Aunt Mickeys

On mom’s side of the family there were several places we would go to visit. She had many uncles and aunts and cousins but our favorite by far was my Uncle Ray and Aunt Mickey’s. They lived in the Fresno county foothills in a little valley called Watt’s.They were mountain people, not necessarily by birth but certainly by inclination. According to my dad my uncle Ray knew the name of every stream in the Sierra and how to get there. He owned a small cattle ranch in the valley on which he and aunt Mickey and their two boys lived. To get there from our house we had to cross the San Joaquin valley on which we as kids measured our progress by the sight of the endless cotton fields of Westlake farms, waiting to see the Pacific Southwest Building in Fresno, the tallest building we had ever seen. We passed by the tomato processing plant where my mom said everything that came out of the fields was mixed to make catsup, even mice. She told that story every time we passed that factory for years. I haven’t cared for catsup since.
Once out of Fresno we continued up into the foothills on winding roads, each more crooked than the last, finally turning off onto a dirt road where we had to open and close three different cattle gates, drive through The creek, splashing water all the way and finally arriving at the gate below the old house. The house was pretty old , built at the turn of the century, but it was big, surrounded by a covered porch as was the custom in the days before air conditioning. If you wanted that, Uncle Ray had to drive to Sanger and buy a 50 lb block of ice, haul it home put in a washtub covered by a burlap sack on put the fan behind it to cool the air. The heat didn’t bother us kids much, we spent much of the time in the creek anyway.

My uncle Ray was a short man, skinny when he was young and had curly black hair. He was 13 years older than my aunt, about 4 inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter. He went to riding horseback when he was four, rode until the day  he died, and was so thin and bowlegged that he looked for all the world like a wishbone. He was a horseman, something all us kids knew by instinct, much different than the TV type we regularly saw. He was known amongst his peers as “Powerhouse” for a feat of riding without parallel in the history of the mountain folk. In the morning, after he made breakfast he would walk down the little draw in front of the house to the barn on the other side, saddle his horse, ride back to the house and tie it to the gatepost, ready if he needed it.

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Aunt Mickey, Aunt Meta and cousin Jimmy, Watts Valley 1947

Uncle Ray was a cowboy when young, and a rancher till he died. He knew no other life, wanted no other life and as far as I know he was perfectly content. He loved to tease. He had a nickname for everyone. He called my mom “Sis” even though she wasn’t. He called me “Shebang,” my brother Jerry “Jeb,” and my little brother Cayce, “Festus.” His own boys “jughead and “knot head.”  You can figure out which was which.
My aunt Mickey was the funniest woman I ever knew. When I was a boy she was my dream of the perfect aunt. How she loved us. She always wore Ruby red lipstick and when we arrived for a visit she would say, “Come and give your aunt mickey a kiss” and scoop us up for a hug and a kiss. She was a full figured woman so it was a little like being smothered in a big feather pillow. She gave us a big old smack which left red lipstick on your mouth and she would threaten you if you tried to wipe it of. We weren’t allowed to wipe off HER kisses.

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L-R Jeb, Sis, Festus, Shebang, Jughead and Knothead. 1953

My folks, my dad’s family were quiet people. Sober, hard-working, Presbyterian. Handshaking was the preferred greeting, you could give my grandmother Annie a kiss on the cheek, but that was it. The were all farmers and were a sober lot, and of course they talked about farming; a lot. And I mean, A LOT. You have no idea how much there is to know about raising potatoes.

The Long’s though, were yellers. They yelled when they were laughing, they yelled at each other, the dogs, the cows, the pickup, the car, and they yelled about the neighbors, anything really that needed yelling at.
Their life was a continuous series of catastrophes. The damned pickup had a flat tire, the neighbors bull had jumped the fence, the roof still leaked, the electricity shut off just before company was expected. The pump lost prime, no water, oh God, the heifer was in the garden again; there was always something.

One year we arrived just in time to see my aunt racing across yard chased by the soon to be Christmas turkey. She barely made it to the back porch screen door. She made very good time for a hefty woman.

And that’s the way things were. Life at aunt Mickey’s and uncle Rays was simply chaotic. If dinner was to be at one, we ate at four. If the turkey, the late, great speedster, was ready the potatoes weren’t. Someone had forgotten to buy cranberries and Ray and my dad would head for Hunphrey’s Station, a 15 mile round trip on narrow winding roads, probably as much to escape the chaos as anything. They might even take the whiskey bottle in order to calm down.

