Ida Lee & Me
By Tom Froehlich • January 29, 2015
Ida Lee & Me
“My name is Ida Lee and I’m ninety years old. Who the hell are you?!” That was how I met Ida Lee. She was a regular and long-standing member of the writing group I attended on Tuesday nights.
Ida was writing a book about her adventures as a Los Angeles city cab driver. Ida began driving cab when she was sixty-three while pursuing her acting career and continued to do so until they forced her into retirement at seventy-one. Ida drove Hollywood celebrities and drug dealers from Compton.
She came from a small town in Texas. Her father was a cotton ginner. She lived through prohibition, the civil rights movement and several wars. When she was a child she almost died of whooping cough and her father was beaten and crippled for not joining the Klu Klux Klan. None of these things changed Ida’s positive outlook and love of life and sense of adventure. When she was nine years old Ida climbed to the top of a tall, tall tree in her family’s front yard and her momma yelled at her to get down before she fell down. Ida said to me, “To this day I wonder why instead she didn’t ask me if I could see the creek from where I was. The creek was nearly a mile away. It was then I knew I just had to see the world!”
Well Ida would one day see beyond that creek and more. She grew up picking cotton from sun up to sunset until she graduated from high school and went to work in her cousin’s under garment factory. Her cousin Rufus Love, the proud owner of Love Knit Undergarments.
Really Ida? You have a cousin named Rufus Love who owned an underwear factory named Love Knits?”
“Well he had to name it something now didn’t he?!”
I guess truth is in fact stranger than fiction!
Ida then married a man in the military and lived in France for several years. After France her husband was transferred back to the states and her family moved to south Florida. Her husband was a white officer in command of the only all black battalion in the army. It was 1951 and her second run in with the KKK. Ida and her husband were having dinner one evening with the army doctor and his wife and they heard sirens that sounded like they were coming from the base where the black battalion was housed. Curious and always up for an adventure, Ida and the doctors wife went to investigate. Within several blocks of the air force base they could already see the three crosses burning. Disgusted and angry, Ida spat, “I don’t know how anyone could be a member of the KKK!”
The doctor’s wife responded, “Well Ida, my husband is a member.”
Ida looked at her dismayed and said, “No.”
She went on to explain that if he wasn’t a member of the KKK he wouldn’t have been able to practice medicine in this part of the country.
It was then that Ida explained to me the circumstances under which her father was attacked years earlier.
Her father managed a cotton gin near Corpus Christi, where Ida said, “The cotton fields stretched further than the eye could see and I’ll tell you, in Texas that’s far! He ran that cotton gin like nobody’s business.”
But the cotton harvest season lasted only about three months. So her mother and father built a stand on the side of the road and sold fresh produce. It finally got so big they built a general store. And then they built an icehouse and added a gas station.
“Ice was a big thing in Texas in those days, let me tell you!” Ida said laughing. Her father was a real entrepreneur, doing quite well and in no time he was also the Briscole County Postmaster. The KKK wanted to have all the successful businessmen and politicians under their thumb. One day three men came into the store and told Ida’s father it was time he joined their organization. He refused.
It was a few nights later Ida’s mother looked out the window and there was a cross on fire next to the gas pumps. While all that was going on someone snuck up behind her father at the cotton gin and hit him over the head with a 2 by 4. He was never the same after that. Couldn’t run the cotton gin any more and with the hospital bills and all, they lost everything.
That was when he decided to sell Wrigley’s chewing gum in Mexico. Apparently chewing gum had just been invented and they weren’t selling it in Mexico quite yet and it was right across the border from Texas. Ida said, “My daddy was an entrepreneur. Nothing was going to stop him. Maybe that’s where I get it.”
You would think that growing up in south Texas in the 1920’s Ida would have some racist ideas, yet she doesn’t have a racist bone in her 92 year old body. You see her father was an immigrant farmer from Germany at the turn of the century. He worked in the fields with former slaves and those slaves taught her father to speak English. “My daddy wouldn’t have tolerated racism! You don’t show hatred to folks that are kind!” And Ida returns that sort of kindness and acceptance to all that she meets.
Early on in Ida’s acting career she was in the film “Vegas in Space” which consisted of an all gay cast except for yup, you guessed it! Ida Lee as “women at party”. She talks about how honored she was that these kind and talented men not just allowed her, but welcomed her into the cast. The night of the premier Ida arrived in a limousine with a somewhat more conservative friend. When the movie was over and the credits rolled the man who had been seated in front of them rose to his feet applauding enthusiastically, wearing nothing but a pair of black leather chaps. Ida’s companion looked at her in shock. Ida just looked at her friend and said, “Well, I guess he enjoyed the film!”
Ida told me these stories one night when we were the only two who showed up for our writing group. She had brought yet another chapter of her memoir to share. As she said, “Hell! I better write it down before I forget it!”
I walked Ida to her car, Ida said, “See you next week sweetie. I have company coming, but I think they’ll be gone by Tuesday.”
“God willing Ida. God willing,” I said meaning hopefully her company wouldn’t overstay their welcome.
“What?! You think I’m gonna die before then?! I told you, I got company coming. Got no time for that!” she said with a grin as she climbed behind the wheel of her car and drove off.
Ida has taken a ride on the Orient Express and taken a slow boat to China. She has been to nearly 40 countries.
This year on her 92nd birthday Ida went on a cruise to Alaska and went spent a day on a crab fishing boat. Crab fishing is considered the most dangerous profession of in the world. I scolded her and said, “Ida! What in the world were you thinking? That’s incredibly dangerous!”
She responded, “Well I guess I was thinking I may not make it to 93 so if I want to go crab fishing I best go now!”
Her name is Ida Lee and I am honored that she is my friend. She’s lived through prohibition, the civil rights movement and several wars. And more than 80 years ago she climbed a tree in her front yard in south Texas and was able to see the creek miles away. Ida wasn’t afraid of falling. She had too much to see, and she still does.
Knowing Ida has changed me and challenged me. Challenged me as I now challenge you. To find your tree. And climb it. Climb it to the very top and look off into the horizon see your dreams. And dreams are not seen with the eye. But with your heart. I have learned that from my friend…my friend, Ida Lee.
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