Panic Attack

August 1943, the second Friday, a day that will bring out the best and worst for a boy who had just recently progressed to swimming without Water Wings.

The war rationed gas so a chance to swim had to be close at hand. It had to be a gallon of gas radius outing.

This one gallon lake away from home was really just a sand quarry that had a gigantic dredge tethered to shore that had been busy mining sand now lay quiet. It had a gigantic snout that the Loch Ness monster would have been proud of. Floating nearby were two very large flat bottom barges milling about waiting to be loaded with the start of a new day and when full a short trip to shore to be cleaned and sacked.

The evening was hot. Made the water call out to me “Come on you 8 year old, dive in”. My dive in was more of a walk-in. I wasn’t equipped with the bravado of others my age but I was soon in water over my head as the banks of the quarry were cut to mine sand not made to have a gentle slope to please a swimmer. I decided to swim out a ways, how far that was was probably not very far for a novice dog paddler. As I turned for shore from out of nowhere I felt an uncomfortable tug at my ankles a moment later I felt myself being pulled below the surface and my reaction was sheer terror. I was now totally out of control and no amount of “get a hold of yourself” would do any good, only shouting and crying was my answer to my self-made predicament. What seemed like forever was but a minute and my father had me wrapped in his big comforting arms that guided me safely to shore.

Once on shore my mother was hugging me and saying everything was okay but in that moment I knew that everything was not okay. My father a man of quiet confidence who was an early day, 1919 Barn Storming pilot, motorcycling racing fool and by 1927 he had earned the rank of Captain, flying for Pan American World Airways. All over Mexico and Central America,from the Panama Canal then North with many stops much like a Greyhound bus to Brownsville Texas. These trips were almost always made difficult by bad weather and mountainous terrain, which suited him just fine. My father always had a close relationship with danger, I believe he considered danger as one of his friends and felt comfortable in its company. For me it was the first time for me to feel ashamed. In the past, fear was always subdued by Mom or Dad with the only thought that things were safe now. But this time things were different. It was time to be a man and live up to my fathers fearless standards. I had failed, not by my father but by the image I had of him. My father never said a word. I’m sure he was oblivious to my shame.

As my growing age expanded my horizons it brought me in touch with more scary situations. I found elevators scared me, looking out from high places while my friends laughed, I cringed, and dark and alone was a situation I did much to avoid. So what was I good at. Let’s see I liked being around people and they seemed to like being around me. School, well my grades weren’t very good because I was to busy enjoying my friends but with little effort I was a reasonably good student that liked to play rather than study. I loved to do almost any kind of manual labor and repairing my 1947 Ford convertible and shining it while in high school gave me great joy.

It was the summer of 1948 and my father and his brother had started a new company by the name of Varian Associates in San Carlos, California making Klystrons, a vacuum tube that they had invented just before World War II started, which made radar possible. My dad asked if I wanted to work for his fledgling start up for the summer. I answered with an “I guess so”. With school out for the summer I entered the work a day world of grownups. Well, for four days I made expanded metal cages that kept Klystrons safe from people with a spot welder. Everyday was the same, every cage was the same. Would this be my lot in life where everyday I had to quit thinking for 8 hours least I miss a weld.

The outdoors was always a place where I felt most comfortable and useful, so after four days of making cages. I knew that to stay with this job, would be not just a cage for a Klystron but a cage for me also. I told my dad that his life’s work could not be mine. He asked me what I wanted to be? I had spent part of the previous summer with my first cousin, Sheila who had horses. Sheila said “I like to ride and if your going to spend the summer with me your going to learn to horseback ride” and learn I did and I liked it. So to answer his question, I said “I want to be a cowboy.”

I was now out of a summer job that most high school students had in those days. To not have at least part time work was a sure sign of laziness. This was a distinction that I could not accept as part of my life’s work. Out of the blue a friend of mine who would be leaving shortly to spend the summer working on his grandfather’s farm perhaps 20 miles from Kansas City, Missouri. Would I like to go? My folks who had most times given me a long leash as to where I would spend my time, had no problem with it. Sure Bill, I’d like to go. Two days later I was on a Greyhound Bus headed for a grandfather’s farm.

The first order of business was to get Bill’s 1935 Ford running that his grandfather said he could use for the summer. No gas to the carburetor was the problem. My dad had once mentioned to me that a chronic problem with that year was the wearing of the push rod that stopped the fuel pump from delivering enough gas to the carburetor. With the addition of a quarter inch nut to lengthen the push rod, gas now flowed quickly to the carburetor. “Okay Bill give it a try.” The engine roared into life and belched out a cloud of smoke that immediately expanded our horizons. In those days if you were living on a farm and could see over the steering wheel you were fit to drive. I was soon to learn that Bill was not going to be all work and no play, so things like going to the Circus and chasing girls would also qualify as work.

We had just gotten off work that had us poking and tying wires on a hay baler, but when the hay got too dry to bale you had to wait for the next day. This left us with plenty of time to go swimming in the farm pond. Bill had been telling me of the big snapping turtles that lived in the lake. Then it happened, I was perhaps 100 yards from shore when fear overwhelmed me. I was certain that a turtle was just about ready to bite off one of my toes. Panic this time with no one to rescue me I swam for shore with all the strength I had. On shore shame once again took its place in my soul and to cover my frantic swim for dry land I told Bill that I thought I was getting leg cramps. The rest of my summer was free from panic attacks and my love of the outdoor life evermore insured that I would make my living off the land somehow.

Our return trip to Palo Alto was another two night and day ride on a Greyhound bus that in my youth was seen as a pleasant sight-seeing trip.

