Rainy Day

Farmers are outdoor people. They live by the rhythms of season. So we learned from our father the importance of weather. My dad lived more outdoors than in. No matter the weather, he was up and out of the house at dawn. Be it the promise of a hot August day, an April morning dripping fog or a dark winter day of pouring rain.

On the wall of our kitchen my dad always had a barometer. The thermometer was outside the back door.  We had no meter for the dew point but the humidity you could feel on your skin. In the early morning, observing the moisture on a plants leaves and even the smell of the air could be interpreted to predict the weather. The wind from the south meant rain, from the northwest meant it was clearing. The daily crop report on the radio could help a farmer see a little bit into the future. Calling the  brokers at the  San Francisco  wholesale vegetable market and asking about the bay area conditions was a help. At Mow Fung produce on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, they could just look out the window and give you a forecast. I know a farm family who called their cousins in Salinas for the same reason.

Farmers are all gamblers. They are the greatest of optimists. For my dad bet the farm on the weather and the markets every day of his working life. An entire summers investment and work could be wiped in an early morning hour by frost or rising waters from the same creek that fed his crops.

When you are a kid every day holds the promise of some adventure. Rainy winter days were the most exciting, frought with the possibility of perhaps, some disaster.

As little children we were eager listeners when family told stories of creeks flooding. The Arroyo Grande going over its banks, drowning crops under layers of mud carried down the creek from the High Mountain area above the Ranchita, Huff’s Hole and upper Lopez canyon. Joined by Tar Springs creek just below Gulartes, the careening water would swirl, twisting in upon itself while parts of broken trees submerged and resurfaced like wooden submarines. Through the narrows at the Harris bridge, close by the Machado’s and the Gregories, the sound carried to our home almost a mile away. A rumbling, low bass,  with a curious rhythmic pace, things being torn apart and slammed together with terrific violence.

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Ed Taylor, George Shannon and just behind, John Loomis and George Oliver

My father sitting in the semi-darkness, smoking and drinking coffee, worried over the rise   of the waters, a scene mirrored in other kitchens as farmers throughout our valley waited for  dawn to see the how high the creeks were. Bundled up in our coats and riding the front seat of the pickup, warm and snug against my dad, we rode the dawn patrol as he made the rounds of all the turnouts where the water could be seen. Cecchetti’s bridge crossing, The Harris bridge, under the spans at Mason and Bridge Streets and the crossing at the site of the Cienega school, hard by the old Oliver Taylor house. The photo above, taken in 1954, clearly shows the concern on my fathers face as he watches the flood waters just above the old highway 1 bridge. The water is just below the top of the dike and Ed Taylor’s ground is just on the opposite side of the creek. Ed is listening to John Loomis who is pointing just upstream where the flood is about go over the bank.

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The Arroyo Grande, The morning after, 1914. Crown Hill in the background

Groups of worried farmers gathered at each turnout to assess the damage and speculate whether the water was rising or falling. This was no academic exercise. If the creek rose enough to top the banks, farm fields would flood. Crops could not recover, either drowned or covered with a slurry of mud, choking them to death. Any part of the valley which had heavy soil, such as the Dune Lakes area, could take months to dry making it impossible to farm at all.  To the farmers on the ground which made up the old La Cienega Rancho, flooding was a disaster of the first order. The ranch that was Spencer Record’s, the Taylor acreage, could be destroyed in a few minutes for once she was over her banks there was no stopping her. Witness the washout at Branch Street in 1914 created by the little creek out of Corbit Canyon. Imagine the effort it took to replace the ground in the days before powered machines. Every bit of the dirt was brought in by horse and wagon, one shovel full at a time.

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1914, looking down Branch Street, the old Herald building first on the right.

 

In those days, the flooding creek literally plowed it’s way downstream, rooting out the willows and sometimes entire Sycamore trees which scoured the undergrowth along the banks, cleaning the channel for its entire length. In the days before the dam was built this was an annual cycle that allowed a free flowing stream in the summer and fall where swimming and fishing  in the farmers dams was an annual sport for boys and girls who ran free like semi-tamed animals, migrating up and down stream as they would. At our place it was the dam behind our farm, or George Cecchetti Senior’s just above the bridge where we would go after school. It is still today, a short downhill coast from the old Branch school to the creek. Town kids swam at the gauge below the old high school, just above the old railroad bridge. Most of us learned to swim this way.  And of course we weren’t by any means the first. Generations of Arroyo Grande kids once swam there. My grandfather Jack Shannon told stories of swimming in the slough at the foot of Printz Road. Arch Beckett’s lake it was called. My dad and uncle had a small hole on Shannon Creek near where they lived.

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Jack and George Shannon 1920

My uncle Jackie on the left and my dad on the right, taken in the front yard of my great-grandfather’s house on the old Nipomo  road now known as El Campo, about to set out for a dip in 1920. You can just see the gravel drive at the left and the bushes along the little creek. Today this flows behind Arroyo Grande High School where it was re-routed when the Poole tract was built in the 1930’s. It could be just as well be my brother and I, 35 years later.

I can still remember Hazel Talley, in our kitchen talking to my mom about how frantic she was when her oldest son Donald, went down the creek with Bob Rowe, leaving from the Rowe’s house, putting in at the creek on the Waller’s farm and racing downstream to the ocean in an inner tube during a big flood year in 1959. The flooding creek was a meat grinder of logs, whole trees, old car bodies and whatever kind of junk had been thrown in it. Poor Hazel could just imagine what could have happened to her son, who of course, being a boy, thought only of the adventure.

