Writers are obsessed with words. The meaning of a word may seem obvious and it usually is but when two or more are strung together each shades the absolute meaning of all others in the sentence. It’s akin to designing something like the quadratic equation. Something we learned as freshman in high school and long forgotten. I don’t recall a single math teacher taking the time to explain its roots in history which might have pleased me at the time. One thing; math has variables, symbols with unknown values which when, strung together and interpreted using various rules can be solved for meaning. Sentences are like that too.
Take the Adverb, please! Apologies to Henny Youngman there. Anyway an adverb simply adds extra meaning to another word. For example, works hard, work is the verb and hard is the adverb. How about the adjective? An adjective spices up a noun. Beautiful house. The adjective is the word beautiful and the noun, person, place or thing, is the house. All these are modifiers. They subtly change the meaning of another part of speech.
Here is the way we work words. For example, say I’m a politician. I’m not encouraging you to do that mind you, I’d rather muck out cess pits myself but, just imagine I was. My team, read employees, hired from the best ivy league schools, superb wordsmiths all, and pollsters, they that have no opinions themselves but rely on cleverly crafted questions to get the answers they need to promote their boss. I need image consultants, a few hucksters to collect the campaign money and last but not least a couple magna cum laude grads from Harvard with nice legs and spritely smiles to carry my latte down the hallway when I’m trolling for media.
My speeches are finely crafted and polished by the best. What I say doesn’t have relevance to the question at hand and in fact says more to the listener by what is left out or thoughts intentionally misdirected. All this of course has one and only one purpose and that is to stay in office as long as I can.
I’d like to illustrate this with some fine examples of the art.
“He raped a young woman.” A well known politician has said this. What he didn’t say was, “He forcibly had sex with a child, a little girl, held her down and brutally raped her.” Big difference right? Which one do you hear the most?
“He shot 17 school kids.” I’m sure what he meant to say was, “He used an assault rifle designed for only one purpose and that to maim and kill soldiers on the battlefield to heartlessly slaughter screaming and terror stricken little kids in their classroom where the should be safe.” Oops, killed both their teachers too.
“Democrats and the main stream media did this.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz. You see, had nothing to do with guns whose manufacturers and the NRA give me stacks of money so I can continue to stay in office.
“These shootings are not predictable.” Texas governor Greg Abbott. What does that mean, really. It means he has no plan to do anything about it, in fact he blames the City of Chicago where he claims more people are killed every weekend. His political bus just turned to the right there and drove away from any change in policy. Abbott stated that, “Changes in gun laws are not the solution.” Full stop. No solution other than thoughts and prayers or not enough study are ever offered. PS: If you don’t know, there are almost no gun laws in Texas, period.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, “It is “literally sickening to think of the innocent young lives stolen” and that he was praying for everyone involved. How do you read that? McConnell offered no solution or call to congress to act other than to characterize the shooter as a “Maniac.”
US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweets ‘we don’t need more gun control’ in response to the latest school massacre. Isn’t she sweet? No mincing words there. At least thats honest of her.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, some members of Congress are calling for a return to God as opposed to tighter gun control laws, saying the tragedy was a result of “decades of rejecting good moral values.” Oh, spare me.
Lets analyze the statement above. Texas school shooting, (slaughter of 19 little children with a rifle whose projectile travels over 3,000 feet per second and tumbles when entering human flesh.) some members (Conservative good Republicans all.) calling for a return to God, (Has God left Texas?) as opposed to tighter gun control laws, (Practically zero in Texas.) Tragedy was a result of decades of rejecting good moral values. (An insane 18 year old boy walks into a school and in cold blooded murders 19 children and two teachers has nothing to do with general societies moral values.
I believe the answers to these events are stark, direct and should not be spun to satisfy the aspirations and ego of those who have been elected by us to deal with problems just like this.
Good God, stop treating the people of this country like idiots. Earn your salaries or get out.
My Grandad was a Roughneck. He’s the guy standing on the left in the cover photo. He is twenty four years old, married with two children, one of them my mother Barbara. He’s working for Associated Oil Company on a cable tool rig in the Santa Maria/Orcutt field in Casmalia, California. He has a hard look for the camera because he was all of that. He is just starting a hard, hard forty year career following oil rigs all over California.
Bruce, for that was his name surely never envisioned a career in the oil business. His parents and brothers were all people of the soil. The worked and managed farms and ranches all over California after arriving from Tennessee. Bruce Cameron was the second son, born in ’95 and arriving in California in 1901 with his mother Vancey and older brother William “Bill” Hall. Bruce’s father Sam had come out in 1899 and worked as a carpenter around the southern part of San Luis Obispo county, renting a house at 131 Verde Canyon Road in Arroyo Grande where he later settled his little boys and their mother Vancey.
Bruce was trading in his life as a ranch laborer. He put away the hay hooks, the side delivery rake, barb wire and world of cockle-burrs and foxtails. No more the day spent with bumpkins and hillbillies, no more being pushed around by the stud duck. Something new was at hand.
Now he would learn the difference between a tool dresser and a tool pusher, the roustabout and roughneck, the lowly worm and the driller.
He would work for many, many oil production companies, Associated, Barnsdahl, and at last Signal. He was a specialist in the art of the old Cable Tool manner of drilling and one of the masters at wielding the whipstock.
Neither of my grandparents had much education. Remote ranches and farms in old California were frequently distant from schools and for boys and girls, they were expected to work when they were quite young. In the rural world of the turn of the century kids were put to use at an early. In a sense, work was their education. They learned how to make do. Both moved around with their families when young, never settled in one place for long as the work always beckoned. Whatever their dreams were, they are unknown to us.
Americans were optimistic in 1915. For most of them, life was better materially than it had ever been. This was a time of prosperity — a new type of materialism, more leisure time, and vacations for the emerging middle class appeared. America was now the world’s most affluent country. Access to electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing was not widespread, but most people felt that such conveniences were just a matter of time.
For every American, including the working class, there was “possibility.” Anything was possible in America. This was the place of the self-made man, the American Dream, “rags to riches.” Horatio Alger’s myth is the belief that through hard work, anyone can become successful. Generations whose education came primarily from reading newspapers and books believed that if you simply worked hard enough you could surely rise through the strata of society. The reality for kids growing up on Linne Road in remote eastern San Luis County was obvious. You could expect a life of hard labor and for Bruce Hall a life as a bachelor whose life was circumscribed by the boundaries of whatever ranch his family managed.
Then in 1915, the Law of Unintended Consequences stepped in and changed everything. On a Saturday night when they were both twenty and complete strangers they attended a potluck and dance. Over long tables and chairs brought in from the local ranches by buckboard and wagon, they sat down to a bounty of homemade food served from casserole dishes on calico checked tablecloths. Cornbread, fresh biscuits, heaps of fried chicken, the bounty of the fields laid down for all to share. Ladies had carefully labeled their dishes with medical tape, their names written in curlicue copper plate so the empty dishes would find their way home with the proper family. The cakes and pies were served with fresh ice cream from wooden buckets that young boys had laboriously spun the handles on thinking the ice cream would never stiffen, but in the end it did.
While the women and young girls cleared away, the men played a game of baseball and as the sun went down, built a bonfire in the place cleared for it and the real socializing began. Men rolled their own or stoked cigars and talked of the weather and crops, serious things, while the mothers took out their knitting and spoke of domestic things or laughed about their husbands foibles, looking over their shoulders and giggling and at the same time keeping a weather eye for the kids who were running around in all directions in the dark. The young people circled carefully about each other, sizing up opportunities as it were. Young men knew who was single in those days because unmarried women did not put their hair up and my grandmother stood out with her clouds of light brown hair swirling around in the breeze. Eileen sat by the fire and waved her hands trying to clear the smoke from her eyes. She sensed a presence beside her as a voice softly said, “Smoke follows beauty.” Just like that Bruce hit the jackpot.
Corny as can be but it made her laugh out loud. Bruce asked if he could take her home as he had a horse and buggy. She thought that over and said she had ridden over on a horse named “Fleet” but that he had been trained to find his way home if the reins were tied on the saddle horn. She accepted the offer. They courted for about three months and then one morning the phone rang on the kitchen wall in Eileens mothers ranch house. It was Bruce. He popped the big question right there and then. He said, “My brother Marion and his girl Grace are taking the train down to San Luis Obispo and getting married, do you want to go with them and be married too?” Grandma was never one to miss an adventure. They were married in the old Presbyterian church on Marsh street. After the ceremony they went to the old Andersen hotel and had a glass of wine. Years later my brother who was pretty young at the time asked her, “what did you do then,” meaning where did you go to live and she replied, “Why we went up to the room.” He had no idea what to say next. It’s easy to forget that your grandmother was once young and did what you did when you were.
Both couples got up and took the early train up to Paso because Bruce and Marion had to do the milking. You can imagine the surprise on Bruce’s mother face when she woke up to find two brand new daughters-in-law in bed asleep. Bruce’s grandmother Mary Lucinda went into the bedroom to take a closer look at her grandsons new wife. She was leaning over Eileen, corncob pipe clenched in the corner of her mouth, she was lacking a few teeth and gripped it with her gums. She was an old Tennessee girl you know, born in 1841, lost a husband to the vicious civil war battle at Malvern Hill in 1862 and was certainly a product of the pre-civil war south. She was leaning close to the sleeping girl when a string of drool splattered on Eileens cheek and woke her up. Welcome to the family dearie.
Sam and Vancey Hall were a little chagrined because they knew the new brides mother, Marianna Polhemus Cayce had a pretty “Racy” reputation, well earned too. She was nobodies woman and did what she pleased. In the short time she had lived in the Creston/Cholame area she had only added to it. Marianna was managing ranches when few women did or could. She wasn’t a woman to be messed with. She had engaged herself to marry a wealthy Paso Robles rancher. They were both in town one day when he stopped by the old Paso Robles Inn for a drink with friends and lo and behold there she was tripping down the stairs from the rooms above with a traveling salesman in tow. No wedding. Not to worry, nothing slowed her down.
Marrianna or “Mai” as she was called was married three times and had six children. She took lovers whenever she felt like it. She was a free woman She was a noted horsewoman in California, singlehandedly managed large ranches and was the first woman to dare and fork a saddle and ride down State street, Santa Barbara in the 1900 Fiesta Day parade. It was so shocking she made the editorial page of the newspaper. City people people were horrified as this simply was not done. She didn’t do sidesaddle. Growing up in the country it was of course, natural and her daughter Eileen certainly threw her leg over “Fleet” when she rode to the dance to meet her fate.
The Halls were strong Pentecostal church members and thought they might have to keep an eye on Eileen but she soon charmed them all. Whatever the circumstances they stuck together and if you married one you married them all. They were very good people, kind and generous to their two new daughters-in-law.
