Dozer, the Bulldog

Dozer, the Bulldog
Feeling the "Bern"

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
No time for gates...

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
My cooking assistant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother


38 years on this mountain, come May 31st...



Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby


Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

My first portrait

My first portrait
"Mr. Farmer"

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Limo

This piece concludes Part II of “Stranded,” and describes my consistency in hitting my brother Matt up for help, back in the mid-seventies, when the preferred mode of transportation was VW’s. In retrospect all I can say is that I am glad I worked in an auto parts house, one that sold both domestic and foreign car parts.

The Limo

“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality.
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy.
Because I’m easy come, easy go
Little high, little low
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me…”     Queen

The gray line running down the center of California, paralleling both Highway 101 to the west and Highway 5 to the east, indicated that the road(s) was dirt. Nancy and I were in Old Paint, our VW bus, and we were experiencing technical difficulties of a mechanical nature. As long as I kept the bus crawling along, we could continue to make forward progress.

If I exceeded either 25MPH or 2,500 RPM’s, someone with a sledge hammer started making a bodacious amount of racket, inside that little 40HP engine. So we limped down from Mt. Shasta to our newly acquired twenty-acre parcel of land along the ridge on Bell Springs Road.

We spent fourteen hours, torturously inching our way down paranoid that we were going to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phone, and no way to even tell folks where we were, exactly. My lack of adventurous nature, was balanced by Nancy’s surprisingly resilient force of will. She had the map clutched in her hands and she was convinced that if we kept heading south, we would hit our property.
Robert, circa 1976

My folks, Robert and Pauline, along with my youngest brother Kevin, who would have been ten that summer, were already there, having driven up from SoCal to spend a few days assessing the lay of the land. This being August of 1976, Robert was only seven months away from retirement at the shop, and a March relocation to BSR in order to build the barn, the initial structure the folks would live in, while building the big house.

Shockingly, it was mizzling as we made our way down from Shasta, a phenomenon that remains rare in August. Back then it seemed to us, it rained every time we were in northern Mendocino County. It was hard to take the old rancher's words seriously, when he told us water would be scarce in the summer.

After spending the night with the folks and Kevin, we took off again in Old Paint, and made our way down the five miles to the highway. We set off on 101 at our 25-MPH rate, pulling over whenever a vehicle approached from behind. In this way we limped the eleven miles into Laytonville, where we hung a right onto Branscomb Road, and eased our way over to Westport. Branscomb was still mostly dirt, so that worked out well for us. 

Highway One was also reasonably user-friendly, affording us the opportunities to pull over when traffic converged on us from behind. We made our way down to Point Arena, where we were scheduled to rendezvous with a whole crew of family and friends at Manchester Beach.

I can’t for the life of me remember where Matt and his partner Paul, were in San Jose, but I tracked them down. They were driving the old ’64 Dodge 3/4 ton pickup, the one fondly referred to as the Limo, and they were also heading up to Manchester Beach. There they would join in the festivities that had been planned in advance during the previous few weeks.

A crew from United Auto was driving up to camp, and we had all agreed to meet and camp among the dunes. What Matt and Paul ended up doing is simply tacking on the extra distance between Point Arena and the town of Mendocino, which is ultimately where Old Paint threw a shoe.

It was nothing that I did, in cruising along Highway One, so much as that connecting rod bearing eventually giving up the ghost. One minute we were making fair progress, and the next I was easing our way off the highway at the exit we happened to be passing, and drifting to a complete stop.

The Sounds of Silence prevailed.

We found a pay phone, made the necessary call, and settled down to wait about six hours on the side of Highway One. 
Bro Matchu, a minute or two ago...

I know the tow-bar had to be rented, along with the running lights, but at least this time it was mid-morning when the call went out, so that was not an issue. When Matt and Paul showed up, we hooked up the bus without incident, and drove the rest of the way down Highway One to Manchester Beach, where we spent a couple of days not worrying about a thrown rod, and just enjoyed the company of good friends.

After having been rescued the previous summer from along Highway 5 by Matt, it was getting to be a regular thing. He wrote me recently, “…I can’t really imagine doing that now. It takes a lot to get me out there, on the road, having an adventure. How we change, huh?”

Oh, I can so identify with that. It takes a lot to get me out there too!

Of course, now returning to San Jose meant the engine being back on the kitchen table, but we were used to that. And that tow bar that was fastened to the front of the bus?

I decided to buy one and leave it permanently in place on the front of that bus. We won’t say I was being pessimistic, so much as being prepared. 

It has a much more positive spin.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Down But Not Out

Mt. Shasta

This begins Part II of "Stranded" and is the seventh in a series which takes a look back at an earlier era, when we asked monumental favors of our siblings, without consulting the ledger, to see whether or not the scale of life was balanced. 

Down But Not Out

“The roses in the window box
Have tilted to one side
Everything about this house
Was born to grow and die

Oh it doesn’t seem a year ago
To this very day
You said I’m sorry honey
If I don’t change the pace
I can’t face another day

And love lies bleeding my hand
Oh it kills me to think of you with another man
I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan
But my guitar couldn’t hold you
So I split the band
Love lies bleeding in my hands”
                                                Elton John

Fast-forward one year from 1975 to 1976, something that is easy to do when one is reminiscing about the past. As curious as it sounds, this one-year period of time, marked my entry into a field that I never list as being among my life’s occupations. Alongside professional student, grocery store clerk, personnel specialist, and automotive parts expert, I could now legitimately list VW engine-repair specialist, as a skill I had acquired.