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High water above the highway 1 bridge 1954

We have lost this annual cycle to the dam. Water no longer flows in the summer or winter. The creek is choked with willows and wild blackberry woven together in an impenetrable matt by poison oak vines. Children no longer play in their fathers little ponds and todays farmers needn’t agonize through the night wondering if their fields will be there in the morning. Safer, yes, but what has been lost to us is irreplaceable. Fish no longer swim upstream for little boys to catch and even though our fathers disasters can no longer be, there is a certain sadness here.

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Aretha

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After my hitch in the Navy where I assiduously avoided sea duty with every ounce of cunning I had, I joined the U S Merchant Marine. I’m not sure why, but I needed a job.

You can’t really compare the two services. The Navy crams hundreds of sailors into tiny spaces, spends months at sea with, many times, with no apparent destination and nobody tells you anything. The pay is peanuts and you don’t do anything without some kind of permission.

The Merchant service is the opposite. The ships are just as big but with very small crews. There is no uniform, not even for the officers. You always know where you are going and when you will get there. What you do ashore is your own business and is only limited by how long it take to turn the ship around, by which I mean unload and reload cargo. Duty is fairly easy most of the time. It’s a little cold in the gulf of Alaska in the winter and the decks get warmish in the tropics but most of the time it’s pretty pleasant.

I shipped with a typically motley crew. The deck division, the Able Bodied and Ordinary Seamen were responsible for the upkeep of the ship, cargo handling and standing both underway and port watches. The ship owners are only concerned about the movement of cargo so maintenance is a pretty low consideration. Chip a little rust, slap on some paint and find something better to do. If the deck plates are so badly corroded that someone might step through the deck and fall into the hold, just weld a few stanchions around it, attach some chain and tell every one to walk around it.

The Bos’n was named “Pinky,” he had very fair skin and as a young sailor he sunburned easily, hence the name. Big Ray had earned the distinction of being torpedoed twice by the Japanese in WWII. Maybe that why he and his wife had 10 kids. Spread the risk around so to speak. Don was just about my age and was also a Navy Veteran. He grew up on the hard streets around Hill Top Park, Long Beach. He was raised by an Aunt, a nurse, served his four in the Nav’ and joined the MMS, same as me. We cruised together quite a lot when we were ashore.

Shore leave in the merchant service is plentiful but its seldom in places where there is any cultural opportunity unless its of the low kind. Consider where tank ships tie up; National City, El Segundo, Terminal Island, Port of Oakland, Longview on the Colombia River, Anacortes or Bellingham Washington. We put into in places like Rosarito Beach in  Baja Norte, Barber’s Point, Hawaii, Ventura and Estero Bay where the ship pumped from an undersea line and no one got off. Where do you go in Avila Beach, Barbara’s by the Sea? Most places we docked featured dirty old bars that smelled of spilled beer, cigarette smoke, worn out people on the stools, girls on the stroll, dead ends. You can have a beer, play some pool and try and not get in a fist fight with a local. How about Drift River Alaska where we tied up to an offshore platform and the ship was surrounded by ice flows in the winter and a gazillion bird sized mosquitos in the summer. Two days there and you might wish for that smelly old bar.

Opportunities to do something different were few and far between, but they did happen. In March of 1971 we slid under the Golden Gate bridge, passed Alcatraz on our starboard side and tied up at the Rodeo oil terminal at Davis Point up in San Pablo bay. We were off loading and would run in ballast for Drift River, Alaska. Donnie and I both had the night off and so we went down the gangplank, walked up the pier where we called a cab from a pay phone and got a ride into Oakland. We were dropped off in whats now Jack London Square.  Even then no one went into south Oakland unless they had a death wish so we just tooled around a little looking in the windows. As we waited for the light at 2nd and Broadway we noticed, tacked to a pole, a poster advertising a show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco that night. We decided to go. Easy enough, we just took a bus across the bay bridge to the downtown San Francisco bus terminal at Mission and Howard streets. Then still known as “South of the Slot,” San Francisco was divided midway by the Slot. The Slot was an iron crack that ran along the center of Market street, and from the Slot from which once arose the hiss of the ceaseless, endless steel cable that was hitched at will to the cable cars it dragged up and down Market. The cars were no more, replaced by electrified buses but the name remained.  North of the Slot were the theaters, hotels, and shopping district; the banks and the staid, respectable business houses. South of the Slot were the factories, slums, laundries, machine-shops, boiler works, and the homes of the working class. The Slot was completely burnt out in 1906 but in true San Francisco style, sprung up like an overnight mushroom. No time to worry about permits and building codes, commerce will out every time. It’s very seediness was it’s charm I guess, though the Navy liberty buses passing through the Mission District from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard had heavy wire screens over the windows to protect the sailors from bricks thrown by the local residents.

We walked from transit center up to the corner of Market and 2nd, then turned up uphill and dawdled along for the 11 or so blocks to Van Ness. We passed streets whose names date back to the earliest days of the old wood and canvas town, Turk, Powell, Ellis and O’Farrell. “The City,” Queen of California, the most beautiful city in the West. The old City of Paris, Gump’s department store, the Palace Hotel, The old Call newspaper building, and the great Fairmont hotel, built by the “Silver King’s” James Fair’s daughters in his memory and reinforced by Julia Morgan after the ’06 quake. Our destination, on that triangular corner where Van Ness crosses Market, the nexus of rock and roll, jazz, bluegrass and gospel, was the old Carousel Ballroom. We were there for a show.

