I slipped from the warmth of my mother’s womb into the windy hills of California’s gold country about 30 minutes before the explosion.
Pa owned a saw mill and had one employee. On this day, Ma brought lunch for both of ‘em, and set the basket of food on rough-cut boards that spanned two sawhorses. The steam engine that powered the cutting saws was loud, and Pa didn’t know it was getting ready to blow.
When he took his first bite of corn on the cob, Ma lost her water and sagged to her knees. Pa yelled to his helper to ride into Winchester and fetch Doc Beechum. The doc and the hired hand rode as fast as they could, but I showed up first.
Not long before the rider returned with the doc, the cast iron steam engine exploded like a ruptured cannon and blew away six of the mill’s support beams. A billowing cloud of pink dust, noxious fumes, hot steam, and shrapnel the size of jar tops preceded the concussion. In one three-second eruption, our mill house morphed into a sprawling heap of splintered lumber.
When they pulled up to the remnants of the mill, Pa was barely alive and my mother had passed. I was under a horse blanket on Pa’s chest, asleep.
The doc ran to my dying father and took me in his arms. When Pa saw the doc, his face lit up bright and healthy-like.
“It’s a boy doc.”
“What’re you going to name him?”
Pa moved his head to assess the damage; first to the left and then to the right. When his eyes recognized the lifeless body of my mother, his face went white. His chest heaved and he struggled to keep me in his gaze.
He squinted his right eye and looked toward me, and used his last breath to say, “Good Luck Charlie.”
— Ted Atoka