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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: John Leal

I drove out of Boonville up Mountain View Road and soon pulled into the driveway at the Leal Vineyards where I met with John. He opened a couple of beers and prepared a delicious spread of prosciutto, Bavarian headcheese, and several different cheeses with a loaf of fresh bread. We chatted, opened a second beer each, and I began the interview...

John was born in 1949 in the Portuguese-administered islands of the Azores, specifically on the larger island of Terceira, in the Atlantic Ocean about 1000 miles from the Portuguese mainland. He is the second oldest of five children born to Vital Leal and Candida Simoes, having an older brother by four years, a twin brother, and two younger sisters. “My twin brother Roger and I were born on the same day, September 21st, as our youngest sister was, ten years later”... The Leal’s were fishermen over previous generations although they also worked in the fields picking fruit and vegetables. The Simoes family were lighter skinned than many Portuguese, and had blue eyes, a result of some of their forebears having come from Ireland, and they were simple farmers and tried their hand at fishing too — not very successfully. “My grandfather Simoes would try to catch fish using dynamite. Once it did not go off and he dove in to find out what had happened and it exploded, blowing his right arm off and taking his right eye, leaving a hole in his face. He was actually a very intelligent man and taught at the night school in the town... Both of my parents came from very poor families.”

John started school when he was seven years old and was done by the time he was twelve. He worked with his father for a time during the summer vacations but at nine he took a job working in the fields for $2 a month and two meals a day, hauling corn, herding and milking cows. “I worked like a man but the two meals were good and it saved my parents money on my food. We lived at my grandfather Simoes’ house in a town about the same size as Boonville, called Porto Judeu. The house had dirt floors, no bathrooms, not even outside, and was on three-and-half very rocky acres near to the coast. All the work was done by hand and we had little food, no cars or mechanized equipment, no electricity — it was very basic. At twelve I left school and went to work full-time for a gravel company on the crusher, carrying rock from the water’s edge in a wheelbarrow with an iron wheel, no tire, and loading it into the crusher. I had no gloves and did this all day long for two years. My hands were permanently in a grip-like position from doing this and if I tried to straighten them out the skin would crack, bleed, and hurt like heck. I was basically a little slave for less than a dollar a day. There was no future for me there. I tell the workers I sometimes employ here that they can make it in this country although they may have to work sixteen hours a day. I couldn’t do that in my country; sixteen hours a day was still not enough. It was a very tough life. People often remember their childhood with fond memories; not me, I wouldn’t want to go back to those days for anything.”

John’s mother was sick with emphysema and could not look after the children. Although his father and brothers were all working, the family could not support the two girls so they had to go to an orphanage. At the age of fourteen, John found work in construction, building houses out of cement blocks and stone. “That was hard too. I would carry the stone to the masons, mix the cement by hand and carry it to them in five gallon buckets, again for less than a dollar a day. I had to walk to work more than an hour each way, there was no transportation and we couldn’t afford bicycles. I worked six days a week from 7am to 4pm and then on Sundays I would do work for other people for food. This was usually the best meal of the week so I did not mind. Otherwise our diet was basically cornbread, collard greens (cabbage leaves), and maybe we’d get to kill one pig a year. There was no other meat, no dairy, no potatoes, and no sugar. That’s why my teeth are still good! We’d have a few chickens but that was for their eggs that were then used as currency to buy kerosene for lighting and heating or soap for us to keep clean. Occasionally I would risk stealing some eggs and cooking them when nobody was around. There was a little fruit but it was not very good apart from the bananas, but if you were caught stealing those the owner might kill you. I played a little soccer, we’d sit around playing dominoes and cards, and every town had a marching band that we’d enjoy watching and listening to.”

John’s mother had a brother and sister who had gone to Brazil many years earlier for a short time before entering the U.S. with the sister dressed as a man — women workers were not allowed in at the time. For reasons that are unclear, they settled in Humboldt County, north of Mendocino, and worked on a dairy farm near Ferndale, before moving to a different dairy in the Sacramento Valley town of Dixon. They worked hard and saved money, buying their own dairy farm in Lodi at the northern end of California’s Central Valley. The sister married and her husband had started the Mid-Cal National Bank in town in 1965 and a few years later had about eight branches. The aunt called John’s mother and said she had arranged work contracts for the family to come to the States legally and so, in the summer of 1968, they all came over except John’s older brother who stayed for a time before joining the rest in 1970.