After dinner, the dishes washed and put away, the dishes had cattle, lariats and brands on them of course,  the kids were put to bed in various places around the house, stacked on beds, laid in the hall, the lucky ones though,  wrapped in blankets and laid on the living room floor. Now came the exciting part, because we knew the adults would soon be through in the kitchen and would be coming to the front room to visit. This side of the family never wasted time on talk of farming, oh no, they talked about things we never learned in school and were certainly never discussed at our kitchen table. The whiskey bottle went around and though we struggled to stay awake we finally drifted off with tales of whose son had gotten drunk and put the car in a ditch, who was having an operation and why, the brutal details, heard from Frances McMurtrey, who heard it from Ruby Glass about so and so’s daughter.

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Uncle Ray on Charm, the horse who bit, at the front gate. 

What fun for boys, and we never wanted those visits to end. But they did end and those happy days are but a memory now. Most of the folks have long since gone to their reward and I miss them more than you can know.
When we were little, when we said a naughty word, my mother gave us “heart medicine.” One time when we were leaving “Watts Valley,” on the long road home my brother Jerry said, “Mom, I bet Uncle Ray sure has to take a lot of heart medicine,” she didn’t say anything for a long while, then she simply said, “Honey, your uncle Ray is the salt of the earth.”
I didn’t know what she meant then, but I do now. The Salt of the Earth, and they all were. They might have been a little rough, but they were honest, faithful, hard workers, honorable to a fault. They were the backbone of America. Their yes was yes, there no was no, they settled a deal with a handshake, they were loyal to their families beyond measure. They had a lot to teach us growing up and we had a lot to learn, some time I wish I had paid more attention.

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My Uncle Bob

Uncles. I had three. The photo above is my uncle Robert Hall, uncle Bob. He was my mothers brother, only boy in a family of girls. Two older, one younger. Of the children in the family he held the distinction of being born in a lease tent in Casmalia. You see, my grandfather was a driller in the heyday of the California oil boom. My mother Barbara was only a year old when he got his first job as a roughneck in the Casmalia oil fields. Grandpa Bruce was just 24 with a wife of four years and two little girls. The late teens and twenties marked a shift in how wells were drilled, the newer rotary rigs pushing a Hughes Tool bit, yes thats Howard Hughes, could drill deeper and faster than the older Cable tool rigs which had been state of the art for 100 years and were still more economical in medium and soft grounds, shallow wells to be exact.

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left: My grandfather Bruce C Hall, Oil Rig Roustabout on a cable tool drill rig, Casmalia California, 1920

For my grandparents, this created a lifestyle that would move them all over California for the next 25 years. Both of them came from farming families and in fact my aunt Mariel was born in Deer Canyon in the Verde District just off of Corbett Canyon Road in southern San Luis Obispo county. That was 1917 and that little house is still standing. My mom followed in 1918 and uncle Bob in 1919 the year grandpa Hall started in the oil fields. Uncle Bob was born on the oil lease in Casmalia and for the next sixteen years moved with his parents from one drilling job to another as they struggled to survive in a notoriously fickle business. Casmalia to Orcutt, Taft and Maricopa to Bakersfield. Santa Barbara, Ellwood, Price Canyon in the Arroyo Grande field, Coalinga and all through the Elk Hills.

When Bob was sixteen they decided to send him to live with his sister, my aunt Mariel and her husband Ray Long who lived in the foothills of the Sierra in a little place called Watts Valley. Uncle Ray was a cattleman in the old style. He owned a little ranch on which he and my aunt lived, running cattle for himself and hiring out to the larger ranches and the stockyards as work was available.

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Moving cattle Miramonte Ranch, 1932

Sending him to live with his aunt and uncle meant that he could go to the same high school, Sierra in Tollhouse, for two years instead of checking him in and out of schools as they moved to new leases as the job required. Wells could be drilled in as little as six weeks and this meant you followed the work. It was rough on kids of school age. They moved their few things in  small boxes as there was little room in the car for extra possessions, just what was necessary to set up a household in a hurry. Bruce would come in from a tour (Pronounced Tower)at the wellhead a say, “Eileen, I’ve got to be in Bakersfield day after tomorrow to spud in a new well.” Grandma would get the house packed up, check the kids out of school and be ready to go. I once asked my father how they managed that and he told me, “Mike, your grandma liked to move, it was easier than cleaning house, in fact, in Santa Barbara, when Bruce was drilling in Summerland and up at Elwood, they moved at least five times.”

