Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Long Ago

By the late 1940s, he started his own ranch with two friends. It was hard to keep it afloat but they did. Soon the others wanted out, and after a while, he was the only one left. He kept it going for years until that thing called the "economy" made it a losing proposition in the late 1970s during what my grandfather called the "Second Great Depression".

He used to tell me a lot of stories about "the old days," especially how it was during the Great Depression. I remember once I had asked my grandfather what were the hardest days that he'd ever gone through?

I expected him to say it was when he had to leave school after finishing the 3rd grade to work in the fields, or when he was 12 and told to run away from home because his step-father beat him and his mother worried that he'd be killed, or maybe the time his merchant ship was torpedoed during World War II.

Without hesitation, he told me that it was the Christmas of 1934. Work was hard to find. A huge Longshoreman's Union strike in San Francisco crippled the West Coast and Hawaii ports for months earlier in the year. That strike hurt a lot of men for the rest of the year even after it ended. It put a lot of good men out of work. He had been a merchant marine seaman for a couple of years by then and couldn't find a ship to save his soul. After doing this job and that, he said he lucked out and found work as a cowboy again to make ends meet.

He said he got up Christmas morning and opened the few presents they had. He and my grandmother got my mother a doll. He was able to get my grandmother a small necklace. My grandmother actually made him a work shirt that Christmas. They were living with his in-laws, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather. They helped them a lot. He said that they all went to church for a Christmas Mass. After returning home, they ate and visited.

"It was your mother's first Christmas," he said. "I worked that Monday which was Christmas Eve. No one worked on Christmas. We had very little. That is, other than our love for each other. It was a very rough Christmas, but we were better off than many many others."

As a young couple, they had no choice but to move in with my great-grandparents. They were fine with them moving in. In fact, they encouraged it by telling them that they would be able to save money by doing so.

My great-grandparents knew what hard times were. They had seen it when they were first married. They knew really well the struggle that takes place when you have nothing and your husband is taking whatever work he can. They knew really well that hard times do pass. They also knew that in its midst, it feels as though it'll never end.

Years later, he took a job on a ranch. He told me about on raining day when he sat on his horse with his rubber raincoat pulled up to his ears. He would have loved to have a slicker, but it was not a slicker. Instead of a slicker that extends the length of one's body, he only had his heavy rain jacket that he used on ship when at sea. Because it wasn't a slicker, it was too short and the rain dripped into that spot between his saddle's cantle and his trousers. So now as he sat there, he thought how his butt was wet, how his cigarettes were wet, how even his matches were wet.

He sat there as the first truck loaded. He spurred his horse to move the cows closer to the loading chute. Every now and then, he'd move his horse right and then left, left and then right, forward to nudge the cows forward down the alleyway and into the chute. It was a job. And frankly, that's all that mattered.

It was common for a Merchant Marine Seaman to find a job between ships. Since there wasn't Unemployment Insurance at the time, people took whatever jobs they could get to bring in an honest dollar. And while he knew real well that crews were needed for this ship and that, hard times made it so that he was being bumped by hands who had more seniority than him. 

As he once said, "Since sitting at the Union Hall and playing cards with the other guys waiting to get assigned to crew aboard an outgoing ship didn't feed his family, he needed work and would take any job he could." Of course, that was the attitude that most good men had during the Great Depression. They took whatever work they could get. 

He'd only been a Merchant Marine for a few years at that point. He didn't mind the work. He stepped aboard his first steamer in 1928. He was 15 years old and hired on as an "Oiler." He did it because it was work. He had never dreamed of going to sea or working aboard ship. He did it because it was work. Because it was a job. That in itself was reason enough to do it to the best of his abilities.

As with most things, we remember the good times instead of the bad. While he was now working as a cowboy again, for a moment he remembered how wonderful it was to go to sea. He was young back then, and he liked the hard work and being part of a crew. He liked the ports, the sights, and meeting the different people in faraway places that he only heard about.

He remembered his first Chief Boatswain. It was his Boatswain who made sure that he put most of his pay in an envelope for the Captain to hold. He told him that that was so he'd have money to send home after being out on the town. He remembered how his Chief stopped him from being taken for a ride in a clip joint in Seattle.

Most of the "clip-joints" were bars near the piers. All employed inside those joints were out to cheat young sailors out of their hard-earned cash. It was the same story with most clip-joints in any port. Most of those places had your standard young women who wore hardly anything. Those hustlers got sailors to buy them "campaign cocktails" that were three times the price of a regular drink. In reality, their so-called "campaign cocktail" was only a little orange juice mixed with 7up for the bubbles. 

Crooked bartenders were usually in on the scam. After getting a young sailor drunk, the bartender would charge him twice to three times what his drinks cost all to make it appear legit. In many cases, the bar would get a sailor drunk quickly. It was then that the bouncers would help them out the back door and into an alley where the sailors would be rolled for the money they had on them.

He remembered how his Chief Boatswain made sure he was paired up with another crew member so that he wouldn't be found later with his head bashed in and his money gone. He remembered that Chief telling him what bars to stay out of and how not to flash too much of his cash around. He also remembered how he gave him a roll of pennies to put in his pocket and his first night ashore in Hong Kong. The Chief Boatswain told him to wrap his fist around those pennies nice and tight before punching someone. Certainly before having to fight his way out the door.

He remembered that Chief padding him on the back when he found out that he'd met a gal who he wanted to marry. How happy the Chief was that it wasn't some barroom floozy but instead a nice local gal about his age. He wasn't yet 20 at the time.

Between ships, he'd found a temporary job working a jackhammer for a construction company, driving a bus, and even selling Singer sewing machines among other things. He was between ships and selling sewing machines when he met his future wife -- the wonderful woman who would be my grandmother.

It was soon after that when he asked permission from her parents to "court" her. It was then that he would show up and sit with her in their parlor. What we today call a living room. All while her mother sat in a chair across from them as they talked. They were soon married, and soon after that, his new wife became pregnant.

He remembered how much he loved being at sea at first. But then it swept over him, it was his remembering that lonely feeling when being aboard ship at sea. Not all of the time, but there were certainly those times when he knew that feeling of longing for home. He remembered how it would hit him now and then especially at night when on watch and the sea is black and the moon glimmers its reflection on every passing wave.

Now he was wet and shook his head thinking, that though waiting for a ship, here he was again working as a cowboy. Yes, it was something that he thought he'd never do again. Not because he didn't like being a cowboy, it was just because he didn't think he'd go back to something after leaving it behind him.

Another truck pulled their load of cows out. He sat there and waited for the next truck to come in and load up. The rain was constant and he wanted a smoke in the worst way. He gigged his horse as he had all day to move the cows into the alleyway and up closer to the loading chute. As had been taking place all day, every now and then he'd move his horse right and then left, left and then right, forward to nudge the cows forward down the alleyway and into the chute.

It had been about six years since he'd worked for his first cattle outfit. It was one of the times in his life when he was very happy. That outfit was great in that they treated him no differently than any of the other ranch hands, even though he was only 12 when he walked into the place looking for a job.

He was used as "the gopher" at first. He would go for anything the boss and others wanted. He was tasked with mucking stalls, cleaning, painting, loading, and unloading this or that. He learned how to string barbed wire and fix fences, repair water pipes and replace valves at troughs, And of course, he was there on the ground during brandings learning to cut horns, castrate, and run the hot irons to the cowboys doing the branding.

That's the way it was for six or eight months until that one day when the boss told him to make a saddle and a headstall and bridle out of the old stuff sitting around the tack room. He remembered going in there and finding what he thought he needed out of the old tack hung here or there in cobwebs and dust.

He found an old A-fork saddle that he cleaned up and oiled its leather. He changed out its worn bucking rolls, its cinch straps, latigo, and even replaced a stirrup with one that he found on another old saddle that looked cannibalized.  He used whatever old tack that still looked usable that the other cowboys didn't claim. He made sure he didn't touch any of their gear.

Sitting on that horse in the rain, he remembered how he enjoyed being a cowboy those few years of working for that outfit. He felt a bit sad when remembering that day when his boss showed up to let him and a few others go. He'd never heard the word "economy" before. He remembered his boss saying he was letting him and some of the other hands go because of the "economy."

He had forgotten about the times he had worked in the mud mugging some steer or being wet when he wished he were dry and drinking a warm cup of coffee. He'd forgotten the long days during calving season, getting cattle out of a neighbor's property after they escaped through a break in a fence, or nursing the sick back to health.

