THE BRANCH BEE

The Fourth Estate. The place where Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Colonel McCormick and William Cullen Bryant stalked the newspaper world. A big world. Fortunes made and lost. Top of the heap, down in the dumps. Writers have witnessed it all. Stanley wrote of the search for Livingston, Nelly Bly circled the world in 72 days, Jimmy Breslin knew the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Martha Gelhorn, who famously dumped her husband Ernest Hemingway and covered every major war in her 60 year career and Ernie Pyle, champion of the little guy, reporters all.

Newsboy

The earliest form of writing is believed to be of Mesopotamian origin. The Bronze age saw the first representation of “True” writing where symbols represented sounds. Previous systems, which we still use in things like math were symbols that are essentially pictographs. Beginning roughly three and a half millennia ago, the written word appeared independently in China, North Africa, Central America and the Middle East.

Johann Carolus (1575-1634) was the publisher of the Relation aller Furnemmen und gedenckwurdigen Historien (Collection of all Distinguished and Commemorable News). The Relation’ is recognized by the World Association of Newspapers, as well as many authors, as the world’s first newspaper. Not a very “Snappy” name if you ask me but it was the first.

For my classmates and I, three hundred fifty five years later a paper appeared at our school, the Branch Grade School. It was our own.

Who birthed the idea I don’t know. When you attend a school with less than sixty kids, taught by just two teachers an idea can come from anywhere. Curriculum was flexible in those days. It had to be. Mrs Edith Brown taught grades one through four in one classroom and Miss Elizabeth Holland taught 5-8 in the other. Older kids taught younger ones. Projectors showing movies were operated by senior boys. Kids were expected to help out when needed. The janitor, Mrs Fernamburg was on the school board and drove the bus. Like I said flexible. We learned all kinds of things not in text.

So whomever thought to create a school newspaper was a genius. The Bee as it was called published for three years from 1957 through 1959. There was no regular schedule. We printed them out when we had enough to say that we thought was important. Important to kids I mean.

Nearly everything was done at school then. Halloween Carnivals, school plays, Christmas celebrations, and eighth grade graduations. The 4-H club met at school, The school board had their meetings in the old schoolhouse. Most people didn’t have TVs they could plunk the kids in front of, no one played organized baseball or any other team games, that was for town kids. Country kids had to find other things to do. Those are the things we wrote about.

For practical reasons nearly every kid who could put two letters together was on the staff. We probably had a larger staff in proportion to our readers than the Los Angeles Times.

Branch Bee Staff, 1958

Just like a real newspaper our little journal chronicled the goings on of our little community.

Alvin Evenson reported on the birth of his little brother Edward and opined that he cried too much. All night, as a matter of fact. Anyone who doesn’t know the Evenson family might wonder why he was bothered but those of us who went to school with the hordes of Evenson kids understood. Big, big family, small house.

Jerry Shannon and Raymond Samaniego reported the weather. With every kid in school tied to the land, weather was an important topic. Crops fail because of bad weather, rain, too much fog, high winds and extreme heat. Every student heard talk of weather around the kitchen table. Since almost all homes were still on dirt roads knowing when your chidren were going to have muddy feet helped mothers know when to have oven space in order to have shoes dried out for the next morning. No kid liked taking those first steps in shoes bent like potato chips. Mrs Fernamburg watched the weather because nearly sixty pairs of muddy shoes made her janitor work that much harder.

David and Alcides, Al, Coehlo wrote a cute little story about their new puppies Tippy and Daisy. They were purebred Borderers and would be trained for herding sheep though I don’t recall my friends having enough sheep to herd, but little boys and girls and puppies, well, you know.

Eighth grader Barbara Durham wrote an article about visiting the county courthouse with the student from Oak Park School. They sat in Judge Lyons courtroom and he explained the law to them and house county courts work. She informed us that the county clerk allotted $7,000.00 for Oak Park’s budget and $22,000.00 for Branch. We had three times the number of kids and two teachers, that being the difference. She said the students helped the county jail trustees prepare their lunch and they washed dishes too. Imagine that today if you will.

