Reflections: Golden Memories of Kern County

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“Memory,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is the diary that we all carry about with us.” Every soul in Bakersfield and Kern County carries about, through works and days, memories of the past. Each bears an inner diary. In the case of those who have seen many years, there is often the need to open the diary’s pages and make its secrets known. To try and make sense of it all. Six Bakersfield residents did that recently.

You know, it gets dark in the mountains: Sandi

Young Joe Tardiff stepped down into bloody brine waist deep off Omaha Beach, part of him wondering if he would ever see his home in Stud Horse Canyon again, but most of him wondering if one of those zinging bullets would find a resting place in his heart or gut or head, as so many had found in his fellow soldiers, floating behind him. “To my right,” he later told his wife Sandi, “there was one of our battleships upside down in the water, and to my left, another one just the same. I thought I had ten minutes to live.” All his dreams of building his land and cattle operations destined to die in a barrage of German ammo.

Sandi Tardiff does not remember the trip from Horton, Kansas, to Kern County back in 1937 but repeats the story her parents told. She was an infant riding in her mother’s arms as her jack-of-all-trades father drove the family west on Route 66. They came upon two signs in the little desert town of Mojave. “One pointed the way south to Los Angeles and the other north to Tehachapi,” Tardiff said, “and since we didn’t have enough gas to get to L.A., Tehachapi it was and then on to Bakersfield.”

She has lived her entire life in Bakersfield and grew up in the Highland Manor area, the middle child of three girls. “That made me a total fighter,” she laughed. “I had to fight for everything and I got blamed for everything. I didn’t grow up as some meek little wallflower.

“In those days,” she said, “we were expected to follow different kinds of dreams. A little girl dreamed of growing up, marrying a wonderful man, having children, and being a housewife. The future was about having people over for parties, playing cards, or something. That wasn’t for me.”

Tardiff laughs easily, often in self-deprecation, but just as easily falls quickly to intensity when she recalls the sea of changes which has slowly, steadily displaced the world of her childhood.

And how has it all changed?

“Oh, don’t get me started on that,” she warns. “First of all, you go anywhere in the city and everyone seems to jaywalk these days. That sounds like a small thing but it’s symbolic. I see graffiti all over the buildings downtown. And you have to lock your doors. No one used to lock their doors when I was growing up.” She is almost scolding the culture for changing. But she falls to laughter again as she recalls weekend mornings.

“On Saturdays, we would do our chores and get them all done,” she said. “We had all those sheets, linens, and pillowcases to clean and fold. Then we would take baths and all three of us would get into these nice foofy dresses. Daddy would bring the car around and drop us off at Newberry’s. We’d have lunch and then shop at some of the stores, like Woolworth’s or Kress’s off 19th Street. Then we’d go see a matinee at the Fox Theater or Bakersfield Theater. There would be two features, a cartoon, and a newsreel. We’d be there for three or four hours. I loved it! My favorite was Tarzan, the king of the jungle. And I was mesmerized by those around-the-world newsreels.

“And I remember Booth’s Record Shop downtown, where you could go and play these 78 rpm records, kind of test them out. My favorites were things like Glenn Miller, bee-bop, rock and roll, soul, all that great oldies music. Until those Beatles came along and ruined it. Daddy wouldn’t come back to get us until 8 or 9 o’clock.”

In the mid-1970s, Tardiff worked as a legal secretary for the Magnus law firm, a strategic employment choice since the firm specialized in land law and Tardiff aimed at enhancing her career in real estate. Newly divorced and a single mother, she was not initially swept off her feet by a persistent suitor (one of the firm’s clients), rancher and Piute Indian descendant Joe Tardiff.

“Joe was being sued over some sort of easement dispute on his land,” Tardiff explained, “so he came into the office one day and said, ‘They’re going to take my property away.’ So we handled the case and everything worked out for him, but he came back again and claimed he wanted to pay us what he owed. Well, we all knew that Joe paid off the hip, so that was odd. But I went back anyway, checked the records and told him that he was all paid up. ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ he said—he always called me ma’am—and left. Well, that night I got a call from my sister-in-law. She told me that Joe was head over heels about me and wanted to take me out for a steak dinner, but there was one hitch: I had to call him. Well, that wasn’t gonna happen!”

But it did happen and Joe Tardiff came around to visit Sandi every night until, in her words, “I just fell in love with him; the way he loved me. We had such a wonderful life together.”

