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Charles Berg of Littleriver

Charles Francis Berg set the lantern on the empty passenger seat. He'd parked the Ford the evening before so he'd be facing forward for this late spring adventure. The light flooded the driver's side of the Model T. Climbing in and settling himself, he pulled the hand brake all the way back, to lock the transmission in neutral, then let the choke on the dash out and in. With his right forefinger and thumb he turned the ignition key to the battery position, ran those same fingers to the throttle, and stepped his right foot on the starter.

The motor chugged and hesitated as a cold engine was apt to do until he adjusted downward on the throttle, just below the steering wheel. The automobile bounced as if waves rocked the wheels. He pulled his left hand from under his pants leg and fiddled the spark adjust, smoothing the engine to a consistent thrum.

While lights came on in the Sacramento houses around him, Charles Francis Berg didn't bother with the auto's headlamps. He popped the hand clutch past neutral to high gear as he rolled from street to street. In less than an hour the Model T crossed the new causeway and the driver felt the sense of adventure ahead of him. He'd girded against the foreseeable perils: extra tires and fuel secured aft, with two gallons of water fastened at the prow.

As he sped west at thirty-five miles per hour, bugs hit the windshield. Charles Francis Berg was thankful Mr. Ford had installed wipers on this late model Tin Lizzie, but he knew eventually he'd have to stop and use a rag to clear the flies, gnats, and mosquito corpses.

A rueful thought flitted through his conscience, a moment of regret for leaving nine-year-old Charles William behind with his mother. The driver squeezed the wheel hard with both hands, remembering those days he'd longed to go to sea with his father. They'd run the coast north to Portland or even Alaska then haul a cache of fish on ice to San Pedro or perhaps old Mexico. But it never happened that way. Father had taken him aboard while the ship lay at anchor, bobbing in Little River bay. Hand in hand with his captain/father, he touched the wheel, gazed skyward at the impossible height of the schooner's masts; salt and sea sunk into his lungs for only an hour or so. Maybe it was false memory, simply an imagining while his mother clutched his hand on the headlands as they waved toward the father, unseeing on deck. He, the captain, preoccupied with duties and dreams of his own, already letting go of family.

Still, rolling west and north over dirt and pebbled road seemed voyage into the void enough for a man nearing forty. True, Charles Francis Berg knew his point of destination. He'd been born there, spent those early years that formed a boy overlooking the Pacific, watching his father sail away and waiting for his return.

He stopped to change a tire near Sonoma and rewarded himself with a sandwich his wife had prepared in the early morning hours. Chevrolet had come out with more durable balloon tires, but he had remained loyal to Ford, for the time being.

Pushing on beyond Santa Rosa at dusk felt pointless if not dangerous, so Charles Francis Berg splurged on a hotel room for the night. The next morning shone bright on the black Ford, motoring through Healdsburg then Cloverdale and northwest toward the coast.

Mid-afternoon chased the huffing Model T up the grade out of Dark Gulch, rising above the Pullen place. He grew a tad nervous as Littleriver neared. Would anyone recognize him or even remember the name three decades gone by?

All quiet on the southern side, no surprise for a Sunday. The big, white Coombs house appeared the same. The mill pond had moved and the bridge now crossed farther upstream. He stopped at the Pritchard home on the north side. No one came out in greeting, so he knocked upon the door.

A man of nearly sixty swung the door open and eyed him as a stranger. Charles Francis Berg introduced himself and the veil dropped. Yes, of course, you were only a boy then. They remembered his father, the sea captain, his mother not as well. Understandable, since she'd moved on so young. 1890s, wasn't it?

Mayor Mahlmann was fetched and greetings renewed. He took Charles Francis Berg for a walk, to show him what remained unchanged and much that had not.

He stayed the night and they fed him more than full for breakfast. But with all the folks, the ones who still remained, with the whole wide Pacific before them, no one brought the subject up. Perhaps they thought he might be embarrassed.

That conclusion he clung to, for he said nary a word about it himself, and set out in his motor car for the trip south and east. No longer did it seem an adventure, just a slightly weary journey home.

When he reached the hotel in Santa Rosa again he poked at salad and meat, consuming less and pondering more. They all must have felt it was not their concern that when he was five years old, or was it six, his father, Charles Andrew Berg, the Swedish sea captain, sailed off on the three-masted schooner, Uranus. Making port in Mexico, Charles Andrew Berg struck out for mining opportunities in the interior. After months without return or written word, the American counsel was appealed to, a search of some sort was made, but without avail, no trace of him was ever discovered.

On Monday, in the first days of June, 1925, Charles Francis Berg stepped aboard his Model T in the largest town in Sonoma County. He waited for it to cease its jounce and rumble before letting it roll forward. The day lay ahead, perhaps like no other day. Man and machine ventured forth, headed for opportunities in the interior.

(Historic journeys and opportunities abound at

One Comment

  1. DWayne April 2, 2019

    Once again, Mr. Macdonald has reminded readers of the gentle ways of years long gone in the form of a journey into the past. Well done / Thank you

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