My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chapter 6: Vallejo

When the country began gearing up for war, my Uncle John, Dad’s next-younger brother,  started  taking aircraft mechanic classes at Reedley Junior College.  The job he actually got, however, was at Mare Island Naval Shipyard where he worked as a machinist in the construction and repair of destroyers and cruisers.  John got the job either just before or just after Pearl Harbor.  He says he got hold of a little homemade trailer house, and he and Hilda packed up and moved to Vallejo.  Linda was born in Vallejo August 27, 1942, which means that the move must have been made earlier in that same year.  Larry and Joanne were just little kids then.  Joanne turned three on April 2, 1942, and Larry turned five just ten days before Linda was born.

Gas and tires were both rationed during the war, but somehow my folks managed a surprising number of trips to see Dad’s family.  Most of those were to Dinuba, but I remember at least one trip to Vallejo with my mom and little sister Nita.  Mom and Aunt Hilda were good friends, and Larry and Joanne were the only cousins I had near my own age.  Larry was four months older than me; Joanne was fifteen months younger. 
            I don’t remember much about Vallejo itself.  What I remember most is hearing the name “Vallejo” and my excitement about seeing Larry and Joanne.  It must have been in the early spring of 1943 because the hills were green with long grass moving in the wind.  Uncle John and Hilda were living in a trailer house in an area set up for the families of defense workers.  Green grass surrounded the trailer houses, and there seemed to be a lot of space between them.  After we arrived, Joanne, Larry and I played outside for a while.  I think we may have climbed a small hill.  I remember eating Kix cereal at the built in table and booth, so we may have stayed overnight.    If we did, that trailer house would have been very crowded.   Mom might have slept on the couch, and Nita and I might have slept on the floor or shared Joanne’s bed.  Crowded sleeping was the norm back then.  It was simply part of visiting.

It was only recently I leaned how scared Joanne was during the war.  I was surprised.  My memories were sunny.  What I felt was excitement, not fear.  But then Joanne lived in Vallejo, right smack in the midst of the vast network of strategic military installations that ringed San Francisco Bay.  This area was the major military command center for the war in the Pacific.  Port Chicago was just a few miles away from Vallejo.  The whole San Francisco Bay area was a virtual bomb with all the ammunition and fuel stored there, a tempting target for enemies.   Uncle John worked in the heart of this military complex.  He would have been very aware of the reality of the war and the threat it posed to ordinary people in the area.  That anxiety was contagious.  

Sometime ago Jo wrote about her memories of Vallejo and the war.  I read the piece and asked if she would allow me to publish it.  She agreed.  


            “I was born in 1939, the beginning of WW2.  We had moved to Vallejo where Dad worked at Mare Island Navy Yard.  At age 3, 4, and 5, I clearly didn't understand what war was.  But what I did understand was that it was scary and could "get me".  During blackouts we would pull the shades and turn out all lights, then sit in the dark.  My parents were afraid, obviously, so that fear became mine.  Fear was an emotion I lived with all the time.

            “We lived in government housing on a hillside.  I would wake up very early and lie awake listening to traffic going by on our street.  There weren't many cars out that early but enough to make me listen and wait.  If a car stopped, it was the war coming to get me.  I would lie there terrified, hoping the car would keep going.  I think that was when I learned how to pray.

            “Early one morning when Port Chicago blew up, it rocked our house.  Larry, Linda, and I raced into our parents’ bedroom and jumped in their bed.  We weren't supposed to do that, but the fear of what was outside was greater than our fear of punishment.

            “Dad took me on a submarine docked at Mare Island.  We were inside it and walked from hatch to hatch.  I knew it was a war ship but didn't feel afraid because Dad was with me. 

            “When the war ended, my parents and some neighbors, got us out of bed and took us to town in our pajamas.  Everyone was celebrating, shouting, laughing, crying.  All of that craziness was almost as scary as the war had been.  One sailor got hit by a car and Mom got hysterical.  Picture complete.”
                                                                                                       Joanna Williams (1 Feb 2011)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chapter 5: Coronado Ave. Stockton

            "No.  California would never be the same: not after the federal government had spent more than $35 billion in California between 1940 and 1946 (a sum exceeded only in New York and Michigan), multiplying the manufacturing economy of the state by a factor of 2.5, tripling the average personal income between 1939 and 1945; not after some 1.6 million Americans had moved to California to work in defense-related industries; not after millions of young Americans had been trained in California for the military, with so many of them vowing to return after the war."
                   Kevin Starr.  Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002)

