Updated: Tuesday, 21 Dec 2010, 10:36 PM CST
Published : Tuesday, 21 Dec 2010, 7:35 PM CST
BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) - Like a cavalry scout in the Old West, Mel Reaves is on a mission. He went before us into the land of old age and is now sending back his reports. They take the form of books, five so far, with titles like, West Texas 1947: West Texas Touched by the Devil & Watched over by Angels , Romance in Prose And Poems , What Color Blue , '' Writer's Aid'': New - Interesting - Concise Plus Early 30's Information and Couch-potato Trivia and Nobody Told Me .
The books explore Reaves 91 year-old life in search of humor, hope and history. They also build a philosophy of life, based on love and music.
Reaves was born May 4, 1919, in Indiana. That made him just 10 years old when the Great Depression hit hard. By the time he was 14, the boy was hurt hard by hard times.
"The hardest part was my dad losing everything, because we were secure; we had a nice home," said Reaves. "He owned a place out on the lake; he had a couple of other pieces of property. We lost everything."
Reaves took to the trains, riding freight cars all over the country, dodging railroad cops along the way. Predictably, his luck ran out when an officer caught up with him a railroad yard.
"With his flashlight and his feet, he kicked me and he beat me," said Reaves. "I was a mess. He took me to jail. The next morning, he came by and he looked at me and he said, 'I didn't realize you were so young.' He said, 'I've got a boy almost your age. Are you hungry?' He took me out to eat; he bought my breakfast."
The boy found his way back to the rail yard and jumped a freight for New Orleans.
"I got out of the freight car; I looked in front of me and there was a whole bunch of guys and they were yelling, 'Scab, scab, scab!'" said Reaves. "I didn't even know what a scab was. I found out that they were railroad fellows on a strike and they thought I was trying to get their job. I ended up in a ditch when I woke up."
The young man headed home.
"When I got home, I finally got married." he recalled. "War broke out; I went to Pearl Harbor . I came back and I knew I had found myself by what I'd done. In other words, it didn't make a tramp out of me. I was a bum then but when I got back, it had made a man out of me."
The woman he married was a schoolmate named Cynthia.
"I said, 'I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on Earth because you're nothing but a playboy,'" Cynthia remembered.
Unfazed, Reaves tried again, this time armed with a four-scoop ice cream cone. Cynthia said nothing. Instead, she reached over and kissed his cheek. Seventy-three years later, they still share a home and a life in Bastrop County.
Looking back, both realize the Depression was a blessing of sorts. They learned a great deal from it. After his father went bust, he took to cutting hair for a living.
"If you needed a haircut," said, Reaves, "he would take you into his shop; he'd set you down in your chair. The fellow would say, 'Ed, I don't have any money.' My dad said, 'I didn't ask if you had any money. Hold your head still.' That was my dad."
"Where we lived out in the country, we constantly had somebody at our door begging for food," said Cynthia Reaves. "Young boys, middle-aged men, old men. And my mother always fixed them a sandwich. And she would always apologize and say to them, 'I wish I had more to give you.' My mother used to look at we children and she said, 'You know, if you were a little older, that could be you at this door begging for something to eat.'"
All these decades later, that compassion still lives in the Reaves' own lives, along with a hefty dose of courage. Mel Reaves lost a leg in 1999. Blood clots in the right leg led doctors to cut it off at the groin.
"Of course, Mama had to sign the papers before they operated," Reaves remembered. "I'm laying on the gurney waiting for her to sign the papers and you can imagine what kind of pain I was in. I said, 'Well, sign the damned things!' In other words, 'Take it off.'"
Now, similar symptoms are threatening the left leg, as well. Reaves is unfazed.
"The big thing with my Cynthia and I is faith," he said. "You have to look forward; you can't look back. You have to make the most of what you have."
Asked how he will cope with no legs whatsoever, he answers, "I don't know how but I will; I will."
For Reaves, his legs are less important than the two hands he has used to file those "scouting reports," first on a typewriter, then on a computer. He uses his hands for something else, as well. For decades, Reaves owned and ran piano stores in west Texas and the central part of the state. He retired from his Austin Piano Company in 1976. He never stopped playing though, and today he still rolls his wheelchair up to the ivories for a moment of reverie and reverence.
"I have faith in my Lord, faith in my Lord," he said. "He'll take care of us; he'll take care of us."
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