Charlie Hernandez had a uniquely Tehachapi Valley upbringing, with life experiences that included loading ore cars for the little narrow gauge train that used to operate at the Monolith Portland Cement Company to designing the shoulder patch for Tehachapi’s fledgling new police department when he was still a sophomore in high school.
Charlie was born on Nov. 7, 1938, to Pedro and Hillaria Hernandez, one of nine children who lived to adulthood (two siblings died as children). Charlie’s father had first come to Tehachapi in 1917 to work at the cement plant, returning to Mexico to bring his wife and infant son Armando back to live with him in the Monolith in the early 1920s.
When Charlie was about four years old, the family moved from the Monolith townsite into Tehachapi.
Growing up in Tehachapi, he roamed the area with his friends, including George Marantos. “We could hike and explore all over this place, on both sides of the mountains,” Charlie remembers. “We could go out and be gone for four or five days.” Charlie and all four of his brothers were Warriors, competing on Tehachapi High School sports teams.
Charlie was on good terms with local law enforcement, including a constable named Kirby Besso.
“One day when I was a teenager, I was standing in Kelcy’s Cafe and Kirby came up to me, smoking a big ol’ stogie,” Charlie told me. “All of sudden he slapped some handcuffs on me and slapped the other end on a chair, and left me standing there while he went and got something to eat. People would come in and see me standing there and they’d go around me, figuring I’d done something wrong. When Kirby got done eating, he finally came and let me go, and he told me ‘That’s what it feels like to get arrested, so if you didn’t like that, then you stay out of trouble.’ He got my attention.”
In 1955, when Charlie was a sophomore at THS, Kirby approached him with a favor. He knew Charlie liked to draw, and a police department was being established for the City of Tehachapi. Kirby was friends with Bill Mantoth, who was slated to be the police chief, and they wanted Charlie to create the profile of an Indian warrior for the department’s shoulder patch. So using colored pencils, Charlie created five different designs and submitted them to Kirby and Chief Mantoth. They picked one of them and it became the official logo of the Tehachapi Police Department. In thanks for his efforts, Charlie was given the first two patches that were embroidered.
After he graduated from THS, Charlie went to work at Monolith, where his dad was a brakeman on the ore train that carried crushed limestone from the quarry to the plant three miles away.
“There were 14 ore cars, and each one held about 16 tons of rock,” Charlie recalls. “First they’d blast limestone into big boulders, which they’d grind down in a crusher at the quarry. When the pieces were about the size of a grapefruit, a conveyor belt would carry the material to a bunch of hoppers. My job was to fill the empty ore cars that were parked underneath the hoppers.”
When the cars were filled, a small diesel locomotive, called a “Dinky,” would hook up to the string of cars and pulled them down to the plant to be emptied, a trip that took about 45 minutes. While those cars were being emptied, Charlie would maneuver a second string of cars under the hoppers and start filling them.
“When the train got down to the plant, they’d empty the cars one at a time. Each car had two hydraulic rams that raised one side up and dumped out the rock. It went first into the ball mill to be crushed smaller and then into the finish mill where it was ground real fine, like flour.”
The little Dinky would then disconnect from the front car, and using a Y siding would then reverse direction and hook up to the last car and pull the string of empty cars back up to the quarry to repeat the process with a full string of cars. “The train had lights and ran 24 hours a day, through the day shift, owl shift and graveyard shift,” Charlie says. “There were a few lights here and there on the tracks. I was very glad I got to work with my Dad. He was a whole different man at work than he was a home. He was very strict at home, and when I worked with him he treated me more like an equal.”
In 1959, Charlie joined the Army, serving as a medic and special guard along the Berlin Wall and the Czech border in the 546th Medical Company Clearing Separate.
“All five of us Hernandez brothers from Tehachapi were in the Armed Forces, serving a total of 46 years,” Charlie notes proudly. “Armando and Pete were in World War II, then Pete and Alfred were in the Korean War and Ernie and I served during the Cold War.”
When Charlie got out of the Army in 1964, one of the first things he did was buy himself a car, a 1952 Chevy Custom Deluxe sedan, two-tone with light gray top and off-white body. On that spring day that he first bought the car, he cruised his hometown of Tehachapi.
“I was near the high school and I saw seven girls standing there, all of them pretty and looking good, but I locked eyes with one of them, Liz, and that was that.” Charlie saw the same girl the next day and stopped to introduce himself. “We started dating, then got serious, then got married,” he remembers fondly. Elizabeth Calvillo became Charlie’s wife, and they had four children: Charlie Jr., Brenda, Andrea and Anthony.
Charlie went back to work at Monolith, but then took a job with the City of Tehachapi’s Public Works Department. In addition to repairing streets, replacing signs, and maintaining the water and sewer systems, city workers in those days also operated two trash trucks that were kept in the corporate yard over by City Park.
“Yeah, we did the ‘Garbage-A-Go-Go’ twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” Charlie said. “We also took care of City Park (now Philip Marx Central Park) back then. George Marantos was in charge of Public Works and he was good to work for.”
Charlie worked for the city for five years, and then took a job at the National Cement plant near Gorman. He found it wasn’t like Monolith, where white, Mexican-American and Native American workers all got along together.
“There were only two of us Hispanic workers at National, and there was a lot of prejudice, so I just focused on the job and learned all I could,” he said.
Charlie was an equipment operator, and also became an EMT, a CPR instructor, was MSHA certified and served on the safety council.
During his 22 years at National, there wasn’t a single fatality. Not long after he left, there were two deaths on the job.
He went back to work for the City of Tehachapi from 1989 until his retirement in 2002.
“I love Tehachapi, that’s why I moved back here,” Charlie said. “We lived in Lancaster for 20 years while I worked at National Cement, but Liz and I always figured we’d come back.”
Charlie lost his beloved Liz to cancer in 1998, after 34 years of marriage. He is now fighting two types of cancer himself, but after both surgery and radiation, he keeps plugging along. He stops by Kelcy’s on most days, and is still the same cheerful, friendly Charlie that he’s always been — a Tehachapi man who loves his hometown and his many experiences here.
Have a good week.
JON HAMMOND has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to: email@example.com.