Finding Bea Franco: Journal Entry #26

August 25, 2009         

Dear Bea,

This is a letter that will likely never get sent. I decided to write to you each time I sit down to work on the book. Like tossing questions at the universe with hopes that just somehow it might answer back. Today I went into the Fresno County Hall of Records and told them I was looking for my great Grandmother’s marriage or death certificate. Either will do, I said casually. I had to wait in this long line for over an hour. The whole time feeling like an imposter. I mean here were people really going for something, a lost bit of something dire, and here I was, on a self-appointed mission. I started thinking I might be going too far with all this. Felt like I was playing some masquerade, only fooling myself. The clerk called me forward and after filling out some papers she had me follow her to a back room. “These are all the old files, anything before 1950 would be here,” she said. She pulled out a book the size of a Cadillac and opened it to the index and began looking for your name. After thirty minutes we agreed it wasn’t there. Probably a good thing, I figured. If we had found something, before releasing the info to me I would’ve had to brandish proof I am related to you. This is what the woman said to me. But then again, if the goods were there I’m sure I would’ve made it happen one way or the other. Last week I was at the Genealogy Department at the Fresno Library. I poked around for a couple of hours, scrutinizing all the Francos listed but none of them had the right details. As I began walking away the woman helping me asked, “Are you sure she isn’t still alive?” I chuckled. “What farmworker do you know lives to the age of 90?” I said.

I’ve been following leads now for over a year, hoping to find your truth, not his or theirs. I finally decided to hire an investigator. A Serbian woman named Adreann, majored in English back in her college days. Told her you were likely dead, but that we should look for Albert or Patsy, who I figure are probably around 70 years old by now. She was impressed by my legwork. Gave me some advice, tips on how to get information. Before we parted ways she added, “In all my years of experience, dead people are easy to find…living people are hard.” This stuck with me days after. This is why I ended up at the County Records office today, armed with the nerve to claim I was your great grandson. There’s so much I want to ask you Bea, far more questions than answers, things I need to know in order for your story to be told as accurately as possible. One letter can’t possibly cover it all, so I’ll continue to write to you. Even if it’s a lost cause and there’s nowhere to send it. That’s all for now. I hope wherever you are, you’re laughing.

Sincerely, T.

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Finding Bea Franco: Journal Entry #22

The following is taken from one of the journals I kept during my search for Bea Franco. This is probably the first entry when the idea of locating her began to feel like a real possibility, and less like a waste of time. Or as one biographer put it, “Good luck. Looking for her is like trying to find the ghost of a needle in a haystack.”

————–

Friday, August 7, 2009

Last week I had dinner at my mother-in-laws house, and her friend Vicky, who happens to own a small farm in Selma, was there too. I asked her if she knew any Francos. She shook her head but replied, “There are only two Franco families in Selma, so it’s got to be one of them.” I asked her if she knew where the old Selma Winery was and if it was still around. She told me it was behind her house, the same place where the labor camp was once located. Days later, on my way to a Dr.’s visit (I intentionally found a Doctor in Selma so that whenever I’d have to make an appointment—and take time off work to do this—I could spend at least an hour poking around there. Of course one hour has a way of turning into two or three), I drove out there, and actually found the place. I remembered being on those back roads as a kid, in the bed of my grandfather’s pick up truck, staring out at the miles and miles of grapefields. It was familiar.

The Winery sat abandoned and tattered in the countryside, surrounded by fields in all directions. Dust clouded around it and tumbleweeds collected against a warped fence that was put up to keep trespassers out. A tall pine tree stood in front, its roots reaching toward a nearby irrigation ditch. The aluminum siding was flaking off the old structure and graffiti ruled everything. High above, at the tip of the tallest point, in weathered black paint in read: SELMA WINERY. But it looked as if something else was painted over that, another word, I couldn’t tell. Pigeons roosted in the dark corners. Oxidized orange spilled over all sides of the walls and support beams. A slab of concrete with spider-breaks and gouged chunks rolled out toward the dirt path.

