David Obuchowski is a fiction writer and longform essayist whose work reveals the tragic, fascinating, and sometimes strange stories in the automotive, music, and cultural spaces. He is also the writer, producer, and host of the acclaimed and popular documentary podcast series, TEMPEST. Find him online and on Twitter.
We set a custom screensaver on Our AppleTV. Told it to pull images from Flickr tagged with “British Columbia.” After my wife and kids and I spent a few weeks in Vancouver and in various places on Vancouver Island, it had become one of our favorite places. We missed it.
And so, at night, after a show or movie ended and the AppleTV sat idle for a few minutes, a slideshow would automatically begin. The Parliamentary Buildings in Victoria, the Inner Harbor, the wild, rocky, tidepool-rich shores of Tofino, the murals of Chemainus.
Then, every once in a while, an illustration of some sort. I couldn’t tell what. A one-panel comic? Some kind of advertisement or flyer? It would be gone from the screen before I could really get a good look. Weeks would go by and I wouldn’t see it until, once again, there it was. It looked old, like something from the 60s or 70s. And it had numbers on it, like a code or a message: 73s and 88s.
It was the numbers that got me. Like the park rangers in The Shining calling for Wendy Torrance on the radio: “This is KDK-1 calling KDK-12. KDK-1 calling KDK-12. Are you receiving me?” They seemed to be saying something. But what? I had to find out. So, I took to Google, and began my search.
Jordan Smith is 41 years old. He works in the Department of Theater and Film at the University of Mississippi. But his life’s work is collecting and documenting paper ephemera that reflects the beautiful, bizarre, mysterious, sometimes problematic past of the United States. He scans them, posts them on Flickr. On his website, Cardboard America, he curates the images, highlighting and giving background to some of his strangest, most interesting finds.
Jordan had gone through his life with no real connection, interest, or more-than-typical knowledge of CB radio. But one day in 2011, he was “just kind of screwing around” on eBay, and that’s when he came across a listing for 1,000 QSL cards for ten dollars.
“I had no idea what QSL cards were,” he tells me on the phone. “I had no idea what possibly they could be. But, a thousand of anything? Perfect. I’m buying it.”
Shortly thereafter, a box arrived. He looked through the cards. “I just couldn’t understand what these things were. The more I researched them, the less I found. There was almost nothing on the history of these cards.”
But, Jordan explains, he was intrigued. “So I just kept kind of lurking more and more and finding them.” From online auctions to brick-and-mortar antique stores, Jordan says, “I just kept finding them in weird corners. I would find huge lots for cheap and I would just keep buying them.”
This is how Jordan Smith became one of the foremost collectors of QSL cards in America. So what are QSL cards?
Enter Runnin’ Bare & Lil White Dove
In simplest terms, QSL cards are like—or, more accurately were like—calling cards, or business cards for CB and ham radio operators. But they were also a form of trading cards.
When two CB radio users would make contact with each other, they would mail each other their QSL card. This would serve as a sort of memento. The more time they spent on their CBs, and the more people they spoke with, the more their collections of QSL cards grew, much like an angler’s wall becomes more and more crowded with taxidermied tarpon and tuna.
A typical QSL card would include the person’s handle (nickname) and their location. As these were highly personalized, many QSL cards also included some sort of imagery. Some people drew their own pictures. Others hired an artist. And as CB radio grew in popularity starting in the early 70s, one of those artists emerged as a sort of crowd favorite.
He was a CBer himself. And the handle he gave himself for the radio was the same he gave the little art business: Runnin Bare. It was a business he ran with his wife, Lil White Dove.
That first box of 1,000 QSL cards that Jordan Smith got was filled with unremarkable, dull cards. The pictures on them were crude doodles, like someone drew something with a Bic pen on an index card. But there were a very small handful of cards that caught his eye. Looking for the name of the artist, he noticed they all bore the name Runnin Bare.
“I probably had about 15 to 20 cards of his in that collection. And the quality stood out over the hundreds of others I had, and I just couldn’t get enough,” Jordan says. He later tells me how difficult it is to explain just what had him so intrigued. “It was the quality of the printing,” he says, then quickly adds, “But there was also a personality to it that the others were lacking. You could tell effort had been put in. Other QSL cards were slap-dash. The numbering system also caught me. It made me curious about the others,” he explains. “So I started lurking more and trying to find as many Runnin Bare cards as I could.”