Aunt Grace was from the Stewart family and was born on the old Mexican land grant know as the Ranchita, One of several large holdings of the Branch family in the Arroyo Grande valley. She was one of thirteen children born to her parents in just nineteen years. Henry Stewart gave his wife no rest. He died at 45, she lived to be ninety. Louella Alice Alderson Stewart was her name. She was a tough cookie as they used to say..
There was no honeymoon, Bruce went right back to work on the ranch. Grandma had to learn to be a housewife. When she married she didn’t know how to cook or keep a house. Her mother never bothered about those things and Eileen sort of grew up on her own. Coffee and a piece of toast was breakfast in her mothers house. She learned all the rest from her mother-in-law.
For the first three years of marriage they bounced around with the Halls, from the ranch in Cholame to a ranch in the Verde district of Arroyo Grande where my aunt Mariel was born. That little house in Bee canyon is still there.
In 1917 Bruce lost his job and they decided to move up to Madera and stay with his parents until he could find work. They didn’t have an automobile and couldn’t afford the Southern Pacific trains but they did have a horse and a buckboard. A “Buckboard” wagons was just about the simplest conveyance there was. Basically a box on two axles with a seat on springs for a driver and passenger. In the front of the wagon a horizontal board served as a footrest and protection from the horse if she decided to kick you, hence “Buckboard.” It had no brakes, if the horse spooked and ran away, you were along for the ride. They were bone rattlers.
They threw all their earthly goods in the box and climbed up on the seat. Eileen had little Mariel who was just a year old and still a toddler. She was eight months pregnant with my mother Barbara. In 1917 the road from Cholame to Madera was just a dirt track. They were going a hundred thirty miles the hard way. Out through the Kettlemen Hills, which they would someday be very familiar with and across the San Joaquin valley to the old road which would someday be highway 99 and up to the ranch in Madera. Dry and miserable hot in, August, they bounced along behind the walking horse, covered in dust, fannies sore from the old wooden seat. Once, out across the valley they stopped at a ranch and inquired after some water for the horse and themselves. The rancher was happy to oblige them and they drank deeply, filled the canteens and climbed back up on the wagon seat. Their dog Brownie, who was making the trip on foot, was lying under a pepper tree, tongue lolling, panting in the shade. He had had enough and refused to follow, figuring this would be his new home. Bruce called and whistled but he wouldn’t come. Bruce and Eileen looked at each other, it was hot and they had a long way to go and they couldn’t wait. Brownie stayed, they left.
My mother was born at home as it was in 1917, midwifed by her grandmother and great-grandmother. Born in her parents bed before the doctor made it to the house, not uncommon for the time. Madera was their home for eighteen months. My grandfather was draft exempt, being married with two children and there was plenty of work with the United States in the war but as with all booms brought on by wars the minute the fighting stopped so did the need for export crops and he was out of work again. The ranch couldn’t support three families any longer, but somehow Bruce got a job at the Pacific Coast Railroad company warehouse in Los Alamos and moved down on his own, intending to bring his little family from Madera once he was settled. All this moving was never to end, it set the pattern for the rest of their lives. They never seemed be upset by it. Like all folks, they did what they needed to do. They got really good at it as you will see. Bruce and Eileen never looked back.
The head warehouseman stuck his head out of the little office and shouted out at the floor, “Hall, you gotta phone call.” Bruce hurried up to the office shack wondering who might be calling him at work. He hoped there was no problem up in Madera as he took the receiver in hand, wiping the mouthpiece with his bandana and saying hello with a question in his voice. “Bruce, its Marion, I’m in Casmalia and I got a job in the oil field here and theres one for you too if you can come up.” Casmalia was just twenty two miles and a short buggy ride from Los Alamos. Bruce knew an opportunity when he saw one. The pay was more than twice what he was making on the railroad. Sixty cents and hour was a princely sum in ’19. He hung up the phone and told his boss he was pulling his ticket and asked for passage up the line to the Graciosa station just above the tiny town of Orcutt. The boss paid him off. He went back to his boarding house stuffed his valise with his possibles and ran back to the station and took the afternoon train up the line. Marion took him to the Associated Oil superintendents shack and got him signed up. Bruce followed Marion down to the what passed for a town, threw his case down on a cot in the Shebang Marion had and then went over to the little library and called Eileen and told her to pack up the kids and come on down. He had a good job at good pay and he wanted his family with him.
Eileen had never lived without family around, husband, children, in-laws of all kinds but in Casmalia she was going to have her first home, sort of. She and Bruce with Brother Marion and sister-in-law Grace were going to be sharing a lease house. One of the so-called perks of life in the oil patch was the availability of homes built by the oil companies and rented for a nominal four or five dollar from their employees. Consider that most early fields in California were in places where rattlesnakes, squirrels and coyotes lived and the only landscaping was what nature provided. It was no woman’s dream to live in those places.
Their first home was a Shebang, a type of very small quasi building characterized be a wooden plank floor, half walls about four feet high, also made of rough planks and a canvas tent structure over it all. It was not a palace, wealthy dogs lived in better places but it was a beginning.
No one really knows where the term cShebang omes from. It’s first mention comes from Civil War letters. Confederate boys from Louisiana wrote of them and its probable the name is a bastardization of the French word chabane or cabane. They were common in the winter quarters of both armies and are seen in old glass plate negatives of the railroad camps of both the Union and Central Pacific roads as they raced towards each other in the late 1860’s. Many discharged soldiers worked on the track gangs of both railroads and would gravitate to the oil fields of California when the railroad boom went bust at the turn of the century.. They were cheap to build and easy to move when wells were complete. No one loved them but they served their purpose.
Bruce, Eileen, his brother Marion and his wife Grace all moved in, all seven of them. By this time Grace and Marion had a son, Don and Bruce and Eileen, two daughters, Mariel and Barbara. A four year old boy, and the girls. three and two, all in a hut that measured just 12 by 18 feet. Bruce had gone down to the tiny town of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez valley which was the end of the line for the Pacific Coast RR and bought all that was necessary to furnish their new abode. A cheap kerosene stove, a small table and chairs, two iron beds and matresses but surely the most important thing, extra blankets to be hung on a rope to divide the little tent house into halves for privacy. They were still young. The both of them just 23.
WHEN AN OLD PERSON DIES, A LIBRARY BURNS TO THE GROUND.
Have you ever given a thought to what happens when your grandmother dies. It is said that you can take nothing into death. That’s wrong. She takes every experience, every thought and all she ever learned with her. What she did and how she did it goes too. Things so rich with knowledge about how her world worked erased as surely as Evelyn Fernamburg cleaned the blackboards at our school with her bucket of warm water and vinegar. Everything is gone.
History books we use in school are just a tease. Dribbles of information whose text is meant to spark interest in kids who have little to no real interest in something that “That happened a long time ago,” Mister Shannon, “Nobody cares about that stuff.” I myself went to school but I never learned what I wanted to know.
What is a life? Is it a story that no one remembers? When enough time passes does one cease to be even a memory, to anyone? To whom? Is it some or just one, somewhere. Are you the caretaker of that life?
Because I was a reader I understood that my history teachers were teasing me. It was as if we were in a card game. The Napoleon card has something on the back. If I wanted to know what it was I would have to explore. I could do this by reading anything I could get my hand on that told me something about him.
That was all well and good but what about the real experience. I couldn’t go knock on his door or call him on the phone, could I? I occurred to me that I would never know. Napoleon Buonaparte lived only in the imaginations of those that wrote about him, whether they be eminent scholars or trash novelists. What I knew of him would be fine filtered. A life made up. Not to say he didn’t exist, but where is the real man?
I have determined that the closest you can get is to ask the librarians. Living people who have cataloged their memories in those metaphysical drawers they use to store experience. Socrates, Plato, his student Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and and Calvin and Hobbes the twentieth centuries best known philosophers more or less agreed that it is “the inventory of all we possess through pure reason, ordered systematically”
Ask someone you know. It isn’t necessary to go far afield. Here in the central part of California there are people who walk around the supermarkets or go to high school baseball games who are every bit as fascinating as “The Corsican Tyrant.” Ask them.
At the end of the street I live on is a house where an old friend of my mother used to live. She was a kind woman. She cut her gray hair short in the fashionable Bob that women of a certain age used to wear. She said that she wore it that way because when she was a girl in the twenties her favorite actress, the fabulous Louise Brooks wore it so. She said she never saw any reason to change it either. She wore clothes that could best be described as sober. You might think she had always been that way but inside her head she had a different story to tell. Born in 1915, she had something quite unusual for a woman of her age, a tattoo. Nearly invisible on the inner part of her forearm was a crudely lettered numbered. That number.
Born and raised in Berlin, she lived the Jewish experience of Nazism and the rise and fall of the Third Reich. She could and did talk about the rise of Adolph Hitler. She told of Kristallnacht and what it meant to her shopkeeper father who it ruined. She showed me a piece of official German documentation that revoked her citizenship in April of 1939.
She spoke of the roundups when her family was first taken to Theresienstadt and her transfer to Auschwitz in 1943. Auschwitz was the last stop for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish women sent to the gas chambers. When they came down the ramps from the cars the were lined up and the selection process began. Only the young and strong stood a chance of being registered in the work camp. Many of them, unwilling to be separated from their children, unknowingly condemned themselves to death. No one, she said had any illusions about what was happening by then. At 38 she knew she would likely be liquidated. When the SS Doctor asked her age she said 28, it saved her life. Those on the left went straight to Birkenau, the camp specifically designed for killing.
She had her registration number tattooed on the inner side of her left upper forearm. Tattooing was generally performed during registration when each prisoner was assigned a camp serial number. Since prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were never issued numbers, they were never tattooed. They simply disappeared into fog only to be remembered by those who survived.
She was liberated in January of 1945 by the Russian Army. They were so emaciated, covered in rags and vermin that the Russian soldiers could not be bothered to rape them. She said the female survivors had to face the the loss of their children, husbands and other relatives. Everything they ever knew was gone. The Jewish women had nobody to return to. The imprisonment had a terrible impact on future life. Some of them never recovered.
She was lucky though. She met an American soldier assigned to her displaced persons camp. They fell in love, married and came to America.
I was lucky too, she lived on my street.
There is something else. I also knew a Nazi, though he would never admit it. He was a soldier of the German Wermacht, their regular army. He would tell you he was really an Austrian and didn’t want to be in the army but for some reason he stuck it out for four years. He fought in Russia in the southern front trying to take the Ukraine. He told of the terrible suffering in the Russian winter when the troops starved and froze to death in their holes. He was transferred to the west in the spring of 1944 in order to be ready for the suspected Allied invasion of Europe. He belonged to the 726th Infantry Regiment of the 716 Static Infantry Division which was made up of older men from occupied countries, mostly from Ukraine. He said they were decimated in the fighting around Caen and the Villiers-Bocage, and were withdrawn to southern France to rest and refit. By this time they knew the war was over. He and another Austrian deserted and walked into the American lines to surrender. He told me they were terrified because they thought the G I’s might kill them as had been done to German soldiers who tried to surrender in western France. The fighting there against the British and Canadians was particularly vicious.
