The Milkman

Part Two

My family had been in the dairy business since 1923. Both my uncle Jackie and my father, George had literally been raised in a dairy barn. My father was barely eleven years old when my grandparents, Jack senior or Big Jack as everyone called him, and his wife Annie Gray Shannon started their business. They lived and worked on land she had inherited from her uncle, a prominent pioneer in the Arroyo Grande valley.

L-R Little Jack, Big Jack and George Shannon, 1925, Shannon Family Trust photo

Both boys were at work as soon as they could carry a bucket or push a broom around the mangers after the milking was done. As they grew, more chores were added until many of the hours they weren’t in school were consumed by work. Anyone who has done it will tell you that it is the hardest farm work of all. Cows never take a vacation or a day off. Your customers expect their milk will be delivered on time every day. Jesus waits, Santa waits, even dinner waits until all the chores are done.

My grandmother was determined that both of her boys would go to college, a pretty rare thing for boys from Arroyo Grande. She herself was a graduate of the University of California, something pretty rare for women in the early twentieth century. Her uncle, a successful and wealthy landowner paid the tuition of numerous young women in order that they could attend college.

Annie Gray Shannon and Harriet, “Hattie” Tyler 1900, Shannon Family Trust (c)

Two of those girls did teach, one the daughter of a neighbor has a local school named after her. The other was one of the Tyler sisters. Margaret and Harriet, more fondly known as Mamie and Hattie grew up with my grandmother in the big house on the hill above Arroyo Grande. They were part of an extended group of young people who practically lived in Patrick and Sarah Moore’s home. You see, the Moores were childless themselves, and so they welcomed any and all kids who wished to to share their home. Though my grandmothers siblings lived in Oso Flaco she never lacked for friends her own age. The promise made to my great-grandparents that the Moores would pay for my grandmother’s University education if they allowed her to be raised by Patrick and Sarah Moore was fulfilled when she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1908.

Annie Gray Shannon, Cal Berkeley graduate, 1908. Shannon Family Trust photo.

My dad, George, attended the Arroyo Grande Grammar school when the old building on south Bridge Street housed the elementary school kids downstairs and the high school upstairs. He spent his k-12 years, all in the same building. His teachers did a good job helping him prepare for college and when he graduated in 1930 he moved to the new Santa Maria Junior College. Already deep in the depression his parents didn’t have the money to send him to Cal for four years so the school in Santa Maria was his only option.

At the time it was housed in the beautiful old brick building on south Broadway where portions of it still stand today, chiefly the Ethel Pope auditorium. Ethel was one of my dad’s teachers. Allan Hancock College was still twenty four years in the future and the school was not relocated until 1954 when it was renamed for Captain Allan Hancock who donated part of the land for the new campus.

By 1930 when dad started Junior College, the highway from Arroyo Grande to Santa Maria had been paved in concrete but kids still did not have cars as they do today. He would hitch a ride with a classmate on Monday morning and spend the week in the home of Walter Word and his wife. Walter was the football coach and taught Physiology and was greatly admired by my dad. On my first day a Allan Hancock College, the renamed SMJC, he came to my classroom to introduce himself and offer me any help I might need. That was 33 years after my dad stayed with them. I could see why my father felt he was such a good man.

SMJC had about seventy students, freshman and sophomores and though small, featured the kind of campus life typical in the nineteen twenties and thirties.

On the steps of the auditorium. SMJC Mascot photo

Old photos in my dads yearbooks for that time are typical. They feature the same subjects you see today. Students, still just kids at heart recline on the lawn in casual repose, dancing, acting self-conscious and wacky. There are sports and their stars, poetry, including my fathers “Ode to Nature” for which he got an A in English 1B, Miss Pope’s class There is a little moral tale written by Arroyo Grande’s Katherine Routzhan too. You may have known her as Kay Phelan, wife to Gus.

In the above photo the girls are trying to look serious in their newly shortened skirts and “Middy” blouses. Note the feet. They no doubt have their stockings “rolled”* in a style once considered scandalous by their mothers. Simply shocking.

