LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
Seven years before he died, George Murray inscribed his Last Will and Testament by hand. "And it better be legal, as it comes from my heart," he wrote, with his usual intensity. "Anyone who doubts this, I will come back after my death and haunt THEM."
The time is right. That odd assortment of relatives, employees, friends and lovers to whom he left both the Murray family farm and a junkyard filled with five acres of rusting cars have not come to terms with each other the way George had wanted.
"I hope this will stand up in court," he concluded--although now, nearly two years after his death, that seems unlikely. "I remain in life and death the same. I love you all, and please excuse my spelling."
"He was indoctrinating us in how to survive in this world," says George's oldest son, Bob. "He was a philosopher. On a typical August afternoon, here would be five, six, seven guys drinking Cokes under a tree, sitting on old car seats talking with my father, laughing one minute and crying the next. If you got him in the mood, boy, he'd go on for hours."
But George is no longer here to direct Socratic discourses. And without him to center the discussion, the people who once circled around him have veered out of orbit. Two factions of heirs no longer speak to each other, even though they are now co-owners of George's junkyard.
"My dad didn't ask you, he gave it to you," explains Bob. "It hasn't worked out very well. Now, Ray, he didn't want this property. He didn't want any property."
Ray, a taciturn man in his late fifties, was George's right-hand man for ten years and still lives and works in the junkyard. But he doesn't want to talk about his inheritance or even divulge his last name. Sometimes, however, he will speak of George. He loved George. Who didn't?
Loving George was a tenet of life at Murray's Junkyard and Auto Repair, as accepted as the fact that 1934 Ford trucks last forever or that a junkyard dog's bite is worse than its bark. The only person who never accepted it was George Murray himself.
On the afternoon of February 26, 1993, he sat down on the steps of a small frame house at the back of his junkyard and shot himself with a shotgun he'd been given by one of his many friends. His body was discovered a few hours later by Ray, who says he knew it was only a matter of time.
On a springlike day in winter, Bob Murray is riding an old ten-speed bike along the dirt roads of his father's junkyard. He coasts from the front clearing, where his father held court against a backdrop of fenders, to the banks of Bear Creek, which flooded regularly in the Fifties and Sixties. Those floods would sweep cars away from the yard, and then the town of Littleton would plow them back onto the banks. Many landed upside down, loaded with silt, and trees and grass grew up through them. Today these creekside cars have a strangely gentle aura--unlike car-crash relics, they seem to have come to a muddy, pleasant end.
They are not your typical junk cars, but Murray's is not your typical junkyard. For one thing, it is crowded with huge old trees. Looking down into it from the 4000 block of South Santa Fe Drive--which you can't do unless you get out of your car in the middle of traffic and really look down--you see a cross between Dogpatch and Sherwood Forest.
"This used to be a nursery, see," says Bob, now lounging in a '55 Ford station wagon. "My dad moved in in 1942 and never cut down the trees. It's intoxicating in the spring, with all the foliage. I used to be ashamed of this place, but the love of it hit me a few years ago. I thought, `This is my home.'"
At fifty, Bob finally has an opportunity to appreciate foliage and dig around in his roots. As a teenager he had no time for such esoteric things, no time for play, no time even to love his father the way everyone else did. "Yeah, he was my father--he was my mother, too, when you come down to it," Bob recalls. "Everything I know, I learned from my dad. How to box, how to weld, how to use tools...but mainly, it was work. I mean, look around you. Is there even one place that doesn't need attention around here? My brother and I worked constantly. We got Sunday afternoons off and that's all, or we were in trouble."
When George Murray and his first wife separated in 1958, George took his two sons, Bob and Sam, and moved into the junkyard, leaving his daughter behind with her mother. Bob had just started high school, and the transition was hell. "We lived in limbo," he says. "We were so-cial misfits, no doubt about it. We lived in a junkyard, we slept in a car with a stove in it for heat. I remember mice running across my blanket at night. We used the water right out of the creek to wash with. The second I could, I got away from here."
Bob went on to get four two-year degrees--among them, library science and hospital management. His father, who'd never finished high school, called him "`an educated fool,' and he may have been right," says Bob, "because I never did use any of it." Instead, twenty years ago he moved to Idaho, converted to Mormonism and became a factory manager, visiting his father at first sporadically, then more frequently in the last ten years of George's life. By then George had built two small houses on the junkyard property, and the living was easier--on the material plane, anyway. "He had depression," Bob says. "He told me, `I've practiced putting this shotgun in my mouth a hundred times.' I couldn't stop him even if I tried."
