Scenes from Silver Creek: The Mission Summer
California history is very strongly tied into the Catholic Mission system. The 21 adobe missions built by Father Junipero Serra to bring Catholicism to the indigenous people – whether they wanted it or not.
Like all California school kids, I did my fair share of visits to various missions, mostly Mission Dolores in San Francisco and Mission Carmel. I even did an “art” project where I built a mission out of sugar cubes, complete with ice plant “cactus” and paths made out of kitty litter. The ants loved it and played invasion all over the walls Mission San Juan Bautista (the one I drew from the “Mission Hat”).
But between my junior and senior year at Silver Creek High, on the advice of my guidance counselor, I got more involved in Mission history than I really wanted to.
It was called the “work summer” and pretty much every kid in my class was advised, guided, guilted, or bribed into doing something “good” for the summer. Partly it would look good on a college application. Partly no parent wanted their kid to be the one who would choose lounging by the pool over doing something worthwhile.
That’s how it was for me. I didn’t particularly want to spend my summer helping to paint the senior center or providing free day care to low-income kids. I wanted to read trashy romance novels, eat popsicles, have pizza nights with my friends, and generally enjoy the summer.
My parents had another idea. The only saving grace was that my best friend, Sean, had equally persuasive parents and he had to be good all summer too. Since we had both been raised at Our Lady of Angels (whose slogan we decided should be “Eight years of school, a lifetime of guilt!”) we received notice through the church that there was an archeological site going on at one of the Missions and they were looking for summer interns.
It was Mission San Antonio de Padua, built in 1771 an located in a valley southeast of Monterey. Average summertime temperature is roughly that of the surface of the sun. Only without the cooling breezes.
Some random, third class California University was excavating the site of the Spanish garrison. They had grad students doing all the interesting things, and wanted free grunt work to do all the hard stuff. You got room and board, no money, a promise of a letter of recommendation from the site director for your college packet, and they even supplied the sunscreen.
Since the opportunity to be away from our parents for a while was more appealing than staying home and singing show tunes at the senior center, we both signed up. And since they were hardly flooded with applicants, we were both accepted.
So we went. Sean and I. In his root beer brown Capri, the trunk stuffed with shorts and brand new hiking boots that never did break in and caused our feet no end of misery. We listened to “Frampton Comes Alive” endlessly, stopped at every Foster’s Freeze we passed for frosty cones and pee breaks. We planned our glorious futures (I was going to win a Tony Award for Best Actress on Broadway. Sean was going to win the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes and live in style). And we never envisioned what was ahead.
We only got lost twice. Ended up at a dead-end private road where we asked a cow for directions. But we eventually found the Mission, our summer project, and Dr. Edward Calkman.
The crew consisted of the Dr. (who everyone called “Doctor” and never anything else), 6 grad students, 4 other high school students from around California, and a wonderful cook named Belen. She was the best thing about the gig. Every meal included hand-made tortillas and mouth-scorching salsa.
Wake up call came at 7 am every day. Which to high school students is one of the lower circles of hell. We were on the dig by 9. We worked from 9 to noon and then had from noon to 2 off for lunch and a bit of a break from the heat. Then back on the clock until 6, dinner at 7. Just how I wanted to spend my summer.
The work itself was miserable. Either we shifted huge shovelsful for dirt into sifters, or we crouched in backbreaking positions with hand trowels and toothbrushes (toothbrushes, for god’s sake!) for the detail work. I was there exactly 32 days and in all that time I found only one thing: squirrel bones. That’s it. Squirrel bones. Sean at least found a button. And the way he gloated over it all summer you’d have thought he found the body of Junipero Serra himself. But I was the squirrel bone queen. The first one I found I thought it was yet another onion root. But one of the grad students enlightened me. By the end of job I was extremely proficient in the classification and identification of squirrel bones. I could have majored in them.
The entire dig seemed to me to be a big bust. We had the walls of the garrison, which we already knew. But in terms of artifacts, we didn’t find much. Sean’s much-heralded button. Some old strips of leather. A few old bottles and a knife or two. Hardly the lost treasure of the Sierra Madre. From a historical standpoint it was important. But to two 17-year olds who were tired, sunburned, sore, and longing to have some fun it was hardly the Summer of Love.
The grad students wanted nothing to do with us, being extremely superior in both age and education. The other high schoolers actually seemed to enjoy themselves and were excessively Catholic and, therefore, lame. So Sean and I bonded over our shared misery and blisters. Doctor never did learn our names. For the entire summer Sean was “Sam.” He never even got close to my name. I was just a mumble.
We did learn basic archeology techniques – something that has proved to be an utterly useless skill in my life. Sean got sunstroke and had to go to the hospital one afternoon for fluids. We both got fed up one night, broke curfew and drove into the nearest town for burgers and onion rings. Nobody noticed we were gone so we made it a regular thing. Once a week we’d take off, in spite of the fact that Belen’s enchiladas were the best thing going.
But we got up with the dawn every day, put on our Frankenstein boots and our Gilligan hats and picked up our toothbrushes. We sifted dirt under the melting sun until the sweat and dirt ran in muddy tears down our faces. We found the remains of every squirrel that ever died in California. We worked ourselves into exhaustion and fits of giggles. We told lame knock-knock jokes to relieve the boredom and made up rude limericks about the Doctor.
And we counted off the days until we were done.
On our last day, I think we were actually sad to say goodbye. At least to Belen, who gave us a doggy bag of tortillas and black beans & rice for the road. We pulled out of the compound without a backward glance, eager only for the roadtrip and the chance to sleep past 7 am in our own beds.
Looking back on that summer, I wish I could say it’s now colored in the pale rose light of all good flashbacks. But I can’t. It was hot and miserable work with unfriendly people. But it did give me a new appreciation for the eternal hardiness of squirrel bones.