Listening to Don Collins describe his experience with migrants moving westward in the 1930s is like reading a passage from The Grapes of Wrath.
This should not be surprising since Collins, 94, was 9 years old when the John Steinbeck classic was first published.
The former Aledo resident remembers hitchhikers headed to California and watching Greyhound buses filled with passengers driving West.
"I saw things like four, old 1920s and '30s cars chained together,” Collins said. “I asked my mother what was going on, and she told me they were very poor people who were going to California to try to get a better life. When one car overheats, another car pulls for a while, and they save on gasoline that way."
Collins learned to read at a young age and had a particular fascination with the Spanish Civil War, which began when he was 7 years of age.
Collins' family lived six miles south of Aledo, a town of 300 people at the time, and he said he had a good childhood.
"Of course, I had no transportation and there were not many sports in Aledo at the time,” Collins said. “There was only basketball. They didn't introduce football until the year that I graduated in 1947.”
Collins' cousin was the first quarterback of the Aledo High School football team.
Descended from Irish immigrants, including a grandfather who fought in the American Civil War, Collins harbors a deep affection for his hometown and was blessed with an extraordinary memory — two qualities that came in handy on a recent project.
The Arlington man, whose mother presented him with a jar of Higgins ink and a couple of sharp pens at the age of 6, is a painter whose works are featured in a book called Traces of Forgotten Places: An Artist's Thirty-Year Exploration and Celebration of Texas as It Was, and he recently completed a painting of Aledo as it was in the 1930s.
Collins finished the painting about two months ago.
It IS 2' X 4' feet, depicts a quaint and rustic tableau of Depression-era Aledo, and while technically precise, Collins said it was not completely to his standards.
"In my opinion, it is not a good painting in terms of art," Collins said. "There are things I would do differently. But it's primarily a historical and biographical record."
Collins has been painting steadily for nearly the last 50 years and said it feels like something he needs to do.
"It's a passion, but it's also a routine," Collins said. "I've got images in my head that I have to get rid of, and painting allows me to do that. I do it virtually every day."
Although Collins worked in graphic design for 56 years, he took a circuitous route to becoming a painter and illustrator
Collins went two-and-a-half years at the University of Texas at Arlington and then transferred to Texas Tech, where he went about another half of a year before the Korean War broke out.
"There was a sudden rush of patriotism,” Collins said. “About six or seven hundred guys quit school up there and joined the service. I was one of them. I passed the pilot's exam, but they said there were too many of them and we had to go home and wait. So I went home and went to work on Dean Ranch."
Collins said that he and two other guys spent six months rebuilding a fence that had burned in a Prairie fire before he went back for a second and third pilot's exam and was informed he had a heart murmur.
"I went to the family doctor 30 minutes later,” Collins said. “He put me on a machine and told me I had nothing wrong with my heart. He said they had too many people and they were flunking everybody. So now my draft number has come up, and I'd heard that if you had an RA, a regular army number, you may have some small advantage over the guys who had a U.S. number, which was a draftee. So I volunteered for and joined the U.S. Army."
Collins had taken three years of ROTC and thought he would do well.
"They sent me to quartermaster school," Collins said. "And of course, the quartermasters don't fight.
After I went to school, I qualified as a small arms mechanic...and then they sent me to Fort Reno Oklahoma. They were buying horses all over the southwest, quarantining them, and every six weeks, 20 GIs and 800 horses would go down to New Orleans and get on this old rust bucket and go to Turkey.”
Collins made two separate trips to Turkey, one to Istanbul and one to a city called Iskenderun
He got married shortly thereafter and went to work for a box factory for a year or two and then finished up college with a degree in fine arts and commercial art.
Interestingly enough, Collins never received his degree.
“I was on the GI Bill at the time," Collins said. "I was married, had a new house and was dead broke, and they came around the last day of school and said they needed 10 bucks for the diploma. I said I would defer and join the summer graduation. This was at the end of the winter semester.
“I had gone to work with my partner two or three weeks prior to this moment. So I decided I didn't need the diploma because I was working. Somehow, I never went back. But I didn't need the diploma, because it had nothing to do with what I was doing.”
Collins went to work as a graphic designer and illustrator, which he did for nearly six decades.
"I did well with that," Collins said. "I worked with the Texas Medical Association, Texas Dental Association, the state highway department and great big outfits of one kind or another doing primarily illustrations. I worked for Texas Monthly Magazine and several other magazines.
“I didn't start painting regularly until I was well into my 40s. I started painting wildlife and succeeded at that for several years. Going to art shows I painted hundreds of wildlife paintings. That kind of fizzled out because there were too many people doing it."
Collins retired in 2008 and moved to Arlington.
He has three daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and said good genes and taking care of himself have played a big part in his longevity.
But the former Aledo resident said perhaps even more important is his approach to life.
“I gave up heavy drinking by the age of 30,” Collins said. “I never enjoyed it. I also quit smoking at the age of 30, but it was not with the thought of extending my life. It was expensive.
"I finally got a case of the Flu where I couldn't smoke, and after about two weeks of that, it occurred to me, 'Hey this is my chance.' I never smoked after that.
"But more than that, it has to do with attitude, and discovering that you're not in full control of everything in the world. Things you can control, you do. Things you can't control, you don't really worry about them. I do understand well what is in my control and what is not, and I think that plays a major part in it."
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