Most of us of a certain age remember the anticipation and excitement of the annual Al Bell Show at school.
Some of us especially remember the weather during his program at the Earlham school in 1961. I still refer to it as the Al Bell Blizzard.
From 1949 to 1979, according to Becky Bell-Greenstreet’s website about him, Al Bell presented assemblies about exciting places all over the world to Iowa schoolchildren.
The 1961 show at Earlham was scheduled right before Christmas break.
Heavy snow had been predicted for that day, but the school certainly hated to call off what we all had looked forward to. Al Bell Shows were booked months in advance.
Parents began to call the school, worried about getting their kids home. Other began to arrive at school to pick them up.
Nothing was mentioned about the bus routes, so we rural kids stayed and enjoyed the show. Afterward we gathered up our books and band instruments and boarded the bus for the ride home–a ride long remembered by those of us toward the end of Harold Cooper’s route.
At home, then southwest of Dexter, Dad had parked his old Chevy at the bottom of our steep driveway, and trudged through heavy wet snow, relieved to get to the house–until he realized that Mom was home alone.
“Aren’t the girls home yet? They won’t make it up the hill!” He shook his head, stomping snow from his boots.
Mom had been busy in the kitchen, probably listening to Christmas music, and hadn’t noticed how bad the weather was getting. The tone of Dad’s voice alarmed her.
A few minutes later, the bus dropped off Gloria (a sophomore) and me (a senior) at the end of the lane. Snow already reached the tops of our boots. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school in those days. We both carried an armload of school books for break, and lugged a French horn.
Slogging up the hill, we had to stop often to catch our breath. We couldn’t see the house. The tops of fence posts helped to keep our bearings.
Once we made it to the house, Mom and Dad were so relieved. Our coats were plastered with snow. So were our bouffant hairdos. My bright red legs stung.
We found out later that the bus got stuck at the next stop, Kellers, on an east-west crossroad. Judy Neal and Marilyn Lawson were the only two riders wearing overshoes. Mr. Cooper sent them in to ask Mrs. Keller to call the parents of the kids still on the bus.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cooper got the bus “unstuck.” Afraid to wait, he drove back to the county line road. He drove as far as Bill and Helen Neal’s, telling them that the crossroads were impassible.
Mr. Cooper drove straight on south to his own home, but five kids ended up staying with Neals–their daughter Jane, Glenn Heckman, the Morford kids–Jane, Carol Ann, and David. Their electricity was off so they built a fire in the fireplace and played games.
Judy and Marilyn, who’d gone in to Kellers’ to make sure the other parents were notified, spent the night there.
Mr. Cooper got home okay. Just the crossroads were drifted shut.
The next day the roads were still impassible, but in the afternoon Fred Morford drove his tractor across the field–where there were no drifts–to get his kids. The others finally got home, too.
The Winterset Madisonian of January 3, 2007, it was one of the most paralyzing snowstorms in the history of Madison County, starting Friday morning and increased in intensity through the day and night. Nearly a foot of snow was measured at the Des Moines airport.
Is it any wonder we still remember the Al Bell Blizzard of 1961?
“Al Bell Remembered” (140 pages, black & white) is full of anecdotes and photos. Over forty pages of the book have been transcribed from tapes Al Bell dictated himself of his life from birth to the age of 20. The death of his mother at age seven was the beginning of a hard life in poverty, being shuttled from one relative to another. Three chapters are entertaining accounts of trips with Bell (from Becky’s point of view) which focus on his filming techniques. Other chapters include Al and Rhea Bell’s efforts to balance travel abroad, travel to over 400 Iowa schools a year for thirty years, and home life on an Iowa farm.
With this unique personality as a celebrity dad, Becky writes of unusual animals the family adopted for showing at assembly programs, costumes, artifacts, movie plot developments, film soundtracks, editing, and more.
Thousands of us remember looking forward to the exciting travelogues given by Al Bell in school gym assemblies through the years–from Okefenokee Swamp to Alaska. Al’s daughter, Becky Bell-Greenstreet, tells what it took for the family–living out of their station wagon–to film vignettes and episodes, sometimes featuring their kids, to come up with each year’s extravaganza. Then they’d come home to a small farm near Menlo, Iowa, where Al Bell went back to farming while editing his films and adding story and music for that school year’s amazing show. Woven among Becky’s memories are her father’s memories of growing up in very difficult circumstances, and how his own personality helped him to thrive in spite of them. This is a delightful memoir, which includes a Film List of all of Al Bell’s Travels. A delightful story about an amazing man.
Becky Bell-Greenstreet asked me to add this note: “BECKY’S WEBSITE IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY. DO NOT ORDER HERE.”
Her book, Al Bell Remembered, is available for $20 from her at this address: Becky Bell-Greenstreet, 1079 State St., North Bend, OR 97459. To use Paypal, order here.
Here’s another story about our bus driver, Mr. Cooper.