THE ELEVENTH HOUR

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Private David Gray, US Army Co A 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, “Wolfhounds.”. He served with the 8th Division in Vladivostok, Siberia, Russia. The AEF fought the Communist Russians until returning to the US in late 1919. David was my grandmother Shannon’s younger brother and was born and raised in Santa Maria California. The photo was taken in April, 1918 at Camp Fremont which was located in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA

 

One hundred and one years ago today the “War To End All wars” ended with the signing of an armistice between the antagonists. The war officially came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November, 1918. The significance of the time on the clock may be lost to todays average person but to the more classically educated diplomats of the time, the meaning was clear. The Eleventh Hour is a phrase meaning at the last moment, it is taken from a passage  in the King James Bible. The “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” is from the book of Matthew, chapters 20, verses 20 through 9.

Time at the end, may be signified by the eleventh hour, and for the remainder of God’s elect, on that last day,  time was far spent, it was almost gone, only a small portion of it remained, just an hour.

On the seventh of November a German armistice delegation arrived at a railway junction in the Forest of Compiegne, Province of the Oise, northern France. The commander of the allied forces, French General Ferdinand Foch, met the German members for a very chilly interview and five days later the German government accepted the Allied terms. The armistice was signed at 5:15 on the morning of the 11th and went into effect at at eleven o’clock that morning. 

Sitting opposite each other in the St. Symphorien military cemetery, just south-east of Mons in Belgium, are the gravestones of the first and last British soldiers to be killed in the first world war.

The proximity of the graves of Private John Parr, killed 17 days after Britain declared war, and Private George Ellison, who died 90 minutes before the armistice, is said to be a coincidence – a consequence of the fact that Mons was lost to the Germans at the opening of the war and regained by the allies at the very end.

Parr was born in 1898 in Chipping Barnet and grew up in North Finchley,  London. He took a job as a golf caddy upon leaving school and joined the army at the age of 14, five years younger than the legal age to fight at the time.

Ellison, of the Royal Irish Lancers, was killed at 9:30 am on 11 November 1918, shot in the chest by a sniper, dying instantly. He was on a bicycle patrol on the outskirts of Mons.  It sounds silly, but there is no humor in death. He was from Leeds. The age stated on his gravestone is 40. He left a wife, Hannah and a son, James Cornelius. His only brother, Frederick, of the Royal Naval Reserve was lost at sea.

The last Canadian, George Lawrence Price, 25, a private in the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, was shot through the head at 10.57am. He was the last British Empire soldier to die. He is also buried at the St Symphorien cemetery, about 50 feet from Parr and Ellison.

The last soldier to die was Henry Gunther, an American who charged alone with his bayonet at a German machine-gun post. He was shot dead at 10.59am in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers near Meuse, in Lorraine, despite attempts by the enemy soldiers to fire over his head to warn him off.

There were 11 thousand casualties on November eleventh, most of which knew the war would be over in a few hours. Such is the vanity of Generals.

Nearly 800 thousand Commonwealth and American soldiers, sailors and airmen died on the western front. They rest in more than a thousand military and two thousand civil cemeteries.  More than three hundred thousand of them have no known graves, and are commemorated on memorials to the missing. Those they commemorate were Regulars, Territorials, volunteers and draftees, aged from fourteen to sixty-eight and ranging from private soldier to lieutenant general. Most had done their duty.

The sheer quantity of the loss numbs the mind. Over seventy-three thousand are commemorated at Thievpal, and almost fifty-five thousand on the Menin Gate. What called them to service or the manner of their death, they are united by the common humanity which we too share. As Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, MD who was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist, soldier and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, was to write:

.…In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

 Loved and were loved, and now we lie

  In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

 The torch; be yours to hold it high.

  If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

 In Flanders fields.

The red poppies that McCrae referred to had been associated with conflict since the Napoleonic Wars, when a writer of that time first noted how the poppies grew over the graves of soldiers at Waterloo. The damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battles there greatly increased the lime content in the surface soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region.

In a testament to the ubiquity of war, the Napoleonic battlefield at Waterloo is just 31 miles from the memorials at Mons. Separated by one hundred and three years, the seeds of poppy’s from 1815, generation after generation,  grew in the fields of Flanders in 1918.

Inspired by “In Flanders Fields”, American professor Moina Michael resolved at the war’s conclusion in 1918 to wear a red poppy year-round to honor the soldiers who had died in the war. She distributed silk poppies to her peers and campaigned to have them adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.

This was a momentous time for her and it was the start of her journey to create a national emblem of Remembrance. She would devote her life’s work to this project. From this time and because of it she became known as “The Poppy Lady”.

At it’s 1920 convention, the Legion supported Michael’s proposal and she was inspired to sell poppies in her native France to raise money for the war’s orphans. In 1921, the  Legion sent poppy sellers to London ahead of Armistice Day, attracting the attention of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. A co-founder of The Royal British Legion, Haig supported and encouraged the sale. The practice quickly spread throughout the British Empire. The wearing of poppies in the days leading up to Veterans Day in America has long been the custom. Remembrance Day remains popular in many areas of the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly Great Britain, Canada and South Africa and in the days leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. Poppies are also worn in Belgium and France.

When you wear your red poppy, pin it over your heart with the leaf positioned at eleven o’clock. My generation, whose own grandparents lived WWI, is likely the last to remember poppies sold on street corners in our small California town. It’s rare to see one anymore. The loss of historic memory, flesh and blood remembrance, becomes dry text in a book. Impossible to feel by a new generation.

All of the antagonists are now long gone, their memory faded, just old musty photographs or a bundle of letters tied up with a blue ribband and laying at the bottom of great-aunt Edith’s memory box. The letters are from her younger brother who never returned from Gallipoli. To the citizens of Europe it was a universe of death. It became the destroyer of empires. All of Europe sacrificed an entire generation of men and women to the vanities of emperors.

As we now are, so they once were: as they are now, so must we be. Let us remember them, each one, not with bravado, but with the respect that their sacrifice demands.

 

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WILSON

 

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Once upon a time, a big grey Tabby lived at the center of a world that cannot be imagined today. He patrolled the universe of death that was northern France and Belgium. In the spring of 1916, in a sector of the Belgian front called “Wipers. he patrolled No-mans land each night, crossing from one side to the other, showing no favoritism to either the Boches or the Tommies who had been very, very busy slaughtering each other for the last two years.    

FOREWORD

If you ask someone what had happened, they might give you a year or use an event to place the story in a particular time. Build a box for the story to reside in. This makes it history. History is not stories, it is fact in the sense that it provides a seemingly solid road marker on which to build time.  Facts are used as if they are stories but it is a mistake to think the two are even remotely related.  A story belongs to the teller and only the teller. He can stretch, revise and change it anyway he chooses. Every time he tells it it will be different. Just because it is written on paper does not make it true. The only truth belongs to the teller, no one else.

