As I rambled along in my previous Floodgate stories articles, little vignettes would illuminate themselves in dusty corners of the cerebral warehouse where the larger memories were stored so many years ago. Some of them mere flashes, recollections of a moment in the life of the place, others a character like John Guntly, Larry Wilhite or Harold the Bus Driver I hadn't thought about for years. The memories I report here I thought worth recording for what they tell us about the culture of The Store and the Valley almost half a century ago.
For example, I remember a dark rainy winter night, the south wind driving down the hill from Christine Woods, not much of a congregation at The Store partly due to the time, say 7 PM, partly due to the forbidding weather. Not even Alvy Price. What I remember the handful at the bar included mostly tree planters, Tom English, me, perhaps Jerry Theros, I think Wayne Ahrens, conversation very muted. A motor cycle and rider comes off the highway from the south, a Harley I believe, parks outside the gas pumps by our various pick ups, and the driver, dressed in black just as you'd hope a Harley rider would be, strides purposefully across the parking area and enters The Store.
He is over six feet tall, lean, a few wrinkles around the brow, at least ten years older than us, maybe fifty, dressed in a Marlon Brando biker role hat, black leather jacket and pants, and, of course, leather boots, not known to any of us you can tell by the silence following his entrance. This Ghost Rider slaps the water off his hat, shakes it off his shoulders and hips, walks across to the bar and sits in Alvy's place by the window. Sam provides him with the draft of beer he orders. After a few minutes of surreptitious visual reconnaissance one of us offers across the space between the tall dark stranger and us “quite a night out there for a motor cycle ride, no?”
Stranger replies, “Yeah and I still have to get to Fort Bragg tonight...” Silence, then, “Well, where did you start from?” Coyote Valley, he answers. Coyote Valley, northeast of Ukiah, gotta be over an hour from here on a night like this, and so on. By now though, we've all expressed active interest in who this person might be and what he's doing here on this kind of night. The bulk of the interrogation in fact revolved around Coyote Valley itself. We all had been living in our Valley for a few years, still learning about its past. Generally we knew that the original Coyote Valley was an old farming community along a creek flowing into the Russian River north and east of Ukiah, that the US Government had dammed the stream to provide the River with more water for dry season commercial ag use in Mendocino and urban consumption in Sonoma County.
So where the now animated conversation headed next was about what the stranger knew about how the farm system worked before the dam. And this guy knew his stuff. It turned out his ancestors had for a couple of generations farmed his valley, raising, I think I remember, livestock and fruit trees. Today he lived on a piece of the old ranch north of Lake Mendocino toward Highway 20 and still ran cattle. What a piece of history and it wasn't even about Anderson Valley. Finally after perhaps two beers one of us asked, “What did you say your name was?…” John Guntly…
Dead silence. Being an amateur historian fascinated by small town roots stories, I know I was organizing my list of questions about how he was related to “our” Guntlys, one of whom used to own my ranch, along with the Guntly Ranch, now called Holmes, at Christine, why his kin left the Valley, how they worked their farm historically, etc., etc. But The Stranger, looked out the window and at his wrist watch, finished his beer, got up alertly, said, “Gotta go, it's windy out there...,” and departed. John Guntly was there, but we never saw him again.
Then there was another dark and stormy Floodgate evening in my tree-planting days. A bunch of us were gathered at the end of the day in our frequent worship ritual called the 49er Game, that evening a playoff back in the John Brodie days. The congregation included members of Tom English's Red Dog Crew, and Harold and Seedy's too, maybe eight or ten of us. We all had three hours of beers aboard when the game ended around 7 PM. In those days, believe it or not Greyhound Bus Line ran a twice-a-day service from downtown San Francisco to Fort Bragg via Santa Rosa, etc. And as the post-game dialectics wound down, some of us began departing The Bar. First out the door was Harold, a little round guy with a permanent happy smile and not much to say. A good tree-planter field “boss.”
The wind was blowing the rain close to horizontal as Harold staggered pretty gracefully across the parking lot, climbed into his Volkswagen bus, did a u-turn among the other vehicles and apparently without checking traffic swung into the north-bound lane of 128 heading back to home in the Navarro Boy Scout Camp parking lot. Just as the 7:05 Greyhound came down the hill from Christine Woods about sixty miles an hour, throwing a wall of water around itself. At the bar talk and breathing stopped at because we all knew Harold was going to die. But no, some kind of driver collaboration set in instead. Harold woke up, drove into the ditch on the far side of the highway, and more brilliant, the bus driver, probably a pro at handling bad driving habits on Highways 128 and 1, swung with only a little bit of a slide into the other lane without touching the brakes, passed comfortably past Harold's machine still a little bit on the highway pavement, and without decelerating disappeared around the bend north of The Store.
