They couldn’t settle down. The storm’s waves splashed water onto their beaks. They sought refuge flying from pond to pond. At the levee, we waited for them.
Battling the gale, their wings flapped franticly. They flew slow and low to pass the levee. We rose up from hiding and confronted them. Too late, they attempted to veer. We, shot. In a tuff of feathers, they folded and thudded on the levee. It was point and shoot. They kept coming, singles, doubles, triples or more until we had limits, 11 back then, the only time we did.
We tied their legs together into bundles and draped them over our shoulders to carry. They were Blue Bills or Scaups, (Aythya marila), a common San Francisco Bay duck.
Shotguns in hand, our trophies trussed on shoulders, we climbed atop the gray, clods of levee dirt. Atop, faces to the full force of the gale, we scanned across Leslie Salt Company’s vast salt water evaporation pond. Bobbing in the waves, a greater prize greeted us.
From the center of the pond, a flotilla of decoys had broken lose from their moorings. The wind and white caps dragged their lead anchors across the pond’s bottom. We watched transfixed as they inched closer.
As they drew near, most revealed themselves as balsa wood blocks, painted white in the center and black at both ends, Blue Bill decoys. Headless, they resembled miniature cop cars.
Among them, however, was a cop car with its red light on, a decoy of royalty, a drake Canvasback, (Aythya valisineria).
The evaporation ponds were shallow but the area next to the levee was deep. It was from there the muck was dredged up and plopped down to make the levee. We had to wait until the decoys hit the deep water, then docked at the levee. I’d spotted the Canvasback first and claimed it as mine. Its anchor cleared the shallows, it passed the deep water and into my grasp. With the string and anchor tied around its neck, I tucked it under my coat, next to my chest, to carry back. On leaving my dilemma was, with it, my shotgun and tassel of dead ducks, how many of the Blue Bill decoys could I carry.
Burdened with trophy greed, we stumbled back across the uneven terrain of the levees to our bikes parked next to Laine’s Grocery Store in Alviso. There, with a complicated balancing act, I mounted my bike, shotgun breached across the handlebars, dead ducks draped over shoulders, balsa decoys dangling on the frame and cuddled in my coat, the prize of the day; a San Francisco Bay, hand carved wood, Canvasback decoy. Its patina from Bay exposure and a few shot shell dots to attested to its service and authenticity as an Alviso, duck hunting decoy.
While everyone had heard of Alviso, had a vague notion of where it was, few visited. Its reputation put it on the, best if skipped list.
Alviso is at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. In November, 1958, the day I pulled my decoy out of the water, it was a woebegone little town at the north end of the Santa Clara Valley, California, now referred to as Silicon Valley.
Originally it was the pueblo center of a vast Spanish Ranchero of bull fights and fiestas, where the Valley transitioned from land to estuaries and then the open San Francisco Bay. Back then, El Toro and grizzlies roamed the land, water fowl blacked the sky when disturbed and oysters and fish teemed in the estuaries and Bay.
When the gringos arrived, the Ranchero was confiscated and subdivided. The town, for a brief period, was the embarkment port for San Francisco 49’s on their way to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In response, it shifted from sleepy pueblo hacienda to bawdy, port, boom town. The 1906 earthquake and extraction of the aquifer for agriculture subsequently dropped its elevation making it prone to flooding. The city of San Jose ran their sewer line nearby to the Bay.
In the 1920’s, the vast tidal marsh estuaries between the town and the deep water of the Bay were subdivided by dredged levees into sterile, salt evaporations ponds by Leslie Salt Company. Subject to flooding, the whiff of sewage’s odor and the closure of its fish canneries, it became a rundown, semi-ghost town.
The town was excluded from the development which swept the rest of Silicon Valley after World War II. The town, while abandoned by many, remained independent due to its early heritage days. Its lone, elected police officer was amendable to follies forbidden elsewhere for those who did visit and the town retained a bawdy reputation from its boom years.
A few notable restaurants thrived but the primary respectable endeavor for going there was duck hunting. The peak time for duck hunting is sunrise. Before the morning shoot and after, duck hunters frequented Alviso’s restaurants with Vahl’s, the grand dame.
It was a classic, 1950’s Italian restaurant run by a diminutive woman with flaming red dyed hair. A town matriarch, it was also whispered she oversaw a gambling den on the second floor and an annex of ill repute out back.
The duck hunters were divided into two groups, club members and freelancers. Club members leased blinds on Leslie Salt Company’s ponds, accessed their blinds by boat and never waded in swamp muck. Around their blinds they laid rafts of decoys to attract ducks with shooting limited to Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays to confuse the ducks. With their concealed blinds in the middle of the ponds and decoys, a limit was their common tally. The blinds were reported to provide all the comforts but, as a freelancer, I never was inside one.
The free lancer’s lot, in contrast, was a single-track rail line which left Alviso at Lane’s Grocery Store, a local landmark. Its elevated, embankment traversed the salt evaporation ponds to Fremont, in Alameda County. About midway, it crossed the estuary confluence of the Guadalupe and Coyote Rivers and a humble Drawbridge, built when boats connected San Jose with the Bay, obviously long unused. There, a ghost town on wood stilts, know by that name hinted of a past reputation bawdier than Alviso’s, including oyster pirates, market duck hunters, gamblers and a famous Chinese madam.
