I grew up in a culture where oral history was a primary source of entertainment. I learned as a kid that with a little urging, I could get men like Floyd Pyle, Bud Jones, Walter Lovelady, my Uncle Malcolm Pyle, and my dad (Gene) to tell me stories. Most of these yarns sprung from mountain cowboy adventures such as lion and bear hunts, roping wild cattle, local horse races -- local cowboy lore.
Both my dad and my Uncle Malcolm had served in World War II. My dad spent some of his time in the service "under cover" and was privileged to generally unknown information. My Granddad Walter was stranded behind enemy lines in World War I and lived with a German family until he could make his escape back to the American forces, so sometimes the stories took on more of an international and political flavor. It was the stories of these men and others that gave me a real appreciation of history.
Still today my favorite pastime is talking with the local old-timers like Anna Mae Deming, Marguerite Noble and Raymond Cline, and other historically-minded folks like my wife, Jayne Peace, Edward Childers and others who have kept the old stories. And, there is nothing like a good book, which brings me to the meat of this column.
Jayne and I own Git A Rope! Publishing. Two years ago, Jay Kemp contacted us about publishing his autobiography. We struck an agreement with Jay and soon Jayne and I were editing the book for publication. As I was editing, I would often find myself caught up in one of Jay's stories, reading along for the adventure of the minute, the idea of editing completely forgotten. Then, I would have to go back four or five pages and pick up with the edit again. I will let Jay tell you about his book in his own words and maybe you can get an idea of why I found it so intriguing.
Jay tells us, "My survival instincts were strong at an early age, and for good reason. I survived being burned, blinded and run over by a car. I was drafted into the Army in 1943 and ended up in the Navy as a parachute rigger in a fighter squadron. Adventurous events happened as our military tour-guide moved the squadron to 14 different islands. I saw and experienced many things in the South Pacific -- everything from the natural beauty of the islands to the unspeakable horrors of war, including the A-Bomb.
"In this book, I've related the humorous, the drunken, and the rock-happy times that followed me for two years in the South Pacific. I've included a zany ice cream recipe and radical cures for exotic tropical diseases.
"After being discharged in 1945, I realized the world had changed and so had I. Then my quest for family, job and career began. When I was hired to work as a lumberjack in the family lumber mill, in Idyllwild, Calif., my main job was to spy on the swindling mill manager.
"Show business beckoned. I was an actor, singer, director, and camera operator during the early days of live television (1949), but cancer changed all of that. I had another battle to fight.
"Bing Crosby and I had breakfast in the same restaurant and I knew Dale Robertson when he was a bartender. My experiences in early TV with the Wallace and Ladmo Show, Gene Autry, Marty Robbins, Barry Goldwater, and many others kept life interesting. I became TV's Mr. 5 and experimented with space inventions."
Jay put in his boot camp time in at San Diego then was transferred to North Island Naval Air Station where he attended parachute rigger school. In the third chapter of his book, he states: "As we approached the ranger-training center, the first thing we saw through the bus windows were three huge drop towers. They dominated the sky above the camp and seemed much taller than 200 feet. Each tower had four oversized chutes hanging from the ends of outstretched metal arms at the top. After a couple of days of training for the drop, we lined up at the foot of the tower. It was exciting to see the men ahead of me yanked from the earth, their bodies oscillating back and fourth, then suddenly arriving at a spot with a view high off the ground. They should have played carnival music in the background for this thrilling ride.
"My turn came. The ground crew reattached the drop cable to the top of the chute, helped me into the harness, and stepped back. I was Superman in flight; the only difference was, I dangled at the ends of silk cords. The view was wonderful for about a second, then the automatic release clicked, and I dropped for a few feet through the air. It was a relief when I heard the chute crack open above me and I floated toward the ground. An instructor below shouted directions to me. I practiced all those things I had learned about gliding and pulling on the parachute cords to control my direction ..."
After Jay completed parachute rigger school, he was assigned to a squadron. Some of the war experiences that he relates would make a person wonder how we won the war. Here is one.
"Now, if you can picture this, the way we had the planes parked was wing tip to wing tip in one row. The next row was the same, but the planes sat with the props pointed at the two wing tips of the planes in front.
"With the engine running and ready to start taxiing, the pilot dropped his pen and when he reached for it, the sleeve of his flight suit caught on the throttle and shoved it all the way forward. The Corsair jumped the wheel blocks and the propeller chewed about six feet off the wings of the two planes in front of him. Still at full throttle, and picking up speed, his prop tore into the tail of the plane in the third row. By the time he gained control and pulled the throttle back, the prop had chewed the tail off right up to the back of the cockpit.
"A dropped pen caused the loss of five aircraft and put four pilots in shock, especially the one in the plane with the chopped-off tail. He thought he was a goner."
Jay has many more interesting war stories to tell including one about a poker game with pirates. He was discharged from the service in 1945, but his adventures certainly did not end there. The end of the war released thousands of men into the work force and competition for jobs was stiff. Jay took any kind of a job that he could find during the post-war years. He tells of his experiences as a traveling salesman, a northwoods logger, a singer, and an actor. He worked in both radio and television.
Jay Kemp's life has been an adventure. He is a man who has seen more than his share of hardships. He has fought cancer, whipped it to a stand-still and turned several near hopeless situations into success stories. Jay's book reminds me of a line from another book, "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times."
Jay Kemp's book, "My Hopscotch Life" is aptly named. It tells the history of another time when versatility, not specialization was the key to survival. He was a parachute rigger, but he couldn't get a job as a parachute rigger. He went to school to be an architect, but he couldn't get a job as an architect. So he worked wherever he could get hired. His trials didn't keep him down -- they made him stronger. His versatility, adaptability, and perseverance have allowed him to accomplish many interesting things -- including writing a book.
Had we looked at Jay's ancestors, we would have expected nothing less. He is descended from hardy Arizona stock. His grandfather was a muleskinner who freighted supplies by wagon from Safford to the Roosevelt Dam during its construction, prior to statehood.
"My Hopscotch Life" is available locally at Sue Malinski's Art and Antique Corral and at Mad Dawg's and Mel's.
Note: If you want a low-numbered "Rodeo 101" collector's edition book, call Git A Rope! Publishing at (928) 474-0380. "Rodeo 101 - History of the Payson, Arizona Rodeo, 1884-1984" will be available in mid-August. The limited, numbered collector's edition sells for $100. The soft-cover edition of the book will sell for $25.