“We arrived in Lodi and were milking cows the next day. I did that for the next three years, along with my twin brother, to support the family as my parents were both sick by this time. We fixed the papers so they showed my father was also working. My brother and I showed 2/3 of our income, and therefore we got 2/3 of our social security, with my father getting a third off each of us. We were stupid, but not really. After Lodi we worked in Elk Groove for a few months before taking on a herd of five hundred in Tracy. My brother and I had to milk them twice a day. We’d go to bed at 7pm and get up at midnight, prep the sheds, get the cows in and milk them until 7am, then clean up. Then we’d sleep for a time and start again at noon. It was sleep, work, sleep, work — that was our life. Sometimes we would fall asleep leaning against the cows. It was $6.25 a month plus a house on the ranch. I had one day off in two years and planned to go and see my Uncle in Lodi but I went to bed and slept all the next day. I slept on my one day off!”

In 1971, the family moved to San Jose at the south end of the SF Bay where John’s brother became a chef. “I love to cook too, but not for a living. I became a janitor at a McDonald’s for several months. I had a cousin in Sunnyvale who was in construction and I’d also help him when I could. His neighbor, who had a Portuguese wife, ran a drywall/sheetrock company and he was looking for an apprentice to teach; someone who was reliable and dependable and he hired me on February 22nd, 1972 — teaching me everything he knew about that business and I learned a lot over time. After eighteen months I joined the union and went to take classes at night school becoming a journeyman dry wall taper finisher. He wanted me to learn how to hang sheetrock but I said ‘No thank you’ and stayed as a dry wall finisher for the next seven years. It was 90% commercial — Safeway stores, Bank of America, plus a few high-end custom homes on the Peninsula in places like Los Altos, Hillsborough, and Portola Valley. I was the foreman for Sunnyvale Dry Wall and worked all the time, often at weekends, with little time for any social life.”

However, John had met his future wife, Jean Nunes, in 1972. She had come to the States in 1963 with her father from the Azores — Santa Maria Island, where she was born. She is one of nine children and was adopted in this country by her godmother, Gladys, when her father, Harry Nunes, returned home. He had previously bought property in Anderson Valley back in 1956 — the 249-acre property on Mountain View Road. She was working in an electronics company in the Santa Clara Valley with John’s cousin who told her that one of his cousins could cook. “She wanted to meet that one — me. We started dating and got married on July 7th, 1973. We lived in San Jose and had our daughter Jennifer in September 1974 and our son Johnnie in July 1976. Jean returned to work when the kids were still quite young, when we found a sitter across the street from our house. I saw the kids but once a week because I left for work at 6am before they were up and often returned late at night when they were in bed. We had our first vacation in 1977 — just Jean and I, to the east coast and Canada to see her family, most of whom had settled there — I had to do lots of overtime before we went so that the same money was coming in when I was away. In 1977 Harry and Gladys moved to the property he had bought in the Valley twenty years earlier. My parents had passed away by then and Jean and I would visit at weekends if I could get away, although I think the first time I had been here was not long after meeting Jean, back in 1972.”

In 1978, John and Jean left the south Bay and moved to northern Sonoma County, to Cloverdale, to be closer to her parents. John got a job with the Noonan Dry Wall Company in Santa Rosa and spent much of the eighties building track homes in the surrounding area — hundreds at a time were on the go. “I did become a lead man on a crew but it was not something I particularly enjoyed — I loved to do the work, not just organize it — that was not my thing. Our kids were in school in Cloverdale and we’d get to visit Anderson Valley more and more as the years went by. I got to know Smokey Blattner, Arthur Knight, and Bill Holcomb, the young guy who maintained the road on our property. Also Jeff and Carolyn Short who ran the Chevron Station in Boonville — he was a character. I remember that Carolyn locked him out one night when he came home late from the bar so he took a chainsaw and cut a hole in the door to let himself in! He was actually the nicest guy and she is great too.”

In 1986, John and Jean moved again, this time down to Rohnert Park south of Santa Rosa, to a house on the edge of a golf course. At some point in the following years, he took on a job in San Francisco working on Embarcadero 4 — one of the big towers that were going up in the downtown area. “It was a big job and there were lots of problems but I stuck it out, doing the job my way, and by the end was one of the last guys still working there. By 1995, when my father-in-law had passed and Jean had moved to the Valley to be with her mother, I began to cut back on the number of side jobs I had been taking on — my arm was not in good shape after all the years of hard work. I finished the job at the Embarcadero, did some work at the 101 California Street building, and then did one last job at the Bay Meadows horse race track on the Peninsula. Noonan was closing the business down and I did not want to travel and work in the City so I decided to retire. It was July 1998 and it was time.”

John sold his house in Cloverdale and moved to Anderson Valley full-time to live on the ranch in a home that had already been built there — it had been empty for about five years. “I was tired and took a few weeks off but soon got busy fixing the place up and working on the landscaping. I started to meet more people and we began spend time with the group known as the Airport Crowd here in town — Kirk & Cindy Wilder, Bob and Sandra Nimmons, Larry and Janet Lombard, Jim and Jeanne Nickless, Bryant and Penny Whittaker, and Jack and Peggy Ridley plus others like the Charles family. We’d get together at The Buckhorn pub in town most Friday evenings for a few drinks and then go back to one of the group’s house for dinner, a different venue each week.”