Dad had been student body president in his senior year at Arroyo Grande High School and his parents expected him to do well in college and he did. His mother Annie certainly expected that but perhaps his father Jack, even more so. Jack Shannon hadn’t completed the eight grade and though a successful man had learned the value of a first rate education. Dad was elected student body president his sophomore year at SMJC. He played football ran track and captained the basketball team where he earned the nickname “Ding.” I asked him why, expecting some funny answer like dingbat or dingus or some such thing but he said that in the 1930’s style basketball when you made a shot the bell rang. This was to both signal a scoring change and to stop play. In the 30’s they had to jump ball after every score. It was a much slower game then than it is today. There was no dunking, and the two-handed set-shot ruled the day. Foul shots were two-handed and under handed, the so-called “Granny” shot. Dad was a prolific scorer, hence the nickname. When I was young he couldn’t be beat in a shooting contest.

SMJC Basketball fall 1931. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

At school, boys who played any sport apparently had to have a nickname . Going through the books you find Herb “Tog” Tognazzini, “Buster” Rice, “Artie” Classen, and Albert “Gunboat” Souza who obviously had the biggest feet, hence the “Gunboat.”

A funny point of contact between us was a father-son discussion we had when I was in high school and I was explaining that kids were feeling oppressed by Mr. Hitchen and his strict dress code. He laughed and said that all teenagers push against parental restrictions. He said that when he was in high school and college the style was for boys to wear a sparkling clean white shirt every day and that each would endeavor to have out do all the other boys with the filthiest corduroy pants. He and my uncle Jack would wear their cords to work in the dairy barn where they would be spattered with cow manure and milk mixed with a dash of sticky adobe dirt and some dead flies thrown in for extra measure. It was considered lucky if you lived on a farm because you had a great advantage over town boys. He said he used to compete with his friend George Oliver for cords that were so dirty they could stand up on their own. His mother didn’t care for it one bit either. She had to hand launder those shirts and she made the boys leave their pants outside at night so as not to disturb her delicate sense of smell, being “Lace Curtain” Irish and all. I didn’t believe any of it of course because I knew my grandmother to be a stickler for cleanliness. Long afterwards when I got ahold of his SMJC yearbook and his photos at Cal I found out it was all true, perhaps even more then he described. Ralph Hansens’s cords predict his future as the owner of the largest tractor dealership in Santa Maria. Perhaps oil and grease are even better than manure and milk.

SMJC underclassmen, fall 1930. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

Those old photos were also part of my “Sex” lectures. When I was in high school, creeping hemlines were the bane of Miss Varian and Mrs Mankins existence. Girls would secretly roll their waistbands to hike the hem just a little too much for the dress code. My vote, of course, was all for it. It had a tendency to reduce grades among boys but I don’t think that bothered anyone but the powers that be. At least in my senior year typing class Mister Simons had the good sense to place the few boys in the front row demonstrating his male astuteness. Dad and I were looking at the old Mascot yearbook and I commented that the girls dress was pretty conservative with high neck blouses and mid calf skirts, and loose fitting too, like they weren’t trying to draw any attention to themselves. Dad laughed out loud, he said, “Mike, girls always find a way, they didn’t wear their “shimmies”** under those cotton dresses and when they walked through the sunlight you could see right through them.” It was one of those revelatory moments when you begin to see your father as perhaps not the grown up you’ve always seen him as but a once young guy like you.

No “Shimmies” SMJC fall 1930. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

My father went up to Berkeley in 1932. Sadly, one of the few from his Junior Class to do so. Nearly every person in his graduating class in Santa Maria indicated in their bio’s that they planned on attending university, particularly the girls. For most it was not to be. The depth of the depression in the mid-thirties was a reality and many of that generation weren’t able to further their education beyond Junior College. Instead of an education at one of the finest universities, a job as a typist was what the the future held. An awful lot of “What ifs” are connected with the Great Depression, sad to say.

