I was twelve years old in 1961 and my family lived in the dry, hot Arizona city of Yuma. My older brother spent a summer or two with my grandparents and great aunt in the southwestern Ozark town of Noel, Missouri and now it was my turn to spend the summer there. It was decided that I would travel there on a greyhound bus with my other grandmother, Grandma Barr.
My grandma Barr, then in her early sixties, lived with my family and while both of my parents worked, she cooked, cleaned and took care of me and my younger sister during the day. I recall lunches of fried bologna sandwiches, dinners of spaghetti red – a spaghetti red unlike any I’ve had since – and my most favorite breakfast, French toast. Grandma Barr put eggs, some milk and a very generous amount of sugar into a bowl, mixed the ingredients thoroughly, dipped slices of bread into the mix and fried the moistened slices in a skillet. Now that was what French toast was supposed to be!
When the morning we were to leave finally arrived Grandma Barr and I waited patiently inside the bus station until it was finally announced that our bus was boarding. I carried only one bag which contained just enough clothes and the most essential items, a swim suit, a baseball, baseball glove and baseball cap.
My Grandma Barr, my mother’s mother, was somehow related to a couple, Buzz and Pearl Wollard, who lived on a farm near Anderson, Missouri which was not far from Noel. I remembered visiting there several times in the past and always recalled how beautiful and well maintained the farmhouse was. Pearl and Buzz kept it looking just as a farmhouse should look, at least to my way of thinking. While I would spend the summer months with my Grandfather Fine, Grandmother Phoebe, and Phoebe’s sister, my great aunt, Rosalyn, in Noel, Grandma Barr would stay with the Woolards.
My Grandma Barr never talked much about her childhood but once tried to point out how good my life was by talking about hers. She said she grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and in fact, lived not far from the famous Alamo. When she was eleven years old her parents were killed and she was taken in by a wealthy couple she referred to only as, “The Grimsingers.” Grandma Barr said that for six years, and only until she left their home, she kept house, cooked, cleaned and worked from the break of day until darkness fell. She said she was their maid and housekeeper.
I sat in an aisle seat on the bus and Grandma Barr sat directly across from me, also in an aisle seat. The seat next to me remained empty until we reached Amarillo, Texas. There a tall, thin yellow haired boy got on the bus. Standing in the aisle, and holding only a large brown paper bag, he looked from side to side. After no more than a few seconds he spotted the vacant seat beside me and, without speaking a word, sat down.
He placed his bag on the floor near his feet then, and without looking at me, said “Where you headed?” “Noel, Missouri,” I replied. “Never heard of it;” His words came out casually and without any inflection whatsoever distinctive only because they had a Texas drawl. “What’s in Noel,” he asked. “I’m going to spend the summer with my grandparents and my other grandmother,” as I pointed to Grandma Barr, “is going there to stay with some relatives who live on a farm.” “Sounds like you have an awful lot of grandparents,” he pointed out.
The young man turned his shoulders slightly toward me, extended his right hand and said, “They call me T.J. My real name is Travis, but just call me T.J., and yours?” “Stan,” I said. He smiled, looked at the top of my head, and asked, “What, with that red hair nobody calls you Red?” Almost embarrassed to admit it I replied, “Well, some people do.” “Good, I’ll call you Red.”
As the bus traveled along Route 66 we talked and, although I was shy at first, T.J. seemed to realize that and made me feel comfortable, almost as if we had been friends forever. “Going to Tulsa to work in the oil business,” he said. I estimated that the boy was no more than fifteen or sixteen years old and I wondered why he didn’t talk about his parents, or even grandparents. “Do you have family there,” I asked. “Nope, nobody,” he replied. “My father’s dead, don’t know where my mom is and never knew any grandparents. I lived a couple years with a lady who might be an aunt, but then, maybe not.”
We continued to talk and laugh as the bus rolled through towns like Shamrock, Texas and Oklahoma City. T.J. got off the bus in Oklahoma City. “Hey Red, watch my stuff will you, I got to see a man about a dog,” he said. “Sure,” I said wondering all the while why he would be interested in a dog. A few minutes later T.J. walked onto the bus carrying a hotdog. The odor of whatever he covered the hotdog with had a foul smell that seemed to crawl up and into my nose. “Here,” he said as he reached into his shirt pocket and brought out a chocolate Hershey candy bar, “My treat.” “Thanks,” maybe the smell of chocolate would kill that other odor.
Not much was said by either of us as the bus came to a stop at the Tulsa bus terminal. “Well, nice meeting you Red and have fun in Noel.” “Same to you, and good luck and thanks again for the candy bar,” I said to T.J. Without another word spoken T.J. gathered up his paper bag and sauntered casually down the aisle. He looked back only once, smiled and waived as he walked away and out of sight. I returned his waive but he had already turned away and I was sure he didn’t see me, but then maybe he wanted it that way. The bus drove away from the gathering of Greyhound buses soon after T.J.’s departure and I was once again on my way to what would be a remarkable summer in Noel.
I think about Grandma Barr sometimes, and the Grimsingers, San Antonio and the happy childhood that the orphaned girl never knew. I remember the fried bologna sandwiches and the special French toast that only she knew how to make. After her death, Margaret, “Maggie,” Barr, Grandma Barr, was buried in the Pineville Cemetery alongside others with weathered blocks of granite also bearing inscriptions with the last name of Barr.
I now wish I had asked Travis, T.J., more questions; what was his last name, what happened to his family and why was he all alone? Maybe T.J. did get that job in Tulsa and became a wealthy oil tycoon. As a child I wished for that but, as I grew older, I became cynical, as adults sometimes do, and believed that T.J. most likely fell upon much harder times.