I enjoyed my eighth grade year save for my mathematics class which is somewhat ironic given that I would one day become a math teacher. I found myself totally lost but still making good grades… More
Time Was Rushing Forward
I began the fifth grade in September of 1958. It was a momentous school year for two reasons. First, I finally had a really good teacher and second, Michael started first grade. It was fun to have a sibling attending school with me at long last and my teacher, Mrs. Powers was quite wonderful in my eyes. She was strict, but not in a cruel way like my fourth grade teacher had been. She was quite smart and had a large family of her own. She knew how to handle children by setting limits with love.
Michael proved to be a bright fellow just as we knew he would be. He was always quiet so his teachers did not see his intellect right away. He quickly learned to read well, but it was math that caught his fancy. He wanted to know how things worked and he dreamed of humans traveling into space. As a youngsters he had walked around the house with one of my father’s books about travel to the moon cradled in his arms. He studied the drawings of the rockets and the space orbits for hours. The book was by Wernher von Braun and it became my brother’s guide for future travel in space. With confidence he told everyone how it would happen and hinted that one day he would be part of the adventure.
He was always taking things apart to see how they were made. One time while our father was still alive he dismantled one of my favorite dolls. I became hysterical when I saw what he had done but Daddy seemed almost proud of Michael as he explained to me that my brother just needed to understand how the doll’s eyes opened and closed and how its arms moved up and down. Once in a fit of anger I vengefully took the head from Michael’s Dennis the Menace doll. Nobody was amused even though it was easy to repair. They understood that my motivation had been to harm, not to learn. Their response was a good lesson for me to realize the difference. I never did such a thing again.
Life was good and we felt quite settled into our home, our neighborhood and our routines. We had learned to cope without our father and I was no longer afraid of catastrophe without him. Time began to accelerate at a rapid pace. Before long it was 1959, then 1960 and not only was Patrick heading to first grade, but our mother had been hired to teach fifth grade at Mt. Carmel Elementary School. I was entering the seventh grade and Michael was moving up to third, so all of our lives began to center around the school calendar.
I was coming off of a second year of having a teacher that I totally enjoyed. In the sixth grade I had been fortunate enough to spend my days in Mrs. Loisey’s classroom and she would forever remain on my list of favorite people. In the seventh grade I would have different teachers for different subjects for the very first time. I really enjoyed the variety of personalities and teaching styles, but English, History and Science were my favorite subjects. I was a member of the Mt. Carmel drill squad as well. Mama had made sure that I took twirling lessons and I had become rather proficient with the baton. She was thrilled when I became one of the twirlers. I always got the idea that she had wanted wanted me to shine in ways other than just academics, but I always felt like a klutz save for when it came to manipulating that baton.
Michael and Patrick were both athletic. They were on Little League teams and we spent hours at the baseball field for practices and games. I on the other hand avoided anything having to do with catching or throwing or hitting a ball. I had not yet matured and I overheard my mother quietly worrying that something might be medically wrong with me. I don’t think she would ever have told me such a thing herself but I was always listening to her conversations and that bit of news began to worry me as well. I was not only a year younger than most of my peers but I was apparently a very late bloomer. My confidence began to waver a bit, but only my good friend Lynda knew of my fears. She and I consoled each other in believing that we were ugly ducklings who would no doubt become childless spinsters. I suppose that we thought we were the first young adolescents in history to feel this way, little understanding that it was only a phase that overtook almost everyone to some extent or another.
In the spring of 1961, my science teacher, Mrs. Colby, was so excited about the upcoming launch of the first American in space that I became as interested in that dream as my brother Michael had always been. Mrs. Colby almost breathlessly taught us about the seven astronauts and the race into space between the United States and the Soviet Union. When I watched the brief but exhilarating adventure of Alan Shepard launch into space it felt as exciting and wonderful as Christmas. I thought about my little brother Michael with his moon book and began to believe that just maybe we would one day land on the moon just as President John Kennedy had challenged our nation to do.
In the meantime, my English teacher Sister Mary Lester had taught us about propaganda. Of course we all knew that the Soviet Union was sending out disinformation constantly, but we were stunned to learn that lots of institutions did the same, including the United States. I was incredibly excited to learn something that seemed so adult. It felt as though I knew a secret that most people did not. Since that time I’ve tracked evidence of her assertion over and over again and I believe that she was quite right.
The Cold War was roaring at an icy rate. We heard the piercing roar of the noonday air raid every Friday. At times we practiced ducking and covering our heads in the event of a bombing attack. I remember wondering who thought that just going under a desk and putting our arms over our heads would be sufficient to save us from harm in the event of an attack. It all seemed quite silly, but we politely complied with the drills in spite of our doubts about their effectiveness.
Times were changing and I often found myself wondering what my father would have thought of our family and our world. He was such a history and science buff that surely he would have wanted to talk about what he saw. I wished that I might know him as someone who was attempting to grow into and adult. I liked to think that he would be happy with all of us, especially our mother who had devoted herself to us and who kept telling wonderful stories of how much our father loved us. I was proud of each of us and I think Daddy would have been so as well.
We made it through our first year without our father just as our mother had assured us that we would do. It had taken a village of loving people to get us past all of the obstacles that had come our way, but somehow we were back to another Memorial Day and this time we were heading to Clear Lake to enjoy a day with all of the aunts and uncles and cousins. Mama had even planned a trip to Arkansas to see Grandpa and Grandma Little later in the summer. While we had not forgotten Daddy, we had learned from Mama how to adapt to our new reality
Our summertime Sundays at Clear Lake reminded us of the circle of love that surrounded us at all times. Somehow we understood that we were never alone. Our big extended family made sure that we were always okay, so when a friend innocently asked me what I would do if my mother died and I became an orphan I had no hesitation in asserting that my Aunt Valeria would take me into her home. While such a thing had never actually been discussed, I somehow believed it to be true because Aunt Valeria strangely had an extra bed sitting in her dining room. I never asked why it was there but it felt out of place unless it had some kind of hidden meaning. Somehow in my eight year old mind I had come to the conclusion that it was for me in the event of an emergency. At the same time I was never quite sure whether or not there would be room for my brothers as well, but I felt certain that they would find love in our family.
Before long it was time for our trip to Arkansas. I though that our mother was the bravest woman on the planet for planning to drive so far all by herself. She just laughed and told me that she had traveled to San Diego to visit a friend in the middle of World War II when she was still a teenager. She assured me that the trip to Arkansas would be an easy drive for her.
The car was packed with our things and ready to go in an early morning departure. Mama just needed to put out the trash before we went to bed to rest up for the trip the following day. She asked me to help carry some of the bags of refuse to the garbage can that stood in the backyard. She noticed right away that she was not going to get everything inside unless she compressed the refuse that was already there. With a big push of her two hand the collection of household debris gave way. Suddenly Mama was crying in pain. a glass jar that had been among the trash had shattered under the pressure of her hands and as it broke the shards of glass cut her wrists. I watched in horror as blood escaped from her wounds and she commanded me to run next door to get help from Mrs. Sessums.
Soon both Mr. and Mrs. Sessums were in our backyard rendering aid to my mother. Mrs. Sessums took Mama to an emergency room and Mr. Sessums took me, Michael and Pat to his house. It felt as though we waited for hours before our mother finally came home. Her wrists were bound with bandages and she told me that the doctor had sewn stitches to mend the cuts that the glass had made. She looked pale and tired so Mrs. Sessums spent the night at our house watching over all of us.
The next morning I heard my mother lamenting that people would think that she had attempted to kill herself now that she would sport scars on her wrists. She was grateful that I had witnessed the freaky accident and would be able to attest to her innocence. I felt sad that Mama was once again hurting at a time when everything had been going so well. I had so wanted to go see my grandparents and now that possibility seemed so far away.
We spent most of the rest of that summer playing with our friends on Belmark Street. We had a good time and each evening when Mama tucked us into our beds she reminded us of all the wonderful blessings we had enjoyed that day. It was a daily ritual that kept our hope and joy alive.
In August we got a wonderful surprise. Mama’s wounds had healed and our Aunt Opal, Daddy’s sister, was going to help our mother drive us all to see our grandparents in Arkansas. We were ecstatic and soon we also realized how much more fun the trip was going to be with Aunt Opal accompanying us. She was an amazing woman.
Aunt Opal had lived in Choctaw territory of Oklahoma before it was even a state. She met her husband Harold LaRoche in Oklahoma and they were married before my father was born. The two of them had a big family of seven children, my first cousins, who were all way older than I was. In fact, some of them were contemporaries of Daddy. I remember he used to joke about being the uncle to some of his best boyhood friends.
Aunt Opal made the trip to Arkansas delightful for all of us. She liked to drink coffee and insisted that we make regular stops along our route to rest and refuel ourselves and the car. We’d find a local cafe and have a snack which more often than not included pie. Aunt Opal might have been our grandmother. She was old enough to have been either Mama or Daddy’s mother. She was loving and caring and always calm no matter the circumstances. Our mother adored her as much as we did.
Our visit to see our grandparents was lovely. It was important for each of us to get together again. Grandma told me how much she missed her son and how hard it had been to know that she would never see him again. She told me stories about him as a boy, reminding me of how loving and thoughtful he had always been. She gave me a special book that had been his when he was only a toddler. it was faded, torn and falling apart but I treasured it nonetheless. When we were leaving she gave my mother the discharge documents from her father’s service in the Union Army during the Civil War. She asked Mama to keep them for me until I was old enough to give them the care they deserved. Somehow I knew that this gift to me was a great honor and a call to be a responsible person. I understood the message my grandmother was sending me.
That summer women had shown me their strength and goodness. I learned from my mother, Mrs. Sessums, Aunt Opal and my grandmother. I felt the link that tied us all together. I saw resilience and determination is each of them. I took notes knowing that one day I too would be called to stand tall.
Life Was Good
I returned to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic school after Labor Day of 1957 just after my little brother, Pat, had turned three. I was in the fourth grade, a changed soul with a more serious outlook on life. I was grateful to be back with people that I knew and trusted, but I was still in a state of grief that would follow me throughout that year. My teacher was a strict nun who taught me well, but was far too demanding for a little girl whose world felt so unsettling. I would have to find solace in my fellow students, the wonderful neighbors on Belmark Street, my family and friends. I withdrew into myself under the unrelenting sternness of my teacher. Looking back I realize that when I later became an educator she became my model of how not to behave around the children that I taught.
We settled nicely into a routine at home. Mama was devoted to her dual role as both mother and father to us. It seemed as though her every thought was focused on our well being. She became an icon of strength and wisdom in our neighborhood, with a continuous line of visitors arriving for coffee and conversation with her. One woman in particular became a regular seeker of solace from our mother. She was a quiet and nervous lady who whispered anxiously and quite often burst into tears. When I enquired about her, Mama simply smiled and said that the lady was having some difficult times and just needed to talk about them.
Other neighbors were more gregarious and helpful. They brought out Mama’s smiles and laughter. They encouraged her to get involved in the Mother’s Club at church and to join a bowling team to get out of the house. It always amazed me how quickly our mother made friends, how easily she talked with them, how generous she was with them. Before long she seemed to know everyone who lived around us and was encouraging us to follow her example in accepting our fate and moving forward even if we were scared.
