Drive In The Ruts

Farm families live in the mud. It’s a constant. The roads are dirt, the fields are dirt, there is always dirt. It’s in the house, particularly with three rambunctious boys flying in and out the door at all hours of the day. The farmer and his friends have it on their boots, it’s on the floorboards of the car and trucks, the tractors too. When the wind blows there are clouds of it. Even the dogs trail little dust clouds after themselves.

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Grandma Hall, not a mudder.

Our farm was located in a small fertile valley in Coastal California. It spanned the narrow valley from side to side. From the cutbank on the east side to the creek on the west. The ground we lived on had been laid down by thousands of years of rain and drifting soil, deposited in the winter floods in a random fashion dictated by the amount and time of the annual rainfall. Before cultivation the little valley stream meandered from side to side in a vast Monte that stretched from the Santa Lucia mountains to the Pacific Ocean 21 miles away. Thousands of years of undisturbed growth had created a tangle of oak and sycamore trees, bound by willows, poison oak and wild blackberry vines that were nearly impenetrable. Only the Grizzly bear passed from side to side on narrow trails they had bulldozed over the centuries. When the first Spanish explorers passed through the area in September 1769 they had to pass along the beach, being unable to penetrate the swampy valley with their 100 mule pack train. The Arroyo Grande remained the same until, in the late 1830’s, the first ranchero, Don Francisco Branch arrived and began the laborious task of hacking a life out of what was still a wilderness. Cattle were grazed on the hills and the monte was attacked to create enough space in which to grow crops. Over the decades the Grizzly was eliminated, marauding Tulare indians were discouraged from stealing cattle and fields of grain and corn were planted. A noble adobe house was built on the Santa Manuela Rancho. A small school was established for the children of the ranchero and his employees. Branch’s school was eventually formalized and officially named after the ranchero. A grist mill was constructed on the upper reaches of the creek and the road leading to it was named Branch Mill because, simply enough, thats where it went.

When the old pioneer died, his properties were divided among his children and their spouses. Slowly the valley began to grow in population. The old Arroyo Grande, Santa Manuela, Corral De Piedra and Bolsa de Chamisal land grants were divided in smaller plots and sold to farmers and ranchers. The sections were subdivided over the years until most of the farm land was broken up into roughly forty acre plots. When I was a boy, nearly every farm supported a farm family, most of whom lived on the land.  Our farm was located on branch Mill road just about three quarters of a mile from the old adobe ranch house. Just across the road, about two hundred yards away was the old bear pit where Grizzly bears were captured in the early days.

Because, over time, the creek had meandered all over the valley, the type of soil on the  farm was varied. Near the road ours was a mix of adobe, sand and gravel. Near the center of the property it was adobe mixed with lighter soils to give it an almost perfect composition for row crops. Near the rear of the property, along the creek it had a very sandy texture.  In the rainy season each type of dirt became mud except for the sand. The sand just grew firm when wet. In summertime though it was just the opposite of the muddy winter, it grew soft and you could easily get stuck in it.

In winter we lived in a sea of mud. Slippery mud, sticky, slimy mud. Mud everywhere. When it was really wet the furrows of the fields were filled to the brim with water, looking, for all the world like enormous piano keys. Parts of our roads were lakes and our driveway was a trap for the unwary driver.

Mom could not keep the house clean. Mud was tracked in on muddy shoes and boots no matter how many rules about ” Take your shoes off! ” she had. We cleaned the soles of our shoes with kitchen knives and then baked them in the oven to dry them out for the next day. Slipping on a pair of high top shoes, curled and dried by oven heat was not a job for the faint of heart. Feet are not curled upward naturally and it took hours for the shoe to soften enough to be comfortable and by that time you had to do it all over again. Hopping from place to place, trying to stay out of the ruts in the driveway on the way out to the school bus was terrific exercise. We three boys must have looked like the Russian ballet, leaping about like farts in a skillet. There were rubber boots for the fields but they were all man size. Boys risked having them sucked right off their feet if they tried to take shortcuts across cultivated ground. Once I got myself in so deep doing that, that I lost both boots and had to crawl on my stomach across the mud to keep from being entombed, I’d have merely been a fossil when the ground dried in the spring. The rubber boots were never found.

