Sheridan Peterson had come back to Windsor just once in fifty-six years, and now here he was living just a mile and a half from the farm where he'd grown up. The old house in Faught Road, that was built by a Spanish rancher in the early eighteen hundreds, is still there. Peterson had left Vietnam in '75 rather unexpectedly and was on his way to the Middle East when he and his family stopped off in Windsor. He Stayed at Ethel Brook's farm for three months and worked for the Santa Rosa City Schools on an upward bound program. He also taught journalism at Napa Community College two hours a day two days a week. It all but paid for the gas. Then he was off for Saudi Arabia to teach business English at Riyadh University's Faculty of Commerce.
At eighty he has come home. However, the town has changed in a half century. Old Windsor has nearly disappeared. The row of shops bordering the town square seem to him like Disneyland's Main Street. U.S.A. Nothing that he is able to relate to.
Peterson's great grandfather, Barzillai Ames Peterson, who is buried a Shiloh Cemetery, bought the three hundred and eighty acre Orangedale Farm on Faught Road in 1880. The captain of a Clipper Ship, he first came to California in 1848, lured by stories of the gold rush and struck it rich panning for gold on the North Fork of the American River. Barzillai then served as a cavalry officer under General Philip Sheridan's command during the Civil War.That's how Peterson acquired his name, Sheridan.
His grandfather, Sheridan Peterson,I, had planted twenty some acres of oranges, grapefruit and lemons on a hillside next to his home. Luther Burbank had advised him to plant them there pointing out that the slope would protect the citrus trees from the frost. Now all that remains is the old house which has been restored and looks more antiquated than ever as well as the barn across the road. A few exotic carob trees from Palestine have survived hidden in among scrub oak to the north along Faught Road, as well as a row of olive trees that stretch up the hill once separating the orange grove from a vineyard. The prune, Appple, peach, apricot, and cherry orchards have been replaced with endless rows of grapes that stretch for miles. What Peterson found most alarming was a large white house perched on a hill some six hundred feet above the old home. Nothing ever stays the same, Peterson concluded. It is reminiscent of Thomas Wolf's last novel: "You Can't Go Home Again".
Peterson attended Hill School on Chalk Hill Road. His mother, Edith Coffey Peterson, was the teacher of this traditional one-room school house with a belfry and wood stove. It is now a private home. When the Groom family moved in 1936, the enrollment dropped from nine to two, and so the school closed. He and Bobby Jones transferred to Windsor School. His mother taught the seventh and eighth grade. People wondered why Peterson was so dull. After all his mother was a school teacher. They did not know that he was an abused child. His father, Captain Chauncey Peterson, a combat veteran of World War I, was sadistic. Contant beatings hampered Peterson's will to learn. He drew back within himself and spent much of his time alone finding solace in the hills behind his home.
When Peterson was eleven, his father left, and his mother sent him off to St. Vincent's school for Boys in the countryside just north of San Rafael. She couldn't be bothered with him. He was an interference. The school was in a sense a prison. Many of the boys were delinquents who had been arrested for petty crimes. Father Flannigan, of the famed Boy's Town farm in Kansas, selected boys from Catholic families and urged the court to send them to such places as St. Vincent's boarding school. Others were orphans who had grown up at the school. Peterson and several others were the exceptions. It was tough for him to adjust to these street-smart kids.
St. Vincent was an education in brutality. The older boys called Peterson, a big gangly kid from a Windsor farm, "Hick". Nearly every night someone wanted to fight him. It was great sport whipping the big awkward hillbilly. He knew nothing about fist fighting. He would invariably get knocked down, and Jim Long, the head prefect,would make him get to his feet and shake hands with his assailant. Long and the other prefects, priests and teachers loved these fights. They were great entertainment.
After this had gone on for four or five months, Glenn, an older boy, took Peterson aside and taught him how to fight. It annoyed him to see the big country bumpkin getting beat up by those half pint toughs. Peterson started showing some improvement and began winning most of his fights. One day Glenn told him that it was time to take on Red Foley, the toughest kid in the school. Sheridan was hesitant. He'd been brutally beaten by Foley before. He didn't want to go through that again. However, Glenn was insistent. "You've got to start at the top. Win this one, and you won't have anymore trouble." They studied Foley's style. He came in with his head down jabbing with both fists. "Give him the ol' one, two, three", Glenn said moving his fists in piston-like upper cuts. It worked. Sheridan laid Foley out flat on his back. His world changed. At that moment he was no longer "Hick". He was "Champ". the champ of St. Vincent.