He searched and searched, slowly growing the collection, and posting them on his website, tagging them as Runnin Bare QSL cards. But the CB craze had long since faded. It wasn’t easy to find these cards.
Then a breakthrough. It was in 2014, and a woman named Lynne Dwyer in British Columbia contacted him because she found his website. “[She] said her father was 93 years old and about to move out of his house that he’d lived in for 50 years. ‘Do you want to buy the entire set of Runnin Bare cards?’ I about lost it. I did not know that the full set even existed, that that anybody knew really what they were. And so we negotiated. I ended up buying the entire set. All 3,284 cards, in order, all numbered, all chronological. And I was happy,” Jordan tells me. “I was ecstatic.”
He spent months working most nights scanning the cards, meticulously cataloguing them. It had been more than three years since he first came across a Runnin Bare card. Now it seemed he had them all. But there was still something missing: the artist himself.
But as Jordan explains, “I wanted to see if I could find him, especially because a lot of his cards were out of Nampa, Idaho. My father was born in Nampa, Idaho…Runnin Bare would have notes on the card to his mother. It appeared to me they were on 1st Street. My dad grew up on 6th Street,” Jordan tells me, still sounding just as excited nearly five years later. “The more I learned, the more the story just kept unraveling and I had to know more.”
So he searched for clues and finally had a breakthrough in the cards themselves. A few of them sported the names Jess Anderson and Jesse Anderson.
He scoured the internet looking for information about a Jess or Jesse Anderson and came across what he was sure was an outdated email address on a website that hadn’t been updated for years.
“On a whim, I sent him an e-mail based on an e-mail address from four or five years ago. I didn’t know if he was still alive. I didn’t know if he was going to respond. Within 10 minutes, he responded to me. And we’ve been talking for four and a half years.”
Down the Rabbit Hole
Because Jordan uploads his scans to Flickr, and because so many of his cards came from an individual in British Columbia (and others were originally made for users based in British Columbia), he tags them accordingly. And that’s how I found myself on the Cardboard America site almost immediately after I started my search.
Card after card bore the lively artwork, that cryptic message: 73s and 88s. Every card made me eager to see the next.
Down the rabbit hole I went.
Only this rabbit hole didn’t just lead me deeper into Cardboard America. It took me to rural Oregon, where I found myself sitting on the porch of a well-worn and invitingly warm house on top of a hill overlooking blueberry fields in the near and middle distance, and mountains out nearly on the edge of the horizon.
This is the home of Jess and Cheryl Anderson—the house that Runnin Bare built. Or, one of them, anyway. Before it abruptly disappeared, Runnin Bare was so successful, Jess says, it bought, “eight houses, two cars, a motorhome, and a boat.”
When Jess and Cheryl got married in 1969, they only had $400 to their name. But even the $400 sounds like a lot compared to Jess’s childhood.
“We had nothin’. I mean, we just really had nothin’,” Jess tells me when I ask him about his early life. He was born and raised in Nampa, Idaho in 1947, one of six kids and the son of a mother who worked various jobs and a father who was a World War II veteran.
Their house, he says, “was only about 750 square feet.” And he tells me “it was only about 50 foot from the railroad tracks.” In actuality, this is just one of the houses Jess grew up in. The one he lived in the longest. There had been others before, but he suspects his parents’ inability to pay the rent had been the cause of frequent moves around Nampa. “All night long, these trains would come through, back and forth and back and forth.”
He pauses for a moment, and then says wistfully, “I dearly love the sound of trains at night. It’s like water running in a crick to me.”
Jess talks a lot about growing up poor.
“We got a lot off those railroad tracks. We would walk ’em with gunny sacks picking up coals that fell off of it that we would use them to heat up the house. We’d pick up sugarbeets that fell off the trains. That’s what we’d feed the old cow that we had in back. We did what we had to do,” he tells me.