She created routines for us like cleaning our home on Saturday mornings with Daddy’s music playing on our Victrola while we worked. Once we finished Mama presented each of us with a quarter to save or spend on our Saturday afternoon shopping excursions. Of course we went to see our Grandma Ulrich on Fridays and attended mass on Sundays at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Sometimes we visited our aunts and uncles on Sunday afternoons. Our lives bumped along smoothly most of the time but now again we would feel the lurch of unexpected events like the murder of the sad lady who had often visited our home.
Late one evening we stood on our driveway watching the tragedy unfold along with most of our neighbors. We had all heard the screams and the shots of the gun. It was terrifying as we waited for the police to arrive because the woman’s children were standing in the front room window crying for help while the man raged in the background. It was our brave neighbor, Kathleen Bush, who charged across the street, pounded on the door, and demanded that the children be allowed to leave. I watched in awe of her courage as she stood her ground with the murderer. She threatened to force her way inside if necessary. Soon the front door opened and the terrified children ran into her arms. I suppose that Mrs. Bush became my idea of a hero from that time forward.
Halloween came and Mama made costumes for us and then took us all around the neighborhood where everyone seemed to know who she was. We spent Thanksgiving at home and watched the annual gridiron grudge game between Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Mama sang the Aggie War Hymn and told us about the tradition of the Twelfth Man. We were totally indoctrinated into being proud little Aggies.
In November, just before my birthday a cold front came to town. There was a chill over the house but Mama had no idea how to light the pilot of the gas heater. She mentioned her dilemma to our next door neighbor, Ethyl Sessums, who immediately insisted that she would send her husband, who was a plumber, to light up our furnace as soon as he came home from work. Surely enough he made short work of the task and before long our house was feeling warm and toasty. Somehow at that moment I felt that we were really going to be okay. I slept better than I had on any night since my father had died.
When Christmas came and we attended the annual Christmas Eve party at Grandma Ulrich’s house I became even more convinced that we were not alone. Uncle Andy gave me and my brothers teddy bears that were almost as big as we were. We would invent all kinds of games and adventures with those stuffed animals that brought lots of mischief and laughter to our home. When Santa actually found us on Christmas Day and left an array of gifts it felt as though the miracle of healing had begun.
The New Year would bring Michael’s sixth birthday and a bought of measles to our home as well as an untypical snowy day. That was how it was, some ups and some downs but always the continuity of happy routines with our family and friends. Our mother would prove to be a mighty woman who tucked us into our beds each night with a reminder of how much she loved us. I would always miss my father, but I took my mother’s cue and began to allow myself to live again. Life was good.
Becoming a Different Kind of Family
The days after my father’s death remain a blur, a kind of slow motion attempt to move forward while still believing that he would walk through the door at an moment to assure us that all of the furor over his passing was just a mistake. Eventually the aunts and uncles and friends busied themselves with their own lives and Mama, Michael, Pat and I were alone to grapple with our new reality. Nothing felt right in those first weeks, but soon our mother was busying herself with the tasks of living. She was determined to provide my brothers and me with a feeling of security, so she began the process of becoming the sole head of our household.
First, she needed a car since ours had been destroyed in the crash that took our father’s life. My Uncle Jack Ferguson, Aunt Polly’s husband, volunteered to accompany Mama to car dealerships in search of an automobile that she might afford. Daddy had always liked sporty cars with all of the bells and whistles of the time, but Uncle Jack was a Ford man with practical beliefs that the chief function of a family car was for transportation. Realizing that we only needed something that would reliably get us from one place to another, Uncle Jack bartered with salesmen to find Mama an automobile for the price of the insurance payout that she had received. What we got was a totally stripped down model with rubber floor mats, cloth seats, a standard transmission and no power steering. It was an ugly car for sure, but it drove well and was the right price. It would serve us for the next ten years of our journey without our father.
