When I was kid, growing up in a very rural, agrarian and simplistic environment, I was taught the old, “All American” virtues of honesty, tolerance and humility. And, you could throw in a decent amount of respect for a fair level of intelligence. There were things that were right and things that were wrong. There were good things and there were bad things. At least that’s what I was taught, and I believed, as a youngster. In a nearly unanimously Roman Catholic neighborhood of third and fourth generation orchardists and truck farmers (the descendants of northern Mediterranean immigrants) things were pretty much black and white and never really got too complicated. It seemed that pretty much everyone was in agreement with a simple and direct way of looking at things.
I was a “goody-two-shoes” sort of a kid, wide eyed, unquestioning, always ready to please. I avoided conflict and arguments at all costs, recoiling from such hassles like a wet finger touched by a highly charged electrical wire. To some extent, the other kids I grew up with, were of this same ilk, though perhaps not as extreme as me, and a few, even more so, than me.
However, as we transitioned from the rural, elementary school background to the suburban, secondary school years, we were confronted by a sort of personage which we totally unprepared to deal with. These were the confident and brash kids of the families who had moved into the new Almaden Country Club, with it’s plush, well irrigated golf course, sparkling swimming pools and plush, gorgeously landscaped mini-mansions lining the very wide, newly paved roads that had no sidewalks, as there was so much extra black top and so little traffic on these rich man’s roads. From our farm kid perspective, these boisterous and overly confident loud mouths were nothing but a whole bunch of out-of-control brats. When we got to school each morning, we’d hear these hellions brag to each other about how they had broken into the golf cart garage up the Club (the Country Club) and run the golf carts all over the moonlit fairways until the batteries ran out of juice. They would count up how many divots they dug into the impeccably kept greens at the end of each fairway, how many carts they rolled over in the sand traps or into the creeks that lined the different fairways spread along the foot of our hills. Then we had to listen to them recount how many guys they kicked in the balls, underwater, at water polo practice, or maybe how many jaws they elbowed at basketball practice.
This sort of barbarity was just so damned foreign to us country bumpkins. We burned up our energy and got rid of our aggression by bucking bails of hay, loading tons of fruit or steadying the heavy controls on our worn out, old trucks or pulling the steering levers of the big, huge tractors, so very long lived, so overly used and fairly maintained. Our work was rough, dirty and very taxing. It was our sun primed sweat that washed the field dust from our tanned backs and arms. When we were done with this sort of work, there wasn’t a whole lot of energy left over for flamboyant and wanton delinquency. And, certainly, there wasn’t any time left for us to lay one’s self out on a chaise lounge for motionless, unproductive hours, slathering the body with a high “SPF” sun tan lotion, in order to put some healthy color onto one’s skin.
Of course, this isn’t how these country club people saw it, at all. They were folks of wealth and leisure, basking in the ease and luxury of their success. They looked down, from on high, at us bustling, scrubby clothed, worker bees, ignorantly and dumbly gathering the fruits of our labor from the budding flora and fauna of the neighborhood. We were no more sophisticated than the bustling bees in any honey filled hive, whether natural or keeper maintained. They paid no more attention to us, nor gave us any more consideration than they did to the crackling katydids or buzzing honey collectors in a nearby hay field, lazily wafting in the hot, summer breeze. Such things were simply incidental to the haughty perspective of the self confident and “successful” leisure class. Their success was measured in the terms of the “real,” wild world of business, politics and finances, a complex and multifaceted world of which we simple folk knew nothing.
Such widely divergent perspectives these were. Would they ever be reconciled?
As I neared the end of my secondary schooling, preparing myself for the more strenuous academics of the upcoming college years, I developed this desire to become more worldly and maturely responsible to the onus demands of adulthood. It seemed to me I should develop my own perspective about things like religon, ethics, politics, economics, so on and so forth. Rather than simply follow the lead of the neighborhood elders, as was the tradition all about me, I thought to develop a rational, educated and informed perspective about what I should be doing in the cold, cruel, adult world I’d soon have to face.
Before graduating high school, we were required to attend a couple of civics classes, which would enlighten us as to the workings, ways and goals of the American political system. As usual, I took this stuff pretty seriously, without question or reservation.
But, wouldn’t you know it, this wasn’t the simple, black and white reality that my parents and their contemporaries embarked upon a generation earlier. Nope. My parent’s generation had it pretty simple, it seems to me: there were the Nazi bad guys and the European and American good guys. Let’s get rid of the bad guys and let’s get the job done ASAP!
However, as I was growing up, we had the cold war, with it’s potential, ultimate terminus having us enshrined in the mushroom cloud of nuclear war. There was the assassination of a president. Then there was the civil rights hullabaloo. And just as I was coming into my own, there was the Viet Nam war and all of its many machinations and hallucinations. Nope, things just weren’t that simple for my generation. There were no “black and white” easy answers.
And here I was, wanting to look at things around me, hopefully, in an educated, intelligent and enlightened way. Ha! Good Luck.
At first, I wanted to believe that the Viet Nam war was good and that the protesters were bad, just as the neighborhood elders proclaimed. These elders were the guys that had fought the Nazi and “Jap” bad guys a generation ago. They were sure that their government was right about this 1960s stuff, just like before, a generation ago.
However, in my quest to be intelligent and enlightened regarding such things, I delved into the different points of view and attempted to weigh them out. Indeed, these things were very complicated. Everything the government said wasn’t exactly true, and everything that the protesters said wasn’t exactly all that false. The further I went, the deeper I dug, the more and more mixed up things became, the more complicated it became.
I watched the news every night and tried to pay attention to all the things that different people said. Then I started watching a couple of different news programs each night and started seeing differences in what different reporters were reporting. Becoming somewhat suspicious, I started watching news that no one else in the neighborhood watched, like the news from Public Broadcasting stations. The more I dug, the more suspicious I became.
It all came to a head when I took on a special, personal project. The Viet Nam debate had been developing for a very good while. I have no desire, now, to rehash this fifty year old history, but this project left me with one very long lasting and personally defining truism: politics are bullshit. As necessary as it is, ultimately, it’s bullshit I want no part of.
When I was young and trying hard to groom myself to become a responsible voter, I focused on two relevant voices for either side of the Viet Nam debate, William F. Buckley on the pro war side, and Tom Hayden on the anti war side.
I’d watch Buckley on his television show, Firing Line, and he would lean back in his stuffed chair, so calm and sedate, nearly always, at least half grinning, so confident and smug. No matter what was discussed, the master debater always seemed to win the arguments. He appeared to be the classic “consummate intellectual” who knew everything, constantly and consistently having all the facts and figures immediately available to support and prove all of the statements and arguments that he made.
On the other hand, there was Tom Hayden. He was one of the founders the Students for a Democratic Society, the infamous anti-war organization, popularly known as “SDS” back in those days. Hayden would go on to marry Jane Fonda for awhile, and then become a California state senator. Hayden was the consummate anti-war organizer and a very active political activist. To my sensibilities, while he was so very passionate about the causes he supported, he wasn’t the polished and glib debater that William F. Buckley was. In opposition to Buckley’s calm and “Cheshire cat” demeanor, Hayden was emotional, passionate and sometimes you could see him get befuddled when cornered in an argument. He didn’t seem to have that ability to call up facts and figures pulled out of the air to substantiate his position like Buckley could.
At first, I copped to what Buckley was selling. This was a really smart guy, he really knew his stuff, he was always right on the money. But once again, wanting to be responsible, I finally started checking out the facts and figures, the names and dates, that Buckley so smugly used to defeat his every opponent. As it turns out, while Buckley was as smug and calm as a wily, smirking fox in the hen house, he wasn’t nearly as all-fired correct and complete as he’d have you believe. After close scrutiny, I found that much of the information he referenced was out of context, incorrect, irrelevant or just, plain fallacious. No matter how valid or invalid this stuff was, it was his presentation that made him appear so absolutely correct and secure. What a grandly believable and impressive presentation it was that he presented, being so aloof and sure. But now I came to resent the presentation for its thinly veiled invalidity. It didn’t take much to distort and crack apart this presentation, these theatrics. Yep, I really came to resent and disdain such falseness masked behind the smugness and haughtiness of the leisure class, of which Buckley was, blatantly and unabashedly, a member of.
I came to view Buckley as the virtuoso supreme of the leisure classes’ smug self confidence.
On the other side of the coin, I found that Hayden, as well, arranged and adjusted his facts and figures to suit his arguments. What the hell, who’s right and who’s wrong? It was a hard pill to take, but I had to admit that the truth wasn’t the simple thing I always thought it was, the thing I wanted it to be. The harder thing to take was that politicians aren’t really that interested in the truth, not nearly as much as they’re interested in furthering their interests. This isn’t what they taught us in high school civics classes.
Pressing onwards, ultimately I came to realize that to really pursue the truth, the reality underneath all of the political rhetoric, was a full time job. This sort of truth was really deep stuff. My conclusion was that I didn’t want to partake of the constant unrealities of politics. Further, nor did I want to spend a great amount of the time and energy necessary to pursue the truths that lay beneath the politics and the politicians.
The one thing I did know is that I was an artist, and I felt what was right and what was wrong. The feelings came from my gut, not my intellectual quests and, honestly, I was quite confident about those feelings. I didn’t need a law or a law maker or a television personality to tell me that you shouldn’t lie, cheat or harm your fellow man. Screw the politicians and their conscious twisting of reality.
By the time I was into my collegiate efforts, I was pursuing the truth as expressed by other artists, those that I knew personally and those I studied professionally, and I was feeling quite content and satisfied with such a reality. No longer was I feeling the angst and frustration I’d felt attempting to make peace with politics.
So here we are, in July of 2016, on the eve a presidential election. It’s absolutely impossible to be awake in this country and not be constantly bombarded with poliltical calamities and trivia. So, no matter how hard I try to avoid politics, I’m losing the battle.
As a result of this exposure, I now find I must vent a few of my pet peeves in this boisterously political era, especially boisterous this time around. It is not even worth commenting about Donald Trump.
Despite whatever his political agenda is, I simply hate the person of Donald Trump, a pompous, rude, indiscreet, vulgar, self-glorifying miscreant who has no business even considering himself to be presidential material. He lies, he cheats, he brags and makes ridiculous, unfathomable claims from the back of his medicine wagon. The only thing that doesn’t make him laughable is that he has gotten so much support from the registered voters in this country. OMG (Oh My God)!!!!! Are there really so many hapless, neanderthal people in this country as to raise this foolish ass to the level of being an actual presidential candidate? If his ascendance should actually take place (and it has), then God help us non-neaderthals.
A shameful scourge is sweeping across the land. Perhaps the many movies and television programs lately, portraying the world being beset by zombies is more relevant that I should have ever imagined.
I dread to think of Trump being elected president. In such a case, North Korea’s leader would no longer be the most outrageous leader of a world power. Nor would Hitler be the only modern demigod to rally the hapless masses behind him.
Enough Trump bashing (though I could go on for hours).
What’s prompted me to get involved in this political bullshit, at all, was a series of comments made last week by conservative, some specifically Republican, politicians and media personalities, blaming the current president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, for the rise of “Black Lives Matter” movement, and an allegedly connected increase in the number of police “executions.”
OK, so I listen to these guys making these allegations about how the president of our country is somehow connected to the increase in the number of police killings, like the president himself is some sort of criminal. This makes me question the apparent rational and intelligent workings of this seemingly very sane president. Now, these right wing politicians have me questioning the sanity and sincerity of this likable, rational, U.S. president.
Gee Whiz, the President of the U.S. is a jerk, according to these Right Wing folks? So I go to bed with these questions on my mind.
So, I wake up the next morning, and I’m reading my morning San Jose Mercury News, half asleep, and what do you know, on page six of the newspaper, I read a headline up on the top, left hand corner of the page that reads the following:
“Data show fewer officers have been killed on job”
This article is from a Washington Post reporter, Chistopher Ingraham, and he quotes data provided by the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund, certainly this is no maniacal, left wing advocacy group. A really key note from this article is that there were “80 deaths annually under Reagan to 48 annually under Obama.” Who am I supposed to listen to, the raving lunatics in the government or in the media spouting off personal prejudices, or the people who take the time to collect information and come to rational conclusions?
So, once again, just like before,
politics is bullshit
I have many memories about the Viet Nam era in my head, an era which filled up the nightly news from about 1963 through 1975, with the fall of Saigon. I’ve already written about some of the those memories, but one has lately floated up into my consciousness, a very personal and private aspect that occurred during that age of war.
When we graduated from the very rural and simplistic Almaden Elementary School at the corner of Almaden Road and Kooser Lane (that part of the lane that no longer exists after it was incorporated into the very long Blossomhill Road, annexed by the city of San Jose), we went to John Muir Junior High School on Branham Lane. This was a brand new school, with all sorts of new ideas and new facilities. All of this “newness” being forced upon us sedentary farm folk, by all of the new, up and coming immigrants into Santa Clara Valley from the east coast, forcing “high technology” and new life styles, conceived from where ever, down our simple and very countrified throats. This was the era when Santa Clara Valley was being reformed from the agricultural utopia known as the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” into the ever pursuing progress of the future by the new “Silicon Valley” mentality spawned by the technology binging engineers left over from the experience and expertise of World War II and the new jet planes and nuclear submarines of the Korean War.
Boy, you want to talk about a clash of cultures, this was the heart and soul of such a clash. Personally, I stuck with the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, though it was so obviously soon to be dead and gone once the invaders put their sights on it. But it is there where my heart still resides, not in this vicious and perennially consumptive “Silicon Valley,” something so very pernicious, inhumane and self destructive. Because “progress” runs forward at some break neck speed, does not mean that it is positive progress and I much disdain such unrelenting, such incomprehensible progress leading to who knows where but, ultimately, leads to self destructive and self consumptive ends. It makes me think of the world of nothing more than the ugly mechanical and computerized existence so well graphically and wontenly portrayed in the collection of “Matrix” movies starring Keanu Reeves, where bottled up human beings are no more than batteries to energize and run a greater world of computer generated realities. To hell with that!
But back to the story line, so much for philosophical rantings. When I entered my first year of this neo-new, suburban reality at John Muir Junior High School on Branham Lane, they put us all through a series of “tests” to measure and record how smart we were, and how physically strong or weak we kids were. The plan was to make us do these tests every year until we graduated from high school so these school administrators could figure how successful or unsuccessful their newly developed programs were.
