When Jerry and I go to and fro to our house in Alaska we drive through Yukon Territory. When we do I always think of Lola Estee. Yukon is a wild and beautiful place, but not as wild as it was almost 40 years ago when I knew Lola. I knew Lola in Florida, and I thought of Yukon as a wilderness of frozen waste.
I knew Lola for 2 reasons. We worked at the same place and our teen age boys went to school together. She had a connection to Yukon.
I taught Biology at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. Lola was the sole lab technician for a scientist named Boris Sokolof, who had a lab in the basement of the science area there. His objective was a modest one. He would find a cure for cancer. I don’t think he was paid by the College. He had some sort of minimal grant money, and was allowed to use college space which would otherwise be empty. His activities gave the College the cache of doing serious research.
Florida Southern was, at that time, a deeply conservative school run by the fundamentalist faction of the Methodist Church. Faculty meetings were for “information and inspiration” and faculty members were not allowed to speak without prior approval of the subject matter by the administration. There was a great deal of praying. The president of the college was a Methodist minister. The dean was a lawyer whose practice had been in real estate. He insisted on being called Doctor. I do not know what his academic qualifications were, if any. He was a big beefy fellow with a granite jaw and a huge diamond ring.
The buildings of the college were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Units were connected by long outdoor walkways with low overhead roofs. Frank Lloyd Wright was short. Tall people took their chances at Florida Southern, where they tended to walk with a perpetual stoop. Under the crisscross of walkways and buildings was a network of tunnels containing the pipes and wires of the physical plant. Boris’ lab connected to these tunnels, and opened to the outdoors on a hillside. Lola’s and my sons found it convenient to visit her, and retire to the tunnels where they kept their stash.
Boris, who was in his 70’s, was a white Russian, a remnant of the nobility. He had the title of Prince, but princes, I am told, were a dine a dozen in pre-revolutionary Russia. He regularly wrote letters to the Tampa Tribune accusing Richard Nixon of being a communist sympathizer. He was a tall man, with a stoop, either because of his advanced age or the low walkway roofs. He had a shock of brown hair, which I assumed was dyed, but Lola assured me was the result of the vitamin B12 shots she administered to him weekly. He believed the shots would keep him alive indefinitely,but sometimes his faith in the vitamin would waver and he would have panic attacks. Then Lola would stay with him all night.
Boris’ plan for finding a cure for cancer was to extract a wonder drug from a Florida plant. Lola collected the plants. One of Boris’ favorite plants to test was the Spanish Bayonette, and when it was blooming with its huge sprays of waxy white flowers Lola would spend days in the palmetto fields climbing on a step ladder to gather blossoms. She would come home covered with cuts and scratches from the knife-like bayonette leaves.
Lola boiled up a lot of peculiar potions in her lab. Then she administered them to mice. I think the experimental protocols were pretty slap-dash, but Lola was as nice to the mice as one could be under the circumstances. The mice were obtained from the Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine. She showed me the mouse catalog from Jackson. There were all sorts of mice with all sorts of genetic peculiarities and disease susceptibilities. The main mice that Boris used were guaranteed to get cancer. There were many others, though. There were hairless mice, mice which would spend their lives spinning in circles, obese mice, and so on. These mice were patented, and it was illegal to breed them. Nevertheless, for her amusement, Lola would order pairs of varieties that struck her fancy and raise baby mice.
Lola was in her late 30’s. She had short, bleached hair which always looked slept on. She wore a white uniform to work which was permanently stained and blue bedroom slippers instead of shoes. She said the cement floors were hard on her feet and the slippers were comfortable. Lola had false teeth. In her 20’s she had trouble with her teeth, so she went to a dentist and told him to pull them all out. She had to go to 4 dentists before she found one willing to do it.
Before becoming a lab technician she had made her living in various ways, but, not to put too fine a point on it, she was mostly a bar fly. She had been married 7 times. Husband number 7, the one I knew, was also number 5. She married him twice. He was in his 60’s and had lung cancer. He needed someone to look after him, and she needed his social security when he died. He was always called “the old man,” and he sat all day in a chair watching TV. He and Lola fought all the time. Lola sometimes pummeled him, often punching quite hard. They had a child, a girl named Lola Rae.
The governor of Florida, Claude Kirk, was invited to give a commencement address at the College. Lola had know Claude (a man well known for living life to its fullest) in her bar fly days. As the dignitaries were assembling in their academic regalia outside the main hall, the governor and the president of the college leading, Lola sauntered by in her stained uniform and blue bedroom slippers.
“Hi, Claude,” she called out.
He turned quickly. “Oh, hi, Lola,” he said, “What are you doing here?”
Before she could reply he was surrounded protectively by men in black robes and hustled into the auditorium. Boris was later admonished to keep Lola out of the public eye.
Lola and I were friends. She was intelligent, and I found her total disregard for a conventional life refreshing in the midst of Southern piety and conformity. She claimed that she was the adopted child of multi-millionaire Californians and that she had been a child prodigy pianist. I had a piano, although noone in my family played. When Lola came to visit she would sit down at the piano and run her hands over the keys, playing what seemed to be stream of consciousness non-music. She claimed that she had given a recital in the Hollywood Bowl as a child, but had forgotten all the music she knew then.
Her story was that her adoptive parents had disowned her and cut her off without a cent. I have forgotten the reason she gave for this, perhaps her marriage.
This brings us closer to Yukon. Her first husband, the father of her 2 boys was a handsom devil. He was also a counterfeiter. Apparantly he was good at it, and they managed well for a time on his profits. But he got caught. He escaped to — you know where — Yukon. Lola said every now and then the FBI would come to her house and ask her questions about his where-abouts, but she always claimed to know nothing. In fact, they kept in touch. Every summer she sent her boys to visit their father in Yukon. She said it would toughen them up and teach them to be self sufficient.
I think the boys liked their time with their father. I used to imagine what Yukon would be like in contrast to soft, steamy Florida, teaming with life. I thought Yukon must be a harsh, cold, empty place of terrible hardship and extremes. Now when I drive through its immense landscape, I see its grandure and elegance. I think of those boys with their outlaw father. I wonder where they are now.
I left Florida Southern to continue my graduate work. I lost track of Lola. I heard that she was getting a Ph.D. at Duke. Her son told my son that she had stayed with the old man until he died, and in the end she was the only person who could get him to eat. She sat with him in the hospital, slapped him awake, and yelled at him, “Eat your lunch, you old son-of-a-bitch, or I’ll knock you upside the head!” Then he would smile, open his eyes and meekly swallow the food she fed him.