It didn’t take much to jar the memory. Stored long ago and jammed tightly in the closet of a dusty recess of my mind, it fell to the floor and rolled to my feet when shaken by a mild tremor. I picked it, popped the twine, and peeled back the layers of yellowed newsprint that had wrapped it. There it was. 60 some odd years old and only somewhat dinged and nicked, a small part snapped off here and there, but whole and hefty in my hands.
What shook it loose was of photo posted on a Facebook page for nostalgic old denizens of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the place where I grew up. It was a .jpeg of a newspaper clipping with the grainy image of a building and a story under the headline, DDA Aims to Purchase Z’s Furniture Building. The caption noted that the building once was home to Fowler’s, Cheyenne’s leading department store back when they were putting fins on Chevys. The article explained that the building had been vacant and a home to pigeons for some years and that the Downtown Development Association hoped to buy it and somehow turn it into “a mixed residential and commercial use anchor” for what has evidently become a moribund business district. Little cared I for that, but Fowlers….
Fowlers sat at the corner of 17th and Carey in the heart of what was at the cusp of the ’50’s and ‘60’s a bustling downtown shopping district. Like most of the downtown, the building had been erected in the boom years of the 1880’s when the Union Pacific Railway yards and the cattle business made the Wyoming Territorial Capital a bustling and progressive place—the city Tom Edison picked to install his first street lighting, forward thinking and modern shaking the mud and shame from its boots for its wild days as Hell on Wheels.
In that spirit the Fowlers, the family that owned the department store had itself gone mid-century modern. They clad the upper three stories of the building in gleaming white, windowless and smooth masonry and wrapped the first floor in sweeping display windows worthy of anything in New York or Chicago. The name Fowler’s was emblazoned against those white walls in a bold but flowing script at a jaunty rising angle. It stood out proudly, different than anything that surrounded it.
Fowler’s, you see, was our Macy’s, our Marshal Fields, our May Co. It was where the better class of matrons—and those like my mother who desperately wanted to join their ranks—of Cheyenne, half the state, and much of western Nebraska came to find the latest fashions straight from New York and where their husbands bought their double breasted suits and had them marked with chalk and fitted by real tailors.
16th Street in downtown Cheyenne circa 1960. One block over on 17th Street Fowler's Department Store sat a the corner of Carey Avenue.
There were, of course, other department stores downtown. There was Montgomery Ward and J. C. Penney, and a couple of smaller, less prestigious, local owned places. There were ladies dress shops, men’s wear places, shoe stores, and of course Western Ranchman Outfitters where everyone went to get their cowboy on. Mom shopped at them all, dragging me and my twin brother Tim along with her on her weekly Saturday expeditions. Most weeks we looked, or she ended up just picking up notions at Woolworth’s. But a few times a year it was serious shopping—back to school time in August, the Christmas rush, and the time to get us all polished up for Easter.
For our back to school jeans and plaid shirts, Ward’s and Penney’s would do. She would have to shop for my jeans in the Husky boys department, a mild humiliation especially when she would chat loudly with the saleswomen, most of whom she seemed to know from the PTA, Cub Scouts, church, or various charity projects, about my failure to firm up into a suitably athletic young man. We would buy a pile of three or four jeans to last the year. Mom would count her bills out to the clerk who would put them with a ticket into a brass and glass capsule and send them shooting off through mysterious pneumatic tubes to some distant office and after a few moments her change and receipt would come zooming back.
To get ready for Frontier Days or to shop for my father who’s job at the Wyoming Travel Commission required him to be turned out in cowboy style, it was off to Western Ranchman where Tim and I could get our annual pearl snap shirts, silk kerchiefs, cowboy boots, and dress straw hats, none of which were to be worn except for rodeo events and state occasions decreed by Mom.
Dad, W.M. Murfin (center) cowboying it up at Western Ranchman Outfitters
But for her own wardrobe and for our Sunday-go-to-meeting dress clothes, nothing would do but Fowler’s. This particular Saturday, it must have been in October or November because there was a sense of urgency, the mission was to get me a winter coat. And not just any winter coat, a very particular one.
