Benna Kolinsky – April 24th, 2009

GEDC0161I met with Benna Kolinsky at her lovely home on Mountain View Rd. It was such a beautifully sunny day that we sat on the deck and began our chat over a nice cup of tea…
Benna was born in the late forties in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, to first generation Americans, both of whose parents had come over from the Ukraine in the old U.S.S.R. They were Ukrainian Jews and she was brought up in the Jewish faith with not only her Grandparents living in the house but her Great Grandmother too. Brownsville had a large Jewish community and her grand father was a tailor as were many others in the area. However, he branched out into a successful decorating profession with Benna’s father and his other son. Benna remembers they had lots of materials around the home but not the stuff you would use for clothes – she made them anyway – “Some of my skirts were made out of upholstery materials yet I still managed to be voted ‘Best Dressed’ at my High School.”
At the age of five, when her brother was born, the family moved to Coney Island and Benna remembers the famous Boardwalk and amusement park well. However,  they soon left this bad neighborhood – “my mother did not want me to go to the local school.” The family was not as religious as others – “We were more ‘High Holiday’ Jews but we were very spiritual and followed many Jewish traditions. My parents were surprised that I wanted to have a bat mitzvah (girl blessing) as this was very rare for girls in those days but my grandparents and great grandmother were pleased. Then I upset them by dropping out of Hebrew School and the family ‘joke’ was that I had fallen down my Great Grandmother’s totem pole of favorites from near the top to being un-carved and underground
When she was ten the extended family all moved again, this time to the south shore of Long Island and “it seemed like we had left the planet”. She went to the suburban district of Belmore where Benna attended Mepham Junior and High School. “I liked school but living there was boring and if you ever did anything ‘wrong’ somebody would always tell your parents so I’d catch a train with friends and go to Manhattan where you could easily be anonymous.  I was a bit of a ‘naughty’ kid I suppose. I remember hitching to Florida and telling my parents I was staying with a friend. She found out where I was and called, saying, ‘Drop dead and don’t come home.’ I did make my parents mad sometimes and my brother, the ‘good child’ told me it upset the household when I did. I just didn’t like rules…I wanted to get away when I graduated in 1964 and so after receiving a Regents’ Scholarship which could only be used within the State, I went as far away as possible – to the University of New York in Buffalo where I studied Education and Philosophy.”
Growing up in the concrete world of Brooklyn, Benna’s parents wanted their kids to experience a different environment. “In the summers our whole family and many friends, perhaps forty people or more, would go to Hyde Park in the countryside and stay in cabins. Everyone knew everyone else. The mothers and children would stay all summer and the fathers would come for weekends as they had to work Monday to Friday. My grandparents were also there of course – I loved to get a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato from my grandmother. It was a very matriarchal society and growing up with my extended family was a big influence on me. These visits to the countryside also led to my appreciation of a ‘land-based’ lifestyle – we could run and run in the woods; I really learned to love nature and the countryside in those years.”
At college Benna really thrived. “I liked it a lot and it opened my mind to many things. The Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) were very active and whilst I did not join them I did become quite political at college. I supplemented my income with a job as the hat-check girl at the Student Union building. It was very cold there and people all wore headgear. It was a fun place to work – I saw all the ‘goings-on’, who was with whom, I had a sideline ‘selling secrets’!”
Benna met future husband Danny Mandelbaum at University although it was not love at first sight. “No it wasn’t. He was quiet and so smart – it was a bit unnerving. In fact I remember telling my roommate that ‘if that guy calls tell him I’m not in!’ I had a change of heart at some point, when his real side came out, and we fell in love, moving in together for my senior year.”…Benna graduated in 1968 and began teaching 1st grade in a Polish-suburb just outside Buffalo. “There was much racial hostility between the Poles and the black community and the school principal did not like my liberal leanings. She said and did some terrible things so when Danny graduated from medical school I wanted to get away. I told the Principal I was going to San Francisco – it was the place to go if you thought like we did – and she said, ‘You belong there – the land of Sodom and Gomorrah!’ Danny got an internship at Mt Zion Hospital in S.F. and off we went.”
Benna found a job with the Multi-Cultural Institute that was a public school where the student body reflected the ethnic make-up of the city in terms of the percentage of each population that attended the school. “It was great idea in principal but in practical terms it did not work out very well and it became filled with ethnic tensions. I lasted a year and then went to teach at a Jewish School at which my 1st grade class was only 30% Jewish. I managed to upset the authorities there when I put up a Christmas tree at Christmas.”
It was the early seventies and Benna was tired of teaching so she enrolled at S.F. State Graduate School’s Interdisciplinary Creative Arts program. “I was into weaving and dancing and it was a very ‘sixties’ curriculum with most of our classes consisting of ‘Happenings’ where we’d meet at a venue somewhere in the City and act out a ritual of some sort…After my first year my father passed away and we went back to the East coast to take care of stuff. Danny had been accepted to do his residency at Yale and we moved into a commune of about fourteen people with space to roam around on the edge of the woods.”
On our return to the Bay Area the idea for Benna’s thesis was presented to her by Professor John Collier Jr. He wanted her to do a Visual Anthropology project in Ecuador. This was to be a follow-up to his own studies there twenty years earlier She agreed and sold her looms and bought photography equipment and took a photography course. “I couldn’t even load a film before that.” She was off on a completely new track – ‘I’m a Gemini”, she told me…
So in 1973, Benna and Danny set off for Otavalo in Ecuador, taking Spanish classes in Mexico on the way. “It was a gorgeous place, very spiritual – it reconfirmed my desire for a land-based lifestyle. Things had changed a lot since my professor had been there, when the Indigenous people were virtual slaves. Using his book and its photographs as my ‘in’ I slowly began to make contacts with the local people. My philosophy with photography is to build a relationship with the person whose picture you are taking and this I managed to do. They trusted me – helped by the fact that I gave them copies of the pictures I took – and I was invited to all their ceremonies and rituals. I felt very awkward at first when it came to taking photographs at funerals yet they wanted me to. Their concept of death is very different to ours…The people made my study for me and it was an amazing, wonderful experience…The indigenous people’s plight had much improved in the twenty years and they had begun to own their haciendas and then when we returned there a couple of years ago we found that they now own part of the town. In a world where life is so dismal in many places I think South America is a continent going through many exciting and positive changes. Many of the people in power seem to be trying to help their people.”
Benna’s photographs went on exhibit at the De Young Museum in S.F. alongside a Rockerfeller collection – “the poster had ‘John D. Rockerfeller’ written next to ‘Benna Kolinsky’!”, before going over to London, with the proceeds helping with indigenous people’s causes. Following her return she worked both as a portrait photographer, selling her work to galleries, and also for the ‘Indigena’ paper in Berkeley that highlighted the struggles of Indian groups.
“From our time in Ecuador and then in Connecticut, where we took classes on ‘How to live in a Community’, we had become fascinated with the healing surroundings of the communal lifestyle and so we settled down with three other couples in a house in Berkeley.” It also influenced a very important step for Benna and Danny. “We didn’t want kids – why would you want to bring them into a world that was so messed up? However being around kids in the commune changed our minds and we came round to thinking that the world needs good souls to live in it.” Meanwhile, they had begun to look for a place to live in a rural environment to satisfy Benna’s desire for that ‘land-based’  existence. In 1979, after looking all over the northwest States of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, as well as Northern California, they found and bought property on Mountain View Road. “It was so beautiful here and our friends had bought some property already.” Soon afterwards son Chaya was born followed by brother Mohahn in 1981. The former is now a successful labor lawyer in New York whilst ‘Mo Mandel’ is getting increasing acknowledgment on the stand-up comedy circuit.
During a period of ‘just’ being a Mom, Benna made friends amongst the other mothers of similarly aged children – “This was another communal group who became close friends, with Lynn Archimbold as everyone’s babysitter – you were lucky to get your kids to her”. She then returned to work as certified massage practitioner and spent fifteen years at the Mendocino Community Health Clinic in Ukiah. She also taught a class, Fitness for Healthy Living’ at Mendocino College. “I have always been blessed with amazing mentors and teachers and love the fact that my profession matches my spiritual side. In my work all I do is try to bring out people’s awareness of their own best qualities.”
“Living here I feel very nurtured in my connection to the earth. We are blessed to live here and this feeling led to the recent Rain Dance ritual that I organized. During the drought one day I was overwhelmed by the earth’s beauty and wanted to do something to help. We needed rain and I thought that if I could get people to focus on this at the same time we might be successful. I made many calls to many people I know in the community and there were rituals all over the county in early February. It was a success…I believe we can use ritual and the creative arts to solve many problems, including political issues, and it provides a non-linear way to getting to where we perhaps understand things better. I’d like to do more.”
In previous years Benna was involved with the Schools Outreach Dance Series that saw the likes of the Alvin Ailey Dance Troup and the Harlem Dance Group appear in the Valley. These days Benna continues to be involved in many groups working towards various goals. She is on the Board of Directors of the Wellspring Renewal Center; she is the Spanish Interpreter for the A.V. Food Bank; on the Mendocino Community Enrichment Board that offers grants for projects that are deemed to enrich the county; and is on the board of the A.V. Angel Fund, giving out small grants for those in emergency financial situations. Of course her main activity is her business, ‘Move into Health’, a massage, movement, and expressive arts program. “With the financially difficult times we are in, I am offering every fourth massage totally free and if you come with two friends one of your group will get a free massage after the first massage. I hope my mind and bodywork will lead people to enjoying their juicy, flexible being-ness. It is there for us all – it just needs to be tapped in to.”
I know asked Benna for her responses to some of the issues frequently discussed in the Valley…The Wineries? – “I appreciate the wineries but I like diversity in everthing and we have all that we need. The American Indians would not change anything for seven years when they arrive in an area so perhaps new people should be aware of where they are. I’d hate to thing Hwy 128 West will become like Hwy 128 East.”…”The A.V.A.? – “I used too think it was too harsh – the negativity was not necessary. It has now changed and seems to be more inclusive of the Valley as a whole. It’s good that we have a local paper and Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella are excellent writers. I enjoy the new literature they include sometimes…and of course your Interviews!”…The School System? – “Our teachers do a very good job. However, if the school does not suit the child’s needs, or if the child is unhappy then the responsibility of the parent is to the child and you may have to move them somewhere else. Both of our kids went to elementary and Junior High here in the Valley, but just the one spent some time at our High School for a time. A problem with a small school is that there is one teacher for each subject. If the child does not get along with that teacher then there are no options – grades suffer, he may do poorly at other subjects as a result. I felt this was the case for our youngest so he went to Ukiah. Chaya was at the High School for two years but was unhappy here and wanted to go to a bigger school. I think it is a child-by-child issue.”…As for a Mayor of the Valley? – “I think ideally it would be better with some sort of revolving committee. In Bali the person in charge of water decisions has to make sure everyone else gets a fair amount of water before he gets any. Some American Indians believe that their leader has no more wealth than the poorest member of the tribe…Perhaps we should have a ‘Goddess of the Valley’ to sort this out.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Benna many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I have a few – juicy, luscious, authentic, and a Spanish word – ‘duende’ – which is that inner passion of flamenco dance.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When someone calls a person an ‘idiot’ – particularly if it comes from a parent to a child. I hate any words that take away a person’s self-esteem.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Nature, random acts of passion, human goodness, dancing – especially the intimacy of partner dancing.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – Human greed, war, lack of compassion for others, the destruction of nature, mean-spirited gossip, paying taxes for stuff I don’t support.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “Laughter…The sound of a giggling baby.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – Every word out of my husband’s mouth  when he is watching his pathetic Bay Area sports teams flailing. He thinks he has developed more of a Zen attitude but I’ve yet to hear it. I just close the door and try to drown him out with my music as I dance.”

