|The Haslams – a formidable literary team
Janice reads and edits every word written by her husband, Gerald; couple honored for bio on former senator Hayakawa
Penngrove’s Gerald Haslam knows of a vista point atop the Kettleman Hills on the west side of San Joaquin Valley where you can overlook the former dry lakebed where Tulare Lake once was, and see it slowly filling up again. Changes like this are familiar to Haslam.
He knew Tulare when it was a dusty, brine-filled wasteland, wrote many hilarious, folksy books based on characters he knew around Taft, Oildale, Shafter, Wasco and similar small towns in the Fresno-Bakersfield orbit.
He wrote the text for a large photo-filled volume on the San Joaquin River and is best remembered here in Sonoma County as a retired professor of English at Sonoma State University.
Well, not quite retired. Haslam and his wife, the former Janice Pettichord (“She reads and edits every word I write”), just received an award from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) for their biography of S.I. Hayakawa, former U.S. Senator, wine scholar, ornithologist, striped bass expert and best-known to Haslam when both were at San Francisco State University during Hayakawa’s stormy tenure as SF State’s campus president.
The AASLH award occupies wall space in Haslam’s “writing room” next to an oak tree in their Penngrove home. They have five adult children and 13 grandchildren, so their home isn’t always a quiet retreat for writers and editors. Gerald and Janice have been married for 52 years.
She has just as many educational initials after her name as he does.
“Bet you didn’t know Oildale has grown,” said Haslam, as the three of us enjoyed coffee and oatmeal cookies at Javamore, Penngrove’s center for gossip and folklore wisdom. “They have a freeway ramp to the town called Merle Haggard Drive, just like a big city.
“There’s still oil around there, a lighter-weight flow, compared to heavier stuff further west where they’re trying to extract it by fracking, but it’s awfully messy work,” he said.
“I remember when they had oil drills all around the territory here, and each drill had to have a long, two-inch thick cable going to an engineer’s office where a crew manipulated all the lines. Nowadays it’s all done by computers. It’s made quite a change in the job picture down there.”
It’s also made some changes for work both of them are doing in their Penngrove home.
“Right now, we’re finishing up a biography of Leon Patterson, who grew up around Taft. He was the son of what we used to call Okies, was an outstanding athlete and earned a scholarship to University of Southern California where he set track and field records, some of them still standing.
“But he had Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment and died in 1954 when he was only 21. This was in the days before dialysis treatments.
“I remember competing against him when I was going to college…relays, hurdles, high and long jump – he was so much better than I was. It was a heart-breaking loss to his parents, not to mention the world of young athletes from small towns.”
Haslam said he hoped to have his Patterson bio in the hands of his publishers early next year. He broke off a piece of oatmeal cookie, sipped his coffee and scanned the NY Times headlines.
“Oh, and I should tell you I have a novel in my mind churning away in the background,” he grinned. “It’s about a small college in Northern California in the 1960s when beatniks, hippies and all sorts of young rebels were very active on campus or off campus in their own special settlements. It was quite a scene and both of us were keen observers. But I’m not going to go into names or details at this point.”
He nudged Janice sitting next to him and they both smiled. “That’s the way our system works,” she agreed.