Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I REMEMBER - 'Men only' - Fish Camp with Cousins & Uncles

There are lots of good memories in our lives and for those that are blessed with large families, there are often even more.  Interaction with different personalities that might doom a relationship outside your own family, but are preserved forever because they are “blood” relatives  Blood is thicker than water.

Most of my relatives were in Oklahoma and when my Mom and sister and I moved to California, it was like Marco Polo sailing off to the edge of the known universe.

We went back a couple of times for a visit and family reunions.  Being young, skinny wearing glasses, with all my 6’+ farm boy older cousins and Aunts and Uncles, I was often lost in the mix.

One of my favorite memories was a week-long, guy’s only, fish camp expedition.  There were lots of trucks (one with a huge freezer in the bed), chicken guts, “Catfish Charley” stink bait, treble hooks for snagging catfish and trot-lines.

We stayed at a fish camp on the Arkansas River…little shanty cabins right on the river bank.  We had big campfires at night and I drank lots of soda…I seem to recall my uncles and older cousins drinking something with the word “lightning” out of mason jars, getting louder and crazier as the night wore on.  We had made a side trip to this little farm to pick up the mason jars.  I waited in the truck.

We caught a couple of month’s worth of fish, mostly catfish and bass.  We cleaned and gutted them and packed them in the freezer right there.  We also had fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner (good to get home and have a hamburger).

I watched my older cousins catch catfish with their bare hands in little washed out recesses in the river banks.  There were lots of yelling and new words for me to learn when they got spiked with fins. 

My fondest memory after 50+ years was a nightmare at the time, which is often true with many good stories.  Being the youngest (and most na├»ve) on this “man trip”, I got initiated into the “Chiles Clan” one night.  We were sitting around the campfire and the mason jars were being passed around – not me.  

One of my three uncles announced that it was time to check the trotlines and needed a volunteer.  All my cousins volunteered me.  It was pitch black and very late at night.  I was terrified to even go much beyond the campfire area, but had to “man up” and not let it show that I was about to wet myself in fear.  

I had to take one of the “Jonboats” off the shore and paddle out into the night following the rope tied from one tree to another across the river and check the dangling baited hooks to see (had a lantern) if we had any fish on them, pull them up, remove the fish – drop them in the bottom of the boat (club them in the head if they flopped too much), rebait the hooks and paddle back.  No problem.  I am thinking, I can do this.

I faced my fear of the dark and took off as calmly (on the outside) as I could and was about halfway out when the initiation happened.  One of my older cousins slipped into the water behind me and quietly swam out to the boat and came up over the side behind me with a loud moan.  I now knew the monster stories were true and I was soon to be a dead man (boy actually).  Never one to go down without swinging (I had lost my fair share of playground fistfights) I first screamed at the top of my lungs then grabbed the paddle and wacked the “monster” over the head a couple of times. 

The distant laughter from the camp that had started with my screaming at the top of my lungs, turned into several enlightening four letter words from my half-drowned cousin and my uncles on the shore – one of which had to swim out and help his dazed “monster” son back to shore…and then the laughter started up again back at the camp after confirming everyone was still alive.  This time they were laughing at my soaking wet, gash-on-forehead cousin.

I was now officially in the clan…even offered a sip from the Mason jar (after they applied some to my cousin’s wound - man, did he ever yell even louder than me). Tasted very much like gasoline, but not as smooth…I think my eyes crossed several times from just enough to wet my flaming lips. I slept well.

The story was passed around at the next week’s family reunion.  Me, swelling with pride, my cousin embarrassed and my Mom whacking her brothers (my uncles) for allowing such a thing.  

My uncles were 6’3”+ - my mom was 5’1” – They were laughing so hard, I don’t think her punches were felt much.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I REMEMBER - Thanksgiving Day and the largest car wreck in the U.S.

It was Thanksgiving Day in about 1959.  My mom (Grace Whitlock at the time), my sister Sharon and I were heading down Hwy 80 to San Francisco.  We were traveling in a 1958 Chevy Biscayne (bright yellow) that my Mom disliked intensely.  My dad had bought this car with money we didn't have and then left the family and headed out to parts unknown.  We are in fairly dire straits financially, but Mom had decided to splurge a bit and take us to San Francisco to have Thanksgiving Day at Fisherman’s Wharf and trek through Chinatown. 

