Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The summer of '56

Reservoir Hill, 1956
These are some of my very best friends from the summer of 1956.  I'm the picturesque specimen with the gaping hole in my teeshirt. Of course these are still my very best childhood friends. You can't replace your very best, very first friends.  You may loose track of them.  You may find yourselves separated by thousands of miles.  You may even become estranged from them.  But you never replace them.  You can't replace your childhood friends.  I've tried.  It can't be done. On this particular occasion, it being summer and all, and we being not particularly busy, we'd decked ourselves out in rags from the old wardrobe in the garage. We were quite pleased with the result, and Mother recorded the occasion for posterity.  I feel certain that posterity is vastly improved by Mother's foresight.  Anyway, as we pick up the story, at the ripe ol’ age of five, I found myself engaged to be wed.  Lynn, my intended, lived across the street, and was the towheaded little sister of my best friend Gary.  Lynn was remarkably mature, for four, but it was essential that great care be taken so as not to tickle, tantalize or incite her in any way, as the slightest provocation inevitably resulted in extravagant spasms of gut wrenching giggling and excruciating jocularity.  Wet pants invariably ensued!  In those good old days, we youngsters were free to range the neighborhood at will, frequently pursuing our diversions some distance from our residences.  And Lynn’s involuntary wettings invariably necessitated a time out from our current adventure and an inconvenient trip home for fresh garments.

The old neighborhood was dissected west to east by Meadow Lane, a pine lined dirt boulevard marking the perimeter of my family’s forty acres, and meandering into the rolling foothills and intermittent orchards of apples and Bartlett pears, before crossing a meadow at the old Skinner place, and descending eventually into a yawning canyon, at the bottom of which ran the renowned south fork of the American River, an enticing landscape of gorges, petered out mines, uninhabited woodlands, and of course the renown waterway itself.

A short distance down this lane, straddling a mosquito infested cistern in the crotch of a ravine and shaded by a canopy of oaks, squatted the time ravaged frame house which served for several memorable years as home to my other best friend Stephen. Stephens’ family consisted of his mom and dad, and a bakers’ dozen of siblings, ranging in age from young adults to occasionally diaper clad infants. Stephen’s family was destitute, but by all appearances happily reconciled to their lot in life. The father was disabled and spent a good deal of time at home, and endeared himself to me by his frequent invitations to accompany him bear hunting.  The matriarch of the family also won my young heart, as she was most always elbow deep in food preparation at the family’s wood range and was rarely satisfied until she had enticed me to have a piece of chicken or a biscuit.  They were poor as church mice and hard pressed to feed their own family, but despite their poverty, they were always ready and willing to ply me with groceries.  For a number of years during my youth Stephen and his family were a favorite and blissful haven of adventure.

Suffice it to say, their home was very sparsely furnished.  Their only means of heating or cooking was their ancient wood range, and the toilet facilities consisted of a ramshackle old outhouse some distance away from the weathered back porch. The porch itself served as a center for enforced juvenile hygiene, and housed the old galvanized wash tub, where those youngsters who could be corralled were subjected to their semimonthly bathing ritual; often to the tremendous delight of a giggling audience of us juveniles who observed the ceremony with semi stifled exuberance from the cover of a nearby briar patch.

Of all the siblings, my favorites were Stephen and his sisters Paula who was around my age, and Lizzy who was older than I.  Lizzy derived tremendous pleasure from scaring the daylights out of the rest of us kids with all variety of imaginative ghost stories guaranteed to raise Goosebumps on a wooden Indian! Additional intrigue arose from the fact that despite my pending nuptials with Lynn, I suffered from a debilitating crush on Paula.

On the afternoon in question Stephen, Paula, Lizzy and I, after being plied with chicken and corn on the cob, emerged from the old home, licking our fingers and sleeve grooming our noses.  Blinking as we walked out into the bright sunshine of a brilliant autumn day, we laughed and visited as we sauntered off down the hill in search of an afternoon’s diversion.

At the bottom of the ravine is an immense blackberry patch, decorated intermittently with abandoned automobiles from decades past, and an assortment of barrels, bedsprings, can piles and Coke coolers.  The tangled thicket achieved six to eight feet in height and sprawled for sixty feet across the gully and as far as the eye can see up and down the ravine.  A wet weather stream meandered through the middle, and here and there Ponderosa pines pierced the dense canopy of briars, competing for the sunshine and littering the ravine floor with a luxurious carpet of dry needles.  Several of the evergreens sported tree-forts assembled from lumber that we kids had salvaged from the wreckage of an abandoned barn.  A network of paths and tunnels connected the forts with each other and the outer banks. 

The balmy fall afternoon was almost summer-like, and between the sounds of children at play, frogs sang from the creek bank and a pair of morning doves cooed a melancholy refrain in the distance.  A well-traveled trail formed several switchbacks during its’ decent down the steep bank and ended abruptly at a small clearing just inside the thicket.

