Red Shoendienst died today. He was 95 years old. A professional ballplayer, 19 years with the old Saint Louis Cardinals. Though I never knew him personally he was one of the threads that connected me to my dad.


When you are a kid there is always teaching going on in the home. Mom and Dad are at it constantly. Now, when you are little you don’t really notice it but it’s always there. They are sculpting the clay while it’s still soft, building the adult you will be.

We had a kitchen table then that was shiny chrome in it’s legs and trim with a grey laminate top printed in a marble pattern. Nearly every family I knew had a similar one. They were modern and I believe mothers were tired of wood. You didn’t have to polish these, they didn’t dent or stain and in the 1950’s, if it didn’t have chrome it wasn’t “it.”

That shiny stuff was everywhere. Our Buick carried about a ton of it. The Sunbeam toaster, the mixer, saucepans, even the the salt and pepper sellars. The Art Deco shakers were put away in the back of a cupboard, not to see the light of day for fifty years.

Holding pride of place on the table was my dad’s radio. There were different kinds over the years, the last being a little transistor you could hold in your hand. The one most remembered was a small Philco. It was the size of a shoebox and was kind of a maple-ly color, lighter than a maple donut and darker than chamois. The dial was round and placed in the middle with little speakers, one on each side. The speakers were covered with a sparkling fabric and the circular dial had three, yes, three concentric rings. Each ring was a different radio band but the AM band was the one we used. AM radio, or Amplitude Modulated, travels much farther than FM and UHF. It is possible to actually bounce radio waves of the ionosphere and send signals around the world. It seemed magical to me as a child because I didn’t understand it. Neither did my father but, as an adult, he was content to listen and not worry about how it worked, it just did.

The great feature of this modulation was that radio stations, known in those days before cable as clear channel, could broadcast great distances if they were powerful enough. Few of these big boys are left now but at one time their signals could be heard in every corner of America. KNX and KFI in Los Angeles, KGO San Francisco, KSL Salt Lake City, KMOX in Saint Louis and XERB which operated out of Tijuana, Baja Norte, Mexico DF. when I was in high school it broadcast Wolf Man Jack into homes all over the west. Well, maybe not all homes, but millions of teenager’s old cars.

In a way little remembered today, radio connected peoples around the world. Not always positively either, The Imperial Japanese Navy used the radio signal from Honolulu’s KGU to home in on the island for the attack on pearl Harbor. If you lived in Arroyo Grande then and been tuned to KGU you may have heard the original broadcast. Three thousand three hundred twenty five miles as the crow flies, a long distance.

I don’t recall dad listening to music though he did love it, the radio was more of a tool than a source of entertainment. In the fifties a farmer needed radio for many reasons. Dad would stay up very late on winter nights to listen to the weather reports, hoping to hear good news, not bad. Farmers lived by frost reports, dew point, clouds, wind, worried about calamity that they had no way prevent. Adverse combinations of these can produce killing frosts which wipe out entire crops, in effect flushing your entire investment down the drain. The daily market reports out of San Francisco and Los Angeles kept him informed on vegetable prices and quantities. We didn’t use it for news much, life for the family was outside and time at the table was limited. News came from newspapers, local and big city.

Television didn’t arrive in our county until 1954 and it was awhile before we had one. Radio was how we connected with the world outside.

Dad played several sports in high school and college and followed his favorites. Basketball and baseball were his sports and the only way to follow it was by radio. The basketball team, the Lakers didn’t move to Los Angeles until 1960, two years after the baseball Dodgers. He followed the Boston Celtics, Shannon is our name you know. For baseball it was the Cards, the Redbirds, the Saint Louis Cardinals.

