You can almost see George White’s reflection in the rusty iron cattle brand that sits on the polished tree stump coffee table in his living room.
The reflection isn’t there in a physical sense, but rather in the brand’s essence — it’s a piece of Old West history, crafted by hand and ruggedly well-worn through time.
The brand was a present from cowboy matinee idol Gene Autry to White’s dad, Oliver, who with his son built a large part of a Mojave Desert town where many western TV and movie stars used to film back in the 1940s and 1950s.
In the town, which doubled as both a real community and a movie set, stars like Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Gregory Peck, and Duncan Renaldo and Lee Carrillo (TV’s Cisco Kid and Pancho) were regular fixtures and friends of residents.
“Gene used to come up to the house for supper all the time,” said White, 76, as he fingered the branding iron. “About 1947 or so, Gene told my father he had something he’d like to give to him and he gave him the Flying A. It’s an original cattle brand from Gene Autry’s dad’s ranch. It was made in the late 1800s.”
White, who’s lived in Vancouver with his wife Jean for more than 40 years, has many fond memories of his childhood in Pioneertown, Calif.
He credits his upbringing in the small town for giving him the strong sense of community and connectedness with others that he feels today, both as president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association and as a passionate helper and counselor to patients in Clark County’s mental health and substance abuse groups.
“I enjoy working in the community,” White said. “There are so many things in the community that I feel need attention, but people just don’t seem to have the same amount of commitment to it these days.”
Snakes, a bad break
Back when he was growing up, the stars in town were as much a part of the community as the full-time residents, he said.
As a youth, White used to haul hay and fix saddles for some of the movie companies in town. He also used to catch rattlesnakes for a local business as a way to make money.
The business, a saloon, used a gland from the rattlesnakes that was considered an aphrodisiac in a popular drink. The saloon paid $1 per snake, he said.
One time, while he and some other local boys were hauling hay, White — who was carrying a sackful of snakes at the time — ended up falling out of the truck’s bed when a railing snapped.
He broke his neck, but surprisingly didn’t get bitten by any of the stunned rattlesnakes that fell on him.
His friends managed to get him home, but his family, which wasn’t rich, had no way to get him to the doctor.
“So I was laying at home with a busted-up neck, and Gene Autry’s valet came up to pick up some stuff from my dad,” White said. “He saw me and asked my dad why I wasn’t in the hospital. Then he told Gene. Gene sent him back and told him to get me to the hospital in his limousine right away. I felt like one of the most special kids in the world that day.”
Doctors took a wait-and-see approach as to whether White would recover.
But White, who’s part Native American, found another path to healing through the incident.
It ended up becoming a personal calling and skill.
“The doc told me there’s not much we can do, but my friend Johnny Kee went off and brought the shamans over to have a look at me,” White said. “One of the shamans leaned over me and says ‘This is gonna hurt like a sum’bitch, but it’s going to make you feel better.’ And he used his hands to heal me. Within 30 minutes, I was up and walking and within two days I went home.”
After that, White decided to study with the shamans and learn how to heal people himself.
“They showed me all kinds of things,” White said.
Man of many skills
Growing up, White learned a wide variety of skills that he still uses today. He makes jewelry, flutes, Manzanita wood canes, leather items and wooden wind catchers, among many other items.
And when he served in the Navy at the end of the Korean War, he’d often use his healing skills on his fellow sailors.
After his stint in the Navy — 1953 to 1956 — White married and took classes at Los Angeles Pacific College and UCLA.
“I wanted to be a doctor — I’ve always enjoyed healing, but my wife got pregnant and I ended up dropping out to support us,” White said.
He had two children with his first wife, but the relationship fell apart after about 10 years.
That’s OK, though, because it led him to finding his soulmate, Jean, on a trip to the Pacific Northwest in 1966, he said.
“When the relationship went sour, I came up here to visit my aunt and uncle, and well, I met this one,” he said, pointing his thumb at Jean, “and I just forgot to go home.”
Jean had three kids of her own when the two met, and after they were married, the couple had one more child, a daughter.
“It was pretty crowded around here for a while,” Jean said, explaining that all of the kids lived with them at the same time in the 1960s and ’70s.
The couple have remained virtually inseparable since they met. They go everywhere together and have worked in a long and varied series of jobs including repossessing cars, running a new and used furniture store, bounty hunting, selling RVs, operating a trucking company and selling crafts at the Vancouver Farmers Market.
“He’s literally done everything,” Jean said. “That’s what’s fun. We haven’t just done one thing. We’ve done a bunch of interesting things.”
Touched by addiction
Still, the upbeat, energetic couple isn’t without its problems. The pervading sadness that still haunts the couple but also has motivated George to donate time to Vancouver’s mental health and substance abuse groups comes from their daughter’s addiction to methamphetamine.
The couple says she has had moderate recoveries in the past, but has never beaten it. They frequently look up at her picture on the mantle with concern in their eyes.
“There are so many mental issues in the community, substance abuse issues,” George said. “I just feel like I have to help. Kids — one just recently that I’m so proud of — she was a heroin addict and they found her overdosed. She’s near eight months now and clean as a whistle. Things like that just make you feel so good.”
He still performs healings for friends, never for money, just to help out. And he’s writing a series of stories about his life that includes tales from his days in Pioneertown but also of his most recent success.
You see, in the past year, George White also beat prostate cancer.
“I feel so fortunate,” he said. “My oncologist, we ran into him at Big Al’s Bowling, actually. He says to me, ‘I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is your readings are so low that I have a hard time finding anything. The bad news is I think you’re probably going to live.’”
Age might have slowed him down some, but the 6-foot, 6-inch dynamo isn’t quite finished yet, he said.
Next up, he plans to work with kids with cancer and continue to try to help others in the community, wherever he sees a need or thinks he can, he said.
“I think that my goal with whatever years I have left is to instill in others that especially now you don’t need a bunch of money or anything to really go a long way in caring for people. A kind word, just listening, can go a very long way,” he said.