Author teaching kids the value of mud with Colin Shannon and a buncha Pences and Danas.

My wife is a city girl. She grew up in the San Fernando valley. In a suburb called Canoga Park. Every house on her block had a concrete driveway and a manicured front lawn.

I grew up in the country. Near a little farm town called Arroyo Grande. A couple times a year one of use would use the old push mower to mow the weeds in front of the house. Our drivway was a quarter mile of dirt road.

They are different planets. Don’t think Venus and Mars, thats not it, think asphalt and concrete versus mud and dirt and all kind of things no city child ever dreamed of.

My daddy was what they used to call a dirt farmer. My uncle Jackie was a polled Hereford breeder. My grandfather, Big Jack Shannon started as a Butter and Egg man but soon switched to dairy. My uncle Ray Long was the real deal, a dyed in the wool Stetson wearing, bulldog heel cowpoke who sat a horse like God and liked his whiskey straight.  

 We all lived in old, old houses. We didn’t have central heat or insulation. We knew to put on another layer of clothes in the winter or sit closer to the stove in the kitchen. We drank our water from a well dug by hand. Purify was a word in the dictionary not in the water. Yellow and brown colored water was perfectly normal. There was a septic tank, though it wasn’t a real tank, it was a big hole out in the field lined with boards and when it was full, dad dug a new one. They were perfect place to grow the most beautiful Nasturtiums. Our roads were dusty dry in the summer and wet in the winter. The amount of rain we got could be measured by how deep your shoes sank walking home from school. Get off the road and it would suck the shoes right off your feet.

We live in adobe country. In the summer it makes great dirt throwing clods and gets so hard that chunks fly off the pickup tires and hit the fenders with a very satisfying bang. Maybe dents ‘em some too.

My brothers and I had no fear of the gross. We were the bane of my mothers existence for we attracted dirt and yucky stuff like magnets. When I was little she had an old tub washing machine, the kind with a hand ringer on top. All the laundry had to hang on the line to dry and nice clothes had to be ironed. Three boys and a husband; it was a full time job. Our water was “Hard” as they used to say and it added a tinge of yellow to anything white. You can see in the old photos of the house the line where the lawn sprinkler hit the siding, yellow below, white above.

On the ranches there were old barns, corncribs and odd old sheds where tools and seed, fertilizer and spare parts for everything lived. There were things dating back to when the chinaman raised pigs and the ranch belonged to uncle Pat Moore. Some had been saved for a hundred years, long after the machine it was meant for had joined it’s worn out companions in the old gullies where rolls of old Bob wire, tinned cans and whatever, was tossed. These places were a paradise of the found for kids. You could sit on the rusty old springs in the model T body my grandparents drove down from Berkeley in 1918. Long abandoned, it was a beautiful rust colored place where a little boy could imagine driving wherever he wanted. No glass in the windshield, no leather on the seats and no motor or radiator it was nonetheless a chariot of the imagination.

In my uncles calf shed there was a tool bench and a homemade set of shelves where resided every tool ever used on a ranch that had been in use since 1871. If you didn’t mind Black Widows and accumulated rat poop you could dig through the drawers and shelves, picking through wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers and clumps of welded by rust square nails. Over in the corner were the salt licks. Yes, they too were sampled.

J R Williams, 1931

We had black hands from picking walnuts, smelly hands from tomato vines; we were covered in mud from playing in the irrigation ditches, we’d clomp in the house shedding clumps everywhere. Shoes were not always left on the porch. The linoleum floor in our kitchen always had speckles of dirt sprinkled on it. My mom was an oilfield girl so she accepted it though she didn’t like it much. She had helped her mother wash my grandfathers oil stained work clothes in kerosene and carbon tetrachloride so it wasn’t new to her no matter her wishes or wishful pretensions.

We’d come in smelling of willow from the creek or covered in sulphur dust from running through the rows of pea vines. Our dogs, who followed us everywhere were just as fragrant from rolling in any kind of smelly thing they could find.

My dad told us that the cat poops in the sandbox were old Tootsie Rolls and we should just pick ‘em up and throw them away, so we did. He used that joke to good effect when telling stories as we grew older, especially to our wives and his grandchildren. I’ve had the pleasure of explaining to my sons the relative difference between cow flops. There are green ones, been there a few days, black a little longer, chocolate milk colored means under the crust it’s satisfyingly squishy. Flat and dried are good for sailing long distances, chocolate for smearing the unwary. Now I’ve heard that a pie tin company back east was the model for the first frisbee, but let me tell you it’s not true. A cow pie was. Judging pies is an art. Some are completely dry and might even have straw growing through them and they make the best ones for sailing. Others appear dry but are still gooey inside and they make the best if you need to blast a cousin with a little slime. Soft ones carefully picked up are best for placing under car seats or slipping into a friends school desk. Horse manure isn’t too good for throwing and is best kicked at your enemies or even better, your friends.