I sat at that table for years listening to baseball on the radio. The Cardinals came via KMOX in Saint Louis, Missouri and sometimes KSL in Salt Lake City. Dad loved the Cardinals, not because he was a rabid baseball fan but because when he was a young man they fielded a team fondly known as the Gashouse Gang, which seemed to be the epitome of the baseball teams that were primarily working class men. Not the “Boys of Summer,” as Roger Kahn wrote but the sort of men that came from hardscrabble farms and down and out southern towns where opportunity was scarce and a boy that could throw, hit and field might find a way out. No more picking cotton, no more steel mills or lead mines, no more endless drudge in a job you had to hate or even die for.

Take the “Ol Diz,” Dizzy Dean who hailed from Arkansas, a hillbilly by geography if not by choice, he won 30 games in 1934, a feat only equaled once in the past 84 years. The Cards won the world series that year, the same year my dad graduated from college. It was a national event when baseball was still the only real national pastime. The Tigers were an classy club from Detroit and they were beaten in seven games by a team of scruffy, tobacco chewing, fist fighting characters with dirty uniforms and a very, very bad attitude. Thats how the old boys played, spikes up, bean balls and real, on the field fights. Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Pepper Martin, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, Ripper Collins, Pop Haines, and Frankie “The Fordham Flash, They scuffled, fought each other in the dugout and won a world series. How could you not love “em. Maybe, just from my dads point of view, their chief attraction was they didn’t really play for money ’cause they didn’t make much in those days and the fact that a baseball career in almost all cases were very short, perhaps just three or four years, they eventually went back to working lead mines, painting houses and tilling the soil. This resonated with people in the depression, ballplayers might be famous, there were seven hall of famers on that team, but nevertheless, they likely were just like you. Might even be your neighbor too.

As we listened to the games, and I did my homework and dad spoke to the character of ballplayers the way he spoke of all men. He admired the work ethic of “Stan the Man” who worked in the steel mills of U S Steel as a youth and saw his own father die from the poisonous smog of 1948 that killed almost a hundred people in his hometown. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in a temperature  inversion sending hundreds to the hospital including his father. Enos “Country” Slaughter typified the determined spirit and hustle of the game. “Baseball was the mirror of America,” dad said and in this sense Enos Slaughter was more than a consistent hitter with an accurate arm. He was also a reflection of the times in which he lived and played the game. He was raised on a hardscrabble farm in North Carolina and often said he developed his throwing arm by killing rabbits with rocks, for dinner. Red Schoendienst was the son of a coal miner and grew up in a house without electricity or running water. A high school dropout, he joined the CCC in 1939, played sandlot ball and was signed by the Cards in 1942 for $75.00 dollars. For the next 72 years he played and worked in baseball.

What was passed down here were lessons on hard work, perseverance, honesty and, most of all the transitory nature of things. Ballplayers are one swing of the bat away from the end of their careers each and every day. “It’s why those other values count,” he said.

So, we would sit there at the table with the little radio talking to use while he doodled figures on the back of an old envelope and drank coffee. I did my homework. We spoke of baseball and he picked up hints from the game to illustrate what he wanted me to know. A quiet word here and there was all you might hear.

When I was older and wiser I came to understand that the characters he used for illustration were as flawed as any other men. Somehow knowing that made the qualities my dad pointed out stronger than ever. You could be both good and not so good, weak but still strong. Knowing that helped me sort out problems and relationships that I was going to encounter for the rest of my life.

To use a baseball term, “Dad snuck one in over the outside corner for a called strike.”




The Street Cat

He was big, orange and had lived on the street for a long time, a survivor. A tomcat’s life is short and brutal you see, and you won’t live long by being friendly with strangers. You would see him ankling down the middle of our street any day, rolling like a drunken sailor on shore leave. I’d find him sleeping on our old Adirondack chair’s cushion in the early mornings. Some days he would still be wet from the morning dew which sparkled on his fur like tiny chips of amber.


He was wary. I’d take my coffee out in the morning and stand by him and talk of the days plan, ask him questions while he just watched me. I never knew if he understood a word I said but gradually the morning ritual took some of the edge off and once in a while he would let me touch him as long as I didn’t move too fast. He had fur like the bristles of a hairbrush, slightly stiff and of different lengths as if he’d been shaven by a drunken barber and the hair had never grown back quite the way it was supposed to. He carried the scars of every battle he had ever been in, his ears as tattered as any Civil War battle flag.