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The old Summerland fields south of Santa Barbara 1920’s

So think about this. A sixteen year old boy living on a cattle ranch, a ranch hand in every sense of the word. That’s Bob in the photograph that heads this story. If you look closely you can see that he is doing a real job of work. No fancy buckles, 5x Stetson or creased Wranglers, rather an old crushed Fedora, trousers too big tucked into his socks to keep the burrs out, plain lace up shoes, a rifle for coyotes, a lariat and Bobby Dog hitching a ride. The hammer headed bay horse is Doc, the three of them, a team suited for working cattle from one place to another. He wanted to go to college at Davis and be a Veterinarian. The lesson that cowboys were just laborers on horseback was not lost on him.

 

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Lessons At The Table

The earliest memories are of sights, sounds and smells. The constant heady smell of perked coffee, the sound of the old radio tuned to the crop reports and the seasonal odor of the crops my father grew. The sweet smell of the celery ripening in its orderly rows, an otherworldly emerald green, its leaves riffling in the wind as the breeze followed the retreating fog of a morning.

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Cutting Romaine with the four corners in the background.

Our little home was just a half mile from the four corners, the crossing of Branch Mill road and Huasna road.  No one knew when it was built but certainly in the day when foundation were simply posts dug into the soil and a floor built upon them. This gave it the curious quality of adapting, each year, to the weather. If it was a particularly wet year the house might lean in any and all directions, causing the doors to stick in their frames. My father had an old hand plane which he would laboriously use to plane them enough to work again. After decades of trimming they took on the appearance of lozenges, not quire matching the parallelograms they were hung in. As wood ages it grows harder and a dull old plane thrown in the tool shed for a year at a time can’t remember when it was last sharpened.

My father, bless his soul was not a mechanically minded man which may seem strange for a farmer but such was the case. Dad had two things to adjust those doors, he used the only quasi swearword I ever heard him use, SB and that old plane.

There was a time when I was still young enough to ask what SB meant and my dad pointed to the mud flaps on our neighbors red flatbed truck which were branded with those letters and said, quite simply, “Silva Brothers.”

I can’t recall a single farming family we knew who ever used the front door. It was our back door that was the real entry. Always the screen door, held shut by a spring whose slamming announced coming and goings. Anyone who used the front door was held to be slightly suspicious, obviously not knowing the proper protocol for entry. You might simply be ignored until you went away. Another thing not allowed was blowing the car horn to get my dad to come out. If you wanted a job, you were already scuppered, you couldn’t ask if no one came. He would make you wait until, as he said, “Hell froze over.” This was how some lessons were learned, when you are asking a favor, be polite.

We also learned how important body language was. My dad could see you from the kitchen when you drove up and parked. A man who hustled from the car to the screen door, the correct one remember,  gave a firm knock would surely be hired if there was a job available. “A man walks the way he works” he said. Something I have found to be true.

My dad was born in 1912 and began working as a small boy of seven. My grandparents had a dairy and the kids were expected to pull their weight every day. Milk cows don’t take Sundays or holidays. He grew up in the twenties and thirties, graduated college in 1934 at the deepest part of the depression and went right back to ranching and farming. At the kitchen table we learned that you judged a man by how hard he worked. My dad took a great deal of pride in this ability to produce. This was a common thread running through those kids that lived through the depression and WWII. Don’t shirk, don’t show off, don’t put on airs, say what you mean and mean what you say. His word was his bond. Dad never preached, you learned by observing and asking questions which is how he wanted it to be.  This was what we learned in our kitchen.

 

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In 1918 my grandparents, Jack and Annie Shannon came home. Home for both of them was southern San Luis County. This family event is the linchpin of our story.

When I was a boy we lived in the kitchen. Our little house, built at the turn of the century was the heart of the home. As were most homes built at the time it featured none of the devices we take for granted today. No insulation, no central heat, and no weatherstripping. Small houses were the norm before the war and ours, originally just three rooms had slowly been added to over time. To get to the back bedroom you had to pass through each of the other rooms. Porch, kitchen, living room, my parents bedroom, bathroom and finally, my room, a sunny room with large windows in which I imagined my future life as boys will do.

What my brothers and I learned at the kitchen table has shaped our lives. The japansese philosopher Masonabu Fukuoka has said,”The simple hearth of the small farm is the true center of our universe.” This quote describes the experience of family all over the world, something we all have in common. I don’t know of any kids that I grew up with don’t share this experience and to this day I can see them as they were.

The photo above, taken in 1920 at my great-grandparents house on west Main St in Santa Maria shows my father and my uncle Jack with two friends. My father George steers the trike on the right and my uncle Jack, his older brother by two years stands behind him. My grandparents lived with Annie’s parents for a time until they could move onto Annie’s ranch just south of Arroyo Grande.

The kitchens in these houses weave through the narrative of our lives and form the foundation of these stories.

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