Gary Womack, 1940-2021, was not of our Valley; he was born and raised in a small town in southern Oregon few of us have ever heard of, Central Point in the Cascade foothills west of Medford.
Last year I wrote a few words about Gary in the stories I told about tree planting on Masonite Corporation land back in the nineteen seventies, mostly sketches of working in Tom English’s “Red Dog Crew” planting team during the years of the Great Drought.
In those episodes I identified Gary as the “Boss” of the complex operation called reforestation or “tree planting.” It’s been forty-three years since I retired from the profession, but I continue regularly to think about and reminisce with Tom about working for someone we identify as the most wonderful independent woods, mill and field boss we have experienced or could ever imagine. What magnetized our loyalty, respect and affection for Gary was the quiet, fatherly way he led and taught us a craft where the quality and efficiency of our work day benefitted both our discipline, wages and the timber company we were working for.
As I noted in my previous stories, tree-planting is a physically and mentally strenuous job, where we worked on trashed out just logged forest sites, perhaps forty acres on more on steep sidehill. The job was simple and boring. Follow the line of trees the planter ahead of you had made, plant and firmly back-pack a tree every ten feet, one tree per hole. Equipment included a hip mounted canvas sack with about 200 trees, and a tool, dibble or hoe-dad, for creating a root planting hole. Six or seven hours a day up and down hill, reloading your pack hourly, come sun, drizzle or drenching rain. First run at 7:30 AM and the last one or two after lunch were usually the most demoralizing parts of the day. But Womack’s presence and support always made us push on, finish the day’s work effectively and head for Floodgate for a beer in good spirits. If at noon-time the day was wind-driven torrents, he’d just say “that’s enough, too wet for this kind of work, let’s head home.”
Typically his ”boss-ship” style captured each of us our very first days on the job, when we learned the specific skills and working conditions management best for our individual stamina and focus. One of the most vulnerable new recruits for the Womack crews was my idea. Just as my last planting season was about to start, the son of a neighbor from my previous San Francisco life phoned me. A high school grad, he was a teller at a Bank of America branch making $2.00 an hour, had heard about tree planting from my brother, and wanted to get a job doing it. Although I was one myself, I had already adopted a patronizing attitude toward my past, and immediately labelled him as one of those “city kids,” no good at the style and pace of worklife in the country. So I explained to him on the phone the doctrine and details of this kind of woods and farm labor, right clothing, grit and determination in unpredictable winter elements every hour of every day, camping at the Masonite temporary trailer park for a home, etc.
So about a week later he shows up one Sunday afternoon, job secured on “Red Dog’s Crew,” thinking he was ready for work on Monday. So what arrives in The Valley is this skinny, blond nineteen year old, no industrial work experience, dressed in hightop sneakers, levis, and for bad weather his high school football jersey, number 12 of such a color we thought it was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s knock-off. Well, somehow, we all managed to find the right boots and raingear for the new guy now known as “Number Twelve,” and pull him out of the hollow redwood stump down at the North Fork he slept in the first night in The Valley, and prepared him to go to work. Later we arranged for “Twelve” to live in my vineyard equipment barn workshop, sleeping on the floor in the comfort of a sleeping bag. Plumbing arrangement I don’t remember.
During that phone call two weeks ago about Gary’s passing, Number Twelve and I spoke for the first time in over forty years, and he described to me his version of the “boss’s” job training those first weeks. Like every new guy, as the day wore on, he’d tired out, lost his focus and began figuring out ways to dispose of trees without “following the line.” Two per hole and throwing a few trees into a handy burnt out stump from time to time were a couple of the techniques surreptitiously endeavored. Twelve couldn’t say enough the other night about how kind Gary was that first week busting him bending the code, “Follow the Line, Green side up, one tree per hole.” Just a gentle admonishment, “Come on, Rick, you can do better than that…”
Well, Rick Hall not only survived the season, made five times as much an hour as at the B of A, stuck with the trade for the rest of the season, and the next, moved in with the Womack family in Oregon, married the boss’s daughter, Samantha, and is still living with them all, retired, at Central Point.
Another example of our devoted loyalty to Gary I was party to happened after my workday one afternoon during the drought. I had a daily pattern of quitting work around 1:30 to come home for checking on my sheep grazing in the vineyard, new lambs, illnesses, things like that. That day I had finished my task, come back to the Loren Bloyd house down on 128, and as it was a warm day, was sitting on the front porch, when Tom English’s flatbed truck roared by from Floodgate direction way too fast. Tom rolled down the truck window and screamed out something like “Womack’s in trouble…,” as he flew on by. How would he learn that sitting at Floodgate having a post-work beer? In those days the pioneering forerunner of The Web was something called a CB radio, battery operated ,which carried voice signals locally around The Valley given reasonable line of sight. Someone from work must have sent Tom some kind of message.