Almost all the driving in the fields was by tractor. Two wheel drive pickups could get stuck and they tore the muddy roads up which, when they dried made for a bone rattling rough ride. One winter it rained so much and continually that the fields were too soaked to get even tractors in. The celery and brocolli crops around the valley had abandoned tractors and trailers in them that had gotten so stuck they couldn’t be driven out. No other tractor could possibly get in to do the towing either. The crops rotted in the fields. At the end of every winter, there would be the occasional truck or tractor so deep in the mud that they would have to be dug out.

Farmers knew where they could go. Some types of ground dried rapidly, some didn’t. There were places that looked dry but weren’t and were traps for the unwary. Sometimes wet pasture combined with a steep hill isn’t drivable. You get stuck in a swale and you simply cannot get out. Rubber tires just spin and smoke on wet grass, and try as you might, your pickup won’t go uphill.  A walk to the house to ask for help from your dad or uncle is embarrassing because you are supposed to know about those things.

We were third generation drivers. My grandfather began driving in his mid-twenties and never really got the hang of it. He grew up with horses and was a grown man before he learned to drive. When my grandparents married in 1908, they had their wedding picture taken in a photo studio, proudly sitting in an old high wheel car that still looked like a  buggy. Autos were still a novelty then. Dad said you could spit on the ground and my grandfather would get stuck in it. Believe me, you can’t make things like that up. My dad, of course began to drive as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the pedals of a Model T Ford. He and his brother ran the milk wagons for my grandparents dairy. They did this before school starting when my uncle Jackie was 14 and my dad was 12. It wasn’t unusual in those days to see boys driving at very young ages. If your kid could work that was one more employee you didn’t have to hire. I don’t know how old I was when I first got behind the wheel. I do remember just barely being able to touch the pedals of the old ’38 Chevrolet my dad used for a field car. I do recall how it lurched because I couldn’t keep my foot steady on the gas. I could steer just fine though, I had lots of experience with that from driving wheel tractors, but if you had been in that old Chevy with me you might have broken your neck.

I’ve heard people say, ” Why did people build those old farmhouses so close to the road? ” Mud was the answer. Our house though, wasn’t right on the road. We had to navigate a quarter mile of muddy sloppy road to get in or out and that was no mean feat. My father had one strict rule, “stay in the ruts” he would tell people. The reason for this was simple, the ruts were packed down even though they were often underwater. The mud that looked dry had the consistency of toothpaste and was treacherous for the unwary. Get off in it and you were lost, your car sliding inexorably off the road and into the fields where you sank and stuck fast. If you got out of the car, you’d sink over the tops of your shoes and you’d be stuck too. I don’t know how many times dad cautioned my grandma Hall or my aunt Mariel to do just that, but they would get stuck “just a sure as shootin’.” Now my dad was not given to swearing much, he wouldn’t say shit if he stepped in it, but he would stand at the kitchen sink, glaring out the window, watching them trying to navigate the mud just knowing they’d slide off the road before they got to the house. He’d be grinding his teeth and mumbling under his breath the words he wouldn’t say out loud, knowing he’d soon be out in the cold with the tractor, crawling under a car, his clothes covered in frigid, slippery mud, dragging the chain to hook them up and pull them out. To add insult to injury, people would simply sit in the car and blow the horn to get his attention. He was a man who was born to help others but these events really stretched his patience to the breaking point. Putting one of his boys behind the wheel of grandma’s big, old blue tank of a Buick, he’d skid the car into the yard then help her into the house just as nice and polite as you please and then he’d say, he always called his mother-in-law Missus, ” Missus, you gotta stay in the ruts.”

