Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Tale of My Great Grandfather in Montana: How Skill Caught a Criminal and Luck Saved the Lawman's Life

Frank Latta, one time Montana lawman, in the autumn of his years. He had one bad eye that was damaged when he was chopping wood. That star sapphire he's wearing now belongs to my Uncle Jack.

I never knew my great grandfather Frank Latta of Bozeman, Montana. But I have come across a new picture of him in sorting through my mother's things after her recent death. The picture explains a key element of a story that is often told about the old lawman and his capture of a notorious railroad extortionist in 1903.

The criminal was Isaac "Ike" Gravelle. He was an ex-con and a generally bad guy who sent a series of anonymous letters to the Northern Pacific Railroad, threatening to blow up bridges and trains if he was not paid $25,000.

The railroads in those days were powerful and rich, and they didn't pay these threats much mind. That is until he blew up a railroad bridge over the Yellowstone River, blew an engine off the tracks near Birdseye, Montana, and derailed a train west of Elliston.

He had stolen the dynamite for his operation from a Helena hardware store and one day a ranch hand from an outfit called Antelope Springs, was riding along the tracks near the Missouri River, when he surprised a guy sleeping in a haystack. When the loner lit out on his horse, he left a rucksack of dynamite behind him and a spur. The spur was identified by a Helena blacksmith as one he'd made for Ike Gravelle, and now he'd been identified, the hunt was on.

That's Gravelle, looking sinister at right. Courtesy Montana Historical Society.

In October of 1903 he was spotted twenty three miles west of Helena. Three lawmen began to track him: Maj. James Keown, another man called Bert Reynolds, and my great grandfather Frank Latta. They used a pack of bloodhounds, and they used Frank Latta's famous skills at tracking. Into the night they tracked Ike Gravelle, through McDonald Pass, Mullan Tunnel, and Priest Pass. Finally, according to editor Frank Walker in Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History:

" ...they ran him to ground at his old hog ranch near Priest Pass and, without firing a shot, captured their prey. In most dramatic fashion, the Northern Pacific lawmen trailed Ike down into Helena, with his hands bound behind his back. The triumphant captors had telephoned ahead, and hundreds of townspeople lined Helena Avenue to gawk at the blackmailer who had terrorized the entire state of Montana for three long months."

On New Year's Eve 1903, Gravelle was convicted. Before he was led away to the jail he asked to use the men's room, and there, in a stall, a person or persons unknown had planted a revolver for Ike. He used it to escape, shooting and killing deputy Anton Korizek in the struggle. He had told friends what he really wanted to do was to kill Frank Latta, that son-of-a-gun who had tracked him down.

The jury had only been out four hours before returning its verdict that day, and the story goes that my great grandfather, Frank Latta, was just returning to the courthouse when the escape took place. He'd been buying himself a new Stetson with some of the reward money he won for Ike's capture, and he was walking up onto the courthouse steps just as Gravelle brushed past him and ran on down the street.

The escape was Gravelle's last desperate act. As he ran, he shot and mortally wounded another man--one of the the witnesses at his trial who had pulled out his own revolver and given chase. But, it wasn't long before lawmen had Gravelle cornered in the stairway leading down to the coal room of the brand new Montana governor's mansion. Ike turned the gun on himself and ended his life.

"Why didn't he shoot you," people asked Frank Latta when the ruckus had died down. "He was a killer with nothing to lose. He said he'd kill you too."

"Well," said Frank. "I had on my new Stetson. I guess he just didn't recognize me in that brand new hat."

Below is the picture I found among my mother's things, a photo taken thirty years after the famous Gravelle case. That's my mother with my great grandfather, Montanan Frank Latta.

I don't know what hat he had on the day Ike Gravelle escaped, but if it was anything like the one he's wearing in this photo, with a brim just the right size to block the Montana sun and put a cowboy's features in total darkness, it is easy to understand why the famous criminal might have failed, on that fateful day, to identify the man who tracked him down.

The moustache would have been a dead give-away. It must not have been quite so impressive in 1903.

