I took a walk through the yard today. I had some time. I hadn’t attended the funeral mass but I wanted to be there when they buried my friend Dickie. As always it struck me how the history of a place is written in its tombstones.
Our little town was once a cozy little place built mostly around farms and ranches, many dating back to the days of the Spanish and Mexican Rancheros who came to this place in the first part of the 19th century. We all knew their descendants, children of those descendants and even their children and as always in small towns they married each other and have produced scatterings of relationships that would be impossible to unravel if you hadn’t grown up here. In the case of the Quaresma family, unraveling who is married to who, is a practical impossiblity.
The cemetery is a small one. It used to be pretty far out of town but today it is in the center of a bustling community where people passing on the nearby freeway hardly give it a second look. Built as a community project by the Odd Fellows Organization and deeded to the town long before it was ever incorporated, it stands today as a monument to local history. When you first see it, it has no particular grace except for the rubble stone wall that encloses two sides of the field. Built of a local golden-red stone by the WPA during the depression it is roughhewn but has a certain grace which is fitting for its purpose. The oldest section which dates to the late 19th century still has tombstones but the newer section has fallen prey to economy of budget which decrees flat markers so the lawn mowers can run in straight lines.
It’s worth a walk. You can see many people you know. That is only in your memory of course, buts it’s real enough for me.
I would see the old boys from my dad’s poker club, Ed Taylor, Oliver Talley, and Vard Loomis, They used to come out to our house on poker night and it was a pretty big deal. Mom had to disappear, she and Hazel or Gladys would get together and make a night of it. My brothers and I helped my dad move the kitchen table into the living room where he covered it with the green felt table cloth, the chip rack, highball glasses, some peanuts and other snacks. The players brought the liquor, dad supplied the mixers. Soon enough the cars would arrive, coming up the dirt road to our place, the men trooping in the back door, no one ever used the front door, ever. There was lots of laughter and jokes, the kind of goodwill men share, it was almost as if they hadn’t seen each other for months, though they probably did meet just yesterday at the packing shed or the truck dock or even just stopped in the middle of the road talking with the windows down. Soon enough the play began. These were serious poker players, intent. The room soon had a cloud of cigarette, pipe and cigar smoke, that was Oliver Talley and John Loomis with cigars, the thick smoke pressing down from the ceiling as the men squinted at their cards. They never played a game with wild cards, only games like Stud, mostly five card, seven being considered frivolous. Low ball, high ball or hi-low, games they had all played most of their lives. We kids would fall asleep, snuggled in our parents bed where we could listen or peek through the keyhole, slowly fading away, thinking we were privy to the secrets of men.
Over by the row of trees in section B are the stones for Patrick and Sarah Moore, who raised my grandmother Annie Gray Shannon, who was Mrs Moore’s niece. Sarah died in 1900 and is one of the oldest residents of the cemetery, Pat is next to her, gone in 1905. Cancer killed her when she was just 61. Both born in Ireland, They immigrated to the United State before the civil war. In fact they were citizens by fact of residence before the 1882 immigration law. Considered to be “first general immigration law” due to the fact that it created guidelines of exclusion through the creation of “a new category of inadmissible aliens.” I suppose there are many in this cemetery who may not have been admitted to the country today. All of the original Shannon’s came to the U S before there were laws that restricted entry to the country. About the only thing that could keep a person out were disease or a physical impairment that would not allow you to work. Luckily my ancestors must have been healthy. Considering the century we come in we were probably indentured servants. The first of our family was likely forcibly sent to America after the Battles of the Cromwellian Conquestof Ireland. This was the incredibly brutal crushing of the Irish Republics by the British under Oliver Cromwell. Over 70,000 Irish were transported to the new world as indentured slaves. Ireland entered a period of mass famine and Bubonic Plague. This constituted the first of the waves of dispossessed Irish to come to America.
Section C is our place, My great grandfather John Edward, My Grandparents Jack and Annie, Mom and dad and my uncle Jackie. Nearby my nephew David who died at just 26′
The old section of the cemetery is thick withe names of the Irish. There is John Corbit of Corbett Canyon, Patrick Donovan, Daniel Rice, who built the stone house on Myrtle St, William Ryan, once the owner of Arroyo Grande’s largest hotel. George Hendrix whose saloon still exists on Branch Street.
There is Fred Jones, over in section E, whose mother was a daughter of Francis Ziba Branch, the first American to settle here in 1837. Fred came to our school when he was 88 years old to tell us about the lynching of the Hemmi’s in 1886 when he was just fifteen. His father was a participant. His mother, Maria Magdalena Eduarda Branch Jones grew up here when the nearest neighbor was a half days horseback ride away.
The first pioneers, names like Harloe, Paulding, Phoenix, Records, Jones, Porter and Poole. The Whitely’s, Lierleys, Loomis’s, and the Ides.
There are veterans of wars from the War Between the States, Spanish American, WWI and WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the middle east.
My high school friends Don Petersen, just 20 and Pete Segundo died in Vietnam, My sons friend Michaelangelo Mora, killed in Iraq: they’re here.
You will find Cyril Michael Augustus Phelan from a pioneer family and one of my fathers closest friends. Gus and his wife Kathryn Routzhan Phelan are surrounded by family members, Big Dan Phelan, his wife Dorothy and son Danny.
Our old neighbor lies there too. Lester Sullivan and his wife Gladys Walker Sullivan. Not only was mrs Sullivan my fathers third grade teacher but she used to invite us little Shannon boys over to her kitchen for milk and cookies.
There is Cramer Williams, whose grand children I went to school with, my lovely friend Mary, Jimy, and our ranching neighbor Pat.
The Talley’s, in Section M, Oliver, Hazel and Kenneth, Kenny, my first true friend, whose lament was that he was named Kenneth James not Kenneth George because he wanted to be called KG. His brother Donald is there too, who once smacked me across the face with a flyswatter for using his bicycle without permission. Don’s daughter Maryanne, who died much too young, is near. The days I spent in their house on McKinley Street with it’s bright yellow kitchen and the basement with it’s pool table are now a cherished memory. Hazel Talley was one of the most gracious women I ever knew and thats saying something. Women from a certain time had that about them.
The place knows tragedy too. My friend Greg Folkerts, 17, who died in a senseless roll over accident while joyriding with two others on the beach in Oceano. He was universally liked and in a unique tribute, the day of his funeral, which was a school day, high school students were officially forbidden to attend, they cut classes en mass to do so. Death amongst the young is a hammer blow which is never forgotten. It was my first real experience with personal tragedy. He was simply too good to die.
Scattered everywhere are the babies, the greatest tragedy of all. Some who never had a name.
My reason for todays walk is to talk to my friend Dickie. We shared so many things in our lives. We were schoolmates at the old Branch school in the 1950’s. We were neighbors too, he lived a short walk from our place, just walk to the back of ranch, cut across by Machado’s, pass the Gregory’s, cross the old Harris bridge, head for town, then pass by “Squeaky” Jerry Jesse’s place, and there was Rudolph and Mary’s little house. It was as warm and as inviting as our own; filled with kids. Mary always had a snack for you, homemade, not store bought, the best kind you could ever eat. Made with love.
When you grow up together, attend the same schools, share almost everyday, the same experience, you grow to know a person in ways that casual acquaintance can never equal. There is also something about being kids. I think because your world is so proscribed by perspective, that is, a very tight focus on the few things you do know about life, the bonding is that much more intense.
Kids in our school came from a small number of families. There were only about sixty kids in all eight grades. Think about the dynamics of that. There were 13 kids from the same extended family, Silvas and Gulartes, brothers, sisters and cousins. We had 3 Cecchetti’s, all kinds of Coehlos, two Hubbles, some Terras, a handful of Hunts and us, the 3 Shannon boys. Throw in some Gregories, Jurnjiaks, Georgie Rios, a couple of Antonio’s; and don’t forget the other Silvas, Charlie, Lulu and Tina and you had a school. Everybody knew everybody, kids and parents. Our social life was the school. Plays, singing, Christmas, Halloween, we did them all.
We got along. The families came from everywhere, Irish, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino, Swiss, Mexican, some so intermixed they could say they had no ethnicity. One of the great experiences was you could see that everyone was the same. Here in the yard, it’s still that way.
As I look down at the place where Dickie lies now, I can remember all the little boys singing Davy Crockett, we little boys in our coonskin caps, sure that we would someday prowl the great backwoods with Davy and his pal Georgie Russell, looking for adventure. The Robin Hood Club, that gang of little boys who would come a runnin’ to help each other when an older boy transgressed on their rights or territory. You would hear the call; “To the Rescue” at recess and watch the stampede of little guys coming to fight off an older, bigger boy who might be torturing one of the gang. Girls played baseball, boys jumped rope. Everything was pretty equal.
When you see someone you grew up with, he’s still that little boy even if he’s offering you a nip from the bottle of Crown Royal he has stashed in the back of Andy Geremia’s pickup, parked over by the BBQ pit. All grown up with wife and kids, thats my friend Dickie. He was an easy man to love. I liked to stop at his feed store just to shoot the breeze.
Now he’s here and he can’t see me anymore. I think, when I walk through here that it’s not so much people that lie here but broken hearts. Each stone, covered with broken hearts.
Goodbye old friend. I’ll see you.