 

 

 

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BENNY THE DOG

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There was once a little terrier named Benny. You might say he was mine but it was just for a moment. I was visiting at a friends house in Santa Maria and the back yard neighbor, Jeffrey Fitzgerald was trying to pawn off a litter of pups. He browbeat me until I took one. I named him Ben, but he soon became Benny because of his size, I think. He seemed to be the kind of dog who would have a less than serious name. He was all black; a sleek fuzzy mutt about the size of a ten pound sack of flour. He was a good little boy, quickly housebroken and spent most of his time eating and sleeping in my house on Muir street in Ocean Beach. He was friendly and a popular little guy.

Not too long after I got him, I had to catch a ship and  was forced to leave the dog behind with my parents at their farm. They always had dogs but for the most part they were outside dogs. They didn’t come in the house. The back porch was about the best they could do. They mostly slept in the packing sheds or the cabs of the trucks,  or wherever  looked comfy to them. We even had a dog named Paco a medium sized brown mutt who never had much to say who just slept wherever he pleased. He was known to sleep in the mud when it rained. My dad was against another dog but mom turned the trick as usual. I had promised to come and get him when I returned but, as it turned out, he wormed his way into her heart and that was that. He had found a soulmate in my mother and he wasn’t going to leave her.

Benny won my dad over too, he was out the door with him in the morning and at his heels wherever he went. The farm was like heaven for a dog. There were pickups to ride in, fields of celery and lettuce where he could run up and down the rows, sniffing and looking for something to chase, tractors he could bark at and acres and acres of ground, perfect for digging, with all kinds of good smelly stuff to roll in. Irrigation ditches always had an ample supply of sticky mud. Even the hired hands got into the act and would give him parts of the their lunches and perhaps a little pat to boot. He had a yen for tamales. He was happy to get a bit of a white bread and baloney sandwich too. Remember, this was in the days when dogs never saw a vet or ate Pedigree dog food. It was cheap dog food from the Loomis Mill, table scraps and the occasional gopher. Benny didn’t have the speed to catch a Jack Rabbit, though it didn’t stop him from trying.

My mother adored him. She would hold him in her lap like a baby and feed him from a spoon. He liked to curl up with her on the couch at night while she knitted and watched TV, as contented as a little dog could be.

His mostest favorite thing though, was to hop in the pickup truck with my dad and go for a ride. If dad only went ten feet he was there.He went to the loading dock at the Arroyo Grande Trucking company every day to supervise the unloading of my dads vegetables being shipped to market. If Tim Spears or Dick dock got too close to the truck they would get a bark and a growl. He sometimes ran into the office to give Juandel a quick doggie kiss too. He went to the box company in Oceano to inspect the new pine boxes as they were loaded and he rode shotgun every morning as my dad drove into town to get the morning paper and a candy bar at Kirk’s liquor store on Branch street. The best part of the trip though, was sticking his head out the passenger side window and barking at the willow branches along Tar Springs Crick where Branch Mill Road makes the right turn after crossing the bridge between Hiyashi’s and DeLeons farms. You know the place, it’s where people used to dump their old mattresses and washing machines because they were too cheap to go to the dump. It is an old county road with no shoulders and the willows reach out with their branches just to torment a little black dog. No one trims the trees and the brush there. Just the passage of farm trucks and tractors keeps it back, so if you drive close enough they slap against the side of the pickup as you go by. This tormented little Benny and he would bark furiously, enraged by the willows trying to get in the windows. Jumping and lunging, making a terrible racket, he tried every day to drive those pesky trees away. Now, my dad, being a man of great fun, aided and abetted this activity by driving as close as he could get without going off into the creek. He enjoyed the hilarious little dog and his incandescent fuming: little dog loved it too.

