A Walk In The Yard.

dickie1961

 

I took a walk through the yard today. I had some time. I hadn’t attended the funeral mass but I wanted to be there when they buried my friend Dickie. As always it struck me how the history of a place is written in its tombstones. 

Our little town was once a cozy little place built mostly around farms and ranches, many dating back to the days of the Spanish and Mexican Rancheros who came to this place in the first part of the 19th century. We all knew their descendants, children of those descendants and even their children and as always in small towns they married each other and have produced scatterings of relationships that would be impossible to unravel if you hadn’t grown up here.  In the case of the Quaresma family, unraveling who is married to who, is a practical impossiblity.

The cemetery is a small one. It used to be pretty far out of town but today it is in the center of a bustling community where people passing on the nearby freeway hardly give it a second look. Built as a community project by the Odd Fellows Organization and deeded to the town long before it was ever incorporated, it stands today as a monument to local history. When you first see it, it has no particular grace except for the rubble stone wall that encloses two sides of the field. Built of a local golden-red stone by the WPA during the depression it is roughhewn but has a certain grace which is fitting for its purpose. The oldest section which dates to the late 19th century still has tombstones but the newer section has fallen prey to economy of budget which decrees flat markers so the lawn mowers can run in straight lines. 

It’s worth a walk. You can see many people you know. That is only in your memory of course, buts it’s real enough for me. 

I would see the old boys from my dad’s poker club, Ed Taylor, Oliver Talley, and Vard Loomis, They used to come out to our house on poker night and it was a pretty big deal. Mom had to disappear, she and Hazel or Gladys would get together and make a night of it. My brothers and I helped my dad move the kitchen table into the living room where he covered it with the green felt table cloth, the chip rack, highball glasses, some peanuts and other snacks. The players brought the liquor, dad supplied the mixers. Soon enough the cars would arrive, coming up the dirt road to our place, the men trooping in the back door, no one ever used the front door, ever. There was lots of laughter and jokes, the kind of goodwill men share, it was almost as if they hadn’t seen each other for months, though they probably did meet just yesterday at the packing shed or the truck dock or even just stopped in the middle of the road talking with the windows down. Soon enough the play began. These were serious poker players, intent. The room soon had a cloud of cigarette, pipe and cigar smoke, that was Oliver Talley and John Loomis with cigars, the thick smoke pressing down from the ceiling as the men squinted at their cards. They never played a game with wild cards, only games like Stud, mostly five card, seven being considered frivolous. Low ball, high ball or hi-low, games they had all played most of their lives. We kids would fall asleep, snuggled in our parents bed where we could listen or peek through the keyhole, slowly fading away, thinking we were privy to the secrets of men.

Over by the row of trees in section B are the stones for Patrick and Sarah Moore, who raised my grandmother Annie Gray Shannon, who was Mrs Moore’s niece. Sarah died in 1900 and is one of the oldest residents of the cemetery, Pat is next to her, gone in 1905. Cancer killed her when she was just 61. Both born in Ireland, They immigrated to the United State before the civil war. In fact they were citizens by fact of residence before the 1882 immigration law. Considered to be “first general immigration law” due to the fact that it created guidelines of exclusion through the creation of “a new category of inadmissible aliens.” I suppose there are many in this cemetery who may not have been admitted to the country today. All of the original Shannon’s came to the U S before there were laws that restricted entry to the country. About the only thing that could keep a person out were disease or a physical impairment that would not allow you to work. Luckily my ancestors must have been healthy. Considering the century we come in we were probably indentured servants. The first of our family was likely forcibly sent to America after the Battles of the Cromwellian Conquestof Ireland. This was the incredibly brutal crushing of the Irish Republics by the British under Oliver Cromwell. Over 70,000 Irish were transported to the new world as indentured slaves. Ireland entered a period of mass famine and Bubonic Plague. This constituted the first of the waves of dispossessed Irish to come to America. 

Section C is our place, My great grandfather John  Edward, My Grandparents Jack and Annie, Mom and dad and my uncle Jackie. Nearby my nephew David who died at just 26′

The old section of the cemetery is thick withe names of the Irish. There is John Corbit of Corbett Canyon, Patrick Donovan, Daniel Rice, who built the stone house on Myrtle St, William Ryan, once the owner of Arroyo Grande’s largest hotel. George Hendrix whose saloon still exists on Branch Street.

There is Fred Jones, over in section E, whose mother was a daughter of Francis Ziba Branch, the first American to settle here in 1837. Fred came to our school when he was 88 years old to tell us about the lynching of the Hemmi’s in 1886 when he was just fifteen. His father was a participant. His mother, Maria Magdalena Eduarda Branch Jones grew up here when the nearest neighbor was a half days horseback ride away.

The first pioneers, names like Harloe, Paulding, Phoenix, Records, Jones, Porter and Poole. The Whitely’s, Lierleys, Loomis’s, and the Ides.

There are veterans of wars from the War Between the States, Spanish American, WWI and WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the middle east.

My high school friends Don Petersen, just 20 and Pete Segundo  died in Vietnam, My sons friend Michaelangelo Mora, killed in Iraq: they’re here.

You will find Cyril Michael Augustus Phelan from a pioneer family and one of my fathers closest friends. Gus and his wife Kathryn Routzhan Phelan are surrounded by family members, Big Dan Phelan, his wife  Dorothy and son Danny.

Our old neighbor lies there too. Lester Sullivan and his wife Gladys Walker Sullivan. Not only was mrs Sullivan my fathers third grade teacher but she used to invite us little Shannon boys over to her kitchen for milk and cookies. 

There is Cramer Williams, whose grand children I went to school with, my lovely friend Mary, Jimy, and our ranching neighbor Pat.

The Talley’s, in Section M, Oliver, Hazel and Kenneth, Kenny, my first true friend, whose lament was that he was named Kenneth James not Kenneth George because he wanted to be called KG. His brother Donald is there too, who once smacked me across the face with a flyswatter for using his bicycle without permission. Don’s daughter Maryanne, who died much too young, is near. The days I spent in their house on McKinley Street with it’s bright yellow kitchen and the basement with it’s pool table are now a cherished memory. Hazel Talley was one of the most gracious women I ever knew and thats saying something. Women from a certain time had that about them.

The place knows tragedy too. My friend Greg Folkerts, 17, who died in a senseless roll over accident while joyriding with two others on the beach in Oceano. He was universally liked and in a unique tribute, the day of his funeral, which was a school day, high school students were officially forbidden to attend, they cut classes en mass to do so. Death amongst the young is a hammer blow which is never forgotten. It was my first real experience with personal tragedy. He was simply too good to die.

Scattered everywhere are the babies, the greatest tragedy of all. Some who never had a name.

My reason for todays walk is to talk to my friend Dickie. We shared so many things in our lives. We were schoolmates at the old Branch school in the 1950’s. We were neighbors too, he lived a short walk from our place, just walk to the back of ranch, cut across by Machado’s, pass the  Gregory’s, cross the old Harris bridge, head for town, then pass by “Squeaky” Jerry Jesse’s place, and there was Rudolph and Mary’s little house. It was as warm and as inviting as our own; filled with kids. Mary always had a snack for you, homemade, not store bought, the best kind you could ever eat. Made with love. 

When you grow up together, attend the same schools, share almost everyday, the same experience, you grow to know a person in ways that casual acquaintance can never equal. There is also something about being kids. I think because your world is so proscribed by perspective, that is, a very tight focus on the few things you do know about life, the bonding is that much more intense.  

Kids in our school came from a small number of families. There were only about sixty kids in all eight grades. Think about the dynamics of that. There were 13 kids from the same extended family, Silvas and Gulartes, brothers, sisters and cousins. We had 3 Cecchetti’s, all kinds of Coehlos, two Hubbles, some Terras, a handful of Hunts and us, the 3 Shannon boys. Throw in some Gregories, Jurnjiaks, Georgie Rios, a couple of Antonio’s; and don’t forget the other Silvas, Charlie, Lulu and Tina and you had a school. Everybody knew everybody, kids and parents. Our social life was the school. Plays, singing, Christmas, Halloween, we did them all.  

We got along. The families came from everywhere, Irish, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino, Swiss, Mexican, some so intermixed they could say they had no ethnicity. One of the great experiences was you could see that everyone was the same. Here in the yard, it’s still that way.

As I look down at the place where Dickie lies now, I can remember all the little boys singing Davy Crockett, we little boys in our coonskin caps, sure that we would someday prowl the great backwoods with Davy and his pal Georgie Russell, looking for adventure.   The Robin Hood Club, that gang of little boys who would come a runnin’ to help each other when an older boy transgressed on their rights or territory. You would hear the call; “To the Rescue” at recess and watch the stampede of little guys coming to fight off an older, bigger boy who might be torturing one of the gang. Girls played baseball, boys jumped rope. Everything was pretty equal.

When you see someone you grew up with, he’s still that little boy even if he’s offering you a nip from the bottle of Crown Royal he has stashed in the back of Andy Geremia’s pickup, parked over by the BBQ pit. All grown up with wife and kids, thats my friend Dickie. He was an easy man to love. I liked to stop at his feed store just to shoot the breeze.

Now he’s here and he can’t see me anymore. I think, when I walk through here that it’s not so much people that lie here but broken hearts. Each stone, covered with broken hearts.

Goodbye old friend. I’ll see you.

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WILSON

 

wilson

 

Once upon a time, a big grey Tabby lived at the center of a world that cannot be imagined today. He patrolled the universe of death that was northern France and Belgium. In the spring of 1916, in a sector of the Belgian front called “Wipers. he patrolled No-mans land each night, crossing from one side to the other, showing no favoritism to either the Boches or the Tommies who had been very, very busy slaughtering each other for the last two years.    

FOREWORD

If you ask someone what had happened, they might give you a year or use an event to place the story in a particular time. Build a box for the story to reside in. This makes it history. History is not stories, it is fact in the sense that it provides a seemingly solid road marker on which to build time.  Facts are used as if they are stories but it is a mistake to think the two are even remotely related.  A story belongs to the teller and only the teller. He can stretch, revise and change it anyway he chooses. Every time he tells it it will be different. Just because it is written on paper does not make it true. The only truth belongs to the teller, no one else.

