After digging out of the Big Snow of ’75 I checked in at the Mendocino County unemployment office in Ukiah because my six months of $31 a week had run out. I was asked about my last job, and told them I was repairing wooden boats in Sausalito, but willing to take any carpentry or labor job. Within a few weeks I was sent to Laytonville for an interview for a CETA job.
CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) was a public works relief program that Nixon signed into law in December of ’73, not long before he left office in disgrace because of the Watergate Scandal. Like Roosevelt’s CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) my dad worked on in the 30s, it was established to train workers and provide them with jobs in the public service. The main difference was Roosevelt’s CCC was only for unmarried men 18-25 who were from needy families. But let my dad tell it from an interview my niece Renee did in 1988 for a high school history project regarding someone who experienced the Great Depression. My Dad, Bob Gibbons, was born in 1915 and died in 1990.
“I went in 1933 when I got out of high school. They sent me to Lost Corners, Arkansas to build fire trails up in the Ozark Mountains. I was there for 15 months. I got $30 a month to start, $5 for me and they sent $25 to my mother to help with my two younger sisters. It was just like an army camp, in fact, we wore old clothes that were from World War I. The War had only been over for 14 years by that time. Anyhow, we were fed well and treated decent and it was a good experience.”
On the morning I was to report for my interview I woke up early, determined to get there on time, which I did, but it was a struggle. It was still dark when I went downstairs to make some coffee, and although I lit a kerosene lamp for some light, I didn’t see a clean cup so I reached into the darker sink and AAHHH! It felt like a sliver of glass went into my finger. I quickly grabbed a flashlight and pointed down to see a scorpion waving his tail at me, with a taunting “you-want-another -piece-of-me attitude.” His stinger was stuck in my forefinger and it burned like hell!
I had heard their stingers were poisonous, and wondered what the effects would be, as I continued to get ready to leave, still determined to get to the Laytonville yard by 7:30. When I arrived I walked in holding my painful, still throbbing finger, and met Walt, the yard boss. I told him what happened and he seemed impressed that I still made it on time, but told me these northern scorpions are not poisonous like the ones down south, which I was tending to believe anyhow, since it had already been over an hour.
I was to report to work the following Monday to join a crew of nine other newly hired locals to build a path along Branscomb Road from just east of the yard to town, less than two miles. Locals on this Laytonville crew were made up mostly of back-to- the-land guys from either Spyrock or Bell Springs Road, though one guy came all the way down from Piercy. Chas, our crew leader, was the only one from Willits. When we moved from Covelo Road to Sherwood Road that Summer I would drive the 6 miles to town and meet Chas in town, then he’d drive us the 24 miles to the Laytonville yard, chatting all the way. Chas had a good sense of humor, a beautiful wife, two young girls, and a nice house in the Little Lake Valley. But he complained about the wife and her live-in father, so it didn’t surprise me when they split up and he eventually moved back to Utah.
What did surprise me, while writing this piece just yesterday (March 28, 2014), was getting the Willits Weekly and reading a front page story about a “48-year-old Willits woman and her 68-year-old boyfriend” who were arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing a minor under the age of 11. Chas was arrested and is awaiting extradition to Mendocino County from Manti, Utah.
Back to my dad’s 30s: “I started high school in 1930, when the depression really started, and graduated in ’34. Avoca, Iowa was a small town and we had a class of only 34 people. It was a pretty rough time, for example, farmers were getting 10 to 12 cents a bushel for corn, and you could buy a big chicken for a quarter. In fact, we didn’t have meat very often…mostly on Sunday. My mother’s small home was heated by a pot-bellied stove and we had a wood burning cook stove. We were in a small town, like I said, but we had outdoor plumbing. In that part of town there weren’t many people who had sewage. It was a rough go, but everybody was in the same boat, so you never felt poor.”
In contrast to the limited opportunities my dad had in the 30s depression era, the 70s offered plenty of opportunities, at least for young, healthy white guys like me. Yet, I was restless and bored, preferring the hippie lifestyle, eschewing money, full-time employment, and not really knowing what I wanted, but knowing dam well what I didn’t want. I guess you could say I tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. And that tended to mean what we now call going off the grid. Life is so different without being able to just flick a switch to turn on the lights and the heater. It almost seems like I was trying to find a lifestyle even tougher than my dad’s in the 30s. From the time I left Milwaukee for California in ’69, to ’78 when we bought a house in Willits, only two of those years we were plugged into the grid, or had indoor plumbing.
I walked away from some pretty good jobs in my life, jobs my dad would have been happy to get. For example, I got a job at the Sausalito Post Office soon after taking the multiple-choice test because I scored a 96 and they hired according to test scores. The reason I did so well on the test was because at that point I had spent most of my life in school taking tests. Then just two weeks before I was to get tenure, I was fired because I wouldn’t shave my beard and cut my hair, and according to my termination letter, they didn’t like the clothes I wore. But like the full time jobs I’d lost before, I felt relieved. I hated working full time, unless it was just half the year, with unemployment the other half.
