August 1, 2016 22 min to read

Chapter 1: Aunt Minnie’s Hat

Category : When They Went West

August 1950. The Steele Family were as excited as a dog with a brand new bone. And no wonder: they were preparing to escape their ho-hum home in the Heartland to drive all the way to the golden coast of California, to Hollywood itself where the movie stars lived. The Steeles were going on vacation. And for two whole weeks, at that. Hot dog! No wonder they were so excited and happy you might have thought their destination was heaven, not Hollywood.

There they all were in their brand new, pea-green Dodge, rarin’ to go. They’d been up before the sun, doing last-minute packing, determined to be on the road with the first light of day. And here it came; the daily dawn heralded, as always, by the sun’s peeping over the horizon like a shy child uncertain of its reception. It was still dewy damp and cool outside but that first ray of light promised another August scorcher. Time to get out of town.

Uncle Bud, mother’s crew-cut younger brother, was in the driver’s seat. Everybody said he looked like Tyrone Power, the famous movie star. Uncle Bud bragged that when they got to Hollywood, he’d track down his celebrated look-alike; they’d get their picture taken together and it’d be published in all the newspapers and Uncle Bud’d be as famous as Mr. Power. There he sat (Uncle Bud, not Tyrone Power), tapping the steering wheel like a bongo drum and singing “California, here we come.” He paused only long enough to press the starter; the car coughed to life, and off they went down Wheatland Avenue, headed west.

Who else was in the car? Well, Mother was the pretty blonde sitting in the middle of the front seat and singing along with Uncle Bud. And that was Grandpa next to her by the window. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad (the “P.R.R.,” he called it) and sometimes he’d stick his head out of the car like a train engineer inspecting the track ahead.

Grandma was sitting in the back seat directly behind Uncle Bud so she could help him drive. Next to her sat her identical twin sister, Aunt Clara. Large, comfortable-looking women, they had laps as soft as sofas and elbows with dimples like smiles. They sat arm in arm and took turns fanning each other. Next to Aunt Clara, sitting straight and stiff as laundry starch, was Aunt Minnie, Grandma and Aunt Clara’s older sister. She was wearing a black dress and coat even though it was the middle of August and it’d soon be hotter than a boiled owl. She had a frown on her face and on her head was a black straw hat with a red cloth rose sewn to the band.

Grandpa was wearing a straw hat, too. Only his wasn’t black and it didn’t have a flower, either, just a jaunty feather stuck in its cheerful, red band.

Grandma and Aunt Clara talked all the time and laughed and laughed. But Aunt Minnie sat like someone sworn to silence and never once cracked a smile.

“I swear, Minnie,” Grandpa teased, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to hold it down. All that loud talking of yours is commencing to give me a headache.”

Uncle Bud snorted a laugh. Aunt Minnie said, “I’ll talk when I have something worth saying, Willard.” And she shot a look at Grandma and Aunt Clara.

The three big women filled up the back seat so eight-year-old Buddy had to sit on a stool in the space between them and the front seat. He hooked his arms over the back of the front seat and leaned forward to count the oncoming cars he saw through the windshield.

“Stop breathing on the back of my neck, Buddy,” Uncle Bud grouched. “Your breath’s hotter than a cast iron stove.”

“I’m bored,” Buddy whined. “There’s nothing to do.”

“Well, if you promise to be careful, you can look at my new camera,” Uncle Bud told him.

“Really?” Buddy said. “Oh, boy.”

“I’m going to take lots of pictures of our trip,” Uncle Bud explained, turning around to hand his nephew the camera, an expensive one with an unpronounceable German name, “and then I’ll sell them to “Life” magazine and make a mint.”

“Why on earth would “Life” magazine want a bunch of pictures of us?” Grandma demanded, adding “And keep your eyes on the road, please.”

“They won’t be just ‘a bunch of pictures,’ Ma,” Uncle Bud explained, sounding wounded, “They’ll be a photo essay; I plan to call it ‘The Odyssey of an American Family.’”

