And so the Stafford family crossed the Great Plains on two-lane highways that paralleled the train tracks of the not so distant past, when every fifteen miles towns sprouted like thirsty weeds around the big steam engines’ water stops. Those towns looked interchangeable to a bored little boy sweating in the back seat of an old rusty Plymouth, their manicured squares surrounded by tidy courthouses and Carnegie libraries. This was the Midwest of the early 1950s, where no trace of the war’s chaos, disorder, and destruction were allowed. Calm settings for troubled minds.
Not that any of this occurred to young Jim. All he knew was that it was hot in the back seat, the air was thick with blue smoke from his father Otis’s endless Raleighs, empty beer cans rolled around the old car’s floorboards, and every 15 miles the family’s progress from Burlington, Iowa to Boulder, Colorado slowed to a crawl as they drove through another boring town. But that’s not all he spied with his little eye as his father drove him westward. War surplus airplanes crouched like dinosaurs on the cracked tarmacs of obsolete military bases along the highways: muscular fighter planes that looked as if they were tearing the clouds even while standing still, hulking bombers so massive the boy couldn’t imagine them ever rising into the air. Now and then he’d luck into seeing one of the warbirds in flight on its way to a second life as a racer, a museum exhibit, a movie prop, scrap metal. He liked those gleaming machines with big metal hearts.
The Army taught Otis to fly before sending him to Europe to man a half-track, a vehicle that was half tank, half truck, all anti-aircraft gun. Call it military logic or perhaps a cruel joke: hand a young soldier a pilot’s license and then demand he remain earthbound, shooting down airplanes. Jim idolized his cordially distant father: the pilot, the soldier, the hero. Stoicism and the ever-present beer and cigarette were prices paid by a good man for a horrible duty not chosen but done nonetheless. His old man knew how to fly those planes that rusted along the highway. That notion inspired even greater awe in the young boy.
Over the next three quarters of a century the son never wavered in his reverence for the father, which is not to say that Jim didn’t recognize Otis’s flaws, chief among them gullibility. When the family arrived in Boulder there was no job waiting for Otis. Maybe the whole thing was just small talk in a Burlington bar, or a loud traveling tire salesman doing a little out of town bragging. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding on Otis’s part, or the job was filled before he managed to get to Boulder. What really happened doesn’t matter to this story. All that matters is that eight year-old Jim believed his father got hustled. It was a pattern that would repeat throughout the boy’s childhood. Jim saw his father as a man so honest that he couldn’t imagine someone lying to him, and as a result he believed that Otis was a mark for every con man who breezed through town.
If you trust people they will take advantage of you. Hold that thought.
Otis found work anyway, and the family rented a house in Boulder not too far away from the town’s elementary school. Jim played baseball with the neighborhood kids in the summer and sledded down the streets in the winter. On the last day of school each year the children got to take a ride on the stainless steel fire slide that spiraled from the third floor of the schoolhouse to the playground.
Boulder was nice, but it wasn’t home. Otis wanted to build his own place further up in the mountains, so he bought a piece of land near Evergreen, Colorado. The lot was on the side of a mountain, the angle too steep to build a house. Otis grabbed a shovel and started digging, his plan to flatten enough land for a small house. It was back-breaking work, and it didn’t take long before he hit rock–hustled again. The only option was to sell the lot and find another place.
Otis and Mable put a down payment on an Evergreen hunting cabin that had been expanded into a year-round home. The old cabin served as the house’s living room and dining room (and much later space for Otis’s large, ornately carved Taiwanese wet bar). Three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a single bathroom were added later. True to the small town’s name towering evergreens surrounded the little house, trees so tall and plentiful that when the wind rushed through their needles one might mistake the sound for falling water. It was the kind of place that you can still find in Colorado if you get far enough off of the interstate, but for the most part the Evergreen of the mid-1950s was the kind of town that only exists in our imaginations.
