Friday, September 6, 2013

Celebrating Life: An Aunt's Funeral

By Ken Neal
Tulsa World
May 4, 2003
      I dreaded going to my aunt’s funeral recently, but I shouldn’t have.
  It was a marvelous experience. Not to say that I was happy. It was bittersweet. I had known her since she married into my family more than 60 years ago.
      The funeral at Sapulpa’s First Assembly of God was a classic. It was a down-home, heart-tugging gathering of an extended family. I am tempted to label it Oklahoma, but I suspect it is repeated all over the nation every day.
     The patriarch of the family, my uncle, shared the attention with my aunt, but there were brothers and
sisters, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, in-laws and probably a few
outlaws gathered to say farewell to the woman who had cooked countless meals, worked side by side with
her husband, changed diapers and wiped the noses of the whole brood even as she served as the family
     Her favorite pastor, the Rev. Bill Weaver, presided. And preside he did. At 74, “Brother Bill” has
preached his share of funerals. He’s looked out at countless audiences such as this one whose deep emotions
showed in their faces, and into the bereft face of a mate who knows he’s not long for this life himself.
    Quite honestly, I don’t know how he did it, but by the time Brother Bill was through, the congregation
had joined him and a quickly assembled quartet in singing familiar old gospel songs of hope for glory. Even the morticians, who have buried several generations of this family, were moved and, quite frankly,
quickly lost control of the events.

Our 1948 Odyssey

By Ken Neal

             I can’t remember when Dad bought our 1948 Chevrolet, but I remember that it had about 9,000 miles on it when we took a 5,400-mile junket in June of 1948.
            We had taken at least two trips to the West in our old 1939 Chevy and Dad was eager to take his new car on a trip. He got only two weeks’ vacation in those days, having hired in at American Airlines a scant 3 years before.
            I am embarrassed to admit how many new cars I have had, so I can only imagine how thrilled dad was to have his first new car. Even today, I drive new cars. So do my three children. Must be something in the DNA.
            Dad seemed old to me when I was 12, but now, at the age of 78, I realize that he was but a very young man of 33.
            A lot of planning went into that trip. Continental Oil Co. provided travel planning and Dad had a forerunner of the credit card. We were, as he often said, “in business!”
Actually, there was no credit card involved. Credit was established and the customer could sign for fuel and other supplies at Continental filling stations. I think there was a reciprocal agreement with Shell Oil Co.
            I presume the originals were mailed to company headquarters and statements were sent out to the customer.
            Dad was the chief planner but I was a consultant. Poor mom probably sat back and let her boys dream and plan.
            The travel packet arrived. I remember it to this day. It was a bound legal size packet, complete with maps of every stage of the trip. Accompanying the maps (on which the route was marked in purple) were bits of history and monuments and other landmarks.
We set out at about 4 a.m., bound for Denver, the first stop on our tour.
            Dad was Chevy Chase of the Stone Age. His plan was to see as much country as possible, even if from a Chevy whizzing along at 75 miles an hour.
            We made Denver in one day. Interstates were thing of the future, so as I remember, it was 750 miles from Tulsa to Denver. Most highways were two lanes, so it was a constant battle to avoid getting stuck behind slow-moving trucks.
            From Denver, we headed for Yellowstone National Park, where we all had heard of Old Faithful.
            We marveled at the desolation of Wyoming. I recall that our map showed a couple of routes across Wyoming, but I forget which one we chose. We stayed at Jackson Hole the second night. I remember we stayed in a brand new log cabin, heated by an oil-burning stove. We needed it. It was cold.
            On our earlier trips, Dad had insisted on holding the ’39 Chevy to 50 miles an hour. I know now that the old Chevy had probably 80,000 miles on it and Dad was bit worried about a breakdown. A confession: We really didn’t know exactly how many miles it had on it because during the war, everybody, including my dad, ran the speedometers back.
            But now we had a new Chevy that ran like a sewing machine. So we drove 75 where we could on two-lane roads. There were no seat belts, no padded dash, no breakaway steering column and brakes that were greatly inferior to today’s autos.
            Highways were much more dangerous then than now, but of course there were far fewer cars on the road.
            An observation on road safety: About 10 years later when I was a reporter for the Tulsa World, we did a nightly story and wrap up on traffic deaths. If I remember correctly, traffic deaths on Oklahoma roads topped 600 annually.
            We breezed through Yellowstone, watching Old Faithful erupt and marveling at the boiling water and mud. In a recent visit to Yellowstone with my son, I realized I had seen but a small part of Yellowstone on my 1948 visit. It was uppermost in my dad’s mind to “make time” on the road.
            We headed west from Yellowstone through Montana. I remember Butte, Montana was a barren mining town. From there we crossed the upper part of Idaho and reached Spokane, Washington. I don’t remember where we stayed. We were in Lewis and Clark country, but we didn’t know it.
            I remember a lot of wheat around Spokane. It surprised me that it resembled Enid, Oklahoma.

