Rainy Day

Farmers are outdoor people. They live by the rhythms of season. So we learned from our father the importance of weather. My dad lived more outdoors than in. No matter the weather, he was up and out of the house at dawn. Be it the promise of a hot August day, an April morning dripping fog or a dark winter day of pouring rain.

On the wall of our kitchen my dad always had a barometer. The thermometer was outside the back door.  We had no meter for the dew point but the humidity you could feel on your skin. In the early morning, observing the moisture on a plants leaves and even the smell of the air could be interpreted to predict the weather. The wind from the south meant rain, from the northwest meant it was clearing. The daily crop report on the radio could help a farmer see a little bit into the future. Calling the  brokers at the  San Francisco  wholesale vegetable market and asking about the bay area conditions was a help. At Mow Fung produce on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, they could just look out the window and give you a forecast. I know a farm family who called their cousins in Salinas for the same reason.

Farmers are all gamblers. They are the greatest of optimists. For my dad bet the farm on the weather and the markets every day of his working life. An entire summers investment and work could be wiped in an early morning hour by frost or rising waters from the same creek that fed his crops.

When you are a kid every day holds the promise of some adventure. Rainy winter days were the most exciting, frought with the possibility of perhaps, some disaster.

As little children we were eager listeners when family told stories of creeks flooding. The Arroyo Grande going over its banks, drowning crops under layers of mud carried down the creek from the High Mountain area above the Ranchita, Huff’s Hole and upper Lopez canyon. Joined by Tar Springs creek just below Gulartes, the careening water would swirl, twisting in upon itself while parts of broken trees submerged and resurfaced like wooden submarines. Through the narrows at the Harris bridge, close by the Machado’s and the Gregories, the sound carried to our home almost a mile away. A rumbling, low bass,  with a curious rhythmic pace, things being torn apart and slammed together with terrific violence.

geo flood

Ed Taylor, George Shannon and just behind, John Loomis and George Oliver

My father sitting in the semi-darkness, smoking and drinking coffee, worried over the rise   of the waters, a scene mirrored in other kitchens as farmers throughout our valley waited for  dawn to see the how high the creeks were. Bundled up in our coats and riding the front seat of the pickup, warm and snug against my dad, we rode the dawn patrol as he made the rounds of all the turnouts where the water could be seen. Cecchetti’s bridge crossing, The Harris bridge, under the spans at Mason and Bridge Streets and the crossing at the site of the Cienega school, hard by the old Oliver Taylor house. The photo above, taken in 1954, clearly shows the concern on my fathers face as he watches the flood waters just above the old highway 1 bridge. The water is just below the top of the dike and Ed Taylor’s ground is just on the opposite side of the creek. Ed is listening to John Loomis who is pointing just upstream where the flood is about go over the bank.


The Arroyo Grande, The morning after, 1914. Crown Hill in the background

Groups of worried farmers gathered at each turnout to assess the damage and speculate whether the water was rising or falling. This was no academic exercise. If the creek rose enough to top the banks, farm fields would flood. Crops could not recover, either drowned or covered with a slurry of mud, choking them to death. Any part of the valley which had heavy soil, such as the Dune Lakes area, could take months to dry making it impossible to farm at all.  To the farmers on the ground which made up the old La Cienega Rancho, flooding was a disaster of the first order. The ranch that was Spencer Record’s, the Taylor acreage, could be destroyed in a few minutes for once she was over her banks there was no stopping her. Witness the washout at Branch Street in 1914 created by the little creek out of Corbit Canyon. Imagine the effort it took to replace the ground in the days before powered machines. Every bit of the dirt was brought in by horse and wagon, one shovel full at a time.


1914, looking down Branch Street, the old Herald building first on the right.


In those days, the flooding creek literally plowed it’s way downstream, rooting out the willows and sometimes entire Sycamore trees which scoured the undergrowth along the banks, cleaning the channel for its entire length. In the days before the dam was built this was an annual cycle that allowed a free flowing stream in the summer and fall where swimming and fishing  in the farmers dams was an annual sport for boys and girls who ran free like semi-tamed animals, migrating up and down stream as they would. At our place it was the dam behind our farm, or George Cecchetti Senior’s just above the bridge where we would go after school. It is still today, a short downhill coast from the old Branch school to the creek. Town kids swam at the gauge below the old high school, just above the old railroad bridge. Most of us learned to swim this way.  And of course we weren’t by any means the first. Generations of Arroyo Grande kids once swam there. My grandfather Jack Shannon told stories of swimming in the slough at the foot of Printz Road. Arch Beckett’s lake it was called. My dad and uncle had a small hole on Shannon Creek near where they lived.

two huckies

Jack and George Shannon 1920

My uncle Jackie on the left and my dad on the right, taken in the front yard of my great-grandfather’s house on the old Nipomo  road now known as El Campo, about to set out for a dip in 1920. You can just see the gravel drive at the left and the bushes along the little creek. Today this flows behind Arroyo Grande High School where it was re-routed when the Poole tract was built in the 1930’s. It could be just as well be my brother and I, 35 years later.