In the fall of 1942, about a year after the move to Third Street, my family moved again, this time to an almost-new, stucco house on Coronado Avenue on the north edge of Stockton just east of Oak Park, a grove of huge, old Valley Oaks. The house had two bedrooms, one bath, good sized living room with a bay window and an eat-in kitchen with an adjacent utility room that opened into an attached garage.  It wasn’t a large house, probably about 800 square feet, average footage for houses in that time.  But it was a well-built little house.  It had hardwood floors, plaster walls and real ceramic tile in the kitchen and bathroom, cheerful pale yellow tile with shiny black trim.  

Dad said he paid $4,000 for it, a real step-up from the $1,100 he paid for the house on Third Street.  Mom and Dad never had a new house before, and I’m sure they were excited about it.  They bought custom-made venetian blinds for all the windows as soon as we moved in, and Mom made pinch-pleated, lined drapes with swag toppers for the bay window in the living room.  As soon as weather allowed, Dad cleared the weeds in the big yard and planted lawn and young walnut trees spaced so they would eventually shade the whole yard.

            It was just the four of us in the new house: Mom, Dad, Nita and me.  My uncles and their buddies were gone, away at the War.  They were present now only as photos in the album on our coffee table and in my parents’ conversation after a letter arrived.  I knew that Uncle Ed was still in Florida, and that Uncle Frank had been drafted into the Army and sent to Hawaii for basic training.  When he got there, Uncle Frank sent me a paper lei and hula skirt, a real grass one—not one of the cheap, bright colored imitations I scorned.  Mom took a snapshot of me wearing the skirt and lei and sent it to Uncle Frank, my hair in freshly combed blond curls, posing in a hula stance with my arms out and my hip to one side. Under the lei and grass skirt I was wearing a silk bra-like top and matching panty that Mom made out of an old silk dressing gown given to her by one of the neighbors on Third Street.  It was too worn to wear, but still had good fabric in the long, full skirt.  The colors—Chinese red with small blue, yellow and white flowers—were still bright, not the least bit faded.  

            Although my uncles and their buddies were gone, my world was not emptied of men.  My dad was never called up, and only one of my mom’s four brothers got drafted.  The man across the street had been called up, but all the rest of the fathers in the neighborhood, like my own dad, were still at home.  In fact, Stockton seemed full of men.  There were the young men at Stockton Field who were training to be pilots, and there was all the activity related to the Port of Stockton, which was connected to San Francisco Bay by a deep water channel.

             Stockton had nine shipbuilding firms making ships for the navy.  The Navy also had a pier at the port, and sailors were a familiar sight in town.  To top it off, the Union Pacific Railroad ran right behind our back yard.  Trains packed with young men rattled by every day.  I would wave to them, and they would wave back at me.  In the summer when the windows of the cars were open, I could hear them whistle and shout at my Aunt Sylvia, Mom’s teen-aged sister, who loved to lay out in her swimsuit on the lawn in our back yard where all the guys in the train could see her.

            This was the war for me, these handsome young men and pretty girls flirting with them.  Energy, sexual energy.  Optimism and people going places, doing things.

Copyright Loretta Willems, October 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chapter 4: Third Street Stockton

      “In the months preceding World War II, the U.S. Army entered into the first of many lease agreements with the City of Stockton (on 15 August 1940) to construct and operate an Army training facility at Stockton Municipal Airport.”                      []
     “When Lowell and I quit Junior College we went to Lodi and lived with your parents until the war.  We enlisted shortly after.  Your parents made several moves before they lived on 21 West Third Street in Stockton.  While on Third Street your dad and I got jobs driving dump trucks at the Stockton Airport.”                                                             [Ed Willems, e-mail: 2-18-2008]     
      When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, my family was living in a small house at 21 West Third Street about a mile south of Stockton’s downtown area.  Stockton Field, where Dad and my Uncle Ed had jobs driving dump trucks, was already under construction when Pearl Harbor was attacked, part of a national push to get the country ready for the war most people knew was inevitable. 

          It must have been in the summer or fall before Pearl Harbor that my family moved to Third Street.  I remember driving to the house in a farm truck loaded with Mom’s chickens.  She was driving, and I was in the cab with her.  She was worried about the chickens.  It was a hot day, and she was afraid the chickens wouldn’t survive the long drive from the place in Lockford.