Well, the one thing these city slickers didn’t count on, was how unfamiliar us farm kids were of these new facilities. So here I was, just starting the seventh grade, and some asshole coach had us strip down and put on some school provided swim trunks. Then he took his clip board and ordered all of us out to the edge of the new swimming pool at the brand new John Muir Junior High School. I’d never been on the edge of a swimming pool before. The only water I ever knew were the mossy and shallow little ponds behind the squalid little dams that we had devised along the very few creeks in the very arid Almaden Valley. And let me tell you, they were shallow and short, not allowing for much swim training or diving expertise. We spent more time keeping the sucking slugs from attaching themselves to our skin than we ever spent learning how to dive or swim. We were much unlike the sun tanned athletes of our same age, up at the country club, in the chlorined water held by concrete swimming pools right next to the golf course that we were never allowed on. We were too poor and unkempt for the likes of the IBM executives and Air Force and U.S. Army colonels and generals who were now living on the unforgivably exploited and debased farmlands and vineyards of our beautiful hillsides. It was all too obvious that we, poor farm folk, were going to be diminished and desecrated by the likes of these snobby, heartless and self absorbed executives who had no care for the land or the nature which we old timers cherished. Probably, within the next few years, they’d be promoted to some new position in their high tech companies and be relocated to an even newer and more extravagant location, somewhere else in the sun belt. While they moved on, we little people were left with the remnants of our once productive farms and so little of our self respect and our all too important super productivity.
Decades later, when I’d go to garage sales in the old neighborhood, it was just all too obvious who’s house was a newer tract house, or was an older, anchor house, still held by the original farm family after they were forced to sell off the bulk of their original land by San Jose civil authorities who backed and supplied the means for the off sight developers to acquire and breach the real nature of this rich earth. I’d go to these original houses, having garage sales, and I’d bring up the name of the family on whose old property I was standing on, and we’d all shake our heads, all of us agreeing that we’d rather have the land rather than the check that was given to the family to give up the land, to give up the land for the check, or not give it up. If the family didn’t give it up, they could find itself facing a court case filed by the bureaucrats of the City of San Jose for refusing to accept an edict of eminent domain, court case the cash strapped could never afford.
It was always funny to us that the new people had more regard for the paper green backs than the fruitful earth beneath their feet. One commodity so false and fallible, the other so ancient, ageless and bountiful.
We had to go through all these tests during our first weeks at John Muir Junior High School. They were tests none of us farm kids ever experienced before, but so familiar to the city kids we were now merged with. We were provided with these school owned swim trunks and were then told to report to the edge of the brand new swimming pool in this brand new school. They’d call off a dozen or so names, and so many guys who fit the names, would hang their toes over the edge of the pool’s coping. The junior high school coach would bark out a quick set of orders, then blow a whistle and all the kids on the long edge of the pool would dive in and swim the width of the new, sparkling clean pool.
We farm kids had never dove into any body of water, as nothing in our neighborhood was deep enough to allow for a dive, let alone not even for a well meant belly flop. At one point in time, the junior high coach called my name, among a lot of others, so I copied the movements and posture of those city kids that came before me, I hung my toes over the edge of the pool’s coping stones. The coach blew his little, chrome whistle and we all dived into the water. I’d never dived before, but I was copying the motions of the guys that went before me. Trouble was, I had no idea of what I was doing. As soon as I hit the water, I raised my right arm like I saw all these guys before me do, however, I did it too soon, and the pressure of the water wrenched my right arm right out of its socket and I was stuck in the middle of the pool with a dislocated shoulder. With my head under water, and being in a blinding state of shock, I just curled up into a ball and held my breath. My friends told me that all they could see of me were several of my vertebrae bobbing above the churned up surface of the swimming pool’s water. The rest of me was all curled up below.
As we were diving off the edge of the pool in the shallow end, the coach jumped into the pool and walked up to me and tossed me onto the wet concrete deck surrounding the pool, unrolled me, and yanked on my right arm to get the joint back into its proper configuration. That was the end of it. He never sent me to the school nurse nor reported the dislocation to anyone. While it hurt like hell, and was sore for a couple of days, I really had no idea what had happened to me, and I just let it go, not making any big deal of it.
Later in the year, at this new school, they asked us if we wanted to join in any athletic programs. By this point in my life, I’d acquired a great disdain for team sports, like baseball and football. All through elementary school, I was scorned and ridiculed by the team sports leaders because I was the runt of the school yard and not well trained at the specific mechanics of the really popular sports like baseball, football, and certainly, the tall man’s sport, basketball. We farm kids had learned how to toss 60 pound prune boxes onto truck beds and buck hay bails one atop the other, but we knew nothing about shooting hoops or aiming at goal posts. I chose to join the wrestling team, where strength was a primary virtue, size was classified by body weight and skill was determined by the aggression and tenacity of the individual wrestler.
While it turns out that I was as strong as anyone else on our wrestling team, even for my size, I just didn’t have the aggressive nature necessary to make me a winning wrestler. I was the worst wrestler on the team for all of the three years of my junior high term, but no one ever pinned me, I always lost by points. I was too strong for my opponents to pin both of my shoulders down at one time, to win me by a pin. I’d back bridge and keep one of my shoulders off the mat, in each and every match. I didn’t have the sense of aggression to make me a decent wrestler. However, because of my wrestling involvement, I learned how profound the right shoulder dislocation was. While the guys on the wrestling team would wrap me up and twist me all around, but when they got me into certain positions, they’d pull my right arm right out of it’s socket. I’d go limp and my opponent would just jump right off me, as they felt the arm jump out of its correctness. I’d roll over and pound my shoulder into the mat, to push the arm back into its joint.
After a good number of these dislocations, after which several of these occurrences left my shoulder very deeply black and blue, my mom finally took me to an orthopedic specialist in downtown San Jose. He took a bunch of x-rays and had me take a series of tests, and he determined that my shoulder was really, really screwed up. I was 14 or 15 years old when all of this took place.
About this same time, the Viet Nam war was expanding and becoming more impending. I stayed on the wrestling team and suffered the occasional dislocations of my right shoulder. Then a new awareness came into my realm of what was happening. All of the nation’s draft boards were calling up all of the able bodied young men to fight a ridiculous war in some tiny country all the way across the planet. I wanted nothing to do with it, me and and so many others more. It became a huge national controversy.
Before I graduated from high school, I went back to the San Jose orthopedist and inquired as to my viability as an acceptable candidate for the military draft. This specialized physician told me that my bum arm would not find me to be an acceptable and reliable participant in a military environment, my shoulder popping out of joint in any of such very normal of sorts of orientations. What do you know, I had a “get out of jail free” card, when it came to the rampant military draft of that era.
But guess what? When the military needed every “swinging dick” (excuse my usage of the military’s vernacular, but this is how they phrased it), I was sent a draft notice. My shoulder disability was now to be ignored. In those days, if you were to get drafted into the U.S. Military in the Bay Area, you’d be called into the induction center in Oakland. This being nearly 50 years ago, I really don’t remember the address of that place. It was just a big, multistory building in the middle of all the multistory buildings in downtown Oakland.
I do remember that there were thirteen “stations” that we teenaged fellows had to go through to get our blood pressure checked, to see if we had athlete’s foot or if we had a hernia, to check our eyes, this, that and all of the other normal and abnormal things that happen to the young, male, human body. This was all done to see if you were fit and able enough to get sent twelve thousand miles away, to a tiny, jungle country to shoot at people who had nothing to do with you or your home. This was such bull shit (For you old timers, refer you memory back to the famous “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie).
In this induction center, station thirteen was where they considered your special situations, such as my screwed up shoulder, to see if your particular, personal screw up warranted your inclusion or exclusion into the draft of all of our young and viable bodies into this questionable brotherhood of the mid-1960s. By this time, I had made sure to collect a whole passel of expert letters from a variety of orthopedic specialists garnering descriptions of how messed up my right shoulder was. At station thirteen, a doctor in street clothes reviewed all the orthopedic letters in my file and grabbed the handle of one of the several rubber stamps strewn across his puny desk and he stamped so many pages in my file with the inked impression which read “4-H” which meant, he explained to me, that I was unavailable for the draft until I had a surgical procedure to correct my messed up shoulder. I was not draftable.
Whew! What a relief.
Now that I had gone through the thirteen stations in nothing but my long, hippy hair, my jockey shorts and my cowboy boots, now me and everyone else were allowed to put our clothes back on. However, there was one last, unaccounted for “station” we had to go through before we were let out of the building. This “non” station was the tiny table manned by an obviously long time army Sargent whose job it was to make sure that all of the forms in each and every page in your personal packet of forms were correctly signed in the lower right hand corner on each of your many, many pieces of paper in your draft board packet of forms.
While this shaved head of a Sargent fanned through everyone else’s packet of forms with a ridiculously agile and competent ability to flip pages, confirming the required signatures were on the bottom right hand corner of so many packets of such similar forms. However, when I showed up in front of him, with my long hippy hair and polished cowboy boots, and the beginnings of a proud and bountiful hippy beard, this Sargent’s ample dexterity at page validations seems to have left him for my stack of papers. Nope, now that I stood before him, with my file full of their papers, he slowed way down, and purposely and solemnly reviewed each page that I had in my stack as though they were final decrees of some death warrant issued by a heartless and ruthless member of some ancient judiciary. No, it wasn’t any of that. He slowly reviewed each page and then he got to the page that was stamped with the ink acclaiming my new, official “4-H” status which found me unfit for the military draft. Sitting at his tiny, little table, with a long line of teenagers waiting behind me, this Sargent glared at this page for a few, long seconds, then glared at me for even a few more longer seconds, then he quietly told me that the doctor who had stamped this page with the 4-H status was a reservist and was not a died in the wool military doctor. My status was under question and I’d have to be examined by military doctors at the San Francisco Presidio within the next 30 days. The big balloon of my elation at being exempted from the draft, popped into nothingness, right then and there. Now what?
For whatever reason I don’t remember, the Sargent handed me a voucher so I could stay in a nearby hotel for the upcoming night. I’d be getting my paperwork to take to the Presidio the next morning, here, in the same room I was getting ready to leave. I’d be given a date at the Presidio in San Francisco for a more thorough examination of my bum shoulder by the military doctors over in the City. Man, oh Man, how much more were they going to drag this out?
The next morning, after sleeping the night away in a sleazy, Oakland hotel room, I returned to the induction center simply to be given a date to show up at the Presidio across the Bay within the next 30 days, but as I waited for the notice of my Presidio appointment, they lined up a bunch of guys in the same room where I was waiting, and some uniformed personage started barking out orders to the twenty or so teenagers standing in a line in front of him.
I just wanted to get out of there, and I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what else was going on around me. But, in a whisper, I heard my name being called, in a frantic but silent whisper. I looked up, and in the line of guys standing in front of the uniformed, bossy guy, was one of my best friends, Butch Henderson. There was Butch, a very simple fellow, the son of an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who had bought a house along the eighteenth fairway of the Almaden County Club a few years before. Unlike his over-achieving parents and older sister, Butch was a simple and easy going young fellow who was nearly blind and constantly wearing his overbearingly thick, horn rimmed black glasses so he could see where in the hell he was going. The problem was, Butch was a hugely handsome young buck, but he couldn’t see more than two feet in front of him. His family constantly lauded his good looks, and prodded him to keep his glasses off his face. But doing such, he never knew what he was encountering as he could never see what was just a few feet before him.
I met Butch as I made my way through John Muir Junior High, and as we were both major screw ups in each, our own ways; me being the runt farm guy, and he being the handsome but dumb and blind Dumbo, we became pretty close buddies.
In the evenings of the early 1960s, when everyone would head to downtown San Jose to “Drag the Main” circling First and Second streets, the boys teasing the girls and girls teasing the boys, Butch and I would jump into the the silly little, brown Corvair that his father let him use, or my stupid, faded white Corvair that my dad let me use, and we’d go “Drag the Main” every Friday and Saturday night. A perfect presentation of these sorts of experiences are portrayed in the movie “American Graffiti,” so embarrassingly right on the mark.
While I don’t think we ever picked up any girls in the several years full of “dragging the Main,” Butch and I were strident devotees of the weekend practice in our powerless, pooped out little Corvairs. A couple of times a year, my parents would go off on a trip in some jet airplane and leave me at home with my mom’s monstrously powerful 383 cubic inch, dual carbuerated “Police Interceptor” Dodge Polara. Now, this is when Butch and I would go dragging the Main, full of confidence and aplomb. Hey, nothing could touch this light blue Mopar Monster. It was a factory built dragster of a speed machine. It wasn’t ordered by my mom, but when she got ready to spend the money, my dad put in the order. Lucky for me! It was an unstoppable machine that never lost a race. But, little did my mom know any of this.
As “AC,” as it’s called now-a-days, as air conditioning was yet to become standard equipment in early 1960s passenger cars, my parents had outfitted their Dodge Polara with a set of coiled wire seat cushions, designed to keep your hot, sweaty body off the leather seats of your high class, sleeper race car and keep you cool and calm while driving all over the place even without the “AC” so common now. So, when Butch and I got possession of the Polara, we’d gather up all of these cushions throughout the car’s interior, we’d fold them up and place them under my tail bone, to make me appear to be much more than the tiny, little runt that I actually was. We won a whole bunch of road races with me sliding around on these cool air cushions. This was a subtle part of “dragging the Main” that the American Graffiti movie missed.
While dragging the main in the Polara was a very gratifying experience, for the most part, Butch and I were usually, really relegated to doing the drag in the poopless and powerless Corvairs. And, add to this, without his big and bold horn rimmed, black spectacles, Butch was as blind as a bat. But, add to that, because of his parent’s and his sister’s constant comments on how he turned out to be such a handsome and Cary Grant-like screen idol, Butch’s self confidence didn’t include any reference to big, black, horn rimmed glasses. Whenever we did encounter any number of eligible and interested young ladies, the first thing Butch would do is whip those big, black glasses right off his face, and then smile big, not knowing at all what he was looking at. I always had to direct him to the left and right, to keep him on target.
So here we are, early the next morning, sometime in the early 1960s in the Induction Center, me being purposely diverted from my physical disability, so well documented by a long series of bone specialists. Then there was Butch, standing in this line that I was looking at, with all of the ever present authorities ignoring his very well documented blindness. The lenses of his glasses were as thick and distorting as the bottom of coke bottles. He was obviously as blind as a bat. However, being the only son of a well regarded and upward floating Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Butch obediently acquiesced to every order aimed at him.
As he stood in that line, at the draft center in Oakland, where I was waiting for my paper work, some uniformed official counted out the first eight guys in the line and told those eight guys that they were going into the army. Then he counted out a half dozen more guys and told them that they going into the navy. Then he counted out about three more, these three, which included Butch, and this uniformed individual told these three guys were going into the Marines. I didn’t know all that much about the military, but I did know that Butch and his bad eye sight had no business in the stringent reality of the U.S. Marines. Once again, he was blind as a bat, I knew this all too well. But, in my inflamed silence, and Butch’s obedient, obsequious silence, he let himself be marched out to some other room in this grand, old building in the middle of this infamously violent city to be not heard from for many, many months to come.
