~ Discovering Chinatown in Carson City – Reminiscences of the I Ching from 1955.
When I was young and first began attending school the route to the very new schoolhouse took me by a very old vacant lot. Most anyone could feel the antiquity of the spot, but if not, or if a visual confirmation were necessary one could see between the grasses and weeds the crumbling remains of the foundation rocks of the few small structures that once graced this small and now empty field. And then one might try to imagine the buildings that once were there and the lives of those that once would come and go from those modest structures of ancient abode.
For the resident old timers that lived in the neighborhood who were versed in the history of the block it took little imagination to conjure up images of the Chinamen that once lived on this poorer east side of Carson City, the then and now capitol of Nevada. The small now vacant field was Carson’s own “Chinatown” they said. You can still find old oyster shells and maybe a few of the old Chinese coins lost and scattered around, they claimed. That is, they said, if you care about oyster shells and old Chinese coins.
For a seven year old that as a six year old had spent much of his Kindergarten year picking up and saving the old square nails, discarded bottle caps from the thirties, and the occasional empty twenty-two caliber rifle shell that had collected along the sidewalk fences of the houses leading to the World War II vintage Quonset Hut that housed the capitals Kindergarten oyster shells and coins, especially old Chinese coins, were definitely something to care about. But there was a reasonable skepticism too, for the old always had such fantastic stories about the past and things that people used to do. Often the safest thing to do was not to really believe too much of what they said and claimed, and to figure that even if such things were once true, they were not true now, and to remember that little evidence of these histories of the past was ever to be produced or shared by them with gullible seven year old boys.
But, with or without a share of skepticism, the vacant lot did not vanish or go away. It was still there each day, on the way too and from school, pushing its weeds and grasses toward the sidewalk as one passed by. The plants seemed sometimes to beckon, to almost call out, to say just look at what might be under me, along my roots, the simple evidence of times past and past lives now gone but still remembered by a few.
In time, the new stories of old were shared among all the interested and gullible boys of the near neighborhood and there were three of us that decided that an expedition to the site should be made to once and for all resolve the truth or falsity of the old stories and tales and to discover and find the abalone shells if they were there, the oyster shells, and certainly the coins; although the existence of the coins was most in doubt. A date was agreed upon and a time of day almost exact and reasonable. And as always seemed to happen, several days before the scheduled expedition one of our number reported back to the group that he had ventured to the lot already and alone and indeed there were oyster shells and pulled an overly white sun bleached shell from his pocket to prove it.
This breach of trust quickly scuttled the proposed expedition amid catcalls accusing or claiming that the shell was planted by an old timer or that the kid, our once trusted friend, was in cahoots with the old man and that even the production of coins would prove nothing. Days passed, interest ebbed and the two surviving friends debated the merits of the evidence regarding disturbed and undisturbed grasses and broken and unbroken weeds upon the lot, a sure and necessary sign of excavations for abalone and oyster shells. Consensus could not be reached and in time intermittent winter snows and later the mud’s of spring made the work of serious inquiry unappealing to those accountable for the care of their school clothes.
It was probably in late April when the March winds no longer kept the kites aloft and no longer commanded the attention of a new generation of aeronautical pioneers eager to explore the frontiers of near space with kites, kites as old as China the old timers would say. And so with the passage of kites and the re-invocation of that ancient name, thoughts again drifted to thoughts of the Celestials and their homeland.
One could dig, it was said, straight down through the middle of the earth and find themselves at the other end of the hole actually in China. There was no argument that there really would be Chinese coins in China and a hole seems as natural to a seven year old boy to dig as it is natural to find a kite to fly.
A shovel was located and digging commenced only to be stopped in short order by the order of “Mom”. The site for this early Mohole experiment was redirected to the yard behind the chicken coup, “but away from the hay bales”. The China Hole stopped at about two and one-half feet of depth carefully measured by an official school ruler. The hole became successively a World War II fox-hole, a World War I battle trench, a secret refuge from invading Martians, and an underground bunker on Guadalcanal; all in short order and with little modification, driven by the suggested subjects imported to the weekly children’s matinee at the Carson City Theater on Carson Street.
April yielded to May and May to June and the summer. There was an old newsreel short at the theater about the rape of Nanking, China. Once again the visages and memories of oyster shells and coins reemerged. It was an opportune time, one was older and braver and school clothes had been replaced with the more forgiving clothes of summer. The weeds at the lot were larger and taller than ever, making it hard to find even the river washed and rounded stones with their small chucks of ancient mortar still clinging to the irregular roughened and broken surfaces.
A few weeds were pulled and the underlying ground and shallow holes examined. In time a few more followed and then a few nearer the old stone foundation were uprooted. The white of the first few broken shells glimmered in the late afternoon sun, broken shells, but shells that looked remarkably like the oyster shell from the pocket of that old and one time friend turned scoundrel in the long lost fall of last school year. With the aid of the shell bits applied as digging (or more like scratching) devices, a few more shells were found, a few iridescent bits of abalone shell, and then as the time for dinner and curfew came, a rusted piece of metal with an almost square hole was lifted from the dirt clod of a recently pulled and upended milk weed. The Chinese characters were badly worn and faded and the glint of new metal had long since passed, but the coin was real and the old timers vindicated and the rumors and stories were laid to rest; they were all true.
Thus ended the saga of the old Chinese lot and thus began my discovery of divining coins and fortune telling and an awareness of the book of sages on which it was all based, the I Ching. It may be a backward way to discover philosophy, and expand ones spiritual awareness but it was not a dishonest way. The old-timers might have edited the word “heathen” from the vocabulary of their lips when they spoke of the Chinese, but they did because they still rode the rails that these men had laid over the grueling Sierras to the west and across the black rock desert to the east. If they were “heathen”, it was the patient acceptance of a carefully divined, read, and practiced fate if not faith that helped them endure the hardships of Nevada’s heat cold and isolation in a solitary world almost devoid of the companionship of the Chinese female whose exodus from China at the time the men left for America was forbidden by Chinese law.
Oyster shells and old rusty coins might not seem like a heritage worthy of claiming or borrowing, but it too is real and for these simple workmen without wives it was the only tangible heritage that they left.
Note: This was originally written on April 14th / 2005. It is being double-posted under 1955 – June.
[2009.04.04 / Saturday – China Hole]