The American Grandpa tells a lot of personal stories. Most of the time I share because I’ve learned from the experience and want to pass on the lesson. Other times, I just wax nostalgic. I reserve that right. I am an old guy and dog gone it I’ve earned it. Today I will tell you the story about a trip back into my past.
I was born and raised (until 13) in a town called Vernal, situated on the east edge of Utah. To the south are rich oil and gas fields and Gilsonite deposits. To the north is the beauty of the south slope of the Uinta mountain range and Flaming Gorge. To the east is the Dinosaur National Monument and Brown’s Park. To the west? 185 miles to civilization.
My apologies to Roosevelt, Duchesne and Heber, but yes, it is 185 long miles to Salt Lake City.
When my dad came west with the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1936, he saw a posting in the Salt Lake City office for a medic at an outlying camp. He talked his cousin Dutch Bouy into the adventure and they volunteered. When asked when the train left, the duty officer just laughed and pointed at a troop transport truck. Six hours later Dad, Dutch and other volunteers arrived at their new post – Vernal.
Dad was not impressed. After just a few hours in town he went to the bus terminal and asked when he could catch the next bus to Salt Lake. “Two weeks from tomorrow” came the reply, “if it shows up.” And that was the beginning of the Bath family legacy in Utah.
There is still no train to Vernal (from anywhere), but you can catch a Greyhound any day of the week right out in front of the KFC on the highway and its now only about a 3-hour drive by car over nice roads (if Strawberry is open). This isn’t like the Steadman Recreation dealer claim that Salt Lakers see the 30- mile trip to Tooele as 300. No, it is one hundred and eighty-five long, freaking miles to Salt Lake City.
Okay, we have established that Vernal is isolated.
The reason I bring Vernal up is that a couple of weeks ago I wrote about being a kid on my Grandfather Jackson’s farm and that got me thinking about Vernal. I got a little homesick and thought I would take a day and go visit. I moved from Vernal in 1969 and have been back dozens of times, but what used to be semi-annual trips are now a lot less frequent and I have never gone back just to reconnect.
So last weekend I rented a car and headed east –185 long miles – to the place where I grew up. I was alone with my thoughts which interestingly started tumbling around as soon as I headed out of Salt Lake – all centering around my life as a kid in Vernal.
As I passed Kimball Junction, I realized that when I was a kid, Park City was just the dumpy remains of an old mining town. There were no ski resorts, no rich folk and no Sundance Film Festival. Heck, I’d never even heard of Robert Redford.
Taking the turn toward Heber reminded me that Highway 40 (construction started in 1926 as part of America’s first attempt at an interstate system) used to be called the Main Street of America. It stretched from Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco, California, passing though little ol’ Vernal, Utah. This made Vernal a travelers’ first introduction to Utah and a great stopping off point – because, yes, it was sill 185 miles to Salt Lake City.
Right on the highway was the Hotel Vernal, the classiest place in town, where my mom waitressed. She took great pride in her work and would take us there on special occasions. She served both Fred Astaire and Jack Benny there and I still have the autographed menus to prove it.
Traveling along Highway 40 I came to Heber (which I have always really liked and really hasn’t changed that much in 50 years) and then took the long climb up Daniel’s Canyon to the Strawberry Valley. At 7400 feet, the Strawberry Valley can be treacherous in the winter – travelers hate it, snowmobilers love it. The rest of the year it can be a very pleasant place and holds a special place in my childhood memories.
One of my dad’s friends, Chester Murray, was quite an entrepreneur. One of his many holdings was a fishing camp on the south shore of Strawberry Reservoir (one of the great fishing spots in the world). Chester invited us often and I loved it when we went. I loved it for a lot of reasons, but foremost among them was his daughter, Allison, on whom I had a huge, secret crush. She would drive me around on her Tote Gote and I’d think I was very cool.
Just past Strawberry I came down into Current Creek which I thought had come up surprisingly quickly, after all, it is the half way point. It was just past Current Creek that I lost all Salt Lake radio contact and started searching for local stations. I settled on KNEU out of Roosevelt and yes it was country music. Country is not my favorite genre but I will tell you that nothing gets you thinking about home, family and your roots like country music.
My mom and dad (an excellent musician who played in several dance bands) really disliked country music. Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby ruled in our house and I still remember my dad’s five-piece trap set (with a hula girl on the bass that danced to the beat) as an occasional fixture in our living room. My parents actually liked some rock and roll better than country, even thought they were convinced by their John Birch Society friends that most of it was a Communist plot to destroy the minds and morals of American Youth.
