Part Four: The $10,000 Question
The photograph below is a snap I took of a pile (a tiny fraction) of my father's extensive notes. This is what I've been sorting through,(with help from friends) all the stuff in the dozens of boxes that were stored in an old shed for 10 years behind Ted's house, and then later, stored by Larry Bastian, a songwriter in California.
A few years ago, I was contacted on Facebook by an estate sale lady. She said she was representing a family in Porterville, they had 40 boxes full of my father's stuff, stored in a shed by their father Ted, who'd died, and did I want them? I wrote back, "Yes, I can arrange for a pick up. I have a sister that lives nearby."
The estate sale lady responded, "the family is asking for $10,000."
I was gobsmacked. What on earth did this family think was in those boxes? I told the lady that I was interested only in the personal items in the boxes; photographs, letters, things like that. I said I didn't have ten thousand dollars for these boxes. Even if I did, WTF?
Back in 2009 when our dad died, my sister Lisa called to tell me that things from his house were missing.
"What things?" I asked her.
"His book collection, all his reference books, plus all the copies of Dad's encyclopedia of folk music are gone. It's like the house has been cleared out," she said.
We were both perplexed by this, not sure if Dad decided to store all his stuff somewhere else, with one of his many girlfriends perhaps? His house was small, maybe he had a secret storage unit somewhere? He could be incredibly candid and open, and at other times paranoid, evasive, and secretive.
With the strange contact from the estate sale lady, I had the answer. Somehow, all my father's belongings ended up with Ted. I knew that Ted and my father had become friends again despite the money Riley owed him, and the big falling out they'd had in the 1980s. Ted helped me when I visited my sick father in the nursing home in Porterville, giving advice, filling me in on health updates. At the time, I wondered if the boxes were taken as collateral, and then ended up with Ted's children, who were selling off things in Ted's estate.
Ted had recently died, and I knew he'd invested in my Dad's work, "The Encyclopedia of Folk Music." Back when I was a teenager, I was mortified that my father was in so deep to Ted, who'd been Porterville's mayor. Ted's son, Steve, might've thought the project was going to make money eventually, or that other things in the boxes were of financial value, but at first I was confused by the idea that I'd be paying thousands of dollars for my own father's missing stuff.
Early on, it became clear to me the "Encyclopedia" manuscript was probably never going to be published, and it wasn't something I was desperate to have. I wanted the personal stuff, which was only valuable to me and my siblings, but I wasn't even sure what was inside the boxes.
When it became clear that I wasn't going to pay for the boxes, the estate sale lady said in a telephone call, "The family has decided to ship Riley Shepard's boxes to the Nashville Country Western Hall of Fame."
Baffled, I said, "Please don't do that. My father wasn't famous. They won't know what to do with it." Fearing it would end up in the recycle bin behind the museum, I asked her again for the personal items, even though I wasn't sure at the time what the boxes held. I assumed the estate lady and Ted's family had looked inside the boxes.
Later, Steve agreed to be interviewed on the Hidden Brain episode based on a story I wrote for Radix Media. He told the host, Shankar Vedantam, that my father's boxes were split up, some sent to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and some to the Buck Owens Museum in Bakersfield, California.
After the show aired, I called both museums. They didn't have the boxes, but I received a tip that someone, a man who lived around Porterville, was storing the boxes.
If I hadn't submitted my story to the Hidden Brain podcast, I don't think I would have ever been reunited my father's missing boxes again. Although at times I wasn't sure I'd done the right thing by pitching this complicated story to a formatted show, the team ended up with a compelling narrative based on their own thoughts and assumptions, plus the hundreds of emails I sent them, the research I sent, and all the people I connected them with.
The podcast was titled "The Cowboy Philosopher." In the end, someone was moved by that story (I was...I cried) So moved, they told me the name of the person who ended up storing my father's stuff for Ted. It turns out, the mystery man is songwriter in town named Larry. Larry promised Ted's family he would store the boxes until they figured out what to do with them. After looking through the material inside the boxes, Larry knew that the boxes belonged with family, but he didn't know about me. He simply continued to pay the storage fees. He said he couldn't imagine throwing out a man's entire life. When Larry and I finally spoke on the phone, he said, "When I read what was inside some of those boxes, I told my wife, this is not for us to look at. This belongs with Riley Shepard's family." He urged me to try to understand my father.
Finally reunited with my father's belongings, more than ten years after his death, I have the extensive notes he kept, extremely candid notes about his entire life, notes he referred to when deciding what to include in the 30 pages he sent me in that short auto-biography years before. I'm glad to have them back, and relieved they didn't end up in a dumpster somewhere.
Over the years, I've discovered that I have at least five half-siblings, and maybe more. My father had multiple families, but he simply vanished from their lives. I may never know exactly what happened with all of them, but I'm in touch with one half-brother, Richard, Leslie, the half-sister I met when I was twelve, and a half-sister named Marion who was interviewed for the "Hidden Brain" episode.
Quick fact check based on what I know happened: Here, in italics below, is a section of the transcript from the "Hidden Brain" episode titled "The Cowboy Philosopher." Ted's son Steve told Shankar some of the boxes had been shipped off to these two museums:
VEDANTAM: "When Ted Ensslin died, Steve gave the encyclopedia to another man in town, who happened to be a country music songwriter. Steve says he was told the pages of carefully indexed entries were eventually split up. Some were shipped off to Nashville and some to the Buck Owens museum in Bakersfield, Calif."
Obviously, that never happened. After the show, when I called the museums, both curators said that they loved the episode, but they didn't have the boxes. I was pleased to learn from the curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame that they always had a few of Riley Shepard's songbooks.
All the boxes went straight into a storage unit, paid for by Larry.
I'm going to begin the task of editing our father's notes down so that the events are in order if I can. The way he blended things, and started again on separate pages, it's going to be tough. He begins a time period, then ends, then begins again, adding in different things each time. These notes go all the way back to his childhood, through his troubled teen years, his first performing gigs, the recording industry, and who he worked with during the transition from Hillbilly music to Country Western.
My friends helped me sort through the boxes, (free drinks!) reading and organizing the loose leaf notes. Thank you Heidi Parker, Betsy Jones, Thomas Schworer, John Boylan, Claire Boynton, Lisa Shepard, Mary Fields, and David Silverman.
Larry, you are a thoughtful, kind, considerate person. Thank you. I am trying to understand my father better.
Next up, a little more fact checking.