--Russ Morgan & his Orchestra, 1938
The woman on the far right is my grandmother, Victoria Bonita Maday. The guy in the middle, with the glasses, is my grandfather, J. Ellsworth Matson II, who went by Ell. The little boy seated on the ground is their only son, my father, J. Ellsworth Matson III. His parents called him Champ. (No clue who the others are, camp hangers-on?)
I am reasonably confident this photo was taken in 1938, near Kennett, California, where Ell was surveying land for what would become Shasta Dam, north of Redding.
One of the challenges inherent with writing a book in the ‘creative non-fiction’ genre is the due diligence required to nail down the non-fiction. My father, now 83, inherited a crapload of these photos from Victoria and he recently loaned them to me.
Maybe it’s not as much about what you can see, but what you can’t.
When the shutter fell on this photo in the redwoods of northern California, Ell was 32, Victoria, 27 and Champ was 6. Victoria and Ell were married in the Twin Cities seven years before this photo. Three years after this photo, Victoria would leave Ell and Champ would never see his father again.
Victoria would be running not only from her husband, but the truth about herself.
Married in 1931, a houseboat honeymoon down the Mississippi River, where Champ is conceived. In New Orleans, they sell the houseboat, buy a motorcycle with a sidecar and strike out for Spokane, Washington.
A young man’s dreams.
In Spokane, Ell learns a trade – land surveying – and finds work with a construction concern building FDR’s Depression-era reclamation projects. The work will take to them to the western reaches of the continent: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Alaska.
They lived in tents with wooden floors. At Coulee City, a few years before this photo, Champ has a memory of gathering splinters in his backside as he scooched along the floor before learning to walk.
What can you learn from a photograph? For one thing, I see where I got my hairline. Maybe it’s not as much about what you can see, but what you can’t.
This life reflected Ell’s disposition. Life was one big camping trip. Adventure. Let’s have fun.
They had plenty of tangible, beneficial nuts and bolts knowledge, like how to pilot a houseboat down the Mississippi, but utter ignorance of the alcoholism – and its insidiousness – which would impact the family for generations.
When the fall came, Ell was ill-prepared. He had no reservoir of knowledge. He had no ‘book smarts’ about his own psychological and emotional makeup.
He had no spiritual well from which to draw. It’s not that he didn’t believe in God, he just never thought about it much. As a result, he became convinced his own judgment, his own will was not only enough for him to make his way in the world, it was more than enough.
A helluva lot more than the rest of these poor bastards he encountered eking out an existence in the throes of a Great Depression.
There was comfort and ease in what turned out to be misplaced confidence.
Freedom of the river. Freedom of the open road. Freedom of the redwood forest.
I know best. I believe in myself.
So I have the photos and I’m drawing conclusions.