Anyway, I listened to country for the last 92.5 miles. There were some good country music standards by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and even John Denver. There were a lot of younger singers I didn’t know but enjoyed almost everything I heard.
As I crested the hill that overlooks the Ashely Valley, I pulled over to take a look at my old home. Vernalites probably think things have really changed since I moved away, but it looked very much the same to me. It was late winter, so everything is still brown, but I could visualize how green the fields and trees would be in just a few weeks. I saw the highway curve into town and plotted out a self-guided tour, certain that the Vernal visitor center would be out of the Life of Vince Bath 1955 to 1969 brochures.
The tour started where First South merges with Main Street, right where the A&W used to be. This was a real A&W in my day with treats (root beer ice cream, floats, teen burgers) served by car hops (cutest girls in town). My brother-in-law bought it years later and turned it into a 50’s drive-in.
Just to the right was the baseball field where I played my first year of Little League and started a lifelong love for baseball. I frustrated the heck out my coach because I would not swing at the ball. The first few games the pitchers were really bad so I got in the habit of just letting them walk me. Over the season they got better, but I choked at every at-bat and was thrown out on strikes most of the time.
The next year I was put on a different team (due to threat by my father) and played on a new field. My new coach worked with me on my swing, but I was still afraid as I came up for my first at-bat. My mom was sitting in the bleachers with her friend Alta Robinson and yelled at me, “no dinner for you if you don’t get a hit!” I was so embarrassed. I remember thinking “never again” and as the first pitch crossed the plate, I swung with all my might – and hit my first home run. I hit more homers than any other kid in the league that year. I also struck out more than any other kid, but it didn’t matter because I always went down swinging.
Just up the street and across the road from that first ball field was the place I called home for most of my growing up years. In a shrewd business deal (sarcasm is dripping from the keyboard) my father had purchased a whole neighborhood – nine 2-bedroom homes and a converted diner. We were landlords for the nine houses and lived in the back of the diner.
Dad had originally used the unconverted part of the diner for his electrical repair shop, but he and mom came up with a better idea. They converted that part of the building into a snack shop which kids from the junior high – right across the street – mobbed at lunch. At first it was just candy, chips and soda, but soon they were serving hamburgers and hotdogs though a window cut into our kitchen and soft serve ice cream from a machine we bought in Salt Lake City – 185 miles away. Now least you think that life was pretty good for the kid who had free run of a whole well-stocked wall of candy and who was boss of the neighborhood, you’ve haven’t heard the best of it.
Across the street was the junior high – my own personal playground. In front was a two-acre lawn dotted with giant cottonwood trees, crisscrossed with sidewalks. Christopher Robin may have had his 100-acre wood, but there is no way his adventures could compare with mine. One day I was Robin Hood shooting my bow from the branch of a tree in Sherwood Forest. The next day I was Sargent Sanders being shot off his motorcycle (bike) by the Germans (lawn sprinklers). Then I was the Green Hornet (it was tough getting a good Kato) heading off to my secret hideout.
One day the Green Hornet and Kato (that day my nephew Roger) decided we needed a campfire in the hideout (located in the bushes behind the seminary building). Well the fire got out of control and spread to the dry field behind the seminary. Afraid to go home, I rode all the way up to the grocery story on Main Street to call the fire in and then (in true pyromaniac style) went back to watch my dad and the rest of the volunteer fire department fight it. Then Green Hornet and Kato rode back to the firehouse on the back of the fire engine.
From the junior high I headed to Central Elementary School. I remembered my first concussion (jumping out of the swing at the apex); coming in from recess to find my teacher crying (JFK’s assassination); meeting my first black person (she’d come to teach at our school); and losing my first fight (who knew 6th graders were bigger and tougher than 3rd graders).
My boyhood hero was Mr. Glade Southam, my 6th grade teacher. He knew how to get 11-year-old boys excited about learning – rockets, video equipment, sports, airplanes, adventure books and the example of a man. He encouraged Brian Wilkes and me to enter and win at the Uintah Basin science fair. We all loved him.
From Central I headed up to Main Street, where almost every building and storefront held a memory. One was the movie theater where I was creeped out by boys turning in donkeys in Pinocchio and really enjoyed James Bond movies with my friend Dan Lopez (it was all the cool gadgets and not the girls in bikinis, honest mom). There was the Museum of Natural History with all the dinosaur bones and the blacklight/florescent light display. There was the Hotel Vernal where I first tasted shrimp cocktail salad and did my first guest appearance on radio, as a four-year- old boy who’d wandered into the sound booth of KAJM.