Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Rough and Ready
Since flesh can't stay, we keep the breath aloft. Since flesh can't stay, we pass the words along." --Erica Jong
"In 1918," writes Jack McGinnis in his little book called RANDSBURG-Southern California's Greatest Gold Camp, "a big silver strike was discovered." And the Kelly mine, where Daddy worked, "was on its way to fame. It was almost unbelievable how rich it was." Other silver mines, the Silver King, Big Four, Silver Glance, Red Warrior, and the Yellow Aster were also booming. A post office was established in 1922. "The miners were calling the town Gin City, and Sin City, and the postal department soon got tired of the confusion, so they settled the name by calling the town 'Red Mountain.' Grandpa was the sheriff, and he wore a silver star on his chest that said so. My brother said he remembered gun shots at night, and always worried about Grandpa. I remember hearing coyotes howl at the moon.
"Red Mountain was a rough and ready town. Saloons were everywhere and this was during prohibition, too. Authorities didn't seem to care and looked the other way. If a raid was planned on Red Mountain, somebody was always tipped off. Girls and liquor were plenty everywhere you went, up and down the main street. Gambling was everywhere. This was really a last frontier town in the west. There were places named the Northern, the Silver Dollar, the Owl, the Shamrock, the Palace, the Stag, and many more. The girls were all young and beautiful. Everybody had fun," McGinnis writes. My brother says, "Red Mountain was an interesting place in which to grow up. I lived there the first fifteen years of my life, and still retain many fond memories of it." He delivered newspapers to the "girls," the prostitutes down on the main street. "They were always nice to me," he remembers. He says, "My dad was the foreman at the Santa Fe mine. He had studied mining engineering through a correspondence course, and I believe he knew more than most engineers. We used to sneak to the edge of the Santa Fe and spit down it until a piece of spit hit one of the miners after gaining several hundred feet of momentum. We got chewed out plenty."
All the mines, Daddy said, were full of Tommyknockers, gremlins who caused cave-ins, who loved to trap miners, and I thought, would surely eat a child whole if one wandered too close to one of the mine shafts. I was interested in Tommyknockers, apparently more than my big brother was! On occasion I did take Daddy's lunch to him, and was lowered down the shaft in a bucket, carrying the food in my lap. The Kelly had a 1400 foot vertical shaft, a head-frame with a large wheel pulley at the top and a hoist house below where a long cable with the bucket extended down into the shaft. I never saw a Tommyknocker, but I loved going down into the mines where it was cool and damp, and smelled of rocks and carbide and old timbers that shored up the tunnel walls and ceilings. Daddy would spit in the lamp on the front of his hard hat and the carbide gave off a gas he lit with a match. The little fire barely lit the rocks walls and the tunnels were shadowy. The fires in the miners headlamps were like little stars.
Daddy came to California from Utah as a young man barely eighteen years old. His father came, too, bringing his fiddle (which, years later and restored, my oldest son would learn to play). Grandpa could make slip-bark whistles, and tie a button over a string so that, wound up, it would hum as the string was pulled tight, then loosened, and pulled tight again, an endless delight to me.
Mama taught me to play "cat's cradle" with a piece of string pulled in patterns from one set of fingers to another. Back and forth. Mama came from Colorado when she was thirteen, a green-eyed little girl with a head full of wild red hair and freckles (which she hated). She had picked cotton all the way across central California, had lived in a cave with her father, her red-haired mother, a red-haired sister named Josie, and a brother named Ray, and she had walked to school in Red Mountain along the very rim of the hill in back of our house, afraid of the wild donkeys that roamed and brayed there, leftovers from the old miner's camps before Red Mountain, Jo'burg, and Randsburg were boom towns. In time, Mama and Daddy met and married, and Mama didn't learn until they'd been married for 50 years that my father had given up what was a promising career as a professional baseball player for love. He LOVED baseball! He once pitched a no-hitter against the famous Satchel Paige, and might've pitched for the Los Angeles Angels, but for love of Mama, and mining. They didn't have much, but they had that. He built the house for her out of railroad ties. They loved each other, and they made beautiful music together, playing for dances at the White House in Randsburg, Daddy on the saxophone, slurring out sweet songs--Mexicali Rose was his favorite--while Mama played the piano. And after my brother was born he went along with them. When he got big enough, 2-years-old or so, he sat up on stage with the band on an upturned Folger's Coffee can, chewed on a make-believe cigar, and drummed alongside the cigar-smoking drummer. (Years later my second son would learn to play his grandfather's sax, and sometimes used it in his own band.)
My brother was an imaginative little boy who liked to dress up as a cowboy, making corrals with sticks and catching horned toads to use as his "horses," or as the "Masked Marvel." He was almost eleven when I was born, and was often recruited to hang out long lines of diapers when Mama needed help. He was a good boy, and a good brother. He went away to High School in Barstow when I was only three or four, and so I only saw him on week-ends and summers. He learned to play the trumpet and took piano lessons and loved model airplanes. He glued together balsa-wood frames, covered them with silk and hung them in the kitchen, and flew them across the desert, airplanes with one set of wings, or with two sets, and propellers, airplanes that smelled of balsa and model glue. And those with real gasoline engines were like birds, alive in his hands.
One picture is my brother and me, the other is my first grade class. I am in the front row, second from the left. First grade is a big deal. My grandson Simon started first grade this week.
(This is for Rick Mobb's son Jason, a story for Bruno: Places We Are From.)