Woodshed: A Summer Update

Woody Guthrie Fest moments before I go on to read the names

Woody Guthrie Fest moments before I go on stage to read the names

 

“Woodshed,” or “Woodshedding.” This is what my good friend, and musical collaborator, Carlos Rodriguez, calls it whenever he decides to hunker down in his home studio and do the work. And what’s the work? For Carlos, it’s making great music. For me, the work has been as follows: Moving our life from Colorado to Texas, settling into our new home in El Paso, continuing the research for missing families, getting into a writing rhythm on the book, preparing my kids for school, writing a few blurbs and Introductions for other books, and getting my own courses prepared for this coming semester. Oh, but I did get to attend the Woody Guthrie Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. I presented my research there to a packed room, and got to stand on stage with Will Kaufman (author of American Radical), while he sang Deportees, and collaborate with David Amram (two highlights of my time there). I had a great lengthy conversation backstage with Arlo Guthrie too, and of course, hanging with all the other musicians there was an incredible experience (thanks Joel & Lauren Rafael!). But beyond that, this summer has been spent mostly “Woodshedding.” The good news is that I now have my own home writing space (Woodshed I), and a new campus office (Woodshed II). So there should be no excuses why I can’t finish my book by the self-imposed deadline of December 10th.

On stage with Will Kaufman and Carlos Rodriguez

On stage with Will Kaufman and Carlos Rodriguez

 

Carlos and I with David Amram outside our hotel

Carlos and I with David Amram outside our hotel

Which brings me to the next subject. In approximately two weeks, I’ll launch a fundraising campaign that is aimed at helping me complete the research portion of this work on the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos. I’ll post the links to that here, so please keep an eye out, and also, spread the news! I still have files for families I’m trying to reach, whom I’ll need to interview, on video and audio, as I’ve done with all of this work. The move has taken a serious toll on my own finances. Up until now, I have funded all of this research on my own dime. With one exception, my friend and awesome bay artist Jane Oriel, helped by creating limited edition prints that I was able to sell to assist with some of the early costs. (Thank you Jane!!) Otherwise it’s all been a labor of love for me. Since the beginning I’ve felt this was such a worthy cause, and this is truly why I’ve never hesitated to do whatever it takes to see this work to the end. My plan is to make all of my research archives accessible to the public once my book is done, so that all future scholars, students, or community folks can access this history. The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK have already expressed interest in housing it there, among Woody’s archives. Wouldn’t this be nice? On the other hand, a part of me would like to see it remain in the central valley, so that folks have to go there, where it all took place, to get this history. I guess all this is yet to be worked out, but for now, please keep an eye out for the fundraising campaign.

On a final note, as I prepare to teach my first course, “Antropoesia: The Poet as Ethnographer,” at the University of Texas El Paso this fall, I can’t help but feel excited about the many omissions in history that, collectively, we have yet to unearth. The more we share these stories, word-of-mouth, books, etc…the more we find commonalities with each other, aka community building. In the meantime, know that I’ll be working diligently on the book, and that I look forward to reading in your city, town, University this fall.

Sharpening the Knife Blade

This book is more the work of a poet than a trained oral historian. My only real credentials for having written it were that I was native to its situation in nearly every way and had only to listen to hear my own world talking.

—Ronald Blythe, Akenfield

photo (7)

 

This quote from Ronald Blythe’s introduction to his seminal book Akenfield has been a mantra for me as I hammer away on this new manuscript surrounding the Los Gatos plane crash of 1948. In the same way Blythe’s book was heavily debated for its redefinition of oral history in the sixties, it’s possible that this book, All They Will Call You, sips from the same stream. At this point I have spent the better part of a year on the writing aspect of it and still have yet to put my finger on any one genre that it might be easily tethered to. I can hear my agent’s voice stressing to me, “What about plot? More plot!” Or a publisher cautioning, “We prefer there to be a clear distinction whether or not this is fiction or creative non-fiction.” Or my mentor’s voice saying, “Consider how the people who populate the book will receive it.” In the face of all this, there is a quiet hum in my skull whispering (dare I even say it) —hybrid.

