Hands

I always sat with my back to the big picture window in the kitchen of our old farmhouse. Originally a pair of double hungs, they had been replaced with a large picture window by my dad and lester Haas when I was just a little guy. The window looked out on our farm and our neighbor Lester Sullivan’s fields. Behind that were the four corners where Huasna Road and Branch Mill Road cross. Back down Branch Mill you could see the little wooden bridge that crosses Tar Springs Creek, framed by the nearly vertical slope of the Newsom Ridge, the evergreen, chaparral and oak hills that defined our vision.

View from our window. Shannon Family ©

The view in the opposite direction was unremarkable. Our kitchen mirrored farmhouse kitchens as they were in the fifties, a table with chairs in the style of the time. The table had a grey formica top rimmed with chrome edging just like the side trim of a 1958 Buick Roadmaster. We had six chairs with curved chromium legs and frames, the seats and backs were covered with matching grey, industrial strength plastic as indestructible as modern science could make it. That table was the last gasp of a manufacturing style in which most things were made to last forever. Planned obsolescence was still just peeking over the horizon. A glance to the left revealed an International Harvester refrigerator made by the company that also built our tractors. It lasted the better part of thirty years. Next to it was a cabinet style Thermidor electric water heater and the electric range. To the right, a wooden cabinet with an old cast iron porcelain sink which, in a burst of pragmatism the original builder had just punched through the wall and drained into a bed of red geraniums.

Our old house was built long before electricity or indoor plumbing was common. My father believed, with some accuracy that it had been built by the Biddle family before the turn of the century when they owned that section of the old Santa Manuela Rancho. We knew as kids that we lived on a piece of land that had stories of Old California woven into its fabric, for the original adobe house built in 1837 was just up the hill from our place. The bear pit where Francis Branch and his Vaqueros trapped the Grizzly was literally a stones throw from my bedroom. The rich alluvial soil cleared of its monte, the tangled Sycamore and Oak trees thickly interwoven with willow and wild blackberry gradually cleared by farmers a century earlier would grow any crop. My family lived on the fertile land of the Arroyo Grande.

The most remarkable things to be seen at the table, for me at least, were my fathers hands. During my entire life in that house they were on display, holding a cup of coffee and a cigarette, writing in his farmers journal. making out checks for his workers or gesturing with them as he educated his children in the important things he believed we should know; the proper way to be.

They must have been when he himself was a boy, as smooth and unblemished as all children’s hands are. Not yet marked by a life of ceaseless toil on my grandparents dairy and on his own farm. Boys like my father and his brother who grew up in the first decades of the twentieth century who worked from the time they were able, doing farm chores helping my grandmother at home when nearly everything was done by hand. In the days when you made your own entertainment, they were employed in cutting, hammering or digging, making ideas from their imagination real. Children’s hands made the transformation to men’s hands slowly but relentlessly as needs must be.

Jackie and George Shannon 1923. Shannon Family ©

It’s difficult to imagine today what a farm boys life in the days before electricity and machines eased the burdens they had to carry. Nearly everything was done with hand labor, only horses helped and they themselves were a source of hard work, the feeding, harnessing and grooming were in themselves work. My grandparents worked from before dawn ’til after dark, my grandfather never taking a day off and my grandmother; only Sunday for church, the Cumberland Presbyterian church on the old Nipomo road now called Bridge street.

They switched from dry farming to dairy in 1923 because my grandfather had had it with beans which the demand for had plummeted after the war. Putting cattle on the land and selling milk simply switched from one tyranny to another. Cows never take a day off, ever. The entire family rose at 3:30 am and the boys were at the dairy barn by four. They brought in the big Holstein milk cows, herding them into the headstalls and spreading grain in the mangers while grandfather and the hired hands started the milking.

The girls at breakfast in 1926. Shannon Family ©

In 1923, my grandfather paid to have the Arroyo Grande Electric Company run lines out to the dairy barn in preparation for starting the new business. The brand new milking barn needed electricity for light and milking machines. The milk shed had to have it for the sterilizer, cream separator and Pasteurizing machine. He also built a chill box where milk was stored and cooled before delivery.

,The funny thing was he didn’t pay to have the “Juice” as my dad always called it, brought up to the house which was about two hundred yards further up the hill just across Shannon Creek. My grandmother Annie did get an electric water pump set down in the creek so water didn’t have to be carried up the hill by her boys in buckets anymore. All the time she lived in that house she never had electricity. I asked my dad what she thought of that and he said, “Oh, I guess they were just used to living that way.” I never had the chance to ask my grandmother what she thought about it but I suspect the answer might have been a little different. She likely agreed with an old woman interviewed about the progress of the Rural Electrification Administration’s line crews who strung wire across the hill country of Texas in the thirties who said, “I would go outside every night and watch the relentless progress of the power lines lines marching across from farm to ranch, each new lit house a continued string of pearls and I knew it would change my life in ways I couldn’t imagine.” I suspect my grandmother would have agreed.