Looking for a larger hall for his shows, Bill Graham had moved from the old Fillmore on Geary to the Carousel at 10 Van Ness, calling it the Fillmore West. Locals affectionately still referred to it as the Carousel though. Graham filled San Francisco with sound. Any touring band worth their salt were booked into one of his halls there. Home town groups like the Jefferson Airplane, Sons of Champlin, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the group that became a symbol for the city, The Grateful Dead played  the Fillmore. Otis Redding,  The Staples Sisters, and blues groups out of Chicago and Detroit City, like Paul Butterfield and John Lee Hooker. And Miles Davis. I had been to a concert the year before when his group opened for Laura Nyro. That band featured drummer Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Keith Jarrett and Chick Correira and did they cook. One of the best jazz groups ever put together and each famous in his own right. You had to follow that with Laura Nyro’s sweet voice the same way you had to take an Alka Seltzer after a night of serious drinking.

Our night. We ought our tickets and strolled inside. In those days, the floor had few seats, you could move around during concerts as the mood seized you. The earlier you got in the closer you got to the stage. It was a happy crowd. All the Hippies had their freak on, the girls dressed in prize clothing from thrift stores, The boys in Top hats and tails. Everyone was expecting a good show. The last night of a tour is always the best. The bands are really tight from long practice and they know the next day is for home. They are happy too.

The opening act was from Oakland, just across the bay, what we called a horn band in those days, not well known, but they moved the crowd. They were one of Bill Graham’s contract groups and still a couple years away from famous. Tower of Power.

After Tower of Power the main acts began to appear on stage, the roadies moving equipment, pushing the big Hammond B-3 Organ to the back corner of the stage, The Fender Rhodes keyboard upstage. They quickly assembled Bernard Purdie’s drum kit, the instrument stands and the mikes in a choreographed ballet polished with long familiarity.

Band members began to drift on stage and take their places, a few drum rattles, keys turned, guitars tuning as sounds were matched and finally when everything was in place the Kingpins marched on stage, accompanied by the Memphis Horns, took their places and without a pause, in response to some subtle signal, launched into “Memphis Soul Stew,” followed by Procol Harems’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Baby, the crowd was getting’ really wound up, this was some kind of music they weren’t used to.

And finally she’s there. She struts onstage wearing a white pants suit with a wide gold belt and a rasta man beanie, grabs the mike on the stand, swings it left then right, and shouts, “Allright?” flips her hand a little to cue the band and its,

What you want, baby, I got it
What you need, do you know I got it?
All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you get home

…and everyone is on their feet. The “Sweethearts of Soul”, grooving, Billy Preston’s hands flying over the organ keys, King Curtis’ Saxophone, it’s distinctive honk a counterpoint to Aretha belting it out.

The delivery of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” hymn was a gem. Her covers instantly make the originals obsolete, “Make it With You,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Love the One You’re With.” One way of looking at those song choices is that Aretha was reminding everyone that there was no song she couldn’t improve. She takes you inside the church where Eleanor Rigby is sweeping up after someone else’s wedding, she makes you feel her aching back, her despair.  She shows Stephen Stills what sexual agency really means. She even makes Bread’s “Make It With You,” that forgettable soft-rock schlock sound deep.

Being in the audience was exhausting. No one ever stopped moving. Finally, near the end, Aretha came down into the audience and pulled an “impeccably dressed” man from the audience and up onto the stage. He was dressed in black from head to toe. His eyes were hidden by wrap-around dark glasses. She led him to the stage, sat him down at the Fender Rhodes and within seconds we recognized Ray Charles. The huge crowd went crazy. Ray joined with Aretha in the closing and, to become legendary, 10-minute rendition of “Spirit in the Dark.”

Never, ever have I experienced anything like Aretha at the Fillmore. It wasn’t that the hippies just liked her. They were out of their minds. They were completely lost in her.

It was March 7th, 1971, a Sunday night in San Francisco. The new American Dream is falling apart; Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, the Vietnam war is spreading to Cambodia and Laos, the boys are coming home in boxes, the utopian ideal of the sixties is breathing its last. The Haight is drowning in drugs. The venue whose rafters Aretha is currently rattling, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, will close its doors forever a few months after this show. Disco lurks. These are some terribly troubled waters, and it takes a singer with Aretha’s forceful kind of grace to calm them, at least for one night.

Goodbye sweet and God Bless. We will miss you.

 

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BIG RED

Red Shoendienst died today. He was 95 years old. A professional ballplayer, 19 years with the old Saint Louis Cardinals. Though I never knew him personally he was one of the threads that connected me to my dad.

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When you are a kid there is always teaching going on in the home. Mom and Dad are at it constantly. Now, when you are little you don’t really notice it but it’s always there. They are sculpting the clay while it’s still soft, building the adult you will be.

We had a kitchen table then that was shiny chrome in it’s legs and trim with a grey laminate top printed in a marble pattern. Nearly every family I knew had a similar one. They were modern and I believe mothers were tired of wood. You didn’t have to polish these, they didn’t dent or stain and in the 1950’s, if it didn’t have chrome it wasn’t “it.”

That shiny stuff was everywhere. Our Buick carried about a ton of it. The Sunbeam toaster, the mixer, saucepans, even the the salt and pepper sellars. The Art Deco shakers were put away in the back of a cupboard, not to see the light of day for fifty years.

