Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do you Lewis? Do you Dorothy? September 1, 1935


Seventy-six years ago, September 1, 1935 on a quiet Sunday evening in Amarillo, Texas, Dorothy Alice Beeman donned her new “three piece suit of London fog blue with grey lapin trim and grey accessories,” pinned on her lilies of the valley corsage. She took a deep breath and her father’s arm. They stepped into the living room of 2102 Fillmore where Lewis Nordyke, her college sweetheart, stood waiting along side her uncle Will Buchanan. Uncle Will, a Baptist minister, said the words, they made their vows and turned toon the world—husband and wife.
            The newspaper account reports that the young couple promptly headed for Dallas where Lewis worked for the Associated Press. That’s almost right. They didn’t head straight for Dallas. They headed straight for the Herring Hotel in downtown Amarillo. Probably not posh by today’s standard, but the poshest thing in Amarillo in 1935. Once there, Lewis excused himself to go downstairs for a Lucky while she changed.
            Years later she told her daughters how she put on her new white ‘nightie,’ hopped into bed and pulled the covers tight under her chin and waited, not quite sure, she told them what would happen next. (I questioned that then, and, having read some of the love letters, question that still.)
            She waited, and she waited, and then she waited some more. It was a good thing she’d packed a book in with the nightie, because she waited for over an hour. Turned out, Lewis had “bumped into some old boy, and they got to talking. He forgot all about coming back upstairs to me,” she told the girls.
            The younger daughter wondered how mad she got. She didn’t get mad, she explained, “That’s what it’s like to be married to a newspaper man.” 


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In the garden, a home wedding

“Let’s get married at home,” Lewis dreamily wrote to Dottie sometime in 1934. Already he was planning. And they did. I grew up on stories of that home wedding in Amarillo.
            When time for my wedding came, both of them urged me to have a home wedding. “It’s our family’s tradition.” No problem for me. I loved those stories, and I loved our house.
            Dottie and Lewis spend that hot Amarillo summer working hard and successfully to convert the ‘backyard’ to a 'garden.' Just the day before the big day, Lewis and a friend borrowed a ladder and pulled the two swings and trapeze down from our Godzilla-proof swing set. (Dottie had friends who’s kids had over ended there Sears-variety swing set. No way, so she commissioned a three-or-so inch pipe frame and set it in concrete. Like I said, no way Nan and Trilla would go over.) As soon as the swings came down, the fellows from Freeman’s Flowers started decking the frame with ivy and mums. Instant alter.
            On the morning of August 30, 1958, Lewis came down the stairs of the home he and Dottie adored with his eighteen-year-old daughter, Trilla. Another home wedding for the Nordyke family.

Read more about this happy day at, and watch here for more about Lewis and Dottie’s wedding right here on September 1, their big day.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where have I been?

