley with Uncle Haskell.

Aunt Oteka and Uncle Thurman were living in Norman Oklahoma, and Thurman was working in the oil fields. Their older son Homer Dean was two. Jim’s youngest brother Tom was married and enrolled at Oklahoma A and M. He wanted to be a veterinarian. His wife, Catherine, worked and he made extra money hustling pool.

Don’s older brother Boyd wasn’t using his degree either. He had graduated from law school at OU. Instead he was working for the university, in the Extension Division, which handled correspondence courses, the university press, off campus projects, etc. He also was an announcer on the OU radio station. Don’s brother Everett had just graduated from high school, and his youngest brother J. E. was in junior high.

Don was worried about Everett. He hadn’t done well in school so wasn’t planning on following his two older brothers to college, and he didn’t have a job. Everett was wondering what to do with himself too so he asked for Don’s advice.  Don suggested that he go into the military. There was a war in Europe at the time, but no one thought we’d be involved. We had learned our lesson during WWI. Jobs were still hard to come by as the US was coming out of the Depression, and the military seemed like a good idea. It was a good way for a young man to get some structure in his life, and to grow up. So Everett joined the navy and was assigned to the Battleship Oklahoma, which was docked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

                                                        Everett Gunning, 1941

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Oklahoma, Everett’s ship  was sunk. That was a tough month for my parents, and little Lahoma helped to ease the suspense of not knowing whether or not Everett had survived. (see blog entry for Dec. 24, 2010, Christmas, 1941)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Diego Rivera

My mother, Jim, told me once that while she and my dad were in Mexico City on their honeymoon, they visited several museums. She said that in one they saw a politically inspired mural by a famous painter, and that someone had damaged it by throwing paint on it. She said that she thought the artist’s name was Rivera.

Well, when I got off the phone, I immediately Googled Rivera to see if I could find out anything about him. Sure enough, there was a prominent artist from Mexico named Diego Rivera who was quite famous by 1941 when my parents saw his mural, both as an artist and as a political figure. There have been two movies made about his life, Cradle will Rock, made in 1999, and Frida, featuring Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. Coincidentally, I had seen Frida shortly before Jim told me about the mural.

Rivera was born in Mexico, but studied art in Paris and lived there for several years where he became a prominent artist, and a close friend of Amedeo Modigliani, who painted his portrait. In 1920, after the Mexican revolution, he returned to Mexico where he became active in the communist party, painting nationalistic murals, and founding the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. At the time, his work was so inflammatory that he armed himself with a pistol while he painted.

Coincidentally, 1921 was when Wenonah’s family lived in San Antonio. I tell the story in the book, Wenonah’s Story, about how her father tried to go into the business of selling Mexican real estate, and failed, probably because of the political unrest there.

The mural my parents saw has quite a history. Rivera first painted it in Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1933 with the title, “Man at the Crossroads.” The painting, which had been commissioned by the Rockefeller family, became controversial when an image of Vladimir Lenin was discovered inside it. Rivera refused to remove the image so the painting was destroyed, and Rivera returned to Mexico City. There he reproduced the mural my parents saw, renaming it “Man the Controller of the Universe.”

Wikipedia didn’t mention that the second version was defaced, but Jim got the idea it had been recent in 1941. Once again I was just amazed that she remembered anything about it at all.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Jim and Don's Honeymoon

First, a little apology:
I’ve decided to call Wenonah by her first name, Jim, short for her first name James, because that’s what everyone called her while I was growing up. Actually I did too. I called my parents Jim and Don, like they called each other, and they never taught me any different. My mother did prefer to be called Wenonah - she hated having a boy’s name, and in later years she went by Wenonah, except among family and old friends, but it doesn’t seem natural to me. I hope she’ll forgive me. 

Jim and Don's Honeymoon, June, 1941:

I can’t tell you about my parents’ wedding because it’s in the book, but the book stops there, so their honeymoon is fair game.

The book does mention that they started out to Mexico City with only $25, so I guess that’s as good a place to start as any. That fact just blew my mind when my mother casually mentioned it during one of our telephone conversations during her last years. I guess $25 went a lot farther on those days, but still, going to a foreign country, where you can’t speak the language, where they might not be able to fix your car, where you might get sick and need a doctor – there were so many risks. You’d have to know my parents, but I just can’t imagine them doing that.

