S. Avis Gray with André LeMont Wilson
EL DORADO DAYS
When I was seven I wanted to be arrested.
If you wore twentieth century clothes, walked the sun-baked streets of Yuma, Arizona, on a spring day in the 1940's, leaned against a telephone pole encrusted with tattered rodeo signs at the corner of First and Main, or paused your dusty, bug-splattered Chrysler at a traffic light, a cowboy-hat-wearing, plastic-badged member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge 476 arrested you. These things and others happened if you failed to wear cowboy clothes in Yuma during El Dorado Days…a ten day festival and fundraiser commemorating Arizona's former lawlessness before the inmate-built penitentiary on Prison Hill overlooking the town drew this era to a close.
Over dinner the night before El Dorado Days commenced, my mother, born Ruth Bailey, warned my father, Russell Gray, who managed the Arizona Hotel in downtown Yuma where we lived in its only apartment and Mom helped in its office, "Russ, be sure to wear a cowboy costume or buy a badge or the Elks will arrest you." For fifty cents the Elks sold circular badges stamped with an antlered Elk head and the words, "Don't Get Me. I'm An Elk!"
Dad, distinguished in his gold metal-framed spectacles, blue wool suit, pressed white shirt, and skinny blue tie he wore at every meal, swallowed a forkful of well-done steak and boasted, "They won't get me. I'm an Elk in good standing. Besides, I volunteered to drive the paddy wagon."
Mother, cool in her spring dress, sipped her hot coffee and cautioned, "Don't say I didn't warn you."
Seven, spastic, and small, I sulked in my high chair as my nurse, Marge Dean, spoon-fed me. I craved the freedom to stew in jail where the inmates laughed and grabbed the bars. As Marge ushered me to our shared bedroom, her arms hooked under my armpits to brace me from falling, Dad bid farewell in a lullaby soft voice as he did every night, "Good night, Little Lady."
When I heard that familiar farewell, I smiled and replied, "Good night, Dad."
In the morning I awoke just after the desert sunrise. I kicked off the covers to unwrap the day and stare at my skinny legs. Sunk in a pillow, my head turned left to gaze at my bedside parked blue and white Taylor Tot stroller my mother repurposed for a growing spastic child unable to walk independently. The contraption resembled a cross between a kiddie shopping cart and a powered lawn mower. I would sit in the small seat with a tray and a wooden handlebar in front. Across our room, Marge's bed lay empty. "She is probably getting ready for the day," I thought and waited.
Dad and Mother had already left downstairs to work in the hotel lobby checking guests in and out and attending to their needs. Soon, Marge returned to our room to attend to my needs. I wolfed my breakfast. She protested, "Avis, slow down."
Five foot three with raven dyed hair and brown eyes which sparkled with determination, the thin Irish woman tussled to costume me like the female stagecoach robber, Pearl Hart, who cut her hair short and dressed like a man. Marge begged, "Avis, you must wear your costume or at least a cowgirl hat."
"Maybe they'll arrest me," I wished aloud.
When she noosed me with a neckerchief, I unhung myself. When she lassoed my strawberry blonde head with a cowgirl hat, I threw it to the floor.
"They'll put you in jail," she warned, but she feared incarceration in a real jail herself if an Elks deputy incarcerated her charge in a fake jail.
"Good!" I exclaimed. "It looks like everyone has so much fun… yelling, screaming, objecting."
Her arms hooked under my armpits, Marge supported me like a marionette as we descended the Arizona Hotel's concrete staircase together one green carpeted step at a time. Without a grip on the wooden handrails, I stepped first and she followed. We paused when guests passed us on their way up or down, then we resumed. We neared my Taylor Tot stroller parked at the bottom of the staircase.
The clink, clink, clink of my stroller wheels rolling across the lobby clay tiles flecked gold and red alerted Mother, who looked up from behind the semi-circular hotel registration counter. Marge, dressed in a blue denim skirt, a plaid blouse, and a cowgirl hat, pushed me in my stroller, my clothes firmly planted in a mid-twentieth century sun suit without a cowgirl hat planted on my head. Mom quizzed, "Where is your costume?"
Before I could answer, Marge blabbed, "I tried to put it on her, Mrs. Gray, but she flatly refused. Avis said she wants to get arrested."
