Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sometimes you can just "feel" life.

I started this post as a reply to a post that Indie made about Townes Van Zandt. Here’s what she said:

“One of these days I'll write a whole post about the late Townes Van Zandt. I'm in love with his poetry, in love with his heart, his soul, his sad cowboy voice and his dark eyes. He was the king of the mixed metaphor, but I don't care. He speaks to my soul.”

To those that don’t know Indie, she is an English major, She lives in Arcata, She is steeped in Humboldt State, and she works at the Mckinleyville newspaper. Usually, that is the type of person that would scare the hell out of me to be around, because I’m a walking treasurer trove of literary mistakes.

To which I replyed:
“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances ;”

I started out to take that metaphor and mix it up, but I just couldn’t do it. It hit to close to home for me to be irreverent.

Indie, it isn’t often that English majors can sort to the bottom of a persons life and feel the soul of that person like you do. Usually that means that a person has suffered some pain in their own life. There is an old saying “When the country and western songs are all about you, you know that… Well you get my drift.

In my life I’ve seen many people pushed aside because of their poor command of the English language. Some of the people that I knew, when I was a lad, were mostly poor people that moved out here from the poor states, Okalahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, or Texas. They moved here and went to work in the lumber industry. They were mostly poor folks and struggling to make a living. They didn’t have an education and they didn’t get any jobs other than those that were mostly just labor. They were usually called Okies and people usually shunned them. The kids were made fun of in school. People would make fun of their accents, and generally looked down on the things that they did. The “Okies” soon learned to shut up around “educated folks” and not say anything around the kind of people that criticized them.

Even as a child, I was fascinated by these people, I still am. They all had stories. Some had stories of survival. Some had stories of their trips to California and all of the things that they saw along the way. The one thing that they had in common is they were doers. I became great friends with a kid from Arkansas. Like I said these people were doers. Gary was ten and I was eight when we first met. Gary and I got in more darn trouble than you can ever imagine. But we had more darn fun than any of the other kids around. He and I were pretty fair mechanics and we would get the old cars that were behind my dads garage running and race them around my grandmothers orchard.

I’ve always been good at fishing out stories, and Gary’s dad had endless stories. When they came California, they came through Texas. Being fairly uneducated, they under-anticipated how big Texas was. They were driving as far as they could and sleeping in the car and taking turns driving. The way Gary’s dad told his story is:

“We’s fixin’ to come to California, so’s we get out this here road map and it has this big blue line that the man at the garage say’s was the color of all the good roads. So’s we takes off with a pocket full of money and a tank fulla’ gas. It waren’t long for we was in Texas. Wall, after we’s hit Texas, the roads got real long and straight. We drove for hours and it looked like we was in the same place. We figured we’d drive faster and get there quicker. We was moving right along real regular like, but seemed like we was still in the same place. Soon it’s my turn to drive and I figured I’d get ‘er done, so I started driven’ real fast like. Things was going by pretty fast and the folks was looking at me like I was crazy or somethin’. But when we looked out the window it still looked like we was in the same place. So I picked her up a little bit. Soon we was going as fast as that poor old car could go, it woun’t go any faster, but we was still in the same spot. Well, we was drivin’ along real good and I was getting purty tired when we came to where things didn’t look the same, and there was this durn turn in the road. We was going too fast to make that turn and I knew it, so’s I just take the old car right off the road and through the dessert. Cactus was flyin’ ever’where, the kids was a screaming like they thought they was gonna die. Finally we got stopped, there we was, stuck in the sand out in the middle of this Texas dessert, with one durn turn in the middle. I never did figure why they put that turn there. It took ever’body to push the car back on the road, so’s we got in and took off again, only this time I had to drive slower. The kids always like to tell the story about how their dad could go faster, and faster, and faster, until pretty soon he’s goin’ “mowin’ the cactus speed“. So now ever time I drive real fast like, the kids say that I’m “really mowin the cactus now.”

