Just Whistle

Mobil_Pegasus[1]

I grew up in Augusta, Kansas, a small town of 5,000. Our lives were regulated by the steam whistle at our local oil refinery. The refinery was originally called the White Eagle Refinery. Then, it became Socony-Vacuum Refinery and later, Socony-Mobil. The logo was the very distinctive Flying Red Horse.

The refinery was the main employer in our town and I guess the company wanted to make sure that there were no punctuality problems. They used the steam whistle to regulate the events of the day. Here’s the schedule as I remember it.

            7:00 AM You’d better be getting out of bed.
            7:50 AM You’d better be punched in, helmet on, and ready.
            8:00 AM Start work.
            12:00 PM Stop working and eat lunch.
            12:50 PM Stop eating and get ready for work.
            1:00 PM Go back to work.
            5:00 PM Quit work and go home.

The whistle was a pretty handy item. Back in the 1940’s few people had wrist watches. There were certainly no kids with a watch. The whistles could be heard all over town and at least a mile out into the country.

Dave Thomas
January 9, 2014

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What’s a Chukker?

 

I believe it was the spring of 1965. In another month, that will be 50 years ago. I remember a lot of the details but the dates are hard to pin down.

To lay the groundwork for this story, let me say that total employment at Electro Instruments was probably about 250. I was Foreman of the Test Department and had 23 technicians working for me. Our job was to trouble-shoot the instruments coming off the assembly line and fix any wiring errors or cold solder joints and replace any defective electronic components. Once we had the unit running, we calibrated it with precision voltage standards and “sold” it to a Quality Control Inspector and also to a Department of Defense Inspector if it was to be shipped against a government contract. When we presented the unit to the Shipping Department it was the culmination of the efforts of every department in the plant.

One morning, I got a call from my boss, Pete Dreesen, the Director of Manufacturing. Pete said that his boss, Jim Zeigler, the Vice President of Operations had called and invited the two of us to lunch. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Working stiffs like me didn’t ordinarily go to lunch with 2 levels of bosses, but I met Pete and Jim in the lobby at 11:30 and Pete drove us to a nearby restaurant.

I didn’t know Jim well, only having had a few brief conversations with him. It was normally business stuff, where he did the conversing and I did the listening. I knew he lived on some acreage on the outskirts of Alpine, a small town in the foothills east of San Diego. I had also heard that he had 7 kids so that’s probably why he had the big place. He was a nice guy and I liked him.

We were hardly sitting down in the restaurant before Jim announced that he wanted to start a company polo team. The three of us didn’t really know anything about polo so we started listing the things we thought would need to be answered in order to get this project off the ground. Jim mentioned that he had a couple of horses for his kids to ride but doubted they would make very good polo ponies. Jim and Pete both knew that I had a horse and asked about her. I told them that she was coming along but I bought her for her confirmation and sweet disposition and she wouldn’t be good for polo. Polo “ponies” are actually big, strong horses that love to run and are so competitive they will run over anything in their path. Jim said that was ok because he had been talking to the people that own Bright Valley Stables, up in Harbison Canyon, on the way to Alpine, and we might be able to work out a deal to rent horses from them. Also, they would give us lessons on riding English saddles and the fundamentals of polo.

Recruiting a team might be a tough job. We would be taking off work an hour or two before quitting time at least one day a week for English riding lessons. The hourly direct folks wouldn’t want to lose the pay. The salaried people could work extra hours if they needed to in order to stay on top of their jobs. A large percentage of our workforce was women. We had hired quite a few experienced women from the aerospace industry so they were older, more “grandmotherly”, types. Most of the rest of the women were young mothers that had to get home after work and pick up the kids at the baby sitters (Day Care was a term that hadn’t been invented yet). Our pool of riders was shrinking fast. We decided to post the story on the employee bulletin board so that we wouldn’t mistakenly exclude anyone that was interested.

