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Willie & Me, 1972-2018

I first met Willis Tucker in the early spring of 1972. I had moved to Anderson Valley the year before, bought part of the old Ingram Ranch in Navarro with the intent to plant wine grapes. Everything I knew about grape growing I had extracted from the famous A.J. Winkler textbook General Viticulture and a few suggestions from pioneers Deron Edmeades and Tony Husch.

While I had no practical experience designing and installing a vineyard, I knew an important first step, after building a deer fence, was to subsoil or “rip” the vineyard with tractor driven steel shanks to break up the highly compacted clayey ridgetop sandstone soil typical of Anderson Valley uplands. With a barely visible investment budget I first tried to do the ripping myself towing behind my small International crawler tractor a one axle single shank orchard ripper, a collectors’ item I still own, the seller had given me when I bought the used International TD 5 track layer. On the first pass with the ripper in the rich loamy one time redwood forest northwest corner of the proposed vineyard, I crawled about two hundred feet when the tractor rose on its rear wheels and came to a halt. I had encountered the biggest redwood root ever found at my 25 acre vineyard site. I still have it, all twelve feet of curling wood, a giant lizard-shaped, outdoor sculpture mounted on cement. I call it the dragon St. George killed.

Knowing I needed real farm equipment for the job, I asked around for advice on the right person to do a small job on only four and a half acres. My Navarro friend and advisor on all Anderson Valley matters, Bill Witherell, suggested that person was Willis Tucker. That evening I phoned Willie, and unlike many locals, he was unafraid of telephone conversation and we discussed the details of the job, including its limited scope.

The job for a tractor of Willie’s size was limited in time but complex, requiring driver vigilance almost every minute in motion. The four and a half acres was approximately eight hundred feet long by two hundred wide from the west edge of the property to the old Colson Orchard, neglected for thirty years but till bearing fruit. Willie began the job by walking the whole piece of ground, looking for all the places where he would have to pay particular attention to major obstacles to the ripping. Most difficult was a live redwood sucker left in the oat field my future vineyard sat upon. Probably a root that had grown back years after the first settlers, Colson or Guntly, had burned trees and brush, and pulled stumps in preparation for planting grain. The sucker was about sixty feet tall and maybe 18” on the stump. The hard part of the job wasn’t the logging; it was ripping the ground around it for thirty feet to extract all of the roots left over from the original old growth forest.

Other forest remnants included two other old growth stumps eight feet in diameter whose root systems radiated underground out about fifteen feet in all directions. Their removal required an hour or more each of ripper and blade work and pushing the waste to a burn pile in the vineyard edge so that little more than kindling was left for me to gather by hand. This part of the operation in a quarter acre space, small for a D-7, also required not damaging a giant landmark stump left from a tree about ten feet in diameter I wanted to leave as a monument to the old growth forest standing on my place before the Settlers arrived. Today the stump, springboard axe holes and all, is still there and is a true monument for any local property surveys done in the neighborhood. Thirty years ago Surveyor Don McMath drove a bolt into the stump top, used it as a target for his transit plumb bob, and shot the angle to the USDA monument on Alaska Ridge east that marks the anchor for Mount Diablo Meridian Range 15 north and Township 15 West. Recent professional boundary line survey continues to use the McMath transit shot by beginning their work by climbing the stump to double check Don’s reading.

Another memorable outcome of Willis’s subsoil operation didn’t happen until the spring of 1972. To prepare the ground for vineyard, I disked the 4 ½ acres in October just before the winter rainy season and planted a cover crop of wheat, oaks and rye grass. In April the next year I prepared the ground for laying out and planting vineyard by disking it again. Three passes with the disk worked the soil up enough to plant the vines in. But in late April another inch of rain fell, not a bad thing. But when I went out to make another pass with the disk, I found covering virtually all of the prepared ground tiny chips of black obsidian everywhere, the two largest being almost perfect two inch arrowheads, most of the other chips slivers an inch long, probably the remains of Pomo work making arrows and spears. 