At the start of working on this book, I had seriously considered that this might even turn out to be a collection of poetry, or even a long poem, taking its cue from Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony—aka poet as witness. I had been excited about the recent book by David Mason, Ludlow, where he uses narrative verse to retell the incident of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, including pieces of actual testimony, newspaper accounts and other formal documents. My project seemed very much along these lines, at least in the beginning. And in a similar way, Mark Nowak’s work in Coal Mountain Elementary, or C.D. Wright’s One With Others, further opened up the possibilities to me. I figured my project would lend itself to this curious genre that I have sometimes heard referred to as Documentary Poetics, or even Investigative Poetics, as Ed Sander’s deemed it. The idea of taking fragments of this “found language” and organizing it in a way that looks and acts more like poetry than prose was appealing to me, as someone who spent five years chasing two writing degrees with an emphasis in poetry. 

After a little more than three years of research now, I have amassed dozens of files and documents, and more than 100 hours of audio and video interviews with everyone, from eyewitnesses of the crash to the families of the victims, and the musicians who brought the song, Deportees, to light. Between this and the fact that I had spent more of my own money than I care to admit, and at least as many hours researching this single incident, I could not allow myself to succumb to the self-serving lure that, for me, is and always has been poetry. It’s just not how I approach writing. I began writing across genres, not because I had some preconceived path of what my career might look like, but in truth, because I was trying my best to allow the story or idea to dictate the form. Some folks can set out to write a novel, and they do. Some set out to write a poem, and they do. For me writing happens something akin to how Steinbeck describes collecting creatures from a tide pool in the opening of his book “Cannery Row.” There are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter to the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle. 

A story, or spurt of language, or lightening thought arises, and my job is to be a good listener and observer. Awareness is my knife blade, and I do my best to keep it sharp. Sometimes the creature arrives as a blob of language, without direction or rationale. Sometimes it starts out as a poem then morphs into a story, or vice-versa. Still, other times it starts as a song lyric then slowly winds its way back toward a straight narrative. If I pay attention, which is to say, once the idea has squirmed its way onto my knife blade, then with slow and calculated precision, I do my best to guide it into the bottle, unbroken. And this is my approach with All They Will Call You.

*   *   *

 

 

All They Will Call You: An Excerpt

His home is tucked serenely within a dense green hillside just north of Manhattan. We ambled our way up the gravelly road to a clearing. A log cabin appeared, and next to it a house only slightly larger. All of it perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River. My good friend Anthony and myself stood there for several minutes before approaching the front door. After a few minutes Pete emerged and waved us over.     

“Tim Hernandez?” He asked, addressing Anthony.

“No, that’s Tim over there,” Anthony replied. He introduced himself and they shook hands.

I approached. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I said, to which Pete smiled and nodded.

His living room was an open space cluttered with all the details of a home that had been well lived-in for a few generations at least. Books were scattered on the dining table and shelved along the walls. Photos hung slightly eschewed, and in one corner hung an array of banjos and guitars. Large windows let in the natural light. It was almost noon, but the day was overcast. I sat down on a lounge chair and Pete took a seat across from me. Anthony stood near the kitchen table.

Three years after I first embarked on the search for the 28 passengers of the plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, who became known only as “Deportees,” there I was, sitting only a few feet away from the man who first launched that song into the world. A few days before I had jotted down two pages of questions, things I wanted to make sure I asked him, but in that moment it all went out the window. Something strange happens in those bare moments of clarity. It isn’t that I forget my notes. I’m aware of them, they’re usually in my shirt pocket. It’s that somehow those earlier thoughts, the minuscule agendas, are rendered meaningless when faced with the actual. Also, there’s a level of intuition that needs to be heeded. I trust that whatever I “need to know” in that instant will come on its own.

“I was just about to go chop wood,” Pete said.

“Need some help?”

He chuckled, then placed both of his hands on his kneecaps and leaned forward slightly, toward me. He was wearing a ball-cap, and his signature red turtleneck beneath a denim work shirt. He looked up at me with his grayish, green eyes, ready for my questions.

Just a few moments ago, while in the car on our way up here, Anthony had asked me if I was nervous. “I mean it’s Pete Seeger,” he said.

Before answering him I thought about it. “Yes I am,” I replied. “But I was more nervous when I first met Caritina Ramirez.”

“Who?”

“Caritina Ramirez. She was the ten-year old girl who lost her father, Ramon, in that plane crash.” And it was true. Meeting Caritina that first time, it felt like I was staring into the eyes of a child and breaking the news to her, as if for the first time, that her father was killed in a horrible accident.

Here I was now, thousands of miles away from the small oil town that is Coalinga, California. Further yet from Los Gatos Canyon. I turned my small digital recorder on and cleared my throat.

“Pete, in all the years that you’ve performed the Deportee song, did you ever once think that when you sang the words, Who are these friends all scattered like dry leaves…, it would actually be answered?”

* * *

In conversation, at the home of Pete Seeger.

In conversation, at the home of Pete Seeger. Photo credit, Anthony Cody

* * *

*This excerpt is only a draft.
It is from my book-in-progress, All They Will Call You…
Please do not use or quote without my permission.
Copyright Tim Z. Hernandez, 2013

To see the report done by ABCNews/ Univision Fusion TV click on this link

Deportee Memorial Commemorative Print

As some of you may know, since the start of this research project on the 28 Mexican brothers and sisters who died in the plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon I have been working with videographer, Ken Leija, documenting every step of the way. Presently, we have nearly a hundred hours of video and audio interviews, photographs, footage and rare documents (which will eventually need to be archived). The result of this footage will be a documentary about the search, not only for the 32 people who died aboard the plane, but a search for the facts of what happened that fateful day. However, in order to see this to fruition we need appeal to you, the community. Along the way, visual artists have been critical in making all of this happen. It is in this spirit that we present you with our latest opportunity to help this story live on.

 

Jane Oriel Art

 

Bay Area visual artist, Jane Oriel, has created this one-of-a-kind print specifically to commemorate the memorial and benefit the documentary fundraising effort.  This “Deportee Memorial Limited Edition Print” is Hand Silkscreened on Arches 140 lb. paper. 19 ¾’ x 13’ with a deckled edge border, and includes a poem by me along with all 28 names of the Mexican passengers. Each print is signed and numbered. Costs are:

Numbers 100-21, $40

Numbers 20-1, $60

If you are interested in purchasing a print please contact me at tzhernandez@yahoo.com. *Shipping costs will be included if print is to be mailed. We will also have these for sale at the Dinner & Conversation on Sunday, Sept. 1, 5pm, Ole Frijole in Fresno. Thank you for supporting!

 

 

The Memorial Headstone & Event

Hey friends, I thought you might like to see where your $10,000 are going! I’m so happy to report that the progress on the memorial ledger is now underway, and so many exciting developments are unfolding every day. Maybe some of you had a chance to finally meet Mr. Jaime Ramirez via the article that came out in the Los Angeles Times recently. His family’s story gets even more amazing and I can’t wait to share this with you in my book.

Below is a photo of me at the headstone that used to be at the gravesite, and below that is the foundation for the new headstone. You can see where they’ve imbedded the old headstone into the concrete, so that folks can see the history.

Right now the memorial event is being planned and I’ll be posting up a flyer-invitation very soon, but for now I can tell you that there’ll be a variety of music, ceremony, possibly some Aztec dancers, and of course, the unveiling of the beautifully finished memorial headstone. It’ll be both a time for contemplation and celebration.

Also, the day before the event, I’ll be hosting a rare opportunity for the community (YOU!) to share dinner and discussion with the circle of people who were directly involved in this historical incident. Guests will include the family of Frank & Bobbi Atkinson (the pilot and stewardess), the family and friends of Martin Hoffman  (the musician who composed the melody to the song we all know and love today), June Leigh Austin (daughter of the property owners and first responders), Deana McCloud (Executive of the Woody Guthrie Center), and the Ramirez-Paredes family (descendants of two of the Mexican passengers). Please email me directly for details.

