It has been said that fortuitous events will occur when the stars align in their courses.
My Great-Grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall came to the Arroyo Grande Valley around 1900. He had come west without his wife of seven years, LaVance or Vancey as she was called. She had been temporarily left behind with two little boys, William and my maternal grandfather Bruce Cameron in Johnson City, Carter County, Tennessee.
Vancey was crowned with luck. Her father was killed along with his two brothers during the Civil War. Twenty five year old Tad was killed at First Manassas (Bull Run), McKamie, 23, at Seven Pines and her father Nelson Hooper who was just 21, died of wounds at Richmond. Nelson was shot at Malvern Hill on one of the bloodiest days of the war. Vancey’s luck was that her mother Mary Lucinda was six months pregnant. The Hooper family lost all three adult sons to the war. All served with the 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which was mustered in from Iredale County as most regiments were in those days were, especially in the south. They fought and died with boys from their hometown which made it especially brutal for the families.
Grandpa Sam, was the son of a Virginia veteran himself, his father William served with the 27th Virginia Infantry, part of Stonewall Jackson’s troops. Like many veterans and their families they went west after the war perhaps preferring to get as far away from the places that held such awful memories. More than 50,000 Tennesseans died for the south and roughly 5,000 for the north. For the men and boys this represented about 14% of the male population of the entire state. It created a world of widows. Prospects must have seemed awfully bleak. One out of seven is a staggering percentage.
Out west Sam he worked as a carpenter in Lemoore, California for a time before moving to Arroyo Grande’s Verde District, off what is now Corbit Canyon Road. Vancey waited almost two years before coming to California. She finally had had enough of the waiting and came on her own, bringing the boys with her. She joined him here in a little house which still stands in Deer Canyon. Sam Hall worked at farm labor and soon graduated to managing ranches which would be his life’s work.
Vancey and Sam’s son Bruce was living and working on a dairy near Creston when he met my grandmother Eileen in 1915. They were both at a Barbecue and he sort of sidled over to her while she stood around the campfire and said, “Smoke follows beauty,” which has to be the worst pick-up line ever devised. I worked though. They courted for three months and almost on a whim tied the knot in San Luis Obispo’s Presbyterian church. When you know, you know, I guess. Grandma Eileen was asked where they went after the wedding and she said, “Grandpa gave me a little glass of wine and we went to the hotel.” The questioner, my brother was both amused and taken aback by the answer. No young grandchild expects the answer to a question to even hint a sex.
They soon came down to Arroyo Grande to stay with his parents in deer canyon. Eileen was pregnant with my aunt Mariel who was their first child. She was born in that little house. Most babies were born at home in those days. Doctor Charles Clark, the towns “Baby Doctor” was likely the attendant. Perhaps he became a doctor because of what he had seen riding with Custer in the final campaigns of the Civil War. Delivering those new to the world might have made up for the losses he was responsible for. A balancing of the scales if you will. Regardless, aunt Mariel came out yelling’ and remained that way her entire life.
The population of Arroyo Grande was quite small then. In 1900 it hovered around 500. An interesting thing about our family is that with such a small population it’s very likely that Sam and Vancey Hall knew my paternal great-grandparents John and Catherine Shannon who lived on Printz Road just a short distance from the Hall home in Deer Canyon. They would have also known the Patrick Moores. Mrs Moore was aunt to my future grandmother.
Sam and Vancey were living up in Madera, California when my mother was born in 1918, but it wasn’t long before Bruce received a phone call from his brother Marion telling him that there were good jobs in the oilfields around the Casmala/Orcutt area. The pay was good, the work steady and it included housing. The housing was a company owned lease tent or Shebangs as they were fondly called, not gracious nor palatial but a place to live. It was an improvement on living three families in the same home as it was in Madera. Bruce and Eileen moved down to Casmalia and shared a Shebang* with Marion and his wife Grace. They hung blankets on clotheslines to create some privacy. Something like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Nevertheless my Uncle Bob came along soon after. Uncle Marion didn’t like the work and he and Grace soon left but Bruce and Eileen stuck it out and never left the business. Thirty eight years, wherever the job took him, she and the kids followed. Bruce worked the rigs but Eileen and the kids were oilfield workers in their own way. She kept up with him the whole way.
So, my mom was an oilfield girl. The new job required them to move to the oil patch, where they would remain for the best part of the next 38 years.
It’s hard to imagine her life as she grew up, she lived in dozens of different houses, 78 to be exact, sometimes more than one place in the same town. She and her sister Mariel were only a year apart and became each others friends and most of the time, allies against a world in which it was difficult for girls to find a solid footing because they were here for a short while and then they were there. A necessity if nothing else, for they changed schools more than once a year for 11 of their 12 years of education. My grandparents were fortunate enough to remain in Santa Barbara long enough for them to complete two full years of high school so they could to graduate together. The very first time that had happened to mom in her entire school career.
Don’t think they didn’t move though. Dad said grandma would rather move than clean house. He said she was so good at it she could pack up the car, load the kids and be off in two shakes of a lambs tail. When they were living in Santa Barbara, they moved four or five times so maybe the joke about cleaning house had some merit.
Santa Barbara in the thirties was quite the place to grow up. Wealthy and exclusive it was a playground for the elite. Movie stars, rich landowners, some who who dated back to the very beginnings of California and pioneer money raked in during the development of the southern California desert now known as Los Angeles.
Bruce was transferred in 1936. He worked for Signal Oil now. The work good and he was busy. He had been sent down to Long Beach and the family would follow, Eileen and the the kids would pack up and go as always. The problem was, my mom loved Santa Barbara and the life she had there. She played tennis at the country club and hobnobbed with some of the wealthy kids she met in high school. Riding in a convertible around Montecito with Leo Carrillo was pretty heady stuff for a girl whose father worked with his hands and came home smelling like gas and oil, everyday. She had a job at the Biltmore Hotel on State street serving cocktails and a boyfriend who was a tennis pro at the country club. She stamped her foot and refused to go.
Things had been very tough while the lived there. Bruce had worked for Barnsdall Oil at Elwood north of Goleta and in Summerland but Barnsdall went belly up and in the middle of the depression and he was out of work. Gasoline prices had dropped by nearly forty cents a gallon and the oil business was staggering. It got so bad that Eileen packed up her pride, put it away and went down to the office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Known as Relief, it was a pejorative term even then, working people were shamed by having to ask for help. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance in the thirties. The women in the office told Eileen that they didn’t qualify because they owned a car and would have to sell it. There was no way to get to work without it, they couldn’t sell it. At the last possible moment Bruce got a job with Signal Oil. He was so grateful to Sam Mosher, Signals owner and president that, though in later years he was offered more lucrative work, he stayed with the company. Such was loyalty then. He worked for Mr. Mosher until the day he died.
In 1940 my grandparents moved back to Arroyo Grande to the house my great-grandfather built on Short Street. Grandpa Bruce was transferred up from Long Beach to oversee Signal Oil production in Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande’s Dolly Adams lease in Price Canyon, east of Pismo Beach.
Mom was living with the family again and wanted to stay in Long Beach but her Woolworths job didn’t pay enough for her to be able to live on her own so she came too. Not really willingly, but she did come. She worried that she wouldn’t find any new friends or a job. She was wrong on both counts. Finding new friends was something a girl from the Oil Patch could do. When her dad was transferred the kids had to move schools and all of them learned how to spy out the popular kids. They learned how to make friends quickly. It was a defensive mechanism. New kids in school are suspect, and have to find a way to fit in right away. It was her greatest social skill. If you ever talked with her you felt like you were an old friend right away.
In 1940 Arroyo Grande had a population of about a thousand people. The census area in those days included all of what is now Grover City, Oceano, Halcyon and the Western addition. All of the valley as far south as Los Berros was included. It was a pretty typical small town, the kind that were all over the country in the 1940’s.
Every bit of business was carried on between Crown Hill and Buzz Langenbeck’s orchard west of town. It was all of three blocks. There were a couple of old Saloons left over from wilder days, three grocery stores, two women’s dress shops, Hilda Harkness’ and Cornelia Conrow’s, directly across the street from each other. the Hub, the Quitmans mens clothing store which smelt of rich fabric and the only place in town where you could but a Homburg hat for dress up occasions. A man needed to look good at an Odd Fellows, Masons or a church meeting. There was Morris Pruess Rexall Drug store, complete with a soda fountain where high school kids hung out when the school on the hill let out. There was the library, next to the ice cream parlor and across the street from the Commercial Company. At the Commercial you could buy groceries along with what were once known as “Notions,” the variety of small objects and accessories, including items that are sewn or otherwise attached to a finished article, such as buttons, lace, greeting cards and post cards. Practically anything you wanted, including furniture, they stocked it. Next to the old Pacific Coast railroad tracks, the Loomis feed mill and just down the street two Blacksmiths, even in 1940 a dying breed. Across the street was the old two story newspaper building where the Herald-Recorder was put together each week.There were several mechanics, two auto dealers, a hardware store, four churches, the Arroyo Grande grammar school and the high school. The Bank of America sat imposingly on the corner of Branch and Bridge Streets. Nearly every one who came to town for Saturday shopping knew each other.
An old home movie taken during the “Gay Nineties” celebration in 1938 features nearly everyone in town. You can sense the fraternity amongst the people as they wave and smile at the camera. If there were disputes or social problems, family secrets, they were kept under lock and key. Folks did not broadcast their dirty laundry. Secrets were meant to be kept. Many forever.
A few homes sat up on Crown Hill by the brick building that was the High School. Most people in town lived in the Western Addition across the state highway near the old horse racing track and the Chataqua grounds or east of the Arroyo Grande creek along the several little streets named for pioneers. Ide, Myrtle, Nelson, and Allen streets were bisected by Mason, Short and the eponymous Bridge Street. Poole Street was still just a dirt path. There were three automobile bridges and one walking bridge at the end of Short Street, named for the man who built it so he could conveniently cross from town to his little farm on the opposite side of the creek.
My mother lived on Short Street. She lived with her parents and her baby sister Patsy at number 225, a little white house with a tiny garage in the back. The same house her grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall built in 1934 after the death of his wife Vancey. She was new to Arroyo Grande, she was 22 years old, single and beautiful.
My Aunt Mickey and my Uncle Ray had a little ranch in Watt’s Valley, not too far from Tollhouse. Tollhouse is not a city or even really a town, in those days it was little more than a wide spot on the road to Shaver Lake. It marked the place where the tan and brown Sierra foothills changed to the stacked and twisted granite that make up the great backbone of California, the Sierra Nevada.
Their place was built on a sidehill above the little creek than ran through the property. The creek had a great advantage for the kids that lived and visited there. You see, it’s hotter’n the dickens in Watts valley in the summer. The weather slows things down some. Afternoons are for dozing on the porch and drinking lemonade, trying to stay in the shade because you might as well take aunt Mickeys Sad iron and rest it on your forehead as step out in the sunlight. The air grows heavy, taking a breath is a bit of work and the kids wait for Uncle Ray and my dad to get back from Humphrey’s Station with that 50 pound block of ice they use in the homemade swamp cooler in the living room. Works like this; a tin washtub for the ice which is then covered with an old burlap sack, the cooling water on the sack is pushed around by an old electric fan. It sorta works, but really, it lets you think something is might be happening when it not. Such is the power of suggestion.