I can still remember Hazel Talley, in our kitchen talking to my mom about how frantic she was when her oldest son Donald, went down the creek with Bob Rowe, leaving from the Rowe’s house, putting in at the creek on the Waller’s farm and racing downstream to the ocean in an inner tube during a big flood year in 1959. The flooding creek was a meat grinder of logs, whole trees, old car bodies and whatever kind of junk had been thrown in it. Poor Hazel could just imagine what could have happened to her son, who of course, being a boy, thought only of the adventure.

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High water above the highway 1 bridge 1954

We have lost this annual cycle to the dam. Water no longer flows in the summer or winter. The creek is choked with willows and wild blackberry woven together in an impenetrable matt by poison oak vines. Children no longer play in their fathers little ponds and todays farmers needn’t agonize through the night wondering if their fields will be there in the morning. Safer, yes, but what has been lost to us is irreplaceable. Fish no longer swim upstream for little boys to catch and even though our fathers disasters can no longer be, there is a certain sadness here.


He was a man in his time.

Near the end of the film “A river runs through it,” Norman Maclean tells his friend Jessie Burns that he has been offered a job as an english professor at the University of Chicago. Jessie’s whole face lights up and she says “Oh Norman, that’s the berries!” For the first time you know she is in love with him. The delightful rendering of this simple phrase is one of my favorite movies scenes because, to me, it not just a scene in a film, but a fully rendered and perfect example of a phrase no longer used by anybody but my Uncle Jackie.

John Patrick Shannon was born of John William “Big Jack” Shannon and Annie Gray, nee Shannon in 1909. Little Jackie was their first child and remained for the rest of her life, Annie’s favorite. Not to say she didn’t love her son George, for she surely did,  but the love of a mothers heart goes to the needy one and George was never that. Raised on the ranch the boys never lacked for something to do, for a ranchers life is one of constant work. Cattle and crops do not respect the days. Milking and feeding is done relentlessly, twice a day seven days a week. Church and school demand time but the work swirls around them and draws you in. The land and its needs create a universe of its own.

Annie Shannon and little Jackie in 1910

Jackie was 9 when my grandparents moved to their ranch south of Arroyo Grande and he was introduced to a life he would never leave. He and George grew up in a world that is hardly remembered today. They lived, until High school in a four room house that had no electricity, and for the first part of their time there, no inside plumbing. Cooking was on a wood stove in the kitchen. Bathing was done Saturday night, once a week in a washtub filled with water heated in the reservoir of that old stove. My grandmother bathed first, then my grandfather and the two boys in order of age. Same water for all.


The Old House in 1919

I suppose today you might call that old house just a shack and if you judge by todays standards it was, but my family never saw it as such. There were nicer houses in town but the size of a house has nothing to do with with whether its a home or not. In the early part of the 20th century boys were pretty much on their own to find things to do and I still remember the old cages the boys built to house their collection of animals they trapped and raised. They had squirrels, raccoons, mice and almost any other varmint they could trap or catch. They roamed the ranches of their neighbors looking for adventure as little boys will do, digging in the caves of Mt  Picacho for pirate treasure, visiting the Fernamburg boys who lived where the Leticia Winery is now or seeing the Buss kids who lived on another ranch up behind the mountain.

Jackie and George went to the old Arroyo Grande Grammar School on Bridge Street.  Every day they caught a ride with the Buss kids and rode in the back of the buckboard. Its not as if there were no cars, for of course, there were, but a horse on pasture and an old spring wagon did just as well and was far cheaper. The old school had horses tied up until well into the 1920’s.  Other times they walked the 2 miles to school. When the highway was paved with asphalt they had roller skates to get to school. They would wait for Fritz and Shorty to race down Shannon Hill, meeting them where the old ranch road met the highway and then skate to school.

As it is today, much of the persona is shaped by the experience of youth. Jackie started high school in in 1923. Though Arroyo Grande was a very small town, far from anywhere, newspapers and movies brought the culture of the Roaring Twenties home. My grandfather paid to have electricity extended from town to the ranch in 1922. He needed to be able to operate the new machines that enabled him to operate his dairy more efficiently. Interestingly, he didn’t pay to have the wire strung to the house which was several hundred yards away. I once asked my dad what my grandmother must have thought of this, seeing that her household chores would have been lightened and my dad said, “She was used to doing things the way they were.” The most influential thing that electricity brought was the radio. Of all the changes radio brought to the Shannon’s, live music, drama, instant news and a much more expanded world view, the one thing that ultimately was passed down to me was the language of the time.

The twenties was one of the most socially revolutionary in our history. Skirts were going up for women, morals, down.  Popular music began to reflect the beginnings of Jazz, and F Scott FitzGerald and Ernest Hemingway were giving voice to a new age. The art world, couture, and nearly all aspects of popular culture were reacting to the events of the World War. A generation  was inventing its own language and customs.

