Category: Family

The Western Union War

Her husband ran off to Las Vegas with his pretty blonde secretary. He took almost all the money and income, and left her floundering.

She was a struggling beautician, fresh out of beauty school. She had few regular customers, and barely made enough to feed her child and herself. Meanwhile her husband partied hard in Vegas with his secretary, and all that money.

A few months later the phone rang. It was him. The pretty blonde had run off with someone else. He was lonely. Could he come down for a visit?

She was about to hang up when her survival instinct kicked in. Instead she said, “Well, maybe you can visit. But the electric company is about to shut off my lights. I need $200 by the end of the day.” He promised to wire it right away.

In those days, if you paid a substantial surcharge, Western Union guaranteed the availability of funds within 15 minutes of the time they were wired. He paid the surcharge. So she promptly headed for the Western Union office, expecting to quickly have the desperately needed funds in hand. But when she got there the office was closed.

The owner of the Western Union business in our town also owned a taxi service. I won’t use his real name. Let’s just call him “Ace Hull.” Mr. Hull had closed the Western Union office so that he could make some money driving his taxi around for a little while. She had to wait until the next day.

She was upset by the wait, but was glad to finally get the wired money. She timidly decided not to cash in on Western Union’s guarantee. And she understood that Ace Hull was just trying to make a living, running two businesses, so she forgave him.

But a few weeks later her husband called wanting to visit again. This time she needed money for something else. Who remembers what it was? Maybe a car repair. Her financial challenges were endless. He wired the money via Western Union, and paid the extra surcharge for 15 minute delivery. And the Western Union office was closed again.

Throughout the next several months this pattern repeated itself over and over. Husband wired money and paid the extra surcharge. Wife tried to pick it up. Western Union office closed.

One day this timid woman finally stood up for herself. She went to the Western Union office early in the morning to pick up some wired money, and the door was locked. She waited about a half hour, then gave up and went to work. She returned in the evening, and this time it was open.

She informed Ace Hull that she had been there in the morning, but the door was locked and he wasn’t there. He blithely replied, “Yes I was, I saw you.”

Ace, in his laziness, had just not felt like opening the door to help her.

She felt outraged when she heard this. Her anger overpowered her timidity, and she pressed her case further. “My husband pays a lot extra to get this money to me in 15 minutes,” she sputtered, “but you’re never open when I get here!”

He glanced at her, shrugged his shoulders, and casually remarked, “Tough. What are you gonna do about it?”

There it was. The power differential between calloused business owner and helpless customer. Indeed, what could she do about it? Nothing, as far as he could see.

That’s because qualities like determination are not always visible. He also didn’t know that she worked at the beauty shop right across the street from his business. And he didn’t know about her grandmother.

She told her grandma about this bastard, and the two of them murdered him for a few minutes, with pejoratives. Then they conspired together against this uncaring, lazy blighter. Her grandmother had many friends. Old lady friends. Old women who had been pillars of this community back in their day, and who had known her since she was a little girl.

And these old lady friends were bored, sitting all alone in their little houses crocheting socks and sweaters and whatnot. They craved the action of the old days. And so they eagerly joined in on the plot.

The conspiracy circle widened.

Every day while she worked in the beauty shop, she kept her eye on the Western Union office across the street. She was watching for Ace Hull to put up the “Closed” sign, get into his taxi, and drive off. And whenever he did, she phoned her grandma and reported this fact.

Her grandmother then called all of her old lady friends and relayed this fact to each one of them. They in turn called Western Union headquarters and raised holy, old-lady-bitch hell. Headquarters became inundated with phone calls from angry elderly women declaring, “I was just at your Western Union office in my town, and it’s closed! Why is it closed? How can I wire money to my granchildren if you’re closed all the time? Why don’t you keep regular business hours? Who’s running that place anyway?” And so forth.

Two months later she looked out the window of the beauty shop and noticed that the Western Union sign had been taken down. Ace Hull had closed Western Union for the last time.

That’s because he lost the contract.

It reopened in an office supply store about a mile down the road. A new businessman took over the contract. A man who had no problem keeping Western Union open all the time, so that people who were desperate for money could run down to his store and pick up their wired funds on a moment’s notice. And this particular businessman had a caring attitude, also.

From then on, whenever she was driving in town and saw Ace Hull in his dirty old station wagon taxi, she would smile smugly and say to herself, “That’s what I’m gonna do about it.”

One day she saw him and thought, “now that I’ve gotten rid of that asshole, I’m gonna get rid of another one.” And she divorced her husband.

