“The best bugler in the G-damned United State Army,” so said First Sergeant Milton Warden, a soldier of the 298th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division stationed on Oahu in December 1941. A line spoken about Robert E Lee Prewitt, a character in James Jones novel “From Here to Eternity.” Made into a film, a quite wonderful film, in 1953. In the film Prewitt plays the greatest rendition of Taps ever recorded. He plays it for his dead friend Maggio and as an ode to the “Crummy Life” of the soldier.
Taps refers to the three traditional rim-shots, or taps played on the drum at the end of the call.
It ends with the words, “All is well, safely rest, God is nigh…”
To all our troops who gave up their lives for our country. Rest in peace.
The bugle call, “Taps”, was likely composed by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, who commanded 3rd Brigade, 1st Div in the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac during our Civil War. Butterfield wrote the tune at Gaines Mill, Virginia in 1862 after a bloody battle in which his division suffered severe losses and he, himself was badly wounded. Gaines mill was one of the seven days battles fought near Richmond Virginia. My great-great-grandmothers young husband was killed there as was his brother. The third brother had died at Bull Run. Butterfield himself was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the Civil War Brigadier Generals led from the front and suffered enormously heavy casualties on both sides.
Within a year of its composition it was being played by both armies, Confederate and Union.
The actor shown above, Montgomery Clift learned to play the bugle for his roll in the movie though the recording was actually made by trumpeter Mannie Klein. Klein was a swing band trumpeter and played for such greats as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whitman and in the fifties, many West Coast Jazz groups. He played the bugle parts in “Here to Eternity” and Picolo Trumpet on the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
The book on which the movie was based almost perfectly encapsulated army life at Schofield Barracks, Oahu just before the of WWII. The characters are based on the old depression era professional army. These are the men that fought at Guadalcanal and the early island battles of the Pacific war. Almost all were killed or wounded holding back the Japanese while America geared itself up. There is a great debt owed their memory.
James Jones, the man who wrote “Here to Eternity” was an enlisted man who served during the war and was in fact, a shadow of these men and their times. He enlisted at 17, lying about his age. He served with the 27th Division at Schofield, witnessed Pearl Harbor and was wounded at Guadalcanal.
His book is considered to be one of America’s best wartime chronicles, ranked along with other combat veterans who wrote after the war.
Joseph Heller, B-25 Bombardier, “Catch 22,”
Kurt Vonnegut, Scout, 106th Infantry Division* “Slaughterhouse five,”
Paul Fussel, 2nd Lieutenant, 103rd Infantry Division “How I learned to Love the Bomb,”
Norman Mailer, Reconnaissance, 112th Cavalry, “The Naked and the Dead,”
Herman Wouk, Lieutenant U S Navy, USS Zane, “The Caine Mutiny,”
J D Salinger, Counter-Intelligence Unit U S Army France, “Catcher in the Rye.”
John Hersey, War Correspondence, “Hiroshima,”
Roald Dahl, Fighter Pilot, “The BFG,”
Eugene Sledge, Marine Rifleman, “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa,”
Martha Gelhorn, war correspondant, she was the only woman to land at Normandy on June 6th 1944. She was the first writer to enter and report on the Dachau Death Camp. She also served in Korea and Vietnam.*
And James Michener, Lieutenant U S Navy, “Tales of the South Pacific.”
I’ve walked through this quad at Schofield and yes it still exists as do the bullet holes from Japanese machine guns. It will give you the Chicken Skin, particularly at night when it’s filled with ghosts.
Whatever your personal views on war and the U S Military, this war was fought for all the right reasons. Not every war has been but the boys and girls who served in all of them and died for it deserve your respect today. They paid the highest of prices for you.
Note: She was also one of Hemingway’s wives and the only one to dump him for which she deserves a medal.
Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m scared, What should I do.”
“Barbara, you have to tell him. This is a small town not like Santa Barbara or Long Beach. People here will not look on a divorce lightly. You have to tell him. If he or anyone else ever found out, well, you can’t just let it go. If this relationship is that important, George has to know.”
The next time the were together she waited until the end of the night and then she found the courage to tell him. She told him all of it.
He didn’t call for a week.
Four years earlier Barbara had a boyfriend in Santa Barbara. She loved her life there. She lived in what was still a pretty small city, a city defined by wealth and privilege. It was like night and day when compared to Taft or Bakersfield, a couple of hardscrabble oil towns where she had lived growing up. She’d met a teaching pro at the Montecito Tennis club where she played when she could. She hung out with a crowd of high school friends who were financially better off than her parents and it was exciting to have a glimpse into theat life. At seventeen it must have seemed the weight of that existence, the constant moving, leaving friends, and then having to repeat the cycle all over again and again and again could be over. She felt she was in a place where she could stay a long time, as her father was fond of saying “We’ve lived in practically every hellhole in the state and I’m tired of it.” She was too.
As if to drive the point home they moved several times in the two years they stayed in Santa Barbara. Houses, apartments and even motels. Bruce was hoping for a promotion and expected to leave Santa Barbara and finally when they were living out in Goleta it happened. He was drilling out at the Elwood lease on the old Dos Pueblos rancho when they called and ordered him down to Long Beach and Signal Hill. The family was headed out again and Barbara didn’t want to go.
Her solution was to marry. Her parents weren’t happy, particularly he father, but she was determined to stay. After all she was eighteen and she could do what she wanted. Her father though that he was a poor choice and he let her know it. He had now spent nearly twenty years in a hard job with hard men to handle and he wasn’t particularly sensitive to her wants. There were some hard words spoken but she went ahead and married anyway. Bruce was hard on her about it. Her mother perhaps less so, her own mother had been divorced, though she was a fiercely independent woman and really didn’t care what anyone thought. She was entirely different than her granddaughter. Nevertheless Barbara was left to fend for herself. Neither Barbara nor her parents backed down.
He was a good looking guy, athletic and personable on the surface. He worked as a tennis pro and as a bellboy and bartender at the Biltmore Hotel. It was a ritzy place in the thirties and catered to the wealthy, movie stars and politicians. A short drive from Los Angeles, its Spanish California revival architecture set in 22 acres of land tucked between Butterfly Beach and the Santa Ynez foothills in Montecito would have been a paradise for a girl raised in the oil patch.
Barbara was a cocktail waitress and they lived in the workers bungalows on the hotel grounds. Barbara’s family saw them occasionally on the holidays. Her parents missed her but these gatherings were often strained by the disapproval they had difficulty hiding. In 1940,she and her husband came up to Arroyo for thanksgiving staying in the old motor court north of town. There is a picture of the family taken in front of it, everyone looking directly at the camera except Barbara. Here husband has his arm around her shoulders, a cigarette dangling from his fingers while she looks to her right. She looks desperately unhappy. She has the look of the thousand yard stare, something seen on the faces of soldiers who have seen combat. It’s prophetic.
Later that year her aunt Martha who lived in Goleta while her husband worked the Elwood Oil Field saw her niece walking down State Street in Santa Barbara. Martha crossed the street to say hello. Barbara looked unhappy and sported a black eye she had unsuccessfully tried to cover with make-up. They spoke just a few words, shed some tears and both continued on their separate ways. When Martha returned home she told Elmer and he said we need to call Bruce and Eileen and tell them, so they did.
Bruce got on the phone and called her in Santa Barbara. It was a rough conversation. She cried over the phone and Bruce was very careful not to tell her “I told you so,” instead letting her talk herself out then telling her that if she wanted to, she could come home. And so she did, arriving the next day, stepping off the Greyhound Stage at the depot in Taft. She was welcomed with open arms.
Bruce and Eileen helped her get a divorce, not a common thing in California at the time. Roughly two divorces per thousand couples were asked for and granted. People saw divorce as a failure both ethically and morally. “You must be attentive to your spirit and you must not be unfaithful,” Says the Bible in Malachi, the 39th and last book in the old testament. The feeling that divorce was a failure was common belief and that women were considered more at fault than men. It wasn’t the Scarlet Letter but it was close. Things like this were kept secret for shame, deserved or not. Barbara divorced him for good reason but the shame would have been entirely hers.
To top it all off she needed twenty-five dollars to legally change her name but didn’t have it and neither did her parents. She had to keep it. She very carefully stowed the marriage license at the bottom of her trunk and never spoke of it. It remained there until her death. Hidden away for fifty-four years, unknown to us.
Then after a week, George did call. It was alright. It was all put right.
Jack and Annie Shannon and brother Jackie adored Barbara as Bruce and Eileen did George. Some common sense and a great deal of love made it alright. Bruce, Eileen and Patsy were to leave for Long Beach and Barbara didn’t want to go, but this time for a good reason. She stayed in the little house on Short Street and her new friends cheered her on for George was quite the catch and they all knew it.
George was a man of good character, he never lied, he would wave at you on the street even if you weren’t looking and I was once told by a man who knew him well that he was the “Finest man he ever knew.” A child can never know his parents as young but I saw the way men, and particularly the generation of women who watched him grow up treated him. Those old girls were indicators of the esteem in which they held him. I used to go with my dad to buy birthday presents for my mother. I Can’t remember anything he ever bought her, but in Louise Ralph’s dress shop, Louise and Florence fussed over him like a couple of mother hens, gently nudging him toward the perfect gift. I certainly remember that. The way they treated him said a lot, even to a kid. My mother was the recipient of a running commentary of hints and nudges, for a married woman can no more see a single man stay single than she can stop her own breath.
Things got serious in ’42. George was growing tomatoes for the army at Camp San Luis and Barbara was working steadily downtown and for the both of them the future looked bright. No need to worry about the war, he was deferred as essential industry and it seemed to both of them like it was inevitable. It was and he asked her if she would marry him. She said yes.
For those of you who have lived in small towns you will know what newspapers were like eighty plus years ago. Each and every event in town was chronicled, births, deaths, who was visiting out of town and where the boys in the service were. They printed addresses and phone numbers too. Marriages were a pretty big deal. The weekly Herald-Recorder made a science out of them. First the betrothal, then the bridal shower and finally the nuptials.
In the wedding announcement above Barbara is listed as Barbara Hall which was her maiden name. When she signed the wedding register she would have to use her married, legal name and the paper would surely pick up on that.This presented a problem. Barbara’s divorce was not to be divulged, ever. It would open the door to sniping and moral judgements that neither family wanted to see. The question was, what to do? Run away, elope?
Elope it was. Georges mother Annie and family friend Billie Records would stand up for the couple so it was decided to motor up to Salinas and get married. They took dad’s little gray Plymouth coupe and my grandparents Chevrolet sedan and made the drive. My grandmother made the arrangements with the minister through the First Presbyterian church in Arroyo Grande of which she had been a member for over fifty years.
Marriage by a minister with only two people in attendance doesn’t take long and they were soon taking pictures and even made a short film celebrating the event. Eighty eight years later you can still view the little film. There are hugs for the new mother-in-law and Billie. A kiss by the newlyweds after which Barbara turns away from the camera in embarrassment and George takes his pocket handkerchief and grinning with absolute delight wipes off his wife’s lipstick, another big squeeze, a handshake with the minister who appears equally delighted. They say their final goodbyes and were off headed for San Francisco on their honeymoon.*
They avoided judgement and there the secret lay, hidden from view for over half a century.
They stayed together for 54 years until my mother passed away in 1997. Cancer is cruel but they hung in it together. Barbara’s friends came to say goodbye, some of the same girls who celebrated her marriage those many long years ago.
Barbara was 79 when she died, young enough that many of her friends outlived her. Her funeral was a big one. The kind where people come to celebrate the life of friend, a well known community member, some one who spent her life working downtown in a very small town like ours. She knew everyone and they knew her.
Her only surviving sibling, little sister Patsy came down from Shingle Springs to say goodbye. If you’ve forgotten who she is, she’s the little girl Barbara took for a walk so it wouldn’t seem as if she was trolling Traffic Way for George. She didn’t fool anybody especially George. Who hitchhikes just a block from home. The rules of romance are immutable though and lovers must do what they must do. George used to tell us that story at the dinner table, he with a twinkle in his eye and she with a blush. We loved her the more for it.
A lingering death, a funeral, a wake are exhausting things. After Barbara was laid to rest aunt Patsy and her children had to leave for home and it was decided to meet at the Apple Farm for breakfast before they went on their separate ways. After eating we all sat around enjoying coffee and a little catch up when Aunt Pat turned to me and said, “Did you know your mother was divorced?” I was absolutely stunned. I was fifty two. My brothers and I kept wondering how did we not know this? They kept a secret for fifty three years, fifty three years and never told anyone.
