Jack Hailey was apologizing for his memory. The 86-year-old resident of an Ojai nursing home said he used to know jokes--lots of them--but all he could remember were a couple of stories about Paul Bunyan.
Just when the retired produce packer was about to give up and return to his dogeared tabloid, he suddenly remembered the one about the two guys on their way to San Diego.
"They see a sign that says, 'San Diego Left,' " Hailey said, drawing a broad smile into two tight dimples, "so they turned around and came back."
Whether the joke deserves immortality is arguable, but for awhile anyway, it will live. Along with recollections ranging from the zany to the heartbreaking, it will be featured in a book of tales by the residents of the Ojai residential care facility, Mims Manor.
Some, like Hailey's contributions, are funny. Others are poignant or profound. Several cover a number of pages, while others are shorter. One tale, in fact, is only two sentences.
The collection, which already includes about 20 stories under the title "Soon I Will Be Gone," spans nearly a century of living, from log-cabin days to recollections as recent as a road trip with a grandchild. As many as 10 more reminiscences may be added to the collection, said Mims director Susan Whelan.
Whelan hopes to pay for the project with proceeds from an auction at the Eucalyptus Street facility Friday at 2 p.m. For sale will be 16 ceramic figurines made by deceased Mims resident Raymond (Buddy) Clark, a one-time entertainer who was a backup singer on Bing Crosby's "White Christmas Album" and told folks around Mims that he had sung "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" in Walt Disney's "Song of the South."
Disney officials say James Baskett was the crooner in question, but Clark's figurines still are the sort of sculpture one might expect from a man entranced with plenty of sunshine, Mr. Bluebird and everything sa-tis-fac-tual.
Brightly colored and cartoonish, they depict animals with human features and people with outsized heads in goofy poses. The most memorable pieces spoof women in the throes of an exercise class. There's the bone-thin teacher who twists herself into a pretzel of a position while her beefier students
struggle merely to touch their toes.
Not one to poke fun only at others, Clark also turned his considerable mirth on himself in a self-portrait that will join the other pieces on the auction block. The only all-white figurine, it depicts a pixieish man who seems to be shaking hands with the big hand that he's sculpting.
Bidding will begin at $30 for each piece. If all the sculpture sells, the cost of publishing the book--$450--will be covered, Whelan calculates. Copies of the book, which will be illustrated by an acquaintance of Whelan who is serving prison time for drug-related offenses, also may be ordered for $10. Whelan also hopes to sell "Soon I Will Be Gone" to grammar schools.
"Children are growing up without experiencing an old person as part of the family," she said. "They don't have a reference point. They can't say, 'Oh, this happened to grandma,' or 'This is what she did.' "
"Soon I Will Be Gone" didn't start as a book. It is the product of several discussion groups originated by Whelan to build rapport among Mims' 42 residents.
"When I got here in July of 1987, the residents didn't even know each other," Whelan said. "They weren't talking to each other. They weren't involved in each other's lives. It was almost like they were waiting to die."
And, at the very least, residents such as Grace Williams didn't have cause to weave verbal tapestries.
"All of my family are gone," she explained matter-of-factly. "I have nieces and nephews but they don't have time to listen to my stories. They're a busy group."
Once asked, however, residents brim with stories. At first there were just enough to fill an in-house newsletter, later enough for a thin book.
One tale recounts the dust storm that swept across the author's family farm in Kansas during the 1930s, bringing a 7-year drought and blowing dirt into every crevice of the house.
Too Little Oxygen
"We tried to light the kerosene lamp," tells Pearl Higgenbothem, a 79-year-old former Mims resident who recently moved to another nursing home after her condition deteriorated, "but there wasn't enough oxygen in the air--just dirt. We couldn't see one another in the room.
"All the topsoil was blown away during that time. The roads were so covered with dirt that you could drive over the fence posts without even knowing."
Williams tells in similarly vivid detail of homesteading a patch of Colorado wilderness. Where desperadoes had once lived in a dugout, a 4-year-old girl watched men build a log cabin.
"In two months the house was ready to move into--two rooms in two months," recalls Williams of the prairie scene 89 years ago. "There were no nails. The logs were notched and fit together. There was a dirt roof over boards. The dirt came from somewhere else and was like cement.