Artist and Western historian Bob Boze Bell grew up in Kingman, where his father owned a gas station along Route 66. He has written a new book: “The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road,” which combines his personal history along with that of the famous two-lane highway. Boze Bell will discuss his new book.
Ted Simons: Artist, historian, magazine owner, radio personality. Before Bob Boze Bell was any of those things, he was a kid, growing up in Kingman, Arizona, along the iconic Route 66. Bell's written and illustrated a new book, "The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road." We spoke with Bob Boze Bell about his effort.
Ted Simons: How have you been?
Bob Boze Bell: I've been good.
Ted Simons: This book is absolutely fascinating. For you, this is your life, Bob Boze Bell.
Bob Boze Bell: It is.
Ted Simons: Why did you go -- This would be difficult, I think for anyone. This is everything about you as a kid.
Bob Boze Bell: The good -- The stuff we can print. When I turned 66 I thought, if I'm ever going to do a book on growing up on Route 66 I guess I should do it this year. I thought, this will be fun, it will be easy. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. You want to be honest, and sometimes that's difficult and you're talking about your parents, talking about yourself, talking about your hometown, nothing is perfect. But my feeling was, if I don't tell the truth and there isn't a floor, you can't have a ceiling. And so that's what guided me.
Ted Simons: So is this an autobiography? Is it a narrative history? What is it?
Bob Boze Bell: It's a little bit of everything. Kind of like me. A little bit of a cartoonist, a little bit of a memoir, a little bit of a love letter to my hometown. It's a history lesson about Route 66. Because I didn't see it when I was growing up. I was into the old west, and I would go and buy True West magazine and nothing happened in Kingman. I thought it was the dumbest place on earth. And I remember looking out at my dad's gas station in the office and reading True West and going, the only thing that happens here is the wind blows 24 hours a day, and I can't wait to get out of here because no history happened here.
Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness. Now you're of age where you, go a whole lot of history happens, especially along -- Before we get to Route 66, describe what it was like growing up in -- It sounds like Kingman was a little bit of Mayberry.
Bob Boze Bell: A little bit of Mayberry, a little bit of Death Valley. We were so isolated. I think about it today, it was a dirt road from Kingman to Phoenix. And the reason for that is that merchants in Prescott didn't want us to go that way, they wanted us to drive to Ash Fork and go through the black canyon. And so it was a dirt road, there was no TV, there was one radio station that didn't like rock and roll. And so we had to listen to KOMA in Oklahoma City for 15 minutes at night. It was -- And so things are special because of that.
Ted Simons: But in reading the book and looking at the book, because you look at the book as much as you read it, it sounded like a little Norman Rockwell. Everything your Little League team did got in the paper, again, it sounds almost idyllic in its way.
Bob Boze Bell: Looking back, it was, and of course at the time we thought we were deprived and we didn't have any of the latest songs and we -- Our fashion was out, and stuff like that. But looking back, it really was amazing. You mentioned Little League. I am stunned that the adults, they built the Little League field, it wasn't preconstructed or brought or anything, they went and carved out on the desert a Little League field and these are parents. And they all had day jobs, and my Little League coach was a highway patrolman, and somebody else had -- Worked at the air base. And they would get off work early and come and teach us how to play baseball and they would give over the Thursday night and Friday night and a Saturday night to coach us at Little League games. That's amazing. That is truly amazing.
Ted Simons: It's not like they could stay home and watch TV.
Bob Boze Bell: No, because we didn't have it!
Ted Simons: OK. So earliest memory of Route 66.
Bob Boze Bell: I was -- My parents were westbound on Route 66, and near the painted desert. And I remember standing on the transmission hump and looking out and I saw something rippling on the horizon. And it was distorted. And it was floating in the air. And all of a sudden we got closer and it turned into a car and it blasted past us. That was my first memory.
Ted Simons: That sounds almost like a Cohen brothers film.
Bob Boze Bell: Someday it will be. It will be.
Ted Simons: What did Route 66 mean to you, though, when you were growing snuff was it the same as Kingman? You couldn't quite see the attraction?
