A Sunolian's Journal
by David Nealon Ledbetter
Once in a great while a publisher discovers a literary treasure, in this case the writings of David Nealon Ledbetter. David, also known as "Chainsaw" revealed that he has been keeping a daily journal for over thirty years centering on his life growing up in Sunol, California. David's parents brought him to this unique town when he was 9-years-old and he fell in love with the community and its environs. Newsmakingnews.com is proud to present David's vignettes in a section we call A Sunolian's Journal.
THE CELLAR DOOR
It started one dark and chilly night. Just a sliver of moon surrounded by the brightest stars and an eerie presence fell upon my world as I walked up Kilkare Road. I believe I was 17 or so.
As I neared the large white house on the west side of the road, I felt someone or something was watching me from the basement window of what we all grew up to believe was a haunted house. The trees were losing their leaves and the Harvest Moon was a couple of weeks gone. Before I knew what happened I was in the basement and I could feel evil pulling at me, drawing me to the cellar door.
Several times when I was younger my friends and I would explore that basement and I never saw that strange door down there.
I reached for the door knob in a trance as if I was floating across the floor. I crossed the threshold and a solemn silence settled over the group of people seating around a wooden table. Eyes turned to me blinking, as if each person at the table had been roused from a waking nightmare by my entrance.
This was the Halloween of all Halloweens, three weeks late on the calendar.
They offered me a glass of strange brew from a bottle next to a deck of cards. It was sweet with a Smokey flavor and as I finished I floated out of my body and looked down at myself as I sat at an offered chair.
I knew I would never be the same again. A weird calmness chilled me to the bone. They told me to pick a card and I drew the Emperor of Sunol. The ghosts all smiled and said that was a very good thing. My chair turned into a soft bed with down pillows and I fell into a deep sleep.
Leon the Rooster woke me at first light. I poured water from a large porcelain pitcher into a basin and splashed the sleep from my eyes. I pulled on my boots and shirt and grabbed an extra sweater. I was looking forward to the chores I had to do today. I kicked the bunk of my saddle partner Luke Davies. He yawned and said, “I’m coming, Dave”. I told him I’d see him at the ranch cookhouse.
I could smell Mrs. Craig’s biscuits as I entered the kitchen. She said good morning and asked if Luke and I were riding out to line shack #5 at the headwaters of Sinbad Creek. I told her we were and her husband Nelson would be home by supper.
Luke told me he would catch our horses and I headed over the large white house to ask Miss Virginia if she wanted us to check the north east section of the large ranch property. I came in through the back door. Miss Virginia was putting wood in the large cook stove and our ranch foreman Lou Neil was having coffee. He barked a good morning and asked me to have a seat. Miss Virginia, the matriarch of the ranch and most beloved resident of Sunol, loved all her cowboys like they were her own children, and we would ride through Hell for her if she asked.
Lou looked serious as he told me Virgil and Stumpy Cheesewater had been spotted up north. This was not good news as the Cheesewater gang had been raiding the smaller ranches to the south of Sunol. Lou said he was riding with us and suggested we bring along Aristotle as he was quick on the draw and he made good biscuits as well. Miss Virginia handed me Bob’s Winchester and a box of shells. She told me to be careful and gave me a hug.
Luke rode up on his favorite horse Comet and handed me the reins of my horse Roudy. He also had two other bays we had just got from Sam McCracken the week before. Lou told the three of us to check our weapons and mount up.
We headed north on the wagon trail and a strange feeling came over me as if I had been here in the future and I saw in my mind a hard black surface with lines in the middle that ran alongside Sinbad Creek. I suddenly sang out, “Let’s go Space Truckin”. Luke looked at me as if I’d been chewing loco weed and said, “Hey pard, you O.K”? I said I just got a weird feeling like I’d seen the future or something.
Several hours later, as we neared the old cabin, we could hear gunshots and we spurred our mounts and raced on to the cabin where Nelson was. We returned fire and the outlaws took off. Aristotle went to the cabin and yelled, “Hey boys, Nelson has been wounded and is near death”. We returned fire and the outlaws took off. We rushed in and he told us it was the Cheesewater gang. I ran out to get medical supplies from my saddle bags and when I got back Lou looked at me and shook his head. Nelson had passed away.