My twin brother Tim, the all-American boy and apple of my mother’s eye, had already laid early claim of teenage style. He was carefully smoothing his dark hair with generous glops of Brylcreem every morning which left it shining and immovable and insisted on being shod, at least until the snow flew, not in boots or polished lace-up shoes, but in black and white high lace-up PF Flyers. He had overwhelmed mom’s early objections and picked out a letterman style jacket with leather sleeves and wool body that he would wear in all but blizzard conditions.
I, on the hand, was pursuing my single minded desire to dress like a 40 year old so that I would be treated with respect. The fact that the gray Rough Rider style hat with the brim pinned up side the crown that I was habitually wore in those days belied that ambition evidently escaped me. The hat embarrassed Mom no end, but she could not get it off me until it was cold enough for my black leather cap with the fold-down earflaps and chin strap.
Other than my hat, my mother approved my middle age style aspirations, although she approved of very little else about her bookish son. In her mind that was classy, the most vaunted ambition of a woman who had grown up dirt poor and who yearned for middle class respectability. So the coat for which we were searching was a good wool car coat, the kind that could fit over a sport coat but was not quite a full overcoat. Most importantly it must have a fur collar, and a least a suitable faux fur one. This had turned out to be a difficult quest because, surprise, surprise, most stores were not showing coats like that for pre-teen boys. But if anyone in town would have it, it had to be Fowlers.
Just before we descended into the boy’s department in the basement Mom took my brother and I to the side and shook us strongly by our shoulders so, along with a certain terrifying steely tone to her voice, told us that she meant business, and bent down low to whisper in our ears “I don’t want you to say a word about Mr. Brown. Do you understand?” Brown was not the real name which is lost to my memory or an alias created to spare embarrassment to any surviving family, but a mere generic substitute.
One morning over breakfast before school a week or so earlier, mom had gasped loudly and laid down her coffee cup. “Murf!” she said to my father, her head enveloped in the usual cloud of cigarette smoke, “Did you see this? The paper says that Ed Brown was arrested in the men’s room of the Wyo Theater the other day on a morals charge! And I always thought he was such a nice man.”
The Wyo was one of three downtown movie houses. The Lincoln was the top, the one that got most of the biggest films and hosted the road shows for Biblical Epics like The Robe or Ben Hur, the Paramount showed double bills with A picture tops. But the Wyo showed B movie triple bills, horror and sci-fi, the cheaper oaters. That’s where you went to see a flick in 3D—if you mother would let you, which ours did not. But once in a while we would sneak over there, ditching the Saturday marathon kiddie matinee at the Lincoln where we had been deposited, to see something thrilling like Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. The washrooms there were dirty and had sticky floors, but I had no idea of what sort of crime could be committed in them.
I was unclear on what a morals charge was or why anyone would get arrested in a toilet. My more sophisticated brother informed me that it meant that Brown was a queer, although he was hazy on what exactly that meant except that it was dirty.
Later that day after school Mom ever so casually asked us if Mr. Brown had ever touched us, “down there” when we were at the store. The question confused me. She tried to explain and got red faced. Finally I semi-understood. “No,” I said, “not even when he measured me for pants.”
17th Street looking West from Capital Avenue in the early 1950s. We did most of our back to school shopping a Montgomery Ward's, the red brick building on the left, across the street from the Wyoming Tribune. Fowler's was up the street to the right in the multi-story building seen here before it was clad in the new white facade.
Back at Fowlers, Mom released us having given her most impressive fair warning. We descended the stairs to the brightly lit Boy’s Department. Almost as soon as my mother’s foot touched the floor, Mr. Brown rushed over to greet us with a broad smile as if he were encountering long lost kin. I guessed him to be about my Fathers age, but that meant he could have been anywhere from 30 to 50. He had close cropped rather curly hair with just a hint of gray. He wore those glasses with a tortoise shell top frame and gold rims securing the lenses. Was there a moustache? My memory is hazy, but let’s give him a close clipped thin one. He wore a subdued hunter’s plaid sport coat, crisp white shirt with a bow tie, sharply pleated slacks and gleaming oxfords.