As the oldest son, Bob gave the eulogy at his father's funeral. He was stunned, he says, when nearly 600 people showed up for the service. Who were they, and how could they have known George Murray so well? It was an open-casket funeral, and everyone kept complaining that George looked all wrong in his dark business suit. He should have been wearing his old jeans and denim jacket, they said.
"And then when I gave my talk, I mentioned all the boys he befriended," Bob says, "but when I was done, here came all these women. And they said, `What about us? He helped us out, too.' My dad was a chauvinist in every sense of the word, but it turns out he had a lot of women friends that he helped, and here they were."
The sun has drawn away from the creek, and the chill of the shadows reminds Bob that it's time to go back to work. Since his father died, he's been dividing his energies between his wife and children in northern Idaho and this junkyard, where he systematically hauls off cars and sells them. Roads that once were visible only to George and Ray have now been cleared of weeds and metal scraps. Murray's regulars are stunned at this creeping tide of neatness and organization. It has even been whispered, in a not entirely friendly way, that Murray's is being "Bob-ma-tized."
"Ray and I have moved hundreds of cars in the past year," Bob says. "And there used to be thousands. My brother and I used to go from Santa Fe to the river bank, jumping on car roofs as we went and never touching ground."
But now, real estate agents are nosing around. This is valuable property, and with the cars removed, the trees cut down and the land brought level with Santa Fe Drive, it could be worth hundreds of thousands more, one would-be developer told Bob. "But I don't know," he muses. "Maybe I should never sell it. Maybe I'll turn it into a storage lot. Or an RV park. Ray and I were just talking about how it would make a great RV lot, weren't we, Ray?"
Ray nods, noncommitally. He is busy hooking a massive chain around the midsection of an auto body stripped so bare that no identifying marks remain other than a lone tail fin. Bob runs over and begins cranking the body into the air with a homemade winch mounted on the back of an ancient truck. The carcass swings in the air between the trees and lands on the back of a homemade flatbed. Over the next 45 minutes the two men stack another three car hulks on top of the first one. As a spectator event, it is oddly thrilling. At least, several men who have come to forage in the yard seem to think so. The four car corpses will end up at a recycling plant later today, where they will be cashed in by weight like so many aluminum cans.
As Bob and Ray scrape away layer after layer of old cars, they unearth truly historic strata. Today the back end of an ice-delivery truck from the early Twenties is suddenly visible, and every month or so they strike a rich vein of Model A's.
"As I get low on money," Bob says, "I just pull 'em up."
"Whenever it's time to collect money, you come back home, don't you know that?" scolds Joe Svigel Jr. "When you can come back and recoup what someone else has made, why not? Of course, I don't know young Bob real, real personally. He's probably okay."
Junior knew George Murray much, much better. As junkyard owners working within five blocks of each other for more than forty years, they led almost parallel lives.
"And George worked for us in the very early years, before he even started his own yard," Junior recalls. "He was a terrific hard worker and a wonderful person. And even before that, his mother and father sold us eggs from the little farm they had, and they were wonderful people--minded their own business and not a bit snooty."
Junior's father, Joe Svigel Sr., was an automotive pioneer on this particular strip of road, opening a "cottage camp" at 3539 South Santa Fe around 1930.
"For the first three years we had a grocery store, two gas pumps and a six-cottage camp for motorists," Junior recalls. "I was in on it from the very beginning, although I was rather young in the early days." (In fact, he was five years old.) "Things were different then. They didn't have this fancy thing where you go into the Dunes and stay in a castle. All the fancy motels were downtown, so we always had to stay open till ten, eleven, twelve at night so we could draw the last of the fantastic trade that couldn't afford to pay over 75 cents a night."
While Joe Senior worked a day shift in the coal mines outside Boulder, Junior's mother raised the children, rented the cabins and pumped the gas, "which is how she had her nervous breakdown," Junior says. "And she never did recover 100 percent." But the male Svigels were tougher. After three years in the hospitality field, they closed down the cabins and committed themselves to the car-parts-and-repair business. It was a good move.
