Raising Wilder, Part Four: The Beginning
This is the last of a four-part series. Raising Wilder is a Sapulpa-based television show built on the lives and experiences of Jason Wilder, Paula George, and their children as they work to restore family values through the adventures of living like his ancestors from Little House on the Prairie. “Raising Wilder” will begin airing on The CW, October 8th at 4pm.
Just wasn’t the same
“No Gertie, you can’t go. We can’t afford a gift. You know that. I’m sorry.”
Mollie Gibbs looked into the hurt eyes of her 7-year-old daughter and felt a pang of sadness. She dearly wished she could say something else. It wasn’t often that their children got invited to birthday parties—never mind the birthday parties of white children—but she knew they couldn’t show up empty-handed.
“But Janice is my friend!” Gertie insisted. “She really wanted me to come.”
“The answer is no, and that’s final.” Mollie went back to the work she’d been doing. The kids will just have to learn, she thought. Life just wasn’t the same for Indians.
The next day, Gertie had to tell Janice that her mother had said she couldn’t come to her birthday party. Janice was upset about it and told her mother after school. When Opal Johnston heard about it from her daughter Janice, she called Mollie Gibbs and insisted that Gertie please come to the party.
“But we can’t bring a gift,” Mollie said. “We don’t want to be rude…”
“That’s no problem at all,” Opal said. “There will be other kids there and Janice will get more than enough gifts. What she really wants is for her friends to be there, and your Gertie is one of her favorites.”
Mollie hung up the phone and turned to see Gertie staring at her, wide-eyed.
“Can I bring Jack?” Gertie asked.
A Box of Memories
Willis Johnston had a problem.
In his years of working for Pepsi-Cola, he’d never been bothered that often. People were generally glad to see him with his racks of their favorite sodas, and he’d rarely been pestered. But recently, on two different occasions, he’d narrowly stopped some of his merchandise from getting stolen right off his truck! Now, he was beginning to wonder. A lot of folks knew where he lived, because his Pepsi Truck wasn’t all that easy to hide. What would they do if he wasn’t right there to catch them? What if someone broke into the truck while he and his family were asleep?
He stood staring at his truck and his house when the idea struck him. The length was right, but the height might be a problem. He went to get his tape measure.
Opal Johnston carefully closed the lid to the wooden chest filled with love letters, photos and handkerchiefs. She stood for a moment, her hands on the lid as she replayed the contents in her mind. It wasn’t so long ago that Willis had been sending letters to her from the war, but it felt like a lifetime. Over the years, the box grew to contain photos and trinkets and mementos from all the important parts of the life they’d built together.
She caressed the box, thinking of how much it meant to her. Memories, she thought. It’s a box of memories.
She took the box into the garage on the side of the house, where her husband was measuring height of the garage door and muttering to himself.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He looked up at her, disappointment on his face. “It won’t fit.” He went to his workbench and began writing some figures on the paper he had next to him.
She walked over to him, still holding the box. “What won’t fit?”
“The truck.” he said, not looking up. He gestured at the Pepsi-Cola truck sitting in the driveway. “The truck won’t fit in the garage. I don’t know how I can keep those kids from getting into it when I’m not actually sitting in the thing.”
Opal looked at her husband and smiled. This was the many she loved; always trying to solve some problem or another. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” she said. “Would you mind putting this up for me? You know I can’t reach.” She handed him the box.
Willis looked up from his paper. “Huh? Oh, sure. Just set it here and I’ll put it up in a bit.” He went back to his figures. “I can’t get it any higher…” he said under his breath.
Opal sat the box down and turned to go back in the house. Just before she reached the door, she stopped. “Willis, do you think you could bring some soda to Janice’s party next week? We’re going to have a lot of her friends over.”
“Sure thing, hon.” He said. Then he added, “That is, if it’s not all stolen right out from under my nose first.”
The day of the party, Jack and Gertie Gibbs stepped up to the front door of Willis and Opal Johnston’s house and knocked. They didn’t get invited to many parties, and weren’t sure what it was like. Gertie really wished she’d been able to get a gift.
The door opened and Opal stood there, smiling. “Gertie! So glad you could come. Hello, Jack! Won’t you guys come in?”
8-year-old Jack Gibbs stepped into the house and was awestruck. Of course his home was smaller, but with eleven siblings, it felt even more cramped. This home felt like it had so much room. He looked around and saw several students he knew from school. Janice ran up to Gertie. “Hey, you made it!” she said. Just then, her dad walked in with a tray full of opened Pepsi bottles.
“Come and get them while they’re cold!” Willis said.
Gertie had never seen so many Pepsi bottles before at one time. She reached up and grabbed one, said “thank you” and took a sip. She turned to hand it to Jack for a turn.
“No Gertie, that one’s yours. Jack can have his own.” Willis said.
Both of them looked at him in shock. Soda pop came so rarely to the Gibbs house that when they did get one, the whole family got one to share. Getting your own soda was out of the question.
Jack raised his eyebrows at Willis Johnston. “Do you really mean it?” he asked.
“Of course!” Willis said. “Help yourself, son.”
Jack reached up and gratefully took a bottle off the tray. He couldn’t believe it. His own Pepsi! As he took his first sip he thought to himself, These guys must be rich!
As everyone stood around enjoying their sodas and talking, Opal was noticing Jack and Gertie Gibbs. She noticed how overjoyed they were to get their own soda, and how much they loved the snacks and the cakes.
Opal had no illusions about the way life was on the other side of town. Though Sapulpa had been founded by and largely occupied by native americans, she knew that many of those families were poor and struggled to make a living in ramshackle houses.
After the party, when it was time to leave, Opal handed Jack and Gertie large paper sacks filled with leftovers, treats and other food. “Thank you guys so much for coming,” she said.
