Robert E. Short writes his novels while sitting at a small drafting-style table on his back patio.
“This is where the magic happens,” he said, chuckling, last week.
Short, 76, had just lit a cigar. He built the desk himself in the way that carpenters of days long gone used to build their own tool boxes — to show the prospective employer that they were indeed craftsmen. Solid and just so, not flashy.
He sits while writing on a small rollaway chair made of steel and vinyl, its vintage early 1970s. The chair appears in mint condition, old but solid, like it could last another couple decades.
And that’s the image Short projects in his books. His characters treasure values, self reliance and doing the right thing even when it can hardly be considered the easier path. In “The Forty-Eighters,” based on characters who meet on a wagon train headed west for the Oregon territory and some split off to take advantage of the California Gold Rush, his teenage protagonist Ben “Waddie” Kincaid faces numerous challenges and nearly dies.
But he perseveres. As do the other pioneers, despite the cholera, highwaymen and near constant danger and uncertainty.
“I’m not into gore, sex and violence,” Short said. “My stories I started writing at this age, I didn’t want my family to forget what made this country so great. I wrote the books about the edge of historical occurrences.”
For instance in “Beyond the Alamo,” the conflict that will forever color Texas history involving General Santa Ana, the story focuses on the lives of two young men, the privileged James and the hard-scrabble Robert — not the battle. The pair deal with politics, racial diversity and love as the era tests their resolve.
“(The battle) is just part of the story,” Short said. “There are 10,000 books about the Alamo.”
The cover of “Beyond the Alamo” features Short’s step-daughter and her family, dressed in period-correct attire in a sepia-tone photo that looks as if it’s straight out of 1835.
Short lives with his wife, Pam, and dog Poppy, a rescue and sweet girl who’s part Basset hound. Their house sits on a quiet street in northwest Sanger. Everything is just so. Everywhere in his study, Short has elements of the Old West in the decor. He painted a picture of a lone cowboy astride a horse, a replica of another artist’s original. He used it as the cover of one of his books, and it would seem writing isn’t his only post-retirement talent. He’s even sculpted small figurines of cowboys at home on the range. Again, his talent shows skill that belies his past as a California lawman.
Short grew up in a number of places. “We moved seven times throughout my childhood,” he said. “It didn’t bother me. (But) the good memories I had were from Las Cruces.”
It was in the community at the edge of the Chuihuahuan Desert in New Mexico that Short spent formative years growing up alongside his maternal grandfather, Marion Mims. Mims was a cattle rancher who had homesteaded 640 acres and leased another 10,000. “The terrain wasn’t good for more than 100 cows,” Short said. “He wasn’t interested in becoming a big rancher.”
But Mims introduced his grandson to the Old West. “That’s when I got interested in history,” he said. “Grandpa would tell me stories about the past.”
And he learned to ride horses. “I was in the saddle about the same time I learned to ride a bike,” he said. And Short remembered the name of the horse he learned to ride on. “We called him Paint, Old Paint.”
Short’s family moved to California, eventually settling near Caruthers where his dad farmed. “He was a really good farmer but a bad businessman,” Short said.
As a result, they moved again so that Short had to finish up high school in San Luis Obispo.
While Short said he writes just about every day and has penned 17 novels, he didn’t start as an author or even pursue a line of employment that drew upon literary skills. Instead, Short became a California Highway Patrol officer. He said the adrenaline rush of the work was like nothing else, and he became so dedicated to the job that his first marriage suffered as a result.
“All those nights working graveyard shifts,” he said.
The job gave him a unique perspective on the cultural changes taking place in Southern California. He pulled a worn copy of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” from his shelf and opened it to the middle section with the black and white photos.
“That’s me,” he said, pointing to an image that showed a cop overlooking a cast of characters sitting on the ground.
Then he told the story. It rivaled any of his novels but was decidedly more current than his preferred time period.
Short said it was a weird night. A dispatcher had called and said the Los Angeles Sheriff wanted backup and for them to meet him up in Simi Valley. “We met him at 2 or 3 a.m.,” he said. “At a 7-Eleven.”
Deputies had arrested a young man getting gas or supplies. Short described him as a hippie, one of a group of counter-culture individuals who wore their hair long and preferred casual and often colorful clothing. The man had been driving a VW converted into a dune buggy. The dune buggy consisted of a simple fiberglass mold with flared fenders bolted onto a stock pan, sometimes shortened, separated from its original body. Short said the buggy had no lights, and the man told deputies that a group living nearby in the woods had a number of other dune buggies.
