click here to go to my style blog - sometimes people end up here by accident. if so, i hope it's a pleasant detour......steph

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Friends From Madera: Empire of the Wheel

Hello Walter and Greg!  You two were having such a good conversation that i lost my nerve to give you a call last Sunday, while you were discussing Walter's latest book "Friends from Sonora" on Radio Misterioso. So i'm taking this time to write up the many obsessions, locations, traces (?) which link my life, interests and ancestry to the same covered in Walter's book.  It's enchanting to me - it's as if someone took a look at me, my obsessive interests, family, where i've spent my life, and decided to write a book just for me.

To begin with, i was born in Fresno, CA to two Fresno-born parents. My lineage goes back in the area quite a ways on both sides - on my dad's, his father grew up on his father's ranch in O'Neal's in Madera County (on the way to North Fork where my Great Uncle Bob - my paternal grandfather's brother - ran a gas station for years); while mom's line goes back to the Chukchansi tribe, whose traditional lands were in the foothills of the Sierras south of Yosemite, centered in the town of Coarsegold.  While i grew up in the SF Bay Area (Castro Valley), all my grandparents lived in Fresno so we went there a few times a year. My parents loved taking us three kids camping all over California, but especially in the area of the foothills south of Yosemite (our favorite campground was on Chiquito Creek, where mom used to camp with her parents as a little girl). We took many many trips driving up and down Highway 49 in this region, so while North Fork and Chiquito Creek are south of Sonora, we were 'just down the road' and in the same type of eco-system as the area covered in your book.

While the location captivates me, as this is some of the most beautiful country in the world and i love it deeply, some of my family traits also find echoes in your book. First, both of my grandfathers, my two great uncles, my dad and my brother are all incredibly mechanically inclined or obsessed.  They love their cars and boy do they love their planes.

I'll go on to give you an idea of the depth of their obsession, but Walter there was one thing that you mentioned really floored me on Sunday nite - when you talked about the Germans living in the area around Sonora involved in this anti-gravity flight project. My mother's father was incredibly smart, mechanically inclined, and crazy macho. That's a picture of him at the top of this post. He made a name for himself as an uphill motorcycle racer in the 1930's, taking home the national championship (back when they used to race the clock). He worked as a mechanic in Fresno for decades, and was part of a support crew for an Indianapolis 500 racing team (i remember keeping an eye on Grandpa Boliver's car when we'd watch the races growing up). While his team never won the race, his team did develop the piston jack which lifts up the whole car, allowing all tires to be changed at once - which revolutionized the race.

But the startling part for me is this - Grandpa Boliver had a very hard childhood, as he'd been abandoned by his mother and was raised by an aunt and uncle in the area around Fresno and the Sierran foothills. As a result, we don't know much at all about his ancestry - except that part of the mix is German. Your comment made me wonder about the roots of his mechanical talent and obsession!

A Ranching Family in the Sierran Foothills

Next up, my paternal Grandpa George and his brothers. My Grandpa had another hard childhood, but with more fun involved. He grew up on his father's ranch (yep, a ranch in the Sierra Foothills - the exact timing and location are wrong to be involved in your project, but pretty great if someone was writing a little story just for me) and we heard many stories about his self-sufficiency. He delivered his mother of his brother Bob (who owned the gas station) by himself while George was in his early teens; Bob was early and so tiny they kept him in a shoebox on top of the wood burning stove to keep him warm. Grandpa George slept in a small room upstairs with a window, but no glass. He'd wake up with snow on the blanket in winter; in summer the pallid bats which roosted above him would hunt scorpions and bring them home to eat, in the morning Grandpa would find the scorpion claws scattered on his quilt. He really loved the mountains and marveled at the various creatures who lived there.