A few years later she gave me a haircut. I fell for her instantly. But I was very bashful and could not work up the courage to tell her. Until a voice in my head asked, “What are you gonna do about it?”

So I asked her out on a date. That was 30 years ago, today. Soon we were living together. And we’ve been together since.

That’s what I did about it.

The Cottonwood Kidnapping

I was going into the sixth grade when we moved to a tiny town called Aguanga, with a population of 50 (we increased it to 56). There I attended nearby Cottonwood Elementary school. This was the last functioning one-room schoolhouse in Riverside County, California.

Yes, I’m so old that I actually attended a one-room schoolhouse. It was built in 1897, and functioned until 1975. Now there’s a more modern Cottonwood Elementary, with multiple rooms, built directly behind the original. But the old schoolhouse still stands as a historical landmark.

The original Cottonwood Elementary.

Each grade from one through six was represented by at least one student. Altogether we were a body of 27 students. Our principal and teacher was a middle-aged lady named Mrs. Rusk.

It was Mrs. Rusk’s first year at this school, and she had to figure out methods on-the-job, to teach her students in this unique environment. One method involved breaking us up into study groups, based on grade, then making rounds as she supervised each group.

She also wanted to recreate the historical spirit of this academic setting. She encouraged us to play old-time games during recess, such as kick-the-can and capture-the-flag. She held old-fashioned spelling bees. And she made sure our music lessons reflected the history of the Old West, with a songbook taken from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma!

For several minutes of each school day, we set down our books and pencils and belted out tunes like, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” and “Oklahoma.” And every day she’d cast a longing glance at a dusty old piano that sat abandoned in the corner. We had to sing a cappella, because no one knew how to play the piano.

One day on lunch recess I was called in from the playground by Mrs. Rusk, who told me I had some visitors. I was astonished to find my dad and siblings inside. I hadn’t seen my dad in over a year. He was arrears in child support and thus, forbidden by law to visit.

He had sneaked into town and stealthily removed each of his kids from school. I was the only one of his children attending Cottonwood, and also the last intended victim in his kidnapping ploy. But Mrs. Rusk seemed wary, and reluctant to release me. She sensed something wasn’t right. Besides she’d be breaking rules by releasing me to an unauthorized person. Rusk didn’t like the risk. She mumbled something about a very important lesson and said that it wouldn’t be healthy for me to miss this lesson.

It seemed my dad’s kidnapping scheme was unraveling, and that I had just a precious few minutes to visit with him before lunch would be over and class would resume. That’s when Dad spotted the dusty old piano sitting in the corner. He moseyed over and began pecking out a tune.

Mrs. Rusk made a beeline for him, face abeam and hands proffering sheet music from Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Y-you can play?!” she asked excitedly.

Oh yes, he could play. Dad was an ex-pro, having supported his family at one time, playing in a saloon for tips. He drew large crowds of drinkers and tipsy tippers with his zingy, free-wheeling style of pedal-and-key pushing. But he only played by ear. He couldn’t read sheet music very well.

He brushed the sheets aside and suggested that she have her class begin each song a cappella, and then he’d figure out the tune and join in.

It worked like a charm; the same charm that gilded my father’s smooth personality. Soon the rafters of that old schoolhouse were ringing with our bright, cheery voices, accompanied by brattling, blaring riffs ripped from that half-tuned antique.

The “very important lesson” Mrs. Rusk had been planning was thrown out the window. For the next hour we covered Oklahoma! in full-throated glee and harmony. We fulfilled Mrs. Rusk’s historical fantasies by turning the room into a time-machine with our magical music. For one shining hour we transported back to the horse and buggy days, and enwreathed our schoolhouse in the spirit of the 19th century, from which it had been born.

I stood tall and sang proud amongst my 26 classmates, enjoying the reflected glory from having such a dad as this man, tickling the ivories. I’ll always treasure this memory.

After the last song, Mrs. Rusk gratefully released me to my kidnapper. We drove off for an afternoon of sneaking around town, enjoying billiards, dodging my mother, and reuniting with the happy-go-lucky spirit of a beloved father who was usually absent from our lives.

Dad disappeared into the sunset after dropping us off near our house. In our lumpy-throated farewell, we swore secrecy to him. It was only about ten years later, after we were all grown, that we informed our dismayed and chagrined mother about this lawless adventure.

I learned nothing from school that day, except one very important lesson: Screw the law. If you’re not hurting anyone, to hell with following rules. Have fun. Love your family. And create many happy memories in the highlights of your life.