They stood in plain view in the middle of the road with their hands raised, weapons in the dirt, until an American jeep came along. He was lucky, they didn’t shoot. He ended up at the Camp Cooke POW stockade. (Vandenberg AFB) Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the prisoners received comfortable quarters and excellent care. They filled critical wartime labor shortages inside the main Army post at Cooke and in the outlying civilian communities of Lompoc and Santa Maria, performing agricultural work for which they were paid. On weekends and evenings, they enjoyed many recreational entertainment and educational opportunities available to them in the camp. For many POWs, the American experience helped reshape their worldview and gave them a profound appreciation of American democracy.
In his case that is exactly the story. After the war he was sent back to Europe where he married, had children and eventually immigrated to the US. He said we had opportunity here because there was little class structure. For white people at least, he said.
Sitting round his kitchen table he talked about what it was like for him. He hated the Germans and what they had done to his country but at the same time he was a bit of a hard case himself. He liked this country but thought Americans were too soft. He believed in discipline for his children. He said American schools were not rigid enough. He didn’t much care for people of color either. As the evening wore on and the Schnapps descended ever lower in the bottle he talked of things that would make your hair stand on end. Most of it is not for sharing for the same reason combat veterans don’t talk about their experiences. The one thing he said that struck me the most, was that all Austrians and Germans knew about the lampshades. If they said they didn’t, that was a lie. That kind of thing is something not found in any history text.
The power of an imagination arises from what it refuses to see, when it has no opportunity to see. The truth of things lie in the words of those who have experienced them. Few of those are interviewed for history texts. Generals, politicians, businessmen, they are the winners and they write history. Few are the books written by the afflicted. Those that are can be harrowing. GI’s who fought under George Patton were apt to say of “Old Blood and Guts,” yeah, his guts our blood.
Think of what’s stored in an 80 or a 90 year-old mind. Just marvel at it. You’ve got to get out this information, this knowledge, because you’ve got something to pass on. There’ll be nobody like you ever again. Make the most of every molecule you’ve got as long as you’ve got a second to go.
All you need in life is truth and beauty and you can find both at the Public Library. You can thank Louis “Studs” Terkel for that bit of advice. Studs was an American writer, historian, actor, and broadcaster. He received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for “The Good War” and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans. He collected stories and wrote “Hard Times”, which was a firsthand account of people of varying socio-economic status who lived in the United States during the Great Depression. He also wrote the book “Working:” where people Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
Every time you pass someone on the street, you pass a library. Take time to sit down with the elder folks in your family. Ask them, pry the stories out. Pry, that you will certainly have to do because most are reluctant to speak of things that are part of their lives that they believe could not possibly be of importance to you.
Once I was in a local donut shop and sitting at the little round table in the back near the coffee machine was an older gentleman. I say gentleman because I could see by his demeanor and the way he wore his clothes, long sleeve shirt carefutly pressed, hair cut and combed just so and a blue ball cap perfectly squared away that he had been a military man. He wore that navy blue cap with the gold lettering in a way that told you he was a proud man. Lettered in gold on the front was “USS Hazelwood DD-531. When I looked at him he smiled and gave a slight nod that I knew was an invitation to sit down and have a chat. I did just that. Turns out, his little destroyer was smashed to pieces off Okinawa by a Kamikaze on the day I was born. How about that. A chance encounter and the right question.
But as I’m wont to say, that is another story for another day.
Just yesterday my wife and I were returning from Palm Springs and we passed the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Griffith Park east of downtown Los Angeles. Her grandparents are buried there. She said, “I don’t know where they are, no one in my family has ever been to visit them.” They both lived through nearly the entire twentieth century. Nancy’s grandmother was born in London, England and served in WWI as a nurse in France. Nobody ever asked her what her life was like. Isn’t that sad? Just think of what was lost.
Cover Photo: Mrs Margaret Sheldon and Mrs Florence McNeil. Arroyo Grande High School Librarians 1962.
Today is the day, Corned Beef and Cabbage is on the table, nested in a tasty berm of boiled potatoes and carrots. It’s the one day of the year when we eat to remember. To remember what was once a serious thing.
In the 1850’s the poor benighted Irish in New York were confined to an area in lower Manhattan known as the Five Points. It was the filthiest, evil, most run down section of the city with open sewers running down the streets and wooden tenement buildings dating back to the revolutionary war. The neighborhood, partly built on land which had filled in the freshwater lake known as the Collect Pond, was generally defined as being bound by Centre Street to the west, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south. The Five Points gained international notoriety as a densely populated, disease-ridden, crime-infested slum that existed for over 70 years. Five Points is alleged to have had the highest murder rate of any slum in the world. According to an old New York urban legend, the Old Brewery, built in the 1790s, was an overcrowded tenement on Cross Street housing 1,000 poor. iIt s said to have had a murder a night for 15 years, until its demolition in 1852. The famine Irish immigrants lived there.
“Debauched women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings. Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game… ruined houses, open to the street, the reek of boiled cabbage and corned, ruined beef, hideous tenements which take, their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” –Charles Dickens
Note that Dickens was long removed from tenement life himself and demonstrated his self satisfied views in his book written about his tours of America. He thumbed his nose at the Irish noting that the Five Points was far worse than the slums of London.
“They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brain and virtue.” The average Irishman is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.” Theodore Roosevelt.
Ireland itself was a major producer of salted meat, going back all the way to the Middle Ages and lasting through the 19th century. Under English rule, the vast majority of the products of Ireland were exported by the landowners. As to the the great famine itself, Ireland produced bumper crops of Beef, Pork and Wheat during the time Irish children were dying in ditches from starvation. One of the causes of the great migration is that tenant farmers were turned off the land in order to cash in on the export market.
“This [the Irish] is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” – Sigmund Freud
It wasn’t always called corned beef, though. That didn’t come until the 17th century when the English coined the term. The “corned” comes from the use of large chunks of rock salt used in the curing process. These were know in England as corns. Pickled beef is the correct term.
“You can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars.”–Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister
While Ireland produced large amounts of corned beef, it was nearly all for trade. Corned beef was considered a luxury, and much too expensive for the poor Irish to consume. Instead, they relied on dairy and pork, especially salt pork, a relative to bacon.
Jiggs was born in Ireland. He came to this country expecting to find gold on the streets of New York, but found that he was expected to pave them with bricks and cobblestones instead. He became a hod-carrier. Romance came into his life when he met Maggie, a waitress at a small café, who put heaping dishes of corned beef and cabbage before him. They were married, and Jiggs became thrifty. Instead of carrying bricks, he bought and sold them on commission. Then he manufactured them. Street brawls in the old days in New York provided a great market for Jiggs’ bricks, which were harder than ordinary bricks. He grew rich. He still loved the corned beef though._____George McManus
The Irish use of corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced back to the 19th century and the Irish immigration to the U.S. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork back at home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was prohibitively expensive in the Americas. Their best option for a lower-cost meat was, you guessed it: corned beef. What was once a luxury became a food that was now inexpensive and readily available. Cabbage was added because it was the cheapest of vegetables. No New York swell would deign to eat such a coarse vegetable, instead preferring the finest lettuce.
So it was the Irish-American consumption of corned beef that initiated its association with Ireland and the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day.
The real truth comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “Not paupers and criminals, but the Republic’s most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work.” Something that can be said of all immigrants.
My personal favorite though is from a man with a very particular set of skills, someone not to be argued with
“I’m Irish, so I’m used to odd stews. I can take it. Just throw a lot of carrots and onions in there, and I’ll call it dinner.” – Liam Neeson
As the quote at the beginning of this story written by that Dublin man, Sean O’Casey states,
“Thats the Irish all over____They treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.”
Things to know about being “Irish” for Saint Patrick’s day.
In the deepest darkest time of night when Hobgoblins dance about on Branch Street in Arroyo Grande, beware. The wee people are out and about every March 16th. They cast a magic spell and lo and behold a brilliant shamrock green stripe appears. From Ralph and Duanes bar out and up the street, making a slightly tipsy band of brilliance until it arrives at the batwing doors of Old Bill Hendrix’s saloon. The wee man say’s, “Micheal ,ye Feckin’ Eejit it’s O’Conners now and fer taday, it’s a pub.”
My earliest American ancestor arrived in the Virginia colony in 1682 to serve a seven year indentured servitude. A form of debt bondage, meaning it was an agreed upon term of unpaid labor that usually paid off the costs of the servant’s immigration to America. He arrived on the shores of Colonial America and was auctioned to the man who then paid his passage to the shipmaster who brought him. Indentured servants were not paid wages but they were generally housed, clothed, and fed. Daniel Shannon worked off his debt and married Abigail Vaughan at Portsmouth, Virginia in 1689. The rest, as they say is history. Fast forward a few generations and we find the family in western Pennsylvania and owners of a tavern in Bethel township. The family bought it from the heirs of a man named Reynolds who was hanged by the British for the crime of counterfeiting. How Irish is owning a tavern.
Jump another hundred years or so and having somehow survived the Revolution, The Blackhawk war, The war of the Southern Rebellion and various other disagreements including my great-grandfather’s two years in Sing Sing, we arrived in Arroyo Grande in 1888. John Edward Shannon, he of Sing Sing fame and his wife Catherine Shannon, nee Brennan bought a house and small ranch just off Corbit Canyon near the old stage road and settled in. We’re still here 134 years later. Being near the sea, it’s as far as they could go.
If you are not a Gaelic speaker, which few are, the title of this story is the proper name of the Saint, so called, that the particular day of celebration is named for, Saint Patricks Day. According to the autobiographical Confessio of Patrick, when he was sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken from his home in Britain and sold as a slave in Ireland. He spent his days a a herder near Slemish Hill, historically Slieve Mish in County Antrim where my grandmothers family is from. My great-grandparents would have seen it from their homes. He was a Shepard, looking after the woolies.
He lived in the north and west of medieval Ireland. He was captive there for six years before escaping and returning across the Irish sea to his family in Wales. After becoming a cleric, he returned to northern and western Ireland where he went about saving souls and dealing with snakes, or so it goes.. In later life, he served as a bishop, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on 17 March, the supposed date of his death. It is celebrated inside and outside Ireland as a religious and cultural holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland, it is both a solemn and holy day of obligation; it is also a celebration of Ireland itself.
He is not actually a canonized Saint as there was no process for making him a Saint during and after his life. He is listed on the calendar of saints but has never been officially recognized by the Pontiff. He is recognized as so by the Irish Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches though. It really doesn’t matter as nearly the entire world does so on a least one day of the year.
About the snakes. There were never any snakes in Ireland; never, ever. The snake story is a metaphor for the banishment of the so-called Pagan religions in Ireland during his lifetime. The Irish tribes of the time likely wouldn’t have known what a snake was if you threw it at them. Snakes and St Patrick first became entwined in the 17th century but it’s hard to kill a good story and if any snakes know different they don’t give a hiss.