At this point in time, Butch had already married his high school sweetheart and was now disconnected from her, by the blind and bureaucratic virtue of his draft board, whatever the hell that was. In that same span of time, I fell in love with a gorgeous and rebellious young lady of a similar consciousness to my own. We got married and came up with plans for our lives in the future. But we had to muddle our way through this Viet Nam War bullshit, and my insecure status with the draft board.
One night, my wife, Angela, and I went out to my family’s Almaden home to have dinner with my folks. We’d traveled from our Twelfth Street apartment, which we selected to make for the most convenience for Angela to finish out her formal education at San Jose State College. While we were setting up the table for our semi-formal dinner, something very unusual for my very informal family, the phone rang. Surprisingly, the call was for me, in this place were I hadn’t in lived for several years now. I took the handset and looked about the room, my wife, my dad and mom looking to me very curiously, what could this be?
A female voice officiously asked me if I’d accept the charges for this collect call. Completely clueless, I accepted the charges, who was this and what was going on? Then I heard one word and it all became clear. What I heard on the other end of the phone was a simple “Hello.” It was Butch. It was Butch and he was in great distress. Angela and I had heard from his wife that, thought they drafted him into the Marine Corps, he was so blind that they posted him to some shipping depot in the desert lands of southern California, near the border of Southern California and Arizona. Being so blind, he was useless as a combat soldier, and his Marine brethren let him constantly know as much. Now, he was nothing more than a shipping clerk, much to the chagrin of his Lieutenant Colonel father and the rest of his family. Butch was going crazy out there, and he was being much abused and distressed in this entirely overly military environment in the empty desert.
During this collect call, I listened to Butch tell me that he was on leave, but that he didn’t know where to go or what to do. He didn’t feel worth enough to come back to San Jose and be with his wife, he was such a failure, and so incompetent, as the Marines had told him, and he didn’t know where else to go. Hearing just this much, my heart sank. Butch’s parents were so unknowing and so self centered, they never gave the boy the support that he needed. Now, in this even less than supportive military environment, he was floundering in self doubt and uselessness.
Butch wasn’t the brightest bulb in the six pack, but he was intelligent and even more so, he was a very sensitive guy, that’s what connected him and me. And here I am at the age of twenty one, listening to a very suicidal best friend. What could I do? What should I do? This guy had a plane ticket to come back to his wife and he told us that he was ready to tear it up and wander out into the water- less wastelands of the surrounding desert, to dehydrate himself until he died out there, totally alone and totally ineffectual, a good life wasted.
What in the hell was I supposed to do? One very specific reality came to me in a flash: don’t let him hang up. Some how, some way, keep him on the phone. No matter what we came up with as some sort of solution, if he wasn’t on the phone line, it would all be useless. Reader, please pay attention, this was in a time thirty years before cell phones were even thought of. We still had party lines in those days. Go google on what a party line was.
So, the big deal was to keep him on the line, but I had absolutely no idea on how to do that. And at the same time, my wife and my parents were gathering all around me, wanting to know what was going on, obvious to all of them that this collect call was something very significant and important. Man, this was just too much to handle all at once. My hands motioned my family to back off and give me some space. Angela handed me a small pad of paper and a pencil. I wrote the family quick notes as to what was happening. I talked to Butch about weak, little Corvairs and strong Dodge Polaras. I avoided talking about the military. Angela broke off and took our car down to the nearest gas station, jumped into their phone booth and called Butch’s wife to tell her of what was happening back at my parent’s house. All too soon, here is Butch’s wife pounding on our front door, crying and pleading to talk to the confused and errant brother to us all.
I knew her hysterics would do nothing but have him shoot off into this negative and unknowing little world where he was stuck right now. Angela and my parents kept her at a safe distance from the phone I was on.
I wasn’t really clear as to what to do, but one thing kept me going in one direction, talk about the ordinary, the mundane, the simple stuff. Don’t even try to mention the complex problems he couldn’t sort out right now. All I could think to do was to keep it on a simple and very direct road. Keep him focused on stuff other than the messed up bull shit he was all twisted up in. I mean, I hadn’t figured this out in any sort of verbal and rational terms, but, in a general sort of way, this is what came to me. I worked on it as best I could. I was running this all by the seat of my pants.
As time went by, the longer I kept him on the line, the better I felt, the more relaxed I became, the more I found other non military stuff to talk about, the more we chuckled and laughed, the more the tension was reduced. As this endless conversation progressed, with my family and Butch’s wife curled up at my feet, listening to every word they could hear, for what was for them a one way conversation, only hearing what I was trying to figure out what to say.
Finally, I really do forget how it all turned out, but I kept promising Butch that he could stay in my old bed room at my parents house and not have to face his parents, or even his wife, if he didn’t want to, not until he sorted out all of his confusion. His wife was weeping at my feet as I was saying this, not knowing what else to say. I just wanted to give him all the room he needed to sort stuff out. That’s all I came up with.
Finally Butch hung up on me. In my parent’s home, we all just collapsed and we just fell to the floor, exhausted and stressed. We had no idea of what he was thinking, what he decided, what we were supposed to expect. This was all happening a few weeks after Thanksgiving, a few weeks before Christmas, and all of our holiday expectations were suspended with this unexpected phone call.
None of us moved from the dining room floor after Butch hung up the phone. We just all slumped down and waited for what ever was next to happen.
Into the middle of the pitch black morning, the phone rang again. This time without an operator requesting our acceptance of a collect call. It was Butch, finally, once again. Were we talking to him directly, now, where was he? What was he thinking? Simply, he told us he was at the San Jose Airport and he was wondering if we could pick him up and let him stay in my old bedroom at my parent’s house. As I repeated his request, there was a huge, simultaneous sigh of relief, and, of course, me and Angela jumped into my hot rod Volkswagen and picked him up at the airport. We all decided that it might be best to let him just unwind at the my folks house and get his head straight before dealing with his wife or his military family. We were all flying by the seat of our pants. Let’s just get him to settle down. Then we tried to figure where to go and what to do. None of this was in our realm of reality. We just didn’t know anything and wanted to keep it all as simple and direct as he was requesting.
For the next few days, it was like me and my family were living in a vacuum. The only thing happening in our lives was Butch. He was calm and silent, but even more so, he was distant and inaccessible. We just left him alone, at least making sure that he had plenty to eat and had more than enough room to keep to himself.
Finally, the tightly wound spring that had Butch all screwed up, was becoming unwound. He finally spent some time with his wife. He uncoiled some more and made contact with his parents, but on a limited and controlled manner, something very unusual for a guy like Butch. Even his pushy and overbearing father backed off and gave my friend a good amount of space. Slowly, Butch was coming round and getting his feet underneath himself. In the end, Butch came out of this as one of the brightest bulbs in the six pack, and he rose far above where he went in. He finally took control of his life and he did a really good and complete job of it. He divorced from his hysterical wife, remarried years later and had some very successful and healthy kids, retired from a successful career as a chemical/biologist and hopefully, has moved on, with very little remembrance of that nasty night when he called me collect.
What if Angela and I hadn’t been at the parent’s house on that night?
In the eight, or ten, or twelve acres where we grew pole tomatoes nearly every year of my teens, the previous year’s crop was torn down, turned over and tilled under. Every year, in the early spring, we’d start the whole process once again, from scratch.
As the last year’s harvest was finished with the wire wrapped up and the millions of poles removed, we’d disk the limp tomato vines into the earth, roughly chopping them up and mixing them in with the muddy dirt. But, in the spring, we’d groom the same fields with smaller and finer disc rigs, cutting the earth into a fine, dusty consistency. In the end, these many acres were as smooth and flat as a dining room table top, just a lot bigger and a lot softer.
Once this flat earth had baked in the spring time sun for a few days, we’d hitch a special plow to the back of a strawberry tractor and start cutting furrows into the freshly tended earth. What we called “strawberry tractors” were smaller but powerful little tractors where the front wheels and the water filled rear wheels tracked the same width. Thus, both the front wheels, steering the tractor, and the much larger rear wheels, providing the gravity and plowing force to force the earth into our desired configuration, were all in the same line, hauling the tractor body over the planting surfaces, the wheels only following the bottom of adjoining furrows, leaving the tops of the furrows clean, clear and untouched.
The furrows that we cut were as straight as an arrow’s shot, for their length of a couple of hundred yards, and they all started and ended very accurately at a common boundary, for, eventually, they had to mate up with a single, main ditch that carried the sweet water from our hugely deep well on the far corner of the property, sluiced to the various fields all over the property. While, all we were doing was pushing dirt around, we were using surveyor’s transits, snap lines and hundred yard tape measures to make sure we were doing it right. And each year, we checked our efforts over and over again, to get it right, each and every year.
To the casual observer, shoving dirt around might seem like a rude and crude occupation, but to the professional, it truly is an exacting science, requiring all the same tools, skills and knowledge that make highway and building engineer’s projects, successful projects.
Once the furrows were plowed, and the feed ditch was well established, the furrows were filled with water, where it slowly soaked into the newly cut earth. We’d let the field bake under the coming summer sun, and when a crust covered the basin of the ditches between the furrows, we’d prepare for the putting up of the poles.
Thousands upon thousands of rough hewn poles, many years old, had been stowed for the winter in stout batches, bound simply with hay bale wire, would be trucked to the edge of the newly prepped tomato field and dumped off. The field hands would set these poles into the crown of the newly built rows about every four or five feet apart. Sometimes they’d use smooth looking, commercial pole pounders to drive the poles deep into the earth, but just as often they’d use pole pounders devised from the junk yards of the farmer’s old and broken machinery, rough cut and sloppy welded together pieces of iron pipe and junk plate metal to exact the same effect as their commercial counterparts. Style wasn’t the goal here, getting the poles into the ground was.
When all of the poles were firmly set into their very straight lines atop the furrows, a new load of material, sorely stored for the winter, was dropped off at the head side of the furrows; large spools of smooth, well used, baling wire. Each year, this wire would be pulled taught, from one end of each row of poles to the other, and then fixed to each pole with rounded nail staples, hammered into place by the field workers. At the end of the pole tomato harvest, the poles would be pulled down, the wire being released from the poles at the end of so many claw hammers in the hands of endless field workers.
The newly released wire would have been pulled out of the muck of the last year’s harvest, and as water hoses cleansed the wire, it was pulled up onto large metal spools, to be stored for the winter in cool, dry places, but to be used, once again, in the late spring, to stretch and be part of the pole tomato resurrection.
The thing was, that about the time that the spools of wire were dropped off at the head of the field, everyone on the site started getting a little antsy. The elders of the field hands, knew what was going on, and they had held aside the most broad and staunch of the poles for a special purpose. These heavy poles were sunk deep into the earth, and at an angel leaning away from the line of poles that they were at the head and tail end of. Each row of poles had these massive poles at it’s head and tail. The experienced workers would wrap the wire around these head and tail poles and then sink in several hearty stakes in an arc behind each of these head and tail poles. These were anchor poles, and they were held in place by the arc of stakes wired to them. It was a simple, but messy proposition.
Now came the nerve rattling part of this yearly exercise. The wire spools would be positioned at the head of each row and a worker would walk the length of the row, pulling the start of the spool’s wire in his hand. When he reached the tail of the row, the worker would give the start of the wire to the guy who was driving the strawberry tractor, facing away from the row, at it’s tail. The tractor driver would simply wrap the wire around the rear axel of tractor’s huge wheels. He’d climb aboard the little tractor, rev it up, and then pull that several hundred yard length of wire as taught as he could. When he found the tension on the wire, just before it would break, he signaled the men at the head of the row, with a big wave and holler. With this, a half dozen workers would scuttle into the furrow now adjoining this wire, and start frantically pounding the “U” shaped staple nails to anchor the taught wire to the many, many posts which they had just lately pounded into this very same earth.
There was not simply tension on the wire being pulled so taught by the tractor, there was a hell of a lot tension in the minds of everyone in this field, even the tractor driver himself. You have got to understand that the length of these wire, and the tension to which they applied, if one of the wires was to break while under such stress, the wild, wipping wire could easily take off an arm, perhaps even a head, ask sailors who work under similar pressures with the lines securing their sailing masts or loggers dragging huge trees with overly taught steel cables being strained all the time.
It is no joke, The whipping wires were very dangerous. This was the tense time in the tomato fields. This is why there the massive and reinforced anchor posts at the head and tail of each row. These posts, at both ends of every single row, had to remain strong and secure and not uprooted by the tension of the tractor’s pull.
Now, consider this, there were usually three or four wires pulled on each side of every row of poles, about eight inches apart, to accommodate the growth of the tomato plants, and as much, on both sides of the line of poles. That was a lot of wire pulling, and a whole lot of stress, on the wire and on the workers. No one wanted to get cut in half.
Very occasionally, a wire being pulled by the tractor would break and you could hear it wildly whistling through the air and you’d hear a variety of voices yelling out something like “Down, Down” and everyone would dive deep into the mud of the furrow, letting the old poles take the broken wire’s punishment.
Now, dig it, we haven’t even seen any tomato plants yet.
So, now, the anchors have been set at both ends of each of the hundreds of rows. The wires have been drawn and stapled to the poles. The furrows are straight and secure, The main water channel is solid and secure, the pump at the well head is fine and dandy, all is ready.
Thus, being so ready, we fill the furrows with water, one more time. And we let the water sit for a few days, and we let the earth dry out a little, crusted on top, but still moist when you poke your finger below the crust. The moisture and rich earth below the crust of dried mud is ready. The time is right.
In a very timely manner, a very many trucks come to the head of the field and unload the endless but many small flats of tomato seedlings, grown somewhere that none of us knew nothing about. So now, from sun-up to sun-down, we are on our knees, in the muddy furrows, stuffing the seedlings just under the stretched wires of our so many rows, each seedling being cut into the rich soil about every one or two feet, pocking the earth for each seedling’s planting with our ancient, short trowels, which, until now, had also been stored up for the winter.
Once all of the seedlings had been planted, our heavy labor took a pause. All that could be done now, was to let the seedlings grow. We’d irrigate the field every so many days, and we’d venture down the rows to pick bugs off of the leaves and pull up invading weeds that had naturally attempted to intrude and sprout in this well tended earth. As the tomato seedlings grew into more and more adult plants, as we groomed the earth beneath them, we’d also make sure that the growing plants were lacing and intertwining themselves onto the wires so purposely and judiciously pulled just a few days earlier. We didn’t want to have the new growth of the plants falling in the damp furrows below. Moistened leaves were very susceptible to being burnt by the increasingly brilliant, summer sun. And as well, we had to keep the furrows open and clear to facilitate the efficient picking of fruit when it got ripe.
For how the different crops would mature and ripen in the little Almaden Valley, the prune orchards on the hillsides and the would ripen about the same time as the pole tomatoes. The prune harvest lasted about nearly a month, while the tomato harvest last only about two weeks. As I got older, year by year, as both crops got close to picking, I was relegated more and more to the tomatoes and less and less to the prunes. The rancher was managing about six or seven different prune orchards spread out from our valley, over to Coyote and Morgan Hill. He had to stay on the road to keep the prune operations at maximum capacity. The pole tomatoes were at just one place and as picking time approached, they would need constant and intense attention until they were picked clean. As the years passed, I was assigned this attention to the onslaught of the pole tomato harvest. It was a big responsibility for a 15 or 16 year old kid. Especially for a runt kid like me.