Holding pride of place on the table was my dad’s radio. There were different kinds over the years, the last being a little transistor you could hold in your hand. The one most remembered was a small Philco. It was the size of a shoebox and was kind of a maple-ly color, lighter than a maple donut and darker than chamois. The dial was round and placed in the middle with little speakers, one on each side. The speakers were covered with a sparkling fabric and the circular dial had three, yes, three concentric rings. Each ring was a different radio band but the AM band was the one we used. AM radio, or Amplitude Modulated, travels much farther than FM and UHF. It is possible to actually bounce radio waves of the ionosphere and send signals around the world. It seemed magical to me as a child because I didn’t understand it. Neither did my father but, as an adult, he was content to listen and not worry about how it worked, it just did.

The great feature of this modulation was that radio stations, known in those days before cable as clear channel, could broadcast great distances if they were powerful enough. Few of these big boys are left now but at one time their signals could be heard in every corner of America. KNX and KFI in Los Angeles, KGO San Francisco, KSL Salt Lake City, KMOX in Saint Louis and XERB which operated out of Tijuana, Baja Norte, Mexico DF. when I was in high school it broadcast Wolf Man Jack into homes all over the west. Well, maybe not all homes, but millions of teenager’s old cars.

In a way little remembered today, radio connected peoples around the world. Not always positively either, The Imperial Japanese Navy used the radio signal from Honolulu’s KGU to home in on the island for the attack on pearl Harbor. If you lived in Arroyo Grande then and been tuned to KGU you may have heard the original broadcast. Three thousand three hundred twenty five miles as the crow flies, a long distance.

I don’t recall dad listening to music though he did love it, the radio was more of a tool than a source of entertainment. In the fifties a farmer needed radio for many reasons. Dad would stay up very late on winter nights to listen to the weather reports, hoping to hear good news, not bad. Farmers lived by frost reports, dew point, clouds, wind, worried about calamity that they had no way prevent. Adverse combinations of these can produce killing frosts which wipe out entire crops, in effect flushing your entire investment down the drain. The daily market reports out of San Francisco and Los Angeles kept him informed on vegetable prices and quantities. We didn’t use it for news much, life for the family was outside and time at the table was limited. News came from newspapers, local and big city.

Television didn’t arrive in our county until 1954 and it was awhile before we had one. Radio was how we connected with the world outside.

Dad played several sports in high school and college and followed his favorites. Basketball and baseball were his sports and the only way to follow it was by radio. The basketball team, the Lakers didn’t move to Los Angeles until 1960, two years after the baseball Dodgers. He followed the Boston Celtics, Shannon is our name you know. For baseball it was the Cards, the Redbirds, the Saint Louis Cardinals.

I sat at that table for years listening to baseball on the radio. The Cardinals came via KMOX in Saint Louis, Missouri and sometimes KSL in Salt Lake City. Dad loved the Cardinals, not because he was a rabid baseball fan but because when he was a young man they fielded a team fondly known as the Gashouse Gang, which seemed to be the epitome of the baseball teams that were primarily working class men. Not the “Boys of Summer,” as Roger Kahn wrote but the sort of men that came from hardscrabble farms and down and out southern towns where opportunity was scarce and a boy that could throw, hit and field might find a way out. No more picking cotton, no more steel mills or lead mines, no more endless drudge in a job you had to hate or even die for.

Take the “Ol Diz,” Dizzy Dean who hailed from Arkansas, a hillbilly by geography if not by choice, he won 30 games in 1934, a feat only equaled once in the past 84 years. The Cards won the world series that year, the same year my dad graduated from college. It was a national event when baseball was still the only real national pastime. The Tigers were an classy club from Detroit and they were beaten in seven games by a team of scruffy, tobacco chewing, fist fighting characters with dirty uniforms and a very, very bad attitude. Thats how the old boys played, spikes up, bean balls and real, on the field fights. Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Pepper Martin, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, Ripper Collins, Pop Haines, and Frankie “The Fordham Flash, They scuffled, fought each other in the dugout and won a world series. How could you not love “em. Maybe, just from my dads point of view, their chief attraction was they didn’t really play for money ’cause they didn’t make much in those days and the fact that a baseball career in almost all cases were very short, perhaps just three or four years, they eventually went back to working lead mines, painting houses and tilling the soil. This resonated with people in the depression, ballplayers might be famous, there were seven hall of famers on that team, but nevertheless, they likely were just like you. Might even be your neighbor too.

As we listened to the games, and I did my homework and dad spoke to the character of ballplayers the way he spoke of all men. He admired the work ethic of “Stan the Man” who worked in the steel mills of U S Steel as a youth and saw his own father die from the poisonous smog of 1948 that killed almost a hundred people in his hometown. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in a temperature  inversion sending hundreds to the hospital including his father. Enos “Country” Slaughter typified the determined spirit and hustle of the game. “Baseball was the mirror of America,” dad said and in this sense Enos Slaughter was more than a consistent hitter with an accurate arm. He was also a reflection of the times in which he lived and played the game. He was raised on a hardscrabble farm in North Carolina and often said he developed his throwing arm by killing rabbits with rocks, for dinner. Red Schoendienst was the son of a coal miner and grew up in a house without electricity or running water. A high school dropout, he joined the CCC in 1939, played sandlot ball and was signed by the Cards in 1942 for $75.00 dollars. For the next 72 years he played and worked in baseball.

What was passed down here were lessons on hard work, perseverance, honesty and, most of all the transitory nature of things. Ballplayers are one swing of the bat away from the end of their careers each and every day. “It’s why those other values count,” he said.

So, we would sit there at the table with the little radio talking to use while he doodled figures on the back of an old envelope and drank coffee. I did my homework. We spoke of baseball and he picked up hints from the game to illustrate what he wanted me to know. A quiet word here and there was all you might hear.