The angry old man in the tablet above, wearing his bathrobe is Saint Patrick. A garment never worn in Ireland. The snakes are making their escape, the busty maiden with her hands up in surrender represents the Druids. You can see she is holding a sprig of Oak leaf which are purported to be the symbol of that religion which worshipped trees. The studly guy with the torch is, of course a pagan who Paddy said were fire worshippers. He wanted them all out of Ireland. You can take it or leave it, it’s all likely Blarney anyhow.
The Shamrock was first connected with Patrick centuries after his death. He supposedly used its three petals to illustrate the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The symbolism of three has been used in religion since before time and Patrick would have found it was an easy get. In art, architecture and design the trefoil predates writing.
Now you know a little, and I mean very little about the old guy. There is a field of research that believes he never existed but as we always do in journalism the legend is much more interesting so thats what we print.
The British Parliament passed laws against dissenters and Irish Catholics in 1695. They were forbidden to own land, to school their children, vote, own a horse worth more than £2.50. They could not be a public official, be a lawyer or soldier, or serve on a jury. It was a hanging offense to speak Gaelic. Teachers, called Hedge Masters roamed Ireland teaching, literally in the bushes, another hanging offense if caught. This is the period that saw the end of many Irish traditions, including the wearing of the Irish kilt. It seems unbelievable today that this could have been so, but men, women and children were hanged for wearing a sprig of the Shamrock. These laws were designed to completely stamp out Irish culture. Instead, the Irish sailed away to America. You see, they could own land here, and school their children
And that they did. In the 1880’s our little valley was populated by many, many Irish families. There were Moores, MacGuires, Shannons, Olohans, Rices, Phelans, Donovans, Greys, Corbits, O’conners, McBanes and McKeens, many of them my relatives. My sister in law is a MacConaghy, a strawberry blonde no less.
As to the drink itself. Ireland today doesn’t even make the top ten worldwide. Sort of ruins the image of the two-fisted drinking Irish male doesn’t it. As with the many traits and characteristics of ethnicities the idea that the Irish are drunkards has more to do with politics than fact.
A letter written by then Catholic Cardinal Paul Cullen in March 1870 illustrates the attitude of those who backed the Sunday closing bill of 1905.
“Almost all the crime we have to deplore in Ireland may be traced to drunkenness; and as long as the doors of the public-house stand open during the leisure of the Sunday, it will be very difficult indeed to root out from among our people that degrading vice.” Cullen called for legislation to impose the Sunday ban, for the “spiritual and temporal welfare of our excellent people”.
Mind you though, the bill passed in the British Parliament only targeted the Irish. The Scots, Welsh and British were still allowed to partake of a Sunday. Of course they had slightly better relations with the British government even though they drank just as much. It seems the Brits have had it in for the Irish from, lets see, roughly the year 1169. More on that later.
When the barman asks you what will you have there are some things to know. If you ask for a pint, it’ll be Guiness served at room temperature. Room temperature, not warm, not chilled. Don’t forget, Ireland is not a warm country and room temperature is, well cold. If you think you’re cool and want to be like the locals and ask for a Black and Tan do it in San Francisco not Dublin. The name “Black and Tan” is not used in Ireland as a term for a mixture of two beers. The drink is instead referred to as a half and half. In Ireland, the term “black and tan” is associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, nicknamed the “Black and Tans”, which was sent into Ireland in the early 1920s during the Irish War of Independence and resulted in violent outbreaks between the Constabulary forces and the Irish people. The Black and Tans are thoroughly hated. So half and half it is, half Harp and Half Guiness stout.
One other thing. Guiness is not the only beer in Ireland and in fact the British and, surprisingly, the Nigerians drink more per capita than the Irish. Guiness breweries are now owned by a British conglomerate called Diageo, which until recently was the worlds largest brewer. There is a sneaking suspicion that the recipe for Guiness has been tampered with. Irish have every reason to be suspicious of the British.
The Diaspora refers to the dispersion of any people from their original homeland. There are far more people of Irish descent living outside Ireland than there are in the home country itself. For fourteen centuries the Irish have been starved out, shipped out as criminals, sold into servitude and simply left as my ancestors did. The Shannons arrived in America not long after Oliver Cromwell finally savagely crushed the Irish at Drogheda in 1649, killing upwards of 20,000, murdering the captured on the spot, burning the city and deporting 50,000 Irish to the New World as indentured servants which you may know is a type of slavery. Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were also often destinations for Irish fleeing starvation and oppression.
“Oh, Paddy dear and did you hear the news that’s goin’ round? The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground Saint Patrick’s Day no more we’ll keep his colours can’t be seen For they’re hangin’ men and women for the wearin’ of the green.”
In America, before it became the United States there was opportunity unlimited and a people raised under oppressive law took full advantage of it. Big George Washington wasn’t Irish but he would not have survived the revolution with out his master spy Hercules Mulligan who was born in Coleraine, County Londonderry. He was denounced as a spy to the British by that dastardly traitor Benedict Arnold. Hercules used his Irish Blarney to talk his way out of hanging. Obviously the “Gift of Gab.”
James Hoban, the architect who designed the White House was from Callan, County Killkenny. He supervised the actual building of the structure with the blessing of President Washington himself.
We take the phrase “Third Times the Charm” from the marksmanship of Timothy Murphy who on his third try drilled the Scot General Simon Fraser at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. Murphy, from Pennsylvania was a master with the Kentucky Rifle. Serving with Daniel Morgan’s hand picked rifleman, Murphy scaled a tree, took careful aim at the extreme distance of 300 yards, and fired three times. The first shot was a close miss, the second grazed the General’s horse, and with the third, Fraser tumbled from his horse, dead. The deed is credited with breaking the British and ending the battle. “The third Time’s the Charm.”
James Marshall, not Irish, discovered gold at Colma in California in 1848. The “Luck of the Irish” phrase has long been associated with this discovery. Down in San Francisco, Samuel “Sam” Brannon, son of James who emigrated from County Waterford, yes, the crystal comes from there, was the first to hear of the gold strike and spent a few days buying up every thing a miner might need for his store and then walking down Marker street shouting, “Gold, gold found on the American River. It made his fortune and he became, shortly, California first millionaire in the day when a million meant something. The majority of the first miners were of Irish descent and the phrase is said to have originated with the. James Marshall an Englishman had no luck, he died penniless near Kelsey California in 1885. No luck for James.
It doesn’t matter which political party you belong to, there are politicians and presidents of Irish descent in all of them. Eleven Irishmen signed the declaration of Independence, most born in Ireland. John Dunlap who printed the document was born in Strabane, County Tyrone.
There were four Irish born signers of the U S Constitution, two from County Antrim, one from County Carlow and one from Sligo.
Twenty-tthree of our 46 presidents have claimed Irish ancestors including ten of the last twelve. Some who pushed a little such as Nixon who was descended from Irish on both his father and mothers side but did not want the voters to think he was embracing Democrat JFK’s Irish Catholocism. Pat Nixon’s father, Patrick Ryan was from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, so he figured why not use that instead. Very Nixonest. Barack O’Bama is Irish through his fathers family the Kearney’s who hailed from Moneygall, Tipperary. His great-grandfather Fulmore was a wealthy farmer and an Uncle, John Kearney who became the Bishop of Ossory and a Provost of Trinity College in Dublin, Irelands most prestigious university. Joe Bidens mother was a Finnegans of County Mayo. Bill Clinton claimed to be Irish on his mothers side but there is no evidence of that. Sounds like him. I will say that he has the “Gift of Gab,” so there is that.
Al Smith mayor of New York and Governor of the state lost to Herbert Hoover in the presidential election of 1928. As a son of Ireland he ran as a “Wet” meaning he was against prohibition, naturally. He was also the first Catholic to run for the highest office in the land the opposition made the claim that if elected he would let the Pope run America. Interestingly, the same claim was made in 1960 about JFK. Didn’t work the second time. Al Smith got a better job though. He ran the Empire State buildings construction. Built in just 13 months he ordered construction to begin on March 17th, 1932. By the by, the Empire State is bathed in Green every Saint Pat’s day. Thanks Al.
That brings us to the Blarney Stone. For over 200 years, world statesmen, literary giants, and legends of the silver screen have joined the millions of pilgrims climbing the steps to kiss the Blarney Stone and gain the gift of eloquence. Its powers are unquestioned but its story still creates debate. My Grandmother Hall gave it a smack herself. She did it for fun ’cause she really didn’t need more eloquence than she already had.
The stone is set into the wall of Blarney castle which was built by Dermot MacCarthy in 1446. It is inside a stone shaft affixed to the outer wall of the castle keep. The original use of the shaft was the castelleyne’s private garderobe. The Irish know what it’s original use was an don’t typically kiss the stone, being naturally gifted with eloquence by birth.
Some say the stone was Jacob’s Pillow, brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah. Here it became the Lia Fail or ‘Fatal Stone’, used as an oracular throne of Irish kings – a kind of Harry Potter-like ‘sorting hat’ for kings. It was also said to be the deathbed pillow of St Columba on the island of Iona. Legend says it was then removed to mainland Scotland, where it served as the prophetic power of royal succession, the Stone of Destiny.
The Stone of Destiny is also known as the Stone of Scone and resided under the throne of Scotland before being taken by the British crown as spoils of war in 1296. There is a delightful little film titled “The Stone of Destiny” about four college kids who steal it and return it to Scotland in 2008. One of the leads is actress Kate Mara of the Rooney/Mara family an Irish girl. For the sports fan, her great-grandfathers founded the Pittsburg Steelers and the New York Giants football teams.
When Cormac MacCarthy, King of Munster, sent five thousand men to support Robert the Bruce in his defeat of the English at Bannockburn in 1314, a portion of the historic Stone of Destiny was given by the Scots in gratitude – and returned to Ireland.
Others say it may be a stone brought back to Ireland from the Crusades – the ‘Stone of Ezel’ behind which David hid on Jonathan’s advice when he fled from his enemy, Saul. A few claim it was the stone that gushed water when struck by Moses.Whatever the truth of its origin, we believe a witch saved from drowning revealed its power to the MacCarthys who placed in the wall.
The rise of Saint Patricks day has taken fourteen centuries. This greening of the world began with the first recorded mention of a Saint Patricks Day parade outside of Ireland took place in the then colony of Spanish Florida in 1601. It was organized by Richard Artur the Irish born Vicar of Saint Augustine.
About 1 percent of the worlds population claim to be a little bit Irish. That percentage rises to as much as forty percent in Australia, twenty percent in New Zealand, fifteen in Canada, ten in the UK and about twelve in the United States. Ancestory.com revealed that of the fifteen milion people who have taken a DNA test were at least 5 percent Irish. 170,000 Irish born citizens live in the United States and another 50,000 are here illegally. Oh, oh. There are an estimated 80 million people of Irish ancestry living around the world including 31.5 million in the United States. California has the largest number and New Hampshire boasts it has 21 percent of its total population of Irish descent. Every one of our 3,006 counties has at least one Irish person in residence.