Ari was sent back to the ranch with the sad news and said he would bring the wagon and more supplies and raise a posse. I told Lou I’d go look for tracks and be back in a bit. An hour later I returned and told Lou I’d found the tracks and they were headed north east towards Devil Mountain.
Stay tuned in for the next issue and find out if Dave ever comes back from the 1880s Sunol Ranch life or will the ghosts in the basement keep him to live the life of a cowboy in the old Sunol days.
David Nealon Ledbetter © 11/30/09
BUFFALO BILL by Steven A. Waddle aka David Nealon Ledbetter
My grandfather would often tell me the story of the time he met William F. Cody in Sunol.
The year was 1895 and Buffalo Bill was on his way from Virginia City to San Francisco; he had just appeared at Piper’s Opera House, the only show he ever did in Virginia City.
It was the early 60’s.I was around 9 years old and granddaddy lived in Sunol, a couple of houses up from the first bridge on Kilkare Road. My Grandfather, his name was Shadrick M. Zachary, was around 84 at the time and still sharp as a tack. He would often tell my younger brothers and me stories of the old days in Sunol. The steam train was the only means of travel to Pleasanton or Fremont and the way he tells it, the train ride was a big deal in the old days. The family would all dress up in their finest suits and once every couple of months they would ride the train and pick up things they could not grow in Sunol.
Old Shad, as his friends used to call him, worked for Joe Sunol, our first postmaster in Sunol and the son of Antonio Maria Sunol, the founder of our great little town.
Well Old Joe, as my Granddaddy would call him, had the best horses in the area. His mounts were legendary all over the East Bay and Bill came to Sunol to buy some horses for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
Shad lived in the old bunk house by the site of the present day water temple and the first building ever built in Sunol. The adobe shack that Old Joe’s father built in 1839 was used at that time as a tack house and on that site was a large barn, corral and a cook house.
Shad told us kids of the great fandangos they used to have there and swimming in the creek and finding arrow heads and all of the large steelhead they would catch in Arroyo de Laguna.
Old Joe and Shad rode the buckboard to downtown Sunol to pick up Bill and take him to the ranch. The women of the ranch hands had spent the last couple of days cooking in anticipation of the great man’s visit.
From what I was told it turned into a party that was the talk of the town for years to come. Bill spent 2 days at the ranch and when he left he went with five new mounts, one large grey stallion and 4 mares, all from great working sires. Granddaddy told me Bill had a superb time at the ranch and remarked how peaceful and pretty Sunol was at that time. He wanted to go on a hunt, but did not have the time to dally. He had to get to San Francisco and meet with business associates, as the logistics of the show took up most of his time.
They saw Bill off at the depot with his new horses and he promised to return and dine with all his new friends, but he never did. My grandfather received a letter from Buffalo Bill before his death in 1917. He can’t remember the year, but he thinks it was around 1908 and the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was in decline, but old Bill was working on a new project….filming the show. And Sunol, in the old days, was a Mecca for early silent films and some say the first Hollywood.
My grandfather lived in Sunol until the Great War. He returned from France with a piece of German shrapnel in his leg, which he carried until his death in 1971.
After the war he met my grandmother, a Tennessee girl by the name of Cora Daniels and they moved to Bakersfield and raised a family. Their youngest daughter was my mother Mary Katherine. We moved to Sunol in 1950 right before the Korean War. During that conflict my father left us to fight the North Koreans and never returned. We never tired of the stories my mom would tell us of her father knowing Buffalo Bill and the times he would have in Sunol. In 1958 my granddaddy moved in with us, and my brothers and I would pester him almost daily to tell the stories of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West. I’m sure his greatest story was Buffalo Bill in Sunol and the great time they had there. I’m certain every time we have a great party in Sunol, Old Bill is looking down on us with smile and thinking of the time he spent in Sunol with fond memories.
David Nealon Ledbetter © 8/15/09
I WAS A TEENAGE SUNOLIAN -- BEWARE
I recently sat down with my old friend Bruce and we relived our glorious youth as young Sunolians through shared memories. We tend to laugh more than anything, but we have some great stories and they seen to get better the older we get.
I first came to Sunol in 1965, when I was 7. I fell in love with Sunol the very first day. A couple of years later, when my folks bought our house on Parkway, I was in heaven. That was the beginning of my journey into ‘Sunolianness’. The younger you are, the easier it is to be one with Sunol.