James Frisk, another eighth grader told of two sophmore HS boys who put a rubber raft into the storm swollen Arroyo Grande creek just below the Harris bridge. If you’ve ever seen the gorge the creek runs through there you can imagine how much water was flowing past. The boys rode down to the gauge by the old high school where they tried to get out with help from some strategically placed friends. That plan went by the wayside and they ended up getting pulled out just above the hwy. 1 bridge. Because the levee had failed and the bridge was under water they narrowly avoided complete disaster. Neither Don and Edna Rowe nor Oliver and Hazel Talley were in the least bit amused with their boys. Punishment was swift.

An extra edition proclaimed the successful launch of Americas first satellite, Explorer one. I recall that being a really big deal at the time, being in the clutches of the cold war with Russia. The article states complete confidence that if there was a nuclear war we would win. No worries.

Also front page news was the playing of the annual baseball game with Oak Park at Oak Park. I threw the pitch that that wonderful girl Melody Patchett hit for an inside the park, walk off home run.

Front page news.

Branch Bee, November 1957. Shannon Family photo

As budding newspaper reporters we had the privilege of visiting our home town newspaper in 1958. The Arroyo Grande Herald had started publishing in 1887. The first owner was Steven Clevenger and his credo followed the Democratic party. In order to counter his perceived bias William Ryan started the Recorder in 1900. Located in the Meherin, later Olohan, Building across from the Bank on Bridge St, it only lasted a few years and ended up being sold to the new owners of the Herald, hence Herald Recorder.

We were met at the door by the publisher Newell Strother and the papers longest employee, Mrs Mae Ketchum. Mae had started work at the Herald in 1901 when she was just fourteen. She didn’t go to high school, she went to work, not an unusual thing at the time. She was a lifelong friend of my grandmother. She immediately picked me out and gave me a hug. She said “You look just like your grandfather.” Kids could not go anywhere in town without some adult knowing who you were. Such is small town life.

The old building which dated back to the 19th century had the look of an old drunk just ejected from Ralph and Porky’s bar. She leaned a little to the left that year, though after every wet winter she shifted a little.

Herald Recorder Newspaper building.

We went into the office. Perhaps it had been many years before spiffy and modern but in ’58 it had seen much better days. The windows were fogged with decades of cigarette smoke and dust. There were coffee cups set on frayed old galleys. There was the ubiquitous calendar from EC Loomis & Son set to the wrong date but since the paper was only published twice a week it didn’t matter much. The desks were chipped and worn, the typewriters were a mix of old Royals and Underwood number 5’s. Old before my father was born. Mr Strother explained how the news was gathered and organized. He said much of it came from people off the street who reported seeing this or that. He printed the names of people who were out of town, who had a baby, bought a house and even on one slow week, the sighting of a little Japanese boy watering the bricks of the Bank of Arroyo Grande.

He took us back to the Linotype room where that weeks paper was being composed. The operator typed the words from the reporters into the machine and it delivered a long row of lead type ready to be set on the press. He said the molten lead in the machine was more than seven hundred degrees. We were impressed by that. The dust from the machine had put a fine patina of lead on the floor and walls. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to that or the ink stained floor in the pressroom. The mom chaperones were like hawks though, making sure we didn’t touch any of it. Mom hands on the fly. On the way home we were pretty sure we would all be famous newsmen.

Yeah, like Clark Gable in the film “It Happened One Night,” chasing the heiress Claudette Colbert who famously flashed her silk clad legs when showing the Ace reporter how to hitchhike. We thought about Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthurs “Front Page” where reporter “Hildy” Johnson tries to hide an escaped murderer in a roll top desk in order to get a “Scoop.” We could do that job, I had the big ears like Clark and my uncle Jack had a roll top desk we could hide in.

Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, “It Happened One Night.”

Our operation used an old Ditto machine to do the printing. Our teachers would type up our hand written stories and we’d run them off. We did enough for each family and kid to have one. We sent them home to parents because one of the most important parts of the paper were the announcements about school events.

Oh, that old Ditto machine with its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, Ditto paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off worksheet and we would be the education system’s willing slave for the rest of the day.

Eighth graders, being the top of the heap got to run the machine and do the stapling. When they passed the paper , the students put the page up to their noses and deeply inhale. This was a popular school ritual of the ’40s, through early ’70s, as photocopying machines were very expensive, so ditto machines were still in use.

