Thorny the Snowman: Home, Heroes, and Merry Thanks from the Inland Empire

My dog, Fantasia. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Sometimes we look up at the same sky and branches we've seen for decades, and we wonder if we were not adventurous enough, because we chose to stay in the same place. For all of November, my dog Fantasia was sick, and she had to rest on the porch in the sunshine every day. On Monday, I weeded around the yellow irises, just a few feet from her, and then I heard that Judge John Gabbert had died at his Riverside home at age 104.

Doug and I were lucky enough to spend a day last spring with Judge Gabbert, his daughter Katie Smith, and his lifelong friends Art and Peggy Littleworth. They had made a lovely lunch, featuring the Littleworth oranges. John Gabbert had an astonishing capacity for storytelling, remembering his childhood in the large white house two doors down from mine, on Brockton Avenue. He came to Riverside when he was three years old (he was born in Oxnard), in 1912. He told us about the streetcars that travelled down Brockton back then, and a night meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, when it was active in many Southern California cities. He went with his father to the gathering, which was frightening as Gabbert's father was writing an expose, being editor and publisher of the Riverside Press and Enterprise. John never forgot his father's courage and principle, and he reminded us that prejudice was rampant then. Gabbert went to law school, became an attorney, served in the military during World War II, and when he returned, he was appointed Superior Court Judge in 1949.

Justice John Gabbert, seated, and Arthur Littleworth, standing with family. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

He helped Art Littleworth in the quest to integrate Riverside schools through voluntary busing, and Littleworth told his own stories that afternoon, while Katie and Peggy added details as well. Judge Gabbert's precise recollections of helping Danny Culpepper, a black Riverside resident, on a long journey up to Sacramento to fight an unfair legal case, made me realize why my father-in-law, General Sims, had always spoken with such respect and affection for Gabbert. When my husband and I moved into this old house, in 1988, my father-in-law stopped by in his gardening truck shortly afterward, holding a shopping back full of bulbs with a short fan of green leaves. "These are Mrs. Gabbert's yellow irises," he told me. "You have to divide them every year." I planted them in the parking strip, and over these 26 years, I have divided them, shared them, and those yellow blooms appear now in gardens all over Riverside.

Al Lisby. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

That Monday night, I saw a documentary about whales, and suddenly remembered another day of legends. Alexander Lisby, who was 106, told us that he was serving on a warship in the Pacific during World War II, and it was bombed. "The ship was going down, and we all saw the whales, the ones that used to swim beside us all the time when we were playing music and singing -- the whales got information while the ship was sinking and we walked on their backs all the way to shore."

Alexander Lisby was another unforgettable Riverside figure, larger than I could have ever imagined when Doug and I showed up at his home on the Eastside. His wife, Ara, sat on the couch with me while Mr. Lisby told us about his birth on Joan Plantation, near Tallulah, Louisiana, and how he was called to military service and served six combat missions for the U.S. Army.

In a small village in the Philippine jungles, while healing enlisted men and villagers with herbs and plants, which he'd learned from his own grandmothers, one African and one Middle Eastern back in Louisiana, he met his first wife. After serving in Guam and Germany as well, he returned to California, where he joined the Air Force and was stationed at March AFB, where he was a medical specialist until the 1960s. He was famous for his mechanic talents, repairing and selling cars to men on the base, and all over the Inland area. That day, he showed us photos of his friends, white and black and Chicano and Filipino, and then his golfing trophies. After three straight hours of stories, he still sat in his chair, blind, his voice strong, and sang us a song. "Come on in my kitchen," he crooned, and Ara laughed beside me.

Mr. Lisby passed away this spring. I kept thinking about what it means to stay in one place for all these decades. I kept thinking how lucky I am to write these stories, and I wanted to thank all the storytellers from 2013: All the Eastside friends and family who spent days with Doug and me, giving us More Dreamers of the Golden Dream, the show we put on at the Riverside Art Museum; the Old Farts Racing Club and classic car buffs who put on the Michael Crain memorial show; the Trujillo descendants who taught me about La Placita and Agua Mansa; the churches like Our Lady of Guadalupe, Park Avenue Baptist, First United Methodist ( my home church) where parishioners have vivid faithful tales; the coffeehouse proprietors and nail salon owners and my wonderful students and colleagues at UCR and RCC, who gave me so many stories; Zach Behrens at KCET, all our editors at the magazines and journals who've published our work this year, and my fellow lovers of The Santa Ana River and Mt. Rubidoux, where Fantasia and I walk almost every day. Some great tales have come from people who live in the river, or nearby, and who sleep under trees with their own dogs.

Our tumbleweed snowman. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

I decided the best way to thank you all was a tumbleweed snowman. It was the best way to thank my dog, always willing to walk for miles now that my own three daughters are gone. (We teach our children to go off into the big world, and then we miss them every day.) My neighbor David Haney, who rides his bike to and from his job near Agua Mansa's historic cemetery, mostly along the bike trail at the Santa Ana, cheerfully helped me and Fantasia bring home the best three tumbleweeds. (It's harder than you think to find the sizes for head, torso, and bottom!) We wrangled them into his truckbed, then got stuck with prickles while shaping them and stringing the lights.

So it's an Inland Southern California thorny-snowman, and Friday I made his tophat with help from my other neighbor Scott, who lives next to the old Gabbert house. My big thanks go to my neighborhood, which is really the reason we stay -- because sentimental or not, when you spend as much time on the porch as Fantasia and me, you know everyone who passes on the sidewalk or stops to talk is like family. I am thanking my dog, who has waited patiently on the sidewalk and river trail while people tell me the stories. And I am grateful to Doug for keeping the stories visual in the best way of art and adventure!

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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