      The house was in an older part of town, our little house perhaps even older than the others on the tree shaded street.  A long sidewalk went down the east side of the yard to the big, covered front porch.  Ice plant and calendulas filled in the space between the walk and the low fence on the east side of the property.  On the other side of the walk was a large expanse of not very green Bermuda grass that extended to the west edge of our lot where the neighbor’s two story house was partially visible through the shade of trees and bushes.  There was no driveway, so we must have driven across the tough Bermuda lawn to the barn and chicken coop in the back yard.  The lot was deep with plenty of space for Mom’s chickens as well as a big garden, probably not the cow, though.  That went back to Mom’s parents.  A barn-like building was back there, too.  That must have been where Uncle Ed and Lowell slept.  There certainly was no room for them in the house.
        It was a little old house, built very low to the ground, the wood siding painted a nondescript, faded gold.  A linoleum-floored living room faced the street.  A big kitchen and a small bedroom were behind the living room.  The bedroom, which opened onto the kitchen, was where Nita and I slept.  It was the only bedroom, so Dad made a sleeping space at one end of the back porch, putting up a wall that separated that area from the utility and bathroom area at the other end of the enclosed porch.  This was where he and Mom slept.  My dad was no carpenter, and the bedroom was a makeshift affair, but then the whole house was poorly built, the floors uneven—even spongy, worn linoleum on the floors, cheaply built cupboards and only a curtain to separate Nita’s and my bedroom from the kitchen.

        A linoleum covered counter ran along the outside kitchen wall.  There was a sink in the middle of it that looked out into the side yard, the shady east side, where Nita and I had a swing tied in a tree.  I remember Mom standing in front of that sink, working at the counter.  I am sitting on one of the wood chairs placed at the big, round wood table in the center of the room.  I say, “Mama.”  She replies, “What?”  I answer, “I love you.”  After a bit I repeat that, “Mama.”  She answers again, “What?”  Again I answer, “I love you.”  Finally, after a few more rounds of that, Mom grows impatient, says, “That’s enough.”

      So many memories set in the house and yard on Third Street—not the small collection of disconnected snapshots that I carry from Navelencia and Lockford.  These are like rolls of film that allow me to move through the rooms of the house, out onto the front porch and over to the neighbor’s house next door where some cute high school boys live who make a big fuss over me, boys I find deeply attractive and exciting.

      People are starting to become interesting, not just the neighbor boys and their mother who gives me slices of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar when I visit her house, but my mother, too.  Mom is no longer an invisible presence I know is there but do not see.  I still cannot see her face, but I can see her standing at the kitchen sink.  I see her lying on the couch in the dim living room reading a book and eating chocolates from a Whitman’s Sampler—perhaps my first glimpse that being a grown-up might be fun.  I, too, would like to have my own Whitman’s Sampler, lie on a couch reading and taking pieces of candy freely out of the box, eating as much as I want.  I tell myself that when I grow up I am going to do that, too.  I still do not see Mom as clearly as the yellow box of chocolates or the free-standing heating stove with its isinglass window sitting at the end of the living room near the kitchen doorway, but she is definitely there now.  I see her outline, her general form.

      It is as though it was just Mom and me in that house.  Nita was a baby and toddler during the time we lived there, but my only memory of her is from the yard.  I remember jumping with her on some old bare springs on a metal cot under the kitchen window, and I remember that she has learned how to pump the swing.  She is just a toddler; I am four years old—but she can pump the swing, and I can’t.  I still needed someone to push me.  I am embarrassed.

      Dad, too, is absent from memories of life inside the house.  My main memory of him during our time on Third Street is of hearing about his train trip to Florida to visit my Uncle Ed, who was a naval aircraft mechanic stationed in either Jacksonville or Pensacola.  That trip included a stop in Chicago where Dad went to see an uncle who Dad said was “rich,” an Uncle Boldt.  A few photos taken on that trip went into the album on our coffee table.  One was of Uncle Ed in his summer whites looking jaunty and handsome walking down a city street with my dad.  It was not a good likeness of Dad.  “Is that Uncle Ed’s boss?” I asked when I first saw it.