Two million Irish march down Broadway on Saint Patricks day. A million do the same in Boston. Savannah Georgia sports a half million marchers. The Chicago River turn green and has since 1962.
The Sydney opera house, the great pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower are all green on Saint Patricks. So is the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the leaning Tower of Pisa, The Taj Mahal, Nelson Mandela’s statue in Johannesburg, The West Bank Palestinian Museum in Ramallah Palestine and that symbol of green, the Welome to Las Vegas sign in Lost Wages, Nevada.
When I lived in Hawaii I belonged to “The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick,” a fraternal organization primarily organized to throw a ball on the great day. Men wore tuxedo’s and the women ball gowns. A beautiful redheaded Aer Lingus stewardess was flown in each year to be the princess and believe you me, all had a wonderful time. Senator Fong, Senator Inouye, Mayor Fosse and even Hilo Hattie became Irish for the day.
George Custer, he of the glossy blonde ringlets went to his death on the Greasy Grass, galloping down Medicine Tail Coulee to the tune “Garryowen” an old Irish drinking song. Captain Myles Keogh was the only Irish officer to take part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was one of 34 Irish born soldiers who died that day.
At least 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union army, most not yet citizens, many just off the boat from Ireland. 20,000 served the south and wore Butternut including all three of my Hooper kin who died at Bull Run and Malvern Hill. There are no figures as to how many Irishmen died in the Civil War, but it is likely that it ran perilously close to 40,000.
Literature and entertainment are rife with the sons and daughters of the “Auld Sod.” On the list: Walter Disney, Kurt Cobain, Pierce Brosnan, Mary Pickford, the first great movie star and the inestimable Bill Murray. The reigning king of macho, Clint Eastwood is on the list along with Alicia Keyes, Mariah Carey and Judy Garland. Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and J P Donleavy represent some of our Irish American greatest writers.
If you watch British film it’s obvious they have stolen the best Irish talent to stock their films and plays. Saoirse Ronan, Fionnula Flanagan, Stephen Rhea, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis, Peter O’Toole and the brilliant Maureen O’Hara. Yes even that quintessential Englishwomen Judi Dench had an Irish mother, Eleanora from County Dublin.
It is impossible to leave out the great Irish poets, Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats, James Joyce. Olivia Wilde, one of Irelands great poets was the mother of Oscar. Talent ran in the family . Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and Seamus Heaney a poet who wrote with such a sublime beauty that his readings caused people in the audience to weep.
W.B. Yeats “When You are Old”
When you are old and gray and full of sleep And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
When you make the walk from Ralph and Duane’s to O’Conner’s on this coming Thursday, remember the stories, legends and Irish folk that have made this holiday what it is. Raise a glass for the Auld Sod and its people wherever they may be. Slainté
My family lived through the depression, the big one. For farm and ranch people that means from the federal governments cancellation of the WWI farm contracts until Adolf Hitler went into Poland. 1918 until 1939, just enough time to grow a new generation of boys. It was hard times, very hard times.
My dads side of the family, ranchers and dirt farmers who lived and worked in the central western part of California, and my mothers side in the states oilfields grew up and lived right through it. Both required hard work, misery and close attention to just getting by. There are numerous family stories about their toughness.
My grandmother made a trip from Bee Canyon east of Arroyo Grande to Madera on the seat of a buckboard. She was eight months pregnant with my mother and had my aunt Mariel who was just a toddler along for the ride. They did it in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley summer. Half way there it got so hot that the family dog Brownie went and sat under a shade tree in the lost Hills and refused to move. They left him and never looked back. The trip took 40 hours nonstop. To this day I don’t know how my grandmother did it. Dirt roads, ruts, pot holes, no shade, shaking and banging all the way. She walked with my grandfather Bruce up the Cuesta Grade because the horse couldn’t pull the loaded wagon with two people in it. Bruce carried Mariel. Eileen carried mom. There are all kinds of toughness.
Toughness. Money was tight. Frugality was the watchword. Nothing was wasted. Everyone in the family worked as soon as they could. Work they did for there was no safety net. No unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no medicare. Most every thing was cash and carry. The Bank of Arroyo Grande was as tight fisted as Scrooge McDuck.
People took a great deal of pride in making their own way. It was the way of their lives and until the day they died they asked for nothing.
Growing up I don’t think I ever heard the name Franklin Roosevelt without some kind of expletive preceding it. The president who held office before Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover was unable to blunt the force of depression in any significant way but in the family this was not held against him, after all he was a good Republican which went a long ways in our house. But Roosevelt, oh my, he was considered evil incarnate though in fact what he really represented was the intrusion of the Federal Government into the lives of people who considered themselves self sufficient. There is that toughness again.
Rural folks simply believed that the government could not properly run anything. Farmers were by this time pretty tight with their money and hated to give it up to an entity they were sure was simply going to waste on some fool project.
My dad used to grind his teeth whenever he saw a bridge or any other construction project that had WPA or CCC stamped on it. It wasn’t that he thought any of the young men in those organizations were bad but that the Federal Government was pouring his money down the drain.
Every time I cross one of those bridges, many of which still exist after ninety years I’m reminded criticisms are no always well founded.
When I was a kid we were used to state and national governments in our lives. Because of the times we lived in we had a different take. I’m not sending my Social Security check back and I’m glad to have Medicare and Veterans benefits but there is always the thought that they were right.
Here is an example of what they meant. My uncle Jackie was a cattleman. A charter member of the California Polled Herefords Association. Like most cattlemen he was pretty conservative. Remember that the root of conservative is conserve. Our ranch had, like most ranches, a shed where tools, feed and assorted junk was kept “In case I need it someday.” This of course was taken to ridiculous extremes. Ours was in what was called the calf shed. It was a little building with three small stalls where newborn calves who needed care could be kept and looked after. In one corner was a small room where tools, nuts and bolts, tractor parts and other assorted machinery was kept. If you needed a square headed bolt for a John Deere side delivery rake built in 1917, why we had it. We had wrenches for tractors long abandoned in the gully where old cars and trucks went to die. There were boxes of square headed nails not manufactured for over a hundred years. But if you needed one, we had it. A farmer or rancher could make the rounds of his friends and sooner or later someone would have what you needed for that old planter. You could age date the boxes they were kept in by the numbers of Black Widows living in them. Conserve, take care of yourself. No one else is going to do it.
I used to believe and I think is still true that every rancher and farmer in the county knew each other or were somehow related either by birth or marriage. Still pretty true. As I was the oldest boy, I used to ride around the county with my uncle while he was involved in buying or selling cattle. We would cruise out to Creston or up to the Cambria area to visit ranches and I listened while he and some cowman leaned on a fence and “chewed the fat.” We’d sit in the stands at the Templeton Stockyard Auction and I’d try and figure out who the bidders were. There was a sort of mystery to how they did that. I mean, the red and white cattle all looked the same and the ranchers did their actual bidding with what looked like telepathy. An eyebrow raised her and slight shift of a folded program or perhaps a hat brim touched with the index finger.
Templeton was where I first met Dick Nock. He was a friend of uncle Jack. This is the part where relationships come in. Though they were over twenty years apart in age, they both knew cattle. Dick was born and raised on the Phelan Ranch in Cambria, where his great-grandfather, Jeffrey Phelan, settled in 1858 after immigrating from Ireland. Our ranch was next door to another Phelan ranch in Arroyo Grande and my great uncle Patrick Moore, also an Irish immigrant was a friend to all the early Irish. I went to school with Phelan kids who are friends today. It’s so small town.
Growing up, Dick worked on the Fiscalini Ranch, went to Santa Clara College and spent the rest of his life here. By the time he was a grown man he knew everyone in the county who mattered in the cattle business. For many years he wrote a column on the ranching business for the San Luis Telegram Tribune. Like most columns with a pretty restricted audience, I mean does the average person really care about salt blocks, feed supplements or the proper application of “Whiz” fly spray. Not likely but Dick had a sly sense of humor and would offer deadpan, tongue in cheek observations that would do Jerry Seinfeld proud.
In the 1970’s he wrote a column that was perhaps a perfect example of how the Guvmint works. Or doesn’t.
It seems Dick was traveling up the 395 highway on the way to Olancha, a tiny town up in the Owens Valley. It’s the kind of place where Gus’s Fresh Jerky is the premier attraction. It’s the back of lonesome is how it is. When Dick took this particular trip he was checking the fences along the highway where the Bureau of Land Management was putting chicken wire along the bottom of the cattle fences to keep the desert tortoise, pretty slow moving even at top speed, from being squashed crossing the highway. The idea was to keep the tortoise off the endangered species list, they being completely inoffensive and harming no one. A noble idea.
In the way of governments, thinking the issue through, trying to see all sides and what disaster might occur when messing with nature for what seemed a good idea…. Well, lets put it this way. The Australians in their wisdom imported rabbits for hunting. A case of incomplete thinking to say the least. Rabbits now infest the country, no natural predators you see. In Hawai’i, rats jumped ship in the early days and became a real problem, destroying vegetation, eating lizards and harboring diseases. The importation of the mongoose in order to eat the rats was the answer. Only one problem, rats are nocturnal and the mongoose is diurnal and never the twain shall meet, hence the almost complete destruction of every bird species in the Hawai’ian islands.
The good thing, saving the Desert Tortoise immediately triggered the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Ravens who live in the desert were denied the tortoise roadkill they took for granted and being very smart Ravens sought out a new source of sustenance, turtle eggs. You can see the dichotomy here. Tortoises are saved from cars on 395 but there are no tortoises because the Ravens have eaten all the eggs. In a perverse way it is the perfect solution, tortoises are squashed, eggs are eaten and all the Ravens starve to death. Problem solved. Except it wasn’t.
What to do? Schedule a conference of course. Bring in the experts put them around a table and let them have at it. After careful study and a great deal of field work it was determined that there were simply too many Ravens. 1500 Ravens were sentenced to death by the BLM. Environmentalists were of course enraged. The Ravens had simply been Ravens, doing what they do. Threats of lawsuits, stakeholders meeting lasting months finally determined that only 56 of the most offensive Ravens would be executed. Furthermore these evil Ravens would be chosen based on observation of a minimum three Raven kills. Hmmm. As my uncle would say, “You’re a Daisy if you can and a Dumb Cluck if you can’t.” Yes, he actually said things like that, being a child of the 1920’s. Some things never left him.
Have you ever been to the lower reaches of the Owens Valley? It’s a vast area, nearly 700,000 acres in size. Only about 18,00 people live there, primarily along the north, south 395. The Mojave desert is its southern neighbor. See the problem? There is no one out there to count tortoises. No one knows how many there are. Millions of dollars in state and federal funds have been spent in studying this issue since Dick Nock wrote the original in the late 70’s. As far as anyone knows there are still 56 Ravens on death row. It’s an interesting turn of events and unfortunately there is certainly much more to come, because in the end the Tortoises are still getting squashed, eggs eaten and the Ravens prosper. The Guvmint men all shook hands, satisfied the problem had been solved. Environmentalists broke out the champagne, another victory notched and if Ravens could smile, the certainly did.
