Harriet's Odyssey - The Early Years
Tracings of her Earthly Journey & Tribute to Her Departure
An Extraordinary Person and Her Extraordinary Life
Harriet died untimely and tragically December 13, 1953 at only 35. Her short life was special, full and significant. She was my eldest sibling, fourteen when I debuted. To say that she was a major influence, both while alive and from beyond the grave is simply understatement.
Let me also mention that everyone else mentioned on this page except I, has passed on, Since writing this hub, my sister Ruth, who would have celebrated her 92th birthday October 25, 2012, was buried May, 25, 2012. Our brother died in Dec. 1990. They were all quite a bit older than I, so I decided to tell of these times because I'm the only one alive and able to. Each of them influenced my life in countless ways. The odyssey will continue.
Aware am I that the rush of life in the 21st century tends to blur the times and lives of a somewhat more graceful and also more rugged existence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which my parents and siblings lived their lives. My appearance was enough later to have experienced the remainder of the 20th century and am now well into the 21st.
Those of us alive today who recall those earlier times cannot help but feel a sense of awe and respect for those times and for those who lived them. The times had split personalities - graceful and then harsh. It is in the spirit of those feelings I am impelled to write and to share some of what I remember or heard first-hand of them.
Our parents were special people whose backgrounds and union led up to this moment of the birth of their first child. They were not kids themselves. They had each lost their fathers to death at early ages and each of them was the eldest in their families. Their road was not easy, but they were determined. They’d waited till they finished universities before marrying. Dad was 28 and Mother was 26 when Harriet arrived.
She was beautiful from the moment she was born, which occurred in Swedish Hospital, Seattle, Washington. She was the apple of our parents' eyes. Even our Mennonite paternal grandmother, Louisa Holdeman traveled over half-way across the continent from Indiana to the Pacific Northwest to be present for the birth. Grandma Holdeman had withheld her full approval of the marriage of her eldest son, Albert, to our mother Elcy Russell, You see, Elcy not only was not a Mennonite but she was an artist and a free spirit. Grandmother Holdeman was diametrically opposite. A tenuous truce between them prevailed. However, from all accounts, the occasion of the debut of this wonderful first grandchild overshadowed any of that completely.
Harriet Louise was named for her two grandmothers and stole everyone’s hearts from the moment she arrived.
Louisa had borne only sons and surely this beautiful girl-child was a dream come true, though, of course, beauty shouldn't be overtly admired in her stoic religion. Quality was admired, however, and Harriet exemplified quality in abundance. It was to be her trademark. Even as a child she instinctively knew the "right" thing to do, how to sit, stand and wear her clothes, and the right things to say for every occasion.
Maternal grandmother Harriet Russell had three daughters but was no less thrilled with the birth of her first grandchild! Her heart was with the new parents, though she was unable to make the journey from Illinois to Seattle.
The New Arrival
Harriet - The First-Born and Eldest
Harriet was, of course, the eldest of my three older siblings. The next two would be born in Electra, Texas: Ruth Lucile Holdeman, in 1920, and Harold Weston Holdeman in 1922. It would be another ten years after Harold’s birth until I would make my appearance. Let me assure you - to me, these were all giants in size and in all other respects, so that my world was populated by towering titans with strong personalities. Among the three of them, though, Harriet ruled and called the shots, I’ve been told.
From ample first-hand experience, I can vouch for her skill in doing just that. She seemed to feel “a calling” to be the arbiter of manners and mores in the Holdeman family.
But add to all her traits her charismatic charm and presence, and one scarcely had a choice!
The Three Older Siblings Years Before My Birth
Harriet The Con-Artist
A story I heard too often to doubt was that on hot summer days, Harriet would sweetly suggest to Ruth, “If you’d make us two lemonades, Ruthie, I’ll give you one!” – And Ruth would happily comply! And Ruth is a Mensa member with an IQ of 140 or more!
The Three Musketeers
Among the three of them in close-range age as young siblings, I heard tales of intrigues, manipulations, mischief and mayhem. But as the fair-haired one, Harriet, who had the ear of our parents, especially Dad, was seldom incriminated in any of it. In fact, if mischief had occurred in his absence, she felt duty-bound to report it and name the culprits!
Consequently, Ruth and Harold became very close allies and co-conspirators, a bond between them which would prevail throughout their lives. It’s my understanding that the final thrust of the barb was when, after she reported their offenses to Dad, she would lure the unsuspecting offenders to their fate by sweetly telling them to “come see what Daddy has for you!” Perhaps her feeling was that if they’d behaved themselves, none of it would be necessary. I couldn’t possibly identify with her motives. First of all, I had no one else to blame for anything and it wouldn’t have been my nature anyway. But in any case, she was their mutual warden/oppressor, if not their mortal enemy, although what is even more amazing is that if she chose to shine her charm or lavish her praise on them, she could still wind them around her little finger. No one was ever sure how she did it!
