Utah, 1961-70

 

Departure and Arrival

582 Bent Ave., Akron, Coloraod In February 1961, after my mother blended my sisters and me into a new family, our stepfather returned to the basement apartment where we lived in Akron, Colorado. Doug Kershaw and my mother, Gen, packed us up into a little U-Haul trailer and we headed northwest out of Akron for life in Ogden, Utah.

Over 60 years later, I now understand what this marriage and upheaval was all about. Gen had been courting Akron's town plumber, John Dohrnbacher, and she definitely wanted to settle down with him. John wasn't having any of it. Even though we were clean, courteous, and well-behaved children, John didn't want to take responsibility for Gen and her three girls. He turned her down. Now on the rebound, Gen scrambled to save face by enrolling with the Scientific Marriage Foundation, where she found Doug and an opportunity to high-tail it out of Akron.

The Tumbleson abodeWhat's weird about it all is that Akron was good for Gen and her girls. My older sister Sue enjoyed popularity among her schoolmates and was a cheerleader. I had friends all over town. Little Becky was developing a robust sense of humor under the supervision of her babysitter, Jackie Tumbleson. The Tumblesons lived across Bent Avenue from us in Akron. The family was a hoot. Three girls—Malva, Marla, and Marsha—and Vaughn, the only boy. Jackie was a fabulous housekeeper and a patient, funny mother, given to pulling practical jokes and laughing a lot. Becky was in good hands at the Tumblesons.

Gen herself—who was never the housewife type and who liked working and getting paid for it—had the job of her dreams. She loved public health—had a nursing degree with a focus on public health—and she hated being supervised. Gen's deal with the county commissioners was that, from her own office in the Washington County Courthouse, she would design and run a public health department for Washington County, with no direction or interference from anybody. Gen was somebody important in Akron and she had all the freedom and autonomy she craved. Unfortunately, as we all know, she couldn't let a good thing stand. Also, she was horny.

A few weeks before we left Akron, I was hanging out with Nancy Vance, my friend whose family owned what was left of the Vance Hatchery a few blocks away from our Akron abode. Nancy's mother, as it happens, was herself from Ogden. She told me life would be very different for us there. I detected a vague concern in her face, but I didn't know to ask her what she meant.

I was excited about the move. We had moved frequently in my short life, what with Gen having a dislike for authority, an insatiable wanderlust, and a propensity for keeping her life in a state of emotional imbalance. After we left Kansas for Colorado and Gen's marriage to my father evaporated, we moved several times. It was something I was used to.

We set out from Akron on a Thursday and headed through a sliver of Nebraska into Wyoming on the Lincoln Highway, the road that eventually became Interstate 80. The weather soured as we traveled north. Everybody knows what Wyoming is like in February. Snow, wind, slush, icy roads, poor visibility, cold, but there was no cause for worry. Both Doug and Gen were capable drivers in adverse conditions. Everybody was back then.

We stopped for the night at a motel somewhere in Wyoming. Sue, Becky, and I had our own room. The tile floor in the bathroom was heated, which was about the neatest thing I had ever encountered.<\p>

The next morning, we piled back into Gen's Ford Country Squire and hit the road over the mountains and under the trailing edge of the winter storm. Doug delivered a tour guide's explanation of the landforms and features along the way. The weather turned to rain as we entered Weber Canyon and descended into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Ogden's city limits then were a short distance north of the mouth of Weber Canyon, so it didn't take long for us to arrive at the Kershaw's little house on 23rd Street, a few blocks east of Harrison Blvd. The Kershaw kids gave us a warm welcome and helped us unload. My new stepsister, Larkann, just nine months older than me, led me to our shared bedroom in the northeast corner of the Kershaw basement.

Settling In

The following Monday, we enrolled in school. Sue went to Central Junior High with our stepsister, Margaret, who was nearest to Sue in age and with whom she shared a bedroom. Larkann and I trekked up the hill to Taylor Elementary. Becky, just four years old, stayed home with Doug, who worked the night shift at the old post office a few blocks below Washington Blvd. in downtown Ogden. Gen went to work at the Weber County Health Department, where she had secured a job some weeks before we left Akron.

I entered the third-grade class of Mrs. Speak at Taylor Elementary School. The class was populated by polite kids, one of whom was Jolene. Jolene knew my stepsiblings. She said she lived around the corner from the Kershaw house and she invited me to walk to and from school with her. We became friends.

A fold I could see from Mrs. Speak's classroomMrs. Speak's classroom was on the north side of the school. Huge windows offered a magnificent view of the mountains, so close and so tall that I couldn't see their tops from my school desk. I could see the craggy folds of rock along the Wasatch cliffs, though, and trying to figure out how they got that way was my entry into a fascination with geology.

