A long-time family friend, Mel Reitz, passed away in Sonora last month. According to the notice in Sonora's Union Democrat, Mel was born in 1916 - he was 96 years old when he died. While I didn't see Mel much after I left for college in 1985, he remained an important friend of my family's - and a role model for me in many ways.
Mel and my Dad became friends when my Dad took a teaching job at Columbia Elementary School (where Mel was a custodian) in the late 1960s. My folks moved to Tuolumne County in 1967 (when I was just 4 months old), but Mel never let me forget that I wasn't a native Tuolumne Countian - unlike my sister, who was born in Sonora in 1969. Mel always jokingly referred to my folks and me as "lemon-squeezers" - reminding us of our Southern California roots!
Despite these jokes, I think Mel recognized that being an old timer was more a way of looking at the world and the community we lived in than a chronological condition. Mel appreciated others who loved the High Sierra - he and my Dad often played hooky from school to fish the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Dam. Mel's own father had worked in the woods near Beardsley Reservoir, so my Dad (and by extension, me and my sister) learned a great deal about what Tuolumne County was like in the early 20th century.
In my memory, Mel didn't suffer fools or disrespect. One day, Mel was riding with my Dad through Sonora when they stopped to let a funeral procession pass. The guy in the Cadillac convertible behind my Dad made the mistake of honking impatiently. My Dad said that before he knew what was going on, Mel had jumped out of the truck and grabbed the guy out of his seat - and was lecturing him about respect for the dead. The second story witnessed. When we fished with Mel, we always spread out - we didn't want to get in each other's way. One one particular trip, someone started fishing a few feet from my Dad (probably because he'd seen my Dad catching fish). Mel hollered, "Hey, Macon - push the son-of-a-bitch in!" The guy moved on!
Somebody once told my Dad, that you weren't really an old timer in a place like Sonora until you'd lived there for 40 years (my folks will have been in Sonora 46 years in August). Auburn, where I live, is probably the same in many ways. I think Mel might have disagreed - he helped me understand that part of being an old timer is keeping old stories and ways of doing things alive. Mel taught my Dad and me how to fly fish - we always joked that Mel could catch fish in the middle of the road!
Having lived through the Great Depression, Mel didn't waste much, either - he generally kept and ate every fish he caught. He told us stories that my sister and I have since told to our kids - stories about being in the mountains, mostly. With Mel's passing, a new generation of old timers (is that an oxymoron?) is responsible for passing this along. My sister and I are part of that generation, I think.
According to the obituary in the paper, Mel served in the US Army 96th Division, 321st Medical Battalion Deadeyes in World War II. He received the Bronze Star for heroic action during the battle of Okinawa. Until I read the obituary, I had no idea - like many World War II veterans, Mel didn't say much about his experiences. I wish I'd had the chance - and the nerve - to ask him about it.
I'll miss Mel, but thanks to his stories, I'll always think of him when I'm driving up Sonora Pass. There's a treeless ridge that he once pointed out to my Dad and me - "Shot a deer up there before the war - had to carry the goddamn thing clear back to the road." It will always be Mel's ridge in my mind. Wherever he is, I'm sure he's catching fish!