Author Tim Z. Hernandez had heard the haunting Woody Guthrie song "Los Gatos Canyon (Deportee)" all his life, but he never paid it much mind.
"It's one of those American songs that's always there in the background," he says by phone from Fresno.
He started to pay attention to it in 2010 when he doing research for his last novel, Mañana Means Heaven.
"I was looking into Woody Guthrie," the award-winning author explains. "I was looking for the atmosphere of the '30s and the Depression."
But it was a 1948 news article, buried in an archive, which caught his attention.
"32 Killed in Los Gatos Airline Disaster Yesterday," screamed the headline in the Coalinga Record.
The story recounted that on January 28, 1948, a flight carrying 28 deportees, three crew members and an immigration agent, had exploded in the air. Burning bodies and pieces of plane fell onto the rocky floor of Los Gatos Canyon in the remote mountains east of Big Sur. Not one of the 32 people on board survived.
While the four dead Americans—the pilot and co-pilot, the stewardess (the pilot's wife) and an immigration officer—were named in the article, the 28 Mexican farmworkers who died on their way back home were not. As Guthrie, inspired by the news coverage of the tragedy, would write in his lyrics, "You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be deportees."
Like Guthrie before him, Hernandez was struck by the papers' nearly universal omission of the dead farmworkers' names. For Hernandez, the question was personal. He was the grandson of Mexican farmworkers, and he felt a connection to these people who had labored in America's fields. Who had they been, he wondered. Where were they born? Who did they love?
"I thought, if someone could find those names, it could be a book, fiction, with one chapter for each person."
He wasn't thinking that that someone would be him, but he was nudged into the project when he discovered that the 28 Mexicans were buried in a graveyard near his Fresno home.
"Holy Cross Cemetery is practically in my backyard. I went there and stood over a mass grave. It was so moving."
Even the cemetery officials hadn't bothered to find out who they were burying back in 1948. In the cemetery register, instead of names, a clerk had handwritten the words "Mexican National"—28 times.
"I thought oh my God, an anonymous marker was all they had," Hernandez says.
The story of how Hernandez tracked down the names of the dead and found their families ultimately became the author's fifth book, All They Will Call You, published in January by the UA Press.
Described as a documentary novel—a blend of oral history, historical research, music history and Hernandez's fictionalized imaginings of the lives of the plane crash victims—the book has met with critical acclaim. Hernandez has made appearances on NPR, C-span and other outlets, and he'll speak at four different panels at the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend.
Most poignantly, Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, wrote that the "names—now etched in stone in a far-off graveyard—have become friends who will travel with me as long as I am walking."
The book, which took six years to research and write, was a long slow slog of detective work, says Hernandez, a professor of creative writing at University of Texas at El Paso. Several cemetery workers helped him early on by getting the names from the bureau of vital records, only to find that the list was rife with errors.
It wasn't until two years in that Hernandez has his first real breakthrough.
"I was looking naively," he says. "I had no investigative journalism experience."
Finally, Juan Esparza, a reporter at Vida en la Valle, a bilingual paper in Fresno, wrote a story about Hernandez's search, and implored readers who had information to contact the author.
It wasn't until three weeks later that Jaime Ramírez emailed Hernandez. His grandfather Ramón Paredes González and his great-uncle Guadalupe Ramírez Lara, he said, had both died in the crash.
Hernandez was thrilled. "Even just his email answered many of my questions," he says. "The family did know about the crash. Jaime grew up with its history."
Hernandez sat down with Ramírez and his brother Guillermo, and they told him all they knew about their hardworking forebears and their lives on the California farmworker circuit and back home in Guanajuato. They even gave him a love letter that Ramón had written to his beloved wife, Elisa, not long before his death.
They also provided what would become Hernandez's Rosetta stone: an accurate list of the dead published in 1948 by a Spanish-language newspaper that also gave places of origin and names of family members.
With that information, Hernandez tracked down families and friends. In California, he learned about the genial baseball player José Sanchez Valdivia, who would toss balls after a day of picking sugar beets. In Mexico, he met the children of the dead, now grown old. Guadalupe's elderly son Fermin fondly remembered how his father always held his hand when he was a little boy. The ancient Casimira Navarro López wept as she told of losing her sweetheart, Luis Miranda Cuevas, to the airplane crash al Norte, just days before their wedding was to take place.
Hernandez wrote just as fully about the Americans who died. A lengthy section is devoted to the young pilot, Frank Atkinson, a World War II hero flyboy, and his bride of eight months, Bobbie Atkinson, the daughter of a refugee mother who'd fled Poland. And Frank Chaffin, the 63-year-old immigration agent, descended from someone a lot like the migrant farmworkers who were his prisoners on that plane. Chaffin's ancestor was John Howland, a lowly English laborer who came over on the Mayflower as an indentured servant to work in America's fields.