The Hot Head

By Ken Neal

Dad and I were very proud of our new 1948 Chevy. It was a Fleetline, Two-Door, Torpedo Sedan.
      It was black with grey mohair interior. Grey was a change from 1947, a time when Chevrolet model changes consisted of things like changing the color of the mohair.
      Of course it had a set of custom-made, red seat covers. After-market seat covers were a must in those days. The original mohair seats were hot and sticky, particular in the summer months.
      The ’48 Chevy was “our” first new car. There were no new cars from 1942 until 1946 so there was a pent-up demand for cars. When the first new cars were available in 1946, the dealers were getting premium prices. By 1948, production was catching up with demand, but Dad still paid a premium for the new car. Having rejected a $900 offer for his ’39 Chevy during the war, he now about $250 when he traded.
      There was little change in style from 1942 through 1948, and there was virtually no mechanical difference. An oddity plays into this episode of our 1948 Chevy.
      Until 1941, the Chevrolet engines had 14-millimeter spark plugs. In 1941, for some reason known only to the Detroit Auto Gods, Chevrolet engineers decided to change to 10-millimeter plugs.
      Pop never liked the smaller plugs, contending they ran hotter and didn’t last as long as the larger plugs.
      Now for a coincidence. Our new Chevy idled roughly. Dad tuned the Carburetor, gapped ignition points, and adjusted ignition timing to no avail.
      There was a rough idle and a half-miss on a hard pull. Ordinarily, this would have been a dead giveaway to burned valves in the engine. Such allowed compression to drop at low revs. At higher speeds, the miss would disappear.
      But there were those damned little spark plugs.
      At this time, the foreman of the machine shop at Standard Parts in Tulsa was dad’s friend.  His name was Ernie.
      Dad conferred with Ernie. Ernie said his shop routinely bored out the spark plug holes to 14 millimeters. Dad wasn’t the only mechanic who detested the smaller plugs.
      Ernie asked when he could bring the “head” in for the boring. Ernie said the machine work would take a couple of hours and he could do it anytime.
      Dad and I had been overhauling Chevrolets regularly. So, we pulled the head right there in the Standard parking lot.
      I guess we carried our tools with us. I always worked the manifold side of the engine while Pop pulled the right side panel, the rocker arm assembly and the head itself.
      With the head off, Pop discovered the real reason for our “miss.” There was a burned exhaust valve on one cylinder. Pop speculated it was warped, causing it to seal improperly.
In about 45 minutes, we were carrying the head into Ernie’s shop. He grabbed the head, jerked back quickly.
      “Damn, that’s hot.”

Pop's Chicken Ranch

By Ken Neal
            My father liked to raise things. He was thrilled to see a plant peeping through the soil. He had plants everywhere and often removed a shrub only to replace it with another variety that had caught his attention.
            Most of all, he liked to see plants and animals grow.
            We nearly always had a “crop” of chickens.
            I noticed an article in the Tulsa paper recently wherein a reporter breathlessly told of a couple in Tulsa who were raising chickens in their backyard.
            I realize that is a novelty these days and the reporter went on to explain that many people are raising chickens for eggs and meat. People are under the delusion that “free range” eggs are better than those laid by caged hens.
            Rebellion against additives of all kinds probably is the motivating factor, although I hope there are people out there like Pop who just like to see things like chickens grow and thrive.
            Even when we lived in a two-room shack in Sand Springs during World War II, pop managed a lean-to chicken pen. It was temporary, because the chicks he would raise would be grown and slaughtered at nine weeks.
            I even remember having a hen or two that roamed free. One old gal made her nest under a neighbor’s house and we had great fun watching her hatch her brood. She enough, at the right time she presented herself and about a dozen fuzzy chicks.
            I can’t say dad raised chickens every year. Sometimes our living quarters just wouldn’t allow it, but when pop bought a house in Sand Springs, he quickly built a fence, added a free standing garage and a small chicken coop next to the garage. As he would say, he was in business!
            He liked exotics. I remember him raising Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Leghorns, even a pure black chicken once. One year he raised guinea chicks; another pheasants.
            The guineas were tasty, but they had dark meat.
            One year, when our pheasants were just big enough to fly a bit, we came home to see several of them on the ridge of the house.
            We set out to corral them and after a lot of huffing and puffing, had all but one in captivity. Some of the bigger specimens could fly just enough to stay ahead of us.
            We found ourselves chasing that last guy down Roosevelt Street in Sand Springs. When we got close, he would fly about 10 yards. This was repeated for about three city blocks. Pop said, “Do you care if this sonofabitch gets away?”