First of all, my father was the most careful person I ever knew. He was always prepared. He was the first one ready for church every Sunday morning. He got his car maintained regularly. He was never late for a payment or an appointment. Jim said that after they were married he took out so many insurance policies she had to make him stop because she was afraid they wouldn’t have enough money to buy the things they needed. She teased him for checking their bank statements trying to catch the bank in an error. Actually Jim was the same way. When she took me shopping with her she would go to every store in town that sold a particular item before deciding what to buy. She and Don discussed every major purchase for months before they made a decision. We never lived beyond our means. We were the last family in the neighborhood to get a TV set. We fixed appliances instead of buying new ones. We never bought a car before the last one was paid off. That’s why it’s so hard for me to imagine them starting out on a twenty-five hundred mile trip with only $25. But it’s a fact. They ran out of money too, in Mexico City. My dad had to send a telegram to one of the guys he worked with, Charlie Kopp, asking him to wire another $25 for them to get home. My mother saved the telegram.

Another interesting tidbit my mother shared with me was a warning she got from her brother Haskell before they started on their trip. He told her that because of her dark skin the Mexicans would be offended when she didn’t speak Spanish, thinking she was a “high toned” Mexican refusing to speak her own language. She told me she “poo-poo’d” the idea at the time, but later at a restaurant in Mexico City, she and Don couldn’t get their waiter to come to their table. Finally a Jewish lady sitting next to them figured out their predicament, called to the waiter and ordered for them in Spanish. 

The lack of money, and difficulty communicating didn’t keep Jim and Don from having a good time though. They spent the first night together in Fort Worth, Texas, and the next day they drove on to San Antonio. There they took a Gray Line bus tour of the city for $2.00, visiting the Alamo, the Spanish Governor’s mansion, the San Jose Mission and the Japanese Tea Garden in Breckinridge Park. Jim must have enjoyed showing Don the city where she had lived as a little girl. After San Antonio, they drove south to Laredo. There they crossed the border and stayed in the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo. They bought a tour book there, for 25¢ - Jim kept it in her scrap book. It had maps, pictures, recommended places to stay, and information about each town and point of interest along the way. From there they followed the Pan American Highway through Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria, and Ciudad Valles. The road then went up into the mountains south to Mexico City. They took some pictures along the way, of the mountains, of the palm trees lining the road, and of each other. Jim had several different outfits, and she wore a broad brimmed bonnet. Her purse was woven out of multicolored yarn and had a draw string at the top, like a small sack. I recognized it when I saw the pictures because I saw it all my life. I asked her if she still had it and she said, “Sure, I keep buttons in it.” Don wore a white shirt and a tie with light colored pants and those old fashioned two toned shoes that were black on the toes and heels and white down the sides, with a straw hat.

Jim said the prettiest town they passed was Jacala. It was nestled among the mountains, and all the houses were white washed. There were vines growing on the walls, and poinsettias blooming in the gardens. The last place they stayed before they arrived in Mexico City was a town called Tamazunchale, which they dubbed “Thomas and Charlie” because that’s what it sounded like to them. Jim said the little town was surrounded by a dense tropical forest and there were colorful wild parrots everywhere. The natives were of small stature and the hotel manager told them they were descendants of the Aztecs. Jim said that they were shy, and that she couldn’t get them to talk to her. That night they kept being awakened by a loud noise that sounded like someone trying to start a car. In the morning she and Don asked the manager what had been going on, and he told them that the noise they heard was made by the parrots.

In Mexico City, Jim and Don visited the historic sites, and the museums, but the highlight of their trip was a visit to Xochimilco, a short way from the city, home of the famous floating gardens, the “Venice of Mexico.” They took a boat tour through the gardens, and were enchanted by the beauty of the flowers. Don bought Jim a bouquet, and she enjoyed the fragrance of the flowers until the oarsman warned her not to sniff them too much because there were little insects in the flowers that sometimes transmitted disease. Jim said she spent the rest of the tour blowing her nose. The guide must have gotten a kick out of that.

It was just about that time that they ran out of money, and decided to head back to Oklahoma City where they would be living while Don continued to work at Peppers refinery, and Jim faced the task of writing 300 thank you notes for their wedding gifts.

PS: I’m saving one more story about my parents’ honeymoon for later. I want to give it a separate post because of its historical interest.

Jim and Don, Xochimilco, 1941