Kneebockers: How does a young boy keep this name within his heart for over 50 years before he finally shares this with family and friends? On a fateful day in the spring of 1946, I’m sure that the good Lord gave me an opportunity to travel a new road in life.
My mom Laura was raising my older brother Bill, my younger brother Wes Jr., and I in Yonkers, N.Y., while my father, Wes Sr., was traveling during the war on important welding jobs.
Mom received a call from Dad and chatted for a few minutes. All of a sudden, an urge hit me to want to talk to my dad. Out of nowhere in our discussion came my request to go with Dad. I looked at Mom and she looked shocked. She and Dad talked further and said goodbyes. Mom, with tears in her eyes, gave me a hug and told me that she could pack a bag and Dad would pick me up later in the day.
Dad picked me up and told me that we were going west to Reno, Nev. Wow, what an adventure, traveling for five days in our 1939 Plymouth. A story within itself.
We lived in a motel on South Virginia Street for a year. Dad and I spent every weekend out on the Nevada desert prospecting for gold and silver. He taught me how to shoot a .22 caliber pistol and I packed it in a holster on our treks through the mountains close to Virginia City and Pyramid Lake. Going into old mines with some of their tools still sitting there were common in our adventures.
Many of those days we would not see another person. We slept in a pup tent and I really enjoyed, at age 10, Dad’s breakfast prepared over a mesquite fire with campfire coffee, bacon and eggs, and country potatoes. The cold air and the presence of animals around us made this such a great adventure each day for this young boy from northern New York.
I remember one evening, just after Dad got a job as a welder in Sparks, Nev. Dad had not been paid yet but looked at me and said, “Let’s go over to the cafe and get two bowls of chili.” He did not look into his wallet, but dug into his right front pocket and showed me some change. With a big smile he said, “Well, Son, it looks like we have enough to get two bowls of chili.” As I grew older I fully realized that my Dad was so positive even in tough times. It brings tears to my eyes as I think of our relationship.
It was September 1946, and Dad told me that tomorrow was the first day of school and that I needed to get my good clothes out and would have to walk the mile or so south on Virginia Street to the white, two-room schoolhouse. Dad could not take me as he had to go to work.
My only good clothes were short pants, shirt, suspenders, sweater, hat and Buster Brown leather shoes. These were my Sunday clothes from northern New York.
I walked down Virginia Street and noticed that there were fewer houses and stores on the street and there were more mesquite bushes and tumbleweeds. I heard the noise of the playground at the school and came to the white picket fence in front of the school. It looked like a great school.
As I rounded the corner, I looked up and the dozens of loud students playing in the schoolyard went silent. All eyes were on me and there was complete silence until a boy yelled out, “Look at the kneebockers!”
I thought, what are kneebockers? Obviously it was a reference to the Eastern attire I was wearing. All of a sudden the kids came running toward me and I wondered if they were going to beat me up. To my surprise, several yelled out, “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” and “Why are you dressed like that?”
I answered their questions quickly and asked where to go to enroll in school. I noticed that most of the kids wore jeans and Western-type shirts. I felt relieved that I seemed to be accepted.
I was introduced to a lady who greeted me and asked where my parents were. I told her my Dad had to work and I was supposed to enroll in school. She smiled and took some of my information and told me that Dad could come in later and sign the forms.
I was now “Kneebockers,” a young boy of 10 enrolled in a two-room school in the fifth grade in Reno, “The biggest, little city in the world.” I was Kneebockers only to those kids and to my father, who I shared the story with that night. After my year in Reno, Kneebockers, the name, disappeared for more than 50 years.
Over the years I shared many of my stories with friends and a common comment was, “You need to write a book.”
I was so busy in life, teaching, coaching, guiding on the river, playing golf and broadcasting, that there was no time for writing a book. Finally, one day, six years ago, we were preparing for a trip to Kauai. My wife Missy said, “Chuck, take a tape recorder and a notepad with you. Get off your duff and start your book.”
I must share in closing that Kneebockers walked back to our motel in Reno on the rail line of the Carson City-Virginia city railroad. I thought, wow, I’m Kneebockers, what a great school, great kids and what a great day. I told Dad my story and my only request to him was, “Dad, can I have a new pair of blue jeans for school?”
The next day I walked past the white picket fence looking like the rest of the kids, but I was still Kneebockers.
Chuck Blackburn can be reached at 954-7121.