Barbara’s family knew of course and Billie Records, my grandmother Shannon too but no one else. As far as we know not a single soul in Arroyo Grande knew of it and if the did they never spoke where we could hear them.
When I was a baby I lay in a crib with my life long friend Dwight as our mothers drank coffee and chatted in the kitchen. His mother was always a special friend of my mother and as I grew up, mine too. She was a kind and generous person and raised her son to be the same. Years after my mother passed he and I spent some time together and I told him the story and then he told me that his mother had been divorced too and he never knew until after she died and he found the divorce decree in her private papers.
In todays world where no one can or cares to keep secrets it seems to me that something has been lost. Mom and dad weren’t afraid of it. What they were afraid of was the effect it might have on their children and families. They weren’t the only ones either. So have we lost something? Tell me if you can.
Notes: The honeymoon letter my mother wrote is in the index under “Letters.”
“Mom, Mom, there’s somebody at the door.” Eight year old Patsy yelled as she ran into the kitchen and began yanking at her mother’s apron. “There’s a man at the door.”
“Just a minute, Patsy, hold your horses please,” she said, wiping her hands on the apron and turning for the front door.
Bruce and Eileen had just returned to the little house on Short Street the month before, bringing Their daughters Barbara and little Patsy, the Midlife Surprise with them. Surprise it was too, supposedly Grandma had locked herself in the closet and cried all day when she found out she was pregnant again. Her youngest was already fourteen and it all seemed too much to bear. Little Patsy turned out to be a delight though and she got over it.
Bruce had been transferred by his boss at Signal Oil to oversee oil production in the Santa Maria and Price Canyon fields. They had had to wait for the renters to move out and stayed in the old Arroyo Motor Hotel on South Bridge Street. Eileen and her daughters had made the miracle Thanksgiving dinner that fall of 1941 in the tiny motor court kitchen, cooking the turkey and fixins’ on a single hot plate. Twenty two years an oilfield wife teaches those kinds of skills. Make do with what you got, learned the hard way.
Eileen had called the Hillcrest Dairy as soon as they moved in and opened an account to have milk delivered. They had had milk delivered from the Shannon’s dairy when they had lived in Arroyo Grande in the early thirties. She picked up the phone and dialed 223 F-13, smiling to herself, remembering their slogan, “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.”
When she headed for the door she heard whoever was at the screen knock politely again. As she neared the door she saw a tall young man with a shock of dark hair standing there and smiling.
“Mrs Hall?” he said, “I’m George Shannon from the dairy and I have your bill.” Eileen saw that he was looking at Barbara, doing the I’m not looking but still looking as young men do. Not exactly sly but just getting a gander at her.
“Why don’t you come in while I write you a check?” She turned for the kitchen to get her purse and checkbook, walking back to the rear of the house her low heels clunking on the wooden floors.
George waited in the front room. He was looking out of the corner of his eye at the girl sitting on the sofa and playing solitaire at the coffee table. She looked up at him and smiled, laying down the Jack of hearts on the Queen.
Eileen could hear a conversation in the front room so she took a few more heartbeats to get the check written before calling from the kitchen, “Barbara come and get the check and give it to the young man, will you?”
Barbara went back, took the check and then handed it to the milkman, George, and smiled again. He smiled back, took the check and said “Thank you,” and walked out the door. Barbara watched him from the doorway and when he got in his car, he looked back and she was still standing holding the screen open. She smiled again and waved. He smiled too.
Eileen Hall, my grandmother was nobodies fool. She came into the front room and she could smell the ozone left from the lightning strike. Zap. Mission accomplished. She though perhaps the hook was set.
After he was gone Eileen and Barbara talked a little bit about it. When George was talking he mentioned a his schedule, what he did each day and Barbara remembered that he brought milk into the creamery next to the Methodist Church each day. After a couple days when he hadn’t called or stopped by she thought she would try and force the issue so she took her little sister and walked up Valley Road toward Marsalek’s. She knew he’d be coming down to the creamery and about what time. Patsy was along so it wouldn’t be too obvious what she was up to.
Sure enough the old dark blue Hillcrest Dairy truck came along and he pulled over. She tried to appear casual as if nothing was going on, like she hadn’t even seen him. George offered her a ride home so she and Patsy climbed in, Barbara next to George and Patsy on the passenger door.
Remember that Arroyo Grande had hardly a thousand people at the time. That included people living in pretty distant outlying areas and the town itself was pretty small. Barbara’s home was just about a block away. George would have been pretty dense if he couldn’t read the situation. When the truck rolled up to the house, George reached across and pulled the door handle for Patsy to hop out. She climbed down and ran into the house. Barbara lingered. When she came in the door Eileen asked her what had happened and she smiled from ear to ear and said, “He asked me out.”
And so it began. Once a week or so George would show up at the door and the two of them take in a movie at the Mission theater on Bridge Street, sandwiched between the bus depot and the telephone exchange on one side and an old Saloon on the other. They went to first run movies of the day such as Walt Disney’s Bambi, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby which my dad particularly liked, being a life long fan of Crosby’s voice. They saw Casablanca there too.
The old Arroyo Grande hall known as the “Rat Race” had slowed down because of the war. Harry Chapek, a lifelong friend of my dad had joined up on January 21st and was training as a 5th Armored Division tanker. He had fronted the house band at the hall since high school but with so many boys gone already local bands were hard to come by. They danced there too when they could.
Weekdays touring big bands came to the Pismo Pavilion where George and Barbara danced to Benny Goodman and Woody Hermans “Thundering Herd.” The managers would spread cornstarch on the dance floor to make it easier to glide and slide when twirling to the Lindy and the Two-Step Foxtrot. There was The Ward theater in Pismo and the pleasures of dining at Plessa’s restaurant or drinks and dinners at Matties where Mattie herself would tell ribald stories to the customers waiting for a table.
Mattie Belle was from Texas and a “Corker,” my grandfather said, meaning she was loud, profane and knew all the little town secrets. She had the gift of remembrance and she could remember a person she hadn’t seen for twenty years. “Jack, how are you,” she’d say, “Let me buy you a drink.” The secret was, that if she could get one in you, you’d buy more, wherein lay the profits. As for the secrets, a secret well kept is a lever. She kept her girls down in the cribs on Hinds Street where she collected information as well as currency. It’s the secret to being a good operator and the security needed to stay in business and out of trouble. It was a wide open town in the early forties and if you needed it you could get it. If they didn’t have it , it didn’t exist.
Dad had it made with these places because his family delivered milk to all the restaurants and cafes, grocery stores and homes in all the five-cities. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Barbara was charmed.
For a girl raised on the go, moving and shedding friends was what she was used to. Dating a man who was firmly rooted and the recipient of all the friendliness and care a small town can lavish on a person was a wonder to her.
Our little town was so small that you could contract all your business in just one block. Barbara left her home and walked across the swinging bridge on the way to work. She was the Jill of all trades at Cornelias dress store. She could stitch and sew, she had a marvelous eye for color and she could charm, the residue of a life trying to find the popular girls and boys in each school she ever went to. “Corny” Conrow treated her as a daughter. Barbara was starting to feel as if she was living in a place where she belonged, not just passing through. She liked it.
The Conrow’s were good friends of George’s parents and played cards with them once a week. No doubt Jack and Annie heard about this new girl George was seeing. Cornelia liked her very much and they would have known that. The Women’s Club, The Rebekahs, the bridge clubs, local festivals was where women shared what they knew. This new young woman was being investigated. It’s a little town thing. Is she good enough for our George? In a place like this you marry everyone. The good is shared, the bad is locked away. It’s like a Mafia.
She soon knew everyone on the block. The Pruess’s who had the Rexall, Hilda Harkness who owned the other dress store. Buzz Langenbeck and his wife Vareen, he cut men’s hair and she gave women their perms right behind the pink curtain at the rear of the barber shop. Clair Gibson down at the bank on the corner. There was Madsen’s hardware store, The Greyhound bus stop and cafe, The Quitman’s in their little men’s store and Bill Zeyen selling workingman’s clothes just up the street. Across from Cornelias was Bennetts grocery where “Rusty,” a confirmed redhead and his wife Muriel held court in their apron’s. Judge Jerry Dana presided over his municipal court and was fond of leaning out of his second story office window and waving to folks on the street.
She told us kids that in those days, women didn’t smoke on the street nor wore trousers, it was just too daring. Men tipped their hands to the ladies, never swore where a woman or child could hear them and kept their business to themselves. A safe place to be with kindly people who made you feel welcome.
As George was doing his courting he was slowly changing from formal dates at restaurants and theaters to the more mundane but even more important time together doing the ordinary. He would pick her up dressed in his boots and jeans, she in “Overhauls”, her hair up in a blue bandana which was becoming the fashion for young women and off they would go in the old milk wagon hauling milk and cream to the Golden State Creamery or running the routes to the grocery stores. There is an old movie film where she runs around the truck, laughing, and climbs in the passenger door as George smiles and waves from the drivers seat. Thats how she met people like Jack Ford who owned Ford’s Market in Pismo Beach or the Montgomery’s who had a little corner market in Oceano. They delivered to the old CCC camp down by the Southern Pacific tracks which was being converted to an R & R Center for the tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors flooding the county and filling all the new training camps to capacity. The war was everywhere and it was busy changing the entire population. As my father would say, Adolph Hitler stamped out the depression just like stepping on a bug.
Early in 1943 things between them were getting pretty serious. When a young man writes songs for a girl its all over for him. He has willingly put his foot in the tar baby. If you think you know your parents, well, you only know the version standing in front of you. You really only know what they let you see. That younger version is packed away somewhere, a place you will likely never go. The sad tale is, most never have an opportunity to dig that young person out, either because they never ask or when they do, it’s “Oh, you don’t want to know about that. It was long ago.” A child who listens carefully to adults gets glimpses of those people but most of that life is hidden from them. When they talk to you, everything they say is censored to some extent. Snippets from their lives are presented as lessons for you to learn. They are building character and only some blocks fit.
In the fall of forty-two, Bruce was promoted to Chief Drilling Superintendent for Signal Oil and Gas. This meant a move to Long Beach and the end of the families Arroyo Grande adventure. Barbara was not happy. She thought things were going so well that she didn’t want to leave. She had her job and she had George. She wanted to stay.
Part Four next.
Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m so scared.”
My family had been in the dairy business since 1923. Both my uncle Jackie and my father, George had literally been raised in a dairy barn. My father was barely eleven years old when my grandparents, Jack senior or Big Jack as everyone called him, and his wife Annie Gray Shannon started their business. They lived and worked on land she had inherited from her uncle, a prominent pioneer in the Arroyo Grande valley.
Both boys were at work as soon as they could carry a bucket or push a broom around the mangers after the milking was done. As they grew, more chores were added until many of the hours they weren’t in school were consumed by work. Anyone who has done it will tell you that it is the hardest farm work of all. Cows never take a vacation or a day off. Your customers expect their milk will be delivered on time every day. Jesus waits, Santa waits, even dinner waits until all the chores are done.
My grandmother was determined that both of her boys would go to college, a pretty rare thing for boys from Arroyo Grande. She herself was a graduate of the University of California, something pretty rare for women in the early twentieth century. Her uncle, a successful and wealthy landowner paid the tuition of numerous young women in order that they could attend college.
Two of those girls did teach, one the daughter of a neighbor has a local school named after her. The other was one of the Tyler sisters. Margaret and Harriet, more fondly known as Mamie and Hattie grew up with my grandmother in the big house on the hill above Arroyo Grande. They were part of an extended group of young people who practically lived in Patrick and Sarah Moore’s home. You see, the Moores were childless themselves, and so they welcomed any and all kids who wished to to share their home. Though my grandmothers siblings lived in Oso Flaco she never lacked for friends her own age. The promise made to my great-grandparents that the Moores would pay for my grandmother’s University education if they allowed her to be raised by Patrick and Sarah Moore was fulfilled when she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1908.
My dad, George, attended the Arroyo Grande Grammar school when the old building on south Bridge Street housed the elementary school kids downstairs and the high school upstairs. He spent his k-12 years, all in the same building. His teachers did a good job helping him prepare for college and when he graduated in 1930 he moved to the new Santa Maria Junior College. Already deep in the depression his parents didn’t have the money to send him to Cal for four years so the school in Santa Maria was his only option.
At the time it was housed in the beautiful old brick building on south Broadway where portions of it still stand today, chiefly the Ethel Pope auditorium. Ethel was one of my dad’s teachers. Allan Hancock College was still twenty four years in the future and the school was not relocated until 1954 when it was renamed for Captain Allan Hancock who donated part of the land for the new campus.