Here I have these fascinating letters, this chunk of history, and where have I been?
            Away from this blog, that’s for sure. Here’s some mental meandering about why I don’t seem to be doing much with my treasure. I can look at it from at least a couple of perspectives. First there’s the daughter, second there’s the amateur historian who was once a professional economist. These two have far different concerns, but both find them worthy of thought before moving on. (There’s the third a teacher/disciplinarian who drones “your paper is late! Get with it.”)
            First the daughter—it’s strange and disconcerting meeting this youngish man. I’ve stopped thinking of him as my dad. Now I call him Lewis even, occasionally, Lewie. I worry about him. He’s so concerned about those debts, will he get a better job, and will he ever, ever get a book published? I want to pour him another cup of coffee and tell him not to worry, everything will be okay. I read a letter dated on my birthday, but several years before I make the scene. “Boy, are you going to be surprised!” Then I catch my breath, he tells Dottie how they’ll grow old together, watch their grandchildren, read books. I’d never tell him that this wasn’t in the cards. He’d meet only one of his five grandchildren, and that one he had but six months. Not what you need to go through life knowing. I feel like the old gypsy lady with a crystal ball—I see all, but what would I tell?
            I remember a busy Daddy, sometimes brusque and a little temperamental. (Watch out when that fair face turns red!) Is he this tentative, gentle fellow writing the letters? I do recognize this—he always was a hard worker, too hard almost. When I was a little girl, we couldn’t make noise after supper—the minute the dishes came off the dining room table, the little red Royal typewriter went down and Daddy started “pecking out a story.” Most nights I went to sleep to that clicking lullaby.
            The young man I’m growing to love was just as hard a worker. He spent the day not only as editor of the paper, but reporter, and sometimes ad salesman. He managed to write to Dottie almost everyday two or three single-spaced pages, not all mushy love—there is some of course, as a daughter I can’t decide if I should avert my eyes or clap my hands—but comments on his town, his times, the new government (New Deal), and his ambitions, oh his ambitions. His resolution was to submit news releases (he was paid by the word) to the Associated Press, the Dallas Morning News, or the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram every single day. The money helped with what seemed staggering debts and gave him a little extra. That where the red Royal came from. It also gave him a name and a reputation with the big boys. He had a novel in and out, in and out, publisher after publisher, to no avail. (I hope it’s in my attic.) He spilled over with ideas for short stories. What energy, but what joy in doing what he loved and had dreamed of as a lad.
            So there are a few of my daughter feelings. They are brimming over. And what to do? As a minimum, get this together so the five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren have a legacy from Lewis and from Dottie. But I think there is more. What I’m pondering is what is that more?
An additional thought: besides the daughter, the historian, and the mean disciplinarian, there’s a fourth—the fiction writer. I’ve promised my writing group that I’ll make a stab at turning the first letter in to an ‘on the road’ short story. I’ll post some of my efforts here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Off to work he goes

Lewis went right to work. The folks back home in Cottonwood had to make do without the family car for a few days, because the new boss, Rufus Higgs, not only made the offer late in the afternoon, but he told Lewis that he needed to go to work—right that minute.
Today, it's the home of an art gallery;
in  1933, and for many years after, it was
home to the Empire-Tribune, where on
Tuesday, June 13, Lewis rolled up his
sleeves and went to work.

Not a problem for Lewis. He rolled up his sleeves and got started. He did, no surprise, find a few minutes to type a quick note to Dottie—ever on his mind.

            I went to work this afternoon, editing copy and writing heads. Gee, my vacation is going to be rather short. A more accurate way to say it is that my vacation consisted of three days hitch-hiking from Missouri and a day and a half at home, for my job has already started. How’s that for moving into action?
He goes on to tell her how the job makes him a correspondent for the Associated Press, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas News. This was great. It would mean exposure in the state-wide press—important, because he knew from the get-go that this job was only for the year Higgs was president of the press association—and because this paid extra by the word. Not much, a cent or sometimes half a cent, but those cents add up to dollars for a man who wrote, wrote, wrote and wrote. (That’s what Lewis did.)
The Erath County, Texas Courthouse

His quick message sounded a note of triumph—
Sent you a couple of our papers this afternoon.

But almost 80 years after he wrote it, his last paragraph makes me pause:

Dottie, all this I’m telling you is, of course, just between the two of us. I’d not think of telling any other person so much of my business. I think you understand.

I’m sure she did. But what about that trust and intention now? Dottie didn’t destroy the letters, and like the letters, I began “just between the two of them.” It seems to me I have a right to read them, but am I betraying their trust when I share. Or am I preserving history?