The tomato seedlings grew and wound their way up the wires strung out all aroud them. After a few weeks, the adolescent plants started popping out little yellow blossoms. With more time, the yellow blossoms fell away, and small, hard green nubs were to be found in their place. We’d irrigate the fields, debugged the leaves and pulled up the ever encroaching weeds. The stringy, wild, white flowered morning glories were the biggest pests of all. Their clinging and spider-web like vines seemed to grow ten feet in a single night. They would crawl up the tomato plants, and weave their fine tendrils all through the tomato’s structure, seeking to steal the sunlight and choke the life out of the supporting tomato structure. We really hated these nasty, fast growing little buggers. With a vengeance, whenever we saw any evidence of the morning glories, we’d yank them out of the ground and off any tomato plants they had a chance to violate.
During the idle times of the field, when it was nothing but well tilled dirt, the morning glories would abound in the virgin earth, becoming like huge, natural, white carpeting on the surface of the land. But during the planting and maturity of the tomato field, these vines with their innocent looking white flowers were the menace of our labors and were not dealt with in a kindly manner.
The little, green nubs would expand and enlarge, and start turning to a paler and more white color as they grew to the size of golf balls, and then tennis balls. And these bulbs of vegetation were no less hard than the golf balls they emulated. By the time this occurred, the plants that were once frail, little seedlings, were now stout and hearty shrubs, strung up in the wires nailed to the aged and oft used posts. These shrubs bathed in the brilliant sunlight above our valley, sucked up all the water we could give them from our deep wells, the well’s water drawn up with our large, industrial duty, electric pumps, endlessly whining and screaming at all hours of the night and day.
In our still and silent rural air, the hoot of an owl, or the yipe of a coyote would carry for miles, and the passing of a railroad train might carry for more than ten miles. In such profound stillness, as the field crops were sucking up all the water we could provide them, the entire neighborhood would ignore the constant turning off and turning on of the huge deep well pumps, controlled by the rustic automation of the day. You could hear the relays clicking and the pumps reving up, then whining a few hours at a time, then shutting themselves down to cool off and rest until needed once more. You could hear the neighbor’s well pumps doing the same thing, a half mile up or down the road. But for the necessity of the water to enrich the different fields in the neighborhood, everyone sleeping through the warm nights, with open windows to vent the heat, ignored the coming and goings of the industrial pumps starting and stopping so many times through each, otherwise, silent night, save for the owls and coyotes, and the occasional scream of a cougar.
So necessary was that well water, that you might say that the clicking of the relays and the whining of the big pumps were almost a lullaby to the residents of the valley, relying so much on the yield of the water’s abundance. Everyone slept through these machinations, very soundly and comfortably, knowing of the bounty that lay ahead. It was when these relays and pumps went silent that we laid awake at night, wondering if we were going to have a successful harvest this season, or not. We needed that water being drawn up the clicks and whines. The lack of it made for sleepless nights. In such silent times is when we grow restless, laying awake in our beds, now hearing, all to loud, the hoot of the owl, the yipe of the coyote, the scream of the mountain cat.
Being gorged with our special sunlight and our pumped up sweet water, the white orbs hanging from the tomato shrubs started to soften, and turn pink. With more sunshine and clear water, the pink turned to a red, then a really deep and rich red. Now, I had nothing to do with the other crop, the prunes. From here on out, if my eyes were open, all I would be seeing were the workings of the tomatoes. Once they started turning to their very red, thin skinned and very soft and juicy ripeness, we had to hustle from sun up to sun down to not only groom the tomato field as before, picking out bugs and pulling up weeds, but, at the same time we now had to collect the field’s fruit at the right time, picking the ready to burst red fruit while leaving the still pink fruit to gather in a bit more sun and water to get really, really red.
Let me tell you, if you think a stock broker on the floor of some New York stock exchange is under a bunch of stress, watching this ticker tape and that, well, thats only about a quarter of the stress one feels when the tomatoes start ripening.
At daybreak, you’d park one or two half ton pickup trucks on the head of the field. Left from the day before, and the day before that, are a variety of specialized, abbreviated wheel barrows, made of ancient fir wood and rustic iron. Simply, these wheel barrows were designed and constructed to carry four “prune boxes” through the rows of tomatoes. As we made our way through the rows, we would be grading the tomatoes as we encountered them. The four boxes laying on the two wooden rails of our wheel barrow were well defined as to what fruit should be placed in each of them. Closest to you were the ripest and least firm of fruit, those tomatoes that were on the verge of bursting. These are what we called the juice fruit. No matter how gently handled, these over-ripe veges would never make it to a grocery store’s counter with any sort of shape or integrity. From the get go, right off the plant, these guys were too ripe to be packaged and shipped. They were only good to be made into tomato juice.
The next box up on the wheel barrow’s rails, were the handsomely ripe fruit that was already to go, but it had to go in the next day or two or it then ripen into the world of its juice brothers. This grade of fruit went to the local grocery stores, perfect for immediate sale, or maybe to the local fruit stands set up on the edge of the major roads in the neighborhood.
The third box on the wheel barrow is where you tossed the red, but still firm tomato fruit that would finish ripening as it was shipped to a packing house and then on to urban super markets. In the few days that it took this group of fruit to show itself in public, by the virtue of its inner nature and strength, it would finish ripening to a fairly decent quality, all by itself, with no sun or water, in the darkness of the shipping containers in which it was bound.
Now, it was in the fourth box on the rails, where you showed your stuff, your subtle discerning of the life of this fruit (tomatoes are really vegetables, but when we were harvesting, we called everything “fruit;” if we had to send it off to market, simply, it was fruit, the fruit of the harvest.)
The fruit you tossed into the fourth box was the barely pink tomatoes that would be packed in light, pine boxes holding about sixteen or twenty tomatoes, that would be shipped to far away markets on the east coast of the U.S. or maybe to markets as far away as the Orient or Europe. These boxes of fruit would have a good long time to self ripen, at least, as much as they could. We fruit pickers didn’t like the fourth box, as we knew that such fruit would never be anything more than red colored, dry, pithy globes called tomatoes. They’d have no juice, no flavor, no decent texture, but they were shippable merchandise.
Despite all of the people and all of their efforts to put this pole tomato field into ready order, with the poles, the wire and the tractors all included, in the end, it only took about two or three men to harvest its crop, as they went up and down the rows every day, all day long, grading the ripening fruit over and over again, every day for several weeks.
It wasn’t glamorous work. Having pushed this specialized wheel barrow with it’s four prune boxes down the furrow of each long row (remember, these boxes could hold about 60 pounds of fruit each), at the end of each row, you’d use the hand trowel once used to put the little seedling suckers into the ground to start all of this, you’d use the trowel to knock and peel the mud off the wide, rusted surface of the wheel barrow’s crude flat iron wheel with about six heavy spokes adjoining the wide, heavy rim to it’s hub. Then you’d wheel the cart around and start down the next, endless row, sun rise to sun down, until you could see the color of the fruit.
As the boxes on your cart got filled up, you’d unload them and build stacks on the field head; one set of stacks for each grade of tomato that you had just picked. There would be a stack for the over-ripe juice tomatoes, a stack for the perfect, local tomatoes, a stack for the shippable tomatoes and a stack for the overseas tomatoes. We pickers would be stuck way out in the middle of the tomato field and we’d see the landowner pull up in one of his vehicles with a couple of migrant workers, and have them load our stacked up fruit onto the beds of the idle pickup trucks and drive the fruit to the landowner’s garage, just a few hundred of yards away.
For as much work as this field required of me for my last few years before going off to college in September of 1966, the amount of work I put into this field for the last few years blinded the end of each of those last summers. I worked my ass off and knew nothing but tomatoes and their management. Despite this, we were a very small operation. My boss would bring a couple of migrants to our field, have them fill up the beds of the idle pickup trucks and then drive then to the boss’s garage, just a few hundred yards away. There, in that garage, the boss’s wife and my mom would pack these light weight, white pine boxes with the fruit we just picked. These were warm nights, the the garage door would be pulled up and in the driveway from the main road up the black topped drive to the garage’s cement floor, were a collection of heavy, industrial pallets where the two women would stack their finished tomato shipping crates, so small and delicate. So small and delicate considering the heavy carts and boxes that we had loaded, just hours before. One couldn’t ignore the labor of the harvest as opposed to the marketing of the harvest.
But my daily labors didn’t cease with the end of the light of day, nope, no such luck. As the two ladies guiding my path into adulthood were packing those white wooden packing crates with our fruit that we had just picked that very same day, they had me doing the very same duties that I was applied to when we first moved onto this farmstead; they’d have me paste preprinted labels onto the ends of their white packing crates, a task that was supposed to be assigned to my younger siblings, but had been ignored by the two busy body ladies, tuned in to the newest radio stations on a radio machine sitting in a corner of the garage, and toiling over the latest gossip regarding the neighborhood’s families. I hated pasting the labels now, after my other day’s labors, and I hated listening to their idle, stupid gossip.
I pasted the labels, for all of my work during the daylight hours, I wasn’t going to get fed until both of the moms finished packing all of the fruit meand my cohorts had just picked earlier, that same day. The moms had their view of things with their hair pulled up into tight scarves, talking gossip and commenting on the stupid songs emanating from their cheap radio. I had my own view as well, but I was just a kid, so I had to succumb to the elder’s perspective and keep my mouth shut. But I was starving and I could have eaten a horse. And I could have eaten that horse right now in the raw!
However, back in those days, you didn’t talk back to your parents. Today, some 50 or 60 years later, I see how kids act (I’ve never had any kids of my own, so my experience is simply by observation) but I can’t believe how rude and raucous the nasty little bastards are now-a-days. Who do we blame, the kids themselves or the parents who have allowed the little nasties to grow up undisciplined and spoiled? I’m not a parent so what right do I have to say. However, I am a mature, well mannered, responsible, though somewhat unconventional, adult and I see no need for such rudeness and disrespect to be supported and condoned by the nasty, little gnomes of today. To hell with them and their supportive parents. Let’s fly right!
So I pasted labels onto the pine wood boxes in the light of the garage’s electric lights and waited for the two ladies to finish their tomato packing chores to get my dinner, and I waited as such in obedient and respectful silence. But, always , I got an ample and very nutritious dinner, and let me tell you, I really did sleep like a log, every night, all through the tomato harvest.
Unless you would have actually picked pole tomatoes from the poles, as I and a few of us others did, there are certain, secret things that occurred during those pickings that only the pickers would ever know of. One of the most obvious and obnoxious things, was the thing we called “tomato dust,” a sticky, green dust sprinkled onto your arms as you rubbed the leaves and stems of the tomato bushes while you were picking off the fruit from the bush. In the early morning, this dust would cover your hands and arms and give your arms a green color, but by noon, there would be so much of this “dust” deposited on your arms, that mixed with the dust of the day, your arms would be covered in a very sticky and uncomfortable blackish tar. We’d break about mid-day to eat our bag lunches, to be had in the shade of the idle pickup trucks parked at the head of the field. We didn’t have the time to go home and wash the tomato tar off of our arms, so we’d scrape it off, using the dull side of our pocket knives. At the end of each day of picking, the first thing we’d do, is to scrub off the itchy, cruddy tar from our arms and hands. It was a very uncomfortable substance but it was just one more thing you had to ignore during the intentness of a short lived but profitable harvest.
One of the other aspects peculiar to picking these pole tomatoes, was the sun. Crawling up and down ladders to pick the apricots, put you in a whole bunch of different exposures to the hot, summer sun. But, being bent over the pole tomatoes, in their furrows, where the tops of the bushes would be no higher than your chest, you spent these long, full days bent over, twisting the ripe fruit off their stems. You’d find yourself in these long daytime hours of the summer, bare backed, the skin and hair of your torso and head being constantly baked by the sun. With this constant, extreme exposure to our hot summer sun, my Italian/German genetic heritage left my skin a deep, rich brown.
In those days, being viewed from the back, I’d be mistaken for being a Mexican, so tan was the skin on my back. My belly, though, was as white as a lizard’s, never exposed to the summer sun. We weren’t the sun baskers that religiously rotated their bodies on the chaise lounges up at the country club. We didn’t have the luxury of paying attention to what we looked liked, we just defaulted to the reality of our days. But, just as much as my skin was darkened by the sun, my hair was bleached by the sun, just like the blondish hair on the heads of the hard core surfers over in Santa Cruz. By the end of the summer, the dark brown hair on the crown of my head would be turned to a nearly golden blonde by the bleaching of the sun.
And as I’m recalling these old days, there is one obtuse, little memory that comes to mind. As we’d push aside the leaves of the tomato bushes, to find the ripening fruit, now and then your hand would jump back at you, as you turned up a leaf being held by some ugly, fleshy potato bug. These ugly, nasty little bastards were just so inherently ugly, that every time you’d discovered one, you’d jerk back, to keep every part of your body away from them. They were about the same size as our more familiar tarantulas, but, unlike our more familiar hairy, tarantula friends, these ugly, little bastards looked more like some unearthly, super outer space being whose insides were on the outside, and if they could be of a significantly larger size, somehow, they’d devour you in a second. When I first encountered these ugly bastards, I kept my reactions to myself, embarrassed by my revulsion. Within a few seasons, however, I found that just about everyone, old and young, had the same feelings about these little buggers that I had. Potato bugs are really creepy.
We prepped and weaned and then harvested these eight or ten acres every year, being burnt by the sun and strengthened by the work. We’d pick the fruit during the day, and then stack the white shipping crates onto the pallets sitting under the artificial lights pouring out from the top of the garage. Finally, when the day’s crop was put to bed, the ladies would leave the garage and go the kitchen and finally make our late night dinner. This might be as late as 11:00 o’clock at night. But, finally, the day was done.
But the next day started before 6:00 a.m., and we started doing it all over again.
When the last of the ripe tomatoes were picked and packaged, we’d bring in a whole bunch of the migrant workers, now done with the prune picking, and we’d have them strip the wires off of the poles, and we’d clean and re-spool the long wires with the same tractor that strung them. The the poles would be pulled from the falled tomato bushes and were rebound with baling wire for winter storage. The last thing to be done, now, at the end of this tomato season, was to once more, bring out the big disc rigs and turn the fruitless plants down into the still muddy earth of the field.
But, before this happened, there was one more tradition that had to occur as each pole tomato season ended. Now, at this point in time, the families of the local landowners and the families of the migrant workers would merge together, and fashion long, ample tables, and fill the air with the smells of a grand variety of recipes from the familiar Almaden kitchens, as well as those from the northern provinces of Mexico and all of the families would partake of a grande fiesta to celebrate the end of a successful harvest. It was a fine time for all.