When you see the Cameron Crowe written film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High there is a scene where Mr. Vargas passes out a worksheet and his entire class lifts the paper and takes a deep breath. If you were born after 1955 this experience has passed you by. The copies did not get you high but they smelled awfully good.

Fast Times, Mister Vargas class. MCA/Universal films.

The Branch Bee has is gone as has the little two room schoolhouse. The kids who made it have all gone on to other careers. None that I know of are reporters. A few of us lucky ones worked for the high school paper, The High-Chatter. A couple of us were stringers for the Times-Press-Recorder while in high school. The Gregory boys all wrote for the high school paper and the Cuestonian. Jim Gregory is now a noted historian and author who is a pleasure to read. I was a part timer on the Dry Dock, the newspaper of the San Diego Naval Hospital while I was stationed there while in the Navy.

In those days long before social media a person had to contemplate the content before writing. A reporter or editor at the Herald-Recorder walked the same streets as the audience. This imposed a certain degree of circumspect or social sensitivity not seen today. The act of putting it down on a piece of paper is far different than a 140 character Tweet which can be banged out in a few seconds. Today, wires connect millions to a single mouth whose only purpose is fill time with content, no matter how suspect. Perhaps the reader will look back to a time when some thought was given to consequences. We were all taught that in our little school.

More valuable to historians who search for a mirror of time is the pile of old Branch Bees and their like tucked away in the old trunk where my mother stored the things that mattered to her.

Uncle Jackie’s desk.
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THE FIRST STEP

When my children were little I came across books written and illustrated by a man named Chris Van Allsburg. Mister Allsburg is world famous for his exquisite illustration techniques and clever story telling. Like many people who wrote, he never intended to be a writer, he studied sculpture in fact. Because of a little serendipity he became first an illustrator of books, one actually and then wrote and illustrated a book himself in 1981. It didn’t do badly though, it became a best seller and won the Caldecott Medal. The Randolph Caldecott Medal, shortened to just the Caldecott, annually recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. If you’re not familiar with his work I can explain to you in one word who he is. That word is Jumanji.

Allsburg is a terrific illustrator and children love his books though I believe since kids don’t actually buy books themselves that parents are transfixed by the beautifully crafted covers. His stories include the aforementioned “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express.” My personal favorites is the tale of the “Two Bad Ants.”

In any case this is just background. One of his lesser known books is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s a 1984 picture book and it consists of a series of images, supposedly created by Harris Burdick, a man who has mysteriously disappeared. Each image is accompanied by a title and some line of text, which encourage readers to create their own stories.

I’ve been captivated by that idea for some time so I’m going to give you a chance to exercise your own imagination by providing you with the first line of stories not yet written.. Have at it.

Martha Belle

Ben lowered his voice some and said to us, “You’ll see precisely what the Mattie Belle wishes you to see, and you’ll know just what she wants you to know.”

The Little Dog

Hopeful she is. She watches for the telltale signs, the putting on of shoes, the jingle of keys, any kind of stroll towards a door that leads outside. This is what my dog believes.This is her God.

Gone fer a Sojer

Ambrose Bierce was both a rifleman and officer in the 9th Indiana during the war between the states. He became one of the most respected writers in America, Stephen Crane and Hemingway considered him a great influence. He knew soldiering. At the age of 71, he died facedown in the dusty, dirty streets of Sierra Mojado, Coahuila Mexico. A shot to the back of the head. None knows his executioner save the Gods of the Mexican Revolution and Doroteo Arango, God rest his soul.

Surf Dog

January 27th, 1947: Tales of the South Pacific goes on sale

October, 1957: Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas book is published.

April 10th 1959: The movie Gidget premieres.

August 21st, 1959: Hawai’i becomes the fiftieth state.

April 1st, 1960: First issue of Surfer magazine goes on sale.

March 25th, 1963: Beach Boys Surfing’ USA released.

My father sat back in his chair at our kitchen table and looked at me as I was about to go outside, jump in my little VW with the two surfboards tied to the roof racks and said, “You know Mike, you can’t just surf all your life.”

He wasn’t wrong about much when I was growing up but he was sure wrong about that.

