RAINIER VISTA PROJECTS
One of my earliest memories is of my older brother and me running around in the field next to where we lived at the Rainier Vista housing projects in Seattle, Washington. Our dad, Al Hendrix, and our mama, Lucille, held daily parties at our home and typically instructed us to go out and play whenever the place got too crowded and we started getting in the way. I couldn’t have been more than two years old at the time, while my brother was six or seven. As we ran around, we were still able to hear the commotion inside—the tinkling sound of ice being dropped into cocktail glasses and the howling laughter echoing from the living room. When I stopped and looked in through the front picture window every once in a while, our parents seemed as happy as could be. But most of the time that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Both Dad and Mama were big drinkers, who loved to be the life of the party. Later in the day, when the booze wore off, life was a completely different reality. That’s when the shouting and cussing started.
At that time, their relationship was rocky to say the least, but things didn’t start out that way. Early on, the two of them had plenty of good times. Mama was just a kid when she met Dad. She hadn’t yet turned seventeen years old back when he asked her along to a dance at the Washington Club. Being six years older, Dad wasn’t sure it was going to work out between them, but time told a different story. Both of them loved to dance and party, so they quickly grew close. Before long, they were inseparable. Dad found work in the Seattle downtown area busing tables at a restaurant on Pike Street called Ben Paris, then ground it out as a day laborer at an iron foundry until he eventually left and moved on to Honeysuckle’s Pool Hall. Overall, their life together was good.
Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything changed. The U.S. government sent Dad his draft notice around the same time that Mama found out she was pregnant with her first child. They had to make the best of this tough situation. Dad knew he was going to be leaving soon, so he and Mama got married in a quickie ceremony on March 31, 1942. They were officially husband and wife for less than a week before Dad checked into the armory at Fort Lewis and was later sent on to basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Dad was stationed at Camp Rucker in Alabama when he received the telegram from Mama’s sister, our aunt Delores, telling him that his child had been born. He was now the proud father of a beautiful baby son, whom Mama named John Allen Hendrix. After Dad shipped out overseas in early January of 1943, Aunt Delores did her best to send him photos of his boy every so often so he could see how big he was growing, but it was hard for Dad to focus on anything but the war. He was always on the move and was stationed in the Fiji Islands, Guadalcanal, and then New Guinea.
Back home in Seattle, times were tough for Mama. She left her parents’ house to move in with a friend and was soon struggling to make ends meet and take care of her little boy. Mama was only a young kid herself and fell into a routine of going out and partying. She bounced around from one living arrangement to the next until the burden got to be too much. Unable to take care of her little boy, Mama was forced to do something drastic. After a brief time with Grandma Clarice and Grandpa Jeter, Dad’s baby boy ended up in the care of a woman named Mrs. Walls for another short time, until she unexpectedly passed away. Fortunately, her sister, Mrs. Champ, came and took responsibility for little Johnny. When Mrs. Champ brought him back to where she lived in Berkeley, California, she sent Dad a letter letting him know of the situation. No matter what was going through his mind, he was halfway around the world and couldn’t do much about what was going on back home in Seattle. Now his boy was living in California, and our mama, well, Dad wasn’t exactly sure where she was spending her time.
When Dad finally got back from the war in September of 1945 and returned to Seattle, his first order of business was to make his way to Berkeley to get his boy. My brother wasn’t at all happy to be taken from the home he was used to living in for close to the first three years of his life. Suddenly, a stranger whom he’d never seen before, except maybe in a blurry war photo, showed up at the door one day and told him he was his father and was taking him to a faraway place. No young boy was going to react well to that type of news. And that wasn’t even the worst part. As soon as the two of them returned to Seattle, Dad marched my brother down to the King County office and legally changed his name from John Allen Hendrix to James Marshall Hendrix. Not only had my brother been taken away from the people he had come to know as family, but he was also being told his name wasn’t going to be Johnny Allen anymore, it was going to be Jimmy.
Dad wasn’t back in Seattle’s Central District area long before Mama showed up where he was living with my brother at Aunt Delores’s house in the projects of Yesler Terrace. I’m sure Dad didn’t know what to think about everything that had happened while he was gone in the military all those years. But he still loved her. No matter what she did or how many times she disappeared to do her thing, I don’t believe Dad ever stopped loving her. So, they reconciled and decided to give it another go. The back-and-forth pattern was repeated often throughout our childhood.
