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Seeds of Evil
By Carlton Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Carlton Smith
All rights reserved.
For most drivers heading north or south through California's long Central Valley, Fresno is a place to pass through, a spot on the long, melting asphalt ribbon of U.S. 99, made discernible only by the quickening of exits, the dim shapes of larger buildings to the east, and a sudden but suppressible yearning to take the Highway 41 cutoff for Yosemite before the off-ramp flits by, too late for reconsideration.
The main thing is the road, baking in the heat — mostly two lanes in each direction, a road from the fifties linking the two ends of the nation's longest state. It is dry farm country, this valley: mainly cotton, olives, almonds, pecans, pistachios, occasionally a patch of corn, but still the richest agricultural land in the nation. The fields reel away from the roadside, receding into the hot, hazy distance — the gray- greens of miles upon miles of neatly planted olive groves, the brighter green of the nut trees, yellowed grass of an endless plain of pasturage, broken only occasionally by a battered wooden barn or shed, an occasional turn-of-the century farmhouse set off by a stout and rounded palm, planted when Roosevelt — Teddy that is — was president.
In the distance to the east rises the rampart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, vaguely bluish in the haze, but promising the cooler climes of higher elevation, and offering its life-giving supply of cold ice-melt water rushing down from its canyons — the Kern, the Tulare, the San Joaquin, the King.
Before the highway, of course, was the railroad; and it is to Leland Stanford and the Southern Pacific that the city of Fresno owes its existence. In 1872, Stanford, a former California governor and founder of the transcontinental railroad that eventually evolved into the Southern Pacific — "the Octopus," as it was later called by social reformers — was making a trip through the southeastern part of the vast San Joaquin Valley when he came upon nearly two thousand acres planted in ripe, golden wheat, and watered by the precious Sierra snowmelt. Here, Stanford decided, was the ideal route for his railroad's line south to Los Angeles and the vast markets he envisioned for that city's future.
In those days, the county seat was in Millerton, some miles to the northeast. Fresno County, as it was called for the Spanish word for ash tree, was a dry, desert region of low watercourses lined by the ubiquitous ash and willow, along with plains of yellowed grass, punctuated by patches of prickly pear. In summer the heat was searing, while in winter, the fog lay cold and clammy, close to the earth; the region had first been populated by native Americans, then a scattering of Mexicans, who gave way to immigrants from Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri as the Civil War came on. By the time Stanford reached the area, the sympathizers of Stars and Bars were in the majority.
Stanford laid his tracks in a southeasterly direction, and eventually the line extended south through the town of Tulare, all the way to Bakersfield, one hundred miles from Fresno. By the late 1870s the line had punched all the way through the Tehachapi Mountains into Los Angeles, and a shipping dynasty was born.
The Southern Pacific dominated Fresno, as it did much of the Central Valley; it was Stanford's genius, as well as his fault, to see the great valley as the realm of riches it eventually became, and to desire to rule its affairs completely. A glance at the map of Fresno tells the story: the tracks run southeast, and the streets of the oldest part of the town are canted in a southwest to northeast direction; in order words, to serve the rail line. It was only later, as Fresno began to grow larger than the rail depot that Stanford envisioned, that the streets surrounding the old town were platted on north-south and east-west directions.
Drawn by the fertile soil and the land sales promotions of the railroad, augmented by irrigation ditches and canals, Fresno grew steadily throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. By the early 1920s, the town was a peculiar ethnic mix of Hispanics, blacks, the descendants of the white southern immigrants, and a large influx of Armenians, many of whom came after the massacre in Turkey during World War I.
Then came the Depression, and the Dustbowl years; tens of thousands of small farmers from Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, their futures blighted by drought and wind and unforgiving banks and drawn by stories told by their relatives, the descendants of the nineteenth-century southern influx, packed all their belongings into trucks and Model Ts and headed west, just as John Steinbeck recorded in The Grapes of Wrath.
And after the Depression came the war, with the high demand for cotton and foodstuffs; Fresno prospered once more, so that by the 1950s, the area around the growing city was a unique mix more akin to what one might find in New Mexico or Texas or Oklahoma than anywhere else in California. The trains rolled in, the trains rolled out; Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway system improved the long highway known as Ninety-nine, and thousands of new arrivals came to try their hand at working the land, and working those who worked the land — among the latter, a tall, handsome, fiercely ambitious young man named Dale Ewell.
Dale Ewell was a child of the Depression. Born in the fall of 1932, the first of four sons of Ohio farmer Austin Ewell and his Kansas-born wife Mary, Dale was taught from his earliest years to expect nothing but hard work, to regard other men with suspicion; to expect no quarter, and to give none. There was no silver spoon in Dale Ewell's mouth when he was born, in that year of midwestern dust storms, Herbert Hoover, and collapsing farm prices; or for that matter, no bed of roses for his older sister Betty, or his younger twin brothers Richard and Dan, or Ben, the baby of the family.