The sheriff figured the original VWs used for the conversions were likely stolen and wanted Short and his partner to check for vehicle identification numbers and confirm the suspicion. “(The suspect) was staying at this old movie ranch,” Short said. “There were a bunch of hippies there. They had a lot of weapons because their leaders wanted to start another war.”
At least that was the initial intelligence.
“We piled in cars with shotguns,” he said. “We started kicking in doors. (Soon) we had them all out in a circle.” And that’s when the photo was taken.
Short described them as “the scroungiest group. You wouldn’t believe it. (The facility) was just filthy. This was the Manson Family. We didn’t know it at the time. He (Charles Manson, who died Nov. 19, 2017 at 83 in Bakersfield) was there.”
The Los Angeles Police Department already had launched an investigation into Manson, unbeknownst to Short or the sheriff. Short said the place smelled so bad because of the honey buckets, which were used in lieu of toilets, and rotting food and the generally unsanitary conditions lived in by a large group of people. He said he still remembers the stink of the place. Manson was later convicted in the murders of actress Sharon Tate and others.
“Society had changed,” Short said of the era. “I saw it change from the eyes of a lawman. People lost respect for authority. It was tough being a lawman.”
Another incident written up by Short as a brief story details the time he pulled over a car driving 85 miles per hour. It didn’t pull over right away and then slowly continued driving down the shoulder for too long a time. When it finally stopped, Short got out and approached.
As he walked to the driver, he noticed a coat over the man’s lap. The sedan had four men inside. Each wore their hair afro style. Short said something in his training kicked in and he pulled his gun. The driver had a gun under the coat and maybe a twitchy finger, but Short got the drop on him.
The men belonged to the Black Panthers, a group founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland meant initially to patrol black neighborhoods to protect them from police brutality. The group exhibited little fondness for the highway patrol. Nobody was hurt. The men were arrested.
Short said he felt the presence of a guardian angel. Maybe diffusing the situation before it got out of control and Short became a statistic of a cop murdered on a roadside can be attributed to his training or just plain luck.
No matter. He survived and went onto retire at 62 after an even longer stint as an investigator for Fresno County. And he took up writing, something he’d enjoyed after taking a creative writing class in college but had never pursued.
“I always wanted to, but there wasn’t time,” he said.
Short also served in the Army and was stationed at Baumholder Military Base when the Berlin Wall was built. He said East German tanks would roar up to the demarcation line. He said after he was discharged, he was driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike and turned on the radio in a VW he’d picked up and had shipped from Germany. The newscaster reported Pres. John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated.
Upon retirement, Short moved to the Sanger area then and started a little farm with horses, goats, chickens and donkeys. He created a park-like facility with a zip line for the grandkids.
Now he spends his time researching background for his stories. He said it takes “hours and hours.”
“I want the facts to be right,” he said. “I don’t want a character to be doing something (at the moment in history that wouldn’t have happened).”
A detail he mentioned in “The Forty-Eighters” had to do on two occasions with a box of nails. In the Old West, nails often had to be individually created by a blacksmith and were costly. But they were very necessary to the family intent on building a house on a homestead.
Short just finished “A Loving Lie.” The story takes place in the 1950s, about a young man who returned home after six years in the Army to help out an adopted brother who had just gotten out of prison after serving 15 years for murder. The brother admitted to the crime, but evidence points to his innocence. The soldier seeks to uncover the mystery.
He also wrote “The Promise Pearl,” probably his longest novel, which takes place near Easton. It’s about two farm kids who fall in love. But one is white, the other of Japanese descent, and World War II is declared. She planned to attend medical school but ended up in an internment camp.
Another is “The Smartest Crook,” about the Brinks robbery in Boston circa 1950. A woman finds the money and steals it from the thieves. There’s “Lookin’ for Pa,” in which Billy the Kid is a character. Short’s writing is hardly James Joyce. It’s closer to Zane Grey. And his electronic books lack a high-paid editor. But his stories transport the reader just like Grey did in “Riders of the Purple Sage.”
“I’m not in it for the money,” Short said. “I sell enough books to pay for the printing of my own copies.”
Short said he wrote the books for his grandkids and others in the family so they’d get a taste of parts of history they didn’t necessarily learn in school. “I want them to know what happened,” he said. Then, a little after talking about his military career, he said, “I’m so thankful I was born here.”
The reporter can be contacted by email at email@example.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.