I have a letter written by my dad to his parents on his first day in Berkeley. He visited his aunt Sadie, my grandmothers sister and stopped by to visit Flora Harloe, a very old friend of the family and widow of the renowned sea captain Marcus Harloe. Later he went to the Bursars office to pay his fees and collect his books. What is most striking about it is the cost of that education. His class fees and books for fall semester 1932 were $37.50. A very modest sum by todays standards. But, if you take into consideration that the Average hourly wage across the country was .45 cents an hour and could be as low as .15 cents it was not quite so modest. The average annual income for a family of four was roughly $1,300.00 a year and not coincidently my grandparents paid income taxes on $1,372.76 in 1932. To help support himself he worked as a waiter/busboy at a nearby fire station and pledged a fraternity where he lived. Jack and Annie were able to send him $5.00 a month to supplement his living. Gasoline was .10 a gallon but he had no car, when he came home to Arroyo Grande for summer he hitched a ride with someone he knew or stood on the side of the highway with his thumb out. He said that sometimes it was hours between cars and he depended mostly on trucks to get home.

George Shannon, first row far left. Fraternity house Cal Berkeley 1934. Shannon Family Trust photo.

My father was fortunate to attend Cal during its largest expansion. In 1930, Robert Gordon Sproul became the first native Californian and alumnus of the University to serve as its President. He was to guide its fortunes longer than any of his predecessors–through three cataclysmic decades that included the Depression, World War II, and the birth of the atomic bomb. And he was to see the University attain world renown for scientific achievement in a period when the body of scientific knowledge began to expand at a rate unprecedented in history.

Sproul instituted expansion of the library until it was considered the finest in the nation. He attracted professors like Ernest Lawrence whose study of Physics resulted in him developing the Cyclotron and smashing the atom. The Lawrence-Livermore laboratories are named for him. Robert Oppenheimer was a professor during my dads tenure. Some of the finest academicians in the country were on campus in the 1930’s. Cal was famed for professors who had or would win the Nobel Prize for physics, medicine and economics. My father worked hard, made good marks and received a first class education.

Dad graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934 and though his parents thought he should become a lawyer, his only desire was to come home and be a farmer. Thats what he did too.

Cal, 1934. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

Both he and my uncle Jackie worked for their parents on the dairy for the rest of the depression and were still there when the war began. They lived at home in the little house on the state highway now called El Campo road and built by my great-grandparents in 1922. It was pretty typical of houses built in those days. Simple board and batt siding, you went in the back door every day of the year except Christmas eve when you used the front. Family and friends knew those kinds of social graces. A knock at the front door meant a stranger to that house. It had one little bathroom, two bedrooms and a tiny office for my grandmother to do her books in. The entire dairy operation was run from that room. Dad said he nearly bought a house in town on Garden Street next to the Kitchell’s for $1,500.00 dollars but his brother convinced him to rent some property together on the mesa and grow hay to sell to my grandfather for the dairy cattle. It was a drought year, the oats didn’t amount to anything and the money evaporated. A lesson in hard farming. No money, no house. He figured that it was a lesson about buying real estate and didn’t buy another a piece of property for another forty-four years.

The house on El Campo Rd, 1931. My great-grand parents 50th anniversary. My dad is second from the left. He is 19. Shannon Family Trust photo(c)

Through all the years after University dad kept his head down and worked. He worked for himself, doing some farming on the side but primarily worked the dairy for his folks. He once told me that in all those years he was never paid. He said he was just given room and board. He said jobs were very hard to come buy then so perhaps he was fortunate in that. I don’t ever recall him showing any desire to see the world. He was perfectly content with where and who he was. He once asked me why I wanted to travel so much, saying, “Why you can spend your entire life in San Luis County and never drive every road or see everything worth seeing.”

The war started in ’41 and he took the train out of Oceano for Oakland and volunteered for Navy OCS on December the ninth, a Tuesday. People on the west coast were anxious, confused and afraid. No one knew what might be coming. Young men like my dad were enraged and wanted to do something, anything. His parents took him to the depot and waved him aboard the train in a scene all too familiar to folks of that generation or any generation for that matter. With his degree in hand he left his aunt Sadie’s house in Oakland and walked into the Navy’s recruiting office. They were more than happy to sign him up right there. He filled out the paperwork, was interviewed and sent for a physical.Thats where he ran into a problem, during his physical. The doctors found that his right leg was quite a bit shorter than the left. This was likely from a football back injury he suffered in high school. He always had some nerve damage after that but In those days kids just toughed it out until it stopped hurting. At the beginning of the war, the Navy was only taking the perfectly fit so they sent him home. He told me that if he’d done it again in 1943 they’d have taken him, saying “You don’t ever standoff a level floor in the Navy. Things would change a great deal for him by then though so he couldn’t. He went home, back to the dairy.

