I made the rounds of the Gualala Post Office mailboxes. From the Lions’ box, a bill for rent of the Community Center; from the Banana Belt Properties’ box, an advertising flyer; and our box was crammed full with mail-order catalogues for Alice. As I walked towards the exit, I noticed the small paper poster with a photo on the window next to the door. I hadn’t noticed it on my way in, but even though I was looking at the reverse of the poster, I recognized the picture and knew what it was even before I got outside to read it.
Bobby Lee Harper was dead. Born January 31, 1931, died July 31, 2007.
The photo was one that Bobby was very proud of; Bobby in his Air Force blues, with Sophie holding their first baby. Bobby had three stripes on his uniform, the rank that was then called Airman First Class, so the picture was probably taken around 1955.
Bobby had enlisted in the Air Force in the late Forties, and he met and married Sophie, a Greek girl, while he was stationed in Europe.
Bobby was very short, a stretch to reach five feet. Sophie was shorter.
In 1963 the Air Force assignment system brought Bobby to Point Arena Air Station, the home of the 776th Radar Squadron, located at the end of Eureka Hill Road about ten miles east of Point Arena.
When Bobby arrived at Point Arena in 1963, the radar station was only twelve years old. It had been built to narrow the radar detection gap and help prevent a surprise Soviet Union bomber attack.
Before the radar station opened, younger brother Ron and I went with Mom one night a week to a small observation post on the hillside next to and behind the Point Arena City Hall and Fire Station. There we would wait and watch, and watch and wait, until relieved by another Ground Observer Corps volunteer. Fortunately for the volunteers, we never saw anything, and unless the Soviets had flown in low and with all their lights on, the volunteers couldn’t have seen anything anyway. On our many foggy Point Arena nights, the Soviets could have mounted searchlights on their bombers and put them on full power, and they wouldn’t have been noticed.
Unless their engines were so noisy that we would hear them inside our cozy observation post.
Happily, before the Soviets figured all that out, the radar station was activated December 1951.
Bobby was an NCO when he arrived, so he didn’t have to work as a “scope dope,” the guys who read the radar screens and worked long hours until automation replaced human effort and led to the radar base closure about 1980. By then Bobby had completed his twenty years and had been retired over a decade in Point Arena. Sophie was cooking in the Point Arena Wharf restaurant, and her fried lingcod with French fries was my favorite restaurant meal for many years.
When I came home from college, or on leave from the Air Force, which was often the same thing, I’d ask Pop, “Is Sophie cooking tonight?” If the answer was yes, we knew we would be at the Wharf for dinner.
Bobby and the airmen and their families who came before him had a deep and lasting effect on our little community.
During World War II our sleepy and insular coast received an infusion of strangers, primarily young Army men, from all over the United States. At the war’s end they all suddenly left, and things were sleepy and quiet again.
All that changed again in 1950, when the Air Force chose Point Arena as the site for a radar base. The lives of our local girls became much more exciting. Their pool of potential romantic involvements increased greatly, and was steadily renewed as the Air Force moved personnel in and out.
Sometimes heartache accompanied news of reassignment. Sometimes happiness and sorrow were mixed as some of our young ladies married airmen and moved away. Sometimes the Air Force lost, as several of their young airmen embraced local girls and returned to civilian life by getting jobs in our sawmills.
I think that only one of the airmen who left the Air Force to live in the area is still here.
We young men attending school and living in the Point Arena, Gualala, and Manchester areas felt the competition for female attention acutely. The airmen were older, already high school graduates, spun thrilling tales of travel and work in exotic lands, and of special interest to the young ladies, had steady incomes and ready cash.
Their interest in the young ladies of our area went deeply into our school system, down to and including some of my seventh- and eighth-grade classmates.
Some of the airmen brought young wives with them, and Point Arena was a bee hive as every available living space, or facsimile thereof, reasonable or not, was rented by a young family living here because of the radar station or the booming lumber mills.
I delivered the newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, to many of them.
I fell deeply in love with one of them the summer of 1954. Unfortunately, I was twelve, and Peggy was seventeen or eighteen, married, and was either totally unaware of or was amused by my infatuation. I first saw her when I was fishing with a hand-line from the Point Arena wharf, and had already caught half-a-dozen perch. She was wearing short white shorts, a white shirt tied at the bottom exposing her waist, and sandals, and had long light brown hair in a pony tail, and blue eyes.
She wore the same outfit, or a very similar one, every time I saw her.
She lived with her husband Jerry, who I never met, a "scope dope" who worked at the radar station. They lived in a rented trailer house in the trailer park that was recently built on the flat cow pasture next to Point Arena Creek, only a couple of hundred yards from the wharf. It was a nice little trailer park, except for infrequent times when storms caused Point Arena Creek to flood through it, or the one big storm that once pushed waves all the way up the road into it.
Even though I was only twelve years old, I was already a hefty 5’ 10”, about three inches taller, although her shorts, slim body, long legs, and thick sandals made her look almost as tall.
My hormones had just started to stir, and seeing and talking to her considerably accelerated the stirring process.