Because I worked at United Auto Stores, Story Road, I had access to the machine shop in the rear of the building. I got good at yanking engines out of both Beetles and buses. I could clean the aluminum cases and glass-bead them myself, staying well out of the way of the current resident of the shop, which resulted in a factory appearance of the formerly grungy engine components.

I could buy engine bearings, gasket sets and even a new set of [balanced] connecting rods/pistons/rings if I felt so inclined, all at an employee discount that couldn’t be beat. The machinist, whether it was Jamie, Don, Eric, Doug, or Richard, could always squeeze a few minutes here or there, to hook a brother up.

VW cases split apart.
I could count on this because as a guy on the counter, I was the liaison between the customer with the set of small-block Chevy heads, and whichever machinist was grinding the valves and seats in the back of the shop. What if one [or more] of those valve guides were wasted, and needed to be replaced, and a valve guide insert were required? More loot and a customer contact would then be necessary.

There had to be continuity to keep the rhythm of the shop flowing smoothly, and I was likely to be the guy who was orchestrating the whole procedure. This close association with the dude in the back, at any given time, resulted in the occasional reciprocating act, such as having him turn a flywheel for me, or press a bearing. 

I once calculated that I had been involved in the rebuilding of more than a dozen VW engines over a five-year period, every one belonging to a family member or close friend, and every one done gratis. Unfortunately, this included multiple encounters with the same motor, Bro Brian’s little orange 36 HP Beetle coming to mind. 

Brian was a med student over at Davis at the time, and had no loot for his beat-up little bug. Unfortunately, the engine was in need some TLC. Working alongside Ken, one of the few dudes on my short list of bff’s, and our buddy, THC, we split the cases four times on that beast, before we finally got that rubber band properly in place. 

Included in the fiasco, was the accidental dropping down into the recesses of the engine, a simple bolt, which then had to be extracted from an area inaccessible to a magnet. Already on the brink of despair at how frustrating this little motor had turned out to be, I broke down and sobbed. We had already assembled the motor three times.

Ken guided me out onto the rear balcony, sat me down and rolled up some Acapulco Gold. He told that it was no big deal.

“What difference does it make?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s not worth getting your panties in a bunch. We’ll smoke this joint, drink a beer, sit out here and listen to the baseball game. In a while we’ll take a look at that turkey and split those cases again. No biggee-dah.”
The flywheel needs to be turned when you replace
a pressure plate and clutch.

I could have hugged him, but right then I was afraid I’d burst into tears again. 

I worked on my parents’ fastback, I worked on their van and I tore apart my own Beetle more than once. As soon as I found out that the 40HP engine in a ’64 Beetle, was almost identical to that of a VW Bus, I started searching the ads until I found what I was looking for: ’64 VW Bus, engine in the back seat, $300.00-firm.

Jack, who was staying with Nancy and me at the time, rent-free, used his three-quarter-ton Chevy truck to tow the van from Santa Cruz, over Highway 17, and back to our upstairs apartment on San Fernando St, directly across from the library at SJSU.

There was no garage at San Fernando Street, so I ended up working on the kitchen table, much to the chagrin of Nancy. On the other hand, there was no way we could have afforded to have the work done, so being able to do it myself, was saving us a bundle. Give and take.

I put the engine back together again, a bare-bones endeavor, and got it on the road for virtually nothing more than the cost of gaskets and bearings. I knew the engine wasn't going to last forever, but I was going to pretend it would.

We took a vacation.

A vacation for us meant a road trip in the van up to Vancouver, in August of 1976. On the way back down we came via Mt. Shasta, intending to stop at Bell Springs Road on the way through, because the folks were camping on the newly acquired parcel, and we thought a rendezvous was in order.

Somewhere around Hayfork, we encountered technical difficulties with the fan belt pulley, an ongoing issue with this bus, and I stopped at the only auto parts place in town to see if they stocked them. Nancy and I entered the establishment and found it deserted except for a little old lady, who explained that everyone was out to lunch. 

I asked if she minded if I jumped into the books and got a part number, and she said that would be fine. Mission accomplished, I wrote myself a tag, paid the nice lady, and installed the new pulley in the parking lot out back. We set off again, heading south towards Bell Springs.

Not long afterwards, I became aware that something was horribly amiss. Through bad timing involving a steep grade, an unrelenting big rig, an inability to pull over, and a bright red light on the instrument panel, I ended up once more on the side of the road.
The innards

The pulley had malfunctioned, the engine had run without any cooling component in place for a minute too long, under arduous conditions, and I had spun a rod bearing. The bus was just too big, too loaded down with camping gear, and a 40HP engine was just too small for it succeed.

I guess I was too materialistic to be a true hippie.

The twist to the story is that the van was down but not out-at least not yet. If I kept it below 25 MPH or 2,500 RPM’s per minute, I could limp along. If I got the rubber band torqued up more than that, a raucous sound began to ring forth, warning me that I was “pushing it.”

Nancy got out the map, consulted it, and announced happily that we could make our way all the way down from Shasta to Bell Springs via dirt roads, even if it meant asking for directions occasionally.

Five times, to be precise, we found ourselves at junctures in the road where we had to decide which of two forks to take. Each of those instances required that we flag someone down to make sure we were on the right path, a task not ever easy to do because we were in the middle of nowhere.