So despite not knowing how to think about Tom’s announcement, I went in the house to look for my truck keys, find a jacket while pondering what I might contribute to dealing with the Gary’s safety problem, car accident, injury at work, what. Just as I was about to step out the door, the house lights blinked twice and the electricity went off. “Oh, no,” I thought, “Tom, gone off the road, smashed a power pole, and now he’s hurt.” Best plan, I decided, was to go down to the Masonite Camp where the Womack family and various migratory tree planters were living in a cluster of trailers, RVs and other living accommodations even simpler. As I drove up Masonite Road about halfway to the temp village, I came across on the right side of the road a utility pole sheared clean off about three feet above ground dangling at an angle and suspended by the surviving electric wires. Also evident was a dramatic muddy tire track in a 180 degree turnabout through the power pole and around back south toward Highway 128. Womack’s emergency must be elsewhere in the Valley, AND Tom English had turned off the electricity from Gowan’s Oak Tree to Comptche.
Up at the planter village, no one was there, no Womack family, no planters, no one. At the day’s end who knows where they all might be. Getting seedlings from the adjacent greenhouses prepared for tomorrow’s planting, shopping for groceries, drinking beer at Floodgate, and so on. So I went home, did some more chores, I don’t remember exactly what, and didn’t hear the rest of the story until the next day at work. Today Tom remembers that Gary’s wife Josie had called from headquarters to say Gary was in some kind of hostile encounter with someone on a new layout he was scouting, location unknown. And Tom’s sense of work comradeship directed him to his boss’s rescue, while alerting the rest of us to the matter knowing we’d be there to assist our mentor and friend if necessary. Turned out the altercation over custodianship of some redwood burl Masonite had deeded Gary was settled amicably.
Gary’s leadership affect also included the remarkable skill of molding our constant complaining about the difficultness of the work into a parable and learning experience. Like all manual laborers we were always muttering about how daunting each job site or layout was. Oh hell, this one’s worse than the last over on Alaska Ridge; how come we don’t get an easier one like Seedy’s crew does…” and so on all day. One time, a bunch started the day in that frame of mind, bitching about the layout as we fastened on the morning’s first bag of trees. Gary caught wind of our drift, and though he simply could have pretended not to and walked away. No, he sidled over and in his gently empathetic voice proposed “Let’s just get focused, knock out this layout, and if we do that, as good as we are, we’ll get there where the layouts are nothing but rolling hills and gentle breezes.”
Rolling hills and gentle breezes, I have never forgotten that aphorism, tell it to myself all the time when I get bogged down in some particularly discouraging work. I once even shared it with three hundred publishing industry sales reps at a meeting banquet one evening about twenty years ago. Thank you, Gary.
Gary Womack was born in Central Point in February. 1940. His father was founder of the contract tree planting business. Independent contractors to timber industry owners are called “Gyppos,” often working for a combination of fixed fee and piece work. For reforestation tree planting the Womack enterprise provided the labor paid at piece work rates and the skill to hire, train and manage the work force in an efficient way. During the time I worked for Gary he followed a seasonal migration from first Mendocino County and Masonite corporation land, north into Humboldt and Del Norte counties, then the Cascades and back to the High Sierras after the snowpack melted each June. For several years Tom English followed Gary to work many of those sites in Oregon and California, often visiting the family at their Central Point homestead.
When I worked for Gary his whole family was engaged in managing the business. His mother did the book keeping its daily operations records, trees planted, wages, etc. His wife Josie cooked for the family and did occasional work moving seedling inventory from the greenhouse to the woods, his daughter assisted in both areas. Son Seedy and nephew Harold were crew bosses, along with Tom English, the non-family-member boss. Today, about seventy years after the business’s founding, the third generation Womacks are running the business, the fourth playing various roles on the planting team.
The reader may wonder how I can reliably report on the Womack tree planting enterprise over forty years after I retired from “rolling hills and gentle breezes” and last saw the family. First, Tom English and I talk about them from time to time sharing the rich memories of the experience of being their employees. Then two weeks ago, on a dark windy night just before bedtime in Navarro, it was trying to rain, the phone rings and it’s Samantha Hall, born Womack, Gary’s daughter, my friend Rick’s wife. Samantha was kind enough to phone me to say her Dad had passed on earlier that week. And before I knew it she and I, then husband Rick and I, had reminisced together about this great man for an hour. Thank you, Gary Womack for being part of my life in Anderson Valley and sharing with me by example and anecdote how to be a high standard, fair, kind boss to us doing the back-breaking manual labor restoring the redwood and fir forests of Mendocino County. In his spirit I have also been planting trees annually on my place since 1976 and have restored the redwoods on every acre of my ranch where the old trees once stood. Farewell, my mentor.
(Thank you Tom English, Samantha Womack Hall and Rick Hall for your contribution to this story.)