From this point on, we four would have to crawl on our hands and knees.  Earlier in the season, our efforts might have been rewarded with a bounty of juicy blackberries.  The berries were long gone, but the sharp thorns remained, camouflaged by the thick purple foliage of an extended Indian summer.  Despite our best efforts, the thorns snatched at our clothes, and periodically resulted in a “youch!” and a grimace, as a determined thorn found it’s mark and pierced somebody’s hide.        

As we approached one of the pine trees, a half-dozen of the neighborhood kids paused and observed our approach with, first suspicion, and then delight.  At the ripe ol’ age of ten, Lizzy was a little too old and much too busy to devote much time to child’s play.  The youngsters considered this intrusion of adolescents a real treat and several little ones latched onto Lizzy’s skirt as we entered their hideout.  “Tell us a story Lizzy. Please! Please!”  “Tell us about the ghosts.”  “Not now!” said Lizzy feigning annoyance but obviously pleased by the attention.  The kids continued their clamor, eventually weakening the elder sibling’s resolve.  “Alright! Alright!” Lizzy acquiesced, collapsing into a bed of needles at the base of a towering Spruce. 

“Once upon a time there was a spooky ol’ ghost dressed all in black.”  That’s as far as she got!  Several of the youngsters had a question.  “If ghosts are just spirit” one asked musingly, “why do they need clothes at all?”  “Good question” admitted Lizzy contemplatively.  This line of thought peeked the children’s curiosity, resulting in several additional questions.  “If ghosts wear clothes,” asked another, “do they have to warsh ‘em?   Do ghosts get ring around the collar?” This resulted in an outburst of exuberant laughter, exacerbated by youthful enthusiasm.  Stephen perked up and his face shone with recognition of his opportunity to participate.  “I wonder,” he said, grinning with anticipation,  “If ghosts get lint in their belly-buttons.”   “Ghosts don’t have bellybuttons silly!” chimed the twins in unison, and the entire hollow rang with squeals of laughter.

In the middle of this jocularity, the briars rustled and in stepped two more youngsters.  Another neighborhood clan had overheard the ruckus from across the hollow and come to investigate the cause of all the merriment.  Gene seemed to sense the jovial mood of the assembly almost immediately.  He sprawled on the ground, rested his chin on his hands, and offered a yarn of his own. “You should have seen what happened at our house!  There’s a big ol’ alligator turtle in our pond. The ol’ Jersey cow was standin’ belly deep, coolin’ off the other day, when that ol’ snapper swum up and bit the end right out o’ one o’ her spickets!” The kids all groaned and grabbed their chests.  The response was spontaneous and only served to encourage the storyteller.  “‘Fore we could get a tourniquet on her,” he continued, “that ol’ cow leaked out three buckets o’ buttermilk!”

“Oh, go on!” said Lizzy.  “That’s nothin’!” announced Stephen. “We had a big ol’ wolf trap set at our pond, tryin’ to catch a darned ol’ coon.  One o’ them big snappers got caught by the neck.  ‘Fore we could drag him out and give ‘im what fore, that rascal chewed his head off and got clean away!  A couple o’ days later he come draggin’ up the hill, fit as a fiddle and carryin’ his head in his mouth!”

At that moment a distant “Helluuu” echoed from the hill in the direction of the Pettit place. “Skedaddle!” whispered Stephen.  “That’s Ralph.”  Gene’s clan vanished into the thicket as muffled voices became audible at the edge of the hollow. Lizzy and the other youngsters made tracks for higher ground too! Ralph was around ten, and he and a gang of other area roughnecks ran roughshod over the entire neighborhood.  “That’s Ralph and those other ruffians,” said Stephen.  “We don’t want ‘em to see us either.”  “Come on.” Whispered Paula, and she headed up the trail toward home. 

We were still a hundred yards from the top of the hill, when we rounded a bend and the trail forked.  “This way” panted Stephen as he took the right fork.  Seconds later the three of us stood humped over and gasping for breath at the door of a ramshackle ol’ outhouse.  At the sound of hurried footsteps close behind, we crowded into the tiny refuge and Stephen bolted the door.  It was pitch black inside, the atmosphere was close and stifling, and the odor was exceedingly unpleasant!  I desperately wanted to hold my breath but we were all breathing too heavily for that.  I stepped up onto the business seat to help ease the crowding, and Stephen braced himself and leaned against the door.

As I stood up on the bench my head hit a rafter. The heat was oppressive. I was all but smothered in a veil of cobwebs, and an indignant wasp began buzzing threateningly around my ears.  I started to speak to Paula, but she laid her finger against my lips and said “shhhh!”  Her finger was only against my lips for an instant, but somehow her touch left me warm all over!  

As I stood straddling that outhouse seat and crouching to avoid that pesky wasp, my face was just inches from the top of Paula’s head.  I could feel the warmth from her body and smell her long lustrous hair.   I pretended to lose my balance as an excuse to lay my hand on her shoulder.  She glanced up at me very briefly and then ever so gently she laid her hand on mine.  I held my breath; my pulse quickened, and Ralph and the band of ruffians arrived outside the door. There were muffled voices and stifled chuckling, and then in unison they counted “one, two, three,” and leaned heavily into the side of that board and batten john.  Our fragile refuge listed dangerously to starboard. That ornery wasp planted his rapier-like stinger deep into the lobe of my ear, and both my feet, new boots and all, slipped into that big black hole!

