Mr. Jenny has been wanting to write creative stories for some time. Last week he shared his 4th of July 1958 story with you and this week he is sharing again. He says he is "taking over" the Sunday spot on my blog and so we shall begin a new weekly feature here - Sundays with Steve. There will be a button and a tab eventually but for now just visit each Sunday to enjoy his words.
In 1950, the United States had 155 million residents. My home state of Idaho had 500,000, if you counted jackrabbits, elk and deer. Of the half a million people in our homogenized state, about 900 were African American. Just two lived in our town. He, affectionately known as Blue Pete, was a purveyor of fine, custom prepared barbeque, and she, Nellie, was my nanny.
My two brothers and I had a bit of reputation in town, having run off numerous babysitters over the years. Several different college girls had boarded in our house as well, earning room and board by helping out with babysitting after school and on weekends. We ran them off too, without much difficulty.
But that all changed just before I turned four, the day Nellie came into our lives at our family home in the Normal Hill neighborhood.
She was stern lady with gnarled arthritic fingers that I found fascinating when they were wagging in my face during a scolding. She stood maybe 4 foot 8 inches tall, graying black hair pulled tightly back, always wearing the long shapeless dresses popular back then. While she was stern, she seemed to laugh a lot at the high-jinks of three little boys when she didn’t think we were watching. Nellie’s short stature was overridden by her stern voice. I doubt she weighed 100 pounds. She seemed ancient. Was she? Probably not. She was, perhaps, in her early 50s, but at the time, to a four-year-old under the task master’s watchful eye, ‘ancient’ was the impression.
I don’t know exactly how Nellie came to our house. I believe she’d worked many years for my grandmother who also lived in our town, helping “Gramby” raise four children and take care of a large family home.
The three of us boys were no angels. Gordon, the eldest, would have been about 6 and in the first grade. I was 4, and David, the undeniable hellion of the group, was 3. I suspect our energy levels were spectacular and our curiosities unbounded. I’m more than sure it was recipe for parental breakdown and exhaustion.
Nellie never showed an ounce of exhaustion or impatience, at least to us. This lovely lady thrived while nurturing three live-wire children. Discipline was immediate. (It wasn’t there before she arrived? Oh, surely you jest! It must have been.) She put up with no nonsense. ‘No nonsense’ sometimes ended up with a paddling, one of us having to stand in the corner, or worse yet, being sent to bed, even if it was in the middle of the afternoon. I’m sure one or two mouths were washed out with soap on more than one occasion.
But her discipline was balanced with love. The stern Nellie quickly became a nurturing, loving caregiver as fast as a scraped knee or bruised shin could occur. She had an incredible soft spot for the three of us.
With white hair and deeply weathered skin, Blue Pete seemed old. He was a bit cantankerous, and he seemed intolerant of small children. But he was one who’d give you a bear hug just because you were looking “sweet”. He said he didn’t like small children, but he’d hold me on his lap at night until I fell asleep.
Where did the name Blue Pete come from? I don’t know. I recall Nellie often calling, ‘Blue Pete, come here please, right this instant!’ His name was universal in our town, and I don’t remember anyone ever calling him Pete without the ‘Blue’ in front of it. Was his coloring dark, to the point of being “blue”? Yes, it was. Did that distract or raise any discrimination issues? None of which I was ever aware. Today it certainly would. In the 1950’s, in a rural, northern, low-population state, not so much.
The first time I remember staying away from home at someplace other than at Gramby’s house, was a week spent with Nellie and Blue Pete at their small house down “on the flat”, an area of the town that use to flood every few decades. It wasn’t the upper-crust neighborhood in town, rather more of the ‘heel’.
I recall that that Nellie & Blue Pete’s small white house was immaculate for a while, until we three demons dismantled everything in sight. But our favorite fun was not inside; it was out in the side yard in the smoking shed.
Blue Pete made his living by custom barbequing meats for folks. If you wanted ribs, you’d call Blue Pete and place an order. It would be ready for you day after tomorrow, or whenever you needed it, as long as it wasn’t today or tomorrow. His was not a walk-in commercial enterprise; it was that of a man pursuing his life-long skills out the back door of his home. Pete had been cooking for decades, with a large and loyal following.
If you wanted barbeque, pork, beef, chicken, or even a whole piglet for your company picnic, you’d call Blue Pete.
