by Jim Bulls
There was a cold northern wind blowing across the Texas panhandle trying to get into the hospital and chill your bones, the night I was born. Mom had toxemia and I was arriving prematurely. At birth, I weighed a little over two pounds and there wasn’t an incubator in the hospital. The doctor gave me three days to live, but I fooled them. When I finally weighed enough to leave the South Plains Farmers Co-Op Hospital, I found out I was a west Texas farm boy.
We lived in a weather beaten bungalow with no electricity. Dad had to park the car next to the window to use the battery to power the radio. The prettiest items in the old farmhouse were the cream separator and Dad’s John Deere sales catalog. One day the landlord came to break the lease—he needed to farm his land so he wouldn’t be drafted.
We did our part for the war effort by working at Pantex ordinance plant. Dad was too young for WWI and had passed the draft age for WWII, so he was an inspector at the bomb plant. The serenity of the farm was gone, replaced by life on a government base. It was not a very happy place to live.
The war was coming to an end and Dad got a letter from his sister in Reedley, California. Enclosed were applications for teaching jobs in Reedley. The pay was better than in Texas, so my parents applied and a couple of weeks later we got word that we would be moving west. Dad would be teaching at General Grant, Mom would be teaching at Lincoln School and I would be starting kindergarten in September.
The day we left Pantex, Dad took one last drive out to the plant. We circled around the new factory that had yet to be put into production. It had big escape slides mounted on the sides of the building to help speed evacuation in case of fire. We passed the grocery store we shopped at on the way out. I knew that this was the infamous “black market” that everyone talked about because it had a black tile façade. The solider at the gate bid us farewell and good luck as we drove off the base for the last time.
As we passed the Army air base, we didn’t have any room to pick up a hitchhiking serviceman because I was sitting on top of all our worldly possessions. This was 50 years before seatbelts and Mom had made a pallet for me to lie on. We had a couple of stops to make before heading to California.
We stopped in Amarillo to buy a canvas water bag and then headed for Grandma’s house to leave my cat and say our goodbyes to family and friends. While the grownups were socializing in the living room, I gathered my cousins in the kitchen. From the pocket of my bib overalls, I produced some of the finest cigarette butts I had ever picked up on Polk Street in Amarillo. We “lit up” on the kitchen stove and proceeded to strut through the living room, huffing and puffing on our smokes. Getting a whipping was not what I had in mind as a Texas going away present!
My first crossing of Route 66 took three days, along a narrow ribbon of asphalt. Throughout the years, I have made this same trip over 120 times. The early trips passed by miles and miles of lava beds, with stagnant pools of green water and cattails. When there was a wide spot in the road, the Navajo would build wooden shanties where they would sell jewelry, rugs and pottery. Burma Shave riddles advertized a department store in Albuquerque. The road wound past the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and gas stations advertising the “last gas for 200 miles” or “live rattlesnakes” or the “two-headed calf.” We attended the Indian tribal ceremonies in Gallop, New Mexico and then finally dropped down to the Colorado River where you cross into California. Reedley can’t be far now I remember thinking. Of course, I didn’t know anything about the great Mojave Desert.
When we got about a hundred miles from nowhere, we came upon this place called the California Fruit Inspection Station. My grandma always thought the inspectors took whatever fruit they confiscated home to their families. We were allowed to pull over to one of the picnic tables and eat what Mom had packed in the lunch basket instead of turning it in to the inspectors.
We finally left Route 66 and headed over the Tehachapi’s and into the Great Valley of California. We passed the Tehachapi Loop, where the eastbound Santa Fe trains gained speed to pull the grade. The locomotive engineer could wave at the people in the caboose of his own train as they passed one another on the Loop. As we descended to the Valley floor, I looked out across the flat land and it reminded me of West Texas. There were cotton fields, the occasional oil well with the pungent odor of petroleum, and the heat mirages that danced across the road in front of the car.
At Bakersfield we turned north onto California’s famous Highway 99. Oleander bushes screened the lights from the oncoming cars, and there were palm trees and eucalyptus trees lining the highway. You could see the coastal mountains on the left and the more impressive Sierra Nevadas on the right. Through Delano, Tulare, and Kingsburg. Just past Selma, I saw something silver up ahead—it was an airplane stuck in the roof of a building! Bruce’s Lodge would become a welcome landmark in the future as it was there you turned east onto Manning Avenue, facing the Sierra Nevadas. Soon we crossed the Kings River and entered Reedley.
Like Texas, this is a farming community, conservative in politics and moving at a slow pace. Sitting on the banks of the Kings River, an hour from national parks, a couple of hours from the coast and halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Reedley is the World’s Fruit Basket. Little did I know then that it would become my hometown for over 60 years.