“I worked every night after school” sewing seedsacks and loading boxcars, he says. He also worked in the fields. “I can’t tell ya how many million pounds of hay I put up into haystacks. We hoed beans, we hoed corn, we topped corn, everything you could imagine…”
He also caught gophers for Nampa’s Irrigation Department. “We got 25 cents a tail for catching the gophers. A lot of the farmers wanted…the gophers out so bad that they would give you 25 cents and let you keep the tail so you got 50 cents for them. Man, that was big-time money in those days! And right down the road from us was a hobo jungle. Every day I would come in with those big old gophers and they were about, you know, they were that big around. They were good size gophers. Cut the tails off and I give them to them and they would skin them all out and put them in a pot with potatoes and carrots and everything, and they were eating all those gophers. They made a communal pot for stew and they looked for me every morning to bring them fresh meat, you know?”
Many QSL cards have two handles listed on them. The other name on Runnin’ Bare’s own cards was always Lil White Dove. In most cases, two names on a QSL card means it represents a married couple.
Jess had been the one who got into first, after driving around with his hunting buddy who had a CB setup in his car. “I called myself Runnin Bare. So of course, if you’re Runnin Bare, you’re married to Lil White Dove, you know?” Jess said, referring to the 1960 hit, “Running Bear and Little White Dove.”
“You’ve heard the song many times, I’m sure,” he says.
On the off-chance you haven’t, the song was written by Jiles Richardson, The Big Bopper. Johnny Preston’s 1960 recording of the song was a number-one hit in both the US and the UK. It’s a bit of a Romeo & Juliet inspired story that tells that tale of an “Indian brave” and an “Indian maid” who are in love but who can’t be together because their warring tribes hate each other. In the end, they kiss. But, then, they also drown.
Throughout the song there are backing vocals that sound like “HOOGA-hooga” and it ends with cartoonish war cries.
It’s a “decently racist song,” says Jordan Smith.
Of course, Jess went with a spin on the word “bear” and used “bare” instead. Indeed, there’s a Jim Nesbitt song (which makes no mention of a Little or Lil White Dove) called “Runnin’ Bare,” in which the narrator tells his many tales of how he wound up on the run without clothes.
When it came to the portrayal of Jess’s own Runnin’ Bare on QSL cards, he split the difference between Nesbitt and the Bopper, and drew a Native person wearing nothing more than a headdress and a loincloth with his ass revealed. Lil White Dove was also rendered as a headdress-wearing Native person, though her busty figure is covered in fringed garb.
Early on, there were many caricatures—very few of them based on race or culture. Mostly, they sketched out cartoonish scenes: A rich man named surrounded by clamoring women, old ladies who look like witches, haggard, hapless men in all sorts of goofy situations. Drunks, farmers, hubands, wives.
There were lots of trucks, of course. Cars, too. Some fancy, some banged up.
And the comedic situations—no shortage of those, either. Runnin Bare very rarely worked blue, but occasionally there’d be some bawdiness. Women dressed in tight or revealing clothing. A man with x-ray vision taking a peek at an attractive woman.
One running joke is how CB is better than sex. Some cards sport scenes where a man is leaping out of bed in the middle of a lovemaking session with a beautiful woman when something comes over on the CB.
And that wasn’t exaggerated for comedic effect, Jess says. “Cheryl says that’s the only thing that could get me out of bed anytime of the night, it didn’t matter.”
Cheryl confirms it. “No matter what he was doing in the bedroom, if he heard somebody call him on that radio, like a bullet, he was off to the radio…And I would just go, oh, my God, what an addiction. He loved it, though. He loved that interaction,” she says sounding slightly mystified, but mostly amused.
Vaguely reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s work, his QSL illustrations were all drawn in an energetic and loopy style that seemed too rough and weird to be any kind of mainstream illustration, but still too good to be done by anyone without genuine artistic talent.
I asked them what they thought of my Crumb-reference. Cheryl asked me who Robert Crumb is. Jess said he appreciated it, though I got the distinct feeling he had no idea who I was talking about.
