The Life and Times of Wanda Bruner Butler

by Wanda Bruner Butler
Copyright © 2000

Chapter 1

* Many Years Ago
* We Tied the Knot
* Tragedy in Alaska
* Three Brothers and No Sister

Many Years Ago

When Wes and I were married, he knew he would be father to three: Suzanne who was 10, Alan 6 and Douglas 3. Later we would add two of our own, Carol and Curtis. But, I'm sure when he met and married me he never dreamed he would be father to almost 700 children, and neither did I. I met Wes for the first time when I was 14. His sister, Ruby, and I were friends in Chino, California where we both attended the same high school. I often saw Wes when I spent the night with Ruby, but since he was six years older than me, I didn't think of him as anything except Ruby's brother, whom she would talk into taking us to the movies. Later he was drafted into the army and I married Wayne Barber.

About 6 months after our daughter, Sue, was born, Wayne was drafted into the army where he served with the paratroopers. Upon returning home, he worked for his dad in the hay business, for a time, before joining the Chino, California Police Department, where he worked his way up to Captain. I would see Wes off and on when Wayne and I would visit Ruby and her husband, Alva. Both men were pilots so our families spent a lot of time together.

After 10 years or so Wayne and I divorced. The three children and I moved to a small house near Chino, California and tried to pick up the pieces of our lives. When I wrote Ruby, who had moved to Ukiah, California, and told her that Wayne and I were getting a divorce, she invited me to come visit her. Wes and his folks had bought a place out on Pine Ridge, outside of Ukiah. I put in for the divorce in April, so in July I called Wayne and asked him if he would watch Sue and Alan while I went north to visit Ruby, I would take Doug with me. Ruby and I had lots to catch up on.

Wes was in and out of the house quite a lot, but it still surprised me when Ruby said he wanted to take me to the show, and not to worry about Doug as she would watch him. I hadn't dated anyone except Wayne so it kinda scared me to think of going out on a date, but since he was just a long time friend, I said, "Sure, why not." That evening as we stopped for hamburgers, I thanked him for asking me out. He sat for a while and then very quietly said, "I ask you out? I wanted to but was afraid you would turn me down. Ruth and Ruby said you wanted me to take you to the show." We both had a good laugh, how his two sisters had plotted against us. After that we started seeing each other often.

Then my time was up and I had to return to Chino, collect my kids and get on with life. But fate had something else in store for me. When I arrived home, I had a letter from my cousin and friend, Mae Ellen, asking me to move up to Dixon. I had been there the year before and liked it. I was wanting to get away from Chino as I felt the kids and I needed a new start. So I talked with the minister about it and he agreed. The day before I was to leave, some of the people from our church came over and handed me $150.00. I had to apply for welfare as Wayne gave me nothing and I had never worked out. I didn't know what else to do. So the three children and I loaded up our boxes, took the money and started a new life in Dixon. I can tell you I was scared to death. I married on my 16th birthday, and had never had to fend for myself.

One evening Ruby called and said Wes was coming to Dixon to see me. When I told Mae she said, "I'm not going to have my cousin talked about so he can just plan on staying with Albert and me while he's here." This went on for quite a while. Wes and I were getting closer. One time when he was visiting he asked me to marry him. I told him we would have to wait until my divorce was legal, so we planned a wedding for April 16. In the meantime he called to say a small house next to his sister was empty and he could get it free for building on a bathroom. I said it sounded fine to me so off we went again. As we were driving to Redwood Valley, which is outside of Ukiah, Wes explained to me that the house wasn't very big and we'd have to use an outhouse. Doug spoke up and asked, "What's an outhouse?" After explaining the outhouse, Wes went on to explain, further, that the well wasn't that good and the pump had to be primed each time it was used, so we would have to be sure and keep a jug of water handy to prime it.

The only part of the whole thing that sounded good was the free rent, and that Wes would be nearby. Once again we started a new life, only this time the kids found out the true meaning of "OUTHOUSE." When the weather was cold and after making a mad dash to the outhouse and back they would back up to the wood stove, that Wes bought for us, to thaw out. In about a month or so Wes and Art (another brother), had us a nice bathroom with a shower, but the well still remained a problem. When we flushed the toilet or took a shower I would have to dash out in the dark to prime the pump.