For us kids the best thing was Uncle Rays swimming’ hole. What could be better? Around ten o’clock mom and her sister would drift into the old kitchen. Not a modern kitchen with retro appliances made to look like old times, but the real deal. It had an old sink set in a wooden countertop just under the window that looked out on the corrals where the branding, notching, and nut cutting took place in the spring and fall. Back of that was a view up the hills covered with California Live Oaks, the occasional Hereford doing the same as us, resting under the shade of a tree. In the corner next to the dining room wall was the hulking cast iron stove where uncle Ray made breakfast most days. Bacon and eggs, fresh homemade biscuits from the oven served on plates stamped with ranch scenes, ropes, brands and handsome white faced cattle. A jelly glass with milk fresh from the cow, a scattering of yellow cream on top, even the occasional captive fly. Put in front of each kid sitting around the kitchen table, some sitting in chairs, some on the bench under the row of windows looking over the road coming up to the house from the creek crossing, breakfast a comin’.
Aunt Mickey and my mother would gather up the fixings and make sandwiches for the trek to the swimmin’ hole. Pure white bread from the bag with the multicolored spots, mayonnaise from the jar kept in the cupboard standing out on the screened porch. Bright yellow mustard smeared on a piece of baloney and squished together with a firm hand then folded into a waxed paper envelope and stacked in the bottom of an old wicker basket. Throw an apple or two in, some old tin cups and top it with a piece of red and white checkered oil cloth. By the time they were done they were surrounded by boys and maybe a girl, my cousin Karen, a tough little bird surrounded by some boys whom she took no lip from. The kids could hardly wait, they were literally dancing up and down with delight.
Busting out the back door, the only door we ever used, we headed down to the where the pasture gate crossed the road. The little guys would squeeze between the bars, a bigger boy would show off by opening the gate in a manly way. I’m almost grown it said. Down the road we would go the kids wanting to run ahead but held in check by the thought that the big black gobbler might be lurking in brush and trees along the left of the road. If he came at us there was no escape. The right side was a cutback you couldn’t climb, the left side was enemy territory and the only sure fire way to get by him was to be stealthy quiet. If he appeared the whole group would bolt, little legs carrying us a fast as they could go, helped by the downhill slope to the creek crossing. Aunt Mariel carried a kitchen broom for defense. Once we made the turn at the bottom we were safe, at least until the return trip.
Just before the creek a two track road veered off to the right and this we would follow through the pastures watched by phlegmatic cattle gently chewing their cuds. We knew to leave them be, no cowman ever runs cattle. Fat is currency in the cow business. It seemed forever before the little creek gently curved in front of the cut bank that indicated where the swimming hole was. Down to the edge of the water, kids pulled off there Levi’s, tee shirts and jumped right in. No bathing suits. Modesty might indicate keeping your underwear on, thats what the moms did. They stripped down to their underwear and were mostly content to sit on the bank and watch their kids play.
We did what kid do, splashed water on each other, did a little dunking, big against little and pretended to swim. None of us could, you know. No need to worry much because the water wasn’t over 18 inches deep. Aunt Mickey and mom couldn’t swim either.
Those girls grew up in the oilfields. Oilfield brats didn’t get swimming lessons and they almost never lived near the beach or a river. In fact my mother was scared of the water and it took a whole lot of encouragement just to get her into a pond as shallow as this one. Temperatures in the nineties probably helped. Of course saying it was ninety would just have been a guess. Watts Valley in the summertime didn’t take a genius with a measuring instrument to tell you it was hot. Really hot.
With the youngest out of the water and napping in the shade it was time to take all that pink wrinkled skin home and get ready for dinner. The trip back was slower than the trip out kids completely worn out. As we neared the road up to the house, aunt Mickey walked a little ahead to spy out the pasture in front of the house, broom at the ready, to see if the big black Tom turkey was in sight. If he was hiding in the bushes we could be in trouble. If he was out in the pasture, same thing. He figured he was the boss and he wasn’t interested in having anyone trespassing on his territory. He would put his head down, spear you with his malevolent eye and charge like Ghengis Khan, blood in his eye, beak ready to draw the same. Flapping his wings he grew in size, seemingly moving like an express train as he boiled up the little hill. Kids, moms and aunts bolting for the gate, surrounded by shrieks like the General Jackson’s secesh coming out of the trees and through the wheatfield. We, like the Yanks at Chancellorville, skedaddled as fast as we could. When we hit the gate, kids were squeezing through the bars like Cheez-It from the tube. Mom and aunt Mariel fumbled at the latch and at the last moment squeezed through. Turkey ran right up to the bars and stuck his head through, hissing, gobbling and jumping up and down, enough to strike terror into any kid. Just to show him who we were, we gave ’em the raspberries and skipped up to the house, triumphant.
About 7 o’clock we were all out on the front porch aunts and uncles, mom and dad sipping whiskey, smoking and telling stories, the kids quietly picking foxtail and clover burrs out of their socks, sipping lemonade and enjoying the cooler evening weather. Down in the pasture, uncle Ray had turned the sluice gate into the grass to keep the permanent pasture alive. Every few hours the gates had to be closed and the next one opened. He called out to my oldest cousin Bruce to “Get your fanny down there and move the watergate before dark.” Bruce, being fourteen was reluctant to take on any job he could possibly get out of, grumbled his way down to the walk-through gate and ambled down across the pasture toward the creek not paying much attention to where he was. Whatever he was thinking about it wasn’t old Tom, that is until he heard the hiss of the charging turkey. Bruce yanked his head around toward the sidehill and saw the bird coming at him on the dead run. At fourteen you figure you’re almost grown and to show any sign of cowardice is the worst kind of self imposed sin. I’m sure he gave a moment of thought to standing his ground but self preservation won out and he bolted for the house as fast as his lanky frame could go, Mister Turk gaining at every step. Bruce didn’t bother with the gate, no time for that, no, he lifted off like a fighter plane and soared right over that four wire bob wire fence, clearing it by a foot. As he was airborne it occurred to him he’d just been humiliated by a bird in front of the whole family. Instead of stopping, he continued his flight right up onto the porch, flung open the screen door and raced inside emerging a moment later with his .22 to be greeted with gales of laughter by the big folks. Uncle Ray laughed so hard I swear he had whiskey coming out of his nose. Just a moments hesitation on his part was all it took for uncle Ray to say, “Jughead, put that damn rifle down, you’re not shooting that bird.” Bruce silently retreated back inside to nurse his ego and the little kids slyly smirked at each other to see their big cousin put in his place, not so much by uncle Ray but by a bird. In family lore the great turkey race has lived down the decades, each telling adding some little detail. Cousin Bruce became a legend with us little kids but perhaps not in a way he wanted to be.
Bruce got some measure of revenge though. Uncle Ray dispatched that Tom with an axe and we ate him up at Thanksgiving. I never have figured out what part was the best, the delicious terror at being chased, my cousins teenage humiliation or the taste of old Tom with all the fixings. Perhaps its all of them.
The Universe is not made of Atoms; It is made of stories. —Muriel Rukeyser. Like this one.
Halcyon, Adelaida, Estrella, Santa Rosa, Saint Patricks and an almost lost Santa Manuela, places where our first immigrants found their final resting place. Some are small family graveyards spotted on private properties. They are all old and sad, barely cared for or visited.
Located near the famed San Andreas Fault, the Parkfield Cemetery is a chronicle of heartbreak. With no sign at the entrance, no grass and no noise, this cemetery marks a nearly unknown place, an Old West-style graveyard where intense summer heat discourages visitors and dries out the soil. It is a sere, dusty place of forgotten people. Many of the 94 bodies buried here once belonged to children who died from the diphtheria outbreak in the 1880s. Also, here is the tombstone of Louisa Kidwell Lee, who died in 1893, According to her tombstone, she was the granddaughter of the Rev. Jonathan Kidwell, a soldier in the American Revolution.
Not too far from the home I grew up in was a little spot reached by a short walk up behind the elementary school I attended. At the top of a small canyon in a spot shaded by an old oak tree lie Francis Ziba Branch, his wife Manuela and their children. Like most family sites it is seldom visited and normally only by those that have some distant connection to the family and its history. Don Francisco was buried there in 1874. After nearly a century and a half this little place of peace is nearly completely forgotten.
Though there are likely no earthly remains below ground, the markers raise questions in the mind about who they were, what kind of lives did they live and how did they get here.
Up past Port Orford, Oregon, over on the coast is another private graveyard, located alongside a road that leads to the Cape Blanco lighthouse. It is situated on a bluff overlooking the old Hughes ranch which is nearby the Sixes river. It is small. Just a very few people are buried there. There are some members of the Hughes family who ranched on the rivers plain just below. There are some laborers who ended up at the ranch and served the family for decades. There are also a few neighbors buried there.
The Sixes flows only about 31 miles through coastal forests in southwestern Oregon. It drains a rugged region of the Klamath Mountains. The river rises in the mountains of northern Curry County, south of Sugarloaf Mountain. The Sixes flows generally west, and eventually enters the Pacific just north of Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon. The mouth of the river is along the coast just to the north of the Cape. Directly offshore the river, the magnificent Castle Rock appears to sail off towards China attended by its convoy of smaller rocks thrust up from the ocean floor. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a hard place too. Howling winds in the winter and spring, fog, cold and damp descends like a pale curtain much of the year.
When Patrick Hughes arrived here in 1850 it was quite literally the end of America. That wandering man Daniel Boone crossed the great barrier of the Appalachian mountains into Kain-Tuck-Ee in 1775 and in the next 24 years moved himself west to Missouri Territory. He explored 800 miles towards the Pacific in his entire lifetime. Lewis and Clark went west in 1805, John Coulter, the first mountain man followed and within thirty years our valley, 2,100 miles west of Missouri found its first Irish settler in Francis Branch. The Sixes River had its first Irish in Patrick Hughes.
One of the variants of the name used by the Kwatami, was “Sik-ses-tene”, which is said to mean “people by the far north country”. This is most likely the real source of the name for the river. The spelling “Sixes” was used by miners drawn to the Oregon Gold rush who were familiar with the Chinook word “sikhs”. In the way that we do, a local name with unfamiliar spelling or pronunciation is quickly bastardized and becomes the name of record. So Sixes it is.
Patrick Hughes was himself an emigrant. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1830, he immigrated to the United States in 1850. He met and married Jane O’Neil in 1853, and the couple sailed for California in 1856. Patrick Hughes worked at gold mining before traveling north to Curry County, where his wife joined him. The Oregon gold rush started in 1850, around the same time people started digging up California. The first miners found gold in the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon, working their way along the Rogue River to the Pacific Ocean. Hughes was attracted to the Oregon Coast by the gold in the Sixes River. Like most gold seekers this didn’t pan out and instead he homesteaded along the river. He built a large dairy operation over the next fifty years and shipped his products south to Port Orford by wagon and on to destinations along the west coast including San Francisco, less than a two day sail away.
The Hughes Family Cemetery was built around the little Catholic church (St. Mary, Star of the Sea) which Hughes and his wife built. Buried there are various members of the Hughes family and their Irish immigrant neighbors. Hughes built the little church in that isolated little place in order for the tiny community to worship. Much of the original Hughes family was laid to rest there along with neighbors and those who worked on the ranch. Stones commemorate Michael Duffy, a neighbor, Frank McMullen and his wife Catherine. Buried nearby is William O’Shannon. A curious thing, beyond the fact that they were all born in Ireland is they were almost all the same age and died within just a few years of each other.
Denis McCarthy has a stone there. He worked as a stock raiser for the Hughes for the most part of his life. He was born in 1819 in Icheegeelagh Parish, Cork and baptized in the Catholic Church by Father Humphrey before he was a year old. He father Denis held him as the Priest anointed him with oil, all praying for a baby’s future. As with an enormous number of Irish he served time in an English jail for theft. In Denis case, hay. Upon release he bolted for America arriving in New York aboard the steam packet St. Patrick. He was 22.