"We're all immigrants at one stage," Hernandez says. "It's almost like we have amnesia when we forget that.
"This book is an opportunity to cut through the immigration rhetoric we drown in every day. It's an opportunity to speak about the people behind the abstraction. These people are human beings. They have names. These are men and women who loved people and had families, people who had hopes and dreams."
Am excerpt from All They Will Call You
By Tim Z. Hernandez
The first telling of it would come from the locals. Even before the Coalinga Record's managing editor, F. J. McCollum, arrived on the scene and began taking interviews, the people of Coalinga had already begun the telling. There was a ten-party phone system. "All ya had to do is pick up the receiver and listen in, and you'd get a scoop of the details," said one old-timer. The lines were blazing with first- and secondhand accounts of the crash.
The Coalinga Record reported: "Long-distance telephone lines from San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state were overloaded into Coalinga. . . . The first call, within a few seconds after the crash, came from the farmer line to the Prison Camp. As soon as the call came in to Coalinga for the ambulance and the fire equipment, a representative of the Coalinga Record and Henry Stuart of the Stuart Photo Shop departed immediately for the scene—"
From the Hernandez Valley, through the canyon, and into downtown Coalinga, the ice-cream parlors, knitting circles, and rowdy crowds on Whiskey Row were recounting the details as they were unfolding. The first reporters were oilmen and cattle ranchers, schoolteachers and farmworkers. Word of mouth was the original broadcast.
And then came the cameras.
The first one on the scene belonged to a man named Henry Stuart, a hired eye for the Coalinga Record. Stuart was a Canadian immigrant who'd set up his photo shop in Coalinga. He heard the call come in on the ambulance line and, along with McCollum, was on the scene almost immediately. Stuart photographed the wreckage up close, while the embers were still ascending. Then he went and stood atop the ridge and panned out as far as he could, in an attempt to capture the totality. He did his best to adjust the aperture delicately to document the angle of light just right, so that someone viewing these stills, six decades later, would get an idea, not only of the images, but of the sensory reality whole. But his heart was racing. His hands trembled. The work was compromised. Some of the images are nothing but smoke, as if in a cloud. Photographs taken too close. Strange abstractions. Blobs of black and gray. Empty spaces. Gaps that invite the mind to make their own meaning. If you look close, closer yet, you find shapes, objects amid the shadow and light. Like a Rorschach test, you come to discover the darkest recesses of your own imagination. A scrap of the engine's propeller, at first glance, suggests a human appendage. But no, it's a propeller after all. A skeletal gear. A bone of skyship. Stuart's camera doesn't shy away.
Later that afternoon, before the darkness settled in, Stuart retreated to his office in downtown Coalinga. Alone, he reviewed the details of what his trusty camera captured. And then he made choices. Which ones would go to print that evening. Which would be sent off to the United Press International's San Francisco office. And then, which ones would never, ever see the light of day. It was from these images that F. J. McCollum's article, the first media report of the plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, would soon unfold.
But there was still one more eye.
The second camera on the scene was actually not on the scene, per se. It belonged to the Fresno Bee, and was partnered with a staff reporter sent from the main office. The Bee assigned their ace writer, Joe Smith. While Joe kept his feet firmly planted on Los Gatos Canyon soil, he convinced cameraman Lew Hegg to get a bird's-eye view of the crash. Remarkably, only a few short hours after Los Gatos Canyon had devoured an airplane whole, Lew Hegg went flying over the canyon in an airplane. He boarded with cameras slung around his neck and from only a few hundred feet up he pressed his equipment against the window, adjusted his lens, and fired off round after round.
"There," he pointed to the pilot, "get me over there, lower."
The pilot dipped lower still, tilted the plane, and circled back. Those on the ground kept looking upward, nervous at the sight of yet another skyship making loop-the-loops overhead. The pilot did this maneuver several times, until Lew was satisfied he had gotten all the shots he needed.
"Home," Lew said. "That oughta do 'er."
And from these two cameras, the right and left eye, the images would make way for the media's telling of the story.
F. J. McCollum was the media. A tall, brawny man, he was a robust character, whom locals referred to as Mr. Mac. The grandson of Scottish immigrants, he was a take-charge kind of reporter with the grip strength of a bull rider. It didn't surprise anyone when thirty years before he purchased the Coalinga Record and made himself the editor and publisher of the town's only source for news.
Within two hours of the plane crash, Mr. Mac already had a dozen pages of notes in his steno pad. He worked fast and efficiently.
Arriving at the crash site he maneuvered past the prisoners and made his way to a gaunt man with white hair and spectacles. He asked the man his name.