Shirley Shannon

I climbed the stairs to the office. There were two mugs  outside my door. One was sitting on his heels, head down, arms between his legs holding a hand rolled cigarette, the other standing, watching me come up. He was whip thin. He had a crushed and stained fedora pushed back on his head and a dirty lock of dark hair curled above one eyebrow. A half smoked Camel clung to one corner of his mouth the smoke lazily curling up, causing him to squint. Both were dressed in workman’s clothes, stained and with the particular odor of crude oil. As I topped the landing, the one standing looked me over and said, “You Shannon?”

Doin’ Dixie

Marvelous Marv was my foreign friend. He came from another country; Virginia.

Iron Jive and the Hemorrhoid

So heres the plan, pay a bribe to the boss so he will lay you off, move to Hawaii to surf and while you’re there have your hemorrhoids removed. Simple. Solve a problem, enjoy a vacation in the surf and get paid. What could be more perfect? Whay could possibly go wrong.

Pub Sign

No great story ever started with someone eating a salad. Nope.

Edgar

What is a life? Is it a story that no one remembers? When enough time passes does one cease to be even a memory, to anyone? To whom? Is it some or just one, somewhere. Are you the caretaker of that life? I am that.

Hommes Et Colere

The dreadful price that a man pays for his belief in the American Myth.

The Whale Shark

In our house we have a chair. It’s cushy. It is covered with the hide of a Whale Shark. Dark, dark grey and sporting white spots over its entire surface. The back is broad enough for the prince of cats, Wendell to bide of a cool day.

Heart of Saturday Night

All the great mysteries, wrapped in a satin cloak decorated with the constellations , infinitely distant, yet close enough to touch. The Wolfman, distant, yet speaking to you from the radio in the dashboard. XERB 1090, 50,000 watts of pure Soul Power, beamed north from Rosarito Mexico

The Plug Hat

My grandfather had a plug hat. It was a silly looking thing, especially when he put it on his noggin. He didn’t mind though, he wasn’t the type of guy who fussed about his appearance or who cared much about what people thought of him. Something I learned about those particularities when I was a kid, was that because he didn’t care, no one else did either, in fact, people admired him for his lack of pretense.

Minor Swing

Ernie slid onto the little bentwood cafe chair, sitting under the dark green awning of the Deux Magots, he turned to the hovering waiter and asked for espresso, it being too early for a man who took great pride in the ability to put away drink. Maybe a little later, a gin and tonic with Angostura Bitters. As the day warmed, other dwellers of the Paris Demimonde began to stroll the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Studiously ignoring the big man at the wrought iron table in the way that the French so perfectly do, a little lift of the chin, a turn of the shoulder an inward look. A brilliantly dressed man, still in a tailored tuxedo, boiled shirt with an Arrow color, a perfectly tied bow tie, the white carnation still fresh after a long night, gave the slightest of nods to the man at the table and slid sinuously onto a chair and resting his chin on his manicured right hand, with a sly look and a twinkle in his large, liquid brown eyes, said, “Hemingway,

Laura Beth

He sat awhile. He had a blank look in the eye. He scarcely moved. After a bit he licked the end of his pencil and he carefully wrote, “To the only girl who ever mattered” He looked at the writing. Then he nodded.

The Southern Cross

The sun popped up. It did, ..in fact,  POP up.   It was flattened like a sideways yellow wafer in the dawning, drawing its bottom free of the horizon with an almost audible jerk. In less than a minute dark became day, night had utterly vanished, the deck was alive with the light glancing from the gently riffling sea; a single ray, reflected from the binnacle, darted through the scuttle to light the face of the off-watch. The sun rose within his mind, his face broadened to a smile and he rolled out of his bunk.

The Golden Girl

She smiled. It was direct, clear, hopeful. I died on the spot.

The Princess Pat’s

They marched to the murmuring guns.. Dreaming of valor, flowers in their buttonholes; singing, they moved up. On the way back, they knew the truth of it.

The Farmer

It was like chewing on wasps.

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INCIDENT ON BRANCH STREET

From the Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder.

Friday, November 13, 1942 Herald Recorder Vol. 37 No. 30

On Wednesday last a Japanese man and a white woman were seen driving on Branch Street. Chief Fred Norton stopped the car and issued a warning to the occupants. The woman was advised to exit the car and not to ride in any auto with a Japanese man again. The driver was allowed to continue with a caution.

