My great aunt lived in Medford, Oregon and occasionally we would take the long drive up there. My brother and I would sleep on the floor of her mobile home. My mom always mentioned what a nice mobile home park it was compared to most. And I remember the nice quiet relaxed feeling of that place. I always felt more comfortable around my Dad’s side of my family. Around my mom and her sister there was always some uneasiness, some uncomfortable question, some feeling that we should be doing something else. There was always a sense of striving. But on my Dad’s side they knew how to sit back and talk with a nice ease. There were always a lot of nice big comfortable chairs in their houses. Never an annoying question, only nice compliments and talk about practical things, what happened on the drive up, where something was located or what the weather was going to be like. That is why I liked visiting my great aunt Ada. She did smoke and my parents were strident non-smokers but it didn’t seem central to her daily routine. I can’t really picture her with a cigarette in her mouth in my memories.
Her husband had died at some point before I ever met him. But my parents sometimes spoke of “Lee”. She still had a couple of books in braille, that belonged to him. He had apparently started to lose his eyesight toward the end of his life. I remember sitting there studying that Braille on the floor of her trailer trying to learn a few words. I probably figured out how to read some simple sentences because I was quite the whiz in those days, I picked up things so quickly. So quickly that I never really had to work for it very much.
There was also Uncle Ray, the life long bachelor who went to Alaska to search for gold at some point in his life, and my Aunt Ada and of course my grandmother Laurel. They were the Johnston’s, my father’s maternal side. As a kid my opening question from adults was not “how old are you?” or “What grade or you in?” it was always “where did you get your beautiful red hair?”. My stock-answer was “from my grandmother”. That was my grandmother Laurel. Like all the Johnston’s she grew up in the tiny town of Hamburg near the California/Oregon border. There, my great grandfather had a general store. At one time he had a gold mine as well, an hydraulic mine. I still have a copy of an old 1950’s magazine which has a short article about “Grandpa Johnston” as my dad called him. It was one of those Arizona Highways’ style article about some old lost byway. It showed a picture of him sitting around a pot-bellied stove with some of his Indian friends (Hamburg was on the Klamath River near the Hoopa Indian Reservation). I once visited Hamburg or I should say the place where Hamburg was, my Dad showed us around a couple remaining but rotting buildings. All that was left of the wood front of the General Store was laying flat on the ground. Laurel and Ada became school teachers in the biggest nearby town; Yreka. Laurel had attended a nearby college and Ada; the youngest went to San Jose State, which the other siblings thought was a bit lavish.
My Dad’s side of the family had settled in California long ago. Both sides had arrived during the Gold Rush era. The Johnston’s had traveled from Minnesota if I remember correctly. His father’s side were German immigrants who settled in the Mariposa area near Yosemite. They were at ease here, comfortable with their deep roots. My mother and her sister always seemed uneasy. Maybe it had to do with their recent immigrant backgrounds which would tend to be a little more striving. I remember little of my mother’s parents, only visiting my grandmother (Nana) in Santa Cruz and going to the beach were there was a kind of fake castle building. I brought back a starfish which stunk up my Nana’s backyard and we put pennies on the railroad track which were squashed by a train. When looking at pictures of her, she seemed a much sterner woman than I remember. But then that is how almost all old pictures look, the stern expression was the vogue. My mother always tried to instill in us a lot of the Scottish pride of her parents. Whenever we visited the old Scottish/British friends of her parents’ times, I thought these were the greatest people. There was always the shortbread and the tea and the adoring comments about my red hair. Me and my little brother were treated like royalty for these visits. It was one of those things that makes you feel sorry to grow older.
When we first began looking for houses in Fair Oaks, I remember seeing the one with two mimosa trees in the backyard. I hoped that we would buy this house because I knew those trees would attract butterflies. This same house also had a large fenced corral where my sister could keep her horses. I thought my parents decided to buy the house because of the mimosa trees but in retrospect that probably had little to do with the decision.
When we first moved to Fair Oaks it was a semi-rural place with houses spaced far apart among abandoned orchards of oranges, grapefruit, olives, and almonds. Some of our neighbors raised sheep and there were probably a high percentage of 4-H members in the vicinity. We weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood to own a horse, which my sister could ride in our own backyard or connect with the trails near the American River by riding through the park next door.
My school was only a short walk through the park, past the tennis courts and up a small hill. My mom used to drive me there when I started in the First Grade. But I soon began walking there on my own in the Second Grade.