CHAPTER 1

Let me tell you a story, a true story. Well, maybe mostly true; some of it anyway. You be the judge.

When I met Harold “Ruff” Schilling, he was an old, old man. Originally from down in Texas he said. Down on the Rio Grande near Redford. The Big Bend country, about as far from civilization as you could get in these United States in the early 20th century. His brown eyes were still clear though. He was whip thin in the lanky drawn out way that country people are and he spoke a little like Waylon Jennings  sounded in his early days, like he was gargling gravel back in his craw. A tall thin man, he must have been a sight to see when he was young, riding horseback along the Arroyo de Iglesias rootin’ steers outta  the scrub brush during the spring roundup. He said “He always had a hankering’ to git outta that country, too hot, too dry and too damn many Messicans.” At the time I was surprised by the implied racism but later I learned his mother came from Mexico and the population of Redford was almost entirely Mexican, in fact, he said that, “If you didn’t know which country you was from, you’d have a hard time tellin which a one you was in.”

He was living out his days at my in-laws rest home in California when I knew him. He would sit in his chair just to the left of the front door looking into the distance and seeing what no one else could, what no one else cared about. Any family he had left was down in Texas; he said “His son don’t give a damn for me, I been spectin’ him to come through that door for years but he ain’t done it yet, guess he never will.”

Staying there was a rough deal for a man that loved to talk. Like an old bull out to pasture, too old too breed and to tough to eat, he whiled away his days watching a little TV and waiting. We both knew for what. 

It turns out he was with the railroad most of his life. Forty years he worked for the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific, starting out on the track gangs after the Great War and staying with it until 1961 when he retired as an engineer. He loved to tell of his life and if you could make time to sit with him it was lesson after lesson on how things once were.

“Redford, he said, was onct called El Polvo and it sure was, dusty as hell and then some.” He claimed it was the only place he ever lived where you could taste it before you saw it. Harold told me the little town was called El Polvo for about forty years until they put up the post office and were told they couldn’t have a foreign name so decided to call it Red Ford after the Spanish name, Vado Rojo, a location nearby where the Rio Grande met the Arroyo de Iglesias. “It was an old river crossin’ but the damn guvmit was the same then as it is now, they jus made it one word ‘cause they din know no better.” he joked, rolling his eyes upward. 

Harold loved newspapers, said his only real education was reading them. “Went to school off and on for maybe three years but when I was about 13, the post office opened and we could get newspapers in the mail ‘stead of begging from the teamsters whose freight wagons brought what we needed down from the railhead up to Alpine.” 

“Now, Redford wasn’t much, had an old square and mebbe four stores, a couple cantina’s, a few old adobe houses and some palapa’s for peoples to git under when it was a sizzlin’ hot.” Jeez, I hated that he opined, “Cookin’ in the summer freezing’ your tail off in the winter. If you was lookin’ to get outta Redford, that might jes be enuff for you to makeup your mind.” He went on to say, “Ya know, Southwest Texas is rough, hardly any dirt, everything is rocks, the plants have thorns and stickers and they’s hardly any flat ground. It’s bluffs and cliffs and you might wonder what in the hell anybody in they right mind would live there. I reckon I wondered that ever day I lived down there.” He paused a while, then he said, “Made us real damn tough tho, even my sisters, they rode as good as the men and could do a hard days work like we could. My sister Dulce, she married a rancher up to Fort Davis, give him a couple boys and when he was killed by a horse, why she raised them boys up, sent ‘em to college and ran that big old ranch just as good as him. See, we was tough kids.” Harold said, “Texas makes you hard or it kills you.”

He told me his sister Rosa Encarnacion run off with a young drover from New Mexico and when he left her there in Magdalena, why she just went up to Santa Fe and worked in a bawdy house for a couple a years. In about 1918 she married a big cattleman. “You know, people weren’t so particular  back then as they is now about that sort of thing. They had a flock of kids, sent ‘em back east to school too, why one become a judge and one of the girls was a movie star after the second war. Families are interestin’ ain’t they? One thing though, there ain’t one of ‘em living in Redford.” Harold laughed a little, then said, “Sometime I kinda miss them simple days.”

“See, we lived in a one room “dobe house, older than the hills; in fact it was the hills, made out of them for a fact. Didn’t have no floor, had one door and three windows with no glass. It had three rooms, one in the center and another they had added later on. None of the “dobe was plastered and the oldest part was a meltin’ away. Ma kept the inside clean though, she used to git a bucket of water, take a mouthfull and then spray it on the dirt while sweepin,’ and that sucker was hard as a rock as clean an shiny as a lizards belly. My pap done made a table and we had four old store bought chairs, a couple held together with wire. Nights in the summer we’d haul ‘em outside under our palapa where ma hung the chilis and have our dinner. Ma could make almos’ anything outta cactus, Nopales, I loved that stuff and ma knew how to make it. She had a old wood stove she cooked on and that thing was a job all by itself. Had a reservoir on the side for boiling water and when I was little I musta made a thousand trips a year hauling’ water from the hand pump to the stove. It had three big ‘ol flat plates on the top for cook pots or makin’ tortillas and two holes in the front for bakin’ bread. No one was too happy with her in the summer, ‘dobe holds the heat real good and you’d be a bakin’ long with the bread. In the winter though we loved her cause she kept that little house nice and warm. Have to say she kept me busy when I was little though, haulin’ wood and water, could never seem to keep up.”

“Down there in south Texas we was a good as Mexican anyhow. We all lived together, worked together, married each other and could talk each others lingo. You could throw in some indian talk too. Guess you could say I could speak three languages, not many can do that anymore.”

He went on, “Eight of us lived in that old place, ma, pa and my five sisters They had me after the three older gals and then the twins when I was eight. They was no more comin’ causes pa told me ma cut him off after that. Mebbe thats why he drank a little too much. Or mebbe it was just the hard life. He ran our place and worked on the side for the big outfits to to keeps us all goin. I spect no one would live that kind of life today, but in a way we didn’t know no better. If you don’t have and your neighbors don’t have ,then you’s all the same, ain’t you? Nothin’ to compare your life too, so it don’t bother.” 

“So in 1914, I got this friend, name of Sloat Temple, he lived with us, you see? He was a tall drink of water, red hair and a kinda long nose, made his upper lip stick out a little and when you looked him in the face the shadow of it allus made it seem like he had no teeth. His left eye had a little tilt on the side, didn’t quite line up, made him tilt his head a bit. He was a good boy but just a trifle. He stayed with us ‘cause my ma was that way, takin’ in strays, didn’ matter what kind. “Ma, she’d see you a-comin’ an’ put her hands on her hips and give a little tilt to her head, mebbe give that little squint she give if she’d thought you’d been doin’ sumpin’ wrong, but knowin’ you was a good boy anyhow. It was a mothers look, a grin full of mirth and automatic forgiveness. She never cared too much what you’d been doin,’ she just loved who you was now. She just naturally took in Sloat an’ made him a part of the family.”

Ya see, his pa got hisself shot dead down in Mexico. He had got this job in the mines, some kinda engineer workin’ for old George Hearst at the Barbicora ranch in Chihuahua and whilst he was travelin’ from Ojinaga to Tierra Blanca, the train was stopped by revolutionary troops under General Pascual Orozco. All the gringo’s and federal troops were taken off and the Federal troops immediately lined up and shot dead. Funny thing I heard, is that they didn’t tie ‘em or nothin’, they just stood there like a bunch a sheep and let ‘em do it, funny that. The Americans were accused of aiding the Mexican government and placed under arrest. President Wilson had stopped the sale of weapons to the revolutionary armies after rich American businessmen complained that their property in Mexico was being seized without anyone payin’ ‘em for it. I heard old Pascual was angry because they needed money from the American banks. They was selling stolen cattle they rustled from the big haciendas up to Texas and New Mexico and then usin’ the money to buy rifles and such in the United States. Wilson cut ‘em off an’ believe me, they wasn’t happy. A vaquero we knew who was down there when it happened tol’ us how they done it. They put Sloat’s father and the others back on the train and took ‘em down to Piedras Blancas and locked ‘em in an old ‘dobe store for a couple days. Orozco telegraphed old Hearst and told ‘em he shoot ‘em if’n he didn’t fork over some money to git ‘em off. We heard that after a couple days, they took ‘em out, started pushing and shovin’ them aroun finally pushing them down on they knees an’ tying up they hands behind their backs. Pascual himself came out and looked them over and said old man Hearst wouldn’t pay no money to get them out so they was goin’ to be shot. Said, “Did they have any messages for they families and such?” The vaquero said that Sloat’s pa to old Pascual that he and George Hearst could go an fuck ‘em selfs. “Bastardo,” said Orozco, walked over to him, pulled his revolver, put it on Temple’s forehead an’ shot him dead right there. He motioned to a captain, who walked behind the other three men and shot them in the back of the head. Just left ‘em lying in the dust in front of the store, Dirt in their open eyes, the blood running into the groun,’ the Vaquero said. He said  “They stripped the bodies, took the watches and boots and anything else they could and rolled ‘em in a ditch. After a couple days they spread some lime on ‘em and buried right there.” 

“When the revolution down in Mexico started, lots of the local vaqueros left to join Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco and our life just got tougher than a nut, cause we had to work even harder. My Pa was tryin’ to run his ranch with almost no help but me, Sloat and a couple little Mex boys. Pa had took us’n down cross the river and we’d snatch up a few hunnert head of cattle, run ‘em back cross the border,  then drove ‘em up to Alpine where we’d sell ‘em to the cattle buyers. No ways it’s legal, but what ya gonna do? Rustlin’ only counts in the US don’t it?” Harold put his head down a little, paused for a while, gimme a little smile and said, “Hell.”  Then he laughed til he shook. “Hell.”