Not an adventurous person by nature myself, if not for Nancy’s encouragement, I would have placed THE phone call, way up at Shasta. Nancy wanted to see if we couldn’t get a little closer to “home” before we sent out the distress signal.

Poor Matt.

At least this time around, it was broad daylight when we sounded the alarm.

Tomorrow: Rain in August?
Unchanged in forty years

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Far Out and Solid

This is the sixth segment of a nostalgic look back at a time period when we felt comfortable asking favors of our siblings, secure in the knowledge that no request was too outrageous. I had awakened Bro Matt in the middle of the night, and asked him to drive from LA to Bakersfield, so that he could then tow me in my dead beetle, up to San Jose. The funny thing is that he never hesitated.

Far Out and Solid

“Tell us, Bob, what have you been doing with all those degrees?
I notice you had a PhD, an MA and that you are a BMF besides.
What have you been doing with all that knowledge?”

“Making candles, Man.”

“Making candles, well, that sounds creative, Bob. 
What kind of candles are they?”

“Oh, they’re really neat table candles, you know?”

“Table candles?”

“Yeah. You pour wax on a table…”

“Uh, huh.”

“…and you set it on fire, Man.”

“Well, that sounds like a hot item, Bob.”
                                                                   Cheech and Chong
Though these look nothing like ours, they are '70's candles.

“My analyst told me
That I was right out of my head.
The way he described it
He said I’d be better off dead than live.
I didn’t listen to his jive;
I knew all along
That he was wrong.
And I knew that he thought
I was crazy but I’m not.
Oh no.”
                   Joni Mitchell

As extraordinary as the circumstances were, being stranded in the middle of the Central Valley, it required a fair amount of ingenuity and perseverance to pull the whole rescue off. Had I not been certain that Matt could accomplish it, I would never have put him on the spot in the first place.

That being said, I had learned a whole lot more about Matt, as an innovative thinker and doer, the previous fall and winter. He had moved up from SoCal to join us at the War Admiral house, just as San Jose State University commenced for the fall semester, 1974.

In September of 1974, Matt would have still been seventeen, a reasonably tender age by most standards. But being an O’Neill, and having four older brothers from whom he could pick up pointers, Matt had led a very busy and entrepreneurial existence.

His endeavors included running his own mini-business when he was in junior high, acquiring bikes that were in disrepair, and refurbishing them for resale. He had also swept the parking lot at Sunrize (sic) Market with me for a spell every morning in the pre-dawn, prior to my assent to the lofty position of box-boy. He then assumed full responsibility of the cleaning of the parking lot and alley behind the store, with the help of Bro Tom. He would have been ten years old at the time.

There were other successes, plenty of them, but the one that stands out was his affiliation with Jack, Nancy’s older brother, from whom he learned the candle business. Jack and a buddy had worked together to create the ultimate in sand candles, the mushroom candle, and with the times being what they were, the candle was a hot item.
These are not at all what ours looked like.

We used a paraffin-based wax back in those days, which we bought in bulk from Tap Plastics, up close to San Francisco on the 101. I was in on one of the wax-runs, in which we crammed a half-ton of wax into a VW Bus, and let me tell you, the ride back down to San Jose got pretty hairy.

The process also involved traveling up to the mountains to acquire bark from dead trees, primarily pine, because the bark was thick and reasonably obtainable. We would break the bark up into whatever sizes and shapes we could make, fill the bus up with as much as we could jam in, and head back to San Jose. 

I remember one such jaunt, when we got back on the road for home, the warmth from the heater woke up a colony of ants that was lodged inside one of the chunks of bark, and we had to pull off the highway and jettison our load, long enough for the ants to vacate the premises, before reloading it and resuming our trek home. 

Wherever they ended up, it wasn’t in the bark we were transporting.

With wax we made the mushroom bases, by pouring melted wax into pre-formed molds made in a sand box. Taking the plain mushrooms, we would then attach them to the bark. A small piece of bark would require one mushroom, a slightly bigger one, two, and so on, up to as many as five.

So on a low surface about the size of a pool table, we would lay out as many varying sized pieces of bark as would fit. Next we would fasten the pre-made mushrooms to the bark using a turkey baster and melted, extremely hot wax.

After the mushrooms were securely fastened, one person would commence to “basting” the mushrooms with the hot wax, over and over again, ranging over the entire table and hitting each cap, repetitively, until stalactites began to form and extend down from the caps.
Cheech and Chong

Once the stalactites approached the base of the mushrooms, the candles would be deemed finished, and the colored dyes would be applied. This was done by sprinkling the powdered dye onto the cap, and then GENTLY torching it.

I know-it sounds like a hot item and it was. The dyes would bubble for an instant under the gentle ministrations of the torch, and suddenly melt and spread out over the surface of the mushroom cap, and down the sides of the stalactites. The result was a brilliant psychedelic splaying out of the colors, enhanced by a lacquer that was sprayed onto the finished surface.

Can you say far out and solid? Try it. I know you can.

I googled mushroom candles from the seventies, and examined hundreds of images, without finding one that even remotely approached what ours looked like, mute testimony to the originality of what we were producing.

At 22 years of age myself at the time, I was flummoxed that Matt was willing to invest so much time, money and energy into an unknown commodity. Suppose we made all these candles, and then got stuck, holding the bag, I catastrophised?

I was working at United Auto Stores, Nancy was working for Sears, in the catalogue department, taking phone orders, and we were both going to school full-time at SJSU. And now we were also involved in the candle-making business.