When I was older and wiser I came to understand that the characters he used for illustration were as flawed as any other men. Somehow knowing that made the qualities my dad pointed out stronger than ever. You could be both good and not so good, weak but still strong. Knowing that helped me sort out problems and relationships that I was going to encounter for the rest of my life.

To use a baseball term, “Dad snuck one in over the outside corner for a called strike.”

 

 

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The Street Cat

He was big, orange and had lived on the street for a long time, a survivor. A tomcat’s life is short and brutal you see, and you won’t live long by being friendly with strangers. You would see him ankling down the middle of our street any day, rolling like a drunken sailor on shore leave. I’d find him sleeping on our old Adirondack chair’s cushion in the early mornings. Some days he would still be wet from the morning dew which sparkled on his fur like tiny chips of amber.

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He was wary. I’d take my coffee out in the morning and stand by him and talk of the days plan, ask him questions while he just watched me. I never knew if he understood a word I said but gradually the morning ritual took some of the edge off and once in a while he would let me touch him as long as I didn’t move too fast. He had fur like the bristles of a hairbrush, slightly stiff and of different lengths as if he’d been shaven by a drunken barber and the hair had never grown back quite the way it was supposed to. He carried the scars of every battle he had ever been in, his ears as tattered as any Civil War battle flag.

Slowly we developed a tolerance for one another. He would greet me with a low meow that came rumbling up from his chest like a rattling, rusty chain. It was the kind of voice that was worth a fortune in Hollywood. It was Long John Silver’s voice, raw, dreaded and with a subdued power that frightened other cats. My dog Lucy gave him plenty of space too. She knew an emperor when she saw one.

Over time he became a staple on Poole Street. He went to different homes at times, accepting, as was his due, food, if it was offered. He didn’t beg. You could give him a little something and he might eat it, or not, as the mood struck him. Somehow he acquired a name, Cheeto’s, I suppose for the color of his fur. But, you understand, it wasn’t his real name, his cat name. Nobody knew that, though I imagined it to be Vercingetorix, destroyer of rats or Grimalkin, the great stainer of carpets, or some such noble nom de guerre. Surely a sobriquet of distinction. He was a true thing.

In the year I knew him, he never came in our house. He would be on his chair or in the garage waiting patiently for me to serve him. He never, ever used the cat door. It would require him to show some deference to those that lived here and that would never do. He would park himself in the middle of the street on cold winter days because the pavement was warmed by the sun and he thought it was the best place to be. He barely acknowledged cars, they must go around, and they did. Monarchial, he was too. Not the foppish, beribboned Louis Bourbon with his oiled ringlets and silk stockings but hard and resolute like Henry V and his band of brothers or the warrior king, Brian Boru of Ireland the founder of the O’Brian Dynasty. No other Tom came into his little fiefdom of Poplar, Sage and Cedar streets.

Birds were beneath him, he let them be. Mice were for lesser cats. All dogs kept their distance, even my son’s friend Joey, and his gigantic Blue Great Dane. None of the neighborhood dogs ever made a move. Not Marley, Bobby, Gibson, or Bella. They stayed within the dog world and pretended they just didn’t see him. The fish in our pond were safe. No raccoons were allowed. Opossums too kept their distance. Occasionally, in the early morning I would find one pretending to be dead in our back yard. Such was his power.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead. You are the first in line for trouble.

We are in a terrible drought here in California. You may be surprised by the things drought brings. There is little feed for the wild things that live in our hills after nearly a decade of no rain. The springs and seasonal creeks have long been dry which forces animals to come down to feed and drink in the suburbs and town. There are small critters and even deer foraging in back yards and the high school ball fields. Following the deer and rabbit are the cougars. Seldom seen but nevertheless stalking through the late night seeking the unwary. Most opportune is the coyote. Bigger than the red fox and smaller than the grey wolf, this wild dog was known to the Nahuatl people as “Coyotl.” The name was first transcribed to english in 1824 as “Cayjotte” and standardized by 1880 as Coyote. Famed by native cultures as The Trickster and featured in many creation myths, coyotes are social and usually hunt together. It’s not particularly unusual to see them on city sidewalks in broad daylight and even in the state parks along Pismo Beach.

Crossing our street at dusk, going from our yard towards the Russian brides house, the old man ran into a pair of them. They stalked him, moving, as they do in a head and tail down posture, mincing almost sideway with both the head and tail facing the intended. It might seem to the victim as if they are being friendly, showing subjugation, much as a dog does when approaching a more dominant animal. Its a trick. Cheeto’s was in very big trouble, caught in the open by predators who intended to make a meal.

He broke for the Volvo parked on the street, hoping to escape underneath it but one of the coyotes cut him off. He backed himself against a front tire and shrunk down to make himself a smaller, more difficult target. He could not run. With his back to the tire he prepared to sell his life dearly. Like Roland at Roncevaux, he declined to scream as it would be an act of cowardice. The coyotes lunged.

I found him in the morning, his back broken; eaten. I gathered the scattered fur, and all that was left of him. His massive paws, soaked in blood, said he didn’t go down without a fight. His clenched jaws held bits of Coyote fur. He didn’t make it easy.

I buried him in a wooden box in the back yard, under the Angels Trumpet where he can smell the beautiful yellow flowers, especially in the springtime when they are strong; where he used to lay in the adirondack chair, content.

A pearl among cats. He was a bravo.