“Hmpf,” Grandma, the skeptic, replied. “Me, I’d rather listen to ‘One Man’s Family’ on the radio, thank you very much.”

Uncle Bud pretended not to hear her. Meanwhile Buddy was now studying Aunt Clara through the camera’s view finder, watching her resting her eyes. That meant her head was back, her mouth was open and she was snoring.

“I’ve got dibs on half the flies Clara catches,” Grandpa said, winking at Buddy.

Uncle Bud snorted another laugh.

“I’m hungry,” Buddy whined. He whined a lot when he was eight. He knew he did and he wasn’t proud of it but there you are. After all, he was small for his age and he acted a lot younger, too. Uncle Bud called him a “baby” sometimes. That always burned the boy’s behind.

“I’m hungry,” he whined again.

“Out of the mouths of babes,” Grandpa said. “I agree with the boy. It must be time to tie on the old feedbag. What do you say, Mother?”

Before Grandma could answer, Aunt Clara’s eyes snapped open. “Now you’re talking,” she said. “I swear, my poor guts have been growling for the last half hour.”

“Is that what that noise was!” Uncle Bud, the comedian, exclaimed. “Dumb me! Here I thought there was something wrong with the engine.”

Aunt Clara leaned forward to swat the back of his head, but Uncle Bud ducked and then pulled over at the next rest stop. Grandma and Aunt Clara unpacked the picnic lunch they had brought and then they all tied on the old feedbag, even Aunt Minnie, though all she ate was a piece of bread and butter and a dill pickle.

“That pickle’ll sweeten you up, Minnie,” Grandpa winked.

“Hush, Bill,” Grandma frowned.

“You’re a regular riot, Willard,” Aunt Minnie observed.

To keep the peace Mother started to sing the family’s favorite song “Down in the Valley, Valley’s so low” and everybody but Aunt Minnie chimed in. They climbed back into the car, then, and celebrated the valley so low with their singing all the way across Illinois and Missouri, too. Then it was evening and they stopped on the banks of the Missouri River at the Traveler’s Rest Motor Court. Aunt Minnie had something to say about that all right.

“I can’t believe how much it costs to stay in one of these crummy dumps. I declare, it’s highway robbery.”

“Traveling is expensive, Minnie, that’s why we only do it once a year,” Grandma explained.

“Well, I’m glad you’re made of money, Mrs. Astorbilt,” the older sister snorted, taking off her coat and hat. She hung the coat in the closet and started to put the hat on the dresser. But then she stopped.

“Ollie gave me this hat,” she said softly and flicked a few specks of imaginary dust off it.

Grandma squeezed her hand. Aunt Minnie’s husband, Uncle Ollie, had died the year before and everybody missed him. He had been a tall fat man with a red face and a laugh as big as his belly. He had farmed forty acres in north central Indiana and he and Aunt Minnie hadn’t had much else except each other and their mule, Stubborn. Their yellow farm house hadn’t even had running water, just a pump in the kitchen sink, an outhouse in the back, and a chamber pot under the bed. “All the comforts of home,” Uncle Ollie had said, wheezing with laughter. “Even got a new Sears Roebuck catalog out back in the necessary.”

While Grandma and Aunt Clara comforted their grieving sister, Buddy went outside and played croquet with Mother and Grandpa while Uncle Bud took their picture.

Next morning they were up before the sun again and all day long they followed U. S. 24 West across flat, dusty Kansas. It was as boring as a Sunday sermon. Until noon, that is, when Grandma and Aunt Clara ordered Uncle Bud to tune the radio to their favorite soap operas and all he could find was static. Things got pretty lively then until, finally, Uncle Bud switched off the radio, grumbling, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Ma, stop griping; I’m not Mandrake the Magician; I can’t snap my fingers and make your stories appear out of thin air.”

