A runaway life of gold dust fields and sweet hay sort of crept up on me during my childhood years somewhere after I was six and on through eleven. I cannot exactly recall where those memories first started, but I can remember those moments that lead to me loving that life. I can remember the long rides through the countrysides, the strong smell of manure or fertilizer sometimes wafting in through our white truck windows, the soft cookies and donuts that my dad would grab at the truckers’ gas stations, the drone of Cat Country playing on the radio, the drowsiness I felt from hours of driving and how I would sometimes fall asleep on my dad’s lap while he drove. There were weekends when we’d be at the livestock auctions and my parents would bid highest on the best goats, lambs and sometimes cattle that they’d later have slaughtered for their growing business.
My favorite auction was the one in Stockton. The owner’s sister — her name was Bobbie — could bake the most wonderful apple pies in the world, the apples so sweet and drizzled with the perfect amount of cinnamon, the crust beyond buttery and flaky. She also made a wicked chili bowl and a hearty thick beef burger that every cowboy hat, boot and leather wearing customer would order with a strong cup of coffee. On the walls of that small auction restaurant hung a mirror that was smack in the middle of a large cow turd (fake of course, and it was a joke for everybody). One of the boys there was spirited and kind. He used to use a zapper to move the animals out into the buying ring then back into the pens and once gave my sisters and I a plastic bag full of stuffed animals. The owner of that auction was like a female pit bull dog. She was always finding something to get mad at us kids about and banned bubblegum because she blamed us for leaving the wrappers on the floors of the auction. It devastated us more than the time she yelled at my mom because my youngest sister Sara wouldn’t stop crying during the selling or the time my brother had cracked one of her flower pots by accident. One of our favorite things to do was play in the huge hay stacks in their fields and search for chicken eggs to take and hatch back at our home incubator. Our second favorite thing was catching cats and butterflies or turning over giant rocks to poke at yellow slugs and play with the pill bugs.
My parent’s business grew until they had their own slaughterhouse and we were able to live in a ranch with five acres of land. The Merced River ran at the far end of the land where we’d eat watermelons, catch fish and play with tadpoles during those times our parents had some free time. Most of the time my sisters and I were alone, exploring the thick almond orchards that surrounded one side of our house, spending time in our tree house where we’d have jars of spiders and strange insects as pets or taking care of our chickens, ducks, captured lizards and gophers. We’d also do stupid things like jump off the roof just for the thrill of falling and getting pain all over our body or daring ourselves to cross the thin wooden plank that ran over a three-story waterfall created by the orchard irrigation watering system. There were even a number of times we’ve nearly stepped on coiled rattlesnakes because of playing in tall dry grass. I think to myself that, with all the dangerous things we were able to do without getting hurt, God must have had His angels watching over us.
One of my saddest memories was when one of the sheep my father bought had a baby lamb in the pen and it was trampled by other stressed sheep. He brought the lamb into the house and we stayed up most of the night, my dad keeping it warm by the heater and in his arms, but it was already very weak. I learned how to pray that night, asking for God to help the lamb survive. But the next morning, I found the lamb’s spot by the heater empty, and my dad said it didn’t make it. There were many losses growing up there, and although every loss hurt very much, we grew strong and became aware that some things in life happen and sometimes cannot be avoided.
So much of my heart still lives in those lands. I wish I could go back and return to being that skinny kid with huge clothes that raced with the delta breezes and sang under the eaves of the oak trees. I wish I could see with fascination again the chicks finally hatching in the incubator or play with the mad male boer goats that loved to charge at us with spitting tongue, curved sharp horns and dilated eyes.
I will tell you that those places have changed and are now overrun with drug dealers. Not too long ago, I heard that Stockton was now bankrupt. I know that, even if I go back, the place will never be the same as the one I had once called home.