V-J Day: It Was `Times Square' in Tulsa

By Ken Neal

"The War" was over. The news hit Sand Springs, Okla., in the late afternoon. Within minutes, sirens were wailing, auto horns were blaring, flags were waving. People poured out of their homes into the streets to celebrate.
            My dad was home from his job at Douglas Aircraft just in time to lash flags all over our 1939 Chevrolet. We drove "downtown" to join hundreds of others; later, the celebration moved to Downtown Tulsa where thousands had the same idea.
There, the celebration carried on through the night. It was, as the newspaper later described it, Times Square in Tulsa.
            There are famous Times Square pictures of celebration; they were repeated many times in Tulsa the night of Aug. 14, 1945. The events above happened in every hamlet and city of the United States. It was the end of the biggest human conflict in history; a victory for the democracies over some of the biggest tyrants in history. Yes, paper and confetti covered the street; yes, all of Tulsa was there in person; yes, men in uniform celebrated by kissing women; there were fireworks; there probably was even a bit of the bubbly and other spirits in legally dry Tulsa.
 The hot summer afternoon of Aug. 14 and that night of celebration are my most vivid memories of World War II, probably because I was older (9), than when other war events occurred. There was the death of Franklin Roosevelt (we had a thunderstorm that spring day in 1945); there was the death of Adolf Hitler; there was V-E (Victory in Europe) and The Bombs.
            But before that, there was the Downtown display of weapons and war machines, a promotion to sell war bonds. There was a massive rally at Skelly Stadium, the purpose of which was to build morale and sell war bonds. We all were given a kitchen match as we entered the stadium, and at the proper time, the field lights were turned off. We lighted the whole stadium when we lit our matches, a demonstration of what we could do if we worked together.
On the field that night, brave American soldiers     invaded a Japanese-held island. There were palm trees, tanks and cannon. You'll be relieved to know that the Japs were dispatched very quickly.

The 'Ghost' Town

War and The Aircraft of Douglas Forever a Part of Tulsa

By Ken Neal
Tulsa World

            To those of us marked by World War II, the nearly mile-long building at the Tulsa airport was "the bomber plant," and the company that ran it was Douglas.
            Years after its heyday during the war, Douglas merged with McDonnell Aircraft to become McDonnell Douglas.
              Sandy McDonnell once testily corrected me when I referred to the plant as Douglas. But then he couldn't know how deeply intertwined the plant and Douglas were in the minds of my generation.
              Or what it was like to stand on a hill in Sand Springs and watch streams of big airplanes fly off to war. Or to hear almost every evening of the work adventures of thousands of men and women who ultimately built 5,929 warplanes and modified thousands more in a few short years.
              Or to know in detail the model numbers and designations of every fighter and bomber; to imagine that every time a B-24, a B-17 or an A-26 showed up in the movie news that it probably came from Tulsa and that maybe my dad had worked on it.
              My father, while holding down a full time job, attended Spartan Aviation School eight hours a day for eight weeks for the chance to go work for Douglas, which received 10,000 applications before the plant was opened in mid-1942. Ultimately 24,000 people, most of them from Tulsa and Northeastern Oklahoma, were busy putting together a variety of airplanes.
              To a 7-year-old boy, airplanes were a wondrous thing. The war was something bad, of course, but it provided the framework for the contest between the airplanes on both sides.
              At the start of the war, local officials arranged a big ceremony at the airport to give a sendoff to a lone 4-engined bomber and six P-40 fighters. The bomber probably was a B-24, although it might have been a B-17.
              The event drew a big crowd and after a proper amount of ceremony and oratory, the pilots ran to their planes and took off. The crowd watched the ships out of sight. The bomber was huge and after that I knew exactly what my dad was talking about when he was shifted to work on B-17s being modified at four hangars called the Modification Center.
              It was these four hangars that attracted American Airlines here in 1946. My dad joined American in 1947 and worked there until his retirement in 1976.
              There were almost daily stories of work, fun and tragedy at the bomber plant. I heard in detail how this or that project was coming along.