By Kristi Sayles
When my father, Elmer Spitler, called and asked me to help him write his life story, I was very surprised. You see, Daddy was recovering from a brain aneurysm. He had undergone surgery and was still having health problems.
Although I was surprised, I got in the car the very next morning and made the trip from Tennessee to Kentucky to begin the adventure. I discovered that my daddy had quite an interesting life! This is the way he told it...
When I was about 6 years old, my grandparents had a car wreck. Grandpa was killed instantly but my Grandma lived long enough to tell me a secret. She was lying in the hospital room trying to fight death so she could let me alone know.
“There's eight fruit jars buried at the place, Elmer,” she said. ‘”They’ve all got money in them.
Now, Grandma and Grandpa owned an oil well somewhere that made them rich I was told, so that made me perk up and listen!
“I don’t trust banks, so I hid them on the place.”
I didn’t ask her anymore about the jars. I just wanted to see her take another breath. She took a few more, but not many.
Time went by and I often wished I were old enough to get to Grandma’s house to look for the jars. But how could a six year old get anywhere? Should I tell my mom? No, better not. It was my secret- mine and Grandma’s. I would find a way to get there somehow! In the meantime there was work to do.
My dad had a traveling business that all of us kids helped out with. We traveled from town to town showing moving picture shows!
At first we used to find large, white barns to show them on, but later Dad earned enough to buy a really large screen that would fold up. That was real handy! Dad would rent the 35 mm films from the movie supply store for about $25.00 and then charge adults 25 cents and kids 15 cents to watch a movie. They would always come back the next night and the next because Dad showed the movies as ‘cliffhangers.’ They would often be 15 chapter serials, so we made more money than most folks. Times were rough in the 1930’s, so affordable entertainment like ours was not easy to find.
People looked forward to seeing us pull up in our red, white, and blue 1935 GMC truck with the house trailer behind it. They knew they were in for a good time!
It was my job to pop the popcorn and to sell it for 5 cents a bag. I did a good job and earned lots of money for a little kid.
When the weather was too cold for setting up tents or open air shows, we often used school houses for our shows.
Later, Dad learned some neat tricks and added a magic show to his business. He could make himself disappear and reappear somewhere else! He was really very good!
Later, he became a featherweight boxer and wrestler. Most people thought he was rather unusual. He was just my dad to me. I thought he was the greatest.
So, it wasn’t until many years later when I was late into my teens that I actually got to look for the jars.
Excitedly, I drove to the old place that I discovered had burned to the ground during those years! I got out my shovel and dug everywhere I could think of!
All I got for my troubles was tired. Then a thought occurred to me!
The well! I bet she put the jars in the well! I risked life and limb to get down in that old hole. I searched and searched-but to no avail. It was getting late, so I decided to try again another time.
Grandma’s secret was still safe.
Suddenly something happened that made me forget about the money for quite awhile. One night, not long after I turned 18, I met a beautiful girl named Betty Choate. We hit it off right away. She was very friendly and sweet, so I decided that I wanted to spend more time with her.
What I didn’t know is that my parents had actually arranged for Betty to come to the show to meet me!
They had big plans for me and Betty. They had already chosen her to be my wife!
Since I did like her and she liked me, we went along with their wishes and got married after just a short time.
Then, I got a letter from Uncle Sam inviting me to fight for my country. Actually it was more like an order, but I didn’t care. I was proud that I could defend the United States of America. Now, I didn’t say that I wasn’t scared-I was. But I was glad to go at the same time.
Most of the guys my age were being drafted and soon we were spit-shining our combat boots and learning how to use the ‘big’ guns. We were real soldiers. I had a job I really liked. I was the official Traffic Director. With that title, came the privilege of riding a motorcycle. I’ve always loved riding bikes, so I enjoyed the work.
In the meantime, I got word from my brothers that Betty was ‘messing’ around with other guys! I wasn’t really in love with her, but I was mad at her for being unfaithful to me.
When she announced that she was pregnant, I told her that it wasn’t mine. She got angry and moved to Chicago. That was the last time I saw her until many years had passed.
She called once and threatened to get me in trouble if I didn’t pay child support for her son.
‘If you do that, I’ll just take him away from you!’ I warned.
She never called back.
I didn’t stay single long. I met Christimae Harris and finally found out what true love is. I knew we had to get married so that we could spend every day and night together.
After my love-less marriage to Betty, this was a whole new ballgame. This was love. I found out what pure, simple, heart-pounding, affectionate love is. I just wanted to be a better man so that I could be worthy of my Christimae.
She was my dream girl, and now she was my wife. How could life get any better than this? I was looking through a magazine when I saw an ad for a metal detector. “This is just what I need to find Grandma’s jars!” I told Christimae.
