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The Hill

May 29, 2017

I only exist because of Gaviota. Gaviota did not exist before my family and was erased from the earth soon after we left. The only people who ever really knew that spot were the 50 or so of us who lived there over the short 17 year span when it arose, was populated, and was destroyed. It was a place that belonged only to us, a wisp of wood smoke on the wind, passing into existence and then quickly out again.

You can drive by and still see the sign by the side of the road. It says something like Gaviota, population 93, but those people – if there are even 93 anymore –  are scattered in isolated spots for dozens of miles among the mountains and valleys. The real Gaviota, our Gaviota, was a place we simply called The Hill.

On The Hill, there were seven small white wooden houses in a row at the top of a winding half-mile road up from the highway. They were ringed by a road made of crushed rock, and faced the Pacific Ocean and San Miguel Island offshore. The nearest town was Buellton, 13 miles away, with a population of just 300 back then.

Each house had 2 bedrooms and a front yard and back yard and a storage shed out back. They were built as worker housing by the Flying A oil company, and everyone who lived there worked, as we said “In the oil patch.”

After returning from World War II, my 27-year-old father Bernard married my 19-year-old mother, Pauline, in January, 1946. In November of that year, my eldest sister, Elva, was born. For the next four years, my parents moved again and again as my father sought steady work in a sputtering economy. He farmed, he started a tractor repair business with my grandfather, he worked as a mechanic, but work was never steady.

In the summer of 1950, my mom was again pregnant and sweating in a tiny one-bedroom t
in-roof shack in Los Olivos. The water heater stuck in one corner of the kitchen made the house even hotter. My mother, tired of moving and struggling and not even knowing where the new baby was going to sleep when it arrived was fed up with the whole thing.

One day my father came home to ask my mother “How would you like to live in a brand new house with a view of the ocean?” My father had landed a job with Flying A oil company and the house, newly constructed, was part of the deal. That house saved my mom’s sanity and that job provided my father work for the next 35 years.
Because of that job and that house, my parents went on to have five more children instead of an early divorce. I was the last of those children.

My father and all the other men worked at the marine terminal, which was across the highway from our homes, under the bony arms of a black iron railroadGaviota Family trestle. At the terminal, tanker ships off-loaded oil to storage tanks on land. Shiny silver trucks came at all hours to pick up the oil products and drive away to destinations unknown.

The men’s work in the oil patch was a source of pride and terror. We were never blind to the dangers of working with oil and solvents and gasoline and gas. We all knew people who had been badly hurt or killed at work.

My own dreams were haunted by the sump – an open pit of black oil about 15 feet square. It was surrounded by what seemed to be an entirely inadequate and flimsy iron railing, which had bars set so far apart a child of my age could easily slide through to certain death, because, as my father told me, no one could swim or survive in the pool of oil. I had no way of telling how deep it was, which was the scariest part of all.

The marine terminal faced a crescent moon beach about a half-mile wide, protected on both ends by natural walls of crumbly yellow rock that extended out into the sea. The only name of the beach was “Our Beach.” You could get there either through the marine terminal or by scrambling down steep rock cliffs about a mile away and walking in at low tide – and out before the tide rose again – so we rarely saw anyone but ourselves there.

The people on the hill worked together and lived side-by-side, far removed from other civilization. Every day, all day long, we could see and hear each other. With town so far away, we counted on each other for help, support and love. That intimacy marked our lives and led to lifelong friendships that still feel more like family than family.

When the oil company reevaluated its strategy of providing worker housing in the late 1960s, all seven families were kicked off the hill, which at the time seemed like a tragedy, shattering the sweet way of life we had become accustomed to. Low rent, close to work, an ocean view, a private beach, a close community – how could we leave all that behind? The seven wooden houses were torn down and the land bulldozed to make room for a new, larger refinery. The place that existed only for us was wiped away as if it had never been.

As sad as it seemed at the time, the truth was that the move forced my parents to become homeowners, something that set them up for a lifetime of economic stability that benefits my mom even at age 91.

Almost 50 years later, most of our family stories and memories are set in Gaviota, and we have all said that when we sleep and have dreams of home, those dreams are always set back on the hill.

  1. byjane permalink
    May 29, 2017 12:00

    This is beautiful and sad and all things that good, true writing are, Suebob. What a setting for a memoir–or a novel.

    • May 29, 2017 14:35

      Thank you so much. I appreciate your kind words. I am taking a class at church on “Spiritual Writing” – which turns out to be “writing.” One of our assignments was to write about a place.

  2. May 30, 2017 06:24

    This is lovely.

    Glad to hear from you. You’ve been off the grid, or at least the part of the grid I’m on, so I was wondering about you and hoping things are okay.

  3. June 1, 2017 06:54

    This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing. It really does read like the setting for a novel/memoir (hint hint). Reminds me a little of Steinbeck.

  4. Elvie permalink
    June 4, 2017 09:53

    Sue, you have touched my heart.You have captured my feelings of “home” which Gaviota will always be. So many memories.

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