What is your favorite curse word? – ‘According to my family I don’t really swear but I know I do. I say “fucking asshole” quite a lot when I hear annoying political stuff. I guess my anger will sometimes come out when I’m listening to the radio as I’m driving.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “A novel by Nicole Krauss – ‘The History of Love’ –it’s set in the Ukraine and Brooklyn.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “I love to garden…Dance too. Although my work is a profession it is just like a hobby.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A Fairy Godmother with the job of coming into people’s dreams and helping them get in touch with their higher selves before they wake up changed for the better, unaware of anyone affecting that change.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Work in the prison system.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “I have been blessed with too many to single any out.”

What was the saddest? – “My father’s passing when he was just forty-six. My mother also died young – at fifty-nine. It is sad to have lost them both so early.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I think it’s that I know the parts of me that I’d like to change without judging them. I accept them. I embrace them and work with everything I know, including prayer sometimes, to turn them into attributes that are positive.”

Finally, Benna, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “’Good going, girl…Now that you’re here, let’s party before we send you out again!”

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Published in: on April 27, 2009 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Johnny Schmitt – April 17th, 2009

GEDC0141I met with Johnny a couple of weeks agao at The Boonville Hotel and we sat down to talk in the hotel’s lounge/sitting room as his sister Karen and niece Polly set up fresh flower arrangements for the upcoming weekend guests to enjoy.

Johnny was born in Fresno in the fall of 1957, the middle of five children born to Don and Sally, who had met whilst attending U.C. Davis, and later went to U.C. Berkeley together. Kathy, Karen and Johnny were born over a four year period with two other siblings, Eric and sister Terry coming a few years later. Johnny’s father was a farm appraiser for Bank of California and he and Sally decided to move the family to Yountville in the Napa Valley when Johnny was ten years old.

It was a rural community – until 6th grade Johnny was in a class of just eight to ten children – and some of the kids would drive tractors to school. Johnny attended Junior High and High School in Napa but didn’t really like school. ‘Fortunately there were a couple of teachers who prevented me from going off the deep end…I had long hair and hung out with an ‘alternative’ group. I enjoyed some subjects – photography and English – and did well in them but in the others I got ‘D’s. It all depended whether I gave a shit or not.”…Don and Sally had instilled a strong work ethic in all five of their children and they had to earn their pocket money. “’If it was light outside then there was some work to be done somewhere around the home or yard. We were not that interested in school and none of us went to college for more than a semester or two at the most. We did not fall far from the tree and today we all work for ourselves – just like our parents. It was apparent from an early age that this was the way we were going to be.”

Through contacts made by Don, Johnny’s parents were offered the opportunity to manage a complex of about twenty shops and a couple of restaurants. One of these restaurants, The Vintage Café, was run by the family and had the first espresso machine in the county, complementing the soda fountain and burgers they served. Sally and the three older siblings basically ran the restaurant and had a staff of people several years older than themselves – “Most were dropouts from the Bay Area who had no use for the system – a potter, a brewer, a wine-maker, a candy store owner – we became like one big family, later running another restaurant there called The Chutney Kitchen. My father tried to create a good mix of tenants for the building that would benefit the community – as I’ve tried to do as a landlord at the Ferrer Building here in Boonville. I guess I have followed in his footsteps – the local businesses should be a part of the community and add something to it. It worked very well for my father who was the Mayor of Yountville for many years.”

When he was twenty-two, in 1979, Johnny took off and traveled to Europe. He was gone for a year, running out of money in Provence, in southern France, where he got a job during the grape harvest. “I was driving a ‘cat’, looking after the fish ponds, the gardens, the olive trees, and did lots of cooking. I also spent a lot of time eating and drinking.”

In his absence, Don and Sally had opened the French Laundry in Napa  – a restaurant that was to have extremely significant impact on cuisine everywhere. Johnny went to work there but over the next three years became more interested in doing his own ‘thing’. By around 1982 Johnny’s parents, who had been looking for a beach house, had decided instead on what is The Apple Farm in Anderson Valley. They bought it and began transforming the property from what was basically a farm labor camp. With sister Karen and her husband Tim Bates here in the Valley working on the Apple Farm, Johnny spent the next three years working alongside his mother at the French Laundry and coming up to the Valley at weekends to work on the property – cleaning it up, pruning, and generally getting it turned round into an organic farm. “My parents retreat had become a project and I wanted to help with this project. It was during this time that I fell in love with the Valley.”

Johnny had a strong desire to do his own restaurant and in 1986 an opportunity in the Valley came his way. Jerry Cox owned the Floodgate Store but in Jerry’s words, “I was not a businessman at all and so when Johnny Schmitt came along looking for a place to set up a little restaurant it was like a gift from God. We became partners and The Floodgate Café was born. We served predominantly upscale Mexican dinners at the weekend, good salads and desserts, and a Sunday breakfast – a very simple menu actually.”

Johnny says, “It worked really well. We did fifty to seventy breakfast/lunches and the Mexican dinners on Friday and Saturday nights were a big hit. I had Lidia working for me – she still is! – and Libby (now of Libby’s Restaurant) too. I brought a knowledge of Mexican food that I had learned from working alongside Mexican chefs in Yountville. I’d done a really good breakfast at the French Laundry that had worked well plus I also decided to leave the kitchen open and exposed to the diners to see what was going on. Some people thought this was ridiculous and were very vocal about what I should do. However, I had worked in Napa and felt definitely tested in the business so I stuck with it and it worked.”