Faye Latta, my mother, with her grandfather, Frank Latta, whose hat saved his life one day in 1903. This photo was taken in Montana in 1936.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Even More Treasures of the House

My father's Masters Degree diploma.

I come home daily from cleaning out the drawers and closets of my parents' home, and I'm usually sneezing from all the dust I've inhaled. I don't mind it too much though because I keep finding treasures. Like the diploma above: I found it in an old cardboard box. A lot of people might have framed it and put it up. My father never did. I don't even recall going to the ceremony or going out to dinner to congratulate him. He was lucky though: Governor Ronald Reagan signed his diploma. I'm proud to say the Gipper signed both of my degrees, too.

I found this old newspaper clipping in between a box of old Christmas cards and an empty journal in my mother's linen closet. My sister went to what was called "Stewardess School" back in those days and it was so exciting and glamorous, she made the paper!

Those were the days when flight attendants wore designer uniforms and, as you can see, really cool hats. They even served meals with real silverware up in First Class. My sister didn't do it long. Just long enough to meet her husband, who worked for a rival airline. So all that training paid off in the end.

In another pile of stuff, I found this old sheriff's patch that belonged to my maternal grandfather, Harry Latta. He was born in Montana and didn't have the benefit of a formal education. He knew horses and cattle and told me once he went on one of the last Western cattle drives when he was thirteen years old. But he ended his career days with a pretty good job: serving summons for the Spokane Sheriff's Department. He had to meet up with quite a few nefarious characters and reluctant witnesses who had fierce dogs and, sometimes, weapons, so it was lucky he knew his way around a .45 and was always packing one when on duty.

I think I'll put that patch on my dashboard and see if it will discourage another speeding ticket. I just got my first one in twenty years and maybe, if I'm caught again, they'll extend me some professional courtesy in memory of my Grampa, Deputy Sheriff Harry Latta.

He was apparently quite a fisherman too. This is a photo of him in Spokane with his two brothers, Bud, in the middle, and Walter, on the right. My grandfather Harry and his brother Bud were quiet fellows, but Walter was a wild man. He died in the arms of his third (or was it his fourth?) wife, in a trailer in Tucson, Arizona, with his mule in a nearby corral. Anyway, looks like they all had a good time being guys on this particular day.

And I keep turning up pictures of my mother that she never showed us. This shows her with her father, Grampa Harry, who is wearing a really dashing Stetson. What they are doing on that Montana roof, I don't know. And of course, we can no longer ask them.

And here is my Grandmother Chapman with Grampa Roy. They look like they are courting. The note on the back just says "Roy and Mary by Edgewood Lake."

My sister and I only knew our grandmother Mary Chapman as a plump, elderly lady, who wore a huge corset and funny shoes. But she looks so pretty in this photo. My Dad has her eyebrows and my sister looks a little bit like her I think. Didn't they wear pretty dresses then?

My father had a more privileged childhood than my mother as you can see in this photo of his mother and his Aunt Grace taking him on a pony ride. Sadly, the wheels of the cart remind me of the wheels of the wheelchair he now is forced to use. Ninety years is a long time and in the end it seems we don't really make much progress.

Finally, my Mom saved this little goody from one of my appearances in a college revue. Don't know what I was singing. But many of you might say the pose--mouth open--is strangely familiar.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Guest Post: Another Daughter of Another Nonagenarian Speaks Out on Fashion

Robin writes: Lisa and I went to school together as children. She's now living in Washington State, just down the road from her widowed father, Fred, who, like my father is 90 years old. Unlike my Dad, he's still able to live on his own and iron his own shirts--well, sort of---and therein hangs the tale. After reading about my own father's sartotial challenges, Lisa sent along this report ...

Lisa and her father Fred, the 90-year-old trend-setter. He's still trading in the stock market, so he doesn't like to waste a lot of time on his clothes.

Tailoring the Clothes to Fit the Man
Lisa Gutt Arnold

I have lately seen my father sporting a new pair of socks, which prompted me to write Robin in response to her piece on her blogsite, describing her father’s fashionable duds.

