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.


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.




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

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

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

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


Lee and Dwight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mutt and Alfred 1911

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



PS: The book was written in 1973.




What I learned in the Navy

bobby hall


The Dungaree Navy and how I got there.

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

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

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

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


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



The Tank House

Once, everybody had one. No one remembers when ours was built though we think both the house and the tank house were built sometime around the end of the 19th century by Thomas Steele. It was the old Sullivan Ranch and when we lived there,  was the property of Joaquin Machado, whose brother “Jinks” ranched up in the Alisos Canyon off the road to Huasna.


Mike, Jerry and little Cayce Shannon with our aunt Patsy in 1951. Tank house in the background. Route 1 box 593, Branch Mill Road.

A clue to the age of the building is the bargeboard visible in the upper left of the photo above. If you know anything about architectural history you will recognize the profile as typical of the bungalow and craftsman style homes built in the decades between 1890 and the late twenties. A reaction against the highly ornamented style of the Victorian era, these houses were simple in plan, easy to build and much more economical. There are still many examples dotting the valley. Our neighbors, Gladys, yes, that Gladys, the former Miss Walker who taught in our elementary schools and who married Lester Sullivan, lived in a house very similar to ours. The Sullivan’s tank house still stands right behind the home on Huasna road.

In the very early days of our valley, you simply hand dug a well. The water table in the early days was only a few feet down and just a bucket was needed to fetch water into the house. As time went on and farms put up windmills and used wind power to pump water up and into the redwood tank mounted on the top of the tank house. The old tank houses were built because a tank of water 20 feet in the air provided enough weight to pressurize water lines in a dwelling. A 5,000 gallon wooden tank weighed twenty tons when filled. Kids didn’t have to fetch water anymore. Very modern. Today they would be considered the ultimate in environmental sensitivity.

My parents moved to our farm in 1946. The old farm house had electricity, though it was the old Knob and Tube kind, the oldest form of house wiring in which two wires, one neutral and one positive ran through porcelain tubes and around small round knobs to perhaps one light or one outlet per room. The wire is fondly referred to as Rag Wire, the insulation was simply cotton-linen thread. Not really dangerous unless rats chewed the insulation. Not so safe for rats who chewed and touched both wires at the same time though. By that time the electrical system was at least a half century old as was the plumbing. Installed at the same time as the tank house was built, it was galvanized pipe and had fifty years of iron scale lining the inside. Hard water my mom called it and it was the bane of every washerwoman in the valley. There are pictures of our house when it was painted white where you can clearly see the band of yellowed paint where the lawn sprinkler splattered it.

When I was in high school part of the boys uniform always included a crisp white tee  worn under your shirt. Unfortunately, those of us farm boys who strived for sartorial elegance could only be successful until the first washing. Yellow followed  washing just as inevitably as the moon follows the sun.

When my parents moved in, the tank house was still in use though the windmill was gone, replaced by a simple electric pump that forced water up the pipe into the redwood tank. Water towers with large tanks suspended on open platforms, many large enough to serve entire towns, can be found all over America’s heartland. But the enclosed tankhouses built entirely out of redwood, from frame, siding and roof to the water tank itself, are unique to California. Before municipal water systems they were common in towns like Arroyo Grande where homes sat on large farming plots. Out in the country they were in use much longer. After the coming of rural electrification, pumps replaced windmills. The tank houses stayed though.  Tank houses had to be well-engineered and sturdily built to support a windmill and 5,000-gallon tank holding tons of water 20 feet above the ground. That is why so many of them were built with that distinctive shape — a wide base with sloping walls tapering upward to a square enclosed tank deck  with a slight overhang at the top. A flat or pitched roof was built over the tank to keep out debris.  The spaces between the rafters were screened to allow the breeze to cool the water.

Most folks in those days had little to differentiate the style in which they lived. My parents both grew up in plain homes as did almost everybody else in Arroyo Grande. Insulation was unknown, so houses were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Nearly everybody had a septic tank and leach line and outside town, water came from shallow house wells or was pumped directly from the creek. Things were taken for granted then that would be considered dangerous or unsanitary today. Kids went barefoot in the summer, wore the same clothes for days at a time and bathed Saturday night for church on Sunday. My mother did her best but when you live down a dirt road, surrounded by farm fields it was a losing battle. She lived with it without much complaint. She did her best.

