CVT Special Edition Vol. 3





'Our Lives Changed




Meet George Wilson

by Scott Neuffer

Special to the Carson Valley Times

George Wilson is a 74-year-old retiree who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Linka. He is a father, a grandfather. He likes the Rams and the Lakers—the L.A. Rams, not the St. Louis Rams. He likes classic cars and billiards. He likes taking his wife to car shows.

And he is one of the nicest men I’ve ever met.

I first met George Wilson in the Walmart Supercenter south of town. Whatever your thoughts on the new Walmart, I can honestly say it might be the most diverse place in Gardnerville. Whenever I visit, I find myself strolling the aisles, people-watching. The store seems to draw people from all walks of life. It was a few weeks ago that I almost literally ran into George Wilson in the produce section.

I noticed the darkness of his skin, the whiteness of his hair, which poked out from beneath a ribbed beanie, and the warm immensity of his smile, which exuded unabashed affability.

Minutes later, I spotted him in the canned food aisle helping a nice lady retrieve an errant can of soup that had rolled under the sharp lip of the lowest shelf. George was bending way down, straining his body, trying to scoop it up from the floor. I quickly assisted, located the can, and then introduced myself. I wish I could say I was being a selfless Good Samaritan, but I had an ulterior motive: I wanted to interview George. He struck me as interesting, if not the most interesting man in the world, at least one of them.

When I asked him about an interview, he laughed and produced a business card. The card had a picture of a ’52 Chevy on it, an email address and a phone number. It contained nothing whatsoever about business. It was not a business card. It was in fact a calling card, a real calling card, a personal trademark, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Fast-forward a couple weeks. Not only did George invite me over to his house, he invited my son. That Andres goes everywhere with me is a fact of my life right now, and I told George up front that I’d have the kid with me. He said it wouldn’t be a problem.

George and Linka live in a beautiful stucco home in Stodieck Estates. On this sunny January day, under a blue sky gauzy with clouds, the Wilsons were the most cordial of hosts. They sat us in their living room, asked us if we were thirsty, offered Andres a cartoon to watch—Garfield—which he readily accepted.

I told George I would record the conversation. I told him about myself and my interest in local characters. I told him to stop me if I asked anything too personal. He chuckled, a low musing chuckle, and then proceeded to tell me all about his life….

George Wilson grew up in the South in the 1950s, at that point in history when segregation was giving way to the Civil Rights Movement. The city was Houston. He lived in a small two-bedroom house with eight brothers and sisters.

“Growing up seeing segregation, I didn’t understand it,” he said. “My brothers and I would go downtown. There were certain places you could go, different restrooms. There were signs for whites and for coloreds. We would wait till a group of people got together and then go to the water fountain and drink out of the white one—just for fun. We’d do little things like that then take off running. That was our entertainment and our enjoyment. If we had gotten caught, it would have been different.”

George was extremely close to his father, who was an auto mechanic by trade and a serious car enthusiast. He would tell his sons stories about meeting Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger on the dusty back-roads of Texas.

“That’s where I learned my hobby for cars,” George said. “My father loved to travel. We’d take road trips to Oklahoma. He was part Indian, so we’d stay on the reservation. Then Idaho because he had a brother there. And then a brother in Brownsville, Texas, and just across the border in Mexico where he had some sort of farm… My father and I were like best buddies. He would tell me he wouldn’t be around forever and wanted to mold me from a young age to take care of myself. I owe a lot to him.”

George considers his time in Mexico as a teenager to be among the most formative years of his life.

“My parents were just open people,” he said. “I was among different people all my life, so I never looked at ‘color,’ so to speak.”

Back in Houston, in a crowded house with his siblings, George got the itch to leave the nest, to travel, to make something of himself.

“At night, it was hard for me to sleep. I was always thinking of ways to better myself. And every time I asked the question of how, the military came up.”

In 1960, at the age of 20, George enlisted in the Army.

“I was stationed in Arkansas. There was one guy from Houston, and we became like this,” he said, twisting his index and middle fingers into one shape. “He was a white guy.”

Prior to joining the service, George Wilson, like many in his generation, dreamed about going west, dreamed of the storied golden coast of California.

“After I finished basic training, they sent me,” he said. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

George was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey Bay, which, strangely enough, is now a national monument and a preserve for endangered butterflies. As the war in Vietnam escalated, George worked for the military police, specifically the base’s correctional center, tracking down soldiers who’d gone AWOL. He was eventually nicknamed “The Bounty Hunter.”

“A lot of guys didn’t want to go to Vietnam, and I had to go find them and bring them back,” he said.

Despite this moniker and the challenge of his duty, or maybe because of them, George found himself attracted to the huge cultural transformation taking place just north of the base.

“On the weekends, I would go to San Francisco and hang out in the parks with groups of people,” he said. “Remember, this was during Haight-Ashbury and free love and all that. It was very different than the South. There I was at 20 years old, just mingling, everyone getting along. All my life afterwards, that’s how I saw society: just people getting along.”

