Cathy A. E. Bell

Personal Essays and Poems by Cathy A. E. Bell

Tag: history

Life in a Scrapbook (Originally Published in Colorado Central Magazine–January 2013)

Cotton Proe as a teenager

Cotton Proe as a teenager

Anyone who ever met Charles “Cotton” Proe quickly forgot about the iron split-hook peeking out from his buttoned cuff where his left hand should have been. Instead they would be whirled up into Cotton’s friendly ambiance: his smile, firm handshake, and a gentle shine in his eyes. All who knew him called him “Cotton,” a nickname bestowed in early childhood for his nearly white head of hair. Although his shock of white became more blonde the older he got, the name stuck, becoming a small part of what made him such a unique man to those who knew him.

The essence of a man’s life may be difficult to capture, especially in a scrapbook. But, for Cotton, his scrapbook sums up his character and fortitude well. Many of his triumphs, illustrating his ability to overcome his limitations, appear in newspaper clippings; those that weren’t written about might be captured in a photo or a story told by his only living daughter, Bobbie, sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee, looking through his scrapbook. And with Cotton Proe, there’s never been a shortage of stories.

One black-and-white photo in his scrapbook, circa 1909, shows Cotton as a young boy in Nebraska wearing his newsboy cap, kneeling within a row of other young boys all holding up dead coyotes. Cotton is holding one canine’s head while another boy holds the limp but beautiful body. The animal looks like he’s sleeping. Behind them are nearly 50 adults, family, and neighbors, the women in bonnets and dark coats, the men blurry in the background, most with barely detectable smiles or none at all. But Cotton, he looked like a boy who had just lost his best friend, with his full lips in a pout. Some looking at the photo might think it’s just country ranchers showing off their kill, but for Cotton’s middle daughter, Bobbie, that photo tells a much sadder story. “Daddy begged them not to kill this one coyote. He loved that coyote—he was like a pet to him. But, they went ahead and killed him anyway and Daddy was crying for his friend in that photo.”

Cotton with his family and neighbors iin Nebraska.  Cotton is first row, third from the left.

Cotton with his family and neighbors in Nebraska. Cotton is first row, third from the left.

Later years, in high school, a sepia-toned photo shows a basketball team, Cotton standing the tallest, arms crossed like his teammates, long nose, dimpled square chin, blonde hair short on the sides and longer on top, brushed straight back, resembling hair styles of the present day, his head tilted slightly, looking a bit cocky and certainly sure of himself. After high school, an article titled “Creamery Five Cinches Title in City Loop” describes a winning game for the semi-pro Norfolk Creamery team. Cotton scored well above his other team mates (and his competition), earning 12 points out of the 22 points that won the game. One can imagine his large, strong hands grasping the basketball and shooting the winning hoop. “It was the basket flipping of Proe, Creamery center, that cinched the game for his mates.”

Cotton with his basketball teammates. He's back row, center.

Cotton with his basketball teammates. He’s back row, center.

When Cotton was about twenty-two, Colorado came calling and he made the move to Alamosa, where one of his first jobs was hauling bricks to the construction site of the Alamosa State Normal School. Years later, when his oldest great-granddaughter told him she was accepted to Adams State College he said, “Well, I’ll be darned, Lil’ Red. I hauled the first load of bricks used to build Adams State back in the early 1920s when it was just a patch of grass. Isn’t that somethin’?” Whether her great-granddad was more proud of her or his part in the history of Adams State, she wasn’t sure; but his enthusiasm was evident either way.

One day, Cotton was driving to South Fork for a date when he spotted a beautiful woman standing on a bridge looking out over the Rio Grande River. Dorothy was helping a friend serve food to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad crew at Masonic Park and was taking a break. Self-assured as always, Cotton pulled his Model T off to the side of the road and began to chat Dorothy up. Cotton quickly changed course and took Dorothy on a date that night instead. They married in 1925.

Cotton and his wife Dorothy on the Alamosa bridge

Cotton and his wife Dorothy on the Alamosa bridge

Other photos of the early 20s show Cotton, tall, lean, and dusty, in his life as a farm-hand, with bib overalls rolled at the cuffs, holding the reins of a horse. Lending more detail of Cotton’s life at that time is a photo-copy of an article about Jack Dempsey, the championship boxer. Jack was visiting his family’s farm in his home town of Manassa, just outside Alamosa. The photo shows a row of people standing in front of a Model T. In the middle stands a man in suspenders with a wide-brimmed black hat, hands in pockets—the only one with a slight smile in the photo. The caption reads: “Dempsey held a deep affection for this family and kept in constant touch with them. Here he and Kearns [his manager] are seen visiting Dempsey’s brother. Unidentified man in center was hired farm hand.”