He was lucky in a couple of ways. One, he wasn’t transported to Australia, for it was they heyday of Britains policy of ridding its population of the so-called criminal element by banishing them to the penal colonies. Penal records for the time list Denis McCarthys by the dozens, all transported to the penal colonies in Australia or even sold as chattel slaves to the British sugar plantations in Jamaica. Most of them were shipped off for crimes so inconsequential as to be laughable today. It was the Irish/British courts way of ridding the Island of the “Pernicious Scum,” the native Irish. The obverse of that coin is that the Irish were so poor that theft was a risk people took in order to simply survive.
The English overlords had introduced the Penal Laws in Ireland in 1695. It was a purposeful attempt to crush the Irish, both as a people and as a state. Ireland had stood in the shadows of the great powers of Britain for centuries. From the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I thereafter, to the invasion by Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s puppetry over Ireland had continued to dehumanize the Irish peoples. The British intensified the injustice brought upon Ireland when they stripped the Catholic Irish and other religions known as Dissenters of their religious freedoms and nearly all of their holdings including land.
Dissenters and Irish Separatists were Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dissenters (from the Latin dissentire, “to disagree”) could be members of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Free Thinkers, Seekers (Quakers), Puritans and Unitarians. They all in some ways disagreed in opinion, belief and other matters with the established Anglican church. Various rules were created to suppress the Catholics in order to make sure they did not rise to challenge British power. Any practice of Catholicism and communication in the Gaelic language was forbidden and labelled as rebellious against the powers of Britain. Catholic priests were banished, Catholic schools were banned, and Catholics were forced to pay a tithe to upkeep the Anglican church. Brave teachers who continued to teach their students their religious beliefs and their history in the forbidden Gaelic tongue did so in remote areas, hidden and away from the Protestant English. These were the Hedge Schools and the hedge master, if arrested was subject to immediate hanging. Suppressing the religious and linguistic practices of the Irish were a few of Britain’s many strategies that contributed to the weakening of a cohesive Ireland as a whole.
Irish immigrants were absolutely desperate for land. The Popery Act of 1703, passed by the British parliament, forbade Catholics to pass down their land to their eldest son, and instead required landowners to distribute the land equally amongst all sons. If the family bore only daughters, the lands were to be also split equally amongst the daughters. By the early seventeen hundreds, the Irish who made up 90% of the population owned less than 10% of the land. When Denis was born, hope for improving the lot of the family was gone.
Laws for tenants insured that survival for Irish farmers was and always would be at a subsistence level. If a farmer’s production exceeded his land rent by more than 31% he and his family were subject to eviction by the landlord. The entire system was designed to crush the Irish and drive them off the land. This made them laborers subject to the whims of the great lords who controlled the country. It was a tenuous existence at best. Dispossessed people died of starvation, lying in roadside ditches like so much trash. People died with green around the mouth from eating grass and nettles. At least a million Irish died in the six years of the potato blight.
“Rotten potatoes and sea-weed, or even grass, properly mixed, afforded a very wholesome and nutritious food. All knew that Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty of grass in the field though the potato crop should fail.” (The Duke Of Cambridge, Adolphus, Son of King George III, January 1846)
“The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Filthy Irish people. The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.” (Sir Charles Trevelyan, 1st Baronet KCB, 1st minister of his Majesty’s Treasury charged with administrating relief for the millions of Irish peasants suffering during the Famine. 1847)
With the coming of the potato blight in 1840 even this meager existence became nearly impossible. Potatoes were the primary diet for the Irish. Ireland was a very productive land, but nevertheless, wheat, mutton and pork, which were still produced in abundance were sent out of the country in order to profit the landlords. The vast majority of these products where shipped to Britain to feed its citizens.
The 1840s saw a significant number of people flee from the island to countries all over the world. Between 1841 and 1857, death and starvation led to mass emigration mostly to Great Britain and North America. Ireland’s population fell by over 2 million. The population fell by almost 35% and in some rural counties by as much as 50%. This Diaspora meant that Americans of Irish descent make up more than five times the population of Ireland today.
However, the common argument of the mass emigration from Ireland being a “flight from famine” is not entirely correct. The Irish had been coming to America since its inception. After all, eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish, three of them born in Ireland. My own ancestor Leachllain Shannon served in the 1st company, 8th regiment of the Pennsylvania volunteers during the French and Indian war. His son Daniel was a soldier during the revolution.
Once conditions in Ireland were improved, emigration did not slow down. After the famine was over, the four years following produced more emigrants than during the four years of the blight. The famine was considered the final straw in convincing people to move. There were several other factors in the decision making too. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution was generating a voracious appetite for cheap labor. The Erie Canal and the coming of the railroads, the rise of vast cotton mills in the northeast and the opening up of the western territories needed workers. During the civil war, Irish men were signed up for the Union Army as they came down the gangplanks of the the ships that brought them. Around 200,000 Irish served in the Union army alone. A high percentage of Scots-Irish from earlier immigrations fought for the confederacy.
As with most immigrants, the money for a ticket to the US wasn’t easy to come by. Average wage in 1840 Ireland for a days labor was six to nine pence, less than a shilling. 240 pence to the pound meant that it took a minimum of six months work by a day labourer to raise the money. A ticket to New York in steerage, the lowest class of passenger was about 5 pounds for the trip. For many emigrants, payment of the passage to America was one of the most significant events of their lives. Some who could afford it paid their own, but the majority of emigrants received the passage from a family member, usually a sibling who had already made the journey across the Atlantic, paving the way for younger brothers, sisters or even parents to follow.My great uncle Pat Moore brought his three sisters and his father after he established himself here. In the 18th century it was common to sell oneself into indentured servitude in the west in order to make the passage. Indentured Servitude was a binding contract in which the servant agreed to work for his or her master for a specific period of time until the cost of passage was paid off. Contracts ran as long as seven years in which the person was essentially owned by the lien holder. Thats right, owned, having no rights under the law and bound to serve the master in all things. Imagine signing the documents in Ireland with no idea of who or what you might find when you arrived at your destination. Indentured servants were auctioned dockside.
The trip itself could take anywhere from a month to three or more depending on the season. Winter in the Atlantic can be unbelievably brutal with constant gale force winds, ice and the pounding of the ship in the furious waves. For the first time, steam allowed sailing ships to buck the northern passage and its prevailing winds. Steamship companies made huge profits since it only cost about 60 cents a day to feed each immigrant, they could make enough profit on each crossing to pay off the cost of building the ship. The shipping companies sent traveling salesmen throughout Ireland and Scotland to hustle tickets. They placed advertisements in newspapers and attended public gatherings. Working on commission, they earned a very good living during the potato famine, signing up young men like Denis McCarthy.
The ship Denis traveled on was the Saint Patrick pictured above. She was sailing ship that had been converted to steam and powered by paddle wheels. Built in 1827 she was already old in 1840. Passengers would be crammed into every part of the ship. Locked below decks in the hold and the lowest part of the hull were hundreds of people, packed into every available space. They were seldom, if ever allowed up on deck. Glasgow, Scotland was the beginning of the ships passage. Here they loaded Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances, for they were a “Troublesome People” and were being forcibly removed from their homes by the British. They sailed to Londonderry in the north of Ireland and then Belfast on the east coast and finally Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork. The majority of emigrants left as teenagers or in their twenties and many would never have needed to travel very far from their homes. The prospect of a move to America must have been monumental. There was the distinct possibility they would never, ever return to their families. For parents and siblings it must have been as if the immigrant had died. Denis would have left from his home in rural Cork boarding the Saint Patrick in Queenstown.
Many, many did die. With nothing more than buckets for toilets, and only sea-water to wash with, disease was rampant. Cholera and Typhus accounted for a great many deaths. Those who died were buried at sea, although buried is simply a political term for someone whose remains were simply dragged on deck and tossed overboard. Perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, sharks learned to follow the ships looking for a meal. With death rates commonly reaching 20%, and horror stories of 50% dying, these vessels soon became known as “Coffin Ships”. Long cónra in Gaelic was how the ships were styled. The shipping lines, among the most famous in western history, White Star and Cunard could not get ships into service fast enough and consistently shipped passengers on old and nearly derelict vessels in order to generate massive profits. Ships agents fanned out across Ireland and Scotland touting the accommodations of their ships. The promised three cooked meals a day, clean and spacious accommodations when in fact 300 to 400 hundred passengers would be crammed below decks in rat infested holds and fed on the cheapest food that could be found. Typhus carrying fleas, mites and lice infested the dark, dank holds of these ships. The British sailing ship Larch left Sligo in northwest Ireland with 440 passengers; 108 died at sea, and 150 arrived sick in Boston. Consider the Sir Henry Pottinger, a P&O ship which left Cork with 399 in steerage of which 98 died and 112 were landed sick in Montreal. Many of the Famine ships carried few if any cabin or first class paying passengers, they weren’t necessary because the people in steerage were vastly more profitable. Death on board was of little consequence as passage was paid up front.
In the St Lawrence River, some 30 miles east of Quebec City, the quarantine station at Grosse Isle was soon overwhelmed with the numbers of sick passengers crawling or carried off the coffin ships. It couldn’t treat those that were ill, let alone provide for those that were not. So those that appeared healthy remained onboard their immigration ships and were simply waved on to Montreal.
Unfortunately, many had already caught typhus ,the fever that ran rampant on their overcrowded and filthy vessels and they were to become ill further upriver. Soon, it was Montreal that was overwhelmed with the dead and dying.
Ten years after the year of the coffin ships, workers building the city’s Victoria Bridge unearthed a mass grave containing the remains of over 6000 Irish immigrants. A 27-tonne granite boulder marks the spot beside the bridge’s entrance where an annual ceremony remembers those who died escaping poverty and hunger. Their families in Ireland likely never knew their fate. They were simply dumped in a mass grave and forgotten.
As the old saying goes, “When the Irish arrived in America they thought the streets would be paved with gold. But not only were they not paved with gold, they were expected to pave them.”
The politicians and the press of the time excoriated the immigrants, referring to them as vermin, drunkards, louts, animalistic in their desires and the worst example of humanity on earth. In the cities that they settled in, signs stating no Irish, no Catholics need apply were common.
In countless cartoons the typical Irishman (“Paddy”) was shows to be violent, ignorant, drink-prone with a pronounced prognathism of the jaw-line to indicate a simian personality. An ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering long after the period of its most deadly potency. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser or the caricature that is the mascot for Notre Dame University. Perhaps the Irish survived by embracing the negative stereotype and making it an inside joke that they have ownership of.
Many of these Irish immigrants came to the major port of New York City, as well as Boston and Philadelphia.
Denis McCarthy, Uncle Patrick Moore and Leachlainn Shannon arrived before there was any formal receiving station for immigrants. The ships would anchor off Staten Island where officials came aboard for the quarantine check. The obviously diseased were detained aboard but the rest of the passengers were loaded onto lighters and towed across the inner harbor to the foot of Manhattan and simply herded ashore. There they were met by a mob of thieves and pickpockets, pimps and men hawking fake Railroad Tickets. Other men pushing land sales in the west and for the extremely lucky a friend or relative.
Because of the large increase in immigration in the mid 1800’s and in an effort to protect the newly arriving immigrants from scam artists, the State of New York opened an immigration processing center at Castle Gardens in August of 1855.
