Life time in a box. Each of us have them. Those old shoe boxes in a closet, a seldom used drawer or behind the linen in the guest bathroom. My grandmother Annie Gray Shannon had them too. As a child, when I stayed over I would pull them from the shoeboxes she kept them in and wonder who those people and places were.

When she died my dad and uncle sold her ranch and moved out, cleaning the house and emptying the barns of three generations worth of accumulations, most of it to the dump.

My dad was not a sentimental man. His heart was focused solely on his family. People were everything, things meant little to him. The only personal items he kept were his Cal Berkeley beanie and a small bar of gold he used for a paperweight. One he earned and one he purchased, the only thing I can remember he bought just for himself.

I’m different that way I guess. When we went to clean out the house things were just as they always had been, my grandfathers little toothbrush holder on his dresser, Annie’s clothes still in her closet. Her dressing table with its hair brushes, hand mirror and powders just as they had always been. The room still smelled of her. White Shoulders. The memories of her were overwhelming and I found myself sobbing for all I had lost, never to  touch or hold again.

The cleanup was fast and furious, my dad and uncle Jack just wanted it to be over and the pickups were loaded and made their trips to the landfill. Few things were kept, my grandmothers sterling and china made the cut as did the little teacup my grandfather had salvaged from the debris of the Red Front store on the day of the great San Francisco earthquake. The shoeboxes disappeared.

Years later my Uncle Jackie collapsed on his ranch in Creston and was hospitalized with a lung infection which would ultimately prove fatal. Again the move out. The house and grounds needed to be cleaned in order to rent the property and pay the bills. Jackie didn’t have much, some old clothes, the bed he had slept in for three quarters of a century and two old John Deere tractors. On his dresser, a photograph of his mother and another of his parents wedding day.

But, in the back of his closet buried under a heap of old worn out clothes, a square, black cardboard box. Inside were the old photographs and letters that had so fascinated me as a child. An unintentional gift for sure but one of inestimable value.

The problem, how to interpret the things in it. As grandchildren we knew little about the real lives of our grandparents and as with most young people never really thought to ask. Almost none of the photographs had anything written on the back. Who were these people? Did we know them? What occasion demanded the taking of a picture? In going through the contents the first thing you notice is that the photographic paper can be quite different. Some is heavy stock and others are so thin as to be very fragile. Formal photographs taken for graduations or school class pictures may have the name of the studio printed on them or perhaps the schools name, teacher or the year in which they were taken.

Just like tracking any story, clues have to organized into an understandable narrative. The photo below was at the bottom of the box and though I’ve had it for some time it just recently scanned, cleaned up and really viewed for the first time.


My grandfather is on the left, Annie Gray and an unknown couple on the right, or perhaps not so unknown that I won’t figure it out. We have enough old family photos from this time which feature both the same boy and girl.  The building is a post office somewhere. What can we deduce from what we see. My grandfather, Jack wears a morning coat, or Jaquette, with a standing, detachable starched collar and tie. Beneath the coat you can just see a waistcoat, or vest as we would say today. He wouldn’t be wearing a belt, but suspenders to hold up his cuffed trousers. His is wearing what looks, at first glance to be pointed cowboy boots but what were, instead high button shoes. The hat is a straw derby which means that it’s summer time. To drive the point home, the other man wears a straw boater which was never worn in spring or summer. So far, so good.

This photo is quite small and printed on very thin paper stock. I remembered that there were other similar pictures somewhere in the collection so I pulled them out and began comparing them and sure enough there were more than one in which one or all of these people appeared. The  photo was taken at the end of Main street in Pismo Beach. The old Pizmo Inn is in the right background.


The three on the left are the same people as the preceding picture. The girls wear the same clothes as before except for the white hat, and the boy laughing is certainly to same though he has a different hat this time. Same day? We can suppose but we don’t know. We do know that the clothes she wears are the same as in the photo below complete with the umbrella, hat  and gloves

annie grande dame

A little more research finds that the building pictured in the first photograph is the first Pismo Beach post office which burned to the ground in 1905 which puts the pictures around 1904. That would make my grandparents 19 and 22 years old, still four years before their marriage in 1908. My grandfather lived in San Francisco then and my grandmother was about to start her first year at Cal Berkeley. He must have been home on a visit and being a nice day, they went to the beach.

One of the fun things about this little photo is that our family story tells us that there was never anybody else for the two of them, ever. If you take the time and period into account they are standing just a little to close to one another. There is, perhaps a little touching of hands behind the back. I’d love to think so.

He wrote in her little autograph book that she kept for parties and special occasions. “Friend Annie, The flowers of the forest may wither, the lilies of the valley may decay, but friendship shall blossom forever, when all other things fade away. Your friend, John Shannon  December 7th, 1898.” He was 16, she 13.

Grand marshalls harvest festivaal 2nd time

This picture is their official portrait when they were the Grand Marshal’s of the Harvest Festival in 1961, their second time as such. They had been married for 53 years. They would make it to 68 before he left her. They are still standing close enough to touch. Sweet.



