The Saint and The Pistol

CHAPTER THREE – The Saint and The Pistol

Whilden Robinson Wuehler was my mother. To me, she was a saint. Had she been Catholic, she may have been canonized by now, or at least considered. She was a gentlewoman without an angry or unkind bone in her body. She always served others, helping people who needed help, scurrying around, and seeking one more thing she could do. She always provided loving care for her seven children, performed callings and service in her church, cooked for and fed others, was active in the community, and taught school when the children were grown. And with all of this, she still had time to read, an avid reader of Reader’s Digest.

Paul William Wuehler was my father. He was also an excellent person. Father was strong-willed and rather dogmatic. He never physically or emotionally abused any of us children (although the boys did earn an occasional and deserved spanking). He was Grandpa Wuehler, who earned him the nickname “GW” from his grandchildren. I call him a pistol because he expected (like firing a gun) an immediate response when GW told you to do something. My simple-minded example is: When my father told you to jump, you did not waste time asking, “How high?” You just started going up and down, hoping he was satisfied. And he usually was satisfied, even if he thought you could do better. By the way, my father lived when men were men; they were not Nancy Boys.

MOTHER STORIES:

Give the Cat a Bath: I remember my mother telling me about when she was young, maybe 5 or 6 years old. She and her sister decided their cat needed a bath. Apparently, they had a cat. They took the kitty to the irrigation ditch close to their house in Boise, ID. The cat was not at all interested in taking a bath. You know how much cats “love” water. The cat was squirming and fussing. The girls were dutifully trying to give the cat the needed bath. Finally, Mother became tired of all the wrestling that was going on. She said she held the cat under the water until it stopped squirming and then bathed the cat. Lesson: A cat would rather die than take a bath.

Sunbathing on the Lawn: Mother told the story of a time when she was young, maybe a teenager when she was on the lawn at the family home in Boise, ID. She was lying on the lawn getting some sun when a “snake crawled across my neck.” That was certainly a shocker, even though the snake was harmless, something like a garter snake. But one must wonder? What party was more scared, my mother or the snake. At any rate, the two quickly parted company. No harm done. Lesson: For whom? Mother or the snake?

The Button Collection: Mother had a collection of buttons that would not stop. When a button would fall off a shirt, she would sew it back on or keep it in her button collection. For clothing that came with extra buttons, she would cut the button off and put it in the collection. She added buttons from every source, including when it was time to put a piece of clothing in the rag box, off came the buttons into her collection. Lesson: You never know when you will need an extra button (or maybe she just liked collecting them, like some people collect stamps or old coins or baseball cards).

Mother’s Relief Society Presidency Trip to General Conference:  My mother was Relief Society President (a relief and compassionate service organization for her church) while living in Winton, CA. She and her counselors decided to take our green Chevrolet station wagon and drive to the general conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.

If I remember the story correctly, there were six ladies in the car. Each took turns driving. Except for one lady who was not a very good driver, tended not to pay attention to the road, would talk and distract herself, did not keep a consistent speed, and wandered from side to side on the road. (Remember, back in the day, I-5  between California and Utah was a two-lane road.) However, she begged enough that the lady was finally allowed to drive. After a while, she was told her turn was over. She pulled off the road onto the shoulder and then went off the shoulder out into the sand of the Nevada desert. Oh, watch out…don’t go out there, but it was too late. The car sunk into the sand, and it could not get out.

Along came a trucker; imagine the sight he saw. A car sunk into the Nevada sand, six hens running around and cackling what to do. He must have smiled and had a great story to tell at the next truck stop. Recognizing the problem, he pulled over and offered to help. It must have been a sight. He could easily see the problem. The car needed to be pulled out. Offer accepted. He hooked his chain to the front of the car and to the back of his semi-trailer. When he was hooked up, he returned to the car to ensure the ladies were ready.

The same woman who got the car stuck was still in the driver’s seat. (Who knows why the ladies let that happen.) She rolled down the window and asked the trucker what she should do: Put it in gear, try to move forward, leave it out of gear, or what? The trucker smiled and kindly said: Lady, I don’t care what you do. I’m going to pull you out.” And he did. The rest of the trip was uneventful…other than them loving the opportunity to attend the conference. Lesson: When an experienced trucker offers help, stay out of his way and let him do his thing.