John still took on the occasional job with local contractor Dennis Toohey and also did the dry wall at the AV Brewery’s new visitor center, plus the firehouses in Boonville and Rancho Navarro, for which he donated his time free of charge. “That is my little contribution to the Valley, I guess. Maybe people think that I don’t help around here but I do; I’m not all about money.”

“We attend the winery socials once a month, and go to many of the Valley gatherings such as the crab feeds and bbq’s. I grow a few vines here and produce some wine each year. I have a large vegetable garden, some sheep and some steers — Black Angus — some great meat I hope. My brother will help me with that — he is an expert with meat... I still love to do some work every day but now it is for our ranch and us. I have put my time in let me tell you, and now I love my time here. I have been back to the Azores twice — in 1980 and 2001, and I do keep in touch with the Portuguese culture here. I am involved with the Holy Ghost Society, a Portuguese cultural organization, and cook at their events and festivals. I will be in Petaluma this weekend and will cook 2700 pounds of beef. Ii will be prepared in big pots with lots of spices and served with soggy bread in a broth — it is the traditional Portuguese soup. I have been helping on that one for about ten years but I also do one in Healdsburg in September at which I have been cooking for thirty years, and one in Oakdale which I’ve done for the past 13 years. I love doing it and seeing many old friends.”

I asked John what he most liked about life in the Valley. “I love the quiet here, and the many nice people. Some are not so nice, who we will not mention. I love the climate and being not far from the ocean. I love it there and there are many friends of ours in the large Portuguese community in Ft Bragg on the coast,” And what does he not like? “That some people here are not taking responsibility for their actions; there are some narrow-minded people here who are like horses with blinkers on.”

I next asked for John’s thoughts on various Valley topics.

The wineries and their impact? “Great. I love the wineries; I live for wine! I have plenty of water for my few vines from the springs on the property. Fishing has stopped in the Valley and some say the wineries are to blame but I don’t think so.”

KZYX radio? “I don’t listen. For many, many years KGO in San Francisco has been my station and I get my information from there.”

Drugs in the Valley? “They are everywhere here; I’m sure there is some on my property somewhere. I went looking with the deputy sheriff but we could not find any. He’s needs a dog to help him search,”

The changes in the Valley? “More wineries do not bother me. It means more work for people. Too many people here do not want any more people here, yet they came here when I was here already and I never said anything. The tourists do not bother me. They bring more money to the Valley. I love people coming here and if they want to stay that’s fine. I don’t own the world; I want to live with others. Too many people care only about themselves and their lives. I help people all of the time here if I can. I love to help and welcome people here to the Valley. they always have a place to stay.”

I posed a few questions, some from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “That I am going to get up and be happy in my home and do some work for myself.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “People who only see things their way; people who see the bug in other people’s eyes, not in their own — they say ‘it is my way or no way’.”

What sound or noise do you love? “A small airplane flying over. It’s probably one of my friends up there.”

What sound or noise do you hate? “Children in pain or crying.”

What is your favorite food or meal? “Sushi. I can eat it anytime.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Jennifer Lopez. Ha, ha, ha!”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A sharp knife, a rifle, and some building materials so that I would be kept busy.”

What is your favorite hobby? Making and drinking wine; having fun on the ranch with my many projects.”

What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A photographer for Playboy magazine. That would be a good job wouldn’t it?”

What profession would you not like to do? “Many of the jobs that I did as a kid. I cannot think of worse ones than that. You think that there is nothing else to do in the rest of your life.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I think I was about 20. I had no time before that, or money, it was not because I did not want to or didn’t have offers. There were some mothers in Tracy who asked me to take their daughters out. They thought I was a good prospect, I guess.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I have no regrets. Since I came to this country I have always had a good job.”

Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “My wife and I talk about our memories and how we worked so hard to raise our family. How did we do it? It has been very memorable.”

What is something that you are really proud of and why? “What Jean and I did together here in Anderson Valley. We have two granddaughters — Jessica 16, and Amber, 13, both are at the local school. Our daughter commutes to Santa Rosa where she works as an administrator for an eye doctor and our son is in San Diego, where he runs restaurants.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself? “That people hopefully think I am a good man and say that I will help anybody that I can.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, I know I’m going to heaven although it would be nice if he sent me straight back to continue what I am doing here. I would be happy if he said ‘I have been waiting for someone like you for a long time and you’re finally here. I have a job for you.’ That would be good.”

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Jim Hill, president of the AV Historical Society, and owner of the Hill Ranch — in his family for 100 years.)

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