We had very little to spend on extras and I wouldn't take from Wes as he had already done so much for us. So, when our first Christmas rolled around, I started planning ahead, on how to have a nice Christmas and not spend money. The month before I had started making a game of cutting out nice colored pictures from magazines that Ruth had given me, anything that would look good hanging on the tree. The kids found pictures of a clock rocking horse, a drum and some of Santa. We had no lights for a tree, so we strung popcorn and cranberries that Wes brought us. We made long strings to wrap around a tree that I didn't know how we would get.

About a week and a half before Christmas, Wes pulled up in his jeep and told the kids to get coats, hats and gloves on, as he was taking them for a ride to fairyland. It had been spitting snow all day and I was hesitant to let them go but they pleaded so hard I finally gave in. Wes told me to keep the home fires going as he drove off with my children. About an hour or so later, I heard the jeep return so I opened the door for them. I knew they would be frozen, riding in the open jeep, but out tumbled the happiest children I had seen in ages, plus a beautiful Christmas tree. All three had rosy cheeks and noses and snow was still clinging to their clothes. They all tried to talk at once. Sue told about how beautiful it was up in the mountains with big, beautiful, lazy snowflakes floating down. Alan and Doug told about the deer and rabbits they saw. The three Children helped Wes cut the end off the tree and attach a stand so it would stand up. Then Wes got a bucket of water and put the tree in the living room. Sue rushed around to get all the cutouts, and everyone helped decorate the tree. I must say we did an outstanding job. When we had finished our masterpiece, I got the camera and had them pose in front of it. I still have the picture.

A few nights later Wes showed up, again, with some presents. He had a record player for Sue and tonka toys for the boys. I bought Sue a record of "Mister Sand Man," that she was begging for. The song still makes me shiver when I hear it. It was the only record I could afford and she played it over and over and over. She loved it and so did I at first. That Christmas turned out wonderful as Wayne's mother sent $20.00, Olean, my sister, made shirts and clothes for everyone. So not only did we have a tree and presents but a turkey and everything to go with it.

Fifteen years later on Dec. 18, 1969, I was reading the Dixon newspaper, that I always renewed no matter where we lived. After I finished reading the news I turned to the letters-to-the-editor, and started reading a letter that caught my eye. It said, and I quote it as it was.

"Dear Editor, Remember when Christmas meant sitting on daddy's knee and gazing into his eyes as he read to you the birth of Christ? Remember climbing up hills and tip-toeing across creeks to cut that one special little fir tree to bring home? Remember stringing popcorn and cutting pretty pictures out of books to hang on your tree? Remember sneaking into closets and peeking under beds to see if you could find that 'one thing' you had prayed so hard for? Perhaps it was a much needed rain coat or a pair of shoes, or even a Betsy-Wetsey doll if you were lucky. Remember hanging your stocking on the wall because all you had was a wood-burning stove and Santa certainly couldn't fit in that chimney? Remember putting out cookies and hot chocolate for Santa so he wouldn't get too hungry or too cold during his flight? I sit here and think these thoughts as I look at the expensive toys that will be broken or lost next month, wrapped in sparkly paper, beneath the artificial tree, surrounded by brightly lighted windows. Gee, I didn't even mind that it didn't snow as I had prayed so hard for it to do. Where did the time go? What will Christmas mean 20 years from now? Makes you think doesn't it?"

Well, I can tell you, by the time I finished reading that letter I understood how the children must have looked upon our Christmas so many years ago. They didn't look at it as a Christmas of not having much, but as a Christmas filled with memories and love.

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We Tied the Knot

In the spring Wes bought an unfinished house on six acres in Redwood Valley, just outside of Ukiah. The first time he took us over to see the house, Doug was looking around and wanted to know what was in the large boxes that were in the little room that only had three walls and a window, and with all the front open. Wes laughed and said that all the bathroom things, toilet and shower were still in the boxes. Doug looked at Wes, rolled his eyes and said, "Here we go again, outhouses," and he was right.

