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My father left home to make his way in the world sometime in January or early February of 1933. He was eighteen years old and restless. He said he borrowed a dollar from his young uncle, Jack Zimmerman, and caught a freight train going to Los Angeles where his oldest brother, Nick, was working on a dairy herding cows. Jumping on an empty box car as he ran alongside, he lost a 50 cent piece. He now had only half a dollar. When he got to LA, he spent a quarter on a movie because he didn’t have anything else to do while waiting for Nick. He stayed with Nick about a month, he said, and earned enough money to buy a motorcycle, an Indian Scout. As he was returning to Dinuba, he hit snow on the highway and lost the motorcycle in a slide, but wasn’t hurt.

I didn’t question my father about this story. I just listened and enjoyed it. But now I ask myself, how in the world did dad earn enough money in one month to buy a motorcycle? I’m sure it wasn’t new, and Dad was always a wheeler-dealer, but still, just one month working on a dairy? And this was 1933. According to California historian, Kevin Starr, 1933 was the year the depression began “in earnest.” In his book, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Starr states that “An estimated ten thousand transient men and boys were arriving in Los Angeles County each month by 1931. In one month of 1932 alone, the Southern Pacific evicted an estimated eighty thousand transients from its boxcars.”

My father, like all the others who jumped the freights, was a transient, and Los Angeles was overwhelmed my transients. If spotted by the police, they were picked up, “booked, fingerprinted, and routinely given thirty days for vagrancy, with the expectation that they would be released and encouraged to move out of the area within the first week of their sentence.”[i]

Dad usually spoke of the time after he left home as batching, batching with his brothers. Some of the time he batched with his oldest brother Nick, at other times he batched with Nick and Stan. Dad and his brothers sang in bars for drinks and at times a bit of money. Music-making began before the boys left home. Hank sang lead, Nick bass, Stanley tenor, Dad second lead. I’ve always known that Stanley played guitar, and when I asked him if anyone else in family played an instrument, he said that Nick played the fiddle; Stanley played the organ, banjo and harmonica; and his dad played clarinet. His family owned all those instruments. My dad also owned a guitar at one point, a “Kalamazoo guitar.” That was when he and Stanley were the “Canadian Twins,” singing in bars between San Francisco and Gallup, New Mexico. Dad laughed when he talked about it, “Stanley played the guitar, but I owned it!”

Stan, four years older than my father, was a good-natured buddy who was as restless and eager to see things and go places as my dad. In the year before his death, my dad wrote a piece about Stan and sent it to me for my book:

“Stanley was born eighteen months after Nick was born. In fact, all fifteen of us children were born eighteen months apart. “What kind of person was he? Stanley was the smallest of all the boys, but also the most handsome. He was five feet four inches tall and blond. He could play most any kind of instrument and did. Stanley had a mustache. [He] always kept it well trimmed.

“Stanley had a weakness—the guitar, playing in taverns and patrons buying [him] too many drinks. He was a very entertaining kind of person. How do I know? I traveled with him. We had an old Essex car. We hit many bars between San Francisco and Gallup, New Mexico.

“I tried to play the banjo. I couldn’t find half of the right keys, but Stanley was so good on his guitar and yodeling that it over-shadowed all of my mistakes. We called ourselves the Canadian twins although there was four years difference in our age. We spent what money we earned every day. Most of the time we could afford only one meal [a day] and sometimes two if we were lucky, and that wasn’t often.”[ii]

I asked Dad what the bars were like, and he said they were little old taverns out in the country. Below is a photo of Stan in one of those taverns. Stan is the bartender.

Bartending, Stanley Willems 1930s

Bartending, Stanley Willems 1930s

[i] Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 226, 227

[ii] Jacob Willems, e-mail 1999

 

©Loretta Willems, April 2, 2018

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