The summer of 1949 would be a bellwether summer for me. My friend Bill had been whisked away to a private school because of poor deportment in his parent’s eyes. I would not see him again until we had a chance meeting in college.

Link and I met in junior high school and one day he told me that his mother owned a cattle ranch that was east of San Jose, California in the Diablo Mountains and would I like to spend the summer. At the ranch I would be working under his mothers foreman. My new boss was a real cowboy who had spent most all of his 60 years practicing his trade. From the first moment I met Louie, a true California Vaquero, I knew that he was going to be my mentor, which only I knew.

I was to spend the next 9 summers living the cowboy life but like the chameleon, when school went back into session in September at Palo Alto High School, I would put on my white corduroy pants and Pendleton shirt and shine up my 1947 Ford convertible and spend my years being a mediocre student that spent a good deal of time partying and chasing girls.

The JG ranch that Link, his little brother Jami, Louie and I lived on was very authentic. It was about 20miles from the town of Milpitas. There was no electricity, hot water was available after you made a fire in the wood stove that we also cooked our meals on and there was no telephone or television. But what we did have was a battery radio that we were only allowed to listen to when the Friday night boxing matches were on, presented by Gillette shaving cream. Then the radio went silent to conserve the battery. So my evenings were spent listening to Louie tell of his days as a remount bronc rider for the United States Army, gentling horse for the Calvary during World War I and how to herd cattle and train horses. My daylight hours on the ranch I treated the same as my formal school days but with much more dedication. I was now totally in love with being a cowboy.

For whatever reason in all those 9 summers I never had a panic attack and we did a lot of scary stuff as Louie was a daredevil like my father. Louie taught me to accept that the best place to be was where you were at because that’s where you were (make the most of it). I loved working cattle from the back of a horse and I took a liking to building barbed wire fence. Actually there wasn’t any part of being a cowboy that I didn’t have a passion for.

In my last year of college at California State Polytechnic College my wheels came off and I had to put them back on but a destructive guilt complex that said “you don’t deserve it” was the price I was to pay for many years for not having a panic attack.

1957 I decided to fulfill my military obligation and joined the Army reserves. 6 months of active duty was required and 4 years of reserve training from one’s home. This was a time when General Eisenhower was our President and their was some saber rattling going on in the Middle East. I think it was over control of the Suez Canal and Eisenhower was going to send troops to do some saber rattling of our own. What I remember of my attack, took place in a Fort Ord parking lot as I got out of my pickup. I was seized by an overwhelming claustrophobic feeling that I would be down in the belly of this ship and would be unable to get out. What happened next I don’t remember but I do know that I next found myself in the psychiatric ward with an appointment to see a staff psychiatrist. “Son, I don’t know what you think, but l’m going to recommend a medical discharge. I think you would do our country more good as a citizen than as a soldier. What do you think?” I uttered a shameful “I guess so.”

I still had one quarter of college left to graduate from Cal Poly. June 21, 1958 I married my wife Zera better known as Zee. Zee had just as much passion for ranch life as I did and I was going to need that passion for ranching because by October, with help from my parents, we would soon own enough land to start a now 61 year long adventure in the cattle business.

I graduated from Cal Poly in August of 1958 and with help from my parents we were the new proud owners of a “fixer upper” 2700 acre ranch for $70,000, East of Paso Robles California, with an older home and not much else. It took 3 years of scratching through brush and rock to discover that why our neighbors called our ranch “Pinch Gut Canyon”; it would starve a good man to death. They were right! But luck was on my side when a gentleman from Los Angeles wanted a place where he could hunt Black Tail Deer and that’s one thing “Pinch Gut” had plenty of. When escrow closed I found myself with $150,000 in my jeans.

Luck was again on my side when a friend of mine said that about 50 miles to the East, near the little town of Parkfield there was 8,000 acres for sale and this time it wasn’t all brush but was predominantly good open grassland and to this day I think it’s the prettiest ranch in our state. With my $150,000 and $250,000 from an insurance company, I closed escrow in November of 1961 and Zee and I have lived here all these years. Along the way we added another 12,000 acres and 4 children that have multiplied themselves into husbands and wives, 9 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

My panic attacks over the years that became almost nonexistent were replaced with guilt feelings of “you don’t deserve it”, but it didn’t stop me from buying more land to add to the Parkfield V6 Ranch and to buy another very nice ranch near San Luis Obispo. I think I was trying to keep guilt at bay by always borrowing all the money I could, to rent more ranches, to run more cattle. A perfect storm was starting to organize its self in me. I now owned 10,000 head of cattle and $3,000,000 worth of debt. It’s May of 1978 and the grass is green and lush and I have a cattle buyer that would buy all 10,000 head for a little less than I was asking but would pay off all my debts and leave me with a million dollars in my bank account. Good judgment said “sell sell” and guilt said “you don’t deserve it.” If you said guilt won your right. It took 23 years to get back to even. It also took about that same time to gain enough knowledge about myself so I could recognize when my “guilt demon” was calling the shots and not me.

Luck was once again going to be in my corner when a friend told me of a support group that was meeting in San Luis Obispo on Monday nights that offered structure and a safe place to examine all our dirty clothes then wash those that were worth washing and to throw out all the rest.

I attended my support group every Monday night for five years during the late 1980‘s. It made for me, and my 5 other soul searchers, an affordable way to expose our demons to each other, except for criminal behaviour. Together, we learned to defang them. As the fifth year was drawing to a close we met for the last time, when each in our own way felt that our work on Monday nights was done. We never met again. For me now, I recognize when “you don’t deserve it” is trying to open the door to my mind for a return to old times. I’m different now as I’ve got too many weapons to keep him out. The most effective is to chuckle when I say to myself, “Jack you’re ABSURD!”

See Ya,


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