Joe and Bertha Foss
by Vic Head
There must have been ten thousand black ants and ten thousand reds. We’d turned over a flat rock and there they were.
“That’s the war to end all wars,” Ostes said. He had a delightful way of echoing the grownups, who talked that way about “The Great War” which had ended with a terrible influenza epidemic nine years before.
Picture a black ant and a red standing on rear legs, wrestling until the red went down and snip! The black had cut the red in half. Multiply the red to black pairs by ten thousand or so and you can picture the soil about two feet square seeming to boil with the rage of battle. “The reds are sure to win,” I ventured, recalling how they bit you. A bite from a black was just a little pinch, but if a red ant got you, you knew it! Someone told us to break a eucalyptus leaf and rub the juice on the bite. Well, a broken eucalyptus leaf is thick and dry as a bone, but we’d go through the ritual and think we felt better.
“No!” Ostes declared. “The reds are evil and God won’t let them win.” He was right, whether God took sides or not, and soon the ground was littered with half-ants, mostly red, while more reds were retreating in all directions. Then the blacks arranged red ant parts in a large ring that said, “Keep out.”
Huge and formidable Sister Foss appeared and pulled Ostes to his feet by his left ear. “You’re supposed to be feeding the chickens.” Brother Foss complained that Victor was being just as bad, but I guess since my mother was paying a little something for my room and board, I was a privileged kid.
He was really Joseph Thaxter Foss and she his wife, Bertha. I couldn’t guess why they were “Brother Foss” and “Sister Foss” to us kids—I didn’t even wonder. The Foss Ranch was perhaps 180 acres southwest of the center of Alpine, about 30 miles east of San Diego and perhaps 20 miles north of the Mexican border.
Years later when most of my family had moved to New Hampshire, some Alpine friend wrote to my mother that Bertha Foss was a changed and delightful person after a surgeon had removed a growth “the size of a grapefruit” from her abdomen. But in the meantime Ostes always had a half-circle of scabs behind his left ear from being pulled around by it, which would bleed all over again at each occurrence. I don’t remember that he ever cried—just took it as part of life.
The acreage was divided into three parcels.
About 60 acres were run by Aunt Helen and Uncle Percy, brother and sister, who had a huge house and a dining table eight or ten feet long where she served Sunday dinner for the whole Foss tribe and friends and the minister who preached at the combined community church, town hall and library on the north side of Old Highway 80 in Alpine. Helen was Helen to her family but Pearl to the rest of the village. Aunt Helen and Uncle Percy raised turkeys and goats. Sometimes I milked the goats, which was easy since goats’ teats were far larger than cows’. In fact, to this day I can’t understand how some folks could get milk out of a cow before milking machines were invented.
Uncle Charlie seemed much older to me. He lived on about sixty acres to the east and had perhaps fifty beehives. Most of his acreage was a big low hill covered with wild lilac with lots of yucca and these fringed with lupine and other plants that bees like. A few years before at a school on Point Loma a child had bumped a beehive and oh, how we screamed as we were stung and stung, so I was terrified of Uncle Charlie’s bees. His hives were in two long rows with a wide walkway between. Uncle Charlie managed to convince me that bees only stung when they were abused, and eventually he took my hand and walked me down the whole length of the two hive rows, “breathing out love.” Years later in New Hampshire we had news that Uncle Charlie, age around eighty, I think, had killed himself by falling out of a tree where he’d been trying to capture a swarm of bees. I can still remember a mound of beeswax perhaps four feet across and two feet high, by Uncle Charlie’s front step. I suppose that would be worth millions today.
Brother and Sister Foss had perhaps sixty acres partly on the hill near Uncle Charlie and partly on the cultivated land on the west side of that hill and sloping down to a lowland where they grew vegetable produce for sale. Rabbits were a pest, not so much for what they chomped as for the damage done by coyotes chasing the rabbits. The squeal of a rabbit caught in a trap in the wee small hours was enough to make me and Ostes cry, but I must say fried rabbit was mighty good eating. So was roast goat now and then. Aunt Helen and Uncle Percy had one terrible billygoat chained to a heavy steel stake in the ground. The grass and weeds were close cropped in a circle limited by the chain, but the awful smell filled a much larger radius. My ideal of “Big Billygoat Gruff” from the fairy story was demolished, you can be sure!