By the late Thirties the Svigels were thriving, and George Murray learned plenty from them--enough to open his own car repair and junkyard, with their blessing, when he was eighteen. But George was drafted into the Army the next year, and he stayed in the service until after the war. "When he got back," Junior recalls, "the city tells him, `You can't operate that business, because it never was a wrecking yard when you left, and you can't call it one now.' Even then, they said it was an eyesore. Well, my dad went down to court with him and told the judge who George Murray was and what he'd been doing, and George was back in business, all because of Dad."
That was the start of a long string of communal court appearances. Over the next five decades, even though they were competitors, the Svigels and George Murray traded parts and advice and fought city hall together. Both George and Junior contested every tax increase that came their way.
Plenty of zoning officials came their way, too. "Everyone thinks a junkyard looks like the devil," says Junior, "and they always want something more sophisticated and beautiful--but let me tell you, we didn't have oodles and gobs of money, and a wrecking yard is not a beautiful place."
"To this day, whenever I go into the Littleton courthouse, I start sweating," says Bob. "My father hated authority. He'd stomp in there and start yelling. And he was a big, big man, a former boxer, and he didn't go for the bureaucratic bullshit. It got so when they saw him coming, they'd warn each other."
By 1960 the first in a wave of Santa Fe widenings had forced the Svigel yard eight blocks south, where it continued to flourish as Svigel's Auto Parts. Today it is still Svigel-owned and -operated, with no fewer than eight family members, spread out over four generations, happily running the place.
George Murray's yard didn't have such a happy ending. As soon as his sons left high school, they both abandoned the junk business. "Old George had a terrific amount of money trouble," Junior remembers, "especially after his second wife's last illness. And he didn't make that much money. He would help you morning, noon or night, whether you could pay him or not. Anything he had to offer, he would give you. I went there all the time--for parts, advice, anything. He really was like a dad to me."
Even though George was only three years older? "Yes," says Junior, "he was like a dad."
"I first saw George Murray in 1953, and I was twelve years old," recalls Tom Hall, a lifelong Littleton resident who now runs a mobile mechanic service. "I was walking home from school, and I seen him working a speed bag. He was a very, very good boxer. His son Sammy asked did I want to meet him? And I said yes."
George had been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth, and he still trained regularly. He loved to show boys how to box--and Tom loved the attention, since his own father was an alcoholic. Tom remembers Murray's as a boy's paradise, filled with old cars and wildlife that came down to the creek. And George.
"It got to when I was sixteen, I had piled up my car, and George let me put it back together from the parts he had," Tom says. "And we'd still box. Boy, I got a lesson. I took a swing at him one time, and the next thing I know, I'm looking up through the trees. I don't recall him boxing with his boys, though. With them, he was awful strict. It was like he loved them but he didn't want them to know that."
Tom went into the Marines and then on to gunsmithing school. Upon returning home, the first place he went was Murray's junkyard, where he presented George with a refurbished .410 bold-action shotgun, "a slick little gun he liked to shoot 'coons with." Tom had never forgotten the long, adolescent discussions he'd had with George--around the tree in summer, around a home-welded stove in winter--and over the next two decades he kept coming down to the yard, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to watch George in action.
"The yard was a mess," Tom laughs. "Someone would say they wanted some strange part, and George would look in the air, roll his eyes, scratch his chin and take off shuffling those feet. His britches were down all the time--he was pretty heavy, and it was like he didn't have any hipline. Mostly you didn't go with him, because you never knew what would happen with all those dogs. In no time at all, he'd come back with the part. No one ever understood his system except Ray, and he thought the world and all of Ray."
Over the years, Tom and George roamed conversationally through auto mechanics into religion and in and around the psychology of alcoholics. "George had been one, and his solution was simple," Tom recalls. "He just stopped." When Tom's father quit drinking, he became a regular at Murray's, too. Even George's father, a small Irishman who still spoke with a brogue, dropped by on occasion to join in the discussion. The only subject that never came up, Tom says, was romance. But Tom certainly was aware of George's reputation as a ladies' man.
"Of course, he helped out any woman who had car trouble, and there were lots of them," he says. "And I knew his second wife, Noreen. She was a nice lady, caring and into soulful stuff." Noreen died of cancer in 1984, leaving crippling medical bills behind. Soon after that, Tom recalls, a woman named Winona Ferguson moved into the house in the yard where Noreen had lived. (George himself spent many nights at the family farm where he'd been raised, caring for his elderly father and a semi-retarded uncle. After they died, he continued to occupy the place in the evening in order to deter burglars, he told Tom.)
