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The Willits Farewell

My ad hoc midnight threnody serves as a collective farewell––

To Mark and Ina Walker and her sister Mabel Black, Mark told me how to grease a wagon wheel and sharpen a scythe, and he gave me Edith's, his first wife’s, carved missionary chest from Siam as a sign of regard,

To Ed and Mary Hayes and their daughters living and dead, 

Bertha Cook and Viva Pearson, Viva who foresaw she would die before her century-old mother after leaving their land on East Hill Rd., once a nursery below Hilltop,

And gentle Mary Pierson at Al's Redwood Room, giving us unclaimed pizzas,

Cliff Miller his Main St. barber shop, his wife Thomasina, and the profusion of flower beds behind the house, who commented, “Pretty little bastards, ain't they?”

Master mechanic Carl Carlson and his wife Wynne of far off Leggett who hid Judi Bari's Subaru, and their son Carl maintaining the heaps of the mountain poor, and dying too soon,

Janice and Frank Rust, the millionaire duPonts, he said that life makes so much more sense the second or third time around, and later it was Frank and Sylvia who moved on to Hawaii and she died there but left me a restored memory, the old Chesapeake Bay amusement park, Glen Echo, and its huge mechanical laughing lady saying Ha Ha Ha forever,

And Ellen Wormuth, in a dream she had reached Rome, just before her death, told me after by her caretaker the singer, the gentle poetess, Bonnie Coates Blackwell who herself has preceded us in departure, and it was her blonde cousin Faith who had been my first love in Washington D.C., 1954, ––

And dear Ruby and Earl Snook, so generous and mild on East Hill Rd., she signals me yet with the rare yellow tanager on the telephone wire in Springtime, and his huge metal gate now swings at my entry,

The old world Italian Deghi’s, Barrie Patch, and Oona Collins on State St.,

Mills and Suzanne Matheson saving the city from the biomass disaster without fanfare,

Elsie Allen the legendary Pomo basket maker who approved Judith’s beginning turn,

Self-reliant Mr. Owen and his World War I wooden camp box set out for sale at a swap meet,

Kathy Neff, her high religious devotion keeping Our Daily Bread going for years,

Doc Watson, his bride cutting irises every April and his overloud greeting (Hoi! Hoi!) an idiosyncratic coin of human discourse,

Skilled Dale Justus inevitably victim to Agent Orange and not one word of bitterness,

Zephyr Wagenet the sad child who haunts me still from those years,

Walter Camp who scoffed at the authorities ,whether the Bureau of Land Management or Sears & Roebuck, and died courageously at home,

Gerald and Miriam Ganley, their Ridgewheel Subdivision cabin in sight of the sea,

Dale and Lorene Cave, he who survived WW II and Korea and she who took U. of Portland chemistry classes from Linus Pauling in the ‘20’s, attending with his future wife to whom he would not give an A and risk his reputation,

Jeanette Foye and all the proto-Indian Roys under their diminutive matriarch, Mistu,

Jayne Harrah, the unassuming Pisces rancher and helicopter pilot who had assembled and catalogued a world-class seashell collection,

The German-born Johanna Burkhart of Shake City, who did not back down when a mountain lion trespassed her clearing; she said, “You're a beautiful animal but you're not wanted here,” It preened its tail and walked away,

Mrs. Sligh––when I said I was a Jew not a Christian, she replied, “Well yer a good ‘un”,

Steve Kaylor and Kenny Gaither who helped with the house then migrated like Randy Abbott, the Fliperts, and the Jim Gibbonses to Hawaii for good, their friends Ross Wilson and Doug Soehren gone back to the high country,

Brian Ardner hoarsely calling on the phone as he approached the exit and bequeathed us his car,

Helen Moore Bartow who took her horse to school in Willits before motor bussing had begun,

Bill and Marion Crispin, she newly married had given the then child Judith fresh cookies in 1950’s Boonville, and died in her sleep on the way home to Willits after visiting her mother,

The Krohs and Wagners, their uncanny tracking eyes and rifle-range judgment, hitting a plate at a mile, on Canyon Rd. and Pine Mountain, hunting bucks from Covelo to Cloverdale,

Ouida Mathews, her rings and earrings, silver threads and golden needles,

Mimi Sheiner making a cloisonne talisman for Avrah,

Katie Selover's straw-packed tomato vines and her Lauren Bacall voice,

Gordon Wagenet who watched the Empire State Building go up a floor every day and when he attended Oberlin the later great politcal philosopher Sheldon Wolin called him Tex,

