Sometime in February 1936
The slimy-looking black ribbon highway reflected like a mirror in the early morning light. Nearby parked cars were covered with a heavy frozen mist, appearing like flash-frozen fish. It was dark and silent. No distant dog barking, no rooster crowing, just a page waiting to be written upon. Klamath Falls is like that in the wintertime.
Standing by the side of the road was a young couple, nearly crouched as the man and woman defended each other from the blasts of southerly wind. One lone suitcase sat on the frozen earth between them.
The night stirred from its coma when distant headlights changed from one golden ball to two. A diesel truck's low drone got louder.
John stepped to the edge of the pavement and held his arm straight out, thumb up. It was an effort with the jabbing pain he felt. The high-pitched sound of brakes brought a look of relief on both their faces.
"Where ya folks headed?" The truck driver asked.
"Porterville," John replied.
"Hop in; I can take you as far as Stockton."
Pearl's eyes looked up in surprise, and a smile formed in the corners of her mouth. "Stockton!" her home. Pearl's thin body was out of balance with the bit of bulge she carried in the front. She extended her arm up and grasped the driver's outstretched hand. With a lurch, she was in the cab. John struggled as he slowly pushed the suitcase behind the front seat before turning to get settled.
"All set, folks?"
"Yep. Let's go," John speaking almost in a whisper now, as he fought back the pain.
"It's pretty cold to be out there in this wind. Are you coming or going?"
John, gauging an eight-hour drive, maybe more, felt this was an excellent time to begin a story, an adventure he could share with a stranger who didn't have a stake in the outcome.
"Well, it's like this," he said, looking down at the floorboards.
"Pearl and I got married last April." He puckers his lips.
"She was underage, so we ran away to Nevada to get married. Then we couldn't just go back to Stockton because her folks would've had me in jail for crossing the state line with a minor. Her folks would have annulled our marriage too. So, I decided the best bet was to stay hidden for a year, and then after that, there would be nothing for her family to undo."
"How old is Pearl?" the driver asked, a little worry in his voice.
John takes a deep breath and winces.
"She's 16. Going to be 17 in April, the month before the baby is due."
All the while, Pearl looks ahead down the road that will take her home.
"So, what are you planning to do in Porterville? Got a job lined up there?" the driver continued.
"My older brother and his family live there. They don't know we're coming, but I know we can get a place to stay with them for a while."
His voice weakens as he hopes what he said was true.
"It looks like you've got an injury there. What happened? You get in a fight or something?"
John pauses, wondering where to begin.
"Well, there is a lot to that story. I'll start at the beginning. After we got married, we stayed in Sacramento for a while at my brother Dan's place. He had a room in his pump house, up at the top. It sure was hot up there in August. We had to climb down the stairs to get to the outhouse. Pearl wasn't tolerating it very well once she got pregnant. Since I always wanted to go to Oregon, we decided to check out where most of my brothers and sisters were born in Sandy. Even stop in and see my sister Eva in Gresham.
I wanted to run my own business, just as my sister Eva was doing. My only experience, though, was running a wrecking yard. I ran one in Stockton, yah know?
It turned out Eva was doing pretty darn good with her rest home and making a bit of money. So, she gave me a little help, kind of like a wedding present, I guess. Since the land was cheap in Klamath Falls and Pearl wanted to be closer to California, we chose that as our landing-place, where I opened my wrecking yard. I had mechanical talent and enjoyed that kind of work.
Well, everything was going well until a few days before Christmas. There Pearl and I were enjoying a cozy fire that evening, holding hands, and the darn phone rings. It's someone wanting a tow for their broken-down car. It was just up the hill from the yard, so I told Pearl I would be back soon. I'm out there getting the hitch chained up, and I see headlights aiming right for me. The next thing I know, I'm laying flat out in a field, gasping for breath.
I remember little after that. The hospital staff said that someone had dropped me off at the front door, all bloodied up. I guess I was in and out of it for several days. The guy who hit me was an off-duty police officer who had been drinking at a holiday party. He lost control of his car on that icy corner where I was working and slid right into me. I later learned the impact threw me into the air, landing me in the field down below. The drunk guy was afraid of losing his job, so he didn't want to walk into the hospital with me and admit what happened. So, he dumped me off at the front door of the hospital and left. The trouble is, he was driving the department's police car.
Somehow, they figured out that I had a family somewhere. Finally got ahold of Pearl. They brought her to the hospital to see me. She's the one who told me how bad off I was and what had happened, that I had several broken ribs and a punctured lung."
Pearl listened to John's story, keeping her thoughts to herself. Her prayers were the only reason her husband was sitting next to her now. God had answered her.
"I was in the hospital until just a few weeks ago. Every breath reminded me of the broken ribs I had, and it was hard to get a full breath of air. When I finally was released to go home, Pearl and I talked over what we could do. I figured we were in a hell of a jam. The police department covered hospital bills and had given a minimal amount of money that kept Pearl going while I was confined. But now, there is nothing left.
The only answer was to sell every damn thing we had, even the car. Use the money to get to my family for help. And see if I can get a job there in Porterville."
By now, Pearl had dozed off, the engine's humming and the heater's warmth lulling her to sleep. Her head leaned against John. John, too, finally felt a sense of relief having shared his story.
The driver had been listening intently.
"You've been through a lot. Sure, you don't want to go to her folks in Stockton and take a chance they will help you?"