"I don't know if Winona worked there or what," Tom says. "I saw her shining up some hubcaps one time, but she looked the part of a bag lady, and when I asked George about her, all he said was, `Well, she come down on her luck a little.'"
The only woman Tom and George ever discussed in detail, Tom says, was George's first wife, Betty, and that was in the last two years of George's life. "He was in a bad depression, and he thought it must be a payback because of how he had treated Betty," Tom recalls. "He thought there was no way out, that he had to do these paybacks. I told him about the Unspotted Lamb, which is Christ, and about forgiveness. I made a deal with him that he wouldn't do anything stupid unless he called me first."
And several times, George Murray did call Tom in the middle of the night when he was considering doing something "stupid." The two would talk things out "the Ben Franklin way," Tom says, writing out a list of life's pros and cons and debating them for hours. Sometimes, he remembers, Ray would take the second shift in these marathon sessions. "Ray was more worried about him than any of us," Tom says, "but George was a stubborn old Irishman, and even in his depression he wanted to do things his way."
The last time Tom saw George Murray, he was sitting uncharacteristically alone, in a junk car at the back of his lot. He told Tom, "I don't want any back talk from you, but you know that deal we have? Well, we don't have it anymore. Ain't nobody gonna miss old Murray."
This could not have been further from the truth, and Tom tried to say so, but George cut him off. Within the week George had shot himself with the "slick little gun" Tom had given him years before.
Tom still makes weekly visits to the junkyard, but now he hangs out with Ray. Their conversations take a bit longer to get started, but that doesn't matter: Tom always came to Murray's to talk, and he's not about to stop now.
"I've been here ten years, and it's my home," Winona Ferguson says. "I won't give up. I like the space around the repair yard. It has a lot of character. George let the trees grow."
George deeded Winona a half-interest in the back 2.78 acres of Murray's five-acre yard. She now works as a word processor at US West, but from 1974 to 1984, she says, she worked at Murray's putting together transmissions. The Murray children do not believe she did this, Winona adds, or that she and George became lovers after the death of Noreen. "They aren't speaking to me anymore," she says sadly, "and it's all because they're afraid I'll get some of their money."
And in fact, Winona is trying to get it. Last year her lawyer filed a claim against George's will in Arapahoe County probate court, asking that Winona be designated as George's common-law wife. As such, she insists, she would be entitled to half the estate--which consists of the junkyard and $230,000 from the recent sale of the Murray family farm--as well as two inheritance tax exemptions.
"Some people were put on this earth to serve," Bob says, "but some were put here to make everyone miserable. I'm not gonna say which one Winona is, but you can guess."
Winona and Bob see each other almost daily, but they do not speak. She continues to live in the little frame house at the back of the yard where Bob works. One day, when Winona was out, Bob took some pictures of the house. "Look at this," he says, displaying snapshots of a claustrophobically cluttered interior. "There's stuff piled all on top of the stove. How could she cook my father's meals here like she says she did? What it is, she's brought her old habits with her."
Bob is referring to Winona's arrest, in February 1985, for cruelty to animals. Briefly famous as the Littleton Cat Lady, she pleaded guilty to harboring up to thirty live, diseased cats. (Sheriff's deputies also found four dead ones in her freezer.) Neighbors had reported Winona when the stench began to cross their property lines, and they apparently did not exaggerate. "We had to wade knee-deep in offal and refuse through appalling and sickening conditions," said one deputy at the time.
"But see, my dad was always out for the underdog," Bob sighs. "He and Ray spent weeks cleaning out that Littleton house of cats, and then Winona somehow ended up moving here. He just couldn't resist a loser."
Although Winona does not want to discuss her cat years, she accepts the "loser" label with a graceful laugh. "Bob is nothing like his father," she says.
Of course, she loved his father. She first came to know Murray's in 1973, when her daughter Cheri began hanging out there, looking for pieces of "thoroughly rusted metal" to use in a sculpture class at Arapahoe Community College. Soon after, George gave Cheri a job--but he lost his new employee almost immediately when he introduced her to a customer who owned racehorses. "My daughter was stagestruck relative to horses," Winona recalls, "and this man offered her a groom's job beginning the next morning. I thought Cheri should have given George two weeks' notice, so I went down in her place and ended up staying for ten years."
