Personal Histories

Bob Wills History

Leaving Fortuna

"Why did you leave Fortuna?" I have been asked that question a few times in the past five decades. I have responded that it was not by choice and the implementation of the project was an atrocious adventure. "Mine was not to reason why. Mine was a case of do or die."

My story began in the early evening of a late summer day in 1960, when I was in route to report for work at the California Highway Patrol (CHP) office north of Fields Landing. I came upon what appeared to be a Traffic Collision (TC). I assumed there had been a collision because lumber was scattered across both traffic lanes of US 101. CHP officers were at the scene directing traffic. I could only say, "I'll see you in about thirty minutes." I knew I would be assigned to the TC because all other units were due to go 10-10 (Off Duty).

My premonition was 100 hundred percent correct. My partner and I went from the office to the scene which was in the construction zone of the new Loleta Bypass. Only two lanes of the roadway had been opened for traffic. A truck/trailer rig had been Southbound up the hill a short distance south of the intersection of the Table Bluff Light House Road. Its load shifted, the driver lost control of the steering and it went off the road scattering lumber approximately two hundred feet.

The weather was as nasty as it gets with visibility reduced to only a few feet by ground fog. A few feet means when a person can't see vehicle lights approaching. In fact, it was so miserable I opted not to permit any salvaging until daylight. All night long, we set out flares and guided what little traffic there was through the maze of wood. Flare smoke and fog is a mixture worse than a witch's brew. Apparently nothing can be more damaging to lungs.

The next day I began experiencing symptoms of what I thought was the granddaddy of all colds. I continued coughing, hacking and snorting for several days and the wheezing became so bad that something needed to be done. I visited a doctor in Fortuna and he seemed to catch on fast. He said, "I know what's wrong with you, but I will test you anyway." After the testing, he diagnosed that I had Bronchial Asthma. Medical Science hadn't done much in treating Asthma and it seemed as if it was new to him also, but he did give me a shot of adrenalin. That gave me relief for only a short time, and eventually it seemed as if I was following him like an addict needing a fix. This continued for a few weeks until he bluntly told me, "You need to find a place that's hot and dry and move there."

Even the CHP Captain agreed with him, "Wills, we have a run out patrol car, take it to Sacramento, and pick up a replacement. On your way back, drive up through the Sacramento Valley and find an area where you would like to transfer." On my return, I went to three areas that seemed to fit my needs. At the office again, I requested an emergency transfer to three areas with Red Bluff my first choice. When the transfer came, it was almost like – do it right now. I received orders at 1500 hours on a Thursday to report to Red Bluff at 0800 hours Saturday.

It was great sport unraveling what needed to be done. The first requirement was the need for a van truck. I leased a truck with a lift tail gate in Eureka that had recently been overhauled and the rest of the day was committed to loading. At five the next morning, two vehicles of my family members headed east on Highway 299. I had two kids with me in the truck. We had an early start to what would eventually seem like Hannibal crossing the Alps. His adventure couldn't have been more of a SNAFU.

We had a refueling stop at Weaverville, at a reasonable time of the morning, and then on to Red Bluff. Everything was as good as it gets. Then on the first long hill east of Douglas City, a horrendous clank-clank-clank sound began emitting from the engine compartment. It was the prelude to the newly overhauled engine sounding out its final death rattle; a piston rod was demanding attention. What does a person do when he is setting on a hill, beside a roadway, in a broken-down vehicle that contains almost every material possession he owns? First he devotes about ten minutes of remembering and thinking about the person and the company that leased him the vehicle. That's when the journey got more interesting. Approximately thirty minutes later, a life saver in a Department Of Transportation (DOT) truck arrived. His greeting, "Having trouble?" That was undoubtedly the most understatement that any person could have made. I don't recall if I gave him a complete answer, but he did drive me to a telephone in Douglas City.

I phoned the Redding CHP Dispatcher in hopes that someone would contact the leasing company in Redding where I was scheduled to leave the vehicle. Another angel who was devoid of wings, but was clad in the uniform of a CHP Captain answered. He dispatched the resident CHP officer to return me to the sorry mess of a truck and began making calls to the leasing companies in both Redding and Eureka. He was the ideal person to have on my side because he seemed to have enough clout to finally get the people in Eureka and Redding in gear. The Redding lease company, after playing fool around for what seemed like hours, finally dispatched a truck to my location.

All the time that I was experiencing my woes, the rest of the family had stopped at Whiskeytown to await my arrival. That vehicle contained three humans, two dogs, two cats and one TV set. When it was obvious that I was running late, they headed back Westbound to perhaps effect a rescue. Westbound was a steep climb up Buckhorn Summit. Wait, the story isn't over. The carburetor on the engine vapor-locked. Once again it was DOT to the rescue with some sage advice as what to do with a Bad/Order (B/O) Studebaker. That is why I liken it to Hannibal because all day long there was radio traffic as to what was happening to Wills? What a perfect time to make book. Would he arrive in Red Bluff that day, and at what time?

When the truck arrived from Redding, it created some more somber questions, what to do? Would anyone like to spend the rest of the day and part of the night beside a roadway, unloading furniture from a truck onto another truck? Color me out! The answer, chain the Redding vehicle behind the B/O vehicle and use its brakes to descend the hills. (The B/O vehicle had lost its power steering and power brakes) At the bottom of the hills, chain the Redding vehicle to the front and tow the B/O vehicle. And, on we went to Red Bluff. We did arrive that day, but most of the daylight was long gone. Of course, the unloading had to be without the assist of a power lift tailgate. And too, the truck couldn't be backed into a position in front of the house. Hannibal and his elephants.The unloading was done in a field to the rear of the house. Not only did we get to unload, but we also got to carry.

Would it have been easier to have stayed in Fortuna with my newly found impairment where everyday was a challenge as to where will the next breath come from, and will there be one? I won't even attempt an answer but maybe the journey would have been easier with an elephant.


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