And then there were the names themselves, which Jess wouldn’t come up with on his own, but that he’d sometimes interpret literally for comedic or just plain weird effect. These handles would range from the mundane to the nonsensical. Some examples follow, and I’ll note that all were customers of Runnin’ Bare:
Stock Car, Sport, Paper Hanger, Granny Good Witch, The Peanut Base, Dirty Bird, Firebird, Yukon Fireball, Chicken Choker, Slicer, Shiny Wheels, False Alarm, Gun Runner, Little Dakota, Lucky Lady, Grasshopper, Dum Dum, Super Snooper, Sugar Bear, X-Ray 269, Lucifer, Wicked Witch, Bombero, Silver Goose, Mother Goose, Traveling Moose, Coffee Pot, C-Note, Loose Change, Future Cop, Hotel Whiskey, Dust Devil, Jet Star, Happy Bachelor, Desperado, Devil Worm, Eager Beaver, Go-Go Girl, Turnkey, Shipwrecker, Starfighter, Lady Loving Turtle, Muzzle Loader, Nail-Bender, Hot Rod, Halfthrottle, Stranger, Paranoid Beekeeper, Kurt The Nert, Freeloader, Beaver Squeezer, Hurricane Gussy, Hair Brush, Stinger, Wall Climber, Deli Bopper, Hi-Flyer, TV Girl, Mootchy Pet, Bass Plug, Fraser Valley Flash, Rainbow Demon, Pepsi, Boozer, Lady Banker, Road Widow.
The first QSL card I ever saw was one of Little Dakota, which depicts a crazed-looking man tearing through a meadow on a motorcycle with fat knobby tires. There are some pine trees and snowcapped mountains in the background.
And then there’s that cryptic code: “73’s” in one corner and “88’s” in the other.
“I wanted to be a commercial artist from the time I was probably 5 or 6 years old. I would tell my family, ‘I’m going to be a commercial artist’,” Jess recalls.
He drew all the time as a kid. But it was in the Army when he got his start. He’d been a crew chief doing helicopter maintenance Stateside. This was during the Vietnam War. When he was passed up for a promotion, Jess became righteously indignant.
“I raised so much Cain that the colonel came over the next day and called me out of ranks. He said, ‘I heard you have a problem here,’ and I told him what my problem was. I told him exactly the way I felt. And he says, ‘How would you like to go to work for me instead?’ So I went to work in battalion headquarters and I was doing Operations in there. And then they sent me to Germany. I went into Intelligence where I worked in a war room with loaded .45s on your desk and all locked in. I mean, I had top-secret crypto clearance. And then the colonel found out I could do artwork.”
Before long, Jess says, “[I] had like five full-time people and we worked for eight, nine hours every day doing artwork for them. I mean we did everything. We did show cards. USO entertainers would come over, we’d make all their posters and things for that. We did every kind of artwork you could imagine. We painted signs on the front of buildings. I mean, whatever there was, that was what we did. So when I came back out, I wanted to go to commercial art school.”
Instead, in 1968, he enrolled at what was then Boise College (now Boise State University) to pursue a fine art degree. “I lasted three weeks. The only class they would give me the first year was Beginning Drawing. Everything else was history of Western civilization, math, English, and all this. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a commercial artist. So, I went long enough to find a wife and then dropped out.”
Jess worked construction, and then enrolled in commercial art school. When he got out, the grocery and retail chain, Fred Meyer, asked him to come in. “[I] put a portfolio all together and I thought, boy, this is gonna be great, you know? …So, I sat down with him and I said, ‘Well, would you like to see my artwork? I can lay it out here,’ and he says, ‘Oh, no, we’ll have that done by professionals.’ And I said, ‘I thought that’s why you hired me.’ He says, ‘No, I don’t care ‘bout none of that; I want you to do layout on the newspaper ads.’ And I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s not what I want,’ and so I said, ‘Well, what would that pay?’ And he said, ‘That’s gonna pay $4 an hour.’ And I said, ‘Mister, I wouldn’t watch TV for $4 an hour.’ So I just got up and took all my stuff and went home.”
Home. That’s where the Runnin Bare business was born. He estimates it was late ‘71 or early ‘72.
…There’s 9 and You Got 11
“For about 10 solid years there, art was 100 percent. I mean, that was all there was. It was all art. Everything was art… Along with the QSL cards and other business stuff, I was painting in the back room,” Jess says.
In fact, Jess Anderson has been a prolific wildlife painter for decades. His paintings—which he does under his real name, and not a pseudonym—are an entirely different style than his earlier QSL work. They are highly realistic, painstakingly detailed pieces done in oils.
But it was the QSL cards that changed everything. As CB radio gained more popularity, more people needed QSL cards. And this meant more people were exchanging QSL cards.