The children and I moved in around the first of April. Wes told his boss he would be moving from the 6000-acre ranch where he worked, about the 16th, as we planed to marry then. When the big day arrived, we drove to Reno with his sister, Ruth, and her husband, Joe. After we tied the knot, Wes gave me five nickels for the slot machine. I had never played the slots so he had to show me. I don't know what I expected but when I lost the first two nickels, I decided that was enough. I guess my two nickels are still there as I have never recovered them, even tho I have tried.

We spent the night at Mae's. I remember Doug throwing a fit. He didn't want that man sleeping with his mother. [I had let him sleep with me after the marriage broke up.] He finally decided to sleep with Alan. After we were in the house about a month Wes decided we had best finish the outside walls of the bathroom and put the fixtures in. I was so scared of bears that I made Wes nail a tarp over the hole in the wall. Wes said, "Well it's this way, I have the money to either buy the cement blocks or finish the toilet and shower." It didn't take long to decide. I guess the bear danger wasn't so bad after all, since there were no bears in our area and never had been. It wasn't long until we had hot water, a toilet and shower. Next came the blocks. Wes and I laid them ourselves and, if I do say so, we did a darn good job; Of course neither of us had fingerprints, just bloody stumps for quite some time.

We bought some chickens and they were so cute and small. I told Wes I just couldn't put them outside, so I made a little place behind the Ashley heater. Well I can tell you, after a few days I was ready to move them out. I didn't care if they froze. With me about four months P.G. and that smell, it was more than I could take. Wes just laughed and built a chicken coop.

About this time we started having a nightly visit from a civet cat. Wes set traps and caught two. On the 3rd night we caught Sue's cat, so he decided it was time we filled in the other two rooms like we did the bathroom. When this was finished, we had a cozy two-bedroom house and we bought our first bedroom set. The roll-away bed wasn't large enough for a 6-foot man and a pregnant woman, so Sue got one bed and Alan and Doug got the other one.

It wasn't too long after this that Carol came along. Wes said he wanted only two children and we sure didn't plan to have another so soon, but when Carol was four months old the flag was flying again. We were still raising chickens, (but not in the house) so when it was time to fix them for the freezer I told Wes I would do it as he was logging long hours; but something went wrong. I very seldom was sick but that smell of dipping the chickens in hot water and gutting them sure set me off, and I think I spent more time in the bathroom than out of it. Wes, bless his heart, never said a word. He just took one look at me and finished the job. We put up about 50 chickens that time.

That August we added a son (Curtis) to our family and I put an end to the baby making machine. When Curtis was three months old, Wes received an answer to his application from the University of California in Davis, near Dixon. Ruth and Joe wanted to buy our place; they had been living in a log house on our place. We all agreed on a price and we sold it to them. Each time we moved we had more furniture. This time we not only had all our stuff but Sue's piano.

The summer before, Sue had begged for a piano and lessons. Wes, half teasing, told her if she could earn half the money to buy one, he would contribute the rest. Now where is a 12-year-old girl that lives in the boonies going to earn that kind of money? Well, she fooled us. Wes's boss, who was very rich, told Sue to order Christmas cards and then she bought enough to pay for Sue's half. One evening Sue came in with her half and said she had found a piano for $50.00 and handed Wes her half. The next afternoon we had a piano sitting in the living room. She started lessons and really did well.

That piano did cause us a problem when we moved. We were about halfway when Wes said we had a flat on the trailer. Not only was it flat, but it was flat right under the piano. It took him some time to fix it but we still made it to Mae's before dark. [We couldn't move into our house immediately, so we stayed with Mae until it was ready.] It was just across the street from the highschool where Sue would be going, and one block from the school where the boys would be going. (Yes, it had a complete bathroom; we were high class now.) I remember the first night in our new, but used, home. It was election night and Wes and I lay on the floor, on a mattress, and listened to the election returns. The next day Sue started highschool, Alan started the 3rd grade and Doug started kindergarten. Carol was 16 months and Curtis was three months.