The complex that made up the Castle Gardens immigration center included a labor exchange where jobs were posted, a hospital and medical offices, a currency exchange and a translators office with employees who spoke dozens of languages and dialects including both Irish and Scots Gaelic which was the spoken language of the majority of Irish until three-quarters the way through the 1800’s.
The ships let the first class and cabin passengers of at one of the piers on the Hudson River side of Manhattan and then proceeded to Castle Garden where the steerage passengers were herded down the gangplank. All immigrants had to land at the depot which was closed to anyone else such as thieves and the scam artists. Individuals had their names checked against the ships manifest, underwent another brief medical exam and passed through customs. If there was no-one to meet you, you were free to go.
Harpers Weekly September 2, 1865 “Since 1847 about three million of emigrants have arrived at this port. Last year the number of these was 182,916, being an increase of 30,000 over the pervious year. The largest number on record is 319,223 — the number of arrivals in 1854. If we take the number of arrivals at this port in 1864 we shall find that 90,000 were from Ireland, nearly 60,000 from Germany and about 24,000 from England. These countries are the main sources of emigration.”
Immigration statistics 1864
These new Irish immigrants entered the country and found that the New World had as many challenges at the Old. Coming from rural backgrounds, many Irish found themselves without the necessary skills for the new industrialized, urbanized economy that was springing up in the United States. Many Irish had to seek jobs as laborers to make ends meet, paving the streets and digging the canals of an expanding New York City while the women were obliged to take jobs as maids and laundresses. In the old city of San Francisco there was a place called Washerwoman Lagoon where women went to launder clothes in the small freshwater lake at the foot of Telegraph Hill. It was hard, brutal and demeaning work but it was all they could get.
Unfortunately, the Irish faced another major challenge in the United States – racism. Much of the same prejudices against the Irish, for their race and their religion, followed them to the New World. American politicians, fearful of the Irish, sought to marginalize them and created a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, whose major focus was anti-immigration xenophobia. This party believed that the Irish could not be trusted because of their “allegiance” to the Pope in Rome and because of their insular “clannish” tendencies to look after each other. When John F Kennedy was running for president in 1960 politicians complained that if he was elected, the Pope would run America. Hatred, xenophobia and demagoguery die hard.
Denis McCarthy. William O”Sullivan, Michael Duffy and Patrick Hughes all lived in the windswept, foggy Sixes valley for half a century and they laid down their burdens in the little Saint Mary, Star of the Sea Cemetery on the hill above the land they lived on. For the greatest part of their lives they toiled in a new land, laying down a foundation upon which this country is built. Only Patrick ever married. O’Sullivan had two brothers in America according to a newspaper ad run in Chicago in1864, in which he asked for information as to their whereabouts. One brother served with the 90th Illinois infantry on Sherman’s March to the sea but there his record ends. Neither of the two other O’Sullivan brothers passing is marked.
Here at our home most of the first settlers were Irish born. Great Uncle Patrick Moore and his wife Sarah, his three sisters and his father too. Great Grandfather and grandmother Jenny and Samuel Gray, John Corbit and his wife Mehitabel, The brothers Donovan, the Ryans, the Sullivans, McNeils, Daniel Rice, the Phelans and the Steele Brothers all put down roots here. I think, in most cases they bet that there was something better here in this country that made the hardship, and the separation from their homes worth the price they paid.
My great-grandparents Sam and Jenny Gray. Both born in Ballyrobert Dough, county Antrim Ireland. Married on the 12th of May, 1881, they took the ferry to Glasgow and boarded the States Liner SS Alabama for America. They arrived at Castle Gardens on Manhattan Island on June 6th, ’81. They came here because Jenny’s aunt was Mrs Patrick Moore of Arroyo Grande. Their honeymoon to America lasted until May 1st, 1941 when Sam died at his home in Santa Maria. Neither of them ever saw their families again.
So, Boyo, on the 17th, raise a glass o’ Guinness to your ancestors and wish them a long and merry life, for it was their courage and determination that got you here.
Note*: I have a personal friend, an Englishwoman, who once said to me, “Whats the matter with you Irish, you’re all crazy.”
Note**: Notice the goat in the background of the cartoon. My grandmother hated goats, she said “Only the shanty Irish kept goats” She wouldn’t have one around.
Bobby Rodriguez was the singular type of man you meet in the outer islands of the Hawaiian chain. His last name gave a clue, pronounced Rod-Reeks in island style with a touch of the Hawaiian alphabet which has only thirteen letters and typically changes pronunciations in a serendipitous way. The terminal Z might indicate Spanish ancestry but in the islands it’s hard to say. The Big Island as it’s called is a polyglot of peoples come from the the four corners of the world. Up on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the old Parker Ranch is still peopled by descendants of the Californio Vaqueros brought from Alta California by King Kamehameha in the 1840’s to teach Local Boys house to manage his vast cattle herds. Within a generation the Californio’s were gone, either returned to the mainland or simply absorbed into the population as was to be common over the centuries. In their place were Hawaiian cowboys called paniolo, a local twist on the word español. The legendary cattle drives of the American West were still generations away, but here on the plains of Waimea and elsewhere in the islands, paniolos were working cattle—before there was ever such a thing as an American cowboy. Up in Kamuela Town the little Safeway store still had a hitch rail out front where patient cow ponies can be seen waiting patiently for their riders to return.
Bobby was all bones and sinew covered with a chocolate covered skin. Whip thin, he was almost never without a cigarette dangling from his lip. His face, cut with an ever present grin and slightly slanted eyes that hinted at Chinese or Japanese blood, maybe both. Actually he could have been made of almost any of the ethnic people who lived along the outer circle of the great Pacific.
I was a 26 year old Haole surfer from California living in Hilo. We knew each other because we worked for the same little meat packing company. Located on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, the great volcano towering more than two and a half mile above sea level Hilo, the business was owned by a German couple supplying meat products to the entire island and state. Like many businesses its employees ran the gamut from people like me to the the Hawaiian butchers and Aunties who worked the package line, the Filipina housekeeper, the salesman who was Hapa, which means half and designates you of mixed blood and the owner who could have stepped right of Hamburg butcher shop. I had lived in the islands before but this was my first real introduction to Hawaiian society.
Now you may have heard about the antagonism of locals towards strangers particularly Europeans which is a kind way to say Whites. They have plenty of reason to be wary, for Europeans have done their best to repress local customs and language over the past two centuries. More pronounced in Honolulu and Oahu, its not something that I experienced when living Hilo. There is a phrase that used to heard all the time, “Island Style,” and it described the custom of Aloha, which is “the presence of breath” or “the breath of life.” It means to live in harmony. When you live the Spirit of Aloha, you create positive feelings and thoughts, which are never gone. People practice this whether from a conscious effort or simply because it is in the air around you. People are people no matter where their ancestors came from and you will be treated as you treat others.
So there I was working for a small company surrounded by a hodge podge of people who were to man or woman, as nice as could be. As the new guy I had every job that didn’t have a title. I fed the cattle, dug ditches, learned to run the hot dog machine, went on deliveries to the grocery stores and once I week took the flat bed up to Waimea Town and picked up a load of fresh beef at the J J Andrade slaughterhouse, hauled it back to Hilo, unloaded the beef halves, washed and cleaned the truck parked it and went home. Just your average 12 hour day.
Bobby was the townside delivery driver. He loaded up the van each morning and hit all the little grocery stores around the Hilo area. His job was to re-stock the meat counters, pick up out of date goods and check with the butchers. We delivered to all the little mom and pops too including the Hilo Noodle Factory which always struck me as a time bomb as every surface in the old building had a liberal coating of very fine rice flour. The included the spider webs too. We delivered to all the little plantation towns tucked deep in the cane fields along Hawaii’s east side. Some off the beaten track so far that the roads were still not paved. When he had large orders I would be sent with him to speed things up. I remember the first time. We rolled down the driveway, turned right on Kawailani Street and started for town. We didn’t go far though. Just down the street was Bobby’s house. It was in the old Hawaiian style, an Ohana house. In the islands Ohana means family and not just your immediate family but your in-laws, cousins of all kinds, neighbors and really, anyone who happens by. The house, built on a wooden post foundation with walls made of California redwood, single wall style as the old houses were, no need for paint or fancy decoration. Those little plantation house used to be everywhere in the islands. Simple utility houses for the workers. Not many homes need insulation in the islands hence the single thickness walls. The wind is from the windward in Hilo and there is hardly a day in the year when there isn’t a nice cooling breeze. Even in winter when it is pouring rain you can go about your business without an umbrella and never fear freezing to death.
A few moments in the house and Bobby hustled out the door, his wife Lucia waving from the porch, and in each hand a frosty bottle of beer. He hopped in the drivers seat and handed one to me and said, “Drink it up Braddah.” Now I don’t know where you come from but drinking and driving is frowned upon in my family. Neither is drinking on the job. My father who hated drinking would have been horrified. It didn’t seem to bother Bobby at all, so after a moment I figured, since I wasn’t driving, I’d better hide the evidence. So quick, one Olympia down the hatch. You could ask, being the islands and all, why not Primo the Hawaii brewed beer? No one drank it because it was considered rotgut by the locals I knew, they drank Oly’s and Coors if they could get it. Hawaii being a strong Union State didn’t import Coors. Coors being made by non-union workers in Colorado. Only way you could get it as to buy it from airline pilots who smuggled it in their personal luggage, and sold it for extra cash.
So me and Bobby went zooming around Hilo while he kept up a nonstop monologue about his family and friends and whatever thought came to him. I learned more about the little town and the people who lived there in three hours than I could have by reading ten books, or at least the Bobby R version. As we exited the van at the end of the day and walked to the employee lunchroom to change he asked me would I want to go on a pig hunt Saturday. Hunting pig was something I had never done so I said sure. Little did I know.
When I arrived at his house Saturday morning it was still dark. The little house was lit up though and in the kitchen Bobby’s wife was up and about organizing a few things to take with us. She had filled a cooler with sour candies, a great favorite amongst island folks, Teri-Ahi, which you would call fish jerky, only spicier, pickled Mango and “da bess Ahi Poke evah.” The other cooler? “Pack wit Oly’s.” So couple tings Brah, Pidgin is the unofficial languache of da islands and if you gonna stay, betta learn em’ some, yah?
In the kitchen Bobby introduced me to a couple guys who were going with us. Kane was a tall drink of water. He told me he fished out of Hilo harbor on a Sampan. He was dressed in a faded yellow tee shirt, old black shorts down over the knee and what looked like motorcycle boots, buckles and all. He wore a wispy mustache and though he was obviously Polynesian, he had a pair off startling bright blue eyes. His partner in crime went by the name Black. He was a local brother and big, very big in the way islanders can be. He was twice as wide as Bobby and dressed all in black. He wore faded black Ben Davis jeans and a black tee to match, or at least it used to be black before a thousand washings. It had a few holes for ventilation.
We loaded up the old pickup with the coolers, a tarp and a five gallon bucket with a couple rusty machetes and an old 22 single shot rifle while Bobby and Kane went behind the house to get the dogs from the kennel. I asked Black where the rifles were and he cocked his head to the side a little and said, “Don’t need ’em.” “Hmm,” I said to myself, seemed odd to me but these guys were the experts. I mean, what were they going to do, hack ’em to death?
