This is not a conventional obituary, but Jim Stafford was not a conventional man.
He spent his last weekend on this planet confined to a hospital bed, hands busily fixing a television set that wasn’t there. Inside each of us is a Paradise waiting to express itself, and his involved RGB adjustments, vertical and horizontal hold tweaks, vacuum tubes, oscilloscopes, and degaussers. If that doesn’t deserve an unconventional obituary then I don’t know what does.
Before proceeding I should eliminate any potential confusion by noting that I am not Jim Stafford, but rather a partial genetic copy of our subject who happens to bear the same name. My family and a few old friends still call me by the name I shared with my father, but for the last 35 years I’ve preferred my birth name, James, to the informal “Jim.” I feel that James suits me, and that name also provides a clear delineation between James Stafford, the author of this unconventional obituary, and Jim Stafford, the story’s protagonist.
If you remain confused as to who is who, note that Jim Stafford now calls home a blue jar decorated with colorful butterflies while James Stafford busily types away in a more conventional room. Jim shares that blue butterfly jar with Bonnie, by the way, but we’ll get to her later.
The first whistle stop in this story is Moravia, Iowa, where two farm kids, Otis Stafford and Mable Stocker, met, married, and tried to get their life together started before war inevitably separated them. “War” here means World War II, which debuted in theaters of operation around the world just 20 years after the final curtain dropped on The War To End All Wars. The Staffords managed to wait it out in Iowa for a couple of years, but the Army eventually called and Otis and Mable moved to El Paso, Texas. There Otis was trained in the ancient art of killing bad guys, and then he was shipped off to Europe where he did that very thing. Mable stayed behind in El Paso, as pregnant wives are not allowed on battlefields during Great Wars because life is too precious to risk where men are busily killing, and so on October 9, 1944, James Otis Stafford became a native Texan.
Not once during the ensuing 75 years would he lay claim to that birthright, nor did he claim to be an Iowan despite the fact that his ancestral roots burrowed deep into the Hawkeye State’s rich loamy soil. It was here that Mable took her infant son for the duration, and it was here that the Stocker family tracked the last known locations of Otis, his brothers, and other local boys with push pins stuck into a world map hung on the parlor wall of the family’s modest farm house. Letters arrived for Baby James–he was not yet Jim– from his soldier father and soldier uncles, or at least one of them: Otis’s younger brother, Paul, who lived with the couple for a time before war took him away. Otis would survive the war but Paul would not. Losing a brother was just one of many horrors that visited Otis over the next two years. Years later Mable told me that the Otis who came home from Germany wasn’t the same Otis who took off from El Paso.
Jim never knew the pre-war Otis whom Mable later described as fun and easy going. What’s most interesting about Otis’s letter to his only child on the occasion of his first birthday is its tone, which might be described as “cordial detachment.” The young father writes to his infant son almost as if he is a grown man, the only true nods to his age being the occasional “I guess your mother is reading this to you” and promises of nice gifts for his second birthday provided that Corporal Stafford is home from Germany by then. Cordial detachment remained the tone between father and son for the next 43 years, or at the very least that’s how Jim perceived his father’s feelings toward him.
When Otis finally returned home the family settled in Burlington, Iowa, where Mable raised the boy and Otis churned through a string of jobs while trying both to support his young family and readjust to civilian life. Among those gigs was a stint as a cab driver. While his old man was out driving a hack young Jim was running around in his cowboy outfit, annoying his mother and pretending that he was Gene Autry, his favorite of the singing cowboys. Autry hit number one on the pop charts on Jim’s fifth Christmas with his recording of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The song was an adaptation of a short story commissioned by Montgomery Ward a decade earlier, but that piece of trivia serves no purpose in this unconventional obituary beyond a little foreshadowing.
What must have been thrilling for young Jim in December ’49 was hearing his hero’s voice crooning from the same speaker that brought the family Fibber McGee and Molly, his father’s favorite radio show, each week. Even more thrilling: Otis came home one day with an autographed photo of Gene Autry, the picture signed by the cowboy himself one afternoon when Otis lucked into driving Autry. Jim kept that photo for the rest of his life.
If the noise and nuisance grew too much for Mable she would hand her little cowboy a knife and some bread, then holster up the salt and pepper shakers and shove the boy out the kitchen door. Off to the garden he went, where he’d yank tomatoes from his mother’s vines and fashion them into sandwiches. He ate until his belly bulged over his six shooters, and then off he went to find another way to entertain himself. More often than not that path led to the junkyard, where the little boy struck up a friendship with the town’s junk dealer. The old man would send his little buddy home with a few borrowed tools and a boy-sized hunk of jetsam–a lamp or a little motor, for example–with instructions to take the object apart and reassemble it.