Somewhere along the way an “Okie” kid taught me how to whittle a green willow whistle. Can you do that?

I like people that can tell a good story, I like to listen to them even more.

Indie, thanks for the reminder, If you don’t taste, smell, hear, and feel life, it ain’t worth living! Now, Nora Jones singing Townes Van Zandt. That’s livin'.


Kym said...

Ernie, I laughed until I cried. I laughed because the story was funny. I cried because I could hear my grandpa talking in your telling of it. He was one of the Okies whose cows' bellies filled with dust and so he and his family loaded up the rattly old car and headed to California. I miss him.

Eel River Ernie said...

Great story Ernie! There were many of the same people in the mountains of Trinity County with equally interesting stories.

A green willow whistle? One quick story - about 8 or 10 years ago on one of my bi-annual fishing trips to the Kamloops area of British Columbia my friend Murph and I were getting ready to walk into a remote lake and we were checking equipment and realized we didn’t have our plastic Smokey the Bear whistles in our fishing vests (the whistles are carried for signaling if you get separated, lost or need help and I guess you could try to scare bears with them too.) Anyway Murph says “no problem, let’s just make up some green willow whistles” and by golly he sat down and showed me how and to my amazement they worked! I still have a collection from that trip and one of them still works even though it looks petrified.

EkoVox said...

And of course, Townes Van Zandt is from Fort Worth, Texas.

Just listen to Wayne "The Train" Hancock sing and you'll hear a segment of the population of Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and Mendocino Counties in the 1950's up through the 1980's.

lodgepole said...

I remember in Junior High a couple of brothers moved to town from Oklahoma. One day after football practice we were all horsing around when one of the Okies blurted out "Listen at 'em!" After he said that you could have heard a pin drop as the local kids looked at each other in bewilderment. To this day it's still one of my favorite things to say.

Indie said...

If that guy had turned left at the tumbleweed, he'd probably have driven right into my family's yard!

And yes, those are the straightest roads you can imagine with the most monotonous scenery. BUT the trade-off is big sky, amazing sunsets, zillions of stars, glorious thunderheads and horizons full of lightning.

Ernie, I just talked about this to my class today, about the Okies and the Okie dialect, and why a southern-sounding dialect doesn't carry much social clout among many Californians. Because those refugees from the dust bowl were dirt poor and did all the menial jobs. It's a class issue, in a land that likes to tell itself it's not class conscious!

I wish I knew how to make a willow whistle.

And you are so right about "when the country songs are about you..."

omr said...

how to make that whistle

not as good as being shown in person, but a few clicks away is pretty neat.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thanks OMR.

That's just how you make them. Just remember, if at first you don't succeed, try again. The best time to make a whistle is in the spring, and the best wood to use is second growth. ( The sprouts that shoot up out of a trimmed back bush)

Kato said...

Right on, Ernie! It's not how you say it, but what you say. When I first landed out here (clueless), the "Okie" and "Arkie" neighbors took me under their wings most readily, helping me find work, a roof to stay under, and sharing their food and facilities (like a phone, hot water, a ride to town!). I listened to many stories of transplants from all over the country, too, and their struggles in starting over somewhere new, trying to make a better life here.

I had a yankee accent educated out of me, but I never think less of anyone who uses phrases like "warshing machine","y'all" or "we was". My heart goes all soft when I hear a drawling voice, because it was that kind of voice that first welcomed me here.

spyrock said...