Thanks to Dick Nock and my uncle Jack Shannon who was so delighted by the column that he cut it out of the paper and saved it in his top dresser drawer for thirty years.
And that, my dear friends is why ranchers and farmers hate the Guvmint.
PS: Nothing has changed in the valley. Ravens still rule.
Richard Leo Nock September 3, 1931 – December 28, 2020 Dick Nock had a devoted family and a loyal community of friends, he remains the consummate cattleman (a fighting Irishman) with a never-ending enthusiasm for life.
The Fourth Estate. The place where Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Colonel McCormick and William Cullen Bryant stalked the newspaper world. A big world. Fortunes made and lost. Top of the heap, down in the dumps. Writers have witnessed it all. Stanley wrote of the search for Livingston, Nelly Bly circled the world in 72 days, Jimmy Breslin knew the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Martha Gelhorn, who famously dumped her husband Ernest Hemingway and covered every major war in her 60 year career and Ernie Pyle, champion of the little guy, reporters all.
The earliest form of writing is believed to be of Mesopotamian origin. The Bronze age saw the first representation of “True” writing where symbols represented sounds. Previous systems, which we still use in things like math were symbols that are essentially pictographs. Beginning roughly three and a half millennia ago, the written word appeared independently in China, North Africa, Central America and the Middle East.
Johann Carolus (1575-1634) was the publisher of the Relation aller Furnemmen und gedenckwurdigen Historien (Collection of all Distinguished and Commemorable News). The Relation’ is recognized by the World Association of Newspapers, as well as many authors, as the world’s first newspaper. Not a very “Snappy” name if you ask me but it was the first.
For my classmates and I, three hundred fifty five years later a paper appeared at our school, the Branch Grade School. It was our own.
Who birthed the idea I don’t know. When you attend a school with less than sixty kids, taught by just two teachers an idea can come from anywhere. Curriculum was flexible in those days. It had to be. Mrs Edith Brown taught grades one through four in one classroom and Miss Elizabeth Holland taught 5-8 in the other. Older kids taught younger ones. Projectors showing movies were operated by senior boys. Kids were expected to help out when needed. The janitor, Mrs Fernamburg was on the school board and drove the bus. Like I said flexible. We learned all kinds of things not in text.
So whomever thought to create a school newspaper was a genius. The Bee as it was called published for three years from 1957 through 1959. There was no regular schedule. We printed them out when we had enough to say that we thought was important. Important to kids I mean.
Nearly everything was done at school then. Halloween Carnivals, school plays, Christmas celebrations, and eighth grade graduations. The 4-H club met at school, The school board had their meetings in the old schoolhouse. Most people didn’t have TVs they could plunk the kids in front of, no one played organized baseball or any other team games, that was for town kids. Country kids had to find other things to do. Those are the things we wrote about.
For practical reasons nearly every kid who could put two letters together was on the staff. We probably had a larger staff in proportion to our readers than the Los Angeles Times.
Just like a real newspaper our little journal chronicled the goings on of our little community.
Alvin Evenson reported on the birth of his little brother Edward and opined that he cried too much. All night, as a matter of fact. Anyone who doesn’t know the Evenson family might wonder why he was bothered but those of us who went to school with the hordes of Evenson kids understood. Big, big family, small house.
Jerry Shannon and Raymond Samaniego reported the weather. With every kid in school tied to the land, weather was an important topic. Crops fail because of bad weather, rain, too much fog, high winds and extreme heat. Every student heard talk of weather around the kitchen table. Since almost all homes were still on dirt roads knowing when your chidren were going to have muddy feet helped mothers know when to have oven space in order to have shoes dried out for the next morning. No kid liked taking those first steps in shoes bent like potato chips. Mrs Fernamburg watched the weather because nearly sixty pairs of muddy shoes made her janitor work that much harder.
David and Alcides, Al, Coehlo wrote a cute little story about their new puppies Tippy and Daisy. They were purebred Borderers and would be trained for herding sheep though I don’t recall my friends having enough sheep to herd, but little boys and girls and puppies, well, you know.
Eighth grader Barbara Durham wrote an article about visiting the county courthouse with the student from Oak Park School. They sat in Judge Lyons courtroom and he explained the law to them and house county courts work. She informed us that the county clerk allotted $7,000.00 for Oak Park’s budget and $22,000.00 for Branch. We had three times the number of kids and two teachers, that being the difference. She said the students helped the county jail trustees prepare their lunch and they washed dishes too. Imagine that today if you will.
James Frisk, another eighth grader told of two sophmore HS boys who put a rubber raft into the storm swollen Arroyo Grande creek just below the Harris bridge. If you’ve ever seen the gorge the creek runs through there you can imagine how much water was flowing past. The boys rode down to the gauge by the old high school where they tried to get out with help from some strategically placed friends. That plan went by the wayside and they ended up getting pulled out just above the hwy. 1 bridge. Because the levee had failed and the bridge was under water they narrowly avoided complete disaster. Neither Don and Edna Rowe nor Oliver and Hazel Talley were in the least bit amused with their boys. Punishment was swift.
An extra edition proclaimed the successful launch of Americas first satellite, Explorer one. I recall that being a really big deal at the time, being in the clutches of the cold war with Russia. The article states complete confidence that if there was a nuclear war we would win. No worries.
Also front page news was the playing of the annual baseball game with Oak Park at Oak Park. I threw the pitch that that wonderful girl Melody Patchett hit for an inside the park, walk off home run.
Front page news.
As budding newspaper reporters we had the privilege of visiting our home town newspaper in 1958. The Arroyo Grande Herald had started publishing in 1887. The first owner was Steven Clevenger and his credo followed the Democratic party. In order to counter his perceived bias William Ryan started the Recorder in 1900. Located in the Meherin, later Olohan, Building across from the Bank on Bridge St, it only lasted a few years and ended up being sold to the new owners of the Herald, hence Herald Recorder.
We were met at the door by the publisher Newell Strother and the papers longest employee, Mrs Mae Ketchum. Mae had started work at the Herald in 1901 when she was just fourteen. She didn’t go to high school, she went to work, not an unusual thing at the time. She was a lifelong friend of my grandmother. She immediately picked me out and gave me a hug. She said “You look just like your grandfather.” Kids could not go anywhere in town without some adult knowing who you were. Such is small town life.
The old building which dated back to the 19th century had the look of an old drunk just ejected from Ralph and Porky’s bar. She leaned a little to the left that year, though after every wet winter she shifted a little.
We went into the office. Perhaps it had been many years before spiffy and modern but in ’58 it had seen much better days. The windows were fogged with decades of cigarette smoke and dust. There were coffee cups set on frayed old galleys. There was the ubiquitous calendar from EC Loomis & Son set to the wrong date but since the paper was only published twice a week it didn’t matter much. The desks were chipped and worn, the typewriters were a mix of old Royals and Underwood number 5’s. Old before my father was born. Mr Strother explained how the news was gathered and organized. He said much of it came from people off the street who reported seeing this or that. He printed the names of people who were out of town, who had a baby, bought a house and even on one slow week, the sighting of a little Japanese boy watering the bricks of the Bank of Arroyo Grande.
He took us back to the Linotype room where that weeks paper was being composed. The operator typed the words from the reporters into the machine and it delivered a long row of lead type ready to be set on the press. He said the molten lead in the machine was more than seven hundred degrees. We were impressed by that. The dust from the machine had put a fine patina of lead on the floor and walls. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to that or the ink stained floor in the pressroom. The mom chaperones were like hawks though, making sure we didn’t touch any of it. Mom hands on the fly. On the way home we were pretty sure we would all be famous newsmen.
Yeah, like Clark Gable in the film “It Happened One Night,” chasing the heiress Claudette Colbert who famously flashed her silk clad legs when showing the Ace reporter how to hitchhike. We thought about Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthurs “Front Page” where reporter “Hildy” Johnson tries to hide an escaped murderer in a roll top desk in order to get a “Scoop.” We could do that job, I had the big ears like Clark and my uncle Jack had a roll top desk we could hide in.
Our operation used an old Ditto machine to do the printing. Our teachers would type up our hand written stories and we’d run them off. We did enough for each family and kid to have one. We sent them home to parents because one of the most important parts of the paper were the announcements about school events.
Oh, that old Ditto machine with its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, Ditto paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off worksheet and we would be the education system’s willing slave for the rest of the day.
Eighth graders, being the top of the heap got to run the machine and do the stapling. When they passed the paper , the students put the page up to their noses and deeply inhale. This was a popular school ritual of the ’40s, through early ’70s, as photocopying machines were very expensive, so ditto machines were still in use.
When you see the Cameron Crowe written film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High there is a scene where Mr. Vargas passes out a worksheet and his entire class lifts the paper and takes a deep breath. If you were born after 1955 this experience has passed you by. The copies did not get you high but they smelled awfully good.
The Branch Bee has is gone as has the little two room schoolhouse. The kids who made it have all gone on to other careers. None that I know of are reporters. A few of us lucky ones worked for the high school paper, The High-Chatter. A couple of us were stringers for the Times-Press-Recorder while in high school. The Gregory boys all wrote for the high school paper and the Cuestonian. Jim Gregory is now a noted historian and author who is a pleasure to read. I was a part timer on the Dry Dock, the newspaper of the San Diego Naval Hospital while I was stationed there while in the Navy.
In those days long before social media a person had to contemplate the content before writing. A reporter or editor at the Herald-Recorder walked the same streets as the audience. This imposed a certain degree of circumspect or social sensitivity not seen today. The act of putting it down on a piece of paper is far different than a 140 character Tweet which can be banged out in a few seconds. Today, wires connect millions to a single mouth whose only purpose is fill time with content, no matter how suspect. Perhaps the reader will look back to a time when some thought was given to consequences. We were all taught that in our little school.
More valuable to historians who search for a mirror of time is the pile of old Branch Bees and their like tucked away in the old trunk where my mother stored the things that mattered to her.
When my children were little I came across books written and illustrated by a man named Chris Van Allsburg. Mister Allsburg is world famous for his exquisite illustration techniques and clever story telling. Like many people who wrote, he never intended to be a writer, he studied sculpture in fact. Because of a little serendipity he became first an illustrator of books, one actually and then wrote and illustrated a book himself in 1981. It didn’t do badly though, it became a best seller and won the Caldecott Medal. The Randolph Caldecott Medal, shortened to just the Caldecott, annually recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. If you’re not familiar with his work I can explain to you in one word who he is. That word is Jumanji.
Allsburg is a terrific illustrator and children love his books though I believe since kids don’t actually buy books themselves that parents are transfixed by the beautifully crafted covers. His stories include the aforementioned “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express.” My personal favorites is the tale of the “Two Bad Ants.”
