My Missouri cousin Bill would fool you. He?s a six-feet-something, hard-charging, colloquial-talking (to put it politely), interstate truck driver. He has a heart the size of the national debt. Perhaps because he was raised in a small town where life proceeds at a leisurely pace and where the people you knew, you knew very well but cared about them anyway. Bill?s favorite pastime is visiting. This means sitting on the porch awhile, trading stories or reminiscing about people who are no longer with us but who highly entertained us when they were.

Bill would love Casmalia. He would probably have reached out and given Terri Ostini Stricklin the hug of her life if he had been there that morning in the Hitching Post when, after she and Vic Veglia had indulged me with stories of Casmalia?s past, Terri sent me out the door with a Thermos of hot coffee and a box of warm brownies to visit with her neighbor across the parking lot. BTake these with you. We like to take care of Miss Gaye.C

Bill would probably be there at Miss Gaye?s yet. He would have lapped up her stories like a kitten lapping cream. But then, who wouldn?t?

Gaye?s mother and father met in high school in Santa Maria in 1931. It was that peculiar time when, if you wanted to get a buzz, you had to brew your own gin. Gaye?s grandparents operated a feedlot to keep the animals fed in Casmalia and had a house there occupied only occasionally. It had a bathtub. Perfect.

The high school kids set up shop. Gaye?s future father, an entrepreneur if there ever was one, guarded the door to the bathroom. When a girl wanted in to use the room for traditional purposes, he collected a kiss as price of admittance. Her future mother evidently had to go rather often, for she eventually married the doorkeeper.

Some time later, the young Mr. and Mrs. Billington set forth from their home in Orcutt for a fishing trip up north. Never mind that the missus was very pregnant. It turns out that they did have to mind, for little Gaye made her entrance into the world, helped by her father, on the back seat of the car. He rushed his wife and brand-new daughter to the nearest medical facility 8 the state mental hospital at Atascadero.

Are there cosmic connections between the seemingly random events of our lives?

Gaye left home at 17. She attended various colleges, finally putting together a teaching degree from the University of Alaska. Her teaching career spanned the continent north to south 8in Alaska and in Mexico. She conceived a project of bringing some Mexican students to Alaska and taking a group of native Alaskans to Mexico. None had ever been outside his native environment. She remembers a young Alaskan boy at the airport as they were waiting to board. He was standing with his nose almost against the outside wall of the terminal, staring at it transfixed.

BLook at this! They made this with little tiny stones!C The walls were stucco.

Her travels crisscrossed the ocean. She went to Europe and went back and back again. At the age of 65, she back-packed for six months through Ireland, the land of her ancestors.

Before she went, she read a packet of letters from a long-deceased relative from Ireland who never made it to America because of illness. In one letter the writer vividly described the view from her hospital room, looking across a river at the town beyond.

Gaye decided to find the town and the hospital. She wanted to see the view that her relative had so poignantly described.

Arrived in Ireland, she caught a bus for the town and asked the driver where the hospital was. He said tersely, BYou can?t miss it.C When they got to the town, the driver yelled, BWhere?s the American?C He pointed across the river. BThere?s your hospital.C

Looming along the bank of the river for as far as she could see was the gray stone shell of what had been an immense structure, long since abandoned. She walked through vacant rooms. She didn?t need a guide to tell her that this had been a mental hospital. Various restraint contraptions and the window bars told her. She looked out a window at the view across the river. It was just as her relative had described it. For Gaye, it was an eerie experience. For her listener, there was a flicker of connection to the story of her birth.

Hot coffee in hand, Gaye took me on a tour of her home.

BIn 1983 this place was called >The Hideout?. Guys would bring their girlfriends here.C

We toured three small bedrooms in one end of the building. A claw-footed bathtub sat in one room. I wondered if faint traces of gin ever wafted upward. A long room at the other end used to be a bar and dance floor. The repainting in progress there is part of the transformation of a large, shed-like structure into a place of warmth and charm.

I left Gaye?s to stroll the length of Casmalia. It didn?t take long. The main street is four blocks long with houses built close together and close to the road. Some seem untouched since their construction years ago. Others are small but neatly kept.

The big activity in town that day was the digging up of front yards to replace old water pipes and install new water meters. The Casmalia General Store was closed. A sign on the door, however, promised things to come: BWent 2 buy beer.C In the Post Pffice next door the postmistress had just put up the mail; letters showed through the windows of shiny, brass boxes.

An antique vehicle pulled up and parked. The driver turned out to be Raymond Beltran. I asked about his car. BIt?s a ?29 Chevy truck.C No, he has no plans to paint it.

Near the west end of town was a surprise 8 a modern school building with shiny playground apparatus. The sign says BWinifred Wollam Elementary School.C Reyes Gonzalez and Susie Robinson, office manager and child nutrition worker respectively, graciously took time to show me around and chat a bit, explaining that the school was about to begin its second year.

Later, Principal Joe Dana explained that the new Casmalia school is a charter school, that it and a charter high school in Orcutt form the Orcutt Academy.

I asked him how things were going in Casmalia.

BWe?re excited about this school. Casmalia is a people-oriented, not task-oriented, society. Their emphasis on people is manifested by the way the kids treat each other and the involvement of parents.C He added, BThe school is earning the trust of this community.C

Trust seemed to abound in Casmalia. As I was walking back to my car, a young man was getting out of his truck by the Post Office. I asked if he was part of the pipe replacement effort.

BNo,C he said, gesturing to the left half of the Post Office building, BI live here. Come on in,C and with that, he invited a perfect stranger into his home for a chat. Bill would have understood Mike Pender, spear fisherman and beekeeper. He sent me off with a jar of wildflower honey.

I was loath to leave Casmalia, but I hit upon the perfect ending: a baby back rib dinner at The Hitching Post. The ribs were drop-dead delicious. Even better: Bob Ostini, part owner and barbecue chef, came over to the table and visited awhile.

Lompoc Record Correspondent Allie Kay Spaulding can be reached at alliekay@verizon .net.

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