CHAPTER 1

Let me tell you a story, a true story. Well, maybe mostly true; some of it anyway. You be the judge.

When I met Harold “Ruff” Schilling, he was an old, old man. Originally from down in Texas he said. Down on the Rio Grande near Redford. The Big Bend country, about as far from civilization as you could get in these United States in the early 19th century. His brown eyes were still clear though. He was whip thin in the lanky drawn out way that country people are and he spoke a little like Waylon Jennings  sounded in his early days, like he was gargling gravel back in his craw. A tall thin man, he must have been a sight to see when he was young, riding horseback along the Arroyo de Iglesias rootin’ steers outta  the scrub brush during the spring roundup. He said “He always had a hankering’ to git outta that country, too hot, too dry and too damn many Messicans.” At the time I was surprised by the implied racism but later I learned his mother came from Mexico and the population of Redford was almost entirely Mexican, in fact, he said that, “If you didn’t know which country you was from, you’d have a hard time tellin which a one you was in.”

He was living out his days at my in-laws rest home in California when I knew him. He would sit in his chair just to the left of the front door looking into the distance and seeing what no one else could, what no one else cared about. Any family he had left was down in Texas; he said “His son don’t give a damn for me, I been spectin’ him to come through that door for years but he ain’t done it yet, guess he never will.”

Staying there was a rough deal for a man that loved to talk. Like an old bull out to pasture, too old too breed and to tough to eat, he whiled away his days watching a little TV and waiting. We both knew for what. 

It turns out he was with the railroad most of his life. Forty years he worked for the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific, starting out on the track gangs after the Great War and staying with it until 1961 when he retired as an engineer. He loved to tell of his life and if you could make time to sit with him it was lesson after lesson on how things once were.

“Redford, he said, was onct called El Polvo and it sure was, dusty as hell and then some.” He claimed it was the only place he ever lived where you could taste it before you saw it. Harold told me the little town was called El Polvo for about forty years until they put up the post office and were told they couldn’t have a foreign name so decided to call it Red Ford after the Spanish name, Vado Rojo, a location nearby where the Rio Grande met the Arroyo de Iglesias. “It was an old river crossin’ but the damn guvmit was the same then as it is now, they jus made it one word ‘cause they din know no better.” he joked, rolling his eyes upward. 

Harold loved newspapers, said his only real education was reading them. “Went to school off and on for maybe three years but when I was about 13, the post office opened and we could get newspapers in the mail ‘stead of begging from the teamsters whose freight wagons brought what we needed down from the railhead up to Alpine.” 

“Now, Redford wasn’t much, had an old square and mebbe four stores, a couple cantina’s, a few old adobe houses and some palapa’s for peoples to git under when it was a sizzlin’ hot.” Jeez, I hated that he opined, “Cookin’ in the summer freezing’ your tail off in the winter. If you was lookin’ to get outta Redford, that might jes be enuff for you to makeup your mind.” He went on to say, “Ya know, Southwest Texas is rough, hardly any dirt, everything is rocks, the plants have thorns and stickers and they’s hardly any flat ground. It’s bluffs and cliffs and you might wonder what in the hell anybody in they right mind would live there. I reckon I wondered that ever day I lived down there.” He paused a while, then he said, “Made us real damn tough tho, even my sisters, they rode as good as the men and could do a hard days work like we could. My sister Dulce, she married a rancher up to Fort Davis, give him a couple boys and when he was killed by a horse, why she raised them boys up, sent ‘em to college and ran that big old ranch just as good as him. See, we was tough kids.” Harold said, “Texas makes you hard or it kills you.”

He told me his sister Rosa Encarnacion run off with a young drover from New Mexico and when he left her there in Magdalena, why she just went up to Santa Fe and worked in a bawdy house for a couple a years. In about 1918 she married a big cattleman. “You know, people weren’t so particular  back then as they is now about that sort of thing. They had a flock of kids, sent ‘em back east to school too, why one become a judge and one of the girls was a movie star after the second war. Families are interestin’ ain’t they? One thing though, there ain’t one of ‘em living in Redford.” Harold laughed a little, then said, “Sometime I kinda miss them simple days.”

“See, we lived in a one room “dobe house, older than the hills; in fact it was the hills, made out of them for a fact. Didn’t have no floor, had one door and three windows with no glass. It had three rooms, one in the center and another they had added later on. None of the “dobe was plastered and the oldest part was a meltin’ away. Ma kept the inside clean though, she used to git a bucket of water, take a mouthfull and then spray it on the dirt while sweepin,’ and that sucker was hard as a rock as clean an shiny as a lizards belly. My pap done made a table and we had four old store bought chairs, a couple held together with wire. Nights in the summer we’d haul ‘em outside under our palapa where ma hung the chilis and have our dinner. Ma could make almos’ anything outta cactus, Nopales, I loved that stuff and ma knew how to make it. She had a old wood stove she cooked on and that thing was a job all by itself. Had a reservoir on the side for boiling water and when I was little I musta made a thousand trips a year hauling’ water from the hand pump to the stove. It had three big ‘ol flat plates on the top for cook pots or makin’ tortillas and two holes in the front for bakin’ bread. No one was too happy with her in the summer, ‘dobe holds the heat real good and you’d be a bakin’ long with the bread. In the winter though we loved her cause she kept that little house nice and warm. Have to say she kept me busy when I was little though, haulin’ wood and water, could never seem to keep up.”

“Down there in south Texas we was a good as Mexican anyhow. We all lived together, worked together, married each other and could talk each others lingo. You could throw in some indian talk too. Guess you could say I could speak three languages, not many can do that anymore.”

He went on, “Eight of us lived in that old place, ma, pa and my five sisters They had me after the three older gals and then the twins when I was eight. They was no more comin’ causes pa told me ma cut him off after that. Mebbe thats why he drank a little too much. Or mebbe it was just the hard life. He ran our place and worked on the side for the big outfits to to keeps us all goin. I spect no one would live that kind of life today, but in a way we didn’t know no better. If you don’t have and your neighbors don’t have ,then you’s all the same, ain’t you? Nothin’ to compare your life too, so it don’t bother.” 

“So in 1914, I got this friend, name of Sloat Temple, he lived with us, you see? He was a tall drink of water, red hair and a kinda long nose, made his upper lip stick out a little and when you looked him in the face the shadow of it allus made it seem like he had no teeth. His left eye had a little tilt on the side, didn’t quite line up, made him tilt his head a bit. He was a good boy but just a trifle. He stayed with us ‘cause my ma was that way, takin’ in strays, didn’ matter what kind. “Ma, she’d see you a-comin’ an’ put her hands on her hips and give a little tilt to her head, mebbe give that little squint she give if she’d thought you’d been doin’ sumpin’ wrong, but knowin’ you was a good boy anyhow. It was a mothers look, a grin full of mirth and automatic forgiveness. She never cared too much what you’d been doin,’ she just loved who you was now. She just naturally took in Sloat an’ made him a part of the family.”

