Written by Michael Shannon

A historian seeks the truth of it. He is neither blinded by the glare of opinion nor does he ever stop seeking a final answer which he knows in his heart is not or ever will be there. He must always dig deeper. His life is to live in worlds which no longer exist. His life is to parade before mankind the true blocks that built the world we live in.

My friend the historian has pawed through the dustbins of scrap, piecing together the puzzle of lives lived. Letter, journals, documents, film are all grist for the mill. A fabulist he is not.

He understands that there is never a final answer. There is always something to be discovered and his hope is the honour will be his. That is his calling.

Not long ago in a comment string on an article he posted, someone commented that what he said was interesting but not written by a “Real” historian. A “real” historian, which implied he was not.

I’ve been thinking about the comment and the not so subtle dig it implies so I though I’d explain what a real historian is.

You are. Did you keep your grandmothers Christmas cards? How about your mothers letters to her sister. Perhaps the journal your great uncle kept when he was stationed in Vladivostok during WWI. Do you still have the box with some black and white unidentified photos, the ones with the deckled edges and a coffee stain? Does it have an old crinkled embroidered handkerchief and at the bottom and a deed to the ranch made out in 1924. Do you still have your high school yearbook? How about a set of Compton’s Encyclopedia from 1930. All of that, my friend is history. Keepers of history long for those things. Mundane objects are the things history is made of.

True history which is known to all “real” historians is made up of the things that did not get thrown away. We know of the war between the kingdoms of Elam and Assyria because a record of the conflict was kept and survived nearly three thousand years buried in the sand of southwestern Iran. In Great Britain the site of the Roman fort at Vindolanda, a part of Hadrian’s Wall built to keep illegal Picts from what is now Scot Land from entering Roman Britain. These finds record military expenditures; daily bookkeeping which hasn’t changed in nearly 1,900 years which you would recognize if you ever served in the military, have been found. From it we learned that Roman soldiers wore underwear, something completely unknown until today. The documents are personal messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD, which is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman. It features her signature, the first known example of a woman signing her name, Claudia Severa. The commander’s wife was writing to Sulpicia Lepidina. How different is that than your grandmothers invitations. You can easily see it’s the same thing. That is its historic significance.

“Please come to my party Sulplicia.” AD 100. Collection of British Museum.

Those of us who watch movies or read novels must learn the difference between story telling and historical fact. Screen writers play fast and loose with history all the time. The old saying that “Facts should not get in the way of a good story” are absolutely true.

Consider some favorites. Old Braveheart, William Wallace never saw a kilt in his life. Thomas Rawlinson, an English ironmonger, who employed Highlanders to work his furnaces in Glengarry near Inverness invented the one you are familiar with in the early eighteenth century, around 1710. Finding the belted plaid wrap cumbersome, he conceived of the “little kilt” on the grounds of efficiency and practicality, as means of bringing the Highlanders “out of the heather and into the factory.” However, as Dorothy K. Burnham writes in Cut My Cote (1997), it is more likely that the transformation came about as the natural result of a change from the warp-weighted loom to the horizontal loom with its tighter weave. After the battle of Culloden (1745) which Jamie Frasier barely survived, wearing the “Wee Kiltee” was outlawed. Luckily moviegoers don’t care that Braveheart died horribly in 1305 over four centuries earlier.

William Wallace didn’t paint his face blue either. Where did the idea that the Picts painted themselves blue originate? Julius Caesar once noted that the Celts got blue pigment from the woad plant and that they used it to decorate their bodies. Pict was a name coined by the Romans to describe the Northern tribes who covered their bodies in blue woad to camouflage and perhaps to intimidate: Picti means painted people in Latin. It is likely that the Picts were the descended from the native peoples of Scotland such as the Caledones or Vacomagi who lived in modern-day northern and eastern Scotland about 1,800 years ago. Picts is merely a descriptive term. William Wallace and the Scots wore blue face paint in Braveheart, not because it was historically accurate, but because the filmmakers liked the idea of it. Braveheart certainly did not have sex with the English Queen out in the woods. Did Queen Eleanor have the habit of wondering around in the darkling woods of a night. Certainly she did not. If she wanted a child by Wallace she would have removed her Wimple which women wore to cover their hair lest the sight of it turn men into savage wanton beasts. She died fifteen years before Wallace’s revolt.

Eleanor, Queen of England. Tomb in Westminster Abbey, London

Henry the VIII’s second wife Ann Boleyn was executed, her head severed with the sword of a French executioner because she was an adultness. At least that is what we learned in “The Tudors.” Think about this, Henry the VIII was 6’2″ and weighted 210 pounds when he was in his twenties. The man who played him in the series is 5’9″ and 155 pounds. Quite a difference, yes? The simple truth is, Henry was a Tomcat, adultery was his hobby. Anne’s sister Mary was one of his mistresses, pimped out by her own father. Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Wiltshire and the 1st Earl of Ormond. These were nasty ruthless people. What Henry was, was fixated on having a male heir to the throne. The Tudors had overthrown the York family by killing King Richard the third who was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty that had conquered Britain in 1066. Henry felt a little shaky on the throne. English barons were a testy and power hungry lot and they could turn on the king in an instant. With the help of Bishop Cranmer, the head of the church, charges were trumped up and the lovely Anne bared her “Little Neck,” she actually said that to the executioner before the chop. She went to the block, dressed in a white shift, her hair shorn and her feet bare. Henry’s only concession was to allow the sword rather than the axe. Royalty was not to be beheaded by axe or an Englishman, hence the Frenchman. Likely we wouldn’t be at all interested in her story except that her daughter grew up to be the most famous British monarch of all. Elizabeth the first. The virgin Queen, though that too is in serious doubt. The virgin part I mean.

The archives kept in the British museum document Annes trial and her indictment but also contain the personal letters between the principles which show without a doubt that she was completely innocent of anything except, apparently, the capital crime of having a girl.

Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein, from life.

Willian Shakespeare did not write his plays. That idea, which has persisted for decades was good enough to make more than one movie. We can start with the fact that his life in London is very well documented. There are the bills of lading for the material that he used to build the Globe theater. There is the building permit for the same. There are copies of the original documents themselves with his name on them The main argument, in the absence of such “proof” of authorship, skeptics have posed the question: How could a man of such humble origins and education come by such wealth of insight, wide-ranging understanding of complex legal and political matters and intimate knowledge of life in the English court? Shakespeare’s supporters emphasize the fact that the body of evidence that does exist points to Shakespeare, and no one else which are written in his own hand. This includes the printed copies of his plays and sonnets with his name on them, theater company records and comments by contemporaries like Ben Jonson, Samuel Boswell and John Webster, men of letters who actually knew him. Doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship and attempts to identify a more educated, worldly and high-born candidate reveal not only misguided snobbery but a striking disregard for one of the most outstanding qualities of the Bard’s extraordinary work—his imagination.

Who can doubt that an intelligent man, even one with limited education, not use historical works as background for whatever his bountiful imagination seeks to follow? Provable historic fact are the foundation of his plays, the same as it would be if he was writing today. Consider Samuel Clemens, one of Americas greatest writers. Fifth grade education in he backwater town of Hannibal, Missouri. Charles Dickens also left school at age twelve and I’ve seen no movement to discredit either.

In the end, the Puritans, yes those Puritans who figure in our American history tore down the Globe theater and banned all productions of any play including Will’s as being devilish and depraved. Puritans condemned the sexualization of the theatre and its associations with depravity and prostitution. Puritan authorities shut down English theaters in the 1640s and 1650s—Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was demolished and copies of his plays were burned. That is an example of history is not made up.

The Puritans ruled England and early white America for a time. When you read your high school text book, there is no mention of the fact that they banned Christmas. Sometimes historical facts don’t fit the narrative do they? Inconvenient but provable historical fact. No Christmas for you. Maybe they had a point. Americans spent around 178 billion dollars on Christmas this year, nearly a thousand dollars per person.

When I was still teaching high school I heard from my mainly male students about their love of the Kurt Russell version of the Tombstone legend. They were adamant that the Earp legend was hands down true and accurate. They would accept no argument. What they knew was what the Earp and the screenwriters told them. Because Earps history is relatively recent, unfortunately it is also pretty well documented. Over two dozen films have featured Wyatt Earp, actually that would be Wyatt Barry Stapp Earp, a name that doesn’t easily fit on a theater marquee. Writers play fast and loose with “facts” all the time. What documented history knows and can prove is this; He was by turns a lawman, stage robber, horse thief, gambler, pimp, brothel keeper with his brothers, two of his wives were prostitutes and is definitively know to have killed two men, one a town marshal. At the shootout, eye witnesses state that he wore a Mackinaw coat not a long black overcoat ala Kurt Russell. He also didn’t carry a pistol in a gun-belt but in his pocket as was his custom. Perhaps the testimony of men who knew him in Tombstone sheds a light on his personal history. Roy Drachman would later write: “I don’t remember when Wyatt Earp began to be looked upon as some kind of hero. That was not his image around Arizona then, where many people knew and remembered him well. I never heard anything from those folks about any of the good or great deeds that he is supposed to have done. I think he just made them up for his biography which is nearly all lies anyway. He was a simply a survivor at a time when some of his close friends and relatives weren’t so lucky in avoiding a violent death.” Lastly, John Ringo had no education and did not speak Latin.

Consider, before you comment on my friends historical credentials, most people have only a single high school credit in US History, taught from a text compiled by a college professor and likely written by teaching assistants, cobbled together from many pieces and passed of as definitive “Truth.” 50% of U.S. adults are unable to read above an eighth grade level book with complete comprehension. 33% of U.S. high school graduates never read a book after high school. 80% of U.S. families have not purchased a book this year. (2020) Knowing this, it seems to me that folks should be very careful about who and why they offer up any criticism of “Real” historians.

Perhaps the best example there is, is that until recently everything you know about ancient Egypt came from Victorian Era amateur archeologists. All of them educated white men who had no background in the very long arc of Egyptian history. Not one asked an Egyptian. Until recently nearly all you knew about King Tut, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, and the other pharoahs was written by these English gentlemen. Notwithstanding the beauty and the glory of that which was found in their tombs the real treasure were things like your grandmothers post card. Found in digs all over Egypt are payroll records for the pyramid builders, personal letters, diaries and business accounts. Those mundane objects are the real historical record.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Around 1335 BCE

Our friend the local historian knows where knowledge lies. He has written, studied and taught nearly his entire lifetime. He deserves credit for what he says. Do not take him lightly.

