A Small Town Kindness.

In little towns like ours as it used to be, friends were friends all their lives. The web of friendship stretched out to everywhere and nearly everyone.

These two guys, Manuel Francis Silva and my father, George Grey Shannon knew each other nearly all of their lives. To me they were alike as two peas in a pod. I learned from them that a friendship is not a commodity. It doesn’t depend on where you went to school, Manuel went to the eight grade, my dad graduated from Berkeley so it’s not that. My dad’s family came to America before it was America and was round about most of the great events in our history, Manuel’s father immigrated from Sao Mateus, the Azores in 1893. Big Manuel was a first generation American. My dad was at least an eighth. It’s obviously not the length or importance of your resume that counts.

Having coffee in our kitchen they ran this shared and refined dialogue like they were two old curmudgeons though when I knew them best I was a teenager and they were only in their fifties. They made each other laugh. I studied them because I wanted to be like them. I can still see them, Manuel with his back to the window that looked out on the fields along Branch Mill Road, the four corners in the background, my dad in his chair at the head of the formica kitchen table, his desk on his right hand, the black wall phone above and the NH-3 fertilizer calendar behind him. I don’t remember much of what they talked about. Farming mostly, it’s what farmers do. Crops, seeds, the weather and the vegetable buyers being cheapskates. Just a soothing mantra, heard like a familiar old song. Manuel would complain about the coffee but what he really meant was I love you, something that has to be felt and not said.

I went all the way through school with Manny Junior who turned out to be a righteous man himself. He fell directly in his father shadow. He too was well liked and a respected member of our community. In fact we both married girls named Nancy Taylor which became a reason for more jokes around the table.

Manuel passed away at eighty in 1991. He had the kind of funeral where every man felt that he was Manuel’s best friend. It should be on his tombstone. How rare is that? He wasn’t rich in the monetary sense but oh boy, he was richer than King Croesus in the things that count for me. The number of people who came to that little house on Sunset Drive where he and his bride Angelina lived, you might remember it was the one that had the little butterfly pinned to the outside wall, was legion.

My dad followed him nine years later. When you live until eighty eight most of your friends are gone, so we had a small graveside ceremony with a few family members and friends. My uncle Jackie gave a little speech where he said this, “He was a good brother.” Can there be any greater praise? When the ceremony was over a well dressed young man who we didn’t recognize came over and introduced himself as Manuel Francis Silva III, Manuel’s grandson. He said that even though he had never met my father, his father had called from San Jose where he was on a business trip and told him that he must attend the funeral as a representative of the family. He could have just left without saying anything but his fathers wishes that he represent were just as important to him as to his father, and as would have been to his father before him.

Twenty years have passed since that day and my brothers and I still think about that moment. That friendship between two people such as Manuel and George could mean so much to their children and grandchildren.

A small town kindness. Yes, it is that, for there is an old and unshakeable tradition that proper and well-raised people pay their respects to the family. Nothing less is expected.

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Ghosts

If you lose something important to you, go back and search for it and you will find it.

The above is a quote attributed to a Lakota Sioux, the spiritual leader of the Hunkpapa Band. His Siouan language name translates as Slow, not because he was slow afoot or of mind, but because he was said to think deeply about all things.

The human brain and its processes seem incapable of understanding truths about the universe Our brains may never be well-enough equipped to understand and we are fooling ourselves if we think they will.

Why should we expect to be able eventually to understand how the universe originated, evolved, and operates? While human brains are complex and capable of many amazing things, there is not necessarily any match between the complexity of our world and the complexity of our brains, any more than a dog’s brain is capable of understanding every detail of the world of cats or bones. A dog knows nothing about the dynamics of stick trajectories when thrown. Nothing about deceleration, kinetic energy or the Coriolis Effect. Its just a stick, or so it seems to us. Dogs get by and so do we, but do we have a right to expect that the harder we puzzle over these things the nearer we will get to the truth? No, we don’t.

As has been famously said, “You not only do not understand the universe, you can’t even comprehend that you don’t understand it.”

