This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
…This precious stone set in the silver sea
…This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Shakespeare, King Richard II.
If there was a military historian with a gift to rival Shakespeare’s, it was another Englishman named John Keegan. Keegan was a little boy in the English countryside when the Americans began to arrive in their numbers in late 1943 and into the spring of 1944. Little English boys had lived for years with the deepest of privations—thanks, in large part, to the U-boat campaign that had nearly starved Shakespeare’s “sceptred isle” to death—and then the Americans came. Keegan was many years later narrating a history of the Great War, about the impact of the arrival of an earlier generation in the pivotal spring of 1918, when he was suddenly at a loss for words. “Well,” he said finally. “they were Americans!” By which he meant they were boisterous, cocky, well-fed, well-clothed, and, thank God, they were friendly, with an innocence and immediacy that was distinctly American. They taught English boys baseball and flirted with their big sisters, who had suffered years of a different kind of privation, and married some of them, but most of them not, which meant that little boys Keegan’s age would inherit littler half-Yank nieces and nephews. Most of all, they were generous. There seemed to be no end to their Hershey bars (there wouldn’t be after the war, either, when, during the Berlin Airlift, one of bomber pilot Jess Milo McChesney’s comrades, Gail Halverson, air-dropped Hershey bars, floating on little parachutes, to the hungry children of blockaded Berlin) and no end to the rough affection for children that came with these big, loud men from across the sea.
And then they were gone. Keegan has vividly described the early-morning dark when that happened, when the Edwardian chinaware and modest crystal on every shelf in the Keegan home began protesting, rattling an alarm so loud that it woke the family up, if the motion beneath their beds hadn’t already made them sit bolt upright. The anxiety of Keegan’s family, and their neighbors, and of other families all across East Anglia, was relieved only when they went outside. Then anxiety gave way to wonder. They could feel in their breastbones the vibrations of the engines of thousands of airplanes, but could see only dim red and amber lights in the sky, bearing east, toward France. Some of the Americans Keegan had grown to love so quickly, his heroes, were on those airplanes, and tens of thousands of more, his heroes, were riding deathly pale on landing craft corkscrewing in foul Channel waters, and they were all headed for Normandy.
It was D-Day.
Link to Dan Krieger's article:
Her full name was Maria Ramona de Luz Carrillo Pacheco de Wilson. I think. I accidentally found this photograph of her, age 37, while I was looking for something else entirely, which is how I usually find the material I need the most for writing history.
It’s a puzzler, that.
She, more importantly, was born a Carrillo, in San Diego, which immediately assigns her a special place in our history. There was no family more prominent in Mexican California. Her father was the commandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio, her son would become the twelfth governor of California, and her (second) husband, Yankee sea captain John Wilson, owned the lengthily-named Rancho Canada de Los Osos y Pecho y Islay, which translates in modern terms, to pretty much everything between Montana de Oro and Cambria.
Owning that much land boggles my mind. I grew up on three acres, and thought that much land immense.
Here is the point: She is, at 37, a handsome woman. It is difficult to imagine the self-assurance a man must have felt with a woman like this on his arm.
And she must have been, at sixteen, a delight.
To watch her dance must have been mesmerizing, and Californio women didn’t expend that much energy at fandangos. Dancing was prized, but it was a male pursuit. Young men, and even older men, like Juan Bandini, reputedly the best dancer in Mexican California, did the dancing, like Mick Jagger roosters on Dexedrine, and sixteen-year-olds like Maria moved chastely and modestly, their lacquered Chinese fans held aloft and their long lashes cast downward, while the young men, as is the the perfect right of young men, made fools of themselves in public.
Even Maria Ramona’s downcast eyelashes, I believe, must have been devastating. I would consider giving one or more arms to get the chance to go backward in time to see her at sixteen.
But this photograph–undoubtedly, part of a group portrait, because you can detect, at lower right, the wedding lace or First Communion lace or the quinceañera lace of another woman–is a revelation. It’s one more reason why I love women. I don’t “cherish” them. You don’t “cherish” a human being who can give birth to another human being with the density of a bowling ball and the kinetic energy of a herd of buffalo on the Yellowstone. No. You love them. You acknowledge your own gender's fragility, then you move on, loving them, and trying to keep up with them.
Maria, for example. She was born in 1812 and died in 1888, the same year my two-room school, Branch School, was built. When my parents drove me to that school for the Hallowe’en carnival (Houses were too far apart in the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley for trick or treating. You’d wind up in Pozo.), I could see, in the limbs of California oaks, bandidos reaching to snatch me from the car, especially if the moon was full. There was always history, in my little-boy imagination, just beyond the moonlight.
One of my first memories in the Valley was that of the home of another Californio matriarch, Manuela Branch, as it caught fire, about 1958, in the corner opposite the Valley from our home on Huasna Road. I had never seen anything burn so bright, and it would take me a few years to realize how costly that fire had been, how completely it had erased the traces of a woman so important. She was buried over the hill from our two-room school, alongside her husband--from Scipio, New York, of all places–-and alongside him, three little girls taken by smallpox in 1862, and, a few yards beyond their tombstones, the common tombstone of a father and son lynched in 1886.
How did they endure? Maria Josefa Dana gave birth to twenty-one children and lost more than half of them at birth or within five years. Nine of Manuela Branch’s survived, but she lived thirty-five years beyond her husband, who died in 1874. Maria Ramona de Luz Carrillo Pacheco de Wilson’s progeny was modest by Californio standards: seven children, but three of them would die before they’d reached twenty-five.
So here she is, in 1849, looking squarely at the photographer without flinching, and this was an age when the camera lens remained open so long because the “film” in those days, on glass-plate negatives, was so slow, that chancing a smile, even a faint one like hers, likely meant that her face would be lost to posterity. It would be a blur. Matthew Brady, in his Washington City studio, kept on hand a variety of neck and head braces, reminiscent of the Inquisition, to keep his subjects, including Lincoln, perfectly still.
And here she is, smiling, albeit faintly, like some kind of San Luis Obispo County Mona Lisa.
What is she smiling about?
It is, more than likely, an event in which she is a peripheral character. If it is a First Communion, a quinceñeria, or a wedding, it is certainly not hers. She is merely a guest. But the fact that she is included, even at the edge of what seems to be a group photo, one in which the celebrants wanted her presence, is indicative of her prominence and indicative of so much more: her personal strength, her unshakable calm, her dignity, and, most of all, her integrity.
You cannot “cherish” a quality like integrity.
You either understand it, or you don’t. This woman was bred into it, born into it, grown into it, and she would impart it in the generations who lived far beyond her death in 1888.
Her husbands were lucky enough to live with it, and with her.
She lived a life as strong as Christ’s rock—Jesus, fond of puns, changed Simon’s name to Peter, or “rock”—and soft as velvet. This is a proud woman.
She has every right to be.
Jim Gregory taught American literature, modern world literature, cultural anthropology, advanced placement U.S.
history and AP European history for thirty years at Mission College Preparatory School in San Luis Obispo, California, and at Arroyo Grande High School. He, with his brother and two sisters, was
raised in the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley and attended the two-room Branch Elementary School. He then studied journalism and history at Cuesta College; the University of Missouri-Columbia, where
he received his bachelor's degree; and California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. He was an editor at ABC-Clio in Santa Barbara and a newspaper reporter in San Luis Obispo before
becoming a teacher. He has also worked as a research historian for the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society.
Jim was the Lucia Mar Unified School District's Teacher of the Year in 2010-11. In 2004, he received a Gilder-Lehrman Fellowship to study the Depression and New Deal with Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford University professor David Kennedy, an experience that only deepened his fascination with the 1930s and 1940s. He has led several student trips to Europe, including visits to many of the villages and cities where young Americans fought in 1944-45. He recently taught a class on descriptive writing for young people as part of the Central Coast Writers Conference in San Luis Obispo. Jim is married to Elizabeth, a teacher and campus minister at St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, and the father of two sons, John and Thomas. The Gregory family shares increasingly precious space in their Arroyo Grande home with one Basset hound, two Irish setters, one tortoise and a small army of cats.
In 1936, the woman’s beret and mannish dress—oxford shirt, pleated skirt, sweater tied around her shoulders, high-topped tennis shoes—might have made her look a little like the outlaw Bonnie Parker. The car she drove was a powerful V8, the engine Bonnie and Clyde favored, but her car was homely and utilitarian, a wood-paneled Model C Ford wagon, not sleek and raked like the Ford DeLuxe in which the outlaws had met their deaths two years before.
The driver, nodding a little with each click of the seams in the two-lane concrete Highway 101, needed a wagon's room, not for bank-bags full of loot, but for equipment, the boxy, awkward but fragile paraphernalia of the documentary photographer, tucked securely inside the passenger cabin and wedged together in cases to make the run north to San Francisco secure and tight.
She had a good six hours to go before San Francisco and so was taking a chance on dubious tires on the narrow coast highway, littered in sad little Darwinian islets with expired possums, skunks, and ground squirrels. For her, the more menacing detritus was that of a nation in motion: fragments of glass, shredded and peeled truck-tire treads, oil slicks, fragments of cargo that included scraps of lumber and tenpenny nails. Her tires, nearly bald at the edges from months of traveling hard roads in the San Joaquin Valley and the California coast, were vulnerable to the traps the 101 had laid for her, but she wasn’t prepared for the trap the roadside sign presented.