The Carburetor Fire: Mother was in one of Dad’s old pick-up trucks attempting to get it started. I think maybe it was the ’35 Chevy. Anyway, she could not get the motor to start. Considering that I thought of myself as an auto mechanic genius, I told her I knew just what to do. I got the gas can out of the truck’s bed, opened the hood, removed the carburetor filter, and poured a few drops of gas down the carburetor’s throat. I had seen Dad do it many times. Then, I told Mother to hit the starter. I guess I poured too much gas. The motor backfired and blew flames of burning gas out of the carburetor. In her immediate desire to correct the problem, Mother blew at the fire while sitting behind the steering wheel: Puff, puff, puff. Seeing her trying to blow out the fire from behind the windshield like she was blowing candles on a birthday cake was a sight. The fire went out on its own. Although Mother was nervous about trying to start the engine again, it started right up without difficulty. Lesson: Watch out for 16-year-old auto mechanic geniuses.

Jim (Paul R’s younger brother) stated there was a second incident in the family station wagon. Mother was again behind the steering wheel, blowing at the fire flashing out of the carburetor. Mother was always consistent with her behavior.

FATHER STORIES:

Fish Bait: When I was twelve or thirteen, living in Fair Oaks, CA, some friends and I decided to go fishing. We needed bait. We figured red wriggler worms would be the best. That was before all the fake stuff you could buy, plus we did not have money for bait. My friends assigned me the project of obtaining the worms. I devised a plan to dig up some dirt and find the wigglers. My father, who was around, caught wind of my plan. Even though he figured there would be plenty of worms in his massive garden, he still insisted digging would take too long, and who knows how many would be found. I was upset because I wondered how I would get the worms. I had no money to purchase at the bait shop. My father, always to the rescue, said there was a better way. He said he could get the worms to “jump” out of the ground. I thought: ‘Sure, Dad. Worms don’t jump,’ but, of course, I said nothing. My father was old school. He was not above getting his belt out to convince one of the errors of his ways. He went into the garage (where a local cat had murdered my parakeets), found an old electrical cord that still had the plug on one end. On the other end, he stripped the covering of the two wires, taped the wires to a couple of stiff copper welding rods he had lying around, and wrapped the connections with non-conducting electrical tape. You know what was coming? Right! He stuck the rods into the ground about a foot apart and plugged the wire into the electric circuit. In disbelief, I could hear the worms yelling: “George, that PG&E guy hit the wrong wires. Let’s get out of here!” Worms came jumping (almost) up out of the earth. Five minutes; I had all the bait we needed. Lesson: Worms may not jump, but they know a terrible neighborhood.

Dynamite in the Basement: The house on Archer Street in Fair Oaks, CA, was a split level. The front part facing the street was a single level built just over the ground on a perimeter foundation. The back half of the house was two levels, having been built over the hill that dropped away. The garage (and the parakeet cage) were on the lower back level. My father decided to dig into the dirt under the upper level of the house to increase its size. As you learned (if you read the Fish Bait story), my father was not into doing things the slow way. Why dig shovel by shovel for wheelbarrow load and then back to more digging when a stick of dynamite will do the work of five hours in about 20 minutes. “Fire in the hole!” BOOM, shake, rattle and roll. Then 30 minutes of wheelbarrow work and back to another stick of dynamite. Ultimately, I got a bedroom out of the deal, and the family got a storeroom. This must have been around 1956 or 1957. (By the way, I was too young to know or even care, but I am 110% certain my father never got a building permit from the county. Just sayin’.) Lesson: Dynamite, not Rock & Roll music, was the first “shake, rattle, and roll” at my house.