But, before the fiesta ended, and before the sun had set, all of the men, both local and migrant, would retire for one last foray in the tomato field, now devoid of wires or poles, and the mushy fruit that was left in the tangle of withered tomato bushes would be used as ammunition for the yearly tomato fight that would last long into the night, an annual tradition, fueled by fine, home-made wine and jug upon jug of the finest Mexican beer. There were no sides to win or lose, there was just the hilarious lobbing of unusable fruit, to and fro, just for the fun of it.
The work was done, the money made, the equipment was all put away. Now was the time to cut loose.
After this, came the winter, and the time to repair the trucks and tractors and plows, the time to sharpen the blades on all of the cutting tools, the time to take account of the numbers that found the success and failures of our efforts.
Soon enough, without ever thinking about it, the spring time would be coming round again. It would all be starting up again, without us doing just about nothing but doing it all over again, year after year, and year after year, again.
And so it goes.
Some five or six years ago, when I decided to put my writings out in public, in this thing called a blog, I had to promise myself that I’d publish the postings and then forget about them. They were out in the public and they were on their own. If anyone made comments, acclaim or disclaim about them, it was for them, not me. My ego would not be attached to them, for better or for worse. I took this stand to protect myself, to keep my nervous ego detached from the result of my story telling being presented to the public.
I’m a story teller. I’m not a Jules Verne or a Herman Melville, creating or enhancing grandiose tales of nearly impossible human adventures. I don’t write about such things. I tell stories about what I have personally and actually experienced. Other than that, I’m not very inventive.
Recently, my credibility has been called into question. This is something I was not prepared for nor not knowing how to relate to it. This is something that caught me off center, and spun me into a haze of self doubt and depressing self analysis.
But I worked through it and came out all right. Some old places had the dust shaken off the old, moldy leaves. I remembered some things, and here is one that I never speak of or hardly remember, but now, seems appropriate.
When I was growing up in the Almaden orchards, there were two very basic truths that even us toddling laborers were very aware of; you pick prunes from the ground (after they have dropped from the trees) but you always pick the cots (apricots) from the tree. You have to understand, our hills were only covered with orchards of prunes and cots. We had no cherries, no apples, no pears, just prunes and cots. And each of these two ripe fruits had their own peculiarities that we youngsters had to respect.
When it came to prunes, we maintained their orchards, we prepared their lands, but none of us local, land holding kids ever picked the prunes up from the ground. Prune picking was always, and we mean ALWAYS, was left to the migrant workers. Though I shuttled entire families of prune pickers in the back of pickup trucks that I was too young to legally drive on the few public roads in our neighborhood, I never picked one prune.
On the other hand, when the cots (apricots) got ripe in the early summer, we wee, little kids had to drag anciently old and overly long, orchard ladders, along with the dinged up, old harvest buckets through our well groomed apricot orchards for the picking of the ripe fruit. The three legged ladders would be propped up within the branches of the cot trees, and the bucket would be hauled up and down the ladder until all the ripe fruit was collected. You’d take the buckets down the ladder and dump the fruit into what we generically called “prune boxes” which would hold about 56 pounds of fruit each. We filled up those boxes, endlessly, until the trees bore no more fruit. Then we loaded those large collections of prune boxes onto the bed of a flat bed truck and then we’d jump into the driver’s seat and haul eight or ten tons of fruit to a processing plant miles away, at the edge between the farms and the city (for us, San Jose).
Late in the summer, when the prunes got ripe, we wouldn’t pick the prunes, as we mentioned before, but we’d load the filled up boxes standing in long lines in the orchard onto the flat bed trucks and drive the loads of prunes to the dryers all over the valley to make the plump, ripe prunes into wrinkled up, dried prunes to be packaged and shipped all over the world. I remember when I was in the sixth grade, our teacher, Mr. Teshera, the only sixth grade teacher at Almaden Elementary School, told us that two thirds of the world’s dried prunes came from Santa Clara Valley. Back then, such an awareness was the source of great pride. Today, such a statement, is the source of a sleazy joke.
But these are the four of five months of the harvest, essentially from mid June through late September. The rest of the year, we were turning over the used lands, prepping the fields, tuning up the trucks and tractors, sharpening the disc blades, greasing the hubs of the plows and growing and reaping various row crops in the flat lands of the little Almaden Valley. Year after year, we are staying just a little bit more busy that we have time for, but, year after year, we make it work.
By the time we Almaden farm kids were about ten or twelve years old, we were pretty well experienced fruit pickers. There wasn’t much more else for us to do on those ladders with the really old buckets. At this age, we were just learning to drive the trucks and tractors. It was now that things were getting more interesting. Within a couple of more years, we could drive on the public roads. We were starting to set our sights higher and higher. If I remember correctly, you could drive farm implements on the public roads if you were 13 or 14, but only if you were the son of the land holder. It was about this time that my landlord, my surrogate father, started using his last name as my last name, so that we could cheat the law
and I’d be the one to drive the tractors and trailers up down the paved, county roads. We were already driving the trucks and tractors all over our own lands, sometimes dashing across the county built, paved roads, but we never really broke the
law outrageously, so we didn’t drive straight down the county roads for very long, not until we were legal. Changing my last name was a little break in the law, not an outrageous break. I always felt uncomfortable about such stuff, but I never voiced any dissension about it. I just wanted to do a good job, satisfy the boss and I kept my mouth shut. I simply did what I was told.
When we were about twelve or thirteen years old, a bunch of us were having lunch,eating our bologna sandwiches and the red apples out of our brown paper bags, in the middle of the cot picking day. Our ladders and buckets were strewn around but we were clustered together in a narrow little circle, comparing our bag lunches, so little varied. We were in our plaid, flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up, sitting in the cool shade of a big leafed fig tree. Pretty soon, we’d only be wearing our white t-shirts, if any shirts at all. It was going to get hot, just like every other summer here.
This year, however, there was something new to talk about at the lunch break; the dairy on the curve near Redmond Road had sold out. And they had sold out to a developer, not to another rancher. All of the adult land owners, up and down
Almaden Road, were talking about this. Was this the start of something new, or what? We kids didn’t understand what all of it was about, but we did feel the stress and tension when such things were spoken of. If you asked an adult if there was any bad things going on here, around us, they would just always tell us that the bad stuff was happening near the boundaries of San Jose, and we were so far out, it would take them a half a century to bother us. Though there was some solace in such words, the fear was still there, haunting us.
During this lunch, before we started picking more cots, we kids were discussing the sale of the dairy on the curve. This wasn’t ten miles away, it was right here, right in the middle of us. A couple of years before this, the owner of the dairy on the curve had retired and turned the operation of the dairy over to his son. This was no big deal, as the same thing happened all the time, up and down the road (Almaden Road), one generation taking over from the other. This time, however, the next generation, the son, had some unusual ambitions. He had gone to a bank and borrowed a whole bunch of money, something none of our farmers would never do (we called it “betting the farm”), and bought himself a super special stud bull, to start raising beef cattle as well as milk cows on the family property. In our little valley, this was generally considered quite foolish. Our little valley wasn’t set up for large scale beef farming. Beef farming was meant for the flat lands of the great plains, and even us little kids knew that.
Sure as hell, the son of the dairy farmer lost the farm, the biggest of all sins. In our neighborhood, there was no greater sin than this. His foolish bet never paid off, and the bank loan went into default. The farm was lost to a development company, putting four houses on each of the lost acres. This made all of the other residents along the road shudder. We wanted no part of such land deals. This was the paranoid topic of our lunch time conversation, finishing off our simple lunch meal on this cot picking day.
After all, we were just young kids, with little exposure to anything but our own farms and the adjoining woods. We were certainly no experts about the complicated land laws and exotic political machinations that were at work all around us in downtown San Jose, way beyond our limited, farm boy comprehension.
Just the same, we respected, and indeed, we cherished our homelands, and wanted to make sure that they would be maintained and held in good stead way into the future, just as we knew them on this day. This is what we were discussing at this simple, little, normal lunch under the fig tree.
We had all seen millions of war movies, we’d read hundreds of books, and we knew a whole lot about this and that, that we only imagined. Sitting under the fig tree, talking about the loss of the dairy on the curve to the developers, we got ourselves all worked up. We started talking about things that our fathers wouldn’t talk of, resisting and stopping the developers. Our childish imaginations took on a nasty, little spark and our enthusiasm fueled the flames. We talked about dousing the road graders with their own diesel fuel and setting them afire. We considered ways to ruin and wrest the tracks of the yellow bulldozers and bust and bind the workings of the ditch diggers, so righteously unwanted on our age old farm lands, so verdant and productive. Why should anyone want to tarnish or do away with these quiet and productive lands? We didn’t understand how anyone would want such a thing.
Before we broke up to start our afternoon’s fruit picking, one of the boys suggested we make a pact to fight the developers, no matter where or when. We should have a formal and well spoken agreement to keep the tools of the developers at bay and at ill effect. One of the guys came up with a concise but adequate declaration of our intents and commitments regarding the developers. The guys all clasped hands and swore to uphold this newly devised declaration. I held back. I wasn’t one of them. My dad was from Chicago, as they all knew, and I was only one of these farmer kids because our landlord had taken me under his wing. I was an adopted farmer’s kid. I couldn’t honestly be a member of this newly formed brotherhood. They all stared at me, and I stood under the fig tree, feeling naked and useless while wearing my flannel shirt and faded levis.
Then someone came up with one very hair-brained idea. Every week, we all watched the Walt Disney program on TV, every Wednesday night. And then we also watched the Daniel Boone show on some other weekday night. We learned so much about stuff that was not from Almaden Valley from these TV shows. The new idea was to use an Indian ritual to we’d see every now and then on Daniel Boone. Just like in the TV series, they would make me a blood brother of the whole bunch of these landowner’s sons, using the methods that we saw on the black and white TV screen. I was taken aback. What was this? What are we talking about? I hated being the center of attention.
One of the guys pulled out his pocket knife and another pulled out a lighter to sterilize the knife’s edge. We all looked round to each other, in the dark shade of the fig, and wondered how to do this. Then one of the guys started unlacing his black tennis shoe. Then it all became clear.
Just like in the movies, we would all draw blood from the end of our index fingers, then join all of fingers together and then loosely bind them with a sacred wrap. Well, we didn’t have a sacred wrap, but we did have a shoe lace. We didn’t have all the special words the Indians used, but we made a promise to each other.
This all, only took a but a minute or two, and the shoe lace was reintroduced into its appropriate shoe, but as we separated, each of the guys patted me on the back as they made their way into the orchards. Now, as far as we bunch of guys were concerned, I really was one of them.
No longer was I an outsider, now I wasn’t on the fringe, neither here nor there, neither an neighborhood insider nor an outsider. Finally, I was a bunch more comfortable. Finally, my young, little friends made my inclusion official, if only by their own childish, little standards. But it was good enough and real enough for me.
The tiny, little cut on the end of my finger didn’t hurt at all. Indeed, that little cut was now a badge of honor, to fight off the encroaching money loving, heathens from the city who wanted to rape and pillage our fruitful and plentiful lands, lands which could never be replaced.
I remember that in the second grade, we cut the top off of our one pint milk cartons and filled the remaining little box with dirt. Then we were to put a bean into the center of the wet dirt. All of this was done under the tutelage of our second grade teacher, Mrs. Arinson, a kindly, older lady whose gray hair was always pulled up into a bun and she never wore anything but long, plain, black dresses that only hung in straight lines in a most unbecoming style.
While we were all farm kids, and had already worked many jobs in the fields and in the barns at such an early age, none of us had been so intimate with a single, little plant.
Mrs. Arinson told us to keep the dirt in our cut off milk cartons moist, but not wet, warm but not hot. Each morning, after the school bus dropped us off at the elementary school, we’d rush to put our coats up on the hooks at the back of the class room, then we’d make haste to the cut up milk cartons lining the windows to gaze at their progress, expecting something to happen, but for days, there was nothing.
Then, after four or five days, a clean, white nub, but barely a pin head, sparkled in the dark, moist dirt, just one little pinhole of whiteness.
Then, the next day, the single, little flash of light took more form and rose up a little, showing itself as a tiny, nearly formless arch, white and bare. And the little kids were wondering what was really happening here, in these dirt filled, cut up, cardboard milk cartons?
If the kids were to park themselves over the half milk cartons and stare at this whiteness in the center of the dark brown dirt, nothing would happen. But, to look into the cut off cartons each morning, morning by morning, there was much going on, day by day. By about the fifth or sixth day, the thickening white arch would thicken and then break open the cloak of dirt on one end and present a pale green, smaller version of the dry bean that was originally stuffed into the ordinary, school yard dirt. Now, this was a miracle to these seven year old second graders, and once again, to Mrs. Arinson.
Within a few more days, the little bean buds would expand and develop broad, green leaves, and then, pretty soon, the bean plants would be getting too big for the top cut milk cartons. Pretty soon, Mrs. Arison would send the kids home with their milk carton bean plants to be transplanted into the various family’s vegetable gardens.
Right now, some sixty years later, I’ve got two dozen little paper mache seed cups sitting on my kitchen table. I bought some rose seeds from Ebay and then, while at the Dollar Store, I bought four packets of flower seeds for one dollar. I bought some potting soil and filled the cups with it, then planted the different flower seeds in the center of the moist soil in the cups. I did this last Thursday, today being Sunday. Just like sixty years ago, the little, white nubs are showing themselves. Wow, it still works. Where will these little nubs go? Does it still work?
Just like that seven year old kid, I have to admit, I’m only hoping that these white nubs will really become the flowers they are supposed to be. Holy, Gee Whiz, how can I wait???????
Is this going to work?
I graduated from San Jose’s Pioneer High School in 1968. Pioneer was the newest school in the school district, and we were the first graduating class that spent all three of our high school years at Pioneer. The previous two graduating classes had spent at least one of their sophomore or junior years at other high schools in the area.
Pioneer wasn’t simply a new school but it was an experimental school as well. Our classes were set up on the same sort of schedule that was used by colleges, where we had 55 minute lecture classes and two and half hour labs in these new styles multi-purpose rooms. These specialized rooms where large halls and had accordion style, expandable walls that could be pulled out to make for several normal sized class rooms, or retracted to make for a large lecture hall. The chemistry, biology and physics labs were the most modern and sophisticated in the district.
The neighborhoods from which Pioneer drew its students were the eastern part of Willow Glen, one of San Jose’s older, more up-scale neighborhoods, the newly developed, suburban tracts of middle class houses to the north of the IBM plant on Cottle Avenue, the very upscale residents of the Almaden Country Club, basically, the homes of the IBM executives, and, lastly, the children who lived on the remaining farm lands that had yet to be bulldozed over and made into more suburban tracts of the up- and-coming upper-middle class residences yet to be constructed. I belonged to the latter of the neighborhoods, the farmers on the last few farms left in the Almaden Valley.
