Drive In The Ruts

Farm families live in the mud. It’s a constant. The roads are dirt, the fields are dirt, there is always dirt. It’s in the house, particularly with three rambunctious boys flying in and out the door at all hours of the day. The farmer and his friends have it on their boots, it’s on the floorboards of the car and trucks, the tractors too. When the wind blows there are clouds of it. Even the dogs trail little dust clouds after themselves.

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Grandma Hall, not a mudder.

Our farm was located in a small fertile valley in Coastal California. It spanned the narrow valley from side to side. From the cutbank on the east side to the creek on the west. The ground we lived on had been laid down by thousands of years of rain and drifting soil, deposited in the winter floods in a random fashion dictated by the amount and time of the annual rainfall. Before cultivation the little valley stream meandered from side to side in a vast Monte that stretched from the Santa Lucia mountains to the Pacific Ocean 21 miles away. Thousands of years of undisturbed growth had created a tangle of oak and sycamore trees, bound by willows, poison oak and wild blackberry vines that were nearly impenetrable. Only the Grizzly bear passed from side to side on narrow trails they had bulldozed over the centuries. When the first Spanish explorers passed through the area in September 1769 they had to pass along the beach, being unable to penetrate the swampy valley with their 100 mule pack train. The Arroyo Grande remained the same until, in the late 1830’s, the first ranchero, Don Francisco Branch arrived and began the laborious task of hacking a life out of what was still a wilderness. Cattle were grazed on the hills and the monte was attacked to create enough space in which to grow crops. Over the decades the Grizzly was eliminated, marauding Tulare indians were discouraged from stealing cattle and fields of grain and corn were planted. A noble adobe house was built on the Santa Manuela Rancho. A small school was established for the children of the ranchero and his employees. Branch’s school was eventually formalized and officially named after the ranchero. A grist mill was constructed on the upper reaches of the creek and the road leading to it was named Branch Mill because, simply enough, thats where it went.

When the old pioneer died, his properties were divided among his children and their spouses. Slowly the valley began to grow in population. The old Arroyo Grande, Santa Manuela, Corral De Piedra and Bolsa de Chamisal land grants were divided in smaller plots and sold to farmers and ranchers. The sections were subdivided over the years until most of the farm land was broken up into roughly forty acre plots. When I was a boy, nearly every farm supported a farm family, most of whom lived on the land.  Our farm was located on branch Mill road just about three quarters of a mile from the old adobe ranch house. Just across the road, about two hundred yards away was the old bear pit where Grizzly bears were captured in the early days.

Because, over time, the creek had meandered all over the valley, the type of soil on the  farm was varied. Near the road ours was a mix of adobe, sand and gravel. Near the center of the property it was adobe mixed with lighter soils to give it an almost perfect composition for row crops. Near the rear of the property, along the creek it had a very sandy texture.  In the rainy season each type of dirt became mud except for the sand. The sand just grew firm when wet. In summertime though it was just the opposite of the muddy winter, it grew soft and you could easily get stuck in it.

In winter we lived in a sea of mud. Slippery mud, sticky, slimy mud. Mud everywhere. When it was really wet the furrows of the fields were filled to the brim with water, looking, for all the world like enormous piano keys. Parts of our roads were lakes and our driveway was a trap for the unwary driver.

Mom could not keep the house clean. Mud was tracked in on muddy shoes and boots no matter how many rules about ” Take your shoes off! ” she had. We cleaned the soles of our shoes with kitchen knives and then baked them in the oven to dry them out for the next day. Slipping on a pair of high top shoes, curled and dried by oven heat was not a job for the faint of heart. Feet are not curled upward naturally and it took hours for the shoe to soften enough to be comfortable and by that time you had to do it all over again. Hopping from place to place, trying to stay out of the ruts in the driveway on the way out to the school bus was terrific exercise. We three boys must have looked like the Russian ballet, leaping about like farts in a skillet. There were rubber boots for the fields but they were all man size. Boys risked having them sucked right off their feet if they tried to take shortcuts across cultivated ground. Once I got myself in so deep doing that, that I lost both boots and had to crawl on my stomach across the mud to keep from being entombed, I’d have merely been a fossil when the ground dried in the spring. The rubber boots were never found.

Almost all the driving in the fields was by tractor. Two wheel drive pickups could get stuck and they tore the muddy roads up which, when they dried made for a bone rattling rough ride. One winter it rained so much and continually that the fields were too soaked to get even tractors in. The celery and brocolli crops around the valley had abandoned tractors and trailers in them that had gotten so stuck they couldn’t be driven out. No other tractor could possibly get in to do the towing either. The crops rotted in the fields. At the end of every winter, there would be the occasional truck or tractor so deep in the mud that they would have to be dug out.

