Does that title look odd to you? Let me explain it.
Last week I wrote about the 13 long years it took me to finally get a look at the Southwest. The title of last week’s column was, “Some things are a long time coming.” The title of this week’s column finishes the thought.
Some things are a long time coming, but are worth waiting for!
Pardon me while I whisper an amen!
Mind you I don’t hate the Northeast where I was born. I can’t honestly say I hate any part of this country of ours. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t like one part of it a whole lot better than I like some others.
I tell you, I will never forget the day I arrived in Wichita Falls, Texas, the first part of the American Southwest I ever got to live in. It was February of 1956, and as I stepped off the train ...
But hold on a minute. Something tells me that what I have to say will make a whole lot more sense to you if I tell you what things were like at the other end of that train track.
Or bus line, because that’s how my trek southwest began.
Geneva, New York. A small town at the northern end of Seneca Lake, one of the five Finger Lakes located about 20 miles south of good old turn-you-blue-if-you-swim-in-it Lake Ontario.
It’s possible that Geneva, New York, is a warm, friendly, good-hearted place today, but when I was there in 1955 and 1956 it was a place which had a bad reputation with Air Force people. The opinion was that if the world ever needed an enema, the tube was going in right there in downtown Geneva. It was — and this is a fact — the only place in the world where I have ever seen signs that said, “Dogs and airmen keep off the grass!”
Well not quite enough. There was also the weather.
It was cold. COLD cold. So cold that I remember a time, just a few days before I departed the place forever. A chill wind blowing off the lake sent spray onto the road, slowly building up to the point that there were two sets of ruts in six-inch thick ice.
Match that for miserable.
The day I climbed aboard a Greyhound bus headed for some train depot or other — maybe Albany, I don’t remember — the temperature was five below zero, the wind was whistling in my ears, and lake effect snow was coming down sideways.
Took a couple of days to get where I was going I suppose. I really don’t remember much about that trip except for the fact that I was anxious to get where I was going before the Air Force changed its mind and sent me farther north again.
It was February of 1956, and as I stepped off the train that morning two things hit me in the face.
One was the big smile that suddenly blossomed on it.
The other was the temperature: 75 degrees.
That 80-degree change in temperature wasn’t only in the air either. It was also in the attitude of the people.
From the very first minute my feet hit the ground in Texas I felt welcome.
I went inside the terminal and asked directions to Sheppard Air Force Base and was amazed at the response I got. The ticket clerk called someone over and asked him if he hadn’t said he was “goin’ out to the base.” The man said yes, the ticket clerk looked at me, smiled, and said, “There’s your ride.”
A ride out to the base from a total stranger.
It was a sign of things to come.
I won’t go into too many details. I’ll just stick to one short little story I’ve told people for the past 50 years. It says all that needs to be said.
The apartment building in Wichita Falls where I rented a nice little apartment right after I got there was owned by a tall rangy Texan named Tom Bell.
Day after day, Tom sat down in the lobby of his apartment building with a pair of scuffed cowboy boots kicked up on a desk, reading a newspaper and talking with people as they came and went.
It was a long time ago, but I remember him well. A broad tanned face, a soft Texas drawl, laugh wrinkles around his eyes, a bolo tie, a Stetson. And, of course, those boots.
I lived in that apartment for over six months until I finally moved on base. I really didn’t intend to stay long because I absolutely could not afford the $65 rent. I stayed there because rentals were in short supply in Wichita Falls, something that’s often true near a large military base. Sheppard AFB had something like 18,000 men on it, many of them married. That added a heavy burden on the rental situation.
Not owning a car, I had an additional problem. I could only rent a place where I could get a lift out to the base each day. A tech sergeant in my outfit lived just up the road, and he used to come by every morning and pick me up.
Mind you, that apartment was worth every nickel I paid for it. It was nice. And well worth the money.
But I wasn’t making much in those days. We barely scraped through from payday to payday, and I kept looking for a place I could afford. As soon as I found one I told Tom Bell I was moving.
“Get a place on base?” he asked, smiling.
I felt a little embarrassed, but what the heck, the truth is the truth.
“No,” I told him. “We ... uh, we can’t afford the rent.”
“No? I try to keep my rents fair.”
“Oh, it’s fair. It’s very fair. We just can’t afford it.”
“How much is your new place going to cost you?”
“Twenty dollars less.”
“Oh, shoot! Pay me twenty less and stay here.”
Do I have to say any more?
Well, just one more thing, I guess.