I’ve always considered those years in elementary school my Halcyon years. I was the smartest student in my Grade (until Tim came along in the Fifth Grade), and the best behaved during class. I was also the fastest runner and an often underestimated athlete. I would love it when we would pick teams for some sport and the captains only knew me from my academics. They would inevitably pick me next to last, then be amazed when I would score the goal in “Punt back, Run Back”, or make an incredible catch in kickball or be the last one standing in dodge-ball. Unfortunately those days didn’t last; but that’s another part of my story.
Our next door neighbors, when we first moved to Fair Oaks were a huge family with eleven kids, and a goose that would wander into our yard and sometimes chase us. They moved out of their house, the big white house which stood on high ground. It was the oldest house around. That was about a year after we moved in, but not before they cut down a huge Blue Oak Tree (which are very tall, majestic, lightly leafed trees that lose there foliage in the fall). It was all planned, the tree would fall into our yard and a fence was taken down temporarily so it wouldn’t be wrecked. I still remember everyone from both families watching as some adult man, maybe my father (my dad was pretty good with a chainsaw), maybe the neighbors father took a chainsaw and started cutting. It was near dusk on probably a fall night. The tree slowly gathering momentum, had a long ways to fall because our yard was on a slope. The fall itself was spectacular, with pieces of small branches flying in random directions and pieces of sod being thrown in the air.
After the family with eleven kids moved out I was quite happy with the new neighbors. There was a boy who was my age, Jake and a girl who was my younger brother’s age, Sam . One of the first things Jake told me as we were walking in the park and looking up at the tall oak trees. He pointed out the large bird’s nest in the upper branches (it was probably a magpie’s nest). He said his father died from a giant bird swooping out of the tree and carrying him away. I’m not sure if I believed that lie or not but I don’t remember being particularly afraid of the birds. And my mom set the record straight when I told her about it.
Jake became my everyday friend, coming over to our house and knocking on the door, wondering if I could “come out and play”. Generally I would but I wasn’t always eager about it. Sometimes Sam would come over also. Much less frequently my brother Alex and I would go over to their house and ask if they could come out and play. Their house was the “estate” house of the neighborhood. It was the oldest house that was probably built in the boom years of the orchards when one house would be surrounded by lots and lots of acreage. I later read that during the 1930’s a couple of heavy freezes wiped out the area as a consistent citrus producing area.
In those halcyon years I also had friends at school. Gary, Scott , Charles (Chuckie), Tim, Danny these were the ones I remember best. Gary was the regular boy, he liked sports was moderately good at school work and was chummy with other boys. Scott was the second fastest kid in our grade and often my stiffest competition in most sports. Danny was a somewhat troubled tough Italian kid, I remember him telling crude sexual jokes and “Polish” and “Italian” jokes. Tim and Chuckie were my best friends at school. Tim literally had a “genius” IQ, far overshadowing my academic skills. And he fit the part too. He was short, wore glasses, with straight “bowl” cut hair and never played sports. When he did play, they were cerebral games, recreating WWII battles for example. Chuckie was probably my best friend at school, a kind and quirky kid who wasn’t good at sports or schoolwork, he was just a real likable kid. I was popular among the other kids in class also. I was consistently nominated to run for class president, though I always turned it down and instead was consistently voted the class treasurer, something more suited to my quiet soft-spoken demeanor.
These elementary school days when the kids were positive and the teachers generally had the kids as their priorities were soon to give way to a much harsher environment. An environment that would transform me and some of my closest friends. I think the first signs of what was happening, occurred in our sixth grade camping trip to some nearby group camp. We were all becoming sexual beings but the volume was turned up way too loud for me. We had high school aged “counselors” along with us on our trip. On the bus during the drive to camp one of the kids mentioned to a male counselor that another female counselor was ugly and the young male counselor responded “who cares as long as she’s got a hole”. This verbal exchange, set the tone for our camping trip.
For the night I was assigned a tent cabin with about a dozen other boys. A couple of them started telling loud stories about “Little Johnny Fuckerfaster and MaryJane Pee”, tales of playing doctor and plucking of pubic hair. And a majority of the boys seemed to take a keen interest in the subject. I’m not sure where they picked up these stories, which I had never heard before or since for that matter. I just wanted to go to sleep and it seemed like I was in a very small minority. The stories went on and on until midnight when one of the high school aged counselors came storming into the tent cabin yelling for us to shut up. I’m not sure which made the trip more miserable, having to listen to juvenile sexual stories for hours at night or being verbally intimidated by a high-schooler who really poor skills when it came to handling kids.
There was one moment from the class camping trip that felt positive to me. One of the counselors (not the vulgar loud mouthed one) took a small group of us kids out for a short hike into the woods. When we reached a certain place we sat down and “mediated”. It was the first time I had been exposed to this concept and it’s connection to nature. It has been a connection that has served me well throughout my life.