Pushing cows to a loading chute can be sort of boring when having to wait for a new truck to back in. He shook his head remembering how this all started as a short conversation outside a grocery store. He was buying a loaf of bread when he overheard a local rancher say how he couldn't find good help who knew anything about cows, never mind horses.

It was then that the between-ships sailor said that cows and horses were no problem if a hand knew what he was doing. When the old rancher asked if he knew what he was doing around cows, he told him the name of the outfit that he'd worked for before this thing called the "economy" cut his job out from under him.

He told that rancher how he went to sea to make an honest dollar, how there were those times when he missed being in the saddle, how he was between ships, and how he was looking for work because he had responsibilities since he was recently married and had a new daughter.

The old rancher took a piece of paper out of his pocket and wrote down his address, saying, "Be there at 8 o'clock and I've got work for you. If you show me that you're experienced, you'll be paid what I think you're worth."

He was brought up to understand hard times. He had worked full time since leaving home right after he finished the 3rd grade. His first job was in the fields as a picker and he did that for almost 4 years before finding work on that ranch as a cowboy.

He liked being a cowboy. He liked the hard work and the cattle. He liked the horses and learning to do an assortment of different jobs. He liked that no day was the same as the next, especially during gatherings. He liked being a cowboy more than any job that he'd ever had.

He knew jobs were hard to come by, so getting a job was half the battle to making a dollar. The other half of course was being able to hold a job. So when he was hired on somewhere, he ran with it and gave his boss everything he had. He knew what it was to be hungry. He didn't like being hungry.

The last of the cattle were loaded onto the trucks that rainy day. It was getting dark and the rain was coming down harder than earlier. He didn't know how long he'd be working as a cowboy but he liked it. He had something to eat for breakfast and they worked through lunch to get the trucks loaded. He didn't mind because he always loved the work. It was honest money and he felt good about giving his boss a good day's work even in the worse of conditions.

He liked knowing that he had a good reputation. That he was seen as a good hand, a hard worker, someone reliable and dependable, meant a lot to him. He liked knowing that he was a cowboy again even if it was only until this boss comes over to tell the boys that he was letting some of the hands go because of the "economy".

Even though it was Christmas Eve, he felt good about working hard and knowing that he was taking a few bucks home to his wife who just gave birth to their daughter in early November.  The boss paid him for the week and he knew he could spend those needed dollars on presents, but they needed food and clothing more than Christmas presents.

The years would grow harder still. He knew that he would take any job as long as it was honest work. He knew jobs were few and the bread lines seemed longer every day. His attitude of taking whatever job that came along made all the difference in surviving the tough days of the Great Depression.

My grandmother used to say, "A man feels good about himself when he's working."

Since providing for your wife and children is the number one duty of a husband and father, she was probably right. My grandfather did whatever it took. Whether it was between ships when he needed to find work, or later when he finally gave up on the sea, among other things, he'd cowboy to pay the bills and keep food on the table. He liked it and felt good about himself because he was working.

Tom Correa


  1. Your grandfather's work ethics is the backbone of America,oh how we need this today,our future depends on men and women like your grandfather.your a blessed man tom.

    1. I agree 100% with you Richard! My grandfather was like the vast majority of Americans who lived through the Great Depression. They wanted to work and took whatever jobs there were. Part of the reason that they had the work ethic that they did is because they had none of the social safety-nets like Unemployment Insurance that lasts for more than a year and Welfare that in some cases are permanent for some folks. Americans back then had to depend on themselves and not the government to make sure they ate and clothed themselves. I feel very blessed that my grandparents and parents taught me what hard times are. I thank God for that. Please have a very Merry Christmas my friend!

  2. I must say Tom, I'm quite impressed by your story of your grandfather. His hard work and dedication made America even greater I'm sure. We need more people like that these days. Today's generation has turned into a bunch of snowflakes who would rather block a punch than take one. And if you lecture them on why they should work, they'll just tell you that what they're doing right now IS their job! (Unfortunately, I'm one of them). Nothing comes easy. And your grandfather was a prime example of that. I just wish we had more people like that.
    I bet by then this country could really thrive.


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