Jack stepped outside feeling like he’d stepped out of a dream. He’d been in a nice house, gotten to eat cake, and even gotten his very own soda. Now, here he was on his way home, with a sack full of food to carry. Wow, these folks had sure been nice to him.
He turned back at the end of the driveway and looked back at the house. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d ever been treated so kindly by white people.
It was 2016 and Jack Gibbs stood at the end of the driveway staring at the house his daughter and her fiancé had just moved into and were in the middle of remodeling. Something was tugging on the edges of his memory.
Paula had stepped out to the porch and caught his puzzled expression. “Dad, are you alright?” she asked.
“I’ve been here before,” he said.
“What?” Paula asked? “You have? When?”
“I don’t know, but there’s something familiar about this place. Something…special.”
Jason Wilder, who had been listening nearby, spoke up. “If you happen to know who used to live here, I could surely use some answers about this garage floor. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked.
“Well,” Jason started, stepping over to the garage door. “It’s pretty much a regular garage, except that it runs the entire length of the house. It’s huge. But the strange part,” he stepped into the garage and dropped down about twelve inches. “is that whoever lived here dug out the garage floor by about a foot. For the life of me, I can’t tell why.”
Jack’s eyes grew wide. The memories came flooding back.
The birthday party with Gertie and Janice. The snacks and cakes. The sacks of food to take home.
His very own Pepsi.
“It wouldn’t fit,” he said. “The truck wouldn’t fit.”
Jason and Paula looked at Jack like he’d gone batty. “What are you talking about?” Paula asked.
“My sister Gertie and I came here for a birthday party when I was eight,” he began. “It was Gertie’s friend Janice. Her dad worked for Pepsi and was so worried about people stealing the soda out of his truck that he dug out the floor in his garage so he could park the truck in it at night.”
Jason scratched his head. “I guess that makes sense. You know the folks that used to live here, then?” he asked. “You should see this. We were removing the paneling in the garage and found this. Figure somebody would want it back.”
He brought out a wooden chest, sat it down and opened the lid for Jack to see the contents. Inside were photos, handkerchiefs and what appeared to be love letters.
Opal Johnston sat in her chair at Arbor Village Nursing Home in Sapulpa. It was Valentine’s Day and a strange family had just walked into the room where she was sitting.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
Paula George stepped forward and handed her a card with some candy. “No, you don’t. Not yet.” she said.
Opal warily accepted the gifts, but still wasn’t sure what was happening. “Why are you giving me candy, then?” she asked.
“We just moved into the house you used to live in,” Paula said. We’ve heard great stories about you and your family, and when we found out you lived here, we had to meet you.
My dad’s name is Jack Gibbs. He came to a birthday party for your daughter Janice when he was 8 years-old. He and his sister Gertie were the only indians you invited.”
Opal brightened. “Oh yes! I remember Jack. He and Gertie were such good friends to Janice.” She touched her fingers to her lips, remembering. “He was so thrilled to get his own soda pop at her birthday.”
Paula paused, mulling it over. Finally she said, “Dad said you gave him a sack of food after the party to take home.”
“Yes, I did.” Opal said. “Anyone could tell they were hungry.”
“He also said you didn’t give anyone else a sack.”
“Well, they were hungry, like I said.”
“But—” Paula trailed off. “They were indians.”
“No.” Opal said, very definitively. “No, they were children.”
Paula looked at Opal with the same wonder she imagined her father did when he had seen their generosity. A tremor in her voice, she said, “Well, we believe that we’ve been given an opportunity to repay the kindness you showed to my father. We found something that we think belongs to you.”
Jason Wilder stepped up and set the wooden chest he’d been carrying down on the floor in front of Opal. She looked up at them, a questioning, curious look on her face.
She looked back down at the chest. It looked familiar. She grabbed the front of the heavy lid and cracked it open, ever so slowly. As the light found it’s way into the chest, Opal caught the faintest reflection from something inside.
It was a silk handkerchief.
She threw the lid open and gasped.
“My memories!” She cried. “You found them! I thought they’d been lost!”
Opal’s eyes brimmed with tears as she lovingly picked up the letters and photos one by one, taking a moment to soak in the joy and warmth they brought back to her.
“We searched for this box for over ten years. By the time we left the house, we thought it was just gone forever. I was so sure I’d never see any of this again. Thank you,” she sniffled. “Thank you so much.”
Jason explained. “We think that when your husband had done the work to the garage to be able to park the truck in, he boarded up access to a small room up there. We found a few antiques, and this chest.”
“Oh, I just can’t believe it. It’s amazing.” Opal said. She held up a class photo of Janice, and standing in the crowd was Gertie Gibbs. She handed the photo to Paula. “Here, give this to your Aunt Gertie, will you?” she said.
Paula took the photo, telling Opal, “Thank you. She’s never had one of these before.”
“What, a class photo?”
“Not just a class photo, a photo of herself as a child. Our family was too poor to afford them, so Gertie has no photos of herself from before she was grown.”
After more time and stories, The Wilders made their exit. Paula felt her heart bursting with love for everything she’d experienced in the last couple of years. In the midst of her worst tragedy, she’d seen God’s hand at work in her life in ways that she’d never thought possible. And if she’d ever had any question about this house—or this town—those were all gone now. The plan was in place and pieces were moving at a rapid pace. Jason and Paula were filming the show and teaching other families to live the Wilder Way.
One episode at a time, they are restoring hope, making memories, and leaving a legacy.
And the fun is only beginning.
Earlier this year, Paula and Jason were contacted by a programming manager for Cox and asked if their show could air on Cox’s Yurview Oklahoma channel (formerly Cox Channel 3). Shortly afterwards, they received another call from The CW, who asked if they could air the show in over 800,000 homes. The pilot episode will air Sunday, October 8th at 4pm.