      We lived on Third Street during the winter, spring and summer of 1942.  Even though I was only four years old, I felt the energy and excitement of the adults around me during those first months of the war.  They were geared, mobilized, on the move.   And they were young—my mom, dad, uncles and their buddies were all in their twenties.  Dad’s sisters were in their teens and twenties.  It seemed like they all came to visit us at Third Street.  Uncle Frank came with his best buddy, Leo Richert, with whom I was in love—I told him to promise to wait for me to grow up so I could marry him.  It seemed like there was a whole crowd of young uncles and their buddies at the place, exciting young men who would throw me up in the air, catch me, toss me from one to the other. 

            Dad’s sisters, too, visited us at Third Street.  Helen came on the train by herself, bringing me a present and thereby becoming my favorite aunt.  Elizabeth and Martha, who were in their late teens, came down sometime during the summer.  A funny picture of them with my dad and Mom’s younger sister Sylvia still bears witness to their presence.  All of them are in bathing suits.  Sylvia sits on top of Liz and Martha’s shoulders, and my dad kneels between his sisters holding the right leg of one and the left leg of the other which are draped over his shoulders.


Copyright: Loretta Willems, October 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chapter 3: Leaving Navelencia

          “Nick and I moved into a barn on Jack’s place.  Jack had bought a little farm in Navelencia.  The barn had separate living quarters from the livestock.  The rooms we lived in had 1’x 12’ boards for a floor and I think there were 2 rooms.  We picked oranges that winter.  I believe Nick got married and moved out, so I slept there and ate with Jack and Agnes. …  On October 24, 1940, I married Velma Elsie Reimer. … Our first home was the same barn I mentioned previously where Nick and I lived.  It was clean, nailed out and warm.”                                                                                                                               Frank J. Willems (unpublished memoir, used with permission).        

         A few months after Uncle Frank and Aunt Velma moved into the barn at Navelencia, my dad lost the place.  Dad said he’d made a deal with the man who held the loan to forgo the first year’s crop payment so that Dad could put that money into improvements on the farm.  Dad leveled and planted alfalfa on nine acres of bare land next to the canal and also put in a new driveway from the road to the house and barn.  Dad said he had a nice crop of alfalfa growing by the time of the fall harvest, but when the crop came in, the man came out to the farm and asked for the year’s payment.  Dad protested,

            “We agreed we’d put this payment into the soil!” 

            “Do you have it in writing?” 

             You know I don’t.

            Well, I guess I’ll have to foreclose.

Dad said the man later gave him $200 to buy him out.

            Dad was convinced he had been cheated.  He said he trusted the man because he was a deacon in the Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church.  Dad had been reared in that church and was still a member even though he seldom went to church and very definitely did not live what could be considered a good Christian life.  Dad did, however, expect those who made that claim to live up to the standards they preached.  He was angry and very bitter. Soon after the foreclosure, Dad wrote the Reedley MB Church Council asking them to excommunicate him because he didn’t want to be in the same church with that deacon.

            Dad never again tried to buy a farm.  He was done with farming.  It was time to move out of the Reedley-Dinuba area with all its Mennonites and get a new start.  Mom’s parents, my Grandpa and Grandma Young, had a nice farm just south of Lodi on Highway 99. This was familiar territory for my folks, and the Stockton-Lodi area was prospering.  Lodi farmland was rich, and Stockton, a port city on the San Joaquin River with deep water access to San Francisco Bay, was bustling with construction in preparation for the nation’s entry into the war raging in Europe and the Far East. The Depression was far from over, but in places like Stockton men were being hired.  Moving there looked like a good bet, and when my folks hit the highway they were not alone.  Dad’s two youngest brothers, Frank and Ed, as well as Frank’s new wife, Velma, and Ed’s buddy Lowell, went with them.

            My dad called the house we moved into the “the Binger place.”  It was a two story house out in the farmland east of Lodi.  He said he paid $40 a month rent for it.  There was a big deodor cedar on the lawn in front of the house.  To me it looked like a beautiful Christmas tree, a perfect Christmas tree.  To me, this was the Christmas Tree House.

      “The house [in Lockford] was located where Highway 12 and 88 come together.  For a short time your Dad and Mom lived downstairs in the house and Frank and Velma lived upstairs.  Lowell and I slept in a shed also on the property.  From there I think Frank moved to another farm for a while.”                                                                                                               (Ed Willems, e-mail: 3/24/08)

            All my memories of the Christmas Tree House are winter memories—dark grey sky, a muddy driveway, mud around the outbuildings where Mom kept the chickens and a cantankerous cow with short teats her parents had given her.  That cold, muddy yard was no place for a small child to play.  I played inside the house.  That is the space I remember most clearly.