 

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THE MONIKER

In the little world of boys who went to Branch Elementary school in the 1950’s there was one who had achieved the ultimate pinnacle of success. His name was George Cecchetti Junior and he had two great recommendations, he had a scar and a nickname. He lost a fingertip to his father George Cechetti’s handsaw and was graced with the nickname “Tookie.” His cachet was unassailable. In those days when corporal punishment might be meted out by teachers, he was the only boy I ever saw spanked. That just added to his legend. We knew he wasn’t bad in any sense of the word, just irrepressible.

Jerry Jesse, who lived next to the Gularte’s on Huasna Road had a high pitched voice due to an adenoidal deficiency and was saddled with “Squeeky.” He had slightly bucked teeth formed in a small vee and a pointed chin which made him look mouselike. He was a fine boy. We also had “Tubby Terra” who got his monicker by being just a big kid, not fat, but big all over. Another fine boy.

There were also Manny, Johnny, Jerry, Lulu, several Jimmys, Dickie, Billy, Reenie and even one kid who aspired, but never made the grade, my best friend Kenneth Talley, whose full name was Kenneth James Talley and who told me he wished he had been named George like my dad so he could call himself KG or cagey, he being, of course, one of the most un-cagey people I’ve ever known.

Diminutives such as those above, never quite cut it in the nickname business for those names were not given in the proper spirit or spirits. They must be given for physical appearance, embarrassing family childish endearments, see George Cecchetti above, or some significant event in a persons life.

WOODY AND DUMBO

Lee and Dwight

Lee Dudley is one of my oldest, dearest friends. Our mothers worked together in the same men and boys clothing store for over 20 years and Lee and I still have the kind of friendship that is only formed when you are kids. Went to a high school reunion lately and, you know, he still got called “Dumbo.” It’s those Clark Gable ears, a nickname he has carried for over six decades. We called him that because we love him to pieces.

Dwight Wood and I were literally introduced to each other in the same cradle by our mothers. They would put us in together while they drank coffee in the kitchen upstairs from Dwight’s fathers business, the local mortuary. I’m sure they spoke of many things but the best thing they did was to start a life long friendship. We played together as children, surfed together as ‘teens and still see each other seven decades later. He is and always will be “Woody.”

My brother Jerry, Gerald George Shannon, missed the opportunity of a lifetime because no one knew that his name Gerald was a shortened version of Geraldine. My mother wanted to honor Geraldine Sullivan, daughter of our neighbors, Gladys and Lester. She was wonderful woman and a very close friend. Think of the missed opportunities there, named after a girl. Surely some kid might of made hay out of that one. Sorry Jeb, you dodged a bullet there.

The foul name bestowed by that senior class bully on the back bench of your school bus has hopefully disappeared by now, as I hope has he, to a dark place. We had one of those. He sat on the back bench of that old Crown bus, ensconced like a king, with his courtiers by his side, dispensing names, each one containing some foul expletive, more expressive of his bullyness than actual intelligence. He graduated a year later and I can’t say he was missed. Those sycophants of his, he left high and dry, faded with him.

Thinking of dad’s friends, “Toots” Porter and “Coot;” the “Toots” seems self explanatory but “Coot” Sevier? His real name was Ernest or Ernie and I actually worked for him when I was 16 so I knew him and I never heard him referred to by any other name. I know he didn’t have yellow, webbed feet like the little black speckled duck and he didn’t give out the small squeaks they make, so how in the world did he get the name. I asked my dad and he said he though it had something to do with acting, when he was young, like an old man, but he wasn’t sure.

In my grandmothers autograph book, which she started when she was just eight are best and birthday wishes by her friends, many of which I knew as a child and it tickles me to know that Mrs. Harloe, a well known and cherished teacher in our little town once signed herself as “Maggie” Phoenix, and what about “Tootsie” Whiteley. My mother said that my grandmother used to say, when she saw a particularly grizzled, crusty old woman, “Just think, some mother once kissed her sweet baby feet!”  Now just imagine the long-gone mother kissing those sweet footsie-tootsies-wootsies. I knew many of my grandmothers friends as a young man. They dressed in sober fashion, wore gloves and hats to market, had Mamie Eisenhower perms and never colored their hair. If it was grey, well, they earned it. I seemed unbelievable that they had ever been babies and girls. That they went by a nickname, but so it was and it tickles me today think of them that way.

My first car, a 1929 model A Ford pickup. My dad bought it for my 13th birthday. He paid “Mutt” Anderson fifty dollars for it. Mutt ran the greyhound cafe in our little town a was a local character and a fine baseball catcher when towns all over the country had a teams.  Well before television ruined the real game, it was played by hometown people with no announcer filling your ears with personal opinions and inane chatter, just the patter of friends and neighbors over the picnic basket. Folks came out to the ball field to cheer on the neighborhood boys, and men like Mutt had a standing in the community far beyond their education or accomplishments. Why did they call him Mutt? His mother did it. She called him Mutt after the cartoon character in “Mutt and Jeff, though she reversed the names as a joke. You see, Mutt was the taller of the two characters and Jeff was the short one. Our Mutt had only  an eighth grade education but he worked hard all his life in a day when that other kind of education, the hard knocks kind, was perhaps just as important as school. He was a good man and was well liked in the community. The name, as used, wasn’t derogatory at all. It had the charm that a name given in affection always has.

Mutt and Alfred 1911

The “Beanie’s,” Winslow and English. To this day, I have no idea where the names came from. Beanie is much more common for girls than men and yet the only two people I knew with that name were men. Neither one of them was named Beatrice. Go figure.

There is even a nickname that is adopted by parents and particularly grandparents, given them by their little ones. Case in point, “Moonie” Maude Loomis or “Poo Poo” Jack Shannon and “Mamoo” Annie Shannon. Those names bestowed on them by yours truly when just a baby. My grandfather was so proud of his name that all of his close friends knew it too.

