Fog sometimes enrobed the valley of my California birthplace, limiting visibility to a few feet. I’ve never celebrated a birthday there; before my first, we moved eastward. Nevertheless, the stories about Tule Fog were legion during weekly phone conversations with my grandparents. This thick ground layer hasn’t appeared in these recent drought years.
During childhood visits to their San Joaquin Valley farm, I always noticed Grandpa’s mudroom rifle display with bullets scattershot on the worktable beneath. He often went “up out of the fog” when hunting where Chinese immigrants had extended the railroad that crisscrossed California.
The most recognized racist history of my birth state was the World War II internment camps; less well known was the growth of the Klan after World War I. Unlike the South where attacks mostly targeted black men, Klan activity in California during the first half of the 20th century was focused on whites, primarily Catholics, Communists, and union supporters. Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, and the Chinese were also victims, but much of the wrath was reserved for “liberal” whites.
My paternal grandparents emigrated as babies born in Ireland and Denmark during the early 1900’s. The two families settled in the fertile center of the state, a hundred miles from the ocean to the west and mountains to the east. Ernie and Mary married in 1925 and bought a farm in Modesto.
The largest elk—a six-point bull called a “royal”—Grandpa ever killed was on Bloods Ridge in the Sierras where this giant animal was standing somewhere at 8,000 feet. I don’t know the full story of the hunt that happened years before I was born but heard about the huge effort it took to haul the carcass back to the Valley, as well as Grandma’s grumbling at the mounted head in the dining room.
I hated those glassy eyes and mottled fur. As the antlers started to gather dust, Mary persuaded Ernie to move the “eyesore” into the mudroom. The head accompanied them after they retired to Pine Mountain, not too far from the woods where Grandpa took aim. When his “mind got incomplete and they put him in the home”—credit to James McMurtry for that perfect lyric—Grandma moved back to the Valley and lived a dozen years without the glazed stare.
My mom and I revisited a lot of Grandma and Grandpa stories during Mom’s chemo. In that falsely cheerful room, I would unspool memories, desperate to keep them and her with me. During one conversation about the tractor-sized deep freeze that held Grandma’s ever-present homemade breads and sweets, I asked Mom if she ever heard the full story of the elk hunt. She retorted, “I never asked. The fact that Ernie hung his Klan robe on that severed head in the mudroom was enough to make me throw up.”
Mom started dating Dad at 14; she had a very “troubled” (the era’s mild terminology doesn’t do justice to her abuse) home life and was desperate to escape. She adored Mary and revered Ernie; his Klan involvement fouled the man she loved. When she confronted him, this fierce Irish Protestant gently chided, “You know how I feel about the Catholics, Donna.”
Ernie described how he was a member of the Sacramento “club” that actually worked to dispel an image as racists, mentioning a photograph in the local evening newspaper of Klansmen painting an African-American church. Here was a union man—even a periodic member of the IWW “Wobblies”—and an often generous as well as friendly boss to those who worked his farm, especially the “Okies” of the 1930’s. Grandpa couldn’t understand Mom’s reaction; it was just like his “Freemason membership, after all.”
I asked Mom why she had never mentioned the robe story to me. She acknowledged her despair about Grandpa’s justification concerning his membership and how it led to many loud arguments in the family she cherished. He ultimately promised to toss the robe, although she never confirmed it was gone. Ernie eventually stopped attending meetings when the drive to Sacramento became too onerous after a farming accident ruined his knees.
Grandma kept the elk. My oldest cousin begged her to store in the garage so he could display it one day; the decrepit trophy now hangs in his hallway with a baseball cap cockeyed over one point. Shortly after Mom’s memorial service, I visited him at his Chicago apartment. During a conversation about our respective eldest cousin status as namesakes—me for Grandma and him for Grandpa—I asked if he knew about the robe; he stared at that dangling hat and then at me.