Occasionally though, she kicked over the traces. Some things could simply not be borne; she would stand up to my dad and lay down the law. In the fifties most of my friends parents had a relationship that still abided by the old chauvinistic norms that had the father as the wage earner and the mother as the homemaker. Farmers were staunchly conservative. It was very difficult as a child to win an argument with him. He was smart, had a head for math and statistics and his life’s experience put him way ahead of the curve intellectually. He kept a copy of the World Almanac next to our kitchen table and read it for fun. If you wanted to make any headway in a discussion with him, you’d better check that book ahead of time. He was also a bit of a Circulist. Also known as “Begging the question,” it’s an argument’s whose premise assumes the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. In other words, you assume without proof, the stand/position, or a significant part of the stand,  is in the question. He also loved to say “Thats all we’re going to say about that,” which ended any spirited discussion. He genuinely liked women but didn’t always give them high marks for intelligence. He once illustrated this by telling me that my grandmother, his mother wouldn’t vote for Thomas Dewey because he had a mustache. In a world of Republicans, Dewey was the great hope to unseat FDR and for a ranchers wife not to vote republican for what he considered a silly reason, “Just proves my point,” he said.

Once in a while, though, things happened in our house that she wouldn’t tolerate. Like most farms and ranches in the time after the war, we still had a barn. It was an old hay barn, with mangers along the sides and a loft above. Dirt farmers had little use for them, they were from another time before the “Johnny Popper” replaced the horse. Most sat empty.  They were great places for kids to play and we did that. Ours, the one next door where Oliver Talley farmed, Lester Sullivan’s, the old barn on the Hiyashi’s farm across Huasna Road, down at Perry’s and over across the creek at Rudolph Gulartes. Other than kids and barn owls, they were unoccupied. Children by day, owls by night.

As the old barns and silos were abandoned and torn down, the owls had to look for new homes under the eves of the tractor sheds, the old corn cribs and finally under the roof edge of our tank house. In the days when boys with rifles shot anything that moved, we were ordered to leave the owls alone because they dined on rats and mice which would get into the grain and feed sack storage. There were strict rules about shooting too. If you shot a hole in the roof of one of our buildings you were not going to be happy, believe me. You’d think that all these boy killers would be hard on wildlife but the fields were rife with Killdeer, Magpies, flocks of Blackbirds and the brown Thrasher. The Killdeer would follow the tractors through the fields and search the new furrows for worms and grubs to eat all the while calling out to each other their distinctive cry, “Kill-Dee, Kill-Dee. The Thrasher’s many calls from the brush constituted the greatest variety of any north American bird. On my grandparents ranch the beautiful Magpie was to be seen picking nuts and seed out of the cow manure. In fact, as the well known rhyme “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told.” shows it is only seeing a lone magpie that brings bad luck and groups of magpies are said to predict the future. They talk a lot among themselves too, constantly . The old slang word “Mag”, short for Margaret, means some one that talks too much.  You can put the rest together yourself.

Sadly, most are gone from the fields now, primarily victims of habitat loss, incidental poisoning from the use of Pesticides and Herbicides and the encroachment of development.

At our house though, the barn owl, or as my mom called it, screech owl, doesn’t hoot. Their cry is a combination of fingernails scratching an old fashioned slate blackboard, a baby’s cry and the sound of a kid just learning to whistle through his teeth. They annoyed my mother exceedingly. Really annoyed her when she figured out what was coming out of the kitchen faucets. At first there were little bits of what looked like minerals, tiny pieces of rock that came up the pipe from the wellhead and into the tank. She could hold up a glass of water to the window and see particles floating in it. To a girl raised in the oil patch, that was no great shakes, after all she was old enough to have lived in ranch houses when she was young where the water came into the house in a bucket you had to carry. She could tolerate at lot of things a farmers wife had to and not be particularly concerned.  But when the first little feather came out the spout, the scales were tipped. Thats when she understood that it wasn’t mineral but bone fragments. It was a little puzzling at first, but she told my dad to find a ladder and climb to the tank house platform. This in itself was a challenge because my dad wasn’t someone who enjoyed any place where his feet weren’t touching the ground. So, being the boss, he sent his employee, Lester Haas instead. Lester, or “Lek” as he was known, poked around up there for a bit and then tossed 3 dead screech owl chicks down. What had happened was that the chicks, just fledglings, and had fallen from the nest into the water and drowned. Hence the little feathers. Lek thought it was pretty funny, being an Okie and all. Hard life was meant to be laughed at where he came from. My mom didn’t laugh though and she lit right into dad. He’d better take care of that tank “Right now.”

And he did too. Keith Rapp did the electrical, Water well Supply put in the pressure tank and pop hooked ‘er up. That old tank came down forever and another nail was put in the coffin of the “old days.” That water made you boys strong and healthy though,” he always said and maybe he was right.








Little stories, biographies really, are published every day. In the case of well known people they are filed and updated regularly, just waiting for the subject to die. For regular people its normally written by a family member. If the dead are fortunate; let me amend that, if they were fortunate they wouldn’t be dead would they?

I’ve been reading obits for decades. The good ones are like tiny books with a life compressed to less than five hundred words. Ernest Hemingway spent his writing life paring away superfluous language in his books, but not even he wrote obituaries.

My brother, mother and I have all written them for family members trying to find the essence of a person we knew as well as or better than anyone. When you cook certain things you must reduce the sauce, boiling away the excess in order to maximize the flavor. Same here. How to compress a life into 500 words. You must leave out the sinews of a life, the hard time, until only a husk remains like the faint scent of perfume left on your mothers clothes.

An entire life reduced to a 3 x 5 card. How very sad. An obituary should be, well, actually I don’t know what it should be but I know a good one when I see it.

Take Bud, he died at 95 and was quoted by his family as saying “I was a pilot with the Flying Tigers in China during World War II and I’m ready to climb back into my old P-40 Warhawk and fly away to my wife Betty.” And so he did. There is a man I wish I had known.

In the year 2000 I ran into my dad’s cousin, Bill Marriott in the Santa Maria Library. Quite by chance, as I hadn’t seen him since I was a teen. He recognized me because I had grown old enough to look like my father. We sat down on a bench a talked a while about family. Bill was the last of my grandmothers sister Gannis’s family and was in his late seventies. We spoke of family things, lamenting as people do the drifting apart with each succeeding generation.

It became a casually drifting conversation with no particular subject. Nattering my wife would call it. I told him that I had some of his V-mail letters that my grandmother had saved from WWII. He began to talk of the big war in which he served in the California National Guard, the old 40th Division. He said they had gone to Hawai’i from Camp San Luis Obispo, then Guadalcanal and on to New Britain in the island hopping campaign up the eastern Pacific.. Now I’ve been to the New Britain area and you must believe that its one of the nastiest places on earth. It rains constantly, all the insects in the world live there, smells terrible and is hotter than the shade in Hades. Bill fought a war there in the most appalling conditions imaginable. Horrible. He really didn’t dwell on the conditions though, what he remembered most were the soldiers he served with, boys he called them, for that they certainly were. In all wars, those that carry the burden are always just kids and thats what what broke this old man’s heart. He said, “They were just kids, kids, Mike and they died alone in that awful, awful place.” He began to cry, a 78 year old man crying for the forgotten boys of his youth. An obituary.

A few years ago we drove up California Highway 4 towards Ebbets Pass. We stopped for a little break just below the tree line to stretch and walk. The path we followed wound between enormous, flat, granite slabs, sprinkled with boulders and stunted pines filtered in amongst the deer brush. The little trail wound its way down the mountain toward the mosquito lakes and as I passed a pile of small stones I noticed a corner of a small plastic bag peeking from under and thinking it was just litter I pulled it out. It was weatherworn and the plastic was dry but something was inside so I opened it. It held a folded piece of paper and some dried Jacob’s Ladder, the beautiful sky blue, five petal flower with the golden center that grows in the high Sierra Alpine zone. Opening the folded paper, curious  to see what was written on it, I was stunned to see that it was a letter from a father to his daughter who must have died on this same road. I felt as if I was intruding; intruding on a man’s grief for his child expressed in this oh so private way. The way you feel when alone in an old chapel haunted by the ghosts of those who have gone before. It was a stunning experience. The letter was too personal to finish. Carefully folded into its envelope it slid easily under its little cairn again and I literally tiptoed away. It seemed a sacrilege. An obituary.

From 1924 to 1954 my grandparents lived in a little farmhouse at the foot of Shannon Hill, where the old highway came down from the Williams ranch. Its now El Campo Road but when dad was young it was California Highway one, the main road from Los Angeles to San Francisco. As with all the old highways, it was two lanes with no shoulders. In those days it had no guardrails just a white painted wooden fence near the left turn at the bottom of the hill.  Today the road turns to the right at the bottom but then it went left in a a tight turn along the base of the ridge as the road went toward Costa’s and town.  It’s pretty steep and would have seemed more so in the years in which most cars had mechanical brakes and not the modern hydraulic type. Mechanical brakes had to be adjusted so that each wheel had the same pressure applied to the brake drum. Out of adjustment, one front wheel could brake harder than the other, combine this with wet roads and you had a recipe for disaster. This is exactly what happened on March fourth 1941. In the preceding four weeks there had been four accidents at the foot of the hill with cars going off the road and into the creek just past the bridge to my grandparents place. Each time my grandfather and my father had to go down into the creek and help the victims out of their wrecked cars and drive them into town to the doctor.

el campo

1941 was one of the wettest years on record with just under 30 inches of rain by the first of March and much more to come. Rural schools were often closed because parents could not get their kids to school. The previous month, Santa Manuela school was closed for a week. The families in the upper Lopez and Arroyo creek watersheds were isolated by the overflowing creeks.

On evening of the fourth, just at dusk, dad heard the telltale shuddering sound of locked up wheels bouncing, pounding and chirping across the concrete and then a brief silence followed by a drawn out crash as the car missed the turn and went tumbling into the creek. He and my grandfather ran from the house to see the beam of a single headlight probing the evening shade; a car was in the ditch. Wading into the muddy water, pushing aside the brush they found a car, upside down, the male driver moaning softly on the creek bank, the woman pinned beneath the roof. My grandfather rocked the car back and forth so my dad could free her. He then climbed, slipping and sliding in the mud, up the bank with the limp body of the young woman in his arms. They placed the couple gently down. The poor woman, clothes torn, missing a shoe, was dead. She was Doloris “Dee Dee” Tudder, a girl really, just 22. She was on her honeymoon. An obituary.

My grandfather, John William “Jack” Shannon died on November 4th, 1976. He was 96 years old and his body was simply worn out from a long life. He was a hard, hard worker and had lived his life to the fullest. He was admitted to the convalescent hospital with renal failure on the afternoon of November 3rd. My dad was with him, as he had been all of his life, 64 years his son. When his parents were old, he took care of them as he took care of us. My grandfathers was dying from the poison in his system and was in acute distress. My dad had to leave him there knowing he might not live the night. My grandfather begged to be taken home. He said “Son, please, please don’t leave me here. I don’t want to die here.” Dad had no choice. He couldn’t take him home, he had to leave him. My grandfather died that night, alone. Imagine having to live with that. An obituary.

Memories of my family, other peoples lives, fade with time and the Obit, file it under grief.










If you think you don’t know your parents life before they had you, you’re right.

My dad was a good boy. He was a good man too. He followed the rules even if he didn’t like them. He did what his mommy asked him to do. He got rid of the goat when she said, “Only shanty Irish keep goats,” even though he loved that goat and told stories about it all his life. He really wanted to do good. Sometimes, though, it was just impossible.

He noticed the plume of smoke through the open schoolhouse window and quietly elbowed his friend Kenny Jones. They watched from the corner of their eyes until suddenly a burst of crimson flame framed in black, oily smoke shot up from behind the trees that surrounded the old Arroyo Grande schoolhouse yard. It was too much to bear. Miss McNeil had her back to the class so they made a break for it, jumping out the window and hightailing it for the fire. Behind them they could hear Muriel Metzler hollering at them to come back. “Miss McNeil, Miss McNeil, George and Kenny jumped out the window, George and Kenny jumped out the window.” Miss McNeil flew to the window but she was too late, the boys were gone.


Arroyo Grande Grammar School Staff 1925-25

Sitting, l-R Miss Phoenix, Mr Faxon Principal, and Miss Righetti, Standing l-R Miss Doty, Miss Wimmer, school nurse, Miss McNeil, Miss Walker, Miss Lambeth and Miss Cotter

It was Florian and Albina Marsalek’s home. They had just moved there from the Oak Park area the year before. They farmed Walnuts on nine acres of land they bought from John Huebner. The farm was about a half mile from school as the crow flies and fly those boys did.

With just a population of around 850 people Arroyo Grande was a pretty typical small farming town in the mid 1920’s. The main street had recently been paved and concrete sidewalks replaced the old wooden ones. There were some new, but dim, street lights on Branch St, but everywhere else, particularly on those moonless nights you had to know where to put your feet. Some things had changed, boys, mostly wore shoes to school now.  They were more likely to go on to high school than their fathers. Dad’s father, Jack Shannon dropped out of school in the 8th grade in 1896. Boys were expected to work then. At 14 you would have been expected to do a mans work. For a number of years there was no high school in Arroyo because the principal taxpayers, mostly farmers didn’t see the need for schooling boys and refused to pay the school tax. My grandmother Annie, went to Santa Maria HS though she lived in Arroyo Grande.

