Through Any Given Door

1.01 Part I, Faded Snapshots, Sonora

1943 • Sonora, California ~ Emerging from the crown of Highway 49 and a mile from end to end, the town of Sonora is tucked into the foothills and ravines of the Sierra Nevada, the gateway to California’s gold mining region. In the mid 1800s it was a whirlwind of change, a booming and often lawless community, a geographical crossroads where people from all over the world converged. In its frenetic gold rush heyday the sounds of miners blasting the hillsides and dynamiting the treasure-filled rivers and creeks echoed throughout the area, changing Sonora’s natural landscape and waterways forever.

When the ice companies closed, my father got a job managing a Sprouse Reitz five-and-dime. Given the choice of running a store in Sonoma (a sleepy hamlet forty-some miles north of San Francisco) or in the town of Sonora, he chose the latter, hoping it would offer more business opportunity. When our family moved there in 1943, Sonora had no stoplights, one taxi, two theaters, a three-lane bowling alley, four newspapers, five cemeteries, a six-block main street, seven churches, and eight taverns, with cigar stores, barbershops, ice cream parlors and clothing shops in between. The dry hot summers went on for years, a silver quarter was a lot of money, and people did what was expected of them. Sonora had passed its rough and tumble heyday, settling into a cocoon of open windows and unlocked doors.

During World War II most of the men not fighting had left for wartime jobs in the bigger cities. My father was exempt from the draft, being almost forty with four children. He was one of the few men still in town. Throughout the war years the community shifted into idle. With not much work other than the timber industry, most of the stores were vacant and gas rationing wiped out the tourists.

Everyone in Sonora, a community of about 3,000 people, knew our family. Dad was active in the church, the Lions, Elks, Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce and local politics. Lean and on the lanky side, he was prematurely gray, wore wire-rimmed reading spectacles, and smelled like a mixture of Lipton, Listerine, and Vitalis, with a slight splash of Old Spice. In one neatly pressed side-trouser pocket he kept his small black comb, his metal nail-clippers, and his father’s Elgin gold-plated pocket watch; in the other, his worn leather wallet, two silver dollars and a tiny gold coin.

He loved children. He had time for their chitter-chatter and sang hokey songs so they could sing along: How much is that Doggie in the window? Arf, Arf… He knew children were sensitive with tender souls inside small bodies. He cared about flowers and trees, about rabbits and squirrels and birds. The only living things he ever mortally harmed was the rooster that crowed at 4:00 a.m. and the dog he accidentally killed when he whacked it over the head with a shovel trying to stop it from killing the baby chicks.

My father was a gentlemen. He shook your hand, tipped his hat, and offered his coat. He walked on the curbside. He stood when an adult entered a room. He waited for ladies to go first. He held their doors, their chairs, and umbrellas. He said “Good morning, please, thank-you” and “gesundheit.” He was known to call a spade a spade, but was too polite to call a profligate a degenerate. He might think it, but he wouldn’t say it (unless of course they were stealing from his store). He didn’t like dogs or dishonest men, liars or loose women, thieves or thoughtless people. He hooted at his own corny jokes, fainted at the sight of blood, and had no sense of direction whatsoever. None. But that runs in the family.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Nancy Symons says:

    Wonderful… we were regulars at the store. My Mom LOVED preparing her Christmas decor for the big family gathering: ribbon, gold paint, all our supplies, fake holly, styrofoam balls, and CANDY for the four of us. The wood floor…

  2. Carol Perry says:

    Thanks. I remember when cars could park in the middle and the Christmas tree was there as well.

  3. James Chatfield says:

    As always Cathy, you are a good storyteller.

  4. Sweet, honest, beautiful language… I love the way you paint your way through your writing. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  5. Such a lovely snapshot of the person your father was.

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