"my connection to the heavily Southern, heavily pro-slavery, heavily predisposed to violence, heavily sensitive to the slightest insult perceived or actual, heavily prepared to kill at all times with a gun, a knife, by hand, my connection to the wild people who settled the Anderson Valley and the rest of Mendocino County is specific. My great grandfather on my mothers side was a Quantrell raider. so many Missourians settled in Mendocino County before during and after the Civil War that the county was sort of a long distance extension of Clay County, Missouri." Bruce Anderson in his "Mendocino Papers" goes on to say that Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger, Virgil and Wyatt Earp all spent time in Mendocino County and then you've got people like Texas Boy Hall who worked for Judge Hastings, one of the Kelsey's who discovered round valley was married to a clanton from Texas. the same clantons who had the gunfight with the earps, walter jarboe, jackson farley, and the eel river rangers killing all the indians. right up until the dawn of the 20th century, the wild country from covelo north to weaverville was outlaw country. some say, it still is.
so i already wrote about my great great grandfather who lived across the road by the little lake near the red fox casino who was killed around 1872 acting as a constable. now, i find out that one of my dad's relatives who lived 7 miles east of eureka was shot by a crazy man for no apparrent reason in 1874.
i worked with okies, arkies, and texans in the cannery for over 30 years. most of them lost their jobs to people from mexico. like ernie, i have a lot of respect for these people. and though i tend to see the good in people i've learned not to be judgemental and i also have a healthy respect for the people that don't see the good in all people. sort of like the ones who would see black elk as a lice infested digger. but as time passes, things change, bruce goes on to say that after years of hating each other up in the et, the rednecks and hippies have married into each other and created a new type of person called a hipneck.
bruce is a bit too negative for me but if you like bullshistory, he's your guy.

Anonymous said...

Raised in the suburbs, I watched Spin and Marty on TV every chance I got. In class, instead of listening to the teacher, I dreamed about being an Indian kid before white people came to California and forced children to stay indoors all day long.

I saw a movie once where one kid showed another kid how to make a willow whistle. It was a moving moment in the movie. Ernie's story reminded me of it. That moment of unselfish sharing between two poor kids made an impression on me that has lasted about fifty years so far. Thanks for the reminder!

Indie said...

Spin and Marty was my sister's favorite TV show ever!!

Robin Shelley said...

One of my favorite memories is of me as a little girl leaning against my grandpa Roy Dunlap's shoulder as he was squatted down in the brush behind our house carving me a willow whistle...

spyrock said...

just about all my friends growing up were okie kids. mike and gary lived with their mom, thelma, on welfare. mike and i were the same size and jerry, a big heavy kid and gary, a little skinny kid with a big heart, were the teams. we would play baseball all summer, tackle football all winter. every night after dinner we'd ride our bikes all over. after i left town to go to college, their mom and grandma died the same day. they went to live with mr parle, the school principle. a few years later he had a heart attack and died at a pta meeting. where i worked, the okies ran the back and the texans ran the front but the arkies got along with everyone. there was so much drama between the okies and texans that they didn't hire any of them back when they sold the place and replaced almost everyone with immigrant mexicans.
there's only me and johnny left from the old days. johnny is an arkie and both his parents worked at the same place. he's one of the most fun people i've ever known. everything just rolls off his back like a duck in water. he used to ride his harley all over the place but now he likes the indian casino. i tell him that he's giving the indians all the money his ancestors got when they took their land but he just laughs and talks about the free steak and lobster dinner they give him.

ross sherburn said...

i don't know about willow whistles,but one of those folks you are talking about,whittled out a toy rifle for me one time,during lunch,on the landing!this was out off of sprowel creek,about 1958!!

suzy blah blah said...

great great Great tale Ernie! i think maybe the road had that turn in it cuz every really really good story if its truly a fine wurk of fine litrature if you ever noticed takes a abrupt 90% turn for no apparant reason ...specially if its a bull story like one time Suzys mind got going reallly really fast when i was in cowboy country down in Texas in the High dessert and ate some cactus and ended up... up (whats the name of that creek again?) when suddenly a bull came charging out of the bushes straight at me!! And it chased poor Suzy all the way from Armadilldo Texes to SoHum... we took a sharp right turn at L.A. ---I think it was a real bull but i never could be sure -- it might have been my paranoid imaination playing tricks on Suzy again cuz when i got up near Laytonville i chanced to peek back over my shoulder and there was no bull, but --there was a lot of bullshit so maybe thats the proof in the, uh, pudding.
can yuo find the bull?