George left the Army in 1967 as a sergeant, but he never left California. He moved southward, and in the town of Torrance found work with Farmer Brothers Coffee in the food manufacturing division. He ended up working for the company for more than three decades before retiring. It was there that he also met his wife Linka, who worked in packaging. For fun, the couple would take trips up to Lake Tahoe. It was on one of these trips that George first fell in love with Nevada.

“I said at the time that this would be a great area for retirement. So about 1999, we started making more trips up here and looking around.”

George and Linka bought a home in Pleasantview and lived there happily for five years. In the middle of the decade, however, they decided to leave behind their new friends in Carson Valley and move to San Antonio, where one of their two sons was stationed in the military. George said they wanted to be closer to their grandchildren.

“But within two years there, the kids had moved and gone to school, and we really didn’t know anyone,” he said. “I was spending more time flying back here just to be among friends.”

He recalled something his friend Barry Jones at Carson Valley Movers had told him:

“He came to California the very first time we moved up here. And then he moved us from here to Texas. And when he moved us to Texas, he told me we’d be back again and just to call when we were ready. And I did call him about two years later, and he came and got me.”

George and Linka bought a new home in Stodieck and decided to settle once and for all.

“It’s a joke, but I say my next move is up on Buckeye where the cemetery is. Just an understanding that I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving here anymore.”

George chalks up his affection for Carson Valley to his friends.

“I love to talk,” he said. “I won’t say I’m treated like a king, but you get the idea. I’m open and I speak freely. I love talking to people—sitting down, telling stories, letting them get my sense of life—and they find me exciting… like you did. I’m open-minded, and I just get along with people period. That’s my nature. That’s how I’ve been all my life.”

One thing George had no problem talking about was race, and what it’s like being black in Gardnerville.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 81.6 percent of the current population of Douglas County is white; 11.8 percent is Hispanic; 2.2 percent is Native American, and 1.8 percent is Asian. Approximately 0.9 percent of our 47,118-person population is black.

“Overall, people don’t treat me differently,” George said. “Very rarely I can sense it, but I don’t make an issue of it. It’s been very rare in my 14, 15 years here. Occasionally, maybe I walk up and sit down at a machine in a casino, and some guy gives me the feeling, the look, something. So I speak, I be courteous, and eventually he gets up and leaves. I’ve had that happen, but not often. It’s the only thing I’ve encountered.”

I asked George about Confederate flags, which occasionally pop up in town, in front of homes or around license plates. That Nevada, “the Battle Born State,” was granted statehood during the Civil War as a Union ally is a fine irony not lost on George. I asked him if he thought the flags were racist symbols.

“With some, it can be. It depends,” he said. “It’s a Southern thing. When I see that, they’re letting me know they’re from the South or have lived in the South or that’s their nature, or it’s not personally from them but maybe from their parents and the way they were raised.”

He said Confederate flags don’t bother him.

“You have to remember that when I grew up in the South, that’s the way things were. When I see it in the younger generations, I feel it was instilled in them by their parents. And that’s all they know. What’s instilled in me and the way I am I got from my parents. And my parents were just open. I never take anything like that personally. I feel they have that right, so be it, and I have my rights.”

I asked him about the recent protests in Ferguson, Miss., and New York City, revolving around the police deaths of two black men. George said he doesn’t involve himself in politics.

“Being in the military taught me not to get involved in politics. Things matter to me personally, but I don’t get involved. The bottom line is I feel whatever those people are doing, on both sides, they have their reasons, and they’re entitled to that. I’m a firm believer in respecting a person’s rights.”

After our interview, George took Andres and me into his garage: a veritable man cave with a tidy workbench, pool table, TV, and, in the center of it all, a shiny burgundy ’52 Chevy. With a certain relish in his voice, George told us all about the engine, a 350 V8, the automatic transmission, the custom leather bucket seats, the retro yet sleek speedometer. This was the car from his calling card.

“Late at night I’m out dusting and polishing it, and my wife says, ‘Boy, you spend more time with that car than with me.’”

The car is clearly George’s passion, and once you’ve talked to him about his childhood, it’s easy to understand why.

“I was a teenager when I bought my first car, but I wasn’t old enough to sign for it. My sister signed for it. When I got back from the service, my brother had sold it. I said to myself that one day, when I’m retired, I’m going to make that my hobby. I’m going to find a ’52 Chevy and make it my way.”

George bought this ’52 Chevy in Modesto, and then, with help from a friend, tore it down and rebuilt it to his liking. He now cruises to local car shows with his wife, as well as to restaurants and casinos.

“Trophies are not important to me,” he declared. “I don’t need a trophy to validate what I’ve put into this car. I know what’s in there, and I know what my car can do.”

At the end of our visit, I asked George if he considered himself to be in the “golden years” of his life. It was a silly question, the kind of question a 33-year-old journalist would ask. He answered with his distinct chuckle, low and felicitous, then with some oddly inspiring words.

“Golden is not golden,” he said. “I take my time now. In my mind I want to do this and that, you know, but I can’t because my body is saying no… Each day I wake up is a blessing.”