By 1930 when dad started Junior College, the highway from Arroyo Grande to Santa Maria had been paved in concrete but kids still did not have cars as they do today. He would hitch a ride with a classmate on Monday morning and spend the week in the home of Walter Word and his wife. Walter was the football coach and taught Physiology and was greatly admired by my dad. On my first day a Allan Hancock College, the renamed SMJC, he came to my classroom to introduce himself and offer me any help I might need. That was 33 years after my dad stayed with them. I could see why my father felt he was such a good man.
SMJC had about seventy students, freshman and sophomores and though small, featured the kind of campus life typical in the nineteen twenties and thirties.
Old photos in my dads yearbooks for that time are typical. They feature the same subjects you see today. Students, still just kids at heart recline on the lawn in casual repose, dancing, acting self-conscious and wacky. There are sports and their stars, poetry, including my fathers “Ode to Nature” for which he got an A in English 1B, Miss Pope’s class There is a little moral tale written by Arroyo Grande’s Katherine Routzhan too. You may have known her as Kay Phelan, wife to Gus.
In the above photo the girls are trying to look serious in their newly shortened skirts and “Middy” blouses. Note the feet. They no doubt have their stockings “rolled”* in a style once considered scandalous by their mothers. Simply shocking.
Dad had been student body president in his senior year at Arroyo Grande High School and his parents expected him to do well in college and he did. His mother Annie certainly expected that but perhaps his father Jack, even more so. Jack Shannon hadn’t completed the eight grade and though a successful man had learned the value of a first rate education. Dad was elected student body president his sophomore year at SMJC. He played football ran track and captained the basketball team where he earned the nickname “Ding.” I asked him why, expecting some funny answer like dingbat or dingus or some such thing but he said that in the 1930’s style basketball when you made a shot the bell rang. This was to both signal a scoring change and to stop play. In the 30’s they had to jump ball after every score. It was a much slower game then than it is today. There was no dunking, and the two-handed set-shot ruled the day. Foul shots were two-handed and under handed, the so-called “Granny” shot. Dad was a prolific scorer, hence the nickname. When I was young he couldn’t be beat in a shooting contest.
At school, boys who played any sport apparently had to have a nickname . Going through the books you find Herb “Tog” Tognazzini, “Buster” Rice, “Artie” Classen, and Albert “Gunboat” Souza who obviously had the biggest feet, hence the “Gunboat.”
A funny point of contact between us was a father-son discussion we had when I was in high school and I was explaining that kids were feeling oppressed by Mr. Hitchen and his strict dress code. He laughed and said that all teenagers push against parental restrictions. He said that when he was in high school and college the style was for boys to wear a sparkling clean white shirt every day and that each would endeavor to have out do all the other boys with the filthiest corduroy pants. He and my uncle Jack would wear their cords to work in the dairy barn where they would be spattered with cow manure and milk mixed with a dash of sticky adobe dirt and some dead flies thrown in for extra measure. It was considered lucky if you lived on a farm because you had a great advantage over town boys. He said he used to compete with his friend George Oliver for cords that were so dirty they could stand up on their own. His mother didn’t care for it one bit either. She had to hand launder those shirts and she made the boys leave their pants outside at night so as not to disturb her delicate sense of smell, being “Lace Curtain” Irish and all. I didn’t believe any of it of course because I knew my grandmother to be a stickler for cleanliness. Long afterwards when I got ahold of his SMJC yearbook and his photos at Cal I found out it was all true, perhaps even more then he described. Ralph Hansens’s cords predict his future as the owner of the largest tractor dealership in Santa Maria. Perhaps oil and grease are even better than manure and milk.
Those old photos were also part of my “Sex” lectures. When I was in high school, creeping hemlines were the bane of Miss Varian and Mrs Mankins existence. Girls would secretly roll their waistbands to hike the hem just a little too much for the dress code. My vote, of course, was all for it. It had a tendency to reduce grades among boys but I don’t think that bothered anyone but the powers that be. At least in my senior year typing class Mister Simons had the good sense to place the few boys in the front row demonstrating his male astuteness. Dad and I were looking at the old Mascot yearbook and I commented that the girls dress was pretty conservative with high neck blouses and mid calf skirts, and loose fitting too, like they weren’t trying to draw any attention to themselves. Dad laughed out loud, he said, “Mike, girls always find a way, they didn’t wear their “shimmies”** under those cotton dresses and when they walked through the sunlight you could see right through them.” It was one of those revelatory moments when you begin to see your father as perhaps not the grown up you’ve always seen him as but a once young guy like you.
My father went up to Berkeley in 1932. Sadly, one of the few from his Junior Class to do so. Nearly every person in his graduating class in Santa Maria indicated in their bio’s that they planned on attending university, particularly the girls. For most it was not to be. The depth of the depression in the mid-thirties was a reality and many of that generation weren’t able to further their education beyond Junior College. Instead of an education at one of the finest universities, a job as a typist was what the the future held. An awful lot of “What ifs” are connected with the Great Depression, sad to say.
I have a letter written by my dad to his parents on his first day in Berkeley. He visited his aunt Sadie, my grandmothers sister and stopped by to visit Flora Harloe, a very old friend of the family and widow of the renowned sea captain Marcus Harloe. Later he went to the Bursars office to pay his fees and collect his books. What is most striking about it is the cost of that education. His class fees and books for fall semester 1932 were $37.50. A very modest sum by todays standards. But, if you take into consideration that the Average hourly wage across the country was .45 cents an hour and could be as low as .15 cents it was not quite so modest. The average annual income for a family of four was roughly $1,300.00 a year and not coincidently my grandparents paid income taxes on $1,372.76 in 1932. To help support himself he worked as a waiter/busboy at a nearby fire station and pledged a fraternity where he lived. Jack and Annie were able to send him $5.00 a month to supplement his living. Gasoline was .10 a gallon but he had no car, when he came home to Arroyo Grande for summer he hitched a ride with someone he knew or stood on the side of the highway with his thumb out. He said that sometimes it was hours between cars and he depended mostly on trucks to get home.
My father was fortunate to attend Cal during its largest expansion. In 1930, Robert Gordon Sproul became the first native Californian and alumnus of the University to serve as its President. He was to guide its fortunes longer than any of his predecessors–through three cataclysmic decades that included the Depression, World War II, and the birth of the atomic bomb. And he was to see the University attain world renown for scientific achievement in a period when the body of scientific knowledge began to expand at a rate unprecedented in history.
Sproul instituted expansion of the library until it was considered the finest in the nation. He attracted professors like Ernest Lawrence whose study of Physics resulted in him developing the Cyclotron and smashing the atom. The Lawrence-Livermore laboratories are named for him. Robert Oppenheimer was a professor during my dads tenure. Some of the finest academicians in the country were on campus in the 1930’s. Cal was famed for professors who had or would win the Nobel Prize for physics, medicine and economics. My father worked hard, made good marks and received a first class education.
Dad graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934 and though his parents thought he should become a lawyer, his only desire was to come home and be a farmer. Thats what he did too.
Both he and my uncle Jackie worked for their parents on the dairy for the rest of the depression and were still there when the war began. They lived at home in the little house on the state highway now called El Campo road and built by my great-grandparents in 1922. It was pretty typical of houses built in those days. Simple board and batt siding, you went in the back door every day of the year except Christmas eve when you used the front. Family and friends knew those kinds of social graces. A knock at the front door meant a stranger to that house. It had one little bathroom, two bedrooms and a tiny office for my grandmother to do her books in. The entire dairy operation was run from that room. Dad said he nearly bought a house in town on Garden Street next to the Kitchell’s for $1,500.00 dollars but his brother convinced him to rent some property together on the mesa and grow hay to sell to my grandfather for the dairy cattle. It was a drought year, the oats didn’t amount to anything and the money evaporated. A lesson in hard farming. No money, no house. He figured that it was a lesson about buying real estate and didn’t buy another a piece of property for another forty-four years.
Through all the years after University dad kept his head down and worked. He worked for himself, doing some farming on the side but primarily worked the dairy for his folks. He once told me that in all those years he was never paid. He said he was just given room and board. He said jobs were very hard to come buy then so perhaps he was fortunate in that. I don’t ever recall him showing any desire to see the world. He was perfectly content with where and who he was. He once asked me why I wanted to travel so much, saying, “Why you can spend your entire life in San Luis County and never drive every road or see everything worth seeing.”
The war started in ’41 and he took the train out of Oceano for Oakland and volunteered for Navy OCS on December the ninth, a Tuesday. People on the west coast were anxious, confused and afraid. No one knew what might be coming. Young men like my dad were enraged and wanted to do something, anything. His parents took him to the depot and waved him aboard the train in a scene all too familiar to folks of that generation or any generation for that matter. With his degree in hand he left his aunt Sadie’s house in Oakland and walked into the Navy’s recruiting office. They were more than happy to sign him up right there. He filled out the paperwork, was interviewed and sent for a physical.Thats where he ran into a problem, during his physical. The doctors found that his right leg was quite a bit shorter than the left. This was likely from a football back injury he suffered in high school. He always had some nerve damage after that but In those days kids just toughed it out until it stopped hurting. At the beginning of the war, the Navy was only taking the perfectly fit so they sent him home. He told me that if he’d done it again in 1943 they’d have taken him, saying “You don’t ever standoff a level floor in the Navy. Things would change a great deal for him by then though so he couldn’t. He went home, back to the dairy.
So there he was, 29 years old, living at home working for his parents again. Get up at 4:30 and go milk. Hook up the milking machine, strip the teats, run the Pasteurizer, run the bottler, load the delivery trucks, hit the road on the routes, take the leftover milk up to the creamery, do it all again in the afternoon and when necessary go out to the customers houses with the delivery receipts and collect the money.
He didn’t know it yet but he was about to catch a break, a lucky break. A very lucky break
My grandmother said, “George, can you go make the collections today, please?”
“Sure mom,” he said, and he went out and got into his little grey Chevy coupe with the box of delivery receipts on the seat next to him and set off.
He was 29, single and very handsome.
Note* The rolled stocking, complete with roll garter, had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. It was sandwiched between a period when women wore corsets with garters used to hold up stockings and a time when women’s undergarments included less bulky, but still cumbersome garter belts, also with attached garters. So how’d it work? You’d slip on your stocking, slide the garter roll up your leg to the edge of the stocking (mid-thigh, usually) and fold the stocking edge over the garter, rolling it down your leg until it was just where you wanted it (generally below the knee).
Note** In Western countries, the chemise (Shimmy) as an undergarment fell out of fashion in the early part of the 20th century, and was generally replaced by a brassiere, girdle, or a full slip. Panties for the first time came to be commonly worn.
It has been said that fortuitous events will occur when the stars align in their courses.
My Great-Grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall came to the Arroyo Grande Valley around 1900. He had come west without his wife of seven years, LaVance or Vancey as she was called. She had been temporarily left behind with two little boys, William and my maternal grandfather Bruce Cameron in Johnson City, Carter County, Tennessee.
Vancey was crowned with luck. Her father was killed along with his two brothers during the Civil War. Twenty five year old Tad was killed at First Manassas (Bull Run), McKamie, 23, at Seven Pines and her father Nelson Hooper who was just 21, died of wounds at Richmond. Nelson was shot at Malvern Hill on one of the bloodiest days of the war. Vancey’s luck was that her mother Mary Lucinda was six months pregnant. The Hooper family lost all three adult sons to the war. All served with the 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which was mustered in from Iredale County as most regiments were in those days were, especially in the south. They fought and died with boys from their hometown which made it especially brutal for the families.
Grandpa Sam, was the son of a Virginia veteran himself, his father William served with the 27th Virginia Infantry, part of Stonewall Jackson’s troops. Like many veterans and their families they went west after the war perhaps preferring to get as far away from the places that held such awful memories. More than 50,000 Tennesseans died for the south and roughly 5,000 for the north. For the men and boys this represented about 14% of the male population of the entire state. It created a world of widows. Prospects must have seemed awfully bleak. One out of seven is a staggering percentage.
Out west Sam he worked as a carpenter in Lemoore, California for a time before moving to Arroyo Grande’s Verde District, off what is now Corbit Canyon Road. Vancey waited almost two years before coming to California. She finally had had enough of the waiting and came on her own, bringing the boys with her. She joined him here in a little house which still stands in Deer Canyon. Sam Hall worked at farm labor and soon graduated to managing ranches which would be his life’s work.
