|JIM AND HELEN
THE STORY BEGINS
|When it comes to finding true love, it is not for me to say that all Taft guys
are like Jim Richard. In my circle of friends (Class of '55) every one of us
fell in love somewhere in high school, but few of us married our "true love".
Still, there were couples, quite a handful actually, whose lives together
began at Taft High and continued for decades. High school is a time of
learning, of feeling and of thoughts for the future. Unfortunately, not all of
us cared much about the future nor worried about learning, but we all, at
one time or another, fell in love and thought about...being in love.
So Jim Richard was not unique in his early flirtations with Helen Slentz, a
demure (honestly, that is the right word), 15 year old sophomore whom Jim
first saw in the summer of '42. He had graduated from Taft High School
having lettered in football, track and swimming and was working as a
lifeguard in the Walter Glenn Natatorium. This was a job held by many a
Taft athlete whose futures were yet unknown.
One cannot know what Jim's ambitions were, or if he had any that summer,
but he knew that as soon as he turned 18, he would be going into the
Navy. So, this was free time when life's window remained open to all the
breezes gliding through his nights, awaiting the disciplines of armed service
to shutter them out.
One day, June 17, 1942 (we know the date because she recorded it), Helen
was there in the grandstand with a girl friend, watching people swim, and
Jim saw her. He sauntered over to another friend and asked who she was
and then on break he went up to her and told her that she had "beautiful
eyes" and that he knew that "you love me".
Helen was dumbfounded and said nothing, but she returned the next day at
9:00 a.m. and sat down. Jim approached her again, kissed her lightly and
said "someday, I'm going to marry you." Helen recounts that "he wasn’t
smiling, and I told him to stop looking at me like that…cause you make me
feel funny". Each day that summer, she would sit down near the pool, and
each day, he would tell her, "you're going to marry me".
A summer flirtation, we would call it; a good line we might say; a close call if
we were worried about Helen; just Jim being Jim. Then, the summer ended
and the daily dalliances disappeared.
Taft had suspended football after Pearl Harbor, so in the fall of 1942, Jim
enrolled in Bakersfield Junior College and enjoyed the good times of sport,
party and drinking. In October when he turned 18, he enlisted in the
Navy. "I didn't want to be drafted into the Army and end up in the mud. I
enlisted in the Navy because I knew I'd have a hot meal and a bunk to sleep
Through the fall of 1942, living the life of one who knows that military
service was imminent, Jim circulated widely in Bakersfield and in Taft using
his Model A Ford to meet appointments and enjoy the parties. One
evening after an early start with his drinking buddies, they all went to a
dance at St. Mary's Hall, located behind the church at the intersection of
3rd and Kern Street in Taft.
Now to those of us who attended St. Mary's Grammar School, "The Hall"
was a tried and true familiar friend and venue. As grade schoolers, we had
put in our time there on "The Chair Gang" as Murray Johnson named it.
Father would call the nuns and they would march us up from the school on
Woodrow Street to set up chairs and tables for special events, especially
once the Church started running its weekly Bingo games. There in "The
Hall" we were also taught the rudiments of formal dance under the close
eye of the nuns whose mysterious powers of observation we could explain
only through their proximity to God.
We were well behaved, hard working and occasionally treated to special
movies, among them any film that featured Deanna Durbin, Margaret
O'Brien, Big Crosby or Barry Fitzgerald. Of course, we all enjoyed "The
Bells of St. Mary's", and I can even remember the nuns smiling, especially
Sister Mary Agatha.
So whether it was a competition to see which student knew the most about
the Catholic religion, an artful presentation of a Christmas pageant, a
smoke-filled meeting of the Knights of Columbus or a serious fund raising
meeting for the parish, The Hall was the venue. There, all things that were
really important took place, as distinguished from school where nothing
really important happened (unless you include efforts to save our souls).
So it was on this fall evening in 1942 that Jim Richard and friends showed
up at St. Mary's Hall. Jim had been drinking and came over to Helen to kiss
her and dance a bit with her outside the hall. He asked her to marry him.
The answer to all offers was "no".
Helen knew that he was going into the Navy, but not when, and it was his
brother, Bill, who told her a few months later that Jim was in the service
and "sort of" engaged to a Ruth Ann Baines of Missouri. It was a "verbal
commitment", Bill told her, There was "no ring".
Helen heard nothing from Jim in 1943 and had no contact with him until the
spring of 1944.
In that interim, from the dance at St. Mary's Hall to May 1944, Helen had
some experiences of her own. She agreed to move into the house of some
friends and take care of their two children after school each day. The
couple drank, and one terrible morning, the wife came out of the bedroom
bearing bruises on her arms, a swollen face and bloody cuts from being
For Helen this shocking, fearsome image was one that she connected
correctly with alcohol. "People," she told me, "will do things when they are
drinking that they would never do or say when they were sober". She left
the home and went back to her mother's but not without a new resolve.
She could never marry a man who drank.
|Jim at Bakersfield
College, fall 1942
|The "Chair Gang" at First Communion on the
front steps of St. Mary's Church. Later, we
would learn that everything was not black and
|Jim and Helen's first home on San Emidio St. When they lived
there, it did not have a picket fence.
|GRANDPA AND GRANDMA DUGAS.
SHE DID NOT SMILE OFTEN BUT
YVETTE ON RIGHT AND
BERNADETTE ON LEFT, 1950
|CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE:
"FROM TAFT TO VIRGINIA
|This could well be the only remaining photo of St. Mary's Hall.
Located behind the church, the hall served many parish purposes.
This picture was taken at the time of the 1969 celebration of the
church's 50th anniversary. Constructed in 1911 on land donated by
Standard Oil and built with local labor, St. Mary's Church cost
$8,000 and was paid off free and clear the day it opened its doors.
My special thanks to Esther Dopyera Livingston who went looking
for a photo of St. Mary's Hall, and found it in the possession of Anita
Hanna who graciously let us make a copy for this story.