Friday, April 25, 2008

Learning to drive a stick shift and other bits and pieces from the desert

David asked me if I would expand on my comment in his blog about my mother learning to drive. I don't really know a lot of details as it all happened long before I was born. Bits and pieces of stories told about the time they spent on the ranch in the desert the first year of their marriage came up from time to time. Each bit and piece is a gem in itself, though, so I will put a few of them together.
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The first thing I am trying to do is to remember where I put a certain box which came into my possession after my parents' deaths. The contents are a pile of letters written by my mother to my dad during about two years of their courtship. And one letter from my dad to my mother.
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My grandmother ran a boarding house in Riverside, California in the early '30s. Dad spent a summer or more working and studying at the University of California Irrigated Agriculture Experiment Station there, and the boarding house was his home away from home. When he was not at the school he was growing oranges here:

Amazing what sixty odd years of "progress" brings, isn't it.
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Dad fell in love with the pretty daughter who served dinner at the boarding house. Mother once told me he thought he had fallen in love with the cook and little did he know...
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Along came early 1934 and Dad had an job opportunity. An absentee ranch owner needed someone to manage his ranch. Dad's qualifications were ideal--he had studied irrigated agriculture and managed the oranges for his own dad--but the employer wanted a married man and the job included use of the ranch house. I don't know where the ranch was, other than it was somewhere in the desert. I think it may have been somewhere in the Coachella Valley, but I do know that it was far from anywhere.
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It was still the Depression, and I think they had been waiting until Dad had a job to marry, but this job was to start as soon as possible, and there was barely enough time to publish the bans and plan a wedding before Lent began, when no weddings could take place in the Church till after Easter and the job might evaporate if they waited any longer.

And so they went off to their desert hideaway for their first year of wedded bliss.

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They had a little dog named Trixie--a terrier of some sort. She was a feisty little thing and one of the things she was famous for was notifying the folks if a rattlesnake came near. As a child I remember finding a rifle in the back of my parents' bedroom closet. (Don't ask what I was doing in the back of my parents' closet.) Believe me, that rifle was in stark contrast to the gentle quiet image I had of my dad. I learned that Dad used it for shooting rattlesnakes when they lived in the desert. This may have been the first time I heard anything about that year in the desert.
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Now, as long as I remember, my mother never enjoyed driving. Any time she could she would leave the driving to Dad, who truly did enjoy it. Seemingly this traces back to when Mother learned to drive, which happened rather traumatically during that year on the ranch.

This is not the car, but rather is the new car Dad drove with his parents on a trip a few years earlier, so it has to be better than what they had available. And this is likely a lot better road than what they had out by the ranch. Mother had not even considered learning to drive until that fateful day when Dad was bent in pain with what would turn out to be appendicitis.
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Now, I learned to drive a stick shift when I had to go pick up my husband who had had car trouble one night in our automatic. I already knew how to drive, and it wasn't a life and death situation. Can you imagine if the love of your life was writhing in pain (though I can't even imagine my stoic dad writhing) and you are confronted with the urgent necessity of getting him to the emergency room miles and miles away and you have no phone, so even if there were someone you could call, you couldn't.
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But she did it. She learned to drive that very night.
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That couldn't have been a comfortable ride for Dad. But he survived, and lived another sixty years to tell stories of that year on the ranch.
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Or not tell.
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Because there was apparently a lot they would have liked to forget about that year in the desert. With each other they were totally enthralled--thank goodness. If they had not been so devoted that year might have been enough that I might not be here to retell these tales, the little that I know of them.
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Eventually I learned that the ranchhouse was drafty and next to impossible to keep the blowing sand out of. The owners were not all that pleasant to work for with some of their demands. The folks had some weekends off, when the owners would come for a holiday in their house in the desert and their manager could (and must) go visit somewhere for the duration. It was after one of those weekends, when those people left their laundry for Mother to do, that my father, in the midst of the '30s told them, "You hired me to manage the ranch. You did not hire my wife to do your laundry. I quit."
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And the year on the ranch in the desert came to an end.

3 comments:

Paulie said...

Interesting tale -- the crummy situation sure didn't lead to a breakup of their marriage tho -- maybe made it stronger since they knew having each other was the best thing life had given them.

CrazyCath said...

Well I have great admiration for your dad for his stance. That will have taken some courage in the middle of a depression with a wife to support. These are great memories and I am so glad you share them. It gives a window into a world we never knew and will never see - helping us appreciate what hardship really is, what work really is, what "getting on with it" really means, as your mum did that day. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for visiting my friend.

JC said...

Good for your Dad and good for your Mom!! Great story!