So there he was, 29 years old, living at home working for his parents again. Get up at 4:30 and go milk. Hook up the milking machine, strip the teats, run the Pasteurizer, run the bottler, load the delivery trucks, hit the road on the routes, take the leftover milk up to the creamery, do it all again in the afternoon and when necessary go out to the customers houses with the delivery receipts and collect the money.

The Milking Barn with the girls, 1930, Shannon Family Trust photo

He didn’t know it yet but he was about to catch a break, a lucky break. A very lucky break

My grandmother said, “George, can you go make the collections today, please?”

“Sure mom,” he said, and he went out and got into his little grey Chevy coupe with the box of delivery receipts on the seat next to him and set off.

He was 29, single and very handsome.

Note* The rolled stocking, complete with  roll garter, had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. It was sandwiched between a period when women wore corsets with garters used to hold up stockings and a time when women’s undergarments included less bulky, but still cumbersome garter belts, also with attached garters. So how’d it work? You’d slip on your stocking, slide the garter roll up your leg to the edge of the stocking (mid-thigh, usually) and fold the stocking edge over the garter, rolling it down your leg until it was just where you wanted it (generally below the knee).

Note** In Western countries, the chemise (Shimmy) as an undergarment fell out of fashion in the early part of the 20th century, and was generally replaced by a brassiere, girdle, or a full slip. Panties for the  first time came to be commonly worn.



Part One

It has been said that fortuitous events will occur when the stars align in their courses.

My Great-Grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall came to the Arroyo Grande Valley around 1900. He had come west without his wife of  seven years, LaVance or Vancey as she was called. She had been temporarily left behind with two little boys, William and my maternal grandfather Bruce Cameron in Johnson City, Carter County, Tennessee.

Vancey was crowned with luck. Her father was killed along with his two brothers during the Civil War. Twenty five year old Tad was killed at First Manassas (Bull Run), McKamie, 23, at Seven Pines and her father Nelson Hooper who was just 21, died of wounds at Richmond. Nelson was shot at Malvern Hill on one of the bloodiest days of the war. Vancey’s luck was that her mother Mary Lucinda was six months pregnant. The Hooper family lost all three adult sons to the war. All served with the 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which was mustered in from Iredale County as most regiments were in those days were, especially in the south. They fought and died with boys from their hometown which made it especially brutal for the families.

Sarah LaVance Hall 1893, Shannon Family Trust photo

Grandpa Sam, was the son of a Virginia veteran himself, his father William served with the 27th Virginia Infantry, part of Stonewall Jackson’s troops. Like many veterans and their families they went west after the war perhaps preferring to get as far away from the places that held such awful memories. More than 50,000 Tennesseans died for the south and roughly 5,000 for the north. For the men and boys this represented about 14% of the male population of the entire state. It created a world of widows. Prospects must have seemed awfully bleak. One out of seven is a staggering percentage.

Out west Sam he worked as a carpenter in Lemoore, California for a time before moving to Arroyo Grande’s Verde District, off what is now Corbit Canyon Road. Vancey waited almost two years before coming to California. She finally had had enough of the waiting and came on her own, bringing the boys with her. She joined him here in a little house which still stands in Deer Canyon. Sam Hall worked at farm labor and soon graduated to managing ranches which would be his life’s work.

Vancey and Sam’s son Bruce was living and working on a dairy near Creston when he met my grandmother Eileen in 1915. They were both at a Barbecue and he sort of sidled over to her while she stood around the campfire and said, “Smoke follows beauty,” which has to be the worst pick-up line ever devised. I worked though. They courted for three months and almost on a whim tied the knot in San Luis Obispo’s Presbyterian church. When you know, you know, I guess. Grandma Eileen was asked where they went after the wedding and she said, “Grandpa gave me a little glass of wine and we went to the hotel.” The questioner, my brother was both amused and taken aback by the answer. No young grandchild expects the answer to a question to even hint a sex.

