8 Orville Arms

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  • Orville Arms at Veterans Memorial Park. Chowchilla, Madera County.

  • I met Orville Arms in the shade of grand, old cottonwood trees.

    He carried a walking stick fashioned from a length of PVC tubing and a few strips of electrical tape, which he used to make slow laps around the perimeter of the park in downtown Chowchilla. He walks the route four times a day, for exercise and, I suspect, for the opportunity of chance encounters like ours.

    Orville’s family left their farm in Oklahoma during the Dustbowl and arrived in Chowchilla in 1934. At sixteen Orville left home and began working on farms to support himself, but he saw no future in it. “When I was twenty, I said I thank you for a good job you have gave me, and thank you for letting me work for you, but you don’t pay enough money. I gotta leave, I gotta move.” He moved into more profitable industries, and at thirty left the Valley altogether for the Bay Area, where he helped build the AC Transit system. Not until sixty did he move back to Chowchilla, as a retiree, because his daughter was there.

    The day I met Orville he was eighty-two. Until the week before, his grandson and four great-grandchildren had been living in Chowchilla, too, but the news of the day was that they were officially gone—moved to Las Vegas. His grandson, a helicopter pilot, had found a job flying tourists over the Grand Canyon, and he couldn’t pass it up—not in this economy. “We hated to see them leave,” Orville told me. “It’s the first time they’ve ever been away from us, but you’ve got to go where the money is. I did.”