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.
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.
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.
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.