Just a little notice tucked into page three, upper right hand corner of the Bi-Weekly Newspaper. Stright reporting but with a pointed and unfriendly message.

At the time this happened the Japanese empire had attacked the United States just four months before. Feeling ran high amongst local folk. In those days before the 24 hour news cycle, information that had any credibility was very hard to come by. The big city dailies were in full hue and cry with their anti-Japanese campaigns. National columnists spewed hate, particularly Westbrook Pegler. He wrote an opinion column for the Chicago Tribune. His column was distributed nationally through the United Press.

In an article about him in 1938, the New York Times opined; “At the age of 44, Mr. Mister Pegler’s place as the great dissenter for the common man is unchallenged. Six days a week, for an estimated $65,000 a year, in 116 papers reaching nearly 6,000,000 readers, Mister Pegler is invariably irritated, inexhaustibly scornful. Unhampered by coordinated convictions of his own, Pegler applies himself to presidents and peanut vendors with equal zeal and skill. Dissension is his philosophy. Hate is his product.

There was no one he wouldn’t attack. He reached his zenith in 1942 with his scurrilous attacks on the Japanese Americans living on the west cost. Without a shred of evidence he vilified them all.

The local paper had to survive by taking a middle road in its coverage of the war especially in the early days. Throughout WWII the Herald Recorder walked a fine line with the news it published about local businesses and personalities. Before the removal of the Japanese to concentration camps it took a rather even handed approach to the issue, after all, Japanese American businesses advertised, Japanese kids delivered papers and half the high school enrollees were of Japanese ancestry. In a small town, they made up an important part of the buying public.

Loading the busses, 1942. National Archives photo

There were discussions over pancakes at the Greyhound cafe and in the aisles of the Commercial Company. As always there were those who were haters, just looking for ways in which to rub someones face in it. Lets not forget that there were also those of good conscience who did what they could to help their neighbors in distress. Several local boys had already been killed in the Pacific and that drove their families hard. They had no forgiveness and as General John Dewitt, the army general commanding the west coast area had so publicly said, “A Jap is a Jap.” The Chandler family which owned the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst paper, the San Francisco Examiner ran bold headlines demanding the removal of all Japanese from the west Coast. Taking sides in the debate was fraught with peril. Abuse by the anti-Japanese crowd was heaped on those suspected of mollycoddling. Business owners that catered to their Japanese clientele were verbally assaulted; sometimes more than that, including rifle shots through walls and physical assault.

There were many on the other side who supported the Japanese families. As is usually the case, those who personally knew their Japanese neighbors tended to be supportive or at least neutral in their feelings. The bullies, who are not interested in changing their tunes were ascendant by virtue of their aggression. It was a complex issue which found little desire for understanding but rolled on a tide of hate. Under the right circumstance there could be frightening consequences.

By November of that year all but one of the local Japanese-Americans were gone, bussed off to the Tulare fairgrounds where they were housed in horse stables and drafty, cold, temporary barracks until they could be sent by train to the Poston, Arizona concentration camp.

The only Japanese left was Kazuo Ikeda a 23 year old farmers son and graduate of both Arroyo Grande High School and the Polytechnic Cal Poly College. He had received permission from the War Relocation Board to stay and care for his father Junzuo who had broken his back in an accident while driving a team and wagon. Kaz and his father would stay until hospital facilities were complete at Poston.

Kazuo “Kaz” Ikeda, 1942

He was staying with Vard and Gladys Loomis in the Fukuhara home on Halcyon Road. The Loomis family was occupying the home to protect it from vandals and thieves.

A young woman friend of Gladys had been visiting there and when it was time for her to leave for home, Gladys asked Kaz to take her home in the Loomis family car. A kindness that was to have an unexpected result. They knew each other, the woman worked at the Pruess Rexall, the only pharmacy in town and liked to know people. Though Kaz was a man of few words she could more than carry her end of the conversation. It wouldn’t be a long trip anyway a she lived right in the middle of town. On Short Street.

