My aunt Mickey married a cowboy. Not a poser, not the drugstore type; no, a real one. He didn’t make no movies, he wasn’t pretty and my dad always said he was part Indian. Don’t know about that myself though. She lived with him up in the Watts Valley near Tollhouse in eastern California, they had a ranch right up against the rugged Sierra. They had two sons, Knothead and Jughead, you can conjure the why of the names yourself.
Now living on a ranch puts some strain on your olfactory receptors. There’s all kind of smells to get used to. There is the obvious cow flop and the horse apple, though it don’t stink much at all. There is the chicken poop which has a ripe sort of ammonia smell and the slurry stirred up by the hogs in their pens. The hundred year old house they lived in had the old house musty, dusty smell wafting through it with a sharp nip of cigarette smoke and the odor of half burnt wood from the stove. There was also the sweet odor of the pines around the house and the not too obnoxious smell of the dust drifting up from the road in. Hay smells good too though it’s pretty powdery and will make you sneeze. My uncle Ray smelled of hand rolled tabacca, sweat and horses. He could pluck the sack of Bull Durham out of his left front shirt pocket, pull out a paper, shake the tobacco out and then roll her up with one hand, wet the whole thing with his lips, spark a match with his thumbnall and do it all while forking a horse headed down the road. I can hardly remember him without one dangling from his lip, grinnin’ at one of us kids and throwin’ the tease.
All in all my aunt Mickey could take it and after thirty or so years of marriage it all smelled of home. She figured she was a pro at the sniffin’ game..
Now of course we weren’t any slouches either. We lived in the same kind of old house. We had dogs, the occasional cat, some mices under the stove and TV and adobe mud in the winter and dust a-blowin’ in the summer. You might pick up a sniff of hot oil from one of the tractors and in the growing season there was always sacks of fertilizer in the sheds and the sulphur we used to keep the pea vines safe from too much foggy dew. Warners old Stearman biplane would swoop down and lay clouds of DDT on the crops while we stood what we thought was just out of range.
Daddy grew all kinds of vegetables. There was Celery, Lettuce, Cauliflower, Brocolli, Tomatos, Bell and Yellow Peppers, Squash and Chinese Peas. Each one of the plants had an odor. When they were growing they smelled like optimism and when they were dead and plowed under the could smell of heartbreak. When you walked our field, freshly plowed the pungent odor of decaying Cauliflower or sweet smelling Lettuce was all around. When Oliver next door brought in Meir Brothers trucks hauling chicken shit from Rosemary Farms in Santa Maria and the wind was right it could make your eyes water. The smell was to say the least, ripe.
When aunt Mickey was done visiting grandma Hall down in Los Alamitos she would drive up and stop with us for a while. It was a long trip from grandma’s to Watts Valley in those old days. There wasn’t much in the way of freeways on the trip and she was grateful for the rest. She was a big girl then and wrestling that old four door Buick could be a chore especially at the end of her trip home going up the old Tollhouse Road.
So, she was staying at our house for a day or two and one night after dinner the folks were sitting around the kitchen table drinking perked coffee and smoking as they used to do and somehow the subject came up about smells. Maybe we had fields around the house where vegetable crops were rotting away or Oliver had just spread manure on his fields, I don’t remember what exactly but aunt Mickey and my dad got to going on the relative pungency of the places we lived. Mickey saying that the smell up Watts Valley was superior for it obnoxiousness than ours. Well, my dad was raised on a dairy and my mom in the oil patch so they were bonafide connoisseurs of odor too. There was some gentle push and shove between the grown ups, accompanied by laughter especially my aunt Mickeys classic deep throated cackle which once you heard it you‘d never forget. After a little while my dad said he’d show her what a real stink was. She laughed at him.
The next morning we loaded up our gray ’55 Buick, mom and dad in the front with my little brother in the middle and the other two boys in the back with aunt mickey dead center and off we went.
It had been raining off and on that month and it was a cool day so the windows was rolled up and with the adults smoking away we headed south for Betteravia.
Betteravia was once the sight of a large sugar mill, built in the days when sugar beets were king in the Santa Maria valley and though the days of growing them were gone, the mill still brought train loads in from Idaho to be processed. Beets are processed for the sugar. The byproducts of sugar beet processing include the leftover pulp and molasses. Most of the molasses produced is processed further to remove the remaining sucrose. The pulp and most of the remaining molasses are mixed together, dried, and sold as livestock feed.
Now, in Betteravia they had a nice setup. They had the railroad to bring in the beets and to take out the sugar and best of all, right across Betteravia road to the northwest they had a feed lot where they fed legions of cattle to fatten them up for slaughter. So think about that a little. You have the smell of molasses and pulp mixed with cow manure and clouds of methane cow farts, mixed up with slippery, slimy mud into a bouquet, and sprinkled with s nice bouquet of ammonia of urine. A “plat de resistance” stench that has all the delicacy of Custer’s Michigan cavalry meeting Jeb Stuart’s confederate boys at Brandy Station Virginia, both at the full gallop and head-on too.
After the drive down we pulled up to the corrals and my dad sprung the trap. First they sat for a moment and he asked aunt Mickey how she liked that smell. The car was full on cigarette smoke and the sisters perfume that provided a little camouflage for the outside air. Aunt Mickey took a little sniff.
She said, “Thats not so bad George.”
He had her now, she had not a suspicion. Then, he opened the windows. I swear aunt Mariel’s eyes rolled back in her head and she gasped, then gasped again, tears rolling down her cheeks, shaking her head, she howled,
“Darn you George, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever smelled, get me the hell out of here.“
And he did. He grinned too.
Note: Cover photo, My aunt Mariel “Mickey” Long and my cousin Jimmy at the ranch in Watts Valley about 1952. Shannon Family photo.