In 1988, the Boonville Hotel became available and Johnny jumped at the chance, leaving Floodgate and taking Jerry, for a short time, and Lidia with him. “The operation at the Hotel was both amazing and strange. It was owned by Vernon and Charlene Rawlins and had a very odd mixture interior décor such as a grand piano, Timothy Leary poems written on the walls, very little lighting, no music, often no heat, but the food was incredible, some of the best in the State. My mother said, ‘They had an amazing vision but forgot to include the people.’ It was very high end which at the time had no place in Boonville. They disappeared in the middle of the night owing all sorts of money to staff and others, having apparently embezzled nearly two million dollars. I was intrigued by this weird but beautiful place…Meanwhile, a short time earlier, I had been fixing the dishwasher at the Floodgate, lying on the kitchen floor, when a women had come in looking for work. She told me she was a baker and had graduated from cooking school. I had nothing for her but a couple of days later she was coming through the Valley again and she stopped by when we were really busy. She jumped right in and helped – and did a great job. Her name was Jeanne Eliades and within no time at all we were a couple and in love, and soon after got married!”

“Anyway, when the Hotel opportunity came along we managed to get some investors but it was not enough so my family, particularly my Aunt Kay who had always encouraged my food interests, and Jeanne’s family came up with the rest, and against all the odds we pulled it off, buying in December 1987. After six months of preparations we finally opened the restaurant here on June 15th 1988 with many friends and family, such as my cousins P.J. and Jennifer, all involved in some way…Jeanne and I were a strong partnership, opposites in many ways but our experiences blended well together and her sense of caution and realism worked well with my more carefree and easy-going style.”

In 1988 a son, Brooks, was born, with another boy, Willy coming in 1991. It was around this time that the Hotel opened up eight guest rooms, with the studio and bungalow coming later. Jeanne and Johnny divorced in the early nineties but remained business partners until 2004 and are friends to this day. “Jeanne was a very good baker and also took care of the books and management. She provided the realistic aspect to some of my ideas and we were a good team together…I do have a ‘rich’ life but The Hotel is not the moneymaker it may appear to many. We have nearly lost it on several occasions and the Eliades Family and my Aunt Kay have bailed us out at crucial times. Various investors have wanted out so we have also changed investors over time, with two major ones bailing us out just in the past few years.”

“I think the running of such a fragile business took its toll on Jeanne sometimes. She was from a background that believed you worked hard, made your money, and then played. My family is used to working hard and then losing money, and then borrowing others money and getting by thanks to the generosity of others who believe in you and your ideas. Jeanne felt very responsible for the employees whereas I felt they would understand if we simply talked to them about our difficulties and it would all work out – as I said, we are very different in many ways, but I do believe that opposites attract.”

Lidia Espinosa has been Johnny’s “rock” for twenty-one years. “Without her we would not have survived.” Jonesy has been with Johnny for at least ten years now, doing pastries and desserts, and Elaine has also been vital to the success in her role as ‘manager’. “She is a manager and gets all the grief and no glory, but really we don’t have any hierarchy. We get together to discuss any problems and work out ways of how to make it work. I have never lost the love I have for this project despite the fact that it has not made financial sense at times.”

These days the Hotel’s earnings primarily come from the rooms. “The restaurant is a liability – a loss leader for the rooms. I am very stubborn on the quality of our food and its organic nature. We call the kitchen ‘the great churn and burn’ – it costs us a lot of money and we are really close on food costs with the expensive stuff we buy.”

Johnny is still the primary chef and sets up the menu each week and does the ordering. “It can run without me and chefs Lidia and Joel are very capable in the kitchen but my formula is not easy to follow. I am not willing to give it up. They are my ideas and I’m a little stubborn about that I suppose.”

Johnny is happy with the relatively simple menu he offers. “We used to try to cater to everyone when there were few options in the Valley but now other businesses have filled various niches and we have ours. We are the place you go to when you really want to go out to eat, to enjoy the dining experience, not just if you’re hungry. We try to keep our prices reasonable for the quality of food you get. The 10% return that restaurants might usually expect would mean our prices would have to be double. I am not going to do that. The pretentiousness of some restaurants is not part of this. We have a great local following and probably know half of the dinner guests on most weekends  – that is important to us. We offer healthy food to the community and our employees are all on board with that. Our kids are also involved and its great to see the family involved in so many ways around here…I grew up eating together as a family. It’s always been important to me. I love the process and the act of eating, it’s probably more important these days than ever – family, food, community.”

In recent times, Johnny has branched out into running his own design business. “I’m a facilitator. People come to the Hotel, see ideas here on how they might want their home to look, interior and exterior, and then I take over from there. I have helped on the design of about twelve houses now; it’s about three or four projects a year. The Hotel has become a showroom for my ideas. Anyone staying here would hopefully get a sense of continuity – from the food to the design, it is a vision of one person.”

I asked Johnny about his experience of being a gay man in the Valley. “I have been a bisexual all of my life, I never had to come out of a ‘closet’. It has not come up much in my daily life here and I have never felt any animosity from anyone around here as a result of being gay. My family was always very supportive. As a teenager I remember my mother once asking me if there was anyone at the restaurant who I hadn’t slept with – boys or girls!”…

“I am very comfortable around here with my sexuality; very comfortable as a gay man and father. It’s been great. I have had several great loves in my life. Jeanne knew that I had had been with men; in fact at our wedding several of my gay friends were there. She took a chance and we had two incredible kids and a wonderful business together. She is one of my best friends and the best possible mother for my kids. I remember my mother saying she had no problem with me being gay other than the fact that it would be a pity to miss out on being the good father she thought I could be. That was wise advice”…

“Now I have been with Marcus for three years and he will soon be leaving San Francisco and moving up here full-time. I must admit that I have wondered at times how I am being accepted around here. We have been quite affectionate in public – we walk along holding hands. There has never been a problem. I am in love with a wonderful man and I’m not going to hide it.”

I asked Johnny what he liked most about the Valley. “I believe this Valley has an opportunity to offer a different pace of life to people – it should be a strength of the Valley. I love the Valley and try not to take it for granted. There are an eccentric group of people here and I like that. The sense of community is a big draw to me, along with the many beautiful places of course. People may not realize what they have here until they leave.”

Anything you do not like? “Well, in a small community everyone’s opinions frequently get heard. Some people do nothing but complain and I try not to listen to those people. I ask myself what are these people adding to the community themselves? I guess I have learnt to consider the source of the comment before taking it seriously.”

I next asked Johnny for his brief responses to some of the various issues and entities that frequently crop up in conversations in the Valley…The School System? – “I am an advocate of sending your kids to the local schools. Brooks did fine but several of Willy’s close friends were sent to schools outside the Valley by their parents and he was very unhappy – so much so that we felt in the end that we had to send him to Mendocino. I am somewhat disappointed with parents who decide to move their kids out of the local system if it’s due to their perception of the quality of the education. There is little that the school does not provide and I think its bullshit to think they can get better education elsewhere. Sure the school could be better, and I do think they should concentrate on teaching more about life skills and experience than concentrating so much on getting the grades to get you into college, but overall it’s a fine system.”…The modernization of Anderson Valley? – “It’s a beautiful Valley close to the Bay Area on the way to the Mendocino Coast so sure it’s going to change. It is inevitable but let’s do it right. Meanwhile, we need to support the local community businesses more. Fill up with gas in the Valley if you can. Shop at A.V. Market – they have done a great job in recent years.”…The wineries? – “They are big employees for many people but we need diversity in our agriculture – more veggies, apples, prunes – not a monoculture. Do we really need any more spaces for retired dentists to pursue their hobbies? I am very concerned about the future when I hear Mr. Ledson of Zina-Hyde Cunningham winery say, ‘Anderson Valley is not ready for my class of people…yet’. When I hear such things I fear we are vulnerable to the kind of change I do not want.”…The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I love the A.V.A. – it’s a big asset to any small community to have a newspaper that provides a forum for the community to express its views. Sure, I may not always agree with Bruce Anderson’s opinions but that’s fine. I don’t understand why some people complain so much about the paper – I am a staunch advocate…In fact, for your question about who I would vote for Mayor, if there was such a position, I’d go for Bruce – he’d be perfect.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Johnny, many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Cohesive”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? –“I’ll pick ‘No’ – I really don’t like that as an answer and try to concentrate on the positive.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Building – a restaurant, a doghouse, a community.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Commonality – the ordinary.”

What sound or noise do you love? – ‘All sorts of music – loud.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Whining”

What is your favorite curse word? – “These days it would be ‘shit’ – I cleaned it up when the kids kept saying ‘fuck’ which they’d heard us say so often.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “A book – ‘Rural Studio’ by Samuel Mockbee. It is concerned with the social responsibilities of architectural practice and for providing safe, well-constructed and inspirational buildings in a community – very inspiring.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Cars – I can’t kick the habit. Fast German cars in particular.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “An architect.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Anything in an office.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The days my two kids were born – they were both quite dramatic births. Knowing life would never be the same again is a powerful feeling.”

What was the saddest? – “Not just one day but certainly one event – my divorce. It was a very low point in my life. It was the death of a vision I had of family. You feel like you’ve failed the family.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “That I trust people, sometimes blindingly. It has never hurt me. I trust that people will do their best and I do tend to see the best in people.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I have no afterlife aspirations but I suppose if he said, ‘I hope you like it here’ that would be good…My life has been very privileged and I see it as an opportunity that I have seized. My parents instilled in me the desire to be involved in things that I love to do – my work and life are not separated.”

