FILE UNDER GRIEF

Little stories, biographies really, are published every day. In the case of well known people they are filed and updated regularly, just waiting for the subject to die. For regular people its normally written by a family member. If the dead are fortunate; let me amend that, if they were fortunate they wouldn’t be dead would they?

I’ve been reading obits for decades. The good ones are like tiny books with a life compressed to less than five hundred words. Ernest Hemingway spent his writing life paring away superfluous language in his books, but not even he wrote obituaries.

My brother, mother and I have all written them for family members trying to find the essence of a person we knew as well as or better than anyone. When you cook certain things you must reduce the sauce, boiling away the excess in order to maximize the flavor. Same here. How to compress a life into 500 words. You must leave out the sinews of a life, the hard time, until only a husk remains like the faint scent of perfume left on your mothers clothes.

An entire life reduced to a 3 x 5 card. How very sad. An obituary should be, well, actually I don’t know what it should be but I know a good one when I see it.

Take Bud, he died at 95 and was quoted by his family as saying “I was a pilot with the Flying Tigers in China during World War II and I’m ready to climb back into my old P-40 Warhawk and fly away to my wife Betty.” And so he did. There is a man I wish I had known.

In the year 2000 I ran into my dad’s cousin, Bill Marriott in the Santa Maria Library. Quite by chance, as I hadn’t seen him since I was a teen. He recognized me because I had grown old enough to look like my father. We sat down on a bench a talked a while about family. Bill was the last of my grandmothers sister Gannis’s family and was in his late seventies. We spoke of family things, lamenting as people do the drifting apart with each succeeding generation.

It became a casually drifting conversation with no particular subject. Nattering my wife would call it. I told him that I had some of his V-mail letters that my grandmother had saved from WWII. He began to talk of the big war in which he served in the California National Guard, the old 40th Division. He said they had gone to Hawai’i from Camp San Luis Obispo, then Guadalcanal and on to New Britain in the island hopping campaign up the eastern Pacific.. Now I’ve been to the New Britain area and you must believe that its one of the nastiest places on earth. It rains constantly, all the insects in the world live there, smells terrible and is hotter than the shade in Hades. Bill fought a war there in the most appalling conditions imaginable. Horrible. He really didn’t dwell on the conditions though, what he remembered most were the soldiers he served with, boys he called them, for that they certainly were. In all wars, those that carry the burden are always just kids and thats what what broke this old man’s heart. He said, “They were just kids, kids, Mike and they died alone in that awful, awful place.” He began to cry, a 78 year old man crying for the forgotten boys of his youth. An obituary.

A few years ago we drove up California Highway 4 towards Ebbets Pass. We stopped for a little break just below the tree line to stretch and walk. The path we followed wound between enormous, flat, granite slabs, sprinkled with boulders and stunted pines filtered in amongst the deer brush. The little trail wound its way down the mountain toward the mosquito lakes and as I passed a pile of small stones I noticed a corner of a small plastic bag peeking from under and thinking it was just litter I pulled it out. It was weatherworn and the plastic was dry but something was inside so I opened it. It held a folded piece of paper and some dried Jacob’s Ladder, the beautiful sky blue, five petal flower with the golden center that grows in the high Sierra Alpine zone. Opening the folded paper, curious  to see what was written on it, I was stunned to see that it was a letter from a father to his daughter who must have died on this same road. I felt as if I was intruding; intruding on a man’s grief for his child expressed in this oh so private way. The way you feel when alone in an old chapel haunted by the ghosts of those who have gone before. It was a stunning experience. The letter was too personal to finish. Carefully folded into its envelope it slid easily under its little cairn again and I literally tiptoed away. It seemed a sacrilege. An obituary.

From 1924 to 1954 my grandparents lived in a little farmhouse at the foot of Shannon Hill, where the old highway came down from the Williams ranch. Its now El Campo Road but when dad was young it was California Highway one, the main road from Los Angeles to San Francisco. As with all the old highways, it was two lanes with no shoulders. In those days it had no guardrails just a white painted wooden fence near the left turn at the bottom of the hill.  Today the road turns to the right at the bottom but then it went left in a a tight turn along the base of the ridge as the road went toward Costa’s and town.  It’s pretty steep and would have seemed more so in the years in which most cars had mechanical brakes and not the modern hydraulic type. Mechanical brakes had to be adjusted so that each wheel had the same pressure applied to the brake drum. Out of adjustment, one front wheel could brake harder than the other, combine this with wet roads and you had a recipe for disaster. This is exactly what happened on March fourth 1941. In the preceding four weeks there had been four accidents at the foot of the hill with cars going off the road and into the creek just past the bridge to my grandparents place. Each time my grandfather and my father had to go down into the creek and help the victims out of their wrecked cars and drive them into town to the doctor.

el campo

1941 was one of the wettest years on record with just under 30 inches of rain by the first of March and much more to come. Rural schools were often closed because parents could not get their kids to school. The previous month, Santa Manuela school was closed for a week. The families in the upper Lopez and Arroyo creek watersheds were isolated by the overflowing creeks.

