Colorado mountain towns today are home to the rich, or at least the doing-better-than-average, while the poor scrape by in the cities (and the plains, but I’m getting ahead of myself). This is a relatively recent development, though. When Otis and Mable purchased their expanded hunting cabin in the 1950s, Evergreen was an affordable town for the lower to middle class. The wealthy resided 30 miles down the mountain in Denver.
But “rich” and “affordable” have always been relative terms. Drive ten miles past Evergreen circa 1960 and you’d hit Conifer, which wasn’t so much a town as a gas station, a one room schoolhouse, and a few tiny houses tucked away in the woods. This was home to Bonnie Jean’s family. Her father was a master carpenter who never finished the job but always polished off the bottle, so it was a horse race (gambling, another of Bill’s vices) whether the family’s home or bank account was in worse shape at any given moment. That was typical of Conifer families, though: Bonnie rode to her prom in a garbage-filled pickup truck, her date’s father dropping the couple off on his way to the dump.
Evergreen was home to the rich as far as Conifer’s residents were concerned. That’s a hard point to argue when one’s father is poaching deer just to keep the family fed, or a bit less dramatically when one must attend high school in the nearby town because one’s hometown is too small and too poor to build its own.
How tough it must have been for the painfully shy girl with the crippling case of low self esteem to arrive at Evergreen High School each morning and try to disappear among the well-dressed and beautiful young adults who parked their own cars right outside, but that’s what Bonnie wanted most: to vanish. Sometimes when she was a little girl she would go to the Saturday matinee, which during the ’50s was kid time at movie theaters. Before the cartoons, serials, and movies began, the theater owner would step to the stage and raffle off a prize–a doll, a game, nothing terribly valuable in the grand scheme of things but the sort of treasure that motivated kids to keep coming back week after week. The appearance of the theater manager on those mornings filled Bonnie with a dread bordering on panic. What if he called the number on her ticket stub? She would have to walk down the aisle alone, every eye in the theater watching, and stand in front of all of those children while a stranger talked to her. Unfortunately, she was as honest and rule abiding as she was shy. It never occurred to her to simply pretend that the number called did not belong to her, and so week after week little Bonnie sat quietly in her seat, silently praying to God to keep her number out of the theater manager’s mouth.
One of the most remarkable things about Bonnie–and there were many–was her tireless dedication to self-improvement, a compass bearing so innate and powerful that she remained unaware that she harbored such a motivation. Or maybe she couldn’t square such ambition with the ugly, stupid, worthless girl who her emotionally abusive, alcoholic father convinced her that she was. These two Bonnies battled it out over a lifetime, with the voice of her father almost always vibrating inside of her cells much more strongly than her own.
But not always.
On those rare occasions that Bonnie slew the mighty dragon in her head, she achieved the seemingly unachievable. The pathologically shy teenager became an Evergreen High cheerleader, for example. Ask Bonnie, though, and there was nothing brave or heroic about that. At best Evergreen was a small high school and everyone who went out for cheerleading made the squad. At worst it was all a big mistake. Regardless, she was right there on the sideline every Friday night, cheering on the school’s real heroes as they took to the gridiron.
Among them was a halfback with a perfectly straight flat top and cockily crooked smile. He drove a ’57 Nash and knew all of the popular kids. She wanted to talk to him, but emotional scars run deep. What would a handsome, popular football player want with a stupid, ugly nobody?
Whether it was an impulsive move born of desperation or a planned dragon slaying we’ll never know, but one afternoon Bonnie committed her first act of romantic bravery. As the handsome young man with the cocky smile passed her in the hallway between classes, she stopped him and said, “Hey, good looking, when are you taking me to see Ben-Hur?”
Jim Stafford had dated plenty, but remember that he was a boy rich in things but poor in affection. His parents were not demonstrative, which is preferable to being emotionally abusive but still leaves its marks. Bonnie had fired an arrow directly where he was most vulnerable. Of course he’d take her to see Ben-Hur. He’d take her anywhere, everywhere.