Even my own sober, serious father was called “Ding,” a reference to the bell that used to ring when a basket was made in the old-fashioned basketball game of the twenties and thirties. He was a dead shot at the hoop and excelled in both high school and college. He never got over the end of the two-handed set shot but he did revere Bill Russell and always gave him credit for birthing the modern game. Some of the best times with him were shooting baskets at our hoop nailed to the side of the old tank house. Dad in his sweat stained tee shirt, Pendelton, muddy Levi’s and scuffed work boot, shooting a fadeaway against his three swarming kids. We didn’t need to keep score, because we all won.

My cousins Bruce and Jim, were invariably called “Jughead,” the ears again, and “Knothead.” My uncle Ray had a way with words and was absolutely irrepressible. He called my brother Cayce, “Festus” and his wife Debbie “The Mule” and with all such nicknames they embraced them wholeheartedly. A twofer, “Here comes Festus and his mule.” If my sister-in-law was offended you’d never guess, she was too busy laughing.

My dad called my mother “Pinky.” It was used only on momentous occasions and carried such an abundance of love that when he used it the air itself became heavy. Like all married couples that must have had their issues but I never knew about them. They always seemed to us as if they were fitted like a perfect piece of joinery. Pinky, when she heard it, would light her up like a sunbeam coming in through our kitchen window.

When you are born your parents label you with a name carefully thought out, sometimes richly endowed with family legend or perhaps heavenly grace. Your name, to be carried to the grave and engraved on a marble headstone or solid brass plaque, but your real name, the one bestowed by family and friends out of pure love is the one.

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ALL IS IN THE BOOK

books

 

I’m a reader. Always have been. I reckon that in my lifetime I’ve read over 10,000 books. Now, I’m not always a disciplined reader. I mean, I read for pleasure, pure; I read for information, I read to understand, but in the end its’ all about finding out. Things, thoughts, other people’s life voyages. I can’t meet and talk to enough people to find out what I need to know. Curiosity trumps time.

All books are true; and untrue too. Writers make things up in case you didn’t know. All of them. Everything I’ve every written or read is filtered through either my personal experience or someones elses. There is no truth. Every written thing is a combination of wishing, hoping, thinking, lots of thinking, lots and lots. Can’t stop it.

We all see throughout own particular lens and thoughts are bent, refracted as light is when passing through space. Ask Einstein, he’ll tell you. Or, better yet, read him. Einstein for beginners. He let us see the impossible.

Because I read, my cousin-in-law ask me to be a Friend of the Library. What Friends do is raise money for the library. We do all kinds of things but the best is sorting books. Discards, books on the terminal list, on the way to book heaven. They are us. We are them.

Each Tuesday we meet in an old warehouse left over from WWII. Waiting for us are dozens of brown cardboard boxes, stacked in neat rows. Each box filled with someones discards. Opening boxes and sorting these books into categories, hour after hour must seem, to you, dear reader, tedious and mind numbing. A box full of fantasy, romance paperback bodice rippers might be just that, but not all books are such.

Now, you can read The New York Review of Books, or follow BookBub and Powell’s recommendations but there is nothing better than opening boxes of random books for inspiration. You are going to see books you would normally never hear of, books from store sections you would just pass on by, delightful surprise in every grand opening. Cut the tape with a box cutter and something unexpected pops out.

ar·chae·ol·o·gy ˌärkēˈäləjē noun: archeology
The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. We could make a case for what we do as precisely that. When the tomb is opened you never know what to expect. Is it to be Tut, General Grant, Ozymandias; hardly, it’s more subtle than that. Not every box tells a story, many are just dumps, clean out the attic kind of things. But the stories, oh, oh, oh.

Take the beautiful slick coffee table book about ancient architecture, heavy, imposing, solid. Inside the fly, a beautiful inscription from mother and father to Allen their son on the occasion of his graduation from architecture school, something given in love by proud parents and discarded inside six months. You wonder.

The box opened, and found inside, someones collection of every copy imaginable of books about pirates. Old pirates, new pirates, pirates in cocked hats, pirates with burning punk in their beards. Pirates in business, more pirates than you can shake a stick at. You can only say, WHAT! and laughter all around.

Or the box with books that are among the greatest literary treasures ever written mixed with trashy book of absolutely no consequence. Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Bronte, Joseph Heller, Tolstoy, Kerouac and Maya Angelou living in the same box with Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus or books by the “stars” of Jersey Shore. Who let those people write a book, and what category do they go in? A tree died for this? Honestly though, there are always more “Eat, Pray, Love” copies than Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Go figure.

There is always a box of dusty Book of the Month clubs from the forties and fifties. Most well-worn in the colors favored then, with the dust jackets missing and a little ragged around the edges, shelved for decades and seldom, if ever read more than once. Rejected, the poor old things are headed for the dustbin. They come for a reprieve and will find none.

Last week there was a box of strange variety. It could only have been a clean-out, the old clean out the house box. There was a death. You learn to recognize that. Now, some are hastily packed,  a jumble of discards that were someones pride, gone now. Some, and you can tell, carefully dusted and put away in a gesture of goodbye to a loved one. If no one in the family wants to read them they go to the Friends instead of the garbage, wrapped in guilt and sadness. Guilt for destroying a book, sadness for those lost. Unable to simply just throw them away.

