May 1974, Mendocino, California
Cows on the Road
I got a job as Community Health Representative for the Mendocino County Indian Health Board, $650 a month, plenty enough for me and my kids to live on. We were trying to escape from a drunken, abusive husband and were scouting for a cheap rental.
It started with an ad in the paper giving directions to an empty house “in the country” seven miles from Ukiah. A good long ways from Mendocino.
I piled into our decrepit 1950 Chevy with three of my kids, the same car as the Christmas Tree fiasco, and drove the 30 winding miles to Ukiah, turned right on Highway 101 South, and took the exit the new landlord described.
The back road was good at first, than it narrowed and turned downward steeply. It was an adventure that turned scary, but we kept driving down down down till the road ended and the car filled with smoke and died. Somehow we got a ride out of there and into Ukiah, broke and car-less.
We found the library: Timmy, Jenny, Christopher, and their mother, me. We sat there, hungry and a little worried. On a hunch, I went to the Indian section. I picked up Black Elk Speaks and The Book of the Hopi. My intuition told me to leave the building, turn right, walk three blocks and turn left. The sign said, “Mendocino County Indian Health Board.” We four little Indians walked in, told our story, claimed our Indianship and met my new boss, Hugh Hinchcliffe. Two weeks later he called me to work. This no-credit, no-job woman got a loan from the bank, thanks to a nice banker who took me on my word. The beautiful silver Buick I bought took us into a life of independence and self worth with no drunken man to put us down.
Hugh called. He’s sending me onto the rancheria at Point Arena. He has increased my hours from sixteen to forty. There have been no complaints from the people I have visited in my work these past two months.
“Ninety percent of the trouble in Mendocino County comes from the Point Arena Rancheria,” he said. The Indians on the south side of the Garcia River don’t like the Indians on the north side and vise versa. The trouble starts with the south side but neither side wants anything to do with the Indian Health Board. “I’m sending you tomorrow, to the north side, I think you can handle it. No one has gone a second time. The last guy we sent down there to the south side, they pulled him out of his car and rolled him in the mud, put him back in his car, he drove off … and quit.”
The next morning I dressed up a little; not too short dress, not too high heels, and drove south. I rounded a turn on Highway 1 just out of Point Arena and there in the middle of the road were a bunch of cows, ten or twelve. I pulled over, got out and saw that they had broken through the fence. So I tried to get them back into the field by waving my arms and yelling, “Haw, haw!” I remembered my father doing this when I was a child, and finally, after quite a few minutes, I got them back in and put a board across the place where they had escaped. So I went to the nearest neighbor, they knew who the cattle belonged to and would call the owner.
Back to the road. The cattle had broken out again, and I’m running around in the middle of the highway yelling like a madwoman. Up drives the Highway Patrol, thank god I have some help.
“Are these your cows, lady?”
“No. Can you help me?”
“It’s not my job,” he says, and drives off.
Well I got the cattle back into the field again and the owner arrived. Now I’m late to the rancheria. I know they are expecting me, they always know everything: “Indian Telegraph.”
I drove up to the north side. There were a half dozen small houses here and there and a big new trailer on the hill. No one was around, not even a dog. Dead silence. It was spooky, I wanted to go home. I went to the house of the grandfather; my boss had given me a mental picture of who lived where. I parked the car and took my card from my purse.
I walked up to the front door and knocked. No answer. Knocked again. No answer. Knocked again. A very old woman opened the door a little. I gave her my card. She took it but didn’t look at it. I told her I was from the Indian Health Board and I was here to see if anyone needed to go to the dentist. It was free, I would even give a ride to anybody who need one. She opened the door wider.
There, in a half-circle, was the whole family staring at me, arms crossed in front of their chests, not smiling, just staring at me.
Well, I thought, If I leave now I can’t come back, it’s now or never.
“Can I come in?” I said. The old lady nodded and I walked in. Still no one said a thing. The gramma opened her mouth, she had no teeth. They needed help. How to do this?
I told them about the cows, about the Highway Patrol, about running around in the middle of the road in high heels, reenacted the whole trip. By the time I finished the story everyone was laughing. Someone gave me some chili beans and freshly made tortillas; we laughed and ate and had a wonderful time. The next week I took five of the children to the dentist and soon old gramma got her teeth.
Every time I went to visit them they fed me and sent me home with a load of fresh vegetables from their gardens. They took me into their family but they still didn’t trust the Indian Health Board. Only if I took them would they go to the dentist, and they still fought with the Indians on the other side of the Garcia River, but that’s another story. Read on.
The Fire Truck Fiasco
My boss calls me. The Point Arena rancheria supposedly has a shared fire engine that is currently parked on the south side. “The north side wants it back, they haven’t seen it in years.” The next day I drive past the cow fiasco, over the bridge, across the river, stop and read directions to the house of the head honcho. She meets me on the porch, does not invite me in; I am not wanted here. A young man comes out of the house and I ask him to show me the fire engine.
We tramp through the weeds, across the field to an old shed, and there she is, parked up against the rotted-out building. Rusted red, crumpled with age and abuse, windows broken out, weeds climbing in through every crack and cranny, no steering wheel, only parts of a motor, dead spiders, mold from those Mendocino Coast winters.
I never went back to the south side. The fire truck must still be rusting away until it becomes dirt. I never went back.