More than a few years ago, when my little girl was littler, we snuggled on a sofa, thumbing through old family photo albums. We came across a big 8×10 photo, encased in plastic, of when I was young and ferocious. I was sitting on my big motorcycle, longish thick curly hair, broad shoulders, half-smile, half-smirk.
“WOW! Good grief, Dad! You used to be so — handsome!” she cooed.
Not exactly music to a father’s ears. I playfully shoved her.
“What do you mean? “…used to be?” I asked.
“Well,” my daughter clarified. “Today, you’re — cute…”
Better than “…not entirely hideous…”
We turned pages. There were photos of my father, especially that sweet close-up of Dad in formal military uniform, taken in Switzerland in 1945. That innocent, kind face, a half-decade before I’d meet him. Hard to believe, Walt Cieplik spent the previous three years, sleeping in the snow-filled trenches, artillery exploding around him. Awake, my father ended the lives of Nazis.
I was lucky to have two of the best fathers-in-law. The first was another Walt — Walt Wayman. His family lived in Newhall since the caveman days and he was one bona fide movie star handsome son-of-a-gun, big thick mop of grey hair, tall, broad-shouldered, silver cowboy belt buckle. His family owned a big chunk of property that stretched along both sides of today’s Newhall Avenue from just about the railroad tracks to Sierra Highway. We were moving irrigation pipe that connected to underground water that stank of sulfur. Walt challenged me to guess when his dad was a boy, how long it took to drive into Los Angeles to get the weekly groceries? By wagon. Pulled by horses. I said, “Two days?”
“It took a full day to wagon into L.A.,” Walt said, in that soothing, bass Western voice. “I wasn’t born yet, of course, but Dad and Mom and sometimes a ranch hand spent the night in a hotel, shopped the next day, spent another night in the hotel then bought their perishables, packed in ice. That next morning, they’d ride back to the ranch.”
Small-town life. Some of you old-timers remember the most delightful and effervescent Gladys Laney, who finally passed just a few years ago at the age of 103. Gladys? She was Walt’s babysitter in the 1920s.
I can’t imagine someone that big, lanky and rugged, being a baby.
I’ll never forget that simple moment, chatting with Walt, my goofy smile. I was born in the wrong century. I still imagine that more livable pace. No talk radio. No rock ‘n’ roll. No driving 80 mph. Just sitting on a wagon, bending and swaying over every rut and bump of dirt roads. I adore those little history tidbits that sadly get lost, a life just out of reach. As we unloaded about a mile of the awkward aluminum pipe, I turned the tables on that handsome elder cowboy.
“OK. Walt. I got one for you. Guess how long it took for a proper lady to get from Newhall to Downtown L.A. in the mid-1800s?”
He smelled a trap, but couldn’t see it yet. “Oh. I don’t know. Just a guess — four days?”
“Seven,” I corrected. He smiled and shook his head in disbelief.
“Yessir.” Pre-Beale’s Cut, a lady wouldn’t ride a horse on the treacherous mountain trails toward L.A. They followed the Santa Clara River, toward Ventura on buckboard, crossing the creek many times. Talk about a slower pace. The lady would stop along the way, spending nights at rancheros, hanging a left along a coast highway, spending more nights then finally hanging another left up Sunset before hitting El Pueblo.
“Back then, they were just beginning to end a half-century custom,” I added. I remember feeling somehow honored — included — that both Walt and I wore battered white Stetsons as we labored in the fields. “Because travel took so long, people were used to spending the nights at other people’s haciendas. The next morning, after breakfast, the host would leave a little leather purse, filled with gold and silver coins, on the guest’s bed, hidden under a silk handkerchief. As the demographics turned from primarily Spanish/Mexican landowners to Anglo, the whites now would not only help themselves to all coins, but take the purse. And the handkerchief.”
Walt had a huge belly laugh at that one.
My second father-in-law was the movie mogul, Ed Muhl. Like Walt, I absolutely worshipped that guy. And, like Walt, Ed was just one, impossibly handsome Alpha Male. He ran Universal Pictures for decades. Most nights, his chauffeur would drive Ed from the North Hollywood HQ to his ranch way up Bouquet Canyon. On weekends, he’d climb into his patented beige “Jungle Jim” outfit with the matching pith helmet we’d tease him about, climb up on that big, yellow Ford tractor and move dirt from A to B. Ed confessed. From firing stars to cheap Westerns, he got his best ideas atop that tractor.
This is the man who produced “Spartacus” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Of course, Ed should have faced prison time for such unforgettable classics as “Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga,” “Mutiny in the Arctic,” and “Pardon My Sarong,” one of Universal’s many Abbott & Costello flicks.
I remember we were taking a break from NOT wrapping a line of barbed wire around the tractor axle. It was another glorious moment with a dad-in-law. Ed confessed that when he was a boy, growing up in Indiana, he’d walk from his farm into town, just to hang around the blacksmith’s shop. You see, the farrier, as a teen, had fought in the Civil War.
This still staggers me. I talked with someone, who talked with someone, who fought in the Civil War.
My dear Pops. Walt Wayman. Ed Muhl. So many others — Tough, Old Guys. There are days I dearly miss those rugged men who went from handsome, to cute, who lived such quietly powerful and interesting lives…
John Boston is a local writer.