Both the young people were aware of tensions in the community of course. The county sheriff had searched the Loomis home for contraband when Kaz was staying there. Japanese-Americans were not allowed radios, cameras, rifles or knives. As in the receipt below, confiscated items were received and held by the local police chief for return at a later date. After Norton left office in late 1942, the new Chief, Clyde McKenzie handed all the items over to the US Marshalls office in southern California where they disappeared forever. Their bank accounts were frozen and later confiscated by the state never to be returned.

The Sheriff and the Police Chief had their eye on the voter and were consequently vigorous in hunting down the Japanese “Menace.” Trite slogans were as likely to get you elected then as they are now. The chief owed his job to those who supported him. Serving them was his primary job if he wished to keep that job.

When the car rolled to a stop, Kaz rolled down his window. He knew by now that nothing good was going to come from the Chief. Fred Norton was none too polite in inquiring what in the hell did he think he was doing driving a white woman. Kaz was very quiet and very still.

The girl leaned over and smiled. “Hi Fred, it’s Barbara Hall from the drugstore, you know me. Kaz is giving me a ride home so I don’t have to walk. It’s along ways to Short street from Halcyon in these shoes and he’s doing Gladys Loomis a favor.”

The Loomis family were the largest business in town and that carried weight. The drugstore owners, the meat market and several other downtown businesses were also sympathetic to the plight of their neighbors. The sitting Municipal Court judge was also sympathetic to the Japanese-American people who lived in his town. A wrong move here would have its consequences. Any abuse handed out by Chief Norton could come right back at him if he wasn’t careful.

She beamed at him. He blushed with embarrassment. He knew my mother well. He knew there was no hanky panky going on here. He walked around to the passenger door and pulled it open and told mom to get out. She would just have to walk the rest of the way, he huffed, trying to pretend he was in control.

“Fred,” she said, “You are going to owe me a new pair of shoes. She smiled, leaned into the car and thanked Kaz and walked off down Branch towards her parent’s home on Short Street.

Chief Norton told Kaz he needed to be careful, thats feeling in town were not good and not to do that ever again.

Just a week later Kaz and his father were gone. Junzuo would die there, in the camp.. Kaz would be released in the spring of 1945 and return to the farming business. He married Mitzi and they raised their kids in our valley, prospering and becoming valuable members of the community.

Chief Norton lost his re-election bid in November and was out of a job. My mother voted against him. Imagine that.

My mother married my father the next spring and they raised a family of three boys. They lived here the rest of their lives too.

The Ikeda’s lived just up the hill from us and farmed right next door. Their kids went to school with us and we have been friends for decades. Still are.

Kaz and my mother remained friends. In later years when I was grown and first heard the story I couldn’t understand why something like that could have ever happened in this quiet little place. After all those years they both thought it was pretty funny but I suspect at the time it was anything but.

“We were very frightened….the whole Arroyo Grande Valley was. We didn’t have any idea of what was going on. The military was very secretive about the war, we just didn’t know anything.” Eighty years later some people who still live here still insist that the terror they felt justified interning all the Japanese-Americans. People felt they were fighting for their very existence.

As my father said, “It’s impossible to completely understand unless you lived it,” and I suppose he was right. He usually was about things like that.

Barbara Hall Shannon, 1942. Shannon Family photo
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Growed Up

When I was a kid, I tried to imagine my life and how it would be. I saw it as a line, beginning with my birth then moving in a straight line until I started high school where it took a right turn and flowed along for a while before slowly meandering to the left for a while and when I was about 35, going arrow straight. These are push pins placed at intervals along that line.

When I was growing up in this little valley, My family knew everyone and everyone knew them. There wasn’t much television, the world outside our  town was largely a mystery, most people didn’t travel much or go far. We lived a pretty parochial life.

We were three boys, separated by 5 years, which was against all odds.  According to my mother, we were her miracle because Doctor Casey told her soon after she was married that she would never be able to  have children. My mom and dad’s heartbreak at that must have been staggering because they both loved children and in my mother’s case, especially teenagers.

