Thankful for a Well-Kept Lawn.
My first interaction with Russell Bradford, my father-in-law, was strictly commercial. Before the internet replaced newspapers and before modern distribution systems rendered kids on banana seat bicycles obsolete, delivering the local rag was a time-honored introduction to the business world. Like many cities of its size in the1970s, San Antonio witnessed a pitched battle between two daily publications: The San Antonio Light and The San Antonio Express News. My seventh-grade self somehow became a foot soldier for the Express News in the Regency Place neighborhood to which we had only recently relocated from Virginia.
So it came to be that the tidy pink house at 3111 Satellite inhabited by Russell and his wife Gerry, as well as my future spouse, arrived in my personal orbit. Paperboy work at the time involved more than just throwing papers. I was a collection agent as the customers paid me. I was a customer service expert because a customer who left the Express News for the Light required an explanation to the district manager. I was a salesman as a customer new to the neighborhood (or better yet one taken away from the Light) meant points towards whatever sales contest the paper was running (A.B.C. = Always. Be. Closing.).
Being a territorial representative taught a key lesson: not all customers are equal. A customer slow to pay was more trouble than he was worth; one with an angry dog was worse. Quickly, a paperboy learns to identify the good leads from the bad. There were obvious tells. Stay away from houses with cars on blocks. A chained dog got an engraved invitation to my competitor. Over time, however, I gained a more nuanced ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. A person’s yard told you everything you needed to know. Mowed weeds occupied the basement level of acceptability while watered St. Augustine or Bermuda, trimmed trees and hedges, edged side walks, and living plants suggested penthouse accommodations.
The yard in front of 3111 Satellite was immaculate. And true to form, on that account I never had to send a second notice for payment or beat back a canine frothing at the mouth. Before I knew anything about Russell Bradford’s daughter, I knew that Russell was the sort of man you wanted to do business with.
Into the Penthouse.
Eventually, the life of a high-school student forced relinquishment of the paper route. Luckily, however, the pink house on Satellite stayed in my orbit as M’Lissa and I started to travel in the same social circle. We began dating my senior year and I started learning a lot more about my former customer at the same time. Let’s summarize those lessons by saying that while Russell was a man you wanted to do business with, he only wanted to do business with you if you earned his trust. Repeatedly, and without need for judgment calls.
The triangle that a young man’s pursuit of a young woman creates includes the woman’s father as the third point. The intensity of my interest in M’Lissa motivated me to pay attention to the details of Russell’s life. As a result of what I learned and given my skills at judging a man’s character, I spent the next decade or so somewhere in the purgatory between respect and terror vis-à-vis Russell.
My immediate impression of Russell could be summed up in a phrase that might have slipped from favor. Russell was “a man’s man.” He loved to hunt and fish and the trophies on the walls of his den meant he owned and could use a gun. He worked hard and often in the outdoors, building things out of nothing. Behind closed doors he was blunt in his judgments about people. Russell did not like to spend his money. He listened constantly to Bob Wills.
I was pretty close to the exact opposite. While not having any objection to a sportsman’s life, hunting and fishing held little interest for me. I wanted to make my living using my mind; the outdoors was for weekends and vacations. I prized diplomacy. My life’s arc was certain to produce income enough to enjoy the finer things. And give me The Stones, The Who, The Boss, The Eagles or basically any act that began with “The.”
M’Lissa, of course, was caught in the middle. So, on June 30, 1984, as Russell and M’Lissa stood behind the doors of Baptist Temple in Southeast San Antonio, she probably thought pretty hard when Russell told her that if she did not want to go through with the ceremony, the two of them could just as easily go get an ice cream. Thank God, she told him that they might as well get on with it and he walked her down that aisle.
The Root of it all.
Once Russell, Gerry, their three other daughters, my new brothers-in-law and eventually a gaggle of nieces and nephews were my family, I relaxed. Bit by bit, over hundreds of dinners and countless miles of windshield time, Russell revealed himself. What I learned is worthy of being told and I pray I have the skill to do it. Hedging against the possibility that I might be lacking in that department, I start with a quote from the great book Cutting for Stone that is both simple and true. “Geography is Destiny.” Which is to say that the Rosetta Stone for interpreting Russell Bradford comes from the fact that Russell grew up in Chandler, Texas during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Today, Chandler is a bedroom community outside of Tyler, Texas. Hop into your car and Highway 31 will get you to the Tyler Chili’s quicker than you can get from Sugarland to Houston or from Plano to Dallas. State Highway 31 did not exist on February 2, 1923, when Russell was born and Henry Ford had not sold everyone in the county a Model T just yet. So the 15 miles between Chandler and Tyler might just as well have been 150. Russell’s mom, the very East Texan named Docia Lauretta and his dad, James Arthur, were of modest means and Russell was their fourth small mouth to feed. Much of their food came directly from the land around them, whether it was raised, hunted, or bartered for.