We tried to think of anyone who rode horses for pleasure or knew anything about horses. The only horseman I knew was Steve Scott, a custodian working 2nd shift. Scotty was in his 60’s and his health wasn’t too good. He had come over from Brawley, California in the Imperial Valley where for years he had been the “Hay Boss” for a large cattle feeding outfit. Every year the city of Brawley holds the Brawley Cattle Call, a big western celebration featuring a parade and a rodeo. Scotty was one of the organizers of that annual event and even after moving to San Diego, returned to Brawley to take part in it. Scotty and I were having a cup of coffee one day before he went on shift and I mentioned that I had recently bought a horse but hadn’t saved up enough for a saddle yet. Scotty said he was too old to ride but had brought his saddle with him from Brawley and I was welcome to use it as long as I needed it. He brought the saddle, a fairly new roper, to work with him the next day. I used it for several months and returned it with thanks. I know this paragraph about Scotty hasn’t much to do with the polo story but Scotty was really a “good old boy” and I liked him a lot and enjoyed writing something about him so you could see him.

Getting back to business, our luncheon meeting lasted about 3 hours and we made plans and discussed obstacles until we thought we had covered everything. We knew we were facing an uphill battle but decided to take things in order and go as far as we could.

The first day of riding lessons, eight of us showed up, all managers or supervisors and all salaried. We had all ridden “western” but didn’t know one end of an English saddle from the other. The man who owned Bright Valley Stables had an accent and I think he must have been an Aussie rather than an Englishman. He was a good instructor and soon had us all mounted and riding around a ring. The lessons were fun and informative. We all enjoyed them because while riding around in circles in the ring he corrected our “seat” and the way we were posting and also talked to us about the tack and the rules of polo. It would be more exciting to tell you that somebody got thrown or that we had a runaway horse but nothing like that happened. We had a few lessons with most of the guys in attendance. Some weeks, one or the other of us would have to stay in the plant and take care of our department.

Jim knew of a Dr. Herring that lived in Lakeside, a town between our plant and Alpine. This Dr. Herring had a polo team that he sponsored and played on and Jim arranged for us to watch them play one Saturday morning. It was fun to watch the guys play. I don’t know if they were any good but it didn’t make any difference because they were having so much fun. One of the “attack” guys hit a pretty good drive and all of a sudden he and one of the defensive guys were in a mad dash to get to the ball. The collision was like those you hear in the NFL. Ker-Whap!!! The “attack” guy is knocked off his horse and hits the ground, breaking his forearm. Doc Herring took one look at the arm and loaded the guy in his car. He took him to his office in town, x-rayed and set the bone, and put a cast on it. They were back at the game in a little over an hour. The Doc wouldn’t let the guy back in the game. 

This broken arm was hard on our team as two of our members abruptly quit. They said they had come out for fun and that didn’t include broken bones.

Things kind of went downhill after that. It became harder and harder to get the group together. Managers and supervisors are in those positions partly due to a sense of responsibility and that makes it hard to abandon the challenges of the job in the middle of the afternoon and go play. We knew at the outset that it was going to be tough. Besides the other problems, we had no horses, no tack, no horse trailers, no cheap places to board horses, and certainly not enough discretionary income to float the whole thing. It was fun while it lasted.

Dave Thomas
February 6, 2015

 

Learning To Ride With Roy And Gene

Learning To Ride With Roy and Gene

I guess it was shame that made me realize I needed some riding lessons from the best. Back in the early 1940’s I was a grade school kid growing up in the small town of Augusta, Kansas. The problem was that I should have been out in the country where a kid can have a horse like a cowboy ought to. Still, I was doing my best to be a cowboy. Every Saturday afternoon I went to the picture show to see Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Durango Kid, and all the rest of my heroes. Even though there was a war on, I spent more time playing “cowboy” than I did playing “army”.

Anyhow, I was always doing everything I could to get a ride on someone’s horse or pony by looking sad-eyed until they let me crawl up in the saddle for a while. I thought I was making real progress toward turning into a cowboy until I was rudely awakened one day. This is where the “shame” stuff comes in. A new kid moved in about a block from where we lived. That put him right on the edge of town and with a big enough place to bring his pinto pony with him. Naturally, I made friends with this kid real fast! It wasn’t long until I got offered a chance to get on that pony and try him out. The kid’s Dad must have sized me up pretty good because he kept asking if I could ride. Of course, I kept telling him that I was an old hand at this sort of stuff and there was nothing to worry about. Well, I climbed aboard and commenced to show everyone how a real cowboy did it. I was looking real good for about the first two steps that pony took but, by the third step, I was hanging on for dear life because he was already at a full gallop. He headed south for a block which got us to the highway and then turned east going flat out! It was only another block to State Street and the town’s only stoplight and it didn’t take us long to get there. I don’t know if the light was red or green, but I knew that if that pony tried to turn on to that brick paved street we could be in for a mighty big wreck. As we hit the intersection and those hooves started clicking on the bricks, I could see heads turn at the filling stations that occupied three of the four corners. The pony started turning north to go up the street and we rounded that corner with him slipping and sliding and me yelling “whoa” and trying to grab hold of anything I could find. He stayed on his feet and I stayed aboard and we finally lived through the turn and got lined out going straight up the hill. I’d already lost the stirrups and was grabbing leather and yelling at the top of my lungs. I looked up and saw my Great-aunt, Rachel Peebler, coming down the street in her big green Packard. I yelled something at her as she went past (probably “help”) and looking back saw her make a u-turn and start after us. We kept going up the street as fast as that pony would go. We passed friends, relatives, classmates, and everyone else I didn’t want to see.