Seconds later Stephen threw open the outhouse door, Ralph and the ruffians let out with war whoops as they disappeared down the path, and the blinding light of day rushed in on a sad and sorry spectacle.  That dreadful abyss had engulfed me right up to the armpits; my ribcage was stuck tight as a cork in its’ terrible jaws, and a powerful aroma brought evidence I was stuck knee-deep in that holes’ contents.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here! The bowels of the beast made a hideous sucking sound as Stephen and Paula laboriously extricated me from my predicament.  My clenched toes clung desperately to my left boot, and that godless pit claimed the other!

Suffice it to say, mother was not pleased when I arrived home!  Speaking of home and Mom, near the top of Reservoir Hill, at the opposite end of my family’s forty acres, on the banks of an irrigation ditch and overlooking the snowcapped Sierras to the north, the coastal range to the west, the Sacramento Valley to the south, and Millers’ orchard of Bartlet pears to the east, were the homes of my mom’s parents and my granddad’s mom, Meda Eliza Camp Daniels. My granddad’s maternal grandpa, Asa Steven Camp, had first arrived in the Sierras with his dad, Clark back in 1850, during the gold rush, and Granddad’s Daniels ancestor had arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony From England in 1636.  Ancestors in each of these lines, as well as my fathers’, had served during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

My granddad’s dad, Asa Wilder Daniels, had passed away when my mother was young, but my great grandma Daniels still lived in the old home on Reservoir Hill, across the driveway from my grandparents.  Among the tantalizing treasurers in my great grandma’s home was a gun cabinet full of ancient artillery, beaded buckskin jackets, and Indians artifacts that had been gifts to my granddad’s granddad from our country’s Native Americans back in the 1870s, when Doctor Jared Waldo Daniels was appointed by the President, and assigned responsibility for inspecting all of the Indian agencies west of the Mississippi. Throughout my youth, I was steeped in this rich heritage and my appreciation for that heritage deepened accordingly.

I have many fond memories of walking the lane from my home on Mosquito Road, up the hill, past my great grandma’s old home and on to the home of my grandma and granddad.  Passing Great Grandma’s window, I was occasionally flagged down and invited inside to warm myself by the wood range and snack on the candied figs that Great Grandma dried, steamed and coated with sugar.  On a few occasions I recall sitting on her lap, in the rocker, by the stove, and having her read poems to me from the little muslin book that had been my granddads when he was a child. I remember still the rhyme on the little book’s cover: “All my other books are worn, and all the pages badly torn, but my muslin book, I’ve found, is just as good as newly bound.” I still have that little muslin book.

Time with Granddad was always a special treat, and rarely did a summer pass without Granddad insisting on a series of camping trips high in the Sierras, where Granddad had camped with his family as a child. All variety of kith & kin joined us on these camping expeditions, including granddad’s brother Asa, his sister Myrle, and, until she was ninety-three, Granddad’s mother, Meda Eliza, who did much of our cooking over a crackling fire. As a little girl, her mom, Laura Ellen Oldfield Camp, had crossed the plains by covered wagon, making the trek from Wisconsin to the goldfields of northern California back in 1854, when the road west consisted of a series of wagon ruts and Native Americans still thrived on vast herds of migrating buffalo.  Camping was in our blood.  We slept on cots in old canvas tents, and a huge block of ice kept our groceries cold in an old oak icebox. Granddad had built red racks for his 1941 Chevy, so the old pickup afforded plenty of space for all the gear, and the bed of the old Chevy doubled as sleeping quarters for my grandparents.

I remember well crawling out of my own sleeping bag at first light, in order to join my grandparents in their cozy quarters in the back of the ’41.  I remember Granddad’s big grin and his mass of disheveled, gray hair as he peeked out from under the covers. I remember how warm it seemed crawling under their down filled comforter after kicking off my slippers on the tailgate, the sound of the canvas cover rustling in the wind, and the stars blinking through the silhouetted pines. And I remember how Granddad cherished every minute.

Once the morning fire was going, Sis and I would dress quickly and join the rest of the family, warming our backsides at the campfire and anticipating the smell of coffee brewing in the gray graniteware coffeepot and the almost debilitating aroma of frying bacon and golden brown hotcakes that would soon be sizzling on Great Grandma’s griddle.

The Stellar blue jays called from the canopy of old growth pines; the sun cascaded down through the evergreen bows; off in the distance Rainbow trout began to take May flies from the still, cobalt blue surface of the mist covered lake, and my mind envisioned my granddad’s granddad, crossing the country by covered wagon, long ago, when Indians roamed these hills.

Such were the days of my childhood, when life seemed simple, summer was perennial, and childlike faith assured tomorrows joys.  Treasure your memories, keep them fresh, and never take them for granted; even our memories can fade with the harsh glare of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment