Thursday, July 06, 2006


*My Back Pages
by Mark Bava

"The boys were chasing the city truck
spraying DDT
It kept the mosquitoes down...
That stuff won't hurt 'em none
I heard the neighbor lady say...."

-James McMurtry
from the song "12 O'clock Whistle"

In the central valley town of Hughson California, canal swimming was a recognized talent. One could almost become hailed in comparable stature to surfing champions on the coast for their prowess in the water. And just as surfers wore nicknames such as Duke, Woody or Steamboat, we had ace swimmers with names like Frog who could stay underwater at length and were rumored to have performed feats that made local legend such as diving from high bridges or shooting the most gnarly and dangerous waterfalls. To keep the flow of the water controlled over the downhill grade of the terrain, these waterfalls or "drops" were built at various stages along the large cement irrigation canals that criss-crossed their way through Central California from upland reservoirs, bringing precious water to the valley farm lands below. The most popular falls and bridges also had their nicknames, like Double Drop, The M or Russel's, named after the family who lived nearby. These favorite spots would often be magically crowded with guys drinking beer and showing off as girls in bikinis watched on. And just as the surfers cruised the coast to check the waves and action in their favorite bays, we would cruise to see who and what was going on at our favorite swimming spots. Some of the waterfalls were larger than others and most were forceful enough to drown an expert swimmer unless one knew the currents well. Despite that a number of people who accidently fell or drove their cars in were drowned every year, we grew up swimming in these canals and prided ourselves in our skill to navigate the rushing waters. But even for us, there were some falls with the fury of Niagara that remained unconquered.

Playing tag was the main pastime, with rules and boundaries conceived in some organic fashion within the unique parameters of a large cement canal, rushing waterfalls, canal banks and catwalks. Aside from tag, another reckless sport was "shooting the falls", which was daring to see who could go over the falls either head or feet first or on an inner tubes or some other random floating object.

Years later at a Hughson class reunion, a suggestion that some of us go swimming in the canal for nostalgia sake was met incredulously with the fact that no one swims in these canals any longer because it is now recognized that pollutants and pesticides infest these waters, not to mention the liability issues that come into play in today's lawsuit happy world. It's another bygone era. We took chances then and no one was sued when kids got seriously injured trying to water ski behind cars or dive off telephone poles into the canal. As far as the pesticides, in the town of Hughson, California, as in the Texas hometown of songwriter James McMurty, on blistering hot summer days we would peddle our bikes behind a cool mist of DDT coming from the back of the "Mosquito Man's" truck whenever he came to town spraying to keep the local mosquito population down. Back then, DDT was recognized as some kind of miracle chemical that was even sprayed on immigrants arriving at Ellis Island to insure that they didn't bring foreign germs with them into our shining new country which, was equivalent to believing an advertising slogan at the time that smoking L&M cigarettes was "just what the doctor ordered". And just as McMurty's song suggests, our parents sat outside oblivious, fanning themselves with their evening cocktails in hand gushing, "oh looooook…awwww how Man..." and would laugh at how adorable we all looked smiling in ecstasy riding along in a cool, wet cloud of pure DDT. From those episodes, I have often stopped to wonder if that is why I have remained free of many viruses now feared, that by all odds, I should have contracted long ago with all my excessive bad habits through the years. Maybe DDT was a miracle drug of some kind.

Hughson was founded in 1907. It was named after Hiram Hughson, who owned much of the land at one time. The Indians had referred to it as "a place of sleep" and it wasn't really much more than a whistle stop along the Santa Fe railroad line. For no apparent reason, its main street is the remarkable width of a four lane freeway which is absurdly wide for only being seven blocks long. The buildings that lined the street bore facades much like towns of the old west but of concrete rather than wood. This was the style of architecture that was typical of California valley towns in the early 20th century that is now being replaced by the latest architectural contribution to the modern Americana aesthetic; the strip mall.