On evening of the fourth, just at dusk, dad heard the telltale shuddering sound of locked up wheels bouncing, pounding and chirping across the concrete and then a brief silence followed by a drawn out crash as the car missed the turn and went tumbling into the creek. He and my grandfather ran from the house to see the beam of a single headlight probing the evening shade; a car was in the ditch. Wading into the muddy water, pushing aside the brush they found a car, upside down, the male driver moaning softly on the creek bank, the woman pinned beneath the roof. My grandfather rocked the car back and forth so my dad could free her. He then climbed, slipping and sliding in the mud, up the bank with the limp body of the young woman in his arms. They placed the couple gently down. The poor woman, clothes torn, missing a shoe, was dead. She was Doloris “Dee Dee” Tudder, a girl really, just 22. She was on her honeymoon. An obituary.

My grandfather, John William “Jack” Shannon died on November 4th, 1976. He was 96 years old and his body was simply worn out from a long life. He was a hard, hard worker and had lived his life to the fullest. He was admitted to the convalescent hospital with renal failure on the afternoon of November 3rd. My dad was with him, as he had been all of his life, 64 years his son. When his parents were old, he took care of them as he took care of us. My grandfathers was dying from the poison in his system and was in acute distress. My dad had to leave him there knowing he might not live the night. My grandfather begged to be taken home. He said “Son, please, please don’t leave me here. I don’t want to die here.” Dad had no choice. He couldn’t take him home, he had to leave him. My grandfather died that night, alone. Imagine having to live with that. An obituary.

Memories of my family, other peoples lives, fade with time and the Obit, file it under grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MARSALEK FIRE

If you think you don’t know your parents life before they had you, you’re right.

My dad was a good boy. He was a good man too. He followed the rules even if he didn’t like them. He did what his mommy asked him to do. He got rid of the goat when she said, “Only shanty Irish keep goats,” even though he loved that goat and told stories about it all his life. He really wanted to do good. Sometimes, though, it was just impossible.

He noticed the plume of smoke through the open schoolhouse window and quietly elbowed his friend Kenny Jones. They watched from the corner of their eyes until suddenly a burst of crimson flame framed in black, oily smoke shot up from behind the trees that surrounded the old Arroyo Grande schoolhouse yard. It was too much to bear. Miss McNeil had her back to the class so they made a break for it, jumping out the window and hightailing it for the fire. Behind them they could hear Muriel Metzler hollering at them to come back. “Miss McNeil, Miss McNeil, George and Kenny jumped out the window, George and Kenny jumped out the window.” Miss McNeil flew to the window but she was too late, the boys were gone.

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Arroyo Grande Grammar School Staff 1925-25

Sitting, l-R Miss Phoenix, Mr Faxon Principal, and Miss Righetti, Standing l-R Miss Doty, Miss Wimmer, school nurse, Miss McNeil, Miss Walker, Miss Lambeth and Miss Cotter

It was Florian and Albina Marsalek’s home. They had just moved there from the Oak Park area the year before. They farmed Walnuts on nine acres of land they bought from John Huebner. The farm was about a half mile from school as the crow flies and fly those boys did.

With just a population of around 850 people Arroyo Grande was a pretty typical small farming town in the mid 1920’s. The main street had recently been paved and concrete sidewalks replaced the old wooden ones. There were some new, but dim, street lights on Branch St, but everywhere else, particularly on those moonless nights you had to know where to put your feet. Some things had changed, boys, mostly wore shoes to school now.  They were more likely to go on to high school than their fathers. Dad’s father, Jack Shannon dropped out of school in the 8th grade in 1896. Boys were expected to work then. At 14 you would have been expected to do a mans work. For a number of years there was no high school in Arroyo because the principal taxpayers, mostly farmers didn’t see the need for schooling boys and refused to pay the school tax. My grandmother Annie, went to Santa Maria HS though she lived in Arroyo Grande.

Electricity was common and indoor plumbing had been installed in most homes, though not in my grandparents house. That wouldn’t come for another year and even then my grandparents had to pay for the lines to be strung out from town. The juice went to the dairy they owned in order to operate the sterilizer, pasteurizer and the milking machines. It would be 1925 before they had electricity in the house at the foot of Shannon Hill on the Nipomo road.  No one had radios yet, the first radio broadcast in the country was radio KDKA in Detroit in 1920, and that was a long way from Arroyo Grande. Radios were considered so important that they were an item on the 1930 census forms. If you wanted news you read the papers. There were two in Arroyo Grande and the Los Angeles and San Francisco papers were delivered each day by train.