Emotions and memories live in the present, the past and the future. Particularly in the past. When my grandmother Annie was an old, old woman, well in to her ninth decade her life in the present barely registered. She may or may not recognize you when you came in the room but she still smiled and if you sat with her on the couch whose upholstery was printed with red roses, she would lean on your shoulder and take your hand. That little hand with its tiny bones so thin it was almost possible to see through it. She didn’t say much but she took comfort from your presence. When she did speak it was from another dimension, a place she lived as a young girl, in the big house, Grandview, that overlooked our Arroyo Grande Valley. Memories of the young people she grew up with, her many brothers and sisters, her parents and her aunt and uncle who built the house. She spoke of things I didn’t know and I’m absolutely sure she would never have confided if she still lived in the present. You see, she was lady with a capital L, brought up in a time when secrets were kept. Perhaps for shame, perhaps guilt or simply because decent people never spoke of such things. She told us of uncle Pat, a prominent and well respected citizen spending too many hours in the Ryan Saloon and having to be carried out and poured into his Surry with the fringe on top. The horse knew the way home and into the carriage house where he was encouraged by his wife Sarah to spend the night. She would leave him snoring on the seat or if feeling kindly help him into the pile of hay in the corner. He wasn’t allowed in the house. She talked about the shame of the hired girl. Clara was just eight years older than my grandmother and a friend, judging from the inscriptions she left in Annies autograph book. She got herself “Knocked Up” as the old saying goes and had to be sent away. My grandmother whispered, “She married a Mexican.” She was an Irish girl far, far from her family in County Cavan. “At least she had enough sense not to marry the hired hand who made the baby.” He was sent packing. When she talked of these things eighty long years had passed yet to her they were as real as yesterday. Isn’t that time travel?

Little Annie Gray and Clara. 1893. Shannon Family Trust

I lived in Hawaii when she died and is was nearly a year before I went out to the old house on the ranch. It was strange to walk through the rooms I had known my grandparents in. My uncle still lived in the house and nothing had changed. Everything was in its place. I walked down the hall to the back of the house and at the end looked into the room we stayed in a little boys, nothing was changed. The one twin bed I had slept in, the double for my brothers. The White treadle sewing machine still sat in the corner the only one she ever used. I went out into the hall and through the door to my grandparents room. The maple bedroom set they bought as newlyweds and slept in for 70 years. His high boy, her dressing table with her brushes and make-up still on the top, the box of white shoulders powder sat there undisturbed. I walked slowly to the close doors and pulled them open. The scent of them flooded me and I cried. They may have been gone but they lived. They still do as long as I live and people read these old stories.

One year when we were having my dad’s birthday dinner, the whole clan gathered around my grandmothers dining room table laughing and sharing family stuff my dad went silent. He sat staring straight ahead, not responding at all. As we learned later he had had a small stroke. I called the ambulance and he was rushed to the Arroyo Grande hospital. George Shannon was a tough guy and proud of it in the way many of the farmers we knew growing up were. He didn’t go to the doctor, they were not quite trusted. You see, he grew up before vaccinations, when here was no hospital here to treat you. Appendicitis was a near death sentence. Childhood diseases could ravage kids, Scarlett Fever, Cholera, Typhoid, Mumps and Measles were killers. If you were really sick Doc Brown came to your house to treat you or at least to make your mother feel better because there wasn’t much he could do to help a sick child. Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis and Tuberculosis stalked children. What my dad learned from this was, at least he believed, that the doctor was as likely to kill you as to save you. After all it wasn’t until sometime after the turn of the 20th century that the odds a doctor could save you passed the 50/50 mark. Tough was his mantra.

Very late at night in a hospital room trying to get a little rest in one of the those chair specifically designed by paroled Nazi torturers. Very quiet, light down low, keeping one eye on my sleeping dad attached to monitors and Ringer bags a he lay quietly on his back. Then, in the blink of an eye, 70 years was whisked away as my father awoke, clutched at the tubes and wires and struggled from his bed. He stood shakily as I jumped up and ran around the bed and touched him trying to calm a very agitated old man who had just traveled down a wormhole to 1920. He was trying to get to his clothes, the short pants, stockings, white shirt and high top shoes he wore as an eight year old. As I struggled to restrain him, waiting and hoping the nurse was on her way he said, “Let me go Jackie, let me go. I’m going to be late for school and mommy will be mad.” For those few moments until he was calmed down he was in the second grade. I’d never heard him call my grandmother mommy and I saw how distressed he was. For those few minutes he lived-in another dimension which was as real to him as the one you are living in as you read this story. Finally the nurses got him tucked in and he went back to sleep. When I returned the next morning he had absolutely no memory of his little trip and in fact was as nearly sharp as he normally was. I told my brothers about it but the said, “Oh, he was just hallucinating.” I know better though. He was a little boy back in that little white house on the old state highway where he shared a room with his brother Jackie. It was completely real.

Jackie and George Shannon 1920, Shannon Family Trust

My mother drove this little Chevrolet car for the last few years of her life. I was designed by GM in a time when they used five year olds to draw new cars and save money on designers. It was the color of an old grey cat. It was neither unique nor had it even a hint of luxury. The engine was just a four cylinder put put, not loud but unusual enough that if you were listening inside the house he could hear it coming up the street we. She would cruise over from the home she and my dad lived in on Orchard Street. They lived across from the old Orchard Street school, just two houses from Maryjane Montgomery and within spitting distance of Maryjanes sister Georgie O’Conner. So she would show up about once a week or so to see her grandchildren and after a while, I’m sure you’ve had this feeling too, somewhere in the back of your mind you knew that today might be the day and the subconscious listened for that little car.

She died in November of 1993. She had cancer of the liver which is nearly absolutely fatal. When she was at Sierra Vista, the oncologist took me into the hallway and said she would never go home. Just like that, matter of fact, no emotion. I still hate him. The family gathered around, her room always had one or more people holding her hand, talking to her, sharing their days just as if she wasn’t in a coma. I was sitting with her holding her left hand late one afternoon, my aunt Pat, her baby sister in the chair opposite when I felt just the tiniest pressure from her fingers. Like the soft breath of a hummingbird. Just a touch. Over the next two days she slowly climbed out of the shroud and came back to us. We took her home. Hospice set up her living room with a hospital bed and for a week she had a steady stream of old friends come to say goodbye. Florence Rust, blind and ailing herself and June Waller, Hazel Talley, Ellie Matsoutek, Billie Swigert and the many women who had known her for decades. It seemed to me the last gasp of those oh so gracious women who were raised between the world wars. In a few years they were all gone and I can’t help believe that we will never see their like again.

Except; for many years afterward the phone would ring and as I took it off its hook in the kitchen I’d think it’s mom. Except it wasn’t. Once in a while I’d hear that little Chevy chugging up our street and head for the front door to go out and greet her. But it wasn’t her. I’m still waiting for them. I’m beginning to think the journey must go in the opposite direction. I am no longer myself, I’ve become someone else.

Barbara, Shannon Family Trust.

Every human being lives in a world of ghosts and shadows, we all listen to distant voices.

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FDR, Dorothea Lange and us.

There is a photograph taken just outside my grandparents home. Its a man, a Hobo, a Bindlestiff, walking up Shannon Hill. Mount Picacho is in view just a the top of the grade. Cramer William’s home is nestled under a copse of trees on the right. The man wears bagged trousers, cuffs rolled above working mans shoes, a flat cap on his head. Slung over his right shoulder is a rucksack with all his worldly belongings, over his left, his bedroll. He’s walking away from yesterday, towards tomorrow.

Maynard Dixon

Okies, Arkies, people starved out of Missouri and Texas have driven and walked half way across our country hoping for some opportunity so they could feed their families. The Haas family who worked for my grandfather, uncle, father and Ed Taylor came on an old broken down Model T truck from Joplin, Missouri, or “Missoura” as they called it. Ma and Pa, three teenage boys and sis. All their furniture, mattresses, a couple spare tires and what ever belongings they could stuff into every nook and cranny. They might as well have been the Joads or a least the family they were modeled on. We knew them. They were “Baked out, blown out and broke.” When they crossed the Colorado River in to California they saw the signs, “Turn Around, No Jobs in California.

The movie “The Grapes of Wrath”, directed by John Ford, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. Seen here, the Joad jalopy in California.

There is no telling his age. He could be 30, he could be 60. If I was to guess, he’s just left my grandmothers kitchen door. Cap in hand, “If you please Ma’m, I’m lookin for work, mebbe a bite to eat? Sandwich in hand he walked up to the dairy barn and had a conversation with my grandfather who must have had no work. He’s headed towards the Nipomo pea fields, maybe his luck will improve. The migrant camp is under Eucalyptus trees on the old Rancho Dana where peas and beans are grown every year. A job there pays a few cents for each hamper filled. Men, women and children crawling on their hands and knees through the rough adobe fields, but they have to get by somehow and here, this, this is the somehow.

Pea pickers, Dana Ranch Nipomo California, 1938. Dorothea Lange

When FDR became president the country was in dire straights. Millions were unemployed. Not just unemployed but unemployable because the industries they had worked in were now gone and in many cases never to return. The tenant farmers in Oklahoma and Texas were “tractored out,” their leases cancelled, their houses bulldozed, the land consolidated for farming on a large scale. In the dust years, even those farms failed. Too much wind, dust storms brought by the devil as punishment for what they didn’t know. The cotton and rice fields of Louisiana and Mississippi lay fallow and the sharecroppers gone, unable to make even a trace of a living off the exhausted land. In Oklahoma alone more than 20% of the population fled the state, mostly headed west.

The financial system was in tatters. Credit was almost non-existent, the vast majority of local banks had failed, unable to meet the demands of their depositors. Congress slashed the budget of the military. The Army practiced their maneuvers with big wooden boxes mounted on Model T Fords and called them Tanks. The US Army was ranked 17th among the world military powers. The Navy, under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Conference was scrapping more warships than they were building. The Army Air Corps was practically non-existent. Young men in particular had few opportunities in the military, schools or jobs other than subsistence work. Families literally put their older children out because they couldn’t feed the. Other kids left home to spare the family. William Wellman, one of the finest movie makers of the time and a great story teller made the best film about those kids. “Wild boys of the Road,” which premiered in 1933, is a film, not in the least romantic but gritty and mean and presents an honest look at those kids.