"Red Childers," the man said, cocking his wide-brimmed hat back on his head and resting both hands on his hips. Even though the day was cold, Red was drenched in sweat. Soot gathered in rings around his neck. A thin fog emanated from the wet spot between his shoulder blades. McCollum opened his steno pad and asked Red to tell what he'd witnessed.
Red took off his spectacles and with his blue bandana wiped the inside corner of his left eye. He placed the spectacles back on his face.
"Well," he began, looking up at the sky, "the plane was headed east, oh, about a mile high."
McCollum scribbled down every word that came from Red's mouth. "Go on," he said.
"I was watching it when I noticed a streak of smoke trailing off from the left motor . . ."
"The left you say?" McCollum interrupted. "You certain?"
"As sure as I see you standing there," Red said. "The left wing separated from the body of the plane, and the fuselage and right wing began to spiral down toward the earth."
McCollum jotted the words: "Spiral down. Earth." He asked a few more questions, but then a moment later noticed a group of officers gathering in the creek bed. He paused to observe them. There was a silent ringing in the air. Red continued talking, but McCollum was growing impatient. It was happening fast and he didn't want to miss a beat. He thanked Red and slapped his steno shut, then made his way over to the officers. Warden Wilmurth was telling a few suits what he'd seen:
"I was trying to get phone connections, and I could hear the boys shouting, 'Here it comes, it's gonna land in the yard.' I didn't know whether to crawl under my desk or run. However, I figured from the position of the plane, when I saw it, that it couldn't fall too close, so I kept on with my calls."
McCollum took note.
Wilmurth hesitated. "And what I seen were, uh, nine bodies . . . strewn on the ground. They looked as if they'd fallen from the plane before the crash."
"Nine?" McCollum asked.
Wilmurth counted in his head, "Yes, that's right, nine. I counted 'em. Nine whole bodies. Christ." Wilmurth turned to look at the sky. It was all he could do to contain his emotions.
An hour later, McCollum felt he had everything he needed to write the story in time for the evening edition. He began walking back toward his car, but along the way he noticed a peculiar-looking woman. There wasn't anything special about her appearance, except that she seemed to be standing deliberately away from the fuss. She had a red handkerchief over her mouth, and the skin on her face was pallid. The woman saw him approaching.
"You with the paper?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am. The Coalinga Record." McCollum tipped the brim of his hat forward. "Are you a resident of this canyon?"
"Yes," replied Mabel Johnson. "My husband works at the road camp."
"Deputy Frank Johnson," she said, pointing her nose in her husband's direction. McCollum glanced over his shoulder and spotted him.
He could see the woman was shaken. Her eyebrows gathered.
"Mind if I ask you a question or two, Mrs. Johnson?"
"I already told the authorities what I seen."
"So you witnessed how this all came about?"
Mabel waved the handkerchief in front of her face as if shooing away a fly. She was reluctant.
McCollum nudged. "Did you actually see the plane in flight?"
"Yes," Mabel said. "I did." She paused.
"Mind telling me what you saw?"
Mabel averted her eyes from the man. She coughed into her handkerchief. "I'll tell you the same's I told them. Sounded like there was a revvin' of motors, as if the pilot was gunnin' the engines. That's what made me look up." She coughed into her handkerchief. "The plane seemed . . . it was burning in the forward part . . . then, uh, there was a terrific noise . . ."
McCollum jotted down, "terrific noise."
" . . . which I thought was an explosion. The left wing fell off and sort of glided downward. The rest of the plane was in flames, and it, uh, turned over several times and spun to the ground."
"Spun to the ground," McCollum wrote. Mrs. Johnson continued talking, slowly, methodically. She explained to McCollum what she saw. But it was the way in which she spoke that McCollum found most interesting. Her voice was distant, removed. Even as she recounted the details, there was a stillness about her eyes and mouth. It was clear, Mabel Johnson was in shock.
McCollum raced back to his office in downtown Coalinga, contemplating what he'd seen. It was unlike anything he'd ever witnessed in all his sixty-five years of living. Even for an old battle-horse like him, it left a churning in his stomach.
By the time he arrived in his office, sitting there on his desk were the first of Henry Stuart's photos. He picked one up, stared at it a few seconds, and didn't need to see the rest. He reached across his desk and pulled old faithful close to him—a scarred black typewriter labeled Woodstock. He flipped through his notes. Placed his fingers on the hard keys. Pictured, once more, what he couldn't forget. His thick fingers began slamming out the first lines:
"Peaceful Los Gatos Canyon was the scene of one of the worst disasters in aviation history . . . broken and charred bodies and an indiscernible heap of debris were all that were left of a government chartered flight from Oakland, which would have taken 28 Mexican Nationals back to their homeland ..."