Bob Boze Bell: I didn't see the history. My dad had an Al Bell's Flying A, my mother worked at the highway department, she was a secretary. And then during the summers when I got older I worked for the highway department. So we all made our living from the road, but I couldn't see the history of it. I couldn't see it. And then later, a writer called me and he said, I saw your article on your dad's gas station in Arizona Highways and I want to interview you. And I said, OK, fine. And he goes, his first question was, what was it like growing up in such a historic place? And I said, it was fabulous. [laughter]
Ted Simons: Are you kidding?
Bob Boze Bell: I couldn't see it. I was looking right at his --
Ted Simons: You write that you are confound and irritated.
Bob Boze Bell: I was! Because to me it was just another road. We made a living on it, we drove to league games on it, we drove home from school out. What was the big deal it? Was just asphalt and it wasn't very wide, it was about as wide as this table. It was a very narrow piece of structure.
Ted Simons: It sounds like you're in Europe and you had an experience in Europe that reminded you that, Route 66 really was a big deal it.
Bob Boze Bell: It took me going to Spain. I was 5,000 miles from home, my wife was working for the department of defense and she invited me to come over. And I was looking for cowboy ground zero. I figured if I could find where the conquistadors emanated from I could find where the cowboy came from. I was in western Spain, and I found a small town there that I thought was cowboy ground zero. A day later we were in Roda, Spain, on the beach. And there was a sign and it said, this is where Columbus set sail to the new world. And so I stood on that beach and I looked out and I thought, oh, man, you couldn't pay me to go out there in a modern day boat. Those guys were so amazing. That's so brave. And I got ready to leave and I turned around, and on the beach, I saw the Route 66 bar. And I went, what goes around, comes around. They sent cattle and horses to us, and you know what? We gave them a road back. And everywhere I went in Spain they have a magazine called Route 66, and you'll see magnets in the store that say Route 66. It's a big deal.
Ted Simons: Obviously it's -- It sounds like there was inspiration for the book, your father was an inspiration for the book as well, and a health incident was an inspiration for the book. And again, did this happen near Route 66?
Bob Boze Bell: Oh, yes. My best friend Charlie Waters said I want to get the band back together, we were called The Exits --
Ted Simons: High school band?
Bob Boze Bell: We were in high school, we started in high school, how do you meet girls? You gotta have a rock band. Surf music was all the go. So we had to have a name and Charlie said why don't we call ourselves The Exits because that's where everybody is going to go when they hear us play. So we became The Exits. And we were playing all over the place, and so in college we drifted apart and went our separate ways, and about five years ago Charlie called me and said, I have a bucket list and I want to get the band back together one more time. And I want to play where we -- The first job we did. And that's the Elks Lodge in downtown Kingman. So I set it up, we were there, we were practicing and we were doing, I'm not making this up, "Wipeout" and I had a heart attack.
Ted Simons: During "Wipeout."
Bob Boze Bell: During "Wipeout." And I remember the first part but I don't remember the second part, and they saved my life in Kingman. Two of the band members had just taken CPR. And what are the odds that a rock and roller would know CPR? And every 10 minutes you're out you lose 10% of your brain. And they -- Those two guys saved my life. The paramedics came and they saved my life at the Kingman regional hospital. And we went back the next year to do the real gig, and we raised $20,000 for defibrillators in Kingman.
Ted Simons: Your life, Route 66 is you. It really is. With that in mind, from alpha to omega, practically, would you be Bob Boze Bell on this set wearing a cowboy hat with an impressive artistic career, the magazine, the whole -- Would you be Bob Boze Bell if you were born and raised in Flagstaff? Or Mesa? Or Tucson?
Bob Boze Bell: No, I would be, but I would -- I wouldn't be wearing the cowboy hat. [laughter] I don't know. I don't know how to answer that. It's true. That's true of everybody. We don't realize these little things add up to --
Ted Simons: Do you see that? You look back more than most people have with this book --
Bob Boze Bell: And the book forced me to do that.
