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Marina Green, Part 1

February 21, 2012

There were a several guys I grew up with in Almaden who I was hanging out with before I even started kindergarten and kept hanging out with til well past college. The two main guys were Mark and Steve. Mark was like a fifth or sixth generation Almadenian. Steve’s parent’s had moved to Almaden from Minnesota just before World War II started. Guess what, they were big, strong, good natured Swedes from Min-e-Soa-tA. Steve’s dad was a huge man with broad shoulders and a quick smile on his big jaw. He was a welder and built battleships during the war. His name was Ken and he loved sports, especially boxing. He was the top rated boxer on the ship he was assigned to while in the Navy. Both Steve and Mark were long, tall, stringy youngsters while I was the runt of the bunch, short but feisty. The big, Swedish welder, Ken, made sure I knew how to take care of myself when stuck amidst these stretched out, young ruffians. Ken insisted that every time I showed up in his presence I had to throw a big, huge punch onto his shoulder, which he’d have to bend down a little so I could reach this welcome and waiting target. Ken would take my punch and then ask, “Is that all you’ve got?” so I’d step back a few paces and then run at his waiting shoulder and smash into it with all my might. Everyone would just laugh. Sometimes I’d do it two or three times in succession, each time backing up a little further.
We Almaden guys would use the punch in the shoulder greeting clear into our 30s, but as we got more involved with city people, they didn’t really appreciate the masculine/macho “how ya’ doing?” punch, a manifestation of our ancestral heritage. It was eventually gleaned out from our repertoire of country bumpkin ways.

Mark’s dad was of Basque extraction and his mother’s heritage was French. Both of his parents were very calm and fairly reserved people. And, significantly, they were both very artistic.  I always thought of Mel, Mark’s dad, as a gentleman farmer, though he never took up farming as a full time occupation. He did, however, grow up in the industry of husbandry, like all the rest of us. His money making job was as a county fruit and vegetable inspector at the drying sheds and canneries all around the Valley.
My first memory of Mel was on one early morning he took me and Mark on a hike, nothing special, just a walk in a dewy pasture with the cows and the newly fallen calves lazily checking us out while chewing their cud and breathing small clouds of steam. Mel got us to the edge of the pasture and told us he was going to take us up to the fabled “Indian Caves” half way up in the Santa Teresa hills. I just remember this so clearly, Mel tells us to walk up the hill, the caves are over there, pointing to a cluster of small boulders. We start up the hill and several dozen yards later, we peter out. Melvin asks us if we are tired and we admit it. He tells us to come back to the base of the hill, which he has yet to leave. He looks back to the cattle loosely spread though the meadow. Do you guys think those cows are pretty much dumb animals? Mel asks us. Mark and I look at each other, shrug and say “sure,” after all, all they do is eat and poop. Mel notes that what they eat is what they find growing in the wild. When the easy stuff in the meadow is gone, the cattle spread out and work harder for their naturally growing food. They have to climb up into the hills. Then he asks us, how far did you guys get before you got pooped out? We look back up the hill, we really didn’t get very far at all. Mel points out the faint paths worn into the grass, paths switch backing up the side of the hill. Mel explains that the cows have made those paths over many, many generations. They are smart enough to know that they can’t just go up into the hill head long like we did. To make it easier to get up the hills, they go across the grade of the hill, then “switch back” and go the other way across the grade, then back, and forth, and back and forth. They reach the top of the hill with enough energy to eat the new food they’ve found. This was such a good set of paths even the other animals used them; the deer, the mountain lions, even grazing horses. Wow. Even these dumb looking cows really were pretty smart. We’d have never thought of that.
Mel summarized it; some animals are smart about going up the side of the hill. Some animals are really smart about finding water out here in the woods. Some animals are good at one thing, other animals are good at other things. They all work together to make life as easy as they can make it for everyone. They share each other’s talents. They might eat each other sometimes, but they use still use each other’s skills and talents. People are same way. Don’t forget that.

Mel had us borrow the cows’ switch backs and we found the caves.

Mark and I were like around five years old then. We weren’t exactly philosophers but Mel got us to thinking. I never forgot the lesson I learned that morning and I never learned it in a class room in all my years of formal schooling.

There was something about our Almaden neighborhood that I really didn’t come to realize until I more than 30 years old. Mark, Steve, the Quinby twins, all of us guys were the oldest kids in the little valley. We all had younger brothers and sisters but none of us had older siblings.  My big epiphany was that we were all the first generation after the end of World War II. It was like the baby making machine was shut down during the war. Once the soldiers were discharged they went home and then set up housekeeping, THEN they started having kids. I was born in 1948, none of my friends were born before 1947. The war ended in 1945. It took two to three years to set up housekeeping and then the baby making started, the now famous “Baby Boomers” had arrived.
Now, most of these guys were the sons of land holders for generations back. I was the stray. My dad had moved his little “start-up” family from the big city Chicago, Illinois. He rented an old farm house that one of these Almaden soldier boys had grown up in and, as my dad worked two jobs, delivery man during the day, tuxedoed waiter at night, the farmer, Al, who we rented from, took me as his surrogate son and everyone in the little valley thought I was related to Al in some way. I was another of the “hefe’s sons.” Hefe is the Spanish word for boss; the migrant workers saw me as the hefe’s son. I was one of the valley’s bosses sons. But, in fact the other hefe’s sons knew I wasn’t really one of them so I grew in a somewhat awkward arrangement; half with it, half without it. Maybe this is one reason I’m so self-conscious. And, I am starting to learn, in my old age, this is probably also why I can be such cantankerous, stubborn old fart, like an old time landowner who doesn’t let anyone screw around with him. And these sorts of guys are famous for yelling, “Hey you kids, get off my property!!!!,” usually at some tract kids.

