The Priceless Christmas Gift.
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 12-19-2004.
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I often think too fondly of the six years I lived in Pico Canyon, in the Mentryville "Big House." Selective memory can do that as one gets older.
Conveniences we all take for granted today, and that many people had in the 1960s, we didn't have. Electricity, for one thing. For the first four years, if we wanted to watch TV Channels 2, 4 and 7 are all we could get or wash clothes, iron, or run a mixer to make a cake, we had to start the generator to do it. No dishwasher or garbage disposal.
We had up to 10 milk cows at one time. Fresh whole milk is great (unless you are the one milking the cows). The milk separator was hand-cranked until 1964, when Standard Oil brought electricity into Mentryville.
Our days started with milking chores, separating milk, feeding hogs, cows, horses, rabbits and chickens, collecting eggs and all the other work that is required on a ranch. This was a 5:30-to-7:30 a.m. ritual every day, 365 days a year. Evenings were about the same, with the added chore of cleaning barns. Evening chores started about 4:30 p.m. and ended at sunset. Mending fences, herding livestock, cleaning the house, maintaining various implements to ranch, branding (yes, we had a brand registered with the state of California), also took time. Vacations didn't really exist. It was hard work for me, and even harder for my parents.
My father worked for Standard Oil on a rotating shift schedule. He would have five days on day shift with two days off, followed by five days on swing shift with two days off, and then five days on third shift with three days off. So he was really working two jobs.
My mother did some of the milking, most of the milk separating, and almost of the cooking, washing and cleaning in the house. We're talking about a very large house. She also canned vegetables from the garden that we stored in the basement.
Money was in short supply. We had cheap rent at $50 per month, and the land was leased for only $75 per year. My parents owned a rental house in Castaic that maybe "broke even" on cost. I think I make more today in one month than what my father made in a year.
They did find the funds for me to take piano lessons, but I'm not sure if my teacher got cash or a side of beef. Then there was grocery shopping at Country Cousins on Lyons Avenue, most of the time and vet bills, hay and feed bills, gasoline and oil charges, doctor and dentist bills. Yep, money wasn't plentiful, but we had everything we needed and, at the time, wanted. It was five miles to town, and every trip was necessary or we didn't go.
The world, our country, and the family in Pico Canyon had a crisis or two in those six years, also. We worried about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the murder of President Kennedy, and the riots in Watts. In the canyon I managed to break my wrist (1961); then there was the "flood" (1962).
Our hogs, chickens, and feeder calves were kept across the creek. The water was so deep and swift, we couldn't get over the creek for two days. Near the big pepper tree in what is now the parking lot, was where the hogs were kept. The chicken coop and yard were just a short distance west, and the calves were kept in the barn that used to be across from the schoolhouse. The hogs and chickens made it through the flood OK, but we lost most of the calves to a respiratory infection and lack of food. Later that same year, we had the brush fire that destroyed the calf barn and left the hills of the lower canyon black. Placerita Canyon also burned that year.
My mother had been operated on for colon cancer in 1962, and according to my father, she was cured. Of course in 1962, there was not any form of chemotherapy, radiation treatments or anything like that. I'll never know, but I don't think the doctors got all the cancer. My mother wouldn't go back to doctors, no matter what my father or we kids did or said to convince her. I think it was the return of the cancer that my father could sense, that caused him to move us from Mentryville. Again, I'll never know.
My own medical problems involving a motorcycle, Highway 99 and a Cadillac also contributed to our moving. I was useless to do any of the chores, sitting in a wheelchair with two broken legs and one broken foot. My parents had to sell most of the cattle to pay the hospital and doctor bills. It was obvious that my mother couldn't have done all of her work and my chores, too. That was when my father decided to take the transfer with the company to the off-shore oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel.
A little over a year prior to my motorcycle accident, my father had bought a prize Hereford bull. We had started a breeding plan to build our herd into what I think was a dream my father had for many years. He had left the farms of Nebraska in 1936, and Pico Canyon was his way of reaching back to that time. Now, with my mother sick and me in a wheelchair, he had to once again change direction in life. It must have hurt him a lot to sell that bull and the cattle, horses, and whatever else. He didn't talk about it much with dry eyes.
So we moved back to modern civilization in Carpinteria. With the financial help of my sister, Karen, and her husband, Dan, my folks bought the first modern house they ever lived in. It had a garbage disposal, dishwasher, garage, electricity and central heat.
I remember how happy my mother was at the time. While there, I graduated from wheelchair to crutches and then a cane. Our joy lasted for about six months.
On Nov. 7, 1966, while returning by helicopter from one of the oil platforms, my father was killed when the aircraft plunged into the ocean. Nine months to the day later, my mother died of cancer.
I think my father knew about the illness of my mother. He gave up his dream to make her happy, if only for a little while.
They were like that. High school sweethearts to the end, always giving each other all of themselves.
To paraphrase a movie from a while back, "We had a ranch in Pico Canyon" and there I saw the love between two people and in a family that overcame every trial placed before them.
A script can't be written about what they had, and these few words are so inadequate as to lack any meaning. But more important at this time of year is to remember and cherish those times of family and love.
Maybe the gift you give or the food you share isn't the best or most expensive, but you can give a gift that is priceless, just like the one my parents gave to me and my sisters. That is the gift of love. It is still with me 38 years later, just as, in my heart, they are still with me.
Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad. I love you.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville from 1960-66. He retires next month after a career in the U.S. Navy.