Breakfast with the Red Men

Statue in the Red Men/Pocahontas Museum, Oakley, CA

Statue in the Red Men/Pocahontas Museum, Oakley, CA

Yesterday at the groundbreaking ceremony for Carpaccio Ristorante, Jim and Shirley Darling invited my husband and me to the monthly breakfast offered at the Red Men and Pocahontas Hall. The Improved Order of Red Men is a fraternal organization dedicated to charitable work, primarily Alzheimer’s research.

It does not, in fact, actually have any relationship to any of the Indian nations, and originally admitted only white men.  It is, however, descended from the sons of Liberty, who patterned themselves after the Iroquois Confederacy. Back in 1765, no one would have been worrying about whether people more than 200 years later would think their name was politically correct, and of course the sexes were segregated, so the Degree of Pocahontas has a separate charter, though in practice the two groups seem to consist substantially of husbands and wives and to work together most of the time. Combining the two groups would have required abandoning the existing charter and applying for a new one.

So Jim, who is the historian for the Oakley “tribe”, explained to me while showing us around the local museum. (There are better photos on Oakley Mayor Kevin Romick’s blog.)

After that we sat down to the business of eating breakfast and meeting people. Breakfast is 2 slices of bacon, 2 sausages, 2 eggs, and unlimited pancakes or biscuits and gravy, for $4/person. The people were mostly somewhere over 70, except for a couple about our own age (somewhere in the forty-ahum range) who came in later in the morning, all friendly, and in many cases fascinating sources of information about the Oakley of decades past.

Richard, who sat across from us with his girlfriend Alice, was born and raised here; in fact, his grandfather came to Oakley in 1898, when (as my husband put it), they might have had the one horse, but not yet the town. Richard remembers walking back from Antioch High down E. 18th/Main St after football games and never seeing a single car. (It’s now a four-lane road and pretty heavily trafficked, by local standards; you certainly wouldn’t walk down the middle of it, day or night.) You could hitch a ride on a freight train, though, to get home faster. (In those days, Oakley still had a train station, but in any case the freight trains moved slowly enough to jump onto and off.)

Alice is a comparative newcomer: she arrived in 1966 with her husband (now deceased) and children after several years traveling all over the US for his work in the steel industry. By that time she’d learned to talk directly to the school superintendent in a new district to make sure her kids would be treated properly. Mary Lou came with her Cherokee mother 83 years ago, at the age of two. (You wouldn’t believe she was 85 to look at her, but then, her mother lived to be 95.) Back in those days, Antioch (the local “big city”, remember) only had a population of 2,000.

Even 25 years ago when the younger couple next to us arrived, the housing developments on Vintage Parkway were just being built (our own house went up in 1988) and the only grocery store was CentrOMart; Raley’s didn’t go in until a few years later. (I wonder whether the used bookstore with the splendid antique cash registers was already in business. I somehow suspect so, but will have to ask the owner.)

We also learned that the reason the body of water nearest us is called the Big Break is because that’s exactly what happened: a levee broke in 1928 and let water in to what was once an asparagus field. (More details on the East Bay Regional Parks website.) During Richard’s childhood, the land that now makes up the three housing developments off Vintage Parkway was all open wetlands, where he used to hunt for rabbits.

There are tribes of the Improved Red Men in many cities, and surely groups of local elders in every town, but it’s not everywhere that new residents get invited to join them for breakfast. Thanks to Jim and Shirley for inviting us and to Jane and everyone in the kitchen, and apologies to anyone whose name I didn’t remember or may have misspelled.

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