When I was born I was the fourth generation of my family to live here. Considering how small the population was, my parents and grandparents knew practically everyone who lived here. My grandparents owned a dairy which meant they had a business relationship with merchants and families from Shell Beach to Nipomo, wherever the milk trucks went. They were also of the generation born in the late 18th century which became what I like to think of as joiners. The belonged to the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, My grandfather was a Rotarian and grandmother a charter member of the Arroyo Grande Women’s Club. My future mother moved here in 1940 and went to work downtown Arroyo Grande. Downtown consisted of just three blocks whose stores and businesses provided all the things you needed to live. She started at Morris Pruess’s Rexall Drug, Hilda Harkness store, Louise Ralphs dress shop and nearly forty years later retired from Merilee Baxter’s Men and Boys store. Those little stores. There was E C Loomis, the feed store, housed in an old wooden warehouse at one end and by the Arden Dairy and two little churches, One Catholic and one Methodist at the other. In the country my family came from they were at each others throats but not here. Here they co-existed peacefully.

On the other side of Branch Street there was a gasoline station, a few little and very old houses then Don Madsen’s hardware store, a marvelous old wooden building crammed with everything a man could want, stored in dusty wooden bins and in the days before computerized inventory some of it must have been a century old, still waiting for my grandfather to come in looking for some obscure part for the steam boiler that fed the sterilizer where his milk bottles were cleaned for reuse. Like most boys of a certain age, dusty, dirty and dingy was a big attraction. The old building was nearly a century old, built before electric lights and was only dimly lit. Things weren’t easy to find in there and you had to rely on Mr Madsen to lead you to the spot. Like most of those old businesses in the days before credit cards, people ran accounts. Your purchase would be carefully entered in a little receipt book, I can still remember the men especially pulling the stub of a pencil out of a pocket, giving it a lick with the corner of the tongue and writing down your item on the little page, pressing hard enough so the duplicate underneath was marked through the carbon paper. No one sent you a bill, they just ran the account until you dropped by once a month or so and paid it. It was mostly still a cash economy then.

agold

Continue walking up Branch and you passed Art Mesquites furniture store, then the former Bank of Italy, Carlock’s bakery, Kirk’s liquor, where you bought your fishing license, the barber shops, Buzz Langengenbeck’s first, the lawnmower man of barbers, then George Karn’s palace of sartorial excellence. Next was the old, and last of the many Saloons that used to dot the town,  Bills place, a real old saloon was likely the oldest building in town. The last half block had a Recall Drug, meat market an old fashioned grocery store and a dress store. Slotted in were two doctors offices, one a GP and the other an Optometrist. Just opposite these were the five and dime, the Hub mens store, western Auto, another grocery and a men and boys store. Back down to the south was the jewelry store and a dry cleaner. You can fill in the town with the Greyhound Cafe and bus stop and the old Mission theater, closed but still in use for special occasions like the Black outs and Hi-Jinks during Harvest Festival. We still had a blacksmith shop, a real one even in the fifties and a little fire station that held one Chevrolet pumper. In those days it was still all volunteer and when the bell rang the firemen would come running, leaving their shop aprons on the counters of their grocery stores. They were ready.

My dad, George, went to local schools and though he wasn’t the kind of man who joined, farmers are pretty busy all the time and the life doesn’t leave a lot of time to fill. First and foremost he took as his life’s work, raising us. What I remember most is that he was steady, a resolute man who considered things and acted accordingly. He didn’t give his kids much advice on living, instead he and my mother set the example and they expected you to follow them. Dad never gossiped. If he wanted you to know something he might use someone you knew as an example but that didn’t happen very often. He might say, “A man who lies would steal.” Pretty succinct but the message was clear. He never, and I mean never lied or cheated. When his vegetables were packed in boxes for shipping to the wholesale market his employees knew beyond doubt that the bottom layer  should be just a good as the top. A buyer knew  that when they opened a George Shannon box of Chinese Peas every single pea was of the best quality. Thats what he taught me. Believe me, I packed a lot of them myself and I never wanted to disappoint him. I learned to be meticulous, a skill that has been very useful my entire life.