They soon came down to Arroyo Grande to stay with his parents in deer canyon. Eileen was pregnant with my aunt Mariel who was their first child. She was born in that little house. Most babies were born at home in those days. Doctor Charles Clark, the towns “Baby Doctor” was likely the attendant. Perhaps he became a doctor because of what he had seen riding with Custer in the final campaigns of the Civil War. Delivering those new to the world might have made up for the losses he was responsible for. A balancing of the scales if you will. Regardless, aunt Mariel came out yelling’ and remained that way her entire life.

Doctor Charles Clark. Bennett Loomis Archives

The population of Arroyo Grande was quite small then. In 1900 it hovered around 500. An interesting thing about our family is that with such a small population it’s very likely that Sam and Vancey Hall knew my paternal great-grandparents John and Catherine Shannon who lived on Printz Road just a short distance from the Hall home in Deer Canyon. They would have also known the Patrick Moores. Mrs Moore was aunt to my future grandmother.

Sam and Vancey were living up in Madera, California when my mother was born in 1918, but it wasn’t long before Bruce received a phone call from his brother Marion telling him that there were good jobs in the oilfields around the Casmala/Orcutt area. The pay was good, the work steady and it included housing. The housing was a company owned lease tent or Shebangs as they were fondly called, not gracious nor palatial but a place to live. It was an improvement on living three families in the same home as it was in Madera. Bruce and Eileen moved down to Casmalia and shared a Shebang* with Marion and his wife Grace. They hung blankets on clotheslines to create some privacy. Something like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Nevertheless my Uncle Bob came along soon after. Uncle Marion didn’t like the work and he and Grace soon left but Bruce and Eileen stuck it out and never left the business. Thirty eight years, wherever the job took him, she and the kids followed. Bruce worked the rigs but Eileen and the kids were oilfield workers in their own way. She kept up with him the whole way.

Grandpa Bruce Cameron Hall on the left about 1920, Casmalia California. Shannon Family Trust Photo.

So, my mom was an oilfield girl. The new job required them to move to the oil patch, where they would remain for the best part of the next 38 years.

It’s hard to imagine her life as she grew up, she lived in dozens of different houses, 78 to be exact, sometimes more than one place in the same town. She and her sister Mariel were only a year apart and became each others friends and most of the time, allies against a world in which it was difficult for girls to find a solid footing because they were here for a short while and then they were there. A necessity if nothing else, for they changed schools more than once a year for 11 of their 12 years of education. My grandparents were fortunate enough to remain in Santa Barbara long enough for them to complete two full years of high school so they could to graduate together. The very first time that had happened to mom in her entire school career.

Don’t think they didn’t move though. Dad said grandma would rather move than clean house. He said she was so good at it she could pack up the car, load the kids and be off in two shakes of a lambs tail. When they were living in Santa Barbara, they moved four or five times so maybe the joke about cleaning house had some merit.

Santa Barbara in the thirties was quite the place to grow up. Wealthy and exclusive it was a playground for the elite. Movie stars, rich landowners, some who who dated back to the very beginnings of California and pioneer money raked in during the development of the southern California desert now known as Los Angeles.

Bruce was transferred in 1936. He worked for Signal Oil now. The work good and he was busy. He had been sent down to Long Beach and the family would follow, Eileen and the the kids would pack up and go as always. The problem was, my mom loved Santa Barbara and the life she had there. She played tennis at the country club and hobnobbed with some of the wealthy kids she met in high school. Riding in a convertible around Montecito with Leo Carrillo was pretty heady stuff for a girl whose father worked with his hands and came home smelling like gas and oil, everyday. She had a job at the Biltmore Hotel on State street serving cocktails and a boyfriend who was a tennis pro at the country club. She stamped her foot and refused to go.