Wes was to start to work, in welding, at the university after Thanksgiving so we had plenty of time to unpack and get things fixed up around the house. We had three bedrooms and a large kitchen with a pantry. The large dining room opened, with an archway, to the living room, which had real hardwood floors. We also had a full basement, a nice fenced yard in back, with a shade tree, and a garage. The corner lot made it appear that we had more room than we actually did. The house was 100 years old but very solid and in good shape. The first time Wes went into the basement he came back and handed me some square nails. When I ask where they came from, he said the house was built with them, and with extra good lumber; no dry rot or anything. We paid $8,000.00 for it. The payments were $50,00 per month and the taxes were $13.00 a year. Our utilities ran about $20.00 each month, including phone and everything

Wes started his job and we had insurance, which we had never had before. He brought $268.00 home each month. We lived well, had a brand-new car that was paid for, and the only family around with a T.V. We even owned a deep freezer, and we were able to save some, too. In the fall we picked up black walnuts and bought each of the boys a bike, paid our taxes, bought Sue a typewriter and things for Carol and Curt. Wes enjoyed his job but then they offered him a job in S. R. 90, where they experimented on dogs. He wouldn't be involved in that, but would just feed them and keep charts on them.

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Tragedy in Alaska

Alan and Doug always looked forward to spending summers with their dad in Chino; he gave up police work for a while and hauled hay for his dad.

While I was waiting for my divorce, Wayne married the woman he was seeing. They went to Mexico and married, as he was still married in the U.S.A. That lasted about three months and then he met Joyce and married her in Reno. That made three wives at the same time.

Sue went with the boys to visit their dad, for awhile, but then she pulled back and quit going. The last time she went down she called me to come get her as she didn't care for his life style.

I was very surprised when he came through Dixon and said he was on his way to Sitka, Alaska; he was promised a police job there. He wanted to know if I would let the boys come up for the summer when he found a place. He said that Joyce would be coming up in a month. I really liked her and had nothing against her. Wes and I talked it over and he said it was for me to decide but if I wanted to let them go we would go up before school started and get them. He had always wanted to see Alaska. So I told Wayne if he would sign papers that he wouldn't try to take custody of them, they could go. He agreed and said he would be in touch when he and Joyce were settled.

The middle of July, he wrote and sent airline tickets. July 20, 1960, we took them to the San Francisco airport and saw them off. Yes I cried, as Alan was about 11 and Doug was eight. When we arrived home, it seemed so empty with just us there.

July 28, 1960, my father's birthday, Sue said for Wes and me to go out as we hadn't been anywhere without taking the whole family, so Wes and I went to the movies. I really didn't enjoy it as I was still bothered about the boys. After the movie I wanted to go home instead of going out to eat. When we arrived at the house, I told Wes something was wrong, as every light in the house was on. I jumped from the car and ran to the door. Sue threw the door open, her eyes were red and she was crying. She said, "Oh, Mom, daddy's dead." I froze for a moment and then ask how she knew. She said grandpa Barber had received a call from Sitka, Alaska, saying he had been shot through the heart and was dead. My first thoughts were about the boys. Since it was late at night I didn't know what to do as grandpa had said we couldn't call out there as it was an island.

Wes suggested that I contact Chief Peters who owned the rental next door. [Our place was the old Peters homestead that had been moved into town.] We knew him well, so I called and explained what had happened. He came by and picked me up and we went to the station. He sent a night letter to the Sitka chief, then told me nothing more could be done until morning. That was one sleepless night. I wondered how I was going to get the boys home.

The next day I received a call from Sitka explaining what had happened. Wayne, who was working as a police officer for the Sitka, Alaska Police Department, was serving papers on a man, to release a lady's clothes. It wasn't his regular job, but since he was going that way, he said he would take them and save time. He stopped along the way and picked up an off duty officer to show him where the mobile home was. The officer said Wayne was walking up the path when a man opened the door and fired through the screen door with a deer rifle. When he saw Wayne fall, he grabbed the microphone, as he dropped to the floor of the car, and yelled, "Officer down!" When he heard the cars responding, he heard another shot. They said Wayne was shot through the heart and was dead as he fell. They found the other man dead; seems he was wanted here in the states.