Ted Simons: Do you see that? My goodness, this is why I did X, this is why I did Y.
Bob Boze Bell: One of the most profound things to me, my father was from a farming backgrounds, from Iowa. And he was drafted in World War 2. And a troop train dropped him off in downtown Kingman on his 21st birthday. He's coming down the middle of the street in August, and he says, and I quote "I will never come back to this hell hole." And -- His birthday. And he's one of 10,000 G.I.s from the Kingman air base and there's 500 available women. And my mother is one of them, and she's dating captains and lieutenants and she picks a buck private from Iowa, and they get married, and so I have relatives on my father's side that are all farmers. And we move to Kingman when I'm 9 years old, and all of a sudden there are all these outlaws. These are cowboys. They come blasting into the house at Christmas time smoking and kicking things. And my eyes are as big as saucers. One of the chapters in the book is related to outlaws because my grandmother told about how we were related to John Harden, Big Foot Wallace and Blackjack Ketchum. And my mom hated it, because I'd say we are related to outlaws. And she would say, don't say that! She heard, we're related to Charlie Manson and Jack the Ripper.
Ted Simons: And I also heard it's OK to say my grandfather was an outlaw, but if your father has a jaywalking --
Bob Boze Bell: A typical westerner will punch you in the mouth if you call his daddy a crook.
Ted Simons: Do you think -- conversely, do you think you missed out on anything being raised in Kingman?
Bob Boze Bell: I thought that for a long time, because I went through this phase where I thought Kingman was dumb, and I became a teenager and I really thought it was stupid. And I wish we were in California. But I witnessed so many things that I'm so glad that I grew up there, we had Native Americans, Mojaves, and Havasupai, went to my school. So we'd come to the valley to play baseball and on the mound would be a Havasupai and the catcher would be a Hualapai. They wouldn't do signals, they would -- And the batters, I remember we were at Peoria and the batter would step out of the box and look at the umpire and go -- Can they do that? I wouldn't have got that if I had grown up in Laguna Beach.
Ted Simons: Again, you read this and you look at this, and I did see a little Norman Rockwell, maybe a little -- Norman Rockwell. When you go back, if you go -- I don't know how often you go back up there, if and when do you go back, I know your dad's original gas station, is it on a reservation in Pete Springs, long gone?
Bob Boze Bell: Long gone. It's hard to find the foundation.
Ted Simons: Are there other things, is it -- Are things pretty much intact there? How does it look to you?
Bob Boze Bell: Every time I go back, I was just there, Charlie Waters just passed away. So I was there for the memorial service. Every time I go back, something else is fading or gone. And I finally realized that when I was a kid, the old west was 50 years in the past. And we with would go out into these ghost towns, and these place were falling over and then they would be gone. And now I realize we're 50 years from when I was growing up, and all the Route 66 stuff is fading the same way.
Ted Simons: Basically, you've got the generational shift here, your book is obviously much focused on you as a young guy. Are you going to do a follow-up on the crazy years, all that business, because you touch on it in the book, but is there another graphic autobiography, slash, narrative history ready to go?
Bob Boze Bell: I wouldn't be able to dedicate that one to my grandson. Let's put it that way. I was the rock and roll drummer and an underground cartoonist.
Ted Simons: You were.
Bob Boze Bell: Yes, I was.
Ted Simons: What are you doing these days? What's going on with you?
Bob Boze Bell: We're doing a lot of stuff out of True West, we -- I just was the artist in residence in Lincoln, New Mexico, there's a whole bunch of things break ought Billy the kid story. And I'm looking at doing my next book, which is probably going to be more of a graphic novel on Mickey Free.
Ted Simons: Interesting. Congratulations on this book. It's almost like a yearbook the way it's graphic, it's big, lots of pictures, which I like, but it just sounds like it must have been a hoot to do. Difficult, but a hoot to do.
Bob Boze Bell: It was very rewarding.
Ted Simons: It's good to see you again.
Bob Boze Bell: Good to see you.
Bob Boze Bell:Artist and Western Historian;