The phrase, “I only want to hear what I already know” was never uttered by any Historian.

History is a growing thing, it changes constantly as new things are discovered. As my sainted father was wont to say, “Don’t believe most of what you read and only half of what you see.” Look for it yourself, it’s the only way to know. History is thick, dense and tasty.

This particular historian, with his inquisitiveness and his joy in pure thought shine through, and they have captivated me. In a time when parts of our society, particularly political leaders are trying to freeze false historical narrative in amber, glorifying a time that never was, it’s more important than ever to get down on your knees and dig in the pig pen for that lost diamond.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



The Big Vomit.

It was Elsie’s bus. Not the old pickup she and Evelyn Fernamburg drove to little Branch school. No it was the second one, the yellow one the district fobbed off on us after it was no longer needed by a bigger school. You don’t need a very big one when there are less than 60 kids in school and many walk or are delivered by their moms and dads.

Elsie parked the bus in her front yard which was just across the valley from the little school house. I guess she washed it now and then but mostly it looked like the farmers pickups, dusty in the spring and fall, muddy in the winter time. She drove the route which was just a circle around the upper valley, picking up the kids who walked down from Corralitos Canyon to the intersection with the road up to the Routzhans, Thompsons and the other old ranches in the foothills of the Santa Lucia. She’d head down to the Gulartes to pick up Judy and Dickie, back to Squeaky’s house then cross the old Harris bridge to grab the Gregory boys, Bruce and Jim, next; Billy Perry then the four corners, hang a right and head out to Newsom Springs to get Jimmy Genovini, the Hubbles and the Hunts. On the way back it was out Huasna road for Dennis Mineau, the Domingo’s, past Frank Branches old victorian house to the Coehlo’s, and Berguias. She turned her around in Al and Emma’s driveway, a pretty upscale word to describe a muddy dirty road filled with petrified ruts. The Coehlo boys, Al, David and Richard were the last to board on Huasna Road. A common thing for most of us, no asphalt anywhere. Maybe gravel if your dad had had a good year. On the way back a right turn up Alisos Canyon road, it had no name then, it was just the road to Jinks Machado’s ranch. We’d pick up the Silva kids then roll back to school.

Only the Gregorys and the Mineaus lived in houses you might consider modern. Nearly every other family lived in older wooden houses built around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. The Branch houses, there were five existing at the time, were either Victorian or earlier adobes built before California was a state. Standards of wealth were different then, no family would have been considered rich and some were pretty poor. Descendants of the original Ranchero families owned vast tracts of land but had little money, the land poor as they were described. These were  some boys who wore the same clothes to school for days at a time and were lucky to have a single pair of shoes. Many came to school hungry and Mrs. Brown had to keep a close eye on the paste jars. I guess we were somewhere in the middle but those things are something we didn’t really notice as kids. Our shared experience was the school itself where we were all equal. No one was picked on because they didn’t have. It’s been a good life lesson for all of us.

Our bus driver, Elsie Cecchetti was a woman of many talents. She wheeled that little bus around twice a day and being a pragmatic farm wife did things like roll the bus to a stop in the middle of the road, hop out and pick up the odd head of Celery or Romain lettuce that had fallen off a farm truck on the way to market. She didn’t get paid much. The census listed her as a farm helper which meant in census speak, a wife. In 1950 her income was listed as zero. Supplemental vegetables were fine, just dust “em off and throw them in the pot.

The kids all liked her because she was so nice. No troubles on her bus.

In the second half of the twentieth century the state of California was just a hundred years old and different from eastern cities and towns where ethnic peoples tended to cluster. Out here immigrants came from everywhere. Our bus carried the children of families who had come from Ilocanos province, Phillipines, Argentina. Switzerland, The Azores Islands, Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and even descendants of those soldados who had walked here with the padres who built the missions. We had one family who were of the first nations that predated everyone. Funny thing is, as kids we weren’t concerned with any of that. Our fathers were mostly farmers, our mother kept house and raised children and we accepted each other without complaint.

Elsie herself was the daughter of an immigrant, Jao Azevedo who was born in the Azores Islands in 1894 and came to America in 1910 as a sixteen year old who spoke no English and could neither read nor write. When she was born in 1922, he was living and farming on what has come to be called Couchetti road on the old Corral de Piedra Rancho.

Perhaps her most impressive and greatest moment came by way of Jeanette Coehlo. Kids passed around chicken pox, the mumps or the flu every winter. The bus could be a petri dish of bugs. One bright sunny morning we were passing the Perry’s house headed for Gregorys just opposite the old Harris place for which the bridge was named. The Harrises were grandparents to the three Hart kids who lived in town but were well known to us. Small town life there. Everyone knows everyone personally or by reputation. Anyway, since its less than a hundred yards from Perrys to Gregory we were moving slowly when Jeanette, sitting up front suddenly made a sound like “Urp,” did it again then heaved her entire, half digested breakfast all over the rubber floor and the opposite seat.

branch school 1961Jeanette (Shannon Family Collection)

Because it was a cool day all the windows were up, no draft you see and the other dozen or so kids seated around the bus were almost instantly confronted with a wave of nauseous, richly scented, miasmatic and, I swear, greenish cloud of a vapor guaranteed to trigger a sympathetic response from one and all. Like an wave it surged toward the back of the bus with a vengeance. The older boys, as is the custom, sitting in the “Cool” seats in the rear leaped for the windows, slammed them down and stuck their heads out as far as they could. We must have looked like an old circus wagon with all the animals sticking their heads out the side.

Ever the mother, Elsie just opened the door and drove on down to her friend Mary Gulartes house, turned onto the dirt road to the house and pulled to a stop.

“Every body Off, ” She ordered.

All the kids quickly walked down the aisle, shoes slipping in the slush,  some still dribbling vomit down their chins, some holding their noses as tight as they could, mouths tightly closed, they jumped down and quickly got away from the reeking little truck. Elsie calmly opened the back door and found the Gularte’s garden hose alongside the house and began sluicing sheets of water across the floor and spraying any seat that was dirty. Mary helped her with some old burlap sacks and they wiped her down. Mrs Gularte  then went to the back porch and into the kitchen where she loaded up a plate with homemade cookies. When she came back out the hose was being passed around as kids washed off their shoes and took a swallow or two of water to rinse away the bad taste.

Cookies were gobbled right down, Elsie shooed the kids back on the bus, said goodbye and thanks to Mary, whipped the little bus around, out the driveway and we continued back to pick up the Gregory’s and finish the route.

It was luck all around. The kids who missed the excitement considered themselves fortunate. The veterans felt superior. Just another day in a little rural school where things like this were taken pretty much in stride by all. Farm kids in the fifties had animals; horses, cattle, chickens, scads of dogs and cats so they tended to be not so finicky. We knew we were superior to the town kids. Always.



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

View from our window. Shannon Family ©

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

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

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

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

Jackie and George Shannon 1923. Shannon Family ©

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

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

The girls at breakfast in 1926. Shannon Family ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Thing About Uncle Jerry.

Garrison Keillor used to tell stories about the bachelor farmers up in Minnesota. He did it in the News from Lake Wobegon segment of his radio show. I particularly liked that part because I’m familiar with the type. My uncles and for a time my brother Jerry filled the role in my family.

Gerald George “Jerry” Shannon. Family Photo©

Actually there were lots of uncles. No two were the same. There was uncle Ray, Ray Clarence Long was his entire name. He was a dyed in the wool gen-u-wine cowboy. Can’t have a better uncle than that. I mean, how many kids are blessed with one of those. He rode, roped, forked hay, milked cows, always a squirt for the kitties and the occasional nephew. Consider that once a chicken waddled into their old kitchen, hopped up on the table and laid and egg. My aunt Mariel calmly shooed the chicken out the door, returned, grabbed the egg and fried it up for my little cousin Lucinda’s breakfast. Business as usual.

There was my mothers brother, uncle Bob, Robert Harrison Hall who was one of two best tellers of jokes I’ve ever known. He had all kinds, dirty, cringeworthy and even a category for kids. He collected them like gems and I never heard him tell the same one twice. He could really spin a yarn.

My uncle John, John Madison Gray, was my grandmothers youngest brother. He had a blarge square head and a deep voice that rumbled like he was gargling rocks. He managed the family trust in the waning days of our families oil fortune. He wore a suit. An unusual thing in our family. He was a formal man.

Wiry, bandy legged uncle Bob, Robert James Gray played shortstop on the Santa Maria High School baseball team in 1904 and spent all of his life on the land. He ranched on the Cuyama river, lived in an adobe house built in the 1840’s on a small, flat piece of ground twenty two miles up the rivers canyon and every two weeks he’d load his wife Marian on a wagon and come down the riverbed to Santa Maria for provisions. They were newly married and just eighteen. He later ran cattle on the big ranch near Shandon. I remember it as a dusty place, most notable for its peacocks and always being too hot. He quit all that and moved to Oroville in the fifties and grew crab apples for the rest of his life.

Uncle Jackie, John Patrick Shannon was my fathers brother, my paternal uncle and the one I knew the best. He was a lifelong bachelor and dedicated his entire life to cattle. He had no wife. Cows were his family. He was a good uncle for my brothers and I though. He used to take us around in his pickup truck and hike with us up Buzzards rock or fishing at Davy Brown creek or Huffs Hole. A cattleman in our county knows all the other ranchers and we’d explore the Carissa plains or the road to Lockwood and the Peach Tree ranch. We even went up to Drury James old place to see the people who owned it then. Frank and Jesse hid out there for a while when on the run. Some historians say it ain’t so but as we say in the writing business print the legend. We’d always be sure to have a good time. He did most everything right but he was also the sort of clueless uncle who gave you socks or a box of cheap candy, bought on Christmas Eve, at 5:30 just before we’d show up and grandma Shannon’s house for presents. He might even eat a piece or two before he stuffed them in brown paper bag and put them under the tree. Not too much family sense but we loved him anyway.

