“What’s a…Rassie?” It is an autobiography about life starting in the Arkansas countryside in Mena county beginning with parents prior to the Civil War of the 1800’s. Life as it was then with hardship, war and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Relocation to California and finding a life there.
The author, Rassie Harper, recalls his life growing up through schooling experiences, marrying, parenting, pursuits in supporting family and keeping family close. His spiritual ties to his Maker and concerns for others along the journey of life. The values learned from parents dedicated to God, family and the need to care for each other permeate the life he experienced. The simple life attitude, straight forward values, and attention to detail in recall of relationships. Quite a legacy! “What’s a…Rassie” is truly a story of family values put into practice!
Rassie Harper is an author, artist and expert story teller.
Originally from Arkansas, he now lives in Lomita, California. He has been recognized in the publication Images of America – Gardena by the Gardena Heritage Committee and as the art director, set designer and stage manager for The Pageant of Our Lord in Rolling Hills, California. Rassie has also been featured on CNN for his work on the Pageant and on the public television program California Gold with Huell Houser (#726 Gardena Art 1999). He is also well known in the water skiing and flat bottom boating worlds as one of the original old timers. A former Gardena fire department engineer, he is now retired but still enjoys painting, boating, his family and is always ready with a great story.
Civil War in United States
Most of the early family history was lost or destroyed in the war between the North and South. The deadliest and bloodiest war in United States history. These were extremely hard times. Henry Jett Harper (May 9,1869-Feb. 6, 1956) mortgaged his horses, mules, oxen, hogs, cattle and all his crops of cotton, corn, sorghum, hay, fodder and all he produced to borrow $35.70. Yes! Times were extremely hard! Family life experiences and hard times brought toughness to family, dependence on one another, and some of the difficulties in surviving.
Roaring 20’s Boom
After surviving the Civil War between the States times gradually improved. After WWI the “roaring 20’s” lasted a short time and the family moved into town. In 1930 courthouse record book showed the Jett (Harper) purchase of 40 acres, a house and barn for $1700. Were able to build a house and buy a car. Then eleven years after WWI the Great Depression hit the country and the Jett(Harper) Family lost everything.
The Great Depression
Family members did most anything to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs. A move to Texas to pick cotton and live in a shed for the harvest and then go back home to Arkansas. A strong faith and personal relationship with God kept the ties close as family. These feelings permeated their love for music. The fiddle, spoons, and whatever could make music to add to the singing about hard times and their Lord was a favorite pass time. Story telling also came through these trials and hardship. Many stories depicting life as they found it are recorded in this book. Cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas to market. Oklahoma Indian country. Homesteading. Living in a sod house.
Many pictures and diary excerpts are scattered throughout the book adding credibility. Illustrations show hog butchering and explain some of the process and ways to preserve meat. Fruit that couldn’t be eaten immediately was canned or dried for later use. Corn was ground into flour and extra corn was traded back to the mill to pay for grinding. Shelling peas and stringing green beans. All of life was directed by the need to survive to another crop season. There was no ‘grocery around the corner’ and if there was there was no money to buy anything. Arkansas was hit the hardest during the Great Depression.
Heating and cooking all was done with a wood stove and fireplace. That included gathering, cutting, splitting and stacking wood for the fireplace. A chore the oldest boys did along with other chores and farm related work. Social life revolved around the church. Preaching in the morning service and singing during the evening meeting. The Holy Bible was the basis of focus for one’s life.
Rassie is Born
Rassie was born in 1928. So many of the experiences discussed so picturesquely are his own personal recollections of life growing up. He is very artistic and drew the illustrations depicting that life. And his artistic bent shows up in the detailed descriptions of those formative years. The word pictures the text instills in the mind of the reader are a reliving of that time period. As a young adolescent Rassie and his family began the migration to California. Some detail touches on that trip with all their belongings in a 1929 7 passenger Buick with 9 people packed in. A two wheel trailer followed loaded with their goods. A stop in Durant, Oklahoma at Rassie’s Uncle Lee’s farm.
The family rented a house and stayed a month to earn money to continue toward California. Many people were headed for California at that time which is depicted in John Steinbeck’s book “Grapes of Wrath”. Cars broken down along the road in Texas, wheels off, out of gas, or just quit running. Going through Indian Reservations.
They ran out of money somewhere in Arizona but got exited leaving Kingman and crossing into California. Hot desert for miles! In Riverside they ran out of gas. Cal Harper, Rassie’s dad, traded a guitar for gas so they could continue on to the San Joaquin Valley. Found a family relative to reside for a time and work. Other of Cal’s family had come to the Farmersville area and worked on the land. Poverty was evident everywhere too. Broken down cars, cardboard shacks, children tattered and dirty playing of just sitting doing nothing.
Relocated to Southern Cal
Due to the heat in the San Joaquin Valley summer and poor working conditions they migrated further South into Wilmington. Found a two story house and moved Uncle Dewey’s family of seven into the upstairs. That put 14 people living there. This was the first house Rassie lived in that was painted. They now had ‘inside the house’ toilets! This year Cal and Rassies’ oldest brother Eris were both working so finances were much improved from what had been. They had gifts at Christmas. Cal got a big break when he landed a job at a gas station where he stayed for some years. In time Cal rented his own gas station in Gardena in southern California.
The migration ended here where the kids went to school and grew into adulthood. Some of the escapades of teenage boys are shared. Sports, friendships, school kids cars and capers.