It was characteristic of Alpine weather that one big thunderstorm in April marked the end of the rainy season. Then we would move all our beds out across a little ditch and under a live oak tree. The bed legs were placed in very large tin cans with water to keep out possible tarantulas. This was near the end of the season for selling the big crop of watermelons. Then Ostes and I were given permission to carry down all we wanted. Under the tree across from our beds was one big boulder outcropping, and we’d drop a melon on the rock to split it in pieces and eat just the seed-free hearts. Hay would be cut, and soon the stubble would leave puncture marks in the soles of our bare feet.
Soon school would be out. We’d been going to school to teacher Miss McClain, walking to and from school by either of two routes. One way was north east on the driveway near Uncle Charlie’s then on by a path worn through the rough by our own feet until we came to a straight dirt road. I think it’s called Tavern Road now and probably paved long since. The other way was west down the same driveway, under a mulberry tree, on past Helen and Percy’s place, past the billygoat, and down to a crossroad. I think a house in the northwest corner of that intersection belonged to a Mr. Galloway. Just before that house we’d turn right, over a gorge, and so north to Highway 80. They must have really economized when they built Highway 80, for instead of separate concrete slabs each way, each slab was full highway width. There Ostes and I would turn east on a long uphill curve where a series of signs suggested “Don’t take”—“these curves”—“at 60 per”—“we hate”—“to lose”—“a customer”--"Burma Shave."
Sometimes other school kids would join us and—crazy kids!—we’d play double-dare and see how close we’d let a car get to us before we’d dash across in front of it. I was always surprised how the other boys knew the make of every car that went by. To this day I can’t tell! Sometimes Harold Schulte would be among the kids going up Highway 80 to school and the rest of us were a bit afraid of him, he talked so tough but otherwise he was O.K. A few years later when my family had moved to New Hampshire my sister Consuelo went back to Alpine and, at age 16, married Harold’s older brother who was known only as “CH.”
But for a while my sister Consuelo lived with me and Ostes at the Foss Ranch. If any of us caught colds—and all three of us got them at once—Sister Foss had a standard cure—lots of water but no food for three days. Then for hours on end we’d take turns in a sing-song voice, “I’m as hungry as a ----“ and we’d try to guess what critter might be as hungry as we. Eventually Connie got so fed up with Sister Foss that she ran away down the winding road to be with Sister Mary at the Kosmon Ranch in Sacratero Valley.
My mother got me a book, “Two Little Savages” by Ernest Thompson Seton, a great story for boys and filled with lots of lore of mostly eastern and Canadian Indians. Then Ostes and I would try to do what we thought was Indian stuff. We built a hut of brush. On the north side of the drive toward Aunt Helen’s there was a very long patch of yellow flowers. We burrowed into one end, clearing a place three feet wide like a tunnel with the flowers from both sides still touching overhead. From a distance they resembled eastern goldenrod.
Finally we just had to have a tent. Sister Foss gave us a gunnysack (burlap bag to you foreigners) which was much too tough to cut with scissors. Ostes and I were very proud of our axemanship. I held a four-inch wide portion across a log with my hands on each side. Ostes swung the axe. Gone was a quarter inch square of my left thumbnail. In spite of the blood, we did eventually make our tent.
Ostes and I had a number of chores assigned to us, including herding the hen turkeys. There were a few apple trees in a field north of Brother Foss’ driveway, and what little grass there was was thicker and greener under those trees. We would drive the turkeys from one tree to another. Now, when hen turkeys are alarmed by something on the ground, they form a circle, heads in, tails out, and give out with their prt-prt-prt sound. One time it was an old dried-up pumpkin shell. But another time it was a small rattlesnake. As usual we were both barefoot. I found a stick about two inches thick and four feet long. Made one lucky lunge and caught the snake’s neck between the butt end of the stick and the ground. How it did writhe! I sent Ostes looking for a thin piece of rock which I used like a saw to cut the head off. We had been taught that a rattlesnake’s head must be buried a foot deep to make sure no one stepped on it—just as dangerous as a bite! Ostes ran to get a shovel. Then we skinned it and tacked it to Aunt Helen’s shed wall to dry. “Two rattles and a button,” as we used to say. That meant two years old. After eighty years I still have the trophy.