The best uncle ever and I mean ever, is my brother, Jerry. He is still a boy at heart and was really great when my boys were little at giving them birthday and Christmas gifts. Perfect gifts. No socks. No shirts. The best teddy bears, the best toys. Very thoughtful things that boys need. Once he gave them knives. Not pocket knives but these great big ornate knives such as Saladin, the great Muslim Sultan of the middle east wore. The kind you slide into you silk sash, just so. That’s in case Richard the Lion-Heart rides up and you need to, maybe, poke him a little to get his attention. Little boys understand that kind of thing, living as they do in a world you can no longer inhabit. Most leave that dimension behind some where before teen time.

I’ve often wondered where that gene comes from. Probably from my mother. She had some kind of gift, call it empathy or whatever you like but she knew kids, especially boys. She would take mine, one at a time, Christmas and birthday shopping and they were allowed to choose one gift which she never criticised. No matter how outrageous, noisy and such it might be she let them have it. She’d pick them up and they go off on an adventure, lunch with dessert, always dessert, that being the most important part. They’d hit all the toy stores spending the entire day hunting the perfect thing. The gift they chose for themselves was one thing but the time spent with grandma was the real gift. The evil cancer killed her when my boys were just twelve and nine and I often think how their lives might have been with her around for she was really best with teenagers. Their are many aging men around who still remember the special treatment they got from her. She worked in a Men and Boys store on the main street of our little town and dressed generations of kids for school, Boy Scouts, the Prom and weddings. She had just the right touch. Jerry got it from her.

The Nephews, Family Photo ©

My wife and sister in law were simply nonplussed. Looks were exchanged, serious looks, but it was too late. My mother sat in her rocker and smiled her secret smile; She understood.The boys were strutting proudly around my parents living room, 18″ engraved blades tucked in the waists of their pajamas ready for trouble. If Zorro the Fox had ridden up to the front door, he was a local boy you know, he’d have had two little men with blades ready to ride out against the evil Captain Monastario and his hapless sergeant, Demetrio Lopez Garcia.

Of course the blades were confiscated after the kids went to sleep, tucked away until safety was assured. What was most important was that both those, now grown men were bonded to Unca’ Jerry for as long as they shall live. Who can see into a little boys heart? Uncle Jerry can. What a gift. I love him for that.

Oh, and the next year at Christmas, he gave them great big flintlock pistols.

Merry Christmas, Family Photo©


My dad was not a sentimental man. He didn’t cry at weddings or when listening to old songs that were part of his past. He left few personal keepsakes when he died. There were few things to give away after his death that meant anything to him. His real legacy was in his family and friends who were left behind. In all my life in this little town I never heard any man have anything to say about my dad that wasn’t a compliment.

Once to my everlasting shame I said to an acquaintance of my father, a man whom he didn’t particularly care for;  dad said that he was a chiseler and worse than that even, a “government man,” they; who were anathema to farmers in those days, that “I wondered how my father had worked so hard and had so little in life  to show for it.” There was a stunned silence and then Deril said, and with force too, “your father is the best man I have ever known and you should be proud to be his son.” I was nearly 30 years old and I was being schooled in a set of values quite beyond my experience. Someone once said to me, “Your dad is the kind of man who will wave to you whether you see him or not.” That is the kind of thing that mattered to my father, not possessions. His good name, his children and his wife mattered. His friends mattered. Things, not at all.

My brother Jerry, who was executor of my parents estate, gave to each my sons, Will and Colin, one of few keepsakes my father  treasured. Will, the oldest, who was in college at the time, received the little blue and gold beanie that dad had kept in his top dresser drawer for seventy years. It may seem an odd thing to keep, just a little blue and gold cap that lived quietly in a dresser drawer for a near lifetime. Snuggled in the back amongst the socks. Most of my life, dad had just the one drawer in the dresser, for his wants were few. Socks, underwear, a bandanna or two, Levi’s folded neatly to one side. Hanging in the little closet amongst my mother clothes, a couple of Pendelton work shirts, a minor indulgence on his part, besides they stood up to hard use. One suit, blue or brown as the times decreed and  a few personal treasures such as his old Scoutmasters shirt and hat. That’s it.


George Shannon ’34

My dad was one of the fortunate few boys from Arroyo Grande to attend a University during those terrible depression days. In a time when the deed to my grandparents ranch was put up for collateral at the bank each year in order raise the cash to grow the feed for the dairy cattle and other stock. To borrow for fall planting; the spring harvest and then redeem your property after the crops were in, done each and every year, in and endless cycle of indebtedness. It was a fact of farm life then. People could lose everything and frequently did. Luck had nothing to do with it either. My grandparents worked hard, scrimped and saved and some how managed to pull it off. As my dad often said, at the ultimate time in 1939, when the wolf was at the door they were saved by Hitler. By invading Poland he ended the depression in an hour. Such is history.

After graduating from Arroyo Grande High School, dad enrolled at Santa Maria Junior College, which was so small that it’s classes were held in the old high school on south Broadway and west Morrison street. As with my grandmother Annie, who graduated from Santa Maria high in 1904 although she lived in Arroyo Grande which had its own school just two blocks from her home; Arroyo was not  an accredited high school for  direct transfer to a UC.

Being the depression, money was also very tight and two years in Junior college would save some of the cost of university and give my grandparents some relief. They paid his tuition and books, $37.00 in 1933 and provided five dollars a month in spending money. He was on his own for the rest.

We still have copies of the “Mascot,” the Junior College bi-annual yearbook. Life at a junior college in the early thirties is illustrated in its pages.  If you live here you know the families who managed to send their kids to school there. George Oliver whose family ranched next to ours; Kathryn Routzhan who would marry Cyril “Gus” Phelan, Ralph Hanson, Leland Rice and Kenny Jones, all friends of my father.

The life of the kids who went there was like others of their time. As with every generation they were trendy. In the years after WW1 Life changed rapidly in America. My grandmother would wear late Victorian clothes to Cal, my dad wore corduroy trousers called “Bags” because they were. The way they dressed horrified my grandmother, a repetition of styles enjoyed by every generation.  

By the late-1940s, beanies fell out of general popularity as a hat, in favor of cotton visored caps like the baseball cap. WWII veterans, returned from combat and getting a prized opportunity to study for a college degree weren’t much into the silliness of Beanies and wouldn’t wear them.

However, in the 1950s they made a brief return. they were worn by college freshmen and various fraternity initiates as a form of mild hazing. 

Popular people who are known for wearing beanies include Jughead from the Archie comic book series, Spanky from Our Gang and Goober Pyle who lived in Mayberry and worked at a gas station. The poor beanie had sunken from University level to grease monkey. It was the end.

My dad was a modest man and today it is almost impossible to imagine him wearing such a thing but that he did. He wore it to the Big Game with Stanford when the gridiron boys fought it out with the private school boys for possession of the Axe. The winner took possession for the next year when they would do it all again. They still do. We were told stories of the big pep rallies at Cal before the game when yell leaders would pump up the crown before venturing up to the California Memorial Stadium  in Strawberry Canyon or the ride on the train from San Francisco and down to Palo Alto. He told us about the card sections and how they worked as each school tried to outdo the other in whipping up the student section. We didn’t realize as kids what that meant to him. He was a college man and proud of it.

The Big “C”, The California Rooting Section ©

For many years when I was a youngster, he and my mother with their friends the Talleys would drive up to the city and book a great old San Francisco hotel for the annual Big Game. Fine dinners and seats in the alumni section for the three day event. They’d watch the Bears and the Indians, for that is what they were called in those days, battle it out on the field, always pulling for Cal over the hated private school boys. A year to brag or a year to mourn the loss of the Axe.

Why is it called the Stanford AXE? It made its first appearance on April 13, 1899 during a Stanford rally when yell leaders used it to decapitate a straw man dressed in blue and gold ribbons while chanting the Axe yell, which was based on The Frogs by Aristophanes (Brekekekèx-koàx-koáx): Give ’em the axe, the axe, the axe! The Cal rooters began to use the yell too. My dad would demonstrate when we were at my grandparents house during holiday season. He would chant with my grandmother Annie, a 1908 graduate of Cal

One of the best ways to teach your children is to demonstrate, over and over again the thing you wish to impart. The stories about his little beanie and the time, as a child pouring over the pages of the Blue and Gold yearbooks from 1908 and 1934 encouraged all three of his kids to go to college. It was also expected that we would root for California.

Dad and mom had some close friends, both university graduates, he from Stanford and she, California. He said he could never understand this. He always held her in suspicion as if she had committed a crime by marrying a Stanford man.

It is a wonder to me how members of my family hung onto talismans for a lifetime. Protection, luck and good fortune must have resided in the little things they kept. Did my father take his Beanie out of the drawer and dwell on its personal meaning? Did it have some nostalgic power? I don’t know but somehow I hope so.



A short history of the man bun and the men who wore them.

Dedicated to K J Gonzales, Judy Sweaney Hall and John A Silva.


The procession came in sight down the Via Flaminia. The Tribunes marched in the van holding aloft the standards of the Roman Legions who had fought the Gaul in the year 52 BCE. Each standard topped by a golden Eagle with the initials of the Romans, SPQR engraved just below. Paced by trumpeters playing fanfares, followed by the kettle drummers setting the standard military cadence, 120 steps per minute. The mighty Tenth legion, its Imperial Standard glistening in the sunlight, the banner hung below embroidered with a rampaging wild boar and its motto Fretensis. The Legionnaires staring straight ahead, armor polished, skirts swaying in time to the drums led the military. The three other legions, the first, Germanicus, the fifth, Galicia and the fourteenth, with its rampant Sea Goat symbol. All had fought the Gauls across northern Europe and Germany, there were nearly 25,000 men of Romes Finest. Their heavy sandals beating the cobbles in time they marched ahead of the rude cart drawn by captured Alemani chieftains. On the cart, The King Vercingetorix stood, hands and ankles shackled to iron rings in the floor of the cart, his head held erect by cords binding his neck to a post. Centurions flanked the cart carrying his swords and armor. The man who had surrendered to save his people from slaughter had been held in the bowels of the Mamertine prison for six years. Though he was gaunt and pale he held himself erect and looked every bit the warrior King.