The Three Keep Growing Up While I Was Unborn
The Two Sisters
But as sisters, Ruth lived in Harriet’s shadow in many – or most -- ways. They each had a kind of beauty and were both gifted with good minds and creative talent. Harriet, perhaps due to being a bit older and more influenced by a kind of prevalent Southern Belle mentality, simply kept her intellect subdued while shining forth in overall feminine charms. One notices even in pictures of the three of them as youngsters, that Harriet’s hands are folded, her ankles crossed, her clothes look neat and smooth, her hair in place, with her expression open, agreeable and inviting. Ruth, on the other hand, holds her hands awkwardly, dangles her feet any-which-way, her clothes, though identical to Harriet’s and received the same general care, are a bit rumpled & unkempt looking, her hair is rather unflatteringly arranged and her expression is strained.
In the same photo, Harold looks like a pugnacious little brother who just wants to be “outta there” as soon as possible!
I make my unlikely appearance!
One can only imagine how little any of them felt an actual need for a baby sister in their group, though pictures reveal that they seemed to like me well enough!! However, I’m told Harold made some rather strong threats to be carried out in the event that I didn’t turn out to be a little brother! I’ll never know how seriously those guided his attitudes toward me from then on, though I honestly felt very loved and welcomed by all of them. You may feel free to notice I didn’t say respected, esteemed or highly regarded! I was virtually invisible as an equal. This resulted in various stresses in my relationships with each of them over the years. But there were no serious threats carried out at the time. I escaped being hurled from the window for my failure to be a baby brother.
Later Harriet would become alarmingly aware that I wasn’t getting full benefit of her guidance and would set about to remedy the situation!
Harriet Graduates High School
Harriet would join Ruth at Baylor University in Waco, Texas in 1937 after Ruth finished H.S.
Off To Mary Hardin Baylor
Harriet enrolled as a freshman at Mary Hardin Baylor University in Belton, Texas for the fall semester, 1935. I was three.
Harriet made lasting friends at Mary Hardin Baylor, Addie Truet, among many others too numerous to name, even if I did recall them all. Her charm and grace inevitably drew admirable folks to her.
Her grades were not outstanding, but she was deciding which direction she wanted to go in her life work. She loved design and had real talent for it. However, Dad insisted we all must prepare for careers with certain, solid employment, and he doubted there would be such assurance in the arts. Harriet chose to major in Home Economics, to teach or pursue one of many careers as a County Agent. She was eventually to do both.
It was at Mary Hardin Baylor that she met her first love, William A. Daniel.
MHB was not a co-ed college, but happened to have the best aeronautics course available in the area, and "W.A." was a pilot, studying the latest technology. Bear in mind that planes were largely bi-plane types. Our father disapproved of being an "aviator" on principle, but W. A. was not only determined to follow that career, but had his sites on becoming a test pilot for the latest developments, the planes which were to be used in the war which was brewing.
All too sadly, his career ended when the plane he was testing crash-dived into the Pacific Ocean in 1942.
Understandably, Harriet was crushed and heart-broken. In fact, she responded too emotionally, perhaps. But more of that later.
A Scarlett Likeness
During Harriet's early college years a coincidental event occurred which had an impact and effect on the course of her life.
In 1939, the movie based on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind premiered in theaters across the country, starring lovely Vivien Leigh of the UK as Scarlett O’Hara, the feisty daughter of plantation Tara’s owners in Antebellum Georgia, becoming a perennially lasting, striking story. But in our family a most striking feature of it was an amazing resemblance between Vivien Leigh and our own Harriet. It surely helped set the course of Harriet’s life, since it was invariably noticed and seemed magically to open doors for her.
Years later when she had occasion to meet UK’s Randolph Churchill at a social event, he commented on the likeness.
Bear in mind that in those days, long before television, movies were the only animated visual media available. Kids watched cartoon features and Disney movies, wild-westerns and older kids and grownups watched romances, what might even be called sitcoms today. The movie industry was coming into its own big-time, and GWTW was among the first full-length features, other than animated cartoon features in full Technicolor. It's among the two top surviving full-color movies of that time, the other being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. Each had its effect on all of us, especially in the wake of the Great Depression. The color and possibilities seemed limitless. And, indeed, for some, they were!
POSTSCRIPT: The Rugged Training Ground
Especially amidst all that glamour, I can't realistically brush past this era without at least mentioning a family history situation which especially affected the lives of my elder siblings, and from then on, all our lives. The three of them knew intimately the rigors of life as it was.
In 1919, after leaving the Pacific Northwest in pursuit of a bigger dream, Albert and Elcy and baby Harriet headed for North Texas where the Burkburnett Oil Boom was in dramatic progress. They bought a house in Electra, Texas, which is where Ruth and Harold were born. Dad worked in the oil fields while Mother tended to her growing family and also pursued her lifelong love affair with painting. She'd earned her regular BS from the University of Chicago in Domestic Science (the early name for Home Economics) while Albert earned his BS in Agriculture from the University of Wisconsin, thinking to become a dairy farmer. Elcy simultaneously earned a BA from the Chicago Institute of Art. So painting was no slight whim for her and she would continue to paint and participate in Art Club activities the rest of her life.