The truck was an old postwar Ford about 20 years old and much older in the way cars and trucks are in Hawaii. You see, salt is always in the air, there is no escaping it and it causes cars to rust almost from the time they come off the boat. I’ve seen brand new vehicles on the car lot with touches of rust around the windows. It starts that fast. After a few years it eats through the paint, gets inside the doors and the frame and the body starts to fall apart. Bobby’s truck was missing a few parts, maybe they were considered non-essential, I don’t know, but it had no headlamps, a rear fender was gone and there were dents in the both fronts. You wouldn’t dare step on the running boards, especially Black who could have broken them off with just a touch of his foot. The truck bed was almost all gone, just the ribs were left and had been covered by two old pieces of plywood which had seen better days. It had, at some point in its life been green but was now the color of pond water that had been sitting too long. It was surely unlicensed, the lack of plates proved it.
Bobby must have seen the look on my face and he said, “runs good, jus’ need a quart of oil evah time I drive it.” He cackled at his own joke.
I thought to myself, I’ve seen ranch trucks in pretty bad shape but this one takes the cake. Bobby gave the throttle a couple pumps, put his toe on the kickstarter button and ground her over until she finally fired with a belch of flame from the carburetor. You didn’t have to raise the hood to see it because the metal was rotted away above it and the flames shot right up through the hole. She ran alright, though she wasn’t altogether sure how many cylinders to use. Sometimes it was six, others four or sometimes five.
While the truck warmed up, They brought the dogs around, dropped the tailgate and they all hopped right in. Dogs are always ready for an adventure aren’t they? Off we went up the road, Bobby driving, Kane and Black in the front and me, the newcomer in the back with the dogs and all the junk . We went perhaps a mile or two before turning in to a ranch gate where we stopped. After a moment of waiting for someone in the cab to get out it occurred to me that opening the gate was my job. I did it. The road we turned into was just a two track across a pasture. The kind of road never graded and only occasional driven. It wound around and thought the masses of Strawberry Guava growing wild. The Guava tree isn’t really a tree. It’s a shrub and when left alone grows in dense thickets that are all but impenetrable. Strawberry Guava is a poster child for introducing non-native species into habitats where it can thrive at the expense of native species. It does have its benefits though, it’s good eating for man or beast. Pua’a loves it.
We pulled into a clearing about 30 yards across and the truck wheezed to a halt. Everybody piled out. We spent a few minutes trying to get the dogs together. They were anxious to get going and though they appeared to be just a collection of mutts, which they were of course, though I’m sure they din’t think of themselves that way, they had been carefully chosen for the job of work they were about to do. Only two appeared to have names. Phantom was a half size black Labrador, all muscle with maybe a touch of bull terrier and Lucy, a yellow dog with brown nose and caramel colored eyes. There were two other dogs both sketchily resembling Airdales, both must have been close to a hundred pounds too. They were just referred too as Buggah this or Buggah that. Big Buggah, Damn Buggah, like that. They immediately began gamboling around, almost overcome with excitement at the thought of this familiar adventure. In their great excitement they anointed all the tires more than once.
This part of the big island is known as the saddle. It is the passage between the enormous volcanos on either of its flanks. There is Mauna Kea on the right and Mauna Loa on the left. The upper saddle area is a massive lava field made up of the two most common types of Lava. A’a which is called clinker lava and piles up in fantastic jagged heaps and is sharp-edged and can cut like a knife and Pahoehoe which is ropy and smooth and in places has the appearance of a shiny, jet black mirrored surface.
A single road cuts through the lava fields and is commonly referred to as the Saddle Road. It’s the only route that goes directly from west to east through the center of the island. From Kona to Kohala on the west side and then to Hilo on the east, up and over she goes. It is a magnificent road to drive. The view is spectacular passing through the lava fields that stretch for miles with gigantic mountains to your right and left. The best feature though is that you’re are able to take your flatbed truck with it’s load of beef out of gear and coast for 22 miles without stopping which must be some kind of record for freewheeling. Don’t tell anyone I told you that though, it’s a secret. Probably frowned upon by local law enforcement.
We were just below the lava fields and parked next to a deep gully which ran diagonally down toward the fern forest. It was so choked with Guava that it would have been near impossible to pass through it.
There is a saying in Hawaii that you hear pretty often when things are going slowly. “Hawaiian Time,” which basically means the thing will get done whenever, “Wheneva'” is what they say, meaning soon, maybe later or sometimes tomorrow. After hurrying up to the fields, unloading the truck and corralling the dogs, instead of taking off on the hunt the boys got out the coolers and passed around the beer and pupu’s and began talk story.
Mr Pua’a himself was a native. His ancestors had come north from Polynesia eight hundred years ago with the first trans-oceanic voyagers in their double hulled canoes. His history in Hawaii is as long as Hawaii itself. Pua’a has prospered. His ancestors have fed Hawaiians for more than forty generations. With the coming of modern times pig hunting has become a sport and not a necessity. He has prospered, particularly on the vast acreage of uninhabited land of the Big Island. He lives in the thickets of Guava, lunching on its fruit, growing fat, rooting around and having a great old time. His only real enemy is us. As Bobby said, “Sweet Guava fed pork is da best.” He’s right too. Guava fruit is sweet and delicious and it taints the pork.
I was curious about the lack of urgency and Kane said, “Pua’a gon’ be sleepin’ soon and that was da best time to chase ‘um out. Have to sen’ dogs down in there to git ‘um. Jus’ wait.” So we waited.
After about an hour the dead soldiers were tossed in the back of the truck and the boys got ready. All three grabbed machetes from the bucket. They passed an old file around and topped up the edges, sharpening the bits between the rusted edges. I figured they were to cut our way threw the brush but I was wrong about that.
Bobby handed me the old 22 and said, “Hold this,” reached in his front pocket and pulled out half a dozen long rifle cartridges. One dropped to the grass. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, “This be plenty.”
The old rifle had seen far better days. The blueing on the barrel was long gone replaced by blotches of rust. There was no varnish left on the stock and the barrel had a suspicious slight turn to the right. I pulled back the bolt and inserted a cartridge but I figured the gun might be best used as a club instead.
They turned the dogs loose and they immediately bolted for the Guava in the gully, going downhill and out of sight in a rush, Lucy leading the way with her nose to the ground. We jogged along the edge as they ran down towards far end. They weren’t barkers, they were too intent on their business to waste any energy making a racket. Good hunting dogs are generally quiet and these guys were no exception. We could track their progress to the lower end by the cracking and snapping of the brush. Maybe ten minutes passed when we heard a loud squeal and a big boar exploded up out of the side of the gully. One of the smaller dogs, Phantom had a death grip on his flank and as soon as he hit the open ground he began to spin in a attempt to throw the dog off. That gave the others a chance to catch up. Bobby, Kane and Black moved in with their old machetes. They all started to spin, the dogs and the men following the Pua’a around and around like a pack of whirling dervishes the boar shaking his head as he spun, trying to sink his tushes into his tormentors. Phantom hung on and the Airedales continued to dart in and out trying for his hamstrings. The yellow dog, Lucy circled warily outside the circle like she was looking for an opening to get in. She got lower and lower to the ground, absolutely intent on the pig. The Pua’a squealed and grunted and the dogs growled nonstop all of them moving at once in what was a death dance. Suddenly the pig raised his head exposing his throat and Lucy dove in under his tushes and clamped down on his throat. Her weight pulled his head down and he slowed momentarily.
The boys started shouting, “Bobby, Bobby get in thea, wack ‘um, wack ‘um, geev ‘um Brah.”
Bobby did just that too. He jumped into the slowing circle and raised his rusty old machete high and in one blow hit the Pua’a just behind the head and cut his spine in two. The old boar made one last upward thrust and his tushes slashed Bobby’s left forearm almost to the bone.
Kane pushed me forward saying,”Shoot ‘im, shoot ’em Bruddah.” I did. The old 22 still worked and I shot him in the forehead. Not Bobby course, the Pua’a.
The Pua’a was down, Bobby was down and their was blood everywhere. I took my Tee shirt off and wrapped Bobby’s forearm tight to stop the bleeding. Kane and Black worked at corralling the dogs. They apparently thought it was now their job to eat the pig. Kicks and curses finally drove them off. The dead pig was thrown in the back of the pick-up along with the bleeding Bobby. The dogs were left to find their own way home, they would simply follow the truck down the road. Kane turned the truck around and we went barreling down the road to the house. Kane pulled the truck into the yard and we all hopped down and dragged the pig out, loaded Bobby into my old broken down ’59 VW bug and I drove him down to the hospital in Hilo. Lucia stood on the front porch with her arms folded and shot darts at her husband as we left.
At the little hospital the nurse took him in to clean him up which proved to be a major job. He complained from start to finish. Doctor Lau came in and took a look at the arm and said, “Looks like you might live you damned fool,” and darned if all three of them didn’t laugh like crazy.
The Doc said, “Bobby, you work in a meat packing plant, you could just buy the stupid pork.” Not the same,” Bobby said, “Factory pork no good, no flava, Doc.”
After about an hour they had him all cleaned up, sutured and then stuffed him with antibiotics, gave him some pain meds and Dr. Lau said, “Get him outta here, the fool is wasting my valuable time. I got a card game to get back to” They all laughed again.
I took him outside and got him in the car, closed the passenger door and walked around to the drivers side and fired up the little blue beast and we began the trip back to his house. When we pulled up to the house everybody came down off the porch and helped him out. Lucia, Bobby’s wife was going nonstop, giving him what my mother would have said was “A good talking to.” She gave him a kick in the fanny too.
Black and Kane were laughing at the whole scene. Black said, “She gonna geev ‘im what foah too.” They laughed again and Kane said, “Bruddah, that buggah Bobby ain’t gon die lookin’ up at some light bulb, he’s crazy” Then he said, “Come by tomorrow, we eat Huli Huli pork.”
I did and we did.
*Note: The etching of Pua’a that opens this story is by James Koga. He is the director of the fine arts studio program at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Mr. Koga is considered to be one of the great masters of Intaglio Printing working today and I’m proud to call him my friend.
Libraries have always been a special place for me. There is something about holding an actual book in your hand that gets into you. Collecting books is like having a bank account, you can simply sit and look at a stack of books and recall the Magic Carpet that flew you to destinations of the imagination.
I don’t recall when I first saw the photo but it was a long time ago in an old dog eared Life magazine. Life was an American magazine published weekly from 1883 to 1972, and then as an intermittent “special” until 1978, and as a monthly from 1978 until 2000. During its golden age from 1936 to 1972, Life was a wide-ranging weekly general interest magazine known for the quality of its photography. Life’s famous motto read: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel.” Walter Mitty even had it engraved on his wallet. Life photographers went everywhere.
United States Coast Guard photographer Raphael Ray Platnick was one. He went ashore with the 22nd marines at Engebi island*, Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands in the February 1944. WWII had begun three years before. He had immediately volunteered for service, leaving his job as staff photographer for PM magazine. He went ashore with the first wave of Marines at the battle of Makin Island in August 1942. By 1944 he was veteran photographer and knew what he wanted to shoot. Platnick, like so many other civilian and military photographers traveled with the services onto all of the battlefields of the war preserving images for posterity. The actions of young men and women who carried the flag are now archived in collections all over America.
Two of Ray’s photos are famous. Both of these were taken during and after the Marine assault at Enewetak. Both of them succeed in capturing the horror of combat in a way that no blood and guts picture or movie could ever do.
United States Marine Corps Private Theodore James Miller is hauled aboard the Coast Guard-crewed attack transport USS Arthur Middleton APA-25 after an assault on Eniwetak** Island, February 19, 1944. Teddy Miller is 19 years old. Thirty days later he will be dead. He will never see his 20th birthday. He has seen something no boy should ever see. The thousand yard stare with those eyes that see nothing and everything.