A few weeks after we arrived in Ogden, Larkann asked me to walk up to a friend's house. Her last name was Sorenson. (Turns out there are lots of Nordic surnames in Ogden. The name of Jolene's maternal grandparents was Erickson. Schoolmates bore surnames like Larsen, Johansen, Nelson and Nielsen, Lindquist, Soderquist, Benson, Jensen, Johnsen, Andersen, Halverson, Olsen, Petersen . . . you get the idea. There's a reason for that, which will perhaps become the subject of a future Utah exposé on this blog.)

The Sorensens lived what seemed like 100 miles from our house, but was only a couple of blocks northeast of Taylor School. In point of fact, one couldn't live more than a couple of blocks northeast of Taylor School; within two blocks north of the school is Ogden Canyon, at the base of a steep escarpment. A few blocks to the east stand the Wasatch Mountains. Not much room on that vertical landscape to extend Ogden up there.

For a youngster fresh from the eastern plains of Colorado, the air is thin at Ogden's 4,200-foot elevation. We lived on the east bench, which is formed by various shoreline limits of Lake Bonneville, the ancestor of the Great Salt Lake. The land rises toward the mountains sharply east of Ogden, so to walk up to Taylor School and beyond involved climbing up what seemed like very steep climbs every couple of blocks to the next bench.

The winter's snow was disappearing as we walked to the Sorensons. The afternoon sun was wan and silvery, the way it is in late winter in the mountains. The air smelled of grass, net-yet-greened-up and still moist, emerging from the receding snow cover. Occasional propeller-powered airplanes rattled out toward the Great Salt Lake as they traveled to and from nearby Hill Air Force Base and the commercial airport west of Salt Lake City. These smells, sights, and sounds define early spring for me even now. They are missing from February and March everywhere else I've lived in the USA. It never feels like spring without them.

A girl in my class approached me the first day at school. She said she lived around the corner from me and would like to walk to school with me. Jolene quickly became my best friend. We lived on the south and west boundaries between Loren Farr and Polk schools. Most of the kids at Taylor lived north and east of us, so our age and proximity worked for us. Jolene was a gentle companion. She was the first Mormon with whom I became acquainted. She was polite and trustworthy. She didn't gossip about anybody and she didn't complain about anything. When she said she was going to do something, she carried through. She knew how to be her own person without being bossy or judgmental toward others. Jolene was good company.

The 1960-61 school year ended in Ogden on May 29. Summer ensued, supervised by my stepsister Margaret, while our parents were at work. The days were accompanied by KLO Radio, with advertising jingles about Cary Salt, MJB Coffee, and how "It's fun to shop in Ogden." To my ear, the rock-n-roll music that issued from the radio was awful in those years before the Beatles came to America, but Margaret was the boss and nobody ever challenged her.

Bossy Margaret had a job to do and she knew how to do it. She was in charge of the family as the Multiple Sclerosis that plagued her mother, Joan, claimed more and more of Joan's abilities. Margaret took the job seriously and gave it her best. By the time Gen and her girls arrived in the family, the stage was set for conflict between Gen and Margaret—but not at Margaret's hands. Gen was the able perpetrator of power struggles in the newly formed family—adept at creating turmoil from the essence of . . . nothing. The children got along very well, particularly because the Kershaw kids were smart, compassionate, and willing to watch out for each other.

The two eldest Kershaw boys, Stephen and John, took Bill, Larkann, Sue, and me on a drive to Salt Lake City one Saturday. We were gone all day and returned to Ogden after dark. As we turned the corner from Harrison Blvd onto 23rd Street, regret and anxiety crawled over me like a hypnogogic attack by ants. The day had been so pleasant, so calm, so much fun and it was now ending. I wished I didn't have to go home. The anxiety has stayed with me ever since.

Stephen soon went off to basic training with the US Army. John, graduated from Ogden High School and was arranging his affairs to take off for Denver University. For the six kids who remained at home, Gen and Doug developed a housekeeping-housecleaning-grocery-shopping regimen and a family council for the settling of grievances. Doug meticulously painted a grid onto the shiny side of a sheet of Masonite. Household chores formed the labels on the horizontal axis. Days of the week were posted on the vertical. Initials of the kid assigned to each task on each day were filled in with chalk. Tasks were assigned according to the age-dictated capabilities of each kid. The rule was that all tasks, with the exception of those related to the evening meal, had to be completed by 5:00 p.m., the hour at which Gen got home from work.

Each weekday around 5:00 then, Doug and Gen retreated to their 10x10' bedroom. Doug studied accounting for the degree he was pursuing at Weber State College. Gen settled in on their bed with the day's Ogden Standard Examiner and a cat on her lap. The kids gathered in the kitchen to prepare supper.

