This morning while scanning the tv channels looking for something to distract me, I stumbled upon a “marathon” presentation of the 1950’s TV show “Death Valley Days.” What caught my attention was the theme song being played at the end of an episode from 1953. I immediately stopped scanning and waited to watch the next episode.
Hearing that song brought me back to my childhood in the West End of Birmingham. In 1953, I was eight years old and a fan of that TV show, Death Valley Days. So much so that my mother saved up box tops of 20 Mule Team Borax, or Boraxo as I remember it. Borax was a laundry detergent add-in that really helped get dirth our of our blue jeans and my mother relied on it. Boraxo was the side-kick hand soap – I remember that tin box very well.
I don’t remember how many box tops she had to save or how much money she had to also send in, but she finally got me one of the hobby kits advertised on the show. But when we opened the box, I was stunned. There were hundreds of small pieces that had to be assembled and there was no way I could do it by myself.
So my mother pitched in as always, and worked with me over several weeks to assemble the kit. Then “we” had to paint all the mules, men and wagons as the plastic color was far from realistic. To do that, Mom decided she would paint the men and small parts, but she let me paint the mules and the red wheels. And I did that without making too much of a mess, though she did add the leather harness straps. When we were finished painting the parts, she decided that it would be best if we glued the assembled pieces onto a board and she did just that. And the board she used was a slat from my bed!
Our kit looked much like this one when we were finished. I have to admit I was not too pleased with her decision to glue everything to the wood. Before she did that, the wheels on the wagons would spin and you could move the front wheel set so the wagon would turn. But it was almost impossible for me to keep all the mules upright; there were just too many for my small hands and I would get frustrated setting up one only to knock over another. So I guess she was right.
I wonder what happened to that model. I remember we took it with us when we moved to East Lake a few years later. But Dean and I had moved on to model planes and our small bedroom quickly became overflowing with them. Mom moved the mule train board down to our dirt basement along with my father’s record collection. That was not the best environment as the dirt floor meant high humidity and very soon mold set in. At one point, I set up my model train down there, thinking I would build a large layout that encompassed much of the space. I remember relegating the mule train board back further in the basement because it was discolored by the mold. That is the last time I remember touching it. And like our model planes, I have no idea what happened to it after mom and dad divorced and sold the house.
I ended up watching two of the episodes playing on the Marathon, and I was taken about the timeliness of the two, given the status of civil rights in the South in the 50’s. The first one was about a young couple who fell in love but could not get married because the boy was an indian,and as the white girl told him when he proposed, “Same has to marry same.” But it turned out that the boy was only raised by indians; his parents had died of hunger and he had been adopted and raised as an indian. When he finally found proof of his race, the girl married him.
The second show was about a South Carolina slave owner who went West to California looking for gold and taking with him two slaves. The town he went to in California did not recognize slavery and the two black men were able to mine gold for themselves. They found enough gold to return to South Carolina and buy freedom for their families.
I can’t imagine how those two shows would have gone over in the deep South of the 50’s, but Death Valley Days was very popular and was broadcast until the 1960’s.
This is a commercial for 20 Mule Team Borax: