Adventure and travel writing

California, by Steve Van Bakel

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When I packed my bags and headed for the adventures of the ‘wild west’, I left behind a large network of friends and most of my family. Many years later, though I love living in western Canada, I often find myself reminiscing about my time growing up in Ontario. With most of my family still living in the east, my daughter and I often fly home for a visit, but my family still complains that they don't get to see us enough. I don’t consider moving back to Ontario an option, however I do enjoy showing my daughter around the areas where I grew up.


For a change, I ended up with Christmas holidays this year so I decided to take my five‑year‑old daughter, Grace back to Ontario to visit her extended family. A traditional Christmas spent on her grandparents’ farm would be a wonderful change from the hectic Christmases Grace had become accustomed to over the last few years. It would also be a wonderful change for her grandparents who were forced to package up Christmas presents a month in advance, only to be cheated out of the joys of seeing their granddaughter opened her present. A phone call from an excited grandchild on Christmas morning is no comparison to being there and receiving thanks in the form of big hugs, from tiny arms.



In Toronto we rented a car and then hit the road for my parent’s place. Grace was excited about her first Christmas away from home and, like a typical five‑year‑old, she asked questions all the way. “How do the pilots know how to get to Toronto if there are no signs?” she asked, while looking up at a plane that was coming in for a landing. 

I was relieved to get the major highways behind us and pull off onto the secondary roads. Driving here was less frantic and I was able to spend more time talking to Grace and pointing out things of interest. It's funny how a child can bring out a different aspect of the world around us. Things that we take for granted are new and exciting for Grace, and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in her enthusiasm.


“Wel‑come to Cal‑i‑forn‑ia,” Grace sounded out as she read the green road sign. “California? I thought California was in the United States?”


“You're right. There are two Californias, one in the United States and one here in Ontario.”


“Oh,” my daughter said, sounding a little confused. But then a sparkle came to her eye and she said, “Well, if we're that close to California, can we go to Disneyland? Please!”


I had to giggle but I quickly stopped myself when I realized this was a serious request. “Honey, Disneyland is in the state of California which is a long, long way from here. California, Ontario is just a very small town near granddad’s farm.”


“Oh,” my daughter said, sounding very disappointed. “That's not very nice of them to fool people like that. Why would they call two places California?”


To this day I still have fond memories of sitting on my grandparents’ porch drinking fresh, homemade lemonade made by my grandmother. We swung on the big old porch swing as grandfather told me the story about how California, Ontario got its name. He was a master of storytelling, but what left an impression on me most was the special time grandfather and I spent together. He telling me a little piece of family history and me engrossed in the man who my father still had to listen to. 


I instantly had a flashback to about thirty years ago. Sitting in my father’s old Chevy I had asked a similar question as we neared my grandfather’s farm. Instead of immediately providing an answer, my father told me that was a question best left for grandfather to answer.


“I think that's a question you may want to ask Granddad,” I said. I laugh to myself now as I realize how the roles of both my father and myself have changed.


When my grandparents passed away many years ago, my parents took over the farm. The farm has special meaning for us because both Grace and I consider it our grandparent's farm. The farm is no longer a working farm but it still has the old barn and corals. My parents were not interested in farming but they have spent an incredible amount of time fixing the place up. I'm sure it now looks better then it did when all the buildings were brand new. The barn has a fresh coat of red paint and the stone foundation as been cleaned up and painted white. The fences around the property have all been repaired and, in an effort to maintain its original appearance, only the damaged cedar rails have been replaced. Grace’s older cousins have been trying to convince their grandparents to fill the coral with horses but have not, as of yet, been successful. I'm sure that once Grace is older, she will join her cousins with their ploy to get horses on the farm. 


The house is an old stone farm house that has been restored to pristine condition. The old, whitewashed window frames and shutters have been replaced with solid oak to match the front door. The landscape is groomed like an elite golf course with gardens designed to have colourful flowers for all but the winter months. Large maple trees adorn the front lawn and in the fall, their leaves turn the brightest shades of red.


Now, as we drive up the laneway, the landscape is covered with a thick layer of snow. To maintain it’s brightness and colour, red Christmas ribbons have been hung from the fences, the large maple trees, and the light posts that lead from the driveway up to the front entrance. The windows, doors, and eaves trough are framed with a single string of white Christmas lights. The place looks like a Trisha Romance Christmas card and Grace is so excited she is already unbuckling her seatbelt as we approach the house.


My parents, Grace's grandparents, are standing on the front porch to greet us as we ascend the steps. Grace gives her grandmother a long endearing embrace and then jumps into the arms of her grandfather. While she gets a bear hug and many kisses, she excitedly says, “Granddad, Daddy says that you will tell me the story about how California got its name.”


Dad quizzically looks over at me and with a smile, I exclaimed, “Just passing on the tradition.”


“You got it munchkin!” Dad said, smiling back at me. “But first, Grandma has been holding dinner for you.”



After stuffing ourselves with some good, old‑fashioned cooking and helping Grandma clean up, we all retired to the living room. The Victorian décor has been momentarily set aside as a ten-foot Christmas tree takes up nearly a third of the room. Beneath the tree on one side is a handcrafted manger and nativity set, which Grace lays in front of while her grandfather starts a fire in the fireplace. 


The sound of crackling wood and the sweet smell of fresh burning hardwood adds to the warm atmosphere of the room. “Okay Munchkin, are you ready for your story about California?”

   

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Grace screams, as she hauls herself off the floor and plunks herself down in her granddad's lap.

Mom and I sit back with some eggnog as we too anxiously await the story we have both heard so many times.


“Let’s see,” Dad starts. “California, Ontario was actually named by your great-grandfather back in nineteen thirty‑seven.”


“But why did he call it California?” Grace asked anxiously.


“Well, that is the story I'm about to tell you,” Dad said patiently.


“It was Christmas time in nineteen thirty‑seven and your great-grandparents were on their way home from Christmas eve mass in their old pickup truck. Actually, I was with them too, but I don't recall that night because I was barely a month old.


“It had already been a cold winter and there was so much snow that the snow banks on both sides of the roads stood higher than most cars. Christmas eve brought in more snow and bitterly cold temperatures. 


“My father told me that we were all huddled together in the old truck trying to keep warm. You see, back then the heaters sure didn't work like they do now-a-days.


“Father was doing his best to clear the windshield of ice but it was an endless battle and he had to settle for a round clear spot just in front of his face. The snow made visibility even worse and we were driving no faster then a crawl.”

“That’s pretty slow,” Grace said, taking her grandfather literally.


“Yes it was, but it was a good thing we were going so slow or this story may have ended differently,” my dad said, encouraged by Grace’s interest in the story.


“We were quite a ways out in the country when my father slammed on the brakes. ‘What’s wrong?’ my mother asked. She was very concerned because she could not see past the windshield.


“‘I thought I saw something on the side of the road,’ my father told my mother, ‘Wait here I’m going back to check it out!’ He was gone before Mother had a chance to object.


“At first Father thought it was just an animal that had been struck by a car as it tried to cross the road. But when he got closer, he saw a dark grey jacket and a ratty looking cap. My father picked up his pace and soon found that there was a man wrapped up in the coat.


“‘It’s a man,’ Father told my mother, as he jumped back in the truck. ‘He’s in bad shape! I'm going to back up a bit so we can get him into the truck.’


“With me in her lap, Mother moved as close to the driver’s side as possible. She didn't know what to expect and was shocked when my father opened the door and placed a vagabond on the seat beside her.


“‘But, Len,’ she said. Because that was my father’s name,” Dad clarified for Grace. “‘He’s a stranger! Are you sure it’s safe to take him in our truck?’


“He’s half dead, Grace, we can’t leave him here.”


“Hey that’s my name,” Grace said, excited to hear her name in the story.


“That’s right,” Dad told her. “You were named after your great-grandmother.”


“Daddy, is that true?” Grace asked me doubtfully.


“Sure is, Honey.”


“Neat.” Grace turned her attention back to her granddad who continued with the story.

   

“The hobo sat slumped against the passenger’s door and didn’t say a word. Mother wondered if the man was still alive but, like the hobo, she said nothing on the trip back to our home. 


“As soon as Father pulled the truck to a stop in the driveway, he jumped out and ran to the passenger’s side to help the man they had rescued. He was still not moving, so Father gathered the man and all his bulky clothes into his arms and carried him into the house.”


“When I fall asleep in the car, Daddy carries me into the house like that,” Grace said, ensuring that she was getting equal opportunity to add to the story. “And sometimes,” she whispered to her grandfather, “I just pretend to be sleeping so that I don’t have to walk all the way to my bed.” Dad smiled at Grace and after a wink he carried on with the story.


“Father carried the hobo straight up the stairs to the small guest’s bedroom. Mother followed quickly behind saying, ‘You’re not going to put him on our good guest sheets!”


“‘He is a guest dear,’ Father said, laying the unresponsive man on the spare bed.


“‘But he’s dirty and smells so bad. I’ll never be able to get that smell out of the sheets.’


“‘Enough with your grumbling!’ Father yelled. ‘It’s Christmas eve and this man is dying. We will do whatever we can for this poor soul. Now run and bring me some warm blankets.’


“Mother laid me in the crib and ran off to collect the warm blankets.”


“You slept in a crib?” Grace giggled.


“I was a baby,” Dad said in mocked defence.


“I can’t picture you as a baby,” she giggled again.


“Well I was! Just like you were, and just like your father was. We’ve all slept in a crib at some time.”


Grace looked to me and I nodded in confirmation of Dad’s statement.


“Now may I continue?” 


Grace covered her mouth with her hand to stifle her giggles. But nodded her head, yes.


“While Mother was out getting warm blankets, Father stripped the cold wet clothes from the hobo and laid them in a pile on the floor. Father then ran to his room to retrieve a pair of warm flannel pajamas.


“By the time Mother returned with the blankets, Father had the man dressed in pajamas and tucked into the guest bed. ‘Here’s the blankets!’ Mother said, as she dropped them on a chair.


“‘Good! Now cover the lad up, I’m going to make a call to Doc Smithers.’


“Father went to the phone and began cranking the handle to ring the operator.”


“Cranking the handle?” Grace asked. “Why didn’t he just call 911, that’s what Daddy always tells me to dial if someone is in trouble.”


“Back then phones were still relatively new in people’s homes and they could not dial a phone number from their phone. First they would ring the operator and then the operator would attempt to make a connection with the party you were trying to reach.  It was a slow process, especially on Christmas eve when there was only one operator on duty and everyone was hoping to call family members to wish them a Merry Christmas.


“Eventually Father got through and Doc Smithers agreed to come by the house as soon as he could. He told Father to heat up some hot-water bottles and to place them in the covers around the sick man.


“While Father was heating the blankets, Mother reluctantly covered the hobo with the extra blankets. The man still had not spoken so mother was taken aback when he whispered, ‘Thank you Ma’am, and a Merry Christmas to you.’ Those were the only words the man spoke for the first three days he was in this house. 


“Mother told me later that she was shocked and deeply touched by the stranger’s words. She admitted she had been far from hospitable to the stranger, yet while he was fighting for his life, he took what tiny bit of energy he had left to wish her a merry Christmas. From then on, mother began to warm to their new visitor.


“Doc Smithers arrived late on Christmas eve,” Dad told Grace, but after pausing for just a second and rubbing the grey stubble on his chin, he changed his mind. “Actually, now that I think about it; Father said the doctor showed up after midnight, so it was actually Christmas morning. The doctor wanted to examine the patient in private so he sent my parents out to warm themselves in front of the fire. The doctor was with the stranger for some time and when he finally came out he shook his head and said, ‘That man is lucky to be alive. He’s frozen half to death and he has a bad case of pneumonia. It also appears that he has been badly beaten and I’m questioning whether or not he is suffering from a concussion. With the proper care I think he’ll make it, but it could be weeks before he regains enough strength to carry on.’