The hardest job on the dairy for the two boys was the “stripping.” After the milking machines were disconnected from the cows teats they had to be “Stripped,” a job that had to be done by hand. Each cow would have a small amount of milk left in the teat and in order to prevent Mastitis infection it had to be squeezed out by hand. The udder was then washed with warm soapy water, rinsed and the cows sent back out to pasture. Dad started doing this job when he awas about twelve, four teats per cow, 15 to 18 cows per milking, twice a day everyday of the year. Thats more than a thousand a month, year after year until he left for college. He didn’t need to go to the gym. He had the most powerful hands I’ve ever known. He could squeeze mom’s pink bathroom scale and make it say “Uncle.” When the Silva boys, grown men actually, were in the kitchen, one or the other nearly every day, they would occasionally try to squeeze out a bigger number but they never did. Manuel had paws as large as a catchers mitts too, but dad told me that its all in the wrist and half a lifetime of stripping made him unbeatable. The very last time I tried to beat him he was 66 years old and I was 31 and I still couldn’t do it. Long live the king.

One of the serendipitous outcomes of their daily milking was the manure, milk and general grime that got on both boys trousers. The old family pictures of my dad and uncle show them wearing white corduroy pants which were the thing to wear for young men in the late twenties and early thirties. My grandfather nearly always wore white coveralls but his sons wore their school pants. Slaves to fashion, they worked hard to have the dirtiest pants, their corduroy bell bottoms with the 18” cuffs, when properly treated would get so dirty they could stand on their own in the corner while George and Jack slept. It gave my grandmother fits too, she fought them tooth and nail but the best she could do was to get them to wear a crisply ironed white shirt. The trousers are in almost all their school pictures along with the white shirt and always, as you can see, the only boys with a tie. That was a nod to my grandmothers upper crust sensibility.

White cords in various states of cool. Santa Maria Junior College 1931. Shannon Family ©

By the time I was old enough to begin noticing what you might call the little details, my father had spent an entire lifetime using his hands for work. They carried the marks of every blow and cut they had take in over sixty years of hard labor. There were scars where the harrow’s spikes drove into the back of his right hand. Two puckered reddish scars that looking like small dried Apricots, one at the base of the thumb and the other slightly below the base of his pinky finger the result of a redwood splinter driven through the palm while driving bean poles. His hands explained in clear detail while the Crescent wrench is known as a knuckle buster and the very worst and most constant the deep cracks and valleys caused by the daily immersion in irrigation water. During the cold months those cracks would ooze blood after a long day and yet, the work must be done regardless. My father never complained, ever. Neither did his friends. Some days there would be six or eight pairs of these hands on display during the morning coffee break. The only time hands were even mentioned is when those hurts were compared and then joked about. They would laugh about who was the dumbest for getting hurt. My mother suffered silently at the other end of the table  wishing my dad would use the cream she used to make her skin cool and smooth. He didn’t though. He simply got up in the morning and went out to work.

The day dad drove the splinter through his hand he walked into the kitchen with his hand wrapped in a blue bandana already soaked with blood, walked to the cupboard where he kept his bourbon, Old Grandad, filled a water glass to the brim and threw it down in one long gulp. He turned to where I sat at the table doing homework and said, “Take me to the doctor.” I did, though I’m sure he’d have done it himself if he could, his pickup was a stick shift and needed two hands. Doctor Cookson pulled the splinter completely through with a pair of pliers, gave him a squirt of antibiotics and a bandage. A stop at the drugstore for meds and home where he sat down in his easy chair and promptly went to sleep. The next day he got up at the usual time and went out to work. Farm boys learn about pain early and their toughness is their curse. How does one explain men like that?

Did all this come from a working mans life? Was it because, though a 1934 graduate of Cal Berkeley, the depression allowed few ways to escape? Or did he, as he once told me, just wanted to grow vegetables and farm. Farming is hard work but unlike many professions it renews itself with every harvest. It breeds optimists. Next year will be better if we can hang on.

My dad was nobodies fool and though he was never rich in possessions he got up each day in the dark and went to work, did the jobs that needed to be done, helped my mother and the rest of the family raise his three boys and never once complained. So, all the lessons we learned at that old table came not just from what our parents had to say, they also came from what we witnessed them doing and the ways they went about doing them.

Neither of my parents ever cried or complained. That was part of the lesson.

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