Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Okies, part 3

My parents both grew up in blue collar families. Mom’s family, the Guier family, was at the top end of the blue collar strata, while Dad’s family, the Harris clan, was closer to the bottom. Mom grew up on Virginia Avenue and Whitworth, quaint elm lined streets with tiny (by today’s standards) attractive brick houses on the north side of town. Today, all the Elms are gone, Dutch Elm disease having taken its toll. But you can still sense the majesty and former glory of the neighborhood of years ago.

Grandpa Guier spent his life’s career as a lab technician for Conoco. He and his family lived very miserly, saving every penny he earned, until he had amassed quite a fortune over his years. He bought and paid cash for a nice two bedroom house with white aluminum siding, and raised three children in it. Uncle Ken (Kenneth, Jr., but we call him Butch) was the oldest, my mother, Sandi, the middle child, and Uncle Bobby was the baby.

Though not as well off financially, Dad's family was in many ways similar to the Guiers. My father, Warren, was also born as the middle child. Before him was Uncle Dale, and after Dad was Aunt Pam.

It's remarkable how similar these two families were. Both families had never known divorce, both had two boys and one girl as children, and both of my parents were the middle children. They were both born in 1946, both born and raised in Ponca City. The symmetry is beautiful.

My father's early life was very humble. His family had very little disposable income, and they moved many times from house to house, always upgrading. When my father was ten, he lived in a house where his bedroom was nothing but a screened-in-porch. Granted, Ponca may be warm in the summer, but the winters on the Great Plains are very cold and snowy. His bed was on this porch. He’d bundle up in blankets at night and sleep like a bear.

One of my father's memories of this time was his greatest childhood fear—that of The Wolfman. Dad would hear noises late at night, alone on the porch, and would imagine a werewolf just behind the bushes, ready to eat him. He’d throw the blankets over his head and pray for dawn until he fell to sleep.

A few years ago I saw this house for the first time. Dad drove Mike and me by the house on a tour of his childhood. The house was still standing, and I found it incredible the contrast with homes I had as a boy. Here was this tiny white house, no bigger than my own garage today, set back from the street by a tiny yard. And it housed five people.

It is times like these when a person suddenly appreciates the gifts in one's life, particularly the years of effort our parents spent to give us the opportunities we have today. I suddenly realized, upon seeing this house that both my Dad and Mom had worked hard all their life to achieve a decent middle class for their kids.

Eventually, Dad's family settled on Maple Avenue, on the south side of town, not far from the refinery. The Maple home was also a humble home, but it had three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, separate dining room, a spacious kitchen and a laundry room. It was always well kept and great love filled the house. I cherished every single visit to this house, and it always felt like a home to me.

My father's parents were Venita Inez Estep and Milton Lewis Harris, both now deceased. They were married just before the war and remained married until Grandpa’s death—over 50 years of marriage. Dad was born just after the war (a true Baby Boomer). Mom’s parents, Kenneth Riley Guier and Evelyn Olech, were also married before the war and had her just after. At this writing, Kenneth is still with us, but in ever-increasingly poor health, while Grandma Guier died of lung cancer back in 1977, the same year as Elvis. Cancer took both of Dad’s parents too, Grandpa Harris in 1995 from colon cancer, and Grandma Harris in 1999 from lung cancer.

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