In the beginning Matt made the candles almost exclusively, building up some stock and getting them into a few key arts/crafts stores, just before the Holiday season began. Then as we got into November, the rest of us in the house began to hit the flea market every Sunday, slanging our mushroom candles in one of the most effective venues possible.

The candles were cheap, beginning at $2.50 for a single mushroom, $4.00 for a double, $5.50 for a triple, and so on. At the flea market the candles were an unqualified success.

The highlight of the season was the art fair in the Student Union at San Jose State. For a week, we occupied a spot on the third floor of the wide-open structure, and enveloped ourselves in the culture of the college, selling our candles to an incredibly appreciative clientele.

Even if they didn’t buy one, everyone stopped to admire them.

When the overhead was paid and we saw what had occurred, 
we were five thousand clams richer, and that’s the honest word.

Five thousand dollars in December of 1974, would be like fifty thousand clams today. It was a fortune that was divided six ways, the sixth member of our household being Steve, Sharon’s younger brother, who was a sophomore in high school. At six feet six, Steve was a remarkably mellow kid, up with us simply because his folks felt he would do well in the company of a whole bunch of college students.

He was happy to do his share, in the hope of being able to net a little income; he was not disappointed. We were all completely blown away.
San Jose State Student Union

My perception of Matt as a mover and a shaker, reinforced by this successful candle-making venture, was the basis for my decision to roust him in the middle of the night,to come to our rescue, confident that he could handle the assignment.

Needless to say, he didn’t let me down. When we resolved that final impediment to the successful rescue mission, the flat tire on the bug, we completed the journey home without incident, arriving as the sun was making its appearance in the eastern sky.

It was a new day dawning, just as I was about to embark on my new profession, VW engine repair specialist.

I gained a lot of experience in this field, I am sad to say, because VW’s are high-maintenance vehicles. Funny I should happen to mention this, because it leads me right into Part Two of “Stranded.”

Tomorrow: Old Paint
Old Paint

Monday, September 26, 2016

Grand Larceny

There was water flowing EVERYWHERE!
This is the fifth episode of a nostalgic look back at a time period, July of 1975, when we did not hesitate to ask our siblings to move mountains for us. The funny thing is, they did it. When we left off yesterday, our grateful travelers were being accosted by the fuzz, having been pulled over while attempting to surmount Pacheco Pass, on Highway 152, from the Central Valley into the Santa Clara Valley.

Grand Larceny

“Well then, can I walk along beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel myself a cog in something turning.
And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.
And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  
                                                              Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
The garden

Having been informed by the CHP that we “could not go on like this,” we were shot down in flames. Matt’s little Datsun truck, complete with camper shell and four passengers, had been cruising along like nobody’s business, even while towing our little VW Bug, when all of the sudden our speed had been reduced. Shortly thereafter, we had garnered the interest of the constabulary.

The kindly officer had suggested that he could call a garage for us.

“Here’s the skinny, your officership. If we had had the bread for limousine service, we would have been kosher, but we didn’t and we’re not. We’re maintaining.”

Actually, maintaining is the last thing we were doing, if you were looking at the big picture. Nancy and I had been taking classes, full-time at SJSU, we were both working part-time jobs and we were scouring NorCal, looking for property.

We were seeking that which would mesh with our goal of establishing a commune, or more accurately, a community, where we could work together to become self-sufficient.

Nancy had prevented us from making a poor choice on a parcel in Marin County, through her knowledge of geology, so we kept on perusing the personals in the San Francisco Chronicle. One day, there it was, the best shot so far at what we were looking for:

“Newly available tract of 100,000 acres, formerly Blue Rock Ranch, now being shown. Contact T.J. Nelson & Associates to make an appointment to see twenty and forty-acre parcels along Bell Springs Road, located in northern Mendocino County.”

“How far north is that from here?” I had asked.

“Remember when we looked at that parcel in Willits, the one that was so steep?” asked Nancy. “Well, according to the map, we have to travel 22 more miles north to get to a town named Laytonville, and then another ten or so miles to Bell Springs Road. Then we have to go up Bell Springs Road, it doesn’t say how far, so at least another hour or so.”

“Dig it, pops,” was my informed response.

I described in a recent post how we had hooked up with the rancher, Jerry, on this particular occasion, in the midst of a driving rainstorm, special delivery from the South Pacific, and ended up gathered around his wood stove, emitting steam even as we sipped on some Beam.

Jerry had a square face with a weather-beaten exterior that bore testimony to how much time he actually spent outdoors. His ruddy cheeks glowed in the kerosene oil lamplight, and he drew smoke in heavily from a filterless cigarette.

After debunking any highfalootin’ notions we had about the vast abundance of water, based on seeing all the creeks filled, he let us in on a big secret: This was some damn good land. He ought to have known, having been born in that same house, in which we were standing, and having roamed every square inch of the property on his horse.

Even as we stood there drying out and warming up, both on the outside and the inside, he regaled us with a yarn I have never forgotten.
We bought this stove in 1976 at a barn sale in San Jose.
We fixed it up and it has been in our kitchen since 1982.

“You know old Covelo, away over yonder?” he’d asked, gesturing to the southeast. We didn’t but we nodded in unison, that we sure did.

“I did my schoolin’ over there when I was growin’ up; I’d spend all week settin’ in a classroom and stayin’ at my granny’s, and come back here to the house for weekends.” Again, we all nodded. "Rode my horse."