When I came along, Leon Morris Hendrix, on January 13, 1948, Dad and Mama’s fighting was put on hold for a while because Dad was overjoyed to have another baby boy in the family. Because of the war, he’d missed my brother’s early years and was now being presented with a second chance to be a father to an infant son. Not long after I was born, the four of us moved into a two-bedroom place at 3022 Genesee Street in the Rainier Vista projects, a former military housing facility. During the war, the military had put up barracks all over the city of Seattle for all of the army and navy personnel because the government thought that Japan was going to invade the country. When the war ended, the facilities became low-income housing for mostly black and Jewish families.
Just shy of a year after I came into the picture, Mama gave birth to another boy, whom she and Dad named Joseph Allen Hendrix. I was too young to remember much of Joe, but I do know that the added mouth to feed put even more strain on our parents’ relationship. Also, Joe was born with serious health problems, including a cleft palate, one leg shorter than the other, and a clubfoot. These issues were going to cost plenty of money to treat and Mama and Dad couldn’t afford it. For help, Dad turned to his mama, our grandma Nora Hendrix, and eventually decided that the best thing was to send the three of us to live with her in Canada for the summer of 1949. The short break was enough time for Dad and Mama to get things temporarily sorted out. Unfortunately, everything was just as complicated when the three of us returned to the Rainier Vista projects at the end of the summer. The financial situation hadn’t changed much. Dad and Mama still couldn’t afford to get Joe the medical attention he needed.
In the fall of 1950, not long after my brother was setting off to attend second grade at Horace Mann Elementary, Mama had a baby girl that she named Kathy Ira. Not only was Kathy born four months premature, but Mama and Dad also learned she was blind. Our parents now had four children to care for, two of which had special needs. After trying to hold it together for the next year, there was no choice but to place Kathy in foster care.
In October of 1951, shortly after Kathy was made a ward of the state, Mama gave birth to another daughter she named Pamela. Still scraping by to try to take care of Jimmy, Joe, and me, Mama and Dad were forced to give her to foster care as well.
By then, my brother had begun his third-grade year at Rainier Vista Elementary School and our family was still living in our small two-bedroom apartment. Since he hadn’t yet received the proper medical care, Joe still struggled with his health problems. If there was any possibility of him being able to get around without a limp, he needed an operation on his leg. It was a surgery Mama and Dad didn’t have the money to pay for.
Our place in the projects remained the site of an ongoing party where people came and went at all hours. Whenever my brother and I sneaked back inside from playing in the fields, we made our way around the room stealing the last drops of beer out of the discarded bottles on the floor and the coffee table. Many people thought it was funny to see me swigging away on a bottle in the middle of the party. I might have believed we were being sneaky and pulling a fast one, but I later found out that Dad and Mama purposely left three or four sips in the bottom of a beer bottle for us. I was especially hyperactive for my age, and they found the little bit of alcohol kept me calm. After a couple hits of beer, I became a quiet, obedient, and, eventually, tired little boy.
Many people don’t understand that while growing up, my brother was always called Buster, and rarely Jimmy. He only got used to being called Jimmy much later when he was older and more comfortable with himself and his surroundings. During his childhood, Jimmy was the name our dad gave him after he got out of the army. Whenever Dad insisted on using it, my brother threw a fit. They constantly went back and forth about it.
“That’s not my name,” my brother cried out. “My name’s Johnny!”
“I am telling you for the last time, boy, your name is James Marshall Hendrix!” Dad shouted back. “Jimmy is your name!”
My brother eventually realized Dad wasn’t ever going to let him use the name Johnny as long as he was around. So, my brother needed to find an alternative that didn’t drive Dad crazy every time he heard it. Not long after we saw the first Flash Gordon serial, my brother got the idea for the name Buster from the leading man, Larry “Buster” Crabbe.
On Saturdays, Dad sometimes gave us some change to walk down to the Rainier Vista field house to see one of the serial movies they were showing. It wasn’t easy because my brother typically needed to beg Dad for the money to buy the tickets. Even if he intended to eventually fork over the change, he usually made us wait for it for a while. Whenever Dad answered “No,” we knew it was a definite refusal, but whenever he told us “Maybe,” we knew were almost as good as there. But then came the waiting. Sometimes he’d keep us guessing as long as an hour until finally reaching into his pocket and giving us the change.