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. Lewis’s letters capture not only a young love but America entering the New Deal, the world of FDR, the sad world of the Great Depression all in a little town on the edge of west Texas. His details are graphic and excruciating—the need to be known. I think the two journalists understand.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Envelope--Please

A mighty good letter.
Dottie knew before she opened the letter. Had to. Had to know the instant she pulled the long-awaited (really it had only been a couple of days, but it had to have felt like forever) envelope from the mail box at 2102 Fillmore in Amarillo. The return address told it all—
Stephenville Empire-Tribune. He had the job.
Her glance down at the address confirmed it. Typed! Oh, joy! Another writer’s dream come true. No more long handwritten letters or manuscripts, it might be borrowed, but he had a typewriter.
            Lewis cut right to the chase:
“I got the job. I know nothing about the amount and type of work yet, but Mr. Higgs just told me he wants me.”
Lewis didn’t have to think about it. The answer was “yes.”  Was he excited? “Guess I should have waited until after five to write you so I could have given you the details. But you know how I am about such things.”
            Later on the same day, he got the details. He couldn’t wait; he wrote another letter. For the next year, while his boss travelled the state as head of the Press Association, Lewis would just about single-handedly put out the paper—writing, editing, proofreading, sometimes hawking ads and selling office supplies over the counter. No he didn’t run a linotype or the press (wished he could), but he did sometimes spend the night at the Higgs house since Mrs. Higgs was afraid of being alone at night and serving as the boss’s driver on long trips. For this, he would get $15 a week with a vague promise of a raise if things ‘worked out.’ Loosely translated, that’s about $15, 000 a year in today’s dollars. Doesn’t sound like much, but in 1933 it sounded mighty good. And plenty of fellows were ready and willing.  When he offered the job, Mr. Higgs told him “. . . about thirty-five men had been after the job but that he’d been holding it for me.”
Lean times, low wages indeed, but Lewis was mighty happy, He had a job, a job, less than a week after he marched across the stage in Columbia, Missouri. A job in journalism where he would write for a living and maybe sell some pieces on the side to the Associated Press and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He had a job and he was one step closer to making his dreams come true. One step closer to being with Dottie.

"I got the job."
A mighty good day and a mighty good letter, indeed.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Waiting and Worrying

The Nordyke farm lay between
Admiral and Cottonwood, south
and east of Baird. It's the beginning
of the Texas hill country.

I’ve abandoned Lewis’s story for the last several entries. Let’s get back to that tired young man who is standing on a Central/West Texas farm about 130 west of Ft. Worth, not quite to Abilene. He’s standing there wondering, not knowing whether to be hopeful or scared.
            He’s got a brand-new, less than a week old, degree in journalism from the University of Missouri; he’s exhausted because he’s hitchhiked across Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to get home; he’s in love with a girl hundreds of miles away; and, looming over all of this, he doesn’t have a job.
            Sounds like lots of new college graduates, except for the hitchhiking maybe, but wait, consider the times. It is hard times. Harder than 2010, harder than 2011, the heart of the hardest time this country has experienced. Franklin Roosevelt’s “First Hundred Days” are winding down, the country has hopes that the New Deal will mean a good deal, but meanwhile hungry people roam the streets, almost of quarter of the work force is unemployed, not just laborers and factory workers, but people across the spectrum, teachers, and doctors, business owners who have gone bust, sales clerks, college professors—and journalists.
            It’s been Lewis’s dream since childhood to write, that’s why he’s made the sacrifices, hard ones like a car and a good job, to get the journalism degree. And now? Where will he end up? Helping his dad on the farm, being a cowboy again, maybe teaching school like his sister Alda (who by the way gave up her studies at Texas Tech to help her younger brother pursue his dream) in Cross Plains or Baird? He could barely bear the thought, but the thought wouldn’t go away.
            A couple of rays of hope shine for him. One barely gleaming; he’s sent a novel to a New York publisher—maybe just maybe, but when will he know? The other gleams brighter. He’ll know tomorrow. When Lewis had worked in Stephenville after finishing John Tarleton’s two year program, he’d gone to work for the college, but he’d also done some work for the Empire-Tribune, the local weekly newspaper. Now he has a letter in his pocket from the publisher and editor, Rufus Higgs. Higgs is about to become president of the Texas Press Association. He’ll be travelling too much to get the paper out. He needs a man (always a man in 1933) to keep things going for a year. After that . . . who knows? And maybe, just maybe Lewis is that man. They need to talk.
          The next morning, Lewis will take his Dad’s car, head west to Stephenville, and see what happens.
            Lewis isn’t the only one worrying. He’s poured his fears and anxiety out in that first letter to Dottie:
“Dottie, I am anxious about the job in Stephenville . . . I’m going to Stephenville tomorrow. I’ll let you know what comes of the trip. I fell, tho, as if I’ve nearly got to get the job. I just don’t know what I’ll do if something knocks me out of getting that place. Guess I’ll make it somehow tho’.”  
One sleepless night ahead for Lewis, and a couple for Dottie who will have to wait for his Tuesday letter to know what happens to Lewis . . . and maybe to her.