Ya see, his pa got hisself shot dead down in Mexico. He had got this job in the mines, some kinda engineer workin’ for old George Hearst at the Barbicora ranch in Chihuahua and whilst he was travelin’ from Ojinaga to Tierra Blanca, the train was stopped by revolutionary troops under General Pascual Orozco. All the gringo’s and federal troops were taken off and the Federal troops immediately lined up and shot dead. Funny thing I heard, is that they didn’t tie ‘em or nothin’, they just stood there like a bunch a sheep and let ‘em do it, funny that. The Americans were accused of aiding the Mexican government and placed under arrest. President Wilson had stopped the sale of weapons to the revolutionary armies after rich American businessmen complained that their property in Mexico was being seized without anyone payin’ ‘em for it. I heard old Pascual was angry because they needed money from the American banks. They was selling stolen cattle they rustled from the big haciendas up to Texas and New Mexico and then usin’ the money to buy rifles and such in the United States. Wilson cut ‘em off an’ believe me, they wasn’t happy. A vaquero we knew who was down there when it happened tol’ us how they done it. They put Sloat’s father and the others back on the train and took ‘em down to Piedras Blancas and locked ‘em in an old ‘dobe store for a couple days. Orozco telegraphed old Hearst and told ‘em he shoot ‘em if’n he didn’t fork over some money to git ‘em off. We heard that after a couple days, they took ‘em out, started pushing and shovin’ them aroun finally pushing them down on they knees an’ tying up they hands behind their backs. Pascual himself came out and looked them over and said old man Hearst wouldn’t pay no money to get them out so they was goin’ to be shot. Said, “Did they have any messages for they families and such?” The vaquero said that Sloat’s pa to old Pascual that he and George Hearst could go an fuck ‘em selfs. “Bastardo,” said Orozco, walked over to him, pulled his revolver, put it on Temple’s forehead an’ shot him dead right there. He motioned to a captain, who walked behind the other three men and shot them in the back of the head. Just left ‘em lying in the dust in front of the store, Dirt in their open eyes, the blood running into the groun,’ the Vaquero said. He said  “They stripped the bodies, took the watches and boots and anything else they could and rolled ‘em in a ditch. After a couple days they spread some lime on ‘em and buried right there.” 

“When the revolution down in Mexico started, lots of the local vaqueros left to join Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco and our life just got tougher than a nut, cause we had to work even harder. My Pa was tryin’ to run his ranch with almost no help but me, Sloat and a couple little Mex boys. Pa had took us’n down cross the river and we’d snatch up a few hunnert head of cattle, run ‘em back cross the border,  then drove ‘em up to Alpine where we’d sell ‘em to the cattle buyers. No ways it’s legal, but what ya gonna do? Rustlin’ only counts in the US don’t it?” Harold put his head down a little, paused for a while, gimme a little smile and said, “Hell.”  Then he laughed til he shook. “Hell.”

“We seen them Dorados onct. Villa and his men were passing through headed to the railhead at Alpine to take delivery of rifles and artillery he’d bought from the American government. We was moving’ cows over west of Torneros Arroyo and they come up the road ridin’ from Ojinaga where the musta crossed the border. Reckon they come up from Chihuahua city. They was a ridin’ by fours, musta took up most of two miles. They coulda’ been five hunnert of em, believe you me. They was a rough a bunch of killers as I ever seed. They wore them big sombreros and the horses they rode were good lookin’ too, really good mounts, probably stole from the big hacendados down there in Mexico. They carried them carbinas .30-.30’s, a helluva rifle an easy for a horsemen to handle as they was short and light. Didn’ wear no uniforms neither, just whatever they fancied.Them big Mexican hats, each one carried at least a couple belts of catridges, ridin’ them big old Mex single rig saddles with the soup bowl horn and tapaderos. Villa come ridin’ up with his personal killer, Rodofo Fierro, called ‘im El Carcinero,  it’s said he’d shoot you down and not turn a hair. In those days, Villas horse, Siete Leguas was ‘bout as famous as he was and they was both right in front of us. He give us a look and showed us his teeth as he went by. “Muchacho, Que tal? he said. He give us a nod and a wave and galloped up to the head of the line. Jesus, them was some bad lookin’ hombres, made the hairs on your neck stand up too. We give  ‘em a lotta room. I was gonna see some nasty stuff later on, but I never seed any troops that scared me like those boys. Jesus, they was so hard they nearly made you piss your trousers, right there. To me they said, “nada me importa perder la vida,”  (I care nothing about losing my life,) and they meant it. Villa sent them in against barbed wire and machine guns at Agua Prieta in 1915 and they musta been right about that ‘cause they did die, nearly every damned one. Rode right into those guns goin’ hell for leather hollerin’ and a yippin. Didn’ do ‘em a bit of good though, slaughtered ‘em and damn near ended Villa right there.

“They was sumpin’ about ‘em though, you could tell they figured they was good, chin up and all, plenty a swagger. Them Dorados was Villas personal troops, follered him ever where. Seemed like an adventure to me though, Villa and his Dorados was running rings around the government troops down in Chihuahua and Durango. My grandfather said he was just a cheap pistolero and Pancho Villa wasn’t even his real name anyways.” He ‘tol me “Used to buy cows from the real Pancho, he stole ‘em from the big hacendados and I bought ‘em on the cheap. This guy Arango will come to a bad end mijo, you can bet on it.” Turned out in the end what mi Abuelo was sayin’ was Verdad.” Harold said, “Thats what they done too, shot Villa to pieces about 1923.” That whole revolution din’ amount to much in the end, Millions dead and things just kinda went back to the way they’d allus been.” Harold said, “Hard to figure sometimes, ain’t it. All that waste weren’t for shit in the end, corrupt bastards still runnin’ ever thing in the end. Bad as ever.”

“Did see him though, talked to me too.” Harold smiled at that, “Not many can say they seen Pancho Villa anymore, can they? Helluva thing though.”

”President Wilson sent United States troops down our way to Chase Villa back into Mexico after he shot up Columbus  New Mexico. When the army come in with Gen’l Pershing, they had these flyin’ machines up to Presidio and some cavalry at old Fort Polvo just down the road from us.” “Ma worked as a cook and the money was welcome ’cause there weren’t no jobs for any women cept’n whores in those days.” I started hangin’ around the soldiers when I had the time and they were tellin’ me things I never heard before and it was pretty excitin’ stuff for a young guy like me who’d never been anywhere before.” Harold said, “It really got me to thinking’ maybe I wanted to git outta Redford and see sumpin else, you know?” “Them Mexican sojers were a bangin’ away cross the boarder and them beans was a flying’ around all the time. Course our side was a shootin’ back ‘cept no one was gettin’ plugged but the occasional cow, but still, hit weren’t too healthy.”