There were still saloons even though it was an “officially” dry town and had been since 1911 when the city was incorporated by a vote of 88 yeas to 86 nays. There were a few dozen residential lots, clustered mostly on the east side of Bridge Street.  The rest of the area was dotted with small farms, it was a pretty quiet place to grow up.

Florian Marsalek grew artichokes, peas and had walnut trees, which were a big crop in those days before the development of efficient railroad refrigerator cars which changed farming from dry crops to the fresh vegetables that we know now. Entire families lived on small acreages which wouldn’t be profitable to farm today. People still kept chickens and many had milk cows. There were barns behind most houses because the day of the horse wasn’t over yet. Many farmers still used them for cultivation and pulling wagons and buggies. Florian didn’t buy his first auto until 1929. Valley road was just a dirt track and would have been nearly impassable when it rained.

On that day, dad probably rode to school with Newell Buss and his brothers, They came down from their ranch behind Mount Picacho, picking up my dad and uncle at the dairy. A buckboard full of young schoolboys pulled by a tired old horse who spent the school day hitched to a post in front of the school, a nosebag of grain hooked behind his ears, swishing his tail at the occasional fly.

Kenny Jones would have walked from his house on Myrtle street. Drifting toward school on the footpath that would become Poole St. but at that time just wide enough for a couple of kids to walk side by side. The crowd grew larger as they passed the McCoy’s, and the Bardin’s before crossing Bridge St. to the grammar school. Kids coming down Pig Tail Alley and from the Phoenix, Harloe and Costa places or the Runels and Conrow ranches down the valley, funneling in the door before the final bell rang.

Kenny,s father Fred was a farmer and horse breeder, the grandson of Francis Ziba and Manuela Branch. You can’t get more local than that. He and my dad were best friends all through school. They went to grammar, high school and the University of California Berkeley together, even joining the same fraternity.

That was the future though. This day was about Florian’s house. They ran as fast as they could down the rows of pea vines, careful to stay in the furrows because, as every farm boy knows, you never step on a plant, that’s your living right there. Ruining crops was a bigger crime than ditching school.

The hollering from the school died down as they distanced themselves from the school and drew closer to the Marsalek’s burning house. It was already old in the 20’s and dry as a bone. Built of redwood from Cambria, those old houses, once the wood dried out were like tissue paper when they burned. Fast and hot. The volunteer firemen arrived just in time to sprinkle the ashes. Surrounded by a few pieces of furniture and keepsakes they had managed to drag out of the burning building, Albina quietly cried.

After the fun was nearly over, the chief of police, Ben Stewart scolded the boys and ordered them back to school. Now, Ben was more than just the chief, he was the town tax collector and the city clerk. A little officialdom went a long ways in those days, but his word was law and dad and Kenny had to obey. Besides, Ben played poker with my grandfather and dad knew there was no escape.

So they slunk back to school. They were going to have to face the “music” as the old saying goes. Miss McNeil sent them to the principals office while Muriel and Bessie snickered behind their hands. The boys were secretly envious of course and wished they had gone to such a big event. Kathryn turned to her friend Mary Taylor and said in the superior way that girls have always had, “Those two are going to get what for alright.” They went down the hall past Miss Phoenix and Miss Walker’s rooms, Miss Doty and Miss Righetti had their doors open also and the sibilant hiss of giggles followed them right into the Mr Faxon’s office.

5th grade 1922-23

Mr Faxon taught eighth grade, as well as being principal, so he told they boys to sit down and wait  and he would be right back. Dad and Kenny sat, fidgeting in their chairs imagining the fruits of their little adventure; the dire circumstances they found themselves in. Soon, Kenny started tapping his feet in an insistent rhythm and he turned to dad and said, “George, George, I gotta poop but I’m scared to leave the office.” Dad said he should use the principals toilet which was right there in the room. Kenny looked around, didn’t hear any footsteps so he quickly darted in and closed the door. Dad could hear the sigh of relief behind the door and a few minutes later the door opened again and Kenny came out, surrounded by a horrible miasma, a stench of the worst kind. Now dad grew up on a dairy and he knew smells, and this one was epic in its proportions, nearly making his eyes water. Kenny sat down and a moment later Mr Faxon came sailing in the door ready to do business. He suddenly skidded to a halt, looked at the two boys, then ran to open the windows. He stood with his back to the open window, eyed both boys, paused a moment ad then he said, “You boys get out of here, get back to class,” and he followed them out into the hall, carefully closing the door behind him. George and Kenny scurried back to class and nothing more was ever said about it. For several days the principal spent very little time in his office. The boys considered it a miracle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Handshake.