Of course, one fine day the inevitable happened, one second Benny was putting on his act, growling and snapping at the branches like a miniature chainsaw and just like that, in a snap of the fingers he was gone, snatched out the window by a willow branch he managed to sink his teeth into. It took a few feet to bring the truck to a screeching, sliding stop, dad leaping out the door into the dust cloud made by the locked up tires. Thinking to see the broken pieces of the his dog, he saw instead, Benny standing, dazed and dusty dirty on the roadside, fur full of dirt and foxtails. He had some willow leaves sticking out of his mouth, not quite sure what he should do now that he had fulfilled his quest of killing a willow branch. Dad bundled him up, drove him home where mom  brushed out his fur, fed him some warm milk and cuddled him while he calmed down. The Holy Grail quest was  fulfilled. A pretty good day for a little dog, don’t you think?

When the neighbor farmers came in for coffee the next morning and heard my dad tell the story they laughed so hard that coffee came out of Manuel Silvas nose. I kid you not.

Benny soon recovered his aplomb. He still hated the willows but dad was careful to drive just a little farther away from them. Gotta be careful with a good dog. He was a tough little bugger, but why take a chance.

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Aunt Mickeys

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On mom’s side of the family there were several places we would go to visit. She had many uncles and aunts and cousins but our favorite by far was my Uncle Ray and Aunt Mickey’s. They lived in the Fresno county foothills in a little valley called Watt’s.They were mountain people, not necessarily by birth but certainly by inclination. According to my dad my uncle Ray knew the name of every stream in the Sierra and how to get there. He owned a small cattle ranch in the valley on which he and aunt Mickey and their two boys lived. To get there from our house we had to cross the San Joaquin valley on which we as kids measured our progress by the sight of the endless cotton fields of Westlake farms, waiting to see the Pacific Southwest Building in Fresno, the tallest building we had ever seen. We…

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Rainy Day

Farmers are outdoor people. They live by the rhythms of season. So we learned from our father the importance of weather. My dad lived more outdoors than in. No matter the weather, he was up and out of the house at dawn. Be it the promise of a hot August day, an April morning dripping fog or a dark winter day of pouring rain.

On the wall of our kitchen my dad always had a barometer. The thermometer was outside the back door.  We had no meter for the dew point but the humidity you could feel on your skin. In the early morning, observing the moisture on a plants leaves and even the smell of the air could be interpreted to predict the weather. The wind from the south meant rain, from the northwest meant it was clearing. The daily crop report on the radio could help a farmer see a little bit into the future. Calling the  brokers at the  San Francisco  wholesale vegetable market and asking about the bay area conditions was a help. At Mow Fung produce on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, they could just look out the window and give you a forecast. I know a farm family who called their cousins in Salinas for the same reason.

Farmers are all gamblers. They are the greatest of optimists. For my dad bet the farm on the weather and the markets every day of his working life. An entire summers investment and work could be wiped in an early morning hour by frost or rising waters from the same creek that fed his crops.

When you are a kid every day holds the promise of some adventure. Rainy winter days were the most exciting, frought with the possibility of perhaps, some disaster.

As little children we were eager listeners when family told stories of creeks flooding. The Arroyo Grande going over its banks, drowning crops under layers of mud carried down the creek from the High Mountain area above the Ranchita, Huff’s Hole and upper Lopez canyon. Joined by Tar Springs creek just below Gulartes, the careening water would swirl, twisting in upon itself while parts of broken trees submerged and resurfaced like wooden submarines. Through the narrows at the Harris bridge, close by the Machado’s and the Gregories, the sound carried to our home almost a mile away. A rumbling, low bass,  with a curious rhythmic pace, things being torn apart and slammed together with terrific violence.