We keep a file of things left inside our books. Old book markers from stores long closed,  sympathy and birthday cards, odd newspaper fragments, shopping receipts. I like to open and read the inscriptions. Most are pretty mundane, birthday or holiday wishes from an aunt Martha and uncle Dean or mom and dad. Occasionally a book from a teacher to a student. We have library discards from libraries all over the country. How does a book from a country library in upstate Maine get to San Luis Obispo? Did it fly, ride in a car or take the train.

In some old books, such as those written for boys in the early 20th century such as the Frank Merriwell series, Boy Scouts on Motorcycles or just a decade or so later, the Hardy Boys, the notations are written by little boys or girls, long dead and gone. Some little fragment of them lives in the inscription, “To Jack and George at Christmas from Webb and Edie Moore 1920.” “For Nita at Christmas from Mamie. 1903” Old out of favor names, old out of favor books.

I’ve sorted tomes written in German, French and Italian. Some books are printed in the exquisite script of Arabic or in the constructural, linear beauty of Chinese. Books I’d like to read but can’t. They may have been translated but if the writers name is unknown, the story is unknown.

One particular book has an inscription that took my breath away. It’s written in a beautiful copperplate hand and it says

“To my wonderful brother  Bob,                                                                                                          I give you this book in memory of dear parents, Eula and Conroy. I thank you for giving me so many years of complete understanding. Without you, dear brother, I could have never made it through medical school. Your love and support and especially, the twenty thousand you stole for me from our parents, which was wrong, but very helpful in achieving my goal, I thank you.”                                                                                                                                                     All my love, Barbara Ann                                                                                                              1961 

I am not kidding you, you cannot make this stuff up. The inscription was so much better than the book. The rewards of volunteerism.

 

 

PS: The book was written in 1973.

 

 

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What I learned in the Navy

bobby hall

 

The Dungaree Navy and how I got there.

If it’s 1966, don’t be on academic probation.

On the first day of bootcamp, hang out with the smartest looking guys in the room. If chief Whitten says, “Always wear boxers not tidy whities because they will make you sterile,” he’s right. If you have Southerns in your company and they say, “We’re gonna go get some cock tonight, don’t laugh.” They like to fight and they live in the bizzaro universe where everything is the opposite. You might not learn much as a boot but you will remember “The Washington Post March” ’til the day you die. You learn to clean, white glove inspections are not just a movie thing. “Field Day’ is held every thursday throughout the Navy and Marine Corps where everything is thoroughly cleaned from the overhead to the deck, including the heads, then inspected friday morning. Yes they use mirrors to look under the heads rim. The Navy feeds; real milk, real butter and fresh donuts. Beer in the enlisted clubs is cheap. Dress blue trousers have 13 buttons, each one giving her a chance to say “No.” Liberty cuffs; your jumper sleeves have cuffs, to embroider the inside of the cuff with dragons or other flummery is forbidden, but of course, everyone has them. Your first dress blues are tailored with a 28 inch waist and in two months you will outgrow them. Everybody wears the same uniform; exactly. The only item of dress that’s individual is the Dixie, your little white hat. There are a thousand ways to roll it, crimp it, box or whatever you like. When you make 3rd class your rank is called a ” Crow” and it must be ” pinned ” on by which I mean sailors will punch you in the arm until it’s black and blue and you have to stand a round of drinks at the enlisted club, which will, of course, be full on that particular night. Word gets around, ” scuttlebutt, ” its called and it’s seldom wrong or maybe, right. You must learn how to carefully wake a sleeping sailor for their watch by softly pinching the nose so you don’t wake them suddenly and get your ass kicked. You can train yourself to wake up at the first electrical crackle of the fluorescent light over your rack and get your head under the pillow so you are not blinded. Sailors don’t have to salute officers indoors because in the Navy no one wears covers (hats) inside.  Army and Air force officer pukes do wear covers inside and Navymen don’t salute them. They hated that, swabbies loved it. Some days it was the best thing that happened to you. When they gather your company together and give you the come-on for the Undersea Service, don’t be a sucker. Subs are not called Sewer Pipes for nothing. When the priest gives the “Sex lecture,” the entire auditorium will howl with laughter when he lists all the euphemisms for your penis. If you school with Waves, the pretty ones will all work for an Admiral. All the engine room ratings, boiler tenders, firemen, etc. will die first, don’t volunteer for that either. The two inch thick steel deck of an aircraft carrier melts like Velveeta if there is an explosion, thats why carriers have a locker below decks with snow shovels. Try not to imagine the rest. If your “abandon ship” station is a hundred and ten feet above the sea you are screwed. Black guys called us “Chucks,” we called them “Bloods” and it was all good. The absolute worst time to be on night duty in the Balboa Naval Hospital emergency room is when Cruiser/Destroyer Squadron 23 is just in from six months duty in the Gulf of Tonkin. The “Tonks” in National City, CA, belong to the Navy not the Jarheads, they have Oceanside. You both have TJ. Hard work pays off. Be the honor man in your class or; perhaps not. One of my friends was Honorman in “A” school and he had his jaw shot off in Vietnam. Never look an officer in the eye. All the answers are in the books, Navy Regs cover everything. Feel sorry for the kids in the “crotch,” they are way worse off than you. Do what you are told, you won’t be sorry. All in all, the Navy is egalitarian, you’re all in it together. You will know your shipmates better than you know your own family, and it will last as long as you live. You will learn how big and wonderful the world can be and how a guy from Lubbock Texas or Hillsville Virginia is just like you. Always remember you volunteered for this.

At the end you get a DD-214, and thats all good too.

John M. Shannon HM-2 USN   Jan 1966-April 1970

 

Apologies to my cousin Bobby Hall whose picture I used, he was a sailor too.

 

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