Letters, Memoirs & Family Stories
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The following Family Stories were provided by Dottie Keegan, 04 April 1999. These were told to her by Mabel Irene (Mitchell) Pennington.
CALIFORNIA OR BUST!
as told by
Mabel Irene (Mitchell) Pennington
What an ordeal! It was right after, or maybe during the terrible dust storms of the 1930s. Somehow, dad had heard that California had a plastering boom going on. He was a plasterer by profession, and there was no work for him here in Wichita, so we packed up and started out for what we hoped would be better fortune. Since work was scarce in Wichita, all we had was a song and a prayer, and virtually started out with nothing. We had an old run down small truck. I know you've all seen that movie "The Grapes of Wrath", and if people wouldn't think me mistaken, I'd like to impress upon you all, that our truck was the very image of the one used in that movie. No closer replica ever existed and I'm sure that our truck wasn't the very one they used. All seven of us were tightly packed inside as we slowly made our way to the promised land, Dad, Mom who was pregnant with Wiley Bee, Floyd, myself, Ralph, Mildred and Everette the youngest.
Dad worked to get food for us and gas to get us to the next town whenever he could find an odd job someone needed done. When he couldn't find work we would stop at farm houses and beg food from them. We camped at night wherever we could find a place where we could get water for the old truck. To our dismay, that old truck needed a lot of water, because it would heat up, and after it cooled down, we had to carry water and add it to the radiator. Of course, we didn't have the money to get it fixed, so this was our routine. A lot of times we camped in what were called "Jungle Camps". "Jungle Camps" were where all the bums slept and ate. While we were crossing the Rockies, we four kids had to walk behind the truck carrying rocks and helping to push the old truck up the mountains. when the old thing heated up and we had to stop for water, we'd put the rocks under the wheels so it wouldn't roll back down the mountain. Believe me, pushing it up the mountain once was plenty. We didn't feel the need to do that job over! We only wanted to cross the Rockies once!
Dad was a very resourceful man. When the truck broke down in the desert dad had to walk seventeen miles in the scorching heat to reach the next town where he could get the parts he needed to repair it. We waited for his return along the roadside with the hood thrown up as a signal to passers by that we were having trouble. As people stopped to ask the matter and render help if they could, mom would inform them of our need for food and water. Most cars at that time carried canteens that hooked to the front of the car so as they would drive, the slight evaporation process would cool the water and make it quite refreshing. Well, mom managed to get water for us and as the donations came in, managed to collect around twenty dollars and being that it was the height of the great depression it was a pretty good sum in those days. Dad was gone for two or three days so needless to say we were happy to see him on his return. To this day I have no idea how he got the part we needed for the truck, but boy did we eat after we got to the next town!
If I remember correctly, our trip to California took almost two months. when we reached the Imperial Valley it was hot, the Gnats almost ate us alive, and as if that wasn't enough, we all got pink eye. Every morning our eyes would be so matted shut, that mom would have to lead us blind by the hand to a basin of water and a rag so we could soak them open before we could see to begin the day. That was a fine time though for it was grape season and since the grapes were ripe and ready for the harvest the owner gave us all the grapes we wanted as long as mom and dad helped cut them from the vines. We ate grapes till we could have turned purple ourselves and mom was happy to make grape jelly over the campfire. We camped where ever we could find, and a lace we found one time was at the dump. Dad salvaged enough lumber to build a shelter with the roof and sides mostly covered with dead cuttings from palm trees. The cooking area he built outside with bricks and cement blocks and put iron rods across the top to hold the cooking pos. Mom worked hard to keep our humble home clean and even swept the dirt floors daily. Although the location wasn't the greatest, water was never a problem because there was a railroad that ran alongside our dump and we would get our water from the tower basin that they used to fill the train with water. Also, there was a jungle camp located there by the tracks and whenever a hobo had to leave and had food he couldn't take with him he'd give it to us. We did fine there until the police showed up one day. Someone had turned us in to the health and welfare board. We were told we had a week to be gone. The police understood our situation and were very impressed with our home and when they inspected our shack they said it was such a clean and well kept camp that they couldn't understand why anyone would object to our living quarters, but that we had to leave anyway. From there we went to Riverside where we moved into a mission home. Just down the block was a fruit packing plant and being curious, we kids soon found our way down there. Someone gave us a gunny sack full of oranges and then began the chore of getting them home. That sack was about the heaviest thing I can ever remember. Of course we were small children, but we finally managed to pull, push, tug, and carry those precious oranges home. What kid doesn't love oranges? Well, we did anyway! And you guessed it, we all had an orange in our hand several times a day, and since there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, we all ended up with the hives! Mom bathed us all in soda water two or three times a day, but man we still itched! After that mom would only break down and let us have two oranges a day. We'd still go get all the oranges we wanted after that because the fruit packing plant continued to let us have all we wanted, but we didn't try to eat all of them ourselves anymore. We shared them with other people in the mission home.