Electricity was common and indoor plumbing had been installed in most homes, though not in my grandparents house. That wouldn’t come for another year and even then my grandparents had to pay for the lines to be strung out from town. The juice went to the dairy they owned in order to operate the sterilizer, pasteurizer and the milking machines. It would be 1925 before they had electricity in the house at the foot of Shannon Hill on the Nipomo road.  No one had radios yet, the first radio broadcast in the country was radio KDKA in Detroit in 1920, and that was a long way from Arroyo Grande. Radios were considered so important that they were an item on the 1930 census forms. If you wanted news you read the papers. There were two in Arroyo Grande and the Los Angeles and San Francisco papers were delivered each day by train.

There were still saloons even though it was an “officially” dry town and had been since 1911 when the city was incorporated by a vote of 88 yeas to 86 nays. There were a few dozen residential lots, clustered mostly on the east side of Bridge Street.  The rest of the area was dotted with small farms, it was a pretty quiet place to grow up.

Florian Marsalek grew artichokes, peas and had walnut trees, which were a big crop in those days before the development of efficient railroad refrigerator cars which changed farming from dry crops to the fresh vegetables that we know now. Entire families lived on small acreages which wouldn’t be profitable to farm today. People still kept chickens and many had milk cows. There were barns behind most houses because the day of the horse wasn’t over yet. Many farmers still used them for cultivation and pulling wagons and buggies. Florian didn’t buy his first auto until 1929. Valley road was just a dirt track and would have been nearly impassable when it rained.

On that day, dad probably rode to school with Newell Buss and his brothers, They came down from their ranch behind Mount Picacho, picking up my dad and uncle at the dairy. A buckboard full of young schoolboys pulled by a tired old horse who spent the school day hitched to a post in front of the school, a nosebag of grain hooked behind his ears, swishing his tail at the occasional fly.

Kenny Jones would have walked from his house on Myrtle street. Drifting toward school on the footpath that would become Poole St. but at that time just wide enough for a couple of kids to walk side by side. The crowd grew larger as they passed the McCoy’s, and the Bardin’s before crossing Bridge St. to the grammar school. Kids coming down Pig Tail Alley and from the Phoenix, Harloe and Costa places or the Runels and Conrow ranches down the valley, funneling in the door before the final bell rang.

Kenny,s father Fred was a farmer and horse breeder, the grandson of Francis Ziba and Manuela Branch. You can’t get more local than that. He and my dad were best friends all through school. They went to grammar, high school and the University of California Berkeley together, even joining the same fraternity.

That was the future though. This day was about Florian’s house. They ran as fast as they could down the rows of pea vines, careful to stay in the furrows because, as every farm boy knows, you never step on a plant, that’s your living right there. Ruining crops was a bigger crime than ditching school.

The hollering from the school died down as they distanced themselves from the school and drew closer to the Marsalek’s burning house. It was already old in the 20’s and dry as a bone. Built of redwood from Cambria, those old houses, once the wood dried out were like tissue paper when they burned. Fast and hot. The volunteer firemen arrived just in time to sprinkle the ashes. Surrounded by a few pieces of furniture and keepsakes they had managed to drag out of the burning building, Albina quietly cried.

After the fun was nearly over, the chief of police, Ben Stewart scolded the boys and ordered them back to school. Now, Ben was more than just the chief, he was the town tax collector and the city clerk. A little officialdom went a long ways in those days, but his word was law and dad and Kenny had to obey. Besides, Ben played poker with my grandfather and dad knew there was no escape.

So they slunk back to school. They were going to have to face the “music” as the old saying goes. Miss McNeil sent them to the principals office while Muriel and Bessie snickered behind their hands. The boys were secretly envious of course and wished they had gone to such a big event. Kathryn turned to her friend Mary Taylor and said in the superior way that girls have always had, “Those two are going to get what for alright.” They went down the hall past Miss Phoenix and Miss Walker’s rooms, Miss Doty and Miss Righetti had their doors open also and the sibilant hiss of giggles followed them right into the Mr Faxon’s office.

5th grade 1922-23

Mr Faxon taught eighth grade, as well as being principal, so he told they boys to sit down and wait  and he would be right back. Dad and Kenny sat, fidgeting in their chairs imagining the fruits of their little adventure; the dire circumstances they found themselves in. Soon, Kenny started tapping his feet in an insistent rhythm and he turned to dad and said, “George, George, I gotta poop but I’m scared to leave the office.” Dad said he should use the principals toilet which was right there in the room. Kenny looked around, didn’t hear any footsteps so he quickly darted in and closed the door. Dad could hear the sigh of relief behind the door and a few minutes later the door opened again and Kenny came out, surrounded by a horrible miasma, a stench of the worst kind. Now dad grew up on a dairy and he knew smells, and this one was epic in its proportions, nearly making his eyes water. Kenny sat down and a moment later Mr Faxon came sailing in the door ready to do business. He suddenly skidded to a halt, looked at the two boys, then ran to open the windows. He stood with his back to the open window, eyed both boys, paused a moment ad then he said, “You boys get out of here, get back to class,” and he followed them out into the hall, carefully closing the door behind him. George and Kenny scurried back to class and nothing more was ever said about it. For several days the principal spent very little time in his office. The boys considered it a miracle.