Warner Brothers Picture 1933

A story told by Franklin Roosevelt, a wealthy educated man is of his future bride Eleanor taking him down to the settlement house on the lower east side of Manhattan where she volunteered working with destitute mothers and giving him a tour. It was their first date and says a lot about both of them. He later said he had no idea that people lived like that. It colored his views for the rest of his life. The Roosevelt government recognized that something must been done and it needed to be on a massive scale. Working with congress numbers of programs were put in place to boost employment. Federal projects such as the Hoover dam on the Colorado River which was to irrigate southern California and send water into the Los Angeles which stimulated growth. The Grant Coulee Dam on the Columbia River provided electricity and water for wheat growing in the Palouse area of Washington state. The Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri. One of the most famous and successful projects begun by the federal government during the Great Depression was the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA. … The TVA aimed to help reduce these problems by teaching better farming methods, replanting trees, and building dams.

Fort Peck Dam. Margaret Bourke-White.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a voluntary public works relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. It was for for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25 and eventually expanded to ages 17–28. The American public made the CCC the most popular of all the New Deal programs. the CCC led to improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased skill levels. The CCC also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources, and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for the protection and development of our natural resources. About three million men served in the corps until it was discontinued by act of congress in the spring of 1942. Those three million boys went to war, an invaluable resource for the military.

Ruth Paulding Middle School. Santa Maria Times photo

CCC projects are scattered throughout San Luis County and Arroyo Grande. The roof of the Paulding Middle School gym is a CCC project. My dad worked along with CCC boys and other local men to build it. The retaining wall along east Branch street by the same school is another. The old Odd Fellows Cemetery wall was also built by the CCC. As you drive around the back roads you can still see culverts and bridges with the CCC or WPA stamp on the concrete.

Works Progress Administration

A lesser known outcome of these attempts to jumpstart the economy were a variety of programs to support the arts. People were sent into Appalachia and the deep south to find a and record old timey music before it was lost forever. They sought out storytellers and recorded legends and fables that were about to be lost. The old timers who knew them would soon be gone and that part of our heritage simply gone. Actors troupes were formed and toured small towns across America bringing Shakespeare and the plays of the greatest writers to all corners of the U S. Painters were employed to paint murals in public buildings. They went out across the country to record our marvelous natural resources. Photographers loaded their cars and set out to document the life of the people.

Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White photographed cities and farms. Maynard Dixon, and Georgia O’Keefe painted and Diego Rivera created murals. Their work is now cataloged in the National Archives, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.

Section of the Detroit Industry Murals, Detroit Museum of Art. Diego Rivera

Two things I must say. First, the Republican and very conservative farmers I grew up with were not OK with these programs. I heard many disparaging comments about the CCC, the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration which funded them at the Federal level. Resistance was intense at the congressional level each time they came up for renewal and all were eventually stricken from the federal budget. By 1946 they were all gone. “Waste of money they said, nobody cares about taking a bunch of pictures of Okies,” it’s government overreach. The government has no business telling us what to do. One of the things that always struck me about the time, was that my dad and grandfather would have been the first to pull a dollar from their pockets to help someone in need. They helped me learn the vast difference between casual spoken cruelty and who they really were. Socialism by the government, Socialism by the individual, there is a big difference between the two.

The second thing is this, families who lived and worked here volunteered meals, food and clothes to the refugee camps. A school was established for the children of migrants who lived in the camps. Today we have an elementary school that my wife taught at named for Dorothea Lange who took so many of her iconic photographs here. I’ve met her son who spoke at the dedication and presented a print of her most famous photograph to be hung in the school lobby. The photo that heads this piece is hers. Local people take a proprietary interest in her legacy. We are proud of her and by extension, proud of those she pictured.

All of the people mentioned here and many other who worked for the FSA left an indelible record of America. They worked for peanuts. They had no pension, no retirement and took a great deal of abuse in the conservative press. But what they left us has no equal. Those that opposed it are all dead now and mostly unremembered. History marches onward, constantly shedding, constantly adding.

Migrant children’s school. Dorothea Lange

The list that follows are some of the most iconic historians of all of those that worked for the FSA. You can Google all of them. Please do so.

Dorothea Lange

Diego Rivera

Maynard Dixon

Margaret Bourke- White

Arthur Rothstein

Gordon Parks

Russell Lee

Marion Post

Walker Evans

Jack Delano

Grant Wood

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