She was also gregarious by nature and made many lasting friends in Electra, including the wife of the drilling company manager, for whom Albert worked on the drilling rigs. As far as Elcy was concerned, it "didn't get much better". She had a lovely home of her own, a young family to be proud of, good friends, a future which looked promising for carrying out her and her Albert's fondest ambitions, and ample opportunities to paint some of Texas' most gorgeous scenery, which was her forte.
Then life changed abruptly. On a hunting expedition to Mexico with some drilling buddies, Albert and the guys ran across an old water-well driller, who had a rather antiquated Model T drilling rig and a handful of contracts to drill water wells in some far-out county in West Texas not far from the Mexican border. Albert saw it as a golden opportunity and persuaded his buddies that they should all buy out the old guy, whose health was preventing him from fulfilling his contracts, and start a water-well drilling business. Only problem was, Albert was not only the only one with futuristic ideas, but the only one with any loose cash. So he bought the equipment and contracts at the old guy's price, with the idea that the others could buy into it if they could round up the funds. It turned out that they couldn't, so his thoughts of partners in the actual drilling processes would become dissolved.
Fortunately, no doubt, he didn't yet realize that when they returned to Electra and he announced to Elcy that they were going to head off to God-knew-where on a drilling rig. Of course, he'd have to leave his definite work, they'd have to sell their definite house and take the three toddlers and babies to "the jumping off place" of the earth in search of this bonanza. They'd move to Del Rio, which at 100 miles from the first of these contract locations, was the nearest town. At the time, Elcy didn't realize, nor did Albert, that he was to be the only driller involved.
By the time all the facts clarified, they'd pulled up stakes again and were headed south and west to the proverbial "end of the rainbow".
As it turned out, Elcy and the three little ones would accompany Albert on the drilling forays into the wilderness, camping in tents, sleeping on bedrolls and cooking on campfires. Naturally since the mission was to drill water-wells on uncharted land and since there were no surface streams or ponds, not only food but water had to be brought along. This situation went on for several years. They didn't actually live full-time in Del Rio, but in time it became necessary to live there during the school years when the kids began to be of school age.
Meanwhile, Albert had saved enough for a stake in some of the land itself, and bought what we always called "The Old Ranch" or the "Headquarters Ranch" or the "Y Ranch", because it was located in Block Y of the country. Albert and Elcy, with the help of the man, Jose Ramirez, who had been assisting Albert with the drilling, built the ranch house there. It was the be the last house of "her own" for Elcy until they moved to San Angelo in the early 1940s, as part of another venture, but that's later in the story.
Every summer the rental house in Del Rio was closed up and everyone spent the summer months when school was not in session at the ranch. This was still the practice all during my youth, as well. But I lacked the earlier experience of living out on the wilderness among the cactus and rocks which my elder siblings had. I am told that Mother Elcy and Harold took turns carrying me as an infant on the front of their saddles as they rode the fences which had been constructed by Albert and his growing team of honorable, faithful Mexican assistants around the premises and within them for the sheep and goats he was raising. All the ranch roads in that area of Terrell County were begun by his drilling rig striking out to find the locations for the wells he was to drill. Water wells are the heart of the ranches out there, so the locations of the wells determined the compounds of the ranches for the most part. In fact, he continued to drill wells all during the 1920s, even after buying their own ranch. It was by drilling a well on it in 1926 or so that he had the opportunity to buy the "New Ranch" - which is the ranch I now own and call The Flying Dutchman Ranch. Another ranch separated the two Holdeman ranches which are still in the family, though the management of the Y Ranch has been under someone else for so long that it's virtually forgotten who really owns it. Again, another story.
But obviously for both the adults and the children who experienced those early days in the 1920s under those conditions, the world had and always would have a certain somber perspective, as well as a kind of magical glow few others would fully perceive or comprehend. I'm not even sure whether I fully do, having heard the stories all my life and knowing the location intimately. I have a vivid imagination and can almost feel and envision how it was. But as it was happening, it was similar to the pioneer days of an earlier century.
I'm still in awe of an artifact from the time which is in my storage place in Del Rio. It's a "Carry Cooker", Mother called it. It consists of a very heavy metal two-welled box with deep very insulated walls around cylindrical "wells". Round concrete blocks were heated on the open campfire and placed in the bottoms of the wells, followed by the special cylindrical pots and/or half or quarter sectioned pots which could be assembled as required, to fit into the wells for cooking foods from beans to cakes! A tight-fitting heavy metal insulated lid assured the heat of staying inside while shifts of the heated concrete blocks were rotated in the bottom. One can only imagine the logistics of handling those items out on the dry rocky terrain, while keeping up with three small children and helping a husband with his work. If ever a woman deserved accolades, I believe that Elcy Russell Holdeman is among the best of them! All of her children benefited by her strength and joyous spirit. She did not complain and managed to keep her own candle lit and brightly shining!
To be continued. . .
The Saga continues for this special life and her denizons. . . watch here for a link to the next Odyssey part to follow soon.