Roy & Trigger 1

Well, to get to the end of this, the street ran for a mile from the stoplight and ended at a pasture. When we got to the pasture, the pony stopped running blew a little, and went to grazing. I found out later that he had been pastured there for the last couple of years so he thought he was just heading for home.

I hadn’t got over the wild ride yet and things got even worse. Here comes my Aunt Rachel , followed by the Chief of Police, the parents of the kid that owned the pony, cars carrying friends of my folks, and other townspeople that knew me, and a few strangers that just wanted to help a kid in trouble. By the time they got done asking after me and petting me on the head, I decided that it would have been a blessing to have gotten racked up on one of those telephone poles that we had flown by so fast. You can imagine how my cowboy image suffered from all of this. And, a few weeks later I managed to do it again!

 

Gene 1

My great Uncle, Dave Peebler, had bought this retired polo pony to save it from the glue factory and he put it to pasture on his place just east of town on Custer Lane. Now, in case you don’t know, the first lesson about polo ponies is that they aren’t “ponies”! They are large, aggressive horses that love to run and mix it up. And, to make it even worse, this particular pony went by the name of “Let’s Go”! To anyone with any brains, that would have been the first clue. Anyhow, to get into this story, I begged until Uncle Dave took me out to his place, cinched up an English saddle, and tossed me aboard. I settled into a good seat and was looking real good for about as long as it takes to say “Let’s Go”. The next thing I know, we’re burning up that country road about ten times faster than that little paint pony had done. Fortunately, after a few miles, the horse got bored and stopped to eat some hedge apples. I slid off and just stood there holding the reins and waiting for Uncle Dave to show up. Naturally, he was laughing his head off when he got there and couldn’t even wait until he got out of the car before he started cracking jokes about how good I looked going down the road. For the second time in just a few weeks, I figured I would have been better off to die along the way. The only satisfaction I got was when my Aunt Rachel (who tried to save me the first time) raked Uncle Dave up and down for putting me aboard that “fool” horse.

Roy & Trigger 2

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Roy and Gene and I’m coming to it. I still needed to be a cowboy and realized I wasn’t getting there very quick. I still didn’t have my own horse and at the rate I was going probably couldn’t have stood the humiliation anyhow, so I decided that the best thing to do was to keep going to those cowboy movies and keep studying everything that Roy and Gene and the rest of them did. From that time on, I paid attention to everything. I watched how they mounted, how they set the saddle at different gaits, what they did with their hands, and how they took their falls. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also being taught by Canutt, Farnsworth, Mahoney, and all the other great stunt men.

Anyhow, time passed and I learned from my heroes. Riding my bicycle down a country road one day, I spotted some horses loafing in a pasture and knew that my time had come. I pulled some choice-looking grass out of the ditch, climbed up a fence post and got on the other side. Standing on the barbed wire, I held onto the fence post with one hand and offered the grass to the horses with the other. Sure enough, one of those horses came up to get a taste and when he took a bite, I grabbed a hold of his mane and swung aboard. The horse quickly headed for a grove of trees with low-hanging branches like he was probably going to try and scrape me off. I called on one of my new movie tricks to get me out of trouble. This is the one where the Indian slips over to the side with only a heel hooked over the horse’s back and can either shoot under the horse’s neck or just ride in the middle of a herd without being spotted. This proved to be a good way to duck under limbs. I survived this first attempt to brush me off and later used it to save my bacon a number of times.