Unlike emails or social media follows or likes, QSL cards are physical things, limited to a finite quantity. Very early on, Jess assigned a different number to each different card he created. At first, it was strictly for organizational purposes. But people started recognizing the same thing Jordan Smith would nearly 50 years later, the cards were something interesting, something special. And the numbers quickly let them know which cards they did have, and which ones they didn’t.
Consequently, a sort of underground market formed with avid CBers clamoring for more Runnin Bare cards, to build a complete collection.
Before long, it seemed like everyone wanted a QSL card by Runnin Bare. So, Jess and Cheryl hired on additional artists who were other CBers. For CBers who wanted their Runnin Bare card done quick and cheap, Jess created boilerplate imagery that CBers could simply pick out of a catalog and have their handle and info added to it.
On the other hand, Jess saw an opportunity to get ambitious. So, with the help of other artists he employed, Runnin Bare started creating special, limited-edition series, such as the Executive Series, Artist Series, Longhorn Series, and so on.
QSL cards became less about proof of contact, and more about owning the cards just to own them. “Once I started [numbering], then everybody said, ‘Ooh, hey, there’s nine and you got 11. We got to find out where number 10 is,’ you know? So then the collector thing started. So then there was nothing involved in, ‘This is my card because we talked’,” Jess explains.
Like bars get regulars, Runnin Bare got its fair share of devotees, as well. “Some of the guys like Big Al, for instance, up in Calgary, every time there was an 01—101, 201, 301, 401—that was his. So I did draw a new card for him every time 01 came up. A lot of them had a certain number they picked. And no matter what, every hundred, I had to do a card for them,” Jess tells me.
The printing was done in batches with multiple cards on each sheet. This gave customers themselves the opportunity to be creative: they formed alliances and special ordered cards that would create a full sheet, and thus one full image. The cards stood not only on their own, but if someone got all four, they could be reassembled like puzzle pieces to create the original, full-size image.
And when buyers really wanted to control the market, they would order so-called “dummy cards.” Jordan explains, “they’re cards that don’t have any information on them and they have a fake name. Like this one that I found out later was for Big Al just says Mr. California. And it’s a drawing of a wagon train going west. You have no idea who it is. You wouldn’t know how to get a hold of them. You wouldn’t know anything. So they’re fake cards for these people who held onto these handles. So they would collect them, and if they knew each other, they would send them to each other, but they wouldn’t give them to anybody else. The heavy duty collectors all knew that they were doing this together. So all of them got dummy cards made until Jess got wise to it and quit doing it. But for, I would say, three years, there’s a bunch of cards that have no information and just a random drawing.”
It became a big money game, Jordan explains. “Hot Rod, in the ‘70s, paid $3,000 for a half set [of Runnin Bare cards],” Jordan tells me. Then he adds for emphasis: “In ‘70s money!”
All of this meant big business for Jess and Cheryl who had gone from being almost flat broke to flush thanks to Runnin Bare. “We were the biggest in the world. The biggest in the world. I had people calling me from England to do interviews like this over the telephone. I mean, we were the number one thing. Oh, it was unbelievable, we’d drive into one of those [meetups for CBers] and they’d be 20,000 people there.”
But Jess says the level of celebrity was also a burden. “We got to be really famous, I’m telling you. It got where I hated people. I hated them. We couldn’t do anything. There’s always these people. I thought, oh, my God. Imagine somebody as famous as like Elvis, how he lived. That’s got to be just awful… We’d wake up in the mornings and there’d be three motorhomes parked on our lawn. We don’t know who they are, you know. It was just that we all the time. It was at a point where we bought a little 12-foot travel trailer. And I hauled it up in the hills. And every morning I would get up and go up in the travel trailer—there’s no phones or, you know, nothing—to draw. I come home, we eat lunch, go back, I draw. So people would leave me the hell alone so I could get my work done,” he remembers.
As the 70s unfolded, CB radio’s popularity grew, and so, too, did Runnin Bare’s profits. And though Runnin Bare didn’t invent the QSL card, Jess says, “We revolutionized QSL cards.”
Jess was churning out six cards daily, meaning he was conceiving of and illustrating six distinct pieces of original art every single day. All the while, he was also creating stationery and posters and advertising art for brands such as Pepsi and Archway.
