Saints Among Us

“Aachee was supposed to take over the store?” My sister said quizzically. “H. E.,” I corrected her. My sister and her husband were renting a cabin in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona. When she learned the owners were longtime residents, she asked about the Huffman family of nearby Willcox, knowing my wife and I were friends.

The “store,” was The Toggery. It was started by H.E.’s grandfather in 1916 and closed by her 85-year-old mother, Hazel, in 2003. My wife and I had become friends of one of H.E.’s older sisters in 1971, when Mary and I moved from Illinois to Tucson for graduate school.

I will never forget our first visit to Willcox. A little back story is necessary. My family had never traveled one hundred miles beyond the borders of my home state of Illinois. As a child, I loved TV-westerns and nature documentaries. Not many of us remember the old Walt Disney nature programs, eighty of which were narrated by the folksy baritone of Rex Allen, the “last of the singing cowboys.”  I adored those shows.

Willcox was Rex Allen’s hometown! We were there to attend the town’s biggest annual event, Rex Allen Days, when Rex returned to be feted with a parade, dances, and a talent show. The event was the equivalent of the “homecomings” popular in the Midwest. But, there was more! Rex was a friend of the family. He once stopped the parade while it was enroute, called out to Hazel, and ran into the Toggery to buy a pair of pajamas. There’s a great photo of H.E.’s dad, Bruce, with Rex Allen and Slim Pickens. Pickens, another cowboy star, often played Rex’s comic “sidekick.”  He is now better known as Major “King” Kong from the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” 

Bruce Huffman, Rex Allen, Slim Pickens in the Toggery

During that initial visit, I was thinking how not long ago I was in Illinois surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. Now I was standing on a street seventy miles from the Mexican border surrounded by mountains and cactus-laden desert. The Tombstone parade entry is passing, complete with dancehall girls and men in overcoats with shotguns. Above is a street sign—to the left Tucson, to the right El Paso. What a sight for a wannabe-cowboy Midwesterner who thought he would never go anywhere!

The Toggery itself was both very familiar yet different. I grew up and worked in a family shoe and clothing store. That describes The Toggery except our store did not have a big old safe like the ones always being robbed in the cowboy movies. And here, the emphasis was on Levi jeans not Oshkosh.

And, The Toggery had Stetsons, the famous western hat! I was admiring one. I remarked to my wife, “I’d love to have one of these, but they are too expensive.”  A bit later, Bruce came over. “I saw you looking at the hats. Next week, they go on sale. Half-price! You can’t be here then. Buy one now if you want.” I was excited. I wore it to the dance that night. Fifty years later, that hat remains a prized possession. I have had more occasions than I expected when a cowboy hat was suitable. I have been proud of my very own Stetson.

Later, I told our friend Ann, how nice her dad had been to let me in on the sale. She laughed, “I grew up in that store. Stetsons never go on sale. He must have heard you talking about them. He just wanted you to have one.”

Bruce was a tireless booster of Willcox, his hometown. Among many civic activities, he started a chapter of the “Wildcat Club” to support the University of Arizona (UA). He developed quite a legacy of helping local students enroll and receive financial aid. Bruce had attended the UA himself in the mid-1930s. In 1936, he was the Border Conference Lightweight Boxing Champion, ranked fourth in the nation in his weight class, and received honors as “an outstanding athlete.” Each year the Arizona Letterwinners A-Club presents the T. Bruce Huffman Lettermen’s Award to “a male who has made significant contributions to Arizona Athletics.” 

I never met anyone more sincere than Bruce. Friendly to everyone, he enjoyed giving out a calling card that supposedly had a 10-cent value and made you a stockholder in a mule train with Slugger Huffman as President. I love a photo Ann has of her parents shortly after they were married. Bruce appears so happy he could burst.

The night before the Rex Allen Days Parade we had gathered at the Huffman home, located on 49 Rattlesnake Drive (an address Bruce dreamed up because one was demanded by the Army when he served with the Amphibious Engineers in the Pacific during World War II). On an old piano, Bruce pounded out a few bars and sang a few lines of the old cowboy song “Rancho Grande.” Then he told a crazy story about a wildcat that was much funnier in the telling than in the punchline—which none of us seem to remember. We laughed so hard, we asked Bruce for an encore whenever we returned, and he always obliged. After the parade, Bruce took us around town introducing us as if we were family. I remember having a glass of whiskey with the publisher of the “Arizona Range News” in his office near The Toggery. It was a fantasy.

More about Hazel—also a native Arizonan but born in Tucson. Hazel ran the store until she was 85—many years mostly by herself. She was valedictorian of her UA graduating class and began teaching at Willcox high school before she was twenty. She took an instant liking to Mary and me, telling her daughter Ann “to hang onto those two. You don’t get opportunities for that kind of friendship very often.”  That was prescient of Hazel. The Huffmans became family. I earned a small role in family lore by eating so much of Hazel’s Mexican-style shredded beef, that it has been referred to thereafter as “The Meat That Nic Liked!” Decades later we were included in extended family vacations to the beach in San Diego.

