We used to visit my dad’s parents all the time. They lived on their ranch just a couple miles away from ours. We’d ride along with my dad in the pickup and while he sat in the kitchen drinking coffee with his parents his boys were free to roam around as we pleased. Farms and ranches were similar in those days, usually a collection of sheds and barns, built for utility, not beauty, most of indeterminant age and antecedent, painted or not, sharp corners or slowly collapsing in a the kind of grace some old structures seem to have. They were full of an accumulation of old farm machinery. The hay barn where the 1937 Diamond Rio flatbed truck lived between haying. She smelled of age and mice and was a wonderful place to play. I was to become very familiar with her when I turned 14 and was put to loading hay on sidehills where the truck would slowly slip, sideways, downhill as bales were bucked up onto her. The calf shed, filled with fragrant feed and grain, salt licks for the cattle which we tried, of course. A collection of old tools, staples, square nails and spikes which which lay in hand made bins along with black widow spiders and blue belly lizards. If you walked up the dirt road to the upper pastures there was, first of all, the big gully with its rusted, abandoned trucks and cars which lay there decaying. Wooden wheel spokes rotted away, leather completely gone from the seats leaving springs where field mice made nests. Hop in and pretend your were on your way somewhere, anywhere you pleased. At the back of the ranch, the little canyon that was once the old stagecoach road but now served as the dump. There were mountains of barbed wire, folded in bow ties when the hay bales were spread for cow dinner, then discarded it in huge piles that had taken 50 years to build. Add to this generations of tinned cans, worn out and rusted to a sort of surreal brown beauty. A marvelous place to explore. At the very top, the old, dry reservoir which we used as a fort to hold off the hordes of Mongols, Indians and Hessians that continually charged the parapet. There was no corner of the ranch which was left unexplored.
When I was 9 my grandparents, Jack and Annie moved to their new home on the hill. It was the third home they had lived in during their nearly fifty years on the ranch. The first was a little house above the dairy, no water, no electricity, already old in 1918. My great grandfather built a home down below them, along where the freeway is now. That was 1924, the same year he drowned taking his daily swim at the pier in Pismo Beach. That house was to be Jack and Annie’s home when I was a little guy. It was nestled in a little nook below the dairy and close to the old Nipomo Road where is descends Shannon Hill towards Arroyo Grande. It is a modest little house, it still stands, by the way, variously painted red or white as farm houses used to be. It began life painted white in 1924, went without color during the depression and was red when I was a boy. Red being the go to color on farms because it is made of rust and oil and is, most importantly, cheap.
California was growing rapidly in the 1950’s and the Department of Transportation deemed it necessary to build a four lane highway through my grandparents property. It would replace the two lane, winding road that had served the coast for years with a modern and efficient mover of the new and powerful automobiles coming off the Detroit assembly lines postwar. The state bought 33 acres of the ranch including the little red house. The timing was perfect for my grandparents, who, in their late sixties were ready to retire from the dairy business. Up and above the new highway they built a brand new modern home. It was all-electric with built in appliances, insulated and easy to clean. It had a washer and a dryer and just to be safe, a clothesline in the back. They bought all new furniture, keeping just their birds eye maple bedroom set which they had purchased in 1908 when they married.
If you have ever moved you know that there is always a box or two of things which have no place in the new home but have enough value to hang on to. They end up in the attic, in the back of a closet or in the garage, stuffed back in a corner and forgotten. Such is the tale of the little green box, something I discovered while rooting around in their garage in 1955. In a corner, covered with gunny sacks and an old seed broadcaster was a wooden box, painted green and bound at the corners with metal traps nailed on for strength. To this day I have no idea of its original use, it has no labels or printing of any kind to identify it. You will note the use of the present tense here, for we still have it tucked in our garage, though its original contents have been removed, it is still in use.
In the little green box were keys. Not keys in the literal sense, by which I mean those that open, locks, but of another sort. Keys to the mind. Keys to the imagination, for it was a box of books, old books, printed long before I was born. Each had the dusty, musty smell of old and tired paper, too long put away and forgotten.
There was an 1898 collection of Shakespeare’s works, A complete collection of Stoddard’s lectures, an old ragged copy of Stewart Edward White’s “Gold,” “Frank Merriwell at Yale,” published in 1913; from 1918,”Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar,” and a very large, illustrated book called “The Boy Mechanic” which I later found out had been a gift to my father and his brother on Christmas day, 1920. The “Collected Essays of the Great Authors,” something way above the head of a ten year old boy reader, but nonetheless it flowed into the mind, fixed itself there, for life. That I understood little of what I read didn’t matter, I was snagged by the passion for print like an alcoholic is for the bottle. What I found was the common experience and solid worlds where judgement could be made and safely trod upon. I was allowed to gaze upon distant things and places as if I knew them. Doors were opened.
I learned I didn’t need the surety of community, family and friends, but was free to explore. I was prepared to travel.
Because of these, I roomed in the same Dorm at Yale with Harry Rattleton and Frank, I climbed the cliffs and entered the forbidden valley of Opar with Lord Greystoke, and traveled to the far corners of the earth with John L. Stoddard. I crossed the Isthmus of Panama on the way to the Gold fields of California in ’48, stood in the mud of Agincourt and was thrilled by King Harry’s speech on Saint Crispian’s day. “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, and say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’ You may ride with Francisco Villa in Jack Reeds, “Insurgent Mexico,” first published in 1914.
Finding the box has allowed me to drift through time as a ghost through walls, seeing, hearing and imagining all that is put before me. The best gifts are those you do not seek.