Uncle Jackie Shannon’s HS graduation picture 1928

I graduated Arroyo Grande in 1963. My dad in 1930 and although I thought at the time that my dad was hopelessly old fashioned he told me stories that taught me that the more we seemed different the more we were the same. There might, and I stress the might, have been one pregnant girl in my high school class. There were several in my dads class. Thank goodness they are all gone now or I couldn’t say that without getting myself in trouble. Those girls seemed hopelessly staid in the old pictures but my dad told me that girls wouldn’t wear “shimmies” under their dresses and when they stood in the sunlight you could see right through them. He claimed that imagination was the sexier thing and short skirts left too little to the imagination. Theirs was the first generation to have automobiles and all that meant. It was prohibition and it was in full swing here. Remember both my uncle Jack and my dad “ran the milk wagon” delivering to homes and all, and I mean all the businesses from Shell Beach and throughout what is now know as the five cities. They delivered to the speaks and the “houses” where the working girls lived. My dad told me  how the girls used to tease my uncle Jackie. No one thought too much about a 14 year old boy driving the milk truck with his 12 year old brother standing on the running board. Except the state of California.



When I was born my uncle Jack was 36. When I was old enough to know him well he sprinkled his conversation with words and phrases that I was unfamiliar with and it wasn’t until I was more educated did I begin to realize that what I was hearing was the sound of a time gone by. Both he and my dad would describe something unusually good as the “berries.” I was pleased to hear the phrase spoken in the film because it was delivered with such enthusiasm and delight, exactly the way it was meant to be. “If you knew your onions, it didn’t take cheaters to spot a four flusher. You could ankle down to the bakery and put up the mazuma to buy your tomata a sinker and a cuppa joe. If a sheik tried to fork over a wooden nickel you’d know it was bushwa.”

He peppered his speech with words like those all of his life and we learned them because as a lifelong bachelor, my brothers and I were in a way his children. He loved us and took us exploring all over the county. We climbed Eagle Rock together, explored the Nacimiento and the creeks all around. We explored the pirates cave on Mt Picacho, swam in the pool at big falls and had divers other adventures. We learned about his life.

My uncle Jack never married. Perhaps time stopped for him. He lived at home with my grandparents until my grandmother Annie died in 1977. The ranch was sold in 1980 . When he retired and I went to visit him I noticed an old photograph on his bedside table. It was a girl dressed in 20’s style. I asked him who it was and he said, “Oh, you don’t want to know about that.” I should have insisted. I wish I had.



The Written Word

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 books from everywhere she could and it wasn’t unusual to find in a checked out book someones name written on the flyleaf. Most likely someone you or your parents knew. There was a muted mysteriousness to the place brought on by the smell of books, both the sharp fresh smell of a new book  and the musty timeless smell of the old. The air was redolent of the mixture and combined with the pale, dusty air, a perfect setting for the child exploring for just the book to take him to a new place and the adventure there.

Thanks to Mrs Kitchell I’ve been everywhere, both on this world and all the others. I ran through the jungle with the Lost Boys, I’ve drifted down the mighty Mississippi with Huck and Nigger Jim,  Followed Tarzan through the great, lost elephant graveyard on his quest for the jewels of Opar. I waited until I saw the whites of their eyes on Breed’s Hill, Studied with Frank Merriwell at Yale and crossed swords with Pedro De Vargas the Captain from Castile.

Before I was out of grammar school I had read hundreds of books. I used to take books to school and read after my lessons in the little two room schoolhouse that my brothers and I went to. Both of my teachers, Mrs Brown and the sainted Miss Elizabeth Holland knew I was reading when I should have been doing something else because I would open my desk top and read a few lines while I pretended to be looking for something.

Mrs Edith Brown and Miss Elizabeth Holland at Branch Grade School


One of the things that worked to my advantage was that each of the teachers taught four complete grades mixed in each of the two classrooms. They taught each grade level for part of the day while the other students did assigned work or read from the school library. A student had time to explore their education without having each classroom minute orchestrated. This worked to my advantage because I could complete my school work and then go adventuring in a book. What has turned out to be the greatest reading lesson of all has been the ability to read in context. I was simply too lazy to go to the big Webster’s which weighed a full fifteen pounds and look up words I didn’t know, so I figured them out by the way they worked in sentences. I can say that this is the best thing I learned in school.

Not many of these little schools exist anymore. They were places where the teachers set the curriculum with a little help from the school board. Many of the school board members   at Branch had gone to the school themselves. Other than a small stipend from the county schools office they were on their own as to school improvements, curriculum, books, playground equipment and anything else that was required. We had no band, and no organized sports program. Everything we did was dependent on the parents and teachers. Believe it or not, some of our text books were the same books used by students more than a generations before us. It seems strange today but those books covered social studies or history up to the 1930’s and the rest everybody knew because they had lived it. It was first hand knowledge.

school books

The photo above shows some texts from Branch. None is newer than 1936. The Growth of the American People has two names written on the flyleaf, Joe P. Roza and William Quaresma.  Al Coehlo’s name is in the California Progress textbook. I knew these men as friends of my father and went to grammar school with Al’s children. These books were still in use in the fifties when I studied there.

I figured not long ago that I’ve read somewhere north of ten thousand books in my lifetime. Incubated in the Library and School, I have Mrs Kitchell, Katie Sullivan McNeil, Edith Brown and Elizabeth Holland to thank for starting me On the Long Road.