Old Mr. Way offering his garage full of windows and doors, commenting that his younger wife “still thinks she's a bride,”

And John Philips next door giving me his sun-blanched all heart carriage-house doors for our Japanese gate,

Bob Brown witching our land to discover endless water throughout, then adamantly refusing the $50 fee,

Roy and Lorraine Sullivan with their olives, her poetry, their tragedies and loves,

Harold ‘Baldy’ Connerly at Ridgewood Ranch who was the undercard when Dempsey bested Tommy Gibbons at Shelby, Montana, 1923, Baldy born on my mother's birthday and dying on mine,

Frank Freitag another elder, the Noyo Theater projectionist who also died on my birthday, his wife following three days later,

The old man at the Seabiscuit ranch who told me in Arizona as a child in 1910, his parents woke him to watch Haley’s Comet filling the entire sky East to West, moving rapidly and gone,

The Colli's, all four, Alita, Nita, Lena, and Phil, caring to the end for the priests at St. Anthony's,

Gil Holmes, the AAA tow-truck driver who as a youth back in Clayton, New Mexico, captured a rustler on their land and at gunpoint made him take off his boots and walk the desert range back to town,

Jerry Colwell an inveterate political enemy but strangely later we became friends, before he slept and drove off the road near Garberville, no blame says the I Ching,

Mary Viox Davis and Beth Rockefeller, like archetypal aunts dying obscure, forgotten, and abandoned,

Mary Frenzel saving Avrah's high school career before uncomplaining she passed on,

Steve Geletko with his violin lessons for Hannah and his gift of an old iron porch swing for me,

Einar Erickson who was born in the redwoods near Albion and gave me my first Willits choker-setter job out on Sherwood,

Annetta Cory Kollin and her treasured pig Priscilla,

Bert Crowell, his Santa Claus-like florid countenance and unflagging cheer, born in 1903, before the airplane,

The urbanites Lynne and Beth Early making a Willits living with their cameras and pens on South Main St.,

The Ridgewood Restaurant waitresses Mary and Jo Plumlee embracing me the last day I drove the South 101 rural route in 1985,

George Davis, the far-sighted football/wrestling coach and English teacher including in ‘Propaedeutica’, his educational manual, a fictional protagonist based on our eldest daughter Lara and who ran across the Safeway parking lot to tell me what a great kid our Ken was,

And Martha Tuck, being decades before the hostess at Richardson Grove’s dining hall, who faithfully gave big tips to her postmen at Christmas,

Edith Page playing the piano at the Grange meetings and her husband Wilson running the dump up on Canyon complete with scavenging bears,

Jack Frost last of the Willits gunfight lineage,

Olaf Simonsen taking on drifters in Covelo during the Depression and all survived. He lived to be over a hundred, kissing young women to the end,

Charlie Marshall who in 1935 built what became our house using boards from a down the hill aging barn and who asked me for a bag of soft cobbed corn because his teeth were gone, He sang an old Italian air for Hannah that he had learned stationed at Naples in World War I,

Mavis Bromaghim leading the Lost Coast Wheeler pioneers who logged the coastal hills to ship home timber by boat, and Mike A'dair and David Drell, who trekked with me to the remains,

Luther Sherbourne posthumously providing for Ewart Emms, his old Canadian fox tanner friend,

Dolly Tyler's childish voice and joy at 175 South Humboldt Street,

The veteran Earl Spence and his constant companion, a silent forebearing little dog,

Al’s Liquors’ Eddie and Elvis Mills, she living on for decades more to die in a Ukiah rest home,

The Whiteds, the Cases, the Huffmans, the Sawyers up Sawyers Lane,

Del Weston selling his garden bounty by the road every year, making Jeri a widow so soon,

Frank and Cleva Sentelle, humble lovers of religion, whose grand-daughter gave the old Sherwood town fire bell to me as a family gift,

Ancient piano and violin-player Bey Barnwell, small and spry even as the fire went down, who saw William Jennings Bryan speak at the theater when he passed through Willits by train, decrying the crucifixion of the poor on a cross of gold,

And Lilburn Gibson who helped arrange the stop, remembered Bryan as an incomparable orator,

Willits pioneer scion Fred van Bebber living his last on California St., weakened by cigarettes,

The opera teacher Nadine and husband Bud Patton out Rock Tree Canyon, she called me a gentleman,

Mike Compton, schooled there in the ‘teens, who lost two fingers at the mill the night of the Grange meeting at the Farm Center which still stands now as a meditation center; he got us our homestead in the Roe tract along the foothills for $9,000,

Blanche Shelton's shut-off upstairs gone wild with bats, who never told her age,

The dime a dip Grange suppers picked and cooked by valley farmers until they became old,

Les and Zula Divine, he the war-era Oakland police chief who refused Warren’s decree to arrest all Japanese residents,

Old Joe Quadrio coming into the Happy Belly to buy pears and his son Joe Jr. driving out with Hugh Hinchcliffe to check our derelict electrical lines and mock exclaim, “Hugh, hold my hand!”