I stood next to my parked car, along the irrigation ditch, and gazed quietly over the details of what once was, paying careful attention to the ghosts. Only a hot breeze rustled the loose edge of a fallen sheet of siding, and a few sycamore leaves skipped past. I got back in my car and drove around the perimeter. The fence blocked off the main road, but nearby was a dirt bridge with a private road sign riddled with shotgun pellet holes. The road lead to a line of wilted houses and crooked trailer homes, old car parts and piles of junk adorned the yards. I drove over the bridge and followed the dirt road, slowly passing the houses and barking dogs. A woman peeked out from behind a curtain and eyed me curiously. I parked close to the Winery, down in the bed of where the Kings River once ran. It was the same cradle used as the natural boundary line, where once field hands and Winery workers could pitch their tents and live out the season. I imagined it must’ve been the spot where Bea and Jack lived together during that short Fall in October of 1947. Now the land was stricken yellow with nothing but an old discarded couch and a nest of field mice. I hadn’t noticed but a few men had gathered across the dirt road and were staring at me. They leaned against the back of a pick up truck and smoked cigarettes and stood silently. I nodded at them. A small dog sidled up to one of their legs and got nudged away with the tip of a boot. The dog cowered and began making its way toward me. I walked back to my car and got in, then turned the ignition on and ambled up the dirt road. The men turned their heads, eyes followed me, until I was back on the road and out of sight. 

Below is one of several photos I took of the old Selma Winery in 2009. I believe it has since been demolished.

 

Tim Z. Hernandez©

Fall is an Auspicious Month

Today is Sunday, and I am writing this on the occasion of Bea Franco’s 93rd birthday. I would’ve forgotten this entirely had it not been for the fact that just this morning I was putting some final touches on my manuscript, Mañana Means Heaven. Coincidentally, I was working on the Afterword, and it was a scene that took place on her birthday.

I really think Fall is Bea’s season. Consider the following: she was born in the Fall of 1920. Her tryst with Jack happened in Fall of 1947. On the day I first walked up the cold steps of her porch, it was Fall of 2010. My book will hit shelves in Fall of 2013.       

On another note, last week I was at the Boulder Bookstore and I came across the newly released book, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, by Joyce Johnson, who was once Kerouac’s girlfriend. I was pleased to read the following excerpt:  

          When it appeared in the Paris Review in 1956, “The Mexican Girl” would change

          Jack’s luck and result in On the Road finally getting published. I wonder how long

          it took for Bea Franco to find out Jack had written about her…

                    The Greyhound bus station in Bakersfield, where Bea and Jack met.

The Fiction of Bea Franco…

I didn’t start out looking to find Bea Franco. When the initial idea came to me, it was to write a fictional account of Bea’s side of the story, the fifteen days she spent with Jack Kerouac from her point of view. I figured it would be a worthwhile attempt, since I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and my own family knew the labor camps and fields so well. I pictured Bea as my grandmother, Estela Constante Hernandez. The woman I knew who would get up at 4 o’clock each morning to make homemade tortillas and burritos for the family, as they set out for the fields. The same grandmother who used to feed us cigarette ashes as children, claiming it would “clean us out.” A hard scrabble woman with a big heart and calloused hands.

This was the original idea anyway. I began my research by looking for mention of Bea Franco in other books, biographies mostly. I stopped counting after around two dozen. I quickly discovered the information on her was pretty limited, and many were rehashing the same thing. Shortly after, I discovered some of her letters were housed in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection/ Kerouac Archives. This is where my book took off…

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Here is a sampling of only some of the books that mention Bea Franco: 

Kerouac’s American Journey by Paul Maher Jr.

Subterranean Kerouac by Ellis Amburn

Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia

This is The Beat Generation by James Campbell

Why Kerouac Matters by John Leland

Jack’s Book by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee

Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight

The Beat Face of God by Stephen D. Edington

Manly Love by Bill Morgan and David Stanford

Countering the Counterculture by Manuel Luis Martinez

Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend by James T. Jones

Kerouac: The Definitive Biography by Paul Maher Jr.

Jack Kerouac: A Biography by Michael J. Dittman

Historical Dictionary of the Beat Movement by Paul Varner

Best American Short Stories 1956

Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West by Larry McMurtry

Neal Cassady: Fast Life of a Beat Hero by David Sandison and Graham Vickers

The Voice Is All by Joyce Johnson

On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac

Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac by Douglas Brinkley

Book of Dreams by Jack Kerouac