Things had been very tough while the lived there. Bruce had worked for Barnsdall Oil at Elwood north of Goleta and in Summerland but Barnsdall went belly up and in the middle of the depression and he was out of work. Gasoline prices had dropped by nearly forty cents a gallon and the oil business was staggering. It got so bad that Eileen packed up her pride, put it away and went down to the office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Known as Relief, it was a pejorative term even then, working people were shamed by having to ask for help. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance in the thirties. The women in the office told Eileen that they didn’t qualify because they owned a car and would have to sell it. There was no way to get to work without it, they couldn’t sell it. At the last possible moment Bruce got a job with Signal Oil. He was so grateful to Sam Mosher, Signals owner and president that, though in later years he was offered more lucrative work, he stayed with the company. Such was loyalty then. He worked for Mr. Mosher until the day he died.

Elwood Oil Field, Goleta. SBHS photo

In 1940 my grandparents moved back to Arroyo Grande to the house my great-grandfather built on Short Street. Grandpa Bruce was transferred up from Long Beach to oversee Signal Oil production in Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande’s Dolly Adams lease in Price Canyon, east of Pismo Beach.

Mom was living with the family again and wanted to stay in Long Beach but her Woolworths job didn’t pay enough for her to be able to live on her own so she came too. Not really willingly, but she did come. She worried that she wouldn’t find any new friends or a job. She was wrong on both counts. Finding new friends was something a girl from the Oil Patch could do. When her dad was transferred the kids had to move schools and all of them learned how to spy out the popular kids. They learned how to make friends quickly. It was a defensive mechanism. New kids in school are suspect, and have to find a way to fit in right away. It was her greatest social skill. If you ever talked with her you felt like you were an old friend right away.

In 1940 Arroyo Grande had a population of about a thousand people. The census area in those days included all of what is now Grover City, Oceano, Halcyon and the Western addition. All of the valley as far south as Los Berros was included. It was a pretty typical small town, the kind that were all over the country in the 1940’s.

Every bit of business was carried on between Crown Hill and Buzz Langenbeck’s orchard west of town. It was all of three blocks. There were a couple of old Saloons left over from wilder days, three grocery stores, two women’s dress shops, Hilda Harkness’ and Cornelia Conrow’s, directly across the street from each other. the Hub, the Quitmans mens clothing store which smelt of rich fabric and the only place in town where you could but a Homburg hat for dress up occasions. A man needed to look good at an Odd Fellows, Masons or a church meeting. There was Morris Pruess Rexall Drug store, complete with a soda fountain where high school kids hung out when the school on the hill let out. There was the library, next to the ice cream parlor and across the street from the Commercial Company. At the Commercial you could buy groceries along with what were once known as “Notions,” the variety of small objects and accessories, including items that are sewn or otherwise attached to a finished article, such as buttons, lace, greeting cards and post cards. Practically anything you wanted, including furniture, they stocked it. Next to the old Pacific Coast railroad tracks, the Loomis feed mill and just down the street two Blacksmiths, even in 1940 a dying breed. Across the street was the old two story newspaper building where the Herald-Recorder was put together each week.There were several mechanics, two auto dealers, a hardware store, four churches, the Arroyo Grande grammar school and the high school. The Bank of America sat imposingly on the corner of Branch and Bridge Streets. Nearly every one who came to town for Saturday shopping knew each other.

An old home movie taken during the “Gay Nineties” celebration in 1938 features nearly everyone in town. You can sense the fraternity amongst the people as they wave and smile at the camera. If there were disputes or social problems, family secrets, they were kept under lock and key. Folks did not broadcast their dirty laundry. Secrets were meant to be kept. Many forever.

A few homes sat up on Crown Hill by the brick building that was the High School. Most people in town lived in the Western Addition across the state highway near the old horse racing track and the Chataqua grounds or east of the Arroyo Grande creek along the several little streets named for pioneers. Ide, Myrtle, Nelson, and Allen streets were bisected by Mason, Short and the eponymous Bridge Street. Poole Street was still just a dirt path. There were three automobile bridges and one walking bridge at the end of Short Street, named for the man who built it so he could conveniently cross from town to his little farm on the opposite side of the creek.

My mother lived on Short Street. She lived with her parents and her baby sister Patsy at number 225, a little white house with a tiny garage in the back. The same house her grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall built in 1934 after the death of his wife Vancey. She was new to Arroyo Grande, she was 22 years old, single and beautiful.

Hall Residence, 225 Short Street today. Shannon Family Trust photo.

