I was just a kid when dad stripped a gear and decided to head west to the deserts of Arizona with the family in tow. Even though my number of years on earth were small in number not one of them could be seen as sheltered.
|The pre 1952 alignment of Route 66
west of Kingman, Arizona
Still, nothing had prepared me for the world found along Oatman Road, the pre 1952 alignment of Route 66 west of Kingman. This was the dark side of Oz where the yellow brick road was a cracked string of black asphalt snaking across the desert and the denizens of that magic land were an odd mix of sun burnt trolls, chimps in man suits, and church ladies that had gotten lost somewhere along the road to paradise.
Characters were something I was familiar and comfortable with. Back in Alabama, I had an uncle that made his mark on checks at the bank in Scottsboro, ran a grist mill and still up on Sand Mountain, worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority on occasion, and when work was slow, ran shine up to Monteagle in Tennessee.
There was a good friend of the family that was, in the eyes of a kid, older than dirt as he was a World War I veteran. He had lost his sight during the Great War after being gassed and this coupled with old age led to some interesting flashbacks like the time at dinner when he yelled something about incoming shells, kicked over the table, and dove to the floor.
Compared to the residents along Oatman Road in the early 1960s, these folks were quite normal. Even my grandmother who entered her home after a long abscence by swinging from the cellar landing to her secret annex, a landing behind the linen closet that once served as the stairway to the basement, where she used a step stool to climb over the back of the shelves and the shelves as stairs, seemed normal.
Our first visitor materialized out of nowhere and began helping unload the truck without a word. He was so thin he could hide behind a flagpole, the legacy of a lifetime spent chain smoking Camel’s, Pall Mall’s, or roll your owns. His skin, what you could see of it under the big hat or protruding from an old denim shirt that might have once been blue, had the dried brown texture of King Tut’s mummy.
|Fig Springs Station about 1940|
Old man Thompson proved himself to be a pretty good neighbor even if he had a tendency to show up at dinner time and had a noticeable aversion to soap or water. As it turned out, he had come west from the hills of Missouri with his brothers to work in the mines at Oatman in 1919.
Some years later, around 1980, he went to a party at Pollock’s, the reclusive pot grower that lived in the hills near Fig Springs with his family, and in a marijuana and beer induced stupor, pitched off his porch and broke his neck on his return home. It was two days before anyone found him.
In between our first meeting and his untimely end, old man Thompson taught me a great deal about the desert. He also taught me a few things that are best not discussed in mixed company.
The first folks to have a phone out there in the land that time forget were a couple of retirees that were between sixty and two hundred years of age. They were both about five foot tall and about the same width.
They had chosen the rural life as they had decided that their golden years should be spent as nudists. Every time they drove down and stopped to talk with dad, mom would rush us kids into the house.
At the bottom of the valley were two brothers that lived in limbo suspended between the era of the frontier and at least 1950. One was a former Marine turned cat skinner that looked like a side of beef with hands and feet. The other had a build similar to that of Stan, one half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team, and was an anything for a buck man on construction sites – truck driving, equipment operator, explosives, etc.
When work was slow during the months of winter, they ran trap lines in the Black Mountains and drank. They also beat each other up and on one occasion resorted to firearms for resolving a dispute, an incident that led to the wounded party coming to our house in search of a ride to the hospital. That was a night I won’t forget!
Still, they proved to be excellent neighbors that were always ready to lend a hand, or give you the shirt from their back. On one of our first encounters they lent my dad an old GMC even though we had met them but once. That old truck still basks in the desert sun right where it came to rest after one of the brothers drunken forays that culminated with a loud rod knock.
Forest arrived a bit late on the scene but he fit right in. He hailed from the hills of North Carolina and looked the part of a hillbilly mountain man. His wife might have been pretty at some point in time but when they became our neighbor you would have had to tie meet around her neck to get the dog to play with her. Their daughter, just about my age, was so big if there had been two you could have made a dozen.
They arrived in an ancient Cadillac transformed into a truck that had rolled from Detroit in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As it turned out they didn’t own the land where they decided to set up housekeeping but no one knew or complained.
In any case it was a short lived venture. Coyotes made short wok of the chickens the family had nurtured all the way from North Carolina. The wife didn’t take kindly to the “house”, a stack of wooden ammunition crates with a tarp spread over the top, so she took off with a truck driver who must have been blinded by her smile at the truck stop on the highway where she slung hash, poured coffee, and as it later turned out, provided other services after hours.
Forest and his daughter moved into town shortly after the wife had lit out for better pastures. I later learned that Forest had hooked up with a wealthy widow and became her willing driver as they toured the nation.
A year or so after we moved to the dark side of Oz, the church lady arrived with her sisters, a few granddaughters, and a gay son from Michigan. The clan had money and were determined to transform their corner of the desert in to a paradise so they built a nice home, put down a well, and began planting all manner of trees as well as a small lawn.
For folks that hauled water, or those who called a bus without wheels home, this was the country club set. My dad being from Michigan, as well as his willingness to help the ladies with issues pertaining to snakes, helped break the ice and I found myself with a summer job that required a bicycle ride of two miles every morning along old Route 66.
Down near the Sacramento Wash, in a bleached blue trailer of ancient vintage, lived the old hermit that owned the yucca log rendering plant. He associated with no one other than the motley pack of dogs he shared the trailer with.
Then he discovered I could play chess. I later learned from his obituary that he had a degree in economics from Stanford University. However, when I visited there were only two topics allowed – yucca logs and products derived from yucca logs, and chess. Any deviation led to immediate banishment from the property.
Some years later my dad and I found a way to supplement his income provided by the mine at Mineral Park. We gathered and sold Yucca logs to the old hermit using a beautiful old ’49 Mercury sedan purchased at an estate sale that we cut the body off right behind the front seat, and hacked out the fenders so Studebaker truck wheels would fit.
I have never figured out why dad took this detour in life. Still, even though my time in the dark side of Oz lasted less than ten years, I am glad he did as the lessons learned have been proven priceless.