All of the boys pictured here had volunteered for the Marines and were almost directly from boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. This was their first combat action, their first glimpse of the world beyond Gung-Ho boot training. It shows.
19 year old Faris “Bob” M. Tuohy of the 3rd Battalion, Independent 22nd Marine Regiment drinking the best cup of coffee of his young life. He has just returned from two days of vicious combat on Engebi island, part of the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The picture was taken by Chief Photographers Mate Ray Platnick*** of the US Coast Guard which operated the Middleton. Like Teddy Miller he is covered in the soot from burned out buildings, explosions and the oil and grease blown back in his face by his M-1 Carbine. The splashes of sugar on the mess table testify to shaky hands and the desperate need for something comforting to do. Something that smacks of normal, something that he hopes will bring back the person he was just forty eight hours ago. The hot Navy coffee held in his cheeks is to be savored, a reminder that he is still alive and can feel. The boys behind him, Private First Class Stephen Garboski of Ringoes, New Jersey, also recuperates with coffee. On Guam in July 1944, Garboski was one of 1,147 men of the 22nd Marines, 1st Provisional Marine Brigade killed in action. Tuohy said Garboski was a victim of friendly fire when Naval fighter aircraft attacked Marine positions on the island. Tuohy also believes the man in the center was killed by the Japanese during fighting on Okinawa in April 1945.
The psychological effects of combat are starkly visible in the two photos. These are not the Marines on recruiting posters. They give the lie to John Wayne. Perhaps they have begun to see that they will surely die on some sandy island far from all they love and cherish. It will become their best defense. These are haunting pictures and once you have seen them you can’t ever forget them. I never have.
This entire little story has been shelved in the back of my mind until yesterday. Dust covered and mostly forgotten, as have those boys and girls who went to war in 1941. Few are left today. As it always has the world has moved on. Until yesterday.
A random post on a FB site contained this photograph taken at a 6th Marine Division reunion in Ohio. The gentlemen holding the photograph is 96 year old Faris “Bob” Touhy. He stated in a letter to the Divisions website that, “A young man, who used to mow my yard and is now a Marine in Iraq, saw a clipping in the Marine Corps Times, recognized me and sent it to me. It shows my picture and tells about one of the battles I was in many years ago. Both of the other Marines in the photo were killed later, one on Guam, one on Okinawa. I am lucky to be here.” Faris (Bob) Tuohy, 22nd Marines.
I think we are lucky too, don’t you?
*Note: The main landings on Engebi were carried out by two battalions of the 22nd Marine Regiment commanded by Colonel John Walker. They landed on Engebi on 18 February at 08:43, supported by medium tanks and two 105mm self propelled guns. There was very little resistance at the beach, except from the southern tip of the island. The airfield was quickly captured, and within an hour the tanks had reached the northern shore. The 3rd Battalion landed at 09:55 and began to mop up the few remaining defenders. The island was declared secure by 14:50, though mopping-up continued through the next day. US losses included 85 killed and missing plus 166 wounded. The Japanese lost 1,276 killed and 16 captured. It was a short but very nasty operation, the Japanese defenders having to be rooted out of “spider holes” concealed beneath the shrubbery by the Marine assault force. A long forgotten little battle, not famous but very deadly. It cost the life of a young Marine every 15 minutes. One in every four Marines were either wounded, missing or killed.
**Note: Enewetak Atoll was used for atomic and hydrogen testing beginning in the 1950’s and ending in 1978. Forty four nuclear detonations occurred on the islands of the Atoll. Vast amounts of radiation still permeate the shore and the surrounding waters and the islets are uninhabitable and will be for generations. The US government has attempted to clean-up the mess but has only been slightly successful in its efforts. The military denies to this day that sailors and soldiers who worked to clean-up the site have been affected by radiation and still denies them medical treatment. A curious side note, The Ivy Mike Hydrogen bomb test at Engebi was a disaster and was far larger and radioactive than estimated. That test was the genesis for the Godzilla story, a prehistoric seas monster awakened by a nuclear blast.
***Note: Ray Platnick continued his career as a photographer after the war. He passed away in November of 1986 in Merrick, New York.
Note: Faris Touhy saw combat at Enewetak, Kwajalein, Guam and Okinawa and was sent to China with the Regiment at the close of the war. He received the following: National Defense Medal, The Combat Action Medal, A Presidential Unit Citation, A Navy Unit Commendation, The China Service Medal, The American Campaign Medal, The Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars and the WWII Victory Medal. Best of all he survived.
In little towns like ours as it used to be, friends were friends all their lives. The web of friendship stretched out to everywhere and nearly everyone.
These two guys, Manuel Francis Silva and my father, George Grey Shannon knew each other nearly all of their lives. To me they were alike as two peas in a pod. I learned from them that a friendship is not a commodity. It doesn’t depend on where you went to school, Manuel went to the eight grade, my dad graduated from Berkeley so it’s not that. My dad’s family came to America before it was America and was round about most of the great events in our history, Manuel’s father immigrated from Sao Mateus, the Azores in 1893. Big Manuel was a first generation American. My dad was at least an eighth. It’s obviously not the length or importance of your resume that counts.
Having coffee in our kitchen they ran this shared and refined dialogue like they were two old curmudgeons though when I knew them best I was a teenager and they were only in their fifties. They made each other laugh. I studied them because I wanted to be like them. I can still see them, Manuel with his back to the window that looked out on the fields along Branch Mill Road, the four corners in the background, my dad in his chair at the head of the formica kitchen table, his desk on his right hand, the black wall phone above and the NH-3 fertilizer calendar behind him. I don’t remember much of what they talked about. Farming mostly, it’s what farmers do. Crops, seeds, the weather and the vegetable buyers being cheapskates. Just a soothing mantra, heard like a familiar old song. Manuel would complain about the coffee but what he really meant was I love you, something that has to be felt and not said.
I went all the way through school with Manny Junior who turned out to be a righteous man himself. He fell directly in his father shadow. He too was well liked and a respected member of our community. In fact we both married girls named Nancy Taylor which became a reason for more jokes around the table.
Manuel passed away at eighty in 1991. He had the kind of funeral where every man felt that he was Manuel’s best friend. It should be on his tombstone. How rare is that? He wasn’t rich in the monetary sense but oh boy, he was richer than King Croesus in the things that count for me. The number of people who came to that little house on Sunset Drive where he and his bride Angelina lived, you might remember it was the one that had the little butterfly pinned to the outside wall, was legion.
My dad followed him nine years later. When you live until eighty eight most of your friends are gone, so we had a small graveside ceremony with a few family members and friends. My uncle Jackie gave a little speech where he said this, “He was a good brother.” Can there be any greater praise? When the ceremony was over a well dressed young man who we didn’t recognize came over and introduced himself as Manuel Francis Silva III, Manuel’s grandson. He said that even though he had never met my father, his father had called from San Jose where he was on a business trip and told him that he must attend the funeral as a representative of the family. He could have just left without saying anything but his fathers wishes that he represent were just as important to him as to his father, and as would have been to his father before him.
Twenty years have passed since that day and my brothers and I still think about that moment. That friendship between two people such as Manuel and George could mean so much to their children and grandchildren.
A small town kindness. Yes, it is that, for there is an old and unshakeable tradition that proper and well-raised people pay their respects to the family. Nothing less is expected.
If you lose something important to you, go back and search for it and you will find it.
The above is a quote attributed to a Lakota Sioux, the spiritual leader of the Hunkpapa Band. His Siouan language name translates as Slow, not because he was slow afoot or of mind, but because he was said to think deeply about all things.
The human brain and its processes seem incapable of understanding truths about the universe Our brains may never be well-enough equipped to understand and we are fooling ourselves if we think they will.
Why should we expect to be able eventually to understand how the universe originated, evolved, and operates? While human brains are complex and capable of many amazing things, there is not necessarily any match between the complexity of our world and the complexity of our brains, any more than a dog’s brain is capable of understanding every detail of the world of cats or bones. A dog knows nothing about the dynamics of stick trajectories when thrown. Nothing about deceleration, kinetic energy or the Coriolis Effect. Its just a stick, or so it seems to us. Dogs get by and so do we, but do we have a right to expect that the harder we puzzle over these things the nearer we will get to the truth? No, we don’t.
As has been famously said, “You not only do not understand the universe, you can’t even comprehend that you don’t understand it.”
Emotions and memories live in the present, the past and the future. Particularly in the past. When my grandmother Annie was an old, old woman, well in to her ninth decade her life in the present barely registered. She may or may not recognize you when you came in the room but she still smiled and if you sat with her on the couch whose upholstery was printed with red roses, she would lean on your shoulder and take your hand. That little hand with its tiny bones so thin it was almost possible to see through it. She didn’t say much but she took comfort from your presence. When she did speak it was from another dimension, a place she lived as a young girl, in the big house, Grandview, that overlooked our Arroyo Grande Valley. Memories of the young people she grew up with, her many brothers and sisters, her parents and her aunt and uncle who built the house. She spoke of things I didn’t know and I’m absolutely sure she would never have confided if she still lived in the present. You see, she was lady with a capital L, brought up in a time when secrets were kept. Perhaps for shame, perhaps guilt or simply because decent people never spoke of such things. She told us of uncle Pat, a prominent and well respected citizen spending too many hours in the Ryan Saloon and having to be carried out and poured into his Surry with the fringe on top. The horse knew the way home and into the carriage house where he was encouraged by his wife Sarah to spend the night. She would leave him snoring on the seat or if feeling kindly help him into the pile of hay in the corner. He wasn’t allowed in the house. She talked about the shame of the hired girl. Clara was just eight years older than my grandmother and a friend, judging from the inscriptions she left in Annies autograph book. She got herself “Knocked Up” as the old saying goes and had to be sent away. My grandmother whispered, “She married a Mexican.” She was an Irish girl far, far from her family in County Cavan. “At least she had enough sense not to marry the hired hand who made the baby.” He was sent packing. When she talked of these things eighty long years had passed yet to her they were as real as yesterday. Isn’t that time travel?
I lived in Hawaii when she died and is was nearly a year before I went out to the old house on the ranch. It was strange to walk through the rooms I had known my grandparents in. My uncle still lived in the house and nothing had changed. Everything was in its place. I walked down the hall to the back of the house and at the end looked into the room we stayed in a little boys, nothing was changed. The one twin bed I had slept in, the double for my brothers. The White treadle sewing machine still sat in the corner the only one she ever used. I went out into the hall and through the door to my grandparents room. The maple bedroom set they bought as newlyweds and slept in for 70 years. His high boy, her dressing table with her brushes and make-up still on the top, the box of white shoulders powder sat there undisturbed. I walked slowly to the close doors and pulled them open. The scent of them flooded me and I cried. They may have been gone but they lived. They still do as long as I live and people read these old stories.
One year when we were having my dad’s birthday dinner, the whole clan gathered around my grandmothers dining room table laughing and sharing family stuff my dad went silent. He sat staring straight ahead, not responding at all. As we learned later he had had a small stroke. I called the ambulance and he was rushed to the Arroyo Grande hospital. George Shannon was a tough guy and proud of it in the way many of the farmers we knew growing up were. He didn’t go to the doctor, they were not quite trusted. You see, he grew up before vaccinations, when here was no hospital here to treat you. Appendicitis was a near death sentence. Childhood diseases could ravage kids, Scarlett Fever, Cholera, Typhoid, Mumps and Measles were killers. If you were really sick Doc Brown came to your house to treat you or at least to make your mother feel better because there wasn’t much he could do to help a sick child. Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis and Tuberculosis stalked children. What my dad learned from this was, at least he believed, that the doctor was as likely to kill you as to save you. After all it wasn’t until sometime after the turn of the 20th century that the odds a doctor could save you passed the 50/50 mark. Tough was his mantra.