In any case this is just background. One of his lesser known books is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s a 1984 picture book and it consists of a series of images, supposedly created by Harris Burdick, a man who has mysteriously disappeared. Each image is accompanied by a title and some line of text, which encourage readers to create their own stories.
I’ve been captivated by that idea for some time so I’m going to give you a chance to exercise your own imagination by providing you with the first line of stories not yet written.. Have at it.
Ben lowered his voice some and said to us, “You’ll see precisely what the Mattie Belle wishes you to see, and you’ll know just what she wants you to know.”
The Little Dog
Hopeful she is. She watches for the telltale signs, the putting on of shoes, the jingle of keys, any kind of stroll towards a door that leads outside. This is what my dog believes.This is her God.
Gone fer a Sojer
Ambrose Bierce was both a rifleman and officer in the 9th Indiana during the war between the states. He became one of the most respected writers in America, Stephen Crane and Hemingway considered him a great influence. He knew soldiering. At the age of 71, he died facedown in the dusty, dirty streets of Sierra Mojado, Coahuila Mexico. A shot to the back of the head. None knows his executioner save the Gods of the Mexican Revolution and Doroteo Arango, God rest his soul.
January 27th, 1947: Tales of the South Pacific goes on sale
October, 1957: Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas book is published.
April 10th 1959: The movie Gidget premieres.
August 21st, 1959: Hawai’i becomes the fiftieth state.
April 1st, 1960: First issue of Surfer magazine goes on sale.
March 25th, 1963: Beach Boys Surfing’ USA released.
My father sat back in his chair at our kitchen table and looked at me as I was about to go outside, jump in my little VW with the two surfboards tied to the roof racks and said, “You know Mike, you can’t just surf all your life.”
He wasn’t wrong about much when I was growing up but he was sure wrong about that.
I climbed the stairs to the office. There were two mugs outside my door. One was sitting on his heels, head down, arms between his legs holding a hand rolled cigarette, the other standing, watching me come up. He was whip thin. He had a crushed and stained fedora pushed back on his head and a dirty lock of dark hair curled above one eyebrow. A half smoked Camel clung to one corner of his mouth the smoke lazily curling up, causing him to squint. Both were dressed in workman’s clothes, stained and with the particular odor of crude oil. As I topped the landing, the one standing looked me over and said, “You Shannon?”
Marvelous Marv was my foreign friend. He came from another country; Virginia.
Iron Jive and the Hemorrhoid
So heres the plan, pay a bribe to the boss so he will lay you off, move to Hawaii to surf and while you’re there have your hemorrhoids removed. Simple. Solve a problem, enjoy a vacation in the surf and get paid. What could be more perfect? Whay could possibly go wrong.
No great story ever started with someone eating a salad. Nope.
What is a life? Is it a story that no one remembers? When enough time passes does one cease to be even a memory, to anyone? To whom? Is it some or just one, somewhere. Are you the caretaker of that life? I am that.
Hommes Et Colere
The dreadful price that a man pays for his belief in the American Myth.
The Whale Shark
In our house we have a chair. It’s cushy. It is covered with the hide of a Whale Shark. Dark, dark grey and sporting white spots over its entire surface. The back is broad enough for the prince of cats, Wendell to bide of a cool day.
Heart of Saturday Night
All the great mysteries, wrapped in a satin cloak decorated with the constellations , infinitely distant, yet close enough to touch. The Wolfman, distant, yet speaking to you from the radio in the dashboard. XERB 1090, 50,000 watts of pure Soul Power, beamed north from Rosarito Mexico
The Plug Hat
My grandfather had a plug hat. It was a silly looking thing, especially when he put it on his noggin. He didn’t mind though, he wasn’t the type of guy who fussed about his appearance or who cared much about what people thought of him. Something I learned about those particularities when I was a kid, was that because he didn’t care, no one else did either, in fact, people admired him for his lack of pretense.
Ernie slid onto the little bentwood cafe chair, sitting under the dark green awning of the Deux Magots, he turned to the hovering waiter and asked for espresso, it being too early for a man who took great pride in the ability to put away drink. Maybe a little later, a gin and tonic with Angostura Bitters. As the day warmed, other dwellers of the Paris Demimonde began to stroll the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Studiously ignoring the big man at the wrought iron table in the way that the French so perfectly do, a little lift of the chin, a turn of the shoulder an inward look. A brilliantly dressed man, still in a tailored tuxedo, boiled shirt with an Arrow color, a perfectly tied bow tie, the white carnation still fresh after a long night, gave the slightest of nods to the man at the table and slid sinuously onto a chair and resting his chin on his manicured right hand, with a sly look and a twinkle in his large, liquid brown eyes, said, “Hemingway,
He sat awhile. He had a blank look in the eye. He scarcely moved. After a bit he licked the end of his pencil and he carefully wrote, “To the only girl who ever mattered” He looked at the writing. Then he nodded.
The Southern Cross
The sun popped up. It did, ..in fact, POP up. It was flattened like a sideways yellow wafer in the dawning, drawing its bottom free of the horizon with an almost audible jerk. In less than a minute dark became day, night had utterly vanished, the deck was alive with the light glancing from the gently riffling sea; a single ray, reflected from the binnacle, darted through the scuttle to light the face of the off-watch. The sun rose within his mind, his face broadened to a smile and he rolled out of his bunk.
The Golden Girl
She smiled. It was direct, clear, hopeful. I died on the spot.
The Princess Pat’s
They marched to the murmuring guns.. Dreaming of valor, flowers in their buttonholes; singing, they moved up. On the way back, they knew the truth of it.
Friday, November 13, 1942 Herald Recorder Vol. 37 No. 30
On Wednesday last a Japanese man and a white woman were seen driving on Branch Street. Chief Fred Norton stopped the car and issued a warning to the occupants. The woman was advised to exit the car and not to ride in any auto with a Japanese man again. The driver was allowed to continue with a caution.
Just a little notice tucked into page three, upper right hand corner of the Bi-Weekly Newspaper. Stright reporting but with a pointed and unfriendly message.
At the time this happened the Japanese empire had attacked the United States just four months before. Feeling ran high amongst local folk. In those days before the 24 hour news cycle, information that had any credibility was very hard to come by. The big city dailies were in full hue and cry with their anti-Japanese campaigns. National columnists spewed hate, particularly Westbrook Pegler. He wrote an opinion column for the Chicago Tribune. His column was distributed nationally through the United Press.
In an article about him in 1938, the New York Times opined; “At theage of 44, Mr. Mister Pegler’s place as the great dissenter for the common man is unchallenged. Six days a week, for an estimated $65,000 a year, in 116 papers reaching nearly 6,000,000 readers, Mister Pegler is invariably irritated, inexhaustibly scornful. Unhampered by coordinated convictions of his own, Pegler applies himself to presidents and peanut vendors with equal zeal and skill. Dissension is his philosophy.Hate is his product.“
There was no one he wouldn’t attack. He reached his zenith in 1942 with his scurrilous attacks on the Japanese Americans living on the west cost. Without a shred of evidence he vilified them all.
The local paper had to survive by taking a middle road in its coverage of the war especially in the early days. Throughout WWII the Herald Recorder walked a fine line with the news it published about local businesses and personalities. Before the removal of the Japanese to concentration camps it took a rather even handed approach to the issue, after all, Japanese American businesses advertised, Japanese kids delivered papers and half the high school enrollees were of Japanese ancestry. In a small town, they made up an important part of the buying public.
There were discussions over pancakes at the Greyhound cafe and in the aisles of the Commercial Company. As always there were those who were haters, just looking for ways in which to rub someones face in it. Lets not forget that there were also those of good conscience who did what they could to help their neighbors in distress. Several local boys had already been killed in the Pacific and that drove their families hard. They had no forgiveness and as General John Dewitt, the army general commanding the west coast area had so publicly said, “A Jap is a Jap.” The Chandler family which owned the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst paper, the San Francisco Examiner ran bold headlines demanding the removal of all Japanese from the west Coast. Taking sides in the debate was fraught with peril. Abuse by the anti-Japanese crowd was heaped on those suspected of mollycoddling. Business owners that catered to their Japanese clientele were verbally assaulted; sometimes more than that, including rifle shots through walls and physical assault.
There were many on the other side who supported the Japanese families. As is usually the case, those who personally knew their Japanese neighbors tended to be supportive or at least neutral in their feelings. The bullies, who are not interested in changing their tunes were ascendant by virtue of their aggression. It was a complex issue which found little desire for understanding but rolled on a tide of hate. Under the right circumstance there could be frightening consequences.
By November of that year all but one of the local Japanese-Americans were gone, bussed off to the Tulare fairgrounds where they were housed in horse stables and drafty, cold, temporary barracks until they could be sent by train to the Poston, Arizona concentration camp.
The only Japanese left was Kazuo Ikeda a 23 year old farmers son and graduate of both Arroyo Grande High School and the Polytechnic Cal Poly College. He had received permission from the War Relocation Board to stay and care for his father Junzuo who had broken his back in an accident while driving a team and wagon. Kaz and his father would stay until hospital facilities were complete at Poston.
He was staying with Vard and Gladys Loomis in the Fukuhara home on Halcyon Road. The Loomis family was occupying the home to protect it from vandals and thieves.
A young woman friend of Gladys had been visiting there and when it was time for her to leave for home, Gladys asked Kaz to take her home in the Loomis family car. A kindness that was to have an unexpected result. They knew each other, the woman worked at the Pruess Rexall, the only pharmacy in town and liked to know people. Though Kaz was a man of few words she could more than carry her end of the conversation. It wouldn’t be a long trip anyway a she lived right in the middle of town. On Short Street.
Both the young people were aware of tensions in the community of course. The county sheriff had searched the Loomis home for contraband when Kaz was staying there. Japanese-Americans were not allowed radios, cameras, rifles or knives. As in the receipt below, confiscated items were received and held by the local police chief for return at a later date. After Norton left office in late 1942, the new Chief, Clyde McKenzie handed all the items over to the US Marshalls office in southern California where they disappeared forever. Their bank accounts were frozen and later confiscated by the state never to be returned.
The Sheriff and the Police Chief had their eye on the voter and were consequently vigorous in hunting down the Japanese “Menace.” Trite slogans were as likely to get you elected then as they are now. The chief owed his job to those who supported him. Serving them was his primary job if he wished to keep that job.
When the car rolled to a stop, Kaz rolled down his window. He knew by now that nothing good was going to come from the Chief. Fred Norton was none too polite in inquiring what in the hell did he think he was doing driving a white woman. Kaz was very quiet and very still.
The girl leaned over and smiled. “Hi Fred, it’s Barbara Hall from the drugstore, you know me. Kaz is giving me a ride home so I don’t have to walk. It’s along ways to Short street from Halcyon in these shoes and he’s doing Gladys Loomis a favor.”
The Loomis family were the largest business in town and that carried weight. The drugstore owners, the meat market and several other downtown businesses were also sympathetic to the plight of their neighbors. The sitting Municipal Court judge was also sympathetic to the Japanese-American people who lived in his town. A wrong move here would have its consequences. Any abuse handed out by Chief Norton could come right back at him if he wasn’t careful.