Austin Ewell worked his two hundred acres in oats, soybeans, corn, and a little wheat, along with cattle, chickens, and hogs. Everyone worked, because, to the Ewell family, that's what life was: work. The way Betty remembered it, years later, the family always had enough to eat; it was money that was scarce.
Some said all the Ewell boys grew up hard-hearted, competitive, and, others said, controlling; it was the way Austin had raised them. Certainly they were all intensely ambitious. And, some whispered, there was no stopping a Ewell, neither law nor morality, when he fixed his eyes on something he wanted, or thought he was entitled to.
Once a man, an acquaintance of Dale Ewell, traveled to Ohio to visit the patriarch, Austin. On the way there, the visitor got lost, and found his way to an American Legion Hall, thinking to quench his thirst with a beer and ask for directions.
"What do you want to see him for?" the visitor was asked.
And when the visitor explained his errand, the local pulled a face.
"Old Ewell is a mean, nasty old man who doesn't care about anybody but himself," the local said. "I'll tell you what I mean. I sharpen saws for a living. One day old Ewell come to me with a saw to sharpen. Now, ordinarily my price is seven dollars. But old Ewell says, 'I'll pay you five, and not a penny more.' So I say, all right, and I agree to do her for five.
"Then, wouldn't you know it, the next week, old Ewell shows up again, and he's got a saw with him. He's complaining the work wasn't done right, and now he wants me to do it over, for free! And do you know what? When I looked at that saw, why it was a completely different saw! It was the same kind, all right, but a completely different one. Old Ewell, he wanted me to sharpen that second saw for free, and was trying to trick me into it. All for five dollars. Can you imagine that?"
These were the values imparted to his sons by Austin Ewell: abiding respect for the dollar, the appreciation of sweat and hard work, the belief that the other man was not to be trusted any more than the other man should trust you: that is, if he was so stupid you could put one over on him, you should do it. Most of all, though, there was the sense of two worlds — the world of hearth and kin, where one set of values obtained, and the world of the outside, where dogs ate dogs and only fools thought different.
As a youngster growing up on a small farm in northern Ohio, Dale Ewell's earliest years were circumscribed by the rhythms of the soil — planting in the spring, harvesting in the fall, the ingrained knowledge that for everything there is a season, and a natural order. Dale Ewell knew what it was like to get up early, and what it was like to strain his muscles until he was bone-tired, how to sweat until dry. That's the way the world was and the way it always would be, Austin Ewell assured him. But young Dale, when he had the chance, liked to look up from time to time from the endless rows of corn to see the sky; and what he saw there was the beauty and the precision of flight.
By the time he was ten, the world was at war: a global war in which victory would go to the nation with the strongest air power. All over the country, defense plants running round-the-clock turned out engines, fuselages, Plexiglas for windscreens, rivets for airframes, lightweight alloys for hydraulic lines, synthetic rubber for aircraft tires. The skies were filled with flying machines, from the large four-engined bombers to the high-performance fighter aircraft, along with scores of other fabrications — transport aircraft, gliders, observation planes, long-range reconnaissance configurations — each of them more varied, more powerful, more amazing than the last. It was the Golden Age of flight, powered irreducibly by the demands of war. And it was the beginning of a vast industry in which a smart man, if he worked hard, might never have to pick an ear of corn again.
In the fall of 1950, young Dale, then 18 years old, left home for the first time. He enrolled at Miami University of Ohio, in Oxford, where he majored in aeronautical engineering. Dale had his future planned out: first he'd get his engineering degree, his ticket to the glorious age then dawning; then he'd join the United States Air Force and learn how to fly. When that was done, he'd head out to California and go to work in the burgeoning aircraft industry, where jobs were plentiful and the pay was great. After that, who knew? But Dale knew one thing: the airplane business was a long way away from a small Ohio farm; even better, it came with a regular paycheck, and if there was one thing Dale wanted after those Depression years feeding chickens, it was money, and not chicken feed, either.
Graduating on schedule, Dale embarked on phase two of his long- range plan, joining the Air Force in 1954 just after the hostilities ended in Korea. Soon Dale had his wish: the Air Force taught him how to fly. Apparently, Dale was pretty good at it, because the Air Force assigned Dale to pilot a King Air, a twin-engined executive turboprop that then represented the top-of-the-line transportation for Air Force brass. Flying out of Sacramento and later Phoenix, Dale was able to meet many of the Air Force's top generals.
