MISSION — It sounded like something right out of the Grapes of Wrath.
“I grew up poor in the ‘30s. I lived through the dirty ‘30s when the grasshoppers were so bad you could look up in the sky and there was just grasshoppers and nothing but a few tumbleweeds to feed the cattle,” Alice Boulanger said.
“The dirt drifted so high it went over the tops of the fences. It was bad. We lived out on a ranch, but we always ate well because we had cattle. We had hogs. We had chickens. We always had food. When the chickens played out and didn’t have eggs for breakfast, why, mom made biscuits and gravy. She was a great cook. She could stretch things out. She’d get a can of cream style corn and put a whole bunch of milk in it and pop would put that on his bread and would think that was wonderful.
“We rode horseback to Sunday school or in the wagon. I’d get on behind dad and my brother would get on behind mom and off we’d go with our buckets and pick wild fruit — plums and chokecherries. They’re sour little boogers.”
So went Alice’s life in South Dakota as a child.
Henry, born Honoré Boulangér in 1920, on the other hand was born into a French family in Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada. At 4 years old, his family moved to Los Angeles. He lost his dad in ‘26. He had been shot in the liver in WWI and the morphine they put him on for pain became his death drug.
“The worst part was he left a wife with five children,” Alice said of Henry’s dad.
Honoré became Henry because he got tired of being called Ornery, even though he could be at times. As the baby of the family, his sister would take him along sometimes when she was hitchhiking to the beach. Once he even got an escort all the way home on the back of a policeman’s motorcycle when he was around 10.
Learning about mechanics from his uncles, he seemed to have more than just learning when it came to fixing things.
First, he worked in a garage doing work as a mechanic and vehicle paint jobs. Then there was the tire shop and service station where he did a lot of buffing and recapping tires.
He had tried going into the Navy when he left high school, but he was two pounds too thin. While waiting he also tried to get work at the Bethlehem Shipyards, a lesson in futility.
“You couldn’t get a job unless you were in the union,” he said. “You couldn’t get in the union unless you had a job.”
Finally, he got a job at the shipyards and worked on building destroyers until the attack at Pearl Harbor. The shipyards went immediately from three shifts to one.
“They thought maybe the Japanese were going to come and invade California,” Henry said. “Everything stopped.”
“Where I was in California (she had come during the war and was working at North American Aviation) they had all the street lights shaded,” said Alice. “Everything was covered so they couldn’t see from above.”
Alice was working on the second floor of the plant.
“We were building B-25s and some fighter planes. What a beautiful sight that was looking down at that plane rolling out — all done,” she said. Working shifts that began or ended at 4 o’clock in the morning, she felt totally safe standing on the street corner in the dark early morning hours waiting for a street car.
Meanwhile, Henry had gained his two pounds, joined the Navy and headed to Hawaii for a two year stint at the submarine base before going further into the Pacific. A lucky guy, he always missed the serious action — give or take a few days — and his ship was bypassed by a lone kamikaze which hit the ship behind them. Luckily, it caused no damage and the sailors sloughed the plane into the ocean.
While on Midway he had about 30 air compressors to keep going before heading back to the states where he went for more training, meeting a very special person.
“I was going to San Diego to visit a marine and was on a bus full of sailors. Guess who I sat beside?” said Alice chuckling, as she recalled the beginning of their relationship.
Henry then was part of a 15-ship convoy to New Guinea. Manning the Higgins boats (a landing craft), he landed soldiers in the Philippines and Okinawa. For five days he was in the Higgins boats feasting on ham sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sleeping on the motor for warmth.
Overseas for a total of six years, near the end he received a letter from Alice telling him she was still available.
Sixty four years ago, he and Alice were married in South Dakota with the outside temperature of 15 degrees below zero. After serving two more years in the Navy, they found themselves making the long journey from California to South Dakota in the middle of November in a $450 car Henry had painted and fixed up with no spare tire or heater.
“I didn’t know the United States was so big,” Alice said, laughter in her voice. “We were a whole week on the road and we had to stop about every 15 miles to warm up because we didn’t have a heater. I was pregnant and had a 2-year-old little boy.”
Back to South Dakota they went, Henry becoming “Frenchie” (he was a French Canadian, remember?) to the locals who took their time trusting this new mechanic in town.
“It took two years before the farmers were sure this kid from Los Angeles, who didn’t know anything about a tractor, could fix their tractor and things,” Alice said. Henry’s talent was more of a gift. “He fixed anything they brought him. Didn’t matter what it was — kitchen stools, lawn mowers, tractors, trucks, cars. It’s natural. Today, we never have to hire anybody to do anything. Even though he only has one good eye, with that one good eye he’s out fixing something all the time.”
Alice busied herself raising their two children and a big garden.
“Fed him three meals a day, which I still do,” said Alice (87) with pride. Owning a grocery store for seven years, working in a greenhouse, then a feedmill selling the feed and keeping the books gave her the background when she found her own niche.
“I’m a sales lady,” she said. “I can sell. I love to sell! My whole family — my daughter and her family are all sales people.”
Having practice selling feed, she was able to stock her kitchen with expensive Bosc Universal equipment by selling the equipment to her neighbors. Then she got to practice her other love — baking bread and grinding her own flour. Oh, my, what a cook!
Twenty-four years ago some friends told them about the Valley and how wonderful it was. They came for a look and eventually landed in Mobile Gardens Community and the need to travel stopped.
“We were going to travel but we like it here so well, who wants to go anywhere? I just love it right here,” Alice said.
Rounding the bend at 90, heading for 100, Henry still golfs three times a week and plays cards every night. Alice continues to grind her own flour to make her delicious home made bread. Sticking to their routine, every night they have a dessert at 9:00 o’clock, a cup of coffee and a good night sleep.
“I’m not as lively as I used to be, but I’m always happy,” he said. “I don’t know what it feels like to be down in the dumps.”
“We’ve had a good life,” Alice said. “We’re healthy and we thank the Lord every day.”