The Foot of a Real Man:  Grandpa Wuehler (Paul William Wuehler) was digging out the hardpan in his basement at the Archer Street house in Fair Oaks, CA. It was the hardpan that he was dynamiting. One day, after a small dynamite shake, he was using his pickax to chisel away at the wall when he put the pickax into his foot. He had to get that doctored. That memory reminds me of when he was chopping wood at the Winton, CA house and snagged the ax on a low-hanging wire and put the ax into his foot. There were other times of foot damage. This whole foot thing seemed to have started when he was a teenager battling the champion corn cutter from Oklahoma. The champion had bragged to his father (William Wuehler) on the farm in Visalia, CA, that the champ could outcut anyone. The Oklahoma champ wanted a job. Dad was not going to have some Oklahoma yoyo beat him. Dad and the champ got into a contest, cutting corn stalks with a scythe to see which was the best. Not to be bested, Dad blazed away, chopping down corn stalks, but he caught his foot with the scythe. Blood poured out. Using his teeth, he tore his shirt, stuffed it into his shoe to slow the bleeding, and went on to teach the Oklahoma blow-hard champion how a California farm boy is best. Lesson: The lowly foot (no pun intended) can be the focus of many a great story. 

The Kitchen Fire: I was about twelve years old. We were living in the Archer Street house in Fair Oaks, CA. If you were around, you would recall that mother was always busy with seven children. Mother’s method of frying something on the stove was to quickly turn the heat up to high to warm the pan on those old electric stoves. As usual, one evening, she put the frying pan on the electric plate, put in cooking oil, and raised the electricity. However, this time, she became busy with other demands and forgot about the pan on the stove. What happened, you ask?

Spontaneous combustion happened. Soon, a flame jumped out of the pan two feet high. My mother panicked, yelling fire. She even tried to beat the fire to death with her broom. I, being a well-trained boy scout who knew all about fire, did not panic. I calmly told my mother not to worry and that I would handle it. Going to the sink, I filled a glass with water, walked to the stove, and dumped the water into the frypan fire. Problem solved, right?

Wrong! Now, the blaze jumped four feet into the air. We were all running around like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off, yelling fire and wondering if the fire department would arrive before the house burned down. About this time, my father showed up. He calmly walked into the kitchen, picked up the pan lid, and placed it on the pan fire. Game over! Fire starved of oxygen. No need to call the fire department. Lesson #1: If you are in a hurry, watch what you are doing. Lesson #2: Never trust a boy scout around a fire. 

Beer Garden: Familiar to many, it is the place where people go to get a beer. It is called a beer garden because it is usually outdoors. Let me tell you about another beer garden at the Biggs farm where Grandpa Wuehler (Paul’s father) lived. My parents had a five-acre farm in Biggs, CA. One day at my father’s farm, I noticed small containers strewn around his garden with a liquid in them. I was curious. It had not been raining. Dad was running a drip system to water his plants. So, how did these containers get fluid in them? Why were there so many containers around the garden? Suddenly, I spied a beer can in the garden. It contained some liquid. I smelled it. It smelled like beer (or so I thought, not being an expert on the subject). I smelled some of the other containers with liquid. Same smell. They all had beer. Now, I had to ask. When I saw my father, I mentioned the containers and asked: “Dad, have you been sneaking a little?” He looked at me with a sheepish look and responded: “No. Beer is good for catching the snails in the garden.” I looked at him with the Doubting Thomas grin, but he insisted it was good for catching snails. “They like it. They crawl in to get a drink, and I got’em!” Drunken snails. I never heard that one. He must have read it in Mother Earth News or some other gardening magazine. I knew my father was a farmer at heart, but I never thought of him as a tree-hugger. Lesson: Never jump to conclusions. You just might be right. Then what?

Nero Played as Rome Burned—Dad Slung Water as Biggs Burned: The original house in Biggs, CA, which my mother and father occupied, burned to the ground. Dad got burn blisters trying to put out the fire. The fire department boys told Dad he should not have been trying to douse the fire with a garden hose. But you know that admonishment went in one ear and out the other. Do you know the reason the house burned?

The fireplace was the only heat in the house. The chimney was an old rock/cement, non-lined construction that had heavy soot deposits. Over time, the mortar between the bricks decomposed and allowed hot soot to leak into the attic. It caught fire. It was a sorrowful day because they had no place to live. Yet, it was a blessing in disguise. The only problem was getting the money for that blessing.

An insurance adjuster came by and made an offer. Dad fumed, so the adjuster told them to think about it and he would be back. Mother called crying, telling me that the insurance man had come by and told them the insurance would only pay $2000 or $3000 because that was all the house was worth. “What are we going to do?” she sobbed. Another appointment was set for a couple of days later. My mother told me the insurance man was coming back in a couple of days with the papers for them to sign and give the money. I was there at the appointed time when the cut-throat bozo insurance man came with the papers. I was “polite” but told him they were not signing any documents for two or three thousand dollars.