Cotton working as a ranch hand in Colorado

Cotton working as a ranch hand in Colorado

After Cotton’s life as a farm hand, the photos of his life fade out for a bit, but the stories don’t. There’s no newspaper article telling of the Denver and Rio Grande railroad train he saved from derailing as a young brakeman working his normal route from Alamosa to Chama, New Mexico. But his daughter Bobbie will tell of the night in a dark canyon when Cotton was alerted that something was wrong while working in the second engine car. He swung out of his car, hurrying across the side until he reached the locomotive engine in the front. Finding the engineer asleep, Cotton grabbed the brake, grinding the train to a halt before it hit a large boulder on the tracks. Those that know Cotton will say he recounted all of his stories with humility and humor and, although he was a hero in this story, he probably didn’t feel like one.

In the early 1930s, a couple of years after leaving Alamosa (after quick stint as a Hoover vacuum salesman in Wyoming and Limon, Colorado), Cotton moved his wife and young daughter, Elaine, to Cañon City. A few years later he found one of his callings as a prison guard at “Old Max,” Colorado Territory’s first prison, built in 1871. Cotton’s relationship with the inmates wasn’t typical, but nothing much about Cotton’s life was. He put together a baseball team of trusties and took them to play ball with other town teams at the baseball field. He’d cart along his daughters and afterwards he’d treat them all to a burger at Murphy’s Drive Inn. Bobbie still looks back on those days with a giggle and watering mouth—it was the one time she was allowed to drink soda: an icy-cold bottle of Orange Crush. For Cotton and his girls, the cons were extended family, even the murderers. One convict even made Cotton’s eldest daughter a beautiful wooden chest, which remained one of Elaine’s most precious possessions.

Between baseball seasons with the inmates, Cotton’s youngest daughter, Peggy, was born premature. (Peggy would put together the scrapbook for her father decades later.) She was so tiny Cotton could slide his Masonic ring over her hand all the way up to her shoulder. Fearing she’d be dropped by a nun at the hospital, he built an incubator for her at home that used a light bulb for warmth. That story never made the paper either, but it survives in family lore.

Cotton with his German Shepard

Cotton with his German Shepard

But amidst the newspaper articles of Cotton’s life, among his obituary and short articles telling of his volunteer work and civil duties, is the one that explains best how a man lost his large, strong hand: the one that built the incubator, stopped the train, and threw the winning basket, and overcame his disability to keep playing his beloved game of golf.

“Up to 1943, I had a four handicap [in golf],” Cotton told reporter Bob Wood in an article published in 1973 and again in 1987. “In 1944,” he continued, “May 18th at 8 o’ clock in the morning, I cut my arm off in a sausage grinder.” Cotton was working in a grocery store, grinding meat, and when he pushed his hand in too far, the blades grabbed it. Cotton was rushed to a hospital in Colorado Springs where doctors managed only to re-connect his thumb to part of his forearm. Waking up from surgery, Cotton’s realization of his changed life must have been crushing.

“Lying in bed there, when the doctor came in I said, ‘Hey Doc, can I play golf anymore?’ He wouldn’t answer me.” After Cotton’s surgery, he asked for the thumb to be removed as well. He had befriended a young girl in the hospital with a prosthetic leg and seeing that her leg didn’t slow her down at all, he decided he wanted to be fitted for a prosthetic arm and couldn’t have one with his thumb attached. Cotton endured more surgeries. He confided years later to his son-in-law that the subsequent surgeries were harder than the initial one because they had to amputate even more of the arm to accommodate the prosthesis. He was often “cranky,” Bobbie remembers, primarily because the shoulder strap that controlled his hook’s opening and closing would rub his skin raw. It took many drives to Denver before the substitute arm and hand fit well.

Once Cotton’s pain was under control, his feisty spirit returned and it wasn’t long before he was on a mission to find a way to play golf. His goal: to build a prosthesis that would allow him to hold and swing his golf club again.

“I had the cons at the penitentiary help me at first because I was an ex-guard and I built eight of them before I finally perfected one.” Cotton designed his “hand” out of a piece of hose from a tractor for flexibility, a locking pair of pliers, and a rounded clamp welded the to the tip of the pliers. “I went out to the course and I hit a ball about 200 yards down the middle and I said, ‘Boy, I’ve got ‘er.’”