“‘Bout 20 miles as the raven flies, but the horse weren’t no raven, so it were longer on the ground. I’d just give him the reins, and I’d go to sleep whilst he made his way overland. Took ‘bout three hours each way.” Bobble-heads, all of us.

Didn’t everyone ride a horse to school?

I couldn’t help but wonder how it all worked out, when the rain and/or snow got in the way, but that was my thinking down the line. Right now, as we huddled around the stove and listened to the old rancher spin yarns, I was sure we had found our “commune.”

At four hundred dollars an acre, it was grand larceny at its finest moment, but no one was going to come after us. We paid eight thou for twenty acres; to put that in perspective, a year’s college education in 1975, cost $7,938.

[Editor’s note: Someone paid $7,938 per year for a college education in 1975-not this poor-boy. It cost $359.00 per semester to attend SJSU, the entire time I went there, with a hundred or so each semester, give or take, for books.]

I went to college from September of 1970, until May of 1982, with only two years off that I was away in the service, which meant I was only five years away from the land being paid off, when I actually moved up to Mendo County.

Exactly how much was my monthly land payment? $67.00. 

Now, as we made with the palaver with the nice CHP officer, all we were trying to do was get home.

“Look, I understand that you’re broke, but until you get that flat fixed, you’re not going anywhere,” the cop said with finality.

Say what, futhermucker? We had a flat? 

No wonder the little Datsun truck was struggling. It just never occurred to us that the reason could be found by checking the tires on the bug.
“Boo-yah! I am an airhead! Can you dig it, Captain? We probably don’t have a spare right here in the front compartment of our bug.” I had hustled around to the driver’s door, yanked the lever to pop the “hood” and I was pulling the spare out even as I was speaking.

What could he say? It was all just a misunderstanding, one which took about ten minutes to rectify. At that instant his radio squawked, and he made like the wind, and blew.

“Ready for action-ready for danger! We’re copacetic now so let’s boogie!”

And boogie we did.

Tomorrow: There’s more?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

License and Registration, Please

In the hootch, Korea.

This is the fourth chapter in my nostalgic look back at a time period when we did not hesitate to ask favors of our siblings, because we knew they would come through. It was July of 1975, and we were
“Stranded” out on the tarmac of a Flying A service station, waiting for younger bro, Matt, to rescue us.

License and Registration, Please

“There’s something happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Telling me I got to beware.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look at what’s going down.

Paranoia strikes deep,
Into your life it will creep.
It starts when you’re always afraid,
Step out of line the man come and take you away.”   Buffalo Springfield

I had awakened Matt in the middle of the night with an impossible request. Could he come from LA and tow us up to San Jose, in his four-cylinder Datsun truck, no less, WITH camper shell? With the little truck only six or so weeks into its tenure with him, it seemed like a lot to ask.

The request was indeed challenging, but he was up to the task. But before he could even begin, Matt had to round up a tow-bar and running lights, hopefully from Jack, and then head out of the LA Basin. He needed to drive up and over the mountains north of LA, via the Tejon Pass, and down into the Central Valley, and all the way to Bakersfield.

There he would find us patiently waiting in the balmy air of Bakersfield, cooled down from its 110 degree day temperature to a more manageable 85, an appreciative trio of wayfarers, if ever there were one.

“Far out! Gimme five!” was my greeting to Matchu, as we called him back in the day. He would have turned eighteen the previous February, though he had been functioning on his own for quite a while already.

He had busted loose of LA in September of ’74 and joined us at the house on War Admiral, and had attended San Jose State, full-time. I remember we shared a class in American fiction, taught by an old-school, chain-smoking professor, whose vocal cords resonated huskily from her forty-year association with unfiltered cigarettes. 

Dr. Macare would lean against the doorjamb of the classroom door, light one up, look around her and announce, "I know there are rules about smoking in the classroom, but I don't care." She would glare out at us, and no one said a word. As far as I was concerned, it was a good deal, because it helped mask the aromatic fragrance of my break-time doobie.
The seminar met once a week, from seven to ten, and we would commute back and fourth together. It was a trip to be attending college classes with Matt, after I had been discharged from the military, because it was just as we had planned: move out of LA, go to school and look for land.

Matt had migrated back down to LA, temporarily in need of gainful employment, and Jack had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “You wanna help me board up repossessed homes for Home Savings Bank?”

I mean, doesn’t everybody?

Ironically, around December of ’75, about five months after this escapade, Matt sold his little Datsun truck, and used the $600.00 as his share of a down payment on twenty acres of land, up on a ridge in northern Mendocino County, on Bell Springs Road.

Slapping my high five, he returned, “And solid! How’s it hangin’, my Mellow? Heard you were hung out to dry.”

“Bogus would be the operative word. The bug snapped its rubber band.” I returned. “I can’t even believe you’re here, Man. That is so gnarly!”

“Hey, don’t freak out. What was I supposed to do? Check you later?” 

“Heavy City. You are The Man.” I couldn’t put it any more succinctly.

“So, what do you think? Is my Datsun going to be able to tow your bug?” If this seemed like a funny time to be raising this question, it was only because of the nature of the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of operation.

“Hey, Dude… I can push the bug by myself, and have done so many times. Your Datsun has to be able to tow it-says so in the manual. The only place we are likely to have problems, is going over Highway 152, and we’ll just have to take it slow and easy.”