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Helen Papke – April 10th, 2009

GEDC0132A couple of weeks ago, I drove a short distance up the Philo-Greenwood Road west of Hwy 128 and after passing the Hendy Woods turn-off I took a right and soon arrived at a complex of buildings that is known as ‘Cheesecake’. This is where I met with Helen Papke. We grabbed a couple of glasses of water and headed across the complex before sitting down to talk in the 2nd floor library – a beautifully  situated room, looking out at the tall redwood groves.

Helen was born in 1929 in Stockton, California, the older of two children (younger brother John lives in Folsom), to a mother of English descent, probably, and a father, surname Gramont. whose parents had moved to the U.S. from France when he was a small child. He grew up speaking French and as a boy delivered the French-language paper to the large French community that inhabited San Francisco in the early 1900’s. Her father worked for Standard Oil, later Chevron, whilst her mother was a homemaker who came from many generations skilled in home handicrafts such as sewing, crocheting, knitting, cooking, baking, etc. “My mother’s last name was Carrow – English I think, and she was related in some way to President Zachary Taylor (the 12th President 1849- 1850)…I had a very religious upbringing. My father was a Catholic but my mother was into various religions at different times – Baptists, Episcopalians, and other ‘voodoo religions’ as my father called them. We went to church with her on most Sundays – whichever church she was into was where we kids were at. They were both devout. I remember on one occasion when my father was sick the Priest came round and sat with him. Then he asked my father for some money! My father told my mother to write the church a check…When I eventually announced I was no longer going to church it was heartbreaking for each of them. I must have reacted strongly to all of this because one of the worst things my own kids could ever say to me now would be that they had found religion.”

Her father was a Credit Manager and was moved around to various locations by Standard Oil so that during her younger years Helen went to many different schools in a variety of California cities, including Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and at one point Phoenix, Arizona. Her strengths at school were reading and writing and so following graduation from Sacramento High in 1948 and the family’s move to southern California, she began her college career at U.C.L.A. where she studied English Literature. “However, my father, who was very strict and traditional, insisted that I should also study something useful for when I graduated so I had a minor in education and this eventually led to me getting a teaching credential along with my literature degree.” Helen became interested in politics while at college and at that time the Communist Party was very active at U.C.L.A. However, whilst she had been questioning her religious beliefs for a couple of years at that time, and was certainly s interested in some of the communist doctrines – “I liked the idea of being master of my own fate” – she never actually attended any meetings. “Fortunately I was only interested from afar because when I graduated in 1952 and applied for a teaching job I had to sign a ‘loyalty oath’ in order to get a job. That oath made it clear that I would not have been able to teach if I had gone to any communist meetings. It was the early days of the Cold War and that sort of affiliation was really frowned upon.”

In the1952 election, Helen voted for the first time and chose the Democrat candidate, Adlai Stevenson. “I adored him – he was a great statesman.” He lost to Eisenhower that year and again in 1956 but by 1960 the Kennedy’s had made their way to the front of the political stage and she thought they were great. ‘My favorite was Robert – he was very special. Even though I supported the unions I did not like the way the Teamsters were being run by Jimmy Hoffa and I thought Robert Kennedy was great in his pursuit of Hoffa, who seemed to run the union like some sort of Mafia organization.”

Upon graduation Helen took a teaching job in Palos Verdes working with kindergarten and 1st graders. “I loved it. Working with children was perfect for me. Despite some of my beliefs, I was old-fashioned in lots of ways. I was good at, and enjoyed, cooking, decorating, sewing and, like many other girls of my age at that time, I just thought of my career as something to do before I got married and had children. I had wanted to be an attorney at one point in school but my father had said, ‘You’d be taking the college place of a man who needs to practice law to support and raise his family’. He had also said to my mother, ‘no wife of mine will ever work’ – I guess anything she did in the home was not work according to him?”

Helen explained that he father was a very bad alcoholic and how she feels this has affected her ever since. “Being in such a household determines how you look at the world for the rest of your life. There was one set of rules when he was sober and another when he was drunk. Even to this day I sometimes think that somewhere everyone knows the rules and I still don’t. My grandmother lived with us and she and my mother would prepare wonderful meals. We’d all sit down together for dinner and it would be a nice evening until something would suddenly change. You never knew what would start it. You were waiting to see who was going to feel the brunt of the abuse and hope it wasn’t you…He stopped drinking when I was sixteen but remained what they call a ‘dry drunk’ and the mood swings were just the same; you still did not know what was coming next. He and his brother, also an alcoholic, grew up in San Francisco where at that time if you had the money they would serve you some alcohol even if you were just a kid – he started drinking when he was six years old”…

“It took for ever but by the time he was in his eighties he had become the sweetest thing in the world. I have great feelings towards him in his later years when he was so lovely and had developed a sense of humor. I like to drink a couple of glasses of wine most evenings but sometimes I think that is too much – I am no doubt fine but my memories and experiences lead me to think that way occasionally.”

For a couple of years Helen thoroughly enjoyed her teaching job and was even being referred to as the clichéd “old maid school teacher’ because she had not married immediately after leaving college. “”Even though you might be only twenty-two, being a teacher in those days meant you were held in high esteem. You also had to adhere to high standards of social behavior – no bars, no frivolous behavior.” Eventually, in 1954, when she was twenty-five Helen did get married and started a family. “We had three wonderful children – our eldest daughter Wynne, Karl, and youngest girl Alexandra. The marriage was not a good one although we were together for nine years – he was a total bastard.”

“For those years I was a housewife and mother – like millions of others. Then we got divorced in 1963, which was very unusual in those days.  I returned to teaching near to where we lived in Manhattan Beach. There weren’t any other divorced teachers and I didn’t know anyone else who was a single parent. I was determined to never get married again – I couldn’t even conceive of it. Plus I couldn’t imagine anyone who would marry a mother of three kids, all under eight…I remember attending a P.T.A. meeting at the school at which the local police chief was giving a talk about drug use and he said that all the kids who got into trouble were from single parent homes – that really hurt and was a low point in my life. I’ve learnt since that the differences between the police and us are quite enormous on many issues…Then I met Dave – and he wanted to be part of a big family! He had a son, Charles, and we got married in 1968 and the six of us became a family. He has been a great partner and we have been very, very happy together.”

It was while the children were all still quite young that Helen began to meet other young mothers and make friendships that were to last for the rest of her life. These women were Gail Wakeman, Louise Browning, Jill Myers, and Sophie Otis and, together with some of their husbands, they eventually would move to Cheesecake – forming the unique community that has lived together in the Valley for the past twenty-five years…

“One of the fads of the late sixties was women’s groups and we formed one, meeting once a week. It was a social group in which you could share your thoughts and feelings and be accepted and not be judged. As some marriages fell apart, and the individuals went through various stressful times, we helped each other through. It became very important to each of us. Of course, each of us had hot tubs –many people did in southern California – and that certainly helped – nearly every evening we ended up in the tub!”

“In the earlier days we would vacation together and our kids, and now our grandkids too, all got to know each other well. I think we knew that we’d end up all together. Dave and Dick Browning, (Louise’s husband) were with us from the beginning; Daniel (Jill’s partner) came later…I believe we certainly helped Dick when Louise passed away but along with talking to each other we certainly believe in getting professional psychological help if necessary. Sophie is a psychologist and has been very helpful to us – she certainly has helped me see things more clearly at times.”

During the years of raising her kids, Helen stopped teaching and stayed at home where she began sewing in earnest, making clothes, banners, and 3-D wall-hangings. Then, when the kids went to college, she started a business in this field. Initially she would sell at street fairs then a merchant wanted some of her stuff in his store and soon she had an agent and her products were soon being sold all over the country. “I worked my ass off in those years!”

In the early eighties, one of the women, Sophie Otis, had divorced and moved up to Marin County. Helen’s daughter Alexandra had graduated high school and wanted to take a break before going to college so she moved to northern California with Sophie. The rest of their friends would visit them quite often, for holidays in particular. Then Jill met and married Daniel who lived in Palo Alto and so she was up this way too. “We liked the idea of functioning like one big family and therefore needed a place for all of us to be together. Sophie had a contact at Wellspring here in the Valley and the women and our daughters came up and stayed there in teepees. That was our first time in the Valley, nearly thirty years ago”

“We loved it here but Dave and I had made a decision to go to the U.K. with his company – he was an engineer with MacDonald-Douglass, so we went over there and lived in Yorkshire for two-and-a-half years. We had a wonderful time but it was not easy to make close friends – you know how the English are. Anyway, I did get to know all the shopkeepers in our village and I took a job for a time at a little cheese shop. We were able to travel quite often and spent time in France, Italy and Germany…However, my parents were aging and so we returned to the States to take care of them. Dave continued to return to work in Europe for a few weeks at a time and I’d visit him when I could. On one occasion I could not get away and missed him so much that I went out and got a tattoo of his name, just ‘Dave’, on my butt! I told some of our neighbors and one morning in bed, just after his return, he said, ‘You’ve got a bruise on your butt’. I said look a little closer and when he saw what it was he laughed so loudly the neighbors could hear him and knew what had happened! Our children just threw up their hands when they found out – the same reaction they had when I got my nose pierced. That’s when they really ‘gave up.’ I suppose in some ways they are quite ‘conservative’ compared to us; for example the clothes I make are too far out for them.”

