Turlock man records his near-century of history for posterity

So often, people wonder about their ancestry. They'll hire a genealogist to assemble a family tree, or do the research themselves online.

Invariably, they'll discover they descended from someone who came over on the Mayflower. Or they're the 2,000th in line by birthright to rule Lichtenstein.

But understanding how their predecessors really lived, worked and thought is another story, and that is why Herb Beckel has spent the past seven years in front of a computer.

With four "books" (binders, actually) completed and a fifth in the works, the 95-year-old Turlock resident is leaving a detailed record of his life for his family, including a daughter living in Germany, and for his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and any great-great-grandchildren to come.

When they leaf through his memoirs, they'll learn all about the family history -- how his grandparents came to America from Germany in the 1800s, and how grandpa Johannes Beckel changed his name to John to be more American.

And how Herb Beckel's father, Adolf Beckel, spent two years in the 1880s as a bounty hunter chasing an outlaw from Dodge City, Kan., to New Mexico before losing the trail. The outlaw had a $1,000 bounty on his head, dead or alive. Adolf returned to Wichita, Kan., and began working on a cattle ranch, only to discover that the outlaw he'd chased for so long was a hand on that same ranch.

"He rode 25 miles to Abilene (Kan.) to get the marshal to take him in," Herb Beckel wrote. "The marshal arrested him and took him to jail."

When Adolf asked for the reward money, the marshal refused to pay it. The poster said, "dead or alive."

"Because the marshal came and got him, no reward," Herb wrote.

Herb's own life is a book -- several of them, in fact.

When he was 92, he took a scrapbooking class at California State University, Stanislaus, and a writing class at Modesto Junior College. He learned to use a computer that same year -- "It was awfully slow," he said -- before upgrading to a faster and more powerful model a year or so ago.

His health is failing and he relies on an oxygen tank. Still, Beckel spends hours at the keyboard every day. His wife of 47 years, Margaret, helps him assemble the books. And he loves to talk about it all -- his history and his love of compiling it.

The first four books detail the more anecdotal and positive things in his life, including the family history. The last one, he said, will deal with the disappointments, including his failure in the cattle business and a failed first marriage.

Someday, his descendants can read how he quit school at 14 after his 12-page short story about a fictional trip around the world in a hand-carved canoe was ridiculed by his classmates and school principal in Kansas.

"So I ripped up the paper and walked out of the school," said Beckel, the youngest of Adolf and Lucetta Beckel's 14 children. "That was the day I should have gotten my butt kicked."

That prodded him into the cattle business for the next 20 years. Beckel and first wife Rosella raised prized palomino horses and performed with them in shows, including at an event attended by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Abilene in the early 1950s.

At the same time, his business was failing.

"After the war, beef prices went rock bottom," he said. "I took a tremendous loss. I sold out, paid my debts and came away with about $12,000 left over and moved out to California."

He started a swimming pool cleaning service in Southern California and ran it for the next two decades. He counted celebrities such as James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Dick Powell and a young Clint Eastwood among his clientele.

Cagney, he said, was a serious man who demanded perfection and disdained small talk. Eastwood, though, was friendly.

"We'd have a cup of coffee almost every time I went there," he said. "We'd sit on the edge of the pool and talk."

He and Rosella were divorced around 1960, and he married Margaret in 1962.

He closed the pool service and they moved to the Central Valley in 1972. He ran a window and door screening business in Waterford until 2000 before finally retiring.

It's all in his books, and he loves to tell it.

"My life story," he said, grinning. "Come back sometime -- when you have a week -- and we'll talk some more."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or