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Jardine: 102-year-old clearly recalls Great Depression privations

Ever experience the feeling of mud squishing between your toes?

It's sort of a good sensation when you're swimming in a pond or a creek.

It's not so good when it happens in your kitchen, especially when your kitchen is also your living room and bedroom.

Vadis Walters remembers, as a young bride, living in a one-room shack with a dirt floor and a leaky roof. She also remembers living in a three-sided chicken coop that, when compared with the aforementioned shack, seemed like an executive suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It had a wood floor.

Such was life during the Great Depression, when money and jobs were scarce and resourcefulness became the key to survival.

Walters, a Modesto resident since 1959, turned 102 on Saturday. That in itself isn't all that remarkable when you consider Stanislaus County probably has at least a dozen or more centenarians and that there are an estimated 50,000 people in the United States who are 100 or older.

What makes Walters' life so memorable is that at 102, she still remembers it in great detail. She recalls people, events and conditions from the 1920s, 1930s and so on as if they happened yesterday.

Her secrets to a long life? A big appetite and a hefty sense of humor.

"We didn't have any money, but we always had plenty to eat, as you can tell by looking at me," said Walters, who lives at the Sundial Senior Lodge in Modesto.

You gain an appreciation for the little things when you grow up third among 13 children, each about 18 months apart, as Walters did.

Her family lived in a two-bedroom farmhouse in the Oklahoma town of Long. It had a store, which her uncle owned, and a post office. Therefore, it qualified as a town.

She shared a bed with two or three of her sisters.

"The one in the middle would freeze when one of the ones on the outside pulled the blanket over," she said.

Walters and her 10 sisters had names that could have come from the storyboard of "The Waltons" TV show: Opal Velma, Vola Mae, Fay Cora, Eula Emma, Violet Drucilla, Retha Odessa, Dorothy Vera, Bonnie Lucille, Lera Bates, Margie Madeline and Vadis Carolyn. They had two brothers: Clyde Phillip and the presidential-sounding John Quincy.

Vadis outlasted them all, except Retha, 90.

"It's been a hard life in one sense and a good life in another," she said.

She worked alongside her father and brothers on the farm, driving the plowhorse team and doing "everything a man did."

"I stripped (sugar) cane to make molasses," she said. "I picked cotton and corn."

One day on a basketball court at the local school, she met Ruie Walters, whose family had moved away and returned. She was 15 and had quit school after eighth grade. He was 19. He told a teacher, "That's the one I'm going to marry."

Two years later, on Christmas Day 1925, they walked toward the home of a minister's son. Except that the minister, who was supposed to be there to perform the ceremony, hadn't arrived. So they kept going and met him on the way.

"He married us right there in the middle of the street," Vadis said.

They planned to spend their first night together at her husband's grandparents' home. To get there, they had to walk past her place.

Her father, as strict as you'd expect a man with 11 daughters to be, never allowed them to be out after dark. When he saw Vadis and Ruie walking by, he yelled for her to come inside. She yelled back that she'd just gotten married.

Some wedding announcement.

"He told my husband, 'I can have you arrested for not telling me ahead of time,' " Vadis said. "My husband said, 'I wanted to tell you, but she didn't!' And my dad laughed because he was just joking with him. I never even thought about having a big wedding. We didn't have any money."

They were friends with Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the notorious Depression- era bank robber and murderer.

"My husband went to school with Pretty Boy Floyd," she said. "I went to school with his wife, Ruby. My son went to school with his son."

Virtually everyone in Long and the surrounding towns knew Floyd and liked him, local Sheriff Beaut Check included.

"One day, he told the sheriff, 'Have you ever seen a bank robbery?' Beaut said, 'No, and I don't want to," Walters said. "(Floyd) said, 'Then you'd better get out of town.' And the sheriff did because he was a friend of Floyd's and didn't want to arrest him."

Or be shot trying.

"He robbed that bank and gave the money to the poor people," Vadis said. "But he missed me."

A few months later, Floyd died in a hail of gunfire in a corncrib in Ohio.

"The people in town liked him," she said. "He's buried in the cemetery in Akin (Okla.), where all of my husband's relatives are buried."

Her family, with 11-year- old son R.V. in tow, moved to California in 1937, picking fruit and living in the best quarters the town of Winters had to offer: the dirt-floor shack and the chicken coop.

Eventually, they came to Modesto, where her husband owned a car lot. Cancer claimed their son, a loss that still brings tears to her eyes.

And in 1981, 56 years after they were married in an Oklahoma street, Ruie Walters died in Modesto.

Vadis kept going and, at 102 and counting, still is able to describe the feeling of mud squishing up between her toes in the kitchen, back when it was her living room and her bedroom.

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

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