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.
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.
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.
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.