Ellis and Ethel Rugg delivering mail in a Model T out to Hearst in WWI––she demanded the government buy them one; he gave me his leather stamp pouch now over a hundred years old,

The Valloni's, their perfectly ordered mill shack house and garden on Madden Lane, lined with broad abalone shells,

Veva Erickson, Hattie London, Lillie Hines, -her lovely voice reciting the Grange initiations from memory,

Frontier Days Grand Marshal Ethel Clatty who stopped her horse in the middle of the July 4 parade one year to kiss me at the sidewalk in front of JP’s Bar,

Judge and Mrs. Foord's smiles and humble dwelling near the Carnegie Library,

And Mrs. Babcock's tipsy days alone after her husband had died,

Burdis and Minta Martindale, Opal's parents, riding horses above Covelo all summer,

Mrs. Cantrell, so warm and observing from her doorway with its authentic Bernard Maybeck light box, the redwood heaving up the sidewalk just outside,

The exemplary schoolteacher Thelma Sawyers and Mr. Bahn a distant relative, cared for by her according their country code of honor, and her confiding to me she loved her irises better than most people she knew,

Dink Persico who advised me to spur a bronc only when he was off the ground and Florence who outlived her sister and every friend she had known back in Salinas, dying at ninety-nine,

The Hinchcliffes just back from Nepal starting the Cymbals bookstore at the old soda works on San Francisco St., only to quit it when a night-life pick-up plowed the building off its piers,

Elbert Houx selling me can't bust 'em jeans which recalled Roy Sullivan's tale about his youthful cattle rustling in Laytonville in the ‘20’s when one night he packed a load of buckshot home in his butt,

The childless John Manganos, their immigrant Italian Catholic goodness first to last,

Ray Burris and Ruth, their new foals and leaping yearlings every Spring on Reynolds Highway,

Stella James, horsewoman and huntress out Sherwood,

The out on Hearst Road Ramsings, Frances coming North summers since her early childhood,

Clive and Jessie Adams at Emandal and Clive, Jr., the joyous and imperturbable, and Tamara, like newly baked bread,

The Fords, the McKinleys, the Munsons of Hearst Rd., John and Jeri a devoted team dry farming hay Spring and Fall, Jeri stripping down to glean the field one very hot summer, she was such a country joy,

Lowell Alpers, United Airlines pilot and navigator, chief petty officer at twenty in WW II, who told me he was born on the plains but only ever wanted one thing, the sea; who wrote his mother every week, and flying home from her funeral died in his sleep a week later,

Pre-WW I rodeo champion Don Coleman and wife Petey (whose Minnesota uncle had cut Jesse James’s saddle off his mount for a souvenir) detested their matinee idol rivals Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri in the silent picture days. It was mutual, and who hosted their Montana friend Gary Cooper during the 1930's Willits' summers, Cooper busting down the bare dirt Hearst Rd. in his Duesenberg,

The Requas, the elder Pincheses, Lee and Chuck Persico, who told a good story,

Jessie Lawrason of the Sheltons way up on String Creek where the income tax would never find them, and a huge oak almost buried her while she was tying her boot straps one morning,

And Ron Berkowitz at the old log cabin school there, who met Henry Miller during the War, standing outside his Partington Ridge door, a courtesy about which Miller said, “you’re a nice man, come back any time,” and Ron went on to become a boy wonder on Wall Street and retire to the country hills, saying, “I wasn't the first, I won't be the last.”

––Goodbye old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne––so long, goodbye, take care,––farewell,––to the Willits of my youth.

— WJ Ray, 2020-2022


  1. Wayne March 19, 2023

    That brought back some good memories. Thank you.

  2. Michelle Sullivan Merritt March 20, 2023

    Yes, I know your no longer here with us perhaps your family will see this.
    I thank you for bringing back memories long buried the faces and their places you wrote about memories of a life left behind.
    Memories of you. and Judith have surfaced over the years, Mom and Judith basket weaving
    You and Dad shooting the bull.
    Kids listening in.

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