“On that note, I remember one Mother’s Day when I had not heard from the kids at all and it got to evening and so I was pissed. Dave and I went out and bought a BMW Convertible – not the Station Wagon they were expecting us to get. In this family you might say that the ‘wild ones’ are the parents.”

In the mid-eighties, Sophie called to say she had found the perfect property a couple of miles along the Philo-Greenwood Road. They had meetings with an architect to design a house with separate living quarters for each partnership and Daniel became the project manager. Over the next year or so, the group would get together more frequently up here, first for weekends, then for whole summers, until they eventually all moved here to live. “I had always loved the Valley since first coming here and I feel more at home here than anywhere in my life. I suppose I was something of an outcast in Manhattan Beach but here my peculiarities and those of others are appreciated. It is unusual because in some ways I can be even more creative – my sewing obviously – yet because I have made the commitment to the group and our community lifestyle I also have to go along with group decisions which may not always be mine. I wouldn’t change a thing though.”

“In the early days the meetings were not always smooth; people could sometimes leave them feeling misunderstood. However the process has changed and our commitment to each other now means problems will be solved and, whilst I have places on the property I can go to and be alone, the benefits of companionship, support, and hearing the opinions of others easily off-set any trade-off in terms of the occasional compromise on my behalf. Furthermore, the minor disputes, and efforts to resolve them, keep us vital and when our kids and grandkids see and hear about this I believe it’s really good for them. They have learned that this is not just Grandma’s house, it is a community and there is a need to be part of it. The more you open up to others the better person you can become.”

I asked Helen what she most liked about her time in the Valley. “Well apart from the obvious physical beauty, the people here have always been so giving and gracious. It’s a small place and in small places people talk and gossip travels quickly, but it is rarely very mean here. People here care for one another. The other day Jeanne Nickless said to me, ‘Yes, that’s what we do in the Valley – we take care of each other’.”

What is your opinion of the Wineries presence here? – “Well I think it is just part of the inevitable changes that happen. They have the right to be here although I do hope there is a limit put on their number at some point because I am concerned about the water shortages.”…KZYX & Z local public radio? – “It’s wonderful. I am a pretty regular listener and am very appreciative of the people who give their time.”…The School system? – The schools are important to me and this community seems to support the school a lot. The teachers are dedicated and I cannot imagine there are many schools where people are prepared to take a pay-cut to help offset some of the recently announced cutbacks from the government.”…The modernization of Anderson Valley? – “ I am not as distressed as some people are about this. I know the Valley is going to change – that’s what happens. I love this Valley and will accept the changes as being inevitable up to a point. I am lucky to live here so telling others they cannot live here doesn’t seem right.”…And whom would you vote for Mayor of the Valley if such a position were to be created? – “Oh that’s easy – Lauren (of Lauren’s Restaurant) – I really appreciate everything she does around here – she’s wonderful.”

These days Helen goes to see the grandchildren as often as she can – two live in southern California, one in Portland, and one is in Danville in the Bay Area. She continues with her sewing business and, when not actually making products of some sort, she uns a sewing circle once a week too. Other than that, she is in a book club once a month, takes Susan Gross’ bookmaking class once a week, exercises with Linda Boudoures’ class twice a week, and attends Kirsten’s yoga class – also twice a week…The Cheesecake group holds a weekly meeting to discuss all sorts of things, to clear the air if necessary, and to make decisions about their community. They eat together virtually every evening, taking turns to cook and clean-up, and before each meal they hold hands together, giving strength to one and all.

Before turning to the final section of the interview I asked Helen where the ‘Cheesecake’ name came from. “Well originally the property owners were called Cassata, which means cheese pie. In the community around here that became Cheesecake and in those days there were regular community gatherings up here around the hot tub and a version of volleyball, called Jungle Ball, was played. When we bought the property we kept the name even though I at first thought it was ‘so-Marin’. Anyway, most people in the Valley know of this place and where it is. We refer to ourselves as ‘Cakers’, and our grandchildren as Big and Little Cheeses depending on their age.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Helen many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “It would have to be ‘speaking of Vespers’. That is a brief phrase we use in our group if someone wants to change the subject. We have used it for years – yes, Vespers are the Italian motorbikes – don’t ask me why we use it.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When somebody uses the word ‘should’ when they are talking, I don’t like it.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Without a doubt color would be number one for me.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “I guess doing the same old, same old, is very uninspiring.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “Hearing Johnnie Creek that runs though our property…Birds singing…And of course, the sounds of children.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – Big planes or helicopters overhead.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I say ‘shit’ all the time…’Fuck’ quite often too – are you going to print that?”

What is your favorite hobby? – “You already know that one – sewing…And I do like cooking too.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A fine artist or a writer of some sort.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A salesperson in a department store.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “ There have been many…I know what the most recent was – last week, taking my granddaughter around to check out colleges in Oregon that she may attend in the fall. I was so honored to be able to do that.”

What was the saddest? – “Perhaps Louise’s death a couple of years ago. That was very tough after forty years of wonderful friendship.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “Well I think I’m a bit different. I like that.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “ I told you so!”

Published in: on April 13, 2009 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Vince Ballew – April 2nd, 2009