For a nickel, we’d be able to get in, and for another nickel we’d each buy a small bag of popcorn. Our favorites were the Flash Gordon serials because they featured spaceships and rockets that magically flew through space. Maybe “magically” is taking it a little far. The strings that held the toy rocket up were completely visible, and they used lit matches for rocket boosters as the spaceships sped across the tiny black-and-white frames on the screen. My brother and I saw fifteen minutes each week and couldn’t wait to come back the next Saturday to see the next episode. It probably took two months of going to the activity center before we saw the whole story play out. The serials were a great escape and allowed us to dream of far-off worlds millions of miles away from our hard life growing up in the projects.
From that point on, my brother insisted our whole family call him Buster. Some other members of the family attributed the name to other things, but in my brother’s mind he was going to be called after his hero, Buster Crabbe. If one of our family members didn’t address him by the proper name, my brother wouldn’t even respond. Dad got tired of having the same old argument with him and decided to go along with the program. He didn’t have much of a choice. Since my brother didn’t want to be Jimmy at the time and wasn’t allowed to be Johnny, he was going to be Buster.
He ran around as the character night and day for a while and even made a cape out of an old rag. “I’m Buster, savior of the universe!” he started yelling whenever we were out playing in the field. He truly thought he had superpowers … for a while anyway. One afternoon, I stood looking up at him as he climbed onto the roof of our single-story project house, which must have been around ten feet high, and jumped off, flapping his arms. He quickly realized he didn’t have any superpowers and fell to the ground with one of the loudest thuds I’ve ever heard. I was happy to see him spring back up to his feet, but his arm was bleeding.
When Dad, inside the house, heard him crying, he came storming out of the front door. “Are you crazy, boy?” he yelled. “What are you doing jumping off the roof?”
“But, I’m Buster Crabbe,” my brother told him through his tears.
To me, at that young age, my brother was a sort of superhero. Daily, he protected and watched over me. When I was hungry, he helped me find something to eat. Whenever our parents fought, he wrapped his arm around my shoulder and comforted me.
Being left alone in the house after Dad set off to work first thing in the morning, Mama usually started partying with her friends, who stopped by throughout the day. It was all fine and good until Dad’s quitting time later in the evening. After hitting a bar or two on his way back from work, Dad usually wasn’t happy to return home to find unfamiliar people hanging out in his house. If he was in a bad mood and had no interest in joining the party, he’d boot everyone out and go off on our Mama. It soon became a constant. The long days of our Dad’s and Mama’s drinking only lead to loud arguments later at night. By evening, all the laughter routinely turned into shouting. Sometimes the arguments seemed to go on forever. Dad wasn’t violent with our mama and never put his hands on her, but she possessed a fiery temper when she was drinking. Mama didn’t hesitate to bust him upside the head with a beer bottle or anything else that was around when she was angry. My brother and I learned to keep quiet when our parents argued. Being a little over five years younger, I always followed my brother’s lead. As soon as Buster and I realized they were going to get into it with each other, we closed the door to the back bedroom and waited it out. When things turned especially nasty, we stepped inside the closet and shut the door. In the darkness, we listened to the muffled shouting, hoping for it to end.
“It’s going to be okay, Leon,” my brother told me, draping an arm over my shoulder and drawing me in closer.
He knew speaking up only made everything worse. Sometimes we’d hide in the closet for up to an hour, until Dad and Mama eventually got tired and passed out.
Neither of us ever knew what to expect. Our parents got along well with each other for short periods, but it never lasted. Three weeks of good would be canceled out by one week of bad, and things continued to get worse. Our dad was always begging Mama to stay with us, but she couldn’t take the turmoil in the house any longer. Although they loved each other passionately, they couldn’t live under the same roof, and our mama had to move out. By the late fall of 1951, Dad told her he was filing for divorce, taking custody of us, and there wasn’t anything she could do. Mama wouldn’t be able to support us on her own, so she had to listen to him. Besides, she was having enough struggles with her own demons by then. Not only did the marriage unravel, but the burden of trying to look after three boys was also too much for Dad to handle. In order to ensure Joe could get the medical attention he needed, he and Mama realized they were also going to have to give him to foster care. In the summer of 1952, Joe suddenly wasn’t around any longer. He was in his crib one day and gone the next. It would be many years before our paths would cross again.