Just be sneaky enough to avoid getting caught.

Here’s a piano rendition of the Tennessee Waltz, performed by my father.

Mystery At Frenchman’s Station

The site of the mystery is near Frenchman’s Station, Nevada, and the date is sometime in November, 1975. But this is not the infamous Frenchman Flat near Yucca Flat, which is inside the Nevada Proving Grounds. That’s where above-ground nuclear tests were conducted in the 1950’s and 60’s, that spread radiation to any unfortunate souls downwind.

No, this Frenchman is different. It’s the former site of a hotel, restaurant, and gas station, that served weary and hungry people traveling through Nevada from 1899 to 1985. The U.S. Navy took it over in 1985 and soon after, Frenchman’s Station was demolished, with all traces of it scrubbed from the face of the sterile, desert earth, in a neat, military way.

U.S. Highway 50, in Nevada. “The Loneliest Road in America.”

U.S. Highway 50 has been dubbed the loneliest road in America. And it was on this ghostly road about 11 miles past Frenchman’s Station, and about 41 miles east of Fallon, that a nuclear bomb detonated within my family. This is where my grandmother died, on November 17, 1975.

She’d spent the day shopping in Fallon, then headed home, eastbound, on the usual 79 mile route back to Gabbs. She never made it. My aunt, who lived in Gabbs, notified the sheriff. Two days later a deputy found her overturned Ford Falcon hidden behind a berm along the highway, near Drumm Summit.

Dad never liked Fords after that. I gave him some space. He had wept hysterically at her funeral. It was the only time I’d ever seen him cry, and it scared the hell out of me. So as he walked the berm and examined the crash site, I took a stroll in the other direction, toward the skid marks. Let him make peace alone, with the place her ghost departed this cruel Earth.

We’d already been down to the impound yard in Fallon and checked out the crumpled Ford. I overheard the deputy at the sheriff’s station explain to my dad her manner of death. He said she’d had a massive heart attack while driving, and was dead before her car ever left the road. He said her heart had virtually exploded within her chest, causing her leg to reflexively stiffen and her foot to suddenly stomp down upon the gas pedal. Hence the skid marks, the deputy explained. He said those skid marks were from sudden acceleration.

Bullshit, I thought. When you’re driving at highway speeds and you stomp on the gas pedal, you don’t burn rubber. But my dad sucked the story right up. I dared say nothing.

I studied the skid marks. They were heavy and black, and began on the front side of a low rise in the highway. I wondered what she’d seen. What had she been trying to avoid? What had suddenly appeared on this “lonely” road? I glanced off in the distance at my dad, standing upon the berm, gazing down at the desert floor where the Ford had come to rest.

How long had she lived before her heart gave out? How long had she been slumped upside-down in the prison of that wreck, praying for a rescue that never came? How many freezing nights did she endure?

Could someone have caused this accident, then fled the scene, leaving her in extremis? Or maybe she had felt some chest pain, slowed down, and then her heart exploded and she stomped on the gas, like the deputy said. Where is the solution to this mystery? It’s with my grandmother, and she took it to her grave.

I remembered that wonderful desert home in Rosamond, where she and Grandpa had retired. Every summer my siblings and I spent two weeks with them. These little vacations were the highlights of our childhood. Their home was a blessed island of relief from the house of abuse my mother and stepfather kept. Grandma loved us and spoiled us with caring and kindness during those fleeting fortnights every summer. I believe she sensed things weren’t right at our house, and she wanted us to see how much different and better life could be.

She took care of my grandpa for the last five years of his life, after the stroke that left him mentally and physically disabled. When he died she moved back to Gabbs to live near her daughter.

She and Grandpa’s love-match had lasted 57 years. It set an example for me. I wanted a happy, enduring marriage like my grandma and grandpa had. I did not want anything like the example my mother and stepfather set.

I took my time and selected my partner carefully. And I’ve been living that happy kind of marriage for nearly 30 years now.

And so, 46 years since her history ended near Frenchman’s Station, I feel thankful for the inspiring example set by this grandmother of mine. There was no justice in the mysterious manner of her death. But if there is an afterlife where karma comes to fruition, then I can solve one mystery. I can see how things fit together.

At the end of her life she came face-to-face with pain, helplessness and fear, and knew them intimately. But after drawing her last breath, I hope she found what her grandchildren enjoyed every summer. A sweet, blessed island of relief.

"Depths of Poison" Book 2

Scroll down to read the sequel.

Marie Lamba, author

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