My grandpa George became a mechanic, i never saw his hands look clean until he'd been retired a month. He and his two younger brothers, Bill and Bob, all loved cars and especially planes. Bill and Bob were of the age to fight in WW2, both flew dozens of bombing sorties over Germany. Bob came home and bought a gas station in North Fork, and lived a bachelor life there with his sister until he died. This reminded me a bit of Frank Rosasco, holing up with the ladies, though Uncle Bob was very healthy and was captain of the local volunteer Fire Department for years. I heard some really touching stories at his funeral about his helpfulness and consideration from many old and young people in the town. He had a huge collection of flight-related magazines which he wanted to donate to the local aviation museum at his death, but i don't know if that happened.

Uncle Bill fits the 'saw something and never recovered' storyline fairly well (though not as well as his father). George spent any number of weekends driving out to various known relaxation spots in and around the greater Fresno Metropolitan Area to pick Bill up and take him back home in time to sleep it off in time for work. Bill made money in a number of unconventional ways, one of which was to collect venomous snakes to meet the ritual needs of local religious groups. He was good at it, but even the best can lose track of a snake now and then. Once he asked my Grandma Gladyce if she'd found a rattler in her car (which she'd been using the last week to drive her kids around to school and etc.), it seems the last time he'd borrowed it a rattler had gone AWOL.

I think both Grandma and Grandpa were somewhat relieved when Bill moved out to Thermal in Death Valley, worked as a border agent, and accumulated a huge collection of classic cars numbering around 100. A mysterious fire destroyed them all in the 1970's.  But Bill continued his fascination with cars and planes. He had a photographic memory as well as quite the knack for drawing, almost savant like in flavor. You could ask him, "Hey Bill, what about that Model A we saw up Old Tollhouse Road in 1958?", and Bill would draw it from memory. He also decorated his house exclusively in purple, walls, towels, and etc. He was quite commiteed to this scheme, in fact he was engaged to be married at one point but his intended bride could not abide so much purple. The marriage got called off.

I grew up hearing all these tales of derring-do about my forebears, but somehow i never questioned why exactly my Grandpa George was running around barefoot in the mountains and delivering his brothers while only in his early teens. About a decade ago, i found out the reason - my great grandfather had been in and out of insane asylums, leaving his wife and young son to hold the ranch together as best they could. I don't know much about my great grandfather's particular symptoms, but i'm guessing it could be a bipolar type disorder. It sounds as if he'd have times when he was fine, then 'episodes' of bad trouble. How bad must it have been for a pregnant woman to prefer to stay alone on an isolated ranch with just her young son to help her in her confinement.....

....and we come to another man who experienced something from which he never recovered - my great grandfather, my father's father's father. In this case, we have a good idea of what happened . When my great grandfather was around 17, he was working in the back of his father's store when his father was robbed and stabbed to death in the store. Horrible. I don't know any details, but the bare bones are enough. Ironically, shop-keeping was the only thing my great grandfather could do that actually made money, through this means he made enough to buy the ranch at O'Neal's, though he only managed to keep it around a decade. So here we have the "murder involving a child" connection, however this one appears to be mundane in it's motives.

Etta Place by John Fluevog - sadly no longer in production

My father continues the mechanically inclined bug. In his late teens and early twenties he and his friends built various vehicles and raced around town (just like in the movie American Graffiti - and in the same spots); he raced stock cars as a member of The Poor Four for a few years and participated in one demolition derby (he said he's never felt so beat up as he did the next day!). When i was born he gave up racing and smoking and i am happy to report he's still going strong, though he mostly plays golf. He retired from Western Union in the 1980's when the company went through a big restructure, his first job had been delivering telegrams for them on bike as a teenager. There we have the telegraph connection. He worked as a tech for most of his working life, on telex systems and then computer networks.

