The family of four traveled west down Route 66 towards Albuquerque, away from the Texas line, their heavily laden '57 Plymouth De Soto trailing a dense cloud of dust that rose and widened behind them under the hot July sun. Sleeping beside his older brother in the back, a small boy clutched his brother's wooden stick horse.
"There's a rest stop up ahead that looks as good as any," the father said to the older boy as he slowed the car, easing it to a stop by the side of the road. The small boy, wakened by the cessation of motion, began to cry for his mother who reached for him. Slowly, the family members exited the car, thankful for a brief respite from the monotony of the long drive. The small boy wriggled from his mother's arms to the ground, dragging the stick horse behind him as he made his way to the rear of the car in search of his father and brother.
"Why don't we leave it here?" the older boy asked of his father.
"Why not?" the father replied.
Gently, the older boy coaxed the younger one into parting with the stick horse and placed it, unceremoniously, beside a lone trash barrel. Then, as quickly as they'd arrived, the small family left, their thoughts on the summer vacation before them and the road ahead.
Some people seem destined to become citizens of the world, spending most of their lives cultivating and spreading good will, even to the most remote, sometimes hostile, areas. Ruel Williford Reynolds (my grandfather) is one of those individuals. What began in 1960 as a simple gesture by a man and his son, intended to reach out in friendship to others, quickly became a labor of love and a commitment of a lifetime.
Born July 11, 1914, near Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Ruel and Ethel Reynolds, R.W. was the second-born of seven children. Seven weeks later, the family returned to Nugent, Texas where Ruel Sr. had already established roots. There, R.W. grew to young manhood, graduating salutatorian from Anson High School on May 19, 1933. On March 27, 1937, R.W. married Laura Fern Higgs of Nugent, and their first child, Willa, was born in December of that year. Then, in 1939, their twins, Janice and Janell, were born. The years that followed brought more children, Meta in 1941, Roddy in 1948, and finally, Roger in 1958. In the summer of 1955, he moved his family to Putnam, Texas where he began to serve as superintendent of the Putnam school district.
Aware that April 3, 1960 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Pony Express mail delivery service in this country, R.W. sought a way to commemorate that historic event. It was not long before he arrived at the idea of constructing a stick horse. Made from rough-hewn pine, the horse was 2-feet in length, complete with painted eyes, ears cut from the rubber of an old inner tube, tiny leather saddlebag, bridle, reins, and tail. Desiring to make this a father-son project, R.W. showed the stick horse to Roddy, who was eager to take part. As a finishing touch, R.W. and Roddy attached instructions and a statement of "mission" to the "pony's" side. All had been completed, except to find a suitable name. After much thought, they named their creation Old Gold Dust.
Thus, while on a family vacation in New Mexico, July 28, 1960, the pony was left at a roadside rest-stop on Route 66, approximately 40 miles east of Albuquerque. Gold Dust's primary purpose was to make friends.
It was not long before this little ambassador of good will was picked up by Mr. & Mrs. Paul Wilke of Phoenix, Arizona, who carried him several miles down the road, leaving the pony at another location for someone else to find. Their postcard to Roddy, dated August 17, 1960, stated that they had found Gold Dust "about 40 miles east of Albuquerque, N.M. beside a trash can" and that he was "in Phoenix now."
Another postcard sent by a trucker and dated September 8, 1960 read, "Roddy: Picked up Gold Dust in Phoenix. Kept him on two week vacation in Dallas. Returned to Los Angeles. Am sending him northward. Good Luck! Bill Ward."
And still another postcard, dated September 30, 1960 told of Old Gold Dust "flying at 31,000 feet in the air . . . from Chicago to Los Angeles in a Boeing 707 jet airliner. He enjoyed seeing the sights of Chicago and San Francisco with me. I will send him on his way. Wayne Priest."
A fourth postcard, arriving in January of 1961, had traveled in Gold Dust's saddlebag for three months, collecting signatures and short messages from eight individuals before someone placed it in the mail and sent it on its way. One of these messages, from Cork City, Ireland, remarked simply, "What, no wagon train?", and yet, it represented the spark that had begun to ignite and excite the imaginations of people worldwide.
These postcards marked the beginning of what became a steady flow of mail addressed to the eldest son in the Reynolds household. With each new arrival, Roddy began to chart the travels of his little horse. Within the continental United States, Gold Dust traveled to such diverse locales as Albuquerque, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and St. Louis. With the aid of several air carriers, such as Air France, Delta, Iberia, KLM Royal Dutch, Pan American, TAA and TWA, and kind "handlers" who were oftentimes members of the flight crew, Gold Dust became a world traveler, visiting well-known parts of Arabia, India, Italy, Peru, Rome, South Africa, Spain, Venezuela, and many others. Within his saddlebag, this special stick horse carried a log book that chronicled his adventures across five continents in less than eight months. In fact, response to the stick horse was so great, newspapers all over the world carried stories of Gold Dust's magic.
In February of 1961, this letter arrived for Roddy, written on Delta Air Lines' stationary "from" Gold Dust:
My dear little master:Inspired by the overwhelming success of the first mission, R.W. and Roddy began fitting other "steeds" for the trail. In March of 1961, Gold Dust II began a trek that took him "first to Amsterdam, then to Japan, to various south Pacific islands and finally to Australia" where he was received as royalty.
Saludos! I miss you and wish you were traveling with me and sharing with me the very wonderful experiences I am having during my air galloping around this whole wide world, which actually does not seem too big when one is traveling in these modern airplanes. Time seems very short and runs much faster (quite) than what I can gallop on the lovely prairies back home.