“Mother was saddened by the thought of the stranger dying all alone at Christmas and she immediately jumped up to offer their home and anything they had to help the stranger get better. The stranger quickly became a house guest with Mother doing everything she could to nurse him back to health. Every day she entered the guest room to tidy things up and once, with Father’s help, they stripped the man down and sponge bathed him right in the bed. 


“While my parents helped me enjoy my first Christmas, the stranger laid motionless in bed fighting a very high fever. After Christmas dinner was served, Mother used the turkey she had set aside for the stranger to make some soup. He was far too weak to eat anything substantial but Mother was able to get him to swallow a small amount of soup that she fed him. The soup feedings continued until the stranger was finally able to start taking in small amounts of solid food.


“On December twenty-eighth, after only three days of being in Mother’s care, the stranger woke from his fever induced haze. Mother found the stranger trying to put his clothes on, but he was still too weak to do this on his own. 


‘What you are doing?’ she asked. ‘I have intruded on your family long enough,’ the stranger replied, ‘it is time I moved on.’


“Mother sat the stranger on the side of the bed and told him it was an honour to have him as their house guest and there was absolutely no way he was well enough to even consider leaving. Especially since the cold spell that caused their meeting still gripped the Great Lakes region of southern Ontario.”


Just mentioning the cold winters made everyone feel a little chilled, so Dad tossed a few more logs on the fire before continuing his story. “Now Grace, I know you never met your great-grandmother so you will have to take my word on this,” he said. “But when your great-grandmother started a project, nothing could get in her way of seeing it finished. Nursing the stranger had become a project for her and nothing was going to stop her from nursing him back to perfect health.”


“I like to finish all my projects too,” Grace said. “Is that why you named me after her, Daddy?”


“Sure, Honey,” I said, not wanting to take time away from the story to explain to her that she was named long before we knew anything about her personality.

   

“Mother insisted the stranger stay,” Dad continued. “Besides, how far was he really going to get if he couldn’t even get himself dressed. The stranger reluctantly agreed but stated he had no means of repaying his generous hosts. Mother replied, ‘The only payment I ask of you is to know your name. You had no identification on you when we found you, and I am very worried that there are people who are missing you and are probably out looking for you at this very minute.’


“‘My name is Jack Adkins and I can assure you that there is nobody out there looking for me.’


“Mother never told us how she found out about Jack’s life story, but here is what she told us about Jack.” Dad shifted Grace on his lap and got into a more comfortable position before carrying on with the story.


“Jack Adkins was born on December 19, 1898 in Pembroke, Ontario to parents who were migrant farmers. Both parents died when Jack was very young leaving him an orphan with no relatives around to care for him. Jack was placed in an orphanage where he spent his youth working odd jobs and attending school when there was no work to be had. At the age of eighteen Jack was asked to leave the orphanage to make room for other, younger orphans.


“Free to go where he pleased, Jack hopped on the first train he found heading south out of Pembroke. His destination was California. All his life he’d heard about how beautiful California was and how it had so much to offer anyone who was willing to work hard. Jack was determined to succeed in life and not to end up being worked to death on some farm making barely enough money to survive. He made it as far south as Kingston, Ontario. 


“In Kingston, Jack stopped to work a few odd jobs to help support his journey south. One day his boss introduced Jack to his daughter Emma. The two youngsters quickly fell in love. Within a year Jack and Emma were married and Jack was working towards a promising career in his father-in-law’s construction business. All was well and Jack’s dream of going to California was all but forgotten.


“In the early 1920's the depression hit hard, especially to the construction business. People were no longer buying new homes and those that still had their homes could not afford to make improvements to them. When his father-in-law’s business crumbled, so did Jack’s career. With a young wife to support Jack was desperate and forced to take whatever work he could get, even when all that was available was cleaning out cells at a local prison.


“Emma was accustomed to a wealthy lifestyle that Jack’s meagre income from the prison could not support. After five years she left him for another man with bigger pockets.”


