Years of My Youth (1931-1936)

When we arrived in Adrian, Michigan from Colorado, Papa and we three children lived at 33 Crystal Spring Avenue. This was the original residence of Papa’s family, the Westerman homestead where he was born and raised. Dorothy was then age 17, Marguerite was 14, and I was 12 years old. I had finished the sixth grade in Colorado, and entered the seventh grade at Adrian Junior High School in September of 1931.

In the early thirties, there were no jobs, and most people just barely made ends meet. Papa worked at almost any job he could find, including selling appliances, cars, and insurance. We were struggling financially, and Papa was doing his best to raise the three of us in a family without a mother.

Me at age 13, back in Adrian, Michigan

I was really beginning to become somewhat independent by the age of 15. Other than school, the YMCA was where I spent most of my time. The YMCA became an important part of my life. This was natural, because Papa had been in “Y” work off and on since he graduated from high school. I turned to the “Y” as a place where I could enjoy my friends, play basketball, and learn a great deal about the right way to live — Mind, Spirit, and Body, as the “Y” put it. I joined the “Y” Leaders group, and Mr. Long was our director and coach. He was a great influence on me during those years. I can recall that many times I would go to the “Y” after school and not get home until after 9 p.m. The homework and chores had to be done regardless of the hour.

By 1934, within a six-month period there were three weddings in our family. Papa married Eleanor Covell, Dorothy married Wesley Covell (Eleanor’s nephew), and Marguerite married Charles Schwager. Papa’s new wife was a nice lady, and I’m sure she made Papa happy, as life was very lonely after Mother passed away. It was a difficult time for Eleanor, as she had to adjust to a trio of teenagers who, I’m sure, were not the easiest to cope with. We had our chores and responsibilities, as Papa was well aware of the need for us to do more than our share in a new situation. After Dorothy and Marguerite were married, they had homes of their own in Adrian.

Adrian HIgh School football, 1935

For about a year, I lived with Papa and my stepmother in the old homestead. One day Papa heard that there was work in Coldwater Michigan, a town about fifty miles from Adrian, and he decided to move. I asked Papa if I could stay in Adrian because I didn’t want to change schools. I had many friends, was Class President, and was participating in the varsity sports of basketball, football, baseball and tennis. Papa agreed to let me stay on alone in the old Westerman homestead. I had to make it on my own from 1934 through 1936. My two sisters were married living in Adrian at the time, so when I didn’t want to get my own meals I could eat with them. In fact, I became quite an independent young man. Even in 1934, I was working. My first job, in 1933-1934, was peddling papers, The Adrian Telegram and The Toledo Blade. Only a few people could pay on time, but they were honest people and hard working, and paid as soon as they could. My second job, in 1935, was stringing tennis rackets. A Chinese man taught me how to do that. Those jobs gave me enough money for food and clothes.

Adrian High School basketball, 1936

My years at Adrian High School were full of wonderful experiences. My yearbook sort of tells the story of my interests in music, sports, and YMCA activities. Although I studied hard, athletics became my life. By the time I was in the ninth grade, I was playing football, basketball, baseball and tennis on the high school teams. It was football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and tennis, along with some baseball, in the spring. During my high school years I experienced many injuries playing sports, such as a broken nose, many sprained ankles, a tennis elbow, and the normal bumps and bruises that go along with contact sports.

From childhood, music had been in our home, and I continued through high school and college to take part in vocal music programs such as the Glee Club, the Boys’ Quartet and the Madrigal singers. My music teacher was my father’s younger brother, Dr. Ken Westerman. In 1936, my senior year in high school, he took the Madrigal group of eight to New York City to sing in a national contest at the Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center. We sang eight-part music with no accompaniment. It was a great experience that I will always cherish. I know a record was cut of the special event, and I have tried to find a copy, but have not been successful. I would love to hear it again.

I got my first driver’s license in 1935, and in the summer of that year, I got a job to drive in a car caravan from Michigan to California. There was an advertisement in the paper for drivers to drive new cars from Detroit to Los Angeles. I thought that it would be great to go back through Kansas and Colorado where I grew up as a boy and to see the Pacific Ocean on the same trip. I mentioned this to my father, and he agreed that even though I was only seventeen, I could go if Charles Schwager, Marguerite’s husband, would also be one of the drivers.

When I called to sign up with the caravan director he told me that we would be driving new Hudson Terraplane cars, the first cars to have a hand shift just below the steering wheel, and that the pay would be one dollar a day. We would be sleeping in our cars, and they estimated the trip would take thirty days, more or less. All we needed was a change of clothes and a few personal items. I did take my harmonica along to pass the time. The cars each had a governor setting the maximum speed for 35 miles per hour. Also, all drivers had to be at least eighteen years old, and as I wouldn’t be eighteen until December, I knew they would have to make an exception. To this day I’m not quite sure just how I managed to get signed up, but I made it through the registration line and was assigned to car #25. Charles was assigned to car #10. There were 30 drivers in all.

When we went to the lot to start out, I discovered that we would each be towing a second car. The tow bar connecting the two cars was attached to the back left corner, which meant that we had to be very careful not to stop too quickly or the second car would jackknife, damaging both cars. All of this was carefully explained before we started.

The drivers were all a lot older than I, and one fellow in car #24, with whom I soon became acquainted, had just graduated from Oberlin College. His name was Randall Price, and he would become a very close friend. I soon found out that he was going to leave the caravan at Cheyenne, Wyoming. He would be attending Boulder College in Boulder, Colorado where they offered some law courses. He wanted to become a lawyer and felt that if he enjoyed the courses, then he would attend the Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

We left Detroit and traveled west around the south end of Lake Michigan out across Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming on Rte. 80. Along the way we saw many jackrabbits reminding me of my “growing-up” days in Kansas and Colorado. The trip continued all the way across the southern border of Wyoming and into Utah where we turned south on Rte.15 through Salt Lake City and Provo until we reached the Arizona border.

