Life’s Highway: We Shared Our Young Roots
Raised like John Boy and the Walton’s, Harry shared their core values.
I learned of Harry Waddell’s death about the time his graveside service was taking place Sunday. Harry died April 13. His health had been deteriorating for sometime. He had a brilliant mind that could fix anything mechanical. He replaced many auto motors, totally rebuilding them. He often said if man built it, he could fix it. It didn’t matter if it was an air conditioner, washing machine, tractor or whatever, but that’s not how he made his main livelihood. He retired from Texaco.
I’ve gotten way ahead of my story. Few people alive today had known me as long as Harry. When we were both youngsters, we were boarders at Ms. Shugart’s Boarding House in Port Arthur. I had been living at the boarding house for three summers before Harry came to Port Arthur from his home in Rock Island, Texas, just out of high school. He landed a job at Texaco. I was operating my Shetland pony ride at Pleasure Island. I had done this since I was 14. I earned enough money each summer to provide for my school clothes and those of my three little sisters and also to help Mom.
The first car my family ever owned was a 1932 Ford V-8 coupe that I bought from Harry for $90. After he had been at Texaco for a while he bought a 1949 Mercury sedan. He put lowering blocks on it and we made the ‘drag’ down Proctor Street. Harry had that Ford, the first V-8 on the market, purring like a kitten. When the summer was over, I drove it home to Abbeville. At Riceland a local policeman got after me. I left him in my taillights. He was no match for the V-8 Ford. I ran from those small town marshals several times. Their radios, with those long antennas, couldn’t broadcast over five miles.
At times I would show up broke in Port Arthur. If I didn’t stay at the Edwin Bourgeois house, Harry would sneak me up the back stairs to sleep in his room at the boarding house. He would pocket some of the food from the dining table, mostly those fresh, homemade rolls, to feed me. Harry also visited Abbeville and got to know most of my friends, Gerald, Allen, Mac and Bobby Charles, who had just released his hit “See You Later Alligator.” Bill Haley and the Comets recorded it and Bobby was off to the big times.
Several times my friends and I went home with Harry to Rock Island. His family lived in an old farmhouse. The cracks in the floor were a half-inch wide. His dad had killed over 90 buck deer and had all the horns hanging on the walls. He had some pretty, chesty, red headed sisters. They lived on the game they killed, turkeys, rabbits, doves, robins, etc. On one trip, his brother Tommy gave Kenneth Bourgeois a guitar that he brought home to Port Arthur. His little brother Gene picked it up, learned to play and became Jivin’ Gene of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” fame.
While we were living together at the boarding house, Harry got his draft notice. A couple friends, some family members and I took him to Columbus to tell him goodbye as he caught the Army bus in San Antonio. After basic training and during furloughs Harry always made the trip to Port Arthur. Soon after he got out of the service and returned to work at Texaco I got married, moved away and lost track of Harry.
After I moved back to Bridge City, I learned that Harry had married and was also living in Bridge City. From that day on Harry maintained my air conditioners, autos and whatever needed repair. He set up a rig at my Cow Bayou place, “Dunn’s Bluff” to pull and replace or rebuild auto motors. It was a sideline for him but he was so darn good at it. I never have known anyone who could work so much. He never stopped and enjoyed every bit of it.
He was always very smart and it was sad when I learned, from his son-in-law, that he had mental problems. I had lost mom to Alzheimer’s so I knew what that could lead to. For four years, over the summer, we had shared a small room together. Two small beds and the bathroom down the hall. We were just youngsters doing what young people do. We witnessed some of our friends maimed or killed at Broussard’s Curve and always felt fortunate we had missed that trip. Phyl and I started dating when she was in high school so Harry had known her as long as I had. Harry was a big part of the Roots of my Raising, a friend for over 60 years. His death saddens me.
We grew up during our early years together. Today, so many of the boys are gone. Jivin’ Gene stayed friends with Harry over all the years since that first guitar. He will be surprised, as I was, to hear that this talented, good man has died. I’ve never known anyone who didn’t like Harry. He never did anyone wrong. He helped a lot of people. He also shrimped the Gulf alone. I’ll never forget that hard working guy. His ancestors can be proud of their pioneering roots based on hard work and a fair shake. I just couldn’t let his death go unnoticed. Too much water had run under our bridge, at a special time in our lives. May he rest in peace.
Footnote: What became of the 1932 Ford? Harry kept it running for a couple of years. Then one day, in Louisiana, it quit. After getting an unsuccessful push for a couple of miles, I decided it had died. I left it on the side of the road and hitchhiked in. I often wondered what might have become of that faithful, old car. Both Harry and that old Ford will forever live in my thoughts. Condolences to his family.