His dreams of being a commercial artist had come true. But he grew tired of drawing what people said they wanted. CB radios were a huge part of the trucking culture, and people used their cars to set up “mobile bases.” So people were always asking Runnin Bare to draw their cars and especially their trucks. “Oh, I hated them after a while,” he says, sounding genuinely pained even now, almost 50 years later.
So he leveraged his popularity and moved away from the goofier, more obvious themes and began drawing what he wanted. As it turned out, it hardly mattered to the customer. They were just as pleased as ever to get something by Runnin Bare.
Consequently, the characters began disappearing from the foreground. Scenery, which was once sparse if not non-existent, became more intricate and lush. By later in the Runnin Bare series, there are cards with wacky handles but completely irrelevant and rapturously reverent imagery of deer, alpine forests, and streams.
“I mean, the majority of the back thousand cards are almost all nature-related,” Jordan observes. “Unless they were a heavy duty collector or somebody that had a series that he might have been doing within them, it is almost all just animals and nature and stuff that Jess still is very interested in to this day.”
Endings and Beginnings
What led to Jordan’s discovery of Runnin Bare wasn’t a lucky find on eBay. It was a tragedy. “My father killed himself in the fall of 2007,” Jordan tells me. “And I realized afterwards that there is a lot of stuff I didn’t really know. So I think that’s a big part of it. He committed suicide one week before we moved from Portland, Oregon, and my wife was going into grad school. So I had to move 2000 miles away from everyone I knew. I was left on my own and struggling with the worst time of my entire life. So while my wife, Erin, was getting her Ph.D., I had nothing but time. And I was just, I don’t know, I didn’t know,” he stammers, then resumes. “That’s where I started scanning and collecting and doing stuff.”
For Jess and Cheryl, it was tragedy that ended Runnin Bare.
“We were visiting friends and there were beaucoups adults watching beaucoups children. Some were in boats. Some were playing on the lawn. Some were just playing in the water. Our daughter was on a dock, and she was watching the fish down below. And of course, here’s all of these women. And we’re all visiting together and we’re all watching the kids. And I looked up and I went, ‘Where’s—where’s Jenny? Where’s Jenny Lynn?’” Chery recalls.
They looked in the street, in the house, but she was nowhere to be found. “She had gone in the water,” Cheryl says. “It was one of those docks that’s kind of on logs. She had come up under the logs, underneath it. And I finally just caught a glimpse of what I thought was movement. And I jumped in the water and was able to find her,” Cheryl says.
“She screamed and handed her up to me,” Jess says. “I started giving her mouth-to-mouth and was running right to the hospital, which was only about a mile and a half down the road.”
“I said, ‘Call the ambulance,’ and he says, ‘It’s one mile away. We’ll get there faster than the ambulance will’,” Cheryl remembers. “It wasn’t far at all. And so we raced to the hospital and we’re doing her chest [compressions] and her breathing on the way there.”
“And screaming “emergency” all the way through that,” Jess adds.
Cheryl continues, “We’re running down the corridors of the hospital, both of us with this little girl in our arms and just screaming, ‘Help us, help us, help us,’ and handed her off to the doctors. They started on her right away. She was absolutely unconscious. They got her back to breathing and then they took her by Life Flight to Portland. And he and I are in a 26-foot motorhome…trying to drive to Portland through this traffic in a two-lane road.”
“That’s the longest road I ever drove on,” Jess adds.
They arrived at the hospital. “The ambulance nurses and doctors met us on our way up to the floor and they said she had a lot of problems…in the air,” Cheryl says. “And you could see that on the nurse’s face that it wasn’t good problems, it was real bad problems. At that point, I didn’t care. I don’t care. She’s here. You got her. We’re safe. We’re fine. We’re fine. We’re fine.”
But they weren’t. Jenny Lynn, two years old, died that day in the hospital.
Jess thinks back to it, and he tells me, “I’m one of those kinds of guys that I do everything, you know? I mean, you want to put these windows in, I’ll change all these windows for ya, I’ll sheet rock for ya. I could do gardening. I do, you know, cuttings off the plants. I can paint, I can sing, I can do all these,” and here he stops abruptly and leans forward and says, “we pulled her out of that water and I couldn’t save that girl. And, oh, that just was the hardest thing for me to face. The fact that I couldn’t—at the time when I was most needed, I couldn’t handle that. I couldn’t do it.”