It seems everything I do as I get older is somehow tied into being a Sunolian. Such as every time I go naked in public, it brings me back to 1975: Tim Fontes and I rode our bikes, in the buff, from the ballpark, down the canyon with monster masks on.
Judy Marshall was our school bus driver at the time, and she almost wrecked the bus as we went by just a waving away. Tim’s brother Mike was behind us with out clothes, but he ditched us along the way. Tim and I rode past the post office around 2:30 p.m. or so, mid-day; as you can imagine we caused quite a stir. We got to school and realized we had no clothes. Now what were we going to do?
After heading back through town, we discovered that by this time people were coming out of the Temple Bar and had started pointing at us, so we headed down Old Foothill Road. We had no plan, but figured we could escape up the hill to Charlie Rogers place if need be. But we passed up his driveway and at the Newberry’s place, a couple of rednecks were out in the pasture. They started chasing us and calling us names. Needless to say, we made a quick U-turn and headed back to town. Still without a plan, we went down to the creek behind the school and waited for Mike. When he finally showed up, we threw him and his bike in the creek and went on our merry way.
My Sunol at that time was a bit different than now, but the canyon and the ridges are the same and just as beautiful as ever. And anybody who has ever spent time in Sunol knows the feeling of beauty and peace that the canyon can bring to a person.
As Bruce and I chatted, we put on some Elton John, and talked about our old golf course story too: We were 12 or 13, and had hiked through the Water Temple and up the cliffs onto the course. After discovering a tool shed that had grounds keepers’ uniforms inside, we dressed up as law mowers and also found a pile of old hand caddies.
“Hey, let me show you my latest invention,” Bruce said, and he took two caddies, tied the handles together and, voila, we had a groovy go cart! So, I made one as well. We walked past golfers, waving like we were supposed to be there and took our carts way up a hill. Bruce went down first on the contraption and made a perfect run at a good clip. He reached the bottom with a sideways slide to stop himself, better than any alpine skier.
“Good one, now watch me!” I yelled down, and gave a mighty push. I started heading for the green, but I apparently didn’t tie mine as good as Bruce did. I hit the green going much too fast and my cart broke in half! I dug a huge furrow in the manicured green; large enough to plant a row of corn in. We were both laughing so hard when Bruce said, “Some dude in an El Camino is heading in our direction and is really pissed.” Steam-coming-out-of-his-ears pissed.
We already had an escape route planned for just such an emergency: Get to the top of the ravine, which is also where I stopped, pulled my pants down and mooned the guy. He was quickly out of the car and running after us. After showing him my backside, I thought the dude was going to blow a gasket, so we were gone! You can’t catch a Sunolian kid in the woods (at least not easily).
We headed across the creek and skirted the Water Temple. We were heading through the old walnut orchard trying to remain incognito, when here comes Mr. Mad As Hell. Sitting incognito way up in a large walnut tree we climbed, he went right under us! By that time we were scared because we thought the guy was a mafia hit man and if he caught us we were gonna get whacked.
We split up and made our way home and lived to tell the tale another day. And if this story isn’t true, it ought to be.
Thanks to all the people who fight the good fight and keep Sunol wild and free. I take my pants off to you.
David Nealon Ledbetter © 2/18/09
FROM SUNOL TO YOSEMITE AND BACK AGAIN -- A JOURNEY INTO THE WILD
As a young lad growing up in the canyon, we had all the original superheroes. But for me, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone were the greatest of them all. It wasn’t long before I had an old boy scout backpack, a sleeping bag and a tent. I was set: a Junior Mountain Man in the making. By the time of the first Earth Day, I was already hiking to my best camp sites. Bruce Rogers camped and hiked with me more than anyone and we had a time catching frogs, ducks, fish and even quail. Sometimes, we made Sunolian Boomerangs. What is a Sunolian Boomerang, you may ask. We used to grab welding rods out of Bud Hall’s truck (he was our neighbor on Park Way) and bend them and then throw them at our prey. Sometimes we would make a kill and cook our mountain bounty on an oak fire and we would feel like real mountain men.One of the coolest things we used to do is make grass sleds and take them up to Old Baldy on the south side of the old pond that we have built a wooden raft on. We would ride our sleds down the hill and dream of the high sierra. The sun would set as we cooked our catch of fish, frogs and quail. We didn’t have any wild turkeys back then as they didn’t get introduced until 1985, but I’m sure we would have loved to dine on them also.