Well it took us a week to get the boys back, as Sitka waited and sent them and the body, along with Joyce to Los Angeles. The family asked Wes to be a pall bearer and he agreed. Sue refused to go and when we returned we found she and Jerry were married. I didn't much like that but they had been married a week and we liked him. He was six years older than Sue and was a fine, hard working young man. I thought, maybe, she could have waited and married a bum. They had three children, Deborah, Vicki Sue and Steven.

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Three Brothers and no Sister

After we settled down, from Wayne's death and Sue getting married, we ran into another problem. Now that Carol was alone in her room, she would cry a lot, saying it wasn't fair that she had three brothers and no sisters. I would try to reassure her that Sue was still her sister. Sue had spoiled her by taking her on dates with her and Jerry and letting her sleep with her, even though she had a twin bed beside hers. Almost every day she would ask when Sue was coming home. We didn't know what to do, but school would soon be starting and we hoped that would help. It would be the first time for her to be away from us. She was very shy and it was hard for her to make friends but we hoped this would change, being with kids her own age. After school started she did pretty well and didn't cry so often for Sue.

As I said before, we were able to save some money and Wes got a $20.00 a month raise, so we started thinking about buying a newer home. One day I saw an ad for a three-bedroom, two-bath home, with built-ins and a 2-car garage, for $15,000.00. After thinking it over we decided to take it. The only problem was that the payments would be $125.00 per month including taxes and fire insurance. We had only been paying $50.00 per month on the old house and that kinda bothered me, but Wes said if things got tight we could always find a part-time job. So, we bought it and moved in. That meant Carol would have to change schools, as the new house was on the new side of town. Ours was the only house on the block and it looked like it was situated in the middle of a mustard field. The mustard plants were about waist high.

Wes dug the whole yard up and watered it, waited until it started to sprout and repeated it again and again, until he was ready to plant a lawn. I bought white birch trees and fixed flower beds. (I am a flower nut.) Things were going very well and Carol adjusted (slowly) to her new school. We found a part-time job, or rather it found us. The people that owned the drug store in town, and was our neighbors by the high school, called one evening and ask if we would care for their apartments, cleaning them when they were empty. So now we had our new house and a part-time job. I think I forgot to mention that Wes supported the three kids, as all this time, Wayne only sent us $150.00-- not a month but entirely. So the part-time job came in handy for extras like band and boy scouts. The pay was good and they never questioned us and just accepted whatever we said our hours were.

We soon learned that a new house was costly. Drapes, and everything we did, seemed to cost money. Wes's dad had a small backyard sawmill so we called to Redwood Valley and ordered pickets for a fence. I didn't like the idea of Carol and Curtis playing in the back-yard, with no other houses around, and with all those waist-high mustard weeds. Someone could walk off with them. When the fence was finished, Wes built them a play yard. Now I could relax and let them be in the back-yard. It also kept a lot of mustard seeds out of the yard. By the time we were finished they had started other new homes near us. Slowly the bare spots were filling in and the kids made friends, as most were young families with young children.

Then the old problem arose again. Carol started on this old stuff about having three brothers and no sister, as Sue was expecting their first child in December. One day (I don't know what made me say it), I asked how she would like it if I looked into getting her a foster sister who wouldn't get married and would just be hers to share a room with. Those were the magic words. I hadn't seen her so elated since before Sue got married. That night when Wes arrived home, Carol jumped him about it. He came in the kitchen wanting to know what all the talk was, about a sister that would be just hers, and wouldn't get married, and she wouldn't have to sleep alone. I laughed and said I had opened my mouth when, I guess, I shouldn't have. Then I explained what I had told Carol. He surprised me by saying, "You know, she has an empty bed in her room and maybe this is the answer. Why don't you call and see what the rules and the laws are?" After some more talking and thinking, and with Carol bouncing on Wes's lap saying, "Please daddy, please daddy," we agreed for me to call.

