LITTLE GREEN BOX

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.

little green box

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.

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DEAR MRS TEAGUE

Thank you, wherever you are. I hope you are in a place where the very best of you go. You are certainly in my heart and my mind.

Ruth Teague was a teacher, specifically an English teacher at my high school, one of three that I had during the early 1960’s. The others were Mrs. Gladys Loomis, known as “happy bottom” in our house and Mrs. Francis, “Frankie” Campbell. “Happy bottom” was one of my dad’s little jokes as Vard and Gladys were among my parents closest friends. This was a happy circumstance for me because my mom could pull a string or two as I was chronically late with my writing. I would and did, jump from my fathers pickup and race to Mrs Loomis’s kitchen door, prop my missing report against it and race back, hoping to escape detection,  hoping to avoid any kind of embarrassment, if possible. Didn’t work though, as she would bring it up occasionally over the next fifty years. Always with a laugh though.

I had Mrs Teague three times, once for english and twice for Journalism. My most important memories of her was the journalism class. We published the school newspaper, known at the time as the Hi-Chatter. We  studied the art of communication through the written word. She taught all the usual stuff,of course, but thats not why I remember her. It was how she related to her students and particularly to me.

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As a high school kid I was just so so as an academic. A college prep guy who worked just hard enough to get by with B’s and C’s. As with most kids I was unable to see the my future  as an adult. Not uncommon, of course, but one of the most difficult things to relate to, young people who see the future as perhaps a dream of someday.  Mrs. Teague took the time to try and relate in a way I could understand, what life would be like after high school. It didn’t go exactly as planned. Ending up a high school teacher myself was not something I would have imagined.

In the 1960’s, high school was as stratified as igneous rock, very hard, divided into distinct layers and easily identified by its structure. Freshman, trying to maintain as low a profile as humanly possible, sophomores who might have their heads just above the surface of social order, juniors as the lady in waiting, and seniors, cocks of the walk. The students lived in this well ordered world but never quite gave credit to the teachers who made it so. Big man on campus Terry might by the king athlete, or Fred, the academic wonder but they had no vote. Teachers ruled. The teachers word was law and if you didn’t do what you were told you might have to go to the office to see the principle. That, was not to be contemplated with any degree of comfort.  Mr. Douglas Hitchen was the dean of boys my senior year and nothing, and I mean nothing got by him. If you saw him coming, have your pass ready or else. Don’t try to grow a mustache, it got you a trip to his office. Senior boys once packed the senior bathroom in a protest over some minor issue and Mr Hitchen just stuck his head in the door, said not a word and we immediately vacated the premises with just a whimper. Tough guys, we were.

Someone I knew chalked a bad word on Mr Wells Smiths green board and then quickly wiped it off, when the teacher walked in, saw the shadow of the four letters, and immediately knew who the culprit was and sent him away for punishment. Like I said, they were in charge. We didn’t have conversations about divers things with them. They were adults, we were not. Respect was the order of the day. Today, even if you saw him do it, you’d still need forensic evidence to prove it because the kid would just say you were lying and it would be his word against yours. Case closed.

Mrs Loomis once said to me as I contemplated an english essay, “Mr Shannon, the answers are NOT on the ceiling.” I wished they were, but I didn’t look at the ceiling again. “They are not on Miss Nelson’s knees either.” No more knees.

Their pictures in my yearbook make them look very severe, but they weren’t really. As with all great teachers they cared for their students, well, most of them anyway. I’m sure they recognized those kids with whom they were simpatico.

Those three women are the reason I can put words in the proper order, organize a thought and possibly put the comma where it belongs. Couldn’t teach me how to diagram though, that, thankfully, is a torture device that has disappeared from academics. Mrs Teague sat me down once and said that the reason I could get away with being lazy, was that I read so much that I instinctively knew what went where. She gave me two pieces of advice. The first was to make the writing personal. As a high school sportswriter and a stringer for the old Herald Recorder that wasn’t really my job, to be personal, I was just supposed to interview a player and report the scores. Pretty dull stuff. In the movie Bull Durham Crash Davis gives Ebby LaLoosh some helpful advice on how to talk to sportswriters. The advice, of course, is to only talk in cliches, something you can see on ESPN every day. Honestly, not very interesting stuff. She said, “Make a connection between the reader and the material.” I’m seventeen, I think, this might just be rocket science and I’m no scientist. She also said, “People read quietly, they don’t read aloud. You must provide them with the material to build a world in their heads.” This of course was the norm in 1963, though reading quietly, as a habit was only a couple of centuries old. She explained this by saying that in the past, the written word was, not surprisingly, meant to be read aloud, which is why readings from the King James bible sound so much better pronounced from the pulpit.

While I’m thinking this, she gives me the second bit, “Carry a notebook and use it.” I still do. Many, many notebooks. Some I have, some are lost. A museum of them, written on every available surface, loose leaf , ring, padded, perfect, spiral, comb, sewn, clasp, disc, and pressured. Written in pencil, pen, marker, sometimes a piece of writing stapled in, little drawings, cartoons or just a word. Lists of books to read or books read, even, in this modern day, discs and thumb drives; though they are not remotely as satisfying as words on paper. Incomprehensible they are to you, dear reader, but they follow me like the cloud of dust around Pig Pen.

Some entries were made for reasons I no longer remember. Some are just plain odd, such as the two small newspaper clipping from 1975 that describe the voyage of the Can Tiki. A sailing raft made of empty beer cans or “Tinnies” as the Aussies would say, which two blokes sailed from Darwin to Singapore. I might use it someday, maybe.

My english teachers stressed the importance of reading and research. Mrs Teague would say, “Put something personal in your articles. People want to know the personalities not just the score. Personality endures, score is gone tomorrow.”

Though I knew them all as an adult person; saw them occasionally over the next 40 years, it’s what they said in a few short hours in a high school classroom that still counts. I tried to remember that effect when I became a high school teacher myself. Just a little bit of personal interest in a young persons life can cast a long shadow.

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