My brother was obsessed with flight as we grew up, he loved birds (watching and drawing them) and put together a number of model airplanes. He and my dad made and flew radio controlled airplanes up in the Oakland hills near Cal State Hayward. Brother joined the Air Force shortly out of high school and retired after twenty years. Greg, i always figure you and Walter would never give me another look after learning about my brother - he worked on those big rivet joint planes with the mile long antennae doing surveillance. He went to Defense Language Institute twice, and the military gave him all types of survival and 'what to do if you're captured by the commies' training. A couple of weeks after this happened, he was second in command on the same type of plane in the same area when they noticed they had "company". Fortunately, the flight ended without incident; at his retirement ceremony years later he received many kudos for the way he handled himself and the crew at that time (though he told me he discussed his nerves with his mates at the time. Nothing like the glamorous thrill of spycraft!) He still likes to fly RC planes but flying in actual planes ain't so fun after all those years and sinus trouble ;)

I can't overemphasize the obsession with mechanics and flight among these men of my family. A typical Thanksgiving day entertainment would be listening to an LP of various racing cars attempting to break the sound barrier out on the salt flats. Yes, an audio recording - not even any visuals. Nothing beats going out to the old road by the airport and laying back to watch the planes take off on a Saturday night, or impressing people by identifying various planes by ear.  I've done my best to avoid retaining any of this information.

still loving the Gold Country - in Nevada City

As for me - well, i'm a known conspiracy theorist/paranoiac and have been since a tender age. At nine i was nicknamed 'Fred' after the uber-paranoid character in Dan O'Neill's alternative comic strip Odd Bodkins, which ran in the daily paper.  I've been driving friends and family nuts with my interests for decades, though after 9/11 i got a lot more serious questions as people saw frightening events unfold. I've also been interested in the strange, the paranormal, and 'flying saucers' from before i can remember, though i never experienced much myself until i had a near death experience at age 20 during a medical procedure.  Since the i've had a taste of just about everything, except unknown objects in flight. As a result of information imparted to me during my NDE thirty plus years ago, i've been a long time practitioner of meditation, in addition to yoga which i learned during high school P.E. (interests shared by Mr. Crowley).

Which brings us to paranormal events in the Gold Country. Years ago, when my husband and i had been married only a couple of years, we were driving around the county of Madera. We decided to drive into North Fork by way of Old Tollhouse Road. This area is pretty rugged and roads are scant, with not a lot of 'short cuts'. At the beginning of Tollhouse Road, Tony and i saw a guy standing by the side of the road and facing in our direction - not actively hitchhiking, but he looked like he'd take a ride if you were offering. He looked to be Indian of the area, very dark with prominent cheekbones, with a strange 'grin'. He'd pulled his lips wide open, showing lots of teeth, but i saw no trace of mirth or happiness. In fact, it felt confrontational. He was hard to miss, but there wasn't much to say about him except i hoped he had a ride set up somehow because we could see no cars around and he was damn isolated.

We drove the road, it was beautiful and historic and mysterious. I especially enjoyed the drive as it's a famous road in the area but i'd never driven it before. Traffic was very very light, we saw another car or two but were certainly not overtaken by anyone driving our direction, into town. Still, as we drove into North Fork, who do we see standing by the side of the road, again facing in our direction, with that strange unfun smile but the same damn grinning man. The only way he could've got to that place in that amount of time would be by the same road we had just taken with, again, no other car passing us. Even my skeptically-inclined husband had to admit this was strange, and wonder if we'd been pranked by a pair of twins with an arcane sense of humor.

Later, as we recounted this tale to my dad, he had a correction for me. I had, it turns out, been on that road before - when my mom and dad had been married only a short while and my mom was pregnant with me. 

There's more, bits and mother has lived in the city of Napa since her retirement, right under the flight path of the many hot air balloons tourists love to ride; one of my dearest, oldest friends is something of an outsider artist himself; i was in elementary school in the East Bay during the zodiac killer scare, when he threatened to disable a school bus and 'pick off the little kiddies' as they exited the bus....

But this'll do for now. Walter, i hope you enjoy this. I doubt it has any 'real connection' to your research, but at the same time i find it fascinating how certain areas seem to attract or emit recurring patterns. Best wishes in your ongoing research and writing, and sincere thanks to anyone who has read to the end!  Yours in 'entertainment purposes only', steph