Slowly we developed a tolerance for one another. He would greet me with a low meow that came rumbling up from his chest like a rattling, rusty chain. It was the kind of voice that was worth a fortune in Hollywood. It was Long John Silver’s voice, raw, dreaded and with a subdued power that frightened other cats. My dog Lucy gave him plenty of space too. She knew an emperor when she saw one.

Over time he became a staple on Poole Street. He went to different homes at times, accepting, as was his due, food, if it was offered. He didn’t beg. You could give him a little something and he might eat it, or not, as the mood struck him. Somehow he acquired a name, Cheeto’s, I suppose for the color of his fur. But, you understand, it wasn’t his real name, his cat name. Nobody knew that, though I imagined it to be Vercingetorix, destroyer of rats or Grimalkin, the great stainer of carpets, or some such noble nom de guerre. Surely a sobriquet of distinction. He was a true thing.

In the year I knew him, he never came in our house. He would be on his chair or in the garage waiting patiently for me to serve him. He never, ever used the cat door. It would require him to show some deference to those that lived here and that would never do. He would park himself in the middle of the street on cold winter days because the pavement was warmed by the sun and he thought it was the best place to be. He barely acknowledged cars, they must go around, and they did. Monarchial, he was too. Not the foppish, beribboned Louis Bourbon with his oiled ringlets and silk stockings but hard and resolute like Henry V and his band of brothers or the warrior king, Brian Boru of Ireland the founder of the O’Brian Dynasty. No other Tom came into his little fiefdom of Poplar, Sage and Cedar streets.

Birds were beneath him, he let them be. Mice were for lesser cats. All dogs kept their distance, even my son’s friend Joey, and his gigantic Blue Great Dane. None of the neighborhood dogs ever made a move. Not Marley, Bobby, Gibson, or Bella. They stayed within the dog world and pretended they just didn’t see him. The fish in our pond were safe. No raccoons were allowed. Opossums too kept their distance. Occasionally, in the early morning I would find one pretending to be dead in our back yard. Such was his power.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead. You are the first in line for trouble.

We are in a terrible drought here in California. You may be surprised by the things drought brings. There is little feed for the wild things that live in our hills after nearly a decade of no rain. The springs and seasonal creeks have long been dry which forces animals to come down to feed and drink in the suburbs and town. There are small critters and even deer foraging in back yards and the high school ball fields. Following the deer and rabbit are the cougars. Seldom seen but nevertheless stalking through the late night seeking the unwary. Most opportune is the coyote. Bigger than the red fox and smaller than the grey wolf, this wild dog was known to the Nahuatl people as “Coyotl.” The name was first transcribed to english in 1824 as “Cayjotte” and standardized by 1880 as Coyote. Famed by native cultures as The Trickster and featured in many creation myths, coyotes are social and usually hunt together. It’s not particularly unusual to see them on city sidewalks in broad daylight and even in the state parks along Pismo Beach.

Crossing our street at dusk, going from our yard towards the Russian brides house, the old man ran into a pair of them. They stalked him, moving, as they do in a head and tail down posture, mincing almost sideway with both the head and tail facing the intended. It might seem to the victim as if they are being friendly, showing subjugation, much as a dog does when approaching a more dominant animal. Its a trick. Cheeto’s was in very big trouble, caught in the open by predators who intended to make a meal.

He broke for the Volvo parked on the street, hoping to escape underneath it but one of the coyotes cut him off. He backed himself against a front tire and shrunk down to make himself a smaller, more difficult target. He could not run. With his back to the tire he prepared to sell his life dearly. Like Roland at Roncevaux, he declined to scream as it would be an act of cowardice. The coyotes lunged.