It was in Tucson in 1957 that Dale met a pretty, vivacious University of Arizona student named Glee Ethel Mitchell, the only child of a relatively wealthy Chicago family with roots (and royalties) from the Oklahoma oil fields. Dale and Glee (who had the same first name as her mother, Glee Irvin Mitchell) were a contrasting pair. Where Dale was often taciturn, sometimes even monosyllabic to the point of rudeness, Glee was soft-spoken, open, and socially adept. Some thought Dale was simply shy, acutely aware of the social differences between his rural Ohio roots and Glee's more urbane family. Glee's people had money; Dale's did not.
Glee's mother, Glee Irvin Mitchell, was one of three daughters born to an Oklahoma country doctor, G. E. Irvin. Dr. Irvin was both shrewd and fortunate. It seemed to some that he had a nose for oil. Settling down in Gage, a small town in the western reaches of Oklahoma not far from the Texas border, Dr. Irvin soon began buying real estate and oil leases. By the 1920s, Dr. Irvin was a wealthy man, and by the time of his death, the Irvin family owned land in five different states, including Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas, in addition to Oklahoma. A great many of these parcels held producing oil wells.
When Dr. Irvin died, all three daughters, Glee, Helen, and Grace, managed the real estate and oil properties as a family enterprise, sharing the revenues more or less equally between them.
By that time, Glee Irvin had become Glee Mitchell, married to a man who was an instructor at a Chicago athletic club. When Glee Mitchell gave birth to her own daughter and named her Glee Ethel, the rest of the family began to distinguish mother and daughter by the affectionate nicknames of Big Glee and Little Glee.
Little Glee grew quite close to her Oklahoma relatives, spending each summer in Gage, and once spending an entire year there. A brilliant student, Little Glee's great ambition was to travel the world.
"Her goal in life was to go around the world," her cousin, Jimmie Glee Thurmond, recalled later. "She was the kind of person who wanted to see and do everything."
In 1953, Glee enrolled at the University of Arizona, majoring in Inter-American studies, and took a bachelor's degree in 1957, while winning Phi Beta Kappa honors.
Late that same year, Dale got out of the Air Force, and got a job with Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California. Meanwhile, Glee continued her graduate studies at the University of Arizona.
Whether Dale wanted to marry Glee as soon as she finished her studies isn't clear; what is clear is that Glee had a lifelong interest in travel and meeting people from other cultures, unlike Dale. In any event, in 1959 Glee joined the Central Intelligence Agency.
In later years, this comparatively brief employment with the nation's shadowy foreign intelligence agency — as a translator in Argentina, some said — was seen by some as possibly suggestive of a deeper side to Glee's nature, and possibly as a motive for her murder, however unlikely such a scenario.
After two years in Argentina, Glee resigned and returned to the United States. On December 28, 1961, Dale and Glee were married.
By then Dale had decided that Douglas Aircraft was perhaps a bit too bureaucratic for someone with his ambitions. And Dale had discovered something else, from his years in the Air Force: he enjoyed flying the airplanes more, much more, than he enjoyed engineering them.
In 1959, that in turn led Dale to Fresno, where he soon found a job selling Cessna airplanes — many of them to farmers.
This was something that Dale Ewell was born to do, the perfect amalgamation of his own farming background with his love of flying. Even better, the commissions on the sales of the airplanes were substantial — an order of magnitude above what a salesman might earn for peddling a new car.
Best of all, Dale Ewell knew his customers. Many were variations of his father, Austin. Dale knew how to talk the farm talk, knew the margins of the farm business. He knew about crops and markets and irrigation and water and livestock — hadn't he grown up with his own feet in the dirt?
The Ewell sales approach was unique. Dale wouldn't wait until a customer suddenly decided he or she wanted to own an airplane. If he waited for that to happen, he'd starve to death. No, Dale took the airplane to the customer. He'd land on a farmer's empty field or an isolated stretch of road, taxi up to an agog farmer's house, and make his pitch: this airplane, Dale would say, was freedom. It was status. It showed the world how successful a man was; literally, the man with a plane had the world looking up at him. Then he'd invite the farmer for a short spin, and the farmer would be hooked.
Just think of it, Dale would say. You buy one of these babies, you can be in Reno in an hour and a half. You can get down to Los Angeles without having to drive for hours and hours. Want to see the city lights in San Francisco? It's just a short hop. And there are ways, he'd add, that a farmer can claim an airplane as a piece of farm equipment on his tax return.
But if a potential customer said he didn't know anything about flying, Dale would say, No problem — I'll teach you myself. And somehow, Dale would have a tractor-bound farmer signing a contract to buy his own airplane, and would sell them flying lessons to boot.
Excerpted from Seeds of Evil by Carlton Smith. Copyright © 1997 Carlton Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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