In no time Tardiff changed her foofy dresses for boots and jeans. Joe Tardiff taught her land management, ranching, and the cattle business and she became suddenly responsible for the thousands of mountain acres he had acquired through the years.

“I once asked Joe, ‘Why did you buy all that land?’” she recalled. “He laughed and said, ‘I bought it because the white man took it away from me.’ He would joke about that all the time.”

But Sandi Tardiff recalled the real reason behind her late husband’s appetite for more and more land: “Joe was always very frugal, from the time he was a little boy. When he was 13 years old, his father was dead, and his two older brothers had died in the Navy. He stood on the porch of that old home in Caliente and, as he told me, he thought, ‘My mother doesn’t have anyone to support her. I’ve got to get something going now. I can’t wait to graduate. I’m going to buy up some land and start a business.’ So that’s what he did. He bought his first property when he was 13 years old. Six hundred and forty acres at the age of 13! Joe had vision.”

Joe Tardiff did not speak much about the war to his wife. It was a time of blood and violence best forgotten.

“He was over there for four years, you know, in Europe,” Sandi Tardiff said. “Joe landed on Omaha Beach. He climbed the hill above those cliffs and went all the way through the German theater, through the gunfire.”

When he returned from the war, Joe Tardiff continued buying up land, funding part of his operation by starting a lumber mill in the Piute Mountains. Ironically, one of his early customers was Sandi’s father who used Tardiff’s lumber exclusively in his building operations. The business grew and, after their marriage, Joe introduced Sandi to the mysteries and headaches of negotiating hay and feed prices, managing herds, bringing cattle to market, and branding stock (“I thought I was gonna die at my first branding!”).

“We worked in this old 1974 pickup truck,” she recalled. “I mean, Joe didn’t put on the dog at all.

“The hardest thing was just traveling up from Bakersfield to the mountains,” she continued, “especially after Joe died [2003]. It gets dark in the mountains. I went up just the other day and changed locks on one of the properties and marked three trees to be cut. I drove over to Havilah to take care of some business, then came back to the property. I sat down under an old oak just to relax. I watched a bobcat walk out from the woods and I loved it. It’s a different kind of life up there. Peaceful.”

She tells a story about her son Don taking a group of men and boys camping high up in the Piutes. Several of the kids felt lost and asked if they could return home for their video games and cell phones. “No,” her son told them, “I want you to lie down on your backs and look up at the sky. I’m going to tell you some stories about the stars you won’t find in your video games.” And they were absolutely enthralled.

“When I’ve had it with people, when I get irritable or impatient, I can always count on Don saying to me, ‘you gotta get up into the hills, Mom.’ And that’s where I go, where the sky and the quiet and the creatures heal me.”

She adds, “It’s nice to remember the old times. But you really can’t go back to those days. You just can’t. And there’s a lesson there. Don’t look back because you can’t do anything about yesterday, and tomorrow isn’t here yet, so don’t worry about it. You really do have to live today.”


A family of firsts, from ringers to satellites: David and Barbara

The movie theaters used to show news reels, one of which was “The Passing Parade,” narrated by John Nesbitt, whose series on the big screen and NBC radio depicted the strange and marvelous, and often focused upon the flow of history depicted by changing technologies.

One could have easily witnessed that same flow by simply taking in the inventory of Urner’s Appliances, from its inception in 1919 to its massive complex now on Wible Road.

The children of its co-founder, David E. Urner (whose original partner was Errol Janes), now reside in the same community in Bakersfield, the Rosewood Retirement Center, on New Stine Road. I spoke with two of them, Barbara Urner Johnson, 90, and her kid brother, David H. Urner, 84, at her 9th floor apartment overlooking the Rosewood grounds and, in the distance, the city their family played a critical role in building.

David E. Urner and Mildred Ashbaugh Urner, the parents, were high school sweethearts in Kansas who moved to Bakersfield in 1917 so that David could get his master’s degree in Education. He would wind up coaching football at Bakersfield High School where he also taught math. Along with fellow teacher Errol Janes, he formed Urner & Janes, the Central Valley’s first appliance store, at a time when technical progress almost seemed to be overtaking the ability of the public to catch its collective breath.

It became a business of firsts: the first appliance store in Kern County; the first electric refrigerator sold; the first source in the Central Valley for vacuum cleaners and wringer washers (The Bluebird); the first sale of an automatic washing machine (The Bendex) in 1939.

All seemed rising on the arc of prosperity until 1929 when the business closed soon after the Wall Street Crash.

“Nobody had any money,” recalled Johnson. Urner added, “Nobody had any money because they had no jobs. The entire local and national economy was in a nose dive.

“It was bad for everybody,” Johnson continued, “but eventually, we all got over it, we all carried on.”

Her observation opened a door to a more general comment from Urner who said, alluding to recent tragedies including mudslides and missing planes, “No matter where you go there are disasters. If you want to avoid disasters, you may as well live in a deep, deep hole. There will always be earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes. The Great Depression was our economic tornado.”

It was Johnson’s turn: “Look, Bakersfield…it’s a pretty conservative town. People here learn how to save and work hard and to use what they have saved to dream again and to build again.”

Which is exactly how their father responded to the close of the business. It reopened several years later with a larger inventory, in a larger building, and with more sophisticated technological appliances. Nor did David E. Urner limit himself only to business pursuits. He became the first president of the city’s Better Business Bureau and helped launch the Downtown Merchants Association.

“When you think of downtown businesses,” Urner said, “our father was right in the thick of things. There was Weil’s Department Store, Brock’s, Dewar’s, and Karpy’s. Those businesses, along with our store, formed the heart of downtown.”

Thus opened a door to us, to ask how often the brother and sister travel downtown and what changes they have seen.

“Well,” Urner admits, “I don’t get downtown as much as I used to, only when I need to go there.”

“At 90 years old,” Johnson explains, “you’re not still buying a lot of stuff. You’re getting rid of stuff.”

Things got “serious,” according to Johnson, after Pearl Harbor: “It changed all of our lives. Things just didn’t seem fun anymore.”

She had attended an Occidental College fraternity Christmas ball and went home with a girlfriend. The next morning, they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio.

“The only thing I wanted to do then,” she said, “was get out of school. College wasn’t fun anymore. It seemed as though we had an air raid every day.”

Marriage, to noted orthodontist Gordon K. Johnson, took Johnson away from Bakersfield for stops along the journey in Salt Lake, Seattle, and then, for many years, Los Angeles. “I really loved living in Los Angeles,” she recalled, “the friends, the clubs, the Ambassador, the parties, but as highly as I prized L.A., the people there, well they have always had a bad attitude toward Bakersfield. To them, this is a bad city, a city full of liquor and drunks. That’s our reputation. They looked down their noses at Bakersfield there.”

Eventually, her husband became convinced that Bakersfield was an open market and much more likely to provide an open career path than Southern California. “He thought it would be easier here starting a business on your own; easier to make yourself known,” she said.

Tracing out her family roots “up close and personal,” Johnson made a trip during 2006 to the Urner family homeland of Switzerland where she met a distant relative. There she learned about Catherine Urner and that ancestor’s involvement, artistic and personal, with the French composer, Charles Koechlin. Johnson’s painstaking research later resulted in her book, Catherine Urner and Charles Koechlin: A Musical Affaire (September 2003). She has also written an account of her family’s business, From Bluebirds to Big Screens.

As for Urner, after high school he spent two years in the Navy during the Korean War, stationed at Fallon, Nevada, and Alameda, California. He married his late wife, Marjorie, soon after discharge and the two were inseparable until her death several years ago. And for over a half-century, he has poured his life and skills into the family’s business.

Today, Urner’s stepson, Steve Illingworth, oversees the day-to-day operations of the business as vice president. Urner also continues his involvement with the business, consulting and, in his words, “often just looking over shoulders and getting in the way.”

Among the many projects David Urner has managed, the Sister Cities Project may be his proudest achievement, resulting in over a dozen trips to Japan and visits to one of the sister cities, Wakayama, Japan. The talk about Japan, though, does trigger a painful memory.

“Immediately after the war broke out,” Urner said, “there were a number of Japanese truck farmers and wonderful, gifted gardeners working in our community. And I went to school with a lot of Japanese young people. They were very fine people. But, all of a sudden, they just seemed to be gone. They were out of your life. You looked around and said, ‘What?’ These people didn’t look like enemies to me. It was a terrible time in so many ways.

“Things have certainly changed,” he continued, gazing at Bakersfield to the east, down New Stine Road and beyond. “I think, in some way, the world has become smaller. I mean, news travels so quickly now. It’s not even a matter of hours anymore. Something happens and it’s on Twitter in seconds. I think that may be a problem. With television, satellites, social media, and all these things; it gets into your mind. I think we may be on overload.”

The conversation falls to sullen silence. But then, the two are buoyant again, recalling weekends at Balance Rock, Sunday movies at the Fox Theater, and rides in the family’s car out in the country.

With those memories, there seems little need for additional “stuff.”

Nearing sunset, the embedded diaries take on a high value to warriors. The inclination wanes to still voices from the past. Beyond these pilgrims, there are thousands more in our midst from whom we could learn. Every day we pass these warriors and, in our self-limited perspective, become what G. K. Chesterton called “that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

There is another perspective: we are mysteriously linked with past and future generations in a manner not always disclosed through, and sometimes corrupted by, the very technologies which make our lives more efficient.

“We clasp the hands of those that go before us,” wrote poet and novelist Wendell Berry, “and the hands of those who come after us. We enter the little circle of each others arms, and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance…passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no one hears it except in fragments.”


The war is over and I’m going home: Bill

“We didn’t have this and we didn’t have that,” recalled Wilburn Herbert “Bill” Varner, “but we never considered ourselves ‘poor.’ That word never entered our minds.”

At 96, he shows few signs of resting from his labors. The morning found him slashing away at bushes in the front yard, turning over the soil, and writing letters. Visiting him in the late afternoon, he is with his son Steve Varner, a former coach and teacher at Bakersfield High School. The two are in the living room multi-tasking: a PC is set to a website devoted to analytics of international freestyle wrestling. Bill Varner is fixed on live competitive wrestling championships broadcasting from Los Angeles. He wears a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Jake Varner Olympic Wrestler,” denoting his grandson, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist.

He is lean, easy with a smile, with a working man’s hands and a quietness that transmogrifies to intense animation when he speaks of his past. The pace accelerates, as if he feels compelled to get the data of his life and his family out quickly. And no detail is too small to relate. Several times he carefully explains the importance of “leveling” and “terracing soils.”

He was born in Palestine, Texas, in July of 1917, the sixth of eight children born to James and Viola Stone Varner. The California connection came early.

Soon after his birth, his oldest brother, Chester, not particularly interested in the family’s farming and cattle business, moved to Westwood (Lassen County), CA, where he got work with the Red River Lumber Co. His letters home largely prompted James and another son, Otis Varner, to head west. On the way out, the two passed through Kansas during harvest time and signed on with local farms to work.

“Dad and Otis had read about the San Joaquin Valley,” Varner said, “how it was big on agriculture, a bread basket and everything.”

The two drifted down to the Arvin area where they found work, James overseeing farming, planting, and harvesting operations, on a ranch owned by the prosperous Threewits family. With his earnings, James bought a Hudson touring car and, after harvest, returned to the Fort Worth, Texas, home to gather up the family there, including young Bill.

“We got to Bakersfield in March of 1927,” Varner recalled, “and lived for a while in tents in the Lake Bed area. After the crops were in, we moved to Bakersfield on 26th Street just off Chester Avenue. I remember Montgomery Ward was nearby.

“My older brother Claude had started training to fight at a gym on 21st and V streets called the Old Tin Barn,” he continued. “Me, John, and Bob [brothers] all learned how to box there. I held my own but I got the worst of it every now and then.”

In the late 1920s, at the dawn of the country’s Great Depression, the family moved out to Pumpkin Center and, after working briefly harvesting cotton and grapes (“We used to crush the grapes in the cellar”), began managing a small grocery and dry goods store on the old Taft Highway, specializing in meats sold for the Kern Valley Meat Packing Company.

In January of 1933, when Bill was a sophomore at Bakersfield High School (two grades behind older brother John), the family moved to Old River Road. Life there was woven of routines. Chores in the morning, chores in the evening, including chopping cotton.

“We had chickens, and mom had a little garden,” he recalled. “We didn’t have electricity, but we had kerosene lamps, an ice box, and a washing machine. And we got 40 cents for every 100 pounds of cotton we picked. It was either that or starve.”

In 1937, his brother Clyde “Pat” Varner took over a local trash company and, brother by brother, it became the family business. Claude and Pat Varner were the original operators, serving customers in the East Bakersfield area. A year later, Bill and “Skeet” took on one of the routes.

After Pearl Harbor, Bill turned the reins of the business over to his brothers and joined the Navy. Brother John joined soon after and the two went through boot camp together, after which John was sent to Seattle and Bill to the Navy Pier in Chicago. For nearly a half-hour, he describes in detail various assignments which involved no front-line action, but seemed more than anything to reflect a dazed and confused military bureaucracy: Corpus Christi, New Caledonia, the Russell Islands, La Vela, Guadalcanal, Jacksonville Fleet Air, Miami, Opa Locka.

“There was a terrible war going on,” he summarized, “and all you could do was go about your business.”

One night, from a small portable radio playing in a restaurant outside West Palm Beach, Florida, he heard the news that the war was over. He also received word that a terrible hurricane was headed directly for Florida and the order from the base was to seek shelter.

“Hell with that,” he remembers saying. “The war’s over and I’m going home.”

His siblings are all gone now, except for his kid brother “Skeet,” or Elvey Varner, who still resides in Bakersfield.

You would imagine that his 96 years have equipped him with wisdom translatable to advice. They have: “Learn how to take care of yourself, to be responsible. I never thought about being responsible. I just did what I could to help the family get what it needed.”

And what has kept him in Bakersfield? The question seems to puzzle him, as though the answer is obvious and the questioner daft.

“Agh…well, family. And the business.” Clearly, it has been a fight all along the way. But he has held his own.

Fish hiding in a rocky stream: Beverly

To think that it happened on old Olive Street. For Beverly Monji, every walk down the street means she will be engulfed in the memories of childhood.

She is 77 now, with a mind, spirit, and demeanor denying that chronology, and she lives just two lots south from the home of her childhood: 421 Olive Street.

“What do I remember about growing up here?” she said, repeating the question and surveying the neighborhood. “I remember frogging in the canal that used to be right over there. And across the street, that was my best friend Beverly Forbes’ house.

Then the memories rush in like a flood, too swift to contain. The Bertoluccis, Orvell Brantley, the Olsens, Pietro Consani, the Martin family, the Phillips clan, Virgil Callicoat, James Matsumura, Rosetta Preast, Beal Park, Frontier Days, Frank Pina’s little grocery store near Gracena, Jack Clayton and his mom…

She was born September 25, 1936, at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield. For most of her life – she lived for a while on Cypress Street and, during the 1980s, resided for 11 years in Santa Rosa, California – she has lived here, where we speak, on Olive Street.

“You can stay in the same place,” she muses, “and yet things still change. You can’t keep things the same way forever. But you can remember them.”

What does she remember?

“I remember the games we used to play, right here in the street,” she said. “Hop scotch, jump rope, kick the can, hide and seek. We used to ride bikes all day. Our mothers would pack a lunch in the morning and we’d ride all the way across Oak. All of that area from here to Oak Street and on the other side, it was more like a forest and fields. There was nothing there to speak of. Riding off and having adventures was how you learned about things, how to do things and how other people lived. It taught you to have confidence. I don’t know how kids get confidence now.”

What does she remember?

She attended Emerson Junior High School and then Bakersfield High School. She loved walking to nearby Beale Park with friends to go swimming and then, in the evening, enjoying the picnic lunch her parents would bring. She loved Frontier Days, when the men would dress up like Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp and the women paraded around in long dresses. She recalls going downtown on occasion and always seeing “someone you knew.”

“Nowadays,” she sighs, “you walk downtown amidst strangers, because we’ve grown so much.”

Everything changed, she contended, in 1952 when the Kern County earthquake rocked the Central Valley and Southern California.

“I had been going to Sunday school at a local church,” Monji recalled, “and they taught us about the Rapture, you know, when the Lord comes back. I was sound asleep when that earthquake hit and I really thought it was the Rapture. Other people thought that someone had set off a bomb and we would go to war again.”

For Monji the diary is more than a metaphor. In 1998, she put pen to paper and gave expression to how her history on Olive Street haunted and enthralled her. “The street is both familiar and unfamiliar,” she wrote. “Some memories bounce up quickly and others hide from me, like fish hide from the fisherman in a rocky stream. Now and then there is a flicker, a glimpse, and it’s gone.”

What does she remember?

Playing paper dolls for hours with Betty Langley. The volleyball net on the green front lawn strung between two white poles. The beautiful calico dress and bonnet her mother made for her. Hall’s Drive-in. Michael’s Restaurant, the California Theater. The Greenhorn Campfire Girls.

“At that time, people had a lot of space on their properties, with big yards,” she said. “But that didn’t separate them from each other. There was a stability and continuity. Today, it doesn’t seem as though people connect as much.”

What keeps her here?

“My house,” she said, without hesitation. “It’s been wonderful to have a house. It’s not that easy to get a home anymore.”

If you drink the water you’ll always come back: William

The Great Depression of the 1930s engulfed the entire country in debt, dearth, and – at least in the Great Plains areas like Omaha, Nebraska – dust. Omaha was the city in which William St. Claire was born in 1933, one of four children.