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Ed Taylor, George Shannon and just behind, John Loomis and George Oliver

My father sitting in the semi-darkness, smoking and drinking coffee, worried over the rise   of the waters, a scene mirrored in other kitchens as farmers throughout our valley waited for  dawn to see the how high the creeks were. Bundled up in our coats and riding the front seat of the pickup, warm and snug against my dad, we rode the dawn patrol as he made the rounds of all the turnouts where the water could be seen. Cecchetti’s bridge crossing, The Harris bridge, under the spans at Mason and Bridge Streets and the crossing at the site of the Cienega school, hard by the old Oliver Taylor house. The photo above, taken in 1954, clearly shows the concern on my fathers face as he watches the flood waters just above the old highway 1 bridge. The water is just below the top of the dike and Ed Taylor’s ground is just on the opposite side of the creek. Ed is listening to John Loomis who is pointing just upstream where the flood is about go over the bank.

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The Arroyo Grande, The morning after, 1914. Crown Hill in the background

Groups of worried farmers gathered at each turnout to assess the damage and speculate whether the water was rising or falling. This was no academic exercise. If the creek rose enough to top the banks, farm fields would flood. Crops could not recover, either drowned or covered with a slurry of mud, choking them to death. Any part of the valley which had heavy soil, such as the Dune Lakes area, could take months to dry making it impossible to farm at all.  To the farmers on the ground which made up the old La Cienega Rancho, flooding was a disaster of the first order. The ranch that was Spencer Record’s, the Taylor acreage, could be destroyed in a few minutes for once she was over her banks there was no stopping her. Witness the washout at Branch Street in 1914 created by the little creek out of Corbit Canyon. Imagine the effort it took to replace the ground in the days before powered machines. Every bit of the dirt was brought in by horse and wagon, one shovel full at a time.

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1914, looking down Branch Street, the old Herald building first on the right.

 

In those days, the flooding creek literally plowed it’s way downstream, rooting out the willows and sometimes entire Sycamore trees which scoured the undergrowth along the banks, cleaning the channel for its entire length. In the days before the dam was built this was an annual cycle that allowed a free flowing stream in the summer and fall where swimming and fishing  in the farmers dams was an annual sport for boys and girls who ran free like semi-tamed animals, migrating up and down stream as they would. At our place it was the dam behind our farm, or George Cecchetti Senior’s just above the bridge where we would go after school. It is still today, a short downhill coast from the old Branch school to the creek. Town kids swam at the gauge below the old high school, just above the old railroad bridge. Most of us learned to swim this way.  And of course we weren’t by any means the first. Generations of Arroyo Grande kids once swam there. My grandfather Jack Shannon told stories of swimming in the slough at the foot of Printz Road. Arch Beckett’s lake it was called. My dad and uncle had a small hole on Shannon Creek near where they lived.

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Jack and George Shannon 1920

My uncle Jackie on the left and my dad on the right, taken in the front yard of my great-grandfather’s house on the old Nipomo  road now known as El Campo, about to set out for a dip in 1920. You can just see the gravel drive at the left and the bushes along the little creek. Today this flows behind Arroyo Grande High School where it was re-routed when the Poole tract was built in the 1930’s. It could be just as well be my brother and I, 35 years later.

I can still remember Hazel Talley, in our kitchen talking to my mom about how frantic she was when her oldest son Donald, went down the creek with Bob Rowe, leaving from the Rowe’s house, putting in at the creek on the Waller’s farm and racing downstream to the ocean in an inner tube during a big flood year in 1959. The flooding creek was a meat grinder of logs, whole trees, old car bodies and whatever kind of junk had been thrown in it. Poor Hazel could just imagine what could have happened to her son, who of course, being a boy, thought only of the adventure.

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High water above the highway 1 bridge 1954

We have lost this annual cycle to the dam. Water no longer flows in the summer or winter. The creek is choked with willows and wild blackberry woven together in an impenetrable matt by poison oak vines. Children no longer play in their fathers little ponds and todays farmers needn’t agonize through the night wondering if their fields will be there in the morning. Safer, yes, but what has been lost to us is irreplaceable. Fish no longer swim upstream for little boys to catch and even though our fathers disasters can no longer be, there is a certain sadness here.

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