Roy-Life Mag

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t always lure a horse to the fence or to a rock that I could mount from. I was still too short to just grab some mane and swing aboard. So, next came my real money trick which was the “Pony Express” mount. I believe I saw both Roy and Gene do this one. You grab the saddle horn (if you happen to have a saddle) with both hands and as the horse takes off you raise both of your feet up under you and just hang there. After the horse has run a few steps and has gotten some speed up, you hit the ground with both feet and pull hard with your arms and the bounce created by the horse’s momentum tosses you right into the saddle. This turned out to be the answer to my prayers. I’d just grab hold of the mane with both hands and as the horse took off I’d bang both feet on the ground and get bounced right onto his back. The first time I tried this though, I had to pay my dues by learning that a horse can “cow kick”. I was hanging onto this horse’s mane and as he gathered speed I was just about to make my move when he reached up and planted a rear hoof on my back pocket. I ended up sliding along nose down in the dirt. After that lesson, I stayed closer to the fore-leg when I was hanging there in mid-air and I didn’t get kicked again.

After I got a little bigger, I finally was able to handle a runaway using another movie trick I learned. It came in handy since I was riding these borrowed horses without saddle, bridle, or reins. If you can’t control a horse with your knees and he’s running away with you, just slip over his near shoulder with your right arm around his neck and reach up with your left hand and clamp his nostrils shut. Then, you can pull his nose down and stop him or pull to the side and start him in a circle. In desperation, I used this a couple of times and neither of us got hurt.

I got to feeling bad about riding people’s horses all the time without permission (but not bad enough to quit). So, I saved up and bought me a Scotch comb and took to cleaning the horses up whenever I rode. That relieved some of the guilt feelings. They were all worth it as there is nothing that can compare with being on a horse’s back.

Well, those are some of the things I learned from Roy and Gene and the other movie cowboys. It was fun growing up with them. Nearly fifty years later, it was a great treat to attend the Golden Boot Awards Banquet in Santa Monica with Roy and Gene, The Lone Ranger, Pat Buttram, and many others. It made me feel like a kid again. 

Roy and Gene-Seniors

All the cowboys…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the wannabe cowboys…

Have turned into Senior Citizens!

Dave Thomas
May 27, 1992; revised November 6, 2013; added pictures February 15, 2015

Work Horses

I was born in 1936 so I did most of my growing up during the 1940’s. Of course, the most important part of that decade was World War II but there are a lot of memories in addition to that. For instance, I’ve got some fond memories of draft horses. We referred to them as “work horses” as opposed to saddle horses or pleasure horses. In the early 1900’s, my great grand-dad, Will Peebler drilled wells but also had what was described as a “handsome” black team of horses and hired himself and the team out in order to make a living.

By the time the 1940’s rolled around, cars, trucks, and tractors were already doing a lot of the work that horses had done for us. I can recall a few teams that were still working as I grew up and will try to tell you about them.

Across the street from the house we lived in was a regular-sized city lot. The owner put the whole thing in as a garden each year and hired a man with a team to plow it for him. The place wasn’t big enough for a tractor and at that time, we didn’t have things like roto-tillers or small garden tractors so it was the perfect job for a team of horses. I always enjoyed watching them because the man and the horses knew their jobs and got the work done with a small and subtle amount of communication.

Another team of horses I saw practically every day was the team that worked with the street cleaners. The street cleaners were two men who worked for the city and with the help of a team of horses kept our city streets clean. At that time most of our streets had concrete gutters and the surfaces were either covered with bricks or asphalt. The street cleaners had push brooms and shovels and a team of horses who pulled a specially designed wagon that had high sides and was a bottom-dumper. The surfaces of the streets stayed pretty clean from the normal breezes and the wind created by passing cars so the men mostly had to sweep the gutters. They would sweep along for a few feet until they had a small pile and then the horses would automatically advance the wagon to where the men were and the men would take square point shovels and pick up the dirt and throw it in the wagon. The horses would stand still until the men advanced a few more feet and then they would catch up with them again. The men were nice guys and would talk to us and let us pet the horses. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember the men’s names but the horses were Dick and Prince. Of course, at that time, 95% of all teams in the world, I think, were named Dick and Prince.

The next team I’ll talk about is the team belonging to the Garbage Man but I need to start with an explanation of how trash and garbage worked back in those days. There was no trash pick-up by the city. When the trash baskets in the house got full, you took them out back to the alley and dumped them in the trash barrel. The trash barrel was a 55 gallon drum with the top cut out and would have a piece of screen or mesh over it to keep sparks and embers from flying out and setting your yard on fire. You burned the trash when the barrel got full. If you had items that were too big for the barrel or wouldn’t burn, you hauled them to the city dump and there was no fee for dumping.