Some of the media: The Los Angeles Times, Univision/ ABC, The Story with Dick Gordon on NPR, Telemundo, NPR Tell Me More with Michele Martin, The California Report (KQED), The Pilsen Portal, Tulsa World Newspaper, Univision/ Central Cal, KVPR Valley Public Radio, The Fresno Bee, The Victoria Advocate, and Vida En El Valle.

THE MEMORIAL EVENT: Monday September 2, 2013, 10 am, Holy Cross Cemetery, 2105 West Belmont Ave., Fresno, California 93728

Photos: Top Photo, Tim at old headstone, Bottom Photo, Credit: Lydia Z. Hernandez, 7/2013

The Answer to Woody’s Question…

When Woody Guthrie asked the question, “Who are these friends all scattered like dry leaves?” I wonder if he ever thought someone 65 years down the road would attempt to answer it? Or that the someone would be the grandson of migrant farmworkers from the same soil that the plane went down. I wanted you all to be the first to hear…I have in fact located surviving family members for two of the “deportee” passengers aboard the plane that crashed in Los Gatos Canyon. It only took the first conversation with Mr. Ramirez to realize that he and I have both been slogging our way through years of research (Mr. Ramirez more than I), intuitively working our way toward one another all this time. He is the grandson and nephew of Guadalupe Ramirez Lara and Ramon Paredes Gonzalez, both men who found themselves aboard that fateful flight on January 28, 1948. Since our first conversation, he and his family have been gracious and beyond cooperative in allowing me to interview them in person, and on camera/ audio for my book. To say they are excited about the effort to install the new headstone memorial on September 2 is an understatement. They’ve been waiting for this moment since 1948, and of course they’ll be present. I know many of you have been asking me if I have found any of the families, and while I’d like to save some of the mystery for my book, I will let you know that with the family’s consent we’ll be releasing this news to the wider public very soon.

But for now, I will offer this:

I recently took Mr. Ramirez, his wife and niece, to the crash sight in Los Gatos Canyon, to see the exact location where their relatives died. To add to the special occasion, Larry Haws, the grandson of O.D. “Happy” Gaston, who was among the first on the scene to help, was with us. And in a moment I thought might never happen, I found myself entering the canyon creek bed with the grandson of a first responder on my left, and the grandson of two “nameless” victims on my right. Both men linked by a single incident that had begun to shape their lives before they were even born. As you can see, Mr. Ramirez wore his father’s hat for the special occasion.

Mr. Ramirez, the grandson and nephew of two of the "Deportee" passengers aboard the plane stands at the foot of the Los Gatos Canyon creek bed, where the plane crashed.

(Copyright 2013, Tim Z. Hernandez) Mr. Ramirez, the grandson and nephew of two of the “Deportee” passengers aboard the plane in Los Gatos Canyon stands at the foot of the creek bed, staring down at the spot that the plane crashed.

Needless to say, my book has taken a major but fortuitous turn, and I am chipping away at it mercilessly. In the meantime, my videographer, Ken Leija, and I are going to be putting together a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the documentary portion of this journey. As many of you know, I’ve had a camera following throughout the research, and this is why. If you didn’t get a chance to donate to the headstone memorial, but would like to help make the documentary a reality, please keep an eye out for the campaign or contact me directly.

In the spirit of community,

Tim
E: tzhernandez@yahoo.com

We have reached our $10,000 goal!!

THANK YOU to all who have helped make the memorial headstone for the 28 Mexican brothers and sisters who have gone 65 years without a name on their headstone a reality. As you know, so many wonderful people have supported this effort, if not in monetary contributions then in sweat, art, and organizing. Holy Cross Cemetery and myself have begun discussions as to what the memorial event will look like and we will be excited to announce this as soon as we have it completed. For now, please mark your calendars for this wonderful event which will take place on Labor Day, September 2, 2013, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. You can continue to follow my updates here for details as we get closer.

Also, I am working on putting together an opportunity for the community to meet and greet all those involved in my book, research, and the historical incident itself. Please check back with this page for details soon!

Sincerely,
Tim