Vancey and Sam’s son Bruce was living and working on a dairy near Creston when he met my grandmother Eileen in 1915. They were both at a Barbecue and he sort of sidled over to her while she stood around the campfire and said, “Smoke follows beauty,” which has to be the worst pick-up line ever devised. I worked though. They courted for three months and almost on a whim tied the knot in San Luis Obispo’s Presbyterian church. When you know, you know, I guess. Grandma Eileen was asked where they went after the wedding and she said, “Grandpa gave me a little glass of wine and we went to the hotel.” The questioner, my brother was both amused and taken aback by the answer. No young grandchild expects the answer to a question to even hint a sex.
They soon came down to Arroyo Grande to stay with his parents in deer canyon. Eileen was pregnant with my aunt Mariel who was their first child. She was born in that little house. Most babies were born at home in those days. Doctor Charles Clark, the towns “Baby Doctor” was likely the attendant. Perhaps he became a doctor because of what he had seen riding with Custer in the final campaigns of the Civil War. Delivering those new to the world might have made up for the losses he was responsible for. A balancing of the scales if you will. Regardless, aunt Mariel came out yelling’ and remained that way her entire life.
The population of Arroyo Grande was quite small then. In 1900 it hovered around 500. An interesting thing about our family is that with such a small population it’s very likely that Sam and Vancey Hall knew my paternal great-grandparents John and Catherine Shannon who lived on Printz Road just a short distance from the Hall home in Deer Canyon. They would have also known the Patrick Moores. Mrs Moore was aunt to my future grandmother.
Sam and Vancey were living up in Madera, California when my mother was born in 1918, but it wasn’t long before Bruce received a phone call from his brother Marion telling him that there were good jobs in the oilfields around the Casmala/Orcutt area. The pay was good, the work steady and it included housing. The housing was a company owned lease tent or Shebangs as they were fondly called, not gracious nor palatial but a place to live. It was an improvement on living three families in the same home as it was in Madera. Bruce and Eileen moved down to Casmalia and shared a Shebang* with Marion and his wife Grace. They hung blankets on clotheslines to create some privacy. Something like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Nevertheless my Uncle Bob came along soon after. Uncle Marion didn’t like the work and he and Grace soon left but Bruce and Eileen stuck it out and never left the business. Thirty eight years, wherever the job took him, she and the kids followed. Bruce worked the rigs but Eileen and the kids were oilfield workers in their own way. She kept up with him the whole way.
So, my mom was an oilfield girl. The new job required them to move to the oil patch, where they would remain for the best part of the next 38 years.
It’s hard to imagine her life as she grew up, she lived in dozens of different houses, 78 to be exact, sometimes more than one place in the same town. She and her sister Mariel were only a year apart and became each others friends and most of the time, allies against a world in which it was difficult for girls to find a solid footing because they were here for a short while and then they were there. A necessity if nothing else, for they changed schools more than once a year for 11 of their 12 years of education. My grandparents were fortunate enough to remain in Santa Barbara long enough for them to complete two full years of high school so they could to graduate together. The very first time that had happened to mom in her entire school career.
Don’t think they didn’t move though. Dad said grandma would rather move than clean house. He said she was so good at it she could pack up the car, load the kids and be off in two shakes of a lambs tail. When they were living in Santa Barbara, they moved four or five times so maybe the joke about cleaning house had some merit.
Santa Barbara in the thirties was quite the place to grow up. Wealthy and exclusive it was a playground for the elite. Movie stars, rich landowners, some who who dated back to the very beginnings of California and pioneer money raked in during the development of the southern California desert now known as Los Angeles.
Bruce was transferred in 1936. He worked for Signal Oil now. The work good and he was busy. He had been sent down to Long Beach and the family would follow, Eileen and the the kids would pack up and go as always. The problem was, my mom loved Santa Barbara and the life she had there. She played tennis at the country club and hobnobbed with some of the wealthy kids she met in high school. Riding in a convertible around Montecito with Leo Carrillo was pretty heady stuff for a girl whose father worked with his hands and came home smelling like gas and oil, everyday. She had a job at the Biltmore Hotel on State street serving cocktails and a boyfriend who was a tennis pro at the country club. She stamped her foot and refused to go.
Things had been very tough while the lived there. Bruce had worked for Barnsdall Oil at Elwood north of Goleta and in Summerland but Barnsdall went belly up and in the middle of the depression and he was out of work. Gasoline prices had dropped by nearly forty cents a gallon and the oil business was staggering. It got so bad that Eileen packed up her pride, put it away and went down to the office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Known as Relief, it was a pejorative term even then, working people were shamed by having to ask for help. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance in the thirties. The women in the office told Eileen that they didn’t qualify because they owned a car and would have to sell it. There was no way to get to work without it, they couldn’t sell it. At the last possible moment Bruce got a job with Signal Oil. He was so grateful to Sam Mosher, Signals owner and president that, though in later years he was offered more lucrative work, he stayed with the company. Such was loyalty then. He worked for Mr. Mosher until the day he died.
In 1940 my grandparents moved back to Arroyo Grande to the house my great-grandfather built on Short Street. Grandpa Bruce was transferred up from Long Beach to oversee Signal Oil production in Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande’s Dolly Adams lease in Price Canyon, east of Pismo Beach.
Mom was living with the family again and wanted to stay in Long Beach but her Woolworths job didn’t pay enough for her to be able to live on her own so she came too. Not really willingly, but she did come. She worried that she wouldn’t find any new friends or a job. She was wrong on both counts. Finding new friends was something a girl from the Oil Patch could do. When her dad was transferred the kids had to move schools and all of them learned how to spy out the popular kids. They learned how to make friends quickly. It was a defensive mechanism. New kids in school are suspect, and have to find a way to fit in right away. It was her greatest social skill. If you ever talked with her you felt like you were an old friend right away.
In 1940 Arroyo Grande had a population of about a thousand people. The census area in those days included all of what is now Grover City, Oceano, Halcyon and the Western addition. All of the valley as far south as Los Berros was included. It was a pretty typical small town, the kind that were all over the country in the 1940’s.
Every bit of business was carried on between Crown Hill and Buzz Langenbeck’s orchard west of town. It was all of three blocks. There were a couple of old Saloons left over from wilder days, three grocery stores, two women’s dress shops, Hilda Harkness’ and Cornelia Conrow’s, directly across the street from each other. the Hub, the Quitmans mens clothing store which smelt of rich fabric and the only place in town where you could but a Homburg hat for dress up occasions. A man needed to look good at an Odd Fellows, Masons or a church meeting. There was Morris Pruess Rexall Drug store, complete with a soda fountain where high school kids hung out when the school on the hill let out. There was the library, next to the ice cream parlor and across the street from the Commercial Company. At the Commercial you could buy groceries along with what were once known as “Notions,” the variety of small objects and accessories, including items that are sewn or otherwise attached to a finished article, such as buttons, lace, greeting cards and post cards. Practically anything you wanted, including furniture, they stocked it. Next to the old Pacific Coast railroad tracks, the Loomis feed mill and just down the street two Blacksmiths, even in 1940 a dying breed. Across the street was the old two story newspaper building where the Herald-Recorder was put together each week.There were several mechanics, two auto dealers, a hardware store, four churches, the Arroyo Grande grammar school and the high school. The Bank of America sat imposingly on the corner of Branch and Bridge Streets. Nearly every one who came to town for Saturday shopping knew each other.
An old home movie taken during the “Gay Nineties” celebration in 1938 features nearly everyone in town. You can sense the fraternity amongst the people as they wave and smile at the camera. If there were disputes or social problems, family secrets, they were kept under lock and key. Folks did not broadcast their dirty laundry. Secrets were meant to be kept. Many forever.
A few homes sat up on Crown Hill by the brick building that was the High School. Most people in town lived in the Western Addition across the state highway near the old horse racing track and the Chataqua grounds or east of the Arroyo Grande creek along the several little streets named for pioneers. Ide, Myrtle, Nelson, and Allen streets were bisected by Mason, Short and the eponymous Bridge Street. Poole Street was still just a dirt path. There were three automobile bridges and one walking bridge at the end of Short Street, named for the man who built it so he could conveniently cross from town to his little farm on the opposite side of the creek.
My mother lived on Short Street. She lived with her parents and her baby sister Patsy at number 225, a little white house with a tiny garage in the back. The same house her grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall built in 1934 after the death of his wife Vancey. She was new to Arroyo Grande, she was 22 years old, single and beautiful.
My Aunt Mickey and my Uncle Ray had a little ranch in Watt’s Valley, not too far from Tollhouse. Tollhouse is not a city or even really a town, in those days it was little more than a wide spot on the road to Shaver Lake. It marked the place where the tan and brown Sierra foothills changed to the stacked and twisted granite that make up the great backbone of California, the Sierra Nevada.
Their place was built on a sidehill above the little creek than ran through the property. The creek had a great advantage for the kids that lived and visited there. You see, it’s hotter’n the dickens in Watts valley in the summer. The weather slows things down some. Afternoons are for dozing on the porch and drinking lemonade, trying to stay in the shade because you might as well take aunt Mickeys Sad iron and rest it on your forehead as step out in the sunlight. The air grows heavy, taking a breath is a bit of work and the kids wait for Uncle Ray and my dad to get back from Humphrey’s Station with that 50 pound block of ice they use in the homemade swamp cooler in the living room. Works like this; a tin washtub for the ice which is then covered with an old burlap sack, the cooling water on the sack is pushed around by an old electric fan. It sorta works, but really, it lets you think something is might be happening when it not. Such is the power of suggestion.
For us kids the best thing was Uncle Rays swimming’ hole. What could be better? Around ten o’clock mom and her sister would drift into the old kitchen. Not a modern kitchen with retro appliances made to look like old times, but the real deal. It had an old sink set in a wooden countertop just under the window that looked out on the corrals where the branding, notching, and nut cutting took place in the spring and fall. Back of that was a view up the hills covered with California Live Oaks, the occasional Hereford doing the same as us, resting under the shade of a tree. In the corner next to the dining room wall was the hulking cast iron stove where uncle Ray made breakfast most days. Bacon and eggs, fresh homemade biscuits from the oven served on plates stamped with ranch scenes, ropes, brands and handsome white faced cattle. A jelly glass with milk fresh from the cow, a scattering of yellow cream on top, even the occasional captive fly. Put in front of each kid sitting around the kitchen table, some sitting in chairs, some on the bench under the row of windows looking over the road coming up to the house from the creek crossing, breakfast a comin’.
Aunt Mickey and my mother would gather up the fixings and make sandwiches for the trek to the swimmin’ hole. Pure white bread from the bag with the multicolored spots, mayonnaise from the jar kept in the cupboard standing out on the screened porch. Bright yellow mustard smeared on a piece of baloney and squished together with a firm hand then folded into a waxed paper envelope and stacked in the bottom of an old wicker basket. Throw an apple or two in, some old tin cups and top it with a piece of red and white checkered oil cloth. By the time they were done they were surrounded by boys and maybe a girl, my cousin Karen, a tough little bird surrounded by some boys whom she took no lip from. The kids could hardly wait, they were literally dancing up and down with delight.
Busting out the back door, the only door we ever used, we headed down to the where the pasture gate crossed the road. The little guys would squeeze between the bars, a bigger boy would show off by opening the gate in a manly way. I’m almost grown it said. Down the road we would go the kids wanting to run ahead but held in check by the thought that the big black gobbler might be lurking in brush and trees along the left of the road. If he came at us there was no escape. The right side was a cutback you couldn’t climb, the left side was enemy territory and the only sure fire way to get by him was to be stealthy quiet. If he appeared the whole group would bolt, little legs carrying us a fast as they could go, helped by the downhill slope to the creek crossing. Aunt Mariel carried a kitchen broom for defense. Once we made the turn at the bottom we were safe, at least until the return trip.
Just before the creek a two track road veered off to the right and this we would follow through the pastures watched by phlegmatic cattle gently chewing their cuds. We knew to leave them be, no cowman ever runs cattle. Fat is currency in the cow business. It seemed forever before the little creek gently curved in front of the cut bank that indicated where the swimming hole was. Down to the edge of the water, kids pulled off there Levi’s, tee shirts and jumped right in. No bathing suits. Modesty might indicate keeping your underwear on, thats what the moms did. They stripped down to their underwear and were mostly content to sit on the bank and watch their kids play.
We did what kid do, splashed water on each other, did a little dunking, big against little and pretended to swim. None of us could, you know. No need to worry much because the water wasn’t over 18 inches deep. Aunt Mickey and mom couldn’t swim either.