Winona says she made friends easily with George's wife Noreen, who impressed her as "a good woman, and very smart. I ate dinner with the two of them almost every night. George and I were very friendly, too," she adds. "Noreen used to say that our signs were compatible."
After Noreen was stricken with cancer, Winona says she spent hours driving her to doctor's appointments and chemotherapy sessions. The romance with George, she adds, did not begin until six months after Noreen's death. "George needs women in his life," Winona explains. "We knew each other so well. And I have a master's in psychology, you know. We thought I might have some skills to deal with his depression."
No matter how busy George was in the yard, depression lurked on the periphery. "He told me he had spent several weeks in a mental hospital in 1943," Winona says. "And when I met him, he was in the middle of another bout. He sometimes took medication, but the doctor only prescribed fifteen pills at a time, because George was worried about committing suicide. None of it helped very much."
And yet, after George emerged from one of his dark spells, life could be idyllic, Winona recalls. "He treated women as if they had intelligence," she says. "And he was handsome, too, a little heavy sometimes, but very attractive, with light-brown hair and blue eyes. We used to go for walks down the creek, and we always went out on Friday nights for hot-fudge sundaes. He was a trifle bossy. I loved him very, very much."
Winona insists George considered their union a marriage, going so far as to buy two silver wedding rings. She says he wore one on a chain around his neck and told her that was all he needed in the way of a formal commitment. He also told Winona tales of his past--how his mother had come over from Ireland at sixteen and worked as a housemaid for twenty years until she met his father; how he was their only child; how the three of them had worked feverishly to live off their Littleton farm. He showed her letters from a woman who'd borne him a son out of wedlock, a situation that still tormented him. And eventually, Winona says, George told her he'd been cheating on her.
"Oh, George had so many lady friends," she says. "Some were just friends, and some were other--and as to that, he had many more volunteers than he ever took advantage of. Women would come around and want something done, and sometimes he would completely miss the flirting. I knew when it started and I knew when it ended. It was me he relied upon."
He even relied on Winona to find his body--but Ray beat her to it. When she returned to her home in the junkyard on the evening of February 26, 1993, Winona was met by a Littleton police officer. George was dead. He had left her a note: "Winona--call 911."
"He was thinking of me," she says, succumbing to tears. "He did it outside my house instead of inside. He could have gone out to the farm to do it, but he made sure we could find him right away. He was that kind of man."
George's will divided ownership of the back 2.78 acres of the yard between Winona and Ray. "I asked Ray to give me first chance at buying his half if he ever wanted to sell," Winona says. "But not a week later he came back to tell me he was deeding it to George's children. Ray does not want to own anything."
Bob and Ray
"Ray is a premium human," Bob says. "He's worked here for ten, twelve years, and he was a homeless man when my father found him, maybe a drinking man at one point. He doesn't want this land or anything else. When he dies he'll leave nothing and have nothing, and it will be as if he never existed. That's how he wants it."
You'll have to take Bob's word for that, because Ray does not talk to people unless they've been dropping in at Murray's for half a dozen years or so--and even then, the conversation centers on cars. Ray would rather work than talk, and he puts in the same long hours that he did before George's death.
That his work these days consists of dismantling his home of the last dozen years doesn't seem to bother him. At night he cocoons in a camper on the back of a truck where he lives with an unspecified number of dogs. Each morning he starts cleaning up the yard again. Another day, another rusted auto body swinging in the trees.
Ray tells people he's not worried about the future.
"We're Irish lowlife, right, Ray?" Bob asks. "What do we have to worry about, right? Hey, Ray--what's your last name?
"I'm just Ray," says Ray.
"He's a real quiet person," Bob concludes, and he turns to greet a customer. This guy wants a transmission. Another wants a fender. "Another guy saw where a tree had grown right through these old a-oo-ga horns, and he gets all excited," Bob recalls. "He says, `Gimme a chainsaw and I'll cut those horns out and make them into a coffee table and give you 35 bucks.'" Bob shrugs. "I did it. In a year, all this will be gone."
Bob peers into the hoodless engine cavity of a 1937 Dodge truck. A tree had grown up through it, been gnawed down by creekside beavers, and then resprouted as a clump of saplings. You can see the beavers' teeth marks on what was once a chrome fender. The truck has fused with the earth. "How are you going to get this out?" Bob asks himself. "It's been here a long, long time. This is probably one of the last--I don't know, what would you call it? A landmark?
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