Note* An oilfield Shebang in the Kettleman Hills.



swimmin hole

Aunt Mickey and Mom in the swimming’ hole.

My Aunt Mickey and my Uncle Ray had a little ranch in Watt’s Valley, not too far from  Tollhouse. Tollhouse is not a city or even really a town, in those days it was little more than a wide spot on the road to Shaver Lake. It marked the place where the tan and brown Sierra foothills changed to the stacked and twisted granite that make up the great backbone of California, the Sierra Nevada.

Their place was built on a sidehill above the little creek than ran through the property. The creek had a great advantage for the kids that lived and visited there. You see, it’s hotter’n the dickens in Watts valley in the summer. The weather slows things down some. Afternoons are for dozing on the porch and drinking lemonade, trying to stay in the shade because you might as well take aunt Mickeys Sad iron and rest it on your forehead as step out in the sunlight. The air grows heavy, taking a breath is a bit of work and the kids wait for Uncle Ray and my dad to get back from Humphrey’s Station with that 50 pound block of ice they use in the homemade swamp cooler in the living room. Works like this; a tin washtub for the ice which is then covered with an old burlap sack,  the cooling water on the sack is pushed around by an old electric fan. It sorta works, but really, it lets you think something is might be happening when it not. Such is the power of suggestion.

For us kids the best thing was Uncle Rays swimming’ hole. What could be better? Around ten o’clock mom and her sister would drift into the old kitchen. Not a modern kitchen with retro appliances made to look like old times, but the real deal. It had an old sink set in a wooden countertop just under the window that looked out on the corrals where the branding, notching, and nut cutting took place in the spring and fall. Back of that was a view up the hills covered with California Live Oaks, the occasional Hereford doing the same as us, resting under the shade of a tree. In the corner next to the dining room wall was the hulking cast iron stove where uncle Ray made breakfast most days. Bacon and eggs, fresh homemade biscuits from the oven served on plates stamped with ranch scenes, ropes,  brands and handsome white faced cattle. A jelly glass with milk fresh from the cow, a scattering of yellow cream on top, even the occasional captive fly. Put in front of each kid sitting around the kitchen table, some sitting in chairs, some on the bench under the row of windows looking over the road coming up to the house from the creek crossing, breakfast a comin’.

Aunt Mickey and my mother would gather up the fixings and make sandwiches for the trek to the swimmin’ hole. Pure white bread from the bag with the multicolored spots, mayonnaise from the jar kept in the cupboard standing out on the screened porch. Bright yellow mustard smeared on a piece of baloney and squished together with a firm hand then  folded into a waxed paper envelope and stacked in the bottom of an old wicker basket. Throw an apple or two in, some old tin cups and top it with a piece of red and white checkered oil cloth. By the time they were done they were surrounded by boys and maybe a girl, my cousin Karen, a tough little bird surrounded by some boys whom she took no lip from. The kids could hardly wait, they were literally dancing up and down with delight.

Busting out the back door, the only door we ever used, we headed down to the where the pasture gate crossed the road. The little guys would squeeze between the bars, a bigger boy would show off by opening the gate in a manly way. I’m almost grown it said. Down the road we would go the kids wanting to run ahead but held in check by the thought that the big black gobbler might be lurking in brush and trees along the left of the road. If he came at us there was no escape. The right side was a cutback you couldn’t climb, the left side was enemy territory and the only sure fire way to get by him was to be stealthy quiet. If he appeared the whole group would bolt, little legs carrying us a fast as they could go, helped by the downhill slope to the creek crossing. Aunt Mariel carried a kitchen broom for defense. Once we made the turn at the bottom we were safe, at least until the return trip.

Just before the creek a two track road veered off to the right and this we would follow through the pastures watched by phlegmatic cattle gently chewing their cuds. We knew to leave them be, no cowman ever runs cattle. Fat is currency in the cow business. It seemed forever before the little creek gently curved in front of  the cut bank that indicated where the swimming hole was. Down to the edge of the water, kids pulled off there Levi’s, tee shirts and jumped right in. No bathing suits. Modesty might indicate keeping your underwear on, thats what the moms did. They stripped down to their underwear and were mostly content to sit on the bank and watch their kids play.