Very late at night in a hospital room trying to get a little rest in one of the those chair specifically designed by paroled Nazi torturers. Very quiet, light down low, keeping one eye on my sleeping dad attached to monitors and Ringer bags a he lay quietly on his back. Then, in the blink of an eye, 70 years was whisked away as my father awoke, clutched at the tubes and wires and struggled from his bed. He stood shakily as I jumped up and ran around the bed and touched him trying to calm a very agitated old man who had just traveled down a wormhole to 1920. He was trying to get to his clothes, the short pants, stockings, white shirt and high top shoes he wore as an eight year old. As I struggled to restrain him, waiting and hoping the nurse was on her way he said, “Let me go Jackie, let me go. I’m going to be late for school and mommy will be mad.” For those few moments until he was calmed down he was in the second grade. I’d never heard him call my grandmother mommy and I saw how distressed he was. For those few minutes he lived-in another dimension which was as real to him as the one you are living in as you read this story. Finally the nurses got him tucked in and he went back to sleep. When I returned the next morning he had absolutely no memory of his little trip and in fact was as nearly sharp as he normally was. I told my brothers about it but the said, “Oh, he was just hallucinating.” I know better though. He was a little boy back in that little white house on the old state highway where he shared a room with his brother Jackie. It was completely real.
My mother drove this little Chevrolet car for the last few years of her life. I was designed by GM in a time when they used five year olds to draw new cars and save money on designers. It was the color of an old grey cat. It was neither unique nor had it even a hint of luxury. The engine was just a four cylinder put put, not loud but unusual enough that if you were listening inside the house he could hear it coming up the street we. She would cruise over from the home she and my dad lived in on Orchard Street. They lived across from the old Orchard Street school, just two houses from Maryjane Montgomery and within spitting distance of Maryjanes sister Georgie O’Conner. So she would show up about once a week or so to see her grandchildren and after a while, I’m sure you’ve had this feeling too, somewhere in the back of your mind you knew that today might be the day and the subconscious listened for that little car.
She died in November of 1993. She had cancer of the liver which is nearly absolutely fatal. When she was at Sierra Vista, the oncologist took me into the hallway and said she would never go home. Just like that, matter of fact, no emotion. I still hate him. The family gathered around, her room always had one or more people holding her hand, talking to her, sharing their days just as if she wasn’t in a coma. I was sitting with her holding her left hand late one afternoon, my aunt Pat, her baby sister in the chair opposite when I felt just the tiniest pressure from her fingers. Like the soft breath of a hummingbird. Just a touch. Over the next two days she slowly climbed out of the shroud and came back to us. We took her home. Hospice set up her living room with a hospital bed and for a week she had a steady stream of old friends come to say goodbye. Florence Rust, blind and ailing herself and June Waller, Hazel Talley, Ellie Matsoutek, Billie Swigert and the many women who had known her for decades. It seemed to me the last gasp of those oh so gracious women who were raised between the world wars. In a few years they were all gone and I can’t help believe that we will never see their like again.
Except; for many years afterward the phone would ring and as I took it off its hook in the kitchen I’d think it’s mom. Except it wasn’t. Once in a while I’d hear that little Chevy chugging up our street and head for the front door to go out and greet her. But it wasn’t her. I’m still waiting for them. I’m beginning to think the journey must go in the opposite direction. I am no longer myself, I’ve become someone else.
Every human being lives in a world of ghosts and shadows, we all listen to distant voices.
There is a photograph taken just outside my grandparents home. Its a man, a Hobo, a Bindlestiff, walking up Shannon Hill. Mount Picacho is in view just a the top of the grade. Cramer William’s home is nestled under a copse of trees on the right. The man wears bagged trousers, cuffs rolled above working mans shoes, a flat cap on his head. Slung over his right shoulder is a rucksack with all his worldly belongings, over his left, his bedroll. He’s walking away from yesterday, towards tomorrow.
Okies, Arkies, people starved out of Missouri and Texas have driven and walked half way across our country hoping for some opportunity so they could feed their families. The Haas family who worked for my grandfather, uncle, father and Ed Taylor came on an old broken down Model T truck from Joplin, Missouri, or “Missoura” as they called it. Ma and Pa, three teenage boys and sis. All their furniture, mattresses, a couple spare tires and what ever belongings they could stuff into every nook and cranny. They might as well have been the Joads or a least the family they were modeled on. We knew them. They were “Baked out, blown out and broke.” When they crossed the Colorado River in to California they saw the signs, “Turn Around, No Jobs in California.
There is no telling his age. He could be 30, he could be 60. If I was to guess, he’s just left my grandmothers kitchen door. Cap in hand, “If you please Ma’m, I’m lookin for work, mebbe a bite to eat? Sandwich in hand he walked up to the dairy barn and had a conversation with my grandfather who must have had no work. He’s headed towards the Nipomo pea fields, maybe his luck will improve. The migrant camp is under Eucalyptus trees on the old Rancho Dana where peas and beans are grown every year. A job there pays a few cents for each hamper filled. Men, women and children crawling on their hands and knees through the rough adobe fields, but they have to get by somehow and here, this, this is the somehow.
When FDR became president the country was in dire straights. Millions were unemployed. Not just unemployed but unemployable because the industries they had worked in were now gone and in many cases never to return. The tenant farmers in Oklahoma and Texas were “tractored out,” their leases cancelled, their houses bulldozed, the land consolidated for farming on a large scale. In the dust years, even those farms failed. Too much wind, dust storms brought by the devil as punishment for what they didn’t know. The cotton and rice fields of Louisiana and Mississippi lay fallow and the sharecroppers gone, unable to make even a trace of a living off the exhausted land. In Oklahoma alone more than 20% of the population fled the state, mostly headed west.
The financial system was in tatters. Credit was almost non-existent, the vast majority of local banks had failed, unable to meet the demands of their depositors. Congress slashed the budget of the military. The Army practiced their maneuvers with big wooden boxes mounted on Model T Fords and called them Tanks. The US Army was ranked 17th among the world military powers. The Navy, under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Conference was scrapping more warships than they were building. The Army Air Corps was practically non-existent. Young men in particular had few opportunities in the military, schools or jobs other than subsistence work. Families literally put their older children out because they couldn’t feed the. Other kids left home to spare the family. William Wellman, one of the finest movie makers of the time and a great story teller made the best film about those kids. “Wild boys of the Road,” which premiered in 1933, is a film, not in the least romantic but gritty and mean and presents an honest look at those kids.
A story told by Franklin Roosevelt, a wealthy educated man is of his future bride Eleanor taking him down to the settlement house on the lower east side of Manhattan where she volunteered working with destitute mothers and giving him a tour. It was their first date and says a lot about both of them. He later said he had no idea that people lived like that. It colored his views for the rest of his life. The Roosevelt government recognized that something must been done and it needed to be on a massive scale. Working with congress numbers of programs were put in place to boost employment. Federal projects such as the Hoover dam on the Colorado River which was to irrigate southern California and send water into the Los Angeles which stimulated growth. The Grant Coulee Dam on the Columbia River provided electricity and water for wheat growing in the Palouse area of Washington state. The Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri. One of the most famous and successful projects begun by the federal government during the Great Depression was the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA. … The TVA aimed to help reduce these problems by teaching better farming methods, replanting trees, and building dams.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a voluntary public works relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. It was for for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25 and eventually expanded to ages 17–28. The American public made the CCC the most popular of all the New Deal programs. the CCC led to improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased skill levels. The CCC also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources, and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for the protection and development of our natural resources. About three million men served in the corps until it was discontinued by act of congress in the spring of 1942. Those three million boys went to war, an invaluable resource for the military.
CCC projects are scattered throughout San Luis County and Arroyo Grande. The roof of the Paulding Middle School gym is a CCC project. My dad worked along with CCC boys and other local men to build it. The retaining wall along east Branch street by the same school is another. The old Odd Fellows Cemetery wall was also built by the CCC. As you drive around the back roads you can still see culverts and bridges with the CCC or WPA stamp on the concrete.
A lesser known outcome of these attempts to jumpstart the economy were a variety of programs to support the arts. People were sent into Appalachia and the deep south to find a and record old timey music before it was lost forever. They sought out storytellers and recorded legends and fables that were about to be lost. The old timers who knew them would soon be gone and that part of our heritage simply gone. Actors troupes were formed and toured small towns across America bringing Shakespeare and the plays of the greatest writers to all corners of the U S. Painters were employed to paint murals in public buildings. They went out across the country to record our marvelous natural resources. Photographers loaded their cars and set out to document the life of the people.
Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White photographed cities and farms. Maynard Dixon, and Georgia O’Keefe painted and Diego Rivera created murals. Their work is now cataloged in the National Archives, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
Two things I must say. First, the Republican and very conservative farmers I grew up with were not OK with these programs. I heard many disparaging comments about the CCC, the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration which funded them at the Federal level. Resistance was intense at the congressional level each time they came up for renewal and all were eventually stricken from the federal budget. By 1946 they were all gone. “Waste of money they said, nobody cares about taking a bunch of pictures of Okies,” it’s government overreach. The government has no business telling us what to do. One of the things that always struck me about the time, was that my dad and grandfather would have been the first to pull a dollar from their pockets to help someone in need. They helped me learn the vast difference between casual spoken cruelty and who they really were. Socialism by the government, Socialism by the individual, there is a big difference between the two.
The second thing is this, families who lived and worked here volunteered meals, food and clothes to the refugee camps. A school was established for the children of migrants who lived in the camps. Today we have an elementary school that my wife taught at named for Dorothea Lange who took so many of her iconic photographs here. I’ve met her son who spoke at the dedication and presented a print of her most famous photograph to be hung in the school lobby. The photo that heads this piece is hers. Local people take a proprietary interest in her legacy. We are proud of her and by extension, proud of those she pictured.
All of the people mentioned here and many other who worked for the FSA left an indelible record of America. They worked for peanuts. They had no pension, no retirement and took a great deal of abuse in the conservative press. But what they left us has no equal. Those that opposed it are all dead now and mostly unremembered. History marches onward, constantly shedding, constantly adding.
The list that follows are some of the most iconic historians of all of those that worked for the FSA. You can Google all of them. Please do so.
First a little history. In the year 1925, Ford produced the Model T-based, steel-bodied, half-ton with an adjustable tailgate and heavy-duty rear springs. Billed as the “Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body”, it sold for $281; 34,000 were built. In 1928, it was replaced by the Model A which had a closed-cab, safety-glass windshield, roll-up side windows and three-speed transmission. In 1931, Louis Cheverolet produced its first factory-assembled dedicated pickup, a vehicle built from the ground up as a truck not a modified car. They’ve been with us ever since.
This is about perhaps the most important use a farmer and rancher has for them. For most of my life they were a utility vehicle. They had a myriad of practical uses on the ranch. They were used to haul hay out to the pastures to feed livestock. They were driven down to the old Loomis Feed Mill to pick up salt licks, rolls of barbed wire, bags of fertilizer and sacks of seed. Old Ralph Kitchel would come out in his knee length leather apron and a handcart, load ‘er up and being it right out to the truck to be loaded. The bags were casually tossed into the bed right on top of the little drifts of hay and oats left from days past. Binder twine, rolled up in neat little hanks, the odd tool or shovel and please try and miss the dog.