If my father’s father were alive today, I suspect he would be tailoring bespoke suits for the elite in Hollywood or London. My grandfather was a master tailor trained in the Old World, who survived as a World War I prisoner of war in Siberia by sewing buttons on the uniforms of Russia’s officers. His son, my father, is a man of many talents, but tailoring isn’t one of them.

At his current advanced age of ninety, shrinking half an inch each year, he staples up the hems of his pants. We offspring have suggested he contract with a manufacturer to produce colored staples to match the cloth.

While Dad learned to press shirts at his father’s knee, today he irons the collar, cuff, and placketfront, leaving the rest in wrinkles. “Why bother with the rest,” he says, “since I’m wearing a sweater anyway?”

Dad always has found elegance in simplicity. Back in the good old days, when Robin and I were growing up in Los Altos, Dad was a shoo-in for the annual tongue-in-cheek “Ten Best-Dressed” list, sponsored and published by the local Town Crier weekly newspaper. He was notorious, in the very up-tight 1950s, for the ultra-casual look he sported then, and sports to this day. I have never seen him wear a tie, and was astonished recently to discover a tie collection from the 1950s, in the back forty of his walk-in closet. Being an entrepreneur who didn't have to go into an office, my father incorporated his attire into his trademark “no frills” business philosophy.

But Dad’s real claim to fame was never seen in public: his special shirts, worn exclusively on Sundays. They were t-shirts so worn that a mouse might have mistaken them for Swiss cheese. Hole-y and holy.

Thus, Dad’s innate sense of style expressed his Zen-like disregard for traditional religion.

Lisa Gutt Arnold
Bainbridge Island, Washington State

Editor's Note: Just so you won't think it is only old folks who have trouble with the odd hemming job, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite photos of old-time movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, posing in the 1920s at Pickfair in Beverly Hills. Check out the trim on Mary's skirt: she was the most famous woman in the world, but I guess she didn't have a stapler handy!

Photo is from Dream Palaces: Hollywood at Home by Charles Lockwood

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Long and Winding Road Home

If I had known then, what it would be like once my boxes were settled in the "new house," this picture would have showed me running far, far away.

When I sold my house on the East Coast, I wanted to travel. My feet were itchy. At about that same time, my sister and I began to realize our parents in California needed help. But, after the two of us had left home long ago, our parents had never needed us. I imagined I could get these two cranky, selfish immortals set up with full-time help and then get on with my travels.

What a foolish girl I was. HIBK, as my friend, the writer Michele Slung, would say: "Had I But Known ... "

Now, after the death of my mother and the incarceration in nursing care of my father, I'm getting ready to move back into the family home. It is the most valuable of our family assets and my sister and I have decided it needs on-site care, at least until we figure out what to do with it. We're paying to keep it empty as it is, and we might as well have me as a tenant. And it is a mile closer to Dad. And, it has air conditioning! Hooray! It is hot here in the summer.

Wouldn't you know, it is the one home in my life I never really liked. I didn't like it the first time I moved in, and I liked living there even less.

Moving Day: from the really pretty redwood home my father built with his own hands, to the "grander" one across the street. Thrifty Dad had me use the old red wagon for a moving van.

I'm not saying it isn't a beautiful home. It is. It has beamed ceilings, a large country kitchen, and a fireplace that covers one entire wall of the spacious living room.

It is just that the first few years in that house were really awful: at least they were to the ten-year-old-to-twelve-year-old me.

Mom loved the all-wood country kitchen: but she hated the fact that the wood was stained green. The solution she and Dad chose was a mess: we spent the next two years stripping the stain from all the wood cabinets. From the beamed ceiling. From the louvered wood doors. From the floor. From the cupboards.

We had wood sandings in our silverware, in the drawers and in our shoes. When I helped Dad with the stripping, the varnish remover dripped down my arms and my skin broke out in large red boils. This sounds a little Dickensian, but I'm not making this up!

At the same time, my mother, whose asthma had left her a partial invalid, went back to work. She worked part-time for some professors at Stanford University and her health improved considerably. Not enough so that she could work there full time and enable me to get free tuition when I was later accepted to Stanford. Still, even forced as I was to go to UCSB, at least it was finally a chance to get away.