We did what kid do, splashed water on each other, did a little dunking, big against little and pretended to swim. None of us could, you know. No need to worry much because the water wasn’t over 18 inches deep. Aunt Mickey and mom couldn’t swim either.

Those girls grew up in the oilfields. Oilfield brats didn’t get swimming lessons and they almost never lived near the beach or a river. In fact my mother was scared of the water and it took a whole lot of encouragement just to get her into a pond as shallow as this one. Temperatures in the nineties probably helped. Of course saying it was ninety would just have been a guess. Watts Valley in the summertime didn’t take a genius with a measuring instrument to tell you it was hot. Really hot.

With the youngest out of the water and napping in the shade it was time to take all that pink wrinkled skin home and get ready for dinner. The trip back was slower than the trip out kids completely worn out. As we neared the road up to the house, aunt Mickey walked a little ahead to spy out the pasture in front of the house, broom at the ready, to see if the big black Tom turkey was in sight. If he was hiding in the bushes we could be in trouble. If he was out in the pasture, same thing. He figured he was the boss and he wasn’t interested in having anyone trespassing on his territory. He would put his head down, spear you with his malevolent eye and charge like Ghengis Khan, blood in his eye, beak ready to draw the same. Flapping his wings he grew in size, seemingly moving like an express train as he boiled up the little hill. Kids, moms and aunts bolting for the gate, surrounded by shrieks like the General Jackson’s secesh coming out of the trees and through the wheatfield. We, like the Yanks at Chancellorville, skedaddled as fast as we could. When we hit the gate, kids were squeezing through the bars like Cheez-It from the tube. Mom and aunt Mariel fumbled at the latch and at the last moment squeezed through. Turkey ran right up to the bars and stuck his head through, hissing, gobbling and jumping up and down, enough to strike terror into any kid. Just to show him who we were, we gave ’em the raspberries and skipped up to the house, triumphant.

About 7 o’clock we were all out on the front porch aunts and uncles, mom and dad sipping whiskey, smoking and telling stories, the kids quietly picking foxtail and clover burrs out of their socks, sipping lemonade and enjoying the cooler evening weather. Down in the pasture, uncle Ray had turned the sluice gate into the grass to keep the permanent pasture alive. Every few hours the gates had to be closed and the next one opened. He called out to my oldest cousin Bruce to “Get your fanny down there and move the watergate before dark.”  Bruce, being fourteen was reluctant to take on any job he could possibly get out of, grumbled his way down to the walk-through gate and ambled down across the pasture toward the creek not paying much attention to where he was. Whatever he was thinking about it wasn’t old Tom, that is until he heard the hiss of the charging turkey. Bruce yanked his head around toward the sidehill and saw the bird coming at him on the dead run. At fourteen you figure you’re almost grown and to show any sign of cowardice is the worst kind of self imposed sin. I’m sure he gave a moment of thought to standing his ground but self preservation won out and he bolted for the house as fast as his lanky frame could go, Mister Turk gaining at every step. Bruce didn’t bother with the gate, no time for that, no, he lifted off like a fighter plane and soared right over that four wire bob wire fence, clearing it by a foot. As he was airborne it occurred to him he’d just been humiliated by a bird in front of the whole family. Instead of stopping, he continued his flight right up onto the porch, flung open the screen door and raced inside emerging a moment later with his .22 to be greeted with gales of laughter by the big folks. Uncle Ray laughed so hard I swear he had whiskey coming out of his nose. Just a moments hesitation on his part was all it took for uncle Ray to say, “Jughead, put that damn rifle down, you’re not shooting that bird.” Bruce silently retreated back inside to nurse his ego and the little kids slyly smirked at each other to see their big cousin put in his place, not so much by uncle Ray but by a bird. In family lore the great turkey race has lived down the decades, each telling adding some little detail. Cousin Bruce became a legend with us little kids but perhaps not in a way he wanted to be.

Bruce got some measure of revenge though. Uncle Ray dispatched that Tom with an axe and we ate him up at Thanksgiving. I never have figured out what part was the best, the delicious terror at being chased, my cousins teenage humiliation or the taste of old Tom with all the fixings. Perhaps its all of them.