Prisoners were held in Mamertine to await execution or were simply allowed to starve to death out of sight. Rome’s vanquished enemies were imprisoned and often died here. Among the famous figures in history who spent their last days here include Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls, who tried to rally the Gallic tribes into union against Caesar in 52 BC; Simon Bar Jioras, the defender of Jerusalem, who was defeated by Titus in 70 AD, and supposedly, the Apostles Peter and Paul.

Following King Vercingetorix was Julius Caesar himself. Standing in a Golden chariot drawn by four pure white matched horses with harnesses picked out in gold and silver. Behind him, holding aloft a laurel leaf crown was the leader of the Roman senate.

Following Caesar were wagons overflowing with the spoils of war. Swords, spears, armor signified his complete mastery of war. Lastly came the captives, Celts, Gauls, , the Arverni, Atrebates and the Belgii. They were the flower of kingdoms that we now know as France, Germany and parts of Belgium. The defeated Celts fled to Ireland where they live today, very few of the true Gauls survived and those mostly slaves to the Romans or sold around the Mediterranean..

When the procession reached the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Vercingetorix was cast loose from the post and led inside the temple and before the priests of Jupiter and Julius Caeser was forced to kneel before the altar. At Caesars order his arms were held by Centurions, a third held his bun and a cord was dropped over his head and he was strangled to death. Such was the triumph of Caesar.

An honorable man, the king had surrendered to Caesar in order to spare his people from massacre. Caesar massacred the people anyway. Vercingetorix is considered a hero in France and a bronze statue stands at Alise-Sainte-Reine, Burgundy, France.


In 1974 peasants digging a well in the drought stricken western Shaanxi province of China unearthed fragments of a clay figure—the first evidence of what would turn out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern times. Near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi—who had proclaimed himself first emperor of China in 221 B.C.—lay an extraordinary underground treasure: an entire army of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses, interred for more than 2,000 years. Each one wore a Man Bun. Except for the horse’s of course.

The stupendous find at first seemed to reinforce conventional thinking—that the first emperor had been a relentless warmonger who cared only for military might. As archaeologists have learned during the past decade, however, that assessment was incomplete. Qin Shi Huangdi may have conquered China with his army, but he held it together with a civil administration system that endured for centuries. Among other accomplishments, the emperor standardized weights and measures and introduced a uniform writing script.

The pits are a colossal exercise in government expansion. Like today, they may have been designed to glorify Qui Shin, the emperor and power of his reign. The idea that government builds in order to glorify itself and its beliefs was just as common in the third century as it is today.

With an estimated 7,00 t0 9,000 soldiers excavated so far it is telling that as far as science has been able to determine, each and every figure is unique and was likely copied from a living man. Think of it. Nine thousand unique individuals who lived 2,2040 years ago, each wearing a Man Bun.


Storming out of the vast plain of Hungary the Hunnic armies pushed the Germanic tribes west into the plains of France in the fifth century. Led by their hereditary ruler Attila, seen above with his Man Bun they rampaged and slaughtered their way across Europe and down into the middle east. Exploiting a new development in warfare, the deployment of armies disposed of nearly all cavalry. the Hun horsemen carrying the very powerful recurve bow that allowed them to strike from horseback creating a mobile force difficult for foot soldiers to attack. Attila and his brother Bleda campaigned down from Bulgaria, chasing the eastern Roman armies through western Turkiye, Thrace and decisively defeating them at Gallipoli. Rome effectively became a vassal state paying tribute to the Huns. In succeeding years, in order to protect themselves, both the eastern and western Roman empires employed the Huns as Mercenary armies to protect what was left of the empire from other aggressive cultures. This, of course, let the fox into the henhouse. Descendants of Attila figured that, why work for the Romans when you have the power to rule them, which is what they did. Perhaps the Romans ultimately wore their hair wrong. Roman leaders wore their hair short and combed from back to front. Who’s to say.


The Great Khagan’s military successes made him the greatest conqueror in history. By the time of his death, the Mongol Empire occupied modern day Russia including Kiev and Moscow, all of China, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Turkey, and as far west as the Danube River. His sons and Grandson expanded the empire ultimately reaching the city walls of Vienna.

As simple as it may seem a simple invention led to the primacy of the Mongol warriors success. Being a plains culture, entirely dependent on the horse or more accurately ponies, they roamed the Mongolian Steppes as nomads. The horse were small, the better to survive in the harsh conditions of the high wind swept plains of central Asia. The horses ate no grain and were entirely feed on grasses and surprisingly, goats milk. Goats milk was the foundation of the Mongol diet and ponies were no exception. Soldiers put meat under their saddles to tenderize it and when they had no water they would carefully puncture a vein in their horses neck and drink the blood. Some of the Khagans armies numbered over one hundred thousand warriors and riding day and night they covered great distances to the surprise of their enemies. The horsemen themselves used the invention of the stirrup and the wooden saddle tree to great advantage. They could turn their small horses on a dime and use their feet in the stirrups to gain thrust when using spears and Javelins. Their prime weapon, the composite bow could be fired in any direction while the fighter stood in the stirrups.

Chinggis practiced war on a brutal scale. Surrendered armies saw their soldiers executed by beheading, All citizens were forced to pass by a large wagon wheel on a cart used to transport the armies Yurts. All those whose heads were higher than the linchpin that held the wheel on the axle were also beheaded. It is said that this removed most of the elders, men and women thus disposing of any potential revolt leaders. The remaining people were sold into slavery, raising vast amount of money for the Mongol empire.

The infamous piling of a “pyramid of severed heads” happened at Nishapur, where Genghis Khan’s son-in-law Toquchar was killed by an arrow shot from the city walls after the residents revolted. The Khan then allowed his widowed daughter, who was pregnant at the time, to decide the fate of the city, and she decreed that the entire population be killed. She also ordered that every dog, cat and any other animals in the city be slaughtered, “so that no living thing would survive the murder of her husband”. The sentence was duly carried out by the Khan’s youngest son Tolui. According to widely circulated stories, the severed heads were then set in separate piles for the men, women and children.

Lest we think the Khagan was simply a destroyer, he also developed the first empire wide postal service known, secured the route of the “Silk Road,” which became the route connecting east and west, building the connection that began sharing vast amount of knowledge throughout the known world.

And the Man Bun? Chinggis had sent a group of Mongol Officials to treat with the Shah of the ancient city of Otar. Angered by the demands of the Mongols, he had the entire delegations heads shaved, a mortal insult in the Mongolian culture. The men were beheaded and their shaved heads returned to Chinggis. Outraged the Khagan quickly attacked and took the city executing everyone in it and having molten silver poured into the ears of the ministers of Otar for refusing to listen. The city was then razed. Today it is a windswept ghost town in Khazakstan and has been for nine hundred years.


Known as Saladin in the western world, Salah Al-Din was born a Kurd and was of the Sunni Muslim faith. At the height of his power he ruled Egypt, Syria, the Hejaz, (western Arabia), Yemen, Iraq, upper Africa and Nubia.

Each day he would arise from his bed, bathe and his wife Ismat Al Din Khatun would brush his hair, rub it with scented oils and roll and tie it into a topknot, known as a Tuft. Under Islamic law of the time, a man may wear hair past his shoulders or shave his head. Salah Al Din wore his Tuft under his turban.

He is most famous in the western world as the man who ended the European ruled state of Outremer formed after the 2nd crusade. The third invasion of the middle east, the 3rd crusade, he defeated Richard the I, Philip the II of France and Fredrick I of Germany’s combined armies. None ever never saw Jerusalem but did in the end establish a truce guaranteeing safe travel to holy sights if Europeans traveled unarmed. The coast from Tyre to Jaffa was left to Christian control. For the Europeans the primary outcome was the theft of books which the Muslim civilizations had saved after the fall of Greece and Rome which when transported back to their respective countries and translated, laid the foundation for advanced learning and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Salah Al Din was a generous man. He bought Christians out of slavery, established dozens of schools and libraries and when he died of fever in 1293, he had only one gold coin and forty of silver, not enough to pay for his own funeral. He had given it all away. He is buried in Damascus, Syria.


Suenga was a Samurai. During the Mongol invasion of 1274, Suenaga fought at Hakata under Muto Kagesuke. Suenaga went to great lengths to achieve what he viewed as the honor of the warrior. Although under orders from Kagesuke to pull back at the beginning of the engagement, Suenaga disobeyed, saying “Waiting for the general will cause us to be late to battle. Of all the warriors of the clan, I, Suenaga will be the first to fight.”

The Mongol’s attempted invasion of Japan came after Kublai, who was Chinggis grandson and heir, showed his irritation with the Japanese refusal to pay tribute to the Mongol Chinese. In a letter to the Shogunate of Japan he stated….But now, under our sage emperor, all under the light of the sun and the moon are his subjects. You, stupid little barbarians. Do you dare to defy us by not submitting?

— Letter from Kublai Khan’s ministers to Japan, 1267

This kicked off what I like to call the war of the buns. After two failures, the second primarily because the Chinese battle fleet was ravaged by a typhoon which would forever after be called by the Japanese, Kamikaze, which translates roughly to divine or spirit winds. Chinese, Mongol, and Korean invaders who weren’t drowned were killed by the Samurai, their heads with the characteristic Man Bun scattered on the western Japanese coast by the tens of thousands.

Suenaga’s scrolls tell a much different story. The Japanese Samurai needed no help in defeating the Mongols. They were equally adept at savage warfare and after two tries the Chinese gave up. The “Divine Wind” is just a good story.

The Venetian merchant Marco Polo was present in China during this period was a first hand witness to the Mongol wars as he traveled through China and southeast Asia.

The frivolous term “Man Bun” is called the Chonmage in Japan. The sides of Suenaga’s head would have been shaved and the remaining hair tied at the top to assist in keeping his helmet in place.

Suenaga has left a record of his deeds during the wars on a scroll he commissioned in 1293. The scrolls are kept in the collection of the Museum of Imperial Collections in Tokyo, Japan.


Best known to historians as Crow King, he was a member of the Hunkpapa band of Sioux. One of the primary war chiefs, he led 80 Sioux warriors up Calhoun hill, allowing Crazy Horse and Gall to surround the remnants of the 7th cavalry and send the foolish Colonel into the pages of history.