I miss you all, but I know you will understand when I tell you I am having a 'terrific' time. By the time I return to you, you will have a detailed account of my travels and my 'memoirs', since I understand that my lovely custodians 'the angels of space' --- the stewardesses of the flights I have used, are writing to you giving you all details.
You probably know that right now I am in San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico. I got a very warm reception from the agent receiving the Delta Air Lines flight 742, which left New Orleans Saturday morning at 9:30AM and arrived at San Juan at 6:01PM. It was the most enjoyable ride! But master, you must have forgotten to put my vaccination certificate (small pox) in my saddle-bag and I had to be vaccinated again by the U.S. Department [of Health, Education, and Welfare] at the beautiful International Airport in San Juan. Well, the rest of the papers must have been in order for I was able to reach the hands of the Delta agent without further difficulty.
Everyone wants to pamper me! Two pretty Puerto Rican girls that help the passengers go through Immigrations at the airport smiled at me and patted me. I know they were talking about me because they kept making a fuss about me, but I tell you, I really didn't understand what they were saying since they spoke a foreign language most of the time. It must be Spanish since the Puerto Ricans, being of Spanish descent, speak Spanish. But I heard them talk in English to other passengers. I've also heard everyone around the airport talking in English, so I surmise that most of the people in Puerto Rico are bilingual. I also overheard some of the Delta Air Lines agents saying that they were going to translate the card attached to me into Spanish and French so I believe quite a lot of people here speak French, too. By the way, by the conversations I hear, it seems I will be leaving for Spain tomorrow afternoon in Iberia (Spanish Air Lines).
I neglected to mention that the Delta Air Lines flight stopped at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Master, let's come sometime and spend a vacation there. I will enclose some brochures of Haiti and Puerto Rico and maybe we can take an island-hopping trip when I get back. You will like Haiti very much.
Also, you will fall in love with Puerto Rico, I am sure. The climate is ideal and the people are very friendly. Did you know San Juan looks very much like any modern city in the U.S., but at the same time some portions of the city still have the old Spanish buildings. The country side is beautiful! You just have to come sometime and visit here! Maybe the sweet grass the Delta employees gave me here influenced me, but I am not kidding you . . . it is a lovely place. Or maybe it was the cute little "mare" I saw here 'with big brown eyes' that make [sic] me like this place so much!
I forgot to tell you . . . or should I surprise you? No, I will tell you now. I understand a reporter in San Juan is going to write a story about my travels in the El Mundo newspaper. I asked one of the Delta agents here to send you a copy.
Hasta luego, amito. (little master)
Polvo de Oro (Gold Dust)
Meanwhile, other young "foals", all children of the original Gold Dust, were being commissioned and sent out across the world. "Precious Boy" was relayed from Texas to John Chancellor and NBC's "Today" show by twelve truckers.
The September 27, 1962 issue of the Cisco Press carried a story of Gold Dust III who left Putnam, bound for Alaska, around the first of August in the hands of former Putnamite, Hall Green. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner noted that although the "first two Gold Dusts did not collect any real gold dust on their trips around the globe . . . Gold Dust the III did . . . It was donated by a local old timer and glued to the stick horse."
Gold Dust IV set out for Russia where he would meet with Premier Khrushchev.
Roddy's younger brother, Roger, having recently joined the project in 1966, asked his father to send two horses, Trooper and Mr. Cavalry, out across the U.S. to gather letters of encouragement for our soldiers in Vietnam. The resulting mailbags carried over 800 good will messages, transported to their intended destination via a Huey helicopter.
In the years that followed the summer of 1960 and the subsequent travels of Old Gold Dust, R.W., Roddy, and Roger constructed, commissioned, and sent out over 100 other "sons" and "daughters", many of which achieved a fame equal to that of their "sire."
R.W. Reynolds, originator and producer of the project that came to be called "Operation Friendship" recently passed away. Today, his grand daughter, Joy Burwell, is working to locate anyone who may have heard of or seen any of the stick horses in the past. She wants to hear their stories and wants to locate"children" of Gold Dust that were lost while on the trail. She is willing to negotiate a "ransom" for the ponies' safe return.Joy J. Burwell
Four new ponies, "grandchildren" of the original Gold Dust, are now traveling to parts unknown, seeking to continue what was begun more than thirty years ago. The first, Ranger-Tex, traveled to Prague in the Czech Republic with the aid of Ed and Sandra Pickett of Liberty, Texas. A postcard, dated September 1996 reported: "Ranger-Tex was well behaved---visited the Prague Post
newspaper and has been delivered to Laddy Collins, a Czech-Irish rodeo cowboy. We are having a great time. Fondly, The Picketts."
Shortly thereafter, Darkhorse left the United States in the hands of Astrid Wind, an exchange student from Germany traveling to Oxford in order to continue work on a graduate degree.
The third pony, was mailed to Mrs. Willie Earl Tindall, an elementary school teacher in San Augustine, Texas and her class of Junior Historians.
A fourth horse, Atlantic C, was sent to Tom Crews, in Concord, California. Tom, a member of the National Pony Express Association, maintains a web site on the internet called "The Pony Express Home Page" that is dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of the Pony Express.
Thus, the spirit of cooperation and good will that gave birth to Operation Friendship in 1960 is alive and well today, residing within the hearts and minds of people like these. We may only wait to learn what great things lie ahead.
Few of us take time to consider the significance of the common, everyday acts that compose our daily lives, and yet, it is from these that we are truly defined. These demonstrations of ourselves become the gifts we leave to those who follow after us. R. W. Reynolds’ life, though common in many respects, has been an example of someone who dared to reach beyond himself and the confines of his own existence, to others. This example is part of the legacy he will leave behind: a rich legacy of friendship.
Joy Burwell may be contacted at Operation Friendship .
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