“I guess I coulda gone down and joined up with Villa, plenty of white folks were doin’ that but I thought, Let them Messicans fight it out amongst theyselves. I weren’t Messican, even if my mother said she was, I expect she was more Mescalero anyway, since I think she come from that part of Texas.” Harold laughed.

“I thought about it for a long time, figurin’ what to do and where to go until I finally decided to light out for good. Me an Sloat figured we needed to dust trail outta there and see sumpin’, ya know? From the Sojers, I’d a heard about the big bust up in France and I reckoned I’d go over  there and see the Elephant.” Harold said he knew from newspapers that President Wilson wouldn’t have nuthin’ to do with the war and If’n we wanted to go I’d have to go on up to Canada to enlist.

Now Harold was born while his pa was in Cuba with the Rough Riders. His pa had taken a ball through his cheek in the fight at Kettle Hill. He was pretty proud of that. He’d said “howdy” to the Colonel when he was in the hospital tent and the Colonel replied “You boys did a capital job with the Spaniards, yes sir, it was a Bully fight. Just Bully.” Pap wore that scar like it was a badge of honor, he allus said, “Hit was the best thing I ever done and I’d do agin ifn the Colonel ast me.”

He had lived his whole life so far in Redford. It was brown and dusty, scattered with rocks like chicken scratch thrown on the ground. Brown like his mothers skin, brown like his fathers hands, brown like all the people who lived there. “Nuthin’ for me now, nuthin’ ever gonna be for me,” he said, “I’d jus die here and they’d bura me under the brown earth. Nobody’d even know I’d ever been. Couldn’t see any sense in staying.”

He continued,”You know, I’d never been more’n 20 miles from home and that just a wranglin’ steers for the Cibolo Ranch, old Milton Favers place. Me’n Sloat talked it over and jus decided to git outta there. We snuck our things outta the ‘dobe, put ‘em in our possible sacks , waited ’til pa was gone for a couple a days and lit out. What I done was to take my ma’s money outtn the Hills Brothers coffee tin where she hid it, figured I’d pay her back some how, and we lit out for the railroad stop at Marfa on the Southern Pacific short line.  Took a couple horse from pa, me n Sloat. Took the worst too, didn’ want to discomfort pa too much.  Sloat forked the old Dun mare  and I had that mossy hammer head gelding my pa stole down in Mexico, he weren’t pretty, and he weren’t worth a damn with a steer but he could put in some miles if ya gave him his head.

Made the ride in three days, Tied the horses at the depot, told the agent whose they was and would he try to send a message back to my folks where the horses was and caught the train east. I ain’t never been back.” 

He thought a bit, then said, “Life out there wasn’t no picnic, but it had its good, My Pa died in about ’34, life had wored him out. He worked so hard, ever damn day, each the same as ta other an’ he hardly ever talked, just said what he needed to say and the rest of the time kept pretty quiet. Ma lived until she was nearly ninety, a miracle I reckon ‘cause she lived such a hard life but she was strong like those Injun women are. She raised up her kids as best she could and we all turned out alright didn’t we? Without any change of expression, he said, ”All this time and I can still smell her.”

The old man sat very still for a while, remembering, I suppose, then without any change in expression, the  tears began rolling down his cheeks. He didn’t wipe them, just let them roll down until they fell on his shirt front. 

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THE PLUG HAT

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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.

People keep things for the darndest reasons. Like most people my grandparents had things stashed around their house that had meaning that only they understood. Some we know about, such as the little blue and white but very ordinary teacup and saucer my grandfather picked up in the ruins of the Red Front store before the building was consumed by the fires caused by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It meant something to him, but unless you now the story behind it, and believe me, there were many, because it was one of the greatest events of his life, you would have passed it by if you saw it on a shelf at Goodwill.  My grandparents also kept a chaffing dish they had received for a wedding present. This, I never saw anywhere but the garage. It was covered copper on a stand but the one feature that kept it in the garage for nearly seventy years was the handle. The handle was made of a segment of deer horn. My grandmother though it was creepy, downright devilish and she wouldn’t allow it in the home, ever. I have no idea why she kept it all that time. Strangely enough, my brother still has it. It is as creepy looking as it ever was.

Now, as it turns out, there is a story behind the old plug hat. You see, it was the fancy of students who attended the University of California, Berkeley at the dawning of the twentieth century to wear them. Upperclassmen and women, of which my grandmother was one, wore the old beaten up hats as a fashion accessory, much as my father wore his beanie when he was a student at Cal in the 1930’s. They must have found them on trash heaps or second hand stores, useless to anyone but college students who delight in being contrarians. My grandmother and her friends would walk around campus, from the North Hall to the Bacon Library Hall, or gather at the Charter Oak, dressed in the style of 1908, wearing shirtwaists, high collars and long dresses over high button shoes. The stately look we imagine today as being their nature. It’s too easy to forget that they were twenty year old girls. Just as they are in college today, full of high spirits and dreams of a life yet to be lived.

Kids will always find a way to confound and confuse. In a day when women dressed in high collars and long skirts, where you could be sanctioned or expelled from Cal for showing too much shoe top under your skirt, they perched those crushed and worn hats atop there masses of carefully piled curls, looked the world straight in the eye and with a saucy grin, dared.

My grandmother Annie was 60 years old when I was born. She’d lived two thirds of an entire life and I was just beginning mine. She and my grandfather retired the dairy when I was nine. I had no curiosity about their life. Sitting on a treasure chest of experience both tragic and comic and never thinking of opening it. I have lived long enough now to see in some of the things we inherited from them, stories, though never told, that were somehow absorbed just by living in the soup of family life.

When I was young that old plug hat hung on the rack in the office where she did her accounts. The place where she counted the pennies and silver dollars people still paid their milk bills with. I suppose that the cash economy was dying then and only the stores that sold our milk paid by check. I spent much time sitting in the old bentwood chair she kept there, watching her count and roll the coins in their paper tubes, putting the money in the old green bag marked Bank of America, the color of the bag matching the baize cloth that covered the table where the family played serious games of poker after holiday dinners.

My grandad wore the hat during the Gay Nineties festival that we had in our little town to celebrate the end of the harvest season. Each year it would come down from its hook and be seen at various events. I saw him wear it during the skits, called “black outs,”  that were performed in the old Mission theatre on Branch Street and once I saw a photo taken when the Pacific Coast Railroad ran its last celebratory train trip through Arroyo Grande. Nearly the whole town turned out in 1938 to wish the old narrow gauge railroad, which had been such a large part of our community for more than a half century,  goodbye. People dressed in their best Gay Nineties style as people used to do for the old town celebrations. There they were in those old victorian costumes to wave the train  off on her last trip before they tore up the tracks for good. Right in the middle is my grandfather Jack, the top hat tipped at a jaunty angle, fake mustache awry, sitting at the wheel of an old 1920 Model T Ford, Cornelia Conrow at his side.