As if we had a choice.

The tow-bar was a simple device which was attached to the undercarriage of the bug and then affixed to the Datsun via a rudimentary trailer ball and hitch, which the little Datsun already had. The running lights, with their powerful magnets, simply went on either side of the rear of the bug. 

Matt had lucked out when he went to Jack’s, because he knew Jack had the tow bar, but not the lights. Jack didn’t have them, but he knew who did. Another midnight call, and Matt was set to go. All-in-all we were in good shape, for the shape we were in.

Tom and Nancy stretched out in the bed of the truck, inside the cover of the camper shell, and did their best to sleep, considering we were still more than three hours away from San Jose. Matt drove and I rode shotgun, and needless to say, we weren’t worried about falling asleep.

“This is such the bomb. I can’t even believe we are pulling this off,” Matt offered.

“Off the hook, Dude, you are rockin’. We have job security; just keep on truckin’ and we got this.”

Highway 5, for the most part, is just a flat ride for a couple hundred miles, and then eventually you have to go up and over 152 to drop into the Santa Clara Valley. The way I figured it, the worst that could happen is that we would not be able to drive at 55 MPH, like we could out on the Central Valley floor.

That being said, I thought we could do better than 30, but that’s what we were down to, at one point.

“For rizzle, Man. What’s the scene? We’re probably not having issues. What’s the haps?” I had been watching the speedometer, and we had gone from a steady fifty miles per hour, to thirty, in the past few minutes, as we made our way up the grade. 

I thought it was a tad bogus, because for the first stretch, it seemed as though the little Datsun were doing just fine. All of the sudden, I wasn’t so sure. 

“I’ve got the pedal to the metal,” Matt quipped, “but I’m not stoked that we are bogging down. It’s a good thing there is no traffic.”

No sooner had the words been spoken, when a pair of headlights bore down on us, and fastened themselves onto our little caravan. Matt would simply have pulled over, had there been convenient spot, but such was not the case.

“This dude is on my case,” Matt said. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Fuck him if he can’t take a joke,” I offered, remembering how the Divine Miss Bette Midler might have addressed the same question. “We’re doing the best we can. Besides, here comes a spot; you can pull over and let him pass.”
Don't you hate to see these pretty lights?
At that very instant, the sky lit up with brilliant red and blue lights, and we’re not talking Northern Lights, either.

“The fuzz?” I don’t know why that should come as any surprise. We had slowed to a crawl by highway standards.”

“Say good-night, John-Boy. 4-sho, this is a bummer.”

Matt eased over to the side and rolled to a stop. 

He got his license out of his wallet, while I fished out his registration out of the glove box, for the nice highway patrolman. 

“License and registration, please,” came the request.

The cop had played his flashlight beam over the interior of the cab when he first walked up, to assess the situation, and then had stepped back and asked, simply, “How long did you think you were going to be able to pull this stunt?”

Whatever we were expecting him to say, it wasn’t that.

“As long as we could get away with it, I guess,” was my weak attempt at humor. “Is there a problem, your Honor?” I figured it couldn’t hurt to butter him up.
The Man! The Man!

“Yes, there is problem. You can’t go on like this; I don’t know how you got this far as it is. If you need me to call a garage, I can arrange to do that.”

What? Something is happening here, but I don’t know what it is. 

Tomorrow: Tomatoes

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Up for Grabs

This is the third installment in a nostalgic look back at an era, when we asked the most outrageous of favors of our sibs, with the full expectation that the request would be granted. “Stranded” and sitting on the tarmac of the off-ramp to Bakersfield, in the middle of the night, in July of 1975, I contemplated the universe

Up for Grabs

I was already twenty-one months removed from getting out of the military, in October of 1973, and it was natural that I started ruminating on the fact that this was the same length of time that I had actually served. Funny how time differs in its passage, when you are doing something you hate, versus doing something you love.

During the more recent stretch, I had gone back to Cal Poly Pomona for two quarters, and then Nancy, my first wife, and I had moved up to San Jose, lock, stock and barrel. Nancy was infinitely more adventurous than I; without her enthusiastic endorsement of the whole move-up-north-and-start-a-commune thing, I would never have stood a chance.

No, this hippie wouldn’t so much as moved across town, if left to his own devices, especially not after finally having escaped the clutches of the Big Green Machine. It frightens me at times, that had I not had Nancy’s unqualified support to move north, I might still be in LA.

Gross me out and gag me with a spoon.

But my sibs and I had planned together, we had exchanged letters and cassette tapes for 21 months, jammed with ideas, plans and big dreams, and now it was go-time. We had sprung ourselves from the trap that is the LA Basin.

In August of 1973, while I was still 7,000 miles away in Korea, I had written a lot of letters, and received many in return, from both friends and family. In this manner I was not only able to retain my sanity by communicating with loved ones, I was able to form plans. 

Older bro Noel had written me the following words: “I do hope that you and the Nancy are still planning on joining us at our community family up north. We hope to move up there in September, ’74 and we are tentatively planning on renting a home in San Francisco the first year, until we get established, and then move onto some land will be looking for. We have yet to work out the details, but there is no doubt about us going through with the whole plan, however.”
Letter from Big Al, aka Karen

My response? “We’ll need to go to school and take some classes in house designing,” I had opined. “I couldn’t build a house if my life depended on it. I need some learning,” I was known to have said, over and over. 