In San Diego, Hazel and I had some long conversations. She was always well-informed on the state of the world and wondered why people “just could not get along.”  She cautioned me, saying “don’t live too long.”  She was then in her late eighties and early nineties and could not walk or hear very well but remained a stalwart. She would take her two hiking poles and have a beach walk with her beloved dog every morning. Once, she visited our off-the-grid cabin in Colorado for a few days when she could no longer manage the walk to the outhouse. She uncomplainingly made use of a lawn chair with a hole in the seat and a bucket underneath.

I never believed she was unhappy for living so long because of the joy she reveled in while interacting with her children and grandchildren. After her death at 92, we scattered her ashes at the beach the following summer. Everyone was invited to say something. I thought of Buddhism’s four Brahma Viharas: Loving Kindness, Joy for the Success of Others, Compassion and Equanimity. I never saw anyone thrill at others’ happiness and manage the awful things of life better than Hazel.

Bruce passed away much too young at 65. The biggest tragedy Hazel faced though, was H.E.’s disease and eventual death at 49. When we met H.E. (given name Helen), she seemed to us as the “different” one in the family in that she was not an academic and athletic achiever, nor had she moved on from Willcox. In High School, however, she had been active in the Marching and Jazz Bands and received recognition as Thespian of the year. She did briefly attend the UA and may have dropped out because of discomfort caused by the onset of the disease that eventually took her life. Thus, H.E. stayed home and worked in the store. Indeed, on one of our early visits, Willcox was promoting itself as the place to visit and shop in “Cowboy Country.”  H.E. was all-in, wearing western clothing and Indian jewelry and displaying “Cowboy Country” stickers on her vehicle.

H.E. was only nineteen when her health issues surfaced. They manifested in odd ways. She would be cold when the weather was anything but. Her skin, especially her fingers, would be tight and painful and her hands would “tingle.”  She began to have difficulty swallowing. It was years before doctors put a name on it. She had a severe form of scleroderma—a dreadful disease that causes tightening of skin and connective tissues including those of internal organs. I do not know that awfulness of one disease is rightly compared to another, but if the idea of ALS is frightening, scleroderma is not a better diagnosis.

We moved from Arizona and usually only saw the family at Thanksgiving when we came to visit. The year-to-year deterioration was shocking. Envision a boisterous celebration including several young children. The adults are jovial, drinking beer and wine. The table is sumptuous. It is Tucson; some celebrants are wearing shorts. Off to the side is a young woman, red-faced, wearing a sweater and gloves. Her dinner is baby food because that is all her failing digestive system can manage. Yet, she is smiling brightly. During conversations, her eyes always sparkled with delight. She is thrilled to see our young children. They love her, of course, without understanding her disease. She asks about us. She does not talk about her ailments. It is only smiles and well wishes for everyone. And she has been keeping up. Cards arrive for birthdays. She knows details of our lives beyond what we know of hers.

I asked our daughter what she remembered of H.E. “Her smile,” she said without hesitation, “and the twinkle in her eyes.”  Then she said, “and she always brought me presents. She didn’t need to. I didn’t expect them, and she always put thought into them. I remember once she brought me a calligraphy set. I never thought of doing calligraphy and I enjoyed it.” None of us could remember H.E. complaining or expressing sadness.

My daughter, Ann, with H.E., circa 1990.

I have always wondered how H.E. did it. And Hazel too! Hazel never complained and rarely expressed frustration as the years went on, many of them without a diagnosis for H.E. She continued to run the store—an elderly widow running it for someone who was slowly dying. I’m sure they needed the store for normalcy, and I know nothing of H.E.’s or Hazel’s private moments in those years. There must have been anguish, but all I saw were bravery, strength, and equanimity.

We are living in a time with few heroes. Polarization and social media magnify every minor indiscretion. Where does one look for encouragement? As a child, in a Roman Catholic elementary school, I was sometimes directed to read The Lives of the Saints for inspiration. Now, fifty or sixty years later, I do not recall anything relevant from those stories. Instead, I think that book could use a new chapter.

4 thoughts on “Saints Among Us

  1. 🙂 What beautiful resilience in the Huffman family – I’m grateful we have gotten to meet some of them through you and Mary! So many good reflections – the calling card cracked me up -Thanks for writing!

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  2. What a beautiful tribute to H.E. and her family. I am a classmate of H.E.’ sister, Ann. I was the very fortunate country gal that was on the receiving end of a great amount of Huffman generosity and friendship. It was Bruce who first put a tennis racket in my hand and took me to the courts. As years went by I did pretty well representing WHS. It was Bruce and Hazel who opened the Toggery on a Sunday morning after out house burned to the ground and said…take what you need…with no regard for when it would ever be paid back. And it was Bruce who told me late in my senior year, I was going to the U of A with a scholarship. I had plans of going to a more economical junior college and do not even recall applying for a scholarship at U of A! And I went.
    Nic…I do truly believe we have many heroes today. They may not be found on TV or social media. They are more like H.E., Hazel and Bruce. Every community has them if we just look.

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