“Part of that was my fault,” Cheryl says. “We walked into the hospital and got this little girl that hadn’t even turned 3 yet. And I looked at Jessie and I said, ‘Jessie, don’t let her die. Don’t let her die.’ And she died. And that was it.”
“We kept her alive for 22 hours,” Jess says. “And then we had to let her go.”
Cheryl lightly corrects him. “She went. We didn’t let her go.”
After Jenny Lynn’s death, Cheryl says, they closed up shop, abruptly canceling all standing orders, refunding payments totaling over $100,000.
“Jesse didn’t pick up a pencil or a paintbrush for five years. Five solid years. He absolutely couldn’t do it. He and I brought our son Travis home, who was at that time about five and a half. And we came home and just hunkered down for a couple of years, almost two years. We had saved up enough money just because we were just frugal by nature, both of us. And we were able to live without either one of us having a job for about two years.”
After two years, they’d eaten through the savings, but Jess could not bring himself to work. He wanted nothing other than to stay home with their son and their daughter (who they adopted after Jenny Lynn passed away). “So for the next many years, I worked at an attorney firm and Jesse stayed home with the kids, but he never even—couldn’t get him to pick up a paintbrush.”
Though Cheryl was able to work, she, too, was partly paralyzed by her grief. For years, she refused to drive west toward the coast, as Jenny Lynn had drowned only one mile from the ocean—a place that Jess, in particular, had always loved.
Five years later, Cheryl had a realization in the form of a question: “I’m looking at him and I say, ‘Where were we the last time that we were able to laugh and have fun and look forward?’ We weren’t looking forward. We were so locked in the pain of the past. After about five years, I turned west and was able to go to the beach with him. He talked me into going over there and we started looking at property again. And he came home and picked up a paintbrush.”
Working day and night, breaking only for food, Jess painted until he was finished. “My son has that painting,” he tells me. “It was a seascape. And, actually, it was a pretty damn good seascape.”
They eventually built a cabin on the coast, and Jess hasn’t stopped painting since he started again in 1987.
Jess and Cheryl had found new life. But Runnin Bare, the $250,000 per year business, was dead. Misprints and uncut sheets and original art and posters all went up into the attic. In fact, most of them stayed there, untouched, until my visit.
There would be no more QSL cards. No more illustrations of Runnin Bare and Lil White Dove. They had perished. Cruelly, ironically, victims of a drowning, just as their namesakes from the song on which they were based.
By the time Runnin Bare closed up shop, the CB radiowaves had become oversaturated. The more users, the more transmissions, the more interference, the worse the reception and overall experience, which frustrated the enthusiasts but seemed to have no effect on the growing amount of trolls—people who were there to disrupt and harass.
I ask Jordan what trolling looked like on CB radio, and he says, “Same thing [as it does on contemporary platforms]. Just, you know, coming in, yelling homophobic, racist, sexist slurs. They would pick fights. They would, you know, look for prostitutes. Just the same kind of stuff that goes on now. They would just do it verbally instead of typing.”
The Atari 2600 was available by the end of the 70s. The Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1983. By that time, the premium-rate nine-hundred numbers (which required nothing more than a telephone, and sounded a lot better) had become big business, as well.
Oversaturation, trolls, and new technology. The CB radio fad came to an end.
It Isn’t Even Past
So, too, did my trip to see Jess and Cheryl Anderson. My last evening there, we ate a dinner of salmon (which Jess caught himself) and rice. We chatted about music and family. Jess’ voice, at this point, was faintly hoarse from the hours upon hours of talking.
I had one last question, and it was one I’d intentionally saved until the very end because I knew I risked offending them by even bringing up the topic.
The QSL cards were so interesting, and some of them so good. And yet, the problem was right there in the name: Runnin Bare. And it was right there in every card that depicted their handles: stereotypical and exaggerated caricatures of native people.
“I am so non-politically correct, I almost smell bad,” Jess laughed. But then his tone quickly turned bitter. Referring to political correctness, he said: “I think people take that way too far.” Before I could even ask him, he asked himself, rhetorically, if he wished he could go back and change it. “No, not a bit. It was a colorful character, and that’s all it was. Had nothing to do with anybody’s race. It was just a colorful character.”
