Some time back, I revisited an area where I lived as a child. It’s the beautiful area in El Dorado country in Northern California; on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about 50 miles northeast of Sacramento.
Thomas Wolfe once wrote that, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This was one time I could.
The last time I had been there was in 1932. We’d lived on a small farm and pear orchard. The house is still standing, and I had gone to school in the little village of El Dorado, in a one-room schoolhouse. It’s still there, too, only slightly larger today.
It’s quite an experience to visit a place you haven’t seen in nearly thirty years.
But by far the best part of my trip was seeing again a man who was such an important part of my life. He was still there, still living in the same well-cared-for house, as reliable and unchanged as the outcropping granite which marks that part of the country.
He and I became the best of friends when I was ten years old. He has sold most of his property. He didn’t need as much anymore, but his remaining thirty acres of wooded, rolling land is just as attractive and well-cared for today as it was thirty years ago.
When I was ten, he was my hero, and my affection for him was well-placed.
He’s a quiet, pipe-smoking, soft-spoken man with a clear, honest way of seeing things. Everything on his place he has built with his own hands. Once when he was clearing the trash from under a spruce tree to pour some concrete, he found about a hundred tiny seedlings growing, little spruce trees which had been hidden by the accumulation of debris. The thought of destroying those little trees under a slab of concrete bothered him so much that he painstakingly transplanted every one of them to another part of his property. Today, they stand twelve feet tall, a living tribute to a gentle man.
His name is O.H. Tobin. He’s called Toby by his many friends.
We used to spend hours together. I used to follow him around like a stray pup as he attended to his work. As any child will, I asked interminable questions, and each one would get an honest answer. He used to let me help him at whatever he happened to be doing. The high point of my life was when he let me help him shingle the roof of a shed he had built.
He taught me the importance of doing a good job at whatever was at hand to be done.
And when I saw him again, thirty years later, he still had the same quick laugh, the same warm, healthy attitude toward his world.
I told him and his wife that, of all the people I had known as a child…
He was the one who really loomed large and had given me a good way of looking at life.
And it was then that he paid me the highest compliment I have ever received. He laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and led me around to the back of his house. He pointed with his pipe at an old, dilapidated lean-to down the slope and said, “Earl, I’ve been wanting to tear down that old shed for ten years now. But I won’t because of the towheaded, ten-year-old kid who helped me put the shingles on it.”
Toby is quite a man.