The next morning I made a call to the welfare department at Vallejo and made an appointment for a few days later. As I drove down, I thought, my goodness, what have I gotten myself into. I knew nothing about foster children and had never been around any. Well, the visit went very well and I had a lot of questions answered. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Soon we had a home visit and the next thing you knew we had a foster license.

Within a few days we received a call from a Mr. Tucker saying they had a girl about the age we ask for but there was a problem. I ask what that was, thinking maybe we had done something wrong, but he assured me we were fine. The problem was that the 6-year-old girl had a brother and they didn't want to split them up. He asked us to talk it over and get back to him in the morning. Well now, this was a twist I hadn't planned on. We already had three boys and one girl. At the dinner table I explained what Mr. Tucker had said. I was sure Wes would say, "No way," and that would be the end of that. Instead, he surprised me by asking if we had enough money in the bank to buy another set of bunks for the boys room. [We had just bought a set the month before.] I said, "Sure," so that settled that, we would be a family of eight.

A few days later we had our new family and it wasn't so bad. After all, if you cook for six what is two more? Dick joined the boy scouts with the boys. Alan and Doug had a paper route; Alan had 150 and Doug had 50 so Dick (Richard) helped them. Eva hung around me a lot, and she seemed very insecure. Where Dick was very outgoing, Eva always felt that Carol had the best, no matter what we did. Carol would always let her choose first, but that didn't help. I made matching bed spreads for their room but she ripped hers up saying it wasn't any good. She wanted a baby doll, so I let her pick out one, but it was the same thing. It was no good, so she tore it up.

I noticed she was having a hard time in school, so I decided to have her eyes tested, which had never been done. The doctor said he didn't know how she could read at all. I'll never forget the day she got her new glasses. When we stepped out of the office, Eva stopped and said, "Now everyone can see me because I can see them." That brought tears to my eyes.

The months were rolling by and Eva's situation was getting worse. I spoke to Mr. Tucker about moving her. Dick made it clear he wasn't going anywhere, this was the best place he had ever lived and Eva could do as she pleased. He said she was always causing trouble and would cause them to get moved and he was staying. If, at the time I took Eva, it had been for any other reason besides someone for Carol, it might have worked. We took her for the wrong reason. Eva was the one that had a void in her life that needed filling. I thought of that for years and often thought we should have tried a little harder, but with no training, we didn't know how to reach her. As it turned out we did her a favor. She was placed in a home with no younger children, only two teenagers and they doted on her and she blossomed.

Things were going good with Dick and his grades were really coming up. The boys got along very well and Carol was happy now that Sue's new baby was here, and she was an aunt. In the summer we would go camping at lake Ladoga. Wes would rent a rowboat and take the boys night fishing. They would set their lines and we would have a bonfire, roast hot dogs, sing songs and the boys would go swimming. We always took our dog, Trisha. She loved the water and would swim with them. We slept under the stars and enjoyed the summers. After a while, every time Mr. Tucker would visit, he would ask, "Why don't you start an emergency home? You always have a house full of friends playing with the kids. Just think, you would get paid for having a house full. It wouldn't be like a foster home, they would be there only until a home was found." I said, "No way." I was sill stinging from my failure with Eva and sure didn't want to fail again.

A few days later I was at Mae's and she had a man from the real estate company there, as she wanted to sell her house. As we sit there drinking some cool aid, I told her what Mr. Tucker had said. Mae asked, "Are you going to do it?" I said, "No way am I going to do something that crazy." We started talking about something else when the realtor stepped in the room and said, "I'm sorry but I couldn't help overhearing what you said, but if you change your mind, I have the perfect place. It sits on 10 acres, has six bedrooms plus another three room house behind, and a 2-bedroom house behind that. It was a rest home for the elderly and it comes with panel fire detection and doors that open from each room onto a ramp. The furniture, dishes, food and, everything you can think of, comes with it." I laughed and said, "That sounds like a good set up but it's not for me." He handed me his card and said if I changed my mind to let him know. I replied for him not to wait for a call.

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