During those first few years in the new place, my father went back to school to get his Masters Degree, while holding down his full-time job, and spending his weekends taking the green stain off everything in the kitchen. He and Mom also invested in a fixer-upper in Mountain View and he fixed that up in what was left of his spare time, and then turned it into a rental, which he managed, also in his spare time. No wonder we didn't see much of him.

The new living room. Mom is beaming. The rest of us look as if we're trying to look happy. Except Dad. He isn't even trying.

My mother decorated the new bedroom my sister and I shared, and felt it was so lovely we were not allowed to put anything of our own on the walls. It was also against house rules for us to sit or lie on our beds before bedtime.

Okay, maybe it wasn't the house that was awful: maybe it was just a really bad time in our family's history. But I blamed the house. I thought the numbered address--911--was absolutely perfect for the place.

This photo, taken in the garden of 911 Echo, of my colt-like sister Kimberly, Dad and me, must have been taken during a break we took from stripping the green stain off the kitchen cabinets. We still had another year's worth of work to go at this point.

After just four years, my lucky sister escaped to college. I still had three more years to serve on my sentence.

Now, half a century later, I'm cleaning the closets in this place that once seemed so Gothic. I'm putting as much of my mother's furniture as I can into the garage, so I can get the ghastly stuff out of my sight, and donate it somewhere it will do some good. I'm making room for my clothes in the closets and my rugs on the floors.

My friend Leslie's husband, Mike, says it will be good for me to go back there and redecorate and exorcise the bad spirits, creating "new, happier memories" there.

I patted him on the shoulder when he said that because it was just what I needed to hear.

Still, I'm headed to the hardware store right now for some varnish. I just can't wait to stain everything in that kitchen bright green.

Just kidding.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Treasure Hunting at the Family Home

Snow covers the ground in Los Altos, California, January 21, 1962. That pose suggests I just threw a snowball, while my sister holds one above her head, ready to go.

I've been mining treasure at the home where my parents lived for the past half century. With our mother gone and our father in nursing care, my sister and I decided we should begin the job of cleaning out the drawers and closets. Since I'm the one who lives nearby, I've begun what my sister calls the "triage". What interesting things I'm finding.

One, is the picture you see above, which shows January 21, 1962, when snow covered the ground on the San Francisco Peninsula (one of only ten such days since 1852, according to the U.S. Weather Service). I remember the day so clearly. My mother had a friend over and as they talked, I kept pointing out the window at the snow falling. The visiting neighbor was from Minnesota and was very unimpressed.

It was snowy in the backyard too!

We were lucky that it all happened on a Sunday, when we had a free day to frolic in this unusual weather phenomenon.

An odd coincidence: I found the photos of the January 21, 1962 snowstorm on January 21, 2010. Weird.

I found this poem in another drawer. Written in my mother's hand, I have no idea whether she actually sent it out to friends and family.

It reads:

And now for some news!
You know how that goes
You think that it's "news"
Yet everyone knows.

But in case you've not guessed
this then is for you
We're expecting in March
Young Chap number two.

That's me. Chap number two. We try harder.

And here's a shot I found of my homecoming, another photo I'd never seen. Mom probably didn't want to advertise this glimpse of her in her nightgown, bathrobe, and loafers, with her hair in a scarf, just home from the hospital. She looks happy, though, and that's nice to see. In later life I don't know when I ever saw her with a big relaxed smile like that.

As usual, Dad is doing the heavy lifting. And my sister looks delighted. She's pretty sure she's just acquired a new dolly.

The treasure hunt is endlessly fascinating. In a coffee can I found my mother's first wedding and engagement rings. In a dresser drawer I found a set of lace handkerchiefs my Grandmother Chapman had given my mother on her wedding day.

Books are piled everywhere, a testament to the intellectual curiosity of both my parents. My mother's books are full of poetry and biography and fiction. My father's run more to titles like Working with Concrete, and Physics for the Engineer. And he was probably one of the few people in America who actually ordered How the Federal Reserve Works from the U.S. Government Printing Office. And then read the darn thing.