Well, Grandma and Aunt Clara weren’t very happy with that explanation and so they decided to suffer in a silence louder than a boiler factory. This ‘silence’ went on for a looong time until, finally, “By golly, it must be illegal to have this much fun,” Grandpa said and stifled a huge pretend yawn.

Everybody laughed at that and perked up, because just then a freight train began to overtake them on the tracks that paralleled the highway. The engineer sounded his whistle when Grandpa leaned out the window and waved. They all cheered and Uncle Bud stepped on the gas.

“Bet I can beat him,” he said, bending over the steering wheel like a race car driver.

“Hold ‘er, Barney Oldfield,” Grandma warned. “This isn’t the Indianapolis 500.”

Mother began counting freight cars out loud as the train glided by, as long and narrow as a snake on wheels. When the caboose finally overtook them, eighty-seven cars later, Uncle Bud tooted the car horn and a lone brakeman, standing on the platform at the back of that last car, took his hat off and waved it around his head until he disappeared into the distance.

“I bet you wish you were on that caboose with him, Pop,” Uncle Bud said.

“I’ll bet I don’t,” Grandpa replied, “I’m on vacation, remember? Mother, pass that tin of cookies up here.”

Late in the afternoon after they had crossed the state line into Colorado, Uncle Bud said, “Look sharp, everybody. First one to spot the mountains gets a prize.”

“What’s the prize?” Grandpa asked.

“They get their picture took by me,” Uncle Bud said.

“Oh, hotsy-totsy,” Grandpa said without much enthusiasm.

“I see them!” Buddy shouted. “I see them!”

“Not so loud, Buddy,” Mother said. “You’ll deafen us.”

“What say?” Uncle Bud shouted, cupping a hand behind his ear. And then he laughed and laughed.

“Watch where you’re driving, Mr. Comedian,” Grandma said tartly, “or you’ll have us in the ditch.”

“And then we’ll be in dutch,” Aunt Clara added, twinkling at her own wit.

At first they looked like lumpy, purple clouds low on the horizon. But they were mountains, all right. The Rocky Mountains. And Buddy was the one who saw them first.

The family stopped at the side of the road somewhere west of Limon, Colorado, and Uncle Bud took Buddy’s picture. He posed the boy pointing at the mountains with one hand and shading his eyes with the other. Uncle Bud said Buddy was supposed to look like a pioneer but the boy didn’t think he did; instead, he thought he looked pretty sappy.

“‘Buddy spies the Rockies’,” Uncle Bud said. “That’s the caption I’ll put under the picture. Life magazine will love it.”

“Uh-huh,” Grandpa said and rolled his eyes.

That night the Steeles stayed in Colorado Springs.

Mother sniffed the air. “Smell the pine trees, everybody?” she asked. Buddy did and marveled at how an odor could make you feel so happy.

Their motor court was at the foot of a famous fourteen thousand-foot mountain called ‘Pike’s Peak.’ Grandpa called it “Piker’s Peak,” though, and said he guessed he’d get up a little early the next day and take a stroll to the top of that sucker. In reply Grandma sang a verse from her favorite song. The one that ended “I never knew a railroad man who wouldn’t tell his wife a lie.”

Grandpa winked at Buddy and kissed Grandma on the cheek.

“Hold it,” Uncle Bud said. “I think you’re gonna like this picture.”

And he took one.

The next morning they drove west over their first mountain pass. It was like going to the sun. Uncle Bud pretended he was going to drive off the cliff.

“Stop that, Bud,” Grandma scolded, “You’ll give me a heart attack.”

Mother sang a bar from “Down in the Valley” and Uncle Bud said “WAY down” and tried to laugh like Raymond on “The Inner Sanctum,” mother’s favorite creepy radio show.

At the top they stopped to look at the view.

“Go over to the edge, Ma,” Uncle Bud told Grandma, “and pretend you’re going to dive off. That’ll make a good picture.”

“No thank you,” Grandma said.

“I’ll do it,” Buddy eagerly volunteered.

“Oh, no you won’t,” Mother said, grabbing the back of his shirt.

