New Frank Bergon book unveiled


For The Madera Tribune

Frank Bergon gives a reading at the Coke Hallowell Center for River Studies. The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily postponed personal appearances with his new book, “The Toughest Kid We Knew.” It can be ordered online.

 

Highly acclaimed author’s 3rd look at the Central Valley

Frank Bergon’s latest penetrating look at the Central Valley, “The Toughest Kid We Knew,” has been unveiled by the University of Nevada Press. It forms the third part of a trilogy, which examines what some have called the place where the Old West meets the New West to form the True West.

Following his books “Jesse’s Ghost” and “Two-Buck Chuck & the Marlboro Man,” Bergon uses “The Toughest Kid We Knew” to share vignettes from his own family and boyhood community that help illustrate the essence of the place where he grew up and called home. In the process, he has created a book that has appeal far beyond Central California.

Bergon’s new book burrows down into the core of the San Joaquin Valley to uncover its “distinctive character,” which he says comes from the “frontier values shared by a multiracial and multiethnic population.”

As Bergon moves from character to character, however, the reader also finds him writing about what’s missing in many of the books on California as they relate to life in the West. He pulls no punches; he calls John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) to task for having “misunderstood and misrepresented the valley” where he lived. He chides Carey McWilliams (Factories in the Field) for hiding “the workers whose hands picked the cotton, grapes, olives, peaches, tomatoes, and other crops.” He cautions against history driven by ideology rather than research.

Bergon saves his most powerful broadside for Joan Didion in whose writing he detects a “great blind spot;” she sees the Dust Bowl migrants only in stereotypical fashion. Bergon charges that Didion doesn’t “recognize the many ways the original Okies and their sons and daughters altered the valley and the state.”

Notwithstanding his criticism of the writers that give workers in the valley short shrift, Bergon corrects the imbalance with tales of family members and friends whose lives tell the tale of the true West. They were all tough, and Bergon shares them with the reader, but he saved the toughest kid, Billy Carter, until last. Billy might have been the toughest of them all.

Bergon begins with his Basque grandmother who lived in Nevada and who represented the disconnection between the Old West and the New West. He writes that she connected him and his family to the past and to each other in the present.

Then Bergon goes to his paternal grandfather, Prosper, who owned a ranch near Madera. He fits the stereotypical view of the classic Westerner, “stocky and square-jawed, with silver hair combed straight back,….” He was part of that generation of Maderans who looked out for each other, people like Sam Epstein of Money Back Sam’s and Jean Sagouspe who herded sheep for Prosper without pay during the Depression.

Bergon was just about as close to Prosper as a grandson could be. The older Bergon shared his bed with his grandson, and the grandson gave his grandfather CPR on the night he died of a heart attack — his 73rd birthday.

Of course, no account of the valley in which Bergon lived would be complete without meeting the Basque Nurse and the FBI Rancher who brought him into this world. Bergon’s mother, Lina Rose Mendive, met his father, Frank Bergon Sr., when she was a nurse in the Fresno hospital in which he was a patient. He went on to the National Police Academy in Washington D.C., and 16 days after he graduated in July 1940, they were married.

She had a bright beginning but an unhappy ending. Her life revealed how absurd it is to think that we are all “creatures of free will.” Alcohol sometimes had its way in the Valley.

The FBI rancher in Bergon’s life was his father, Frank Sr. For five years during the Second World War, he was a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

He became the best-known of all of the Bergons in Madera County, from his formidable years at Madera High School to his outstanding civic contributions to his hometown.

In the end, however, an oft-told tale emerged around the Bergon Ranch. It was the “trajectory of a classic American immigrant-family story in three (actually four) generations: The first generation gets a foothold in the new land, the second makes a fortune, and the third blows it.

Now the story extends to the fourth generation, who writes about it. According to the author, many immigrants would have been happier remaining in their homeland.

Bergon continues his portrayal of the valley by putting friends on the stage — Short Watson, whom he called “King of the San Joaquin;” Rose Marchetti, the Queen of Ripperdan with whom no man messed; “Chief Kit Fox” (Richard Palacioz) who had a battle with Agent Orange; and Theodore Payne, the black kid from Dixieland who got a master’s degree and wound up a drug and alcohol counselor.

All of their lives tell something about life in Frank Bergon’s valley where the code of manhood required toughness and prohibited complaining. Combined, they form a snapshot that captures all of the hues, from the bright colors of the present to the sepia tones, as Bergon calls them, of the past. It includes the Okie Dust Bowl migrants, the Italian, Armenian, and Mexican immigrants, and the Blacks.

As Bergon nears the end of his story, the reader begins to understand the “deep well of anger embedded in the sons and daughters of Steinbeck’s Okies,” then comes Billy Carter, the toughest kid they knew.

Bergon pulls out all of the stops to show why people thought Carter was tough. The strength and speed of his hands, arms, and legs made him invincible. His indomitable will rendered him unstoppable, and his intellect gave him the prescience of a skilled martial artist. Billy was all of these things, plus fearless. That’s probably what got him killed.

Bergon wisely anchored his book with Billy Carter. Every person he introduces in “The Toughest Kid We Knew” has a little piece of this antihero in him or her.

Bergon’s shredding of the curtain in which Billy Carter was wrapped, will send readers back to “Jesse’s Ghost” and “Two Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man” for a fresh encounter in the magical land of the San Joaquin Valley that emerges from “The Toughest Kid We Knew.”

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