The poet Emily Dickerson said, " We turn not older with years, but newer every day." This is certainly true of Mel Strong of Hanford; at 85 he has done it all. He has piloted Ryan planes during World War II, jumped trains when he was a kid, and today is probably one of the most well traveled people I have ever met. However, don't take my world for it, if you listen close we can listen to his story.
"Sit down, but don't sit down long, I got a story to tell. You see I always said, that when I retire I would build me a new home, and git me a rocking chair and rock my life away. There is too much to do, too many stories to tell.
This country used to be wild, little do people realize, but California in particular was as wild as the day is long, it used to be infested with coyotes. They brought in Grey hounds to kill them; my folks even imported a Russian wolfhound to help get rid of them, boy those hounds were fast! I seen as much as 100 coyote skins hanging on the barn in Corcoran. And snakes, there used to be so many snakes you had to wade through them to get to your house. that is until they brought the sheep in to kill them. You see, sheep's hooves will slice right through a snake's head. A snake can't kill a sheep because they have so much wool.
I tell these stories to the young folks; and they can hardly believe the Central Valley has changed as much as it has. They seemed surprised that up until the 1920's everyone wore a gun in the Central valley. It was just common back then. My stepfather wore a six-gun right at his side.
This was strictly farming territory; farmers made their living the best they could. Maybe that is why the valley today is considered the bread capital of the world. I remember when Del Monte had a Cannery on 6th street and Coalinger's only means for water was filling up tankers in Hanford.
When I was seven years old they gave me a horse for school. I had to ride five miles each way every day. I remember Hanford Armona was the center of the railroad. Back then, people traveled by horse and buggy, and sometimes rail. Kings County stretched as far as Mariposa.
Steam ships traveled the Tulare River from Bakersfield to San Francisco. There was a story told for years about a group of farm hands by Tulare Lake. They would get up when it was dark and saddle the harnesses to the mules and the horses. They would take them up to the Fresno Scrapper in order to get ready to go in the morning. They would arrive, then takeoff just before daylight, to get to their destinations in time. They take the horses and mules to the field because they like to work from dawn to dark.
The story goes that one fella went to harness the mules. He found they were very unruly, they couldn't calm down. Finally he got the harness on all of them. Meanwhile the sun came up and when he was on his way and morning light began to show, that is when he saw he had a Black Bear tied up with the mules. Imagine that, a black bear working the fields.
I don't if that story is true, but I heard tell of it everywhere I go. I'm always traveling and when I go up and down the valley; there is bound to be one or two people who will tell you this story is true.
There is another story I would love to share. I learned a long time ago.
HELL ROAR AND TWO GUN SIMMONS
"I,m Hell Roar and Two-Gun Simmons, when I shoot they're bound to drop." That is what he announced when he comes stumbling into Pete Clay's Barbershop. Down in Two Stars where Pete Clay barbered there was both timid and brave, but Pete piped up and hollered," A haircut or a shave."
"I'll have both," Hell Roar answered as he squatted in the chair. With his six guns in his clutches, he declared, " If you as much nick me you will be heading for the sky, for I will ventilate you proper." 'Fair enough," was Pete's reply.
As we listened to the snipping of the deftly handled shears, as he trimmed Hell Roar's collar as he danced around his ears. We heard the razor scraping on Hell Roar's double chin but none of us were yellow, our nerves were fair and thin.
When the operation ended we heaved up a sigh, Hell Roar paid and grumbled, " You're a nervy little guy." But Pete just looked and chuckled, "Not at all I will have you know, for if I just as much as nicked ya, I was trying to slit your throat."
You learn the best stories when you travel. I have always liked to travel, I guess it goes back as far as when as when I was a kid and I would jump trains to the next town. It was fun then; I wouldn't do it today, even if I was still a kid. Even though my wife tells me I still am. I was in Stockton at that time, and everybody's favorite past time was jumping freight. You had had to careful of the cinders and the coal burners, boy were they ever hot! However, sometimes the engineers would let us ride in the caboose and we would not have to worry.
I guess I have always loved to travel, that is why my wife Betty and I go whenever we can. Let's see, we have seen the leaning tower of Pisa, the Arctic Circle, South America, Barcelona, Hawaii twice, Portugal, and Lisbon; we are heading for the East Coast and Nova Scotia soon. As long as I can go and I feel great I will keep on going.
I worked at the Chrysler plant for 39 years, and then I served on the Kings County Commission of Aging, and the Grand Jury. Now if you want stories not everyone is allowed to hear, listen to the scandals that people tell when serving on the Grand Jury. You will get an earful I tell ya. Yes sir, get involved, whether your are helping your neighbor or your town, you need to get out there.
Help when you can! But for pete's sake, get out the rocking chair! Like I told ya, sit down, but don't sit down long, you got your own stories to tell. Tell them, travel, and tell some more.
Thanks for listening. See ya next time you visit.
As I left Mel's home, I knew that I would be back.
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