“We seen them Dorados onct. Villa and his men were passing through headed to the railhead at Alpine to take delivery of rifles and artillery he’d bought from the American government. We was moving’ cows over west of Torneros Arroyo and they come up the road ridin’ from Ojinaga where the musta crossed the border. Reckon they come up from Chihuahua city. They was a ridin’ by fours, musta took up most of two miles. They coulda’ been five hunnert of em, believe you me. They was a rough a bunch of killers as I ever seed. They wore them big sombreros and the horses they rode were good lookin’ too, really good mounts, probably stole from the big hacendados down there in Mexico. They carried them carbinas .30-.30’s, a helluva rifle an easy for a horsemen to handle as they was short and light. Didn’ wear no uniforms neither, just whatever they fancied.Them big Mexican hats, each one carried at least a couple belts of catridges, ridin’ them big old Mex single rig saddles with the soup bowl horn and tapaderos. Villa come ridin’ up with his personal killer, Rodofo Fierro, called ‘im El Carcinero,  it’s said he’d shoot you down and not turn a hair. In those days, Villas horse, Siete Leguas was ‘bout as famous as he was and they was both right in front of us. He give us a look and showed us his teeth as he went by. “Muchacho, Que tal? he said. He give us a nod and a wave and galloped up to the head of the line. Jesus, them was some bad lookin’ hombres, made the hairs on your neck stand up too. We give  ‘em a lotta room. I was gonna see some nasty stuff later on, but I never seed any troops that scared me like those boys. Jesus, they was so hard they nearly made you piss your trousers, right there. To me they said, “nada me importa perder la vida,”  (I care nothing about losing my life,) and they meant it. Villa sent them in against barbed wire and machine guns at Agua Prieta in 1915 and they musta been right about that ‘cause they did die, nearly every damned one. Rode right into those guns goin’ hell for leather hollerin’ and a yippin. Didn’ do ‘em a bit of good though, slaughtered ‘em and damn near ended Villa right there.

“They was sumpin’ about ‘em though, you could tell they figured they was good, chin up and all, plenty a swagger. Them Dorados was Villas personal troops, follered him ever where. Seemed like an adventure to me though, Villa and his Dorados was running rings around the government troops down in Chihuahua and Durango. My grandfather said he was just a cheap pistolero and Pancho Villa wasn’t even his real name anyways.” He ‘tol me “Used to buy cows from the real Pancho, he stole ‘em from the big hacendados and I bought ‘em on the cheap. This guy Arango will come to a bad end mijo, you can bet on it.” Turned out in the end what mi Abuelo was sayin’ was Verdad.” Harold said, “Thats what they done too, shot Villa to pieces about 1923.” That whole revolution din’ amount to much in the end, Millions dead and things just kinda went back to the way they’d allus been.” Harold said, “Hard to figure sometimes, ain’t it. All that waste weren’t for shit in the end, corrupt bastards still runnin’ ever thing in the end. Bad as ever.”

“Did see him though, talked to me too.” Harold smiled at that, “Not many can say they seen Pancho Villa anymore, can they? Helluva thing though.”

”President Wilson sent United States troops down our way to Chase Villa back into Mexico after he shot up Columbus  New Mexico. When the army come in with Gen’l Pershing, they had these flyin’ machines up to Presidio and some cavalry at old Fort Polvo just down the road from us.” “Ma worked as a cook and the money was welcome ’cause there weren’t no jobs for any women cept’n whores in those days.” I started hangin’ around the soldiers when I had the time and they were tellin’ me things I never heard before and it was pretty excitin’ stuff for a young guy like me who’d never been anywhere before.” Harold said, “It really got me to thinking’ maybe I wanted to git outta Redford and see sumpin else, you know?” “Them Mexican sojers were a bangin’ away cross the boarder and them beans was a flying’ around all the time. Course our side was a shootin’ back ‘cept no one was gettin’ plugged but the occasional cow, but still, hit weren’t too healthy.”

“I guess I coulda gone down and joined up with Villa, plenty of white folks were doin’ that but I thought, Let them Messicans fight it out amongst theyselves. I weren’t Messican, even if my mother said she was, I expect she was more Mescalero anyway, since I think she come from that part of Texas.” Harold laughed.

“I thought about it for a long time, figurin’ what to do and where to go until I finally decided to light out for good. Me an Sloat figured we needed to dust trail outta there and see sumpin’, ya know? From the Sojers, I’d a heard about the big bust up in France and I reckoned I’d go over  there and see the Elephant.” Harold said he knew from newspapers that President Wilson wouldn’t have nuthin’ to do with the war and If’n we wanted to go I’d have to go on up to Canada to enlist.

Now Harold was born while his pa was in Cuba with the Rough Riders. His pa had taken a ball through his cheek in the fight at Kettle Hill. He was pretty proud of that. He’d said “howdy” to the Colonel when he was in the hospital tent and the Colonel replied “You boys did a capital job with the Spaniards, yes sir, it was a Bully fight. Just Bully.” Pap wore that scar like it was a badge of honor, he allus said, “Hit was the best thing I ever done and I’d do agin ifn the Colonel ast me.”

He had lived his whole life so far in Redford. It was brown and dusty, scattered with rocks like chicken scratch thrown on the ground. Brown like his mothers skin, brown like his fathers hands, brown like all the people who lived there. “Nuthin’ for me now, nuthin’ ever gonna be for me,” he said, “I’d jus die here and they’d bura me under the brown earth. Nobody’d even know I’d ever been. Couldn’t see any sense in staying.”

He continued,”You know, I’d never been more’n 20 miles from home and that just a wranglin’ steers for the Cibolo Ranch, old Milton Favers place. Me’n Sloat talked it over and jus decided to git outta there. We snuck our things outta the ‘dobe, put ‘em in our possible sacks , waited ’til pa was gone for a couple a days and lit out. What I done was to take my ma’s money outtn the Hills Brothers coffee tin where she hid it, figured I’d pay her back some how, and we lit out for the railroad stop at Marfa on the Southern Pacific short line.  Took a couple horse from pa, me n Sloat. Took the worst too, didn’ want to discomfort pa too much.  Sloat forked the old Dun mare  and I had that mossy hammer head gelding my pa stole down in Mexico, he weren’t pretty, and he weren’t worth a damn with a steer but he could put in some miles if ya gave him his head.

Made the ride in three days, Tied the horses at the depot, told the agent whose they was and would he try to send a message back to my folks where the horses was and caught the train east. I ain’t never been back.” 

He thought a bit, then said, “Life out there wasn’t no picnic, but it had its good, My Pa died in about ’34, life had wored him out. He worked so hard, ever damn day, each the same as ta other an’ he hardly ever talked, just said what he needed to say and the rest of the time kept pretty quiet. Ma lived until she was nearly ninety, a miracle I reckon ‘cause she lived such a hard life but she was strong like those Injun women are. She raised up her kids as best she could and we all turned out alright didn’t we? Without any change of expression, he said, ”All this time and I can still smell her.”

The old man sat very still for a while, remembering, I suppose, then without any change in expression, the  tears began rolling down his cheeks. He didn’t wipe them, just let them roll down until they fell on his shirt front. 

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WILSON

wilson

 

Chapter 2

I think it was a Sunday and I had some things to attend to at the rest home. When I opened the door Harold’s chair was gone. Sadly this wasn’t uncommon, many of the residents were just treading water and waiting to die. If you don’t have any experience with them, you’d be surprised how many of the old folks are essentially abandoned by their families. The check comes in the mail each month like a ticket to linger. Seeing the missing chair, you can imagine that person has gone.  Harold, though was just taking the sun in the patio. He’d dragged his old mahogany chair out and placed in in a corner where he could keep track of the comings and goings and when he saw me, he waved me over and asked if I had a minute or two. I did.

It seems Harold and Sloat rode the SP to San Antone, then the Katy into the Cherokee strip. Thats where they ran out of money. He said, ” We managed to wrangle  jobs on the Chapman/Barnard Ranch north a Pawhuska. One thing we could do was work cattle, ever body in Redford learnt that soon as they was big enough to git on a horse. Workin’ cattle was a dyin’ art in 1915, the big ranches were all fenced and the big cattle drives were as gone as yesterday’s news. We’d left the horses  in Marfa, but carried our rigs. You weren’t much of a puncher if you didn’t have a saddle and bridle. The ranches supplied horses, each man had a string, not your girly horse type but rough stock, soon as jump on your skull as breath, so you’d better know your business. Bunkhouse we lived in was nicer’n our place in Redford so we figured we was on the jump all right. Hell, things was gettin’ better already.” Harold laughed when he said it to, “Things was lookin’ up, yessir.”

We worked for the stud duck, a tough young puncher, name of Ben Johnson, worked with him most of a year, both of us savin’ some money which weren’t too hard, seein’ there weren’t a hell of a lot to spend it on no ways. Pawhuska ain’t got much to do ‘sept git drunk and fight. I didn’t much like either,” Harold said. “We was figurin’ on movin’ on after spring roundup anyhow.

I got a picture in my mind of ol’ Ben too. He’d be sittin’ on top of his horse over by that big old cottonwood tree a takin’ the shade while he give us a lookin’ over. He liked to cross his legs over the saddle horn, relaxin’ like, while he rolls a cigaret, his white Stetson with the flat crown and “no droop” brim kinda pushed back off his forehead a bit and that yellow bandana he allies wore hangin’ down the front of his vest. Being boss-like, he didn’t usually wear leathers but tucked his trousers in the high mule ear boots with the bull-doggin heels. He was the perfect picture of a cow boss.

“Later on, old Ben, he become big boss of that ‘ol spread, a position he held for many years. He come a rough one too, a tough old cobb, I heerd he had some trouble with his kid too. Didn’ get along at all. The kid finally run off and become a wrangler for the movies. We’us good pards tho. Don’t know why he got so rough with his boy.” He said, laughing. “Course I don’t see mine neither so maybe I was no better.”

