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It takes a heap o' livin'

The Spirit of Tehachapi

In 1933, during one of the worst periods of the great depression, my parents found themselves lacking money to continue paying rent on a small house on K Street in Mojave. In the attitude of “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” they decided to build a house. It was easier in those days before building permits, regulations and inspections were required.

My father, Chauncey Davis, traded local businessman Cy Townsend a piece of mining property for a vacant lot in town – just across the street from the cemetery – a lot which nobody would buy for that reason. Today, that lot is in the middle of Mojave but then it was the very last street in town and nothing was east of it except miles of desert. There was no street sign so I never knew it was M Street until years later. The problem of lumber was solved by some abandoned claim shanties out on the desert, also owned by Cy Townsend, who gave his permission to have them removed. I remember running the full length of the newly laid floor. I was four, soon to be five.

The construction of our “recycled” house drew people and relatives from far and near who wanted to help us. My mother’s parents, Tom and Minnie Anderson, came down from Exeter, California. My grandfather was what they used to call a “latch key” carpenter. He started at the foundation and was on the job until he handed the customer the key to the front door. His expert advice kept the house plumb.

I don’t know how long it took to build the three bedroom house but the day we moved in was a momentous occasion. I recall my father sitting in his large chair by the radio and though I was very young, the look on his face is one that is imprinted in my memory. It said, “I’ve just built myself a house!” I don’t know what the total cost was but I do know a major expense were the shingles and nails costing $75.00.

We moved in as soon as the roof was on but there was no money to buy wall board for the interior walls. My father went to the local merchants for large cardboard boxes and hauled them home in his Model T Ford truck. When flattened out, they were fastened to the studding separating the rooms. We knew the cardboard was temporary so I asked my mother, Maude Davis, if I could write on it. In a “fit of madness” she said yes! My brother taught me to write my name on the living room wall. Mom soon realized the folly of her statement and permission was rescinded. It was a wise decision for it was a couple of years before they could afford the necessary wallboard. My name, however, stood out in solitary splendor for a long time.

The house was braced solidly against the fierce Mojave windstorms; especially from the northwest. Right on schedule, the very eve of our moving in, a humdinger of a windstorm hit with full force. The next morning the living room floor had a fine layer of dirt and sand that somehow had filtered in. My brother, Thomas “Buster” Davis, got out his toy cars and we had fun making roads.

No ghosts ever rose up from the graveyard next door. In fact, we used to play there and pick wildflowers for any grave with a vase. The man who dug the graves was named Dick Payne. When I would see him over there standing waist deep in the hole he was digging, I’d ask the colossally stupid question: “Hello Dick, are you digging a grave?”

Instead of answering, “No, kid, I’m changing a tire,” he would laugh and say, “Yes, honey, I’m diggin’ a grave.”

I always wondered why he laughed when I talked to him.

Sometimes coyotes would come into our back yard at night and howl. Mom would occasionally throw stale biscuits out in the yard for the chickens to peck on. At night, when the chickens were safely in their pen, the coyotes would come to forage. They only howled occasionally; probably if they found no biscuits.

Our house must have had a “hobo” mark on it for we often had men with packs on their backs come to the back door asking for food in exchange for chopping wood. The railroad brakemen (called “bulls” by some) made the hobos, who had ridden over the Tehachapis, get off in Mojave and they were left there, homeless and hungry.

My parents were a gregarious pair and we had lots of company. So much so, in fact, that people thought we were selling bootleg whiskey. My father had once worked for the local bootleggers but the strongest drink in our house was coffee and the pot was always on.

Times eased up with my father securing a job and we lived there and were very happy. It was sold when we moved to Tehachapi in 1937. My father always quoted the poem by Edgar A Guest saying, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” We started it and I hope that those who lived there after us were as happy as we were in the house my father built when he had no money to pay the rent.

Epilogue: The house lasted seventy three years. One of my sons, Tom, went by the vacant lot and found a piece of wood for me to keep.