Crow King rose from his blankets early on that morning in the moon of the Red Blooming Lilies. Stepping outside his tepee he sniffed the air of dawning, smelling the dry grass and the scent of dried horse dung coming from the vast herd of ponies beginning to graze on the plain west of the Greasy Grass. Rolling and stretching his shoulders he looked forward to a good day. Walking east to the slow running stream he drank his fill, washed his teeth and returned to the tepee where his wife Ptesan Luta Win and his two daughters, Hintukasan who was five and Tingle Ska Luta, one year old were. Crow King relaxed on his seat after breakfast and asked for his pipe. Suddenly a young boy, stumbled into the tent, out of breath stammering that the pony soldiers were coming down the river.

Crow king stepped outside and up the river he could see the bluecoat horsemen coming at a dead run. He quickly grabbed the boy by the arm and told him to go to the pony herd and fetch his horse. As he stepped back into the tepee he looked over his shoulder and noticed the cavalry had pulled up and formed a skirmish line. He didn’t understand this because his end of the village was completely unprepared for battle. He turned back and entered the tepee asking his wife to bring his weapons while he attended to his warpaint. Quickly twisting his hair into the bun called by Indians the scalp lock, he took the wrappings off the small pots of paint and began daubing his signature color across his chest and face. His forehead colored ochre and three vertical white stripes down each of his cheeks, he place three eagle feathers in his scalp lock and stepped back outside. The boy held his war pony by a grass rope tied around his lower jaw, barely holding on as the beast jumped and circled. The pony, knowing and responding to the excitement, while the boy spun, his feet off the ground at the end of the rope, Crow King threw his saddle and blankets over the beasts back and vaulted aboard, taking the the war bridle from the boy, the horse curvetting and circling, it took him a moment to gain control. Red White Buffalo Calf Woman handed up his rifle, tomahawk and shield, as he looked down to thank the boy a Short Hair soldiers bullet killed him, and his small body fell in the dust and lay like a little girls discarded rag doll. Someones son. Crow King said a silent prayer for the boys spirit. Controlling the pony with his knees he kicked it into motion and set off in a head long gallop toward the soldiers. Young men were bursting from between the teepees at a dead run, their ponies stretched out a full gallop, screaming their war cries determined to lay down their lives to protect the women and children. They knew what would happen if they failed. Hokahey



1.2 million Indians volunteered to fight for the British Indian Army in WWI, making them the largest volunteer army in the Great War. While Sikhs only make up 2% of India’s population, 22% of the British Indian Army were Sikhs. In World War I and II, 83,005 Sikhs were killed and 109,045 wounded fighting for the allied forces.

Manat Singh was one of those men. Manta Singh was born in 1870 into the family of Khem Singh of Salempur, Masandan, in District Jalandhar, Punjab. As soon as he left school, Manta Singh joined the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs in 1906. British officers prized Sikh soldiers, along with Nepalese Gurkhas, as coming from the so-called ‘martial races’. For Manta Singh and his comrades, the army was a good career option and one they took up willingly. As he was militarily educated , he rose up to the rank of Subedar (captain), above the ranks of most and just below that of the European officers in the army. Subedar was the highest rank that could be attained by a non-white in the British army at the time.

Sikism is the newest of the modern religions, the most recently founded major organized faith and stands at fifth-largest worldwide. Guru Nanak taught that living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above metaphysical truth, and that the ideal man “establishes union with God, knows His Will, and carries out that Will”.

Sikh’s are not allowed any hair removal – Hair cutting, trimming, removing, shaving, plucking, threading, dyeing, or any other alteration from any body part is strictly forbidden. Sikh men wear their long hair up and tied in a bun. This known as a Joora or Rishi knot. The turban is worn to protect the hair and as a symbol of Sikh pride. Manta and all of the Sikhs who served in the Great War never wore steel helmets.

At the start of the First World War, Manta Singh’s regiment became part of the 3rd (Lahore) Division sent to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting in France.

In a letter home, Harnam Singh described their welcome as the came ashore at Marseilles.

The people of Europe are very fair-skinned because in their previous lives they prayed and meditated so much. The cold atmospheres and climates of those countries mean that their skin color will never darken. They had never seen dark-skinned people before. They thought everyone in the world was white like them.

When we disembarked and mounted our horses, we headed off through the markets to our billets. Thousands of men, women and children were in the streets and on the roofs of the houses waving white handkerchiefs. They were saying something that we didn’t understand at the time. We later learnt that they were saying ‘bonju’ [bonjour], which is like our ‘sat sri akal’.

At the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, 40,000 British troops, half of whom were Indians, Sikhs and Gurkhas assaulted the Germans on Aubers Ridge. The slaughterhouse which was the western front claimed 13,000 casualties in the two day battle. Four thousand of the dead and wounded were Sikh.

It was on this chaotic, deadly battlefield that Manta Singh saw his friend, British Leftenant George Harrison lying near death in a shell hole filled with water. Stumbling across an abandoned wheelbarrow he managed to drag and then lift Henderson into it and slowly wheel it back to the British trenches. Manta Singh was severely wounded while doing this selfless deed.

The result of the battle was recorded in the regimental diary as…

The ground in front of the British lines were Indian and German corpses and the whole place showed signs of heavy fighting that had been going on there.

The stretcher bearers were at work all night picking up the wounded. We had Subedar Gattajan killed and Subedar Manta Singh wounded.

About 60 other ranks were killed and wounded.

Regimental War Diary, 15th Ludhiana Sikhs

Sikh Cavalry, Nueve Chapelle, 1915. Fortunino Mantans 1915© Note the German Pickelhaub helmets on the lances.

Manta Singh was evacuated to England because the front line hospitals were overflowing with the wounded.

A certificate signed by the Chief Resident Officer at the Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton lists Manta Singh’s wounds as ‘one, gunshot wound, left leg, two, gangrene of leg and toxemia.’ Manta Singh had one leg amputated, but unfortunately succumbed to his injuries and died a few weeks later on 15 March 1915. There were no antibiotics in 1915 and gangrene was almost always fatal.

His body was taken to the South Downs and cremated in the open air and his ashes were scattered in the sea.

Manta Singh’s friend George Henderson survived the war and ensured that Manta Singh’s son, Assa Singh (1909-2003), was taken care of and he encouraged him to join the Sikh Regiment like his father before him. Assa Singh developed a friendship with Captain Henderson’s son, Robert Henderson, and both actually served together in the Second World War.

Assa Singh fought in the Eight Army against the Nazis in North Africa, then in Italy. After the war he became a Lieutenant Colonel before retiring from the Indian Army in 1957.

The Sikh roars like a lion on the field of battle,
And yields up his life as a sacrifice:
Whoever is fortunate enough to be born a Rajput
Never fears the foe in battle:
He gives up all thought of worldly pleasure,
And dreams only of the battle field:
He who dies on the field of battle,
His name never dies, but lives in history:
He who fronts the foe boldly in battle,
Has God for his protection:
Once a Sikh takes the sword in Hand,
He has only one aim: victory!

These are the men, who, down the centuries wore the “Man Bun.” If a person is to make a joke about a mans hair, know of what you speak.

I want to thank my cousin K J and her best friend Judy for the subject idea and just for fun I added the photos below of modern men who wear it.



Eight years of Grammar school and any memory of what I studied there is vague at best. What I do remember is Recess. Tiny rural schools in the 1950’s had the best Recess, bar none. Kids played. They played at things you might not believe but it’s all true, I swear by my tattoo.

Kids need to play and make use of their imaginations. Something we have perhaps lost with children carrying I-Phones everywhere. This is how we did it.

First of all, we played in the dirt. Once my dad and the other trustees planted a lawn in front of the school but it was a futile gesture. Hard adobe soil, no sprinkler systems because there was no hose bib in the front of the school and hundreds of acres of wild oats surrounding it guaranteed that by late spring it was just a memory. In the spring, mud, early summer dust, we sprinted out to recess, not wanting to waste a moment. Kids games revolved partly around soil conditions which was something we knew about, being mostly farm kids. When I was seven I could whip up a mud pie like nobodies business. That old adobe mud could be made in Frisbees, weaponized so to speak. Mom made sure our shirts were clean but those old black Levi’s we wore stayed on for days. Laundry was a lot of work for her. The old tub washing machine with its ringer was pretty slow and the dryer was 3/8 inch cotton rope strung between poles. When you were big enough you’d help her hang the wet laundry, sheets on the outside to hid the private stuff such as panties, slips and bras. Those bras of hers were wired for sound or at least highly engineered. They were so well made you could have used them to haul water from the well or use them as hampers to pick beans in. Our farm had a road that ran upwind of the clothesline and she had to take that into account too. We were clean but not too clean. My mother always said that a little dirt was good for you. Science has born that out.

A list of the games we played was long but in a funny way each had a life of its own. Each in it’s own season.

Marbles were played in the spring when the dirt was still slightly damp so a good ring could be scratched out. Not too soft but stiff enough so the marbles would roll. One boy would show up with a pocket full of glassies, cats eyes and steellies in early April and the next day it would be on. Boys and girls showed up ready to go to war. No playing for keeps was the teachers rule but out of sight they changed hands. Just as mysteriously as marble season appeared it was gone. There was no date on the calendar. It was as mysterious as the first flight of swallows showing up under the eaves of the old barn in our back yard.

Since the school never seemed to have more than one baseball, likely used for decades and an old basketball with all the pebbles worn off some ingenouity was required. There was no lack of old timey games, some from centuries lost in the mist that could be played. No one knew where the rules for Red Rover, Kick The Can, Mother May I, or Simon Says but everyone seemed to know how. The only game deemed too dangerous was Crack The Whip which was still played if the teachers were otherwise occupied. Second graders on the end could be spun like 45’s off the end on a good crack. The occasional skinned knee the result. Nobody cried. Parents would say thing like, “Well, don’t play then,” or “Just spit on it and rub it with mud, you’ll be fine.”

Most of our fathers and uncles; in fact almost every man we knew, some women too had served in WWII and the Old Colonel, who you could see driving around town, racing down Branch street in his old Plymouth at the breakneck speed of 10 mph had served in WWI. Naturally the boys, whose male relatives never, ever talked about the war, were a rabid and blood thirsty group. We were the Blue and Gray, Yanks and Huns, Nazi and Dogfaces, Rebels and Hessians, We rode with TR up Kettle Hill. We didn’t know that he actually walked up, but that wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Being farm boys we brought our own shovels to school and dug foxholes in the cut-bank uphill from the school where we staved off multiple attacks from the days chosen enemy, slaughtering them with the sticks found under the schools oak trees or pelting them with acorns. In a last ditch defense, Manny Silva leapt on Charlie Silvas back while he was coming up the hill and bit him. Victory was achieved for the Hillsiders.