The very small population of the Pioneer High student body of which I was a part of, had a peculiar sort of schizophrenia –
On the one hand, we were proud of our farming and generations old heritage regarding our local highly productive agricultural lands. We were hugely resentful of having our heritage consumed and developed by money grubbing city planners who used all sorts of legal machinations forcing our fore bearers to sell our land to the developers. Of course, the city people who moved into the resulting tracts of houses built on our farming lands, were victims of this same resentment, and we wanted little to do with them.
On the other hand, the city kids, as we called them, the kids who moved into the brand new tract houses, had grown up swimming in swimming pools, not the shallow, moss lined creeks that ran through our arid, little valley. These were savvy suburban urchins who went to professional sports arenas, like Candle Stick Park in San Francisco, they spent sleazy nights in bowling alleys and pool halls and they were not unfamiliar with tattoo parlors. As well, they were familiar with débutante’s cotillions, little league baseball, hanging out at the country club, and they got to go to the movies more than once every six months or so. They had the experience of going to football and cheerleader practice after classes were over, and performing in front of large crowds of people. Many of them were smart asses, being confident and quick to make fun of us country bumpkins, we not knowing how to respond.
Where the city kids knew how partake of the city stuff, we country boys had an entirely different array of activities to draw from. On the weekends, if it wasn’t the summer when we’d be harvesting the crops 24/7 (as they say now-a-days,) we’d go into the hills with our BB guns, later, our 22 caliber rifles, and hunt squirrels and jack rabbits. Maybe, if we were club joiners, we might go to 4H meetings or the cub and boy scouts on some weekday afternoon, to learn crafts, grow fruits and vegetables, or raise livestock to earn club recognition, as in merit badges and such. In September of every year, we’d go the Santa Clara County Fair which was mainly an exposition of all of the Santa Clara Valley’s agricultural production and also provide diversions on the traveling carnival midway, with its penny tossing and balloon popping booths along with the ferris wheel and spinning tea cups full of giddy, laughing kids and parents. But this fair lasted for only about three weeks a year.
At the end of each major harvest during the summer, the migrant workers and the local land owner’s families would gather together in a dusty fruit drying lot, layout a series of makeshift tables to make for light hearted and free spirited fiestas, celebrating the finish of one harvest, but not lasting too long into the night, as these same people had to get up early in the morning and start harvesting the next, already ripening crop.
As our rural residences were located many miles from any of the commercial temptations provided to our tract kid contemporaries, we spent our evenings tending to our livestock and pets, reading books not included in our homework and, if the weather was good and the antenna remained properly aligned, we might get to watch an hour or two of one of the two or three television channels available at the time.
Obviously, the life experience of the vast majority of the student population at Pioneer High in 1963 (when we started our sophomore year at Pioneer) was vastly different from the life experience of we, comely, farm kids. We “hay seed kids” were often made fun of, for our lack of sophistication and our over abundance of naivety. For such constant degradation, we sort of stuck together, not interacting too much with the other more “cliquey” tract kids who were so much more cool than us. And as I look back at this era, some 50 years ago, perhaps, too, we shied away from these cool people because unlike them, we would never publicly “put them down” or make fun of them. Those sorts of things weren’t allowed in Almaden. For their skill at such rudeness and our lack of it, maybe that, too, was why we avoided them.
From the outset, as a farm kid, I was already sort of an outsider from the great majority of the student body at Pioneer. When we started junior high school, the school officials put all us kids through a series of tests, both physical and mental, to give them a way to measure our development over the years through high school graduation. I’ve never been clear on how or why this happened, but because of these tests in the seventh grade, just over a dozen of us were placed in a special schedule called the Higher Achiever Program (staff and students alike, called this program “HAP.” We were the HAP kids.).
The batch of us HAP kids went through the next six years as a group, being sent through more intensive and challenging English, math and science classes than the rest of the student body were taking. In the undercurrents of student gossip, we were known, in a sardonic sort of way, as the smart kids. As we HAP kids were kept together for more than half of our classes, we experienced less diversity in getting to know a wider range of the different members of the student body. This HAP label that was applied to me and the others, added to my feelings of isolation from the general bunch of people in the junior and senior high school years.
Add to this, the very, very distinctive role that I played ever since I was in elementary school, I was the audio/visual nerd who set up and operated the movie projectors when they were needed in the different class rooms. When there was a school assembly, I was the one who set up the microphones and connected them to
the amplifier so that the whole school could hear what the principal had to say. At the sock hops, I was the one who fiddled around behind the hammer tone gray amplifier box on wheels which held the record player as well as the amplifier. This is how I got to know the good looking girls at the school, by playing the records they handed to me, not by dancing with them. I had to stay by the gray box through the whole school dance, and I also had to stay after the dance ended, to pack up the equipment and lock it away.
On a campus of about 2500 kids, there were only two of us who were the A/V nerds, and every one of the other kids knew of our distinctive non-academic status. This just further set us apart from the normal kids of the school.
But even more than these afore mentioned factors, is one constantly bothersome aspect of my person that I couldn’t ignore but didn’t dwell on, and that was my size. The tract kids were never discreet enough to not make mention that I was the smallest kid on the campus. Lucky for me, on the Almaden farms, working the orchards and the fields, no one cared about your size. They worked and you worked and not much was said about it. If you couldn’t keep up with the work for any reason, being sick or short or lazy, you didn’t get the work. You were sent away. So, until I got to junior high school, I was never really aware of how big or small I was. I guess that’s why I never really developed a “small man” complex. Besides, the farm work was very physical and often pretty heavy and you were doing it all the time. Thus, I was as strong as an ox, and I did have confidence in this.
Still, the loudmouth jerks from the tracks made sure that I never forgot I was the shortest guy on the campus. To hell with them.
Back in those secondary school days, I wasn’t interested in sports (supposedly I was too small) or girls (I was too bashful) and I was never interested in fortune and fame (farmers weren’t usually too interested in such things, they were mainly concerned with just keeping the farm running smoothly). What I was interested in was art, electronics and cars. I got my amateur radio operator’s license when I was eleven, before I even started junior high school. I started building my first car when I was fourteen.
For all those people who wanted to be the school’s quarter back (or at least, be his buddy), who was the hero of all the pom-pom girls and cheerleaders, easily, people like me were outsiders. I sure felt like an outsider, but I tried not to dwell on it, but to accept it and go with it. I came to hang out with the other outsiders, not all of whom were from Almaden. School sports and dances weren’t a high priority for us. While the majority of the kids went to football games on Friday nights, the outsider’s bunch would jump in my Volkswagen and trundle up to Berkeley’s north side of campus and take in a few European art films. Or we might head up to San Francisco and go to the great bookshops in North Beach or check out the up-coming hippy rock bands that would be putting on shows at the Fillmore auditorium.
As the six years of secondary school progressed, we outsiders congealed into our own little clique at the junior high and then the high school. It was in this small clutch of kids that we got our own special sort of friendship, support and confidence. We’d sit together at lunch and talk about books we’d read, music that we discovered. Maybe we’d get a little heavy and talk about some kind of philosophical stuff. On the weekends, we’d get together and go on hikes, drive to art colonies, as they were then called, or explore some new and interesting book shop or museum one of us might have recently heard of.
This group was a good thing for me. Maybe I wasn’t living the farmer’s life anymore, but I was getting a lot of positive support from this bunch of friends. The guys and girls were very important to me. As we progressed through each of these secondary school years, we became closer and more relaxed with each other, more interested in each other’s interests. At the risk of sounding like a high school clique, we were becoming the intellectuals in the school.
While the jocks and cheerleaders dressed up, more and more, we dressed down. As the rich kids got bigger and fancier cars to parade around in, we got Volkswagens and old pick-up trucks. As they showed off fancy hair-dos and shiny, shaven chins, we grew our hair out and kept scruffy beards on our faces. As graduation approached, the tract kids were aiming at pre-law and pre-med colleges so as to prepare to becoming very well paid doctors and lawyers. And, as graduation approached, we outsiders were looking into the liberal arts schools to develop and enhance our intellectual interests, maybe to become teachers, writers, artists, who knows?
Now, in 1968, as graduation approached, one thing was for sure; the tract kids had very specific and solid goals. However, we outsiders, as I’m calling us, didn’t have such goals, such clarity regarding our paths. As I remember it, what we would call our goal, was that we wanted to explore some more, before we made a commitment for our life’s work, our careers. We needed to find out more about the world and ourselves. We had the need to keep going to the museums, to read more books, to listen to more philosophers, to gather more and more information and then see where it would take us.
One night, I was coming back from San Francisco with two of my outsider female friends in the VW. We were coming down the newly constructed Highway 280 at a time well after midnight. The girl in the back seat was a very tall, slim girl from the east coast, with long, straight brown hair down past her waist. She was pale and her face, as young as it was, had no traces of a smile on it. She was as tall as I was short. She was the tallest person in the school, taller than any of the guys, and she had been the tallest, all of her life. She had some other issues as well, and being from the east coast, in some big east coast city, she had gotten into hard drugs. When her dad had gotten transferred to San Jose, she had the good sense to clean up her act. But even so, she was not a real happy person. She was incredibly intelligent and well informed, but she had her problems. We had been friends for a couple of years and we leaned on each other, with respect for each other’s limits. We were both trying to sort out our approaching adulthoods, with not a lot of good guidance from our parents.
The girl sitting shotgun, was a Japanese/American whose father was a professor at a local university, her mother was a high school teacher. She was like born and groomed to be an intellectual. Her parents made sure that she had the best exposure to the best of the arts, and the best of the thinkers. I had only known this girl for less than a year.
No one in the car had turned eighteen yet.
I don’t remember what we had been doing in the City, but it was something that got all of us revved up. The girl in the back was very much influence by the east coast “beat” mentality, it somehow befitting her rather dour and sarcastic presentation to the world. This beat connection is what hooked her into the drugs. Luckily, she was smart enough to unhook herself. I found, however, after spending a good bunch of time with her, this presentation of hers was a mask, and she was really a sensitive, intelligent, and rather bruised little girl stuck in a very big and very good looking woman’s body. She was having a very hard time resolving this disparity.
As we left the south end of San Francisco that night, we were chattering about whatever it was we had just experienced. I was intent on finding out what this new freeway was all about. It was a joy; wide, a very smooth surface, nice, big curves, and mainly laid down in the fairly well wooded hills of the Peninsula. We were approaching Mountain View, where this new stretch of the 280 Freeway was to connect with a much older and well used section that had been in use for about a decade.
It was about here that the conversation in the car turned to our college expectations. Each of us had sent in our applications and were waiting on our acceptance or rejection notices. I only applied to San Jose State, as my family was too short of funds to help me pay for some out of state school. I felt pretty confident about my acceptance. A school consular told me that, though my grades were mundanely average, my SAT scores were so high, I could get into just about any school in the country.
The girl in the back seat had applied to three colleges and was waiting to hear from each of them. Like me, she had little interest in grades, but her SAT scores were very high as well. All she could do, at this point, was to wait until she heard from the three schools.
Our Japanese/American friend sat there in the shotgun seat, saying not much at all. The tall girl in the back seat pressed our other female friend as to what her plans were. She answered plainly that she got accepted to Stanford. And then she sat there silent for a few minutes. Then she told us that she wasn’t going to go there. Something seemed amiss, and we two others sat silent as well, listening to the buzz of the Bug’s engine. Then, the shotgun girl started talking again. She told us that six months earlier, she went in for a physical exam and they discovered that she was diagnosed leukemia. She didn’t have more than about eighteen to twenty months to live. She saw no need to waste any time at Stanford, and then she laughed a short laugh.
With this announcement, I felt like my own heart had stopped. The girl in the back seat started whimpering. I pulled the car over to the side of the freeway, absolutely dumbfounded, not knowing anything of what to do. This was all, way out of my league. I shut the car down, not knowing what else I could do.
After a few moments, the voice in the shotgun darkness told us the nature of the disease. She told us of her own condition and what could be expected. Then she held silent for some few moments more.
Then the voice started again, and explained to us that her sad parents had consoled her, and she explored her books and studies. Now, she was resolved to her fate, and was not sad or bitter about it, nor angry or depressed. She and her parents were going to visit a few places in the world she would really like to see, quite soon, while she still had her strength, and for that, she was grateful.
For sure, you could here it in her voice, luckily, she had found her peace. She was OK. I was so proud of her, so moved that she had the strength of will, to get herself to this place, so early in her life. It was a stunning achievement. She was calm and resolute.
I brought the car back to life, turned on it’s lights and pulled back onto the freeway.
Within a couple of weeks, we graduated from Pioneer High School. The three of us had lunch together a few times and the taboo subject was never mentioned. It was already spoken of, and resolved.
Immediately after the graduation ceremony, two outsider friends of mine, one from childhood in Almaden, the other from the woods of New Hampshire, drove off in my VW, with a gallon jug of red wine, a banjo, a guitar and our three back packs. The VW bug carried us to Yosemite for a few nights, then over Tioga pass to Mono Lake and then on to who knows where. We each had a couple of twenty dollar bills in our wallets and the plan was no more than to travel northern California until the money ran out.
The plan was no more than to explore what we had never explored before.
I never saw either of the two girls again.
You know, sometimes I ask myself some really off the wall questions. Like, right now, what if I found myself in a weird situation, where I’d have to choose between having to lose my sight or my hearing. Which would I choose?
It seems to me that the knee jerk response would be to choose sight, and give up the ability to hear. But, as I consider it, I so often, when I’m under stress, I call up my Pandora station and plug it into my stereo and go to sleep listening to my favorite music. Do I really want to give that up?
In the work-a-day world, I listen to my old, familiar rock and roll, so close and well-known to me after these 50 years. But, when I’m in more sedate and relaxed modes, I bring up the classical music, from the likes of Chopin, Bach and Beethoven and enjoy the creative and complex nuances of their compositions, so long ago, in such a much more simplistic world, without electric amplification and toe tapping fuzz boxes.
Boy, which would I choose, sight or sound?
That’s a tough one.
I come from a simple place.
I come from a place where you stick a seed in the ground, you tend to it then you reap it. You reap it to nurture yourself and your family. Once used up, you till the plant under, and the next year, you do it all over again. In this place, success is to make things grow. Failure is to have things die. It’s pretty simple.
In such a place, it’s pretty hard to be anything but plain, honest and direct. There is not a lot of room for such things as policy, profit or persuasion. In this place, you work hard and stay alive, and, with luck, you prosper. In this place, no one gets really rich, but, as well, no one is destitute. There’s enough for everyone but not so much as to make anyone a king.
