by Jim Bulls
23 April 1942
It was a cold and windy, West Texas thunderstorm that was pounding Amherst’s brand-new South Plains Farmer’s Co-Op Hospital when Howard Bulls joined the ranks of fatherhood. He was well aware that this honor could be short-lived: my mother had been hospitalized since the first day of March, battling toxemia. I arrived at two pounds, and with no incubator available, Dr. McDonald gave me a life expectancy of three days. Using the technology of a chicken brooder, the janitor rigged up a tent and a heat lamp over my crib. Through the grace of God and my own Scotch-Irish stubbornness, I beat the odds. Practically every soul in Lamb County came by to see me. What else could they do, there was no television! When I reached six pounds, I stopped growing for Nurse Kay, so they kicked me out into the big wide world. Come to find out, I was a Texas farm boy.
My dad leased a farm from his brother-in-law; we lived in Spring Lake, but shopped and went to church in Earth. Unfortunately life on the farm was short-lived for me. My uncle decided to exercise his farmer’s deferment instead of joining the Army, so the lease on the farm was broken. My dad had been too young to fight during WWI and now, he was too old to enlist for WWII. However there were plenty of jobs available that supported the war effort.
We moved from the security of the farm to live among hundreds of strangers at a military base style government plant called Pantex. At first, Dad inspected bombs, but then a teaching position in Amarillo opened up. Dad had gone to college to become a teacher, had taught several years, but went back to farming after marrying Mom.
Living at Pantex wasn’t a happy time for me. That was when I first realized that I couldn’t do everything the other boys my age could do. I also suffered from “growing pains” in my knees. Dad used to rub my joints and tell me stories of the old farm house. One day my parents received a letter from my aunt in California. The war was winding down and people were leaving Pantex for civilian jobs. After completing a lot of paperwork and mailing it in, my parents were both offered teaching jobs in Reedley. When leaving Pantex, I watched the plant disappear behind the front gates. It did a pretty good job, just like Area 51, it no longer exists and can’t be found on any map.
In 1946, it took the best part of three days to cross America’s great desert. Route 66 was a long, narrow ribbon of treacherous asphalt. During the next 20 years, we made the trip back to Texas and Oklahoma at least once a year. First, while Dad was completing his Master’s in Education at West Texas University and later to winterize Grandma’s house.
Howard’s Teaching Career
My dad graduated from Boyce City High School as valedictorian. He actually passed his Oklahoma Teacher’s Exam before graduation. He began teaching at the same two-room schoolhouse where he first started school. Those were the days of corporal punishment. Many of his male students were older than he was, and to keep order in the classroom, he sometimes had to take a student out behind the outhouse for an attitude adjustment.
After earning enough money to pay for classes, Dad went back to school at Panhandle State College in Goodwell, Oklahoma in order to turn that teaching certificate into a credential. It was there that he met his wife to be, Miss Minnie Graham, an incoming freshman. He often said that she “had the prettiest legs on campus.”
In Reedley, Dad’s first teaching job was seventh and eighth grades at General Grant School, on the corner of 11 Street and East Avenue. Later he taught sixth and fifth grades at Lincoln. Grant School wasn’t too far from the C Street Bridge–this was before the canal was put underground. The “bridge” was a favorite place for kids to meet. You may meet your buddies to walk to high school or to get a malt at Anthony’s Drug Store, or you might meet your girlfriend and walk to the movies while hoping to go under the bridge to steal a kiss.
The most dreaded “bridge” activities the after school fights. My Dad and Luke Trimble, the coach, had to go and break them up. The boy’s fights weren’t too bad; it was the girls they had to watch out for. The girls would often hide GEM® brand razor blades in their hair beneath the bobby pins!
The year I was entering sixth grade, I remember how I was not looking forward to school and having Mrs. Tabler as my teacher. She scared me in the first grade when she would yell at the kids in the schoolyard from the fire escape on the old, brick Lincoln School building. Imagine my surprise, when I got to school and found out Mr. Bulls was my teacher! My fellow students thought I was lucky to have my own father as my teacher, but what they didn’t know was that he flunked his own sister when he had her in school in Oklahoma. I have to say, though Dad was Mr. Bulls, the teacher, at school, he was still my dad at home.