Yes, I had finally shared the secret. I wanted to share everything with my wife. She encouraged me to send the $29.95 immediately to order the contraption and I did.
With growing excitement, I hurried to the old place. My hands trembled as I listened for the buzzing noise of the metal detector. Then I heard it! There! Underneath the hard dirt! The machine was going crazy! A jar! I had found a jar! I put the metal detector down and begin to dig.
To my disappointment, it wasn’t a jar at all. It was a ring. A gold wedding band.
Though frustrated, I stuffed the ring in my pocket and resumed my metal detecting. I soon discovered that metal detectors can detect lots of things-old bottle caps and even foil packages that cigarettes come in.
Too bad my metal detector didn’t detect a metal jar lid that day-or any day since.
When I married Christimae, I also got a new son-Lanny. He was just a little thing. But he wasn’t the last child for us. Not by a long shot! Soon we had Terry, Vena, Kristi, and finally, Tandi
. Not too long after Tandi, we found out that Christimae was pregnant again! We loved kids, so we were happy to welcome another little Spitler into the family.
But, it was not to be.
I remember taking Christiemae to the hospital to have the baby-just like we had done all the other times.
It was supposed to be a happy time, but something went terribly wrong.
My darling developed complications and started hemorrhaging for some reason!
I can still see her face when I held her hand and said, ‘Honey, I love you.’
‘I love you, too, Elmer,’ she had said weakly. ‘But I’m bleeding to death.’
Then I saw all the blood. It was true . I watched in horror as a doctor grabbed a knife and slit her leg vein open, trying desperately to force blood into her body to replace what she’d lost.
I have had lots of heartaches in my life, but I don’t think anything hurt me as bad as seeing the faces of my babies when I had to tell them that their mom and baby sister had died during childbirth.
It was a nightmare.
Another nightmare was the day I went back to where my home used to be in Galveston, Texas. I say used to be-it was gone. Hurricane Carla had completely leveled our home.
Although we were all sad to look upon such devastation, we knew that we were lucky to have gotten away when the skies had darkened and the wind had started whipping up.
I remember I just grabbed everybody and ordered them to get into the station wagon. We drove up to Missouri and stayed with my mom. That’s where we stayed for awhile after the storm had taken everything we owned.
All the insurance had paid for was the shingles! We didn’t have water damage insurance, so we weren’t paid for our loss-except for the cost of shingles! Which wasn’t much.
I was just glad my kids were OK.
My mom was a character. Minnie Davis Curtner was her name. She had a tattoo of a rising sun on her left arm. People said that she was rough as the devil. But she was just Mom to me.
She used to take me fishing for Grennel. You can’t eat them, so we just caught them and threw them back.
We just fished for the fun and sport of it. Just something me and Mom did together-just us.
Not long after I had gotten the news that Christimae had died, Lou Thoman, a good friend, gave me a call and offered me a job at the Sikeston Ceramics Pottery in Sikeston, Missouri.
I took it. Even though I was tore up, I knew I had responsibilities and had to take care of my kids-all by myself now. I didn’t know how I was going to make it, but I had to for my babies.
I started at the bottom working on the labor crew. It was hard work, but I was a good hand and before long, I had had enough promotions that I was working as the Casting Supervisor. Then the plant moved to Mayfield, Kentucky. When it did, we moved too. The new plant was named Roman Ceramics, after its owner, and I kept my position as supervisor.
Trying to raise four young girls and a boy was really hard for me.
One day when Christimae’s sister, Betty Lou, was visiting, I got an idea.
Why not marry Betty?
I already loved her like a sister and she was recently estranged from a husband that had just left her and her two little kids.
‘Will you marry me’’ I asked her that day.
‘You wouldn’t marry me!’ she said.
‘Yes, I would.’ I said. And I did.
It was a quiet little wedding in my living room with just the kids and a preacher. Later she told me that Christimae and she had promised each other to take care of each other’s kids in case of an emergency.
I’d call this one an emergency.
‘I’ll take care of your kids and you take care of mine, Betty," I had joked.
It was easy to see that I was getting the best deal! I had five kids and she only had two! But now, WE had seven!
Betty was a terrific mom to them all. She was always happy and tried to make everybody around her happy too-especially me.
We used to go hunting and fishing together and then we started riding my motorcyle. That’s when we really had fun! We would just hop on the bike and take off! Sometimes we knew where we were going and sometimes we didn’t. We rode to Sikeston a lot to see my brothers-Bud and Kenny. One time we even rode to California to visit her sister, Patty Anne.
