As Udell Bell reflected on his life he said, “I was raised a country boy that had never seen nothin’. I look back on what we went through and I wonder how we made it.” Stepping out of the cotton fields and onto the Merchant Marine ships that would carry him around the world was a giant leap for this country boy. He says, “I appreciate it now, but sometimes I wonder…”
The Depression years in the North Texas town of Vashti were certainly not easy for the Bells. Udell was one of six siblings and they lived in a three room house with his parents and grandmother. There was no electricity and no running water and no heat. His mother and grandmother would heat irons and put them in the kids’ beds to keep them warm at night.
“I look back on what my mother went through, and I can hardly believe the things she did,” Udell remembers. She did laundry and house cleaning for the local school teachers in Vashti (pronounced Vash – tie), a couple by the name of Elrod. Udell says, “She took care of their house and ours too. It is unreal to think about.” He remembers the seven room schoolhouse and that Mr. Elrod was “one tough turkey! He would whip your butt in a heartbeat!”
The Bells walked to church on Sunday to this Methodist Church in Vashti. Udell says it looks just as it did when he was a boy, very clean and neat. And the cemetery is kept just as neat and clean today as it was then, because Udell’s uncle, Aubrey Thompson, left $175,000 in a CD to ensure the cemetery was cared for properly.
His dad owned the local Texaco garage and gas station. “We had the old hand pump gasoline pumps. The best I recall is the biggest sale you would make in a day was three gallons.” That was at a cost of .13-.15 per gallon. The town doctor was Dr. Carmen. Udell says, “I remember he had a Packard and he was the only one that I ever filled up for. He would go anywhere, anytime to help people. He didn’t make a lot of money. He would get paid many times with just a chicken.” Udell tells people today, “I’ve got so much more today than I had yesterday, I just can’t complain.”
Udell would pick his share of cotton as a boy and at age sixteen he worked in the cotton gin in Vashti. So, when he was seventeen and his cousin invited him to go with him to Dallas and join the military, it sounded like a good idea. The Army wouldn’t take him because he was too young. But the Merchant Marine had no problem signing him up. That was March 3, 1945. So next he was off to St. Petersburg, Florida by train from Bellevue, Texas, and Basic Merchant Marine mariner training, where he graduated third in his class.
Udell was trained as a “Black Gang” crew member. This was the engine room crew that worked in the oil, grease and dirt in the hot engine room. They had to keep the engines constantly oiled and running. Hence, “The Black Gang.”
Upon graduation, Udell was bussed to Savanna, Georgia where he had a choice of two different ships to board. These were T-2 Tankers that were to “go around the world,” he was told. As he and his friend walked across the gangplank of the ship of their choice, they realized what a run-down tub they had chosen, which had been built in 1927.
“The crew was mostly old men who couldn’t get a job anywhere. And they were mostly all alcoholics. We couldn’t have any sweets because the cook was an alcoholic and he drank up all the vanilla extract,” Udell lamented. This ship had the task of delivering goods to various places along the east coast of America during the remainder of World War II.
When the war was over, Udell thought he would be going home. But he still had to fulfill his obligation in the Merchant Marine. He was shipped to San Francisco, California. There he would board a new troop transport, with personal quarters and bathrooms and they would even have food menus to order from each day. He says this was good duty and they didn’t have to worry about not getting sweets!
The remainder of his Merchant Marine career was spent in the Pacific on these types of troop transport ships. They would go to the Philippines, Hawaii, to Japan and points beyond as they picked up and delivered many troops and civilians. The United States had military personnel already stationed in Japan, and the ship Udell was aboard would bring troops there and take others back to the States.
While stationed in San Francisco, Udell was on a barge close to the notorious Alcatraz prison. He said there was an escape from Alcatraz that he watched. It was at night and prison escapees tried to swim to the mainland and he says, “The guards shot them from boats, in the water, while we watched. It was really somethin’. I look back on that and know I was a country boy that had never see nothin’, oh boy!”
Udell left the military in 1947 and began living in Wichita Falls, Texas. He and his soon-to-be wife went to Henrietta, Texas to get married by the Justice of the Peace there. This JP happened to know Tassie, his seventeen-year-old fiancé. She was a month from being eighteen. The judge hesitated at performing the ceremony and said, “Tassie, I know you are still seventeen. But since I know Udell, I’ll go ahead and marry you.” (Different day and time, for sure.) The Bells would eventually have three beautiful daughters.
Udell worked as a salesman for the cereal company, W.K. Kellogg. He toured the plant in Michigan and was privileged to personally meet Mr. Kellogg. He said that he was a very good man that would do anything he could to help his employees.
Then, like his dad, Udell was a service station owner with three stations in Wichita Falls and later owned nineteen Bedroom Shop locations in the Dallas/Ft Worth Metroplex and across Northeast Texas. He still owns one store in Arlington, Texas.
For recreation, Udell began playing racquetball. He became very good and experienced championship competition in the Senior Nationals, travelling to various tournament locations across the United States. I said, “You must’ve been pretty good,” and he answered, “Yeah, I was when I was younger. I really enjoyed it, till I broke my wrist. I still work out five mornings each week, but I can’t find anyone my age to play racquetball.”
Udell Bell has certainly lived a full life. Born in the Depression torn years in a small Texas town, maturing as a man in the Merchant Marine and becoming a successful entrepreneur is the stuff country boys proudly look back on and say again, “It’s hard to believe all that we went through.” Congratulations Udell, and thank you for sharing your life with us.