After we left Riverside we moved on to San Bernardino. Sad to say, dad found the report of plenty work to be ill founded, as no work was to be had in the plaster industry or any other for that matter, so he took a job harvesting English Walnuts for a tree farm in the area. Everyone picked walnuts except me, for I was the one left to baby sit. Mom's time to have the baby was just about due, but because we were in such drastic need of money, she insisted on doing her share of the work. The day Wiley Bee came, mom was in the grove picking up walnuts. The owner of the grove saw she was having labor pains, and rushed her to the hospital. The baby wasted no time for shortly upon arrival, he was on his way. Regretfully, the nurse became excited and tried to keep the baby from being born until the doctor could arrive, and severely injured Wiley while attempting to push back into the womb. In that attempt he incurred massive head injuries. Dad named the baby Wiley Bee after his younger brother whom he had great love for.
The owner of the tree farm wouldn't let us stay and work, so dad turned for help to the welfare board. At first they put us in a house that was made of wood, but had walls made out of chicken wire. It was like living in a fish bowl. Finally, their solution was to send us back to Wichita. Thankfully though, the trip back was at their expense so we boarded a train for home. It was the first time any of us kids had ever been on a train so it was an exciting ride for us. I can't remember how long it took for us to return home but it didn't seem long. They had made arrangements with the welfare board here in Wichita to provide a place for us to stay for a few days, and in those arrangements we were put in one place and dad had to stay in another. Wiley was placed in a care giving facility where his injuries could be tended to. One morning the case worker came to tell mom that Wiley Bee had died. So it was with heavy hearts that we buried him here in Wichita, but where I don't exactly remember, as I was only a child myself. Those were hard times and we remained on welfare for a while longer, but I don't remember how long. I do remember however, that the trip home from California was sure a lot better than the one going!
GOOD OLE UNCLE BEE
as told by
Mabel Irene (Mitchell) Pennington
Dad's younger brother Wiley Bee was always full of one idea or another. I think I was around the age of being in kindergarten when Uncle Bee, as we called him, talked dad into going into the bootlegging business. We lived in a two story house, but never used the upstairs, as it was always too cold in the winter, and too hot in the summer. Since we had a wood and coal burning heating stove and a wood burning kitchen stove, dad would cut the wood in pieces to fit in to the stove and store it in one of the rooms in the upstairs part of the house. One day Uncle Bee came and talked dad into making home brew. This was during the years of prohibition that ran from 1919 to 1933. I can remember the strong awful odor that would permeate the house and linger as they were "cooking the mash" as they called it. I guess one of the neighbors must have smelled it also, because the next day the police came to search the house. After "cooking the mash", dad and Uncle Bee had put it into a tub and hidden it in the wood room. they covered the tub over with a lid and had piled wood on top of it to conceal it. The problem however was that they were none too neat about the matter. The wood was not stacked on the in criminating evidence it was thrown in all directions. The police thinking it strange to find row after row of neatly stacked wood felt obligated to investigate the pile thrown helter skelter and to dad's dismay uncovered their secret. Dad and Uncle Bee were handcuffed on the spot and carted off to jail. The newspaper waisted no time in getting to the story, as that day they came to the house, lined mom and us kids up on the porch and took our picture. Dad and Uncle Bee had already discussed between themselves how they would plea if they got caught, so the next day when they were arraigned before the judge, Uncle Bee pled guilty leaving dad to escape with a plea of innocent as dad had all us kids to support. I don't know what ever became of that picture, but I hope I can find it one of these days. I know mom must have kept it, so if I find it, you can add a copy to the family tree.
ANOTHER OF UNCLE BEE FAILED SCHEMES TO MAKE MONEY
as told by
Mabel Irene (Mitchell) Pennington
Uncle Bee was a very interesting man. What a character he was and very handsome. He and dad looked a lot alike. He aways had one idea after another on how to make money and never lacked a get rich quick scheme. When the touring cars came out with that cloth top they had, Uncle Bee concocted a topping to waterproof them. He convinced several owners to let him use his concoction on their rag tops as he felt he had truly developed a miracle treatment that would keep them ever beautiful. However, something happened he didn't expect. After awhile, the clients began bringing their cars back as his concoction had begun eating the tops right off. It didn't take him long to high tail it out of town, as he didn't have the funds to replace them. I think he became a barber after that. I don't know how that turned out, but I do know he ended up in New York City at a school that taught drywall. That was easy for him because he had been a plasterer like dad. In fact he introduced drywall to Wichita after he finally came back. He taught dad how to do it too, and that was finally the endeavor that paid off for him. He did well as long as he could leave the canned heat and the alcohol alone. I really liked Uncle Bee.
Last update: Sunday, March 23, 2003 00:10:29
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