“They was some good old boys working the big ranches in them days and they was all kinds too.” Harold explained. He pointed at the television in the corner of the room with it’s covey of old birds watching the soap operas and gave me his opinion. “You watch that TV over there, and I gotta tell ya they is all wrong, wrong about ever thing. First of all, we wasn’t all white, they was mex, injun, niggers and even city boys come west from New York city.” Harold laughed, “Why, we didn’t carry no iron neither, too damned heavy and uncomfortable for a man in the saddle. Some carried ‘em in saddlebags, but what you goin’ to shoot anyhow, your foot? No big ‘ol buckles neither, matter of fact we mostly wore braces to hold up our trousers, belts cut into your belly if you rode all day and we did that. And them tight -assed levi’s they’re wearing, why a man cain’t  work in those damn things, no room for your business for one thing. Cain’t use pockets in trousers either. If you is in the saddle, cain’t put nothin’ in ‘em or git nuthin’ out, wore a vest for that. Cowpoke din’t have much, din’t need much. On the trail, just a soogan, a slicker, a extry pair of socks and your makings if’n you needed them. Them cows don’t much care what you look like. Wore just what you needed an nuthin’ else. Maybe the best thing a man owned was his rig and a fine pair of boots. Used to send out for ‘em, scratch a pattern of your foot and they’d send back a pair that fit like a glove. If you saved a little you could have some fancy stichin.’ I allus had to have me some roses on there, Texan ya know. Din’ wear ‘em for work neither, jes fer goin’ ta town. People writin’ them movies is bunch of damn fools,” he said, cowboyin’, was nuthin’ but a laborer on horseback, damned hard work.” 

Harold scratched his head, then opined, “Ya know Mike, we didn’ have much in them days, why just your saddle and bridle was about all you needed to git work. A good California saddle a handmade leather bridle, some hopples, not them grass rope kind, them hurt the horses pastern if they had to wear ‘em overlong, used platted ones when we could still find ‘em. Lots of boys used grass rope for ropin’ but I still used a mex style reata, learned to make ‘em from my grandpap. He rode down to south Texas after the war, he been with Wade Hampton’s Legion and then Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry division right to the end, surrendered with the General at Appomattax Court House. Grant let ‘em keep they horses and my grandpa rode that ol’ horse all the way down to south Texas. Didn’t cotton goin’ back to South Carolina I guess.

With a twinkle in his eye, Harold said, “Them movie fellers makes a damn sight more money though, so go figure.” He went on to say, ”Seen that Tom Mix onct, wear fancy duds like that an no tellin’ what might happen to ya in the bunkhouse. Yore bunkies might take some exception to them slicker clothes, see, we was proud in the way young men are and thought that ours was the way it should be. Give no truck to some Hollywood actor fool, pretendin’ he was like us, no sir.” 

“I’d guess about a month after I went to work out there, ‘ol Ben hired on a puncher just a little older’n me name of William Perkins, Billy he said to call ‘im.” 

Harold described that boy as, “To tall by half, skinny as a bean pole and all the angles on his face was sharp enuff to cut yer hand ifn you was to poke him. Why he had so much red hair it was a caution. Couldn’t keep it combed, account of it was so thick. He wore a skimmer too, kinda looked like the one Harold Lloyd wore in them old movies.

Harold laughed, said “why he never stopped talkin’ neither, I knew more about him in five minute than I knew about my own mother. He said he run off from a place called Hell’s Kitchen. Seemed to me hit was a heck of a name for a place to live and Billy said it shore was. Said it was chock full of the poorest Irish in New York, probly Ireland too. Said his ma and pa come over from a place called Bally Robert Doagh in ’81. Come on a ship called State of Alabama, stuffed in so tight could hardly breath and they fed so bad hit was worse’n pig swill; they pert near starved. Said, if you was walkin’ to school, older boys would kick the stuffin’ outta ya, steal yer coat ifn’ ya had one, or maybe just for the hell of it. Families livin’ two or three to a tenement, no water, no bathroom, no heat. When pa could work, he’d be lucky to get home with his pay, the shills be draggin’ the men into the saloons so they could take your money for drink.. Them’s comin’ off the boats would work cheaper and you’d have no job. In New York the worst of all for keepin’ ya down were your own people. Those Irish bastards who run Tammany Hall or the Jews down on the lower east side, and the “Eyeties” too. Why I went down ta Hester street once to  see the Jews and they was kids sleepin’ in the alleys, no place to go. Turned out by their parents or the parents are dead.The bosses never give a damn for us, we hated ‘em, but what can you do? They was so poor in New York that they could hardly feed his brothers and sisters so he lit out when he was 14. Said he’d been readin’ them dime novels and thought cowboy’n was the life for him, so he give ‘er a try. He rode a side door Pullman to Billings and got on with a ranch in the Pryor mountains south of there where he learned his trade. He punched cows up to Montana and then tried California some while, I believe he said the Peach Tree outfit near King City. Then come east to the territories and, well, here he was.”

“Ben give him the bunk next to mine and soon enough we was pards,” Harold went on to say. “Now I never been much for talkin’ but ol Billy, why he talked enuff for half a dozen men, which you might think was bad, but remember, in those days there weren’t no radios or television and them nights out on the prairie could be mighty lonesome, so no one minded. Billy didn’t have no mean bones and he could tell a good one.” 

Harold shook his head, smiled a small smile and said, “Ya know, almost nobody could read and even if you could, weren’t much to read from, mebbe an old Leslie’s newspaper or the Police Gazette but soon enuff they was gone fer toilet paper. Ever one knew all those stories by heart cause them that could read, read ‘em aloud to the others, so a man who could string out a tale was as welcome as May.” 

“No matter who he rode with he kept ‘em laughin’, always happy that boy. Purt soon this ‘ol mex from down to Durango way, Zarate somp’n or other, never could keep them messican names straight, they was all named ass backwards by my reckonin,’ Double barreled names the was. Anyhow, he was allus laughin’ an took to callin’ i’m “Perky,” being so damned happy and all, and it stuck. Perky Perkins, ain’t that a hell of a thing?” 

“About them nicknames, most of the boys had ‘em. Hardly anyone used more’n one anyhow. First or last or some made up one was good enuff for us. We’us all young ya know. Cowboyin ain’t no life for an ‘ol man anyhow, too tough. Why there’s hardly a man ever forked a horse, don’t have a broken bone and sure as hell, ain’t no money innit. Better know your business too. A horse can kick like the devil and bite like an allygator. Stomp your boot til your toes are a mash. People now don’t appreciate how much better a car is. Cowboyin’ tho, best damn life there is.”

“That Zarate feller give me my name too. See we had this ‘ol dog name of Bobby, yep, ‘ol Bobby Dog, he was a character too. Damndest smartest dog I ever knew. He took a special likin’ to me right off and when he see me he’d start to barking and running in circles. First one way then ‘tother. Happened ever time. Don’t know why but he did. So ol’ Zarate, he commented to calling’ me Ruff, seein’ how the dog always barked after me. Just some ol’ thing like that and you had a name.

In the summer that dog live under the bunk house. He had some hollows he dug around the ranch buildings too, where he’d lie during the heat of the day, he’d move aroun’ from one to the other with the sun and in the winter he slept inside with us. Now Bobby had one particular habit, he liked to ride horseback. Yep, horseback. He’d a come runnin’ from wherever he was hidin’ and just leap up on the hindquarters of one of the horses he liked just as proud as if he was the King of England. I had this Morgan crossed with an injun pony name of “Wonder.” Boss said they found ‘im the winter of ’11, just a colt, bought froze to death. They took him in the barn and bottle fed ‘im and darned if he didn’ make it. It was a wonder, they said, thats how he got his name, Wonder.” We’d be up before dawn and I’d go down and catch up Wonder, saddle ‘im and lead him up to the hitch rail before breakfast. When I come out, there’d be Bobby Dog a sittin’ on Wonder’s croup, ready to go to work. Ruff, Wonder and Bobby Dog, what a team we was.”

About horses, Harold said, “Them ‘ol ponies was pretty tough too. They’s a mix of all kind of horse. Some Indian, mebbe mix with other breeds sometime, mebbe not. Them plains Indians knew horses and really bred ‘em up for runnin’ the prairie. Ours could work all day and live on jus’ grass, why they never saw a speck grain in all their days. The best knew cattle too, learned to think like ‘em. Some so good you could show off a little and take the bridle off and the horse could still cut out a steer. People think a horse ain’t too smart, but they’d be dead wrong. Real smart they was.”

Harold told me, “The old days of cowboyin’ were gone of course, most of the range was fenced in by then, the big cattle drive was done in the 70’s and won’t see anything like that ever again. We only lived outdoors during roundup in the spring and fall, tho that hadn’t changed much. Still sleepin’ on the ground and eatin’ chuck; beans, beef and ifn’ we were lucky, a pickle for a treat. The cook, we always called ‘im Sally was an ol’ broke down puncher by the name of Jimmy Blue but he knew his business around the wagon. He rustled up there squares a day off the back of that ‘ol wagon and keep us fed. I’ll tell you though, them cooks your mother-in-law hires for this home can’t hold a candle to ol” Sally, why he made sourdough biscuits, we called ‘em Dough Gods, they’d rise up two three inches high, they would, and you could dip ‘im in your beef steak an sop up the gravy. Harold paused a bit, then said, Somethings you never forget or lose a taste for.” 

“Now, ol’ Sally was a real joker, allus up to some kinda mischief.  We had to keep on our toes in the cow camp ‘cus you never knowed what he might do. That spring we was camped along the Salt Fork of the Arkansas river and riding the scrub and washes a rootin’ our any beef we could find. After winter they was scattered far and wide across this big pastures and we’d be up ‘fore dawn and out of camp near the whole day. A man could get real tired.” Harold continued with a laugh, “Seems Sally took a pack mule down near the river to scout up some deadfalll wood for the cookin’ fires and come upon one of the boys a lying right next to the water where it was nice and cool. He were havin’ a nice little nap, sombrero down over his eyes, boots off, his feet coolin’ in the water. So Sally figures he’d give ‘em a little surprise. He looked around under them big ol’ Bur Oaks a growin’ there and found hisself a broken branch about five feet long. He picked ‘er up and carried it down to the water and put ‘er in right by the cowboys feet. He let her go and she quick like floated down stream and jus’ before she touched a foot he hollered out, loud as he could; “Allygator.”  That cowboy felt that thing touch his foot and rose up of the groun’ like he had springs. Before you could Jack Robinson, he had forked his horse and was goin’ hell for leather across the prairie, no sombrero, no boots and a hollering’ like a she coyote at a full moon. Ol’ Sally fell in the river he was laughn’ so hard. Got hisself soakin’ wet, somepin he didn’t much like but he said it was worth it.” 

