Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Big and Smart

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Marian Helen Stonemetz Combs, circa 1930

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Harry Grover Combs, circa 1930

Mom and Pop were married in September of 1940. They met in Long Beach in Southern California after Pop gave up working as a “rough neck” in the oil fields and started building Liberty Ships for Calship on Liberty Island, Los Angeles. Mom was a waitress at Ma Gamby’s in Long Beach. Pop had worked laying oil pipeline for Standard Oil in the Maracaibo River Basin in Columbia in the late 1930’s, and met Mom shortly after returning.

Mom was just two months pregnant with me when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Pop enlisted in the Navy Reserve, but Mom made sure the Navy knew Pop was working in an essential war industry, and he was never called to military service.

I was born July 18, 1942 in Torrance by Caesarean. Mom couldn’t have natural childbirth because she had a deformed pelvis, probably because she was born with a club foot. She had an operation when she was a young girl to correct the club foot, but one leg was shorter and smaller than the other, and her deformed pelvis couldn’t be fixed.

After I was born, the doctor told Mom that she couldn’t have any more children, but she told him, “Just put a zipper in that incision, because I’ll be right back.” Eleven months and four days later, June 22, 1943, Ron was born.

Mom said she didn’t want to raise a lonely only child, so she gave me the greatest gift of all, my little baby brother. I think Ron was born a couple of weeks early, and was slightly premature and received special attention for his first week.

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Ron and I, about 1946

After the war, Pop went back into the oil fields, and Mom tried to combine raising Ron and me with song writing as we moved our trailer from one Southern California town to the next. Pop would finish on one oil drilling rig, and then we would move fifty or a hundred miles to the next rig. Every now and then Mom would take a bus (she never learned to drive) to a radio studio in Los Angeles, and present one of her songs. I think most of the time she tried to get on the Hoagy Carmichael show, and we knew she had been on the show when she came home with a corsage.

Mom was very smart. She was a straight A student in high school, and a Life Member of the California Scholastic Federation. Besides writing songs and poems, she was such a good artist by the time she started high school, she did the cover art for all four of her Maricopa High School yearbooks.

Pop was very smart too, with high grades in school and the ability to easily learn and understand the mechanical and electrical systems he encountered as a millwright and later as a boiler technician.

Brother Ron has Pop’s abilities to understand and work with electrical and mechanical things. When he was a young teenager the mysteries of internal combustion engines were no mysteries to him, like they always have been to me. Ron took a test in high school for Navy nuclear training and scored very high. Later, working for Pacific Gas and Electricity, electrical systems and circuits were as simple and clear to him as they were complex and confusing to me.

I’m the only member of my family who received an Intelligence Quotient rating, and my score is very high at 145. However, I have a feeling my intelligence was the lowest of the four of us. Mom and I were the best in the family at the sort of things you learned in school from books. Pop and Ron were the best at the sort of things you understand about the world around you. I’m smart enough to know that each of them had skills and abilities that I don’t, and each demonstrated high intelligence outside of conventional IQ testing.

For a short period of time from about my 13th to 15th birthdays, I was the biggest member of my family. I had always been a large boy, usually a head taller than any classmate, and much bigger than little brother Ron. I grew past Pop when I was 13, and he was a sturdy 5’ 11”. When I graduated from the 8th grade, I was my present 6’ 2”, and weighed 198 pounds, much taller and heavier than Pop, my teacher/principal James E. Russell, and almost all of the adult males in the Point Arena area.

I would dance with my pretty classmates, Treva, Jen, Clarice, Peggy, Yvonne, Junella, “Tex”, and their visiting friends, Lorelei, Marie, Marlene, and the first dance always started the same. They would turn their heads back, look way up, and say, “Gee you’re tall, how tall are you?” Or occasionally, “Is it snowing up there?”

Little brother Ron was smaller than average, and next to me he looked even smaller. When he was little, his nickname was “Peanut,” due to his lack of size. Later I nicknamed him “Runt,” and soon everyone called him “Runt.”

In fact, that was his nickname even after he grew over half a foot his Freshman year of high school, and during his Sophomore year reached his present height of 6’ 5”, and towered over me and everyone else in school, in town, and for all I know, all of southern Mendocino County. But despite his height, one thing didn’t change. We all still called him “Runt.” He was almost a foot taller than many of his classmates, but he was still “Runt,” even to the shortest.

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Ron and I, reassembling a wine tank for my future father-in-law Dean Miller to use as a water tank, at the top of Gypsy Flat Road, Gualala, California, Summer of 1961

I just traded e-mails with one of those classmates, Bob Seymour. He kept growing through high school, passed me, and is almost but not quite as big as Ron, but he still calls him “Runt,” and occasionally “Peanut.”

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Me with "little brother" Ron, 2006

Pop responded to the many compliments he received about us by saying that we were, “strong as an ox, and nearly as smart.” Ron and I would beam when we heard that, because we could tell Pop was proud of his big boys.

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