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Willis Tucker, A Shining Light

Willis “Willie” Tucker was born on the family farm in Meyer Creek, Arkansas, in 1926.  The farm, his daughter Marti Titus believes, was around a hundred acres of gently rolling bottomland along the creek where the crops were corn and sorghum.  Nearby the farm was a “village” consisting of a general store at the intersection of a farm road and the highway between the towns of Glenwood and Hot Springs, likely the predecessor of today’s US Highway 270 crossing Arkansas into eastern Oklahoma.  Willis’s parents were not “Arkies,”  in fact had migrated back east to Meyer Creek in the early twentieth century to purchase the farm. 

Willis’s father Jesse, a blacksmith by trade, had migrated  from Alabama north to Arkansas to buy the farm.  As the family began to grow to its ultimate of 11 children Willie’s father realized the farm couldn’t support the whole family.  Jesse’s brother Bill lived in a west Texas town where he owned an auto repair shop.  So the family moved to Sweetwater west of Abilene, and his dad worked for wages in the shop, while still commuting occasionally back to Meyer Creek to keep the farm operating.  Willis also put in a few hours a week learning auto repair to help support the family.  The business still operates in downtown Sweetwater, today by-passed by Interstate 20 between Dallas and El Paso.

In 1942, after six years in Sweetwater, the Tucker family returned to Meyer Creek and the farm.  World War II had begun and in 1943, Willie, age 17 talked his parents into permitting him to enlist for military duty.  Willis’s daughter, Marti, told me recently his mother Eula was so opposed to the idea, that when his parents accompanied him to the local recruiting office to sign permission for him to enlist, his Dad had to hold her hand to guide her signature she was crying so hard.  Willie was assigned to the Navy, took basic training at the Camp Pendleton Marine base near San Diego, and was assigned to the naval engineering corps, the “Seabees.”  He then shipped to the New Hebrides Islands in the western Pacific and began training in heavy equipment operation, meaning driving caterpillar tractors making airplane runways on the Pacific’s coral islands. 

Willis tells a marvelous story about his introduction to heavy equipment operation in the Hebrides.  He and his companions were unloading military equipment from an LST in preparation for the American invasion of Guam and Saipan in early 1945.  No one on site knew how to start this large four axle Oshkosh diesel troop carrier.  Willie remembered his Dad explaining to him how an electric “pony” motor was needed to start a high compression diesel engine.  After the crew had given up moving the truck and moved away to another task, he and a friend climbed into the cab, moved some levers, turned the key and the motor fired up.  And having done a bit of auto and tractor driving back on the farm, Willie then drove the truck off the LST and parked it with the rest of the combat vehicles.  

When the lieutenant in charge of the unloading job came back to the parking area, he was as astonished as Willie was at his success that he immediately appointed him a heavy equipment operator.  Willie called his achievement “arkie ingenuity.” “It (was) like I could walk on water,” he told the Boonville High School kids interviewing him in 1985, for the oral history project Voices of the Valley.**

The high school interviewers asked Willie whether he had actually been in combat during his Seabee days.  As an equipment operator he spent weeks in 1944 and 1945 building fighter and bomber landing strips in prep for the invasion, and then landed on Saipan to do the same three days after the actual D Day landing. 

The Japanese resistance to the invasion was fierce and well-armed, including random attacks from “kamikaze” fighter planes and artillery.  One post-invasion day he and a couple of friends were walking across a Saipan airfield under construction when they heard incoming artillery rounds.   A mortar shell exploded near him and his buddies seriously wounded, all except him.  The explosion seriously damaged his ear drum.  Sixty years later he could barely hear out of that ear.  He did recover from the mortaring soon enough to participate in the last combat of the war, the Iwo Jima battle on Okinawa, July 1945.

By early 1946, Willis was back in Meyer Creek where he met his wife Bobbie Pennington that August.  The were married in October, happily until her death 71 years later in 2017.  Again in the post-war economy the Meyer Creek farm couldn’t support the whole Tucker family, and in 1947 Willie and Bobby, and her brother CL Pennington and wife Pauline loaded themselves and their two children and transportable worldly possessions into the Pennington’s Ford sedan and drove across the country, destination Marysville.  Bobby had kin already living in the Marysville/Yuba City area.  

Willie and Bobby at their Marysville rental, 1948

Willis found a job doing one of the activities part of California agriculture, crop dusting.  His job was to load the pilot’s biplane with sulfur dust, then joining the flight sitting behind the pilot facing aft and pulling a wire releasing the sulfur, likely onto walnut, pears, pecan or apple orchards, no mask on to protect his lungs from the sulfur. That work disappeared after harvest and Willie, CL Pennington and a brother-in-law  moved on to work in Eureka, living in the sedan, probably employed in the lumber mills up there.

