Jerry Coffman, Arky Vaughan & Joe Dimaggio

by Bruce Anderson, July 6, 2016

When I first met Jerry Coffman I had just bought a two-bedroom, one bath house in Boonville. The half-acre was set back off what is now called Anderson Valley Way, conferring on its two-mile length a bland, suburban anonymity which belied the road's improbably vivid history of Indians, five distinct waves of immigrants, freed slaves, movie stars, and ballplayers.

Until 1920, the road through Anderson Valley meandered northwest to Navarro where it jogged almost due north to Comptche then west out to Mendocino and the Pacific. In 1920, the road was cut all the way out to Navarro-by-the-Sea at Highway One and was called the McDonald Highway to the Sea. Like Anderson Valley Way, the grand project paralleling the Navarro River has since been deflated to a prosaic three digits as Highway 128.

I liked to imagine that I'd been standing out on the road at my mailbox in 1930 when the DiMaggio Brothers passed by for a weekend of baseball games in Fort Bragg where Vince DiMaggio had been hired at the mill so he could manage the town team on the weekends, those weekend ballgames being Fort Bragg's primary entertainment through the 1950s. Joe and Dom DiMaggio both roamed the outfield at the old Fort Bragg ball park where a generic chain store now sits.

In the early 1950s, the tract-like houses at the Boonville end of Anderson Valley Way were called “Millionaire's Row” after the mill owners who built and lived in them. Those houses looked rich to the loggers and millhands of 1955.

Jerry Coffman was one of those millhands, and one of the many Oakies and Arkies who, during the post-war logging boom, made Anderson Valley their home. Jerry, who died in 1987, was a central member of the sprawling, and sometimes brawling, Waggoner-Summit clans. Jerry made the Valley his permanent home when he retired from his working life as a millhand. He never married, never missed a Giants game. His favorite ballplayer was, of course, Arky Vaughan.

“I was born in Caddo Gap, Arkansas, on February 7, 1911," Jerry begins, "ain't a third as big as Philo is now. I was the oldest in a family of eight sisters and a brother, the brother bein' the youngest. My daddy died in 1929, leaving me and my mother to carry on the best we could. Back then there was two sessions of school, one in the winter and one in the summer. They did it that way because the kids had to help out on the farms. I went to around the eighth grade before I went to work. The Depression? Oh, my god! Can't make people now believe what it was like. Couldn't buy a pack of Bull Durham without takin' it off my food. It was a hard depression, had to do a little of everything to live — sawmills, farmin', row croppin', we called it where we raised all kinds of crops you plant in rows — corn, cotton… And there was a little bit of public work later on with the CCC. We did road work all over Arkansas then we disbanded and they shipped us out to Salinas and Monterey on troop trains. I joined the CCC on the first day of July, 1935. I learned marchin', making up the bunk. All the stuff about the Army I knew before the Army ever got me.

“I was drafted in 1942. They took me in at Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas. From there we went to Shine, Wyoming, for boot training. Then to Camp Pendleton out here in California for three days. They loaded us on a ship in San Francisco. We didn't know where we was goin', we just rode the waves till we got there. We landed in Brisbane, Australia. From there we went to Sydney, Australia. I was called a Small Boat Operator. I piloted landing craft mostly. They was gettin' us ready to go to New Guinea. A man there in Australia wanted me to stay and work with him in Australia after the war, pilotin' boats up and down the coast, but bein' as I'm from over here, I didn't know about that. I liked the people there; they was just fine with me. I knew how to operate those old steam boilers. I guess that's how they got me onto the boats. I liked the job, but I didn't care much for the bombs a-fallin'.

“The Japanese was only in there a couple of days before we got there. There wasn't any hand-to-hand fightin' or anything like that. They bombed us, though, all the time at night. Got blowed right out of one fox hole one time. Another time three of us dove in a hole when the bombin' started while we was tryin' to unload a ship. Three of us in a hole not big enough for one. One guy went to prayin'. The bombs were droppin' all around us. But when you got enough points, you got shipped back to the States. I landed in San Pedro. Went back to Arkansas by troop train where I worked in saw mills. I came back to California in 1952. The first time I ever saw Boonville was then, though I worked in Laytonville for five weeks in 1942 before they drafted me. I got 75 cents an hour on that job.

“There was a whole lot of gamblin' in New Guinea, I can tell you that. There wasn't much else to do. I saw crap games where the money was piled high. Money didn't mean anything because there was no place to spend it.

“The New Guinea people used to bring in whole stalks of bananas they'd sell for a pack of cigarettes. They'd always walk single file. One day they showed up, about 14 of 'em, all with bananas. A guy threw a mosquito bomb at 'em and all we seen was their heels. They thought it was a hand grenade!

“They had a couple of big stockades in the part of New Guinea where I was for Japanese prisoners. Every third week I had to load 1300 of 'em onto ships. Never had a bit of trouble from any of 'em. One man without a gun could guard 'em all. Heck, they used to turn 'em out twice a day to go swimmin'.

“In '52 I worked in Buster Hollifield's mill in Philo. Later on, from about 1964 on, I worked out at Hollow Tree, off the Fish Rock Road. In '64 they was payin' around $1.65 an hour. I did most of the jobs in the mill, but mainly I was a oiler. I'd work wherever I could find a shade tree and a coffee pot!”

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