You could say we were scatalogical experts with mice, rats, cats dogs, goats and deer to choose from. Manny, another expert once came to our little two room school with a jar of brown pills he called “Smart Pills.” He assured kids that if they gave him a nickel he would sell a few to those who were struggling academically and they would soon be much smarter. After a few days a boy from Newsom Springs told Manny he thought the pills were just Rabbit pellets. “See, you’re getting smarter already,” Manny replied. Of course Manny went on to be a gifted salesman.

Did you know that a grease gun, they were for lubrication of all kinds of machinery and filled with 90 weight grease, look like a machine guns? Well they do and they can shoot too, a nice steady stream of greenish colored grease at anyone who gets too close when playing war, usually a younger brother but most satisfyingly, cousins and ignorant townies. 

When my dad was a boy he helped in the dairy barn after milking when all the manure and urine had to be cleaned up. They used scrapers to push it to the back barn door, then shovel loaded it onto a skip that ran down hill on a gravity cable with a trip at the end. the trip caused the skip to upend into the manure pile. Thirty cows a day, three times a day. It was a big and fragrant pile. Dad and uncle Jackie were happy to give city kids who came to visit a ride. My grandmother was not happy at all but my grandfather thought it was a lark and laughed until he cried.

The girls in the milking barn. Shannon Family photo.

On the old ranch they had cattle, hogs, and chickens who ran free in the pastures. In the old days when boys went barefoot in the summer they would have various kinds of manure squishing between their toes. If it happens often enough it can just be tossed off as normal. In 1922, a very dry year, the fleas were so bad that the boys calves and feet would swarm with them. Remember that boys used to wear short pants until they were about twelve. Before my grandmother would let them in the house they would have to bathe with kerosene to kill the fleas and then take a bath in the same water as their father and mother had just used.

There was only one vet in Arroyo Grande, Dr Doty. He was the man you called if your stock had a serious disease. He drove a pickup that was his office. The dash was piled high with receipts, gloves, an old syringe or two and a ragged “Gimme” ball cap. He’d drive up the road to where uncle Jack was and stop. A shake of the hand and if things weren’t too dire they’d shoot the breeze a little before getting down to business. Pickups in those days were built at just the right height so a man could rest himself by leaning on the hood or the sides of the bed. Nobody called the Doc unless it was serious. Cattle are usually in better health than their owners if you haven’t noticed. Sooner or later Doc would poke and prod, do his inspection and treat whatever the ailment was and be on his way.

Anything else was done by the rancher. Vets who worked in an office; there weren’t any. If your dog was really sick, he would likely live or die on his own. Cats in the barn weren’t remotely tame, had no names and had pretty short lives. The cattle were doctored, if at all possible by my uncle Jack. He would call dad and ask if he would bring me out to the ranch and I would spend a day or two helping with cow maintenance. Cows would be herded into the holding pen behind the old milking barn and then shushed into the chute, head forced through the squeeze to be doctored. Now cows are generally very nice and like human company but in this case they could be reluctant to say the least. They have a memory and if they’ve been through this before they can be a tad reluctant. So reluctant, in fact that we would place a board across the chute and I would drape my arms over the top board of the chute and push on the board with all my might. Both feet trying to shove the old girl the last two feet so her head would go through the squeeze. She would likely respond by drenching my feet and legs with manure. Some how uncle Jackie always let me do that job. He was smarter than I was.

Except when he wasn’t. Years later he was trying to do the job without help and cow got her revenge by slamming him against the side of the corral and breaking his femur. I guess it’s all even in the end.

Once we sewed up a prolapse in a cow with the shoelace from one my Keds. Helped the cow but the shoe kept coming off which didn’t help me keep my sock or foot clean either. He told me that shoelaces from tennis shoes were perfect because the would rot in a few days and didn’t have to be removed. At the end of the day, covered in cow slobber, manure and a little blood I’d be treated to a piece of homemade pie by my wonderful grandmother Annie. My grandfather always made sure the ice cream on the side was very generous. Topped off with perked coffee, scalding hot, it made a perfect day.

What we learned from all of this was that whatever had to be done, could be. Care should be reasonable. Though farm kids were sniffed at by town kids, they knew life close to the ground and it served us all well as we grew up. If we were going to be afraid it had better be very serious business. We were all prepared for the small stuff.

Will and Colin Shannon, two muddy boys. Shannon Family photo

All of this growing up prepared me for my husbandly duties. I’m in charge of all the yucky stuff that comes from having a dog and a couple cats, cleaning out clogs in the drains, removing spiders from the house, though I prefer leaving some to catch the flies and other things like the annual cleaning of the fishpond. I can tell you this, if your apple has a worm hole, eat it anyway. If you’re lucky the worm has moved on and if not, enjoy the extra protein.


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