PEA PICKERS CAMP
At first, she was strong enough to resist the seduction of the crudely-lettered sign; she had so far to go and had, after all, only reached the southern edge of San Luis Obispo County. Here the terrain was just beginning to reveal that she’d left the gravitational pull of Los Angeles, which ends at about the Gaviota Pass, with its severe rock outcroppings scattered with spiny yucca plants, where the light hits hard at noontime and yields to soft pastels at sunset, purples and pinks, all suggestive of aridity and drought in a country meant for lizards and coyotes and not for farming.
She knew the farmland she was entering pretty well, had interviewed and talked to its Mexican migrants and itinerant cowboys and the gypsy people mistakenly generalized as “Okies,” “mistaken” because she’d photographed the same kind of people from as far away as Vermont. They lived in their canvas tents and lean-tos in labor camps like the one the cardboard sign suggested, and they were as hard and as stark and as dry as the rocks at Gaviota. Poverty and stoop labor and hunger and human hostility had dried these people out by 1936. If the woman had her way, hope would wash through them like irrigation water the color of creamed coffee did through the furrows of the fields they worked, fields of pole beans and strawberries, cabbages and peas. But this water would revive them, fill them out, galvanize and energize them, restore to them the forward-looking strength that had been so fundamental to their ancestors from Germany, from the Scots Lowlands, from Sonora and Mississippi, from Luzon and Kyushu. These people waited, quiet, stoic, unblinking, for the waters of hope to baptize them. But they thirsted for them.
She kept driving north past the irrigated fields and vast groves of fruit and walnut trees because there was no need for her to stop. On the seat and the floor beside her were thousands of 5 x 7 negatives secure inside their wooden frames, stored in black light-resistant boxes, and on that film she had captured the hard, dry, and thirsty people at work in their fields, in camps preparing dinner or washing laundry, and their children beside them in the fields, whole families struggling with the trailing bags they were struggling to fill with cotton bolls or onions or potatoes or with the tall wooden pails meant to be filled with fruit or pea pods. They harvested the food that fed a nation that was now too incapable or too unwilling to feed migrant farmworkers.
Their children’s bellies were swollen, their legs were like sticks, knock-kneed from rickets, and now, in the hard rains that had come late this year, the dominant sounds that came from the tents in the migrant camps were the wracking coughs of migrant children in attacks that convulsed them and curled them like sowbugs into the fetal position where they could gather enough strength for another breath. There were thousands of people like these harvest people, sealed in her negatives on the seat beside her, waiting to come to life again in tubs of fixer in the photo lab.
Some of them, some of those children, were going to die.
South of the Ontario Grade, to her left, was a stretch of the Pacific in a shallow crescent from Guadalupe to Port Harford; the sight of it must have hurried her north to where she would finally see the ocean again, and with it San Francisco.
Ten minutes later, impulsively, somewhere near San Luis Obispo, the driver pulled to the shoulder and stopped her car.
The engine idled and her grip tightened atop the steering wheel. She leaned forward until her forehead rested against her knuckles and she closed her eyes. She was tired. She had miles and hours of highway ahead of her before home and relief and release from the hard work she’d been doing.
Then she sighed.
There was only one thing to be done. She brought the Ford around in a U-turn and headed south on the highway she knew so well that she would intuit a mile ahead of its appearance where the sign would be, where she would turn off the 101. She could not know it now, a little angry at herself for reversing course, but when she turned off she would meet a Madonna of the Sorrows, a woman in a tent in a muddy field who would leave even a master like Raphael rapt in her presence and powerless to capture her image. This image was meant for the photographer, and meant for her alone.
Friday, February 16, KVEC Radio, Taping for Anita Shower's show, 11:50 a.m.
Wednesday, February 21, 11:30 a.m., Military Order of the World Wars, San Luis Obispo Elks Lodge, Central Coast Aviators of World War II.
Friday, February 23, Las Brisas Retirement Community, 3:45 p.m., 1299 Briarwood Drive, San Luis Obispo, Patriot Graves: A California Town's Civil War Heritage.
Sunday, March 18, 11 a.m-3 p.m., Local Author Fair, Trilogy-Monarch Dunes, Nipomo.
Saturday, March 24, California Warrior Experience/Trail Run. Book sales. Camp San Luis Obispo
Wednesday, March 28. World War II Arroyo Grande, La Cuesta Chapter, DAR, Noon, Embassy Suites Hotel, San Luis Obispo.
Wednesday, April 18, Time and place TBA, San Luis Senior Center, "San Luis Obispo County in 1978"
Saturday, April 21. Presentation, San Luis Obispo County Outlaws, Arroyo Grande Library Volunteer Breakfast, 8:30 a.m., Arroyo Grande Community Library, 800 W. Branch Street, Arroyo Grande.