Those girls grew up in the oilfields. Oilfield brats didn’t get swimming lessons and they almost never lived near the beach or a river. In fact my mother was scared of the water and it took a whole lot of encouragement just to get her into a pond as shallow as this one. Temperatures in the nineties probably helped. Of course saying it was ninety would just have been a guess. Watts Valley in the summertime didn’t take a genius with a measuring instrument to tell you it was hot. Really hot.
With the youngest out of the water and napping in the shade it was time to take all that pink wrinkled skin home and get ready for dinner. The trip back was slower than the trip out kids completely worn out. As we neared the road up to the house, aunt Mickey walked a little ahead to spy out the pasture in front of the house, broom at the ready, to see if the big black Tom turkey was in sight. If he was hiding in the bushes we could be in trouble. If he was out in the pasture, same thing. He figured he was the boss and he wasn’t interested in having anyone trespassing on his territory. He would put his head down, spear you with his malevolent eye and charge like Ghengis Khan, blood in his eye, beak ready to draw the same. Flapping his wings he grew in size, seemingly moving like an express train as he boiled up the little hill. Kids, moms and aunts bolting for the gate, surrounded by shrieks like the General Jackson’s secesh coming out of the trees and through the wheatfield. We, like the Yanks at Chancellorville, skedaddled as fast as we could. When we hit the gate, kids were squeezing through the bars like Cheez-It from the tube. Mom and aunt Mariel fumbled at the latch and at the last moment squeezed through. Turkey ran right up to the bars and stuck his head through, hissing, gobbling and jumping up and down, enough to strike terror into any kid. Just to show him who we were, we gave ’em the raspberries and skipped up to the house, triumphant.
About 7 o’clock we were all out on the front porch aunts and uncles, mom and dad sipping whiskey, smoking and telling stories, the kids quietly picking foxtail and clover burrs out of their socks, sipping lemonade and enjoying the cooler evening weather. Down in the pasture, uncle Ray had turned the sluice gate into the grass to keep the permanent pasture alive. Every few hours the gates had to be closed and the next one opened. He called out to my oldest cousin Bruce to “Get your fanny down there and move the watergate before dark.” Bruce, being fourteen was reluctant to take on any job he could possibly get out of, grumbled his way down to the walk-through gate and ambled down across the pasture toward the creek not paying much attention to where he was. Whatever he was thinking about it wasn’t old Tom, that is until he heard the hiss of the charging turkey. Bruce yanked his head around toward the sidehill and saw the bird coming at him on the dead run. At fourteen you figure you’re almost grown and to show any sign of cowardice is the worst kind of self imposed sin. I’m sure he gave a moment of thought to standing his ground but self preservation won out and he bolted for the house as fast as his lanky frame could go, Mister Turk gaining at every step. Bruce didn’t bother with the gate, no time for that, no, he lifted off like a fighter plane and soared right over that four wire bob wire fence, clearing it by a foot. As he was airborne it occurred to him he’d just been humiliated by a bird in front of the whole family. Instead of stopping, he continued his flight right up onto the porch, flung open the screen door and raced inside emerging a moment later with his .22 to be greeted with gales of laughter by the big folks. Uncle Ray laughed so hard I swear he had whiskey coming out of his nose. Just a moments hesitation on his part was all it took for uncle Ray to say, “Jughead, put that damn rifle down, you’re not shooting that bird.” Bruce silently retreated back inside to nurse his ego and the little kids slyly smirked at each other to see their big cousin put in his place, not so much by uncle Ray but by a bird. In family lore the great turkey race has lived down the decades, each telling adding some little detail. Cousin Bruce became a legend with us little kids but perhaps not in a way he wanted to be.
Bruce got some measure of revenge though. Uncle Ray dispatched that Tom with an axe and we ate him up at Thanksgiving. I never have figured out what part was the best, the delicious terror at being chased, my cousins teenage humiliation or the taste of old Tom with all the fixings. Perhaps its all of them.
The Universe is not made of Atoms; It is made of stories. —Muriel Rukeyser. Like this one.
Halcyon, Adelaida, Estrella, Santa Rosa, Saint Patricks and an almost lost Santa Manuela, places where our first immigrants found their final resting place. Some are small family graveyards spotted on private properties. They are all old and sad, barely cared for or visited.
Located near the famed San Andreas Fault, the Parkfield Cemetery is a chronicle of heartbreak. With no sign at the entrance, no grass and no noise, this cemetery marks a nearly unknown place, an Old West-style graveyard where intense summer heat discourages visitors and dries out the soil. It is a sere, dusty place of forgotten people. Many of the 94 bodies buried here once belonged to children who died from the diphtheria outbreak in the 1880s. Also, here is the tombstone of Louisa Kidwell Lee, who died in 1893, According to her tombstone, she was the granddaughter of the Rev. Jonathan Kidwell, a soldier in the American Revolution.
Not too far from the home I grew up in was a little spot reached by a short walk up behind the elementary school I attended. At the top of a small canyon in a spot shaded by an old oak tree lie Francis Ziba Branch, his wife Manuela and their children. Like most family sites it is seldom visited and normally only by those that have some distant connection to the family and its history. Don Francisco was buried there in 1874. After nearly a century and a half this little place of peace is nearly completely forgotten.
Though there are likely no earthly remains below ground, the markers raise questions in the mind about who they were, what kind of lives did they live and how did they get here.
Up past Port Orford, Oregon, over on the coast is another private graveyard, located alongside a road that leads to the Cape Blanco lighthouse. It is situated on a bluff overlooking the old Hughes ranch which is nearby the Sixes river. It is small. Just a very few people are buried there. There are some members of the Hughes family who ranched on the rivers plain just below. There are some laborers who ended up at the ranch and served the family for decades. There are also a few neighbors buried there.
The Sixes flows only about 31 miles through coastal forests in southwestern Oregon. It drains a rugged region of the Klamath Mountains. The river rises in the mountains of northern Curry County, south of Sugarloaf Mountain. The Sixes flows generally west, and eventually enters the Pacific just north of Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon. The mouth of the river is along the coast just to the north of the Cape. Directly offshore the river, the magnificent Castle Rock appears to sail off towards China attended by its convoy of smaller rocks thrust up from the ocean floor. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a hard place too. Howling winds in the winter and spring, fog, cold and damp descends like a pale curtain much of the year.
When Patrick Hughes arrived here in 1850 it was quite literally the end of America. That wandering man Daniel Boone crossed the great barrier of the Appalachian mountains into Kain-Tuck-Ee in 1775 and in the next 24 years moved himself west to Missouri Territory. He explored 800 miles towards the Pacific in his entire lifetime. Lewis and Clark went west in 1805, John Coulter, the first mountain man followed and within thirty years our valley, 2,100 miles west of Missouri found its first Irish settler in Francis Branch. The Sixes River had its first Irish in Patrick Hughes.
One of the variants of the name used by the Kwatami, was “Sik-ses-tene”, which is said to mean “people by the far north country”. This is most likely the real source of the name for the river. The spelling “Sixes” was used by miners drawn to the Oregon Gold rush who were familiar with the Chinook word “sikhs”. In the way that we do, a local name with unfamiliar spelling or pronunciation is quickly bastardized and becomes the name of record. So Sixes it is.
Patrick Hughes was himself an emigrant. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1830, he immigrated to the United States in 1850. He met and married Jane O’Neil in 1853, and the couple sailed for California in 1856. Patrick Hughes worked at gold mining before traveling north to Curry County, where his wife joined him. The Oregon gold rush started in 1850, around the same time people started digging up California. The first miners found gold in the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon, working their way along the Rogue River to the Pacific Ocean. Hughes was attracted to the Oregon Coast by the gold in the Sixes River. Like most gold seekers this didn’t pan out and instead he homesteaded along the river. He built a large dairy operation over the next fifty years and shipped his products south to Port Orford by wagon and on to destinations along the west coast including San Francisco, less than a two day sail away.
The Hughes Family Cemetery was built around the little Catholic church (St. Mary, Star of the Sea) which Hughes and his wife built. Buried there are various members of the Hughes family and their Irish immigrant neighbors. Hughes built the little church in that isolated little place in order for the tiny community to worship. Much of the original Hughes family was laid to rest there along with neighbors and those who worked on the ranch. Stones commemorate Michael Duffy, a neighbor, Frank McMullen and his wife Catherine. Buried nearby is William O’Shannon. A curious thing, beyond the fact that they were all born in Ireland is they were almost all the same age and died within just a few years of each other.
Denis McCarthy has a stone there. He worked as a stock raiser for the Hughes for the most part of his life. He was born in 1819 in Icheegeelagh Parish, Cork and baptized in the Catholic Church by Father Humphrey before he was a year old. He father Denis held him as the Priest anointed him with oil, all praying for a baby’s future. As with an enormous number of Irish he served time in an English jail for theft. In Denis case, hay. Upon release he bolted for America arriving in New York aboard the steam packet St. Patrick. He was 22.
He was lucky in a couple of ways. One, he wasn’t transported to Australia, for it was they heyday of Britains policy of ridding its population of the so-called criminal element by banishing them to the penal colonies. Penal records for the time list Denis McCarthys by the dozens, all transported to the penal colonies in Australia or even sold as chattel slaves to the British sugar plantations in Jamaica. Most of them were shipped off for crimes so inconsequential as to be laughable today. It was the Irish/British courts way of ridding the Island of the “Pernicious Scum,” the native Irish. The obverse of that coin is that the Irish were so poor that theft was a risk people took in order to simply survive.
The English overlords had introduced the Penal Laws in Ireland in 1695. It was a purposeful attempt to crush the Irish, both as a people and as a state. Ireland had stood in the shadows of the great powers of Britain for centuries. From the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I thereafter, to the invasion by Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s puppetry over Ireland had continued to dehumanize the Irish peoples. The British intensified the injustice brought upon Ireland when they stripped the Catholic Irish and other religions known as Dissenters of their religious freedoms and nearly all of their holdings including land.
Dissenters and Irish Separatists were Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dissenters (from the Latin dissentire, “to disagree”) could be members of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Free Thinkers, Seekers (Quakers), Puritans and Unitarians. They all in some ways disagreed in opinion, belief and other matters with the established Anglican church. Various rules were created to suppress the Catholics in order to make sure they did not rise to challenge British power. Any practice of Catholicism and communication in the Gaelic language was forbidden and labelled as rebellious against the powers of Britain. Catholic priests were banished, Catholic schools were banned, and Catholics were forced to pay a tithe to upkeep the Anglican church. Brave teachers who continued to teach their students their religious beliefs and their history in the forbidden Gaelic tongue did so in remote areas, hidden and away from the Protestant English. These were the Hedge Schools and the hedge master, if arrested was subject to immediate hanging. Suppressing the religious and linguistic practices of the Irish were a few of Britain’s many strategies that contributed to the weakening of a cohesive Ireland as a whole.
Irish immigrants were absolutely desperate for land. The Popery Act of 1703, passed by the British parliament, forbade Catholics to pass down their land to their eldest son, and instead required landowners to distribute the land equally amongst all sons. If the family bore only daughters, the lands were to be also split equally amongst the daughters. By the early seventeen hundreds, the Irish who made up 90% of the population owned less than 10% of the land. When Denis was born, hope for improving the lot of the family was gone.
Laws for tenants insured that survival for Irish farmers was and always would be at a subsistence level. If a farmer’s production exceeded his land rent by more than 31% he and his family were subject to eviction by the landlord. The entire system was designed to crush the Irish and drive them off the land. This made them laborers subject to the whims of the great lords who controlled the country. It was a tenuous existence at best. Dispossessed people died of starvation, lying in roadside ditches like so much trash. People died with green around the mouth from eating grass and nettles. At least a million Irish died in the six years of the potato blight.
“Rotten potatoes and sea-weed, or even grass, properly mixed, afforded a very wholesome and nutritious food. All knew that Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty of grass in the field though the potato crop should fail.” (The Duke Of Cambridge, Adolphus, Son of King George III, January 1846)
“The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Filthy Irish people. The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.” (Sir Charles Trevelyan, 1st Baronet KCB, 1st minister of his Majesty’s Treasury charged with administrating relief for the millions of Irish peasants suffering during the Famine. 1847)
With the coming of the potato blight in 1840 even this meager existence became nearly impossible. Potatoes were the primary diet for the Irish. Ireland was a very productive land, but nevertheless, wheat, mutton and pork, which were still produced in abundance were sent out of the country in order to profit the landlords. The vast majority of these products where shipped to Britain to feed its citizens.
The 1840s saw a significant number of people flee from the island to countries all over the world. Between 1841 and 1857, death and starvation led to mass emigration mostly to Great Britain and North America. Ireland’s population fell by over 2 million. The population fell by almost 35% and in some rural counties by as much as 50%. This Diaspora meant that Americans of Irish descent make up more than five times the population of Ireland today.