Life went on for Cotton. He bought and remodeled an old theater on Main Street, turning it into a bowling alley. An old black-and-white photo shows a piece of Main Street with a large white bowling pin sign attached high on the brick near the apartment windows above the store-fronts. Nestled between two signs, “Liquors” and the “E-A-T-S; Ellie’s Diner,” is an arrow pointing to the door of the bowling alley that says “Popcorn,” perhaps left over from the theatre days. He set up bowling teams for the kids in town and Bobbie would do her homework there after school so she could bowl afterwards. He ran the place for years, hiring a couple of club-footed siblings to be pin setters. He’d buy the kids shoes and other items their family couldn’t afford, save their money for them until they had something they wanted to spend it on, and drive them home “way out to the boondocks” when the bowling alley closed at night.

Main Street, Canon City, Colorado in the 1940s or 1950s

Main Street, Canon City, Colorado in the 1940s or 1950s

After Cotton left the bowling alley business, he began a twenty-year career as the superintendent of the “finest humane shelter in the United States,” according to a Daily Record article in January, 1969. Multi-page articles fill the scrapbook touting the new animal shelter (better known as the Humane Society of Fremont County now) with photos: the shelter with the caretaker apartment on top; brand new dog kennels and runs; Cotton preparing dog food for the nightly feeding; and his wife, Dorothy, bathing a stray dog. As well as taking care of homeless dogs and cats, Cotton and Dorothy often took in whatever family members needed taking in—somehow managing to fit everyone into the small five-room apartment above the shelter.

One perk of being the superintendent of the shelter was that Cotton oversaw all filming of movies, like The White Buffalo starring Charles Bronson, near the Cañon City area if horses or other animals were involved, ensuring the animals were treated well. He quickly became a favorite of cast and crew on many films. “The actors loved Daddy and looked after him,” Bobbie remembers. In one film, an actor tried dismounting a horse when his foot became caught, dragging him behind the running horse. Cotton quickly grabbed another horse and stood in the path of the runaway horse to stop him. He did stop the horse but was knocked around a bit and broke some ribs in the process. But, Cotton did what he always did: saved the day in his humble sort of manner.

Charles "Cotton" Proe

Charles “Cotton” Proe

A few pages over, a clipping shows Cotton accepting an award from the Elks (even though he wasn’t a member himself) for “Citizen of the Year.” They praised him for running the Fremont County Humane Society for two decades and for his care and love for animals. After a speech by an Elk member proclaiming Cotton’s “brotherly love” because he saved thousands of animal lives, he received a standing ovation from over 150 people. Cotton’s smile is humble yet proud.
After Cotton’s loss of his forearm and hand, he went on to become a legend in small-town Cañon City. He encouraged wounded World War II soldiers who’d lost a limb not to give up and showed the vets, by example, life could continue with some hope and determination. He won trophies for his excellent golf game (and bowling) and folks hailed him when he still continued winning trophies at tournaments into his 80s. And although he’s the only one in the golf and bowling photos wearing long sleeves (a far cry from the sleeveless shirts showing off his muscled arms of his basketball days), he seems a happy man, someone who did his best to make the town he loved a little better than he found it.

One writer, his name not visible from the photocopy of the article, after watching the Senior Beacon Open golf tournament and telling Cotton’s story, summed up his quintessence well, saying, “Now that’s what I call the determination of the human spirit; to carry on no matter what the odds.”
Those who knew Cotton were left with an impression of him as distinctive as his name. It was only fitting that the older Cotton grew, the more his hair color resembled the color it was as a child.

Cotton told folks, “The hardest thing about gettin’ old is watching your friends die,” and because he died at 93, he outlived most of them. But his family keeps the stories and images of him alive—even if his friends can’t—picturing him on the golf course, holding the 9 iron firmly with both of his hands, his tuft of white hair glinting in the sun.

Ramblings from Taos… (Thoughts on a Weekend Away Alone and Writing)

The 1850s adobe schoolhouse where I stayed

 October, 2010

This morning I walked out of the little 1850’s adobe schoolhouse where I slept last night, into the expansive courtyard, and remembered something I didn’t even know I knew—Georgia O’Keefe made a comment once about the quality of light in New Mexico being different than anywhere else. Yes, I can see that. Yes, I can feel that.

Driving here to Taos from Denver, over and down La Veta pass, I was bathed in copper and gold light.  I breathed the metallic colors into my lungs, hoping I could prolong the experience just a little longer.  Even spring cannot compare to the luminosity of color autumn creates. 

I did a little research and found O’Keefe’s first visit to Taos was in 1919.  Drawn to the “clear desert light” and the mountains (and after a longer stay in 1929), she went back to Taos once a year to paint. She often came to stay at the Mabel Dodge Luhan home that is right next door to where I am staying—not far from the square, but at the end of a long dirt road and butted up against miles of open native Pueblo land. I can feel O’ Keefe’s presence as I tour the Luhan home and that of D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung, Ansel Adams, and all the other historic guests of Mabel’s.