I had emerged from 21 months of being around both highly educated individuals, the guys I hung out with, and those with not even a high school diploma, the majority of the rest, with an insatiable need for intellectual stimulation. 

I had spent sixteen months working in a personnel service company, filing shit. I got pretty good at that old alphabet-even earned an Army Commendation Medal for devising a new filing system, one which streamlined matters, and placed all of the responsibility on the shoulders of one dude-me.

Unfortunately, as jobs went, it was boring as ack.
The 199th

As it turned out, San Jose was the designated city, as opposed to San Francisco, and San Jose State the school, at least for me. We were a few months ahead of Noel’s schedule, having made the move on June 4th, 1974, to a four-bedroom house on War Admiral Avenue, on the very south end of San Jose. 

Noel and JT were to find Santa Clara University more to their liking, but we were all of the same bent of mind. “I need to get ed-duh-ka-ted!” I would say, and everyone would agree.

Even the manner in which we went about initiating our plan, had “success” written all over it. In one weekend in late May, Noel and his first wife, Sharon, along with Nancy and I, drove up from SoCal to San Jose, and rented the place on War Admiral. Additionally, we arranged to get the power and phone connected, and bought a refrigerator for fifty bucks. 

“How many of you will be living in the house?” asked our potential landlord, as he showed the four of us around.
Noel-It's the hair...

Noel did the talking because, well, because he was Noel. The dude made "Leave it to Beaver's Eddie Haskell look like a rabid Hell's Angels' Chapter President, by comparison. He could talk a rattlesnake out of its venom, if the need arose, not a bad skill to have in this neck of the woods. 

"The four of us, certainly, Sir, with the possible entry into our space of two other individuals, both also responsible adults, one gainfully employed and the other a student." 

I mean, Dave and JT had said all along that they also wanted to be part of our gig, but this was pretty sudden-like, so we weren’t sure about them yet. Noel had already explained our current status to the landlord in such glowing terms, that even I was dazzled by our potential as renters.

“And Islo, don’t forget Islo,” I chimed in. “He’s our puppy.” Pronounced Ease-Lo, he belonged to Noel and served as our guard-dog the entire fifteen months we lived in this rather rough neighborhood. His barking when the doorbell rang was music to our ears, because we knew the entire 'hood could also hear the tune.

The landlord did not seem fazed by my fiery red beard, or that we were just moving up from SoCal. The fact that we were going to school, and that I was a veteran, helped, but I also just think it was a tough place to rent, and he was thrilled to have some live ones on the hook.

There were a total of four bedrooms in this large, corner home that rented for $260.00 per month, plus utilities. I think the water bill was four dollars per month. With three couples, that would mean just over $85.00 a month for me and Nancy. My GI Bill money at this time was somewhere around 285.00 a month, I figured we were good to go.

Our primary goal was to acquire some land; that was uppermost in our scheme. Then, as we made payments on the property, we would go to school and get our degrees, so that we had the knowledge to follow through on our plans.

We used our place on War Admiral as a base of operations, while we scoured NorCal for potential land opportunities. I remember traveling in Noel’s VW Bus, Molly, up to a site in Brooktrails, after meeting the real estate dude at a local cafe.*  It was at least a four-hour drive.
Molly (Not really, but it looks like her)

We drove up to this impossibly situated parcel, one which went straight down into this gorge, and then right back up the other side. Was it beautiful? Oh, yes. Lush? Green? Yes, indeed! Both!

“Hey, Man, I hate to bug you, you know?” I inquired evenly. “But where in tarnation would we build a house? Or even a doghouse?” It seemed like the kind of question a potential buyer might ask.

He gestured enthusiastically with both arms. “You just have to get creative,” he explained. “There’s no reason why you can’t put a house right on the side of this hill; you just have to be willing to think outside the box.”

I might have agreed with him, were it not for the simple fact that the box was poised at the edge of a precipitously steep drop. We thanked the agent profusely, backing away with thoughtful, seriously interested expressions plastered on our faces, and sauntered back to Molly. As we drove away, there was little need to confer.

“I don’t know what he took us for,” Noel said. “A bunch of burnouts?”

Of course, in retrospect, I think he saw a group of hippies looking for a place to grow some reefer, even way back in the day. Hell, Bart was growing cannabis on the ridge in 1973, in long rows like corn, right out in the open. It’s not as though this real estate agent didn’t know what the haps were. 

I suggested, “There’s plenty of land up for grabs-we just have to keep looking.”

We checked out another parcel in Marin County, one which required that we pass through three locked gates, all three for which we had the combinations. We didn’t mind the gates because we liked the lay of the land; it was pretty flat.

We had a clear idea of where we were and what the boundaries were, and at first things were looking good. Then Nancy got quiet. She was the science major, and the one most likely to have a legitimate reason for saying “yea” or “nay.”

She kept striding purposefully over to this one little outcropping over to the right, and then to that more significant one over on the left. Both areas had a greenish hue to them, one that did not bode well.
“Serpentine soil,” she muttered.
An example of serpentine soil...

“What’s that?” I asked, though it was obvious that the details were unnecessary. “Serpentine” had a decidedly sinister sound to it, so our interest in this particular piece of property evaporated accordingly. We drove away, at least mollified by the knowledge that we were on the right track, and that we were able to recognize, that which would not work for us.

The longer we were able to continue evaluating what was available, and the more parcels we looked at, the better position we would be in, to know that we had found the best fit for us. And that was exactly what happened.