It was legal for free lancers to shoot on the rail line. They were forbidden, however, to trespass onto Leslie Salt Company’s levees. Free lancers were the peons of duck hunting. Limited to the rail line, they did what was called, pass shooting, or sky scraping. They hid behind the rail embankment, waited until a duck to winged overhead, rose up and shot. Ducks knew to gain altitude prior to flying over the rail line. The result was pass shooters carried big gauge guns with long barrels and heavy shot shells. Their shooting was heard as muffled whoop, whoop, whoop in town which added to Alviso’s character.
The town’s woebegone character, colorful historic past, rumored lingering shady activities, vast open salt ponds, dredged levees and, the rail line were adventure lures to 2 boys with bikes from Santa Clara. At age 12, my friend Mike, inherited a 12 gauge, Browning, automatic shotgun when his dad died. I purchased a 16-gauge double barrel Fox shotgun on a lay-away plan with newspaper route earnings.
With shotguns straddling our bike’s handlebars, we peddled from Santa Clara on Layfette Street in the predawn darkness, the 8 miles to Alviso. We passed smelly dairies, the Agnew state mental hospital, pear orchards, the city dump, the start of wet lands and finally came to the hump of Highway 237.
Highway 237 was elevated to prevent its flooding and blocked our view of Alviso. Pushing our bikes up and cresting the highway, Alviso revealed itself, poor, rundown and unprotected from flooding. Lafayette Street, in a twist of irony, turned into Gold Street entering Alviso.
We coasted down Gold Street to Elizabeth Street and Laine’s Grocery Store, a relic from the bawdy past. There, we parked our bikes, trekked on the adjacent rail line’s creosote ties and entered a surreal world.
It was a world created by Leslie Salt. Bay water was shuttled from pond to pond as the salinity increased from evaporation until the water turned pink. At the end, evaporation created a pond crusted with salt which was scraped into a silver-white crystal mountain before packaging.
The secure, high rock embankment of the rail line traversed cord grass and pickle weed estuaries, the sterile gray colored salt evaporation ponds and the gray levees which formed them, a spiderweb pattern to the Bay.
On the right, following the rail line, were high wire, electric transmission towers with concrete feet anchored in tidal muck. They were connected by wood elevated cat walks, bleached grey and often missing a plank.
In the distance, dim lines of civilization were evident, the General Motors plant in Fremont, the blimp hanger of Moffett Field in Mountain View and next to it the vast complex of Lockheed Missal and Aircraft Company where the roar of rocket engines occasionally thundered across the ponds. The hills of the Diablo Range rose above the horizon, clearly visible, unlike from at home viewed through smog's haze.
From the rail line, Mike and I traipsed onto a selected levee and stepped around posted Leslie Salt’s, red and white signs forbidding access. While free lancers, we were poachers. Hiding from Leslie Salt’s wardens enhanced our hunting adventure.
With guns in hand, we stumbled over the irregular levee terrain to a suitable hunting spot. Once settled, we shivered awaiting the sun’s rise over the Diablo Range. With daylight, we crouched low and hid our faces if ducks came toward us. Once in shooting range we stood up and shot. Usually we missed as they flew high, fast and veered when seeing us.
Levee outlaws, we were a status above rail line pass shooters. We envied the aristocrat hunters in blinds, surrounded by decoys. We were lucky to shoot a duck or two. They, concealed in blinds, surrounded by decoys, usually shot limits.
The one time better than dawn for San Francisco Bay duck hunting, is when a high wind storm blows. It needs be a real one, white caps not only on the Bay but out on Lesli Salt’s ponds. The one which occurred in November 1958, when Mike and I were 14 remains fresh in my memory even now when 75.
The Canvasback, decoy trophy of that day is still with me. It’s a keepsake which followed me through life despite many moves. It, with a headless Blue Bill decoy, sits on my fire place mantel to bring back the Alviso of my youth, once a special place for me.
It wasn’t until middle age I experienced a tinge of remorse at the owner’s loss. In answer to him, surely dead now, I can say, I took good care of it.
I recently re-visited Alviso. Unlike during my youth, development has finally seeped into it, despite its drawbacks. It’s now part of the City of San Jose, the city which abused it so long. Laine’s was still there but closed and decrepit. It collapsed in a heap, shortly after my visit. The tidal areas are still misused to produce salt but are now part of a national park. I didn’t walk out on the rail line to a levee. Park status has resulted in swarms of visitors.
Vahl’s is still there and open. I stopped there for dinner. A niece of the little, red dyed haired, matron operates it. Her living quarters are on the second floor. The rear annex is gone. While its 1950’s Italian restaurant décor and fare have been faithfully retained, it’s a hangout for electronics engineers. At the bar, I reminisced as an old man is wont to do.
After dinner, I walked to my car. I wanted to retrace the route once biked to the home of my youth in Santa Clara.
Opening the car door, I looked back at Vahl's aglow in neon lights. I understood, Alviso was no longer my Alviso. It belongs to others.