Sunol back then was a truly wild place; not many people on the Ridge. Once in a while you’d see Rudy from the Oasis store up there hunting deer. Sometimes old man Nipper would chase us, but after a while he got tired of the chase. He could never catch us anyway.
By the time we started high school, we knew every trail and spring on both ridges. By the time I was 17, Sunol started to feel small and the high country was calling. So in the summer of 1976, between my junior and senior years of high school, I set out for my first real back country adventure. I hitch-hiked to Yosemite and went into the back country for 6 nights and 7 days by myself. I was at Washburn Lake, 18 miles from the Valley. I got my first lesson on bears as they got my food on the 6th night. So there I was, no food or money, 18 miles in. I hiked all day and got back into the valley around 6 p.m. Some nice folks camping on the Merced River let me set my tent up in their campsite. Before I knew it, the lady gave me a large plate of food and we sat by the fire that night as I relived the last 7 days of my adventure in the woods. In the morning, Mrs. Calhoune fed me breakfast and gave me a sack lunch to go and after a heartfelt farewell, I hiked the 2 miles to the old gas station by Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley. The very first car gave me a ride all the way to Sunol and bought me lunch on the way. I got back home and I still had my to-go lunch.
Although I found new adventure in the Sierra, Sunol was, and always has been my favorite place to camp and hike. For sure, my karma wouldn’t have been so groovy if I wasn’t a Sunolian. So after I graduated from Foothill High (class of ’77), I moved to Yosemite and got a job on the trail crew for the Park Service. I learned how to cut trees and be an all-round Mountain Man. So here I am to this day, in the winter of my fiftieth year still doing the same thing and loving every minute of it.
David Nealon Ledbetter © 3/16/09
THE GREATEST RUNNER
Being a young Sunolian we played lots of sports and hiked the ridges and camped under 500 year old oak trees, but it seemed to me that running was what we did the most and no one could run like Bruce Rogers in the school yard or on the ridge. Bruce could not be caught, and as luck would have it, we were the first class of Foothill high and we had the most jocks. 32 of us went to Foothill from Sunol class of ‘73, we started the school. There were too many of us to name but Bruce was the cross country and track team, he didn’t just break all the records, he smashed them. I remember one time we were juniors and I went with Bruce to a cross country run in Livermore and everybody was talking about a senior who had the record on that course. I knew no one could beat Bruce, and the excitement of a great match was about to unfold, and never in the history of runners could anyone beat Bruce on that day as he made the champ of that course look like a rookie. I can’t tell you how proud I was to be Bruce’s buddy, only the best runner of every school in Northern California. His records he set on that day and many others have not been broken yet and that was over 30 years ago. I’m still proud to call him one of my greatest friends. The son of Chicken Charlie, the greatest runner ever to come from Sunol or California, if you want to talk records. So all you young Sunolians that dream or running the ridges as the sun rises on misty mornings in early spring think of the greatest runner, a Sunolian like you with a simple dream. Catch me if you can he laughs as he runs backwards out of range with every step. I only became a great hiker from keeping up with Bruce when we were young.
So here’s to you my good friend…the man who could run like the wind, a true Sunolian and all around good guy.
David Nealon Ledbetter © 5/18/09
THE MORNING DOVE
Not far from downtown Sunol is a secret garden not too many people know about. Wild birds are many and the flowers at this time of the year are incredible. For the past two weeks now this dove has been following me around the garden so I started feeding him and five days ago I got him to eat out of my hand. I don’t know his real name but I call him Shorty.
I told the son of Chicken Charlie, I bet I can get this bird to fly to my hand in one week, and two days later he’s landing on my hand. He even lets me pet him, and yesterday he landed on my shoulder. So today is the 6th day in a row and Shorty should be here in about an hour. When he shows up I’ll write more and finish my story of Shorty and the Dinosaur garden.
4:30 p.m. and Shorty is setting on my shoulder as I write this. I think he can read my mind. For sure he knows I’m writing about him because he just flew on to the paper as I write this. I hope I can get a shot of that some day. I seem complete in every Dr. Doolittle way. I’m writing a story about Shorty and he is on the paper as I write. Long live Sunol!
I would like to dedicate this story to my mother and father, Preston and Mary Ledbetter, who moved me to Sunol when I was 9. Thanks.
David Nealon Ledbetter © 5/18/09