In the 1950s, we were living in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I was 6. One Sunday morning, before anyone else got up, my two younger brothers started playing around with matches and caught our house on fire. First, the kitchen curtains went up in flames. Then, the fire spread to the ceiling. Within 30 minutes, the little house was gone.
Somehow, the insurance claim stated that there had been some electrical wiring problems in the attic. I feel comfortable about finally letting the cat out of the bag. At this writing, the statute of limitations has long expired.
A few days after the fire, I was rummaging through the charred remains of my bedroom. My leaf collection, all my baseball cards, comic books, coloring books and my "Lady and the Tramp" lamps were gone.
On the concrete slab that had been my bedroom floor lay a half-burned, black-and-white photograph of "The Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry. There was still a red thumbtack in it. You could see just part of his horse, Champion, and his autograph that said, "To Butch, Best Regards, Gene Autry." Butch was my nickname.
My father had gotten me autographed pictures of Mr. Autry, Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes and Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett on TV. They had been proudly displayed on my bedroom wall, just above the cedar chest.
I folded what was left of Gene Autry's picture and put it in my pocket. My grandmother, Miz Lena, tucked it away in her big white Bible, in the back, preserved within the pages of 1 Corinthians.
Miz Lena's Bible was stuffed with all kinds of important family papers and memories. Birth certificates. Baptism papers. A birthday "note of love" from my grandfather, intermingled with a variety of pressed red, yellow and white rose buds. Her Bible was one of those editions with all the gloriously colored pictures. It had that liquid gold bordering around the pages.
When my parents finally went their separate ways, my brothers and I lived with my mother. You might say that we all sort of drifted for a while. Mom had a hard time holding onto a teaching job for several reasons.
In my fourth-grade year, Mom and us boys were living in a little-bitty, out-in-the-country town less than 20 miles southwest of Columbia, 40 miles from Nashville. One day, I saw a Tennessee County Fair poster in the front window of Whiteside's Drug Store. Gene Autry and his horse, Champion, would be making an appearance at the fair that coming Sunday evening.
Every day, several times a day, I asked my mother if we could go to the fair and see Mr. Autry. She continued to give me her pat answer, "We'll see." Any request involving logistics generally turned out to be a no. Not a mean no. It's just that my mother didn't know how to drive. She said that she was just too nervous to try to learn how. She never owned a car.
At the very last minute, I made arrangements with a local family to go with them. I was elated. They were to pick me up "right after supper." In the South, on a summer Sunday, depending on the family, supper can be anywhere between 3 in the afternoon and sunset. I sat out on the front porch for at least an hour. Nobody showed up. I was down but not out. I wasn't going to miss my big chance to see the singing cowboy who greatly influenced my weekend morning rituals.
Television was wonderful for kids back then. You kicked off Saturday morning around 7 with cartoons: Mighty Mouse, Felix the Cat, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Popeye. Take a break and have a slice of cinnamon toast, and then back in front of the tube for the "kings and queens of cowboys."
Mr. Autry and his colleagues got into fistfights with bad guys, rounded up some cattle rustlers, threw them in jail, changed into clean clothes and then sang a song at the end of the show. Throughout their half-hour episodes, I watched from my make-believe saddle on my mighty steed: my pillow over the arm of the couch. Imagination was such a fun part of being a kid.
I assumed that I had missed my ride. They must have come by while I was inside using the bathroom. I decided that I would hitchhike to the fair. I slipped off the porch, walked up to the first bridge and stuck my thumb out.
One family got me as far as Franklin. Then an older lady drove me right up to the fair's rodeo entrance. Of course, they asked me what I was doing hitchhiking. Frankly, I don't remember what I told them. Nevertheless, I made it. It was already dark. There were no ticket takers. I just walked in.
I took off at a run toward all the shining lights above the bleachers in the distance. People were pouring out of the stadium and walking toward me. The show had just gotten over. I kept running in the direction of the arena. I saw a brown Cadillac coming my way, rolling across the field at a snail's pace. In the backseat, with his window rolled down, sat the one and only Gene Autry.
I must have run alongside his car for a good quarter-mile. I told him who I was and where I lived and how much I loved his horse and saddle. And that my dad had interviewed him on his radio show. He asked Dad's name, and I said, "Bill Stamps." I remember him saying, "Ah, yes, give him my best regards." I thought, wow, he sure talks classy. Who knows whether he really remembered my father. As far as I was concerned, he did.
As it turned out, I got a ride back with a family from Columbia. They dropped me off at my grandmother's front door. It was pitch dark and close to 11. Miz Lena turned on the porch light and opened the door. She had just turned off the TV and was getting ready for bed. She was in her robe and hair net and had cold cream on her face.
Needless to say, I was in deep trouble. I told her about meeting Gene Autry. I recall her saying something like, "Yeah, when yuh git home, yore gonna git some best regards, alright."
A couple of years after I moved to Los Angeles, around 1980, I met Mr. Autry again. He looked about the same but older. He wore a top-of-the-line toupee. Soft-spoken with a drawl. Short in stature. He owned Golden West Broadcasters, a slew of radio and television stations. He also owned a major-league baseball team, the California Angels.
I ended up doing some work for him, some kind of promotion for the team. Much to my delight, I received a really nice letter from him, complimenting me on a job well done. He signed it with, "My best regards, Gene Autry." He was still classy. I have Mr. Autry's letter packed away somewhere. I sure wish I had Miz Lena's white Bible. She probably took it to heaven with her.
Happy Sunday, and remember to keep it classy. And, to you all, my best regards.
Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is available in softcover and Kindle editions on Amazon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.