Thursday, May 3. Presentation, Researching and Writing Local History. SLO Friends of the Library, Madonna Inn, 11 a.m.
Saturday, May 5, Presentation, Central Coast World War II Aviators, San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, 1940 Santa Barbara Ave, San Luis Obispo, 1:30
Saturday, May 26. Presentation, Central Coast World War II Aviators, Arroyo Grande Community Library, 800 W. Branch Street, Arroyo Grande, 2 p.m.
Monday, May 14, 2018. Projected release date, Central Coast World War II Aviators.
Wednesday, June 6, Presentation and book-signing, Central Coast World War II Aviators, Estrella Warbirds Museum, 4251 Dry Creek Road, Paso Robles, 6 p.m.
“In our family, the Civil War had never been distant,” Jim Gregory writes, and he enlivens history with that same immediacy for his
readers, much as he did for generations of Central Coast high-school students. Animated by vivid anecdotes, Patriot Graves carries the reader from the battlefields of Pennsylvania to a
home for disabled veterans in Santa Monica to Arroyo Grande, the end of the “Westering” road for some of the formerly unnamed veterans whom Gregory restores to their place in the war that
changed the course of a nation. Gregory writes with enormous empathy but unflinchingly details the horrors of war and its aftermath. As the book’s title suggests, Gregory’s history is
specific and personal, populated with individual lives and personalities. At the same time, Patriot Graves is a story of rippling consequences and the effect that each individual life has
on the life of a nation.
--Susie Salmon, Assistant Director of Legal Writing; Clinical Professor of Law at University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law
Photo by david midddlecamp.
BY KAYTLYN LESLIE
MAY 04, 2017 4:02 PM
Arroyo Grande author Jim Gregory’s latest book exploring the South County town’s close — yet somewhat unknown — ties to the Civil War is getting some international recognition.
Gregory’s “Patriot Graves: Discovering a California Town’s Civil War Heritage” has been named a finalist for the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, an international competition for independently published works. Gregory is a local historian and author of other nonfiction works including “World War II Arroyo Grande.”
The competition is the largest not-for-profit book awards program for independent authors and publishers, according to its website. It was established in 2008 to recognize and honor “the most exceptional independently published books in over 70 different categories,” and is presented by Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group. The competition has been labeled “the
“Patriot Graves” examines the exodus of both Union and Confederate soldiers to the West Coast, where many were instrumental in developing parts of California. (A fun tidbit from the book: Arroyo Grande High School owes some of its existence to the work of Erastus Fouch, a member of the 75th Ohio Infantry who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.)
“I’m not going to say that they didn’t have struggles when they came out here,” Gregory said in a previous Tribune report. “But, man, if you just look at the families they raised and the descendants they left behind, it looks to me like a lot of them turned out pretty well. That’s something to be said for little old South County of San Luis Obispo.”
Gregory is currently working on his next book, “San Luis Obispo County Outlaws: Desperados, Vigilantes and Bootleggers,” which will examine some of the area’s most notorious and enigmatic criminals. He has also begun research for a separate work on the history of local aviation, with a focus on aviators during World War II.
Mr. Gregory is a phenomenal writer, and I wish he had written all the history texts I had to slog through in school. He brings the stories of a small town's contributions to the war effort to the level of exquisite storytelling. I don't say this lightly: his work is the quality of David McCullough with a good deal more wit thrown in.
…this is an excellent read. Gregory superbly juxtaposes life on the Central Coast with that with places like Normandy, Iwo Jima, and at the internment camps throughout the United States. As an
Arroyo Grande native, I thoroughly enjoyed this perspective. Some references throughout will be significantly more meaningful to those from (or familiar with) the Central Coast of California.
However, this is an excellent piece of historical nonfiction, and I recommend to all interested in learning more about WWII.
Great history writers can turn statistics into meaningful stories, and Gregory shows a strong aptitude for this. In letters from home, newspaper articles, and war correspondences, he is able to capture both the monotony of war, the heartbreaking losses of battle, and the amazing humanity of many individuals who helped those who lost everything.
Another recurring motif throughout the book is a sense of disturbance with the harsh realities of war. Gregory does not gloss over losses nor glorify victories during the war, and the reader is left with a much better sense of what life was like from multiple traditionally marginalized perspectives.
This book focuses around Arroyo Grande, but the perspective could be swapped for any small town that had to overcome losses during the war. I highly recommend for anybody interested in developing a better human-level view of WWII.
Jim Gregory is a wonderful storyteller and historian!
--Kay Lackey Orrell
Fantastic book! Makes history come alive. I will be up all night reading this gem. I am already looking forward to the next book by this very talented author.