Those men. They always shook hands. I learned early in life that those handshakes were a form of communication. All kinds of subtleties, rituals observed by grown men that took a lot of growing up for me to understand.

manuel silva 1

 

Big Manuel had hands that were thick and muscular, criss-crossed with the scars that  illustrated his life and when he held your hand in his it felt as if they were covered by the bark of the oak trees that grew on the hills we grew up on. No man would have ever said “I love you” out loud, they did it by touch.

When we were little he just tousled your hair when he came in, perhaps put his hand on your shoulder. As you grew, he offered his hand. By the time you were a teen and as tall as he was, it was the whole shebang, the gravelly voice with a mild insult and a handshake that engulfed yours. The love he showed you, running like current from his heart to yours. God, how I loved that.

It’s how men of a certain time showed affection. The men and women in my family were subtle in that way and each had his own manner. It was a very small play, acted out between two people, seldom varying in its simplicity, which was its charm.

Garrison Keillor had his Minnesota bachelor farmers and we had our farmer uncles, some of our blood and some adopted in friendship.

My Grandmothers brothers, Uncles John, Bob, Tom and her brother in law Olin. There was my dad’s brother uncle Jack or Jackie as he was universally known. We had another uncle Bob on my mothers side and my uncle Ray who was an uncle by marriage.

So, bunches of them. Some we saw often, others, not so much. For many years when I was growing up, the entire Shannon and Gray families got together during the holidays.  Uncle John Gray, he of the pin-stripe suits and deep, deep growl of a voice, stood up very straight when he shook your hand. Aunt Eva, always perfectly coiffed, invariably dressed in a grey suit and smelling richly of powder would offer her soft hand, light as a butterfly. My grown cousin Iva Jean offered her little hand palm down, the fragile bones light as as a birds wing. She was a giggly girl, though she was in her forties. She was a simple woman, kind and loving. My uncle Bob Gray was short and wiry with a shiny bald head and he shook  with the vigor of a life long farmer. My dad’s brother uncle Jackie shook with his arm akimbo, his right elbow swung out and his hand diving down on yours like a hawk on a mouse, a firm economical grip. My grandmother Annie, she of the Lace Curtain Irish. used her left hand which you softly gripped from the side with your left, your fingers slipped across the index finger and next to her thumb, and always delivered with a soft kiss on her cheek. When she was dressed up she floated in a cloud of White Shoulders, even today the scent evokes memories of her. My grandfather, “Big Jack” Shannon shook hands with a hearty “My blessed boy.” He left no doubt he cared for you.

They had all been born in another century and formality was like wearing a suit of clothes. They all walked in the histories of their time. The view in our kitchen was more inward than outward. Not in the sense that they were unsophisticated, but rather in a way that valued honesty, formality and steady friendship as the anchors of their lives. Manuel, Johnny, Oliver and those other men who sat and drank coffee at our kitchen table, did not talk out of school. Personal opinions were never voiced in front of children, or, I think, in front of wives. Dad’s friends seem homogenous to me, not in the way they dressed or walked to our door, but in their opinions about what mattered the most to them.

They played by the rules they had established for themselves. The big boy rules. They were hard to define and were slightly different for each. No one wrote them down and they weren’t easy to know but you were expected to do what you said you you would do, no questions asked, no excuses given. It was agreed that you paid for your own mistakes. Your problem was yours to accept and deal with. They took the best from each other and ignored the rest. Favors agreed to were freely given. It seemed to me as a child that these were the rules under which the universe was governed. It was a brotherhood of sorts and lasted for life.

Of course, it was all kind of a con job. They knew secrets; they differed on things, but they found no reason to share the petty with us. They had all experienced horror, sadness and despair but nothing of those experiences was ever shared. We learned about casual cruelty in school. When you were undone by events, these steady, anchored men let you know that all could be well in the world. They felt no need to apologize for being who they were. They were the men of the Depression, the World War, born in a time of want, a need that could only be satisfied by hard work. They were used.

You might say they were simple people from another era and different mindset. They worked hard, they rarely read. They talked of land, food and weather.  But is was more than that. My dad and his friends were steady people, they’d be quiet rather than lie, they were as good as their word and they were generous to a fault. You could count on them. They told you all you needed to know about them with just a touch of the hand.

When Big Manuel died, he wasn’t rich in possessions, he didn’t drive a fancy pickup and no one would have ever said he was a big shot. No, instead of that, he possessed the greatest thing a man can have, friends. Not just ordinary friends either, but men who, each believed with all their heart, that they were his best friend.

Status meant little to them. They valued the little things that made a life. When my father died and was buried, Manuel’s grandson came to the funeral and introduced himself to the family and said “My father was out of town and couldn’t attend, but he called me and said that I had to come and represent the family because he and my grandfather would have wanted to honor your family in that way.”

They are all gone now, but they left us a legacy, their children and their children’s children. Grown up now, they don’t hug, they still stick out their paw and shake your hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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