            There were six adults living at that place, though I can’t truly “see” any of them when I think back.  I am very aware that Frank and Velma live upstairs.  I know that Mom is somewhere near.  But what I “see” is the stairway going up from the big empty, linoleum floored dining room.  This was my play room, big enough for me to ride my tricycle round and round.  There are French doors that open into a cold, empty living room that extends clear across the front of the house.  The doors are closed to conserve heat, but I can see the linoleum floor and the bank of windows that extend across the front of the house.  On the other side of the dining room across from the French doors is the kitchen.  I can see a bit of the way into it, but not far.  It is dim and seems not very large.  I can also see a little way into my bedroom.  The door is at the foot of the open stairs that go up to the room where Uncle Frank and Aunt Velma live.  They have a closet I love to play in, a big walk-in closet with a built-in chest of drawers and a bench to sit on.

            I loved to “go visiting.”  I would climb the stairs and knock on the door.  When Aunt Velma answered it, I’d ask if I could “come visit.”  This game went on for quite a while, I think.  Then one time when Velma opened the door she told me that I couldn’t come in because there was a ghost in the closet.  I was truly terrified, and went running to my mom who reassured me that there were no such things as ghosts.  She explained that Velma was tired of my going up there so much.  I was making a pest of myself and shouldn’t go up there anymore, an admonition I heeded.  I was deeply offended that someone would deliberately try to scare me.  I could tell that Mom shared my opinion.

Frank & Velma
            Frank never found a satisfactory means of support in the Lodi area, and before the year 1941 was out, he and Velma were back in the Dinuba-Reedley.  Below is a passage from the short history Uncle Frank wrote about his life that talks about that time.

         Together with Jack and Agnes [we] moved to Lockford, east of Lodi.  They rented a house and we slept upstairs in a large room.  Later I got a job taking care of a dairy.  We bought some furniture, a stove and washing machine and moved into the house [on the dairy].  I don’t think the driveway dried out the whole time we lived there.  When we got company one of us would have to start the tractor and pull their car in from the road.  When they got ready to leave we’d pull them back to the road.  My guess now is the driveway was about 150 yards long.  I don’t remember why we left the dairy, but we moved back to Lockford, this time with our own furniture.  We lived independently but in the same house.

     “I got a job driving tractor for Ed Baumback and got pretty good pay.  The trouble with this was I breathed so much dust.  I had no appetite to eat, and even the next morning I would still spit mud.  Consequently, when Stanley asked me to come to Seaside, a suburb of Monterey to work for him I grabbed it.  We moved to Seaside only find he didn’t really have anything for me to do.  So without money we moved to Castroville.  We were there only a couple of months when a man I had talked to when we were in Reedley sent word asking if I still wanted to drive for him.  Believe me, we were there the next day.  We rented a house in Reedley, and I worked for V. J. Nielsen till I was drafted into the Army.

     “When the trucking season was over we moved to Parlier into a house that was on the property Nielsen had bought.  During the winter I pruned vines and did whatever else there was to do.  On December 20, 1941, Madeline Jane was born.  She has since changed it to Sunny.  I drove for Nielsen another season, and while being in charge of a crew of grape pickers I got my notice from the draft board that I was to go into the Army.  I was sworn in on October 27, 1942.”

            My sister Juanita was born March 25, 1941 in the San Joaquin County Hospital at French Camp.  Mom was pregnant when we moved to Lockford, and she prepared me for the birth of the new baby by making a quilt for my “new” bed.  I had been sleeping in a crib until this time, and the new baby would need it.  The quilt had alternating blocks of white and sky blue fabric with baskets of flowers appliqued on the white blocks.  The petals of the flowers were cut from scraps of fabric left over from clothes Mom had sewn, fabrics with tiny flowers and dots that seemed to pull me into a different world when I looked at them, a world I wanted to enter and play.  I loved that blanket.  It was mine.  I still loved it when I was in high school and the quilt was essentially a rag, the inexpensive fabric worn and disintegrating.