I ask him, “If someone came to you and said, I’m a Native American and I feel like Runnin Bare is very disrespectful. What would your response be to that?”
Jess shakes his head. He says he used the name and illustration, “strictly because it was a song that I like, and had nothing to do with the Native American. I mean, I never thought about a Native American. And I still don’t. I mean, I just, I don’t know. Other than the fact that I paint Native Americans, I go to the pow-wows and I became friends with lots of them. I don’t have any prejudiced bone in my body about the Indians. I think the Indians got a terrible deal whatever they was going through. I mean, I really do. I’ve studied it out a lot. I do a lot of history stuff. I love history. They got screwed big time royal. But as far as my name, it had nothing to do with them. It really didn’t. Never, never even entered my mind.”
Cheryl offers up her take. “I don’t think we’ve even thought about being the Runnin Bare people for 40 years or 35 years that we’ve even looked at those artworks. So those were from less educated eyes, I think. It’d be interesting to know what handles would be chosen now and what the artwork would be inspired by those handles now with older knowledge.”
But Jess is undeterred. “In my eyes, I don’t think they’d be any different. I really don’t. I don’t know anybody that is prejudiced toward the Indians, for instance. I don’t know anybody like that. And to take a name like that, it’s like saying the Indians team. They should be proud, to me as far as I’m concerned. Look here, we’re honoring you with a national team. They would think that it’s better if nobody ever says their name! Really?”
Cheryl suggests to her husband, “you’d have to sit down with one one time who has an absolute opposite opinion, I think, and really see what their thought process is and why they find that either offensive or hurtful or what. When they read that or see that, what do they think versus when you look at it?”
Jess remains unmoved. “The Indians these days, they weren’t the ones that went through all the hell. You know, the Indians went through hell. I feel so sorry for those people. I mean, I really do. We go back and that was a hard time. I mean, that was really a hard time. They were cheated all the way. I mean, no question about it.”
Anyway, Jess, persists, “it was the song that gave us the handles. That was the song. That was the whole thing…And besides that, we named it B-A-R-E, which is just a little different.”
Dinner ends, Jess sticking to his guns and perhaps a little miffed that I brought it up in the first place. But he’s no less affectionate as we say our goodbyes, making me promise to bring my wife and kids next time I visit.
Jordan himself is frank in his assessment of the Runnin Bare character. “It is a full caricature of a Native American…It does not hold up well to age. It’s very dated and racist,” he says. He thinks a bit, and as if to confirm what he’s just said, he tells me, “I think that’s the best way to put it. It’s a racist caricature, even if the intent wasn’t there, the caricature is racist.”
So I ask him, how does he reconcile that with his work, preserving and presenting these pieces of Americana?
He says problematic imagery and words are hardly a unique thing. “I find [it] a lot, actually. Restaurants. I’ll post something or I’ll see something and you might even see a ‘whites only’ sign in the background for the water fountain. I have a postcard for a place called Coon Chicken Inn… It was a very racist, even by the ‘40s standards, chicken franchise out of Salt Lake, Portland and Seattle. I have a how-to-put-on-a-minstrel-show booklet from 1961. That’s not that long ago. So this stuff is very much out there. But I think I’d be doing the past a disservice to ignore that or pretend it didn’t exist.”
Rather, with Cardboard America, he puts it on display to study its curiosities and reflect on its problems, and to remind us not only of the beauty but the ugliness of our own imperfect pasts.
What really intrigued me about QSL cards were those numbers: 73s and 88s.
“What do the 73s and 88s mean?” I had asked Jess on the porch of their house.
“Seventy-threes and 88s is goodbye and good luck. That’s all,” he grins. Then he amends his answer. “Actually, 88s is more like hugs and kisses. It’s a friendly way of saying goodbye.”
From the first moment I saw the cards, I saw them just as Jordan did: relics. These QSL cards were something strange, even unrecognizable. They were of a different time and a different place.
For Jess and Cheryl these were once their present, the focus of their entire lives. But now, even for them, they are of the past. Things to be stored in the attic, retrieved only for the occasional curious traveler.
Old paper bearing beautiful landscapes and problematic caricatures. A message from the past to the curious viewers of today and of tomorrow: 73s and 88s. Hugs. Kisses. Good luck. And goodbye.
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