War in the Pacific
Life in California entailed school, adolescent boys and their cars. Some high school experiences and relationships lasting into adulthood. Following high school in the early 1940’s war with Japan broke out throughout the Pacific Region. The three oldest Harper brothers, Everett, Eris and George,went into military service, Army, Navy Coast Guard. Changing lives forever. Pearl Harbor. Some stories about family experiences during these times bring real life into the book. Some action is related through the pages of the war effort as it relates to the Harper existence. This was the time when Okinawa, Kwajalein, Iwo Jima were subjects of the news reports. Young men slaughtered in these battles. Combat scarred behavior.
Rassie Marries Ramona Dawn
Rassie and Mona were married October 29, 1949 in Gardena, California. They had to decide to take a two-day honeymoon or eat the next week. Rassie is very personable with people and shares some benefits of knowing folks. This led to involvement with Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Studios and this opened into studio work using his artistic bent. This was the early years of Television. Creating movie sets fell into his experiences. Touches on personalities.
Other Means of Support
Leaving Hollywood he always had an interest in becoming a fireman. But much life was between those aspirations and his present circumstances. Providing for a budding family, children being born to he and Mona and issues along the way. Taking work is a gas station for a time. Work as a delivery driver for a local dairy. Some of the vehicles in his life.
The milk route developed into a contact with the Shell Chemical plant where Rassie became employed for a period of years. Some experiences are interjected relating to this employment and find the author’s humor emerging as well for some very serious stuff.
The author’s love for automobiles shows up from his high school years and on. Detail relating to his memory of these vehicles are part of his life blood. Many personalities are tied into vehicles of recollection to detail.
Four children graced Rassie and Mona’s lives and the love that endured through many good times and bad. Laughter and tears come out of the pages through the vivid word images created in a readers mind as individual experiences flow. Individual character traits of each child show parental focus to the importance of each one of these precious children. Family devotion and dedication to needs of each life.
Becomes a Fireman
Gains entry into the Fire Department. 1958- 1986 are Rassie’s firefighting years. As the book unfolds a thread begins to weave a course showing the author’s need to push his boundaries. To have powerful cars, race cars, strenuous athletic participation of skill and endurance. Now into the fire department he continues this drive to push the limits. Going from “boot” and entering burning rescues, aiding crash rescues, advances to Captain Engineer, saving lives at the risk of his own! Learning cooking skills taking his turn cooking for the firemen at the firehouse. All related with seriousness and strewn with humor makes for interesting reading. Vivid detail related as only an artist sees!
Family of Primary Importance
Along life’s path there was always family time coupled with excitement, “border pushing” (Rassie’s innate drive), and keeping the family close. Boating and the Ski Era emerged through sign painting and people with boats, cars, business windows signage Rassie did. Pages are devoted to powerful ski boats. Skiing at high speeds. Fancy beautiful boats. And experiences of camping around water and water sports. Some amazing adventure unfolds out of these pages that can be enjoyed be readers. Again-the ‘good, bad and ugly’ experiences from ‘pushing-the- envelope’.
The sign painting that naturally grew out of the author’s ability to visualize, draw and paint grew into 1,000’s of signs and vehicle names being designed and inscribed. This gift was honed in the process of financing the family love for water sports and speed. The kids became involved in this avocation as they reached adulthood.
The greater family also has great importance in the total makeup of overall family ties. Parents lives are stressed with interaction with each. It is easy to be emotionally drawn into this family experience. The heart ache of Mona’s tragic passing. The hurting years afterword. Her stabilizing effect impacts all.
Connie Enters Family
Connie Lewis coming into the family. Not to take Mona’s place but to “carry on from here”. The life that now includes Connie and the adventures growing out of this new relationship. Connie works with a Travel Agency and this has opened world travel to family life. Cruises in many places, visits to many foreign soils. Again reaching beyond the known borders of the author’s life. Grandchildren continue arriving and the importance of each individual. And then great grand children grace this family.
The Pageant of Our Lord
In 1985 Rassie was introduced to the concept of The Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. The use of foreshortened perspective makes live art into a flat look. Real people are integrated into a Master Piece of Art to portray a set display of the original. Fascinating concept! Very effective as well. The first presentation was at Easter time of 1986. The Pageant went every year until 2002 getting larger every time.
All of Rass’s skill, experience in sign painting, color, perspective, set design were taxed by this challenge. About 10 performances each year using volunteers to support, produce and enact this in its entirety.
The construction and related challenges are introduced showing issues to be overcome. Then the models’ makeup became important to fit each set. And each set must be movable to be put on stage from back stage after all models had mounted their positions.
Masterpieces including Ecce Homo by Antonio Cisero. The Agony in the Garden created by Giovanni Bellini, Transfiguration by Raphael. Pieta by Michelangelo, The Last Supper by daVincni, and many others. These sets took 400-1000 hours each to design and construct. The largest of these sets was 18 feet high. Very large!
AWESOME! The skill, timing, support staff, food, full body makeup, 10 presentations, for 18 years-WOW! A huge commitment by everyone. But the weight fell directly on Rass’s shoulders with Connie alongside supporting and backing up details.
Throughout life a strong work ethic, determination, compassion, commitment to Biblical standards and family are evident as Rass is guided and trained by his God and Savior, Jesus Christ. It permeates relationships with the people in his life path. Shapes outcome and leads to new experiences that always expand his borders. Always going forward!
The importance of close relationships shows throughout these pages. “What is a Rassie?” is a legacy of Rass Harper and a heart filled with plain-and-simple love for individual life around him in all that life had to offer. Thanks Rassie for sharing your story with us!
By Rassie E. Harper
July 8, 2016