Tomorrow: Bell Springs Road

* I want to say Mom’s Diner but I’m not sure that was the name. It is Ardella’s today.

Friday, September 23, 2016

25 Grams

This photo was taken the same month as the story, July of 1975.
I am in the backyard at War Admiral, tending our veggie garden.
This is the second in a nostalgic series, taking us back to July of 1975, to an era when we were still young enough to be able to ask the biggest favors of siblings, with complete expectations that the request would be granted. The setting is the Bakersfield turnoff, alongside Highway 5, out in the middle of nowhere.

25 Grams

"I'm looking for a hard-headed woman,
One who will take me for myself.
And if I find my hard-headed woman,
I won't need nobody else, no, no, no..." Cat Stevens

“What came down, do you think?” Tom asked, as we sat waiting for Bro Matt to make an appearance, having placed the call more than two hours earlier for a little bit of help. You know, wake the poor, unsuspecting dude, up in the middle of the night, and hit him up with an impossible proposition? 

“Judging from the sound of it, we probably didn't throw a rod,” I explained, meaning of course, the exact opposite. I had been working for United Auto Stores, in San Jose, for almost a year, at the time we had ventured back down to SoCal for a wedding, and had had ample time to start picking up some knowledge. It was July of 1975.

Our return trip had been interrupted when the poor little Beetle had sounded the alarm, turned its wheels upward in the air and refused to go any farther.

“Was it my blow-it, do you think?” he asked.

“Hey, Man. You were just cruising along and the motor freaked out. Frank Zappa sang all about it, ‘Who could imagine, that our little bug, would freak out-in Bakersfield…Bakersfield…Bakersfield…?’” I sang. 
This pic of my father, Robert, was taken down
in Baja, California, in June of 1972.

“Ain’t no biggie. This old jalopy’s got nothing but a bodacious rubber band propelling it. When I get back to San Jose, I’m going to yank this motor and stick a new-improved-rubber band in, and we’ll be set to go.”

I honestly thought that with more than 140,000 miles on the eleven-year-old, air-cooled engine, it was just overdue, and I told Tom that. The last thing I wanted was to have this kid think I had flipped my wig, pissed off that he had caused this problem.

 Later, after splitting the cases, on the kitchen table (!) at our apartment on San Fernando Street, it did not take long to see what had occurred. I worked at United Auto Stores, (three of the four establishments, anyway) for a total of almost eight years, and I never saw anything like it-before-or after. 

The crankshaft had simply snapped in two. 

The crankshaft is the central component of any engine, and the one to which the four connecting rods, are attached. What could possibly have gone wrong to make a two-and-a-half-inch thick piece of steel, snap into two chunks, as though it were a piece of balsa wood?

I posed the question to my colleagues at United Auto, including the machinist at the time, Don.

A quiet guy, Don examined the detritus of the engine with raised eyebrows, indeed. He pursed his lips, took the two chunks of the crankshaft in either hand, and then started looking closer at those four connecting rods.

“One of these does not match the other three,” he noted.

“Ha! Busted!” I cooled my jets. "It’s not as though they were in a fashion show,” I added sarcastically. “Uh, does it matter?”

“Could,” he responded, “if there is a difference in weight.”
Ah, how cute-flag in the background...

“Oh. How funkadelic is that?” I ran that information through my jellybrain, and it still did not compute. “Why does that matter?”

Patiently Don explained. “The engine is turning at three thousand revolutions per minute, which means the four connecting rods are propelling the pistons up and down, 3,000 times per minute. If there is a difference in weight among any of those components, the engine is going to be off-balance.” 

He continued on. “If you are driving around town or taking it easy on longer jaunts, then no problem. At some point, though, if a lot of torque gets put on the engine, after it is already tired, something like this is going to happen.”

I thought about Tom coming off the highway and down-shifting into third gear a bit too early, and that was all the stress the old engine needed to blow. 

Sure enough, there was twenty-five grams’ difference between the three that matched, and the one that was different. Huh. That’s only three grams shy of an ounce, though why I know that particular piece of information, I am at a loss to explain. 

[Editorial note to Mark: Juvenile attempts at humor are to be avoided, puh-lease…]

Don said that what had most likely happened, was that at some earlier point in time, the engine had blown, and when it was put back together, no care was taken to make sure that the replacement connecting rod matched the other three.

Had they weighed them, and noted the difference, they could have done something about it, but that is pretty sophisticated stuff for the do-it-yourselfer. Hey, it’s pretty sophisticated stuff for most mechanics too. 
Me, in our apartment in Seoul, Korea, 1973.

I was lucky I worked in a foreign and domestic auto parts house, with a machinist who knew his stuff. Otherwise, I would have gone ahead and replaced the crankshaft without bothering to check the rods. Somewhere down the line…

I can still tell you, though, that a complete gasket set for my little VW, with a 40hp engine, is a 111-198-007. If it were a bus, it would be a 211-198-007, and a fastback? You got it: 311-198-007. Don’t ask me why these things stick, because I will just tell you it’s the same reason why so much does not stick.

Too much cannabis? If so, it’s an exchange rate, with which I can live.

I didn’t have any of this in-depth info at my fingertips, as we sat, alternately in the little bug or on the warm pavement of the Flying A Service Station parking lot, and waited for the cavalry. All I knew was that I was powerless to do anything other than wait.

It reminded me of the army: “Hurry up and wait…”

Tomorrow: The Plan