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.
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.
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.