Despite another heartbreaking experience of having to give up one of their children to foster care and their divorce, Mama and Dad couldn’t stay separated for long. Even though she moved out, my brother and I woke up every so often to hear her cooking breakfast in the kitchen. As soon as we caught the sweet smell of pancakes and sausages, we knew Mama was home. They may always have insisted they were done with each other, but they were never done for good. There was no way they could live together, but they couldn’t completely stay away from each other either. Whenever Mama showed back up at the house, things were good for about a minute. She was gone again almost as fast as she arrived.
What I didn’t discover until years later was that Mama gave birth to another son not more than a few weeks after my fifth birthday, at the beginning of 1953. Like three of her children before him, the baby, whom she named Alfred, was born with disabilities and was given to foster care. At that time, it was hard for my brother and I to know what was going on with her. We didn’t see Mama for long stretches of time until out of the blue she’d appear at our front door and plead with our dad to see us. It was a few months before she moved into an apartment by the Rainier Brewery with her mother, our grandma Clarice Jeter, and finally we began to spend more time with her. Since Dad didn’t have a car, he walked Buster and me the thirteen blocks from our place in the Rainier Vista projects to visit Mama after work, while he was on his way to Edison Tech on Twenty-third and Yesler, where he was attending weekly classes to become an electrician. Because Mama’s place was directly over the Rainier Brewery, the strong, sweet smell of hops and barley filled the entire building. The odor was impossible to get away from. To this day, every time I smell hops I think of her.
Any time spent at our mama’s was like heaven. To us, she was a saint and could do no wrong in our eyes. I still remember how wonderful her perfume smelled and how beautifully she used to dress up. She took great care of us and cooked some amazing meals. Her favorite for breakfast was brains and eggs, and for dinner it was neck bones, sausage, and sauerkraut. It probably sounds much worse than it tasted, but we didn’t have much of a choice back then. If you went to the butcher shop without a lot of money to spend, you got whatever pieces of the cow were left over at the end of the day. The brains sure stank up the place while they were cooking in the pan, but they didn’t taste all that bad. Mama’s real specialty was sauerkraut, which she made carefully from scratch. After shredding the cabbage and soaking it in a pot of vinegar all night long, she drained it in the morning and boiled it with Polish sausage. The dish was always my brother’s favorite.
When Dad got out of class at Edison Tech later at night, he swung back through Mama’s place, hoisted me up onto his shoulders, and took Buster by the hand so we could make our way back home. My brother didn’t like that I got special treatment and was carried all the way to our house.
“Leon’s not sleeping, Dad,” he complained. “Just look. He can walk. He’s faking it!”
I always made sure to open my eyes and give Buster a quick wink from on top of Dad’s shoulder.
Our aunt Delores, God love her, recognized how hard things were on Dad and took it upon herself to help out. Even though she and her husband, Uncle Bob, had eight children of their own by then, she regularly offered to watch Buster and me. I don’t know what we would have done without her reaching out to try to ease the strain on our dad.
After years of never having a car, Dad eventually got a beautiful sky-blue ’53 Pontiac convertible with a white canvas drop top through a VA (Veterans Affairs) loan from the government. The car was the hottest convertible in the neighborhood. During the summer, Dad drove my brother and me up to Vancouver to spend time with family and dropped us off at his half brother’s, Uncle Frank and Aunt Pearl’s, where we ended up staying for a couple months. When Dad came back up to Canada at the end of the summer and brought Buster and me back down to Seattle, he soon realized he had a major problem: he wasn’t sure what to do with us. Dad was working long hours during the day, and no one was around to take care of us. Fortunately, his sister, our aunt Pat, heard that he was struggling and offered to let us stay with her and her husband, Joe, at their house on Drake Street in Vancouver. Dad had no choice but to pack our things, put us in the car, and race back up Highway 99 to Canada.
Up in Vancouver, Aunt Pat took good care of my brother and me. She put Buster in Dawson Grade School, where Dad also went when he was a kid, and I started prekindergarten classes. Dad made sure to make the trip to see us every other weekend or so to see how we were doing, but we didn’t live in Vancouver for long. When Aunt Pat’s husband died unexpectedly, she packed up her things and brought us back to Seattle to move in with Dad on Genesee Street. Aunt Pat stayed in one room, while Dad, Buster, and I shared a bed in the other. It was nice to have Aunt Pat around during the day to watch me while my brother started going to school at Rainier Vista Elementary. We were even more thrilled to have her living with us because she also brought her television set. Now Buster and I didn’t have to only listen to the Top 40 countdown, we could watch it.
