Monday, August 8, 2011


OVERLENGTH ALERT:  2½ flag rating.  This might be a good time for a Lemon tart.

 Stones I

The topic for today is "Stones".  Building stones.  Recently, one of my favorite bloggers wrote of his youth and the gathering of stones.  In California for some reason stones are usually called "rocks".  And that reminded me of a mostly true story in which some of the names have been changed to protect the occasionally innocent.

Back in the "good ol' days", during Grandpa Dwight's teen years and just after WW II, big Grandpa Dwight commenced building the massive - at the time - three story five bedroom family home in the San Jacinto mountains of Southern California my folks would eventually call "home".  The building site was in Fern Valley on the bottom slope of a mountain that led uphill directly to the towering Tahquitz Peak fire lookout, more than two thousand feet overhead.  From there a spur of the main ridge of the mountain ran northward and downhill slightly to form Tahquitz Rock - an edifice of nature that overlooked Strawberry Valley and much of western Riverside County, and when viewed from afar gave the appearance of a heavenward facing visage of the face and ceremonial headdress of an American Indian Chief - similar to the one featured on the radiator noses of pre-war Pontiac's - but this one supposedly resembling Chief Tahquitz of the Soboba Indian tribe,
for whom it was named.  It probably could have resembled hundreds of Indian chiefs, but that's not important.  Depending on the weather and sunlight the distinctive rock could be clearly seen at certain times of day from various spots in Southern California, sometimes more than 50 miles distant.

There's much more to the basement tale, but that's enough for now.  Back to "rocks".

The lowest [basement] floor of the house, and half of the first floor was constructed of "rock".

There were three types of "rock",  actually.  River rock, red rock and field rock.

White and black speckled river rock was used for the interior walls of the basement great room, which by volume took up about one-half of the total basement.

An extremely distinctive local red rock was used for the exterior of the house on all four sides up to the "wainscot", or lower window sash level.

Building with rocks is a slow process.  As the rocks went up, since  the wall was over 2 feet thick, the space between the outer and inner walls was filled in with junk rocks, "mistake" rocks, broken rocks, chunks of concrete, odds and bits, and left over mortar.  When complete, those walls were SOLID.

Later, after the rest of the house was completed, Dad built the huge two-and-a-half-story-high double fireplace and chimney structure entirely from simple old-fashioned field rocks.

Each variety of rock had to be explored for and located in the wild, harvested - which usually meant digging up and freeing them from the earth that wanted to hold onto 'em, and then lifting 'em up and loading 'em by hand into an old 4WD "deuce and a half" surplus GI army dump truck somewhat similar to the one shown.  These were trucks which had somehow made it through the war and were now being palmed off on the public.  They were cheap, none too reliable, underpowered and universally known to have severe under-braking issues in the mountains.  But again, that didn't seem to be too important.

Once loaded, the rocks were hauled 20 to 30 miles from the back-country watercourses and byways of the national forest where they had been discovered.  Upon delivery to the building site the rocks were carefully unloaded by hand and stacked/stored nearby in segregated and classified piles.   Apparently, one doesn't want to scratch pretty rocks, or break them into smaller "gravel" through rough handling, I was reminded about a thousand times - so the unloading segment was not a quick process, either.

Thinking back across the years, I believe the piles were probably labeled:  River Good; River Mixed; River Bad; Red Good; Red Mixed; Red Bad; Field Good, Field Mixed and Field Bad.  Plus another pile for Junk rocks.  Dad was nothing if not organized, I thought at the time, but looking back at it now that was exactly the proper thing to do.  Dad was right?  Go figure.

 Stones II

So at about this time of my life I became committed (a reluctant form of volunteering) to harvest, load and haul rocks almost every week-end, it seemed, for an entire fall, winter and spring, and for what I thought at the time was the best part of a summer.  Sometimes two or three of us went rock gathering, sometimes it was just Dad and I, and sometimes I was trusted enough to go by myself.  Of course when I went alone those turned out to be the shortest trips.  I usually harvested the easiest rocks to dig free and load.  And somehow those rocks seldom passed muster with the master builder,  Dad.  Therein lay conflict.  The various Good piles were always too small.  There might be a barely adequate supply of Mixed rocks, and the largest piles always seemed to be labeled Bad or Junk.  I don't know why that was.  Maybe it was just a coincidence

At any rate, one load I brought home - in record time, I might add - was completely rejected by the head of the house, and I ended up hauling it back and dumping it from whence it came.  That was not a good day.  Talk about difficult employee-employer relations around the table that evening.  If it hadn't been for the patience and intercession of the power behind the power on the throne I think there might have been open warfare, but for whatever reason this was at about the time I was given parental encouragement to try my hand at a spell of commercial fishing out of Newport Beach, and then on my return home to consider enlisting in the Air Force.  The Korean War had just come along at what turned out for me to be a fortuitous time.

But to get back to the "rocks", these days I have scant recollection of harvesting and loading those humongous babies.  I see the house today and understand the math but my body and mind can't remember lifting and man-handling that many rocks.  Or even my fair share.  I know they didn't jump out of the ground and leap up into the truck on their own, but the human mind and body tends to mercifully "forget" torturous things of that sort. Or it's early onset senility.

What I do still vividly recall is the "hauling" portion of the operation.  It seems like I can recall well over a hundred separate trips going uphill in second gear at 5 miles an hour on blistering hot days in a bakery oven disguised as a truck.  That memory is forever indelibly etched in my brain.  I can hear, smell, see and feel it happening in nightmares over-and-over low these 60 plus years later.  Just as if it were yesterday.   Grind, grind, grind, grind.  Truck barely moving, not even going fast enough rid itself of heat radiating from the floorboards.  Feet on fire.  Boring. Boring. Grinding. Grinding.

