by Charlie Chin.

“There’s a raccoon in the laundry room again.”  My wife scurried off to the kitchen throwing a look of concern over her shoulder at me.   She worried constantly that a mountain lion or Grizzly Bear, might show up at our front door.  It was one of the things I didn’t think of when we moved to Fort Bragg.  The local wildlife was the last thing on my mind.  I only saw the cheaper cost of living, the chance to do my work, and the clear fresh air.  All that and the people were nice.   My nearest neighbor, Jim Shakes Willow, was Yurok Indian, an old guy who still lived close to nature and the land.  His people had been up here for thousands of years.  When I was a kid my Chinese immigrant father told me, “The American Indians are our cousins.”  I asked him how he knew that and he replied, “Look at their faces.”  And it was true.  Old Jim Shakes Willow looked like a distant uncle of mine.

Because his place was next to ours, I used to see him all the time.  Sometimes he would be in his backyard cooking salmon on an open fire or tanning a fresh deer skin by hand with coarse salt and wood ashes.  I would wave hello and after a minute, he would wave back.  This went on for a couple of weeks, then one day, Genny and I just walked over and started talking to him.

“Hi, I’m Dave Chen, and this is my wife Genny,”

“Jim Shakes Willow.  You folks just moved into the old Hanson place“

Yes, we’re from San Francisco.  I’m working a project so we’re going to be here for a while.”  After that we would engage in small talk whenever our paths crossed.  When he first saw my Asian face he thought I might be Miwok or Ohlone.  Or maybe that was just his little joke, hard to tell with Jim, he kept a straight face most of the time.  If he had any negative feelings about my wife Genny, being a White woman, he never showed it.  He was always friendly and took the time to show us the local plants that were edible and how to tell what the weather was going to be next winter by watching the caterpillars.  It was nice.

Once my history of the San Francisco Chinatown was finished, I could move back to civilization and be counted among the living again.  That was the plan.  You might ask why I didn’t move to Grant Avenue instead of some place that didn’t have a decent Cha Siu Bow, and I’ll tell you.  If you are a writer, you have to step back several feet to get a clear view of a subject.  Things at that distance are more clearly seen and analyzed.  And in San Francisco things were too close, and too filled distractions.

I had it all planned, the place, the project, even how I would survive by writing porn and emailing it to my publisher.  She was going to publish the copy under one of my pen names, Alejandro Asivero.  In the meantime, I studied up on how to raise chickens and the best way to do raised bed gardening.  It was all worked out.

What I didn’t plan on was, my Genny getting sick.  First it was just an upset stomach, then it wouldn’t go away.  The next thing we knew, she lost her appetite, and the sight of food made her sick.  It was when blood started to show up in her stool, that we got really freaked out.  We drove back down to San Francisco to see a doctor.  There were tests, and then there were more tests.  The medical people never make a firm statement until they have exhausted every costly test they can think of.  We had to borrow some money from Genny’s folks.  Believe me, that was not a picnic.  Mr. Jorgenson, Genny’s father, who wasn’t keen about here marrying an Asian guy to begin with, made it plain that he thought that not only I had let her down by not making enough money to take care of her, he implied that I was probably the cause of her illness.

Jim Shakes Willow came by one day with a gift of a couple of fresh rabbits he had snared.  He showed me how to do it once, with some string and a few bent tree branches, but I didn’t have the knack.  I never ate rabbit before, but he assured me it was just like chicken.  He was such a nice guy.  Like all Indians, he had that relationship with the land that I could only admire from a distance.  He walked quietly, so quietly sometimes I didn’t even realize he was on the front porch until he coughed gently to signal somebody was there.  And he could spend an hour looking at the new moon, as if he could read the future in its shining face.

We got to talking about a month later, and he politely inquired, “Something wrong my friend?”  Maybe it was the stress and the long trips to San Francisco, but I just broke down and found myself crying.  It came out all at once.

“Genny’s sick.  We don’t know with what.  I’m afraid she might die. We’re running out of money and I’m just, I just don’t know what to do.”

He frowned and asked,

“You been to see the doctors in San Francisco and they don’t know what’s wrong?”  He made a grim face and asked for particulars.  When I told him what I knew, he frowned again.  He drew a deep breath and asked, “Maybe I could help.”

How sweet. The old guy was going to suggest some Indian root or herb.  I shook my head.

“Thanks Jim, but we’ve seen all the doctors and they don’t know what it is.”  He rubbed his chin, “I can’t say for sure, but it sounds like she has become infected with Helicobacter Plylori.”

“With what?”

“H. Plylori.  It’s a kind of a bacteria that can cause an ulcer.  It’s triggered by stress.  You might try an anti-biotic for 10 days and see what happens.”

“What causes this H. Plylori?”

“Usually, bad leaky plumbing, unsanitary conditions.  Has she ever been to another country?  Maybe like Haiti?”

“No, but she did volunteered for a couple of years after college in West Virginia.  She taught elementary school in one of the poorer areas.”

“That might be it.”

“Jim, how do you know about these things?”  He pushed back the weathered hat on his head and sheepishly replied,

“Well, I was a physician at the Seattle General Hospital.”  I looked at him in disbelieve and he went on.

“Yes, I was head of the Gastrointestinal Department.  I only retired about five years ago.  You see Dave, when I finished Med School, I went right into a position at Stanford, then as they years went by, one thing led to another, I got married, had a couple of kids, my eldest boy is down in Simi Valley now.  He’s got a nice practice as a dentist and Shelia, well; my daughter runs her own Beauty Product line.  After my wife passed away and the kids were grown, I wanted to come back to my grandfather’s place, to live the way we used to when I as a boy.   It’s comforting for me to do things the old way.  Helps to keep me centered. But I still have a physician’s license and do some consulting.  Let me write you a prescription for an antibiotic and you get it filled down a Klein’s Drug store in downtown Fort Bragg.”


Old Jim knew his stuff.  Genny took the pills, went without drinking alcohol for two weeks and she got better.  The bleeding stopped and she start to take an interest in cooking and the rearranging the house furniture again.  I thanked Jim many times, but he waved it off and said it was nothing.  That fall, he started building a kind of cedar wood and mud hut next to his garage.  When I asked him what it was, he told me that it was a “sweat lodge.”  You sat inside, built a fire, heated up rocks, and pour water over them to produce steam.  You sat in the steam and sweated out the toxins in your body.   When I told her, Genny shouted with delight, “It’s a sauna!”  She wanted to try it right away.

Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

Photos taken in the Fort Bragg and Mendocino area, 2019 by Eddie Wong.

1 Comment

  1. PJY on April 10, 2021 at 4:11 pm

    Nice details about the doctor’s sentiments and perspective. I wish there were more stories about the relationship between Asians and Native Americans.

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