21st Century California Reverts Back to the Wild West

I grew up listening to stories of turn-of-the-century rural Central California from my grandfather Rees Alonzo Davis (1890-1976). He was the third generation of the Davis family to have lived in my present house—great nephew of Daniel Rhoades, who had walked into the High Sierra in early 1847 as part of a party sent to help save the Donner Party. Years later, after a small strike in the Mother Lode, Rhoades became a land baron near the shores of the now dry Tulare Lake, in modern-day Lemoore (where his strange mausoleum is currently a California historical site). He died, I think, when Rees was five or six, but his Rhoades portrait still hangs in my stairwell.

Much of my grandfather’s lectures concerned the law and his appreciative sense of progress. Without law in the wild days of his preteen years, sometimes farmers, he lamented, shot it out to adjudicate competing claims over water rights from a common ditch. He referenced a land of early epidemics; his daughter, my aunt, caught a summer polio virus in 1921, and lived most of her life in the living room of my house (d.1980), courageously struggling against a disease that had left her scarcely able to move.

My grandfather was born about 10 years after the Mussel Slough Tragedy (the inspiration for Frank Norris' classic muckraking novel, The Octopus, which is about the tentacles of the Southern Pacific Railroad and its land grab from early settlers).

The Early 20th Century: Civilizing Fresno

As an aside, I had once reviewed in early 2006 a biography of Frank Norris for the New York Times (Frank Norris: A Life., by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler), and remembered the authors’ description of the 32-year-old Norris’s acute appendicitis that led to rupture and death in 1902 in San Francisco. I recalled that passage in the biography during a trip later that year to Muammar Gaddafi’s newly opened Libya in 2006 to lecture on the antiquities; I had suffered from a chronic pain in my right abdomen for about a year (dismissed by doctors as another kidney stone). The appendix ruptured among, of all places, the ruins at Sabratha. And the symptoms seemed terrifyingly identical to what I remembered from the authors’ description of Norris’s, so I convinced my government “handlers” that I had a finite time to get back to Tripoli—finally arriving around midnight with severe peritonitis and in near shock. Hours later, we made it at last to a small Red Crescent Clinic. Hours after that, the staff found some ether, a government AIDS tester (required then before all surgeries), and mirabile dictu an Egyptian doctor in his pajamas and slippers who, about 48 hours after the rupture, saved my life.