Mother laughed and said, "Good luck! See you later."
Several red leather chairs scattered the empty lobby. Perhaps Dad left on an errand.
Although remodelers stripped the building of its covered arcade and painted the facade white to modernize it, when Marge and I exited the heavy door of the Arizona Hotel and ventured onto the sidewalk we returned back in time to Yuma's El Dorado Days. Along a downtown which stretched two blocks, cars slowed for passengers to rubberneck at the costumed spectacle which crossed every intersection and paraded under the wide covered sidewalk colonnades behind arches and columns in front of buildings. Donned in ten gallon hats, rhinestone rodeo shirts, and leather chaps, revelers walked bowlegged. Men dressed as desperados once again peopled the pool hall. Women dressed as Annie Oakley shopped the National Dollar Store. Several John Waynes and Hopalong Cassidys chatted with their mirror image. A woman dressed in boots, jeans, and suspenders over a man's shirt as Pearl Hart…Yuma State Penitentiary's stage coach robber inmate…exited the Five & Dime store wearing a cocked cowboy hat. At the jewelry shop, the proprietor Frank must have laughed and greeted the banditos who entered.
From a distance a siren approached. The Elks "paddy wagon" passed us in front of the Arizona Hotel. Driven by two Elk members dressed as deputies, the old topless car of considerable size and painted various wild colors transported soon-to-be Hell Hole inmates, incongruously dressed in twentieth century clothes, who waved from the open cab at us and at the cowboys and cowgirls who pointed and laughed at them: Jim a bank teller, Frances a department store clerk, Mrs. Smith an attorney's secretary, and Frank the jeweler!
I craned my neck to see if I could spot Matt. The Elks always arrested him at least seven times during the festival. Whenever he needed a break from work, he escaped outside without western clothes and stood on a street corner to await arrest.
"There's one!" I heard shouted from the paddy wagon which screeched to a stop. A deputy disembarked and approached me on the sidewalk. From my Taylor Tot stroller, I stretched out my wrists awaiting handcuffs, periscoped my bare head, and frowned guilty as charged. I felt Marge grip the handle of my stroller. "Hi, Avis," the deputy smiled and waved when he passed me and grabbed some hapless fool on the corner who wore a regular business suit. "Come on, you! You're under arrest." My eyes followed the deputy and his captive back to the paddy wagon where the inmates laughed and beckoned the new jailbird to climb in. His dress shoes slipped on the high running board and the man fell and would have broken his neck if a passenger had not grabbed him by his jacket and pulled him inside the vehicle. Then the paddy wagon restarted.
The paddy wagon careened through downtown on a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride as it picked up scofflaws, deposited them in "jail," and searched the streets for more El Dorado Days clothing code violators. I imagined when the paddy wagon passed the train station, the Yuma Indians who sat on blankets in front looked up from their "authentic" trinkets purchased cheap at the Five and Dime Store and resold to tourists at exorbitant prices. The Yumans must have wondered if the Elks would arrest them, but the Elks ignored real Indians.
I directed Marge to push my stroller to various street corners that worked for Matt in the past so the Elks could arrest me, the daughter of a leading citizen who possessed an Elks lifetime membership, but the paddy wagon filled with new outlaws passed me instead. Finally, I directed Marge, "Let's go see who's in jail."
As we approached, the jail seemed noisier than usual. From a block away, I heard inmates crying out.
"I'm innocent. I'm a law-abiding citizen."
"I have to attend a PTA meeting at my children's school."
"This is unconstitutional. They can't do this. Please telephone the Supreme Court and ask to speak to the Chief Justice. Call someone…anyone. Help!"
The Elks erected a six foot square jail in the middle of the First and Main Street intersection for all the cowboys and cowgirls to shame the inmates as motorists circled to gawk at who stood inside. Constructed of two-by-fours, plywood, and the best jail break prevention locks available, the jail housed twelve inmates – less if some were…overfed. Hands rattled the wooden bars or reached through them.
As we neared the intersection, I pointed and laughed, "Look, Dad's in jail!"
Marge stopped my stroller and then raced toward the jail. Dad pressed his face against the wooden bars and outstretched his arms with his palms faced up.
I giggled, "We told you to wear a costume or buy a badge. You look so funny."