To the northeast between the Foss Ranch and Highway 80, was the Amos homestead. Mrs. Amos asked Sister Foss to send me over to pick beans. All day I sang at the top of my lungs:
Bring the good old bugle boys we’ll sing another song,
Sing it with a spirit that will start the world along,
Sing it as we used to sing it fifty thousand strong
While we were marching through Georgia.
Hurrah, hurrah, we bring the jubilee,
Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes you free.
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia.
How the slave folks shouted when they heard the joyful sound,
How the turkeys gobbled which our commissary found,
How the sweet potatoes even started from the ground
While we were marching through Georgia,
Hurrah, hurrah, etc., etc.
At the end of the day, I’d filled a gunnysack with beans and Mrs. Amos gave me a shiny dime. Then I really got it from Sister Foss who’d heard me. It seems Mrs. Amos was from Georgia. Of course I’d never heard of the horrors of Sherman’s scorched-earth policy—to me it was just a funny song.
The Fosses called themselves “Methodist Evangelists,” and it didn’t take them long to instill the fear of Hell into me. Joseph Thaxter Foss could trace his ancestry way back to a Reverend Joseph Thaxter who, according to Beatrice LaForce’s “Alpine: History of a Mountain Settlement” was a chaplain in the Army of the American Revolution. I believe all Alpine regarded the Fosses as religious prime movers.
The house I lived in with Brother and Sister Foss (Joseph and Bertha) was under construction. It had no ceiling, and oh, what a thrilling sound a violent rain would make on the corrugated steel roof! There was a windmill in a low spot near the vegetable garden, which pumped water to a large tank up on the hill toward Uncle Charlie’s. Then the water was piped down to a faucet at the south end of the “stoop”—a long plank that ran the length of the house with the front door in the middle. Hot water was available in the middle of the day from a loop of pipe that ran perhaps fifty feet down beside the driveway and back. They were using solar energy way ahead of its time! There was no indoor plumbing. There was a wash basin and a cake of soap on the stoop. Out to the north beyond the chicken house there was a “two holer” with last year’s Montgomery Ward catalogue nailed to the wall—“A Western Catalogue for Western People.”
To the north beyond the apple trees was a small house they called the “Orr Cottage” where from time to time missionaries from all over the world would stay. We loved the ones from Japan who provided chopsticks, toys to occupy me and Ostes for hours.
Brother Foss made two pairs of stilts. Our bare feet soon hardened to them, and our forays stretched out until at last we could do a non-stop round trip to Mr. Galloway’s. Another way to while away the hours was to pretend to be motorcycle cops. With hands low and forward on imaginary handlebars and appropriate mouth sounds, r-r-r-r-r-r-, our bare feet would leave trails of dust—motorcycle exhaust of course!
We found a dead bird and buried it in a Gordon’s Codfish box, with quite a ceremony, up among the wild lilacs on the hill.
Once I came upon Ostes way down under the mulberry tree, great shade on a hot day. He was holding a sheet of paper and singing in a monotone “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.” I thought he was making it up, but no! The sheet he was holding was upside down, but it really was an old Civil War song.
If any old records of attendance at the Alpine School exist, I suppose he would be listed as Ostes Foss. I was finally surprised to learn that he was really Ostes Largent. Perhaps the Fosses had hoped to adopt him since they had no children of their own. There came a day when his real parents came and took him away and I never saw him again. He did grow up to be a California motorcycle state trooper. My mother told me years later he had twice been featured on the cover of Life Magazine, once when he cleared a long downhill for a runaway truck and again when several kids had got their parents’ car out on the highway and didn’t know how to stop it. He died rather young as I and my family learned when we tried to visit him in a canyon settlement, northeast of Los Angeles, I think, in the late 1950’s.