All the way out, the director was required to pay a five-dollar fee for each car in the caravan every time we crossed a state line. This became quite expensive and when we approached the southwest corner of Utah on Rte 15, we would have to cross into Arizona for only a few miles before entering Nevada. He didn’t think it was fair to have to pay, as we would only be a few minutes in Arizona. He figured that if we waited until dark we might be able to get across quickly to avoid paying the fee on each car. We even disconnected the governors in order to drive fast.

When it was real dark everyone turned off his headlights and off we went through the tollgate as fast as we dared. It wasn’t until the 24th driver passed through that the keeper woke up to collect the fees. The caravan director was waiting just beyond the tollbooth so he only had to pay for the last few cars instead of 60. I don’t think that the Arizona guard even knew how many cars had passed through before he woke up.

On we went through Nevada and into California, arriving in Los Angeles to turn in the cars. Every car was a bit damaged but nothing serious. We were paid our $1.00 per day, and the director gave everyone an extra five dollars and off we went on our separate ways.

I had saved seven dollars along the way, had won another dollar with a single nickel at a slot machine in Las Vegas, and there I was seventeen years old in Los Angeles, California, 2000 miles from home with thirteen dollars. Charles Schwager, my brother-in-law, only wanted to get back to his family in Michigan, so he bought a bus ticket and left. I went to the first hotel I could find and landed a job operating an elevator for three dollars a day.

I only worked for a week on the elevator job and then started hitchhiking up the California coast toward San Francisco. The going was slow and after the first day I jumped on the back of a slow-moving watermelon truck. I ate melons for two days and even slept on the truck. If it hadn’t turned off the main highway, I would have stayed on it. The driver never knew I was there.

I continued north sleeping on park benches and really enjoying the trip, finally arriving in Eugene, Oregon. As I remember it, a small river ran through town where salmon were jumping over a dam. Also, I can remember stopping at a small restaurant where I had a great steak dinner and apple pie for dessert, all for only twenty-five cents and a token.

Oregon was beautiful with huge towering pines along mountain roads. I went on into the state of Washington and east to the town of Walla Walla where I went to a great rodeo. I continued through Idaho and into Montana. I stopped for ten days in Bozeman where I got a job on a large cattle ranch. The owner’s name was Buel Heab, and he needed someone to ride fence. That involves keeping the cattle from bunching up and standing along the barbed wire fences. If a storm with lightning went through and the cattle had their heads against the wire, they would be killed. It meant that someone needed to drive the hundreds of cattle away from fences day and night. It took a lot of cowhands to do the job.

As I had done a lot of riding as a boy, Mr. Heab knew that I could do my share of such a job. The pay was two dollars a shift and all you could eat. The food was fantastic. Breakfast was sausage, bacon and eggs, toast, fried potatoes, milk, coffee and pie.

We would saddle up and head off to the four corners of the ranch. There must have been twenty men involved. One day Mr. Heab handed me a very wide leather belt to hold up a pair of chaps that he had lent me when I first took the job. The day I left he said, “Keep the belt to remember us by.” In fact, I still have it to wear in the winter with heavy wool pants.

Montana has some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. I think there must be just the right amount of dust in the air, although one doesn’t notice it. There are many big ranches with lots of farmland.

I crossed from Montana into the upper left corner of Wyoming where one immediately enters Yellowstone National Park. The first day a fellow gave me a ride and as it turned out he was on his way to Denver, Colorado. He was a vegetarian and had his whole back seat filled with raw vegetables and canned ones. Needless to say I ate well for the next few days. He fed me tomato juice, etc., trying to convert me to his way of eating. Why, oh why, didn’t I become a vegetarian? Perhaps I wouldn’t have built up so much cholesterol over the years. Little did I know at that time about the many things that might have made a difference regarding heart disease, etc. All perhaps could have been avoided. Well, at 89, I guess I can’t complain as I’m still alive.

We visited many interesting places in the park and saw buffalo, elk, deer and many bears. People were told to stay in their cars when the bears appeared for handouts. We also stopped at Old Faithful and saw the many bubbling hot springs.

I was sure lucky to have the ride all the way to Denver, as I had planned to visit my grandmother Boyd and Uncle Bob, my mother’s younger brother, who was the circulation manager of the Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver’s daily papers. They were pleased to see me, and Uncle Bob immediately offered me a job, a very welcome offer as I was nearly out of money by then.

The job would be going door-to-door to sell weekly subscriptions to the paper. Uncle Bob introduced me to a fellow who would teach me the best way to get people to subscribe. I soon learned how to persuade folks to at least sign up for a week. One technique was simply to put my foot in the door so they couldn’t close it while I begged them to help me out, as I needed the money to get home before school started. Most of the time they would sign up for a week or two as they either felt sorry for me or would say ok just to get rid of me. I would thank them and walk away playing my harmonica.

In a couple of weeks I had enough money to buy a Greyhound bus ticket back to Michigan to finish high school. I arrived home with lots of stories to tell and had even gained a few pounds that I needed before football practice started.

Shortly after I returned from the trip to California, in August of 1935, Papa and Eleanor’s son Clifford was born. I was seventeen at the time. Although I spent a great deal of time in sports, I did a pretty good job with my schoolwork. My grades were good enough for acceptance into college.

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