I found him in the morning, his back broken; eaten. I gathered the scattered fur, and all that was left of him. His massive paws, soaked in blood, said he didn’t go down without a fight. His clenched jaws held bits of Coyote fur. He didn’t make it easy.

I buried him in a wooden box in the back yard, under the Angels Trumpet where he can smell the beautiful yellow flowers, especially in the springtime when they are strong; where he used to lay in the adirondack chair, content.

A pearl among cats. He was a bravo.




In the little world of boys who went to Branch Elementary school in the 1950’s there was one who had achieved the ultimate pinnacle of success. His name was George Cecchetti Junior and he had two great recommendations, he had a scar and a nickname. He lost a fingertip to his father George Cechetti’s handsaw and was graced with the nickname “Tookie.” His cachet was unassailable. In those days when corporal punishment might be meted out by teachers, he was the only boy I ever saw spanked. That just added to his legend. We knew he wasn’t bad in any sense of the word, just irrepressible.

Jerry Jesse, who lived next to the Gularte’s on Huasna Road had a high pitched voice due to an adenoidal deficiency and was saddled with “Squeeky.” He had slightly bucked teeth formed in a small vee and a pointed chin which made him look mouselike. He was a fine boy. We also had “Tubby Terra” who got his monicker by being just a big kid, not fat, but big all over. Another fine boy.

There were also Manny, Johnny, Jerry, Lulu, several Jimmys, Dickie, Billy, Reenie and even one kid who aspired, but never made the grade, my best friend Kenneth Talley, whose full name was Kenneth James Talley and who told me he wished he had been named George like my dad so he could call himself KG or cagey, he being, of course, one of the most un-cagey people I’ve ever known.

Diminutives such as those above, never quite cut it in the nickname business for those names were not given in the proper spirit or spirits. They must be given for physical appearance, embarrassing family childish endearments, see George Cecchetti above, or some significant event in a persons life.


Lee and Dwight

Lee Dudley is one of my oldest, dearest friends. Our mothers worked together in the same men and boys clothing store for over 20 years and Lee and I still have the kind of friendship that is only formed when you are kids. Went to a high school reunion lately and, you know, he still got called “Dumbo.” It’s those Clark Gable ears, a nickname he has carried for over six decades. We called him that because we love him to pieces.

Dwight Wood and I were literally introduced to each other in the same cradle by our mothers. They would put us in together while they drank coffee in the kitchen upstairs from Dwight’s fathers business, the local mortuary. I’m sure they spoke of many things but the best thing they did was to start a life long friendship. We played together as children, surfed together as ‘teens and still see each other seven decades later. He is and always will be “Woody.”

My brother Jerry, Gerald George Shannon, missed the opportunity of a lifetime because no one knew that his name Gerald was a shortened version of Geraldine. My mother wanted to honor Geraldine Sullivan, daughter of our neighbors, Gladys and Lester. She was wonderful woman and a very close friend. Think of the missed opportunities there, named after a girl. Surely some kid might of made hay out of that one. Sorry Jeb, you dodged a bullet there.

The foul name bestowed by that senior class bully on the back bench of your school bus has hopefully disappeared by now, as I hope has he, to a dark place. We had one of those. He sat on the back bench of that old Crown bus, ensconced like a king, with his courtiers by his side, dispensing names, each one containing some foul expletive, more expressive of his bullyness than actual intelligence. He graduated a year later and I can’t say he was missed. Those sycophants of his, he left high and dry, faded with him.

Thinking of dad’s friends, “Toots” Porter and “Coot;” the “Toots” seems self explanatory but “Coot” Sevier? His real name was Ernest or Ernie and I actually worked for him when I was 16 so I knew him and I never heard him referred to by any other name. I know he didn’t have yellow, webbed feet like the little black speckled duck and he didn’t give out the small squeaks they make, so how in the world did he get the name. I asked my dad and he said he though it had something to do with acting, when he was young, like an old man, but he wasn’t sure.