Bless her heart, Aunt Pat lived with us until she met her second husband, who was also named Pat, and they bought a house together down by Lake Washington. Once again, Dad was left in a tight spot without anyone to help take care of us. By the middle of 1953, he was pumping gas for Seattle City Light for a shift during the day and still going to school at night to be an electrician.
Even though money was tight, Dad scraped enough cash together to hire a part-time cleaning lady and babysitter named Edna Murray to watch us. He also didn’t waste much time making her his new girlfriend and inviting her to live with us. Neither Buster nor I were too thrilled because we thought Edna was a mean old bat. Although, looking back, it probably wasn’t all her fault. We were a lot for anyone to handle. Because there wasn’t anything in the house to eat, Edna’s specialty became fixing ketchup sandwiches for us. If you’ve never eaten a ketchup sandwich for dinner, let me be the first to admit that it tastes as bad as it sounds. Maybe worse. But still, when we were hungry, my brother and I ate anything.
When Dad finally made it home, Buster told him what we had had for dinner.
“You boys didn’t eat no ketchup sandwiches,” he snapped.
“Yes, we did,” I told him. “There’s nothing in the fridge.”
When Dad opened up the refrigerator to see nothing but a half-empty bottle of old ketchup, he couldn’t argue with me much further. He didn’t want to hear any of our moaning and groaning when he finally arrived home, drunk and exhausted, at the end of his day. Even when he did make it back home at a decent hour after his shift, the last thing Dad wanted to be confronted with was his two needy boys. He usually had one request whenever he shuffled through the front door: “Go to bed.”
We may have been poor and underprivileged, but Buster and I didn’t know it. We didn’t have access to boxes of toys to play with, or a television anymore to sit in front of all night, so we used what we had—our imaginations. My brother and I found whatever we could to keep ourselves entertained. One of our favorite things to do was to lie on our backs out in the yard and stare up into the night sky. Buster often told stories about the constellations and how they each got their name. His mind was full of all kinds of ideas about the universe and space.
“Mars and Venus used to be lovers way back,” he told me. “And right now, we are spinning around in the universe on just one planet. Who knows how many of them are out there? I mean, way out there. There are faraway places and galaxies nobody even knows about.”
Looking up at the tiny, shining dots in the sky, I also wondered how many other civilizations could exist. There was no way of telling, but we were convinced they were out there somewhere. Even back then, lying on the grass, my brother was coming up with the early stages of topics he would write about later in life. Off the top of his head he spouted lines about ice ages, burning planets, and the creation of the universe. To this day, I have no idea where he came up with all of these theories and information. But when my brother told me a story, it seemed to be real. Even being that young, I could easily see something different about how Buster related to the world. I never saw my brother read a book, and his grades were never good in school, but he seemed to possess an inherent knowledge about everything. I always felt he knew something everyone else didn’t, so I never had any reason to feel in danger when we were together. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t been there to take care of me and guide me through life early on in his own special way.
Aside from watching the science-fiction serial Flash Gordon, Buster also read some comic books when he could get his hands on them. Superheroes such as Superman and Batman were a few of his favorites, as well as other characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Above all, he was fascinated by outer space and far-off worlds.
“I wonder what it would be like to travel on a ship past all the other planets and stars. I bet space just goes on forever,” I remember him saying. “There’s no way that Earth is the only planet with people on it.”
That way of thinking freaked out all the parents in our neighborhood, but that was the kind of mind he had. And it was passed on to me as well. People thought both of us were crazy. After being exposed to the Flash Gordon serials, my brother and I thought we were going to regularly start seeing spaceships in our everyday lives. I can’t say I was all that surprised when we were out in a field one afternoon and he suddenly pointed up to the sky, where a giant disk was hovering off in the distance.
“Look at that,” he said softly. “Do you see it?”
“Wow!” I shouted, pointing up at the object in the sky.
“Be quiet. Don’t make any noise.”
Remaining completely still, I stared at the hovering ship. Lights started pulsating around its edges.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I’m gonna find out.”
As soon as my brother took his first careful step toward it, the disk shot up into the atmosphere and disappeared. I searched the sky trying to locate it again.
“Where did it go?” I asked.
Buster continued to carefully scan the sky, but there was no sign of whatever we had just seen.
“Don’t worry,” he said, turning toward me. “I’m sure they’ll be back.”
Copyright 2012 by Leon Hendrix with Adam Mitchell