Sunday, March 10, 2013


Anyone who knows me very well know that I am not much of a fiction reader or writer.  Every once in a while I try a fiction story and I usually fail at it.  I can name a list of non-fiction authors like I love to read and respect but my list of fiction writers is very small.  Among the fiction writers that I like to read are John Grisham, Edgar Allen Poe and Bob Woodward.  Now I know that there are a lot of people who consider Woodward a non-fiction writer so please don't comment that I am wrong about Woodward being a fiction writer.  I am well aware that a lot of his fiction is cataloged under the classification of non-fiction.  Personally I consider Woodward's "All The President's Men" and "The Brotherhood" as two great works of fiction that were so good most people consider them to be non-fiction.  My thoughts on Woodward are not what this entry is about though.  This entry concerns itself with who I consider the greatest modern American fiction author of the last century.  That author is John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck was a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning author.  He hailed from northern California and wrote masterpiece after masterpiece.  Most students of literature are familiar with at least a few of his books.  "The Grapes of Wrath", "Of Mice and Men", and "East of Eden" are the books that most literature students are familiar with.  These books deal with life in the 1930's in Northern California and how class struggles effected the people who lived during that time.

Two other great works of Steinbeck's included a short story called "Sweet Thursday" and a novel entitled "Cannery Row".  Now, Cannery Row was possibly my favorite of Steinbeck's works.  It deals with the area around Monterey  Bay and the cannery's that once flourished on the northern California area.  During the 30's Cannery Row started to fade away under economic pressures.  Soon there were just a small population of homeless bums, whores who entertained men of the armed forces who found their way down to the area, and a professor of Biology who Steinbeck named simply "Doc".

A lot of literature experts think that Cannery row was a semi biographical work that Steinbeck wrote after spending time south of Monterey.  I am not going to go into the the actual plot of Cannery Row, but I do encourage everyone to read it or at least one of Steinbeck's other books.  This is the story of going in search of Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  Steinbeck was one of the best authors in being able to paint a picture with his words.  He would describe the scene and the area where the story was taking place so simply and yet so detailed that you would be transported to the area of a depleted area in Northern California where the canneries use to be busy day in and day out packing and shipping seafood to places around the country.  Now it consisted of an old hotel/restaurant called the Bear Flag Inn which was really a glorified whore house, a laboratory where Doc would study marine animals that he would collect off the shores of the bay, and the places where the homeless men lived and tried to survive.  It was old.  It was a dirty place and an eccentric place.  You could see all the different parts of the town that wasn't there anymore and smell the sea in the bay.  It was a place that resided in my mind.

In the late 50's or early 60's, my uncle Dan lived in Northern California.  He was being trained at Fort Ord to learn the Russian language in order to be able to intercept Russian radio transmissions and decode them during the Cold War.  Yes, he was considered a spy and would carry out his duties of using this training in north Japan in the 60's.  But for now he was in California and one summer my grandparents went out to California to visit him.  One of the places that my grandparents visited was the old cannery row area of Monterey and it did impress my grandfather for many years.  You see, my grandfather was quite a reader himself and he was well aware of the works of Steinbeck,including Cannery Row.

Jumping in time to the early 80's, I found myself with a chance that I could not pass up.  Dit-MCO was developing a new testing system that used optics to find faults in printed circuit boards.  It was ground breaking technology at the time and a portion of our Engineering department was assigned to the optical group.  I was lucky to be put on the team.  Being on the team meant that we entered into a contract to work with an optical engineering company located in Berkeley California.  For five years members of the team would fly out to the San Fransisco Bay area to do work on the systems.  We would spend a week or two out there then come back to Kansas City for a week or two before heading back west again.  It was exciting work and gave us plenty of time to explore the Northern California area.

One of my fellow travelers was an engineer by the name of Bill Wilson.  Wilson was a world traveled person who had been in the army, had worked under contract in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world.  While Wilson was in the army, he was stationed at Fort Ord for a while.  One weekend, Wilson and myself were getting ready for another trip out west when Wilson got an idea.  He wanted to fly out west early and drive down to Monterey and visit his old Fort and see Pebble Beach Golf course.  To me this meant that it would also include a trip to Cannery Row.  The next day I went to have lunch with my grandparents and told Grandpa that I was planning a side trip down to Monterey.

 Grandpa's eyes lit up so brightly when I told him this.  He proceeded to tell me all about the time he visited Cannery Row twenty years earlier.  He told me it was incredible.  It was just as Steinbeck described it, he said.  He went on and on about how on target the book was in describing the old run down area.  In all of his life he had never visited a place and felt like he had already been there by reading a book.  "You are going to LOVE it", Grandpa said.  My excitement level went through the roof.  I was going to be where Steinbeck had been, see what he had seen and get a fuller understanding of what Steinbeck was writing about when he wrote Cannery Row.