We were driving somewhere when I was a teenager and as we passed the old Brisco building he slowed to a stop to let an older man cross the street. Dad said, “Know where he’s going?” I said I didn’t. “He’s going from Bill’s saloon down to Ralph and Porky’s. He goes into Bill’s  when they open and when he is still able to walk he will shamble down to the other bar and drink until he passes out.” I looked again, his clothes were dirty his hair greasy under his battered old Fedora and as he walked his eyes were focused on the sidewalk, head down dimly concentrating on not falling, just making it the one block to his next destination. I looked over at dad leaning on the wheel with both arms as was his habit. He looked straight ahead and said, “Went to high school with him.” I looked at my dad then at the man walking and then back to my father again. My dad was 47. The man looked twice that. Thats how he delivered a message. Subtle because he wanted you to think about it.

Perhaps the worst thing I ever heard him say about someone was., “He’s a chiseler.” Not exactly a full throated roar of a denunciation but you understood he meant in the most serious way. It helps to explain the Peas in the box. I don’t remember him ever fighting back against the petty larcenies he encountered in business. He would just put a mental checkmark against the mans name and that was that.

He didn’t suffer fools either, he just wouldn’t have anything to do with them. If you messed with his kids you’d be sorry. When I was just sixteen my brother Jerry who was just fourteen and I took the flatbed truck loaded with Bell Peppers to the dock at Oceano Packing Company. On the way home I signaled a left turn from highway 1 onto Halcyon road and when I began my turn a pickup tried to shoot around me and the steel edge of the truck bed opened him up like a can opener. We stopped and got out and the guy started yelling and threatening to sue, “You damned  kids shouldn’t be allowed to drive,” He shouted. Still swearing he took our phone number and said he was going to call my parents and we were in trouble for sure. When we got home, worrying all the way, both about my dad would say or do we went into the kitchen and sat down and told the story. While we were doing that the phone rang. Dad answered it and we could hear the man shouting through the receiver. Dad didn’t say anything until he finished and then very calmly he said, “My sons say you had liquor on your breath so the best thing you can do is to shut up. Don’t call again,” and he didn’t.

When I started high school dad took me aside and cautioned me about the boys he thought I should avoid as they were from rough families. For the most part he was right, though how he knew that I couldn’t say. I went to a two room schoolhouse which was still rooted in the late 19th and early 20th century. The books were hand me downs. Some had been printed 40 or more years before I started grade school. They had names written in them whose children I went to school with. Bill Quaresma’s name was in one. George Cechetti and Al Coehlo had sons my age. They had studied in the same classroom as we did with the same teacher, Miss Holland. High school was like being struck by lightning. We went from a school with perhaps sixty kids to one with almost a thousand. We were completely socially inept. We didn’t smoke, swear or neck and were so far behind that most of us never really caught up. That was a good thing too, for we were cautious which kept us out of any serious trouble. I never cut class or school, did what I was asked to and showed respect for my teachers, all lessons that helped when I went to work. Dad always said that a job was a contract. The employer promised to pay you and you promised to do the work, as simple as that.

Branch Grade School, 1956. Shannon Family photo

In those days kids went to work early. You could legally work for wages at fifteen and a half and the majority did. We filled jobs at gas stations, packing sheds, worked in the fields bucking hay and picking beans and tomatos. Lots of kids worked the apricot orchards, picking, cutting and drying for Fred Greib and Coot Sevier down in the Halcyon. The introduction to the work world came early then.

Bucking three wire bales of hay on the Sheehy Ranch which weighed almost as much as I did taught me something. The older guys were happy to let the kid do the heavy work because most of it was side hill and we loaded the flatbed truck by hand. You were being taught something about the world of men. If you proved out, you earned respect. With Dinny in the drivers seat of the old Chevrolet and Ralph on the bed stacking, it was left to me to roll the bales up and heft them onto the truck. Unloading in the barn I got the top job, stacking up in the rafters where is was over one hundred degrees in the summer. At the end of the day Dinny went down to Jocko’s and I went home covered in chaff, sliced by the straw bales but with a feeling that perhaps I had entered the world of grownups.

I’m not saying that times were simpler then, they most certainly were not. I was born right at the end of the war and graduated high school just weeks before the first troops were sent to Vietnam. I was young when they killed the Kennedys and Reverend King. I got caught by the draft and didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t do what I was asked, though in the end I saw the Devil at work in his playground. He made sure that we knew we were part of his business. A lesson never forgotten.

In the end, this small town life where every one knew your family was a comfort to me. It is clear that you can never give up the place where every kindness and all the love was given you.

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