Before I got back on my tractor a thought crossed my historian’s brain. That many chips suggests a village or least an encampment. I spent an hour or more traversing the cultivated ground at twenty foot intervals and found it. Evidence of a campground was near the monument stump and included sandstone pounding tools for making flour out of tan oak acorns and a more dense array of larger obsidian chips gathered together at what is a major roadway intersection in my vineyard layout. Artifacts are still there today. And with later vineyard development I found two other likely campground sites, both within a hundred yards of a drinkable spring and on the edge of redwood forest. The People before we Settlers found the ridgeback a good place to rest on their annual migrations between Yokayo Valley and the ocean.

Once he completed his visual survey of the work area, Willie conferred with me on its design. He actually asked this suburban white collar-raised hippie to sign off on the work plan. I did understand terrain and erosion, and he knew exactly what he was doing, three passes with the ripper, first on contour, next up and down the hill, last back on contour to minimize subterranean runoff downhill. That second rip took incredible patience, as he couldn’t turn around without tearing up non-vineyard ground. Instead he slowly backed back up the hill after each two hundred foot pass, lowering the tractor blade to drag disturbed dirt back into his track footprint. Slow, boring and hard on the neck muscles. But Willie had to do the job right.

During breaks I showed Willie around the rest of the property, including a walk down the ranch road he had built the year before, with pride of course in his work, I could tell but not bragging about its brilliance. And he taught me a lot about dirt road design and execution I did not know about. All very valuable when I did my annual autumn recon preparing the road for winter rains, additional water bars, culvert debris removal, and more.

He also toured me around the logging job he had done on the property back in 1958 or so when Ingram still owned it. He showed me how he selected some trees for harvest, why he left others, and so on. One touching site he showed me was the grove around the first settler, Colson’s, spring in the northwest corner of the property. There in honor of this pioneer family he had left all the second growth redwoods in a half acre circle around the spring, still functioning plentifully and tasty in 1971. I have honored his gesture since, and didn’t and won’t, my will wishes it, log those trees. And only need to erect the sign there I’ve already written, sooner than later.

Another tour Willie took me on, again with pride and some pedagogy was down the temporary logging road he built from the top of the hill here down into the ninety acres on the Colson property south forties below my vineyard site. He built the road solely with his D-7 and began it next to a short nasty erosion on the south edge of the cultivated grain field east of the orchard. From there it ran from elevation 550 feet for three quarters of a mile down the hill to about 250 feet elevation on a swampy flat at the south end of the eighty acres. A one season dirt highway eighteen wheel logging trucks could drive down, get loaded and drive back up to the top of the hill, then off the property. One season, all dirt, no gravel. 

As we walked down the road from the top, Willie showed me how he achieved the gentle grade the trucks needed to get up the hill, creating the slope he wanted by grading sidehill as much as possible. The road had to cross first curved sidehill for over two hundred yards and three shallow gulches he graded above to avoid installing culverts, the third one he simply filled with dirt. From that third gulch to the bottom he only had to cut about two hundred yards of sidehill dirt before reaching the flat where the log landing loading area was. Except where the deep gulch had been back-filled, there was, thirteen years after the logging job, no erosion. And today when I walk that truck road over sixty years later, still none. 

My recollection is that the ripping project took a little over two days to complete, not a huge summertime job for a “gyppo.” But I can’t forget how pleasant my first experience with a local heavy equipment contractor was. Willie treated me not like an innocent City Kid (though I was), rather we worked together as equals. And our break time chats were always easy and educational for me. I described earlier our walk-abouts on the ranch here, but he also spoke easily and kindly about our community, which I knew little of outside Navarro, and of his love for his family.

Willie and his last Crawler, a Komatsu

I had my last Willie “gyppo” engagement twenty years later. Though we always stopped for a chat whenever I saw him late afternoons at Lemons market, where he stopped by regularly to buy his pound of salami, baloney and a Dr. Peppers for the road. In the early nineties after twenty years of heavy use I decided the ranch road needed some remedial work at its steepest places and asked Willie to take a look. We walked the road, and he advised me, no, his heavy equipment was too big for the two places that needed some redesign. He suggested instead I contact Steve Mize, that his back hoe and road grader were the right equipment for the job, which under Steve’s hand took a day and one load of gravel. Last time I did any serious work on the road.