When the stock market crashed in October 1929, Lauretta and James undoubtedly did not give it a thought, if they knew about it at all. Stocks and bonds meant nothing to them. Yet, over the next decade, Russell’s family suffered the hard deprivations those events wrought. A six-year old Russell at the start of the depression probably did not understand why dad had to travel looking for any work he could find, the cold of the winter or the lack of food at times. That was just the way the world was and relief efforts, at least of the government variety, were more often found in the cities than in sparsely populated East Texas. By the time Russell was 18, however, he had learned life’s important lessons.
You could survive if survival was worth it to you. Doing so meant work and sacrifice. If your neighbors needed something to tide them over, that is what you did. Because it was the right thing to do and it might be you next month. God promised no riches but you could lean on him when your doubts got to you. Most of all, you could face the day with a smile or a frown and smiles were more fun.
A World Aflame is Still a World.
Russell graduated from Chandler High School just as the world descended into chaos. He had starred on the basketball team and excelled in the classroom at his small school. Today, there is zero doubt that he would have found himself at college as his next step. College and all its excitement, however, was never really in the cards for Russell. The question he had to answer was a simpler, more dire query: which branch? Russell chose the Navy.
I was sitting at a department store with Russell 75 years later, waiting for Gerry and M’Lissa to finish some shopping. Russell was happy to accept the thanks of almost everyone who noticed the World War II Navy veteran’s hat he wore. He survived almost every member of his unit and after their number had dwindled he missed the unit’s reunions. With those men he had travelled and helped transform the world. Their primary duty was ship repair: luckily they never saw combat. Russell’s descriptions of his duty focused on his primary stations: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Newport ,Rhode Island; and San Diego, California, all looked good to a kid who had not made it far outside of Henderson County, Texas before the war. His telling of it was glamorous.
I am sure the weather and the sites were worth enjoying. But war is war and you do your part. It takes a long time and massive amounts to build a Navy ship; in a two-front war, America had neither the luxury of time nor resources to waste. So people like Russell, working day and night, rebuilt damaged boats by finding ways to do things never done before. While the suffering of the depression is to be mourned for those who lived it, maybe it was a good thing that we had legions of men like Russell who understood survival meant work, sacrifice and optimism.
Russell may have risen in the ranks the fastest because he was the most optimistic. And who wouldn’t be? As momentous as his selection of the Navy as a branch of service was, it was only the second most important decision he made in the early 40’s. Late in his high school career Russell spent a Saturday afternoon at the Malakoff high school gymnasium for an event that drew teens from as far away as Athens. Russell was a goner as soon as some mutual friends introduced him to Gerry Gibbs. She was still in high school when Russell went to war, but the couple were never far from each other’s thoughts. Russell was not sure what path his life held, but he knew who his traveling companion would be.
After the war ended, Russell wrangled a long enough leave to return to East Texas. On the Athens square he found a very surprised Gerry and just as casually as if they were picking a movie, Russell asked whether she might want to marry him. The answer was yes and the marriage was held as soon as the ink on the marriage license dried, at Gerry’s home in Athens. She returned with him to San Diego, seeing the world he had been writing to her about.
Russell finished his career on ships transporting atomic bombs for testing in the Marshall Islands. Having seen the destruction they wrought in Japan, it had to have been a little never wracking knowing what you were doing. Still, a Navy man did his duty. Russell just did as he was told and when the Captain said make sure you look away when the bomb explodes. Russell and his shipmates turned their backs while the government loosed the most destructive force man ever created a mere fifty miles from the ship with nothing between them and the radiation other than Pacific blue.
A Man of Commerce.
Russell enjoyed the Navy but eventually decided it would not be a career path for him. He, Gerry and the first of their daughters, Beverly, made their way back to Texas. After a few knockabout years, San Antonio businessman John Ingram took a shine to Russell. Once hired, Russell was a right-hand man with the widest of portfolios. He didn’t mind it when Mr. Ingram called him “boy” or asked him to do all manner of things no matter how tangential the requests were to the business. The company was Aggregated Plant Products, later renamed as APPCO. Its business was the construction of on-site concrete and ready-mix plants. And Russell just got things done.
Post World War II America saw an economy like the world had never experienced. We literally built a new country in the physical sense. Just as Russell could be counted on to mend broken ships, he could be counted on to build the plants that turned out the building blocks of this infrastructure explosion. Russell had two things going for him. First, he had done enough machine work in the Navy that, despite the lack of college education, he understood how to alter a design to fit a situation. Second, and more importantly, he understood the people who were being asked to build the plants. Who you could push, who you had to ask. Who you could trust, whose shoulder needed to be watched.