She beamed at him. He blushed with embarrassment. He knew my mother well. He knew there was no hanky panky going on here. He walked around to the passenger door and pulled it open and told mom to get out. She would just have to walk the rest of the way, he huffed, trying to pretend he was in control.
“Fred,” she said, “You are going to owe me a new pair of shoes. She smiled, leaned into the car and thanked Kaz and walked off down Branch towards her parent’s home on Short Street.
Chief Norton told Kaz he needed to be careful, thats feeling in town were not good and not to do that ever again.
Just a week later Kaz and his father were gone. Junzuo would die there, in the camp.. Kaz would be released in the spring of 1945 and return to the farming business. He married Mitzi and they raised their kids in our valley, prospering and becoming valuable members of the community.
Chief Norton lost his re-election bid in November and was out of a job. My mother voted against him. Imagine that.
My mother married my father the next spring and they raised a family of three boys. They lived here the rest of their lives too.
The Ikeda’s lived just up the hill from us and farmed right next door. Their kids went to school with us and we have been friends for decades. Still are.
Kaz and my mother remained friends. In later years when I was grown and first heard the story I couldn’t understand why something like that could have ever happened in this quiet little place. After all those years they both thought it was pretty funny but I suspect at the time it was anything but.
“We were very frightened….the whole Arroyo Grande Valley was. We didn’t have any idea of what was going on. The military was very secretive about the war, we just didn’t know anything.” Eighty years later some people who still live here still insist that the terror they felt justified interning all the Japanese-Americans. People felt they were fighting for their very existence.
As my father said, “It’s impossible to completely understand unless you lived it,” and I suppose he was right. He usually was about things like that.
When I was a kid, I tried to imagine my life and how it would be. I saw it as a line, beginning with my birth then moving in a straight line until I started high school where it took a right turn and flowed along for a while before slowly meandering to the left for a while and when I was about 35, going arrow straight. These are push pins placed at intervals along that line.
When I was growing up in this little valley, My family knew everyone and everyone knew them. There wasn’t much television, the world outside our town was largely a mystery, most people didn’t travel much or go far. We lived a pretty parochial life.
We were three boys, separated by 5 years, which was against all odds. According to my mother, we were her miracle because Doctor Casey told her soon after she was married that she would never be able to have children. My mom and dad’s heartbreak at that must have been staggering because they both loved children and in my mother’s case, especially teenagers.
When I was born I was the fourth generation of my family to live here. Considering how small the population was, my parents and grandparents knew practically everyone who lived here. My grandparents owned a dairy which meant they had a business relationship with merchants and families from Shell Beach to Nipomo, wherever the milk trucks went. They were also of the generation born in the late 18th century which became what I like to think of as joiners. The belonged to the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, My grandfather was a Rotarian and grandmother a charter member of the Arroyo Grande Women’s Club. My future mother moved here in 1940 and went to work downtown Arroyo Grande. Downtown consisted of just three blocks whose stores and businesses provided all the things you needed to live. She started at Morris Pruess’s Rexall Drug, Hilda Harkness store, Louise Ralphs dress shop and nearly forty years later retired from Merilee Baxter’s Men and Boys store. Those little stores. There was E C Loomis, the feed store, housed in an old wooden warehouse at one end and by the Arden Dairy and two little churches, One Catholic and one Methodist at the other. In the country my family came from they were at each others throats but not here. Here they co-existed peacefully.
On the other side of Branch Street there was a gasoline station, a few little and very old houses then Don Madsen’s hardware store, a marvelous old wooden building crammed with everything a man could want, stored in dusty wooden bins and in the days before computerized inventory some of it must have been a century old, still waiting for my grandfather to come in looking for some obscure part for the steam boiler that fed the sterilizer where his milk bottles were cleaned for reuse. Like most boys of a certain age, dusty, dirty and dingy was a big attraction. The old building was nearly a century old, built before electric lights and was only dimly lit. Things weren’t easy to find in there and you had to rely on Mr Madsen to lead you to the spot. Like most of those old businesses in the days before credit cards, people ran accounts. Your purchase would be carefully entered in a little receipt book, I can still remember the men especially pulling the stub of a pencil out of a pocket, giving it a lick with the corner of the tongue and writing down your item on the little page, pressing hard enough so the duplicate underneath was marked through the carbon paper. No one sent you a bill, they just ran the account until you dropped by once a month or so and paid it. It was mostly still a cash economy then.
Continue walking up Branch and you passed Art Mesquites furniture store, then the former Bank of Italy, Carlock’s bakery, Kirk’s liquor, where you bought your fishing license, the barber shops, Buzz Langengenbeck’s first, the lawnmower man of barbers, then George Karn’s palace of sartorial excellence. Next was the old, and last of the many Saloons that used to dot the town, Bills place, a real old saloon was likely the oldest building in town. The last half block had a Recall Drug, meat market an old fashioned grocery store and a dress store. Slotted in were two doctors offices, one a GP and the other an Optometrist. Just opposite these were the five and dime, the Hub mens store, western Auto, another grocery and a men and boys store. Back down to the south was the jewelry store and a dry cleaner. You can fill in the town with the Greyhound Cafe and bus stop and the old Mission theater, closed but still in use for special occasions like the Black outs and Hi-Jinks during Harvest Festival. We still had a blacksmith shop, a real one even in the fifties and a little fire station that held one Chevrolet pumper. In those days it was still all volunteer and when the bell rang the firemen would come running, leaving their shop aprons on the counters of their grocery stores. They were ready.
My dad, George, went to local schools and though he wasn’t the kind of man who joined, farmers are pretty busy all the time and the life doesn’t leave a lot of time to fill. First and foremost he took as his life’s work, raising us. What I remember most is that he was steady, a resolute man who considered things and acted accordingly. He didn’t give his kids much advice on living, instead he and my mother set the example and they expected you to follow them. Dad never gossiped. If he wanted you to know something he might use someone you knew as an example but that didn’t happen very often. He might say, “A man who lies would steal.” Pretty succinct but the message was clear. He never, and I mean never lied or cheated. When his vegetables were packed in boxes for shipping to the wholesale market his employees knew beyond doubt that the bottom layer should be just a good as the top. A buyer knew that when they opened a George Shannon box of Chinese Peas every single pea was of the best quality. Thats what he taught me. Believe me, I packed a lot of them myself and I never wanted to disappoint him. I learned to be meticulous, a skill that has been very useful my entire life.
We were driving somewhere when I was a teenager and as we passed the old Brisco building he slowed to a stop to let an older man cross the street. Dad said, “Know where he’s going?” I said I didn’t. “He’s going from Bill’s saloon down to Ralph and Porky’s. He goes into Bill’s when they open and when he is still able to walk he will shamble down to the other bar and drink until he passes out.” I looked again, his clothes were dirty his hair greasy under his battered old Fedora and as he walked his eyes were focused on the sidewalk, head down dimly concentrating on not falling, just making it the one block to his next destination. I looked over at dad leaning on the wheel with both arms as was his habit. He looked straight ahead and said, “Went to high school with him.” I looked at my dad then at the man walking and then back to my father again. My dad was 47. The man looked twice that. Thats how he delivered a message. Subtle because he wanted you to think about it.
Perhaps the worst thing I ever heard him say about someone was., “He’s a chiseler.” Not exactly a full throated roar of a denunciation but you understood he meant in the most serious way. It helps to explain the Peas in the box. I don’t remember him ever fighting back against the petty larcenies he encountered in business. He would just put a mental checkmark against the mans name and that was that.
He didn’t suffer fools either, he just wouldn’t have anything to do with them. If you messed with his kids you’d be sorry. When I was just sixteen my brother Jerry who was just fourteen and I took the flatbed truck loaded with Bell Peppers to the dock at Oceano Packing Company. On the way home I signaled a left turn from highway 1 onto Halcyon road and when I began my turn a pickup tried to shoot around me and the steel edge of the truck bed opened him up like a can opener. We stopped and got out and the guy started yelling and threatening to sue, “You damned kids shouldn’t be allowed to drive,” He shouted. Still swearing he took our phone number and said he was going to call my parents and we were in trouble for sure. When we got home, worrying all the way, both about my dad would say or do we went into the kitchen and sat down and told the story. While we were doing that the phone rang. Dad answered it and we could hear the man shouting through the receiver. Dad didn’t say anything until he finished and then very calmly he said, “My sons say you had liquor on your breath so the best thing you can do is to shut up. Don’t call again,” and he didn’t.
When I started high school dad took me aside and cautioned me about the boys he thought I should avoid as they were from rough families. For the most part he was right, though how he knew that I couldn’t say. I went to a two room schoolhouse which was still rooted in the late 19th and early 20th century. The books were hand me downs. Some had been printed 40 or more years before I started grade school. They had names written in them whose children I went to school with. Bill Quaresma’s name was in one. George Cechetti and Al Coehlo had sons my age. They had studied in the same classroom as we did with the same teacher, Miss Holland. High school was like being struck by lightning. We went from a school with perhaps sixty kids to one with almost a thousand. We were completely socially inept. We didn’t smoke, swear or neck and were so far behind that most of us never really caught up. That was a good thing too, for we were cautious which kept us out of any serious trouble. I never cut class or school, did what I was asked to and showed respect for my teachers, all lessons that helped when I went to work. Dad always said that a job was a contract. The employer promised to pay you and you promised to do the work, as simple as that.
In those days kids went to work early. You could legally work for wages at fifteen and a half and the majority did. We filled jobs at gas stations, packing sheds, worked in the fields bucking hay and picking beans and tomatos. Lots of kids worked the apricot orchards, picking, cutting and drying for Fred Greib and Coot Sevier down in the Halcyon. The introduction to the work world came early then.
Bucking three wire bales of hay on the Sheehy Ranch which weighed almost as much as I did taught me something. The older guys were happy to let the kid do the heavy work because most of it was side hill and we loaded the flatbed truck by hand. You were being taught something about the world of men. If you proved out, you earned respect. With Dinny in the drivers seat of the old Chevrolet and Ralph on the bed stacking, it was left to me to roll the bales up and heft them onto the truck. Unloading in the barn I got the top job, stacking up in the rafters where is was over one hundred degrees in the summer. At the end of the day Dinny went down to Jocko’s and I went home covered in chaff, sliced by the straw bales but with a feeling that perhaps I had entered the world of grownups.
I’m not saying that times were simpler then, they most certainly were not. I was born right at the end of the war and graduated high school just weeks before the first troops were sent to Vietnam. I was young when they killed the Kennedys and Reverend King. I got caught by the draft and didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t do what I was asked, though in the end I saw the Devil at work in his playground. He made sure that we knew we were part of his business. A lesson never forgotten.
In the end, this small town life where every one knew your family was a comfort to me. It is clear that you can never give up the place where every kindness and all the love was given you.