Some of us ran outside, dragged Harold back into The Bar, dusted off the rain, got him a cup of coffee and inquired as to his interest in another beer. No, Harold passed on the offer, warmed himself up without saying much and headed home again a little dazed. Next day none of mentioned the near tragic incident at Floodgate. Nor did we say much about it as we wrapped up our evening at The Bar. Just a few murmurs about good fortune and the gods working together to avoid a deep tragedy. And for ever after our friend was identified at work or play as “Harold the Bus Driver.”
In my last article I noted one feature of Marguerite's store management policies and practices, more specifically customer debt. For example she was incredibly generous to me and my wife when we first moved to The Valley. We did have just enough money to manage the mortgage on the ranch, invest in tiny portions of vineyard, 2-3 acres a year, and mostly pay food and other bills. Sometimes in between supplementary odd jobs in vineyards, we were short of cash for food. Marguerite was incredibly kind in letting us charge for various food items at Floodgate so long as we were consistent in meeting our debt before it got too big. I think I remember her letting us run up as much as $3-400 dollars sometimes, about equal to over a thousand today.
Well, one time Marguerite's kindness to strangers caused her to lose control of her charge policies. One spring in the mid-seventies a new guy regularly showed up at The Bar after working in the woods for either Masonite or Shuster, I don't remember which. His story was unusual for those days; he was a drifter, maybe forty five years old, tall, blond, living in his pick-up or on the ground beside it, moving randomly around the tri-state timber industry, finding work as a faller, if I remember right. It was a high price, high production time in the timber industry and any available labor was needed. He also was a good addition to the Regulars at The Bar as he was affable, a good story teller about his life, and very empathetic in personality much appreciated by Marguerite because he claimed he too, like her Son Bernard, suffered from acute asthma to the extent he was dependent on prescription drugs to keep his breathing normal all day long.
So after a month of two into the logging season, Marguerite began providing this guy with a charge account at the store for his provisions, not the beer. Fact is I didn't know anything about the arrangement, none of our business at any rate. Then one afternoon in August or September when I went in to do a little shopping, Marguerite confidentially engaged me at the cash register with this hurt, embarrassed look on her face. “Oh, Brad, I can't believe this happened. He seemed like such a nice man.”
I had no idea what she was referring to, but was touched that Marguerite felt she trusted me with her personal concern. Earlier that week some of us regulars had noticed that our new bar comrade hadn't showed up after work for a few days. No big deal; he wasn't a daily congregant anyway But in this instance Marguerite had done her investigative work, and they guy had flown The Valley. He and his pick-up gone. And the charge outstanding was something over $1,100 dollars. I had neither the resources to help her out financially or the wisdom to know what to say to make her feel a little bit better. And could only do my best with commiseration. But as I drove away from the store that day, and still think about the episode, I was and still am wondering whether she was more upset by the material cost of the lost retail loan or by her disappointment with her business judgment giving the guy such a big debt tag to begin with.
In a previous article I described Marguerite's Bar deportment policy. No disruption to the decorum, either verbal or physical. The policy only held inside The Store, not in front of it I found out. One spring evening, probably a Friday, as I remember quite a number of Shuster's crew on site, I was sitting near the front window conversing with the Old Navarro bachelor and woodsman, Alvy Price. From my vantage I saw two old pick-ups arrive simultaneously, one parking north of the gas pumps, the other south. Out of one emerged Larry Wilhite, the other Danny Kuny, both striding purposefully toward one another rather than the front door of The Store. They met head-on a few yards from the gas pumps and without a word began punching one another around the head.
Inside the bar crowd looked on unconcernedly, apparently enjoying the pugilistic event in the parking lot. Coming from a pious suburban middle class background my ethic was to mediate any violent interpersonal engagements in public places, especially when among friends, which I was to some degree with both Larry and Danny. When the brawl gravitated to a point where one, I think Danny, had the other sprawled on his back over the hood of a pick-up in the parking lot, and was banging his head on the vehicle like trying to crack a walnut by hand, I decided to step outside to stop the brawl. I tried a serene approach to the action, both speaking calmly and trying to separate the combatants with my arms, but to my complete shock, both of them abandoned their combat and each took a punch at me. One missed, the other caught me perfectly on the lower left jaw, not a knock-out, but definitely cause for retreat.
So I wandered back into The Bar, kneading my jaw to see if there was tooth dislocation damage. Most congregants averted their gaze from me in some kind of embarrassment. One wise man among the logging crew though was kind enough to lay it out for me. “What were you doing, Wiley, ...it's their affair and none of your business, you idiot. Their families have been feuding for two generations now,” as I later came to know. So another Friday afternoon at Floodgate, and another lesson learned about living in The Valley.
(NEXT WEEK: That's it for now folks. I bet more will emerge in the recollections warehouse. When there's a critical mass, I will report.)