When Sheridan was fifteen, he was out on his own. His grandfather had sold the farm and moved to Santa Rosa, and his mother and younger brother, Alden, also moved there. She taught fifth grade at Lewis and later at Burbank School. He was on his own. He struggled along at Healdsburg High School working after school and weekends at the Gilbert Lumber Company stacking lumber and during the summer months at the Basalt Rock Company and Miller's Dehydrating Plant. No one paid much attention to him. At fifteen he was a lost cause.
At sixteen, he and Bill Wright joined the Marines. After St. Vincent's, Marine Boot Camp was a cake walk. He was well prepared for the Marine Corps' brutality. Sheridan returned from the Pacific in 1946, and by 1947 had his Healdsburg High School diploma. Graduating from Santa Rosa Junior College in 1949, he went to the University of Missouri's Journalism School. He was ill prepared for country's most prestigious J school. It was a struggle. He worked nights at a college bar getting home in the early hours of morning. During the summer months, Peterson worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana as a Smokejumper, parachuting into wilderness areas to suppress forest fires. He graduated in 1954 from the University's College of Arts & Science with a BA degree. It was a miracle.
For a year he attended the University of Montana taking creative writing courses from his idols: Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Walter Van Tilberg Clark and renowned literary critic Leslie Fiedler. After working as a newspaper reporter for several years, Peterson returned to college to earn a secondary teaching credential and taught high school in Washington for ten and Montana for two years. While teaching at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland,a suburb of Seattle, he earned his instructor's license in skydiving at the Issaqua Skyport.
During the summer of 1965, the American Federation of Teachers enlisted Peterson to set up a freedom school in Mississippi and teach voter registration to the disenfranchised black populous.Sheridan felt obligated to do what his great grandfather Barzillai had failed. The black people in the South were no freer then than they had been at the end of the Civil War. Peterson marched in downtown Jackson with Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, demanding equal rights. Later that summer, he was imstrumental in helping to get thirty-five black people registered to vote in Amite County. They were the first blacks to ever register in that county. It was no easy task, for the county had been ruled by the Ku Klux Klan for a very long time. The experience made Peterson all too aware of how many different Americas there really were.
From there the U.S. Department of Defense sent Sheridan to Clark Air Base in the Philippines to teach military dependents at Wagner High School. As a skydiver, he jumped with a three man team to set a record for the longered night delayed freefall in Southeast Asia.
The next year, Peterson went to Vietnam as a tourist and got a job as a training supervisor at the world's largest construction conglomerate at Tu Duc, a suburb of Saigon. The following year he worked for Pacific Architects & Engineers as a training supervisor at the Twenty-fifth Division's headquarters at Cu Chi. It was a twenty mile motorcycle ride from Saigon every day.
In '67 Peterson took time out to explore Angkor Wat, Cambodia's lost empire. This vast network of temples was reclaimed from the jungle by French archeologists in the 1920's.
Peterson then worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Refugee Division first as a reports officer in Saigon and then as a refugee advisor in the Mekong Delta.The experience radicalized him, for he witnessed atrocities on a regular bases. The senseless killing of innocent peasants infuriated him.
Peterson was both president and safety officer of the Saigon Sport Parachute Club. They jumped with the Vietnamese airborne at Ap Dong, a tiny oblong island rising out of a sea of rice paddies. It was the best jumping Peterson ever had. "It was like riding an elevator," he explained. "The Sikorsky Helicopter would load up twenty or so jumpers and in a few minutes, we'd be at seven thousand feet ready for a thirty second delay freefall. We'd all jump at once. It was great fun. We were so crazy in those days."
In 1970 after working for the International Training Consultants developing curriculum on such topic as land reform, and village and hamlet finances, he and his Filipina wife went to Pokhara, Nepal where he wrote an eight hundred and twenty-six page novel protesting the Vietnam War. It was an eye-witness documentary detailing the grisly crimes committed by our troops and secret agents. Publishers would have nothing to do with it. The reading public did not want to know such things, they contended. Ignorance is bliss.