They still had that topper in 1968 when Jack served as the Grand Marshal of the Harvest Festival. There is an old newspaper photo of him with Mutt Anderson standing next to the old Model A Ford they used for the parade. He is dressed in a claw hammer coat and string tie, the old hat cocked at a jaunty angle, in what was likely its last hurrah.

That old hat, some 80 years old, battered, dented had lost its gleam but it must have had some real meaning for my grandparents, some vestige of the romance they shared such a long time ago. My grandparents were married for nearly seventy years and shared all the ups and downs that families endured during the great depression, two world wars and the daily life of farm and ranch families. They didn’t seem to me to be particularly sentimental people. There wasn’t much around the old place that might remind you of older times. A box of old bolts and nails kept in the calf shed for possible reuse had more cachet than an old photo.

They raised two sons, my dad and my uncle who were much like them. Unsentimental, they kept things until they were used up and then discarded them without looking back. When the old place was sold in the eighties, they discarded most everything in the house that my grandparents built including the old top hat. I guess whatever magic it once held for my grandparents had all run out.

 

 

 

 

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MINOR SWING

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The heart of Saturday night; the entire town in attendance in the days before the future happened. As the varsity football team trotted off the field at halftime they were passed by the marching band, the high stepping big redhead pumping his baton, leading the group at double time, the sax players hacking with that unmistakable honk, backed up by the sweet sugary notes of cornets and trumpets, soaring over it all like syrup. Big Jim Maggini holding the bottom steady with his baritone Saxophone, Doyle Douglas matching him beat for beat on the bass drum. Twittering and fluttering over the top like a flock of giddy birds, the flutes. Oh Madeline, Madeline, Bruce Heir and Masaki working those ‘bones, wonderful, wonderful, pounding out James Brown’s “Night Train.” The entire crowd on it’s feet whistling and applauding in time to the insistent tempo of the drum section. The booming heavy base drum and the pick-up sticks of the snare drums rattling their dry bones in the cool night air.  Coda

Richie packed his Blacktop Fender Strat, slid the case into the baggage compartment and flew off to immortality. The eighth grade girls at Branch Elementary stood quietly in their poodle skirts; devastated, they cried for the boys they didn’t know. The music died.  Coda

Hillary wore a yellow dress. She put her wild auburn hair up; I wore my one dollar Silky shirt. I picked her up in my old blue Dodge Dart surf car and we drove to the valley where the Hawaiian Kings once lived. We sat on the grassy slope of the Honolulu bowl an waited for the show to start. The band who opened the show looked like nothing we had ever seen before, long, thick hanks of hair flying off in all the directions of the compass just like Medusa, they wore bright vibrant clothes on a stage hung with Jamaican flags. Potted palms littered the floor. They shuffled around on stage picking up their instruments, adjusting mics, plugging in. Finally they gathered, stood with their backs to the audience and turning, the lead suddenly counted out, one, two, three…and “Dread, Natty Dread now. (Natty Dread)” Instantly the entire audience was on their feet dancing and swaying. Bob Marley and the Wailers. What a night. It was perfect, Hillary was perfect. I’ve long forgotten who the headliners were but the Wailers I will never forget. Today, I was grocery shopping and I heard the same song, put to a thirty piece orchestra and played as Muzak over the PA system at Von’s Market. “Pick up on aisle 6.” Oh man, too sad.  Coda

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 Demimond 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,

Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”

Ernie smiled his wicked smile under the caterpillar mustache.  “Cole, he said.”  Coda

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  Coda

 

Thank you: Stephan Grapelli, Jean “Django” Reinhardt, The 1962 Arroyo Grande Marching Band with drum major Robert Morefield, Ricardo Valenzuela, Robert Nesta Marley and the Wailers, Hillary Weireter, Ernest Miller Hemingway, Cole Albert Porter, and James Paul McCartney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Doggie Stories

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My mom and dad got a new pup when they moved from the Short Street, Arroyo Grande out to the ranch. They were living on acreage for the first time since they had married two year before. To celebrate they got themselves a little black and white pup. They named her Bitty because she was just a little bit of a thing. Dr. Case had told my mom she would never have children and the young couple needed a puppy to lavish all that care on. It was my mom mostly.

You see my dad had grown up and spent his whole life farming and ranching where dogs were treated like livestock. He and my uncle Jack had many pets I suppose, but not in the sense you know now. The cows had names and personalities just like the goat and “FLU” the pig. That didn’t mean there was any sentiment when ” Flu ” was cooked and served for Christmas dinner. The vet might be called out for livestock, they, after all, were the source of income but dogs and cats were simply left to get by on there own. Bit by a rabid skunk, the dog would die. A cat hurt in the hay bailer, same thing. There were always more, especially when you lived right next to the road. Someone would surely come along and dump their unwanted animals at the gate.

When I was a boy this still applied and we thought nothing of it. As kids we loved our dogs but they had to get by on there own. They had their jobs. Ground squirrels were their prey. At the ranch the cats worked too. If they were good mousers they got to live in the calf shed where the feed was stored or in the hay barn to keep the mouse population down. Fed just enough, they killed field mice by the thousands. Lest you think any of this is cruel, the cute little mousies nested in the hay and left their urine and waste all over it and the cattle refused to eat the contaminated food. The ground squirrels built towns in the pastures with hundreds of holes and created wastelands where the stock could not graze nor walk. Gophers in the row crops ate plant roots destroying the plants meant to feed families. Every square yard of a farmers land is meant to produce crops. It takes from 1.5 to 3 acres of pasture to support a cow depending on conditions, rainfall, cost of feed and other factors. You can see why acreage is closely guarded by the grower and his dog.

In our family there is hardly a family photo without a dog somewhere in it. Over time some of them have become legends from the telling and retelling of things they did.

Little Bitty grew up, of course and to a certain extant lost my mothers affection because the woman who would never be able to conceive, did. In fact she did it three times. In the forties nobody “fixed” a dog, male or female and Bitty was no exception. If you live on a ranch your neighbors live some distance away and the chances of interacting or even seeing other dogs is unlikely. Unless you have a female in heat and then male dogs come out of the woodwork. There are various ways to thwart these insane Lotharios, most of which consist of locking the bitch up. If you put here in the cab of a truck, the males will scratch the paint off the doors, If you try to sleep at night, the howling will keep you awake. Male dogs will kill each other over the chance to breed. They don’t get many opportunities in a life time. One time my dads solution was to lock Bitty in the second floor room of our tank house. At night the pack of neighbor dogs would circle the building like Sioux warriors attacking a wagon train, howling and barking while Bitty whined and cried in her prison tower. One night the pack killed Old Man Parrish’s Collie dog in their frenzy. Bitty, for her part, scratched and chewed at the wooden walls of her jail until one morning she made a hole big enough to crawl through and jumped, my dad said flew, through the air into a walnut tree and then to the ground and proceeded to run those male dogs on a wild goose chase. Three days later she came home, dirty, bedraggled but with a stupid grin on her face and  two months later produced one tiny little pup.