By dark, they were in Stockton, California, where the trucker dropped them off.
The two lost souls swaddled in darkness didn't have two coins to rub together and failed to get another ride. Darkness was again closing in on them. What else could they do but keep on walking? They cut across an open field where the desperate couple finally succumbed to exhaustion and hunger; they both crumbled to the ground.
"If only I had just a piece of bread to eat," Pearl whispered more to herself than to John. She was so homesick that she began to weep with huge choking sobs. They had been
so close to her home that her mother's laundry blowing in the breeze was in her eyesight. She could almost feel and smell her mother's hug. John held her close, comforting her the best he could.
"Honey, we will soon be at Bert's place. We'll have help soon. I know this has been rough on you. I'll get a job. Lucille will help you with the baby."
Lucille was his sister-in-law, married to Bert. Pearl had met her once and liked her. John had seen how the tiny little woman was able to care for that basket full of kids they had. She knew a lot about birthing and baby care, and he was sure she could help Pearl with their new baby.
So, with the last ounce of determination, the couple propelled themselves off the ground and kept walking.
Somewhere south of Stockton, a giant oil rig trucker picked them up, and they had a ride the rest of the way to Porterville. John knew his way to Bert's house. Lights were out, and the stillness of night blanketed the place. John took a measured step and caused the wooden porch to squeak. He tapped lightly on the door. Light from a lantern was moving closer. The door opened, and Bert paused for a second. Then he said in a matter-of-fact voice,
"Where have you been? I've been waiting for you." It was 4 AM.
The couple stayed with Bert and Lucille that spring while John recovered from the accident. Pearl gave birth to the baby in Porterville on May 28, 1936, a girl all the family adored. John began his apprenticeship as a bricklayer with his brother Bert, a flourishing trade he would have for the rest of his life.
The couple lived on for the next 26 years, eventually having seven children. . .. three girls and four boys. They never left California again, not even for a vacation. John provided well for the family as a bricklayer, even building them an attractive home in Carmichael, in the suburbs of Sacramento. Their run-away story was told often with the bittersweetness of love and near tragedy.
One summer day in 1960, John, with slow, reluctant steps, approached Pearl with his handkerchief bunched up in his hand. He hadn't been feeling well and had a cough that kept him hacking. Standing before her, he slowly unfolded the white cloth as if he were about to foretell her future. Pearl gasped as the red blotched material seemed to scream a message she didn't want to hear.
"I think I have lung cancer."
What do you say when your world has just collapsed? At first, you fight to say it isn't so. You deny it like it's the only thing keeping you breathing. Then you begin to hope there is a cure. You pray that God will intercede. You want a miracle. You pray for the doctors to know what to do. Then you finally accept that the train wreck you foresee can't be stopped. And in the end, you pray that God will hasten what must be.
Feeling sick and losing weight, John entered Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento for treatment. Pearl didn't drive, so she was thankful when a neighbor gave her a lift to the hospital. Later she recalled how her feet had felt like they were made of cement as she labored to take just one more step down the long corridor, or was it a tunnel? She said the walls began to compress around her like a cyclone. Thundering sounds choked off any other noise. The rain of memories splashed down and threatened to drown her. At the end of the tunnel was her pale, thin husband barely standing, bent, and beaten. Only now he was much older.
"His lung was punctured, and he had broken ribs." Isn't that what the doctor had said? "Why does he have streaks of grey in his hair? And why is his skin wrinkled with age?"
She again fervently prayed to God to remove her nightmare and let her husband live on. God couldn't be so cruel as to take John now, could He? She argued with God. Had He not heard the 16-year-old's prayers and given John a second chance? Had He given an extension on life, only to angrily stamp "overdue" now? How could the scene pick up to return to the same dog-eared spot as a page in a book; the hospital, the injured lung, the difficulty breathing? Yes, they had an additional 26 years together, BUT GOD! How could you do this? It just isn't fair!
Pearl knew in her heart that God had answered her prayers when she was 16 and her husband was 27. Why did she have to see this hospital scene again when they were 42 and 54? Was it punishment for something she had done? Was this Hell? Had God added a piece of elastic to John's life, only to have all the stretch taken out now?
The intervening time between death's first knocking in K Falls and its final call was years filled with John's love for his family and his captivating stories. He led the children to be industrious and creative. Pearl discretively taught the children religion and independence.
Nothing could stop cancer. John died the first day of spring at the age of 54. He had two grown children and five young ones at home, ages 18 months to fourteen years. Pearl was left with a meager income and no skills for an outside-the-home job. With social security money, she invested in income property. She survived on the rental income, combined with babysitting for other people and selling walnuts grown on her property. Growing a garden produced some food for the family during the summer. Her pride caused her to refuse welfare or food stamps. Her prayers were a daily ritual asking God to help her raise her children and get through the next crisis. Life was challenging but always filled with love.
Despite the trials and tribulations, all seven children grew up as healthy individuals, fell in love, married, became successful in their respective careers, and always supported her with love.
Pearl's wise decision to buy income property provided for her assisted living care in her final years. As her days were waning, she wished to leave an inheritance to her children. Because of her investment, there was even a tiny amount of money to fulfill that wish.
One early summer night in 2016, Pearl lifted her frail, thin arm in the air, thumb up, and beckoned her last ride home.