When Mrs Fahey wasn’t looking we slid under the barbed wire fence around school and hightailed it up the hill and then down the other side to check out the old Branch Family grave site. Francus Ziba, his wife Manuela were buried there and just to the side, the graves of the Hemmi’s, father and son who were lynched by vigilantes, hung from the Pacific Coast Railroad bridge in 1886. Mrs Branch, in her kindness allowed them to be interred near the Branch Family when no other cemetery would . We knew a little about it because Fred Branch came to school on a history tour to talk about goings on in the old days and said he clearly remembered men coming to the Branch home, asking his father to come outside where they spoke in hushed voices before his father came back into the house to get his rifle before leaving with them. He was sure his father had had something to do with the hanging. An inquest was held afterward and ruled that persons unknown had done the deed though some members of the panel were likely present at the bridge. Secrets are hard to keep in small towns.

The little place was not a spooky place, most kids knew about the original Ranchero and his family. Some of his descendants were my school mates.

When I was in the sixth grade Miss Holland retired. She had taught for decades at Branch and had taught kid who were now the grandparents of my classmates. The next year we had a new teacher, Miss Parker who I remember as young, blond and who smoked cigarettes behind the girls restroom during recess. That seemed daring, we had never seen a teacher smoke though you can be sure than in the fifties almost every adult we knew did. Somehow it was unexpected. It made her a person of some respect, we assumed this was never done. An adult who scoffed at rules had our respect.

Hours were spent carefully crafting snares from wild oat stalks. We stripped the leaves and carefully tied a loop on the thin end, securing it with a slip-knot. Ever so carefully we stalked the wily and elusive western fence lizard as he lay sunning himself on the rocks and old railroad tie fence posts around school. Captured “Blue Bellies” were never killed which might surprise some, kids being a rather bloodthirsty lot, but were left in girls coat pockets or carefully stashed in a teachers desk. Rural school teachers like Miss Parker were, of course, not the least bit frightened and simply took the lizards outside and freed them with a knowing smile, having been down that road many times. Courage was tested by letting the small reptile bite your little finger in a show of outstanding bravery which sent the little boys into to paroxysms of squeaks and admiring glances which we took as our due, being older, wiser and oh, so courageous.

Miss Parker did something else I’ve never forgotten. She read out loud to us. A chapter a day just before school let out. She read from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It was the greatest thing. I’m sure most kids hadn’t read the book either. She was an accomplished speaker and she took on the character voices too. I remember it was perhaps the greatest treat I had in grammar school. We couldn’t wait to get out on the Mississippi with Huckleberry and ride down the river on his raft to New Orleans.

Lucky for us the brothers Ikeda farmed the land across Branch Mill Road from the school and, wonder of wonders, they had a reservoir directly opposite. It was full of water and it didn’t take long to figure out that if we brought some loose boards from our dad’s scrap piles we could build a raft and go floating along the Old Mississip’ just like Huck and Jim. Since the gate to the pond was never locked we quickly used our recess time to start building and in just a few sessions we were floating about, spying out the downriver under our hand visors like true river rats. Mrs Brown and Mrs Fahey took no notice, they were used to feral boys on the loose.

Finally after a few days while driving by the school Kaz Ikeda noticed what was going on and our trip was ended. We had to clean up the pond and remove the raft but it was all done in the spirit of good fun. When one adventure ends another begins.

Walt Disney introduced us to Davy Crockett when I was nine. Crockett, being such a fabulous creature, we naturally took his legend in hand and soon all the boys were sporting Coonskin hats and strutting around school shooting the eyes out of turkeys at a hundred yards. It was such an epidemic of gunplay that kids with their Mattel Fanner 50’s slung low around their hips that Mrs. Brown, the principle, as if you needed one in a school with less than sixty kids, decreed that we could only bring our guns to school one day a week. This would be known as “Gun Day.” On that day, a Wednesday if memory serves, the air was heavy with the smell of spent roll caps and the popping of pistols from behind every tree. The two acres of the school ground was the scene of vast carnage as the bodies lay where they fell, briefly of course. It was perfectly legal to pop up and shoot your adversary in the back. The hooks placed along the sides of the hallway between the two school rooms looked like an armory during class time, with the gun-belts hooked up and waiting for their owners to return.

Buckaroos, Family Photo, 1955©

By the turn of the decade, the end of the fifties, the new “Modern” school was about to open and the last class to graduate from the old school, which had been in use since the 1880’s was looking forward to high school. The days of free recess where the kids were left to their own devices were coming to an end. The county schools office was growing in power and most of the old one and two room schoolhouses were closed. We had seen the end of Huasna, Santa Manuela, Newsom, Oak Park, Berros, Santa Fe, Freedom and Cienega schools and the rise of a much more rigorous education system. The Arroyo Grande Elementary school, though opened in 1932 was fifty years more modern than old Branch. The brand spanking new Margaret Harloe school with its modern buildings and structured activities didn’t allow for rafts, gun days or digging foxholes. Recess was now organized. Imaginations were stifled under the weight of adult theory about what is good for children. A sad day. Just for once why can’t we just open the gates and let them run free to discover on their own what is out there? No Toys-R-Us, no phones, no proper PE equipment no adults pointing fingers and giving orders. Just give them a shovel. As Pink Floyd so aptly said, “Teachers, leave those kids Alone.”

L-R: Christine Baker, Cheryl Jurniak, Mrs Edith Brown, Jeanette Coehlo, Jerry Shannon, Unidentified, Dickie Gularte, Mrs Fahey. Not pictured, George Cecchetti Junior. The last eighth grade class from the old school, 1961 Family ©
L-R: Michael Shannon, Judy Hubble, Judy Gularte and Michael Murphy, 1959, graduates Family ©

Cover Photo: 1960 Eighth Grade, Alcides Coehlo, Mrs Brown, Johnny Silva, Nancy Wilcox, Steve Luster, Manny Silva and Mrs Fahey. The pond is to the right. Family Photo ©


What To Do With A Dead Horse.

My dad was not what I would call a scintillating conversationalist. He tended to speak in analogy and metaphor. When I was a kid this was likely the correct thing to do as I remember those kind of things today. Conversations, when there was one always ended with the phrase: Well, lets put it like this,” which meant that his opinion was right. When you’re young there isn’t much reason to disagree because you don’t know too much.

The only time I knew that I had him dead to rights was when he insisted that the old saw, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning,; red sky at night, sailors delight,” was wrong and red sky at morning was the sailors delight. After a long discussion with my brother and I, who both insisted he was wrong, even showing him in the encyclopedia, he nevertheless ended the talk with his tried and true phrase. And, that was that.

When I grew up I spent many years at sea and I can testify today that he was wrong. Pretty sure he would still argue his point though. Opinions, stubbornly held can become personal law and be handed down from father to son like crown jewels.

Other things he said, stuck. His little stories about things have stayed with me and in fact, have become more true, if you will excuse the grammar as nothing can be “more” true, being that truth is an absolute. There is no such thing as alternative truth, it either is or it isn’t.

If you understand that my father was a man who came of age in the depression and with the exception of his two years at the University of California, lived his entire 88 years in our small town. We lived in a farmhouse less than three miles from where he grew up. He was raised on a dairy and as an adult grew, table vegetables all the rest of his working life. To say he was a conservative thinker would be an understatement. I spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases seated at the poker table after dinner listening to my father, his brother and my uncles expound on farming. I learned a great deal about potato farming off Division Road in Oso Flaco or running cattle up on the Shandon Ranch. They all believed that the weather was out to get them; it was, and they were on constant lookout for the State and Federal “College Boys” who wanted to tell them how to farm. They didn’t force conservatism on us boys but it was there for the taking. Some advice I took. Some I didn’t. I understood as I grew up that none of that was meant box me in, but was simply to offer me a way to look behind the curtain, see what was there and make up my own mind.

If I may I’d like to present you with one of his classic analogies. This one is undateable and it’s been making the rounds, likely for centuries. You can take it or leave, another of my dads go-to phrases.

With anything you do or anywhere you go you may find yourself riding a Dead Horse. My father said this was true of government, especially ours. He said,”Democracy is very messy and most of the time stumbles over it’s own two feet and like a blind hog will, or might, find a Truffle once in a while. You can imagine the rider standing over the quite obviously Dead Horse, hands on hips trying to figure out what to do. Buttonholing three or four passersby he asks what they think he should do. The group tries to come up with a strategy for getting the Dead Horse to move.

“Should we give it a swift kick in the ribs,” says one.

“How about a bigger whip,” says another.

“How about a better rider.” says a third.

“We could change his diet or better yet, buy a better Dead Horse,” that’s an idea, they all agree.

The rider is irritated by the comment that he should have been a more accomplished horsemen.

“Perhaps,” says one, “we should appoint a committee to study the issue, or better yet, put together a team to revive the Dead Horse, yes that’s it.”

“Don’t you think we ought to buy a few more Dead Horses, and harness them together? Wouldn’t that be twice as good?”

“They’d be much faster and could really pull their weight.”

“We could get professional jockeys to ride them too. I bet they would spring to life then.” Lots of head nodding.

“What if we hired a trainer to increase the Dead Horses performance.”

We could increase funding, we could study Alfalfa production to make sure the Dead Horse was properly fed.” Yes, that’s it.

We could save money too, because the Dead Horse doesn’t have to be fed. That’s right, it’s less costly, decreases overhead, and therefore contributes more to the mission than a Live Horse.”

“Best of all, we can promote the rider of the Dead Horse to a cabinet position, create a new department called the Dead Horse Committee and they can issue a critical report on the efficiency of Dead Horses.”

“We’re sure Democrats and Republicans can agree on that, right?”

“Not so simple,” replies the man from the north, “We don’t grow Alfalfa in our state and taxpayers won’t want to spend their money on a Dead Horses from somewhere else.”

The Dead Horse lies there.

“You know,” they all agree, “The Dead Horse is beginning to smell.”