In such a place, your awareness and your life is entwined with the life living all around you, the plants and animals, both tame and wild, and the clear air supporting the birds and the bugs, and, of course, the rich earth, providing nutrients and support for all of it. While, sometimes, earthquakes, storms, heat spells and floods might disrupt the normalcy of this place, and maybe the deer might pilfer the fruit on the trees where your orchard meets the forest, and maybe the gophers might munch on the roots of your tomato plants, for the most part, this place is a place of cooperation and cohabitation.
Before I started kindergarten, a friend’s father took his son and me on an early morning hike. This father, and his father, and his father before, were raised in this place. The ways and means of this place were ingrained in the fiber and flesh of my friend’s father, an intelligent, quiet and calm man.
We started the hike heading across a dew sprinkled pasture, dampening our worn out tennis shoes. The brown patched cows, and their calves, were still and unmoving, ignoring us, munching on the fresh, cool, dewy grasses.
A thin fog under the very blue sky, hid the tops of the hills that we were going to climb. When we reached the edge of the open field, the hills stood before us and the father stopped us there. He told us that we were going to reach the top of the hill at about the same time the fog wholly burnt off. He told us to head up the hill, and he’d follow us. A bit surprised, we took the lead and walked straight ahead. We strode up the grade in a straight line, and really, we didn’t get too far. In short order, we pooped ourselves out.
The father called us back down to the bottom of the hill where he was still standing, having not followed us at all. As we approached him, he had us turn round, told us to stare at the hillside and tell him what we saw. We stared at the hill, reporting to him that we saw tall grass, bushes and spread out oak trees. There were a few moss splotched rocks poking up through the grass. He told us there was more than that. With an outstretched finger, he traced a line where the grass was thinned out, revealing a line of bare earth. Our eyes screwed up and the grasses finally revealed to us their little secret; there was a faint path crisscrossing the face of the hill, the thin, dusty line slightly angling upwards with each sweep across the hillside.
The father told us that this was a deer path. It was a path made by the animals that lived only in these woods, and that deer had a good reason to lay down their paths the way they did. The deer knew, because they lived here for so long, that to go straight up the hill would tire you out really quick, like it did us. But, if you went up the hill on the crisscrossed path, you climb the hill more gradually and you don’t tire yourself out. It’s a much easier climb, even though it may not be the most direct path, it was the most realistic, if you really wanted to get to the top of the hill. My young friend and I looked at each other, and figured that this was really a pretty good idea.
The father went on. The deer may have started this path, but the cows, looking for new grass would use it as well. Even the mountain lion, who sometimes killed and consumed the deer, would use the path too. The deer had made a path to make their own lives easier, but it made life easier for the cows, the mountain lion and, now, for us. Not much more was said about it, and we used the deer path to get to the top of the hill about the time the fog burned off.
As we grew older, this more subtle way of looking at things, was developed in us. It gave us a perspective where we’d look past the simple visage of green grass and a few splotchy rocks. There was texture, hue and shadow, as well, that should also be considered when viewing the world.
Having such a perspective, and thus being cognizant of the natural world in which you existed, and also, being responsive to it, resulted in your behavior being intertwined and regulated by the rhythms and the occasional irregularities occurring in nature. With this awareness and the associated responsiveness, one didn’t need overly abundant rules and regulations — blinking lights on poles, neon lit arrows pointing directions or endless reflective signs governing speeds or when to turn, or when not to turn.
In such a place, one needn’t be controlled and ruled by laws and lawyers, policemen and politicians, cops and robbers. Respect for the natural world (and its inhabitants) and common sense are all the really basic tools that are needed to make it through life in a peaceful and productive manner. Ridiculous complications just are not needed.
Today, in the world of cell phones, self-driving cars and faceless, artless sky scrapers, one cannot exist without conceptual realities, inorganic straight lines all over the place, rules and regulations stacked atop each other to the extent where, in the end, none of them make any sense at all. Plus, even in their failure to display any sort of reasonable logic, these laws and rules refuse to let one use that good old “common sense.” One man can be imprisoned for years for doing nothing wrong, while, on technicalities, another man can kill someone and get off, scot-free. There is so little common sense here.
In this modern, high-tech, wildly man-made world, common sense and respect for nature don’t simply take a back seat to the concepts and paradigms of mankind’s brain, too often common sense and respect for nature are simply ejected right out through the rear deck lid, left in the dust of crumbling roads and deteriorating bridges. In this place, what is important is being more “techy,” more “new and improved,” more “faster,” more “bigger and better,” more detached and ignorant of the natural world. The necessity to maintain the old world reality upon which the ability of the techy world is able to grow, and grow again and again, is ignored. Highways and byways, and bridges, are falling apart, but development of traffic tracking systems, license plate readers, huge Amber Alert signs, self driving cars are now on the cusp of the immediate future, showing all too obviously what the priorities of the corporate world are: more technology — yes, essential maintenance – no!
It is so ironic to me, that they can find the money to fund the symphony of dancing lights on the Bay Bridge’s suspension cables but the same bridge’s tunnel on Yerba Buena Island has deteriorated to the point where it has been dropping slabs of concrete onto cars passing through it. Just one more example of screwed up priorities.
The major, older religions of the earth all seemed to have shared one basic tenet: “go forth and multiply.” Each one of them wanted their followers to bring more converts into the fold. Each endeavoring to increase its power and influence, and I have to guess, to rule the whole earth, until there were no more people to convert. Was the goal of this common tenet to be that everyone was of one faith? What was the purpose of this? Perhaps it’s to find heaven on earth with sixteen vestal virgins for everyone (refer to Procol Harum)? And, really, where has such a common goal of several major, substantially successful religions found us? This common goal of these religions has found us in midst of endless turf wars and suffering the frustrated hate of constant, senseless, suicide terror attacks, hither, thither and yon.
But guess what? The newest religion, the newest, world wide crusade, transcends and, yet, embraces and permeates all of these older religions and is common to all of them. The new religion is the adoration, the senseless and unreasonable acceptance of the goals of international high tech corporations who, it seems, is to simply sell more of their products to consumers than their competitors. This is some sort of irresponsible, maniacal, high speed game of an arbitrary Monopoly sort of financial competition.
While the leaders and engineers and production personnel of these high tech corporations tell us their work leads to faster, better, cheaper, more powerful and more versatile products, I have to ask, products to do what? Why is it that we need “faster, bigger, smaller, better, thinner, fatter more BETTER products every eight months or so? What was so damned wrong with the earlier versions?
Do we need faster and more powerful products to dehumanize our children and disassociate them from their physical comrades through the use of cell phone messaging? Do we really need such much morely improved products, and “better” generations of such products, each generation being faster, more powerful, more “intuitive,” slimmer but with a larger screen with a million more pixels, while the human eye can’t really discern such improvements?
These imperceptible improvements by human sensibilities are given huge virtue simply by the application of sophisticated marketing and advertising tactics. Not for the virtue of human sensibilities, but simply as a result of marketing and advertising, hundreds of people stand in line to spend their money on product, unseen and unknown, with no really significant improvements, no substantial differences except for maybe a five or ten percent smaller or greater proportions, be it its thickness, thinness or one of so many colors. What foolishness! What a ridiculously self-processed and self-idolized exhibit of tom-foolery.
At not more than the age of 50 (not that many years ago), I can remember hauling a phone handset along with me, when I went for a swim in my own pool, that was dragging wires back to the telephone connections in the house. Cell phones were yet to be perfected. While we had the Internet back then, social media was yet to be invented. Guess what, you kids of the modern age, we CAN do without it, all of it. We got along just fine by talking to each other, face to face, and remembering what was to be said until we were face to face. This Millineal need for immediate social interaction makes absolutely no sense to me. How many car crashes do we experience for the sake of texting rather than the responsible and reasonable expectation of watching the road in front of you. Can such twisted priorities be anything but insane? Is this why we need self driving cars now? I don’t get it.
What of the natural world in which we live? The corporations make sure we believe that the natural world is quite OK, and will continue along just OK because this natural world is so huge and expansive. But what they don’t want you to know, is that those parts of the natural world which the modern corporate interests is those expansive and nearly endless lands of the corporately useless earth – the deserts, the jungles, the arctic and the antarctic, the tundra and taiga – all of these expansive lands are useless to the corporate interests, and useless as well, to the common folk, the burgeoning populations, usually living at the water’s edge.
In fact, these endless lands, however, exist and are necessary to provide such much more basic and important world wide resources, resources as essential as the very oxygen that we breath. And they produce these essentials in a very delicate and subtle manner. In any case, these endless lands are ignored and deemed useless by both the corporate giants and the mundane human masses, until they are found to contain some rich resource the corporate reality can turn into a profit. Once rich resources are discovered, we see the corporate interests dig up diamonds, coal, uranium, copper, so on and so forth. Other than for their profit, such lands are left to the natural world, to develop as it may, unfettered by human involvement. And, for the most part, when such treasures are found in the undesirable lands, it is usually lorded over by foreign owners and managers from the more desirable lands, who profit more and more, from the hidden riches of these poorer lands. But, in any case, these expansive and undesirable lands are never a magnet to attract the poor and mundane populations who don’t want much more than clear water to drink, a belly full of rice and a warm place to sleep. How much will these undesirable lands service the needs of the ever expanding human population, let alone the more comfortable situations in which the corporate executives exist.
The indigenous residents of these poorly endowed lands are most usually treated as not much more than slaves, to dig up the diamonds hidden in dangerously deep caves; or reaping and chopping cotton; planting, harvesting and shucking corn or the planting and processing of tobacco into all of its many forms. Indeed, we can even include the highly “illegal” but, oh, so profitable husbandry of the growth and distribution of such sundry substances as coca (the base plant from which is processed into cocaine), the several derivatives of the opium poppy and the huge and varied fields of cannabis being harvested all over the world, in illicit and highly valued havens that could be better used to provide essential and healthful nutritional crops for each of these local populations. But the concerns of the corporation does not include concern for the locals, the concern of the corporation is simply for the bottom line of its board of directors and the fearful but mildly greedy share holders who are looking for the shaky security of the modern world’s money markets, managed and made profitable in only the largest and most “corporate” of all the world’s greatest cities, the cathedrals and capitals of the unnatural world.
Recently, the slavery of the local masses has been assuaged by the mechanization of the lower class’s labors. Machines dig the caves, machines harvest and groom the cotton, machines sow and reap the corn, so on and so forth. And more and more, we find machines making machines. So what labors are left to the indigenous populations except to procreate, and make for an even greater number of unusable people?
We find more and more of the day-to-day world automated, robotized and made inhumane. Anthropologists tell us that the size of the human brain is slowly diminishing as we rely more and more on our “hi-tech, labor saving devices and systems” instead of our own natural, personal mental resources. Our connection to the basic, natural world is very much diminished. As we insist on having the newest and most up-to-date and multi-functional devices in front of our faces 24/7 on so many varied screens, and as we endear the more abstract, quasi-intellectual aspects of the corporate world, relying on marketing and advertising as their reality, our many and varied connections to the other real residents of this very natural world are so much diminished. Except for our pets, how much are we aware of the flora and fauna (plants and animals) that once surrounded and interacted with us on a daily basis, but now we are insulated and divorced from them. These are the sorts of connections which the corporate reality chooses to disenfranchise and ignore. Corporate health is reflected in the money markets and is measured in points acquired and lost on a daily basis. They do not regard success and failure in terms of life and death but only in point counts announced on the nightly news.
The new religion has only one priority, to sell it’s products. The big difference between this new religion and the old ones is that the old ones sold spirituality, an intangible thing, while the new one sells physical things, like computers, cars and cell phones. The old religions were paid off in prayers, the new religion is paid off only in dollars. If the new religion doesn’t sell stuff, it’s failing. If it does sell, it is successful. The problem is, once you’ve sold a thing to someone, what more can you sell them? What you need to maintain success is more “someones,” more consumers, to sell to. The new religion needs more people that don’t have what you are selling. Constantly, the new religion needs new consumers.
The old religions were successful at populating the earth. Wherever there is arable land, you will find people of one religion or another. In a certain sense, you can say that the humans are the most successful race of animals on the planet, as no other species is so widespread over the whole place. The problem is, for the new religion to succeed, it must OVER populate the earth. It must make sure that there is an unending supply of consumers.
Here lies the dilemma for our future. If we accept the corporate reality’s demand for unending, asymtopically increasing numbers of consumers of it products, certainly, we will very soon break down the natural, long standing, self-sustaining fabric of the many intertwined elements, large and small, of this natural, good earth. The natural system will collapse, and it will collapse with the same world shattering destruction of an earlier successful history, that of the dinosaurs. That history was blown asunder with the collision of a huge asteroid upon the earth, fouling the atmosphere and killing off all of the dominant species on our planet.
Our new religion, “UNBRIDLED TECHNOLOGY,” requiring unending consumers, will surely destroy our human history just as the dinosaur’s history was destroyed, but without any outer space influences. If the priorities of this new, dominant and all permeating religion are not altered or adjusted in good time, ultimately, our human history will come to an ugly end. Indeed, it may already be too late to make the adjustments, the ill effects of our overpopulation are already undeniable. We have screwed it all up, all by ourselves and our human history will end. Once again, the dominant species will be removed from the earth, like the sickening mildew on a rotting apple, awaiting a new beginning, echoing the history after the destruction of the dinosaurs. This pause in world domination, giving a new species the chance to cleanse the earth and prove their worth.
Unlike the deer on my childhood hiking path, this new religion, UNBRIDLED TECHNOLOGY, has no desire to share its subtle knowledge with the other natural neighbors of this very real world. These neighbors offer the new religion nothing in the terms of its success: dollars, or yen or euros or pesos, or any sort of man-made, abstract, conceptual currency. The more intangible elements of the real world are of no value to this new religion. For that reason, the history of the humans is damned.
In this new end, the deer will win the new world, a simple place.
I had this job in San Francisco back in 1972. It was in a publicly funded law office, dealing only with civil cases (nothing to do with criminal sorts of cases) and it was manned by some of the best, most idealistic and powerful young attorneys in the whole country, probably in the whole world, at that time. One end of our little office building was on the main drag of San Francisco, Market Street, but the building was so situated that when you looked out of the windows on the back of the building, you were looking right over the southwest corner of the San Francisco Civic Center, not a bad view if you had to spend your time in the middle of this city. At least it had a decent view of the open sky and the few square blocks of green lawn that lay between the foot of the handsome City Hall and steps of the
huge, ancient Public Library, with it’s iconic Greek columns set into the building’s grande facade of arched windows illuminating an impressive, multi-story foyer at the library’s entrance (Today, this library building is the home the San Francisco Asian Art Museum).
Being the “died in the wool” country boy that I was, if I had to work in the big city, this was a fairly decent locale, considering the other sorry vantages that the high rise, urban “canyons” had to offer, simply a limited view of the opposite building’s windows. While I accepted this job in the heart of San Francisco, I made it an adamant point not to give in to all the demands of city living. I kept my hair as long and shaggy as it would grow (which was pretty long for my 22 years of age). While I still pretty new to swearing and vulgarity, I insisted on constantly using all of my newly acquired “hippy vernacular,” even in the most formal of meetings with my superiors. While the older, middle aged people I had to work with, scorned my obsessions outright and vehemently, the younger, 30 and 40 year old lawyers I worked with, heartily supported and protected my contrary “individualism.” For that, I was very lucky.