Peterson's two and a half years in Nepal were the happiest time of his life. He and his wife lived in a mud hut near the base of Annapurna. They had no running water, electricity, sewerage, nor heat. What's more they had no idea what was going on in the world, and he loved it. His two children were born in Nepal. Sheridan Jr. was born at the Sanabuwan Missionary Hospital in Katmandu. It was an ancient Rana Palace on a mountain top overlooking the city. His daughter, Ginger, was born at the Shining Mission Hospital in Pokhara. It was comprised of a dozen tiny British World War II Quonset huts. Peterson made the delivery. The British doctor, a very tough woman lib, declared that it was the duty of every father to deliver their child.Peterson insists that it was the most nerve racking experience of his life.
In 1973 broke, Sheridan returned to Vietnam and got a job designing curriculum for Lear Siegler Aircraft Ltd. at Bien Hoa Air Base. The company was training injured Vietnamese pilots to teach aircraft maintenance. During the next year and a half, he saw the country crumbling all about him.
In 1975 Saudi Arabia was not a welcome place and teaching Saudis was an arduous task. His students were angry. They hated their royal family. According to the students, before Saudi Arabia suddenly became an oil rich kingdom, these princes were nothing but Bedouin nomads who robbed pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Since they became wealthy, they were Moslem in Name only. They had degenerated to drunkards, gamblers, and womanizers. And whose fault was it? The U.S. Government, of course. Peterson's students insisted that the king was a stooge of the CIA. What's more they were certain that Peterson was an agent of the CIA. It was a most uncomfortable situation. What could he say?
In 1977 Peterson and the children drove to Tehran, Iran. His wife, who had returned to the Philippines to care for an ailing mother, died of pneumonia. It was May and by noon the temperature was one hundred and thirty degrees Fahrenheit. At Kuwait, the Iraqi Counsel told Peterson that he would have to wait six weeks for a visa in order to drive through Iraq. They needed time to check him out. He might be CIA. Peterson only had a three day visa in Kuwait. What would he do? They advised him to put his car, a Soviet Lada, on a dhow, an antiquated boat, and cross the Persian Gulf. For ten days they drifted across the sea. In addition to his car, there were five Toyotas being smuggled across Iran to Pakistan. There was no room to move about, so the crew walked on the vehicles' roof tops.
At Khorramshur, they drove north through opium poppy fields to Tehran. Peterson was hired by the regional training director at Bell Helicopter International to run the learning center. His Iranian students were also suspicious of him, but they were a good natured people. It was not so astir a society as Saudi Arabia. However, one day his students were furious. President Carter had placed his arm about the Shah and said: "I know that the people love their king." They made it very clear to Peterson that his president had no business saying such a thing; that they most certainly did not love their king. not in the least. Like the Saudis, they considered the Shah a puppet of the CIA.
Peterson and the children left the day the Ayatollah Khomeini returned. It was the first time he had witnessed a revolution. It was an exciting time. All one day he watched millions of dark clad people march down Eisenhower Boulevard with raised fists protesting the Shah's despotic rule. One day Peterson's Bell Helicopter bus was burned by the Revolutionary Guard, and he had to hike across Tehran dodging sporadic fire.
It took several years to get back to Asia. Settling in Rodando Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles, Peterson was assistant to the dean of Northrup University's College of Engineering and taught writing for business and industry. Next he worked as an Upward Bound Coordinator for disadvantaged youth at Jordan High School in Watts, then he was a technical editor for the Garrett Air Research MFG, Company in Torrance.
Peterson and his children then went to Akita, Japan, and he taught English at a private language school. He then left to take a job with Bechtel in Papua New Guinea's Star Mountains as a technical training supervisor. Injuring his back from a fall from a swing vine, he returned to the States and got a job as a technical writer with the Verbatim Corporation in Sunnyvale.
In 1983 he and his children returned to Japan, and he accepted a position as Associate Professor at the University of Economics & Law at Akita. Although he had no advanced degree, he was awarded the associate professorship on the bases of the large volume of curriculum he had designed and published as well as his work experience for multinational corporations.
Soon after the Chernobyl disaster, Peterson and his daughter, Ginger, took the Trans-Siberian locomotive across Russia from Moscow to Nachodka near Vladivostok. Stopping at Siberia's fabled city, Irkutsk, he swam in Lake Bykal, the largest fresh water lake in the world. He assumes that he is probably the only American to have swum there.