Dad gripped the bars as if he could splinter them. He glared over his glasses at me. My green eyes studied the jail's narrow wooden doorway and high threshold, then examined my wide stroller beneath me. Perhaps Marge or Dad could carry me into the jail. The other inmates jostled and entertained the spectators.
"Let me out. We are having a dinner party this evening," a dapper, but non-western dressed gentleman called through the bars at the seated deputy Elks jailer. The jailer guarded the prisoners and a cash box half-filled with coins and bills for charitable causes as he awaited the peak fundraiser periods of lunch and after work.
"We are going to a show," a young woman and her boyfriend cried.
In the corner of the jail, a man, resigned to his fate, sighed, "At least call my wife and tell her I'm in the Elks jail and I'll be home as soon as they release me."
Dad pleaded with us, "Avis, Marge, tell Mother to bring my wallet so I could pay my fine." Sentences and fines depended on your status in the community. As the manager of the Arizona Hotel and a lifelong Elks member who violated the El Dorado Days dress code, Dad's fine would be high at one dollar instead of at two bits, and his sentence would be longer than the twenty minute sentence for the out-of-towner who stopped in Yuma to stretch his legs, service his car at the Shell station, and satiate his stomach at the Valley Café where the Elks arrested him.
My stroller clickety-clacked every sidewalk crack as Marge pushed me back to the Arizona Hotel to tell Mom the good news and get help. "Dad's been arrested! We need to bail him out of jail."
Mom gave an I-told-you-so smile and waited behind the counter. She relayed phone calls at the nearby switchboard and attended guests as the wall clock dials crept. Twenty minutes later, she ascended the staircase to our second floor apartment to retrieve Dad's wallet, then descended. Just before she opened the main entrance door she stopped to tie a kerchief around her neck like a rodeo queen and then disappeared down the sidewalk. Her strolled footsteps faded in the distance.
Upon Dad's release, I imagined cowboys and cowgirls, who moments earlier had seen him caged, laughed and shouted, "He's getting away. Send the posse after him!" And I can picture in my mind Dad trudging with his head drooped and his eyes fixed on the sidewalk cracks to avoid stepping on them as Mom walked alongside him, her head held high. When my parents returned to the hotel, Mom retained a placid look of self-restraint. Dad resumed his position behind the registration counter. When a guest asked for towels, Dad glowered over his glasses before retrieving the items.
That evening during dinner, Dad, who usually wanted to know what we had done that day, sat with his head down. His fork swirled the mashed potatoes and gravy around a cold steak. Mom, Marge, and I made as little noise as possible on our plates with our knives and forks as we nibbled and sipped. After dinner, Dad sunk in his favorite easy chair in our living room to disappear into the cushions like loose change. He read a book and avoided conversation.
Without saying aloud, "Let's go to bed," Marge lowered me from my easy chair to the floor to begin our walk to our bedroom. I turned to await Dad's farewell I heard on every night of my young life, but tonight I heard nothing behind his book. When I reached our room, I cried. Shushing me, Marge dressed me for bed and tucked me under the covers. My tears wet the pillows. Mom entered our room and asked, "What's wrong?"
I sniveled, "Dad did not say, 'Good night, Little Lady.' I'm not Daddy's Little Lady anymore."
Mother sat on the edge of my bed and explained, "He's just mad because he got caught. He'll be okay tomorrow. How about this? Good night, Little Lady." Mom imitated Dad's soft voice.
I cried the more. I want to spend a night in jail where people love me.
Chuckling, mother turned to Marge unable to sleep in her bed and said, "Well, I have quite a family. My husband is mad because he got caught and put in jail and my daughter is sad because she was not caught and put in jail."
The next day, as Marge pushed me in my stroller through the lobby, Dad, checking out a guest, wore a kerchief around his neck and kept a cowboy hat within reach on the counter so he could put it on his head when he saw or heard the Elks coming. As I passed, he looked up and acknowledged me with a nod. I smiled in return and turned to Marge, dressed like a cowgirl, while I dressed like myself, and I cheered, "Let's try to get arrested today." Then we exited the Arizona Hotel.
An interview with Avis Gray and André Le Mont Wilson discussing the writing of "El Dorado Days" can be found in this issue of Wordgathering. Gray and Wilson express their thanks to Ray Rothstein, Robert Perry, and others who provided edits and suggestions.