GEDC0140I sat down with Vince at The Boonville Lodge last Friday afternoon with a pint of Guinness and Coors Light respectively and we began our chat with bartender Cindy Hollinger primed and ready to keep the beer flowing…
Vince was born in Ukiah in 1966, the third of four children to Pete and Juanita Ballew, who lived on Hutsell Road at the south end of Boonville, near to the junction of Highways 128 and 253. Pete is of Cajun descent whilst Juanita is predominantly Cherokee Indian. They had both grown up in Arkansas and then in the early fifties, during the logging boom in the Valley, they moved here to seek work along with many others from Arkansas and Oklahoma. “I think there were about thirty-two mills here at that time, “ says Vince, “And my father could make a lot more money doing that than at the gas station where he was working in Arkansas.”
“My Mom and Dad celebrated their sixty-first wedding anniversary last month – they had us four kids over a long time. My oldest sister is fifteen years older than me, and then I have a brother who is ten years older, and a sister seven years younger. They all live back in Arkansas now, my parents too – may be one day I’ll go back there permanently myself – I have seriously thought about it many times…My Dad was going to retire when he was sixty five but when his best friend and fellow logger Paul Hughbanks retired and then passed away soon afterwards before drawing one pension check my Dad said, “”Fuck it – I’m not going to work and then die so he retired at sixty-three and they went back to Arkansas – he had always wanted to go back home eventually… They live in a small town called Pearcy, not far from Hot Springs and my father, who can play anything with strings and was one of the best banjo players anywhere, now visits old people’s homes with his band and plays for the elderly, for free. He’s eighty-one and still going strong.”
Vince grew up here in the Valley and attended the kindergarten and Elementary School at the little red schoolhouse – now the A.V. Museum. He moved on to High School with contemporaries such as Jerry Mayberry, Brent Roberts, and Ricky and Kenneth Bloyd. “I didn’t like school too much,” confesses Vince with a raucous laugh, “I didn’t have any favorite subjects. I played some basketball in elementary school and football at high school, and some Little League baseball. My favorite thing at that time was the Youth Boxing Program that was run by Willy Roberts, who had come up here from Arkansas with my Dad in the fifties.”
Vince was “kicked out” of the high school a month into his senior year and went to the Rancheria continuation school. He was “kicked out of there too” and returned to Arkansas for a year and stayed with his sister and found a job working in construction for his brother-in-law…In 1984 he returned to the Valley and began to work in the woods with G & R (Guy and Ron Pronsolino) Logging.
During his younger days Vince loved to hunt and fish. “I grew up living on Robinson Creek every day, fishing for trout and steelhead – those were the days when they were still in the river. We’d hunt for pigs, deer, turkeys and I had my first small motorbike when I was about six or seven and then when I was a little older I got a Honda Trail 70. In those days we kids were outside all the time. My Mom would call me in when it got dark and I’d explain that it was fine outside once your eyes adjusted – she wouldn’t have it…. My best friend growing up was Willie Prather and I was real sad when he died in an accident a couple of years ago – we had a great time growing up together.”
“In those days we could ride up and down the road here on bicycles and it seemed like we knew everyone you passed by; everyone knew everyone else…You could go up into the hills and wander around, hurting nothing and no one – now the Valley is all fences. That’s too bad…Sure there had been problems with the locals when the settlers came here from the Arkansas and Oklahoma in the fifties but in my younger days that had all calmed down and it was a very tight-knit community. Don’t get me wrong, there have been good people who have arrived here since but I don’t know many of them and the Valley has changed for the worse overall – it pisses me off to be honest.”
In 1986 Vince got married and two years later he and his wife became the parents of a little girl – Dixie. “She was named after my Grandmother who never left the south in her whole life.” Shortly afterwards the couple split up. In the past few years Vince and Dixie have become reconciled and she has recently turned twenty-one.
Vince worked in the woods most of the time but, following in his father’s footsteps, he would also often drive the logging trucks. “I had been around them since I was a little kid – changing the oil, the tires, and working on the engines with my Dad. He worked for Bo Hiatt, Jerry Fillbrick, and was with G & R when he retired. My Mom was at home for most of the time but she did get a job at the June Apple Packing plant here in the Valley.” Most of the time Vince worked in and around the Valley but was unable to go for a beer at the bar after work because they knew how old he was. However, for about a year he was working near to Pt. Arena and the crew would stop at the “Sign of the Whale’ bar where they thought he was twenty-one so he could join the others for a few drinks each day. “When I was twenty-one I asked the owner for a beer to celebrate. He said, ‘Get the fuck out of here – you’ve been drinking here for years!’ He was irritated I guess but he let me stay. I could now also come in here, to The Lodge in Boonville, and became a regular – that was when the Pacheco’s owned it.”
After riding other’s bikes for years, Vinnie finally got his first Harley around 1990 and several years ago moved up from ‘Prospect’ to ‘Member’ of the Moloch Motorcycle Club. Many people in the Valley know Vince as a Moloch and I asked him about this. He was reluctant to talk about it and informed me that it had to be that way. I accepted this of course but I did ask him how many members there were in the Club. “Enough” was his polite but firm reply…
He lives in the same place as he was born and raised. “It was painted pink when we were growing up. My Dad said one day that he was going to paint it – he did, pink again!…I like to call it the Pink Pleasure Palace.” he added with a knowing look and grin…Vince has a favorite spot to hang out up behind the property where he can kick back and enjoy a little target practice and he always has his two dogs close by – Tank and Stash – a Jack Russell terrier and a fox terrier/pit-bull mix…As I mentioned earlier, he has thought about moving to Arkansas where his family all live these days but it’s a tough decision. “I just love the country around here and I still have a lot of friends here”. I asked if there was there anything he didn’t like about the Valley? “Yeah, but I’d rather not say.”
I asked Vince for his responses to various subjects that seem to be regular topics of conversation around here…The Wineries? – “Well, they have brought a lot of work and money to the Valley but personally I much preferred it when the land was wide open and we had sheep and apples instead of wine. The wineries coming here has also meant the property prices have gone way up – so much that regular working people here cannot afford to buy their own homes.”…The A.V.A.? – I don’t read it very often but I know Bruce Anderson has upset people over the years. He was my little league coach – a good dude. I’ve nothing against him – he’s straight up and speaks his mind. I like that.”…Law and Order here in the Valley? – “I think our sheriff does a real good job – he was my football coach. Scott Nordin, who died a couple of years ago in the motorbike accident, was a great small-town sheriff too. He knew when guys were just fooling around and then when some guys were acting like idiots.”…And whom would you want as Mayor of the Valley if such a position were created? – “Tony Pardini – he’s my buddy and we worked together for Charlie Hiatt. I’ve known him all my life and for me I think he’d be a good Mayor.”
Vince does have strong feelings about the way the Valley has ‘lost its way’ in some areas. ‘We used to have many events here that are no longer held. Yes, the Crab Feed is good and the County Fair too – although that seems to be less popular in the last year or two. But there was a logging ‘show’ where different logging skills were performed by teams from each logging company – that’s obviously not coming back. There were regular dances and live music too, and there was The Fireman’s Ball, The Little Reno Night at the Apple Hall, and The Woolgrowers Fair and BBQ, which is not happening this year. Then there were the Trap Shoots once a month – we kids would be in a bunker letting out the clay pigeons and then we’d get our turn to shoot at them…So lots of events for a section of the community which has been here for many years just don’t take place anymore The older ways of the Valley have gone…It also amazes me how hard it is to maintain a high school football team around here. That is a big part of a small community – we used to have a big rivalry with Mendocino and now they don’t even have a team. Our team was good this last season but you never know if there is going to be a team from one year to the next. The people in charge don’t seem to know either…The Pop Warner set-up seems to be going well though – I hope that can be carried on to the High School.”
‘I guess a lot of this was always going to happen. The Mexican community has arrived here and now they are the majority. These social events were not really for them I guess. I have many Mexican friends and their community does a lot of good work here – both in the fields and now on the logging crews too. It’s the gangster-types who hang around downtown who annoy me, and many others.”
“I do like the scene that Dave Evans has got going at the Navarro Store during the summer. The live music he puts on has been really good – bringing live music and a ‘scene’ to the Valley again. A community dance once a month, once every two months even, would be nice too. I have hopes this might happen…There used to be a horseshoe tournament down at The Buckhorn Saloon on Sunday afternoons, which was very popular, and the recent Pool Tournament here at The Lodge has got a lot of people involved. People will go to these things but someone has to organize them.”
Vince continues to hunt, mainly pigs, but it is getting harder and harder to find places to go. He also would fish more but “I don’t like to put them back – if I’m going to fish I’m gonna wanna eat what I catch…I remember as a young kid being on Robinson Creek with Bobby Mayberry – we were there every day. I had a crossbow and we came across a white Turkey. We thought it must be wild and I shot it. I took it home and my Mom shouted at me, ‘Whose turkey have you shot?’… ‘Nobody’s – it was wild’, I said… ’It is not wild!’ she continued, ‘Get it in the garage before anyone sees you with it’…A couple of weeks later we were down there again when we spooked a deer and it ran into a fence and got caught. We tried to free it but it starting kicking us so I took out my small knife and cut its throat. Again I took it home and my Mom came onto the porch and said, ‘What in hell have you been doing now?’ I told her what had happened. She just said, ‘Get it in the garage before someone sees you with it.’ She cooked them both up.”
Over the years Vince has also developed firm opinions about the anti-logging movements. “Who are these people to tell us we shouldn’t be logging? I’ve gotta make a living – like many others from logging families. If I don’t do the logging somebody else would jump into my job and do it. I worked for Ed Slotte for a time and we did selective logging – it’s all that way now. You take a few trees and leave the rest. The ones you leave then grow much better. Sure, L.P. was clear-cutting in the old days – it was ugly and I didn’t like it. But now the loggers are helping the environment with the way they select and cut. It’s like farming – there is a time to plant and a time to harvest. None of us wanted to see the clear-cutting continue – the woods are our future, we want to see them grow…Logging is a dangerous job for sure – I’ve only lost these two fingers (he shows me his left hand) but many guys have suffered much more, and I’ve known a few who have died in the woods.”
“I remember once when Tony Pardini and I made a big sign to take to the Earth First people who were camping by the Masonite Road past Navarro, protesting the logging. The sign said, ‘Fuck you Earth First’ and we drove down that way and had our baseball bats with us in case there was any trouble. C.H.P. saw us and pulled us over. They saw the sign and the bats and made us go back. We were in the bar here when some supporters of the anti-logging campaign came in. We were o.k. with them at first but one of them told us his job was building redwood hot tubs!?! Those guys lost some teeth that night.”
I asked Vinnie about his acting debut in Robert Mailer Anderson’s film, ‘Pig Hunt’ set here in and around the Valley. “Robert called me and said he wanted me to be in his film’ playing a character called Gasmask – a guy who hunted pigs and rode a motorbike. He left his number but I didn’t bother calling back – I didn’t give a fuck about being in a movie. They called me back a few times and then the Director, Jim Isaac, met with me and explained the part more and said that Les Claypool was in the movie and I’d be in a few scenes with him. Now I was a bass player and Claypool is the best bass player there is, so I said I’d be in the movie. I was on the set for a few days, hung out with Claypool – he’s a regular guy, a good dude. There was a lot of sitting around but I had a blast, a lot of fun. I saw the movie once but I don’t remember much about it. I was at the screening at the A.V. Film Festival a couple of months ago but I was partying before and it’s all a bit of a blur. I’d like to see it again and have more of an opinion after being in a better state of mind.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Vince from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “That would be ‘Boobies’ – you can’t say it without smiling.” (I did and I couldn’t)…”I also like “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke!’ and use it a lot.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – Err, well I don’t like to hear ‘I’ll try’ or ‘maybe’. I don’t want to hear that. I wanna hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’…”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Women and motorcycles.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Women and motorcycles.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “Hot rod motors; bike engines, revved up car engines.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Other than this song we have to listen to now? (There was a Billy Idol song playing in the bar)…Let’s see…I guess it would be the sound of sirens behind me.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “You piece of shit.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “That would a song called ‘Flirting with Disaster’ by southern rock band ‘Molly Hatchet’ – women have told me the song reminds them of me.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Women and motorcycles.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A porn star.” Vinnie hesitated for a moment before adding with another hearty laugh, “Or maybe a gynecologist!”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A shit sucker – those guys who go round after concerts/festivals using a machine to suck shit out of port-a-potties.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “I’ve had quite a few – may be the day I got my ‘Patch’ and became a full member of the Molochs.”

What was the saddest? – “The deaths of those close to you. The bad days are easier to remember, unfortunately…Willie’s death was tough. My old dog Hatchet, a blue healer and great pig hunting dog, died at sixteen – he was my buddy.” Was he named after the Molly Hatchet Band? “No, his dad was Hammer, his granddad Hacksaw, his great granddad Chainsaw – you get the idea”…

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I take a lot of pride in whatever job I’m doing. I learned that from my Dad – it was a big part of him, absolutely. My Dad is my hero. People have their heroes, my Dad is mine – to me he’s the best man who ever walked the earth.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “That’s something I’ve never thought about. If there is a heaven and hell I’m going to the other place – I wouldn’t know anyone in heaven!…Well, if I get to the gates I guess it would be cool if he said, “The strippers have prepared your bike – you’re ready to go!”

Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 1:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Tom Smith – March 25th, 2009

GEDC0131I met with near neighbor Tom Smith at his home on Gschwend Road and after a brief talk about the prospects of the J.H. Soccer team in their upcoming season we got around to discussing his life story…
Tom was born in Sacramento in 1948 to parents Leona Geoffroy and Kenneth Smith. His father was born and raised in Placerville, California whilst mother Leona was born in Oklahoma, moving to California at the age of twelve. Tom had a ‘normal’ childhood and graduated in 1965 from McClatchy High School where had particularly enjoyed science and math. “It was a big school, perhaps 850 in my class, so when I went to Harvey Mudd College in Pomona, CA to study engineering it was strange – there were only 81 freshmen.”
During his time at college Tom, who had been a Republican, became involved with politics and changed his views dramatically. In his freshman year he attended perhaps the first anti-war rally – “We heard there was to be one at Berkeley on the Sunday so we had ours on Saturday….”In the next election, in 1968, I campaigned actively for Humphrey against Nixon but I knew we were going to lose – everywhere we went there were always two Republican campaigners to every one of us.”
Tom graduated in 1969 and went to work for G.E. “I was offered a job on the team that was to introduce the Orbiting Laboratory Project but, due to the war in Vietnam, N.A.S.A. made severe cutbacks and the project was cancelled. I was offered three alternatives – working on Gattling machine-guns in Vermont, light bulbs in a dingy factory in Cleveland, or appliances in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a poor choice but the last one was by far the better as every six months I would be moved to another department so it would be more interesting and offered me greater experience.”
Tom was in Kentucky for about a year when he was drafted and his number was 153. “They immediately took the first 150 but then over the next year they slowly took a few more and finally my number was called.” Just before his induction Tom went on a fishing trip and on the way he developed a sore on his backside from driving on rough backroads. When he arrived in Oakland to be inducted he was anguishing about whether to sign up or not, but the doctor for his medical said the sore was too bad and deferred him to a classification of 1Y, meaning he would be called back in a few months. “I was just not sure what I was going to say – I was strongly against the war but it was very difficult to prove that you were a conscientious objector and I would have had no chance…I returned to work in Kentucky and never heard from them again!”
Tom knew the job was not for him but he didn’t have many alternatives. In early 1971, he went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and following a few days of partying he suddenly felt ill and was hospitalized. After a few tests he was diagnosed with Hepatitis yet the doctor told him in 99% of cases it clears up after a few days of treatment. It didn’t and he was told he had chronic hepatitis – one in a hundred cases and life-threatening. He was put on Prednisone and had to quit his job, returning to live with his parents in Sacramento at the age of twenty-three and remaining seriously ill for some time.
He gradually recovered and with his savings and money borrowed from his grandfather he bought a two-storey house for $16,500, fixing it up and renting out rooms to supplement his insurance from G.E. He paid his grandfather back and found himself doing well enough financially to go on a vacation to Mexico with friends. “We drove around, hung out, slept on the beach, then one night as we drove along I awoke from a light sleep – I knew something was up – I saw some headlights heading straight for us. Our driver had frozen with fear. I grabbed the wheel and pulled us over, missing the other vehicle by inches. We were shaken up – and could easily have been killed – yet this trip gave me the travel bug which I’ve had ever since.”
“Not long afterwards, my brother Ken was visiting in a Porsche he had borrowed from a friend. I was driving it at about 60mph on a country road when someone pulled out in front of me. I should have been seriously hurt or worse but the embankments on each side of the road in that particular spot meant that the car swerved from side to side, hitting the embankments but not going off the road. The car was wrecked but I was left with just a few scrapes and bruises. I spent a lot of time fixing that car up for my brother’s friend but was grateful for surviving my third near-death experience!”
Tom’s life became a balance of fixing up his house and traveling. In late 1973 he was in Mexico again, this time on Los Cocos Beach near to San Blas in the state of Nayarit, where the police were notorious for extracting bribes from travelers. “We had just met these two people, a woman called Val and her brother, when the police approached us and searched our vehicle.     They found some marijuana seeds in the car but that was it – we had just shared a joint with these people a few minutes earlier. In those days you had to ‘clean’ your dope – it was not seedless. Anyway, they found the seeds and told me I was going to jail. Now normally at this point tourists would be expected to offer some bribe to the cops but I didn’t. I had never been to a Mexican jail and agreed to go with them, even telling them, ‘let’s go!’. Val was also saying that I should not pay them anything. The police were obviously surprised but began to laugh and they let me go.”
“This woman, Val, had peeked my interest and when we went our separate ways I got her phone number in the States…. When I returned to Sacramento I got in touch with her – she was in Los Gatos with her parents – and went to see her. She had already told her mother that she had met the man she was going to marry and she returned with me to Sacramento that day and moved in!”
Over the next few years, with Val having graduated from Stanford and pursuing her teaching credentials, they got by with the rent from the house and by ‘dumpster diving’ at the back of grocery stores for food. “In those days it was amazing what they would throw away. Not just T.V. dinners – all kinds of good foods, stuff that there was nothing wrong with but was past the sell-by-date and frozen foods that had perhaps defrosted a little. We learned to live very frugally and yet still had enough money to visit Mexico nearly every fall.”
By the late seventies, Tom and Val had put enough money aside to buy two more houses – very cheap fixer-uppers but that was Tom’s forte so soon they had rented these out too and lived off the rental income…In November 1977 Tom and Val hitched a ride out of Sacramento and set off on what was to become a year-and-a-half journey around Central and South America, taking in many memorable events and moments, including reaching the southernmost tip of the continent at Terra del Fuego, the Carnivaal in Brazil, and the Galapagos Islands, scene of many of Charles Darwin’s experiments included in his landmark book “The Origin of Species’.
It was during this trip that Tom and Val had a narrow escape with death when the bus they were on was hit by a truck and headed over a cliff. It came to a stop and balanced shakily on the edge for a time as people slowly moved to the top-side of the bus to ensure it did not tip over with their weight and then down the ravine. They survived – Tom’s fourth close shave…Soon after he became quite ill in Chile and had to fly home. The hepatitis had flared up again, as it would do every year or so ever since, and he was very sick for a few weeks.
Following yet another trip south of the border, Tom proposed to Val in January 1980 and they were married in Fortuna, northern California in July of that year – “it was supposed to be in Ferndale but there was no Justice of the Peace there.” The following day they drove down the coast and cut in land on Highway 128, staying that night at the Dimmick campground, west of Navarro. Tom knew he wanted some rural property and when they got to Boonville they met realtor Cheryl Schrader at North Coast Realty and she showed them a spot on Gschwend Road. It was more land than they wanted and more than they could afford so they kept looking, but could not forget about the beautiful place they had seen. Shortly afterwards, when they returned to Sacramento, Val found out that she had inherited some money from her grandfather who had died a few months earlier. It was enough to afford the property in the Valley and they moved to here in the summer of 1981, buying the twenty acres with a cabin for $87,000.
“We had fallen in love with this place – this individual spot was perfect for us. We didn’t know anybody in the Valley community but knew that a rural place in northern California was all we could tolerate…And it had to have the climate where I could grow melons!”…They sold two of the houses in Sacramento but kept tenants in the other and carried the loan themselves on the two sales – thus providing a steady income and they started a family – Olie being born in 1982 and Jesse in 1984. They continued to make their visits to Mexico, now taking the kids too, and over the following years Tom began work on a house he had designed – “the first plans were submitted in 1985 and it became the longest running set of plans in the County by the time I had finished!”
In 1990 Tom became seriously ill once again. “I was sent to U.C. Davis and then sat in the emergency room for hours. They forgot about me. Val could not get anyone’s attention and I thought I was dying – I was as it turned out.” Val drove him to her parent’s home in Los Gatos – her father was a doctor and he arranged for Tom to go first to Los Gatos Community Hospital, then to the U.C. Hospital in San Francisco, where he was seen by Doctor Ascher. His liver was failing and he was told that it would last for perhaps two more weeks. He had an infection in his spine and they could not operate until it cleared up – he was told the antibiotics needed to do this would take about a month to work. “I commented to the doctor that therefore this didn’t add up. ‘No, it doesn’t’ was her reply…They did not expect me to live. I just had to hope that this would be a fifth near-death experience and not the real thing.”
“A couple of weeks later I did not get any lunch and asked the nurse if that was significant. It was, a donor had been found, and on April 11th, 1990, I was operated on even though the infection had not cleared up. During the procedure my heart had stopped and when I woke up there were bruises all over my chest – the doctor had jumped on me to revive my heart…. The ‘new’ liver was working, I recovered completely, and after a few months we went to Mexico for a vacation.”

In 1990, following his fifth near-death experience and the installation of a new ‘used’ liver, Tom felt well, but was too weak to do much work on the house he was building for the family. As a result he began to spend time regularly watching elder son Olie play soccer with the Youth program being run by Palmer Toohey and he asked if she wanted any help. She agreed and he worked on the defense of the Under-9 team, with Olie, Paulen Severn-Walsh, and John Toohey in goal and they were successful. The following year a new coach was needed so Tom took over. He immediately reduced the fees charged to parents for their kids to join the program and then used the money they did collect for new uniforms for every single kid who wanted to play instead of it going to a post-season party. “Initially there were more Anglo kids than Mexican but by reducing the fees many more Mexican kids were able to join in and the program greatly improved. We had a great team and one group, led by Vidal Ferreyra and Manuel Eligio, went undefeated for five years!”
There was still no High School program and so in 1994 Tom approached Principal J.R. Collins and Athletic Director Robert Pinoli to ask if one could be started. “They looked at the list of names I had compiled and when they saw there were no football players on it they agreed!  We had a J.V. team that year and then in 1995 the first A.V. High School Soccer team took the field – we won the championship in our first year after a play-off with Calistoga and have been winning ever since”…With a big grin Tom added, “I was then very fortunate to get a ‘pro’-coach in 2003 who has helped us to achieve even more success in recent seasons.”…(Modesty prohibits me from mentioning who that is)…
“In 1997 it was very apparent that the lack of a program between the Youth Program and High School soccer was detrimental to the kids’ soccer development so I started the Junior High program and invited three other schools to join in, I am very happy with how this has progressed over the years and we shall have nine teams who will be competing this year.” In acknowledgement for all of Tom’s work with the soccer program the High School Soccer Field that he and others installed was named after him a couple of years ago.
Besides the Soccer program, Tom’s other long-time contribution to the Valley has been his work with the Variety Show, something Captain Rainbow dreamed up in the early 90’s and which actually began with Tom and others in 1992. Tom has been involved with every show and I believe he is perhaps the only person who can say that. “Rainbow is the core, and the Magic Company got it all started to raise money for the Grange. I ended up doing all the backstage work and I get involved with the opening act that has taken on greater significance over time – it’s always connected in some way with the political or social issues of the time.”
In the summer of 2002, the Hepatitis returned and attacked Tom’s “recycled liver”. He became very ill and on July 1st was airlifted to Ukiah and then traveled to U.C.S.F. by helicopter. “I asked a doctor what were the chances of a second ‘new’ liver and was told, ‘we find with Hepatitis C that a second transplant is not very successful and we don’t really do them.’ A little later another doctor showed up – it was Dr Ascher, the woman who had performed my first liver operation. She remembered me well because during my first transplant she had to leave near the end to give birth! She asked me if I thought I could take it and I said, ‘Sure’. And she said to those around her, ‘this man gets a new liver’. If there is a god I believe it’s Dr. Ascher.”
Tom’s kidney had also failed at this point so he would need another one to be added, along with the liver transplant. Following a couple of months back in the Valley, with his health deteriorating as he waited for both a donor and also to get ill enough to justify the second transplant, Tom returned to the hospital in a bad way. “I really thought I’d be dead by the end of the week.” He was told that a donor had been found. The operation took place on September 30th, 2002 and it was a complete success – Tom had narrowly avoided death for the sixth time. After the operation Tom checked in by phone on the High School soccer team who had played a big game that day. He had told the hospital staff of his involvement with the soccer program and it seemed that they were all rooting for the Panthers. Temporary coach, Franz Schulte-Bisping’s wife, Monica, gave him the good news –A.V. had won – the whole room in the hospital erupted in cheers and Tom still gets emotional when he remembers that remarkable day…
Over the past few years Tom has continued to have his ups and downs with his health but it has not curtailed his traveling, nor his amazing sequence of near-death experiences, which reached number seven in December 2004. The family was visiting Thailand and on Railay Beach when the tsunami hit. “I could see this big wave approaching and foolishly felt I could help some kids who were in the water. They were much quicker than me and ended up way past me when the wave hit. I was driven into a retaining wall on the beach and then up and over into a swimming pool. I dove down to avoid the following waves before surfacing when they had passed. Val and the boys had gone ashore earlier and were safe, although we did not all hook up for some time. Ten minutes before the wave hit we had been paddling in kayaks in the ocean – right in the path of the wave. If it had come then we would have been caught and probably drowned like others.”
Following the tsunami, Val and Jesse returned to the States, Olie went on to China, and Tom continued on his travels alone. He was in Vietnam on a bus when once again he felt something wasn’t quite right and looked ahead out of the window. “There were the proverbial headlights heading straight for us. The bus went into the slowest fishtail I’ve ever been in. It was pitch black and I had no idea what was going on until we crashed into a wall at the side of the road. People were screaming. I shouted, ‘Shut up!!’ and they calmed down. We all calmly got off the bus. I looked around – we had hit a short wall that was protecting a power pole – either side there was nothing and we would have gone off the road down a ravine and then over a cliff. I guess that was number eight and now I’m on life number nine!”
“Despite all of these events I still love to travel and we are really glad to have instilled that love of travel in our two boys. My favorite place of all? – Koh Lipe Island in Southern Thailand…The soccer has been a wonderful experience too and of course the Variety Show is always fun…I love the Valley and have been fortunate to live here – just sitting here and looking out across the land seeing the trees and hills, not another house in sight. It’s beautiful and although there are other places in the world where I could live Val wouldn’t go so I guess I’m staying!”
I now asked Tom for his responses to various hot topics of conversation in the Valley, starting with the wineries – “I am perturbed by how we have been dictated to by interests with money, wineries owned by people not living here particularly disturb me. A couple of wineries would have been enough for me – we need more diversity in our agriculture. I do like Milla’s ideas at Handley Cellars but too many seem to be what I refer to as ‘ego-vineyards’. My grandfather would have said, ‘They are not farmers, they are entrepreneurs and they don’t get their hands dirty.’ I’d agree.”… The A.V.A.? – “I read it selectively. I like that Bruce Anderson has stirred some stuff up in the past – we need that around here sometimes. I recently enjoyed Mark Scaramella’s article about the school’s silver award – that award was very questionable and I agree with Mark’s column 100%. I like his stuff and read it all”…The School system? – “It’s a shame that in a basically very liberal Valley we have a school system run by a Board that is a cabal of conservatives. It seems that they are all in complete agreement on everything; when I was on that Board at least we had some debate and disparate views on the issues before us. As for the High School, there appears to be a lack of leadership there.”…And whom would you vote for Mayor of the Valley if such a position were created? – “Henry Hill – because I know he’d wouldn’t do a goddam thing and that’s just what we want!”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Tom from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Goal!”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Take my word for it.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Watching young kids performing to the best of their ability.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Holier than thou people who try to tell others how to lead their lives.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The unique sound of waves lapping on to a tropical beach.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Dogs barking.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I use them all.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “I guess that would be gardening.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “I would have liked to have been a full-time teacher.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “There are lots of horrible jobs in third world countries that I would not want to do.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The births of our two children.”

What was the saddest? – “Anytime I hear about a friend who dies unexpectedly – I was really shaken by the tragic death here in the Valley of Hunter Hill, son of Henry and Lady Rainbow. He was a contemporary of my boys and thereafter they had a picture of him taped to the speedometer in their car to remind them not to drive too fast.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I suppose I like it that I usually tend to side with the underdog.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Perhaps he’d say, ‘Tom – all those near misses – atheists are usually much easier to get rid of.”…Or may be, ”Welcome, Tom. As an atheist, you made it here based on what you have done, without expectations, which is much better than many believers who do things only in the expectation of coming here.”

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 3:37 am  Leave a Comment