“Why did Emma care what size pockets the man had?” Grace asked.


Mom, who had been sitting beside me quietly through the whole story, piped up with, “Dear, that just means that Emma was after someone with more money because she thought that would make her happier.”


“Oh, thanks grandma,” Grace said with a smile, as she turned her attention back to her granddad.


“Jack spent the next 15 years cleaning out prison cells and though he was able to come and go as he pleased, he often felt like he too was serving a life sentence behind the giant limestone walls. 

   

“Jack still had dreams of going off to California but his youthful enthusiasm was crushed. He just kept promising himself he would go as soon as he saved just a bit more money. He often overheard prisoners talking about their dreams of going to California where there were beaches and women galore. But with one or more life sentences lying before them, he knew they were no closer to the dreamland than he. 


“With his 40th birthday quickly approaching, Jack decided it was time to make his break, or spend the rest of his existence in this miserable life. Putting money away for the big trip hadn’t worked so well and he was shocked when he added up his funds and found out just how little he had. But he wasn’t going to be deterred this time. He was going to California even if it was the last thing he did.


“He sold his beat up old car, and all his belongings that didn’t fit into his pack. Then he slung his pack over his shoulders and started hitchhiking out of Kingston the very day he turned forty. A chance for a new life, what a birthday present to give himself. Unfortunately, others were not as generous on his birthday.


“He had been hitching rides for most of the day but nobody took him further than the next town. It was getting dark and Jack decided he would try for one last ride of the day and then he would start looking for a place to spend the night. A car with four males pulled over and offered Jack a ride, the passengers told him they were heading for Toronto. Jack jumped at the opportunity and climbed into the front seat beside the passenger who had moved over to make room for him. They hadn’t gone more than a few miles when Jack was grabbed from behind and the fellow sitting next to him started punching him in the face. After beating him, the gang of guys rifled through his pockets, took all his money and his pack, and then pushed him from the vehicle that had barely slowed.


“Jack said he remembered waking up in a cold, dark ditch but he didn’t know how long he had been there. He was cold and disorientated but he knew that he had to find shelter fast or he would freeze to death. After walking down the country road, Jack happened upon a darkened farm house. Worried that the occupants would be frightened by a stranger banging on their door in the middle of the night, Jack decided to check the barn for a suitable sleeping spot.


“The barn was dark but the grunts from its occupants told Jack that he would be sleeping with pigs for the night. An old dusty horse blanket and a pile of hay were all that he found for bedding. He laid the bedding on the floor outside the stalls but a short while later the cold forced an undesirable change. He found a rather large hog, fast asleep and snoring, and relocated his bedding beside the animal. Under normal circumstances the stench would have driven a sane man far away, but on this night the warmth from the animal was vital to Jack’s survival. He slept all night with his back pressed against the hog’s and didn’t wake until the hog began to stir.


“Soft sunlight entered through gaps between the barn boards letting Jack know that it was morning. Before leaving the barn, Jack thanked the pig for sharing his bed.”


Grace giggled. “I don’t know if I could sleep beside a real pig, but sometimes when Daddy sleeps he makes strange noises like a pig.”


“I think I would prefer to sleep with a pig,” I joked. “At least he wouldn’t HOG the blankets.”


“Oh, Daddy!” Grace laughed.


“Are you two finished listening to my story?” my Dad asked, with a mock stern look.


“Oh no!” Grace piped out. “Please finish.”

   

“Well after leaving the barn, Jack found a trough of water and started to clean up a little. He’d just pulled his head out of the water when he heard screaming coming from the direction of the farm house. ‘Thief! Thief, get out of here before I fill you rear with lead!’”


This elicited another giggle from Grace.


“Jack wiped the water from his eyes just in time to see an old lady, dressed in a nightie and big rubber boots, running towards him with a big old shotgun in her arms. Jack was not about to stick around to explain his situation, he took off across the field running as fast as his legs would take him.”


“She didn’t shoot him, did she?” Grace asked.