You took care of your own garbage, too. There were no garbage disposals back then. You would set a pan or can by the sink and as you prepared a meal you would put the peelings or cut-offs in the pan or can. Then, after the meal you would scrape the dishes into the pan. When everything was cleaned up you would take the pan out back of the house and dump it in the slop bucket. The slop bucket was a 5 gallon bucket with a lid on it to discourage flies and critters from getting a free meal. Once or twice a week, depending on the schedule, you would set the slop buckets out for the Garbage Man.

For most towns the garbage man was a local farmer who raised pigs and used the garbage for feed. Quite often he was one of the most successful farmers in the area. Along with being enterprising enough to pick up the garbage so his hog farm would prosper, he generally had a good business head and was productive in all his ventures.

The garbage man would take a standard 4-wheel wagon and line it with galvanized metal to make it as waterproof and drip-proof as possible so his profits wouldn’t leak away and also so that the townspeople wouldn’t get mad at him for stinking up the neighborhood.

To make his collections, the Garbage Man would walk alongside the off horse from house –to-house, stopping to pick up the buckets and dump them in the wagon. The horses knew their job and always stopped with the wagon right beside the buckets. Quite often we kids would walk alongside and visit with the man and the horses.

My great-great uncle, Will Church, had a team of mules. One day, when I was around twelve or so, I rode my bike out to his farm to see how he and Aunt Ella were doing. They happened to be harvesting corn that day. Uncle Will or one of the men helping him would cut the ear of corn off the stalk and pitch it into the wagon that the mules were hitched to. The mules knew their job and would only take a couple of steps at a time so the wagon was never too far from the men doing the picking. The mules pretty much took care of themselves until they got to the end of the row and then one of the men would help them to get turned and lined up to go back the other way.

It was always fun to see the horses and mules and watch them work. They knew what they were doing and would patiently do whatever was asked of them. Also, they never seemed to mind when some kid wanted to talk to them and pet them a little.

Dave Thomas
October 28, 2013

Cutting Horse

Cutting Horse

I received a clipping about the Augusta City Lake drying up. It was the same way in 1955 …the north end of the lake had dried up and a good crop of tumbleweeds and other trash had grown up.

That spring, I and a couple of other guys had taken a truck down to Oklahoma and bought a load of horses for 50 bucks a head. In the spring, the Indians run the horses down out of the hills and sell them off and if you are careful you can pick out a few head that will  make decent riding horses and can train and sell them and make a few bucks. I bought 2 head and by the middle of summer had sold off one and was making good progress with the other. The one I had left was a little gray gelding that weighed about 900 lbs and looked more like a big dog. He was so quick on his feet you had to really be alert or he’d be going one way and you’d be going another. I was keeping him on a farm that was 2 sections over from the city lake and rode him over there pretty often. The dry lake bed was smooth and wasn’t full of gopher holes though like I said there was a fair amount of brush.

Bear with me because I’m finally getting to my story. One day we rode over to the lake and when we got out on that dry lake bed we jumped a jack rabbit. Well, that little old Smokey horse cut that rabbit off and went to working him just like it was a steer. That jack rabbit was quick but that horse was quicker and I had a hell of a time keeping my seat. We worked that rabbit until he was so frazzled he wouldn’t even move. That was one of the best afternoons I ever had on a horse.

Dave Thomas
November 2, 2011

 

 

The Horse Feeder

The Horse Feeder

I went to the doctor down in Fort Worth yesterday and when I got in the waiting room I sat down beside another senior citizen. We talked for a few minutes about the big storm that was due to hit during the night. After talking that over for a few minutes we were sitting quietly with our own thoughts. I was mainly thinking of the chores I should get done before the bad weather hit. Then, all of a sudden, he says, “We’re from up in Denton and we’ve got some horses on our place up there or, to be correct, I should say that my wife has some horses on our place up there. The problem is she’s afraid of storms and especially scared to death of being hit by lightning. So, when the big storms like this one come, I have to get out there and feed the horses. Among our family and friends I’m known as the “Sacrificial Horse Feeder.”

Dave Thomas
April 23, 2008