“You guys are no fun at all,” Uncle Bud grumbled.

So he made the family line up for a group picture instead.

“Smile for the birdy,” he said. “You, too, Aunt Minnie. You look like the great stone face.”

“Foolishness,” Aunt Minnie said. And frowned.

Uncle Bud snapped the picture anyway.

It took them two more days of mostly desert driving to reach California. At the Nevada-California state line they actually stopped and rested until night time before driving across the Mojave Desert, since Uncle Bud claimed the road would be so hot in the daylight that the tires might explode.

“Oh, boy!” Buddy said, hugging himself in excitement at the very prospect.

“It’s already as hot as a blast furnace in this car,” Grandpa complained, fanning himself with his straw hat. Aunt Minnie still had her coat on.

“For heaven’s sake, Minnie,” Grandma scolded. “Take that coat off. I don’t think anybody’s going to run after us and to steal it while we’re driving fifty miles an hour.”

“You can’t be too careful,” Aunt Minnie said. And that was that. For, as Grandpa was fond of saying, “When Min’s made up her mind, you couldn’t change it with a truckload of TNT!”

The next day they drove through cactus-dotted desert country while Buddy imagined they were pioneers wending their way west in an ox cart instead of a brand new, pea green Dodge. Well, the desert seemed to stretch on forever but didn’t, for before long they were driving through endless lush orange groves and past truck farms and scrubby mountains and then, finally, they were in Hollywood. Hooray! There were palm trees lining the boulevards, too tall and skinny to be real trees but Buddy guessed they were, even though Grandpa said everything in Hollywood was fake. And maybe he was right, because they also saw a brown derby that was really a restaurant and a giant hot dog that was actually – what else? – a hot dog stand. Then Uncle Bud bought a map and they drove around looking at movie stars’ homes. At least the map said they were movie stars’ homes. And it was fun to think that any minute you might see Jimmy Stewart or Greer Garson or Ronald Colman or Jack Benny, coming outside in their bathrobes to bring in the mail or the papers. If they did, Grandpa said, they should stop and ask themselves in for a cup of coffee and a chat.

“Oh, Dad,” Mother said. And Grandpa grinned.

After they had driven around sight-seeing, they took in a movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and afterwards looked at all the hand- and footprints of the stars in the cement courtyard. Buddy, shivering in star-struck excitement, stood in Roy Rogers’ boot prints while Uncle Bud took his picture.

“That Rogers fella is a drugstore cowboy,” Grandpa sniffed.

But Buddy didn’t care. He felt like a real western hero standing there in Roy’s boot prints. And it got even better when, down the street, they discovered a stuffed bucking bronco, and Uncle Bud lifted Buddy up onto its back.

“Yahoo,” the boy yelled, digging his heels into its side, “Ride ‘im, cowboy.”

“Hold ‘er, Newt, she’s a’rarin’,” Grandpa grinned.

“Sit still or you’ll spoil my picture.” You can guess who said that.

Then it was time for a walk around Hollywood. And that’s when the trouble started.

Grandma and Aunt Clara went shopping for souvenirs and dragged Aunt Minnie along with them. Grandpa found a lunch counter and stopped for a cup of coffee (he called it “java” and said it would put hair on your chest). Uncle Bud went looking for Tyrone Power so he could take his picture.

And that left just Mother and Buddy.

“Look,” Buddy shouted. “Look.”

They were standing in front of a store called “Phil’s Western Finery. Duds for Dudes and Cowpokes, too.”

“I’ll bet Roy Rogers shops here,” Buddy said, so excited he almost wet his pants. “Can we go inside? Please, please, oh, please.”

“Oh, all right,” Mother said. “But we’re just browsing, remember.”

Ten minutes later they came back out. Buddy’s Buster Brown saddle shoes were now in a shopping bag. On his feet instead was a pair of brand new cowboy boots made of tooled leather. And on his head was a brand new, good-guy white cowboy hat.

“Wow,” Uncle Bud whistled when they caught up with the others. “It’s Roy Rogers. Can I have your autograph, Roy?”

“Take my picture,” Buddy ordered.

“My stars,” Grandma said, “how much did that rig cost?”

“It wasn’t cheap,” Mother frowned. “But he had to have it.” She jerked her head at her son.

Aunt Clara tut-tutted but Aunt Minnie – well, she hit the ceiling. “What foolishness is this?” she demanded, her face like a thunderstorm.

“Virginia,” she ordered Mother. “You return that stuff right now and get your money back.”

“Mom,” Buddy whined, afraid she might.

“Well,” Mother wavered.

“Mom,” Buddy whined again, sounding like a mosquito hungry not for blood but reassurance. But he wasn’t really a mosquito, just an eight-year-old boy and Aunt Minnie was on to him all right. “You’ve spoiled that child rotten,” she stormed.

Well, that made Mother mad. “I don’t need to be told how to raise my son, thank you very much,” she snapped.

“Yes, Min,” Grandpa said, his face suddenly as red as an angry sunburn. “Mind your own business for once.”

Soon everybody was shouting at everybody else. It was awful and it was all Aunt Minnie’s fault.

“I hate you!” Buddy yelled at her. “You’re mean.” His face felt like it was on fire.

Everyone got quiet all of a sudden.

“Oh, Buddy,” Grandma said. She sounded like he had just said a swear in church.

“I don’t care,” he shouted, trembling with anger. “She is mean.”

He started to cry then and ran away. He wanted to run all the way home, back to Indiana, but he didn’t know where that was or how to get there. So he sat down under a scrawny palm tree instead and cried his eyes out.

Mother soon found him there, sat down next to him and put an arm around him.

“You don’t really hate Aunt Minnie, do you?”

“Yes,” he wailed.

Mother hugged him and quietly said, “No you don’t. You’re just angry and upset.”

Buddy felt Mother’s warm arm around him and knew she was right.

“Ok, I don’t hate her,” he sniffed. “But why does she always have to spoil everything?”

“Well,” Mother said, “maybe she’s been unhappy since Uncle Ollie died. That’s why Grandma and Grandpa invited her to come along; they hoped this trip might cheer her up.”

“Well, it hasn’t,” Buddy said with a scowl.

“No,” Mother sighed, “I guess it hasn’t. Come on back now and apologize to her.”

So he did, even though he dragged his feet the whole way. When they got back to the family, he looked down at Aunt Minnie’s sturdy, sensible shoes and told her he was sorry. But he didn’t mean it. And he thought she knew it.

He didn’t wear his new boots or his new hat the next day. Or even the day after that. Nobody said anything but he saw them all looking at his old saddle shoes and his bare head.

The trip wasn’t any fun after that. Nobody talked much and Aunt Minnie didn’t say anything at all. Two days later they started home. It was hot and close and gloomy and everybody was really crabby. Uncle Bud snapped a picture of Aunt Clara spilling half a chocolate sundae down her bosom.

“You stop that, Bud,” Aunt Clara scolded.

“Candid pictures are the most interesting,” Uncle Bud protested.

“I’ll candid you if you dare do that again, Mr. Hot Shot,” Aunt Clara grumbled, mopping at her sun dress with a hanky.

“You’re just spreading the stain around, Clara,” Grandma said. “You need to use cold water. Get some out of the thermos.”

“I just drank the last of it,” Grandpa said. “I swear, it’s cooler than this in the cab of a steam locomotive.”

Mother started to sing “Down in the valley” but no one sang along and she stopped.

A day later they came to the Grand Canyon.

“Oh, don’t stop, Bud,” Grandma said, fanning herself. “It’s too hot and who wants to see a big hole in the ground anyway?”

“Excuse me, I didn’t drive 2,000 miles to miss the Grand Canyon, thank you very much,” Uncle Bud said firmly. “And besides I want to get some pictures.”

