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Marines and Timber Cowboys

When I returned home to our beautiful Anderson Valley from my tour of duty with the Army Paratroopers just before Christmas of 1962, it was an extraordinarily brilliant day — crisp, but cloudless with the blue sky stretching to the golden hills in the east and reaching back over to the tall, green redwoods to the rippling Pacific in the west.

I had hitched a ride from Santa Rosa to Mountain View Road at the north end of Boonville where the people from the old country of Arkansas had first set foot in the fertile valley at the Merritt-Foshee sawmill in 1944. I decided to walk the five miles to Philo and then another mile beyond Philo to Hollifield Lumber Company where my parents had lived and worked since 1955. I wanted to reclaim my home by walking in the fragrance of its country smell, blended with a scent of smoke coming from the big owners of the lumber mills whose fires incessantly devoured the waste wood culled from the timber while producing heartwood lumber.

In 1962, the goods produced by the Valley's citizens were diversified, but the big cash crop still was lumber. There were many acres of apple and prune orchards but only a couple of small vineyards. Sheep and cattle grazed on the hillsides, but 20 sawmills were spread throughout the Valley. 

The mills were surrounded by the shacks of the people who worked in them or fell timber, set chokers, or worked as cat-skinners in the mountains. 

Many of the men and their families came from Arkansas to the Golden State of California in a desperate search for jobs. Many of these men were veterans of WWII and, a few years later, the Korean War. And many of them were intimate with the violence of war and the deprivations of the spirit those who fought somehow had to endure. 

In Anderson Valley, the Arkansas veterans found work in the tall timber and in the sawmills. The work was brutally hard and often boringly repetitious. But, the men soon grew fit and strong so that they no longer collapsed at the day's final whistle. The fit men then crowded into the Valley's many bars six days a week, but especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Because of the physical nature of their work, their muscles and veins pulsated with red blood, so arguments quickly became fistfights that spilled out of the bars and onto the streets. 

On Sundays, the women took their men to the Valley's many crowded Pentecostal churches to beg forgiveness for their sins. The men and women ran their faces to gain credit for purchases from the Valley's kind but pragmatic merchants. The families moved from their original tents and lean-tos into the shacks they had quickly constructed near the mills. Then, in the early 1950s, the women from the old country made their men install indoor bathrooms and sand the rugged floor boards and make additions to their shacks to accommodate growing families. The shacks became homes, new homes in the beautiful Valley between the gold and green hills that ran almost to the blue Pacific.

Successful Boonville logger and landowner, Willis Tucker, was born midway between Glenwood and Hot Springs, Arkansas. But he and his family moved to Mount Ida, Arkansas, where Willis attended school.  Before he came to Anderson Valley in 1947, Willis had been a Marine, and fought hard and courageously in  the South Pacific campaign. He was blown up by mortar fire in Saipan, but he was quickly patched up enough to hold his body together and sent back to his outfit, just in time to be with the first wave of Marines to attack Iwo Jima. It should go without saying that Willis Tucker is here against odds few people survive.  

Tucker told me recently on the front steps of Lemons’ Market in Philo that “Most of us Marines in the first wave never got any farther than from here to Starr's Garage on that island before we were cut down by shrapnel from big ordinance shooting bombs or rifle fire. The air was thick with lead. I wasn't shot, but I was blown up again. I had so much shrapnel in my buttocks and back that they couldn't fix me up so they sent me home.

“The Fort Miley hospital in San Francisco has treated me good. The shrapnel is still there. It doesn't hurt me on the outside, but it hurts me inside in my organs. But, I've made it OK for a long time.” 

“I picked up a virus on those islands that caused me to swell up,” he continued. “That was the painful stuff. Did your dad ever talk about his time over there?” he suddenly asked me. 

“He started to talk about it one time,” I said, “when he told me he saw his friend get sliced open with a bayonet and his guts came spilling out. But he stopped talking and wouldn't continue.” 

Tucker told me: “That time in the war affected everybody who was there in his own way. You turn a corner in your mind. My mind turned a corner when a big old boy from Missouri that was my friend got it. He acted like it was fate that would decide things. He would go to sleep at night in his foxhole, but I would always nudge him awake so we could be alert. One night we were separated for a night and in the morning I went to his foxhole and he was dead. I climbed into the foxhole to lift him out and his head almost came off. I made every man in the company get into that hole and lift that boy's body so they could see what would happen if they fell asleep. I didn't want to lose any more Marines, but then we hit the beach at Iwo Jima and most of us in that first wave were taken down anyway.”

“Did your dad ever get that virus?” Tucker asked me again. I nodded and said, “They used purple stuff on him, I think.”

Tucker said, “Me, too. But, the purple stuff didn’t work. An old boy in Anderson Valley told me he knew how to get rid of that virus if you had the grit to do it. I told that man, ‘I believe I have the grit’.”

Tucker went on, “I got plenty of bottles of iodine and had my wife lock me in the bedroom and I rubbed a rough warm towel on that virus until all my pores under my arms and on my legs and beneath my privates were open and raw. Then I poured iodine all over wherever that virus was and I felt like I was on fire. When I got through that night and was let out of the bedroom the next morning, the virus was gone and never bothered me again.”

Tucker continued, “I was in charge of that job up on Peachland when your grand daddy got killed. That log should never have been able to get angled around enough to get to your daddy and grand daddy. It took all the hide off your daddy's back and would have hurt him bad if he weren't so big and stout. That log just hit your grand daddy in the right place to kill him. It was just plain bad luck.

“Your daddy, Noel, and Noel Burchfield,” Tucker recalled, smiling, “helped me put up my first house real quick at the Boonville Lumber Company when I came to the Valley to work at Merritt's Mill in 1947. I always said there wasn't a square room in the house because they were hurrying, and I had never built a house before.” 

On that cool, blue, sunny day in late December of 1962 when I got home, I walked from Mountain View Road to Philo and reclaimed the Valley in my senses and in my mind. When I topped the rise leading into Philo, I saw a group of armed men out in front of the market, now Lemons’ Market. I wondered if they were trying to get an early start on deer season or if there might be some kind of shooting competition underway.

I approached Burl Long, who had been a long-time neighbor of mine at Hollifield Lumber before I enlisted in the Army and asked him, “Burl, what's going on with you guys and your rifles.” 

Burl replied, “Welcome home, Ken. Well, the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang came through here last week and beat the stuffings out of one of our friends because he couldn't afford to buy the whole gang a beer in return for one of them buying him a beer. The gang said they were going to come back today to pick up their beers and that we had better be ready to pour cold beer for all of them.” 

I said, “What are you guys going to do with the guns?” 

Burl said, “We're going to have our best shots shoot out the front tires of the front two rows of cycles as they come over the rise. They'll be sky lined so it won't be hard targets to hit. We don't want to shoot them — we just want the cycles to stack up over the cycles that we have downed by shooting out their front tires.”

I asked, “What then?”

Burl replied, “Well, we just want them to apologize for being so rude. And tell them to buy their own beer.”

Gene Walker told me recently, “After they left Philo, they came through Boonville and roughed up Russell Mann a little bit at the Boonville Lodge.” (Mann owned the Lodge at the time.)

Don Pardini remembered that he wasn't there, but he had heard that before the bikers could cause much serious trouble at the Lodge, a couple of loggers went to their pick-ups and pulled out shotguns and had someone pull the power plug to the Lodge, plunging the bar into darkness. One of the loggers then called out, “The first one to light a match will be shot.” 

The Angels waited about five minutes and then started their cycles and left town.

It was certainly fortunate for everyone that the Hells Angels didn't return the following Saturday when I walked into Philo.

Tucker also remembered the famous incident. “I wasn't there in '62, but I would guess that most of the men were veterans and that they were loggers. Loggers are a breed apart. It's hard work and dangerous work unless everyone works together. It doesn't matter where you're from or what your particular beliefs are, loggers take up for other loggers because they trust each other as friends.”

When the men and their families came to Anderson Valley beginning in 1944, they found families that had already set deep roots in the Valley. Some of the families that the people from the old country considered old timers when they arrived in 1944 were the Bloyds and the Maberys, the Clarks, the Clows, the Gowans, the Hulberts, the Prathers, the Hiatts, the Rawleses, the Tolmans… and McGimsey, Deeley, Schoenahl, Pardini, Johnson, Ward, Pronsolino, Bennett, Valenti, Tuttle, Rossi, Glover, and June.

Certainly these folks weren't all of the old timer families when the Southerners from the old country streamed into their midst in the two decades between 1944 and 1964, but they were a large part of the many folks who allowed a relatively graceful entry into a new land that would become permanent home to many of the job-seekers from Arkansas.

It was the fairness and honesty of these old-timer families, and the kindness and pragmatism of the Valley's merchants that allowed the Arkies to run their face to purchase the necessary supplies that put the boom into the boom town years from 1944 to 1964. 

As Wilma Brink remarked, “They didn't like us at first. But, when they got to know us, they did like us because we were just like them.”

The old maverick from Hopper, Arkansas, Buster Hollifield, told me before he died: “Those were sure good decent folks out there in California in Anderson Valley. I take my hat off to them because I think if a bunch of wild, whooping, and hollering ex-soldiers came into Hopper getting drunk and fighting, things wouldn't have gone as easy.” 

One of the last deeds Buster performed in Anderson Valley in the early 60s before moving back home to Arkansas was to dive-bomb the “new” high school three times in his airplane. 

Bob Mathias, a prominent Valley realtor these days, was then a young AV High School superintendent just settling into his new job. Mathias told me a couple of weeks ago that “Buster took off from the airport behind the school and dive-bombed the school three times. He just about peeled the paint off the roof. I had to stop that so I called the authorities to investigate. Later Buster came down to the school and he looked at me real hard and said, 'I'm sorry I shocked you folks. That was supposed to be free entertainment'.”

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