Another time we rode to Oklahoma to see her son, Bubby. His real name is Randy, but we had nicknamed him Bubby when he was little and it had stuck.
I remember the kids always liked to play music. They even had a band. Oh, they had different names that came and gone. I remember one was named, ‘Lanny and the Skylighters.’ Then came ‘The Sound Extraction.’ They even made a record. One side was a love song called, ‘Tina.’ The other side was a sad song named ‘I Feel Like Crying.’ I don’t think either one of them hit the charts, but it sure made their manager, Betty Lou, proud.
She was quite a guitar player and singer too. She was also a good seamstress. She used to make the kids their band outfits-all matching-so they could enter contests and perform at fairs and things. They wore her homemade outfits when they played on TV too. Their big debut! Dance Party! Betty was so proud! I was too
. I liked the band idea at first. But then all the traveling and packing musical instruments all over the place got tiresome. I was glad when they broke up. I don’t think Betty was though.
Betty and the kids never missed church. Every Sunday morning she’d invite me to go with her and every Sunday morning, I turn her down flat.
Even though I believed in God because my mom taught me to when I was little, I just didn’t want to go through the ritual of church-going. Betty never quit inviting me and I never agreed to go with her-unless one of the kids were in a Christmas play or something. Then I’d go. So I went a few times. Just to see the kids. Not to worship or anything. Just to see the kids.
One of Betty’s favorite things to do was to coach a girl’s softball team. They were good too. She made them good. She was tough. She liked to win. Our girls played on her team. She was well respected at the ball field. I liked watching her yelling for her team members. She loved it. I didn’t go to every game, but I went to quite a few.
Then just when I thought my life was coming together again, I got a phone call from my little Kristi. Mom was sick. Very sick.
‘I feel like my head is gonna explode!’ Betty moaned,crying uncontrollably.
I called an ambulance. ‘Your wife has a brain aneurysm, Mr. Spitler,’ the doctor announced. ‘You better call in the family.’
For what? How could that be?
Patty came in from California to say goodbye to Betty Lou.
We were all crying and praying. Even me and I didn’t even really know how to pray.
I found out later that there were churches praying all over for us.
Betty fell into a coma.
I never left her side. I would just take a quick shower and be right back at her side. This went on for months.
One time, there was some music playing and I noticed Betty’s foot tapping gently. I told the nurse, but she didn’t believe me.
I knew my Betty would be all right. It was just going to take time. That’s why I never left her. I wanted to be there when she woke up. The only person, other than doctors and family, that I talked to very much was a house contractor.
Betty had always dreamed of owning her own home. She had even described her dream home in detail. It was different-black and white brick. No plain old red brick houses for Betty Lou!
Then one day, I was looking at her as usual when she looked back at me! I got real excited and asked her if she wanted anything-anything at all! She couldn’t talk due to a tube in her throat, but she motioned for me to get her something to write on. I fumbled around and found her a pen and paper. She wrote ‘coffffffeeee , cigarrreettte. You better believe I snuck her in some coffee and her favorite brand of cigarette, Raleighs! I would have gotten anything she asked.
Then the big day came. It was time to take Betty home!
I remember seeing how surprised she was when we drove right past our house at 1230 West Broadway.
‘Elmer, where are we going’’ she had asked like I’d lost my mind.
‘We’re going home.’ I had said with a grin.
I couldn’t wait to see her face. I didn’t have to wait long. The new home was only about a mile straight down the road.
‘What are we doing here?’’ she asked when we pulled up in the driveway of the perfect little black and white brick house.
‘We live here.’ I said simply.
Then the kids all piled out of the door laughing and yelling, ‘Welcome Home Momma!’
‘Oh my God!’ she repeated over and over and over. ‘This is MY house’ Mine? Really? Oh my God!’ She turned and gave me a kiss. She was laughing and crying at the same time. It was beautiful.
Not too many people get their dream homes-but I’m glad she did. ‘You have to wear a motorcyle helmet!’ I told her when Betty started out the door to go to the ball field.
She started to fuss, but realized that I was right. She had had part of her skull removed and could be killed instantly if she got hit.
I was scared to know she would even be around all those balls, but I also knew that she might as well not have survived if I didn’t let her live as normally as possible.
So, she become known as the coach that wore a motorcycle helmet. At first kids made fun of her, but she put up with it well. She knew they didn’t know any better.
Betty loved to smoke. When she had her first heart attack, the doctor warned her to quit. He told her that it was going to kill her if she didn’t
. I remember how she would try to hide her habit. But we could tell. She would try to hide in the bathroom. When she came out she’d always have the freshest breath and the room would smell like Lysol.
‘Ooh, that bathroom stunk!’ she would say. I had to spray it.’
But we knew.
