I was heading up Highway 99 on my way up to Coos Bay , Oregon , to see my sister and my brother-in-law . Coos Bay is about a third the way up the Oregon coast , I guess . And I planned to then drive on up to Portland see my friends Joe and Susan . A long drive ; short visits . Joe’s the guy who got me started on this blog .
I was taking 99 in order to go a little east , easter , or eastlier , more easterly, at least , than I would ordinarily go . I wanted to take the Preston School of Industry tour . It only comes around one day a month . Saturday was the day and I was ready . Ione , California . It’s in Ione , California . Ione is in the California gold country , on the western border , you might say , of the Mother Lode .
I spent the night in Galt , California . Galt is on the 99 , just south of the 104 east that leads over to Ione . Galt was a good launching spot , about 26 miles from Ione .
When I got to Ione I asked a couple of joggers for directions . They were jogging along a white-shining sidewalk in a housing complex called , if I’m not mistaken , the Preston Castle Grounds . It’s one of those planned communities , all newly -built housing , a clubhouse with a pool and tennis courts , probably squash courts too , and manicured parkways , and non-native plants like mad . It’s all spotless . No gate , though , so I got in .
Can you tell me where the Preston Castle is ? I asked the joggers . It’s got to be around here somewhere .
The Preston School of Industry is the name that the State of California gave to this reform school built out in the middle of nowhere in the late 1800s . The young men inmates there were called wards .
It’s ………. , the man said , and he turned his head ……… It’s there . He pointed to a tall old stone tower a bit further along the main road .
I was there early . I always get there early ; doesn’t matter what for . That’s a good habit and a bad habit , I suppose . The Preston School of Industry , known colloquially as The Castle , would open , on it’s once a month schedule , at 10:00 a.m. When I drove up to the gate , which was open , there was a sign on a stand that said KEEP OUT . I’m not about to drive on up to the entrance when a sign says KEEP OUT .
But the gate was open , after all , and I could see someone up there ; so , I started to walk up the slope . They could kick me out if they chose to ; I wasn’t up to no good . I figured that I’d ask the man up there when the place opens . He shouted at me , though , You can drive on up ! , and I shouted back that I would ; and I did .
There was another man on the porch . Long white hair . String of beads around his neck . Pale grey Stetson hat . So , how’d you hear about this place , Dude ? he asked . He looked like an Indian , feather , not spot . He sounded like an Indian , too , his soft but resonant voice coming from deep within his throat , as if his words were not just cast-off utterances but were an essential part of his being .
He called me Dude . I don’t mind being called Dude . My neighbor Don , though , hates to be called Dude . Another neighbor called Don Dude ten years ago or more and Don hasn’t talked to the guy since . He might as well have called me shit , hey shit , Don said . I tried explaining to Don that to be called Dude just isn’t so bad ; but Don is 92 years old and I don’t think he’s going to soften on the Dude front .
I live in Arcadia a couple of blocks , as it turns out , from the spot where the only Arcadia cop killed in the line of duty was shot . In 1927 Officer Albert Mathies , one midnight , walked over to question three young men who were sitting in a suspiciously -parked car . The guy in the back seat pulled a pistol and shot Mathies a few times , one fatal shot entered his neck The three boys lived in L.A. , but they had met and become friends at The Preston School of Industry in Ione , California .
So I had to check the place out , I told the Indian .
Are you here alone ? he asked , and when I answered in the affirmative he graciously and kindly adopted me for a few minutes .
He had been an inmate at the place , as it turned out . He was sent up there to Ione because he had escaped from the Whittier facility . Whittier is down near Los Angeles . Merle Haggard was a ward at the Castle at the same time , he said . They didn’t teach anyone any industry , he said . I had asked . We all just kind of horsed around , he said . But the staff were cool . They’d yell a lot to try to show authority , but they never hit you . At Whittier they’d hit you , push you , he remembered . I got hit over there at Whittier .
He is a volunteer at the Castle nowadays . I asked him more questions . I forgot to ask him , however , how it felt to be back there , his former detention site . He found a list of former wards and brought it out for me to look for the names of the 1927 cop killer and his two buddies , but the list was incomplete and I didn’t find their names . I found Lee J. Cobb’s name . The guy who played Rochester on the Jack Benny show had been a ward there , too . Rory Calhoun had been there , also , for stealing a car . He had escaped at least once , as had Merle Haggard .
I didn’t get a good sense of how the reform school experience was in the old days . The interior of the building is in extreme disrepair. The place had been decorated for Halloween , too , and many of the decorations were still up , making for an unreal atmosphere . Also , there seems to be a strong fascination among the volunteer group with the haunted aspects of the Castle . On the tour the guide was continually pointing out known ” hot spots ” where spirits had been detected .
When I finished my guided tour the former ward in the Stetson hat and beads had vanished . Too bad . I had some more questions for him . It might have been unfair to ask them , though , and to expect him to shed light on the mysteries of the place and of lives , his or anyone else’s , or to solve the endless enigmas that seem to be ceaselessly twisted and whittled and amended with the passage of time .