My desk was in the front row, right next to the stack of geography books. I didn’t realize the significance of that until the first time I wasn’t paying attention and was goofing off. That’s when I got the geography book over the head. Years later, I found out there were other members of the “Geography Book Club”.
Corporal punishment was on the way out. Teachers had to spank kids in front of the principal, and later, the principal had to administer the punishment. No more dunce caps or other humiliation; a teacher’s only method of control was a whole lot of child psychology classes or gaining the student’s respect, so they would want to achieve. My dad had seen it all and was somehow able to adapt. At one time, he taught sixth grade at both Washington and Lincoln, as the principals had to be in the classroom half a day, he taught every sixth grader in town.
It’s amazing, some of the stories I have heard, as an adult, about my dad. Dad always wore his felt hat and overcoat while on yard duty, which made the younger kids at Lincoln think he was part of the Mafia. On Sunday afternoon, he would made five tuna sandwiches and put them in the freezer; everyday he had a tuna fish sandwich for lunch. The younger teachers used to laugh at this and always asked him, why tuna? Dad’s theory was that you could never eat boloney or ham five days in a row without getting tired of it. Tuna, on the other hand, had a taste so unique that you never tired of it. His habit was to arrive at school early, turn on the heating or cooling in the teacher’s lounge, and make a pot of coffee. When his fellow teachers arrived, the lounge was comfortable and the coffee was ready.
Dad retired from teaching in 1971. He spent the last 20 years of his teaching career in the same room at Lincoln School. He said he wasn’t going to change classrooms even if he had to switch to teaching fifth grade. When asked if he was going to come back to substitute, he said if he wanted to continue teaching, he wouldn’t be retiring. On that last day, he locked his door, turned in his keys and only went back for Lillian Brown’s retirement party. When he retired, he had converted over half the staff to tuna fish sandwiches, and the teachers replaced him with two automatic coffee makers.
Dad At Home
Over the years, Dad and I worked on a lot of cars. The back yard was always full of vehicles, some running and some not. The garage was a place where my friends gathered to talk about cars (and girls), and Dad was usually around, supervising from the background. All the neighborhood kids brought their bikes to him for pumping up tires or repairs. He liked to putter around, doing little projects for Mom or the Church.
Dad sang in the choir at the First United Methodist Church, and usually taught adult Sunday School. That is, until the year I was in the Junior High Boys class. We were so rowdy, we went through six teachers in about four months, and then one Sunday my Dad showed up–he was our SS teacher for the rest of the year. Dad was diligent about reading the Bible every night. Members of his adult SS classes have told me that he was an excellent teacher, explaining the Bible text and giving them a different perspective.
Mom was always involved with community activities, Reedley history and genealogy, and Dad always tagged along with her. As he aged, he got slower and slower, and Mom would be aggravated when they were running late. My mother loved to visit, but my Dad was ready to go home after about 15 or 20 minutes, another aggravation to my mother.
After Mom died, Dad moved in with us in 1988. Becki was going to college at CSU Stanislaus, and Amanda was in junior high. Dad really seemed to perk up. He went with Diana and Amanda on their Girl Scout trips, including several visits to Camp El-O-Win when Amanda was a counselor in training. He loved it when Diana hosted a shower or some other home party. He joined right in with all the festivities, especially the refreshments.
Every day, when Diana came home from work, she would sit with Dad in the living room and he would tell stories from the past. Now most of these stories she had heard over and over, but one afternoon it was warm and she drowsed off to the sound of Dad’s soft voice. When she woke up, he was saying “…and they never found out why they killed each other.” She had missed a totally new story, and furthermore, it was one I had never heard. Although we tried and tried, we could never get Dad to tell this story again.
Dad passed away quietly at home in 1993. He was 90 years old. The day before his memorial service, we had a quiet burial ceremony planned. Unfortunately, there had been many deaths that week in September, and Carins was very busy, they forgot about the graveside ceremony. After waiting for 30 minutes or so and making a phone call, Dad finally arrived at his final resting place. My cousin LaDanta quipped, “Well, it was just like Uncle Howard to be late to his own funeral.”
I never cried much over Dad and I gave a dry-eyed eulogy. It wasn’t because I didn’t love him, but because he had lived a long and very full life. We were best of friends. As I age, I can feel his DNA flowing through my veins as I think, that’s what my dad would say or do.
Happy Father’s Day.
For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.