Overlapping the Ostes period and post-Ostes, my older sister Sylvia was at the Foss Ranch. I think she must have lived with Aunt Helen. Being four years older than I and six years older than Ostes, she naturally took it upon herself to boss the little ones. There was a large patch of poison oak (poison ivy to you foreigners and “Pies ‘n ivory” to one old New Hampshire farmer I knew later) under a hill on Aunt Helen’s place. I still have a vivid picture in my head of stout Sister Foss, hands on hips, looking at me stark naked, saying “Why must little boys get poison oak rashes on such embarrassing places?” I guess she’d been through the same problem with Ostes. My father, who lived with his second wife in San Francisco, wrote us that if you ate a poison ivy leaf it would make you immune. Sylvia and I both tried it. I held the leaf with a tissue and got it into my mouth with no external contact. (Indeed, I was immune for more than two years.) Sylvia wasn’t so lucky. Her forehead and skin and later her arms were a mess, and her cheeks swelled so badly they touched her eyebrows, blinding her for days. My advice: don’t try it!
Our dad also sent us a book about the game of chess and we spent hours trying to learn the game on Aunt Helen’s porch, though it was never my favorite game. But soon my mother arranged for Sylvia to live elsewhere, and I was as lonesome as I had been at Sacratero Valley for the rest of the summer.
Brother Foss recognized my need for new activities. He had an air rifle which he taught me how to hold and aim and shoot. On the south side of the driveway was a fence with a series of posts four or five inches in diameter.
One of the joys of a summer afternoon was the music of the meadowlarks, usually one on each post. Many years later, living in the east, I’ve had a twelve inch LP of bird songs prepared by an ornithologist at Cornell University. It has in rapid succession, “Eastern” and “Western” meadowlarks, the latter considerably more melodious but in no way comparable to the waterfall of rapid flute-sounds of those I knew. It turns out that Cornell’s “Western” was recorded in Colorado.
Well, what do you expect when you put a BB gun in the hands of a little boy? I hit a bird on my first shot and regretted it ever since.
When Brother Foss decided my hair was too long for me to be seen in church, he put me beside him on a wagon seat behind a horse and drove miles and miles following roads around the mountains rather than down into valleys and up again, which would have put much more strain on the horse. When we came to the house of another rancher who was also a barber, my hair was cut for five cents.
There was a canyon between Mr. Galloway’s house and Highway 80 where small sycamores grew among a tangle of rocks which must have been piled up by the force of torrents in some past storm. Among the rocks I found a sled constructed of 1 ½ x 6 inch planks, and of course once I’d seen it I had to have it. The rocks wedged around it proved quite a challenge, to say nothing of its weight, but after a few days I had extricated it, pulled it out and up between the sycamores, and at long last to a slope east of Aunt Helen’s house. Most of this slope had a lace pattern of crisscrossing goat paths, and it was always fun to play with the nanny goats that would rear up and butt each other or me but always gently. Between the path-rutted part of the hill and the house was a smooth portion covered with grass which the long rainless summer had turned yellow-brown. Surely I could make the sled slide on that! Well yes, if sitting on it and lurching my body hard and moving the sled one-third of its length with each lurch could be counted. After days of work I was near tears and Aunt Helen didn’t help when she said, “You’re sliding on your imagination.”
On the west side of Aunt Helen’s house the horehound grew thick and deep, a pale gray-green, just a weed and an endless annoyance to her. I became quite expert with the grub hoe and kept after the horehound for days, her thanks and praise adequate recompense. After all, the activity helped pass otherwise lonesome hours with no other children nearby.
Brother and Sister Foss were adding a screen porch to their house. He was his own carpenter, and it was useless for me to try to help so I went across the ditch to sit on my bed under the oak tree to watch.
The expression “killing time” acquired meaning, but at last it was time for school to open. This was the fall of 1928, and we had a new teacher, Hazel Hohanshelt, formerly Hazel Taylor, “The girl who sat on a wildcat” according to one of my mother’s “Alpine Notes” in one of the San Diego newspapers. Suddenly school was fun. See the article “One Room Schoolhouse” in the Millbrook Society’s “GRIST” for winter, 1995/96. This article is not completely accurate since, it turns out, both Hazel Taylor and her husband Forrest Hohanshelt were from the Dakotas.