The Handshake.

Those men. They always shook hands. I learned early in life that those handshakes were a form of communication. All kinds of subtleties, rituals observed by grown men that took a lot of growing up for me to understand.

manuel silva 1


Big Manuel had hands that were thick and muscular, criss-crossed with the scars that  illustrated his life and when he held your hand in his it felt as if they were covered by the bark of the oak trees that grew on the hills we grew up on. No man would have ever said “I love you” out loud, they did it by touch.

When we were little he just tousled your hair when he came in, perhaps put his hand on your shoulder. As you grew, he offered his hand. By the time you were a teen and as tall as he was, it was the whole shebang, the gravelly voice with a mild insult and a handshake that engulfed yours. The love he showed you, running like current from his heart to yours. God, how I loved that.

It’s how men of a certain time showed affection. The men and women in my family were subtle in that way and each had his own manner. It was a very small play, acted out between two people, seldom varying in its simplicity, which was its charm.

Garrison Keillor had his Minnesota bachelor farmers and we had our farmer uncles, some of our blood and some adopted in friendship.

My Grandmothers brothers, Uncles John, Bob, Tom and her brother in law Olin. There was my dad’s brother uncle Jack or Jackie as he was universally known. We had another uncle Bob on my mothers side and my uncle Ray who was an uncle by marriage.

So, bunches of them. Some we saw often, others, not so much. For many years when I was growing up, the entire Shannon and Gray families got together during the holidays.  Uncle John Gray, he of the pin-stripe suits and deep, deep growl of a voice, stood up very straight when he shook your hand. Aunt Eva, always perfectly coiffed, invariably dressed in a grey suit and smelling richly of powder would offer her soft hand, light as a butterfly. My grown cousin Iva Jean offered her little hand palm down, the fragile bones light as as a birds wing. She was a giggly girl, though she was in her forties. She was a simple woman, kind and loving. My uncle Bob Gray was short and wiry with a shiny bald head and he shook  with the vigor of a life long farmer. My dad’s brother uncle Jackie shook with his arm akimbo, his right elbow swung out and his hand diving down on yours like a hawk on a mouse, a firm economical grip. My grandmother Annie, she of the Lace Curtain Irish. used her left hand which you softly gripped from the side with your left, your fingers slipped across the index finger and next to her thumb, and always delivered with a soft kiss on her cheek. When she was dressed up she floated in a cloud of White Shoulders, even today the scent evokes memories of her. My grandfather, “Big Jack” Shannon shook hands with a hearty “My blessed boy.” He left no doubt he cared for you.

They had all been born in another century and formality was like wearing a suit of clothes. They all walked in the histories of their time. The view in our kitchen was more inward than outward. Not in the sense that they were unsophisticated, but rather in a way that valued honesty, formality and steady friendship as the anchors of their lives. Manuel, Johnny, Oliver and those other men who sat and drank coffee at our kitchen table, did not talk out of school. Personal opinions were never voiced in front of children, or, I think, in front of wives. Dad’s friends seem homogenous to me, not in the way they dressed or walked to our door, but in their opinions about what mattered the most to them.

They played by the rules they had established for themselves. The big boy rules. They were hard to define and were slightly different for each. No one wrote them down and they weren’t easy to know but you were expected to do what you said you you would do, no questions asked, no excuses given. It was agreed that you paid for your own mistakes. Your problem was yours to accept and deal with. They took the best from each other and ignored the rest. Favors agreed to were freely given. It seemed to me as a child that these were the rules under which the universe was governed. It was a brotherhood of sorts and lasted for life.

Of course, it was all kind of a con job. They knew secrets; they differed on things, but they found no reason to share the petty with us. They had all experienced horror, sadness and despair but nothing of those experiences was ever shared. We learned about casual cruelty in school. When you were undone by events, these steady, anchored men let you know that all could be well in the world. They felt no need to apologize for being who they were. They were the men of the Depression, the World War, born in a time of want, a need that could only be satisfied by hard work. They were used.

You might say they were simple people from another era and different mindset. They worked hard, they rarely read. They talked of land, food and weather.  But is was more than that. My dad and his friends were steady people, they’d be quiet rather than lie, they were as good as their word and they were generous to a fault. You could count on them. They told you all you needed to know about them with just a touch of the hand.