Farmers knew where they could go. Some types of ground dried rapidly, some didn’t. There were places that looked dry but weren’t and were traps for the unwary. Sometimes wet pasture combined with a steep hill isn’t drivable. You get stuck in a swale and you simply cannot get out. Rubber tires just spin and smoke on wet grass, and try as you might, your pickup won’t go uphill.  A walk to the house to ask for help from your dad or uncle is embarrassing because you are supposed to know about those things.

We were third generation drivers. My grandfather began driving in his mid-twenties and never really got the hang of it. He grew up with horses and was a grown man before he learned to drive. When my grandparents married in 1908, they had their wedding picture taken in a photo studio, proudly sitting in an old high wheel car that still looked like a  buggy. Autos were still a novelty then. Dad said you could spit on the ground and my grandfather would get stuck in it. Believe me, you can’t make things like that up. My dad, of course began to drive as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the pedals of a Model T Ford. He and his brother ran the milk wagons for my grandparents dairy. They did this before school starting when my uncle Jackie was 14 and my dad was 12. It wasn’t unusual in those days to see boys driving at very young ages. If your kid could work that was one more employee you didn’t have to hire. I don’t know how old I was when I first got behind the wheel. I do remember just barely being able to touch the pedals of the old ’38 Chevrolet my dad used for a field car. I do recall how it lurched because I couldn’t keep my foot steady on the gas. I could steer just fine though, I had lots of experience with that from driving wheel tractors, but if you had been in that old Chevy with me you might have broken your neck.

I’ve heard people say, ” Why did people build those old farmhouses so close to the road? ” Mud was the answer. Our house though, wasn’t right on the road. We had to navigate a quarter mile of muddy sloppy road to get in or out and that was no mean feat. My father had one strict rule, “stay in the ruts” he would tell people. The reason for this was simple, the ruts were packed down even though they were often underwater. The mud that looked dry had the consistency of toothpaste and was treacherous for the unwary. Get off in it and you were lost, your car sliding inexorably off the road and into the fields where you sank and stuck fast. If you got out of the car, you’d sink over the tops of your shoes and you’d be stuck too. I don’t know how many times dad cautioned my grandma Hall or my aunt Mariel to do just that, but they would get stuck “just a sure as shootin’.” Now my dad was not given to swearing much, he wouldn’t say shit if he stepped in it, but he would stand at the kitchen sink, glaring out the window, watching them trying to navigate the mud just knowing they’d slide off the road before they got to the house. He’d be grinding his teeth and mumbling under his breath the words he wouldn’t say out loud, knowing he’d soon be out in the cold with the tractor, crawling under a car, his clothes covered in frigid, slippery mud, dragging the chain to hook them up and pull them out. To add insult to injury, people would simply sit in the car and blow the horn to get his attention. He was a man who was born to help others but these events really stretched his patience to the breaking point. Putting one of his boys behind the wheel of grandma’s big, old blue tank of a Buick, he’d skid the car into the yard then help her into the house just as nice and polite as you please and then he’d say, he always called his mother-in-law Missus, ” Missus, you gotta stay in the ruts.”

 

 

 

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BENNY THE DOG

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There was once a little terrier named Benny. You might say he was mine but it was just for a moment. I was visiting at a friends house in Santa Maria and the back yard neighbor, Jeffrey Fitzgerald was trying to pawn off a litter of pups. He browbeat me until I took one. I named him Ben, but he soon became Benny because of his size, I think. He seemed to be the kind of dog who would have a less than serious name. He was all black; a sleek fuzzy mutt about the size of a ten pound sack of flour. He was a good little boy, quickly housebroken and spent most of his time eating and sleeping in my house on Muir street in Ocean Beach. He was friendly and a popular little guy.

Not too long after I got him, I had to catch a ship and  was forced to leave the dog behind with my parents at their farm. They always had dogs but for the most part they were outside dogs. They didn’t come in the house. The back porch was about the best they could do. They mostly slept in the packing sheds or the cabs of the trucks,  or wherever  looked comfy to them. We even had a dog named Paco a medium sized brown mutt who never had much to say who just slept wherever he pleased. He was known to sleep in the mud when it rained. My dad was against another dog but mom turned the trick as usual. I had promised to come and get him when I returned but, as it turned out, he wormed his way into her heart and that was that. He had found a soulmate in my mother and he wasn’t going to leave her.

