ALAMO — It is hard to say whether Lawrence Filley was born with the traveling bug or if it bit him early in his life, but the facts are straight about one thing — that young man liked to go!
At five years of age, he was on a train traveling to Montana with his mom and three of his five siblings.
“I was playing in the isle of a car when someone spoke to me from behind,” Lawrence said. “I turned around and it was a colored porter. That’s the first colored man I saw and it scared the death out of me. I ran crying to my mother. That’s the first thing I ever remember.”
Lawrence had been born in Nebraska, but the railroad was enticing people to move to Montana to populate the area. His dad had driven their Model T with two of Lawrence’s brothers out to the new homestead.
Planting corn that first spring of 1926, it grew green and strong. On the Fourth of July, the weather turned extremely hot and the next day the corn was gone.
“From then on it was all down hill,” said Lawrence. “My mother got sick and passed away when I was 7.”
Returning to Nebraska, they lived with his grandmother for a few years. But times were tough and by 1929, his father became desperate.
“In the summer my dad took me, an older brother and my little sister to a Christian orphanage,” he said. “We stood in the hallway. He went into the office and when he came out he walked right by us. Never said a word.”
Another sister was placed in a Catholic home in Sioux City, Iowa. The two oldest boys went with their dad to Montana, where they started over.
Here Lawrence’s travels began in earnest. Over the next few years he would go first with a teacher for a summer, than with another family to live. Around Iowa he would travel.
Was it scary for a little kid?
“People say you do this, you do that,” said Lawrence. “You do it.”
Unexpectedly finding family at a picnic, his uncle became a home he would return to again and again, but he never stayed long enough anywhere to put down roots.
After running away to his uncle’s, he was sent back to his grandmother’s. At the end of the 7th grade, he left.
“I said goodbye to my grandmother and hitchhiked 100 miles out to western Nebraska. I walked out in the country and saw a farm house,” Lawrence said, becoming emotional at the memory. “I walked up to the farmhouse, knocked on the door and a lady came to the door. I said, ‘I need a place to live.’ ‘You come right in,’ she said.”
Thus begins his life with the JB Fullerton family who opened their home and life to a young stranger.
His life continued on — taking him back and forth across Iowa, Nebraska and Montana. A strong, capable youth, finding work was never a problem.
Heading for Montana and family, Lawrence would sleep in jails (asking local police for a place to stay) and try his hand traveling by rail.
“I climbed into a car full of steel. Pretty soon a guy come along, saw me and said, ‘Get the * out of there. Do you want to get killed? If the train stopped in a hurry and that shifted, it’d kill you!’” Lawrence said, speaking of his new Hobo friend who taught him about riding the rails.
Finding his father, remarried, and brothers again in Montana, he took up life near his kin.
“Times were poor and my mother had died. You just have to forgive,” he said of being left behind. “You don’t think about that.”
Ever working, he could be found with the CCCs, ranches, farms, and groceries.
It was while working at a grocery, another part of his life unfolded.
Riding with a friend after work, they’d gone to the next town over to see their girlfriends. When Lawrence went to see his current lady, her mother told him she was in bed.
Asking his friends about another girl, they introduced him to a young woman. Love at first sight, at least for Lawrence, it was only six months before the big day.
“I was at her folk’s farm one Saturday morning working on my car. Her dad came out and talked a while.”
“You going somewhere?” he said.
“I was thinking of taking a little trip,” Lawrence said.
“Going to Missouri?” asked the father, referring to the state where many of the young adults eloped to escape long waits and blood tests.
“Yea, I was thinking about it,” said Lawrence.
“I’m going to an auction today. Why don’t you go with me to the auction and I’ll go with you tomorrow to Missouri?” asked the father.
“That sounds good,” said Lawrence. Good thing Gladys was in agreement, for the next day, her parents beside them, the marriage was sealed.
But life would never settle for this couple.
Twice attempting to join the Marines, he finally made it into the Army Air Corps where he would spend 28 years of his life traveling around the world — Maine; Bermuda; Vietnam; Biak, Netherlands East Indies; Taiwan, Alaska, Morocco and Pakistan.
“It was the best assignment I had — Pakistan. We stayed there two years,” he said. “It was a small security station where we monitored the airwaves between Russia and China. We used to drive over the Khyber Pass to Kabul, Afghanistan, on weekends, even driving down to New Delhi, India, once.”
In 1958, the Air Force came out with two new super grades.
“First, I was one of the original 1,200 to become a Senior Master Sergeant and then I was one of the 625 of the Seniors who were made Chief Master Sergeants. That made us the highest ranking enlisted men in the Air Force. We are now known as the Charter Chiefs,” Lawrence said with pride.
He’s the first to explain it was also due to his commander’s support, giving him assignments which were a rich addition to his military career, enabling the new military grade to be granted to him.
During his tour to Vietnam he was a member of the 554 Redhorse, an Air Force heavy construction unit, processing through Guam.
New facilities have been built in Guam and, much to Lawrence’s surprise, they want to name it after the first Chief in the 554 — Lawrence! He awaits the decision which is long in the making.
Retiring in 1971, they built a home in Arkansas which led Lawrence to becoming a builder for a few years before he remembered he was retired.
Finding the Valley in 1984, it wasn’t long before they found Casa del Valle and settled it. But stop? Oh, no.
Thanks to military space available, Lawrence never had to think of stopping.
“Every fall we’d take off for two or three months and catch an airplane where ever it would go,” he said. “We went around the world three times — military space available.”
The couple did fill out their family when they adopted a brother and sister from the same orphanage Lawrence had been in as a child.
“The same woman was still running it as when I was there,” he said. “Do you have any children that nobody comes to see?”
He asked and they received.
In August of 2010, they will celebrate their 69th anniversary.
“I keep telling her that was the best $2 I ever spent,” said Lawrence, laughing.
“That’s how much the marriage license was,” Gladys said, smiling at her husband. “We expect to have many more years. He keeps saying 10 more but our son says he’s already been saying that for five.”
“In later life, I came to the conclusion that the good Lord looked down and saw this orphan kid and He said, ‘I think I should appoint him a Guardian Angel to keep him out of trouble,’” Lawrence said.
And, it seems, God did just that.