Yes, and the remainder of Jim’s childhood sounds like a figment of that same imagination: ice skating on Evergreen Lake, bicycling up and down the steep Rocky Mountain grades (a patrolman once clocked 14 year-old Jim doing 75 downhill on his Western Flyer), plinking cans and hunting small game with the .22 rifle his father gave him, fishing with Mable and hunting with Otis. Father and son would hike out into the back country in search of deer until late afternoon, when Otis would send Jim on a hunt for dinner while he set up camp. If the son didn’t come back with a rabbit, the two didn’t eat until they got back to the cabin they called home, where Mable always laid out a good spread.
“Town” was essentially a row of buildings along a two-lane road, and it was here that Mable rented a chair at the beauty shop and did her share to keep the family afloat. It was also home to the Round Up, Evergreen’s local bar and the center of Otis’s and Mable’s social life. They spent entire evenings at the Round Up drinking and socializing, occasionally giving their son nickels to play the bar’s pinball machine. Jim knew that the best way to make the most of his nickel was to score free games, so he became a highly skilled pinball player.
He made his own friends at the Round Up, too, specifically the man who changed the records in the jukebox every week. Jim managed to talk the fellow into selling him the used 45s for a dime apiece. This may have been the first of the thousands of deals he made over his lifetime of hustling rather than getting hustled.
Now, you may expect that a teenaged boy with access to jukebox castoffs in the mid to late 1950s would have loaded up on Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, et. al., and if that’s what you’re expecting here then you’ve clearly forgotten that Jim Stafford was rather unusual. His tastes ran toward the Ink Spots, Johnny Horton, Glenn Miller. As the 1960s dawned, his favorite song was Freddy Cannon’s cover of a ten year-old Red Foley hit.
Before we leave the ’50s, though, we need to look to the skies one more time, or at least to the console television resting in the corner of that Evergreen cabin that the Staffords called home. That’s where the young boy who loved Gene Autry and the kid who obsessed over machinery merged with the son rendered awestruck by the hero father who could fly an airplane. Sky King was a Saturday morning kid’s show (and occasional prime time series) featuring a cowboy who flew an airplane rather than riding a horse. Arizona rancher Schuyler “Sky” King and his niece, Penny, used their Flying Crown ranch as the base from which they solved crimes, fought bad guys, and rescued civilians in distress, none of which would’ve been possible if not for Songbird, King’s trusty steed. Songbird featured twin engines, tip tanks, and retractable landing gear–a private plane with features similar to those of the warbirds. Its manufacturer was Cessna, its model number 310. The little boy imagined himself soaring through the sky someday in his own 310.
We all have interests and passions, but Jim had obsessions. Once he latched onto a topic he could not stop until he knew everything he could about that subject. He read every book about airplanes that he could find. He built model after model. As soon as one was finished he hung it from his bedroom ceiling and began the next one. The other boys could name Superman’s villains, but Jim could tell you what engines were used in the P-51, how many kills Rickenbacker racked up during the first world war, why the F-86 was superior to the MiG-15. The guys may have had favorite actresses, but he had a favorite airliner, the Lockheed Constellation. He couldn’t wait to be old enough to join the Navy and become a fighter pilot.
When the 1960s kicked off, 15 year-old Jim Stafford had a plan, two favorite airplanes, and a favorite Freddy Cannon song. Otis drove his son down the mountain that year for the Denver Auto Show, and the teenager added a favorite car to his list: The new for 1961 Chrysler 300G, the fastest American car available for the next model year. What other car could possibly suit the future ace, with its 400 plus horsepower and its sharp fins slicing the air like the twin tails of a P-38?
And then Evergreen High School sophomore Jim Stafford added a new obsession to his list: a shy cheerleader with a big smile. Her name was Bonnie, and her premiere act of romantic bravery would radically change his plans.
Will 16 year-old Jim plunk down $5,400 for a brand new Chrysler 300G? Will Otis and Mable get home from the Round Up in time for Bonanza? Will Sky King rescue Penny and Clipper from the evil clutches of this week’s guest villain? Tune in next week for part 3 of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford.