New Year's Eve, 1971-2, my consort and my first in Anderson Valley. We had moved here from San Francisco on April Fools Day, been in residence for nine months, had made a few friends among the local neighbors and one or two of the few winery people. And by the year-end holidays Floodgate Store, bar, sawshop and gas station a mile down the highway from home had become the center of our shopping and social lives here in The Valley, no other destination coming close.
As an article I wrote for the paper last year described, Floodgate was a unique general store-like commercial establishment run by a remarkable couple, Sam Avery, immigrant from Brady, Texas, and his war-bride wife, Marguerite, born Steyr, from Alsace, France. And what they ran in that tiny wooden building astride Floodgate Creek, was one of the most complex and charming local country retail businesses I have ever entered, managed with an operational efficiency and graciousness that required the attention of a seventeen hour day, seven days a week, every day of the year.
The consort and I had cautiously explored Floodgate during our first week living in Navarro, seduced by the diversity of foodstuff available for day-to-day farm life dining and more important for the sociability of the small bar, seven stools, on the right-hand side of the 20 x 30 foot floor space. I recollect that we made a visit to Floodgate at the end of the farm workday four or five days out of the week, to be guaranteed the company of a hardcore of regular customers, Alvy Price, the old Navarro logger bachelor, Cap Salmela, local rancher up Russian Hill, perhaps crazy Reno Ciro from Comptche, always on Friday one of two of Shuster Logging Company's crummies full of thirsty loggers wanting to recount the highlights of their week in the woods, or John Guntly, stranger to us all despite being a fourth generation descendant of the Christine Woods first settlers, motorcycling in, dressed totally in black, on his way from Coyote Valley to Fort Bragg one single dark stormy evening with his stories - never to be seen again.
What a way to learn about how The Valley worked in those days. And overseeing the whole bartime transaction was Marguerite. Sam's job as he saw it was to reign sitting behind the bar at the front window corner overseeing the gas pumps, chatting with Alvy, changing the beer tap kegs as needed. Meanwhile Marguerite presided at the center room cash register separating the bar from the deli and convenience food shelves, always engaging in if not directing many of the conversations about who was doing what to whom around The Valley, quelling any of the occasional outbreaks of overwrought controversy, even as she ran the cash register without missing a dime.
Marguerite's multifarious roles at the store also included vital news gatherer of the goings-on all over The Valley from Comptche to Yorkville. I remember one warm afternoon in May several years after the New Year's story I tell here, Marguerite whispered confidentially to each of us as we sat down on our stools that TJ Nelson, notorious local realtor, had died that morning in front of the Oaks saloon out in Yorkville. For years after my friend TJ loved telling to all interested that story of his demise and how Marguerite's Redwood Wireless connection had been a little off that day. He had simply passed out from dehydration on a hot day, not passed away, after a long alcohol-fueled evening before.
Anyway, the consort and I had no plans for our first New Year's in the country, no close kin or friends to celebrate with, so the logical social choice was to head down to Floodgate after dark that evening. We mount the old Mercedes-Benz we owned and head down the road to see what occurs at The Store this calendar-important evening. It was a clear frosty one after a storm, full moon was about to rise behind the Bacchi Ranch ridgeback, but also ominously silhouetting the ridge and the highway south was a dark orange glow, all the earmarks of a burning building.
As my heartbeat accelerated, so did my foot pressure on the gas pedal. No, it can't be Floodgate, can it? Well, when we reached that last curve before the store, we could see the place was lit normally, several cars in the parking lot, all was well. And the ominous orange glare was now to the left of the highway, up the east branch of Floodgate Creek. I knew back in there on an old ranch road going into Bacchi was an old, fragile one story cabin occupied by Angelo's ex-wife Ethlyn (Salmela), and now and again her boy-friend Amos Ostrom, Rob, Skip and Mick Bloyd. So I turned into that narrow, dark road, now the entrance to the Golden Eye Floodgate vineyard, and was about to proceed cautiously, when my eye caught the flashing red light of fire apparatus coming down Highway 128 from Christine Woods.
I jammed the brakes to a stop, jumped out of the car to flag the fire truck down, too late. The pumper with Homer Mannix at the wheel was going too fast to respond to my signals. Knowing he'd probably turn around at Floodgate and double back, I nevertheless got back in our car and drove to Floodgate where Homer was maneuvering his vehicle among the parked cars in order to return to the fire site. I accosted Homer in the parking lot and suggested I go first in case of a downed tree and to survey the narrow homemade log bridge that took the road across the creek and up to the cabin. Back on the ranch road I crept the car across. At mid-span I could feel the logs rock a bit sideways, so stopped again once across to warn Homer. The three ton and more weight of the truck notwithstanding, Homer pushed on, though carefully, across the bridge.
Meanwhile I quickly drove the other hundred yards of the widening ranch road, came to a halt a hundred feet short of the Bacchi home completely engulfed in flames. The heat was intimidating as I jumped out of our car, as was the persistent explosion of the dozens of empty gallon wine jugs stored under the cabin. Walking cautiously toward the conflagration I accosted some of the residents, specifically Rob, Amos, Ethlyn and Angelo, the ex-husband who had joined them for the evening, all looking forlornly at the inferno. The heat was intense, the whole building was in flames, probably fifty feet tall, the roof all gone, most of the windows blown out, a winejug exploding every fifteen seconds. There was nothing to be done.
Except there was. I happened to glance down the leeward creekside of the cabin the wall of which had no windows and was the most sturdy of the building remains. And here came Skip and Mick Bloyd stepping carefully in single file carrying between them a heavy chest of drawers, the sole piece of salvage from the disaster. My heart was really beating now, for it looked to me the wall above was about to break loose and tumble down on them before they were clear of the building.
Well, on they trudged apparently fearless, I gratefully beginning to breath again as they got clear of the threatening structure with no missteps. And just as they got about fifteen feet past the house corner, down came the wall in a burst of flames and eruption of fiery debris as it hit the ground. Dead silence among us all. Then Mick said, "Boy, that was close."
The consort and I didn't stick around very long after that doleful, almost catastrophic event. It was our first experience with rural home loss, and we were both very distraught by this episode at Bacchi Ranch befalling a whole cluster of our new neighbors we didn't really know that well yet. So not knowing how to express condolences we retreated sadly to Floodgate to join what we hoped would be more bright year-end festivities at the bar. I don't know who exactly was in attendance that evening. Certainly Alvy Price was there and my neighbor Cap Salmela, and probably Reno Ciro from Comptche, the rabid purchaser of Dinty Moore canned beef stew (I can still see Reno staring at the cans stacked at his waist in the canned goods section and chanting lovingly "Dinty Moore, the best stew in the world..."), acknowledged sympathizer with the famous "Zodiac Killer" of California folklore in the 1970s. And probably one or two others I've now forgotten.
Well, it became a comforting evening after the disaster at Bacchi Ranch. Alvy explained that it was a common event in country life losing a home, sometimes a wood stove chimney failure, sometimes ancient electrical wires not well installed. Someone else offered "don't worry, they'll be OK," whatever that meant. So after another hour or so of good cheer, best wishes with the new Navarro neighbors, and two or three beers, $.15 each(!), the consort and I drove on home and retired for the evening, probably around 10 o'clock. Our first New Years in Navarro had been brief but quite a dramatic evening's celebration.
And I can still see that house wall breaking off and exploding and Mick Bloyd announcing, "Boy, that was close..."
NEXT WEEK: Okie Karaoke nights at Floodgate.