But the most memorable part of Willie’ appraisal was our conversation about life in Valley and the rest of the world. We both admitted what I had learned since my first years here, we were lucky to live in this place. When we got to world affairs this election year, 1992, I asked Willie if he could have ever imagined the possibility of an “Arkie” being president of the United States. Neither of us pursued the matter further; we simply laughed and moved on. Bill Clinton did win the presidential election that year.

Marti Titus believes that Willie formally retired from Willis Tucker Logging in the early current century, maybe around 2002. Retirement to Willie meant just that, absolutely no more “gyppo” jobs, more time with his family, friends and religious community. And due to his war wounds and the bodily consequences of operating heavy equipment, he spent a lot of time under professional medical care at San Francisco’s Fort Miley VA hospital, one of the best in the US. Marti described driving him to the city as “always an adventure.” But the mode of transport Willie preferred was a VA bus that transported vets all the way from Fort Bragg, though the Valley, Cloverdale and Sonoma and Marin counties. He loved the camaraderie, the story-telling and reminiscing among the “band of brothers,” as the vets from four wars rolled south to the VA hospital and back.

And Willie and sister Barbara, brother-in-law TL and daughter-in-law Candy made one more trip back to Arkansas. They visited the Meyer Creek farm, which had changed enormously over sixty years. More important though was their decoration mission, to visit the cemeteries where his and Bobby’s ancestors lay, to celebrate their lives and do the maintenance necessary around their headstones. The only available accommodations for their weeklong visit were at the luxury hotels at the resort lakes, a part of Arkansas culture arrived since Willie left. For him the contrived comfort and of the place they stayed and the fancy food were not his lifestyle.

I of course saw Willie regularly during my daily shopping runs to Lemons, usually late afternoons after work for me. As always he drove down to Lemons in the old GMC pick-up, bought his baloney and Dr. Pepper, and conversed with friends and acquaintances he encountered in the aisles. We usually met somewhere between the meat counter and the store porch. And there was always plenty to gossip and reflect speculatively about. And for me to think about on the drive back to Navarro.

Willie Tucker, 1933-2018

The last time I saw Willie was a month before he died in March, 2018. Lemons, a cool February day, Willie had driven down in the old truck. He and I met at the check-out stand and seeing how fragilely he was walking toward the front door with his baloney and Dr. Pepper’s packages, I ambled slowly along his good ear side, making sure our gossip exchange didn’t distract him from his route. I held open the front door for him and continued along to the top of the stairs to appraise his control of the steps down, slow but confident. So I saluted, “take care, Willie, see you soon.” Half turning with hand on the step railing, Willie replied, “Probably not.” I still think about the confident serenity of his forecast. Three weeks later he passed at home with family at his side.

Earlier this year on a Saturday in May, two dozen members of the Tucker/Titus clan, three generations came to the ranch to celebrate Willie, the road sign and the ranch road. We met at the highway 128 entrance gate, and I gave the families a walking guided tour of the ranch road and its design and execution, including grade management, culvert location, and so on. Everyone of all ages was interested in my lecture. At the top o of the hill, we paused at the ceramic sign, “Willis Tucker Way” Chris Bing had potted and fired weeks before. We shared some reminiscences, including the wonderful celebration of his life held at the Fairgrounds meeting hall a month after Willie died, some 250 kin and neighbors in attendance, including his sister Wanda, all the way from Arkansas. Wanda and I became friends immediately.

Tucker/Titus clan and the Willie road sign

Our Willie celebration at the road sign concluded with my reading of his favorite text from the New Testament, recited at the Fair Grounds celebration and printed on its program. St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, II, verse 2:15: “Study to show thy self-approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” All teaching and learning, all Willis Tucker.

(Next week: Bill Holcomb, a Texas kind of “Arkie.”)

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