Irish Lace


annie grande dame

Annie Gray Shannon

My grandmother was a Lady. Raised by a wealthy family, educated at the University of California, Berkeley graduating in 1908, the first woman from Arroyo Grande to do so, she carried herself with a certain faith in the things that defined her character and made her world go around. Things in her home were just so. She always used a table cloth on the kitchen table. She kept the milk in a yellow Fiestaware ceramic pitcher, I remember that somehow that made it colder and better to the taste. I can’t remember her without her apron. She put it on when she entered the kitchen in the morning and kept it on ’til after supper. She sent her clothes out to be ironed and starched. She wasn’t a kisser or a hugger, when you greeted her it was a little hand squeeze and a kiss on her cheek. Just so, as I said.

yello pitcher 2

She was a 19th century girl in her beliefs and habits. As grandchildren, she taught us how to set the table at Thanksgiving, fold napkins correctly and when at the table,  to be polite and speak when spoken to. Don’t interrupt the adults and always pass the dishes to the left. Never chew with your mouth open and keep your elbows off the table.

She had a trick she used to compel the no elbows rule. It was a diabolical device used by Irish families and handed down from generation to generation. Most of the year it resided in a cedar lined sideboard, carefully folded in the bottom drawer with it’s brethren.  Lurking there in the darkness, redolent of cedar fumes, just for a taste of little boys errant elbows.

When we boys were old enough, it was our pleasure to help with family dinners, doing what we could in small boy ways. Darting around my mother and my aunts, Sadie, Eva, Nan and my cousin Iva Jean, we were assigned tasks befitting our age. Setting the dining room table, though it took two for the job, was one of the first. There was nothing to break, after all, which was just our speed. Carefully taking the Damask table cloth out of the drawer where it was stored, placing it on the table and carefully unfolding it to reveal the beauty of its silken weave. I didn’t know  at the time but Damask cloth was woven of silk and satin thread that came over the old Silk Road from China to the Islamist cities of Byzantium in the early 1st century and eventually into Europe by 14th century. The long floats of satin-woven warp and weft threads cause soft highlights on the fabric which reflect light differently according to the position of the observer. Running our palms over the soft, slick surface of the cloth was a special treat. Because the cloth was almost pure white, it needed to be protected. Grandma used place mats, each diner had a napkin, serving dishes all had plates or saucers to collect any errant splash or dollop of gravy. And to protect the beautiful fabric of the tablecloth from the flailing hands and arms of boys, The diabolical device, known as the Irish Lace tablecloth. Made from knotted linen thread in beautiful laced patterns,  the lace tablecloth was thought to be an indicator of social standing in 18th century Irish households. They were thought by some to differentiate between the shanty Irish and the lace curtain Irish.

lace tablecloth

Of course, as kids we were far removed from its history, believing that it was crocheted by young orphan girls in dark and dingy workhouses, presided over by withered old crones in black habits, ever ready to institute a solid rap on the knuckles should there be any levity or the slightest indication of happiness. This caused the young women to use very large knots at every opportunity in order to pass their unhappiness on to the three little Shannon boys. My dad told me that in his day the knots were even more pronounced and an inadvertent swipe of an elbow might require the ministrations of Doc Brown.  Was it possible that each knot held a portion of fractured basalt from the Devils’ Causeway in county Antrim? It was just infernal. Little boys can’t sit high enough at the table nor reach for the water glass without forearms and elbows touching the table. I suppose this particular torture was created by families becoming more inclusive after the war, where kids no longer sat at the children’s table but were allowed to eat and converse with the adults, which made us feel much more grown-up.

place setting a

Observing them first hand gave us our entry into their life, a peek at, perhaps what ours were to be. That is, of course if we had survived with our forearms reasonably intact.






little pirates

Yaaaahr, we be pirates mate and we’uns be seekin’ treasure and a flagon of grog to wet our’n whistle. We’uns come off the brig Nancy’s Revenge, Cap’n Flint commanding’ Sor, and’r looking to spend our share of the loot from divers ships we’ve took on the Spanish Main.

Such are the dreams of boys. My grandfather, my uncle Jack and my dad told us stories of pirates gold and the places where it resided here in the Arroyo Grande. Stolen from Spanish Galleons on the run from Manila to Acapulco, the west coast port where it was to be shipped overland to Monterey, Mexico and on to Spain to fill King Phillips coffers. Gold pieces of eight, bars of silver and precious jewels by the handful, stashed in the caves of Mt. Picacho. Protected by the skeletons of the pirate rogues who buried it there. Dead men tell no tales mate. Beware the Black Spot.

When we were little boys, my uncle Jackie took us to this mysterious place on the southwest side of the distinctive hill known as Picacho. Clambering down the side of the hill, he led us to the dimly perceived opening of the pirate cave hidden below an overhang of ancient rock. A very small cave it was, you having to be just boy size in order to crawl back into it. Along the walls and ceiling were names of intrepid explorers who had visited it before us. Carved with jack knives were the names and dates of boys going back long before my father and grandfathers time, each one searching for the long lost treasure of Francis Drake and Hippolyte Bouchard, or perhaps the gold and silver deposited there when the padres were forced to abandon the missions in 1833. Delicious tales to enliven a little boys imagination. Tell me a story Daddy, like you said you would.