But at least she had cut back some since she wanted us to think that she had quit.
But it was too late.
One day she checked herself into the hospital for an outpatient surgery. The doctor assured us that it was only a minor operation and probably wouldn’t take more than a few hours to complete. Nothing to worry about.
Then the nightmare started all over.
“Sorry, Mr. Spitler. There’s been complications. Gangrene has set up.”
All I could think of was how this was so like it was with Christimae. I hadn’t expected her to die then and I couldn’t bear to lose Betty.
We called all the kids and had them come to the hospital. She had her family around her when she took her last breath.
She looked peaceful.
I was angry.
What had I done to deserve this?
Time went by. I just couldn’t believe what had happened. I started to drink-and not just a little! I probably would have drunk myself to death if I hadn’t met Shirley
. She bought some ceramic moulds from me. I had a little shop that my kids had built for me. I made moulds and sold them from it. I gave her a really good deal because I used to know her ex-husband and I thought she was nice
. One night I got brave and picked up the telephone. ‘Would you like to go to a party?”’ I asked her.
‘What kind of party?"she asked.
‘Just you and me, Honey.’ I told her
.“Come get me,’ she said, and I did.
We had fun together. We did all kinds of fun things. I remember we went to a water park and slid down the slides. It was bumpy, but fun. She made me feel like a king on a throne. It felt good to be happy again.
I started drinking less and less. She was good for me. So I asked her to marry me. We were married soon after.
One day I was sitting on the bed putting on my shoes when everything went black.
My next clear memory is of hearing a preacher asking me if I wanted to be a Christian.
I was scared of dying, so I said yes.
I guess we prayed or something.
All I know is that when I came to my senses, somebody told me that I had asked Jesus to come into my heart
. I don’t know if I did or not, but I asked Him again, right then. I wanted to be right with God
. Too bad I hadn’t gone to church with Betty. I’d go with Shirley, though.
She had asked me to go before.
Tandi and the other kids had tried to get me to go too. Tandi made me mad sometimes, but I know she bugged me because she loved me.
I remember I tried to stretch my legs, but I couldn’t feel them! I got scared and started yelling. A nurse came in and calmed me down. She said that my legs were just tired and that they’d be good as new in no time.
She lied. I
t was a very long time before I could use a walker without someone on each side of me. I felt so helpless. I hated that!
Shirley told me that I had had two brain aneurysms! And that I had been in a coma! It was all so weird and unbelievable!
How could I have had the same kind of thing that Betty Lou had suffered?
But she had lived.
A few months ago a bad guy named Osama Bin Laden sent his people to hijack planes and crash into some buildings in New York. It was awful! I watched on TV how the people were screaming and smoke was just everywhere!
I was glad my family didn’t live in New York. That started a war in a place called Afghanistan. I’ve never been there and I don’t want to go!
I just hope the war gets over quickly. I think it will.
There’s a big reward out for Osama. Like in the millions. Somebody’ll find him and he’ll get his.
I just pray that the Lord will keep us safe and sound. And that Osama Bin Laden will get his! The Lord’s with us, so I know everything’s going to be all right. -30-
Update: Daddy and Shirley divorced while Daddy was in the nursing home.
Just had a wonderful visit with him - we talked about the time Daddy and I went on a motorcycle trip to St. Louis- just us. He especially reminded me that we stood in line for 2 hours to ride the Screaming Eagle roller coaster, but when the cart came up, I freaked out and said I changed my mind. He literally pushed me into the cart and held my hand throughout the ride. He was right. We both loved it and hurried to get back in line immediately. It amazes me how well he recalls things like that.
It's not always like that. Some visits are quite sad. I drive all the way to Kentucky just to see a shell of the man I know to be my Daddy. Visits like the one I just had are worth more than all the gold in Ft. Knox.
Update: November 1, 2010.
It doesn't seem real, but my daddy, Elmer Spitler, passed away at the Green Acres nursing home Saturday, Oct. 30. My husband, Terry, and I visited him Friday. Although he wasn't responsive in general, my sister, Tandi, asked him if he was ready to go to be with Jesus. With a great deal of effort, he mumbled something. It may have been my imagination, but it sounded to me like he said, "Go."
The funeral was yesterday. There were two CD's played.
I sang, "I Can Only Imagine," and Terry sang, "Most of All."
Terry and I had no idea when we recorded those songs, that they would be played at Daddy's funeral. He loved to hear us kids sing, so I think it was appropriate.
I'll miss him forever. Well, until I get to Heaven. Then, I'll get to hug him again and never let go.
I miss Mom too. Seeing those old photos flashed on the wall yesterday brought back many happy memories. Some day we'll all be singing together again.