But perhaps I should reveal the real reason I was fired. I was working the 2AM to 10AM shift with just one other guy. Sometime after 6 AM when other employees started punching in I heard laughter coming from the men’s room. I went in to check it out and saw the boss’s name stuck in the urinal. Of course I urinated on it and emerged smiling like the others, except unlike the others I knew my co-worker did it. Soon I was called into the boss’s office and told to shave my beard and cut my shoulder length hair before returning to work the next day. The urinal prank was not mentioned. I was so proud of my termination letter that I made sure it was included in my first (and last) published book of poetry, “Prime the Pump.” (1970)
For years after that my dad would say, “Jim, you should have kept that job at the post office.” I never regretted losing that job, or any job, though I did really like working at the Tides Bookstore in downtown Sausalito because of the clientele, and because it was part time. Richard Brautigan used to come in every so often just to see how his books were selling. Once Professor Irwin Corey, the comedian I had seen on the Johnny Carson show, walked in, looked at me and I spontaneously shouted, “Professor?!” His response was, “This aint no bar!” And he turned around and left. I stood there staring at the door, wishing I had kept quiet. The No Name Bar was next door, which made his reaction to me even funnier.
Another time one of my favorite poets, Gary Snyder, came in and after perusing the poetry section came over to the register with several books, including my book, which prompted me to introduce myself, telling him what a fan I was, and even invited him to go sailing with me the next day. After declining my invitation he told me he was living in Nevada City in the Sierra foothills, and had a small crew helping him build a house without using any power tools. He invited me to stop by if I was ever in the neighborhood, which I actually did four years later while on a mission with a friend to get fir poles for spars, booms, and masts.
A waterfront buddy named Chris had a big truck with a long bed and asked me to go with him up to the Sierra’s to get these poles. As we drove up this windy country road there suddenly appeared a big parking lot and a sign that said Ananda Retreat, which prompted my memory of Snyder telling me he lived next door. So we drove down this long driveway and voila. It was Gary Snyder’s place, with beautiful Japanese inspired architecture, and several people in various small groups seemingly working on various projects. Suddenly Allen Ginsberg walks up and I introduce us and tell him about the time I met him in Milwaukee at Barbara Gibson’s place. He remembered and said how much he liked Barbara’s work, and showed us around. At one point we were invited into Gary’s meditation room, but as we attempted to walk through the door, Allen said, “Shoes, you must take off your shoes.” We had boots on and didn’t want to bother, and then declined his invitation to walk down the hill to see his place. We had to get going and thanked him, said hello, goodbye to Gary and his beautiful Japanese wife, and split.
In retrospect, I often feel bad about my dad’s only surviving son being such a hippie. I mean, I never thought of myself as a hippie, but old photos don’t lie. Like the summer of ’76 when I brought Eli back to Milwaukee during my barefoot phase. I had met Carl Carlson working on that CETA job and he turned me on to Tai Chi, which I liked doing barefoot. It felt so good I eschewed (I love that word!) shoes for months—unbelievable! I even boarded the plane back to Milwaukee without shoes on, no problem. There’s a family portrait of all of us, me sitting in the front row, barefoot. The photo also reminds me that my mother was more upset about my full beard, so I shaved it off, which made her so pleased…until a week later when she mentioned it was growing back and I said, “Mom, I shaved for you, but I never said I was going to shave again.”
Funny thing, dad had a tough life, but I never heard him complain, whereas I shunned the good life and then complained all the time—and still do! When he was nine or ten his dad was run over by a milk wagon, or so the story goes, and his mom couldn’t feed the four of them on the $25-a-month widow’s pension, so he was sent to Boy’s Town. Back to Renee’s interview with grandpa.
“Before I started high school—you’ve probably heard of Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town in Omaha. My mother was living in Omaha at the time and one aunt took one of my sisters, another went into a home, and my mother sent me to Boy’s Town. I was there from the time I was 11 to 13. Father Flanagan’s didn’t start until about 1916, so when I was there in ’26 he was the guiding light. They had a big farm outside of Omaha where we milked cows and grew our own food. I was there recently and I would never have recognized it.”
His mention of being there “recently” was in 1983 when my son Eli was ten and qualified to run the National Junior Olympics Cross Country Championships, which were held that year at Boy’s Town. The day after Eli qualified I called my dad and told him, so he flew down from Milwaukee to meet us there. I remember him saying he would have never recognized it, except for that statue of the two boys, one carrying the other one, saying, “He’s not heavy Father, he’s my brother.”
Let’s wrap this up with a few more grandpa quotes: “The Rock Island Railroad wasn’t too far from us, and they used the coal stored there for the engines to go to the adjoining towns off the main line, and that’s where we got our coal for heat. Usually we did are “shopping” in the dark, at night, if you know what I mean. But that wasn’t unusual either. The sheriff turned his back. He didn’t see anything and didn’t want to, and even the railroad detectives didn’t care much either.
“There were all kinds of ideas being tossed around during those times because of poverty, but I never got too carried away with so-called socialism. There are certain things that did develop out of it, such as social security and medicare for the elderly…well, the war was on the horizon, you could see it. There was a real nut in that Hitler. Anyway, in about 1940 business started picking up fast because of military work, and a lot of kids were going into the service…you could see that there was going to be problems, but no one ever dreamed of Pearl Harbor. Hitler was obvious, but the Japanese? I think to most people, except maybe scholars, that was a real shock.”