However, the common argument of the mass emigration from Ireland being a “flight from famine” is not entirely correct. The Irish had been coming to America since its inception. After all, eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish, three of them born in Ireland. My own ancestor Leachllain Shannon served in the 1st company, 8th regiment of the Pennsylvania volunteers during the French and Indian war. His son Daniel was a soldier during the revolution.
Once conditions in Ireland were improved, emigration did not slow down. After the famine was over, the four years following produced more emigrants than during the four years of the blight. The famine was considered the final straw in convincing people to move. There were several other factors in the decision making too. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution was generating a voracious appetite for cheap labor. The Erie Canal and the coming of the railroads, the rise of vast cotton mills in the northeast and the opening up of the western territories needed workers. During the civil war, Irish men were signed up for the Union Army as they came down the gangplanks of the the ships that brought them. Around 200,000 Irish served in the Union army alone. A high percentage of Scots-Irish from earlier immigrations fought for the confederacy.
As with most immigrants, the money for a ticket to the US wasn’t easy to come by. Average wage in 1840 Ireland for a days labor was six to nine pence, less than a shilling. 240 pence to the pound meant that it took a minimum of six months work by a day labourer to raise the money. A ticket to New York in steerage, the lowest class of passenger was about 5 pounds for the trip. For many emigrants, payment of the passage to America was one of the most significant events of their lives. Some who could afford it paid their own, but the majority of emigrants received the passage from a family member, usually a sibling who had already made the journey across the Atlantic, paving the way for younger brothers, sisters or even parents to follow.My great uncle Pat Moore brought his three sisters and his father after he established himself here. In the 18th century it was common to sell oneself into indentured servitude in the west in order to make the passage. Indentured Servitude was a binding contract in which the servant agreed to work for his or her master for a specific period of time until the cost of passage was paid off. Contracts ran as long as seven years in which the person was essentially owned by the lien holder. Thats right, owned, having no rights under the law and bound to serve the master in all things. Imagine signing the documents in Ireland with no idea of who or what you might find when you arrived at your destination. Indentured servants were auctioned dockside.
The trip itself could take anywhere from a month to three or more depending on the season. Winter in the Atlantic can be unbelievably brutal with constant gale force winds, ice and the pounding of the ship in the furious waves. For the first time, steam allowed sailing ships to buck the northern passage and its prevailing winds. Steamship companies made huge profits since it only cost about 60 cents a day to feed each immigrant, they could make enough profit on each crossing to pay off the cost of building the ship. The shipping companies sent traveling salesmen throughout Ireland and Scotland to hustle tickets. They placed advertisements in newspapers and attended public gatherings. Working on commission, they earned a very good living during the potato famine, signing up young men like Denis McCarthy.
The ship Denis traveled on was the Saint Patrick pictured above. She was sailing ship that had been converted to steam and powered by paddle wheels. Built in 1827 she was already old in 1840. Passengers would be crammed into every part of the ship. Locked below decks in the hold and the lowest part of the hull were hundreds of people, packed into every available space. They were seldom, if ever allowed up on deck. Glasgow, Scotland was the beginning of the ships passage. Here they loaded Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances, for they were a “Troublesome People” and were being forcibly removed from their homes by the British. They sailed to Londonderry in the north of Ireland and then Belfast on the east coast and finally Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork. The majority of emigrants left as teenagers or in their twenties and many would never have needed to travel very far from their homes. The prospect of a move to America must have been monumental. There was the distinct possibility they would never, ever return to their families. For parents and siblings it must have been as if the immigrant had died. Denis would have left from his home in rural Cork boarding the Saint Patrick in Queenstown.
Many, many did die. With nothing more than buckets for toilets, and only sea-water to wash with, disease was rampant. Cholera and Typhus accounted for a great many deaths. Those who died were buried at sea, although buried is simply a political term for someone whose remains were simply dragged on deck and tossed overboard. Perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, sharks learned to follow the ships looking for a meal. With death rates commonly reaching 20%, and horror stories of 50% dying, these vessels soon became known as “Coffin Ships”. Long cónra in Gaelic was how the ships were styled. The shipping lines, among the most famous in western history, White Star and Cunard could not get ships into service fast enough and consistently shipped passengers on old and nearly derelict vessels in order to generate massive profits. Ships agents fanned out across Ireland and Scotland touting the accommodations of their ships. The promised three cooked meals a day, clean and spacious accommodations when in fact 300 to 400 hundred passengers would be crammed below decks in rat infested holds and fed on the cheapest food that could be found. Typhus carrying fleas, mites and lice infested the dark, dank holds of these ships. The British sailing ship Larch left Sligo in northwest Ireland with 440 passengers; 108 died at sea, and 150 arrived sick in Boston. Consider the Sir Henry Pottinger, a P&O ship which left Cork with 399 in steerage of which 98 died and 112 were landed sick in Montreal. Many of the Famine ships carried few if any cabin or first class paying passengers, they weren’t necessary because the people in steerage were vastly more profitable. Death on board was of little consequence as passage was paid up front.
In the St Lawrence River, some 30 miles east of Quebec City, the quarantine station at Grosse Isle was soon overwhelmed with the numbers of sick passengers crawling or carried off the coffin ships. It couldn’t treat those that were ill, let alone provide for those that were not. So those that appeared healthy remained onboard their immigration ships and were simply waved on to Montreal.
Unfortunately, many had already caught typhus ,the fever that ran rampant on their overcrowded and filthy vessels and they were to become ill further upriver. Soon, it was Montreal that was overwhelmed with the dead and dying.
Ten years after the year of the coffin ships, workers building the city’s Victoria Bridge unearthed a mass grave containing the remains of over 6000 Irish immigrants. A 27-tonne granite boulder marks the spot beside the bridge’s entrance where an annual ceremony remembers those who died escaping poverty and hunger. Their families in Ireland likely never knew their fate. They were simply dumped in a mass grave and forgotten.
As the old saying goes, “When the Irish arrived in America they thought the streets would be paved with gold. But not only were they not paved with gold, they were expected to pave them.”
The politicians and the press of the time excoriated the immigrants, referring to them as vermin, drunkards, louts, animalistic in their desires and the worst example of humanity on earth. In the cities that they settled in, signs stating no Irish, no Catholics need apply were common.
In countless cartoons the typical Irishman (“Paddy”) was shows to be violent, ignorant, drink-prone with a pronounced prognathism of the jaw-line to indicate a simian personality. An ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering long after the period of its most deadly potency. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser or the caricature that is the mascot for Notre Dame University. Perhaps the Irish survived by embracing the negative stereotype and making it an inside joke that they have ownership of.
Many of these Irish immigrants came to the major port of New York City, as well as Boston and Philadelphia.
Denis McCarthy, Uncle Patrick Moore and Leachlainn Shannon arrived before there was any formal receiving station for immigrants. The ships would anchor off Staten Island where officials came aboard for the quarantine check. The obviously diseased were detained aboard but the rest of the passengers were loaded onto lighters and towed across the inner harbor to the foot of Manhattan and simply herded ashore. There they were met by a mob of thieves and pickpockets, pimps and men hawking fake Railroad Tickets. Other men pushing land sales in the west and for the extremely lucky a friend or relative.
Because of the large increase in immigration in the mid 1800’s and in an effort to protect the newly arriving immigrants from scam artists, the State of New York opened an immigration processing center at Castle Gardens in August of 1855.
The complex that made up the Castle Gardens immigration center included a labor exchange where jobs were posted, a hospital and medical offices, a currency exchange and a translators office with employees who spoke dozens of languages and dialects including both Irish and Scots Gaelic which was the spoken language of the majority of Irish until three-quarters the way through the 1800’s.
The ships let the first class and cabin passengers of at one of the piers on the Hudson River side of Manhattan and then proceeded to Castle Garden where the steerage passengers were herded down the gangplank. All immigrants had to land at the depot which was closed to anyone else such as thieves and the scam artists. Individuals had their names checked against the ships manifest, underwent another brief medical exam and passed through customs. If there was no-one to meet you, you were free to go.
Harpers Weekly September 2, 1865 “Since 1847 about three million of emigrants have arrived at this port. Last year the number of these was 182,916, being an increase of 30,000 over the pervious year. The largest number on record is 319,223 — the number of arrivals in 1854. If we take the number of arrivals at this port in 1864 we shall find that 90,000 were from Ireland, nearly 60,000 from Germany and about 24,000 from England. These countries are the main sources of emigration.”
Immigration statistics 1864
These new Irish immigrants entered the country and found that the New World had as many challenges at the Old. Coming from rural backgrounds, many Irish found themselves without the necessary skills for the new industrialized, urbanized economy that was springing up in the United States. Many Irish had to seek jobs as laborers to make ends meet, paving the streets and digging the canals of an expanding New York City while the women were obliged to take jobs as maids and laundresses. In the old city of San Francisco there was a place called Washerwoman Lagoon where women went to launder clothes in the small freshwater lake at the foot of Telegraph Hill. It was hard, brutal and demeaning work but it was all they could get.
Unfortunately, the Irish faced another major challenge in the United States – racism. Much of the same prejudices against the Irish, for their race and their religion, followed them to the New World. American politicians, fearful of the Irish, sought to marginalize them and created a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, whose major focus was anti-immigration xenophobia. This party believed that the Irish could not be trusted because of their “allegiance” to the Pope in Rome and because of their insular “clannish” tendencies to look after each other. When John F Kennedy was running for president in 1960 politicians complained that if he was elected, the Pope would run America. Hatred, xenophobia and demagoguery die hard.
Denis McCarthy. William O”Sullivan, Michael Duffy and Patrick Hughes all lived in the windswept, foggy Sixes valley for half a century and they laid down their burdens in the little Saint Mary, Star of the Sea Cemetery on the hill above the land they lived on. For the greatest part of their lives they toiled in a new land, laying down a foundation upon which this country is built. Only Patrick ever married. O’Sullivan had two brothers in America according to a newspaper ad run in Chicago in1864, in which he asked for information as to their whereabouts. One brother served with the 90th Illinois infantry on Sherman’s March to the sea but there his record ends. Neither of the two other O’Sullivan brothers passing is marked.
Here at our home most of the first settlers were Irish born. Great Uncle Patrick Moore and his wife Sarah, his three sisters and his father too. Great Grandfather and grandmother Jenny and Samuel Gray, John Corbit and his wife Mehitabel, The brothers Donovan, the Ryans, the Sullivans, McNeils, Daniel Rice, the Phelans and the Steele Brothers all put down roots here. I think, in most cases they bet that there was something better here in this country that made the hardship, and the separation from their homes worth the price they paid.
My great-grandparents Sam and Jenny Gray. Both born in Ballyrobert Dough, county Antrim Ireland. Married on the 12th of May, 1881, they took the ferry to Glasgow and boarded the States Liner SS Alabama for America. They arrived at Castle Gardens on Manhattan Island on June 6th, ’81. They came here because Jenny’s aunt was Mrs Patrick Moore of Arroyo Grande. Their honeymoon to America lasted until May 1st, 1941 when Sam died at his home in Santa Maria. Neither of them ever saw their families again.
So, Boyo, on the 17th, raise a glass o’ Guinness to your ancestors and wish them a long and merry life, for it was their courage and determination that got you here.
Note*: I have a personal friend, an Englishwoman, who once said to me, “Whats the matter with you Irish, you’re all crazy.”
Note**: Notice the goat in the background of the cartoon. My grandmother hated goats, she said “Only the shanty Irish kept goats” She wouldn’t have one around.
Bobby Rodriguez was the singular type of man you meet in the outer islands of the Hawaiian chain. His last name gave a clue, pronounced Rod-Reeks in island style with a touch of the Hawaiian alphabet which has only thirteen letters and typically changes pronunciations in a serendipitous way. The terminal Z might indicate Spanish ancestry but in the islands it’s hard to say. The Big Island as it’s called is a polyglot of peoples come from the the four corners of the world. Up on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the old Parker Ranch is still peopled by descendants of the Californio Vaqueros brought from Alta California by King Kamehameha in the 1840’s to teach Local Boys house to manage his vast cattle herds. Within a generation the Californio’s were gone, either returned to the mainland or simply absorbed into the population as was to be common over the centuries. In their place were Hawaiian cowboys called paniolo, a local twist on the word español. The legendary cattle drives of the American West were still generations away, but here on the plains of Waimea and elsewhere in the islands, paniolos were working cattle—before there was ever such a thing as an American cowboy. Up in Kamuela Town the little Safeway store still had a hitch rail out front where patient cow ponies can be seen waiting patiently for their riders to return.