They all walk away.

No actual horses were harmed in the writing of this story

Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Ten

Bruce and Eileen on a tour of California’s Oil Patch.

The boys on the rig. Leather hard, raw boned just as likely to fight as breath. The men who spudded in, made hole and spent their money hell-raisin’, drinking and fist fighting just for fun.

L-R: Fargo Adelman, Harry Weaver, Charles Fylling, Luton Bellio, Bruce Hall, Dolly Adams Lease, Signal Oil, Arroyo Grande Field. Family Photo.

Bruce Hall learned to Boss. To be a Boss, get men to work, move the job along, not an easy thing to do. Turnover was high, roughnecking wasn’t a job for many. Bruce Hall earned a reputation for handling men and because he was fair, he had hands waiting to work for him. He ran a safe rig, he organized to reduce waste and worked hard to bring wells in on time.

A man who laborers for a living is always looking for someone who can make him money. You can classify bosses by their many different styles. Each one can be more or less effective and many times will attract men who see things as they do. Mostly farm boys worked the rigs in those days who were used to hard work and seeing an opportunity to do a job that has a ladder you can climb to a better life. They brought with them attitudes inherited from their families, some times good, some times not so good. Bruce had to, each and every day stir a diverse group of young men to do what was needed. None of those skill could be found in a book. Close observation and an innate ability to see a path that motivates the man is required.

Bruce thought constantly about how to improve his crews. He taught what he had learned form others and his own observation. He knew by now that companies had one interest only; profits. Profits came from speed making hole, safety; no lost time accidents and most of all forethought. A man that uses his experience to anticipate problems on the rig and puts the fix in first is worth a great deal.

He had another advantage, his wife. Eileen stayed home, raised their children, kept their home and most important of all understood that his job had to come first and foremost. When the phone rang he had to go. She never knew when he would be back. If something happened on a rig he stayed out until it was fixed and back on line. He might be gone days. In the twenties it might not be possible to call her. Individual rigs had shacks, the so-called Doghouse, where the trip log was kept and clothes were dried. It was a place to get out of the weather but had no phone. Typically the best he could do was send a note by someone going into town. Eileen didn’t fret, it served no purpose. Perhaps her early life living with her self-absorbed and itinerant mother prepared her for this one. What ever you think her life was, it was most definitely hers and she embraced it. In all of her life she never lost her sense of adventure. They both did whatever had to be done and the children never heard either of them complain. Ever. My mother told me they never fought or argued. Eileen went where Bruce went. They were yoked together.

Something they learned early on was to stay away from the camps. Though interviews with oil patch families speak of the camaraderie and neighborliness of people, they helped each other when they could. No one had much so it was impossible to put on airs. Most of the problems revolved around the men. Spending their pay at the saloons, gambling on payday, chasing the floozies didn’t make for a happy home.

Some companies set up tables for crap games on payday and had a tent where a man could have a woman. Even though it was the depression, liquor was readily available and the company would set ’em up. They were guaranteed to get some of that pay envelope back.

Curb Service. 1934.

Bruce knew that if he needed or wanted to know something about drilling operations he had to get it himself. There were no books to read, no instructions. You asked questions, you watched everybody on the crew. You had to figure out what worked and what didn’t. In the twenties, full time geologists were just beginning to put together the science of drilling. Oil bearing rock and sand could be convoluted, twisting and turning through the rock strata, sometimes more than a mile down. A good well could be ten feet from a dry hole. Some fields were huge like those along the Kern River. The Kern Front Field where Bruce worked was ten miles long and 2.5 miles wide and at it’s peak was home to over 9,000 producing wells. It’s best year, 1929, it pumped 4,535,039 barrels. The two fields along the Kern just to the north were even larger.

The amount of oil being pumped was vast. So vast, in fact, that for the last fifty years there had been little though of conservation. Excess oil was stored in pits and in some places simply allowed to run out onto the ground. Creeks and gullies ran black withe oil and mud waste. Production was everything. Hundreds of companies for the past twenty years had been in a race to find and exploit new fields and bank the money made that little thought was given to what might happen next.

The cost per barrel had slowly declined from its peak of more than $3.00 in 1920. Companies countered this loss of revenue by cutting wages. After the war oil workers had begun unionizing in California with the usual back and forth of walkouts, shut downs and the consequent attacks by law enforcement in the pay of the corporations, bringing in scabs to man production sites. This back and forth had led to the 8 hour day and a rise in pay during WWI. Companies had put up a fight but during and right after the war prices were high enough that they found they could maintain profits and the bosses could still take a ship to England and shoot grouse with the lords and ladies. Just for a bit, all was good on both sides.

Standard and Union Oil were among the first to raise wages and also amongst the first to go after the oil-workers when price began to decline. Big companies began to lay off the men on company payroll and began using independent contractors to do the drilling. This allowed them to put much of the financial risk of drilling on the independents. This increased the pressure on the drill crews to make hole in a hurry because thats how they were paid. A price per foot was negotiated with the drilling contractor, with the added attraction for the owners of a specific depth of hole, and beyond which you won’t be paid. As always the low bidder won the right and the opportunity to role the dice on profit. Make well, get paid, dry hole not. Payday for the crew came when the well came, if.

For Bruce the upshot was that if he was able attract good men, highly trained and motivated he could drill in a hurry and finish with money still in the contract which was the company profit. If he couldn’t, he’d be looking for another job.

Good crews that work together were a necessity. A winning team tends to attract good players which makes it better. The problem is there are not enough really good players to go around. Perhaps his baseball career helped him understand this. Men that get along and work as a team need a good coach. Bruce was that man.

There is an old saying that a man who works with his hands “Needs only a strong back and a weak mind.” No one who takes his lunch in the “Doghouse” on a drill rig and reads Shakespeare is going to escape ridicule. If you have a book with anything but pictures of naked women you are probably in for some grief. Stories abound. You might have to be good with your fists.

Over on a Standard well, a fight that quickly included an entire crew, roughnecks, pumper, motorman and mudman, something like you might see in a John Wayne movie got out of hand and a young worm, a Dutchman took a shot to the head with a “dumb” wrench. His skull was fractured and he died the next day, nailed into a plain pine box and buried. No one knew who to notify or apparently his real name. No charges were filed or the sheriff even notified, life in the oil patch could be cheap. The next day they same crew was back to making hole.

Two brothers who worked in the fields around Taft were known to jump down from the drilling floor and go at it at frequent intervals. Each one had wins in which his brother lay in the oil and mud around the rig while he other crowed over his success. By all rights they were both good hands and had no trouble finding work plus they offered some entertainment to break up a dull day. The brother with the false teeth always took ’em out before ceremonies commenced, that was his advantage.

Over in Oil City, a man’s wife, he was a first class Toolie, came home and caught him in bed with his floozie and run both him and her off. The next day she come out to the rig in an old Ford, walked right up to him on the floor, commenced to hitting him and after a bit off that pulled a little .32 out of her purse and shot him in the butt, twice. Satisfied, she took him to the hospital to be sewed up. Next day he showed up for his tour, wife drove him to work. All was settled.

The fields were full of uneducated, men who worked hard and made their fun where they could. In the twenties men still carried pistols in their pockets, spent their money like water and would still show up for work. Something in his character made Bruce different. They were careful to stay away from the trouble that plagued the oil camps. Three little children and their bond kept them at a distance form the wilder side of things.

Bruce Cameron Hall early 1920’s family photo.

Bruce and Eileen both had little formal education but they were smart. Bruce understood where the money was. Pipeliners, truck drivers, and roughnecks didn’t make the money, Tool Pushers and Drillers did. The way up from the bottom was to learn everything to know about putting in a well.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Shooters, Torpedo’s, Whipstocks and the Christmas Tree.


Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Nine

Bruce and Eileen Move up. Central Californias Black Gold, or movin’ to the Kern.

Bruce Cameron Hall, Family Photo.

The Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s shocked Americans by revealing an unprecedented level of greed and corruption within the federal government. The scandal involved ornery oil tycoons, poker-playing politicians, illegal liquor sales, a murder-suicide, a womanizing president and a bagful of bribery cash delivered on the sly. In the end, the scandal would empower the Senate to conduct rigorous investigations into government corruption. It also marked the first time a U.S. cabinet official served jail time for a felony committed while in office.

A couple of the big boys, Edward Doheny, “Richer than Rockefeller” as the song goes and Harry Ford Sinclair concocted a scheme to get their hands on all three of the Federal oil reserves. The two high rollers worked with Albert Fall, former Senator from New Mexico, and the Secretary of the Interior to lease the reserves from the Federal Government. This would give them access to hundreds of millions of barrels of high grade crude for next to nothing.

Edward Doheny sold his oil holding in the United States in 1902. Doheny then went down to Mexico looking for more oil. He leased a million acres around Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico, and his Mexican Petroleum Company became the largest oil company in Mexico . Mexican Petroleum built roads, cities, railroads, and pipelines. During the Mexican Revolution Doheny hired his own private army to protect his Mexican oil fields, which by 1922 had brought him $31 million. By 1925, Doheny’s net worth passed $100 million and he was richer than John D. Rockefeller. He would have liked to be even richer though and it would take just a pittance to pay off the massive personal debt of Albert Fall in return for a small favor.

Doheny Fields, Beverly Hills, California. LA Times photo 1908

So, in 1921, Doheny persuaded his friend Fall, in exchange for a suitcase with $100,000 in cash, an interest free loan, no need to pay it back, he said, delivered to a Washington Hotel by Doheny’s son Ned, to lease to Doheny’s oil company large holdings of oil-rich lands owned by the U.S. Navy at Elk Hills and the Buena Vista field in Kern County, California . Part of this deal included construction of storage facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii , and an exclusive no-bid government contract for Doheny to ship the oil from Elk Hills to Pearl Harbor. It would be carried in his own tankers for which he would be paid by the Navy. A similar deal was struck at the same time between Secretary Fall and oilman Harry F. Sinclair for a less valuable Navy oil property at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, for which Sinclair gave Fall $300,000.00, all cash. No receipt necessary. No paper trail needed.