“Things were just different back then,” he observed. “We had running water in our home but no hot water. I’m not trying to put it on thick or anything. Just the truth. People didn’t live very long, at least, not compared to today with our sophisticated medical technologies. And families were larger. You didn’t really plan a family; they just kind of happened. And things were cheaper. We could buy a loaf of bread at the store for maybe 10 cents.

“And we never locked our door. I remember once when the Missouri River flooded that my dad looked hurriedly around for a key to lock the door when we were leaving for higher ground. He couldn’t find one.”

His oldest sister was married to a doctor and one day she announced to her family, “we’re gonna move to California.”

Based upon compelling arguments, his parents came to the same decision. After all, his uncle, Maurice St. Claire, was already pursuing a good living building and selling homes in Kern County. His father, a roofer, would be able to work year-round in the Central Valley, unshackled from the vagaries of weather on the Plains. And although there were a few “green sprouts” in the local economy, industry and agriculture were still devastated. California seemed a world of promise.

The parents left first and traveled by train. William and his siblings were loaded into his sister and brother-in-law’s Chevy and made the trip over road. “My, but it was hot in the desert,” he said smiling and shaking his head, “even in the fall. I remember that we stopped somewhere in Nevada, I believe, at a tiny roadside store. My brother-in-law went in and bought a Coke for 25 cents. Back in Nebraska, a Coke was 5 cents. So he just took a swig and passed it around to the five of us.”

Although only four years old when they arrived in October, 1937, St. Claire still has indelible memories of his new home.

“You have to understand,” he said, “I had never seen a mountain before. I was transfixed by the mountains. You might say that my overall impression of Bakersfield was wonderment.”

St. Claire, tall with deeply set, penetrating eyes, moves with quick gestures and seems surprised that anyone would find the summary of his 80 years to be of interest. He recalled his childhood as one of an abundance of opportunity waiting just beyond temporary and occasional want. His father found work fast in Bakersfield, building homes with brother Maurice. They were not on “Easy Street,” but hard work coincided with a slow recovery from the Depression.

“Bakersfield was kind of a small town to me, much smaller than Omaha,” St. Claire recalled. “But things were good. The oil industry was rising. Agriculture was starting to take off all over the valley. Jobs seemed plentiful. They may not have paid much, but things didn’t cost very much. I did things like pluck chickens, kill hogs, grow gardens. If you wanted to have fun, you did things on your own. You invented something. Today, kids wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to do those things. But they sure can work their smart phones and laptops.”

St. Claire graduated from East Bakersfield High School, then studied at both Bakersfield Junior College and Fresno State, majoring in Business Administration. He was drafted into the Army in 1956 and spent two years at Ft. Lewis, Washington. At 24, he returned to Bakersfield. “I used to visit Frank Amistoy’s Bar on occasion,” he recalled, “and I remember Frank used to say, ‘If you come to Bakersfield and drink the water, you’ll always come back.’ ”

He enjoyed some success in selling boating supplies in the Kern Valley, then was transferred to San Francisco. In 1959, he married his wife, Shirley Yeich St. Claire, and took a job with Atlantic-Richfield. His rising career then rendered him peripatetic, sending him to Alaska (1968 – 1973), Singapore (1973 – 1978), then five years at corporate headquarters in Dallas (1978 – 1983), where St. Claire said he found the culture “too political.”

He then accepted the opportunity of a job in China, at an old submarine base in the South China Sea.

The job left him with an abiding respect and affection for China’s Bu culture and people. But throughout the many years he worked in faraway places, Bakersfield remained home.

“No matter where my work took us,” he said, “every vacation was spent in Bakersfield. Bakersfield was home. I guess as you get older, friends and family become more important. You might say, ‘What’s the lure?’ I’m not entirely sure, but I know that Bakersfield is one of those places where, in just two hours, you can be in the mountains, on a beach by the ocean, or in downtown L.A.”

Does he feel that young people today, if faced with the same challenges and crises which faced his generation, will survive the crucible?

“I believe so,” he said, “but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to worrying sometimes. Part of it is that, in some ways, we’re leaving them a mess. But the other part of it is that the young folks today, as adept as they are with their various gadgets, just lack some of the most basic skills.

“Is it okay,” he asked, “that a lot of them don’t know how to raise a patch of potatoes? I dunno. Is it okay that many of them can’t build a wall or shingle a roof? I dunno.”

Article appeared in our 31-1 Issue – February 2014

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