She asked me questions about fish, and fishing, and I’m sure I gave her the most exhaustive answers she ever endured about fish, about fishing, about the wharf, the ocean, the rocks, Point Arena, my school, and in fact, about anything and everything I thought might catch and hold her interest.
One of the first stories I told her cast me in a sort of daring, heroic role. The previous summer I bummed along with Sandy Sedler on his salmon-trolling boat, Rip Tide, and we went to the fishing grounds just off the Point Arena Lighthouse near Wash Rock. Sandy brought in salmon steadily through the day, but fog came in rapidly as we turned to head back to the wharf. Sandy used his radio-direction finder to triangulate our position from the nearby Loran station and his friend Roy Fox’s radio signal from Roy’s boat tied up at the wharf. We slowly worked our way down the coast we couldn’t see, finally turning landward at a point on our map chart that we hoped was directly west of the wharf. After what seemed like hours of slowly motoring towards Roy’s radio signal, Sandy said: “We should be able to see the light on the wharf by now.” I stepped out of the cabin to get a better look, then went back and told Sandy: “I can’t see the light, but I can hear Roy talking, and he sounds really close.”
In a few more agonizing moments we finally saw Roy’s boat, and tied up alongside.
When I finished my story, I was sure I had impressed Peggy.
However, remembering that time, with the maturity I can now bring to reflection, I doubt there was much I said that was all that interesting to her, but at any rate she said she would like me to teach her to fish, and I did.
Since hand-line fishing was all I knew, because I couldn’t afford a fishing pole, we rigged her a hand-line too. Peggy’s hand-line was just like mine, about a hundred feet of braided cotton line wrapped around a short stick. For sinkers we used old spark plugs the mechanic at the Union 76 station in town saved for us in a box in the engine tune-up area. The hooks were the inexpensive, black leaderless ones, and for bait we caught sand fleas under the rocks near the wharf, or cut up small fish we caught for bait that schooled among the pilings under the wharf. She soon did very well catching perch, sea trout, and an occasional cabazone, our best tasting rockfish. Peggy was from Alabama, like Bobby Harper, and already knew how to clean fish.
I hope she and her husband liked fish, because she always caught enough for them to have fish every day.
What can a twelve-year old country boy talk about that would interest a young lady? Fortunately, remembering how Pop talked to people showed me a way. Pop asked people a lot of questions about themselves, and then found things in common to talk about. I asked Peggy about her home town, and she told me her family moved from a farm when she was little to a big city with 10,000 or more people– a lot bigger than Point Arena and its 555 population – and her parents told her about growing up on a farm. It sounded to me like it had been a poor farm, with a mule instead of tractor, no electricity, and eating chickens the day they were killed because of no refrigeration.
When I heard about the mule, I told her how my younger brother Ron and I used a horse Pop borrowed from a neighbor to dig a full-sized basement earlier in the summer for the house we were building. I told her how we harnessed Prince, hooked on a Fresno scraper, and lifted the scraper arms to let it bite into the earth as Prince strained in the harness. Then Prince would skid the scraper full of dirt up a ramp out of the basement to a dump area where we would lift the handles and spill out the dirt. Ron and I completed the basement project by the end of the first month of summer vacation, and later in the summer after the wooden forms were built, we would be working many hours each day “feeding” a cement mixer to pour the basement floor and walls.
I asked Peggy how she liked living in a trailer house, and she said it was nice; their rental trailer was new and comfortable. Talking about trailer house life inspired me to tell Peggy about my family’s trailer house. We had lived in a house in Bakersfield until 1947, then bought a trailer house and lived in several Southern California towns for the next two years.
Then in September 1949, we towed our trailer house to Point Arena and parked it by the old abandoned high school building, and after a few months more of living in the trailer we moved into one room of the old building. Peggy enjoyed my tales of living in one big room of the old abandoned high school building for our first three years in Point Arena. Ron and I had a bunk bed behind a partition at the back of the room. Mom and Pop had their bed in one corner, the kitchen and dining area was in another, and a couch and chairs was in the “living room” in the corner nearest the partition. The toilets were through a door at the back of the room and down the hallway. Mom cooked on a woodstove that also heated the room and provided enough hot water to halfway fill a galvanized washtub. All four of us quickly took turns taking our baths in the tub in the middle of the kitchen; Mom first, then Pop, then Ron and I took turns. It didn’t take long for the bath water to cool and get a bit dirty. Peggy laughed at the thought of four people taking turns bathing in a washtub on the floor. I laughed too, and dreamed of the day we would have our new house built, complete with bathtub and hot running water.
Pop had been the thirteenth of fourteen children, and was working as an oilfield “roughneck” near Bakersfield when Walter, one of his six older brothers who had a general store in Gualala, wrote us that “the sawmills are hiring.” Mom read Walter’s letter, looked at Pop, and said: “Honey, you just became a lumberjack.”