Benny won my dad over too, he was out the door with him in the morning and at his heels wherever he went. The farm was like heaven for a dog. There were pickups to ride in, fields of celery and lettuce where he could run up and down the rows, sniffing and looking for something to chase, tractors he could bark at and acres and acres of ground, perfect for digging, with all kinds of good smelly stuff to roll in. Irrigation ditches always had an ample supply of sticky mud. Even the hired hands got into the act and would give him parts of the their lunches and perhaps a little pat to boot. He had a yen for tamales. He was happy to get a bit of a white bread and baloney sandwich too. Remember, this was in the days when dogs never saw a vet or ate Pedigree dog food. It was cheap dog food from the Loomis Mill, table scraps and the occasional gopher. Benny didn’t have the speed to catch a Jack Rabbit, though it didn’t stop him from trying.

My mother adored him. She would hold him in her lap like a baby and feed him from a spoon. He liked to curl up with her on the couch at night while she knitted and watched TV, as contented as a little dog could be.

His mostest favorite thing though, was to hop in the pickup truck with my dad and go for a ride. If dad only went ten feet he was there.He went to the loading dock at the Arroyo Grande Trucking company every day to supervise the unloading of my dads vegetables being shipped to market. If Tim Spears or Dick dock got too close to the truck they would get a bark and a growl. He sometimes ran into the office to give Juandel a quick doggie kiss too. He went to the box company in Oceano to inspect the new pine boxes as they were loaded and he rode shotgun every morning as my dad drove into town to get the morning paper and a candy bar at Kirk’s liquor store on Branch street. The best part of the trip though, was sticking his head out the passenger side window and barking at the willow branches along Tar Springs Crick where Branch Mill Road makes the right turn after crossing the bridge between Hiyashi’s and DeLeons farms. You know the place, it’s where people used to dump their old mattresses and washing machines because they were too cheap to go to the dump. It is an old county road with no shoulders and the willows reach out with their branches just to torment a little black dog. No one trims the trees and the brush there. Just the passage of farm trucks and tractors keeps it back, so if you drive close enough they slap against the side of the pickup as you go by. This tormented little Benny and he would bark furiously, enraged by the willows trying to get in the windows. Jumping and lunging, making a terrible racket, he tried every day to drive those pesky trees away. Now, my dad, being a man of great fun, aided and abetted this activity by driving as close as he could get without going off into the creek. He enjoyed the hilarious little dog and his incandescent fuming: little dog loved it too.

Of course, one fine day the inevitable happened, one second Benny was putting on his act, growling and snapping at the branches like a miniature chainsaw and just like that, in a snap of the fingers he was gone, snatched out the window by a willow branch he managed to sink his teeth into. It took a few feet to bring the truck to a screeching, sliding stop, dad leaping out the door into the dust cloud made by the locked up tires. Thinking to see the broken pieces of the his dog, he saw instead, Benny standing, dazed and dusty dirty on the roadside, fur full of dirt and foxtails. He had some willow leaves sticking out of his mouth, not quite sure what he should do now that he had fulfilled his quest of killing a willow branch. Dad bundled him up, drove him home where mom  brushed out his fur, fed him some warm milk and cuddled him while he calmed down. The Holy Grail quest was  fulfilled. A pretty good day for a little dog, don’t you think?

When the neighbor farmers came in for coffee the next morning and heard my dad tell the story they laughed so hard that coffee came out of Manuel Silvas nose. I kid you not.

Benny soon recovered his aplomb. He still hated the willows but dad was careful to drive just a little farther away from them. Gotta be careful with a good dog. He was a tough little bugger, but why take a chance.

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Aunt Mickeys

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On mom’s side of the family there were several places we would go to visit. She had many uncles and aunts and cousins but our favorite by far was my Uncle Ray and Aunt Mickey’s. They lived in the Fresno county foothills in a little valley called Watt’s.They were mountain people, not necessarily by birth but certainly by inclination. According to my dad my uncle Ray knew the name of every stream in the Sierra and how to get there. He owned a small cattle ranch in the valley on which he and aunt Mickey and their two boys lived. To get there from our house we had to cross the San Joaquin valley on which we as kids measured our progress by the sight of the endless cotton fields of Westlake farms, waiting to see the Pacific Southwest Building in Fresno, the tallest building we had ever seen. We…

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Rainy Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Jack and George Shannon 1920

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

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

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High water above the highway 1 bridge 1954

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

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Aretha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye sweet and God Bless. We will miss you.

 

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BIG RED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Street Cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pearl among cats. He was a bravo.

 

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