Further, I said we would get a lawyer if the insurance company could not make a decent offer. The adjuster said the house was not worth more, and he was sorry. I said we would need to talk with a lawyer and we would get back to him. Simple, for him to offer cockroach money, but not simple for my parents! He hummed and hawed but clearly did not want a lawyer involved. He said he needed to talk with his boss and he would get back to us. Another appointment was set. Talk to his boss, my foot! He was the adjuster. He had the power, within reason, to offer whatever he wanted.

The insurance man returned and said his boss had told him to be kind because they were an older couple. The boss said to offer $5000. My mother (being her usual sweet self) said she thought the insurance guy was nice and did not want me to upset him when I talked with him. She again admonished me when she saw the adjuster was a bit upset after I told him ‘no way’ about the new offer. Bless her heart. I gently agreed with my mother that he was probably a nice man, but he was also an insurance adjuster whose job was to give them as little money as possible. The next day, the adjuster returned and offered $20,000 or $22,000. I do not remember which amount. Before I could comment, Mother said, “We accept.” I thought it was minimally fair. At least they received enough to cover the basics of the new house. Lesson: Insurance adjusters may be nice guys but never take the first offer (and maybe not several subsequent offers).

Dad’s Side Businesses: I remember Dad had numerous side businesses. In Glen Burnie, Maryland, he had a sharpener for hand saws in a closet in the house. In Winton, CA, he was going to raise Red Waddle Pigs. The trip with him to Arizona to pick up the breeders was interesting. A small pick-up truck was borrowed and came without a spare tire. No spare made the trip to AZ to pick up the pigs interesting. I went with Dad. He was also an AmsOil dealer in Winton. In Mechanic’s Illustrated magazine, he read about a carburetor that supposedly would get 100 miles to the gallon on his big V-8 Oldsmobile. He bought two of them and told me (Paul) that Detroit did not put them on because of gas company interference. Dad was also going to raise greyhound dogs, chinchillas, and red waddle pigs. And we all remember the “gold mine” he owned, purchased for ten dollars. Dad always had a big garden, probably sentiments from his farm boy days. Lesson:  Dad was never short on ideas of how to make a buck.

The Foot Pain: My children still laugh and tell the story about how he would always act as if the car tire had run over his foot when we would be backing out of Grandpa’s driveway. He would jump around, hold his foot, and groan as if in pain. Lesson: Dad was a great, funny Grandpa.

The Golden Arches: I remember the first time we EVER saw a McDonald’s Hamburger place…the Golden Arches of fast food. In Idaho we visited my mother’s parents in Boise, ID. (Philemon and Dorothy Robinson) in Boise. I must have been eleven or twelve years old. We children begged Father to stop and get us a hamburger. “Naw. Waste of money! Probably make you sick, not good for you,” was his comment. We did not stop. He was right about the ‘not good’ part. Everyone now eats fast food, but the nourishment level is low, or at least uncertain. I also remember the sign at the Idaho McDonalds: “Over 40,000 sold.” That was the early days. Now, McDonald’s probably sells a million hamburgers a day. As Dad got older, he mellowed a little. Jim (my younger brother) remembers Dad purchasing hamburgers at the Arctic Circle in Madera, CA, when they were on sale, 6 for a dollar. Lesson: Just because more items are sold does not mean the benefit from them increases. 

GW (Dad) and the Grape Farm: When I was about 19 years old, I remember Dad (GW) was the caretaker of the church farm just north of Fresno, CA, in Madera. It was a vineyard of Thompson seedless grapes; the grapes used to make raisins. The ripe grapes would be picked, laid on a paper tray on the ground between the rows of grapes, and picked up once they had dried to raisins. That was back in the day when church members pruned and picked. Dad always managed to get equal or more tonnage off that farm than any commercial farm in the area. It used to drive him crazy when members were doing the work. They pruned wrong, cutting off too much or not enough; during harvest, they left fruit unpicked because of inattention and laid the paper trays on the ground wrong. He used to say: “I know this is the Lord’s vineyard. If not, the members would have destroyed it long ago!” Lesson: God will take care of his own.