Why I Wrote About Young Love

            Two experiences are behind the story of Tayla. One, from when I was a kid growing up in Amarillo, Texas. The other as an adult, from my conversations with my Navy-veteran neighbor in Irvine, California.

            First, my experience from when I was a kid. When I was going to school in Amarillo, my classmate who most intrigued me was “Jacques.” He was French Canadian. His father barely spoke English. And at home, “Jacques” spoke French with his parents and his brothers and sisters. As far as I know, his was the only French-speaking family and the only Canadian family in Amarillo.

            “Jacques” would spin for me long tales of what it was like when his family left Amarillo each spring to follow the wheat harvest. I knew about wheat from my grandfather’s farm near Canyon, Texas. But my friend’s family did not own a farm. They owned “combines,” which are self-propelled wheat-harvesting machines. They followed the wheat harvest from farms south of Amarillo, north all the way to farms in Canada.

            “Jacques” liked to talk about the nights along the way. His father contracted with farmers to cut their wheat on the “Great Plains”—north across the Texas Panhandle and the Oklahoma Panhandle, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and on into Manitoba and Saskatchewan Provinces in Canada. Each night, my friend said he would go out into one of the wheat fields by himself, and enjoy the peace and quiet and the stars. He was different from my other noisy and boisterous friends. He was quiet and pensive.

            He and his family would leave Amarillo in late May and be gone until early September. I learned from him that wheat ripens at later times, as you go north. The first wheat ripens south of Amarillo, and the last wheat ripens in Canada. He and his family followed the ripening wheat north for three months. Actually, there were a number of related Canadian families, travelling and harvesting together all the way to Canada.

            I was jealous at first. He got to see something new every day. He described the changing landscapes from state to state and from farm to farm. At night, his family and the families of the other combine crews—all related and from Canada—would build a big fire, talk and sing in French. He would listen from out in one of the wheat fields, where he was lying on his back looking up at the stars.

            He never talked about the experience as being romantic. I think he was lonely. And as he grew older, he talked about how much he hated it and couldn’t wait until he was old enough to get away from his family and the nomadic wheat harvest. When he got to high school, it was hard for him to make girlfriends, especially since he would disappear for three months every summer and wasn’t able to talk much with girls. He wasn’t into sports. When he went home to Canada for Christmas vacation, he played hockey. It was hard for him to be so different. We were good friends, but I lost my jealousy of his summertime wandering. I felt sorry for him.

            I lost track of “Jacques” after high school. I only know that he married an American girl and moved to the Texas Rio Grande River Valley, to get away from the cold. My story is a way of helping my friend find a relationship with a young lady, whom I made as different and unique as he was. I helped “Jacques” fall in love, come of age, and have someone he could talk to.

            The second experience that inspired Tayla came from my long conversations after church with my neighbor, Russ. After his wife passed away, he and I started going to early mass together on Sundays, and then we talked for a long time after mass. He needed someone to talk to—his four kids were gone and married, and he could no longer talk with the love of his life. And I was fascinated by his war stories, as well as by his family stories.

            The family story that always made him laugh—and had me laughing as I listened—was the true story of his old Irish aunt. In the late 1930s, when Russ was in eighth grade in a Catholic school in Long Beach, California, his mother passed away. That left Russ with his father and sister. His father couldn’t handle the death of his beloved wife, and started drinking, and stopped working. Russ then had to take on three jobs, while going to the local public high school, to take care of his father and his little sister. He was killing himself, trying to pay the mortgage on the house, buy all the things the family needed, pay the utilities, and so on. But he was determined to keep his family together—himself, his sister, and his alcoholic father. But it was becoming impossible.

            Out of the blue, his old Irish aunt—the widowed older sister of his father—showed up, moved in, and took over the household. Russ laughed whenever he described her. She had been in the United States for forty years, since she was in her early twenties, but she dressed, talked and acted like she was still in Ireland. Russ was used to being the man of the house—the one who made the money and made decisions, because his father spent the time drunk and out of it. But his old aunt took over, and started telling Russ what to do, what time to come in, with whom he could be friends, and so forth.

            It was a shock to Russ, but he had no choice. If the school or the authorities had learned that he was raising his sister and caring for his father on his own, and was only sixteen, they would have separated him from his sister, sent them off somewhere to foster care, and would have hospitalized or incarcerated his father. But with his aunt there serving as guardian for him and his sister, and taking care of his father, Russ could work a little less, finish school, and keep his family together.

            When Russ went off to World War II in the Pacific for four years, he sent most of his pay home to help his aunt to take care of his sister and father. He laughed at what happened when he came back from the war. As far as his old Irish aunt was concerned, he was still a little boy who had to be looked after. She told him to stop drinking, to come in on time, to stay away from loose women, and so forth. He laughed describing how he was now a four-year veteran of some of the worst battles of the War in the Pacific, but that made no difference to his old Irish aunt. She was in charge of him and his life. He went along with her ways, until she finally passed away, a few years after he came home.

            So the descriptions of Aunt Maureen in Tayla come from the tales Russ told me about his old aunt. Tayla’s life after Aunt Maureen showed up is based on Russ’s life after his father’s sister showed up to take over the household. Russ laughed whenever her thought of his aunt, but he loved her deeply for what she did for him, his sister, and his father—she kept them together, with no thought of her own happiness.


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