In 1987 He and Ginger went to Tianjin, China, and he taught technical English at the Civil Aviation Institute of China and lectured the faculty on methodology. The next year he transferred to the College of Economic Management in Beijing and taught English geared to the global market. He participated in the students' democratic movement at Tiananmen Square marching with the Tibetan students and witnessed the June 4th massacre at Muxidi, some four kilometers west of the square. From beneath a bridge, he saw the slaughter of over a thousand peaceful protesters. He wrote an eyewitness account of it for a bilingual magazine in Japan.
He and Ginger traveled throughout China sailing down the Yangtze River on an old freighter, riding horseback in the Mongolian grasslands and skiing at Shangzhi in Heilongjiang Province which was once part of Siberia. He explored the vast network of caves in Yan'an. It was the final destination of Mao Zedong's historic 8,000 km Long March in 1934. It is rumored that Peterson's father, Captain Chauncey Peterson, had been a military advisor to the Chinese troops there in the late '30's.
In 1989 Sheridan and Ginger returned to Japan and he got a job managing the Tesco International ESL Company with over eighteen schools spread throughout Japan's four major islands. In 1991 Peterson was writing coordinator for the Tokyo branch of the U.S. University of Rio Grande. Next he taught English in Nagano, Japan's famed ski resort town. He skied every morning teaching in the afternoons and evenings. At sixty-five he became a proficient down-hill skier.
Prior to the take over, Peterson went to Hong Kong, and taught British literature at Delia of Canada Institute in Taikoo Shing. He lived on Lautan Island, a hour's ferry ride from Victoria Island.The following year he returned to Beijing and taught graduate students. The classes ranged from sixty to eighty not counting the visitors that crowded in along the walls. Next he taught at the Second Foreign Language Institute. In 1997 as director of language studies at the Beijing Caledonian International Language School, he designed and implemented corporate training programs for such organizations as the Kvaemer John Brown Corporation, The Bechtel Corporation and the Agricultural Bank of China. He taught mid level bankers U.S. banking concepts and terminology.
In 1997 Peterson made a parachute jump to commemorate his seventy-first birthday at the Beijing Aero Sports School at Baishan. According to Zhang Angang, the school's head aero sport coach, Peterson was the oldest person to ever make a parachute jump in China. This was documented by a reporter for a Chinese English language publication.
In 1999 Peterson returned to the States. He isolated himself for two years in a cabin in eastern Washington polishing up his protest novel of the Vietnam War,"The Idiot's Frightful Laughter". He spent his spare time skiing and backpacking. At seventy-four he made seven more parachute jumps at the Spokane Sport Parachute Club bring his total to 270. He worked one summer for the U.S.Forest Service as a fire lookout at eleven thousand feet near Riggins, Idaho, and the next summer as a forest service surveyor's assistant at Colville, Washington. For a man in his august years, it was very taxing.
In 2002, Peterson returned to Santa Rosa and eighteen months ago moved to the Vinecrest Senior Apartments in Windsor at the corner of Hembree Lane and the Old Redwood Highway which he remembers as Highway 101. He plans to spend what time is left documenting vital information. Considering it a very timely topic, he just finish an eyewitness account of the Iranian Revolution and is busy mailing out queries to editors. He recently wrote an account of his summer as a civil rights worker in Mississippi. It has to do with the murder of a black activist by a state congressman. He spends about six hours a day writing and sending off synopsis of his protest novel to publishers in Europe, Australia and Canada. He's given up on U.S. publishers. "They're all owned by a couple of big conglomerates," he contends. He keeps trim hiking at Shiloh Park and biking to Healdsburg for a swim in the Russian River.
So what about America? After some thirty years abroad, what's it like coming home? "It's a kind of reversed culture shock," Peterson said. "Americans are truly unique. There are no people elsewhere on earth like them. They seem so isolated."
What would he like to do now that he's back in his hometown? For one thing he'd like to make a skydive on his eighty-first birthday, May 2nd. He has kept his membership in the U.S.Parachute Association current in order to qualify for freefall status. He'd jump on a regular bases if he could only afford it; however unfortunately it has become a rich person's sport. He would also like to find a job. With such a broad diversity in the fields of education and writing, he feels that he should be of worth to some company or institution. Besides with a well paying job, he could afford to buy one of those four-thousand dollar rigs with all the state-of-the-art gimicks and make jumps on a weekly bases.