Gen's friend, Dorothy Bailey (we called her Aunt Dottie), gave me a violin for Christmas in 1960. Somebody enrolled me in a six-week summer school and I began to learn to play it. The school where lessons were held was down on 29th Street in the block above Washington Blvd., near the California Free Market, which had been owned at one time by Doug's brother, Stan Kershaw. I walked there every morning. Lessons ended around noon and Gen picked me up on her lunch hour and took me home.

After summer school, Jolene and I hung out at her house. One day we prowled barefoot around the neighborhood. We came home with fried feet from walking over hot asphalt. Jolene pulled out a jar of Noxema from her medicine cabinet and we smeared it onto our feet. I can't remember that the crème cooled my soles immediately, but my feet don't burn anymore, so it must have helped.

Jolene's parents were from Emery County in southeastern central Utah. Her family (Joe, the dad; Thelma, the mom; Shorty, the little brother; and Jolene) traveled down there nearly every weekend, leaving Ogden on Friday when Joe finished work on the swing shift at Swifts. They traveled most of the night and arrived at Jolene's grandparents' house in Cleveland before dawn on Saturday morning.

Thelma invited me to go along now and then. There was growing turmoil between Doug and Gen, which usually boiled over into yelling and punishment of whichever kid was handy, so I welcomed the chance to get away from home. The weekends spent in Cleveland and Huntington with Jolene, her extended family and friends there make up some of my favorite memories.

One high point of trips to Emery County was visiting Price, over in Carbon County. The Woolworth's store in Price was a classic—creaky wooden floor, five-and-dime jewelry, the smell of popcorn mixed with Utah’s ever-present dry rot, big west-facing windows dusty in the afternoon sunlight. On my first visit, Jolene’s mom drove up Price Canyon to show the sights in Helper, where coal trains took on an extra engine to make the grade north to Salt Lake City.

Emery County was coal country back then (and still is, I imagine). Everybody heated with coal; winter smelled smoky, dusty, and oily from chunks of bituminous coal glowing in living room coal heaters. 

Jolene’s grandmother Erickson, a hardy frontierswoman from Norway, created fabulous meals and baked goods on a big white coal-burning cook stove. All these years later, I find that the smell of bacon cooking in the morning is missing something if it’s not blended with the odor of burning coal.

Another high point of those trips to coal country was a visit to Huntington, where Jolene’s father’s family lived. Huntington was a great little town. It had a wide main street typical of Utah towns (wide enough to make a U-turn with an ox cart), a traffic signal, and a movie theater. Jolene and I saw West Side Story there. I think the price of admission was 50 cents.

Jolene's paternal grandparents lived right on Main Street in Huntington. On summer nights, the streetlights that lined Main Street attracted flying bugs, which in turn attracted hungry bats. The dance between bugs and bats went on all night and I was fascinated. Nobody else even noticed. I've always been geeky, I guess.

Jolene was friends with a family in Huntington. The first time we went over to their house, their mom had a bad cold and looked awful. She wasn’t in a very good mood either and scared me to death. When I saw her again several months later, dressed, smiling and on her way to work, I thought the original mom had died and the family got a new one.

One summer day Jolene and I walked over to visit with the kids. Their dad was leaving on an errand and ordered the eldest girl to leave the little motorcycle—apparently a recent acquisition for the family—in the garage and not to take it anywhere. So naturally, after dad was gone, daughter started it up and gave us rides around town. It didn’t go very fast, so two people could ride the motorcycle and the rest of us could walk along behind. We ended up at somebody else’s house a few blocks away. Daughter shut the engine down while we visited.

The motorcycle had a two-step starting sequence. You had to throw a switch before turning the ignition key to fire up the engine. Daughter forgot about that detail when the time came to go home before dad got back. Daughter turned the key. The machine didn’t start. She tried the key again. The engine didn’t turn over. This went on for what seemed like hours. My anxiety level skyrocketed. I knew what it was like to get in trouble with parents. Somehow I decided that we were all doomed for taking the motorcycle out against orders and the fact that it wouldn’t start was all my fault. If only I had stayed at home, everybody would have survived, which didn’t seem to be at all certain at the time. I felt like crying.

Suddenly, however, Daughter saw the switch. She flipped it, turned the key, and the motorcycle started. She putt-putted it off down the street, followed by a half-dozen kids, and got home before Dad did. As far as I know, nobody got killed over this transgression, but I still worry about it.

When Sunday afternoon showed up, Jolene’s parents began to pack the station wagon for the trip back to Ogden. They had a pleasant little dog, white with black spots, who always accompanied them to and from Emery County. He rode obediently on the floor in the back seat and stayed there for the whole trip north. He was only like six inches tall, so there was no way he could see out the windows, but as soon as we made the right-hand turn off Harrison Blvd. onto 24th Street at the old Dee Hospital, about a block-and-a-half from Jolene’s house, he started to whine. He knew somehow that we were almost home. Dogs are smart that way.