I s’pose the one good thing about having a city kid for a father was that I probably had more exposure to city things than most of my friends. On Saturday mornings my dad would drive me into San Jose so I could browse the army surplus stores for radio parts. As I was growing up, when my dad would be at work at one of the restaurants and a busboy didn’t show up, or a dishwasher, my pop would call my mom and have her bring me to his work and be a stand in for the wayward minion. I was washing dishes and busing tables when I was twelve years old. At 15 I was busing and a valet at “Fullmer’s Golden Doors” on Los Gatos Boulevard (boy, did I hate this one; parking cars for drunk middle aged assholes). I was 17 when I was head busboy at the “Crystal and Silver Service” continental restaurant “17 West” in downtown San Jose. When I was 19 I was asked to manage the coffee shop at Los Gatos Lodge. When I was 23, my dad knew the new owner of the Pasatiempo Golf Course club house, and Pop turned this new owner on to my greatly exaggerated construction skills. I single-handedly attempted to rebuilt their kitchen, bar and dining room. Lucky for me, they ran out of money before they could discover how limited my construction skills really were at that time.
It was really hilarious to me when the farm guys would think that I was out “whoring” around and getting drunk every night that I was hauled in to San Jose to work in the hot, greasy and ultra busy kitchens in the city. It was hateful. I just kept silent, let them think what they wanted. Frankly, I’d rather pick apricots. At least that wasn’t so greasy, sweaty and insanely busy and it was out in the fresh air.

But, of course, having the city kid father did have its down side. Pop was constantly embarrassing me with his total lack of rural common sense.
There was a special hike we went on when we had become too old to be cub scouts and we were all graduating up to being real “Boy Scouts.” This was a special father-son hike. The dads all had to come along on this particular outing. Sure as hell, my pop had to bring his little brownie movie camera. He was always asking people to stop what they were doing, like hiking through the woods, and pose for a picture or do some contrived activity that he could take a movie of. I was always impatient and uncomfortable when he did this. I was never one for posing or acting. So, we go on this father-son hike with pop’s brownie in tow.
Actually things went pretty well on this hike. None of the other fathers seem to be bothered by the movie making efforts, in fact a lot of them really hammed it up for the camera. OK, so this not such a bad thing, I guess. We were walking the ridge from Mount Umunhum to the peak of Loma Prieta. Then we walked down some shoulder of Loma Prieta and started following a gully that turned into a small valley. As we descended the gully, as it became wider and more substantial, we found a small creek at its bottom. At the ridge, the vegetation was mainly scrub, but as we descended, the oaks started getting pretty thick and shady. We reached this one spot where the oaks opened up a little and creek widened into a small pond shaded by the old, tall oaks. Pop thought this was a beautiful spot and we paused there for a good while, he taking pictures and some movies of the spot. At one end of the pond, where the ravine narrowed, Pop found some dangling vines. He tugged at them and figured they were strong enough to hold his weight. I dreaded what I saw coming. My dad calls to one of the other fathers and hands the other father the movie camera and gives him a quick lesson as to how to operate it. Sure as hell, Pop walks some short distance away from the pond’s edge with a vine in hand. He give the vine a good tug and then waves to the other father to start the movie camera. Pop takes a short run and then grabs the vine with both hands and does his famous Tarzan yodel and swings across the pond a few times. The other fathers watched this childishness in good humor but none reprised the action.
We got off the mountain and we all went home for a welcome night’s sleep. It was a fairly arduous walk that we took that day.

Pop made a point of getting the several reels of film to the processor as soon as possible. The scout troop was going to have some sort of ceremony for those who were going to be inducted into the Boy Scouts after this hike. The ceremony was to be held in the biggest room in the Almaden Valley, the school’s auditorium. A few days after the hike, my father started itching his arms and then the itching got worse. He had contracted a very nasty case of poison oak. He was lathered in calamine lotion for weeks. I even got a mild case. None of the farmer father’s could understand where he got the poison oak from. One of the prime reasons they chose the route we took for the hike was that the forestry service assured them that the entire route had been subject to poison oak eradication. That may be, but Pop surely had it.
Pop gets the film back and sets the projector up in the school auditorium, he, still painted with calamine lotion. We all had to get up on the stage and get presented with whatever ceremonial stuff they give to new Boy Scouts. Then they draw down this really big movie screen from the devices hidden in the overhead drapes above the stage. They dim the lights, Pop turns on the projector. One of the Scout Masters narrates my dad’s home movie on this huge screen. It shows us hiking, it shows the panorama views from the top of the Santa Cruz mountains. It shows the walk down the gulch and finally that large pond. Then the camera wobbles around a little and here on this monster screen is my dad swinging from the far shore of the pond and almost plowing into the camera. Everyone in the room breaks out into hysterical laughter. Our landlord, Al, jumps up on the stage and points to the vine on the movie screen, he shouts out “Dominic, that’s where you got the poison oak!!!” and we are all staring at the red leafed vine that my dad was clinging to. People were shedding tears they were laughing so hard. Tarzan didn’t know what poison oak looked like, even when it was in his face.
Needless to say, I was totally, utterly and absolutely devastated.

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