            After Nita was born, Mom had to go back to the hospital for a while because of problems with her kidneys.  One of Mom’s friends, a pretty girl named Wilma, came to stay with us to help Mom.   Mom was nineteen when Nita was born, two months shy of her twentieth birthday.  I have few memories from the time after Nita’s birth, just a vague awareness of her birth and her crib in my room.  What I remember most vividly is my dad taking me with him in the truck on one of his hauls.  It was a big rig, and sitting up in the cab with him I could look way ahead over the tops of the cars.  When we passed them, I could look down into the cars and see the people inside.  It was fun being up there behind that big powerful engine.  It felt special being allowed to go with my dad.  The only problem was the restrooms.  I wouldn’t go with him into the men’s room.  I insisted on going into the women’s by myself.  However, I got locked inside one of the stalls early in the trip, and Dad had to rescue me by going into the women’s restroom and crawling under the door to unlock it for me.  I made sure to never lock a restroom stall again, but I was still afraid that somehow the stall door would lock itself, and I would again be trapped, again have to be rescued.

“Another Trucking Experience”
         “I had been hauling gasoline for about three months for a man in Stockton when the boss said to go to Long Beach and pick up a load of gasoline (a load was 74 hundred gallons to the high markers).  The truck was new.  It was a large Diamond T, with a model H Cummings engine in it, 22 wheels on the ground, but it still had four-inch rag brake lining. 

         “I went to Long Beach and loaded the gasoline.  Coming back all went well until I came down the Grapevine, on this side going towards Bakersfield.  I was rolling nicely, when, about half the way down, I tried the brakes—first the trailer brakes.  There was none.  Then the truck [bakes].  There was very little.  The truck was gaining speed.  As I was passing Grapevine my tuck had gained speed up to 90 miles-an-hour, and the trailer brakes were on fire!  –(If you walk on top of a truck with shoe nails in your shoes you will start a fire, and my rig was on fire!)

         “I drove another five mile to Wheeler Station.  The station was open, so I stopped and ran to the station to get a fire extinguisher.  The station operator said, “No.  I have lost too many that way.  Let her burn.  I don’t care.”

            “What to do now!  Here I was on fire, and he wouldn’t let me put it out!”
“I got back into that truck and started towards Bakersfield.  Maybe I could crush the fire.  By using the trailer brakes, in about three miles I did just that.  When I arrived in Bakersfield and stopped for breakfast, I couldn’t eat.  Even though the fire was out I was too shook up.”                                                                                                                             Jacob (Jack) Willems

             Dad started driving truck when I was a baby.  He would pick up a job here and there, and by the time we moved north he was an experienced and skilled driver.  Stockton, a transportation hub servicing the whole Central Valley, was a good place to take advantage of that skill.  Less than a year after they lost the farm in Navelencia, sometime during the summer or fall of 1941, they were able to buy a house in Stockton, a house that cost them $1,100.

~ ~ ~

Copyright: Loretta Willems, October 8, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chapter 2: Navelencia


 "The only observations worth making are those that sink in upon you in childhood.  We don’t know we’re observing, but  we see everything.  Our minds are relatively blank, our memories are not crammed full of all sorts of  names, so that the impressions we gather in the first 12 years are enormous and vivid and meaningful—they come laden with meaning, in a way that experience does not on.”                                                                                
                                                                                              John Updike

 Until the winter I turned three, New Year’s Day 1941, my parents and I lived in the Dinuba area.  Those were some of the hardest years of the Depression, and Dad really scrambled to feed and house us, picking up whatever job he could find—driving tractor, pruning vines and fruit trees, working the raisin harvest, doing short order cooking, pumping gas at service stations, driving truck.  Then in the late fall of 1939, just before I turned two years old, Dad made a deal on a small farm, 26 acres of grapes and alfalfa near a little community sixteen miles north of Dinuba called Navelencia.

This is rich farming country, a land of vineyards and orchards and orange groves, located in the southeastern part of California’s great Central Valley.  This land lies at the feet of the Sierra Nevada range where those mountains reach their greatest height.  The craggy peaks that surround 14,495-foot tall Mt. Whitney are just fifty miles east of Navelencia.  Twenty-five miles due east is Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, a spectacular stand of giant sequoias.  Those trees stand at an elevation of 6500 feet, more than a mile above sea level, more than a mile, too above the farm where we lived.  Only twenty-five miles apart, but two very different worlds, the high land a place of big trees, green meadows and sparkling streams, the land below a hot dry alluvial plain that spreads out around scattered foothills in a sloping descent to the valley bottom.  Navelencia, with an elevation of only 350 feet, sits on the plain about four miles southeast of one of the last of the big foothills, 2092 foot tall Jesse Morrow Mountain.