I remember how Blue Pete smelled, both the man and his clothes. It was a combination of wood and cigar smoke that was uniquely smoky, light, and sweet. I can smell it even now as I write this; I don’t recall encountering it since those days in the 1950s.
Blue Pete’s smoking pit was an open shed that had a roof but no walls. The sides were fenced in with thick gage, steel wire fencing, the kind that allowed all the air to blow through, but still kept the neighborhood critters (and children) out. A chimney poked out the roof, but, as I remember, a lot of the smoke drifted through the shed and not up the pipe.
In addition to being the barbeque king of the region, Blue Pete also made his living as the town crier.
Lewiston, Idaho did not get its first radio station until the late 1940s. Before that the daily Lewiston Morning Tribune was the only immediate source of news. Electronic news delivery via radio or television didn’t exist yet in our town.
Lewiston was an isolated town in an isolated region, at the end of a U.S. highway and 300 miles “up river” from the nearest large city, Portland, Oregon. It survived on timber production, agriculture and little else. The town’s population was about 15,000 in those years. Today, it has around 30,000 residents, if you count the dogs and cats along with the people. It is still isolated and dependent upon timber production and agriculture. Not a lot has changed.
Enough of the geography lesson, except for this: I had to write a Chamber of Commerce essay for a class paper in the 8th grade. When I cited all of the above information, I finally figured out that my home town really was just a sleepy backwater somewhere “up river”. The teacher didn’t agree, and gave me a “D” for calling the place sleepy and a backwater.
Back to Blue Pete: In the 1930s and 1940s if you wished to know the outcome of regional or national elections, championship fights, football games, or breaking war news from Europe or Japan, you sought out Blue Pete.
You found him stationed outside the Tribune’s tiny offices and press room on 3rd Street downtown, where the newspaper was bracketed on one side by a shared common wall with the Lewiston city hall and police department and on the other by an interior decorating store filled with horrid old people stuff. Rod Marsh’s Goodyear Tire store was out back of the Tribune, and O’Brien’s Lounge, a favorite watering hole for thirsty scribes and the local cops, was just up the block.
The newspaper had the only teletype machine in the region, which was the only news link to the outside world. Unless you were willing to pay a princely sum to make a scratchy operator-assisted and often unsuccessful long distance telephone call to find the news of the day, you waited for the morning newspaper to be delivered to your doorstep with its AP dispatches. That AP teletype clattered 24 hours a day with breaking news from around the world.
It was Pete’s job, as the town crier, to monitor the AP teletype machine and scan the news as it came in. He would tear the continuous feed of paper out of the machine and separate out the information. Then he would walk quickly out the front door of the newspaper office where he would stand atop a wooden box and read the news item to the waiting crowd.
Blue Pete repeated this every few minutes through the day or evening, as the AP machine spit-out important updates to the breaking news. Pete was the first broadcaster in our small town, calling out from his soap box in front of the Tribune office. He started this service in the early 1930’s, and stopped when the radio station went on the air. His services were paid for by the newspaper and its public-minded publisher, my grandfather, Eugene Alford.
Nellie was with us for three or four years before her beloved Blue Pete died of a heart attack. She felt crushed, alone, and very lonely. After a number of months of sorrowful grieving, she decided to “go home” to Chicago to live with her daughter and grandchildren.
It was a sad, but fascinating time for us youngsters. The day she boarded the train that would take her to Spokane, Washington, and then on to Chicago on the Great Northern Railway, was a surprise for all of us, particularly so for Nellie. A crowd of 1,000 or so had turned-out to wish her well and to say goodbye. Nellie was dressed all in black, with a somber hat and veil. The three of us stood on the wooden railway baggage cart, with its tall iron wheels, and watched the crowd in amazement. Nellie was hugged, cried over, and begged to stay. She was overwhelmed at the outpouring of love.
She cried as she held each of us three boys, reluctant to let us go. In quiet voices we asked her to stay, too.
Then she climbed the steep stairs into the passenger car, walked inside, and found a window seat. She raised the window and waved to us, my brothers and me, as one of the last steam locomotives ever to service that town pulled out of the station with great gushes of steam and a loud whistle.
We never saw Nellie again. There was an occasional letter and Christmas cards in increasingly brittle handwriting. In every letter and card we received, Nellie wrote that she missed her Blue Pete, mightily.
Nellie lived out her days in Chicago with her daughter and grandchildren. She died in 1967, of a terminally broken heart I suspect.
This I know. I also know that other thing.
2 days ago