Bobby was all bones and sinew covered with a chocolate covered skin. Whip thin, he was almost never without a cigarette dangling from his lip. His face, cut with an ever present grin and slightly slanted eyes that hinted at Chinese or Japanese blood, maybe both. Actually he could have been made of almost any of the ethnic people who lived along the outer circle of the great Pacific.
I was a 26 year old Haole surfer from California living in Hilo. We knew each other because we worked for the same little meat packing company. Located on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, the great volcano towering more than two and a half mile above sea level Hilo, the business was owned by a German couple supplying meat products to the entire island and state. Like many businesses its employees ran the gamut from people like me to the the Hawaiian butchers and Aunties who worked the package line, the Filipina housekeeper, the salesman who was Hapa, which means half and designates you of mixed blood and the owner who could have stepped right of Hamburg butcher shop. I had lived in the islands before but this was my first real introduction to Hawaiian society.
Now you may have heard about the antagonism of locals towards strangers particularly Europeans which is a kind way to say Whites. They have plenty of reason to be wary, for Europeans have done their best to repress local customs and language over the past two centuries. More pronounced in Honolulu and Oahu, its not something that I experienced when living Hilo. There is a phrase that used to heard all the time, “Island Style,” and it described the custom of Aloha, which is “the presence of breath” or “the breath of life.” It means to live in harmony. When you live the Spirit of Aloha, you create positive feelings and thoughts, which are never gone. People practice this whether from a conscious effort or simply because it is in the air around you. People are people no matter where their ancestors came from and you will be treated as you treat others.
So there I was working for a small company surrounded by a hodge podge of people who were to man or woman, as nice as could be. As the new guy I had every job that didn’t have a title. I fed the cattle, dug ditches, learned to run the hot dog machine, went on deliveries to the grocery stores and once I week took the flat bed up to Waimea Town and picked up a load of fresh beef at the J J Andrade slaughterhouse, hauled it back to Hilo, unloaded the beef halves, washed and cleaned the truck parked it and went home. Just your average 12 hour day.
Bobby was the townside delivery driver. He loaded up the van each morning and hit all the little grocery stores around the Hilo area. His job was to re-stock the meat counters, pick up out of date goods and check with the butchers. We delivered to all the little mom and pops too including the Hilo Noodle Factory which always struck me as a time bomb as every surface in the old building had a liberal coating of very fine rice flour. The included the spider webs too. We delivered to all the little plantation towns tucked deep in the cane fields along Hawaii’s east side. Some off the beaten track so far that the roads were still not paved. When he had large orders I would be sent with him to speed things up. I remember the first time. We rolled down the driveway, turned right on Kawailani Street and started for town. We didn’t go far though. Just down the street was Bobby’s house. It was in the old Hawaiian style, an Ohana house. In the islands Ohana means family and not just your immediate family but your in-laws, cousins of all kinds, neighbors and really, anyone who happens by. The house, built on a wooden post foundation with walls made of California redwood, single wall style as the old houses were, no need for paint or fancy decoration. Those little plantation house used to be everywhere in the islands. Simple utility houses for the workers. Not many homes need insulation in the islands hence the single thickness walls. The wind is from the windward in Hilo and there is hardly a day in the year when there isn’t a nice cooling breeze. Even in winter when it is pouring rain you can go about your business without an umbrella and never fear freezing to death.
A few moments in the house and Bobby hustled out the door, his wife Lucia waving from the porch, and in each hand a frosty bottle of beer. He hopped in the drivers seat and handed one to me and said, “Drink it up Braddah.” Now I don’t know where you come from but drinking and driving is frowned upon in my family. Neither is drinking on the job. My father who hated drinking would have been horrified. It didn’t seem to bother Bobby at all, so after a moment I figured, since I wasn’t driving, I’d better hide the evidence. So quick, one Olympia down the hatch. You could ask, being the islands and all, why not Primo the Hawaii brewed beer? No one drank it because it was considered rotgut by the locals I knew, they drank Oly’s and Coors if they could get it. Hawaii being a strong Union State didn’t import Coors. Coors being made by non-union workers in Colorado. Only way you could get it as to buy it from airline pilots who smuggled it in their personal luggage, and sold it for extra cash.
So me and Bobby went zooming around Hilo while he kept up a nonstop monologue about his family and friends and whatever thought came to him. I learned more about the little town and the people who lived there in three hours than I could have by reading ten books, or at least the Bobby R version. As we exited the van at the end of the day and walked to the employee lunchroom to change he asked me would I want to go on a pig hunt Saturday. Hunting pig was something I had never done so I said sure. Little did I know.
When I arrived at his house Saturday morning it was still dark. The little house was lit up though and in the kitchen Bobby’s wife was up and about organizing a few things to take with us. She had filled a cooler with sour candies, a great favorite amongst island folks, Teri-Ahi, which you would call fish jerky, only spicier, pickled Mango and “da bess Ahi Poke evah.” The other cooler? “Pack wit Oly’s.” So couple tings Brah, Pidgin is the unofficial languache of da islands and if you gonna stay, betta learn em’ some, yah?
In the kitchen Bobby introduced me to a couple guys who were going with us. Kane was a tall drink of water. He told me he fished out of Hilo harbor on a Sampan. He was dressed in a faded yellow tee shirt, old black shorts down over the knee and what looked like motorcycle boots, buckles and all. He wore a wispy mustache and though he was obviously Polynesian, he had a pair off startling bright blue eyes. His partner in crime went by the name Black. He was a local brother and big, very big in the way islanders can be. He was twice as wide as Bobby and dressed all in black. He wore faded black Ben Davis jeans and a black tee to match, or at least it used to be black before a thousand washings. It had a few holes for ventilation.
We loaded up the old pickup with the coolers, a tarp and a five gallon bucket with a couple rusty machetes and an old 22 single shot rifle while Bobby and Kane went behind the house to get the dogs from the kennel. I asked Black where the rifles were and he cocked his head to the side a little and said, “Don’t need ’em.” “Hmm,” I said to myself, seemed odd to me but these guys were the experts. I mean, what were they going to do, hack ’em to death?
The truck was an old postwar Ford about 20 years old and much older in the way cars and trucks are in Hawaii. You see, salt is always in the air, there is no escaping it and it causes cars to rust almost from the time they come off the boat. I’ve seen brand new vehicles on the car lot with touches of rust around the windows. It starts that fast. After a few years it eats through the paint, gets inside the doors and the frame and the body starts to fall apart. Bobby’s truck was missing a few parts, maybe they were considered non-essential, I don’t know, but it had no headlamps, a rear fender was gone and there were dents in the both fronts. You wouldn’t dare step on the running boards, especially Black who could have broken them off with just a touch of his foot. The truck bed was almost all gone, just the ribs were left and had been covered by two old pieces of plywood which had seen better days. It had, at some point in its life been green but was now the color of pond water that had been sitting too long. It was surely unlicensed, the lack of plates proved it.
Bobby must have seen the look on my face and he said, “runs good, jus’ need a quart of oil evah time I drive it.” He cackled at his own joke.
I thought to myself, I’ve seen ranch trucks in pretty bad shape but this one takes the cake. Bobby gave the throttle a couple pumps, put his toe on the kickstarter button and ground her over until she finally fired with a belch of flame from the carburetor. You didn’t have to raise the hood to see it because the metal was rotted away above it and the flames shot right up through the hole. She ran alright, though she wasn’t altogether sure how many cylinders to use. Sometimes it was six, others four or sometimes five.
While the truck warmed up, They brought the dogs around, dropped the tailgate and they all hopped right in. Dogs are always ready for an adventure aren’t they? Off we went up the road, Bobby driving, Kane and Black in the front and me, the newcomer in the back with the dogs and all the junk . We went perhaps a mile or two before turning in to a ranch gate where we stopped. After a moment of waiting for someone in the cab to get out it occurred to me that opening the gate was my job. I did it. The road we turned into was just a two track across a pasture. The kind of road never graded and only occasional driven. It wound around and thought the masses of Strawberry Guava growing wild. The Guava tree isn’t really a tree. It’s a shrub and when left alone grows in dense thickets that are all but impenetrable. Strawberry Guava is a poster child for introducing non-native species into habitats where it can thrive at the expense of native species. It does have its benefits though, it’s good eating for man or beast. Pua’a loves it.
We pulled into a clearing about 30 yards across and the truck wheezed to a halt. Everybody piled out. We spent a few minutes trying to get the dogs together. They were anxious to get going and though they appeared to be just a collection of mutts, which they were of course, though I’m sure they din’t think of themselves that way, they had been carefully chosen for the job of work they were about to do. Only two appeared to have names. Phantom was a half size black Labrador, all muscle with maybe a touch of bull terrier and Lucy, a yellow dog with brown nose and caramel colored eyes. There were two other dogs both sketchily resembling Airdales, both must have been close to a hundred pounds too. They were just referred too as Buggah this or Buggah that. Big Buggah, Damn Buggah, like that. They immediately began gamboling around, almost overcome with excitement at the thought of this familiar adventure. In their great excitement they anointed all the tires more than once.
This part of the big island is known as the saddle. It is the passage between the enormous volcanos on either of its flanks. There is Mauna Kea on the right and Mauna Loa on the left. The upper saddle area is a massive lava field made up of the two most common types of Lava. A’a which is called clinker lava and piles up in fantastic jagged heaps and is sharp-edged and can cut like a knife and Pahoehoe which is ropy and smooth and in places has the appearance of a shiny, jet black mirrored surface.
A single road cuts through the lava fields and is commonly referred to as the Saddle Road. It’s the only route that goes directly from west to east through the center of the island. From Kona to Kohala on the west side and then to Hilo on the east, up and over she goes. It is a magnificent road to drive. The view is spectacular passing through the lava fields that stretch for miles with gigantic mountains to your right and left. The best feature though is that you’re are able to take your flatbed truck with it’s load of beef out of gear and coast for 22 miles without stopping which must be some kind of record for freewheeling. Don’t tell anyone I told you that though, it’s a secret. Probably frowned upon by local law enforcement.
We were just below the lava fields and parked next to a deep gully which ran diagonally down toward the fern forest. It was so choked with Guava that it would have been near impossible to pass through it.
There is a saying in Hawaii that you hear pretty often when things are going slowly. “Hawaiian Time,” which basically means the thing will get done whenever, “Wheneva'” is what they say, meaning soon, maybe later or sometimes tomorrow. After hurrying up to the fields, unloading the truck and corralling the dogs, instead of taking off on the hunt the boys got out the coolers and passed around the beer and pupu’s and began talk story.
Mr Pua’a himself was a native. His ancestors had come north from Polynesia eight hundred years ago with the first trans-oceanic voyagers in their double hulled canoes. His history in Hawaii is as long as Hawaii itself. Pua’a has prospered. His ancestors have fed Hawaiians for more than forty generations. With the coming of modern times pig hunting has become a sport and not a necessity. He has prospered, particularly on the vast acreage of uninhabited land of the Big Island. He lives in the thickets of Guava, lunching on its fruit, growing fat, rooting around and having a great old time. His only real enemy is us. As Bobby said, “Sweet Guava fed pork is da best.” He’s right too. Guava fruit is sweet and delicious and it taints the pork.
I was curious about the lack of urgency and Kane said, “Pua’a gon’ be sleepin’ soon and that was da best time to chase ‘um out. Have to sen’ dogs down in there to git ‘um. Jus’ wait.” So we waited.
After about an hour the dead soldiers were tossed in the back of the truck and the boys got ready. All three grabbed machetes from the bucket. They passed an old file around and topped up the edges, sharpening the bits between the rusted edges. I figured they were to cut our way threw the brush but I was wrong about that.
Bobby handed me the old 22 and said, “Hold this,” reached in his front pocket and pulled out half a dozen long rifle cartridges. One dropped to the grass. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, “This be plenty.”
The old rifle had seen far better days. The blueing on the barrel was long gone replaced by blotches of rust. There was no varnish left on the stock and the barrel had a suspicious slight turn to the right. I pulled back the bolt and inserted a cartridge but I figured the gun might be best used as a club instead.