This was even better than playing cowboys! Gears and wires, magnets and brushes, screws and springs and cotter keys. Intricate little worlds throbbed like electromechanical hearts inside of everyday things, and thanks to his new pal he now had access to them. Jim took those beating hearts apart and then carefully reassembled them before returning them to their owner and reaping his rewards: Praise for his ingenuity and aptitude, and then a fresh piece of junk to take home and dismantle.
Praise, junk, and aptitude. Hold those thoughts.
Jim’s enthusiasm for discovering what makes things work spread from the junkyard to Mable’s kitchen. Nothing in the house was safe from his borrowed screwdriver. One afternoon while his mother was out, her son took apart the toaster only to find that he couldn’t get it back together again. He grabbed his piggy bank (fat with money earned peddling Spudnuts, a doughnut made with potato flour) and rushed to the five and dime for a replacement. When Mable returned home it didn’t take her long to realize that something was amiss. “Who cleaned my toaster?” she asked. Jim took credit for the good deed, and thus a toaster hero popped up where a toaster villain was expected.
On Saturdays Otis dropped his son off at the local movie theater with enough change to spend the entire day watching cartoons, serials, and movies while gorging himself on candy and soda pop. Gene Autry and the other singing cowboys were favorites, as were the Bowery Boys, but the king of them all was James Cagney. Cagney could do anything: sing, dance, comedy, drama. Over the next 70 years Jim watched thousands of movies starring tens of thousands of actors, but he remained convinced that Cagney was the best of them all.
Saturday movies, candy, and soda pop. Hold that thought, too.
A boy can’t be raised on movies, junk, and tomato sandwiches alone, so off to school young Jim went. A class photo from those days in Burlington survives. There in the back row–top left center–stands the boy, his face registering the combination of fear, confusion, joy, and excitement so common in kindergarten photos. His teacher quickly realized that the boy was left-handed, which as the 1950s dawned was akin to leprosy, or at least one would imagine given people’s reactions. Jim wasn’t allowed to use his left hand, a restriction that Mable reinforced at home, and as a result his handwriting suffered dramatically. (Or maybe not. Many years later his son turned out left-handed and was allowed to remain so, and to this day his handwriting is only slightly better than that of a cocaine-fueled physician with an advanced case of Parkinson’s writing while aboard a wooden roller coaster.)
In terms of mental development what else suffered is anybody’s guess. The body-brain connection is powerful and likely not as well understood as we might believe. The poles on the boy’s motor were arbitrarily reversed, the red and black wires of his nervous system switching terminals for no better reason than social convention. Perhaps that’s why the boy who could take apart an oven timer and reassemble it struggled through grade school, and was even held back a grade. This is the first of many family secrets that his children were expected to keep, though they were never overtly asked to do so. It was simply known that wielding “but you flunked grade school” like a blunt object would not only fail to win an argument but would likely end in violence.
Or maybe forcing a lefty to bat righty had no affect on the boy’s development. Perhaps he suffered from dyslexia or some other learning disability, or maybe he simply found dull stories about Dick and Jane mind-numbingly boring when compared to a rusty bicycle and a sack of wrenches. Regardless, at school he struggled and at home Otis remained as cordially distant in person as his letters home from Germany had been. Otis gave his son almost whatever he wanted–bicycles, ball gloves, model kits–but he couldn’t give the boy the one thing that he wanted more than anything in the world: A simple “I love you.” Well, that and the deluxe Erector set that contained a comprehensive collection of parts from all of the other Erector sets. That was much too extravagant ofa gift for Otis’s and Mable’s meager budget.
Things meant love. There’s another thought for you to hold onto.
And speaking of money, Otis was on the brink of earning a nice chunk of change. All he had to do was relocate his little family to Boulder, Colorado, where he was promised a plum job managing a team of tire salesmen. The family packed into the used car Otis bought from his brother, and 20 air condition-less highway hours later Jim Stafford, the native Texan, became what he considered himself for the rest of his life: a Coloradan.
[Will young Jim get the Erector set he so desperately wants? Will Otis land that big job in the lucrative field of retail tire sales? Will Gene Autry and Champion the Wonder Horse escape the evil clutches of the Apache Kid? Tune in next week for part two of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford!]