Paco was a volunteer dog. One of our field workers though Mister George’s kids needed a dog so the half grown pup joined the family. Paco was a funny looking guy of no particular breed, so much so that you could never figure out what combination of different types he might be. He was a kind of a leatherish brown color with medium length brown hair that stuck out in all directions. He was no house dog, I don’t recall him every being in the back porch, which is where dogs were allowed for feeding. Like our other dogs he slept wherever he liked. There was the seat on the Caterpillar tractor or perhaps the greatest luxury, a pickup with an open door. There were burlap sacks from the walnut orchard in the packing shed and in the warm months, plenty of weed patches to curl up on. Paco was no dilettante, he seemed never to be bothered by anything, he even slept out in the rain on occasion. I was always struck by his nobility. He was friendly enough but he never stooped to things like jumping on people or, God forbid, licking your hand or face. He didn’t bark much and barely took notice of strange people in cars. He had no sense of being a watchdog. Sometimes he would follow us out to the school bus or greet us with a wag when we came home from school but mostly he was content to just be by himself and observe his world. I was just a little kid when he arrived and was well into my teens when he lay down and died, quietly of course. He lived a long life and is remembered in the family with fondness.

Then there was Max. Max and Paco were contemporaries but couldn’t have been less alike. Max was a Fox Terrier, a smooth one, white with big tan spots. He was affectionate, intelligent, a playful dog and boy was he speedy. He could run a jackrabbit down if he could flush one into the open. The Jacks lived in our celery crops. Celery was perfect, it had tender leaves and grew in tightly packed rows where they could hide in the daytime. Remember what I said about our livelihood. Every stalk was precious and Jackrabbits could be a pest. Not only could Max outrun a Jack, he could do the thing most dogs can’t, he could turn with them. A Jackrabbit can usually escape a dog by turning on a dime which most dogs can’t do. Think of the big black SUV in the movies chasing down the guy in the little sports coupe. The coupe can turn on a dime and leave change but the SUV is a big lumbering machine thats only good on a straight road. Well, Maxie was a dirt bike to the Jackrabbits coupe.

His other job was gophers. Dad would put irrigation water down the gopher holes and when the gopher popped out, it was whack-a-mole for Max, a bite and a shake; job done. He was also our premier watchdog. Where Paco observed, Max acted. Though he weighed only about fifteen pounds and stood just an inch or two over a foot he had absolutely no fear. Turn into our driveway, really a ranch road about a quarter mile long, he’d be on you before you’d gone twenty yards. The whole distance to the house you’d be attacked by this little dog. The closer you come the more ferocious he became, attacking your front tires, snapping and biting at them with a frenzy that had to be seen to be believed. The piece de resistance, though, was as you drew near the house, he would begin jumping up and down as he ran, finally levitating even with the drivers window and barking and growling into the drivers face. People were flabbergasted. Windows were rolled up as fast as possible. This little dog was insane; people would or could not get out of their cars until somebody came out of the house to rescue them. If the whole family was in the house we’d run to the windows and watch Max put on his act and many a good laugh was had at the reactions of the people who came to visit.

Fred was my brothers dog, some sort of Beagleish type dog. Longer of leg than your typical beagle, he was black and white with a smattering of black freckles on his white snout. He was a congenial dog and one of the family favorites. A good boy, he liked to follow dad wherever he went. He followed the trucks and tractors around the fields and made fast friends among the Mexicans and Filipino field workers. He was a taco lover of the first degree. He possessed a strange intelligence though, which he demonstrated occasionally.

One of our neighbors Lena Sevier raised chickens. The chickens, once known as Italians, were  originally imported from the central Italian city of Livorno in Tuscany. Livorno, in the American way was bastardized to leghorn, the name by which they are known today. You recognize them by their all white feathers. Lena’s birds were semi-wild as they lived and roosted outside and around the ranch building on her property. The chickens foraged under the Eucalyptus trees, the poison oak along the bluff and even crossed Branch Mill Road to look for grubs under Gladys Sullivan’s enormous old walnut tree. They had become wily creatures because they had to defend themselves against all kinds of predators, not the least of which were dogs. He evidently decided that a chicken dinner would be just the thing and made his way to the walnut tree. Having absolutely no experience in chicken snatching, he actually ran one down. Beginners luck I reckon. Thats not the end of the story though. He didn’t kill it but carried it home, a distance of about a half mile with the hen flapping and trying to peck him the whole way. By the time he got to the yard he was exhausted trying to hold to hen and dinner seemed to be a whole lot of hard work so he decided to bury it instead. Maybe he knew what happened to the last chicken stealing dog we had.

He went out to the back of the house near where dad parked the John Deere and set the bird down and began furiously digging a hole. The chicken immediately made a break for it and Fred had to leave the hole and run it down again. After this had played out several times, the hole was ready and he threw the chicken into it. He started nosing dirt into the hole but the uncooperative hen bolted, again making a break for freedom just like Steve McQueen on his motorcycle. Fred tried one more time but the result was the same. The writing on the wall was there for anyone to see, even a not very bright dog. He gave up and just laid down in the dirt with his head on his paws. Forget the chicken. It disappeared across the fields headed for home and Fred never bothered with Lena’s chickens again.

Clancy was a Chihuahua and he was my brother Cayces. He came from a line of dogs my uncle Jack had for keeping the hay barn mouse free. The little dogs were perfect for that job because of their size. When you hooked a bale and moved it just a little they would dart underneath and grab any mice that might be so unfortunate as to be there. The dogs were natural born killers. Clancy was named after the pugnacious symbol of Irishness, the fists up, bandy legged, always ready to fight Fenian devil so often portrayed in popular culture.

The Irish have taken that symbol to heart instead of moaning about an insult to their culture.  The Irish people fought everyone and when there were no invasions by the hated English they fought amongst themselves, every Irishman a King is the old saying and they meant it. Clancy was the pure embodiment of this even if he was a Mexican. He was ready to go at the drop of a hat, a mean little bugger if push came to shove. He loved only my brother, and women. Not human women but dog women. He tried to leave his legacy behind at every opportunity and when there was a dog in heat anywhere within the territory he would be there, duking it out with other much bigger dogs for the prize.

Finally my dad had had enough of him coming home beaten up, dirty, bedraggled and bloody. He vowed to start locking him up when there was any suspicion that sexual activities were on the horizon. Late one night he started acting up and clawing the back porch door to get out, moaning in his high pitched doggy voice, a sure sign that we were about to suffer another episode of sexual hi-jinks. Dad got up from his chair and said he was going to fix this so we could have some peace and grabbed the little dog and went out the back door to the grey, one ton flatbed truck he used for hauling vegetables, opened the drivers side door and threw him in and slammed the door behind him.

