Saturday, August 13, 2016

Unlikely reunion: Cousins meet again over coffee in Apple Valley after 70 years

Cousins meet again over coffee in Apple Valley after 70 years
A young Don Harris shines shoes at the Harvey House in Barstow in 1941, where he used to meet all the troop trains carrying the soldiers to war during World War II. (Courtesy of Don Harris)

By Rene Ray De La Cruz
Victorville Daily Press

APPLE VALLEY — Army veteran Donald Harris said he doesn’t know if it was coincidence or divine intervention that brought him and his cousin together after almost seven decades.

The 83-year-old Harris told the Daily Press that he met his long-lost cousin, Harvey Stanley, 79, about two weeks ago at Mega Tom’s restaurant on Bear Valley Road in Apple Valley.

“We were both born in Starks, Louisiana, a very small town with about 40 to 50 folks,” said Harris, as he sipped his coffee inside the eatery. “I about fell over when Harvey told me that he was also born in Starks.”

Harris and Stanley said they were both equally shocked when they discovered that Walter Harris was their uncle after they began discussing names of residents who lived in the small bayou town about 40 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and three miles from the Texas border.

“You have to realize that Starks is a tiny spot on the map, with about 10,000 mosquitoes for every person,” said Stanley, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific. “I think they recently had a population boom and Starks has about 600 people living there now.”

Harris said he left Louisiana at age six and visited a few times before age 10. He remembers playing with a lot of kids on his Uncle Walter’s farm, but doesn’t remember names or playing with Stanley. He added that, "with Starks being so small, we probably did cross paths at one time or another when we grew up."

The cousins also discovered that they've been living about four blocks away from each other in Apple Valley for the last 20 years, something Harris calls, “A coincidence that is beyond comprehension.”

“About six months ago, we saw this guy who was about our age group sitting at a different table inside Mega Tom’s,” Harris said. “We asked him if he’d like to join our group that meets about three times a week at the restaurant.”

With Harris having served in Korea, his girlfriend, Sheree Merrone, said Stanley’s Korea Veteran baseball cap caught her attention as the couple invited Stanley to join the senior group.

“Two weeks ago, we were at Tom’s without our group and we bumped into Harvey,” Harris said. “We finally had a chance to get a word in edgewise without the group. We started a conversation and that’s when we found out we were related.”

Merrone said she believes “Jesus brought the cousins together” and restaurant waitress Maria Pinkney remarked that the chances of Harris and Stanley meeting was “pretty astronomical,” considering how the duo’s life journey has taken them in different directions over the years.

Harris moved to California as a child when his father, who worked for Santa Fe railroad, was transferred to Barstow where an 8-year old Harris grew up and made money as a shoeshine boy at the Harvey House.

“I used to shine shoes when the troop trains came through town,” Harris said. “That was back in 1941, just after World War II started.”

As a teenager, the young Harris joined the Army and was stationed in Japan and Korea in the early ‘50s. After his time in the military, Harris returned to Barstow, then spent the next 40 years moving to Alaska, Denver, Missouri, Northern California, Oregon, Florida and Arizona.

“I moved to Apple Valley in 1998, built a couple of houses and spent a lot of time traveling by motorcycle,” Harris said. “I met Sheree in 2004 and we’ve been together ever since.”

After growing up on a cattle farm and riding bulls, Stanley said he quit school at age 17 and headed to California where he joined the Navy and met his wife, Charlotte, who lived in Downey.

“He met my parents and on my 16th birthday we went to the Pike in Long Beach,” Charlotte Stanley said. “That’s when he decided that he was going to marry me. We met in September 1955 and got married three months later.”

Charlotte Stanley, who grew up near the historic McDonald’s restaurant on the corner of Lakewood Boulevard and Florence Avenue in Downey, said she still remembers the couple ordering 15-cent burgers at the third restaurant franchised by Richard and Maurice McDonald, who founded the chain in 1948.

Harvey Stanley said he shipped out to sea and returned home just before the couple’s first daughter was born. After he was discharged in 1957, the couple spent the next 30 years living Downey, Louisiana, Lucerne Valley, the Los Angeles area before finally moving to Apple Valley in 1987.

While the couples enjoyed breakfast at Mega Tom’s, Charlotte Stanley and Merrone began chatting and quickly discovered they both lived near the Downey McDonald’s. For a brief moment, the couples thought another family connection was about to occur.

Harris and Stanley told the Daily Press they have a lot of “catching up to do” and the couples have many “double dates” planned.

“When we first met, we started having coffee as friends, now we're having coffee as family," Harris said. “I guess coming together after all these years was just meant to be.”