Harold was laughin’ himself, recallin’ scene, said, “From then on the ol’ boy was “Gator. I don’t to this day recall his real name, he was just Gator from then on.”

Harold went on, “ Part of the cowboy way in them days was your business, where you come from, what you did was private. You could call yourself any name you want. Most cowpokes went by the first name. Didn’t here many last. Nicknames all over the place like Gator, Perky, Sally and such, names you don’t hear much no more. Had a boy named Poinsett,  one of my bunnies was name Monroe Teeple, can’t say why but we called ‘em Dunk.’Nother boy name of Shade ‘cause he was a darn good poker player. See, we knew the game was jus’ temporary and sometime we’d all move on. Pretty hard goin’ ifn you wanted to cowboy for life. 

Harold explained, “Fall round-up of 1914 we rode with punchers from the Miller brothers who owned the 101 ranch over near Ponca City. Those Millers were interesting men. They ran the ranch, had a travelin’ wild west show and oil wells to boot.”

 Well, we was out ‘bout a month, we had to rustle up beeves spread all over those ranches, somewhere near 195,000. acres, thats put neer 300 square miles.”  See, all the outfits in a section of prairie joined up together, might could be fifty or a hunnert men in the big cow camp. Buncha chuck wagons, cooks and boys tendin’ the pony herds. It were a real operation, gettin’ all that work done. 

“So, while we was on roundup we got to knowed some new fellers from the 101. This old indian boy name a Got Dog Pollard from over to the Osage was one. He was as tough as a old skinned down bone, tall and so thin, when he turn sideway, couldn’t see ‘em at all. Had that back hair, shiny like a crows wing. Never showed much of a expression like Injun’s will do, spent most of his time just watchin’ like he got a secret he won’t tell. Mebbe hid did. Indians ways are way different then the white mans.

“Now my ma was injun and so was his, Pawnee says he, and he’d growned up out thar on the Cherokee Strip where it’s either too damn hot or too damn cold. Could read and write real good tho, ya see he went to that Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School in Pennsylvania. Got Dog said the motto of the school was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” and they surely tried that. 

Harold  told me, “It was all about the couldn’ts and shouldn’ts The students were forbidden to speak their native languages, ever. They must always wear the uniform,  nothing to be worn that was of a personal nature. They took his moccasins and forced ‘im to wear tight shoes and tight clothes. Said he allies felt like he was in a sack. Cut his hair down to the skin too.  They tried to make us into white men, they even give ‘im a white man name, Tried to call me Gerald but he allus whispered his real name to himself so he wouldn’t forget.”

Harold told me that they brought little kids from the reservations in handcuffs. He said, “They just took ‘em away from they families, didn’t care what they thought. The idea was to stamp the Injun right outta them. They had a cemetery there where they buried the little ones who died of white man’s disease. Buried you in a white man hole too. Their little spirits got to wander forever now. Can’t never be at peace.

He told me Got Dog said, “White Man didn’t see us. Didn’t want to. We was quiet, we watched, we spoke quietly, we never tried to stand out, we wanted to be one with the earth.” Harold went on, “White man walked with noise, not quiet. He spoke like thunder speaks. He wanted to tear the Indian out of use, but he was wrong. We were strong. We disappeared where he couldn’t see us, he saw only what he wanted to see. You see, the white man is arrogant, he wants every thing for himself. If you won’t give it to him he just takes it.”

 Damned if he couldn’t do things on that prairie ya could hardly believe. He could see a beeve where no one else could and he showed me how hit was done. Ya see, ya never look right directly at a thing cause you cain’t see it, you look off to the side where your side vision will pick it up. He showed me how to suck a little rock to keep the thirst away and which berries and plants ya could eat to keep yor belly from growling’ up at ya.” He smiled at the memory and went on, “Got Dog was a helluva cowboy, I never seed a man could ride like that and I could fork a horse pretty good mysef. He said the Pawnee was so tough ‘cause they was allus fighting’ the Commanche and the Cheyenne to keep their territory. Said his band was the Skidi, which meant wolf. He kinda looked like one too, long nosed and them eyes never looked straight back at ya the way a wolf dog does. He walked real quiet too, hardly disturbed the air around ‘im. Turned out his pa was with the Rough Riders in Cuba, same as mine, planted the first flag on top of Kettle Hill. I guess his pa talked more’n mine about that fight ‘cause he said them black sojers of the 10th cavalry did the toughest fightin’ over on San Juan Heights but Colonel Roosevelt got all the credits. Ain’t  it always the same, black, red , brown does the work and white and rich gets the goods. I could see the Got Dog was just like me, poor, not well edjicated, no prospects ,but, just the same, tougher than nails.”

“We had one other hand out there that showed us a trick I never seed afore either. His name was Bill Pickett and he rode for the 101. He was an older fella, had kinda a dark and dusky complexion and wasn’t too tall. He had those squint eyes old timers get, a long nose and a big wide mouth which he shaded with a mustache. He coulda’ passed for maybe a cross between a chink and a white man, ‘cept a course he was blacker than the ace of spades.  But he could cowboy all right, he was, sure enuff a top hand. He had this trick he would do when he was a chasin’ a steer, he’d ride right alongside the head and then just lean on down, grab ‘em by the horns and a start a twistin’ they neck, then he’d bite ‘em on the lip and, why lickety-split they’d be throwed and ready for the iron. Hell of a thing to see. ‘Ol Bill called it bulldogging, said that was what them old bull dogs did was bite ‘em on the lip and hold on ’til they dropped. He could do all kinda fancy tricks on his hoss account a he used to ride for the Miller Brothers Wild West show.” He was home with us because the British confiscated all the stock and wagons in 1914 on account of the war and they all had came home.

“Ben Johnson and ‘Ol Bill chivvied us boys into Ponca City one night just after round-up was over, said they’d a big surprise for us on account of we was all a buncha’ hayseeds an didn’t know nothin bout nothin. Said they was gonna see we got our ashes hauled, git a little drunk too and then we’d see a real treat. You gotta remember Mike, I was mebbe sixteen or thereabouts and where I come from they was ‘nuthin but work, no town to speak of, jest some old ‘dobe’s scattered about, hit hardly qualifyied for a name. I was sure enuff plumb green, from the top to the bottom. Sloat, Perky and Shade weren’t no better off neither. Sounded good to us so we lit out with the two stud ducks figuring’ on havin’ a hell of a good time.”

“We was all damn fools,” Harold laughed, “ but we figured we’d see somethin’ new so we put on our best duds, that big ‘ol Stetson hat we kept for occasions, shined up our boots, tucked in our trousers and polished our spurs up. Cleaned all the mud off the jingle bobs and figured we was goin’ to be the delite of all the young gals we saw. Don’t know what we thought was goin’ to happen but we was sure a hopin.’ See, most people think workin’ the range is glamorous and romantic, ridin’ the purple sage and all but it hain’t. It’s dirty, mostly boring and generally you hurt all over. Buildin’ fence, digging out the tanks, haying and brandin’ is just hard work and its six days a week, not much pay and damn little excitement. So a little trip to town was something special.”

“They rode us in, in one of Mr Millers automobiles.  It was that old car they rode ol’ Geronimo on in 1905. It was a Loco mobile and it shore was a fittin’ name. It had been rode hard, carpet tore up from too many spurs, bumps and dents everywhere, only fit for cowboys on the lookout, if you know what I mean.” 

He continued, “Now that old injun couldn’t drive no how and it weren’t ever his car. He was prisoner at Fort Sill and they only trotted him out when when they wanted to show him off, like he was from a zoo. They give him a white man suit with a boiled shirt and put a top hat on his coconut and took his picture with some other old chiefs. Made ‘im look like an old fool. In his day he was a rough old cobb and he’d kill a white man for the fun of it but when they were ridin’ him in that damn car, he was jus’ a tired ol’ man waitin’ to die. Die he did too. Fell of his horse in ’09 and it kilt him. Them Chirachaua Apache lived in the mountains and did most of their work on foot so I guess he never learned to ride so good. Legend won’t save ya in the end.”

He continued, “That car didn’t have no top and bounce’d worse’n a spring wagon on a bad road. First one I ever rode in too. Purple it was, black on the fenders, tarnished brass everywhere else, we was riding’ high wide and handsome for certain.”

“Didn’t matter none to us though, we was headed to the big city and we was goin’ to whoop it up.”

 

Standard

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

vet13

 

Private David Gray, US Army Co A 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, “Wolfhounds.”. He served with the 8th Division in Vladivostok, Siberia, Russia. The AEF fought the Communist Russians until returning to the US in late 1919. David was my grandmother Shannon’s younger brother and was born and raised in Santa Maria California. The photo was taken in April, 1918 at Camp Fremont which was located in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA

 

One hundred and one years ago today the “War To End All wars” ended with the signing of an armistice between the antagonists. The war officially came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November, 1918. The significance of the time on the clock may be lost to todays average person but to the more classically educated diplomats of the time, the meaning was clear. The Eleventh Hour is a phrase meaning at the last moment, it is taken from a passage  in the King James Bible. The “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” is from the book of Matthew, chapters 20, verses 20 through 9.

Time at the end, may be signified by the eleventh hour, and for the remainder of God’s elect, on that last day,  time was far spent, it was almost gone, only a small portion of it remained, just an hour.

On the seventh of November a German armistice delegation arrived at a railway junction in the Forest of Compiegne, Province of the Oise, northern France. The commander of the allied forces, French General Ferdinand Foch, met the German members for a very chilly interview and five days later the German government accepted the Allied terms. The armistice was signed at 5:15 on the morning of the 11th and went into effect at at eleven o’clock that morning. 

Sitting opposite each other in the St. Symphorien military cemetery, just south-east of Mons in Belgium, are the gravestones of the first and last British soldiers to be killed in the first world war.

The proximity of the graves of Private John Parr, killed 17 days after Britain declared war, and Private George Ellison, who died 90 minutes before the armistice, is said to be a coincidence – a consequence of the fact that Mons was lost to the Germans at the opening of the war and regained by the allies at the very end.