  Our farm was completely dependent on those mountains.  Our rich soil had its origin in their steep slopes.  Our water was the gift of the high peaks that catch Pacific Ocean moisture, store it as deep winter snow that slowly melts into the root-mass of the big trees.  The roots hold the moisture like a great sponge that is able to seep water all summer long into rivulets and streams that feed the Kings River that tumbles out of the mountains, down the foothills into Pine Flat Reservoir ten miles north of Navelencia.  Without that water and the irrigation canal that brought it to us, there would have been no farm, no grapes, no alfalfa, no trees—for this is a land of little rain.  The crops our land produced loved the abundant sun that comes with cloudless skies, but they could not survive on the 12 inches of precipitation that is the annual average for that region.

Navelencia is the place where memory begins for me.  Before that all is dark.  The names Pixley and Hollister and Sultana, other places where my parents found a bit of work in the years after I was born, evoke no images at all.  But when I think, “Navelencia,” I can suddenly ‘see’.  I see the pale tan of the dirt driveway that led from our house out to the road; I see that same smooth tan on the strip of land between the road and the big irrigation canal that curved around the south side of our land.  I see that water flowing deep in the canal.

I have no memory of the house we lived in, just a vague impression of a small, dark place that seems to be in a clump of trees on the middle of the property.  When I call up memories of the farm I am standing on the packed dirt of the driveway with the house behind me.  I am looking east.  On each side are open fields. Up ahead, on my right, I see low weathered outbuildings and a tall wood fence that encloses a big pig-pen that sets in the corner between the drive and the road.  There is a sow and her babies in the pen I know, but I don’t really see them.  What I see is the long driveway, the canal and the road that parallels it. 

I also have memories of a few events that took place on that farm.  I remember getting hooked on the front bumper of a car and being dragged down the drive as the car slowly backed towards the road.  The car belonged to a salesman, I think.  It didn’t go far before I was discovered, and I wasn’t really hurt—not even scared by what happened.  The adults, however, had been badly frightened, and they took me to a doctor who said I was fine and obligingly painted me red with mercurochrome so I could have something to show for my visit.

In another memory, I am standing on the bottom rail of the pigpen with my hands holding one of the higher rails.  I want to show our pigs to a little neighbor boy who is standing on the drive, but he is scared of the pigs and won’t get near the fence.  I am disgusted; think he’s a sissy. 

An even stronger memory takes place out on the road that runs alongside the big canal.  I am heading north as fast as I can towards a small country store that I know is up ahead of me.  There is candy there, and I want to get some.  I’m not sure how far I actually traveled before my very worried parents caught up with me.  They kept asking me why I had run away, and I couldn’t get it across to them that I wasn’t running away.  I just wanted to get some candy.

 Knowing my father, I must also have gotten a good scolding.  I had been told over and over to stay away from the canal and to not go out on the road.  My parents were very anxious about that canal, and I really did understand that I should not get close enough to slip and fall in.  I actually kept a careful distance—but I was not afraid of it.  I liked water, and my lack of fear worried my folks.  One day while my dad was out irrigating the grapes he decided to instill what he felt would be a healthy scare.  I was out in the field with him, and I kept ignoring his orders to stay out of the irrigation ditch.  Exasperated, he finally picked me up and threw me into some deeper water.  But I wasn’t afraid.  I thought he was playing. “Oh, fun, daddy!” are the words my dad remembered until the end of his life.

 Looking back now as an adult I can understand the fear and worry I felt in others.  A curious, fearless two year old who loves water living on a place surrounded by water is a rather terrifying idea.  That farm was a dangerous place for a small child intent upon exploring the world around her.  There was the water, there was a direct-current electric fence that killed my dad’s favorite horse, and there were the pigs.  I liked the pigs that grazed our alfalfa and drove my dad crazy by swimming the canal and getting into our neighbor’s grapes.  I liked the sow and her little piglets.  But big animals of any kind are dangerous to small children—particularly a mother pig.  Sows are capable of killing even adult males if they sense their babies are in danger.

But that is my adult assessment, not that of the two year old, and it is the feelings and perspective of the two year old that I remember and still feel.  What I remember is the eager reaching out to the world, the curiosity, the desire to explore.  But what I remember most is the place itself, the soil, the water, the cloudless sky.


Copyright: Loretta Willems October 1, 2011