Even though I had to work in the core of this urban center of San Francisco, I refused to live in this disgustingly unnatural urban reality on their terms, with its sunless canyons between the coral-reef-like skyscraper buildings, so faceless and sterile. Within just a few weeks of my accepting this employment, one of the younger and more successful of the attorneys, offered me to share his house, up in Mill Valley, just a short and reasonable commute from Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge, to our San Francisco Civic Center headquarters. It didn’t take me long to learn to park my souped up VW near to Fisherman’s Wharf, and take the cable car over to the Civic Center, for just a quarter of a dollar. I loved the cable car ride, and should it rain, it was still a great, invigorating ride, a
nd so very cheap. Even though I was living in the metropolis I hated, life was good, and life was rich, and simple. I had it made. Or so I thought.
But still, I was a very naive and untested country boy. I had no idea what I had yet to learn.
While I comfortably and frugally moved into my new bedroom in the Mill Valley house, the house itself was still in the process of being restored and expanded by it’s new owner. I came to find out that my new landlord actually spent most of his time with his girlfriend, a well heeled and very savvy airline stewardess who occupied a swanky, new condominium across the Bay, over in Berkeley. Maybe, I encountered my landlord once or twice a month, which really wasn’t such a bad deal. I was pretty much left to my own. Not a bad deal at all.
But, as things proceeded on, I did become aware of an added level of complexity in this living arrangement. As I came to find out, the young lawyer house owner, had a rather unconventional general contractor taking care of all the renovations and repairs to this old Mill Valley landmark, on this hill above the Mount Tam Junction. You see, there was this fast talking, long haired hip guy, camping under the floor joists of my new home. He had wrinkles deep in his cheeks, and easily, he was at least fifteen or twenty years older than me. His eyes were usually pretty fuzzy, but he was always quick witted and, usually, very humorous. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this guy was usually always stoned out on weed (marijuana). I was never much of a dope smoker, so I never got real tight with this guy, but he was my landlord’s main man, when it came to the affairs of this new housing arrangement. If the landlord was over in the east bay with his girl friend, I’d give my rent to this dope smoker who lived under the house’s floor boards.
You see, there really was some sort of rational to this relationship between the dope smoker and my landlord. The dope smoker was slowly, but continually digging out the dirt below the floor joists of the main house. What he was doing, slowly, but surely, is he was secretly adding a whole new floor to the landlord’s house. You see, on this hillside in Mill Valley, there were no close neighbors, and the downward facing woods, had no view of the undersides of the old house. This dope smoker was a dope smoker, but he was also a very valid house builder, he did know what he was doing, just so long as he wasn’t too stoned. And he demanded very little recompense for his skill, he just needed enough to keep himself stoned, fat and sassy. And, guess what? My young landlord was getting a whole new floor to his house for almost nothing.
I was just a farm boy, this was all pretty new to me. I wasn’t real sure how to digest it all. What was cheating and what wasn’t cheating? What was illegal and not illegal? This was all way beyond me. I wasn’t sure how to relate to it, but I was never a stickler for laws and legal mumbo-jumbo.
Now, dig it, this was all back when hitch hiking was just very cool and legit. Indeed, I had my nasty, souped VW, that could beat most Porsches of the day, and yet, I’d park it under some trees just to hide it off Stinson Beach, and then stick out my thumb on the side of the road, just so I could meet new people. Hitch hiking in the 60s and early 70s was a great way to meet folks. Just ask Jack Kerouac, the guru of the road in those days.
Well, the deal was, the landlord’s contractor, the guy who lived under the floor joists, and me, used to walk down the two or three blocks from the lawyer’s house, to the main road on weekend nights and then we’d hitch hike the mile or two from our Mill Valley neighborhood, to the downtown of Sausalito, the super cool, jet setting hot spot north of San Francisco just after you got off the Golden Gate Bridge. This tiny, little town just had the most hip and high strung hangouts of the hip era; the Trident Restaurant, stood up on it’s piers 50 yards out in the Bay, the No Name Saloon and the town park protected by the concrete elephants. This is where you regularly met the likes of the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Van Morrison. And of course, the infamous house boats that no one could ever account for. Sausalito of the 1960s and 1970s, was quite the place. Sausalito was quite a stunner to this young farmer guy, let me tell you, I was quite overwhelmed and so glamorously impressed.
So one weekend night, me and Mr. Under the Floor Joists contractor decided that it was a good night to hitch hike into Sausalito, and check out the cute chicks that may be floundering about in the small town’s many hot spots. Oh, yeah, by the way, it’s the first of the month. Rent was due. Well, lucky for me, I remembered the rent on this Friday night and I had this big wad of cash stuffed into one of my hip pockets. If I wasn’t going to bump into the lawyer/owner of the place, at least I could pay the rent to this stony but good natured “contractor” who took care of the lawyer/landlord’s business when the lawyer wasn’t around.
The contractor poked the rent I just paid into his Levis front pockets and we headed down the hill to “Tam Junction” to thumb a short ride into Sausalito. Tam Junction was a parting of the roads in Mill Valley, where you could choose a route to the coast by going up and over Mount Tamalpias or you might rather choose to go around the mount, via Muir Woods and into the village of Stinson Beach, with it’s calm and overly salty Bolinas Lagoon. The Junction was always a very tempting and seductive chance to forgo your real world commitments and just cut loose to head out from this Medusian, multi-headed access to the beautiful Marin Headlands when you should be so sorely worrying about getting across the red bridge and into your work-a-day world in the city of San Francisco. Everyday, when I approached the Junction, my eyes were always seeking the green to the north and west, and straying from the red bridge to the south. Sometimes I was so nearly seduced, but usually I did make it to my work, on time and in good stead, but still lingering over the wispy potential of the northern coast presented at the Tam Junction. Work might prevail, but the Tam Junction longing was never erased or extinguished. To this very day, I still suffer from it. The coastal Sirens and Medusas, so much akin to their Grecian ancestors, still weave their magic, and call to us redwood loving imps and urchins, to forgo our daily chores to explore their misty and coolly, deeply calm and quietly curious haunts. Such haunts, so private, so cool and so very secure and selfishly personal.
These are hidden places, where their coolness and dimness are tempered and turned into a glowing comfort fueled by one’s own, unique, warmth and internal glow, emanating from your curled up toes, and your interlaced fingers and your glowing, hopeful cheeks. Perhaps such a cool and musky womb is the place where we impish elves find ourselves reborn and reawakened, every now and then, renewed once more to the fine and natural world, so well balanced and calm.
It is here that I yearn to be, balanced and calm, and not consumed in the hub-bub and confusion of the work-a-day world, concerned so much with money, manipulation and destiny. But sometimes, we are so overly consumed into that world, and its money and manipulation, that the lure of the places like Tam Junction are obscured and fogged over, sorely forgotten in this murky, money making, work-a-day mist.
And so it was, on this Friday evening in the early 1970s, standing at Tam Junction with our thumbs turned out, dumbly and numbly, requesting the short ride into Sausalito, with my rent so dutifully squished into my traveling partner’s front pocket.
As hitch hiking has been illegal for quite a few years now, perhaps you aren’t aware of the hitch hiking basics, like the number one thing is that, even if you have no measure of patience whatsoever, is that you have to be patient anyway. A hundred vehicles are going to go past you without even acknowledging your existence, but, every now and then, some old, beat up, Volkswagen or an ancient Detroit big three pickup truck from the previous several decades, will slow down and pull over. You open the shot gun door and ask where the driver is going, you wearing a big, salacious smile, hoping to get anywhere down the road. The driver invites you in or doesn’t. If he does, you jump in and start the traditional tirade of obsequious but “oh-so-necessary” compliments regarding the driver’s vehicle and his exemplary driving skills. These nice things you say to the driver is called “paying your dues.”
If the driver doesn’t invite you into his car, you slam the door shut, he pulls away and you work really hard to not flip him off, as there will be several more of him before you get any further down the road. You want to save the flip offs for the real, red necked assholes who veer over only to cuss you out for being a long haired hippy and scare the hell out of you.
Anyway, so on this particular Friday night, there is a whole passel of us hitch hikers standing along Tam Junction, individuals and little clusters of folks, all leisurely soliciting rides with up-turned thumbs. Everyone was pretty successful at getting their desired rides. An older, white station wagon pulled over to me and my partner. There was a bearded fellow driving and sitting next to him were two gorgeous blonds with perfect complexions, big smiles and very long, straight hair. Through the shotgun window, the driver asked what our destination was. We said Sausalito and he motioned for us to get in. As we opened the rear door, the driver told us he was headed for the Sausalito house boats. We looked to the two blondes and they just giggled as the driver told us he was dropping them off to explore the town. They spoke almost no English. The blondes were two young Swedish beauties staying with some friends of the driver in Tiburon.
The two of us in the back seat instantly attempted to make known to these sweet young things, all the groovy places they could check out along the main drag to the little town. Of course, these were the places where we were sure we’d be that night. They nodded and grinned, not understanding any of what we were saying to them. It takes only a very minutes to the negotiate the on ramp and off ramp on Highway 1 from Tam Junction to the muddy parking area leading to the main pier where the house boats were moored in Sausalito.
Before pulling into the half-filled muddy lot holding the cars of the house boat residents, the driver let us out on Bridgeway, we still talking fast and hard to the blondes to ensure some sort connection with them later in the evening through the shotgun window. Even at this northern extreme of Bridgeway, Sausalito’s main drag, the sidewalk was filled with strolling tourists. Still waving good bye to the moving station wagon, we started to stride down the street. Being the hormone rich and very horny 22 year old male human being-hippy that I was at that time, my eyes were intent on the disappearing white car, but my legs were in a hurry to keep up with my friend. Bam, not paying enough attention, I found myself plastered onto a big, old, very rustic phone pole right in the middle of the sidewalk. My head was ringing and my knees buckled and I really did see stars. All of the pedestrians on both sides of the street were pausing and looking at me. I felt the steam coming from under my collar, and my cheeks were burning red. I took a deep breath, straightened out my legs, looked at the ground beneath my feet and caught up with the landlord’s stony contractor.
Like in the old cartoons, a huge blast of steam shot out of my collar and I avoided all the eyes amused by my very public faux pas.
The pair of us walked the length of Sausalito’s Bridgeway Avenue, meandering into nearly every bar from the north end where we got dropped off by the white station wagon, past the Corps of Engineers warehouses containing the model of San Francisco Bay and down to the more tourista end of this main drag. At the south end of Bridgeway, the road narrows and shoots straight out at the foot of the cliff on one side and the bay waters lapping close to the pavement on the other. Then it turns hard around the cliff and bumps into Second Avenue where you find the famous Valhalla Restaurant, once owned and made famous by one time, San Francisco madame, Sally Stanford.
At the part of the road that ran so very straight, between the rocky cliff face and the Bay, there is a restaurant sitting out above the bay waters on a series of piers. It’s called the Trident. In those days, the Trident was a temple to the aspirations of rich and poor hippies all over the world. It was lush, decadent, luxuriant and so full of hip icons, living and inert: rock stars, intellectuals, drug dealers and hip entrepreneurs.
This Friday evening, the Trident was our final destination. By the time we reached this straight part of Bridgeway that provided access to the Trident, my compadre was pretty messed up from his marijuana smoking back at the house, combined with all the beer and shots he consumed as we made our way to our final destination. As we found ourselves at the foot of the cliff, these was a small crowd of tourists on the sidewalk in front of us. Of course, our curiosity drew us into this group.
At the center of the little crowd was a young, black teenager crouched down, chattering away like an angry myna bird. His hands were deftly and very quickly manipulating three red backed playing cards. There were a handful of dollar bills tossed down in front of the cards. The kid was jumping the cards around, moving only these three, bowed cards but dancing each of them from one position in three card row to another position. This was a variation on the ancient shell game. I’d seen it on TV before, but I never really ever saw it in person. Not like this; this kid was good, very good. He tumbled those cards around with all the confidence and artfulness of a pro. And his chatter was just as pro as his moves. He had the crowd chuckling and sniggering and tossing down their dollars as he entertained and charmed them as dusk slowly closed in around us. He certainly had me smiling and playing close attention to his moves. This kid was very good, and he was well appreciated.
All of a sudden, my drunk, contractor friend threw down a twenty dollar bill. Everyone else had been risking single dollar bills, nothing larger. The crowd went silent and they all turned to him, was he serious? The chatter stopped for a second, the kid turned his face up and took in the visage of this elderly hip person with crossed arms, telling everyone he had figured it out. I wondered if anyone else caught the slur in his speech and the dullness in his eyes. I am not much of a public figure and I rolled my back to him a little. I hadn’t counted on this. The chatter started up again, now with a little more verve and purpose.
The contractor watched the kid manipulate the cards with intensity and a frown. The kid stopped moving the cards around, stopped, and looked up once again. The contractor pointed to a card, the kid turned it over and the contractor won. All of a sudden I got it. Now I just wanted to leave and get on down the road. The contractor now beamed a huge, drunken smile, swaggering a bit. The small crowd applauded his success, and I realized the crowd had instantly gotten bigger. The black kid, who I now guessed had taken a bus over here from the City (San Francisco) just to deal with these rich Sausalito tourists who had bucks to burn. What was happening now, was different.
The kid did another shuffle of the three cards. Once again the contractor won. Now the contractor was just very, very animated, swooning with confidence. The crowd got bigger by the second. I kept backing out of the interior of the crowd, but not loosing sight of the action. The hook was set. Anyone there, with a half a brain, knew it. I might have been a naive farm boy, but I did have a fair sense of drama and I could easily see where this going.
Night was crawling over top of us. Several more hands of play occurred, the contractor winning more than 50 per cent of the bets. Finally, sure as hell, when the pot got big enough and kid quit playing. He went in for the kill. He made a tidy little sum and the crowd started to disperse, the tension was over.
And then it happened. Yelling out, the contractor invited everyone to come back and watch a really big win. The people stopped stock still, paying close attention to the obviously affected hippy. The kid spread out his three red cards once more, and waited, not chattering at all, now. We all turned round to see what was going on.
The contractor slid his open hand into his front pocket and pulled out a roll of bills wrapped in a rubber band and threw it down in front of the hustler. He had just bet my rent money, and surely, there was no way he could win. The hustler just grinned really big. The crowd pulled back in.
I turned away and walked back up the street, retracing my steps. I couldn’t watch this.
The lawyer who owned the house forgave me that month’s rent. Still, I looked for another place to live.
I never saw the contractor again.
I never liked doing sloppy business in the first place, and after this , I refused to do it.