Raised on Frank Merriwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hardy Boys, it was no stretch to begin reading adult adventure novels, “The Captain from Castile,” and in the eighth grade discovering on my mothers bookshelf, a book borrowed from Gladys Loomis, “Beat to Quarters,” a Horatio Hornblower story. Then, Joseph Conrad and I was hooked on the sea.

As a lifelong surfer and seaman, I’ve learned many lessons about sea keeping, having been a merchant mariner and long distance sailor. Sad to say the experience has taught me that there never were any pirates hiding treasure along our California coast. Dreams of little boys are mostly dashed by the practicalities of life.

drake golden hinde

Golden Hinde, Length, 102′-Beam, 20′-Draught, 9′-Speed, 8 knots, Burden, 100 Ton.

Sir Francis Drake, El Dragon, sailed the coast of California in 1579 on his way around the world. Sad to say, his logbooks, accounts and maps were burned in a fire at Whitehall in 1698 so the exact sequence of events is mostly unknown. What is difficult to understand is how remote California was at the time. Mexico was still in the process of subjection by the Spanish, it only being 60 years since Cortes landed at Monterrey, Mexico. The destruction of Tenochitlan, the Aztec capitol three years later began the total destruction of the various indigenous tribal empires of central america. In Drake’s time, the spanish were in the midst of a bloody, protracted war with the Chichimeca people in Zacatecas and had not yet settled on the  northern Mexican, Baja or the California coast.

The state of navigation during the 16th century was such that accuracy of position was chancy at best. Most of the time mariners used a compass and a Log* to determine position. This was called Dead, for deduced reckoning, and with a knowledge of currents, or drift and, an Astrolabe,* position could be estimated with a certain degree of accuracy, particularly in measurement of latitude. Latitude was the measurement of position either north or south of the equator. Longitude, or the distance from a fixed point on earth was largely impossible to determine until the invention of extremely accurate chronometers (clocks) that would stand up to a sea voyage. These were not perfected until the late 17th century and weren’t common on ships until the 1820’s, two and one half centuries after Drakes voyage.

Here, where we live, any idea that Drake landed here is so unlikely that it bears no credence. The site at the old Cave landing could hardly be more dangerous to a ship of the type that he sailed. The Golden Hinde was a square rigged ship, which in his time, were largely unable to sail any closer to the wind direction than roughly 50 degrees. This means that if you sail into a north wind, the best they could do was  about 5 degrees off northeast or northwest. Easy to sail in, very difficult to get out.



The 22 mile distance from Point San Luis to Point Sal which comprises San Luis Bay is what is known as an “Open Roadstead,” meaning that there is little or no protection from the prevailing winds, no protected harbor, and has a sea bottom that won’t hold anchor in a storm or heavy sea. Each year, boats anchored in San Luis harbor go on the beach because they drag their anchors in heavy surf and it would have been much worse before the breakwater was built. The Masters Mate, who normally did the navigation in Drakes time would have been extremely reluctant to put in at a place such as Cave Landing. He could certainly sail in but would have been well aware of the difficulty in getting out. From the sea, the central coast is indistinguishable from most of the west coast. There are no outstanding geographical features to be seen from even a few miles out and with the nearly constant Northwest trade winds no sailor would likely come to shore here.

calif map

Map of California, circa 1590

As for Drake’s treasure, what would be the point of landing, and hiding it. It belonged to  Queen Elizabeth I and thats where it ended up. 80 pounds of gold, 20 tonnes of silver, 13 cases of silver coins and divers cases of pearls and gems, it paid off England’s national debt, and made Francis Drake and his crew rich beyond their wildest dreams.drake ship b1

Much the same as the Golden Hinde began its 7,000 mile journey west, across the Pacific to the Philippines, leaving California behind forever, we leave the dreams of our little boys in the secret places they belong. Or maybe not.




Even today, I can look out my studio window and see Picacho in the near distance and I still wonder, what if it was all true?



Log: a piece of wood attached to a line knotted at uniform intervals. A sailor heaved the log from the stern of the ship and let the line pay out freely as the ship pulled away. When the sailor felt the first knot pass through his fingers, he shouted a signal to another sailor, who turned a one-minute glass. The first sailor counted aloud the number of knots that passed until the sand ran out. A timer of one minute (one-sixtieth of an hour), knots spaced one-sixtieth of a nautical mile apart, and simple arithmetic easily gave the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour (“knots”).


Astrolabe: By the Elizabethan era it consisted of a large brass ring fitted with an alidade or sighting rule. The user held the astrolabe by a loop at the top, turned the alidade so that he could sight the star along its length, and read the altitude off the scale engraved on the ring – difficult tasks to perform on the deck of a heaving ship. The consequences of imprecise measurement are serious (a latitude reading just one degree off produces an error in position of 60 nautical miles), so mariners often used the astrolabe in pairs, one to sight along the alidade, the other to steady the instrument and take readings. On shore, however, the astrolabe was easier to use and more accurate.