Marvin Riehl was born on “the old Dillas place” on April 27, 1917. When he was two and a half years old, his father bought a half section of land (320 acres) close to the airbase. For the next 13 years, the family lived and worked on this ranch. They planted wheat on their own land and “sharecropped” other patches of land—that is, they planted and harvested it and split the profits with the owners. They also kept sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, and horses. The family expanded to include seven children: Everett, Raymond, Marvin, Edgar, Bernard, Thelma, and Kenneth.
They grew or raised everything they ate, except flour, and Marvin and his siblings never went hungry. They sold milk, eggs, and chickens, and had regular customers who stopped by.
Mr. Riehl bought a pair of ponies from the jitney service in Suisun. (Jitneys were public transport—in this case, fringed surreys.) One of the ponies died, but the other, Myrtle, was a fast little Hungarian roan on which Marvin’s oldest brother, Everett, won races. Marvin noted with a twinkle that Myrtle was also his mother’s name.
What did Marvin do for fun when he was a kid? Well, he remembers that one Christmas he got a little bus made out of lead, and he played in the sand with this. Another Christmas, one of the uncles gave the children some very nice toys—Marvin got a “chugger” pedal toy which had to be welded back together more than once, since Marvin gave it plenty of use. When he got a little older, he carved redwood pickets into airplanes. He rode the pony. He went to the slough and and caught animals which he took home to show off and then let go. He ate homemade ice cream, which he still mentions with enthusiasm. “Maybe,” grinned Marvin, “I got into mischief.”
There was music in the Riehl house. Marvin’s mother liked the violin, and bought Everett a violin and metronome. He preferred the guitar and the accordion, which he played at parties and dances. He played sometimes at Recreation Beach, a sort of resort/bar, on Putah Creek.
The first radio the Riehls had was battery-powered. For some reason that radio wasn’t working when Tunney fought the heavyweight boxing champion Dempsey in 1927, so Marvin’s dad drove with some neighbors over to the Casey place to listen to the fight. Marvin recalls that when they returned home, his dad and the neighbors were “all excited” by this match in which the underdog was knocked to the mat in the seventh round but then got back on his feet to win the championship.
The first story Marvin read “without permission” was Call of the Wild. He read it in installments in Redbook magazine, but was unable to get his hands on every issue. He didn’t read the whole thing until much later, but he “fell in love with the story.”
Marvin attended school in a one-room schoolhouse, with 12 to 15 other students. He was “happy as a clam” at school until about sixth grade, when they got a new teacher who smacked students with a ruler. Square roots “kinda buffaloed” him, but he loved to read, and often read instead of doing the lessons he was supposed to be working on in class. This didn’t seem to affect his grades much. “They passed me,” Marvin said dryly. He started at Armijo High School in Fairfield when he was 12.
Marvin’s dad had asthma, and the doctor would make house calls to give him shots for this. One day Marvin was out puttering with the John Deere, opening up the Eisman magneto and cleaning the points, then mowing half a field of hay, when Marvin’s brother ran out to fetch him back to the house. Marvin’s father was having an asthma attack, and could barely breathe. He managed to gasp out “You’re . . . going to . . . have . . . to take . . . over . . . the ranch” to Marvin. Someone ran to the neighbor to phone the doctor, who quickly administered medication when he arrived. When Mr. Riehl was able to breathe again, he told Marvin that he would need to be the one who kept the ranch operating, because he was dependable. Marvin felt this was a great compliment, a “flower in my cap.”
In 1930, Marvin’s dad borrowed money from a Fairfield businessman to buy a brand new John Deere tractor. He planted a big wheat crop, hoping for a good return. But the very day they pulled the harvester into the field, the price of wheat dropped drastically. They harvested it anyway, storing it in burlap sacks made in San Quentin, and hauling it out of the fields with horse and wagon.
His parents didn’t discuss their financial crisis in front of the children, but Marvin “hung around and drew [his] own conclusions.” When Mr. Riehl drove to his brother-in-law’s place to talk to him, Marvin rode along. He figured from what he observed that his father asked his uncle for money to help pay off the tractor debt, and was denied.
1932 was a hard year. In June, the Riehls lost five-year-old Thelma. She was a sweet little girl who could have acted spoiled because her brothers and parents doted on her, but Marvin remembers that she was “gracious.” She ran a little fever one day, but on the next, during an end-of-the-year school picnic at Green Valley Falls, her fever spiked upward. Mrs. Riehl got her to the doctor, who prescribed half an aspirin, and then took her home. When Marvin got home after the picnic, he ran in and asked “How’s sister?” His mother urged Marvin to take a look at Thelma, saying “I don’t like what I see.” The fever had broken but the little girl was not conscious. One of the brothers ran to the neighbor to call the doctor, but by the time he arrived, Thelma was gone.
In December, the Riehls lost their ranch. They had to move during one of the the coldest Decembers on record for this part of California. He remembers tying the reins up on the jockey box, and walking behind the wagon from the ranch to 20 rented acres. They took the chickens, horses, sheep, the John Deere tractor, and a Maytag washer with them.
Soon after, things got even worse. Oldest brother Everett and a cousin went out in the Model T, driving in a rainstorm. When Everett returned home, he was cold and wet and complained of feeling terrible. He rolled up his pantleg to show a large black spot on his leg, apparently the result of a black widow spider bite. He fell quickly, horribly, ill. Marvin wonders if the bite on Everett’s leg lowered his resistance to the pneumonia and delirium that overtook him. In desperation, they tried to load him in the car to take him to Woodland, to a doctor there who had interned at the Mayo Clinic. Everett screamed and fought so hard they couldn’t get him in the car. A few days later, he died.
Marvin has had two great loves in his life: airplanes, and his wife Vaudis. When he first saw an airplane, his “whole heart went out to them—until I got a little older!” He joined the Army Air Corps in 1939 “in maintenance,” and during the war, met the woman who would become his wife. He credits her with keeping their home running and supporting his efforts to become a pilot, even though she was afraid of flying.
But that’s another story!