When Big Manuel died, he wasn’t rich in possessions, he didn’t drive a fancy pickup and no one would have ever said he was a big shot. No, instead of that, he possessed the greatest thing a man can have, friends. Not just ordinary friends either, but men who, each believed with all their heart, that they were his best friend.

Status meant little to them. They valued the little things that made a life. When my father died and was buried, Manuel’s grandson came to the funeral and introduced himself to the family and said “My father was out of town and couldn’t attend, but he called me and said that I had to come and represent the family because he and my grandfather would have wanted to honor your family in that way.”

They are all gone now, but they left us a legacy, their children and their children’s children. Grown up now, they don’t hug, they still stick out their paw and shake your hand.












[PHOENIX]     Governor Doug Ducey in a hastily organized press conference announced today that the state of Arizona has sold itself to Canada. Mired in serious debt, high unemployment and in the midst of a statewide teacher strike the governor said, “We were left with no good choices in solving these problems.” He further stated that “No state has ever declared bankruptcy before and we didn’t want to be the first to do so.”

doug ducey

We’ve had discussions with Canada’s Justin Trudeau for several months and yesterday we came to an agreement for Canada to acquire all of Arizona’s assets. State services will be jointly administered by the Arizona’s elected representatives and a transitional team appointed by the Canadian government.

“This will be great for us,” said the Governor, “Universal health care, an outstanding educational system and immediate Canadian citizenship for all residents of Arizona.”The $625,000,000,000 billion price tag will inject must needed financial stability in a state teetering on the edge of failure, ‘ said governor Ducey. The governor thinks that being the 11th province of Canada will benefit all the citizens of the great state of Arizona.

In a late night tweet, President Trump blasted Ducey and Arizona as a “Loser governor and a loser state. Bad immigrants, gangs, the worst, believe me. Good riddance to bad rubbish. MORE money for the other states, McCain gone, Jeff Flake gone. Canada, VERY bad country, Justin Trudeau, terrible leader. GOOD deal for AMERICA.” MAGA!!!!”





First Flight


A Curtis JN-4

My grandfather was a promoter, a booster. He spent time running the family dairy but his heart was with those men who were joiners and community do’ers. He was a Rotarian and an Odd Fellow. Mens and women’s service clubs were very active in the days of small towns; long before television. People needed a way to get out of the house. My grandmother was a charter member of the Arroyo Grande Women’s club. My grandad spent every wednesday night at the old IOOF Hall on Bridge St, playing pool, chewing the cud and sharing some conviviality with his club brothers.

Memberships like this brought men together. One of the results was the organization of community events and fundraisers. In the days before government assistance and a small town needed something it had to plan, raise money and do the work itself. The fraternal organizations sponsored many events to do just that. In Arroyo Grande they sponsored the “Pea Festival” in the early days when bush peas were a major crop in the hills and valley. The old “Pea Festival” became the “Gay Nineties” and is now the “Harvest Festival.”

In 1928 a group of local business men got together in order to act on the idea that if automobile  races were held on the beach, speed hungry auto fiends would flock to Pismo to watch. The contracted with Barney Oldfield, the famous race driver who first drove the “Mile a Minute,” to come and do a flat out speed demonstration on the sands that they advertised as the smoothest and straightest in the country. New speed records were sure to be set.

The group arranged trains to ship the race cars to the railroad docks in Oceano. They organized crowd control and as an added attraction contracted with a barnstormer to fly in and give rides to spectators and to perform death defying aerobatics.

Barnstorming was the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flying. It was also one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the Roaring Twenties. The United States and other countries had trained thousands of pilots during the great war and many of them had no desire to quit flying. Surplus planes were cheap, so cheap that the Navy and army practically gave them away. A young flyer could buy a surplus trainer such as the Curtis JN-4 “Jenny,”  some still in their unopened packing crates, for as little as $50, essentially “flooding” the market. With private and commercial flying in North America unhampered by any regulations concerning their use, pilots found the Jenny’s stability and slow speed made it ideal for stunt flying and aerobatic displays in the barnstorming era between the world wars. Some were still flying into the 1930s.

Flyers could scrape out a living doing local show and giving rides while bouncing from town to town. Living under the wings, camping out or trading rides for food and accommodation, these universally young men and women introduced people all over the country to their first experience in flying. Barnstorming “provided an exciting and challenging way to make a living, as well as an outlet for creativity and showmanship. Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Roscoe Turner and Jackie Cochran were all barnstormers. Flying allowed Charles Lindbergh to make a marginal living, and he always spoke fondly of the “old flying days” and the freedom of movement.