The next weekend Wilson and myself caught the earliest flight out to San Fransisco.  We immediately rented a car and instead of heading across the bay to Berkeley, we headed south towards Monterey.  It wasn't too far of a drive, maybe a couple of hours.  It was a beautiful drive up through the hills and heading down the coast with the ocean out of one of the windows practically the whole way.  Eventually we arrived in the Monterey area.  Our first stop would be Fort Ord.

Fort Ord was no longer the huge facility it had once been they were closing it down.  The roads were still open but all the military personnel were gone.  It was like a ghost town that was still in fairly good shape.  Wilson drove me around the old fort and showed me where he had done things, where the firing range had been and we drove by the barracks where Wilson had lived part of his life.  After a few hours, Wilson was finally pleased with his visit to the Fort and we began to follow signs that showed up every so often indicating the way to Monterey's famed Cannery Row district.  The excitement was building as we inched closer to a place that had lived in my mind since I was a child.

Suddenly we saw a sign that said "Cannery Row" and we slowly drove in.  There were two huge parking lots filled with cars and people walking everywhere.  Slowly my heart began to sank.  I did not at first see any of the landmarks of a cannery, a walk across from the cannery to the mainland that was about two stories up off of the ground.  In Steinbeck's Cannery Row, these walk acrosses were at every building all down the coast, each one a different fishery company.  We parked the car and got out.  I looked around for the old Bear flag Inn that my grandpa had said wasn't ACTUALLY there as the Bear Flag Inn, but there was an old hotel that looked like Steinbeck said the Bear Flag Inn looked like.  My eyes landed an a huge building up the hill from the parking lot.  It was painted brown and a very bright orange with a huge sign that said  "BEAR FLAG INN".  It was a huge restaurant and hotel and did not look like anything Steinbeck had written about.  We walked around a bit.  There was a huge aquarium built with a line of people waiting to get inside.  There were other attractions, none that appeared in the book.  I can not ever being so brought down from the expectations that I had built up in my mind.

We began to do some exploring away from all the touristy things and came upon my first indication that someone realized that Steinbeck had been here.  It was off towards a path that went down to the bay.  There sat a bronze bust of John Steinbeck on a pedestal about five feet tall.  The inscription said something about that the great author had spent some time here and based his book Cannery Row on the area.  From standing next to the bust of Steinbeck, I looked off to the south and saw one of the old walkovers left over from Steinbeck's day.  Just one.  It looked like whoever had come in and consumerised the area had forgotten to get rid of that last thing that looked like it was from the book.  It was nice to see, but just the one by itself took away so much of the feel of what Steinbeck had described.  After a little more walking around we stumbled across a small building.  It was halfway underground and was locked up.  It had old windows all around it and was painted a dirty white.  At the front door was a historical marker.  It said that it is believed that this was the building that most experts thought was Doc's lab from Cannery Row and suggested that in fact, Steinbeck himself probably had lived here for awhile.

That was it.  We left "Cannery Row" disappointed.  I think Wilson was disappointed because he knew I was.  I was disappointed because consumerism had destroyed something that could and should have been saved because it was made into a big part of Americana by the great author.

After that, we drove on down to the golf courses that included Pebble Beach and drove around taking in the beauty that is northern California.  I can't say I didn't enjoy the 17 mile drive, but the reality of Cannery Row had certainly dampened my excitement.

At the end of the day we drove back to Berkeley and checked into the hotel to prepare for work the next day.  All week my mind would wander back to the destruction of Cannery Row. I wish I could have seen what My grandpa and John Steinbeck had seen.  No one would ever see it again.  It was gone.  It was lost.  Money had won out over history as it does so often.

When I returned to Kansas City, I visited my grandpa and told him what I had found, what had confronted me in my search for Steinbeck and cannery row. My grandpa's eyes dulled a little as he listened to my description of what investors had done to that special place.  He felt sorry that I had missed it.  I could feel his own disappointment in what had once been being gone.

Writers like Steinbeck do not come along very often.  Places like Cannery Row are not available to be be restored to the way it was to hold onto to just a little bit of history.  When an author like Steinbeck and a place like Cannery Row do come together, everything should be done to preserve them together as one.

1 comment:

  1. Cannery Row has become a big tourist trap, I live in Monterey and lived on cannery row for years. There are still gems hidden in all the glitter. If you ever get back this way again I can give you a tour. Though it will never be what your grandpa got to see.
    Kristen you can contact me at P.S. My Great Grandfather worked as a fish cutter in the 1920's