And then the truck finally crests the summit, the engine speeds up and everything starts to roll along so much more smoothly.  This is the life.  Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.  Floorboard cooling off.  Rolling along.  Things are so much better.  Boredom erased.

Except on one particular trip, as I reached this phase of the haul, things changed.  Just as I was rolling along, enjoying life, the route - as usual- began going downhill somewhat.  So I was rolling a little smoother, even, if that were possible.  Still rolling, rolling, rolling.  Past 45 MPH this time and all's well.  Tree's are going by the window pretty fast now.  Life is sweet!   Now I'm at 50 MPH and lightly "testing" the brakes, just for reassurance purposes.  OK, they are there but not the healthiest ever felt, so better back down on the speed a little.

Suddenly it dawns on my teen-aged brain a crossroads village is about two miles ahead, and I should already have been preparing for that, so I begin slowing down a bunch.  Concerned but not in a panic. Now I'm down to 40, then 35, then down to 30 and thinking about "downshifting".  The act of thinking about "downshifting", though, is as about as far as I can go, because I've never really learned to downshift something this big and heavy, and besides, the transmission on this clunker has "square gears" - whatever that means - and only successfully downshifts about three out of a thousand tries.  Not encouraging odds.   So I try slowing this hunk of iron and rock down even more, to 25 MPH.  At about this time I realize that the brakes must have become quite warm, because they are either hot, completely worn out or gone on vacation.  At any rate I am standing on the brakes and very, very slowly gaining speed.  Life has ceased being "good".

Now, in desperation, comes a downshift.  Concentrate.  Double-clutch.   Feel the vibrations.  Slight rev during clutching.  Ahhhh.  Picture perfect!  What could be smoother?  In third gear now and down to a controlled 22 MPH so off of the brakes for a bit, give them a chance to cool for the moment,  and let the engine compression control the load.  Still a couple of curves to go before the village.  Life is a little better, speed is still at "about" 22 MPH, but the busy village is looming ahead.

Suddenly realize the last 100 yards before the village crosswalk will be much steeper downhill than I'm currently doing.  Alarm, alarm.  What to do?  What will keep me from speeding up just as I'm at the crosswalk?  I have got to stop now!  Time to downshift another gear.  Third to Second would probably do it.  No time to think about.  Just do it again, like the first time.  Concentrate.  Double-clutch.  Vibrations.  Slight rev - what's that?  UGH!  The shift lever caught on my lunch box and I'm now rocketing along in neutral, terminally out of gear, the village crosswalk in sight, rushing toward me, people crossing!!!!!!!

Honk, honk, honk [It's the sickest horn honking noise I've ever heard.  Why hadn't I noticed the weakness of the horn before?]  Brakes are jammed full on and I'm standing on 'em.  Grabbed emergency brake handle and pulled that huge lever full on.  Shrill grinding noise now coming from the parking brake turns out to be much louder than the horn.  Now pedestrians hear me and are a-scattering.  Whoosh!  Sailed right through the crosswalk - and village - at 18 MPH plus.  People yelling, or something.

Finally got her pulled to the side of the road at the start of the next uphill and into enough of a ditch there would be no danger of rollback.  Standing still.  No movement.  Everything still attached.  Missed everybody.  Whew!  Sat there a couple of minutes, shaking.  Shut her down.  Got out, walked back to the village Pizza place and called home.  Realized afterward if I'd been older my whole life would have flashed before my eyes as I went through the village, but I was so callow at the time there was nothing there yet to flash.

By the time dad got there a half hour later the stupid BRAKES HAD COOLED DOWN and were working fine.  Except for the fact the parking/emergency brake band was worn out and had to be replaced - about $12 for a new band at the time - nothing else was visible to support my claim of disaster averted.   Life is not fair.  That was the last time we used the dump truck, though.  From then on drove the pickup truck and utility trailer.  Rocks needn't be picked up nearly as high off the ground for those two.  That dump truck bed had to have been at least 40" high.

Never did finish hauling all the rocks dad needed for the house that year.  Went into the service that September and he hauled the rest of them himself, or hired it done as I recall.  House wasn't finished for another three years.  I got out of the Air Force in four.  Good timing.  Mama didn't raise no fool.

MORAL:  All life's lessons contain morals.  Callow youth today don't seem to put much store in morals, though, and are thus doomed to travel through life repeatedly undergoing unfortunate circumstances and bizarre catastrophes they could have easily avoided except for the naive "belief" peers are "wise beyond their years" and parents aren't.

As a service to grandchildren Grandpa Dwight enumerates a few of the morals from this story:
S.1     Callow youth never really plan ahead.  They think they do, but they are too callow to do so.
S.2     The faster one is moving, the harder it is to stop - or change direction.  Think about it.
S.3     Just because parents allow youths to "do it their own way" doesn't mean parents agree with it.
S.4     All youth are callow [look it up].  Those that think they aren't are even more callow.
S.5     Most "callowness" is temporary.  It usually begins to fade when girls reach 30 and boys 40.
S.6     Your friends are even more callow than you, if that's possible, but they don't know it.  No sense bringing it up, either, 'cause they'd never believe you.

From Grandpa Dwight, who - a tiny bit like God - loves his grandkids in spite of everything.

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