My mother had a hard time throwing anything away. I'm not saying she was pathological or anything, but I'm afraid if she'd lived much longer, they would have featured her on one of those reality shows about hoarders who can't leave their homes without intervention. The Great Depression did that to some people.

Still, in another photo I unearthed on my treasure hunt, I found her Depression-era family looking pretty non-deprived, smiling for the camera, in front of their summer garden in Spokane, Washington. My mother is the blonde beauty on the verge of womanhood--second row left.

Aunt Ruth, left front, and Uncle Jack, sitting next to her on the bench, remain with us today.

I love this shot of Dad in the garden. That is how most people in our neighborhood still remember him. A hole in the knee of his jeans too!

Mom, looking positively buxom, and me, looking buxom and positively bald!

One of my early creative designs. I just can't help myself. I was born with an overabundance of imagination. There isn't a thing I can do about it.

I have hours and hours more work to do at the house. But today, I paused and enjoyed looking back. Our family wasn't perfect. But you could do a lot worse than to have grown up in the California sunshine, surrounded by apricot trees and parents who piled rooms high with books.

I wish they had sorted through a little of their stuff before they left the house behind. But, like most of us, they didn't like facing the end of things. And, come to think of it, if they had, I would have missed out on the treasure hunt of a lifetime.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Clothes and the Man

Awwwww! Papa's got a brand new bag!

I am not a believer in the adage that "clothes make the man." I think the opposite is true and that a person of quality and style makes anything he wears look good.

That having been said, I have also realized, at the most difficult times in one's life, putting on even one new piece of the best quality clothing can have a big impact in the spirit lifting department.

So this week, I bought my ninety-year-old father some new clothes.

When Dad was in the Army, he did the engineer thing: he read the directions and put everything in its place and looked devastating in his uniform, though he had no idea he looked like anything other than a regulation soldier. In all his life he has never noticed his clothing.

Captain Ashley Chapman, on his honeymoon with Mom in Victoria B.C. They both look pretty spiffy, though I'm not so sure about her shoes ...

For the next sixty-five years, my mother dressed him. And while he was working, she made him look very natty in tweed sport coats and argyle socks and perfect shirts with rep ties.

Dad, the sporty engineer, looking slightly nervous holding his first child, my sister, Kimberly in post World War II, Palo Alto, California,.

In more recent years, as my mother grew increasingly eccentric, she became adamant that Dad needed no new clothing and what new clothing she allowed he did need, she purchased for him at the Goodwill. He never complained: he is from a family of Scotsmen, himself. By the time he went into his first rehabilitation/nursing home, after his fall two years ago, he had just one pair of functioning khaki pants and the staff at the home found, much to their hilarity, that the zipper on these pants could only be pulled up with a twist tie.

Before Mom's death, with her distracted by her own failing health, I had to buy Dad a half-dozen pairs of sweat pants and golf shirts, so that he would have enough easy-to-wash clothing to rotate through the week. I was doing the laundry she had volunteered to do. One day, just before she died, she noticed Dad had on one of these new shirts, which I had purchased at a discount at TJ Maxx.

"What's that," she asked me with a scowl. "Is that a new shirt your Dad has on? Don't buy me any new clothes!" And it was a good thing I didn't because about two days later she coughed, and the day after that she died of pneumonia. I had just been rummaging through her closet, to see if she had any more sweat pants I could bring up to the nursing home for her.

With Mom gone and the New Year properly celebrated, I decided it was time to dip into Dad's savings for something a little dapper for him to wear during the time he has left. I saw these cool Italian suede track shoes by Scarpa in the Harrington Catalogue and ordered a pair for him in mocha.
Big success. They look great on him, though the laces are almost too short for the size twelve shoe. Italians must have small feet.

Scarpa shoe detail. You can find them in the Harrington Catalogue.

Earlier this week, I went to the post-Christmas sales and found him two new Italian cashmere sweaters by Loro Piana. One of them has raglan sleeves and is made to look like a sweatshirt. The second is like a boating sweater with buttons on the neck and suede at the elbows. And I bought some striped and polka-dotted socks to match.

