Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Honey, You Just Became a Lumberjack

The summer of 1949 we were living in a trailer park in Newhall, north of Los Angeles near Santa Clarita. I had no idea where the town of Newhall was in relation to our trailer park. We were surrounded by a combination of scrubby brush in what was probably a desert, or a close imitation of one. Scattered around the trailer park were drilling rigs and oil well pumps.

We arrived with less than a month of school before the summer break, and although Mom took me to the school the day after we arrived, I guess it was too close to being the end of the school year, and I wasn’t admitted. I liked school, and meeting kids and playing, so I was actually sad about not going to school in Newhall.

About half a mile from the trailer park, maybe nearer, was a railroad track which crossed a trestle bridge over a shallow stream that later in the year would probably be dry. Ronald and I, and new friends in the trailer park, rode our bikes to the stream, and competed to see who could peddle all the way across without stopping. Whether we made it all the way, or stopped, or fell off into the water, either way we got completely soaked.

Our parents didn’t mind that we got our pants or shirts wet, but getting our shoes wet was a different matter. Children’s shoes were the most relatively expensive clothing items our families owned, so most of us had only one pair. Getting our shoes soaking wet didn’t help their longevity. We usually thought about taking them off before they got wet right after we got them thoroughly wet.

On most of our trips to the stream we would see several tramps, or hoboes, camped under the trestle, usually cooking something on a small fire. We never went close to their camp, and never talked to any of them. For their part, they just ignored us as we sat on our bikes and watched them. If any of them had ever moved our way, I’m sure we would have all been off in a flash pedaling furiously back to the trailer park.

In retrospect, they probably didn’t want anything to do with us, because we would have told our parents, and they would tell the police, and the police would have made them move on. Homeless people were not a protected group in those days.

Mom listened to the radio as she worked, usually to variety shows like Hoagy Carmichael. She wrote many songs, and was always trying to get one to the attention of a famous singer to record and make her rich and famous. I still remember several of them.

There’s a moon shining down on the chaparral,
Moonlight casts its spell,
On the old ranch well.
And the quaint pepper trees
By the big corral,
Lacey shadows weave
Like a wedding veil.

Although I’m alone
In this moonlit wonderland
I still feel your kiss
And the touch of your hand.

So I’ll hold you again
As the shadows fall
And the moonbeams dance
On the chaparral.

(59 years have passed, but the song memory in my head tells me I got every word right. Who knows, Mom? Maybe through the wonder of the Internet hundreds or thousands of years from now someone will see this and sing your song again. I wonder if people then will be capable of feeling wistful loneliness, or if everyone will be in instant communication with whomever they want whenever they want. I hope not. Loneliness is too precious an emotion to lose. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." )

Mom had a good singing voice, and more than once she went to Hollywood on the bus and appeared on the Hoagy Carmichael Show. I'm sure “Moon Shining Down on the Chaparral” was one of the songs she sang on his show, and I think she got $20 and an orchid. Mom kept the orchid in our refrigerator for a long time.

In August we got a letter from Uncle Walter, the second oldest of my thirteen Combs uncles and aunts. Pop was youngest of Grandma and Grandpa’s seven sons, and next to the youngest of fourteen siblings.

Uncle Walter had moved to Gualala, on the coast in northern California, a couple of years earlier. His letter was probably very chatty about his wife Ruth and their five daughters. Even though Pop’s family was huge – I was the 42nd grandchild, brother Ronald born eleven months and four days later was the 44th – the family had concentrated around Bakersfield, and everyone stayed in touch.

Pop was very interested in his relatives, and what they were doing, and had a remarkable memory for names, dates, and events. He wrote many letters, and more than any other family member, kept family members up to date on what the rest of the family was doing.

Taking all that in, out of that particular letter, one part was memorable and became part of our family legend. Near the end of the letter, Uncle Walter wrote: “You ought to come up here. The sawmills are hiring.”

When Mom read that, she turned to Pop and said: “Honey, you just became a lumberjack.”

Mom was weary from the moving every few months, chasing oil wells from one dusty southern California town to the next. She said, “I’m tired of planting flower gardens for someone else to enjoy.” I remember her planting flower seeds at the trailer parks, the seeds sprouting and flowers blooming, then Pop hooking up the trailer to our old Buick and heading off to the next trailer park.

Mom was ready to settle down.

Pop hooked up the trailer for what turned out to be its last long journey. It’s about five hundred miles from Newhall to Point Arena, which Uncle Walter said was about fifteen miles north of Gualala, and would be better for us than Gualala where he lived, because Point Arena had the schools. Five hundred miles is a long day’s journey today, but in those days, and pulling a trailer, it was an odyssey. I think the trip took us four or five days, and several tires – I remember Pop saying that even with the war over for four years, you still couldn’t get decent tires.

When we got to the Jenner Grade north of the Russian River, where Highway 1 was (and is) a narrow winding road tentatively clinging to the steep hillsides above the crashing waves of the Pacific far below, Mom was overcome by looking at the narrow road, the steep cliffs, and Pop working the car and trailer around the sharp turns. Mom told Pop to stop and let her and Ron and me out, then she took Ron and me firmly by the hand, and for the next hour or two we walked over the worst parts of Jenner Grade.

Pop and the trailer were waiting for us where the road finally got better, and we got back in the Buick and completed our journey to our new life. When we got to Point Arena, Pop arranged with the property owner, old Jack Pelascio, for us to park our trailer on a former tennis court next to the old abandoned high school building, where we could easily hook up to electricity, water, and the sewer.

Mom liked the location because we were only a hundred yards from the four-room Point Arena Elementary School.

We arrived on a Saturday, September 10, 1949. The following Monday Ronald and I were in school, with about 28 other students in the combined 1st and 2nd grade class taught by Mrs. Mae Phillips.

While we were in school, Pop visited Uncle Walter, who lived in the Old Milano Hotel (since burned down) on the north side of Gualala, and owned and operated a small general store (since burned down too) on the bluff above the Gualala River just south of today’s Oceansong Restaurant.

Uncle Walter introduced Pop to the manager of the Empire Lumber Company which was located less than a mile further up the Gualala River, and the following day Pop had a job working in the woods setting chokers near the Wheatfield Forks on the south fork of the Gualala.

We were home.

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