For months the two remained inseparable: bowling, miniature golf, movies. Bonnie kept every score card and theater ticket, each one annotated with dates and accompanying notes and taped sequentially onto her scrapbook’s blank pages. Gentleman Jim clearly let his date pick the movie most of the time, but not always. Read across a line of her scrapbook and you might find ticket stubs for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Splendor in the Grass followed by Creature from the Haunted Sea. She called him Jamie. No one had ever called him Jamie. The poor girl from Conifer couldn’t give him things but she could give him love, which is what he wanted most.
Bonnie’s father did not like the boy, did not think he was good enough for his daughter. Jim didn’t like Bill, either, particularly the way that he treated Bonnie, but the teenager greatly admired the man’s carpentry skills. Along with his already advanced mechanical skills Jim was becoming a pretty good woodworker, but Bill was a true master. Watching Bonnie’s father drink away his natural talent disgusted Jim almost as much as the abuse the old man heaped upon his family.
Months passed while the two teenagers held hands between classes, kissed in photo booths, and puttered from date to date in Jim’s Nash Ambassador. The car was hardly the ’61 Chrysler 300 that he coveted but it had its advantages: It was his, it was reliable, and the seats folded into a bed. Whether the couple ever took advantage of the latter feature remains pure conjecture, but by the end of the summer of 1961 the two kids were speeding westward in the Nash, on their way to Reno to get married.
They arrived in Nevada only to discover that even in a state where prostitution and gambling were legal underage marriage without parental consent was not. Jim called home, negotiating with the two families as if they were involved in a hostage crisis rather than an elopement: Sign the consent forms or we won’t come home.
The parents reluctantly agreed and on September 16, 1961, the two sixteen year-old Evergreen High dropouts became Mr. and Mrs. Jim and Bonnie Stafford. Eight months later, the seventeen year-old Staffords added “Mom” and “Dad” to their growing list of new monikers. There would be no sixties for them, at least not the sixties portrayed in pop culture. They would not enter the decade American Graffitti-style, nor would they exit Woodstock-style; no “Beatles on Sullivan” moments, no protest marches, no searches for meaning or identity. The meaning of life was simple: Take care of your family.
The Staffords rented a room in an old Denver mansion converted into apartments. Bonnie stayed home with the baby and Jim went out and hustled up work. The world always needs ditch diggers, or so the old cliche goes, so Jim dug ditches. That job resulted in one of two lives he overtly saved during his lifetime. When a ditch caved in on a co-worker, the young father leaped onto the fresh dirt and dug the man out with his bare hands. (The other save came 15 years later when he resuscitated a drowned neighbor boy.) He also worked at the Rickenbaugh Cadillac dealership in downtown Denver, washing the new cars and moving them around the lot.
Eventually he got on at Montgomery Ward, a retailer that at the time rivaled Sears. They stuck him in the garden center, dragging around the barbecues, patio umbrellas, and other items too heavy for customers to haul to their cars. Now and then someone would bring in a lawnmower that was having trouble. His job was to write the customer a service ticket then wheel the mower back to the shop for repairs, but that seemed like a waste of time and money when he could just fix the machine and send the customer on his way.
It didn’t take long for management to notice that their mower repair revenue had taken a dive, but rather than fire the kid they promoted him. Jim was now getting paid for the thing he most loved to do ever since he was a little boy in Burlington, Iowa: taking things apart and putting them back together. Wards started him out on small engines since he was fixing them anyway, then moved him up to outboard boat motors. Whatever they threw at him he fixed.
Less than two years after their first child arrived, the couple were expecting another baby. If money was tight before it was going to be suffocating soon. Jim took the high school equivalency exam and enrolled in correspondence courses for television and radio repair. His bosses noticed. The former ditch digger was promoted once again, this time to appliance repairman: smart uniform, work van filled with propane torches, pipe cutters, soldering guns, vacuum tubes, tube testers, hand tools, voltmeters, refrigerant, common parts, and uncommon gauges. Navy fighter pilot may have been his dream job but this ran a close second, demonstrating yet again that Jim Stafford was one rather unusual character.
Will Jim trade his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot to pilot a repair van? Will Bonnie overcome her shyness and win big prizes on Queen For A Day? And what of the Stafford children? Will they grow into a powerhouse band rivaling the Jacksons, the Osmonds, and the Brady Kids? Tune in next week for part four of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford!