One thing I’ve learned from genealogy is that information about your ancestors is nearly always alarmingly scant. I knew three of my four grandparents and had family stories about the grandpa who died before I was born. But before that, information is scarce. I know very little about my great-grandparents and even less as you go back in time up the family tree. Often I’ve wished my ancestors would have written something, anything about their lives All of this has convinced me there might be some value in recording the events of my life. So I’m posting, in installments, my story. I don’t know how much interest there will be. I’m posting it on the chance it might be valuable to someone, sometime.
This is a true story, or at least it’s supposed to be. I’ve tried to be accurate, but many of the events happened so long ago that the memories are shrouded by age and memory loss. And memory is also very selective, so there is much more I don’t remember than I do. Some of what I tell is just guesswork or my opinion, and the people I write about might have a very different accounting of the same events. I have also chosen to be selective and not to share some memories about myself and others. Still, I think it’s worth preserving the stories from my life, from my point of view because there may be someone, sometime in the future who finds this helpful.
1. Harry Truman 1945-1952
Harry Truman was President when I was born, but he’d only been in office about six months. It was 1945. I was already growing inside my mother when FDR died in April, and when WWII ended in August we moved to Arkansas where I was born the last day of November.
Dad was from Oklahoma, mom from Arkansas. They met at Boeing Aircraft in
Wichita where they built B-29 bombers. Maybe you remember those wartime images of Rosie the Riveter. My mom, Velma Irene Brock Pruitt was one of those riveters. I think she probably went to work at Boeing in 1943, the year she graduated from high school in Paris, Arkansas. She was 21 when she graduated from high school because she and her sisters and brother had to work on the family farm and missed so much school, it was difficult to graduate. Among her four older sisters and one younger brother, Irene was the only one to finish high school.
Irene Brock grew up on a successful farm in the Arkansas River Valley, off highway 22 at New Blaine. Her father Arthur had five daughters in a row born before a boy came along. The girls were farm labor. Irene had never been far from home before she left her home valley to go to work in Wichita.
Before Wichita, I doubt she’d ever been more than a hundred miles from home, and the biggest town she’d ever seen was probably Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1943, she went from being a high school student to living in a bustling wartime city and making good money. It think it was a happy time for her. She was going to the movies (her favorite actor was Ronald Coleman), shopping , riding bikes, and making new friends. But her whirl of big city lights and fun only lasted about two years.
Sometime in 1943 or 1944, she began dating my dad.. Claude Reo Pruitt, came down a harder road. He grew up in abject poverty on a series of sharecropper farms in the
Arkansas River bottoms near Spiro, Oklahoma. His father Sid liked to drink and gamble, often leaving his family hungry. Claude dropped out of school after the eighth grade. When he was only 15 or 16 he was riding freight trains to West Texas with his brother Elmer to pick cotton. Claude would have been 16 when the great depression hit in 1929. He told stories of riding freights with hundreds of people on board during the height of the depression.
By 29, he’d been around. He’d been part of the famous Okie exodus to California where he found work in the fields and then as a gardener and saved enough to buy his first car and drive it home to Oklahoma. Before that he’d been with the Civilian Conservation Corps first in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma, and later in Douglas Wyoming, where he suffered a severe back injury when he was carrying a log and his foot slipped. He was in the hospital for an extended stay and ended up with a curved spine that made him hunch forward.
After the U.S. got into World War II, Claude got a job as a welder at Spartan Aircraft in Tulsa. He lived with his brother Elmer and Elmer’s wife Viola in Dawson, a small town near the airport that was annexed into Tulsa. He was making thirty dollars a week, which was so much money to him at the time, that he said he remembered thinking he’d be happy if he could just make that much for the rest of his life. But Boeing offered to pay him even more if he’d come to Wichita and build bombers.
The romance between my mom and dad bloomed in Wichita and I think it must have been
a glorious time for both of them. They both had money, a stirring new romance and the entertainments the city provides. Coming off an Arkansas farm, my mother must have been dazzled by big city life. After the hardships and struggles my father had endured for decades, it had to feel good to have money and a steady girlfriend. It may have been the happiest time of their lives, but their happiness would begin to fade before they left Wichita.
The first complication was when mom realized she was pregnant early in 1945. At the time, there was a stigma against having sex before marriage, and getting pregnant was even worse. When Irene’s mother found out her youngest daughter had been seduced, she unleashed her anger on Claude. Of course, they had to get married right away, and did so in May 1945. But the embarrassment surrounding their marriage probably took a toll on the romance.