The personnel part of the job was an art. To some extent, the boy from East Texas was a surprising artist. Russell grew up in the Jim Crow South and his job was now national in scope but centered in San Antonio, the biggest majority-minority city in the United States. The shop room at APPCO was his domain and it was the quintessential American melting pot. Russell’s success in this regard always surprised me, because truth be told, I heard him on occasion be-let’s say impolite-when talking about a people as a whole. Paying closer attention would have made me understand the more important point. I never saw him be anything other than absolutely fair when dealing with a person of any background. In fact, he would bend over backwards trying to help all his men.
Due in no small part to Russell’s efforts, APPCO prospered. Mr. Ingram treated Russell right and four girls went to college, four weddings got paid for, the cars got a little nicer, the church tithe got a little bigger. At our wedding reception at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, it seemed like I spent half the night shaking hands with Russell’s men, each one happier than the last that their boss had asked them to be part of this big day. I don’t have Russell’s people skills but I saw easily enough that there were plenty from all backgrounds who shared my idea that Russell was a good man to do business with.
A Grand Tour.
You have to know when to hold’em and know when to fold’em. To my knowledge, Russell was never much of a card player. Yet, he did understand the concept of taking your winnings off the table. As Mr. Ingram aged, Russell did not like the direction the business was headed without his mentor at the helm. So Russell took early retirement at age 62. Cashed out and looked at his bride and said: “you deserve to see it all.” For the next couple of decades, travel was Russell’s and Gerry’s life. Although unfortunate circumstances derailed two trips to Alaska, the couple toured every other state and large chunks of Europe.
Russell delighted in caring for his shiny Airstream. I knew I had finally made it when he entrusted me with an insurance dispute over some hail damage to the vehicle. I have handled cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but none caught my attention quite like the Airstream matter. Of course, Russell’s talents continued to burden him. His traveling companions made him their leader; the organization of the trips and “rallies” fell to him. As the group aged, and life took its toll on his friends, they would call Russell for advice or just someone to talk to. I overheard all manner of conversations about spouses who were ill, kids or grandkids who were in trouble and physical ailments.
Russell would nod, listen and offer the remembrance of a better time. Problems he could not fix he lessened just by sharing their burdens. Something about his easy way struck me as just graceful. In his eighties, Russell still surprised me and I had to laugh at the young man who was close to terrified of him. It turns out that a man’s man can have the gentlest of souls.
Russell and Gerry eventually returned from a life away, a life by any measure bigger than they could have hoped for, to the quiet of Chandler, Texas. We all knew what peace it gave Russell to be back home. But it couldn’t last. Gerry’s body began to give out and she wanted to be closer to her children, around more consistent care. So they moved to Waco in 2018. We had a year and a half with them before Gerry died.
You would never know it to talk to him, but Russell was an introvert. You would not know that fact because he was an amazing storyteller. As a student of history, I loved to hear him talk because Russell’s stories touched on every important part of twentieth-century America. What does it mean that we moved from a rural to an urban society? What happens when we let greed and avarice become our guiding principles? What happens when the best that is in us unites to defeat oppression? Can we live in a world that we have the capacity to destroy? Is it possible to overcome the stigmas of race we impose on each other? Can we build a better life for the masses?
Russell never, ever, talked in the abstract. When he taught it was almost in the form of parables derived from his experiences. In those stories, almost always couched in self-deprecating humor, I recognized the tremendous problems we faced and still face; but in counter point to that recognition, Russell’s life demonstrated an even greater capacity to overcome. When Tom Brokaw popularized the phrase “the Greatest Generation” Russell’s face was the one I saw.
Russell died on January 20, 2022, just days short of his 99th birthday. At the start of the pandemic he had gone to live with Gayle, his third daughter in Giddings, Texas, and there he lived his last days in peace. He lost his capacity for storytelling but the benefit of having spent almost 48 years around him was that I just had to think of him and the tales would come rushing back.
He will be buried today in his beloved Chandler, Texas. As I sat to write this it occurred to me that while Russell had many adventures, it was when he talked about his life in Chandler that his eyes shone the brightest. We never saw eye-to-eye on a great many things; one of Russell’s best qualities was that he did not expect agreement, he would still be your friend. One of our differences was the rural/urban divide. But he was insistent on his point of view, despite the glories of San Diego, San Antonio or a many other great cities he had enjoyed. While his capacities diminished one thing never changed. If you asked him where he wanted to be, his voice grew firm and he said he would prefer to be in Chandler.
It is there Russell learned the lessons that carried him through the seas of a life no less extraordinary for not being in the history books. The land that fed him when his family could not pay the grocer; the schools that gave him skills to make something of himself; the home that sustained him amidst the uncertainty of war, and the values on which he built an admirable life were all in Chandler. It is no wonder that he felt such comfort there.
Ironically, for most of his life, that sense of responsibility he learned in Chandler kept him away. He put his family, his country, his friends, and his company first. Russell always did what he had to do, with a smile instead of a frown. Part of being a man’s man.
It is over now. I am not qualified to understand the dimensions of heavenly rewards, but I know that Russell is returning to peace, to lay in the land that he loved with the only woman he ever loved. He is home.