September 28, 2015
I like trains and Route 66 because I loved my Grampa – Hazle Howard Baker.
When I was a grade school kid my family would pack up every summer from Palmdale, California and head over to Victorville where we would catch Route 66 and travel through Barstow and Daggett and then through the desert to Needles, California. We’d then head north and go through Kingman, Seligman, and Flagstaff before descending an hour down the long straight highway to Winslow where my grandparents lived.
Sadly, my Grandma passed away when I was just 10 years old – fifth grade – so I don’t recall her too well, though the memories I do have are of a kind, quiet woman. It’s my Grampa that lives large in my childhood memories. Each morning after reading the paper, he would carefully clip out the TV section and paperclip it onto a perfectly sized masonite board. My earliest memories are of him in his easy chair watching the Gillette Boxing Calvacade of Sports on Friday nights (if you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the theme music, found here) and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights.
He was slow to anger and his strongest admonishments when we kids would get too rambunctious was “oh, go soak your head.” He was the man everyone in town knew as “Bake” – a kind man who always had time to chat. As he got older and his friends slowed down, he would make the rounds of private homes and nursing homes to visit with his old pals. He was a leader of the Winslow Methodist church, teaching Sunday School to high schoolers for many years. Every couple of years Grandma and Grampa would come over to California and visit us on their way to the Methodist conference in the Los Angeles area. They would always bring bags of cantaloupe or grapefruit.
My bond with Grampa was forever cemented when he would walk me the few blocks over to the Santa Fe train station to watch the big streamlined passenger trains come in: the Super Chief and the El Capitan. Late at night the big, silver locomotives with the distinctive red “warbonnet” painted on the front and side would come gliding into the station. As the trains were refueled, Grampa would take me out along the track to watch the maintenance men pull large hoses from underground trackside storage and connect them to the four locomotives. Unlike today’s freight locomotives these F7 engines did not have exposed walkways on the sides; rather the walkways were enclosed by the cab and you could peer through lit portholes along the side to view the mysterious inside panels and workings of the engines. Meanwhile, other workers were servicing the dining cars – loading ice, food, and drink. Large flat bed carts, with beds about four feet off the ground, loaded with luggage and freight would be pulled out to the side of the baggage car to have its contents unloaded, then reloaded with the belongings of the disembarking passengers. The trains would stop for 15 minutes to half an hour and Grampa would slowly walk me down from one end of the train and back again. So, of course I love trains!
Grampa was a tall, strong man who I was sure could do anything. He was a mythic figure to me. But the lives of grownups are forever hidden from children it seems; children simply don’t have the life experience to consider that there is more than they see on a two week visit every summer. I knew he worked on the Navajo and Hopi reservations before his retirement but really didn’t know much more than that. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve come to see him in a new light as I’ve learned his history and through that gained a deeper respect, admiration and love for the man.
Grampa was born July 9, 1892 and my Grandma, Adah Rebecca Mason, was born April 4, 1890 – both in Illinois near the small farming town of Atlanta. My Grandma became a school teacher in a one room schoolhouse; Grampa noticed her right away and was soon at the school house early every morning to light the fire and do whatever tasks the lovely Adah required. They married and had 7 children (four girls and three boys) between 1916 and 1926). But times turned hard; the three boys, Marion Howard (b 1918), Victor Woodrow (b 1925) , and Elmer Louis (b 1926), all died. Victor died at less than a month of age in September 1925 while the other two boys died of diphtheria within a month of one another in the spring of 1927.
Grandma contracted tuberculosis and Grampa was sick as well. The surviving kids, Lucinda Susan (b 1916), Nita June (b 1920), Barbara Isabelle (b 1922), and my mom Hazel Lois (b 1924) had to be farmed out to relatives and church friends. One day Grampa saw his children in pitiful conditions and determined to pull his family together. The doctors recommended the west.
Grampa’s brothers pooled their resources to provide him with a new start. He bought a train ticket to go as far west as he could. That landed him in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He started working in a gas station and caught the eye of a local business man who noticed he never stopped working and cleaning when there were no customers. The man offered Grampa a job buying wool and hides on the Indian reservations ranging from Colorado, through New Mexico, Arizona and into California. He asked Grampa where his family was; when told he loaned Hazle his car, gave him and advance, and told him to go get his family. Because of this wonderful boss, Grampa was able to reunite his family far from Illinois. Later they moved farther west along Route 66 – Holbrook and finally Winslow.
In my youth I knew the bare framework of their trek west. Looking back on this today I have an increased appreciation for the strength and fortitude of this man who struck out in the middle of the Great Depression and after the devastating loss of three children to make a new start in a new land.
As a child we assume grownups are always sure of themselves and knew how everything would turn out. But of course, we all just plod along dealing the best we can with the upsets life throws in our path. My thoughts parallel those of my Aunt June who recalled this history in a family letter back in 1983
It took much courage and soul searching to make such a big move. In poor health themselves and having lost 3 sons in rapid succession, they were a forlorn mother and father who picked up their 4 daughters and left for parts unknown. I get weak when I think of them at this terrible time in their lives. What they lacked in physical strength they made up for in spiritual and emotional strength.”
And of course there were doubts. As June further points out when she recalls as a child hearing her dad tell her mom “if I had the money, I’d rather go back to Illinois and live 3 months than live to be a hundred in this God forsaken country.”
But stay they did; I loved his tales about traveling in the great desert southwest that he came to love. On one occasion his car was caught in a stream bed and carried over a mile away by a flash flood. With the help of a Navajo man they pulled the car out of the stream, but it had a broken axle completely broken. The Navajo man invited Grampa to stay the night in his hogan. The next morning he loaned Hazle a horse to ride to the trading post; but the horse was restless to be with its new foal, so Grampa let the horse go back while he walked the rest of the way to the trading post to call Grandma and his boss. I marvel at this story: how tough do you have to be to work out in the great open spaces by yourself.
We are often told not to look to closely at our heroes; but in this case the looking has led to a fuller portrait of the man I admire..
The family flourished and they had another son, Jacob Marion (b 1928), born out west. My Uncle Jake is now the only member left of that generation. I suppose I can admit now that he has always been my favorite of my mom’s siblings. He lived in Winslow, in the same house as his parents, taking care of them as they grew older. He was a school teacher and a principal at Jefferson Elementary, the same school he attended as a youth. While I’ve always loved and admired him, he’s another person whom I appreciate more as I learn more about him.
Jacob followed in his father’s footsteps as a leader in the Methodist church. He was also a founding member of the Kiwanis Club in Winslow in the 50s and 60s. One of their accomplishments was building a campground in the white pine forest on the Mogollon Rim about 50 miles south of Winslow. Each year the founding Kiwanians (?) meet for an afternoon picnic; this past summer Carla and I were pleased to join them. Though they are all aging, they are full of vim and vigor. It was a real treat to meet his old friends. Everyone who sees us together says I look a lot like him; I can’t think of higher praise. Someday I’ll write more about him
Carla and I enjoy visiting him and my Aunt Sally every chance we get.
Here are some photos I’ve found. The Baker family resemblance runs strong through our family. Shortly after unpacking this photo, our older son Jeff looked at it and asked “when and WHY did [his younger brother] Andrew dress up in those old clothes?” Indeed, my son Andrew looks a lot like his great grandfather; I’m glad Andrew’s middle name is Baker.
This isn’t a great picture of him, but I love that smile and the jaunty angle of his hat. He was a fun loving young man.
And this is how I remember my Grampa and Grandma. This them in Winslow. Grampa still has that same glint in his eyes and smile as he did when he was a kid.