There was something else that was damaging. Sometime early in their courtship, mom had asked dad how old he was and he’d said he was a couple of years older than she was. Actually he was eight years older. But when they went to get the marriage license, they had to give their birth dates and dad’s deception was revealed. He tried lamely to say, well, I am a couple of years older, and a few more besides. Mom was 23 and dad was 31 when they married. It wasn’t a good time to be caught in a lie by your pregnant bride-to-be. I think Irene was angry she’d been deceived, to her way of thinking, not once, but twice. For mom, it must have been a bitter, disillusioning moment. I’m not sure their romance ever fully recovered. Mom was in her eighties and dad had been dead for fifteen years before she finally shared the story of dad’s lie about his age back in Wichita. They remained married for 45 years, until dad died in a nursing home in 1990, but more heartbreak came along the way.
When the war ended early in August 1945, Claude and Irene were immediately laid off by Boeing. They decided to move back to Irene’s home valley in Arkansas and start farming, and the fact that a baby would be arriving in four months may have contributed to their decision to move to the area where mom’s family lived. They found and settled on a small piece of land near her family home place. The house they moved into had no electricity or running water. It was to this house they brought me home when I was born in the Paris hospital at the end of November.
Dad made a cotton crop in 1946 and sold it in the fall for a few hundred dollars. It must
have been hard to adjust to farm life and a drastically reduced income after the big bucks in Wichita. By late in 1946, mom was pregnant again.
In the winter of 1946-47, dad worked as a logger with mom’s brother Lindell. Except for farming, timber work was just about all that was available around there at that time. Had dad kept the logging job, he and mom might never have moved away from Arkansas, but mom’s sister’s husband complained about dad getting to work with Lindell. Dad was an outsider. It didn’t seem fair for him to get the job. Lindell relented, fired dad, and hired the other brother-in-law. The family squabble was probably a big factor in mom and dad’s determining to quit farming and move to Tulsa.
In late May 1947, Patricia was born. It may have been that my mom and dad waited until the baby was born, and soon after moved to Tulsa. Dad’s family, including his mom and dad, his brothers Elmer and Luther and his sisters all had moved to Tulsa by then and dad knew Tulsa from the time he had been a welder for Spartan Aviation. Undoubtedly, he was drawn back to the big city by the prospects of gainful employment. He soon found work with his brother Luther as a floor sander, the profession he would follow for the next 16 years.
But in May 1948, Patricia died. Dad and mom were visiting back in Arkansas when she
became ill. At the hospital in Paris she had surgery for a twisted bowel but didn’t survive. She was 20 days from her first birthday. She was buried in the McReynolds Cemetery in Harkey’s Valley near New Blaine. It had to have been horrific for mom and dad and I think it hung over our family like a dark cloud for many years.
We lived in a series of rent houses in Dawson, and I think I was probably two when we moved to Tulsa, so I have no memory of the first places we lived. Maybe the first house I do remember was on Erie Street between Tecumseh and the Frisco tracks. We had a Chow dog named Tramp and mom had a chenille bedspread with a big peacock on it. I don’t remember much besides that.
I remember one other house, though I doubt I could locate it now. It think it was on Apache west of Sheridan. Dad’s nephew Charles Pruitt and mom’s cousin Bill Adams both lived with us at that house. I have two memories of our time there. The first one is on the Fourth of July in maybe 1949 or 1950. Mom’s sister Imogene had come by the house that day with her husband Wallace Lane and her three kids, Sharon, Dwayne and Mike. The Lane boys decided it would be fun to fill the gas tank on dad’s car using the garden hose. After they left, dad somehow suspected what had happened and questioned me about it and I told him what had happened. We were supposed to go see the fireworks at the fairgrounds that night, but instead, dad, Charles and Bill spent the evening taking off the gas tank and dumping it out.
The other memory was a time when mom and I were alone at the house and a hobo came to the door. Mom didn’t answer his knock. Instead she took me into the bathroom where we hid until he left. I think I retained the memory because I sensed my mother’s fear and it was disturbing.
Probably in 1950 or 1951, we moved out onto the prairie east of Tulsa to 13920 E. Apache. Dad bought six acres and a squatty little house from one of his brothers. Living on the prairie six miles out of town was a different world. We had to haul in our water. The phone was a party line. The bathroom was an outhouse. And the rolling treeless prairie was big and open. The sky was huge and we would lay out in the yard on summer evenings and watch the stars come out, and after dark we’d see shooting stars. Dad loved living in the country and got chickens, pigs, calves and a horse . Though she’d grown up in the country, mom didn’t like living out. She wanted to live in town and it was a conflict between mom and dad that went back and forth for years.
In the fall of 1950, I started kindergarten at East Central School. To get me there, mom
learned to drive and got her license and I guess dad somehow bought a car for her to drive, though I don’t remember it. I don’t have many memories from 1950. I remember one night mom and dad argued over something and dad got in his truck and left, but he came back after a while. I remember mom and dad playing pitch at the kitchen table with the Killions, who lived next acreage east. The Killions had a daughter named Linda who was just about my age and we played together sometimes.