We were living in Folsom (near Sacramento) and departed early in the morning, so we could make the day of it.  It was a cold and crisp day, but sunny and cloudless.  We knew we were going to have a fantastic day.  We got dressed in our best Sunday-go-to-Meetin’ clothes and jumped in the car and off we went (note – there were no seat belts : The world's first seat belt law was put in place in 1970, in the state of Victoria, Australia, making the wearing of a seat belt compulsory for drivers and front-seat passengers/Wikipedia).

We started noticing fog.  The closer we got to the Bay area, the foggier it got.  By the time we reached the outskirts of Vallejo, the fog was so thick you could barely see a few feet in front of you.  Traffic slowed to a crawl.  We were mainly concerned about getting to San Francisco in a reasonable time, as this was supposed to be a day trip – down and back.
There was a new bridge in place at the Carquinez straits that had opened earlier that year, but there was still remnants of construction and lane widening about.  We were going about 15 miles an hour, following the taillights of the car in front of us.  Then he stopped.  There was a lot of crashing and metal grinding noises from the other east-bound side of the freeway.  Perhaps he thought he was on the shoulder, not in the slow lane.  Apparently he stopped to see if he could help with the accident occurring across the divider from us, got out and ran over to “help”.  Mom wanted to pull over and get off the freeway out of traffic, but we couldn’t see two feet in front of us.  It was worse out the side windows, because there were no headlights to cut through it.  We knew were close to the bridge, which meant close to the cliffs overlooking the Carquinez Straits (The Carquinez Bridge refers to parallel bridges spanning the Carquinez Strait, forming part of interstate 80 between Crockett and Vallejo, California. The name originally referred to a single cantilever bridge built in 1927, helping to form a direct route between San Francisco and Sacramento. A second parallel cantilever bridge was completed in 1958 to deal with the increased traffic – Wikipedia).

The car behind us stopped also and started honking his horn along with us to get the guy ahead of us to get going. That was about the time the first car hit the car behind us – shoving him into the rear of our car.  I will never know why people drive so fast in bad weather, but they do.  Then a pile-up started, one after another.  Cars were spinning out and crashing into each other.  It was an odd raucous symphony of tearing metal (cars weren’t plastic then – and gas was about 25 cents/ gallon) and blaring horns.  We could also feel the constant reverberation, as the cars behind and to the side of us got hit also.  We discovered later that one of the cars behind us had several bags of potatoes in their trunk and they flew out upon impact.  Cars were skidding around in the potato-strewn freeway. 

It seemed like it would never end.  The repeated shocks of cars crashing into each other got fainter and fainter as the cars continued to stack up behind us.  Soon, the fog lifted a bit where we were and we could see there was a huge turnout about ten feet away from us - enough to park all the cars involved in the accident.  We just couldn’t see it.  It could have been the edge of the cliff also. When it seemed safe to do so, Mom had us get out and run over to the turnout, to get out of the way of the automotive mayhem going on all around us. 

Between the car pile-up opposite us and the car wreck behind us, there were over 100 cars involved (according to an article published later in Popular Science, it was the largest car wreck in the U.S. at the time).  Miraculously, there were no fatalities.  About the worst injury was a guy who got out of his car and tried to run across the freeway, slipped on the potatoes and had his legs run over by skidding car.

When it cleared and the police arrived, we were the only car able to drive away, as we hadn’t hit anyone and there was no damage to the front end of our car. Accordingly, it appeared to be our entire fault, for stopping on the freeway.  Fortunately, there were witnesses that also saw the original car that had stopped, drive away as the accident started in the west bound lane.  He had apparently been on the opposite side of the freeway, looking at the other accident and came running back when our side of the freeway started having collisions and drove away.

We did not go to San Francisco.  We did not go to Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown.  We did not have Thanksgiving the way we had planned in The City by the Bay.  Instead we drove back to our little house in beautiful-weather Folsom.  The grocery stores were closed for the holiday.  We had not stocked the pantry for Thanksgiving.  We became the Old Mother Hubbard poem:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.

There was however, in the back of our cupboard, a large can of Yams and a half bag of dried up marshmallows.  Note: dried marshmallows can be reconstituted and when baked on top of canned yams with butter…becomes a most delicious Thanksgiving meal.  

We were safe, warm and healthy.  A bit crunched in her rear-end, the poor old yellow Chevy could still drive.  Fifty two years later, times are much better and we have much to be thankful for.  It doesn’t have to be a big turkey on the table to be witness to the real bounty:  family, health and friends.  Happy Holidays.