The next phase of our new lifestyle was to find a permanent home. Mama knew how happy we had been when we lived in Overbrook so she thought it would be wise to return to the neighborhood where we already had so many friends. Once again Uncle Jack stepped up to help her find a house that was affordable. That meant moving to the small wooden spec homes rather than those like the custom brick place where we had once lived. Eventually our mother settled on a three bedroom, one bath property at 6411 Belmark Street. It was not even as nice as the home on Kingsbury but it was within walking distance of my old school and just down the street from our church. Best of all, after hearing of Mama’s plight, the owner of the house lowered his asking price enough to make her payments reasonable.
Belmark Street was home to young families with children running and playing up and down the block. It was a friendly place where everyone rallied around our family from the start. Once our furniture and belongings were placed in the rooms it felt cozy and just right. Mama even purchased a bookcase that she placed in the hallway to hold our father’s books that had previously been in the packing boxes we had brought back to Texas from California. She played the records that he so enjoyed in the evenings just as he had done. We had a sense that somehow he was still with us if only in spirit.
It took awhile for Mama to have the courage to open the anniversary gift that Daddy had left for her. She cried when she saw the iced tea spoons that he would never use. She quietly put them away in the wooden chest that held all of the knives and forks and serving pieces that our father had purchased for her in the eleven years of their marriage. Somehow that tiny treasure became symbolic of their love together which had been so short-lived.
I had to be courageous when I told my mother about the lamps that Daddy had put in the layaway for her. i choked on my words as I described how happy he had been when he made me privy to the surprise that he had planned for her. We were unable to find any kind of receipt for the payments he had made, but I knew exactly where he had purchased them and I was able to described them in detail when Mama and I went to the store. As I told the salesperson my story she began to sob and assured us that she knew exactly where the gift was being stored. Mama made the final payment and we took the beautiful boudoir lamps home to place them on her dressing table just as Daddy had envisioned.
The summer was a time for adjusting to our new reality. We met all of the other children on our long street and always had something to do on the sweltering hot days. I became friends with Candy Bush, Karen Janot and Jeannie Limb. To my delight I found that the bike ride to Lynda’s house was short and quick, so the two of us resurrected our friendship immediately. On Friday nights we religiously visited my Grandma Ulrich along with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. Friends and family members were constantly dropping by our house to visit and to help Mama with any difficulties that she may have had. I learned how good people are and because of them I slowly began to feel safe even though my heart was still indescribably sad.
After Labor Day I began my fourth year of school. I was eight years old, but I felt like I was forty. I hid the grief that I was feeling under a facade of quiet determination. Even with all of the outpouring of love for our family my anxieties were chronic but I had decided that my personal duty was to be the kind of person that my father had always told me that he believed I might be. I watched over my brothers and did my best not to cause any trouble for my mother. Somehow I fully understood the burdens that she would face. I decided that I never wanted to be another one for her. I was a child who had instantly morphed into an old soul. I knew that we had become a new kind of family and I had duties to fulfill.
So who was this man named Jack Little, a man with no middle name, a man who left such a lasting impact on those who knew him, a man who died at the age of thirty-three inside his car on a dark road? Perhaps clues to his life will be found in his all too short story.
Jack was born on September 2, 1923, in Skiatook, Oklahoma, a small town just outside of Tulsa. He was the son of William Mack Little and Minnie Bell Smith Little, a mid life child born to them in their late forties. Jack had two older sisters named Opal and Marion who adored him. Opal’s father was Ollie Thompson who died in 1919. When the widowed Minnie married William, Opal was already an adult and ready to settle into marriage with Harold LaRoche. Upon the day of Jack’s birth Opal had sons of her own making Jack an uncle from his infancy.
From the beginning Jack was bright and funny and the apple of his mother’s eye. He learned quickly and kept pace with his classmates in spite of often moving from town to town while William searched for construction work to support the family. It seems that Jack was a bit of traveler for all of his life and even as a boy he had set a goal to visit all of the states and then to go abroad. His love of reading seemed to come from Willam who had a lifelong habit of devouring newspapers, magazines and books as a way of relaxing after a long day at work. Jack often joined his father in reading sessions in the evenings, often followed by discussions of what they had encountered on the pages of their books.