Parr was born in 1898 in Chipping Barnet and grew up in North Finchley,  London. He took a job as a golf caddy upon leaving school and joined the army at the age of 14, five years younger than the legal age to fight at the time.

Ellison, of the Royal Irish Lancers, was killed at 9:30 am on 11 November 1918, shot in the chest by a sniper, dying instantly. He was on a bicycle patrol on the outskirts of Mons.  It sounds silly, but there is no humor in death. He was from Leeds. The age stated on his gravestone is 40. He left a wife, Hannah and a son, James Cornelius. His only brother, Frederick, of the Royal Naval Reserve was lost at sea.

The last Canadian, George Lawrence Price, 25, a private in the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, was shot through the head at 10.57am. He was the last British Empire soldier to die. He is also buried at the St Symphorien cemetery, about 50 feet from Parr and Ellison.

The last soldier to die was Henry Gunther, an American who charged alone with his bayonet at a German machine-gun post. He was shot dead at 10.59am in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers near Meuse, in Lorraine, despite attempts by the enemy soldiers to fire over his head to warn him off.

There were 11 thousand casualties on November eleventh, most of which knew the war would be over in a few hours. Such is the vanity of Generals.

Nearly 800 thousand Commonwealth and American soldiers, sailors and airmen died on the western front. They rest in more than a thousand military and two thousand civil cemeteries.  More than three hundred thousand of them have no known graves, and are commemorated on memorials to the missing. Those they commemorate were Regulars, Territorials, volunteers and draftees, aged from fourteen to sixty-eight and ranging from private soldier to lieutenant general. Most had done their duty.

The sheer quantity of the loss numbs the mind. Over seventy-three thousand are commemorated at Thievpal, and almost fifty-five thousand on the Menin Gate. What called them to service or the manner of their death, they are united by the common humanity which we too share. As Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, MD who was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist, soldier and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, was to write:

.…In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

 Loved and were loved, and now we lie

  In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

 The torch; be yours to hold it high.

  If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

 In Flanders fields.

The red poppies that McCrae referred to had been associated with conflict since the Napoleonic Wars, when a writer of that time first noted how the poppies grew over the graves of soldiers at Waterloo. The damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battles there greatly increased the lime content in the surface soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region.

In a testament to the ubiquity of war, the Napoleonic battlefield at Waterloo is just 31 miles from the memorials at Mons. Separated by one hundred and three years, the seeds of poppy’s from 1815, generation after generation,  grew in the fields of Flanders in 1918.

Inspired by “In Flanders Fields”, American professor Moina Michael resolved at the war’s conclusion in 1918 to wear a red poppy year-round to honor the soldiers who had died in the war. She distributed silk poppies to her peers and campaigned to have them adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.

This was a momentous time for her and it was the start of her journey to create a national emblem of Remembrance. She would devote her life’s work to this project. From this time and because of it she became known as “The Poppy Lady”.

At it’s 1920 convention, the Legion supported Michael’s proposal and she was inspired to sell poppies in her native France to raise money for the war’s orphans. In 1921, the  Legion sent poppy sellers to London ahead of Armistice Day, attracting the attention of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. A co-founder of The Royal British Legion, Haig supported and encouraged the sale. The practice quickly spread throughout the British Empire. The wearing of poppies in the days leading up to Veterans Day in America has long been the custom. Remembrance Day remains popular in many areas of the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly Great Britain, Canada and South Africa and in the days leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. Poppies are also worn in Belgium and France.

When you wear your red poppy, pin it over your heart with the leaf positioned at eleven o’clock. My generation, whose own grandparents lived WWI, is likely the last to remember poppies sold on street corners in our small California town. It’s rare to see one anymore. The loss of historic memory, flesh and blood remembrance, becomes dry text in a book. Impossible to feel by a new generation.

All of the antagonists are now long gone, their memory faded, just old musty photographs or a bundle of letters tied up with a blue ribband and laying at the bottom of great-aunt Edith’s memory box. The letters are from her younger brother who never returned from Gallipoli. To the citizens of Europe it was a universe of death. It became the destroyer of empires. All of Europe sacrificed an entire generation of men and women to the vanities of emperors.

As we now are, so they once were: as they are now, so must we be. Let us remember them, each one, not with bravado, but with the respect that their sacrifice demands.

 

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WILSON

 

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Once upon a time, a big grey Tabby lived at the center of a world that cannot be imagined today. He patrolled the universe of death that was northern France and Belgium. In the spring of 1916, in a sector of the Belgian front called “Wipers. he patrolled No-mans land each night, crossing from one side to the other, showing no favoritism to either the Boches or the Tommies who had been very, very busy slaughtering each other for the last two years.    

FOREWORD

If you ask someone what had happened, they might give you a year or use an event to place the story in a particular time. Build a box for the story to reside in. This makes it history. History is not stories, it is fact in the sense that it provides a seemingly solid road marker on which to build time.  Facts are used as if they are stories but it is a mistake to think the two are even remotely related.  A story belongs to the teller and only the teller. He can stretch, revise and change it anyway he chooses. Every time he tells it it will be different. Just because it is written on paper does not make it true. The only truth belongs to the teller, no one else.

CHAPTER 1

Let me tell you a story, a true story. Well, maybe mostly true; some of it anyway. You be the judge.

When I met Harold “Ruff” Schilling, he was an old, old man. Originally from down in Texas he said. Down on the Rio Grande near Redford. The Big Bend country, about as far from civilization as you could get in these United States in the early 19th century. His brown eyes were still clear though. He was whip thin in the lanky drawn out way that country people are and he spoke a little like Waylon Jennings  sounded in his early days, like he was gargling gravel back in his craw. A tall thin man, he must have been a sight to see when he was young, riding horseback along the Arroyo de Iglesias rootin’ steers outta  the scrub brush during the spring roundup. He said “He always had a hankering’ to git outta that country, too hot, too dry and too damn many Messicans.” At the time I was surprised by the implied racism but later I learned his mother came from Mexico and the population of Redford was almost entirely Mexican, in fact, he said that, “If you didn’t know which country you was from, you’d have a hard time tellin which a one you was in.”

He was living out his days at my in-laws rest home in California when I knew him. He would sit in his chair just to the left of the front door looking into the distance and seeing what no one else could, what no one else cared about. Any family he had left was down in Texas; he said “His son don’t give a damn for me, I been spectin’ him to come through that door for years but he ain’t done it yet, guess he never will.”

Staying there was a rough deal for a man that loved to talk. Like an old bull out to pasture, too old too breed and to tough to eat, he whiled away his days watching a little TV and waiting. We both knew for what. 

It turns out he was with the railroad most of his life. Forty years he worked for the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific, starting out on the track gangs after the Great War and staying with it until 1961 when he retired as an engineer. He loved to tell of his life and if you could make time to sit with him it was lesson after lesson on how things once were.

“Redford, he said, was onct called El Polvo and it sure was, dusty as hell and then some.” He claimed it was the only place he ever lived where you could taste it before you saw it. Harold told me the little town was called El Polvo for about forty years until they put up the post office and were told they couldn’t have a foreign name so decided to call it Red Ford after the Spanish name, Vado Rojo, a location nearby where the Rio Grande met the Arroyo de Iglesias. “It was an old river crossin’ but the damn guvmit was the same then as it is now, they jus made it one word ‘cause they din know no better.” he joked, rolling his eyes upward. 

Harold loved newspapers, said his only real education was reading them. “Went to school off and on for maybe three years but when I was about 13, the post office opened and we could get newspapers in the mail ‘stead of begging from the teamsters whose freight wagons brought what we needed down from the railhead up to Alpine.” 

“Now, Redford wasn’t much, had an old square and mebbe four stores, a couple cantina’s, a few old adobe houses and some palapa’s for peoples to git under when it was a sizzlin’ hot.” Jeez, I hated that he opined, “Cookin’ in the summer freezing’ your tail off in the winter. If you was lookin’ to get outta Redford, that might jes be enuff for you to makeup your mind.” He went on to say, “Ya know, Southwest Texas is rough, hardly any dirt, everything is rocks, the plants have thorns and stickers and they’s hardly any flat ground. It’s bluffs and cliffs and you might wonder what in the hell anybody in they right mind would live there. I reckon I wondered that ever day I lived down there.” He paused a while, then he said, “Made us real damn tough tho, even my sisters, they rode as good as the men and could do a hard days work like we could. My sister Dulce, she married a rancher up to Fort Davis, give him a couple boys and when he was killed by a horse, why she raised them boys up, sent ‘em to college and ran that big old ranch just as good as him. See, we was tough kids.” Harold said, “Texas makes you hard or it kills you.”

He told me his sister Rosa Encarnacion run off with a young drover from New Mexico and when he left her there in Magdalena, why she just went up to Santa Fe and worked in a bawdy house for a couple a years. In about 1918 she married a big cattleman. “You know, people weren’t so particular  back then as they is now about that sort of thing. They had a flock of kids, sent ‘em back east to school too, why one become a judge and one of the girls was a movie star after the second war. Families are interestin’ ain’t they? One thing though, there ain’t one of ‘em living in Redford.” Harold laughed a little, then said, “Sometime I kinda miss them simple days.”

“See, we lived in a one room “dobe house, older than the hills; in fact it was the hills, made out of them for a fact. Didn’t have no floor, had one door and three windows with no glass. It had three rooms, one in the center and another they had added later on. None of the “dobe was plastered and the oldest part was a meltin’ away. Ma kept the inside clean though, she used to git a bucket of water, take a mouthfull and then spray it on the dirt while sweepin,’ and that sucker was hard as a rock as clean an shiny as a lizards belly. My pap done made a table and we had four old store bought chairs, a couple held together with wire. Nights in the summer we’d haul ‘em outside under our palapa where ma hung the chilis and have our dinner. Ma could make almos’ anything outta cactus, Nopales, I loved that stuff and ma knew how to make it. She had a old wood stove she cooked on and that thing was a job all by itself. Had a reservoir on the side for boiling water and when I was little I musta made a thousand trips a year hauling’ water from the hand pump to the stove. It had three big ‘ol flat plates on the top for cook pots or makin’ tortillas and two holes in the front for bakin’ bread. No one was too happy with her in the summer, ‘dobe holds the heat real good and you’d be a bakin’ long with the bread. In the winter though we loved her cause she kept that little house nice and warm. Have to say she kept me busy when I was little though, haulin’ wood and water, could never seem to keep up.”

