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Rheta Brumm sits behind a portrait of herself at age 22, in 1942. Brumm, of Carmel, continues to do her own house work and gardening at age 91.

She's 91 now — a long way from childhood — but Carmel's Rheta Brumm has vivid memories of her early years on the family farm near Fort Dodge, Iowa, where each day began before sunrise.

"My father would come to the stairway at about 5:45 a.m. and yell, 'Hit the floor!'" she remembers. "That's all he had to say. We all got out of bed immediately because we knew he was already headed out to milk the cows and work the fields."

Her parents, Marion and Laura Blanchfield, were hard-working, no-nonsense folks who kept their kids in line the old-fashioned way.

"They'd send us outside to pick out our own switch. If it wasn't big enough, or strong enough, they'd go back out there themselves and pick out another one," she says. "And I'm telling you, it would sting, and it left marks on our legs and backsides, but they only did it when we were asking for it. As a child you test, you push the boundaries to see what you can get away with. We learned very well what we could and couldn't do."

Her parents were wonderful, affectionate people, she says, and Brumm — the middle of five children — loved them both. To this day, she also loves Iowa, despite its sweltering summers and brutal winters.

"When it's hot in Iowa, it's really hot," she says. "And in the winter, when it was 20 below zero in Minnesota, it was usually only about five degrees warmer where we lived."

By the time she graduated from high school, though, she had grown weary of milking cows and toting five-gallon cans of swill to the pigs and chickens.


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She was wondering what might be beyond the country roads.

Brumm was 18 years old when an car accident put her in a hospital bed for two weeks — a stretch that gave her plenty of time to dream. By the time she got out, she had formulated an escape plan.

"I had decided that I was going to get out of Iowa the first chance I got," she says. "I knew by then I was coming to California."

She moved out of the farmhouse and took a room in "the big city," Fort Dodge, sharing rent and a bed with a girl she'd never met. She found work at Montgomery Ward, but the pay was lousy, so she used her lunch hour to walk to a nearby restaurant for a second job.

"When the owner interviewed me, he asked me if I knew how to make a malt. And I said, 'Well, I don't even know what a malt is,'" she said.

She worked day and night from June to March, saving her money, keeping her plans to herself. Then she responded to a newspaper ad placed by a couple looking for someone to share driving duties and expenses for a trip to the West Coast.

"I spoke to them on a Friday. They wanted me to meet them out on Highway 20 at 9 a.m. on Monday. So I called my mom and asked her to come pick me up after work so I could come home for the weekend," she recounts.

The teenager broke the news to her startled parents that night after her dad came in from the fields. They did their best to talk her out of it. She insisted that her mind was made up — she had already quit her job and moved out of her room. The adventure would last the rest of her life.

Landed in L.A.

"When I got to L.A., I spent one night with a great-aunt who I'd never met, never even talked to before," she says with a laugh. "I found myself a room the next day, and also got hired at a dime store for 15 cents an hour."

Using her lunch hour again, she walked to Montgomery Ward and got hired there, too. Then, she found yet another job as a waitress, and another folding sheets at a laundry, where she met a friend.

"A girl who worked there asked me to go with her to the Arthur Murray School of Dance. I told her, 'Oh, no, I don't dance, I don't drink, I don't play cards.'"

She went, anyway, and spent most of the session dancing with the instructor, even though another fellow in the class made several attempts to cut in.

That's how she met William Brumm, a handsome, future engineer. They dated for five months, then drove back to Iowa, where they were married. They returned to California, buying a two-bedroom home for $4,300 in Glendale.

When World War II erupted, Bill joined the Army and was sent to fight in Germany. She continued to work as a waitress, found a second job filling pill capsules with medicine, then got hired by Lockheed, where she was trained to extract rivets from the wings of P-51 Mustang fighters. Before long, she also was building capacitors, diodes and circuit boards for the aircraft, and was later moved to an office position, ordering parts.

"Bill was wounded on the battlefield in Germany, and by the time he came home I had paid off our house," she said. "I remember he said something one day about making the mortgage payment, and that's when I handed him the paperwork that showed that our loan was free and clear."

They had three daughters — Melanie, Shiara and Virdette, all of whom were college graduates by the time the couple divorced in 1965 after 23 years of marriage.

Worked in real estate

By then, Brumm had gone into real estate, buying and selling houses in Southern California, saving her escrow money, then buying and selling more.

"I wouldn't sell anybody a house unless they agreed to put down 20 percent, which was a lot of money," she says. "I always told them, 'Things can change, and when they do, you might lose your home. But if you put down 20 percent, that won't happen.'"

In the mid-1960s she paid $29,000 for a house in the upscale Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, between Bel Air and Hollywood. Remodeling and refurbishing the home became a labor of love.

"It was a magnificent house — absolutely elegant," she said. "There was a black chandelier, 25 feet tall and 25 feet wide, hanging in the entry way," she reminisces. "There was actually a chandelier over the stool in the bathroom.

She had the house for 30 years and sold it for more than $1 million.

Came to Carmel in 2002

That was in 2002, when she retired to Carmel, purchasing a magnificent, three-bedroom, two-bath home, 1,600 square feet, with a panoramic view of the Carmel Mission. The house is ornately furnished and meticulously decorated, surrounded by a garden. Her roommates are a pair of noisy conure parrots, Ziggy and Zoey.

"I do all of my own housework, and I do all of my own yard work," she said. "I just can't sit still — I don't want to — which is why I also work three days a week at Yellow Brick Road (Benefit Shop)."

The five-time great-grandmother takes daily walks through her hilly neighborhood, to the beach and back, and socializes frequently with friends and family.

"Life is so wonderful. I can't tell you how happy I am to be around people, which is why I work at Yellow Brick Road. I love to work," she said. "A lot of people sit around when they get older, but you have to exercise your body and brain. I'm 91 years old, I don't take any medications, and I don't have an ache or pain in my entire body."

She never remarried — never found the right man, she said — but became caretaker for eight years for a close male friend who had been disabled by five separate back surgeries. Arno Heckrodt, who lived in the spare bedroom of her Carmel home, died three years ago at age 83.

Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or dtaylor@montereyherald.com.