They turned the dogs loose and they immediately bolted for the Guava in the gully, going downhill and out of sight in a rush, Lucy leading the way with her nose to the ground. We jogged along the edge as they ran down towards far end. They weren’t barkers, they were too intent on their business to waste any energy making a racket. Good hunting dogs are generally quiet and these guys were no exception. We could track their progress to the lower end by the cracking and snapping of the brush. Maybe ten minutes passed when we heard a loud squeal and a big boar exploded up out of the side of the gully. One of the smaller dogs, Phantom had a death grip on his flank and as soon as he hit the open ground he began to spin in a attempt to throw the dog off. That gave the others a chance to catch up. Bobby, Kane and Black moved in with their old machetes. They all started to spin, the dogs and the men following the Pua’a around and around like a pack of whirling dervishes the boar shaking his head as he spun, trying to sink his tushes into his tormentors. Phantom hung on and the Airedales continued to dart in and out trying for his hamstrings. The yellow dog, Lucy circled warily outside the circle like she was looking for an opening to get in. She got lower and lower to the ground, absolutely intent on the pig. The Pua’a squealed and grunted and the dogs growled nonstop all of them moving at once in what was a death dance. Suddenly the pig raised his head exposing his throat and Lucy dove in under his tushes and clamped down on his throat. Her weight pulled his head down and he slowed momentarily.
The boys started shouting, “Bobby, Bobby get in thea, wack ‘um, wack ‘um, geev ‘um Brah.”
Bobby did just that too. He jumped into the slowing circle and raised his rusty old machete high and in one blow hit the Pua’a just behind the head and cut his spine in two. The old boar made one last upward thrust and his tushes slashed Bobby’s left forearm almost to the bone.
Kane pushed me forward saying,”Shoot ‘im, shoot ’em Bruddah.” I did. The old 22 still worked and I shot him in the forehead. Not Bobby course, the Pua’a.
The Pua’a was down, Bobby was down and their was blood everywhere. I took my Tee shirt off and wrapped Bobby’s forearm tight to stop the bleeding. Kane and Black worked at corralling the dogs. They apparently thought it was now their job to eat the pig. Kicks and curses finally drove them off. The dead pig was thrown in the back of the pick-up along with the bleeding Bobby. The dogs were left to find their own way home, they would simply follow the truck down the road. Kane turned the truck around and we went barreling down the road to the house. Kane pulled the truck into the yard and we all hopped down and dragged the pig out, loaded Bobby into my old broken down ’59 VW bug and I drove him down to the hospital in Hilo. Lucia stood on the front porch with her arms folded and shot darts at her husband as we left.
At the little hospital the nurse took him in to clean him up which proved to be a major job. He complained from start to finish. Doctor Lau came in and took a look at the arm and said, “Looks like you might live you damned fool,” and darned if all three of them didn’t laugh like crazy.
The Doc said, “Bobby, you work in a meat packing plant, you could just buy the stupid pork.” Not the same,” Bobby said, “Factory pork no good, no flava, Doc.”
After about an hour they had him all cleaned up, sutured and then stuffed him with antibiotics, gave him some pain meds and Dr. Lau said, “Get him outta here, the fool is wasting my valuable time. I got a card game to get back to” They all laughed again.
I took him outside and got him in the car, closed the passenger door and walked around to the drivers side and fired up the little blue beast and we began the trip back to his house. When we pulled up to the house everybody came down off the porch and helped him out. Lucia, Bobby’s wife was going nonstop, giving him what my mother would have said was “A good talking to.” She gave him a kick in the fanny too.
Black and Kane were laughing at the whole scene. Black said, “She gonna geev ‘im what foah too.” They laughed again and Kane said, “Bruddah, that buggah Bobby ain’t gon die lookin’ up at some light bulb, he’s crazy” Then he said, “Come by tomorrow, we eat Huli Huli pork.”
I did and we did.
*Note: The etching of Pua’a that opens this story is by James Koga. He is the director of the fine arts studio program at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Mr. Koga is considered to be one of the great masters of Intaglio Printing working today and I’m proud to call him my friend.
Libraries have always been a special place for me. There is something about holding an actual book in your hand that gets into you. Collecting books is like having a bank account, you can simply sit and look at a stack of books and recall the Magic Carpet that flew you to destinations of the imagination.
I don’t recall when I first saw the photo but it was a long time ago in an old dog eared Life magazine. Life was an American magazine published weekly from 1883 to 1972, and then as an intermittent “special” until 1978, and as a monthly from 1978 until 2000. During its golden age from 1936 to 1972, Life was a wide-ranging weekly general interest magazine known for the quality of its photography. Life’s famous motto read: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel.” Walter Mitty even had it engraved on his wallet. Life photographers went everywhere.
United States Coast Guard photographer Raphael Ray Platnick was one. He went ashore with the 22nd marines at Engebi island*, Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands in the February 1944. WWII had begun three years before. He had immediately volunteered for service, leaving his job as staff photographer for PM magazine. He went ashore with the first wave of Marines at the battle of Makin Island in August 1942. By 1944 he was veteran photographer and knew what he wanted to shoot. Platnick, like so many other civilian and military photographers traveled with the services onto all of the battlefields of the war preserving images for posterity. The actions of young men and women who carried the flag are now archived in collections all over America.
Two of Ray’s photos are famous. Both of these were taken during and after the Marine assault at Enewetak. Both of them succeed in capturing the horror of combat in a way that no blood and guts picture or movie could ever do.
United States Marine Corps Private Theodore James Miller is hauled aboard the Coast Guard-crewed attack transport USS Arthur Middleton APA-25 after an assault on Eniwetak** Island, February 19, 1944. Teddy Miller is 19 years old. Thirty days later he will be dead. He will never see his 20th birthday. He has seen something no boy should ever see. The thousand yard stare with those eyes that see nothing and everything.
All of the boys pictured here had volunteered for the Marines and were almost directly from boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. This was their first combat action, their first glimpse of the world beyond Gung-Ho boot training. It shows.
19 year old Faris “Bob” M. Tuohy of the 3rd Battalion, Independent 22nd Marine Regiment drinking the best cup of coffee of his young life. He has just returned from two days of vicious combat on Engebi island, part of the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The picture was taken by Chief Photographers Mate Ray Platnick*** of the US Coast Guard which operated the Middleton. Like Teddy Miller he is covered in the soot from burned out buildings, explosions and the oil and grease blown back in his face by his M-1 Carbine. The splashes of sugar on the mess table testify to shaky hands and the desperate need for something comforting to do. Something that smacks of normal, something that he hopes will bring back the person he was just forty eight hours ago. The hot Navy coffee held in his cheeks is to be savored, a reminder that he is still alive and can feel. The boys behind him, Private First Class Stephen Garboski of Ringoes, New Jersey, also recuperates with coffee. On Guam in July 1944, Garboski was one of 1,147 men of the 22nd Marines, 1st Provisional Marine Brigade killed in action. Tuohy said Garboski was a victim of friendly fire when Naval fighter aircraft attacked Marine positions on the island. Tuohy also believes the man in the center was killed by the Japanese during fighting on Okinawa in April 1945.
The psychological effects of combat are starkly visible in the two photos. These are not the Marines on recruiting posters. They give the lie to John Wayne. Perhaps they have begun to see that they will surely die on some sandy island far from all they love and cherish. It will become their best defense. These are haunting pictures and once you have seen them you can’t ever forget them. I never have.
This entire little story has been shelved in the back of my mind until yesterday. Dust covered and mostly forgotten, as have those boys and girls who went to war in 1941. Few are left today. As it always has the world has moved on. Until yesterday.
A random post on a FB site contained this photograph taken at a 6th Marine Division reunion in Ohio. The gentlemen holding the photograph is 96 year old Faris “Bob” Touhy. He stated in a letter to the Divisions website that, “A young man, who used to mow my yard and is now a Marine in Iraq, saw a clipping in the Marine Corps Times, recognized me and sent it to me. It shows my picture and tells about one of the battles I was in many years ago. Both of the other Marines in the photo were killed later, one on Guam, one on Okinawa. I am lucky to be here.” Faris (Bob) Tuohy, 22nd Marines.
I think we are lucky too, don’t you?
*Note: The main landings on Engebi were carried out by two battalions of the 22nd Marine Regiment commanded by Colonel John Walker. They landed on Engebi on 18 February at 08:43, supported by medium tanks and two 105mm self propelled guns. There was very little resistance at the beach, except from the southern tip of the island. The airfield was quickly captured, and within an hour the tanks had reached the northern shore. The 3rd Battalion landed at 09:55 and began to mop up the few remaining defenders. The island was declared secure by 14:50, though mopping-up continued through the next day. US losses included 85 killed and missing plus 166 wounded. The Japanese lost 1,276 killed and 16 captured. It was a short but very nasty operation, the Japanese defenders having to be rooted out of “spider holes” concealed beneath the shrubbery by the Marine assault force. A long forgotten little battle, not famous but very deadly. It cost the life of a young Marine every 15 minutes. One in every four Marines were either wounded, missing or killed.
**Note: Enewetak Atoll was used for atomic and hydrogen testing beginning in the 1950’s and ending in 1978. Forty four nuclear detonations occurred on the islands of the Atoll. Vast amounts of radiation still permeate the shore and the surrounding waters and the islets are uninhabitable and will be for generations. The US government has attempted to clean-up the mess but has only been slightly successful in its efforts. The military denies to this day that sailors and soldiers who worked to clean-up the site have been affected by radiation and still denies them medical treatment. A curious side note, The Ivy Mike Hydrogen bomb test at Engebi was a disaster and was far larger and radioactive than estimated. That test was the genesis for the Godzilla story, a prehistoric seas monster awakened by a nuclear blast.
***Note: Ray Platnick continued his career as a photographer after the war. He passed away in November of 1986 in Merrick, New York.
Note: Faris Touhy saw combat at Enewetak, Kwajalein, Guam and Okinawa and was sent to China with the Regiment at the close of the war. He received the following: National Defense Medal, The Combat Action Medal, A Presidential Unit Citation, A Navy Unit Commendation, The China Service Medal, The American Campaign Medal, The Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars and the WWII Victory Medal. Best of all he survived.
In little towns like ours as it used to be, friends were friends all their lives. The web of friendship stretched out to everywhere and nearly everyone.
These two guys, Manuel Francis Silva and my father, George Grey Shannon knew each other nearly all of their lives. To me they were alike as two peas in a pod. I learned from them that a friendship is not a commodity. It doesn’t depend on where you went to school, Manuel went to the eight grade, my dad graduated from Berkeley so it’s not that. My dad’s family came to America before it was America and was round about most of the great events in our history, Manuel’s father immigrated from Sao Mateus, the Azores in 1893. Big Manuel was a first generation American. My dad was at least an eighth. It’s obviously not the length or importance of your resume that counts.
Having coffee in our kitchen they ran this shared and refined dialogue like they were two old curmudgeons though when I knew them best I was a teenager and they were only in their fifties. They made each other laugh. I studied them because I wanted to be like them. I can still see them, Manuel with his back to the window that looked out on the fields along Branch Mill Road, the four corners in the background, my dad in his chair at the head of the formica kitchen table, his desk on his right hand, the black wall phone above and the NH-3 fertilizer calendar behind him. I don’t remember much of what they talked about. Farming mostly, it’s what farmers do. Crops, seeds, the weather and the vegetable buyers being cheapskates. Just a soothing mantra, heard like a familiar old song. Manuel would complain about the coffee but what he really meant was I love you, something that has to be felt and not said.
I went all the way through school with Manny Junior who turned out to be a righteous man himself. He fell directly in his father shadow. He too was well liked and a respected member of our community. In fact we both married girls named Nancy Taylor which became a reason for more jokes around the table.
Manuel passed away at eighty in 1991. He had the kind of funeral where every man felt that he was Manuel’s best friend. It should be on his tombstone. How rare is that? He wasn’t rich in the monetary sense but oh boy, he was richer than King Croesus in the things that count for me. The number of people who came to that little house on Sunset Drive where he and his bride Angelina lived, you might remember it was the one that had the little butterfly pinned to the outside wall, was legion.
My dad followed him nine years later. When you live until eighty eight most of your friends are gone, so we had a small graveside ceremony with a few family members and friends. My uncle Jackie gave a little speech where he said this, “He was a good brother.” Can there be any greater praise? When the ceremony was over a well dressed young man who we didn’t recognize came over and introduced himself as Manuel Francis Silva III, Manuel’s grandson. He said that even though he had never met my father, his father had called from San Jose where he was on a business trip and told him that he must attend the funeral as a representative of the family. He could have just left without saying anything but his fathers wishes that he represent were just as important to him as to his father, and as would have been to his father before him.
Twenty years have passed since that day and my brothers and I still think about that moment. That friendship between two people such as Manuel and George could mean so much to their children and grandchildren.
A small town kindness. Yes, it is that, for there is an old and unshakeable tradition that proper and well-raised people pay their respects to the family. Nothing less is expected.