In Eureka the boys heard word of more steady employment in mills in a place called Boonville.  The families arrived in Boonville in the summer of 1948 and immediately found employment there at Merritt and Foshee lumber mill, still under construction and across Mountainview Road from the airport runway.  Foshee permitted its employees to build on-site “shacks” made from the millrun lumber.  Navarro woodsman friend and storyteller Bill Witherell once told me that Willis built his family shack with no previous construction experience.  And that as a consequence there were no interior spaces of a rectangular shape and no walls particularly vertical.  Bill didn’t tell me how the roof came out.

Once Foshee’s mill was up and running full capacity, Foshee needed more people working in the woods falling trees, and with his experience running heavy equipment in The War, Willie went to work in the woods as a cat skinner, skidding logs off the slopes and down onto the landings where they were loaded onto trucks for the mill.  After a few years in the woods at Foshee, he moved on to become foreman or “woods boss” supervising logging operations at the Nash Brothers property up Nash Mill road.  Wilbur and Buzz Nash had bought the 2500 acre Heyward Scott ranch that stretched from the road to Clow Ridge north to Guntly Ranch and east almost to the South Branch of the North Fork of Navarro River.  The property had been logged by the Navarro Lumber Company in the 1920s, but the redwoods had grown back, and this timber supplied the Nash’s mill on the flat where Mill Creek divides north and south.

All the time Willie worked as a timber industry wage earner, he also aspired to become an independent contractor in the business, owning his own equipment and working under contract with timberland owners, also know as a “Gyppo”, short for gypsy operator.  From day one in Anderson Valley he had saved what he could of his earnings to invest in his independent business ambitions.  In the rainy season, when the timber industry shut down, he took on wage work on the local farms, probably in orchards and packing sheds.  First, however in 1961, he and Bobby put their savings into buying their own home on Ornbaun Road near Brown’s Mill, today near the north end of Boonville airport.

Then later on in the sixties he bought heavy equipment needed to enter the logging and road building business around The Valley.  His first equipment, all used, began with a Caterpiller D-8 2U with a cableblade, a tractor with no hydraulics, just steel cables to lift the dozer blade.  He also bought a wheel-tired Petibone front end log loader, and a Skagit stationary loader, an immobile arched steel frame whose cables lifted bucked logs off the ground and into the air as the machinery straddled logging trucks and lowered the logs into their beds.  Dangerous animal.  The old cable blade crawler is on display in the Roots of Motive Power and County Historical Society Museum in Willits.

Willie and Mailliard old growth trees

So Willie and Bobby became Willis Tucker Logging, she the business manager.  His first “gyppo” job was logging for Fat Clow on Clow Ridge. Other logging jobs he secured in the sixties included several years on the large Mailliard Ranch out Fish Rock Road and parts of Perry Gulch Ranch’s 1200 acres between my vineyard and the Navarro River.  He also formed a partnership with the entrepreneurial Charles brothers, Norman and Bill, and in 1977, bought 240 acres of timberland on Dago Creek below Hagemann Ranch on Greenwood Road.  After a year of so logging the property the partners sold the property and moved on to other investment projects in Anderson Valley. 

A lot of Willis’s “gyppo” work around The Valley was road building, at which he was a skilled “engineer” employing his intuitive understanding of gravity and grade to craft on our complex terrain roads of durability and minimum erosion, no mean task given the amount of rainfall an average winter  produces here.  

Willis built my ranch road from scratch in 1970. It rises gently for three quarters of a mile from the Highway 128 entrance, elevation 280 feet, to the top of the hill near my house, 550 feet, with only one aggressively steep spot of a hundred yards, and virtually no run-off erosion from winter storms, even on el Nino years.  The road has served my vineyard operations, cars and trucks sometimes daily, for fifty years now.  And I have only once hired equipment and gravel to do repairs.  That was Steve Mize after the 1983 flood year, and the job involved regrading a hundred yards in a steep spot to better drain sheet water off the road surface, then rerocking that tiny stretch.  Thank you, Willie, a self-taught civil engineer via “Arkie ingenuity.”

Let me describe one other vocation Willis included in his life in Anderson Valley.  Willie always struck me as a kind, generous, very spiritual man who cared about family, friends, the larger community.  He often spoke of “loving” people around him.  After we’d been friends for a number of years, I found out from others Willie had for a number of years been the lay pastor at the Free Holiness Church in Philo.  His mother West’s family back in Arkansas were a rigorously religious clan, and Willie grew up in an educational atmosphere that included the Bible as guide to a responsible and gracious life.  His daughter Marti reports that Willie knew the bible intimately, almost verse by verse and also used its teachings as a values education tool for his own family.

So he and Bobby, a number of their second and final home neighbors up Peachland Road and other Valley people formed a congregation that met weekly in the barn that used to stand where Gary Island’s I & E lath mill is today.  And after the church grounds became a mill, the congregation built The Peachland Road Church near Willie and Bobby’s home on land donated by Bobby’s brother CL, and Willie continued as the Free Holiness’s community’s pastor.  Another vocation Willie undertook with no reservation or fear.

(Next week: Willie Tucker, the Arkie engineer this reporter got to know.)

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