Point Arena was full of exciting news the week we arrived in 1949; the Pacific Enterprise had just struck Wash Rock near the lighthouse and was sinking. But the real big news then was how fast area sawmills were expanding to meet the post-war building boom. Soon Pop was working for Empire Lumber “setting chokers” in the Wheatfield Forks area on the south fork of the Gualala River. He liked the hard work, and learned quickly how machinery was rigged to bring logs out of the woods onto a landing, and then loaded on logging trucks to be hauled to the sawmills. In our living room he helped Ron and I rig a highline with our cherished, shared Erector Set so we could bring out logs too.
Peggy had been to the radar base on Eureka Hill and had seen the tall redwood trees alongside the road, and fully loaded logging trucks passing through town, so that gave me a chance to tell her anything and everything I knew about logging. Last summer Ron and I went to watch Pop work on the log pond at his new job at the Diamantine sawmill on Brush Creek, and Peggy was interested in how Pop worked the “sinker boat,” a small wooden raft with a hand-cranked winch that was used to bring the heavy, butt-end logs up from the bottom of the pond. Those were the redwood logs that immediately sank when they were unloaded from the logging trucks into the pond. Pop would locate the sinkers, hook them with tongs attached to the winch, and crank them up to the surface. Then he would use a long pole to put two “floaters” on either side of the sinker, screw a steel eye-bolt into the sinker, and use a piece of lumber and a rope to secure it between the floaters. Pop then pushed the three-log rafts to a chain conveyer that pulled the logs into the mill for sawing.
Peggy seemed really interested when I told her how Ron and I ate lunch with Pop and all the loggers in the cook shack. We sat on long wooden benches, and the equally long rough wooden tables were covered with lots of good food that never ran out. I would have been happy to make my whole meal of just the tasty biscuits with butter and jam, but Pop made sure we had some of everything.
Peggy told me that she didn’t remember much about life on the farm, although she helped feed the chickens and watched her father milk a cow. As she got older, her family told tales of how hard life on the farm had been, and how little money they had. That all changed when her family moved to the city and got jobs with steady incomes. I told her that even though we lived in town, we had a cow that Ron and I milked, and chickens, rabbits, and a calf we raised for beef.
I told Peggy that three years ago we bought our first “bummer” calf (a twin rejected by its mother) for $5 from Stogie Stornetta’s ranch. The calf was very cute, with big soft brown eyes, and Ron and I named him “Bosco.” Our chore was to feed Bosco after school, and he would run to the fence to greet us, and we rubbed his head as he ate. We fed Bosco powdered milk mixed with water in a bucket with a rubber teat, and we held the bucket firmly, braced against the fence, to keep Bosco from spilling it as he energetically sucked on the rubber teat. When Bosco got bigger, we stopped the milk and fed him hay and grain. I told how one time in a driving rainstorm part of the fence fell and Bosco escaped, and we chased him through the rain and wrestled him in the mud to get him back into his pen. Peggy laughed when she said she could just imagine how we looked, soaking wet covered in mud.
Bosco, like all calves, was very playful, and liked to bound across the field and do awkward, funny leaps. When I finished telling Peggy about Bosco, I think she noticed a sad look on my face, and asked: “Where’s Bosco now?”
“Bosco’s dead. One day after school we went to feed him, and he was gone. Pop said the butcher came and took him away.” We begged Pop to tell us when Bosco would come back, and then Pop told us: “He can’t come back. He’s dead.” I told Peggy how Ron and I couldn’t believe Bosco was dead and how we cried so hard we could hardly breath. Then Pop told us gently but firmly to stop crying, and pointed around us. “These animals aren’t pets, they’re dinner. Don’t give them names.”
Peggy looked sad, too. Maybe she was remembering animals she named on their farm, and knew that most of them probably ended up like Bosco. I guess a part of childhood ends when you realize that death is a part of life, that something as lively as you can become suddenly cold and still, existing only in our memories.
I forced a weak laugh, and said I call all the calves “Hamburger” now, and Peggy smiled gently.
“He may sound tough, but Pop’s really nice,” I said. “When people tell him that Ron and I are good, big boys, he says ‘Yep, they’re strong as an ox and nearly as smart.’ That’s the way he tells us he’s proud of us.”
One day after we finished fishing, and Peggy went back to her trailer, a high school guy told me: “I bet you’d like to screw her. I sure would.” I turned away, angry and blushing, and he laughed at me. I guess he was right, but I wanted to keep it a secret. I realized that I hated the thought of her “doing it” with someone. Anyone. Even her husband. Even me.
But now, more than ever I looked forward to going fishing at the wharf and talking with Peggy. We had fished together almost daily for over a month, then one day I fished for hours watching for her, and she didn’t come.
I never saw her again, or heard anything more about her.
Another Air Force family soon moved into her trailer.
Thinking about Bobby and Sophie, and their lives and some of the times we shared here, spurs memories.
Bobby’s gone, and his poster on the Post Office window announcing his death has already been removed.
The Post Office has strict rules about what and where and when things can be displayed.
Peggy was only here a month over fifty years ago, and then she was gone.
I hope she hasn’t had her poster taped on a Post Office window somewhere.
Not Peggy, not the girl in shorts with the long legs and the sweet, sometimes sad, smile.
Peggy and Bobby, and many others, live on in my memories.
At least until the day my poster takes its place in a Post Office window.