Hazel recognized that a fifth-grade girl named Patty Foster had brought a new dimension to my life. When we did the Virginia Reel, Hazel saw to it that Patty was my partner. Also when we practiced the minuet, which was to have been performed at night in public, we were partners again. However, Sister Foss said I couldn’t be in it, using the long walk home in the dark as an excuse. Even when Hazel talked Miss Doud, who ran the Alpine Tavern, into letting me stay in one of the Tavern rooms overnight, it was still “no way.” To this day, 78 years later, Patty recalls with disgust having a girl for a partner at the public performance. I suspect that Sister Foss may have had a religious objection to dancing.
The big thunderstorm of October finally arrived. I must have walked in my sleep, for I woke up on my mattress on the floor of the new screen porch. On the walk to school on Tavern Road I saw the network of cracks in Tommy Hill’s huge field, formed by the long rainless summer, close up and then, what wonder, shooting star plants sprang up and burst into bloom.
Often there would be a big Indian on a snow white horse stop and talk to me. We called him Indian Joe, but his real name was Jose La Chappa. On the east side of that road was a tuberculosis sanatorium run by Dr. Barkema, who befriended my mother when she was Alpine’s librarian.
Now Sister Foss with her bed and I on a canvas cot occupied the new screen porch. She had a six-foot bamboo pole handy, and without getting out of bed she could reach and poke me with it. “You’re gritting your teeth and keeping me awake.” At other times she kept me awake just groaning, over and over. I would ask, “Are you in pain?” “No! Groan…” “Why do you groan so?” “Oh, it feels so good to groan.”
Halloween came with school decorations but with none of the trick-or-treat activity I learned later in the east. After all, even the Helen-Percy house and Uncle Charlie’s were not close, and no children.
Thanksgiving! I liked helping Aunt Helen as she dunked one headless turkey after another in a double boiler of scalding water and put me to work stripping off feathers. Dozens would go to market, but she held back a 25-pound gobbler for the family and friends. Sister Foss got in the act too with vegetables from Joe’s garden, but her specialty was a round loaf of dark German bread, served hot! Mmmm
Christmas was coming! Sister Foss sent me out to a far south hill with an axe to bring in a young live oak with a trunk smaller than my wrist, and Brother Foss fixed a stand for it. Someone gave me a book by the magician Howard Thurston, “Two Hundred Tricks You Can Do.” Someone gave me a two ounce jar of after-dinner mints. These lasted until Easter, they were so precious. Then there were a few clothes.
About this time Hazel Hohanshelt cooked up a Christmas entertainment program. She had me do a Christmas poem:
I don’t think much of Sandy Claws,
He’s such a partial feller.
He brings some boys great loads of toys,
All painted red and yeller.
They get gold watches, tops and sleds,
and balls and pins and rings,
But all he ever brings to me
is only useful things.
I don’t know if Hazel knew how perfectly that poem fit me.
She also had three girls in appropriate costumes and bandages do a song:
Poor old Christmas dolls are we
Came last Christmas Day
But the troubles we have had
We can scarcely say.
Bumps and thumps and dreadful falls
Almost left us dead.
Bess has got a splintered arm,
Nell a broken head,
Angeline has lost an arm,
A great big dog one day
Carried her out in the yard,
Chewed her arm away.
--etc., etc., etc.—
Of course it was Patty Foster who played Angeline. She had one sleeve inside out and her arm inside her dress. She was certainly the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen, and we were both in fifth grade. When Hazel read Tom Sawyer to us and got to a part about Becky Thatcher, I only had eyes for Patty though she never looked back imagining me as Tom Sawyer, as I fervently wished she would.
I learned a few simple tricks from Howard Thurston’s magic book, and after trying them on Brother and Sister Foss, I would hike the hundreds of yards to try them on the other Fosses. Eventually of course I found that Hazel and her school kids made a better audience, and I taught Patty a few of them. She in turn taught me how to fold a handkerchief into a “mouse,” let everyone pet it, and then make it jump to the astonishment of all. Over eighty years I’ve done the jumping mouse for my kids, grandkids, great-grands and others in child care centers, the sons of an engineer in Cuba and the daughter of an engineer in Finland.
In June of 1929 Mother took me from my birthplace of southern California to her ancestral home in New Hampshire. Twenty years later, business brought me back and I took this picture of Bertha and Joseph Thaxter Foss in their later years.