Bothe vice-president Calvin “Silent Cal,” Coolidge and president Warren G Harding were implicated in the deal but as Harding said, “No man with a $100,000,000.00 dollars will ever be convicted in this country.” He was right. Both Doheny and Sinclair were acquitted on the bribery scheme, that is, giving Fall and others cash for services, Fall himself went to prison for accepting the money. No one should have been surprised then or now. Jury tampering, the Denver Post on the payroll and legions of sharp lawyers tipped the scales. Once the scapegoat was chosen, the end was inevitable. None of that should be surprising, think of Oliver North, Lt. Calley, the Watergate burglars and “Scooter” Libby all men who stepped in to take a bullet for their bosses.

2nd October 1929: Left: The former Secretary of the Interior, Albert B Fall (1861 – 1944) with (from left) Edward Doheny (1856 – 1935), Frank Hogan and Mark Thompson outside a Washington DC court. Fall was convicted of taking bribes in the Teapot Dome scandal when government oil rights were illegally leased out. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Newspapers at the time were the only mass market source for news. Reporters, as always, were digging like mad beavers and oil business tycoons were shoveling in the holes a fast as they could. Reporters dogged the oil barons and their lackeys at every step and along with the Senate Committee who did the formal investigation, it all came out. A few inconsequential heads rolled. The big money boys, and there were a lot of them, took a stroll and Fall, now the former Secretary of the Interior went away for two years of free accommodation in a federal prison. Though our history is rife with Senators, Congressmen and Judges, he was the first U.S. cabinet member to ever be convicted and jailed. Pretty exclusive company.

Bruce would read about it in the Bakersfield Californian. A national scandal affecting his business was big news. Every change in the business side of oil might change the prospects for the Hall family and close attention was paid to moves in the industry.

After a decade in the oil fields he had gone from roustabout to driller. He knew the drilling business inside out. From bits and bailers to fishing and torpedos he had done it all. He felt pretty good about the future. Like a lot of Americans the decade after WWI was one of immense progress, both social and industrial.

Drilling in the US was going like a runaway train. Huge fields had opened in California. Not the least was the Kern River fields which he worked in. Signal Hill had come on line in 1921, Inglewood in 1924, Torrance, 1921, the Westside of San Joaquin valley from Maricopa to Avenal and Coalinga in 1928. Goleta, Summerland and Ventura, Huntington Beach,1920, Santa Fe Springs, 1921 were all producing. On top of that the immense field in Kilgore Texas was pumping so much oil that much of it simply ran onto the ground. There were not enough tanks or pipelines nor refineries to process it. It was estimated that only about 40% was recovered.

The first well in Mesopotamia (Todays Iraq) came in on October, 14th, 1927. This opened the giant field in Kirkuk, northern Iraq. Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela opened its first well in 1922. The Baku, Azerbaijan wells were flowing again after destruction and rebuilding by the Russian Bolsheviks in WWI. Sumatra and the Dutch East Indies, today Indonesia and Borneo were also major producers.

Known from 1918 to 1939 as the “War to end All Wars,” WWI was the first war to run on oil and gasoline. Tanks, trucks, automobiles, ships and the warplane all used oil products . Advances in Tank ship design made it possible to ship huge quantities across the globe which began weaving together the skein of the international oil business which we know today.

Producers were involved in a mad scramble to wring as much profit out of oil as they could. Big firms bought small firms and bankrolled wildcatters to make hole. The oil flowed like a seemingly endless river.

The 1920’s saw one of the most transformative times in our history and the world. Skirts went up, morals went down. The Volstead act which was passed in 1919 prohibited the sale of alcohol with a content over 0.05%. One of the deciding factors was the inability of many soldiers overseas to vote. Many states worked hard to repress the soldier vote and it is believed the 2.8 million Doughboys overseas may have tipped the balance against it. As it turned out, alcohol consumption went up and so did crime. Watch out for what you wish for.

Oh you kid, Roaring Twenties,

Bobbed hair, flat chests, rolled stockings, lipstick, smoking cigarettes and drinking in public, riding in cars with boys; necking, the world turned upside down. Oh my. The differences in my grandmothers worlds was vast. Eileen, born in 1895 and Annie born in 1885 were just a decade apart in years but much different in the worlds they lived in. Grandma Annie wasn’t a prude but she never caught up. Eileen took it all in stride of course.

Oil workers had money to spend too. Standard Oil had instituted the 8 hour work day in 1917. Unions were at work organizing labor and trying to raise the standard of living for its members. Wages had gone up during the war but in the twenties some corporations were trying to put the squeeze on labor and Bruce was to see many strikes and labor stoppages in the decade. By this time he had risen far enough so he was betwixt and between neither pure labor nor pure management.

Bakersfield didn’t skip a beat. A classic boom-town, saloons, dance halls and sporting houses advertising the finest high society girls imported from Chicago and Kansas City, ran wide open, 24 hours a day. Land along the river bluffs was leased, re-leased and sold to the highest bidder. There was a wildcatter behind every tree and two to take him. Men resorted to fists and sometimes pistols carried in the front pocket to settle their differences. Nothing was prohibited and the sheriff was getting rich on that. Claims were staked and jumped by the dozens and if one promoter went broke another moved right in. Kern river had become a major producing field.

The twenties began with oil at $3.07 a barrel. Today that would be over $45 a barrel or roughly a dollar a gallon for each of the 42 gallons in a barrel. Inflation makes it hard to see the contemporary value of things in the middle twenties. Take the food you put on the table, A dollar in 1920 could buy around three dozen eggs, or, just under three pounds of butter. Butter back then was 36 cents — $8.72 in today’s dollars, or nearly double what it costs in most places in the US today. Milk would set you back about .35 cents a gallon, delivered, That’s a little over $5.19 a gallon, about a dollar more than today. Gasoline for your car ran from .21 to .30 cents a gallon.

So how does a company make any profit if the 1925 cost of a gallon of raw petroleum is more than gas at the pump? The answer is in refining as it was in 1925. Yes, gasoline was refined but so was Bunker or Fuel oil for ship and locomotives, Diesel and Heating oil, Naptha, Kerosene, and Butane. Propane and Paraffin were also by-products of crude. Today there are over 6,ooo products made with or partly made with Oil. It is and was a lucrative business.

My grandparents moved up from Casmalia and found a house on North Chester avenue, then and now the main drag n town. The two girls, Mariel and Barbara were enrolled in school, always the first order of business. Eileen set to arranging the house and putting things in order.

In those days they were still Boomers, traveling to each new field and job by car. When they left, nothing went that didn’t fit in the car. Everything else was sold or given away. Bruce would call from the rig or come home and say I have to be in Bakersfield, Taft, Santa Barbara, whichever it might be and they’d be off.

North Chester Ave, 1927,

Compared to little Casmalia and Orcutt, Bakersfield was a metropolis. Almost everything in town was the result of the oil boom. Oil had transformed a dusty little farm town practically overnight. The Southern Pacific railroad had built a major shipping point to haul oil north to the refineries in the bay area. A major development in 1924 was the building of the first steel derrick up on the Kern field. It was a sign that wooden derricks and the cable tool rig were looking at the end. Steel was stronger and could carry the weight of of the much heavier rotary tools and most of the California fields, at least the shallow ones had been drilled. Wells were putting in strings to the tune of thousands of feet.

The Oildale fields were still drilling some shallow wells and thats were Bruce went to work. He headed up the road to Associated Oils well, the Kerndon No. 5. Nearly ten years on the job was taking its toll on Bruce. He was showing the effects of the heavy work. At 30, he was losing the edge that younger men have in doing the kind of heavy work required on the drilling floor. The imperative to move up, learn more, produce more was obvious. Pulling and hauling heavy tools that weighed half a ton had taken its toll. The beginnings of the back pain that would plague him all the rest of his life had appeared.

Road out to Oildale. Oil families living in rag tents, foreground. 1924. Family photo.

Cable bits could be taller than a man, cast iron or steel, and were moved by lines strung on the derrick which helped, but they still had to be horsed around by muscle power alone. There was little relief either, the pipe string had to be hauled about every three feet and then the bailer lowered into the hole in order to remove the crushed rock and other debris. The work was nearly constant. The drill string weighed more each cycle as the hole got deeper.

The bit was raised and dropped which crushed the rock at the bottom of the hole. Water would be poured in the hole to create a slurry of debris which was picked up by the bailer The bailer was a simple hollow pipe with a gate at the bottom. The gate was similar to the flapper in a toilet except it worked in reverse. As the bailer entered the debris at the bottom, the flapper was pushed up, allowing the mud and sand to flow up into the bailer. When the bailer was pulled up the flapper closed trapping the slurry. Lifted out of the hole and swung outside the drilling floor a roughneck tripped the flapper and the waste flowed out. When the hole was empty, the drill string was lowered back in the hole. In the old days they called this a trip and trips were nearly constant during the tour. If you ate lunch, it was on the fly.

Each time the bailer was pulled, Bruce would take a hand full of mud from the open gate, roll it between his fingers, smell it and even taste it. This told him what type of formation he was in and the various combinations of rock and sand present. Geologic formations each had a particular odor and taste. Oil of different consistencies smelled differently and tasted differently. Combinations of water, oil and gas were recipes telling Bruce what was going on at the bottom. Kneeling down a taking a little sniff at the hole itself was like reading a book for the best drillers. With a cable tool rig, taking cores of the hole, much like coring an apple isn’t possible so a more intuitive approach was required.

Coring sends down a smaller bit connected to a hollow pipe, boring a hole, trapping the geologic formation inside the tube, hauling it out and inspecting the contents for information about the down hole progress. The old logbooks are full of the guess work and intuition of those old cable tool guys. It might seem silly, sniffing, touching and tasting, but it was deadly serious.

Dry holes cost jobs, blowouts were disasters, gushers were spectacular and made great news, especially the photos in newsreels and papers. Grandpa always said a driller who lost control of his well would be showed the door. On top of all that all those things were deadly and cost a fortune to correct. A gusher, an out of control well in southern Texas blew for over nine months until it was exhausted. Men died jumping from the monkey boards, crushed by falling casing, incinerated by fire and killed by the immense power of oil blasting through twelve inch casing, rising hundreds of feet over the rigs. Grandma knew this too. When Bruce went to work she worried all tour until he returned home. Occasionally should could hear the roar of a wild well from her home.

Chapter Ten

Burning Out of Control. Oildale.

Next Week: Friends, Neighbors and the crew.