“Down there in south Texas we was a good as Mexican anyhow. We all lived together, worked together, married each other and could talk each others lingo. You could throw in some indian talk too. Guess you could say I could speak three languages, not many can do that anymore.”

He went on, “Eight of us lived in that old place, ma, pa and my five sisters They had me after the three older gals and then the twins when I was eight. They was no more comin’ causes pa told me ma cut him off after that. Mebbe thats why he drank a little too much. Or mebbe it was just the hard life. He ran our place and worked on the side for the big outfits to to keeps us all goin. I spect no one would live that kind of life today, but in a way we didn’t know no better. If you don’t have and your neighbors don’t have ,then you’s all the same, ain’t you? Nothin’ to compare your life too, so it don’t bother.” 

“So in 1914, I got this friend, name of Sloat Temple, he lived with us, you see? He was a tall drink of water, red hair and a kinda long nose, made his upper lip stick out a little and when you looked him in the face the shadow of it allus made it seem like he had no teeth. His left eye had a little tilt on the side, didn’t quite line up, made him tilt his head a bit. He was a good boy but just a trifle. He stayed with us ‘cause my ma was that way, takin’ in strays, didn’ matter what kind. “Ma, she’d see you a-comin’ an’ put her hands on her hips and give a little tilt to her head, mebbe give that little squint she give if she’d thought you’d been doin’ sumpin’ wrong, but knowin’ you was a good boy anyhow. It was a mothers look, a grin full of mirth and automatic forgiveness. She never cared too much what you’d been doin,’ she just loved who you was now. She just naturally took in Sloat an’ made him a part of the family.”

Ya see, his pa got hisself shot dead down in Mexico. He had got this job in the mines, some kinda engineer workin’ for old George Hearst at the Barbicora ranch in Chihuahua and whilst he was travelin’ from Ojinaga to Tierra Blanca, the train was stopped by revolutionary troops under General Pascual Orozco. All the gringo’s and federal troops were taken off and the Federal troops immediately lined up and shot dead. Funny thing I heard, is that they didn’t tie ‘em or nothin’, they just stood there like a bunch a sheep and let ‘em do it, funny that. The Americans were accused of aiding the Mexican government and placed under arrest. President Wilson had stopped the sale of weapons to the revolutionary armies after rich American businessmen complained that their property in Mexico was being seized without anyone payin’ ‘em for it. I heard old Pascual was angry because they needed money from the American banks. They was selling stolen cattle they rustled from the big haciendas up to Texas and New Mexico and then usin’ the money to buy rifles and such in the United States. Wilson cut ‘em off an’ believe me, they wasn’t happy. A vaquero we knew who was down there when it happened tol’ us how they done it. They put Sloat’s father and the others back on the train and took ‘em down to Piedras Blancas and locked ‘em in an old ‘dobe store for a couple days. Orozco telegraphed old Hearst and told ‘em he shoot ‘em if’n he didn’t fork over some money to git ‘em off. We heard that after a couple days, they took ‘em out, started pushing and shovin’ them aroun finally pushing them down on they knees an’ tying up they hands behind their backs. Pascual himself came out and looked them over and said old man Hearst wouldn’t pay no money to get them out so they was goin’ to be shot. Said, “Did they have any messages for they families and such?” The vaquero said that Sloat’s pa to old Pascual that he and George Hearst could go an fuck ‘em selfs. “Bastardo,” said Orozco, walked over to him, pulled his revolver, put it on Temple’s forehead an’ shot him dead right there. He motioned to a captain, who walked behind the other three men and shot them in the back of the head. Just left ‘em lying in the dust in front of the store, Dirt in their open eyes, the blood running into the groun,’ the Vaquero said. He said  “They stripped the bodies, took the watches and boots and anything else they could and rolled ‘em in a ditch. After a couple days they spread some lime on ‘em and buried right there.” 

“When the revolution down in Mexico started, lots of the local vaqueros left to join Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco and our life just got tougher than a nut, cause we had to work even harder. My Pa was tryin’ to run his ranch with almost no help but me, Sloat and a couple little Mex boys. Pa had took us’n down cross the river and we’d snatch up a few hunnert head of cattle, run ‘em back cross the border,  then drove ‘em up to Alpine where we’d sell ‘em to the cattle buyers. No ways it’s legal, but what ya gonna do? Rustlin’ only counts in the US don’t it?” Harold put his head down a little, paused for a while, gimme a little smile and said, “Hell.”  Then he laughed til he shook. “Hell.”

“We seen them Dorados onct. Villa and his men were passing through headed to the railhead at Alpine to take delivery of rifles and artillery he’d bought from the American government. We was moving’ cows over west of Torneros Arroyo and they come up the road ridin’ from Ojinaga where the musta crossed the border. Reckon they come up from Chihuahua city. They was a ridin’ by fours, musta took up most of two miles. They coulda’ been five hunnert of em, believe you me. They was a rough a bunch of killers as I ever seed. They wore them big sombreros and the horses they rode were good lookin’ too, really good mounts, probably stole from the big hacendados down there in Mexico. They carried them carbinas .30-.30’s, a helluva rifle an easy for a horsemen to handle as they was short and light. Didn’ wear no uniforms neither, just whatever they fancied.Them big Mexican hats, each one carried at least a couple belts of catridges, ridin’ them big old Mex single rig saddles with the soup bowl horn and tapaderos. Villa come ridin’ up with his personal killer, Rodofo Fierro, called ‘im El Carcinero,  it’s said he’d shoot you down and not turn a hair. In those days, Villas horse, Siete Leguas was ‘bout as famous as he was and they was both right in front of us. He give us a look and showed us his teeth as he went by. “Muchacho, Que tal? he said. He give us a nod and a wave and galloped up to the head of the line. Jesus, them was some bad lookin’ hombres, made the hairs on your neck stand up too. We give  ‘em a lotta room. I was gonna see some nasty stuff later on, but I never seed any troops that scared me like those boys. Jesus, they was so hard they nearly made you piss your trousers, right there. To me they said, “nada me importa perder la vida,”  (I care nothing about losing my life,) and they meant it. Villa sent them in against barbed wire and machine guns at Agua Prieta in 1915 and they musta been right about that ‘cause they did die, nearly every damned one. Rode right into those guns goin’ hell for leather hollerin’ and a yippin. Didn’ do ‘em a bit of good though, slaughtered ‘em and damn near ended Villa right there.

“They was sumpin’ about ‘em though, you could tell they figured they was good, chin up and all, plenty a swagger. Them Dorados was Villas personal troops, follered him ever where. Seemed like an adventure to me though, Villa and his Dorados was running rings around the government troops down in Chihuahua and Durango. My grandfather said he was just a cheap pistolero and Pancho Villa wasn’t even his real name anyways.” He ‘tol me “Used to buy cows from the real Pancho, he stole ‘em from the big hacendados and I bought ‘em on the cheap. This guy Arango will come to a bad end mijo, you can bet on it.” Turned out in the end what mi Abuelo was sayin’ was Verdad.” Harold said, “Thats what they done too, shot Villa to pieces about 1923.” That whole revolution din’ amount to much in the end, Millions dead and things just kinda went back to the way they’d allus been.” Harold said, “Hard to figure sometimes, ain’t it. All that waste weren’t for shit in the end, corrupt bastards still runnin’ ever thing in the end. Bad as ever.”

“Did see him though, talked to me too.” Harold smiled at that, “Not many can say they seen Pancho Villa anymore, can they? Helluva thing though.”

”President Wilson sent United States troops down our way to Chase Villa back into Mexico after he shot up Columbus  New Mexico. When the army come in with Gen’l Pershing, they had these flyin’ machines up to Presidio and some cavalry at old Fort Polvo just down the road from us.” “Ma worked as a cook and the money was welcome ’cause there weren’t no jobs for any women cept’n whores in those days.” I started hangin’ around the soldiers when I had the time and they were tellin’ me things I never heard before and it was pretty excitin’ stuff for a young guy like me who’d never been anywhere before.” Harold said, “It really got me to thinking’ maybe I wanted to git outta Redford and see sumpin else, you know?” “Them Mexican sojers were a bangin’ away cross the boarder and them beans was a flying’ around all the time. Course our side was a shootin’ back ‘cept no one was gettin’ plugged but the occasional cow, but still, hit weren’t too healthy.”

“I guess I coulda gone down and joined up with Villa, plenty of white folks were doin’ that but I thought, Let them Messicans fight it out amongst theyselves. I weren’t Messican, even if my mother said she was, I expect she was more Mescalero anyway, since I think she come from that part of Texas.” Harold laughed.

“I thought about it for a long time, figurin’ what to do and where to go until I finally decided to light out for good. Me an Sloat figured we needed to dust trail outta there and see sumpin’, ya know? From the Sojers, I’d a heard about the big bust up in France and I reckoned I’d go over  there and see the Elephant.” Harold said he knew from newspapers that President Wilson wouldn’t have nuthin’ to do with the war and If’n we wanted to go I’d have to go on up to Canada to enlist.

Now Harold was born while his pa was in Cuba with the Rough Riders. His pa had taken a ball through his cheek in the fight at Kettle Hill. He was pretty proud of that. He’d said “howdy” to the Colonel when he was in the hospital tent and the Colonel replied “You boys did a capital job with the Spaniards, yes sir, it was a Bully fight. Just Bully.” Pap wore that scar like it was a badge of honor, he allus said, “Hit was the best thing I ever done and I’d do agin ifn the Colonel ast me.”

He had lived his whole life so far in Redford. It was brown and dusty, scattered with rocks like chicken scratch thrown on the ground. Brown like his mothers skin, brown like his fathers hands, brown like all the people who lived there. “Nuthin’ for me now, nuthin’ ever gonna be for me,” he said, “I’d jus die here and they’d bura me under the brown earth. Nobody’d even know I’d ever been. Couldn’t see any sense in staying.”