For a few hours peace prevailed. Quiet in the house, everyone eventually drifted off to bed. Now, every military mind knows that the best time for attack is in the very early morning when sleep is the deepest. As far away from awake as the mind can get, reaction time is slow in coming. Clancy must have somehow, in his little pea brain known this for at 3:30 AM he stood up on his hind legs, placed his front paws on the horn button  and let ‘er rip. Like an air raid siren the horn howled and howled and howled, waking everyone in the farmhouse and the labor camp barracks. More than a dozen people were startled from deep sleep by the bellow of the horn. Or maybe, the yowl from my dad as he crashed through the back door, slamming the screen so hard the handle broke, making for the truck, still in his pajamas and bare feet. He yanked the drivers side door open and Clancy shot out of the truck and disappeared into the night.

Two days later the little dog returned. He was in his usual state. Dad gave him the fish eye which Clancy returned.  Eventually they settled into a state of equilibrium, though Clancy was the obvious winner in the battle of wills. The best part of the story was the reaction of the Mexican Braceros who worked and lived with us, for each time they saw the little dog and my dad together they pointed at him laughed, saying “Mr George, el perro quiere conducir la camioneta,” while pantomiming turning a steering wheel and blowing the horn. Dad would laugh as hard as they did.

 

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Forging Iron

There is an island in Pacific Ocean. It is the Mecca for surfers from around the world. In the days before professional surfing transformed this place, it was peopled by young surfers from all over the world.  Many lived on a shoestring, putting up with the privations this caused in order to surf the most incredible waves on the face of the earth.

We will not say there aren’t good waves elsewhere, because there are. The difference is that there are so many high quality surf breaks in such a small place. In an eight mile stretch; a drive of just 20 minutes, are the most famous surf spots on earth. Even non-surfers know the names of the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Wiamea Bay, just three of the many.

2nd reef pipe

In the 1960’s and ’70’s the houses that dotted this coastline were occupied by a disparate band of surfer pirate types. Boys, men and girls from California, Texas and Florida; Peru and Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, all lived together in rental houses along Ke-Nui Road, just off the Kamehameha Highway that circles the island. Ke Nui isn’t really a street, its a little dirt road paralleling the highway, providing entrance to the properties fronting it so they don’t have to enter directly onto the main road. Hawaiian names and phrases are difficult to the translate directly to english but the two words can be explained as Ke, the, and Nui, large or big, Ke-Nui. It is an appropriate name as the little lane fronts some of the biggest rideable surf on earth.

If you drive up the highway from Haleiwa town, (house of the Frigate bird) towards Sunset Beach, passing Wiamea Bay and Pupukea road, look for the turnoff by John Steele and “Fat Pauls” house, take that onto Ke-Nui and go past Ehukai Beach Park and just beyond it, just on your left, is the setting for this little story.

It was a simple two bedroom, one bath home built in the late fifties. Like many Hawaiian homes of the era it was built for comfort not speed. The climate is mild on the north shore of Oahu and much of the living is outdoors. A big deck facing the ocean, a large grassy area on the street side. No garage and no fences, just a hedge of Oleander that defined property boundaries but allowed easy passage in the spirit of Aloha.

You could literally walk down the street, knocking on doors, asking if there was any room to rent and you could find them. During the peak surf season, houses might have more than a dozen people living in them with only the leaseholder actually having a job. People slept on couches, on the floor and in bunk beds on the sleeping porches. A little girl I knew lived in a closet. Most contributed in some way. You might own a car for transportation, or, supply food for all to eat. Some houses had banks of refrigerators owned by different people or groups. One house I knew had padlocks on their refrigerators, for the spirit of RF prevailed. Stolen food, eaten, left no evidenciary trail.

Most of the itinerant surfers had limited budgets. Money saved from a job on the mainland or perhaps unemployment insurance. Carefully parceled out you could live for months without working. Occasionally someone might have no money and grifted around, eating for free. Those that have the least are the most generous to others that have less. Some work the hotels as gardeners or maids, girls waited table, some kids worked construction and the most successful at this might make a permanent life there.

Our hero lived on unemployment, arranged with a co-operative mainland boss who would lay him off for a few months in the winter so he could journey to Hawaii. He moved into this particular house in the fall, anxious to help himself to the amazing winter waves.

The Wide World of Sports would lead you to believe that the huge waves are an almost daily occurrence. They are not. Weeks may pass between swells that produce big, rideable surf. Winters have passed in which almost no surf of that size has appeared. Conditions can change in just minutes. Wind changes velocity and direction, a new swell pushes onshore and waves can grow dramatically in size. Big wave surfers must be prepared. Depending on your experience you might not want to try big surf right out of the gate. Perhaps spend a few weeks, months or even a season or two before you try the really dangerous stuff. Up to you.

Mike arrived in midwinter. For those that don’t know him, we can say that he is not lacking in bravado. Looking like a fire plug, broad shoulders, strong legs and a forward leaning personality, he can fill a room or house with bluster and testosterone. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never seen him show fear or trepidation. Confidence just oozes from him.

From the front deck of the house the view is from Sunset Beach on your right to the Banzai Pipeline on your left. There are many surf spots in between, Pupukea, Sandbar, Gas chambers and Rocky Point. Names that are descriptive of their nature, rocky coral and shallow bottoms, two feet of water over hard sand or in the case of gas chambers, a wave ending at a the apply named, protruding “Death Rock” which, if you surf there you must take in the possibility you may not come out at the end. These though, are essentially smaller wave spots, easily ridden with a little experience and practice. It’s the bookends of your view that really count. Sunset Beach, a world renowned very big wave and “The Pipe”, arguably the most famous surf spot on earth. Numbers of surfers have died there and many dozens more seriously injured. I suffered a serious concussion there on a relatively small day that required hospitalization. The veteran surfer carries the scars from coral head slices, the marks made are akin to being dragged across a giant cheese grater. Riding there on a perfect, big day can be the adrenaline injection of a lifetime. Of course, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

Never to be taken lightly, Pipe consists of both an inner and an outer reef. If you’ve seen it on TV you’ve most likely seen the inner reef, a perfect, left breaking tube that gets big enough to fit a good sized car in.  The surfers who have dominated the place are world famous. They can make it look easy as all great athletes do. They have all taken their lumps though and photos of broken bleeding surfers being helped out of the water are legion.

Outside, or second reef is another story. Basically the same hollow wave shape as the inner reef except its immeasurably larger. A moving behemoth of dark blue ocean that moves in a grand and stately manner toward its ultimate demise.  No one who does not surf big waves can have any conception of the fear engendered by the approach of this beautiful blue mountain with the pure white feathered crown of spume blown off the top by the trade winds sliding down the slopes of the Ko’olau Range to the east. Not many surfers brave this.

In the house, the resident surfers had watched the surf building for an entire day. Sitting on the chairs and handrail, insulting each other as young men do to show affection. Frank and Clown Boy, Steven and his wife, Spider Wills, a neighbor and filmmaker; Jim “Cat Daddy” Craig, who was studying marine geology at the University of Hawaii, Stefan Schweitzer, architect and big Norman Ratzlaff, an impossibly tall, red haired teaser. Norman’s stock phrase was “Don’t be afraid,” delivered in a sepulchral voice and applied to anyone showing the least bit of caution about anything that might be going on. Our boy had arrived in this menagerie just two days before and hadn’t yet ridden a single big wave. He had opinions though and was eager to go after the biggest and baddest waves when he got the chance.

