Prelude: Dad had one more newsletter in the queue before his passing, since my winemaking skills are considerably stronger than my writing skills; I decide to delay your disenchantment of me for another year. So without further ado here is his final newsletter:
It is not uncommon for winery visitors to ask why I haven’t put more of my “stories” on paper. And the simple truth of the matter is that I am leery of reprisal by committee. If you’ve read the book or viewed the movie, “the Ox-Bow Incident,” you would know what I mean. Sometimes an incensed vigilante posse will hang the innocent. Ergo I deem it wise to await the demise of protagonists before committing their stories to paper. Besides, it pays to tread lightly when the subject’s relatives are as numerous as ticks on a hound and twice as bloodthirsty.
To give you an example take the case of Ed H______, Coffee Creek’s beloved communist. See, I’m already in trouble because Ed’s friends and relatives considered him just an eccentric over-zealous socialist. But I have proof to the contrary. I ask you, who but a very clever soviet agent would dream of giving away BEAR steaks wrapped in the “Daily Worker?” Then, of course, there was the damming testimony of Elmer H_______ who let the cat out of the bag when he let it slip that J. Edgar Hoover had hired him to “keep an eye on Ed.” And Elmer no doubt had the ideal perch for the task since his cabin was so high on Battle Mountain that visitors were in danger of being inflicted with pulmonary edema. That is, unless Elmer didn’t nail them first with his trusty 30-30.
By an odd coincidence two of Elmer’s relatives dropped by the winery last year and I ran the story by them. Neither said they were particularly surprised with the narrative and blamed Elmer’s behavior on the fact that he was gassed by the Germans in 1918 at Verdun and subsequently had a “rather muddled mind.” To which I say, “Balderdash.” Elmer had a crackerjack mind and the tenacity of a bulldog, just the sort of guy the F.B.I. would trust with covert surveillance.
And then there was the story of Baldy T._______ who had a fish farm up the canyon. Baldy was a clear-eyed, soft spoken mountain man who belied his years. I fact he sold a parcel of land in his 85th year and put it on a twenty year contract, informing me that he planned to tour Europe when it was paid off.
I didn’t think Europe was in the cards however. Not because of his age, but because his business was a veritable gold mine. The secret of his success, he once told me, was families with children. Lots of children. He said he would strategically place them about the pond far enough apart to ostensibly prevent line tangling, but in reality it was to thwart parents from suddenly yanking the poles from their child’s hands just when the “pay by the inch” tariffs were approaching the national debt. Baldy told me he never tired of gawking at the out-of –shape city folks as they scurried from one child to the next, huffing and puffing, bellowing like a banshee for them to drop the poles. He said it was more fun than watching a passel of critters on loco weed.
That brings me to the Gypsy Queen, Leone C_____. I always regretted that I never knew her in her youth for she was said to have been a very bright and beautiful woman, a graduate of Vassar and the daughter of a distinguished Shasta County Superior court judge. But by the time we crossed paths she was as flaky as a Marie Calender banana cream pie. If only half the tales of her winter escapades in Redding were true she could have played the lead in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In Coffee Creek she mostly confined herself to her gold mine, the Gypsy Queen, but would occasionally make forays into the hinterland to raise havoc. Such was the case in August of 1952 when she descended upon me at the Forest Service Guard Station.
The knock at the door was frantic and insistent, like the drumming of a woodpecker on steroids. Upon opening the door I was greeted by a tall, thin woman with anxious green-grey eyes and unkept salt and pepper hair. “Look!.” She said, holding out her hand. “I’ve been bitten by a rattlesnake. What are you going to do about it? “I finally got her to hold still long enough to examine her hand and found no fang marks or swelling. It appeared quite normal. “I don’t see any bite marks,” I said. “Perhaps it was just a wasp.”
That was my second mistake. The first was answering the door. No matter what I said she kept insisting that I treat her “wound.” “You’re supposed to cut my hand and then suck the poison out. That’s what I’ve read. Now, get on with it. I can take it. Let’s see some urgency here.” And since I wasn’t about to perform surgery on a phantom snake bite we reached an impasse, a stalemate where I was left to contemplate, in silence, a flood of salacious words delivered with all of the panache and style that a well educated Vassar girl could muster.
I later learned she reported me to the Forest Service Supervisor’s office for failure to act in an emergency, complaining that young “whippersnappers” like me had no business having such important positions that rightly belong to people of maturity and judgment. “People like me for instance,” she proclaimed. “Now, if you would provide me with a job application I shall be on my way.”
Here are Keith’s tasting notes