By the time my dad took his ride, barnstorming was slowly being regulated out of existence. The US Aeronautical agency was taking control of the air and essentially creating the rules that would eventually kill the business. Furthermore, the planes themselves were getting old. Some of the “Jennys” had been flying for close to a decade, maintained by the pilot-mechanic who worked on the planes wherever it was convenient. No such thing as the FAA inspection. The plane needed to fly to make a living, and in todays environment its hard to believe how casual the business was. Planes crashed all the time. Luckily they flew low and very slowly.

Even though Lincoln Beachey, one of the first barnstormers had landed on the beach at Pismo nearly 20 years before, flying was still a novelty. A Curtis Jenny sitting on the sand, it’s OX-5 V8 90 horse engine ticking over as the pilot loaded two people into the front cockpit was not an everyday sight.

Like many boys, my father wanted to be with his father whenever he could. His religious career was over the minute my grandfather asked him if he would rather stay home and help with the cows or go to sunday school with mommy. So when he asked dad if he wanted to go see the airplane he jumped at the chance. They took the model T along the old highway to Pismo, crossing the SP tracks at the grade crossing on the edge of monte, then over the Pismo creek bridge and left into town. Leaving the car at the foot of the Main St. ramp,  My grandfather said, “Let’s go have a look.” Up close, the aircraft was huge, squatting like a buzzard drying its wings in the morning sun. The odors it gave off were both strange and familiar. The faint banana like odor of the doping compound used to stretch the linen fabric that covered the fuselage and wings and the, oh too familiar smell of grandmothers spoon of Castor oil for breakfast, the oil used to lubricate the open valves of the engine before starting. Considering what was about to happen, that spoonful might not be a good thing for a boy about to fly for the first time.

As my grandfather spoke quietly with the pilot, dad walked around the plane, having no idea that something which he was never to forget was about to happen. His father gestured him over to the plane and almost before he knew it, he was being boosted into the front cockpit. He was speechless, this wasn’t part of the plan. Grandpa climbed in right after him, settling into the modified seat built for two. The pilot leaned in and checked that the lap belts were secure. Handing them two leather helmets and goggles, he jumped down from the wing, conversed briefly with the mechanic, then hopped on the wing and climbed into the rear cockpit. He moved the stick and rudder pedals around to make sure they were in working order then signaled the mechanic to pull the prop over a couple time to load the cylinders with gasoline. “Ready, contact,” the mechanic spun the prop and the motor caught, spraying my dad and grandfather with castor oil and belching a cloud of smoke that reeked of gasoline.  Having no brakes, the Jenny immediately began rolling down the beach, bumping up and down a little as it ran over the sand. At about 25 miles per hour the tail came up and soon after the bumping stopped and they were flying. At the glorious speed of 60 mph, the pilot banked out over the ocean and flew out to sea briefly before turning back over Oceano towards Arroyo Grande where they got a birds-eye view of the ranch and their home. The pilot completed the circle, back over Pismo, setting the plane down in almost the exact spot they left from.

Many years later when I was a young man myself, dad asked me how I liked flying. Sitting at that old kitchen table where so much of my life was formed, I told him that I had flown tens of thousands of miles in all kinds of planes and that I liked it. It was safe and comfortable and took you to marvelous places you had always dreamed of, a magic carpet, if you will. Of course, I didn’t mention that last part because I was never quite sure where he stood on things like that; you know, approval. Home was always where he wanted to be.

I was living in a tropical paradise then. And in the spirit of hospitality I asked him why he and mom didn’t fly down to see me. Thats when he told me the story about his two flights. “A flight off Pismo in a JN-4, seeing our little community from above I thought would be a delight,” I said. Dad did not, and I repeat, did not, see it that way. He told Me, “That old plane was like a skeleton with one of your grandmothers bedsheets stretched over it,” “It stunk to high heaven and I got covered with grease and oil.” He made me laugh, so I said, “But wasn’t the view beautiful, couldn’t you see everything?” He gave me a look, then said, “You could see everything all right, the canvas was full of holes and you could look right down between your feet and see the ground.” By this time I was laughing out loud, so he threw me a dirty look and said, “It was the worst two flights I ever took.” “What do you mean two flights,” I said, “it was only one” And he said. “Yeah, two flights, the first, and, the last.”

He never came to see me in Hawaii.


PS: The great Pismo automobile races were a bust, the sand beach is not flat enough and the cars would get airborne going over the humps. The spectators just walked around the ropes and didn’t pay admission. They lost their shirts