An aside: A book that puts a human face on the Great Depression is "A Secret Gift" by Ted Gup. It tells of Canton, Ohio families hit hard by hard times. Their stories repeated across the country. I'll post a review here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fiddlin' Around A Father's Day Tribute

In honor of Father’s Day, here’s a tribute to a fine, fiddling, farming Texas Dad—my grandfather, Charles T. Nordyke, husband of Narrie (see my entry about Narrie on May  , Mother’s Day), and father of my dad, Lewis T. Nordyke. This entry is at both and I don’t overlap often, but today, I do.

Fiddlin’ around

All of his life Charlie was fiddlin' for friend, family
and party-line pals.

Charlie couldn’t remember when he didn’t have a fiddle in his hand. Everyone in his family did, or a guitar, or banjo, maybe a mandolin. About the proudest day of his life was when he was 12. He got his own violin. No more borrowing or waiting his turn. His own violin! It was beat up and old when he got it but he treasured it and played for the next 75 years, but not every day, he’d promised his mother he’d never play on Sunday until he was 80. (I remember many joyous Sunday evenings listening to “Turkey in the Straw, “The Soldier’s Joy,” and, of course, “Listen to the Mockingbird” after that awaited birthday.) The violin was always Charlie’s proudest possession.
            Born in Missouri, Charlie and his family followed the bumper sticker dictum and got to Texas just as fast as they could. When he was only four, he rode a gray mare tied behind his family’s wagon as the wagon train wound its way to Texas. Once there Charlie’s branch of the family bid good bye to friends and some family in Callahan County and headed south to Limestone County, where Charlie grew up, hating farming and loving his fiddle.
Narrie and Charlie Nordyke
married December 24, 1899
            When he was a young man he determined to live by the fiddle and not the plow. He headed to Ft. Worth where he ended up in the red-light district. He could handle that, but not the requirement that he work on Sunday. He headed back to Limestone County. But he didn’t give up his quest. He decided to set off fo Alaska and the Klondike, but first a trip to Callahan to say good-bye to the Nordyke kin. That changed everything.

One of those dratted mules.
            Young Nancy Narcissus Coffey (Narrie) flat stole his heart. There went the Klondike, here came the wedding bells. On December 24, 1899 Charlie and Narrie married. For the next 50 years Charlie farmed by day, cussin’ mules, hauling cotton, hating it, but in the evenings—ah! Out came the fiddle, here came the neighbors. Right through seven children, Haley’s Comet, two world wars, the great depression, Charlie fiddled, thumped his foot and was happy.
            So were the neighbors who came from all over for their fiddle fix. Lewis, his middle child and my dad, speculated that the Nordyke family may have set up the country’s first network when they figured out that if Charlie fiddled into the telephone, all their party-line friends could join in.
The family gathered, probably for Narrie's sixtieth birthday
in April, 1934. Standing behind their parents
Alda, Clarence, Bessie, Lewis, Elsie, Noel, and Peaches. The
live-giving windmill towers over them.

 Lewis didn't grow up to be a fiddler; he grew up to be a writer, and, in 1960, he wrote a piece about his fiddlin’ father for the Saturday Evening Post.  You can read about it and download the article at Perfect reading for Father’s Day afternoon 
Here’s to Charlie, Lewis and all the great dads celebrating their day.