“Well, she fired off a shot, but Jack never looked back to see if she was actually trying to hit him, or if she was just trying to scare him.


“After all that had happened in the first day of his journey, Jack seriously thought about aborting his plans and returning to the life of a jail house cleaner. Don’t say I blame him, I think most people would have turned and run home with their tail between their legs. But Jack was determined that this time nothing was going to stop him from reaching California.


“Jack told my mother that the next few days were very much a blur to him. He remembered getting the odd ride, but by that time he was looking pretty rough and most people were too afraid to stop and offer him a ride. He walked, and walked, and walked. The next thing he remembered was waking up in our guest room.”


“But that doesn’t explain why California, Ontario got its name,” Grace complained.


“Patience little one, the story isn’t over yet,” Dad told her.



“The day after Jack told my mother his story, he vanished. Mother went to his room with a full breakfast tray and all she found was an empty bed. The bed had been neatly made and Father’s pajamas were folded on a chair beside the bed. Propped against the pillow was an envelope from Mother’s stationary box, and inside the envelope was a note from Jack.”


Dad reached down beside his chair and found an old photo album that he must have placed their before starting the story. The pages were yellowed and well worn, but I was surprised that it still looked the same as when my grandfather had told me this same story.


Dad opened the album to a page that contained a hand written letter, and began to read;


Dear Grace, Len and your adorable baby.


I am sorry for leaving without saying good-bye or thanking you in person. I know you wanted me to stay until I was completely better, but I can no longer take advantage of your generous hospitality. Though I do not remember much of Christmas day this year, I can tell you it will be one Christmas I will never forget. It has been a very long time since I have spent Christmas with people who cared so much for me, even though I was a stranger to you at the time. Thank you for everything you have done for me and I hope one day you will visit me in California and I will be able to repay you properly.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year


Jack Adkins 

 

“Mother immediately went to Father with the note. They decided that with Jack being in such poor physical condition, he couldn’t have gone far. They quickly got me dressed and were heading out to the old pick-up truck when they realized that a light snow had fallen during the night. The sidewalk and driveway were snow-covered and there was no sign of footprints in the snow. This worried Father because it meant that Jack had left the house the night before, giving him quite a good head start on them.


“Mother and Father were just about to give up the search when Father noticed an odd shaped snowbank at the cross roads of our county and the next. Father pulled the truck to a stop and quickly jumped out to investigate. For the second time in less than a week, Father found Jack on the side of the road. However, this time Jack was not so lucky.

After clearing the snow away from Jack’s face, Father checked the cold lifeless form for a pulse. There was none. Jack had passed away.”


“No!” Grace cried. “He can’t die. I thought stories were supposed to have happy endings!”


“The story is not over yet,” Dad told Grace. “And thanks to your great-grandparents the story does have a happy ending.


“The following spring Mother and Father went to the very corner where they had found Jack and erected a sign in his honour. And do you know what that sign said?” Dad asked Grace.


“Did it say California?”


“Smart girl,” Dad said, giving me a wink. 


“That’s right. They decided that since Jack’s last dream was to make it to California, they would make his dream come true. Those crossroads quickly became known as California Corner. A year later, an enterprising young farmer took advantage of that name and set up a vegetable stand advertising fresh Californian Vegetables. The stand was such a success that the farmer eventually turned the stand into a store and from there the little town of California began to grow. It never grew very large, but along with the general store they now have a church, a gas station, and a diner called California Jack’s.”


“Wow, that was a great story Granddad. I am so glad that it has a happy ending. I bet Jack spends a lot of time looking down on California,” Grace said. “I mean California, Ontario not the California with Disneyland.”


Dad chuckled at Grace associating California with Disneyland, then he turned to me and said with a sly smile, “I hope you were paying attention to the story, Son. You’re next up on the list to pass on the family legend of how California, Ontario got its name.”


“Not to worry Dad, I’ve had the story memorised long before this evening. I look forward to the day I can hold a precious grandchild on my lap, and entertain them with this special piece of our family history.”