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Del Norte People: Retracing childhood paths in Nevada

Chuck Blackburn in Nevada in 1946.
Chuck Blackburn in Nevada in 1946. Submitted
Of all the stories I have shared over the years and written in my book, “Kneebockers,” my childhood with my father Wes in Reno, and Virginia City, Nev., in 1946 are among my favorites.

What an experience for a young lad of 10 to have driven out west in a ’36 Plymouth with my dad from northern New York state. His guidance, his patience, his desire to raise his son of 10 years old in the Old West atmosphere had to be a high priority to him. We spent nearly every weekend out in the Nevada desert and in the mountains exploring and prospecting for gold and silver or anything else that was shiny in the quartz rock.

He taught me everything, including how to handle a gun and shoot accurately. What a feeling of responsibility I had in strapping on a belt and holster for a .22 pistol during our treks in the Nevada desert. We camped out most Saturday nights with a great mesquite fire to cook dinner and my favorite, bacon and eggs, hashbrowns, toast and hot coffee for breakfast the next morning. The fire felt good as nights on the high desert can get chilly.

We visited a lot of old mine sites and a few that still had picks and shovels tilted against the tunnel walls. There were even mortar and pestles made out of rock to grind their corn.

These were great times for a father and son. We pounded on rock outcroppings on the cliffs to look for signs of minerals, but the weight of these samples told you they held some minerals.

These adventures to me are so vivid in my mind and they show me now, at 77, how important that it was coming out West in 1946 with my dad. I left my mom and two brothers to take this crossroads in my life, and I know today that was in God’s plan for me and my dad. We built such a great bond together as I learned so much from him.

He was a tough old ironworker and welder, loud and sometimes confrontational, but with me it was learn by deeds and experiences in a quiet and loving manner.

I had an opportunity in late July of this year to revisit a few of my childhood haunts in Nevada. My wife Missy and I decided to spend our 19th anniversary in a special place in our lives which cemented our relationship and led to our marriage on July 23, 1994.

This was also the year that I retired from teaching and coaching after 33 years of a great adventure. Missy, in the early 1990s, was a mortgage broker in Vacaville and was coming to Crescent City every two weeks to put together loan packages for COs at the new prison. She was given office space at Ming Tree Real Estate and worked closely with Lyndol Mitchell and Dave Finigan on completing home packages. We met in 1993 in Big Flat, of all places, through friends.

We decided to go to a beautiful lakeside resort on Donner Lake that we spent a night at in 1994. As we looked south from our room you could see the Union Pacific Railroad track running up the granite walls of the Sierras. Some of the tracks were covered with snow sheds for winter travel.

I remember in 1946 they were frequented by long freight trains pulled by the monster cab forward diesel engines up the steep grade. One of those monsters is in the railroad museum in north Sacramento.

On a Thursday, we took a trip eastward to Reno and then on southeastward to Virginia City. We turned off Interstate 80 and onto Virginia Street and underneath the arched entrance way, “Welcome to Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World.”

This was all new to Missy and my emotional being leaped out at me as we passed all of the major casinos. I was surprised to see that Harold’s Club, an old standby, was gone. As we went south I tried to figure out about where our motel was in 1946, but everything was modern and big. As we approached the southern limits of the city, I knew that the two-room schoolhouse that I enrolled in for 5th grade had to have been closed.

I remember distinctly the day in 1946 that I rounded the picket fence with my short pants, suspenders, shirt, sweater, hat and Buster Brown shoes and was faced with all of these screaming kids, then silence.

“Hey, look at the kneebockers,” said one. I, at 10 years old, had a new name, only to be known by me and my father. My book, “Kneebockers,” finally emerged five years ago.

Missy and I both knew that this would be emotional to relive my first real childhood experiences out west. We took the steep two-lane road climb toward Virginia City. I could feel the thinner air, as the town is over 7,000 feet above sea level. As we reached the crest, my heart accelerated as we rounded the last turn. There it was, Virginia City, the Comstock Lode. As in all summers the main street was crowded with tourists. It is built on a mountain so it was quite a climb up or down to other streets in town.

We had a memorable visit to the old St. Mary’s Catholic Church that was built in 1859 and rebuilt in 1872 after a great fire in town. Such a beautiful structure. We both took private time at the altar to share private thoughts.

Back up the steep climb to C Street and down the old boardwalk to the Bucket of Blood Saloon. In 1946, on one of our many trips to Virginia City, Dad took me into this Wild West bar with its bar and stools, spittoons on the floor at each end of the bar and a man pounding the keys on a piano. The bartender had a handlebar mustache, a great smile and shiny rings on this fingers. “What can I do for you boys?” asked the bartender. My dad responded, “I’ll take a whiskey and a Coke for my son.”

Missy and I entered that same door and we took a couple of stools at the bar. A banjo player was playing close by. The two bartenders, a young guy and gal, took care of us.

We talked to both bartenders and I shared my story about 1946 and our visits. I broke up a couple of times with emotion, but the barkeeps smiled and said they understood. We ventured another hour or so and finished off the day by buying some great beef jerky at a shop on the southeast side of town. As we were leaving town, I pulled over and looked down at the six mines of the Comstock Lode.

In 20 years back then they took out at today’s value $1 billion of gold and silver. It helped in those days in the building of San Francisco. I also pointed out below to a six-mile canyon and its many smaller mines that Dad and I inspected many years ago. I remember well finding rock samples with gold and silver in them. Dad and I had many prospecting adventures in those canyons and the many trips to the mountains of the Pyramid Lake area northeast of Reno.

Missy and I drove back toward Donner Lake, but took the tall climb over Mount Rose southwest of Reno, over 9,000 feet, and through Incline Village, Tahoe City and Truckee to the resort. What an anniversary, 19 years of marriage and a return to Virginia City by “Kneebockers.”

Thanks and a lot of love to my dad, Wes Blackburn.

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