In 2007 the town will celebrate its centennial. There will be a parade down Main Street, the unveiling of a life size bronze sculpture of a migrant peach picker and a "bean feed" among other events. Somewhere deep in the nostalgia of this small town was this cherished annual event called The Bean Feed that is being resurrected from the annals of Hughson history that was little more than what it's name implies; a town feed of beans and a slice of white bread with butter on a paper plate. But the Bean Feed was a festive occasion. It equaled some of the local harvest parties where a pig would be sacrificed and roasted underground by some distinguished Mexican cooks, pallets of Lucky Lager beer would arrive, mariachi bands would play and everyone got drunk and danced while us kids tried to sneak off with 6 packs of beer.

There was something unique about this small town and the people it produced that is hard to put your finger on. Not that anyone will point out anyone of national importance from there, or a celebrity like neighboring Modesto with its George Lucas who epitomized his town with the movie American Graffiti, but much like the movie, coming of age in Hughson around that era had a very similar flavor of that which was portrayed that infused it's people with a rare down to earth quality that you rarely find in today's neurotic world.

The town on weekend nights was the scene of adolescent youth courting, flirting, getting drunk and creating general mayhem...cruising in cars back and forth on Main St, making U-turn after U-turn at each end and cruising back again, eventually pulling up to others who were parked either along the street or in the dirt parking lot of M & M's Drive-In that took up the whole block at the top of the street. M & M's was our Mel's Drive-In except occasionally some daring soul would fly into it's dirt lot with their car doing wild donuts and "rooster tails" satisfied at creating an enormous cloud of dust.

Across the street, standing side by side were the town's only two bars. One of these bars was frequented by Mexicans and the other one by whites and only a "bad ass" dared to go in either one. In valley towns like Hughson, you were either the toughest, had the fastest car, could drink the most or risked some other dare devil craziness to prove your manhood...that you were "bad". Fights and town rivalries over sports and anything else were the fashion. There were always "rumbles" between town football teams in school parking lots after the games and to even be caught cruising in a neighboring town could prove threatening.

On top of that, the town had a bit of its own racial tensions. Despite the demographic breakdown offered by consensus figures, in Hughson it seemed you were either Italian, Portuguese, Mexican or “Okie”. The Italians had come there to be farmers, the Portuguese to be dairymen and the Oakies were those who had poured in from Oklahoma after the Dustbowl to work the fields in classic Woody Guthrie narrative to be replaced by the Mexicans years later. There was friction between the latter that probably started over jobs. We knew little of the kind of prejudice that was prevalent towards blacks back then or of the anti-Semitism discussed in WW2 history for example. We had no "Afro Americans" in that town. We had mixtures of everything else. All we knew was that "Negros" produced most of the hit records on the charts and thought to be Jewish was just another religion. But there was this racism between the Oakies and the Mexicans and the two town bars frequently erupted in violence on the street outside.

The town was violent, but only to a point. I watched people get in fights, friends get killed racing cars and saw a policeman lie dying on the street, shot in a thwarted bank robbery attempt of our little town bank that shocked the town to it's core. It was still the Old West fifties style to be sure, but we never locked doors and the only big robbery we had heard about until then, was when the owner of the Five and Dime was rumored to have previously tried to tunnel into the same bank that was next door. For the most part, the most we feared was getting caught smoking in the school bathroom. Guns were for hunting or shooting mailboxes and stop signs and they were readily available on our farms but no one could even dream of using one for assault and certainly not to bring to school or town. It was all fists and feet.

Farming was the industry and peaches were king. The town once held the title of Peach Capital of the World (in cling peaches as Georgia held the title for freestone peaches). The town came alive in the summers as the harvest approached. It was hot, tipping 3 figures on the thermometer. We were out of school and working on family farms buzzing in the middle of the season with their smells of Mexican food and sounds of Mexican music filling the air from farmhand cabins. We eagerly waited for when we could sneak away and go swimming in the canals, race cars or cruise town in the hopes of finding a party or joining the ranks of couples making out on canal banks. On Sundays, neighboring Italian farm families got together following mass for huge meals at long tables with homemade wine and piles of ravioli.

It was a Norman Rockwell portrait of the golden age of post war bliss. A little ambition would buy the American Dream. Fathers worked and mothers stayed home and raised the kids. We had party lines and operators who knew family names. There were no answering machines to get a message if you weren't home. The latest news was commonly spread word of mouth or through town gossip and much of that was from Hamilton's Cafe, the community nerve center where farmers convened every morning to discuss their crops over breakfast. Families watched the same TV shows like Bonanza, Leave it to Beaver, Have Gun Will Travel, Twilight Zone, Ed Sullivan and Combat, a WW2 TV series showing the last just war our fathers had just won. Our mothers watched Jack La Lane, As the World Turns and Queen for a Day which had to be the most politically incorrect thing since Al Jolson wore blackface. We saw Mysterious Island for 10 cents at our local movie theater. Gas was 37 cents a gallon. We could burn piled leaves in our yards. Dry cleaning and milk was delivered to your door and the town doctor was a man who seemed to know everything who made house calls. It was all the latest in the modern nuclear age with TV trays, kidney shaped tables and the Space Race.

Teenagers watched American Bandstand and did the Twist. There was some hushed war in Korea that we knew little about. And then came something called the Cuban Missile Crisis and our town doctor who knew everything proudly built a fully functioning concrete bomb shelter and began rotating stocks of canned goods.

Soon after came the British Invasion and Mod was the fashion. We started watching Laugh In and Walter Chronkite began to talk about another hushed war in a place called Vietnam. Eventually that war began to claim even the lives of children from this town not on any maps that few had even heard of. People started to wonder as we started hearing of protests.

I watched Woodstock at the local drive in theater as the 1967 Summer of Love arrived in our town in 1969. Marijuana started to replace booze and we piled in cars to cruise country roads with nicknames like The Crooked Mile to smoke joints safely away from authoritarian eyes with our 8 tracks blaring, listening to the Rolling Stones, Ten Years After and Led Zeppelin.
There were no local police and we had driven trucks and tractors since the age of 10 and many of us could drive as early as Junior High School. Just as was portrayed in American Graffiti, we lived in our cars but all of a sudden cruising became slower as we got more stoned.

I tried LSD, listening to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" over and over on my portable phonograph. I started wearing fringed jackets, paisley Nehru shirts, suede moccasins or black Beatle boots and I watched our town become less violent as people cruising in cars flipped peace signs instead of the finger. Rivalries and fighting stopped, replaced by brotherhood and our attempt at being flower children. As we neared graduation, we began to think about the draft and our options other than following the war blindly. We saw JFK assassinated, followed by Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We saw civil rights movements and civil disobedience. It was the beginning of the end of the last innocent generation and I was about to graduate.

Following graduation, our doctor who knew everything took his life followed by my father, whose increasing bouts of depression from a little known syndrome called Manic Depression become too chronic for him to bear. With little time to think, the family farm was sold to pay the inheritance taxes and with what was left, I went off to art school and to see the world eventually moving to the coast. I never lived here again.

I never grew up. I never had kids. The rare times I have returned were either for a class reunion, a funeral or a quick sentimental journey down Main when passing within proximity on my way somewhere else and when I did, I sometimes wondered why anyone settled here in the first place. I have been physically, mentally and spiritually almost everywhere. I've had my picture taken with Jackie and Aristotle Onassis on the island of Capri. I've sunk a ship in the Caribbean, shot the rapids of the Pequari River, been thrown into a dungeon in Bangkok and made the pilgrimages to Burning Man in the Nevada Desert. I think I've been a puppet, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and maybe not quite a king, but to this day, no matter where I am, I get a maudlin feeling that comes over me with the end of a summer and the coming of fall. It's hard to shake. It's ingrained in me. It's the feeling of a time when the winds come and the leaves fall off the peach trees leaving nothing but bare branches as they go dormant for the cold season ahead. The Mexicans would leave town on their sojourns back home for the winter and the farm would become a deserted wasteland. The canals would go dry. Everything seemed to go black and white. And with all of this, I would have to face going back to school and wait for spring... when everything would blossom, the Mexicans would return, the music would begin and we could go swimming in the canals.

Mark Bava is an event producer, musician and artist now residing in Carmel California.

* My Back Pages - song by Bob Dylan (1964)
"Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now....."