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Steve Hansen: A summer with family taught important lessons

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Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2014 12:00 am

When I was a junior in high school, I visited my grandmother’s Coulterville summer home. It was in the early 1960s.

That Mother Lode trip turned out to be more than just a gathering with the grandparents. There were also two unexpected lessons about people.

One of them was focused on my elderly Uncle Fred. On a warm July day, he came over the hill from nearby Groveland for a visit. The journey on winding back roads was about 10 miles. I remember his dust-covered, 1938, midnight-blue Buick coupe — a car that was rather outdated for the times — especially when parked among two late-model Chevy Impalas and a Ford Fairlane.

The old bachelor certainly had his quirks. He was a non-stop talker and included a minimum of one swear word with every spoken sentence.

When evening came, Fred prepared for his departure. He revved up the old Buick in place. It spewed out blue exhaust and oily smells into the clear summer atmosphere. The old codger refused to move the car until the temperature gauge reached normal. Uncle Fred somehow got the notion that this habit would make his tired old jalopy last longer!

Here’s a better story from that same trip. It was about a friend of my grandmother’s who came from Los Angeles for a visit. Her name was Ruby, and she wanted to learn all about the Gold Rush days of Coulterville and the Mother Lode. However, the experience would turn out to be more than just a historical adventure.

As I recall, it was on a Friday when she and members of our family piled into my grandfather’s ‘59 Ford and headed up Dogtown Road. We passed the old Sun Sun Wo Co. — a once Chinese-owned adobe building where the original 19th century business sign could still be read. A few miles up the dirt road, we turned right onto an overgrown trail. At the end were the remains of a mine shaft, ore cars, small gauge rail tracks and some abandoned wooden buildings.

It was the Last Chance gold mine — or what was left of it. The mine had not been in operation by our family since the late 1920s. By then, most of the precious metal had been depleted. But the final blow to the operation came in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt — through executive order 6012 — outlawed gold bullion for private ownership. It was not made legal again until 1974 under the Nixon administration.

Most of the buildings had been vandalized and equipment stolen. But one small shack remained relatively unscathed. Ruby stepped inside. In a corner of the building, she discovered a 1903 Winchester saddle-ring rifle. Being a gun enthusiast, the curious lady was thrilled at the find.

The relic was located on our family property and rightfully belonged to my grandmother. But Ruby somehow felt it was a “finders keepers” situation.

Needless to say, the ride back to Coulterville was not a pleasant one. My grandmother was not one to be argued with, and a long-term friendship soon ended.

At the time, I wondered if the old Winchester was worth the loss of a close friend. Nana probably would have said “yes.” I think she drew the conclusion that if Ruby had been educated about simple property rights, the conflict would not have erupted in the first place.

But when I examined the story from a “people first” point-of-view, I realized that being “right” was not necessarily the best way to maintain a relationship.

The gun did not have a lot of meaning to Nana. Perhaps the gesture of a gift would have saved something more important — a good friendship. However, what most likely caught my grandmother’s ire was the belief Ruby had about rightful ownership. If the presumptuous friend had asked for the antique, things might have been different.

That summer was more than just a visit with my grandparents. From the Uncle Fred narrative, I learned just how much my kinfolk would go the extra mile to accommodate a weird relative in the name of family unity.

In the second story, there was a tale of fragile dynamics that can be found in any relationship. It taught me just how much a small misunderstanding can change the direction and the lives of two close friends forever.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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