“Mrs. Murfin!” he exclaimed, “How is Murf?” They fell to chatting excitedly sharing family details. Mr. Brown was married and had children evidently around our age who went to a different school. His wife was going to model for Fowlers at an up-coming charity fashion luncheon at the Palomino Club out on the highway to Denver. It went on like that for a while my brother and I fidgeted.
Eventually Mom broached the purpose of the expedition. Mr. Brown turned and considered me. I was wearing that damn Rough Rider hat and last year’s zipper fall jacket, too tight now with frayed knit cuffs riding high above my wrists and a rip in one of the slash pockets from shoving a balled up glove into it with too much force. Clearly I was a boy in need of counseling and clothing.
“Hmm,” he said after consideration, “I have just the thing.” He rifled through some racks and pulled out a light brown car coat of wool so soft, he said, it might as well be camel’s hair. It had three large leather buttons, commodious pockets and, yes, a fine faux fur brown collar. I put it on and stood in bay of three mirrors to examine myself as Mom and Mr. Brown hovered behind. “It’s a little big,” I said noting that the sleeves half covered my fingers when I hung my arms to my sides. Mom nodded silently.
“But look how tall Pat is getting!” I tried to stretch myself taller, proud of my one advantage over my brother. “He’ll grow into this by Christmas, just you see.”
Mom nodded again. “We’ll take it.”
I took off the coat and handed it to Mr. Brown. We all strolled together back to the register. On the way Brown casually whipped the Rough Rider hat of my head, snapped up a brown fedora on the way past, and sat it on me at a jaunty angle. “What a handsome young man!” No one ever had called me handsome in my entire life and may not have ever complimented me on my looks. That was Tim’s personal department.
Mom turned to carefully survey me. She picked up the hat, weighed the possibility that I could be convinced to wear it instead of my battered old hat. I more than half wanted her to buy it but dared not say so. She looked at the price tag and then, somewhat sadly, returned it to the mannequin head from which Brown had snatched.
By the register Brown carefully folded my new coat and laid it in a large white box lined with tissue paper which he carefully folded over it and smoothed down with a practiced hand. He carefully fitted the top on and then from a large cone of twine on a spindle tied the package with speed and ease. Mom handed over a ten dollar bill and got back little change. I may not have ever had such an expensive garment.
All the while Mom and Mr. Brown chatted, smiles beaming from both. After extended pleasantries Mr. Brown shook my mother’s hand and turned and shook mine with a dry, firm grip as if I was important and grown up. I carried the large package for my Mom.
On the walk back to the car she told us that we had spent so much money that we would have to skip the usual stop for sodas at Rodell’s Drugs. She had a worried look. I knew with some guilt that she had wildly overspent and was concerned about what to tell Dad.
We climbed into Mom’s ’51 Chevy, Tim as usual riding shotgun in the place of honor in the front seat. I sat behind Mom with the package stretched out beside me on the seat. Mom lit up an unfiltered Kool and the car was soon filled with a haze. On our drive back to the house on Cheshire Drive, I worked up the courage to ask what Mr. Brown could possibly have done to get arrested.
More than a year later, at Christmas 1961, I was still wearing the car coat, Note it was getting a little tight. With twin brother Tim in his cool letterman style jacket and our dog, Fritz on our front step on Cheshire Drive.
After a pause Mom said, “Some people just don’t know to keep out other people’s private business. You’d think the Police Department would have better things to do than hiding out in a men’s room stall.” And that is all she would say on the subject. We drove home the rest of the way in silence.
We continued to see Mr. Brown at Fowler’s until I entered high school and started getting my clothes in the Men’s Wear Department.
Later I realized that a small article like the one about Mr. Fowler was enough to drive some men from town in disgrace. I learned of other men who were fired from their jobs, whose wives left them, and at least one who was beaten to a pulp outside a bar. But the Fowlers, a very nice couple, treated all of their employees “like family.” Mr. Brown had been with them for years and was very good at his job. In those days a man could make a not extravagant but comfortable middle class living as a commission floor salesman at a Department store. No matter what private conversation they may have had with him, they were loyal to Mr. Brown and even left him in the Boy’s Department instead of exiling him to some position where he would never come in contact with us. That had to cost them customers.
And then there was Mom. I may have learned more from her about kindness and compassion that day than in all of the Sunday school classes that she ever sent me to.