The little truck was also home to uncle Jack’s ranch cats who slept in the safety of the cab or climbed up on the engine block where it was warm on a cold day. Occasionally dogs were locked in the cab to keep them away from bitches in heat. My brothers dog, a beagle lab mix taught himself to blow the horn until my dad got out of bed and went outside at 2:00 am, trailing blue clouds of swear words to let him out. “If you get yourself killed it’s your own damned fault, Fred.” Fred just grinned and ran off to join the others in the pack of hopefuls.
Dad almost never drove a the car. The pickup hauled produce to the docks where it was loaded on semi’s and taken to market in Los Angeles or San Francisco. He would load it up with enough bean poles to bottom out the springs and make the front end so light the wheels barely touched the ground. He would make me ride on the front bumper to put enough weight on them so he could steer..There was no job too dirty or too low for the little trucks. They slogged through the adobe mud in the winter and were slathered with dust in the summer. They never, ever got washed. Dad always said it was a waste of time and besides, “The dirt protects the paint.”
In the 1970’s the first of the four wheel drives came on the market. To some, that sounded great. Why they could drive into the fields or out to the pasture in the wintertime. “Stupid,” dad said, “Just tears up the road so’s we’ll have to grade it in the spring, nothing growing out there anyway, it’s winter.” On the ranch it didn’t work either, Herefords have enough sense to come down from the pastures at feeding time, don’t even have to call them, they know. “Seen a city farmer get his four wheeler stuck up a Big Al Coehlo’s place, stuck right down to the frame rails,” He told me, “Tried to pull her out in the spring and pulled the body right off the frame, had to get a backhoe to dig ‘er out.” He laughed right out loud.
You could nap on the front seat, bucket seats were in the future. The bench seats held the driver and his three sons on occasion, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, warm and loving. Going for a ride to check the creek on rainy days. Down to Kirk’s liquor for the morning LA Times and a Hershey bar for the sidekicks, there was purpose to those trucks, they worked hard and were utterly dependable.
If my dad saw a neighbor or friend coming the other way on one of the two lane roads around our valley he would simply slow down and the other truck would do the same and the two farmers would lean on the window sill and shoot the breeze for a bit, exchanging farm news, who was planting what and what the market was for pole tomatoes or in one case learning from Vic Burgia that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the war had begun. Country people knew how to just drive around. A man who lives on the land works awfully hard, seven days a week but between serious things that need to be done there is always a little time to “throw the bull.”
When the old girl gave up the ghost she was hooked up to the John Deere and dragged up to the back of the ranch to the gully by the old stage road and left to rust away alongside old cars and trucks. One old milk truck that had been there for decades. There was an 1920’s Ford tractor, some old disc blades and a John Deere two bottom plow dating to the teens. Each rainstorm in winter slowly helped rust thin the metal until it collapsed into a jumble of unidentifiable old rusty red parts. The old leather seats served as nests that were built among the springs for mice and little ground perching birds. Little boys with their twenty-twos used them for target practice. They served unto death.
Before pickups became something else, only about 6% are still used for real work, they were built close to the ground. It made them easy to load from the side and perhaps best of all. just the right height to put your elbows on when you were having a palaver with your neighbor. Imagine my uncle Jack’s white Chevy, he on one side and me on the other, our pickups parked one behind the other and Pat Williams, who parked his ranchers flatbed behind us. He got out leaving the door open, why close it, you’ll just have to open it again, and joined us, lying against the tailgate with his head hanging over and down he joined us talking about the various merits of Polled Herefords vs Back Angus cows. You could spend an entire afternoon before feeding time gently speaking, not really saying anything too important just basking in neighborliness. Time spent with two men, one your uncle and the other your neighbor whose family you have known your entire life. Whose father knew your father and whose grandfather and great-grandfather knew yours. Sometimes you can get a glimpse of a perfect world.
Just did it the other day talking to Fred Ormonde about his tomato crop up on Oak Park road. Seems like some things will never change. Good.
When I was a boy I used to ride with my dad whenever he went somewhere. It was part of my education. My favorite place to go was the box company in Oceano. Oceano is a little town built along the Southern Pacific tracks at the west end of the little valley I grew up in. In the fifties it was the center of the farming industry. The vegetable packing sheds were there, the big ice plant, very important in the days when freight cars were stilled cooled by ice and best of all the box company. It was in a large warehouse located right next the main railroad line and the sidetracks where the little yard goat steam engine shuttled boxcars around as they were filled.
My dad would head into the office of the box company to talk about ordering any of the different types of boxes produce was packed and shipped in. In the early fifties most vegetables were packed right in the fields or in sheds we had on our farm. He needed different kinds of containers for different crops. Crates for Lettuce or Celery, Lug boxes for Tomatoes or Flats for Chinese Peas. Inside the warehouse there were two main areas, one where finished boxes were stored, nested together and stacked clear to the rafters, leaving only narrow passage ways between the different kinds just wide enough for a man to walk through. Down the center there was a wide alleyway for the forklifts that did the moving. Parked here and there were big clamping handcart dollies with jaws to grip the boxes loaded on them. A man would load the dolly and then step on a pedal at the back and the jaws would clamp the bottom box so the load could be moved without sliding the whole load off. We would go over and jump on the foot pedal but even with the two of us we couldn’t make them work. A great disappointment.
At the opposite end of the warehouse was the place where the boxes were assembled. Great stacks of pine. all precut were placed on tables and nailed together. When the man finished his box he placed it on the roller conveyor, gave it a big shove and it spun away on the rollers until someone working at the other end end picked it up, placed it with other boxes in it’s nest where it was then moved into the stacks.
Best of all was the smell of the place. Nearly every box was made of fresh cut pine and the smell of the place was sweet almost beyond imagining. You could, and we did stand there and inhale the air and it seemed almost good enough to eat. The old heavy plank floors, worn smooth by decades of use were buttered with pitch and polished by the wheels of the forklifts which motored about moving tall stacks of boxes from the warehouse to waiting trucks ready to haul them out to farmers fields.
When dad came out of the office, order in hand he would holler for us and then have to chase us down in the labyrinth of crates. We always gave up in short order because we knew he had things to do and we wanted to be with him anyway.
Outside the box company there were steel rails to put pennies on, stray railroad spikes lying abandoned in the cinders along the rails and other divers and unidentified things that stimulated the imagination of kids.
Sometimes the little yard goat steam engine would be scuttling about, moving loaded freight cars from one place to another, busy making up consists which would be shuffled into place on the big freights that stopped every day. Dad gave us pennies to place on the tracks to be squashed by the little engine as it passed by. You were sure to get a wave from the engineer because he had been a kid too. His dreams of becoming a railroad man had come true so he knew what it was like for little boys.
When the Southern Pacific first came it was the main transportation hub along the central coast of California where we lived. Typical in type, it had a line of warehouses on one side of the tracks and the sheds where produce was delivered from the fields to be washed, sorted and packed for shipment.The big packing sheds were all the same with an office at one end where the salesmen and secretaries worked and the boss sat at his desk with his feet up and thought great thoughts, or so it seemed to us. The processing floor had conveyors and bins everywhere. The men and women who worked there wore rubber boots and aprons, some carried knives for trimming vegetables, that seemed faintly dangerous but, of course we all wanted to carry them too. A goal for nearly all little boys is to go heavily armed. The boxes all carried labels, colorful advertisements for the growers and shippers. Ed Taylor and Gus Phelan’s “Taylor Made” and “Phelan Fine,” Oceano Packing Companies “Oceano” label, Sal Reyes and Gabe DeLeon with its crossed Bolos reflective of their shared Philippine heritage and the Japanese growers POVE brand, Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange. The labels were stuck on the ends of the crates as they were loaded onto boxcars or semi-trucks headed for the Los Angeles or San Francisco markets. Some crops were shipped in used boxes with multiple labels plastered one over the other forming a virtual road map of the boxes travels.
Anchored at one end was the old depot building painted in the ubiquitous SP yellow and brown. In my grandparents day it was also a passenger depot. My grandmother and her family traveled to the bay area where her sister Sadie lived in Oakland and when she was matriculating at the University of California, the train was how she traveled back and forth to school. Someone the family knew always traveled with her, no lady traveled alone in those days.
Once in a while we would be down there when a fast freight rattler would pass through. We always tried to count cars but rarely ever did we make it before the cabooses passed us by with a wave from the brakeman perched up in the window of his cupola. One of the best things to do was to read the names on the boxcars. Each one represented a far off place of the imagination. “The Pine Tree Route” all the way from Maine, The Saint Louis-San Francisco, “The Frisco,” outlined in big white letters on a red shield. Not a popular name with hoity-toity San Franciscans but OK with us. The big Railroad states were all there, the Pennsy, Texas Southern, New York Central, Baltimore and Ohio, the Milwaukee Road, The Dixie Flyer, the Cotton Belt and The Katy. You might get glimpse of less well known roads, their boxcars still in use long after they folded like the Delta-Yazoo RR, nicknamed the old “Yellow Dog” and memorialized in songs from the Delta Blues to Bob Dylan. The proud white mountain goat emblazoned on cars from the Great Northern, the SP and the UP, and AT & SF, immortalized by songwriter Johnny Mercer in 1946 and first sung by Judy Garland in the movie “Harvey Girls.”* We once saw a blue freight car emblazoned with Susquehanna Railroad on one end and a female figure holding a railroad lantern who said, “Ship with Susie Q,” get it?
Very so often you could spot someone standing in the doorway of a “Side Door Pullman,” going from somewhere to someplace, a Bo, a Knight of the Road, seeing the country, didn’t cost a dime neither. Perhaps one of the last of the throngs of men, women and children who drifted around the country looking for work during the depression.
It was altogether a marvelous place for little boys to hang around. The depot was closed permanently closed, passenger trains didn’t stop there anymore but you could climb on the old freight wagon and peek inside through the dirty dirty windows and imagine the days when it was busy with people preparing to go somewhere much more exciting than the place we lived. You could almost see the conductor wave his red lantern to signal the engineer to open the throttle and hear the full throated cry “All Aboard for Salinas, San Jose and San Francisco, and all points East.” The sound of the locomotive beginning to move, the deep, throaty cough from the stack, the hiss of high pressure steam, the metallic grinding of the drive wheels slipping slightly as she gathered way and the crash and clank of the couplers as the slack was taken out of the cars. Bystanders would invariably stand and watch until the caboose faded completely into the distance and sigh, they were staying home. People my age are the last generation who witnessed train travel when it still carried the mail, nearly all the freight and most passengers. The rise of the trucks and the airplane would nearly doom railroads by the 1970’s. Today the depot is a museum, the sheds are closed and the freight trains pass us by without even slowing down.
*In case you feel like singing.
Do ya hear that whistle down the line? I figure that it’s engine number forty nine She’s the only one that’ll sound that way On the Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe See the old smoke risin’ ’round the bend I reckon that she knows she’s gonna meet a friend Folks around these parts get the time of day From The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa FeHere she comes Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo Hey, Jim you’d better get the rig Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo She’s got a list o’ passengers that’s pretty bigAnd they’ll all want lifts to Brown’s Hotel ‘Cause lots o’ them been travelin’ for quite a spell All the way from Philadelphiay On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa FeAll aboard, all aboardHere she comes Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo Hey, Jim you’d better get the rig Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo She’s got a list o’ passengers that’s pretty bigAnd they’ll all want lifts to Brown’s Hotel ‘Cause lots o’ them been travelin’ for quite a spell All the way from Philadelphiay