Details of the sweatshirt-like Loro Piana sweater, including elbow patches.

Today, he modeled the first new sweater for me. He looks terrific in it with his new shoes and socks. I know he is a fine man, even when he wears the raggedy, worn clothing my mother favored. But I enjoyed spoiling him a little--the sweaters were purchased, after all, with his own money--and enjoyed as well having him look so good amidst all the decrepitude that surrounds him in the home where death and dying is a daily scene.

As I fed him his breakfast this morning he was very cheerful, though he said he hated the fact I had to help feed him. "I hope the Lord is giving you extra credit," he said, "for the way you are making me feel." I don't think that's how the Lord totes up our scores. But my Dad's words were all the reward I needed.

And I'm not sure about the purity of my heart: I covet that sweater he had on today. And he better watch out, or I'm going to steal his Loro Piana cashmere. It is rich-looking and gorgeous. And just my color.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ohio State Friends, Rose Bowl Tailgating and Catching a New Year's Bug

This is my proof to my friends from Ohio State that I, too, was in Ohio once. See the sign?

I sped down to Los Angeles the day before New Year's Eve to stay with my friends in Santa Monica, and I promised you a report on my first adventure into tailgating--Rose Bowl tailgating no less, featuring Oregon vs. Ohio State.

My hosts, Phyllis and John, whom I've know since they were dating way back in the day, both attended Ohio State, and they produced a tailgate of epic proportions. Nineteen members of their family, and your correspondent, were included in the event.

That's Phyllis' son Christopher in his Ohio State red shirt walking to the RV that Phyllis and John rented for the Rose Bowl. John, a former naval officer, made sure we had the appropriate flags raised above the vehicle.

Though my father went to Auburn and I went to UCLA, I don't come from a football-oriented family, so this was all very new to me. I took my laptop with me to the tailgate and wrote about it as if it were quite a lark for Robin the Great Lady.

About midway through the day, I began to realize how lucky I was: to have such friends; to be in that spot on that day; to see Pasadena and the San Gabriel mountains through an achingly-clear sky; to ride the LA freeways with virtually no traffic on them. And that doesn't count all the food Phyllis produced for the gang, or the prime rib roast her son cooked--on site.

Phyllis had this "yule log" cake made to order for the tailgate, featuring the Ohio State coach wearing his trademark vest. It must have been a lucky cake!

All the tongue-in-cheek things I'd begun to write about being a stranger in a strange land began to seem very silly to me indeed and I decided to toss them out. The best part is that I had so much fun I never once wanted to turn the tailgate flat screen-HDTV set over to Turner Classic Movies.

Phyllis' family gathers round the TV, watching the pregame show at the tailgate.

I don't know how I will ever be able to thank them for giving me such a nice break from my routine. That one day must have cost them a fortune. And Phyllis helped me out at my mother's funeral too, so now I'm really in their debt. We've been friends for a long time--with luck I'll be able to even out the account.

This is a picture I took of Phyllis, John, little Catherine, red-headed Chris, and Annie (with the solemn face) at their home in Arlington, Virginia, back when we all worked in Washington D.C. John was with a powerhouse D.C. law firm when I was at the ABC-TV station there.

I zoomed back to Northern California in the Swedish Car just after New Year's Day, to resume my duties nurturing my elderly father and working on the estate of my late mother. I immediately came down with a really bad case of the flu.

The only way I can tell it was/is the flu is that I couldn't get out of bed for most of the past week (like a really good romance, only with the flu you have a sore throat). I knew I couldn't go up to the nursing home to see my Dad, carrying this virus around. I did that (and took my mother with me) when I had the stomach flu last October and both Mom and Dad ended up in the hospital. Mom never really recovered.

I had sadness ending the year 2009 and joy bringing in the New Year and following all that, my body threw up its hands and yelled "Halt!" So, I'm staying home and hunkering down until the last of this virus is really and truly dead. Right now, it is still having its own party in my head.

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