William and Minnie Bell encouraged their son’s curiosity, supplying him with reading material and opportunities to learn. Minnie was especially proud of her boy because she herself had never learned either the art or the science of reading and writing. Both parents marveled at Jack’s abilities to grab life by the tail and adapt quickly to new places and new schools as they moved from one construction job to another. Regardless of where the winds might blew them Jack seemed to flourish. Eventually they found themselves in Corpus Christi, Texas where Jack met the two men who would most influence him, Robert Janosky and Lloyd Krebs.
The three young men completed each other with their talents and their personalities. Robert, better known as Bob, was an adventurer in his own way following his interest in geology from one mountain to another. Lloyd was a quiet thinker yearning to learn about how things work. Together they plotted a journey to Texas A&M University where they would each earn degrees, Bob in geology, Lloyd in electrical engineering and Jack in mechanical engineering. While they were all dedicated to being lifelong learners they always found time for fun.
Jack met Ellen when he was working as a summer draftsman at an engineering firm on Navigation Street near the Houston Ship Channel. He had mastered the skill of creating schematics by hand which provided him with better than average income doing the off seasons of school. It was Ellen who took the initiative and introduced herself to Jack. She had noticed him while working as a secretary at the company and boldly decided on day to suggest that they sit with each other on the bus that they rode to their respective homes each day.
Ellen Ulrich was beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent, a combination that instantly appealed to Jack. Before long they were dating and talking seriously about starting a life together. They married at the Harris County Courthouse in March of 1946, so that Ellen might join Jack at Texas A&M College where he was still working on completing his education. Because Ellen was a devout Catholic she insisted that they also be married in a church ceremony at St. Mary’s Church in College Station. Their simple ceremony took place that June. It would become the official date that Ellen and Jack would use for their anniversary because she believed that their union must first be blessed by God. Jack showered her with love and acceptance by humoring her sometimes quirky demands.
Jack opened the world to possibilities for Ellen. He read to her from his books. He took her to places she had never been. The two of them began their married life living in an upstairs rented bedroom of a professor at Texas A&M. They had to be home before the prof’s family retired for the evening or risk being locked out. Jack soon noticed that they might use the large oak tree that grew next to their window as a mean of entering and exiting their room on late nights out. Soon they had mastered the art of deftly climbing up and down the “stairway” provided by nature.
They had great fun in those early days enjoying football games and all of the student activities on campus. Ellen landed a job with one of the professors while Jack worked hard to complete his coursework. They were quite the team and it was obvious to anyone who knew them how madly in love they were.
Jack was indeed a renaissance man. His knowledge of history was uncanny. He was an encyclopedia of information about literature, sports, science, politics, humor, poetry, art, geography and all forms of trivia. He never met a stranger and slid easily into conversations about fishing and hunting and life in general. He was as charming as Ellen and the two of them together seemed poised to take on the world.
Jack was a dreamer and a bit of a drifter from one interest to another much like all gifted individuals. He sometimes had a difficult time deciding what road in life he wanted to travel. Unlike his buddy, Bob, who set a straight course to a PhD in geology or his wise friend Lloyd who went to work at Shell and stayed there to the end of his career, Jack always seemed to be searching for the perfect fit for his many interests. He would devote himself to one thing and then become bored and move to something completely new with Ellen encouraging him to be adventurous.
Jack passionately loved his family and his friends. When Bob died, so did a part of Jack’s heart. He was adrift, analyzing his life and attempting to find his place and his true happiness. He had learned to move and adapt in his boyhood and assumed that everyone would enjoy the excitement of such a lifestyle. He was always in search of something bigger and more exciting, taking risks to climb the mountains of his dreams. While his life was cut short he had managed to pack so much into his brief time on this earth. He had touched the lives and the hearts of everyone who ever knew him. Jack Little was no ordinary man.