In the very early morning, before the dawn, he awoke to an ominous rumbling and a rolling, shaking of the house. He crawled out of his sleeping bag, stumbling over the other forms lying about, carefully going up the stairs from the back porch to the kitchen. Through the kitchen to the living room, carefully avoiding the sleepers, trying to avoid scattered clothes and discarded sandals until he found the screen door. A matter of just a moment led him out onto the night damp deck where the rumbling sound became the distinct crashing of line after line of perfect waves breaking on the coral reef. Black and dimly seen in the dim light of the predawn, maximum, first reef pipeline was attacking the shore. With no morning trade winds blowing, the glass smooth waves marched one after another to their doom, cracking and spitting as tons of water pounded down upon itself in an orgy of destruction. The waves broke and the earth moved.

At first light, sleepy eyed surfers stumbled from their houses, breakfast bowls in hand, surveying the waves. How big was it, would it get bigger, could a good paddler even get out through the rip. The tidal rip was a river of water flowing east inside the breaking waves, seeking a way back out to the ocean. You had to think, am I strong enough, can I hold my breath long enough, do I want to go? At first all thoughts are kept quiet, no one talks while minds are made up, courage is screwed up, or not. Thoughtful courage in which risks are weighted against thrills or testosterone courage where no risk is considered too much to attain the end result; both carefully considered. Decisions can be made on factors other than skill level or experience. Does a dark and ominous lowering sky nuance your decision? A bright and sunny day might make a difference too, a little less trepidation on a warm and bright sunny day.

Norman; “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” begins his chant. He’s not going himself so he’s willing to test others. Boys, in particular know this device, most have listened to it since their earliest days. “C’mon man, you go first, I’ll be right behind you,” or “Whatsa matter, you scared?” The only one who spoke against the rising, vocal tide was our man. In truth he didn’t need to be shamed, he was going, it’s what he had come for. The teasing drove him forward even harder.

Every part of surfing is timing. I don’t mean just the riding either, Paddling to the correct spot, timing the take-off, staying in the right spot, which in Hawaii generally means constant paddling because contrary to what the tourist from Idaho sees from shore, massive amounts of water are in constant motion. In fact, the sea is alive, it moves in all dimensions. Just as the atmosphere moves in the form of wind, does the sea move by current.

Paddling like mad, you thrust your arms shoulder deep in the roiling water of the rip current,  sliding sideways faster than you can propel yourself outward, aiming for the small area where it was just possible to get out past the heavy breaking waves of the inside section. By a miracle of effort and shear luck our hero punched through the top of a breaking wave and made it to the outside. Clearing  the inside breaking waves,  it was an easy paddle to the second reef wave that only broke on very big days. The water that far from shore being much deeper, The initial wave tended to be a little less critical on the take-off. Bigger but slower than the inside wave, the outside is easier to catch but once caught, it becomes ever more critical, faster; in effect, cranking up the volume pass the ten mark in very short order. Imagine coming to the top of the roller coaster where the drop begins slowly and accelerates so fast that it takes your breath away and you’ve got it.

The surfers problem though, was that as the massive energy surge that created the waves moved closer to shore where the water is much shallower both the velocity of, and the power increased exponentially which meant that you must be far enough down the face with your surfboard flying at maximum velocity or the wave would simply rise up faster than you could go. The result is to be pulled to the very top of the breaking wave and then be pitched outward and downward with the crest. You are, for about two seconds that seems, like an eternity, as weightless as an astronaut. The space man is fortunate in the sense that he isn’t about to have hundreds of tons of angry ocean fall on his head and try and drive your soft little body headlong onto the absolutely unforgiving coral reef just a few short feet under water. Pipeline can, and will kill. Every surfer that tries his luck  there knows this.

banzai

As you fall, the mind is hyperactive, Thoughts moving at the speed of light flash through the brain which knows that any outcome other than the inevitable is hopeless. Relax and enjoy, the old saying goes.

All of this takes place in silence. All of the whirling spinning motion takes place without the ear being conscious of sound. It’s one of the quirks of surfing, its nearly always quiet out there, the booming and crashing the bystander hears barely registers to the man of the moment. We’ve all had that dream of falling silently through infinite space, not able to take a breath, the dream seeming never to end.

The crowd on the front deck watched all this with, at first amusement and then not a little horror as he free fell, was crushed and disappeared for long moments, that to the surfer held down by all that immense weight seems to last forever. Finally a small dot appeared in the churning spinning white foam that was all that was left of the spent wave. Time seemed to drag as Mike slowly swam himself to the shore and crawled on all fours onto the steep sand shingle of the beach. He paused for a long time, head down, still on his hands and knees, sagging slightly and gasping for a clean breath of air, then he slowly rose, stumbled to his surfboard and slowly walked up the beach towards home.

Then a strange metamorphosis occurred. As the butterfly slowly emerges from its chrysalis so did Mike emerge from his beating. By the time he got to use he was talking a mile a minute, his right eye in the twitch we all knew to be a sign of hyperactive excitement. “Did you guys see that?” “Oh man, what a wave” In just a moment he went from being dead Mike to “Iron Mike,” someone who could survive giant waves and laugh about it.

“Iron Mike.” As the days passed the experience went from black and white to technicolor. From near death to pure life, the biggest wave, the best ride, and the longest hold down. “Why, those coral head were covered with razor blades boys, cut me like glass, pounded me like hammers, held me down for 5 minutes at least.”

In a world of young single men where the art of BS, the  “Jive ” is sublime, this story was over the top. Funny at first, then the inevitable “Not again,” Reality become fantasy become yesterdays news. We’ve all surfed in those conditions, we knew the risk and the experience. Embellished and polished, the story got better but at the same time more fantastic until it entered the realm of “Jiveness.”

“Iron Mike, Iron Mike, Iron Jive,” Perfect. It was done. Forty some years later whenever the story is told, he is still the “Iron Jive.” And you know what, we love him for it.

 

 

 

 

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The Written Word

atthetable2015

I cannot remember the time when I didn’t have a library card. My mother started taking  us to the little library behind the American Legion hall on Orchard street when I was just a little guy. It was the domain of Mrs Bernice Kitchell. She was the first librarian ever I knew. She was not too tall, slight in stature, almost too thin, wore spectacles and always had her hair up. She was very nice to little boys and guided us around the tiny rooms, for the library was, at that time, just a temporary building. Being a temporary building, it is, of course still there sixty five years later. At the time it was just a simple city library, not the kind you see today, but financed by the town. Mrs Kitchell was of course paid a pittance and in return she did every job required or not. She scrounged…

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