Bell over the gate of the Mabel Luhan home

Taos is so full of old and new art.  And it’s delightfully historic as well—a lovely history of passionate artists and writers. I feel creativity oozing out of everything. Being here makes me want to create: paint, photograph, write, sculpt…  I haven’t felt this artistic for a long time. I wouldn’t have necessarily considered myself an artist before now, but I know I am because I can’t help but to create and that desire is what defines an artist.

And it’s so incredibly beautiful here. I just feel inspired–even just to breath and exist.  If I added up all the beautiful art I’ve seen my whole life it would fill up a dinner plate compared to the Olympic sized pool of art here. How can so much God-made beauty and man-made beauty exist all at the same place?  I keep overhearing conversations around town that last year at this time all the leaves were blown off the trees from high winds.  Nature politely waited for me this time and I do not take it for granted.

I’ve traveled alone when I’ve had to get from point A to B. I’ve planned lots of small weekend trips not knowing if I’d bring someone or not, but then usually at the last minute I bring someone with me. I always thought traveling alone would be a waste because I couldn’t stand next to someone and have them witness the sights with me.  There would be no one to breathe in sharply with me when they looked at the landscape or fall in love with a painting or taste the most amazing baba ghanoush that has ever touched my tongue.   But, I’ve discovered that even alone, those experiences aren’t diminished at all. If I need to share them, I can use that desire to help me write.  Read my words, see my photographs, feel the lightness in my step and hear the deep breaths I take after I’ve been healed and rejuvenated through the beauty I’ve seen here.

When you travel alone you don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. Are they too tired to keep looking through the galleries? Are they in awe like I am?  Especially for a people-pleaser like me—I constantly worry about everyone else’s happiness.  But, traveling alone is a gift of selfishness and self-indulgence.  Bookstores, museums, historic homes. Lingering strolls through beautiful gardens and galleries that leave your heart stopping every two feet.


A flower, fence, and field near downtown Taos

Now I indulge in two hours of massage and energy work from Mari, who lives a block over from where I am staying.  She counsels me as she baths my body in love and her light…she rids me of energy blocks and tells me that my relationship is good and a gift rather than telling me what others perceive.  Because I know it’s a gift and I know I’m learning and he’s learning. We are learning more together than we have in all the years we combined of dating other people.  And it’s not easy lessons in which we are being schooled. For me, it’s a lesson on how to let go, all the while holding on… For him it’s about opening up, trusting, and accepting the love and compassion he needs so badly. It’s about both of us letting go of the fear that has paralyzed us for so long.  It’s about laughing and playing like children. It’s about adventure and discovery.  We’ve both learned and have grown and I can’t articulate that to my friends and family, but this healer woman–she knows.  

I look around this place I’m staying and absorb all I see, writing it down.  Exposed logs in an adobe ceiling.  Wide wood planks in the floor…my dog curled up into a semi-circle on the futon.  A beautiful tin punched Mexican mirror above the sink in the kitchenette.  Rugs and other hand-made things I purchased earlier in the day from a fair-trade shop—just waiting to be opened and touched again. My new books sit on the table, waiting to inspire me to write. 

I’m wondering why sound comes through this old adobe schoolhouse so differently from other buildings. I’m wondering if it’s wind I hear?  I heard the adobe keeps in the heat once it gets hot. I’m just wishing now it was warm. Izzy and I both get pee breaks when I go outside and walk around the portal to the private, but disconnected bathroom.  When I come back and look into the slanted windows and see the cozy browns and reds of the bed and the warm wood, I am happy that the cozy scene I’m looking at includes Izzy and me.

The next morning, I sit at the desk, looking out the eye-level window in front of me with dog in lap.  The adobe window frames a perfect painting outside. I see it all in layers…just outside the window, a low, curved adobe wall. Behind that low, pink earth wall is a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of the vast Pueblo reservation. Beyond the fence a bit, a row of yellowed-leaf trees providing yet another layer—and further past those trees, miles of brush and pine, green and gold.  And finally the last layer: the low Taos mountains. A perfectly warm, colorful Indian summer day.

I’m proud that I came here to write and I followed through.  I’ve realized that writing it down is like bottling the magic I feel here. I can open that bottle anytime I need to feel the gold light from the autumn trees on my face or see the hues of red and copper in the adobe, land, and textiles.   I’m sad I must leave tomorrow to go home. I love this land with its mysterious air and light. I’ll be back though, to see more, write more, and live more. And until I come back, I’ll have my bottle of words to remind me.


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