He continued,”You know, I’d never been more’n 20 miles from home and that just a wranglin’ steers for the Cibolo Ranch, old Milton Favers place. Me’n Sloat talked it over and jus decided to git outta there. We snuck our things outta the ‘dobe, put ‘em in our possible sacks , waited ’til pa was gone for a couple a days and lit out. What I done was to take my ma’s money outtn the Hills Brothers coffee tin where she hid it, figured I’d pay her back some how, and we lit out for the railroad stop at Marfa on the Southern Pacific short line.  Took a couple horse from pa, me n Sloat. Took the worst too, didn’ want to discomfort pa too much.  Sloat forked the old Dun mare  and I had that mossy hammer head gelding my pa stole down in Mexico, he weren’t pretty, and he weren’t worth a damn with a steer but he could put in some miles if ya gave him his head.

Made the ride in three days, Tied the horses at the depot, told the agent whose they was and would he try to send a message back to my folks where the horses was and caught the train east. I ain’t never been back.” 

He thought a bit, then said, “Life out there wasn’t no picnic, but it had its good, My Pa died in about ’34, life had wored him out. He worked so hard, ever damn day, each the same as ta other an’ he hardly ever talked, just said what he needed to say and the rest of the time kept pretty quiet. Ma lived until she was nearly ninety, a miracle I reckon ‘cause she lived such a hard life but she was strong like those Injun women are. She raised up her kids as best she could and we all turned out alright didn’t we? Without any change of expression, he said, ”All this time and I can still smell her.”

The old man sat very still for a while, remembering, I suppose, then without any change in expression, the  tears began rolling down his cheeks. He didn’t wipe them, just let them roll down until they fell on his shirt front. 

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THE PLUG HAT

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My grandfather had a plug hat. It was a silly looking thing, especially when he put it on his noggin. He didn’t mind though, he wasn’t the type of guy who fussed about his appearance or who cared much about what people thought of him. Something I learned about those particularities when I was a kid, was that because he didn’t care, no one else did either, in fact, people admired him for his lack of pretense.

People keep things for the darndest reasons. Like most people my grandparents had things stashed around their house that had meaning that only they understood. Some we know about, such as the little blue and white but very ordinary teacup and saucer my grandfather picked up in the ruins of the Red Front store before the building was consumed by the fires caused by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It meant something to him, but unless you now the story behind it, and believe me, there were many, because it was one of the greatest events of his life, you would have passed it by if you saw it on a shelf at Goodwill.  My grandparents also kept a chaffing dish they had received for a wedding present. This, I never saw anywhere but the garage. It was covered copper on a stand but the one feature that kept it in the garage for nearly seventy years was the handle. The handle was made of a segment of deer horn. My grandmother though it was creepy, downright devilish and she wouldn’t allow it in the home, ever. I have no idea why she kept it all that time. Strangely enough, my brother still has it. It is as creepy looking as it ever was.

Now, as it turns out, there is a story behind the old plug hat. You see, it was the fancy of students who attended the University of California, Berkeley at the dawning of the twentieth century to wear them. Upperclassmen and women, of which my grandmother was one, wore the old beaten up hats as a fashion accessory, much as my father wore his beanie when he was a student at Cal in the 1930’s. They must have found them on trash heaps or second hand stores, useless to anyone but college students who delight in being contrarians. My grandmother and her friends would walk around campus, from the North Hall to the Bacon Library Hall, or gather at the Charter Oak, dressed in the style of 1908, wearing shirtwaists, high collars and long dresses over high button shoes. The stately look we imagine today as being their nature. It’s too easy to forget that they were twenty year old girls. Just as they are in college today, full of high spirits and dreams of a life yet to be lived.

Kids will always find a way to confound and confuse. In a day when women dressed in high collars and long skirts, where you could be sanctioned or expelled from Cal for showing too much shoe top under your skirt, they perched those crushed and worn hats atop there masses of carefully piled curls, looked the world straight in the eye and with a saucy grin, dared.

My grandmother Annie was 60 years old when I was born. She’d lived two thirds of an entire life and I was just beginning mine. She and my grandfather retired the dairy when I was nine. I had no curiosity about their life. Sitting on a treasure chest of experience both tragic and comic and never thinking of opening it. I have lived long enough now to see in some of the things we inherited from them, stories, though never told, that were somehow absorbed just by living in the soup of family life.

When I was young that old plug hat hung on the rack in the office where she did her accounts. The place where she counted the pennies and silver dollars people still paid their milk bills with. I suppose that the cash economy was dying then and only the stores that sold our milk paid by check. I spent much time sitting in the old bentwood chair she kept there, watching her count and roll the coins in their paper tubes, putting the money in the old green bag marked Bank of America, the color of the bag matching the baize cloth that covered the table where the family played serious games of poker after holiday dinners.

My grandad wore the hat during the Gay Nineties festival that we had in our little town to celebrate the end of the harvest season. Each year it would come down from its hook and be seen at various events. I saw him wear it during the skits, called “black outs,”  that were performed in the old Mission theatre on Branch Street and once I saw a photo taken when the Pacific Coast Railroad ran its last celebratory train trip through Arroyo Grande. Nearly the whole town turned out in 1938 to wish the old narrow gauge railroad, which had been such a large part of our community for more than a half century,  goodbye. People dressed in their best Gay Nineties style as people used to do for the old town celebrations. There they were in those old victorian costumes to wave the train  off on her last trip before they tore up the tracks for good. Right in the middle is my grandfather Jack, the top hat tipped at a jaunty angle, fake mustache awry, sitting at the wheel of an old 1920 Model T Ford, Cornelia Conrow at his side.

They still had that topper in 1968 when Jack served as the Grand Marshal of the Harvest Festival. There is an old newspaper photo of him with Mutt Anderson standing next to the old Model A Ford they used for the parade. He is dressed in a claw hammer coat and string tie, the old hat cocked at a jaunty angle, in what was likely its last hurrah.

That old hat, some 80 years old, battered, dented had lost its gleam but it must have had some real meaning for my grandparents, some vestige of the romance they shared such a long time ago. My grandparents were married for nearly seventy years and shared all the ups and downs that families endured during the great depression, two world wars and the daily life of farm and ranch families. They didn’t seem to me to be particularly sentimental people. There wasn’t much around the old place that might remind you of older times. A box of old bolts and nails kept in the calf shed for possible reuse had more cachet than an old photo.

They raised two sons, my dad and my uncle who were much like them. Unsentimental, they kept things until they were used up and then discarded them without looking back. When the old place was sold in the eighties, they discarded most everything in the house that my grandparents built including the old top hat. I guess whatever magic it once held for my grandparents had all run out.

 

 

 

 

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MINOR SWING

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The heart of Saturday night; the entire town in attendance in the days before the future happened. As the varsity football team trotted off the field at halftime they were passed by the marching band, the high stepping big redhead pumping his baton, leading the group at double time, the sax players hacking with that unmistakable honk, backed up by the sweet sugary notes of cornets and trumpets, soaring over it all like syrup. Big Jim Maggini holding the bottom steady with his baritone Saxophone, Doyle Douglas matching him beat for beat on the bass drum. Twittering and fluttering over the top like a flock of giddy birds, the flutes. Oh Madeline, Madeline, Bruce Heir and Masaki working those ‘bones, wonderful, wonderful, pounding out James Brown’s “Night Train.” The entire crowd on it’s feet whistling and applauding in time to the insistent tempo of the drum section. The booming heavy base drum and the pick-up sticks of the snare drums rattling their dry bones in the cool night air.  Coda

Richie packed his Blacktop Fender Strat, slid the case into the baggage compartment and flew off to immortality. The eighth grade girls at Branch Elementary stood quietly in their poodle skirts; devastated, they cried for the boys they didn’t know. The music died.  Coda

Hillary wore a yellow dress. She put her wild auburn hair up; I wore my one dollar Silky shirt. I picked her up in my old blue Dodge Dart surf car and we drove to the valley where the Hawaiian Kings once lived. We sat on the grassy slope of the Honolulu bowl an waited for the show to start. The band who opened the show looked like nothing we had ever seen before, long, thick hanks of hair flying off in all the directions of the compass just like Medusa, they wore bright vibrant clothes on a stage hung with Jamaican flags. Potted palms littered the floor. They shuffled around on stage picking up their instruments, adjusting mics, plugging in. Finally they gathered, stood with their backs to the audience and turning, the lead suddenly counted out, one, two, three…and “Dread, Natty Dread now. (Natty Dread)” Instantly the entire audience was on their feet dancing and swaying. Bob Marley and the Wailers. What a night. It was perfect, Hillary was perfect. I’ve long forgotten who the headliners were but the Wailers I will never forget. Today, I was grocery shopping and I heard the same song, put to a thirty piece orchestra and played as Muzak over the PA system at Von’s Market. “Pick up on aisle 6.” Oh man, too sad.  Coda

Ernie slid onto the little bentwood cafe chair, sitting under the dark green awning of the Deux Magots, he turned to the hovering waiter and asked for espresso, it being too early for a man who took great pride in the ability to put away drink. Maybe a little later a gin and tonic with Angostura Bitters. As the day warmed, other dwellers of the Paris Demimond began to stroll the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Studiously ignoring the big man at the wrought iron table in the way that the French so perfectly do, a little lift of the chin, a turn of the shoulder an inward look. A brilliantly dressed man, still in a tailored tuxedo, boiled shirt with an Arrow color, a perfectly tied bow tie, the white carnation still fresh after a long night gave the slightest of nods to the man at the table and slid sinuously onto a chair and resting his chin on his manicured right hand, with a sly look and a twinkle in his large, liquid brown eyes, said, “Hemingway,

Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”

Ernie smiled his wicked smile under the caterpillar mustache.  “Cole, he said.”  Coda

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  Coda

 

Thank you: Stephan Grapelli, Jean “Django” Reinhardt, The 1962 Arroyo Grande Marching Band with drum major Robert Morefield, Ricardo Valenzuela, Robert Nesta Marley and the Wailers, Hillary Weireter, Ernest Miller Hemingway, Cole Albert Porter, and James Paul McCartney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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