In my grandmothers autograph book, which she started when she was just eight are best and birthday wishes by her friends, many of which I knew as a child and it tickles me to know that Mrs. Harloe, a well known and cherished teacher in our little town once signed herself as “Maggie” Phoenix, and what about “Tootsie” Whiteley. My mother said that my grandmother used to say, when she saw a particularly grizzled, crusty old woman, “Just think, some mother once kissed her sweet baby feet!”  Now just imagine the long-gone mother kissing those sweet footsie-tootsies-wootsies. I knew many of my grandmothers friends as a young man. They dressed in sober fashion, wore gloves and hats to market, had Mamie Eisenhower perms and never colored their hair. If it was grey, well, they earned it. I seemed unbelievable that they had ever been babies and girls. That they went by a nickname, but so it was and it tickles me today think of them that way.

My first car, a 1929 model A Ford pickup. My dad bought it for my 13th birthday. He paid “Mutt” Anderson fifty dollars for it. Mutt ran the greyhound cafe in our little town a was a local character and a fine baseball catcher when towns all over the country had a teams.  Well before television ruined the real game, it was played by hometown people with no announcer filling your ears with personal opinions and inane chatter, just the patter of friends and neighbors over the picnic basket. Folks came out to the ball field to cheer on the neighborhood boys, and men like Mutt had a standing in the community far beyond their education or accomplishments. Why did they call him Mutt? His mother did it. She called him Mutt after the cartoon character in “Mutt and Jeff, though she reversed the names as a joke. You see, Mutt was the taller of the two characters and Jeff was the short one. Our Mutt had only  an eighth grade education but he worked hard all his life in a day when that other kind of education, the hard knocks kind, was perhaps just as important as school. He was a good man and was well liked in the community. The name, as used, wasn’t derogatory at all. It had the charm that a name given in affection always has.

Mutt and Alfred 1911

The “Beanie’s,” Winslow and English. To this day, I have no idea where the names came from. Beanie is much more common for girls than men and yet the only two people I knew with that name were men. Neither one of them was named Beatrice. Go figure.

There is even a nickname that is adopted by parents and particularly grandparents, given them by their little ones. Case in point, “Moonie” Maude Loomis or “Poo Poo” Jack Shannon and “Mamoo” Annie Shannon. Those names bestowed on them by yours truly when just a baby. My grandfather was so proud of his name that all of his close friends knew it too.

Even my own sober, serious father was called “Ding,” a reference to the bell that used to ring when a basket was made in the old-fashioned basketball game of the twenties and thirties. He was a dead shot at the hoop and excelled in both high school and college. He never got over the end of the two-handed set shot but he did revere Bill Russell and always gave him credit for birthing the modern game. Some of the best times with him were shooting baskets at our hoop nailed to the side of the old tank house. Dad in his sweat stained tee shirt, Pendelton, muddy Levi’s and scuffed work boot, shooting a fadeaway against his three swarming kids. We didn’t need to keep score, because we all won.

My cousins Bruce and Jim, were invariably called “Jughead,” the ears again, and “Knothead.” My uncle Ray had a way with words and was absolutely irrepressible. He called my brother Cayce, “Festus” and his wife Debbie “The Mule” and with all such nicknames they embraced them wholeheartedly. A twofer, “Here comes Festus and his mule.” If my sister-in-law was offended you’d never guess, she was too busy laughing.

My dad called my mother “Pinky.” It was used only on momentous occasions and carried such an abundance of love that when he used it the air itself became heavy. Like all married couples that must have had their issues but I never knew about them. They always seemed to us as if they were fitted like a perfect piece of joinery. Pinky, when she heard it, would light her up like a sunbeam coming in through our kitchen window.

When you are born your parents label you with a name carefully thought out, sometimes richly endowed with family legend or perhaps heavenly grace. Your name, to be carried to the grave and engraved on a marble headstone or solid brass plaque, but your real name, the one bestowed by family and friends out of pure love is the one.