“You and your pictures,” Aunt Clara grumbled.

“Everybody out,” Uncle Bud ordered, pulling into a parking place.

“I suppose we might as well take a look,” Grandma sighed. “C’mon, Clara. C’mon, Minnie.”

Uncle Bud and Grandpa helped them out of the car.

But Buddy got out first.

“Those look like thunderheads,” Grandpa said, pointing at the clouds piled up over the canyon. They looked as big as the Rocky Mountains.

“Weather’s changing,” Uncle Bud said. “Feel that cool breeze?”

“Breeze nothing,” Mother said. “That’s a storm coming.”

A bolt of lightning as jagged as teeth on a rip saw split the clouds.

“Hold onto your hats,” Uncle Bud said. “It’s going to storm.”

But it was too late.

“Oh,” Aunt Minnie cried.

The wind had ripped her hat off.

“Oh,” Aunt Minnie cried again. “Catch it, someone.”

Uncle Bud and Grandpa leaped for it, but the howling wind carried it out of their reach. The last the Steeles saw of it, Aunt Minnie’s hat was flying across the Grand Canyon like a bird in a great big hurry.

“Oh, oh, oh,” Aunt Minnie wailed. “Ollie gave me that hat for my birthday the year he died.” She started to cry, the tears chasing each other down her wrinkled cheeks. “Oh, Ollie, why did you leave me? I miss you so.”

Grandma and Aunt Clara tried to hug her but Aunt Minnie shook them off. She stood alone at the rim of the Grand Canyon and cried and cried while everybody stood around looking down at the ground and feeling terrible because they didn’t know what to do.

Everybody except Buddy, that is. He knew what he had to do. When no one was looking, he ran back to the car, found what he was looking for on the back seat and, holding it tight so the wind wouldn’t blow it away, ran back to his family. Aunt Minnie was still crying as if she would never stop.

“Aunt Minnie,” Buddy said softly, slipping his hand into hers. “Please don’t cry. Here.”

And when she looked down at him, he handed her what he had gotten from the car. It was his new white cowboy hat.

“I’m sorry about Uncle Ollie,” he said. “I miss him, too.”

Aunt Minnie still looked sad but surprised now, too. She looked at Buddy. And then at the hat. And then back at the boy.

“I’m sorry about what I said, too,” he told her. “I don’t really hate you.”

And this time he meant it.

“Why, bless your heart, I know you don’t,” Aunt Minnie said, patting his cheek with one of her warm, wrinkled hands. She stopped crying then and gave him a smile that was like a Christmas present.

“Does anyone have a handkerchief?” she sniffed.

Grandpa handed her his. She wiped her eyes dry.

“I don’t want to get this nice hat all wet,” Aunt Minnie said. And then she put it on.

Uncle Bud cheered, and everybody else sighed in relief. The storm was moving away, now, and the air was cool and fresh as a mountain meadow.

“He’s got a pair of fancy boots to go with that hat, Minnie,” Grandpa grinned.

“I’m afraid they’d be a wee bit small for my big old farm wife feet,” Aunt Minnie said. “And besides, I suspicion Buddy’ll want to wear them himself tomorrow.”

She hugged him as she said it and Uncle Bud took a picture of the embrace.   The clouds started to break up and they all watched the sun set over the Grand Canyon.

“Look at those colors,” Grandpa said.

“Pretty as a picture,” Uncle Bud said. The camera shutter clicked as he took yet another one. Then they all piled into the car and headed for home. Aunt Minnie no longer held her purse on her lap. Instead she carefully held Buddy’s white hat. The boy was tired and Grandma put a blanket down so he could lie on the floor of the car to take a nap.

Mother started to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and everybody sang along.

Aunt Minnie leaned down and smoothed Buddy’s white-blonde hair with her warm hand. Then – a pleasant surprise — she sang along, too.

And Buddy felt snug and safe and happy and knew in his heart that the world was good and that he’d never forget the time they went West.

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