Larry Smith – October 24th, 2009

101_0041I sat down with Larry outside the A.V. Market in the heart of Boonville and spent a very pleasant few hours talking with him during which time virtually every person who passed by acknowledged him with a wave or greeting – undoubtedly a popular fellow.
Larry was born to William ‘Cotton’ Smith and Imogene Brown in 1942 in rural southern Illinois, an area of farming and oil. “It was a small community – my Dad’s sister married my Mum’s brother!” Larry was the oldest of six – four boys and two girls – and his heritage is French/Scots/Irish on his mothers side while his paternal forefathers were long-time settlers in the region, although originally they were descended from the Choctaw Indian tribe… His father worked in the oilfields, first as a wildcatter, then a roustabout, and finally as a pumper and his Mother, when not raising the kids, worked in a shoe factory during the war, making footwear for soldiers. He was raised in the town of Clay City, “about the size of Boonville”, and spent his entire childhood and youth in the area. ‘The nearest town of any size was Carbondale about 75 miles away – we practically knew everyone in the County. I went to elementary and high schools there but didn’t like any of it. I wanted to be out duck hunting and fishing – wild game was a large part of our diet – so I missed a lot of school but managed to be just smart enough to get by and I graduated in May 1960.”
He was raised in the Methodist religion and attended church every Sunday and Wednesday “until when I was about fifteen a new preacher arrived in town and I had the ‘hots’ for his daughter. We were caught making out in a car and I was banished from the church – it was fine with me”… The day after graduating Larry joined the military. “There were no jobs around except in farming and I knew I didn’t want to do that – I had helped my Grandfather on our small farm. Most of the men in my family had been in the army or the marines and I wanted to be different so I went in the Navy. I was a bit of a rebel I guess, and I also figured that the girls would prefer a man in a sailor’s uniform.”
The Second World War was in its third year in Europe and Larry was just 17 when he went to boot camp in Milwaukee and then moved on to the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. “When I got off the bus in Norfolk the first thing I saw was a sign on some pristine grass that said, ‘No sailors, niggers, or dogs on the lawn.’ I hated that place”… His first job was in the Communication Center as the Admiral’s messenger, which he did for ten months before getting a transfer in 1961 to an active minesweeper – an experimental steel-hulled one, headquartered in Key West. The Cuban missile crisis was bubbling up not one hundred miles away and “I was soon involved in my first killing exercise.”
“We left our base in the Dry Tortugas, islands off the Florida Keys, and went down towards Cuba with the purpose of doing something out of the ordinary. It was not our usual routine and was a covert action. We shot down an airliner. I know nothing more than that – but it was not a military plane. I guess we needed to get somebody out of the way. On our return to base a friend and I got very drunk and re-enlisted, adding more of my life to the service. I signed up for six more years and did my best until I got out in 1968. I didn’t like any aspect of my job on the minesweeper but by re-enlisting I was reassigned and sent to radio school in Bainbridge, Maryland in late 1962. From there I was recruited into the Submarine Service; well I volunteered – I liked a challenge; I was twenty and felt like I could take on anything.”
Larry received his first assignment on a World War 2 submarine out of the Portsmouth shipyard in Virginia and ended up going “all over the place, with many near death experiences. I had a carefree attitude towards things. I was also not a big fan of the officers but on my very first dive in a sub we went down too fast and went below ‘crush depth’. We had a smart cookie for a C.O. and got out of that one thanks to him… Over the years I met many great guys and there was a wonderful camaraderie in those old WW2 vessels that was never quite repeated when I was in a nuclear sub later on.”
Larry’s submarine was part of the Atlantic Fleet but they were sent all over the Caribbean and the Mediterranean too. “I had a great time in Europe and met many of the local populations, particularly when I was the ‘mailman’ for a ‘Wolf pack’ of subs in a port and would have to travel to various ones delivering their mail in a naval truck… Vietnam was revving up and the Marines were all very excited about going there in those early days. However, the Submarine Service is a different part of the Navy and we were generally assigned to maneuvers concerned with the Cold War, not the Far East. We did a lot of ‘Black Operations’ (covert) – involving the dropping off Marines and/or Special Forces at various places in the dead of night.”
Following a period of time when Larry was the Commodores personal radioman, Larry was transferred to the S.S. Triton, a nuclear submarine, in late1963. “From then on we did mostly espionage in enemy territory, making many trips to Soviet waters. We’d go from the east coast to Western Europe then to the North Sea and under the ice to the Bering Straits and the Sea of Oshkosh. Every sub had its role – we took pictures of Soviet subs and stole equipment whenever we could, particularly the sonar buoys that they had dropped into the sea by helicopter to look for us. We tracked and recorded everything and gradually built up a library of what they had, often listening in on their conversations. During one period of time I was under water for 330 days out of 400.”
In June 1966, Larry headed to Instructor School on Treasure Island in the S.F. Bay and then on to teaching at the Submarine School at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. “I loved the City. I was right in the middle of what was going on there at that time – those were the days. I was working regular hours, had a car, and could enjoy all that S.F. offered. My time there changed my life in that it confirmed the perspectives that I had been accumulating in the previous few years. I was angry with the number of government lies we were fed, by both Kennedy about Cuba and the U.S.S.R. and then Johnson about Vietnam. We came so close to nuclear war – it blows my mind. Our policies were counter-productive, both sides were very, very foolish and I thought the anti-war demonstrators were right.”
“As a result I was in a very difficult position – teaching kids about going to war while not agreeing with that war. I had thirty young men in my class, all had volunteered, none were drafted. Often if a kid didn’t want to be there I’d find a way to get them out. Those that wanted to be there got the best training I could offer – some are still my friends.”
Around this time Larry got his first experience of Boonville when he came up this way with a friend from the shipyard to go hunting. “Something hit me about the place but we didn’t get a deer and so I didn’t think much more about it.”… In 1968 Larry left the Navy. He had been studying at City College and found that he could apply himself academically after all. “I got over the feeling of being stupid in that way but meanwhile there were no acceptable jobs for me and it was a rough couple of years from 1968-70 in every way – a chest full of medals didn’t pay the grocery store bill, although I did do some cab driving and house painting at that time”
Larry was living in Redwood City, south of San Francisco, and had signed up on the G.I. Bill to attend college. “I took music and a class in basic education that I’d never got before. One day I walked into the Community Services Center (C.S.C.) and was told by the guy at the desk that the jobs on the wall were not for me – I was ‘not Mexican.’ This pissed me off and so I attended the Center’s next few board meetings and got really involved. I was soon elected Chairman and immediately fired the guy who had told me I couldn’t apply for the jobs. That reverse discrimination was not acceptable – I have always hated discrimination of any kind.”
In 1973 Larry became the Director of a Neighborhood Service Center – a non-profit working with a small amount of money. However, over the next few years it had expanded to a staff of 29 and a budget of $3 million, as they provided a job center, a senior citizens program, and food kitchens for the area. “It was a tough job, it was making me ill, and I burned out. I took time off and went off looking for a place to live, a place to ‘hide out’ for a time. I came to Anderson Valley, far enough away from work to prevent me from commuting. I checked the area out and found 30 acres way up on Peachland Road just north of Boonville. It had a cabin – all I needed – and so I bought it for $35,000.”
He soon found a job in Santa Rosa as the Executive Officer of the Construction Industry Association – “Yes, the C.I.A.!” This group was involved with the General Plans for several towns in the area and encouraged growth in a forward-thinking and ethical way, with particular emphasis on access issues for the disabled. Larry was with them from 1976 to 1979 when he decided to start his own consulting firm in resource development using the excellent contacts he had made over the previous few years in construction, real estate, and banking.
At this point he moved to Anderson Valley to live and there he met Gwyn Leeman, an accountant in the area. “She was on the women’s adult softball team along with the likes of Terry and Sherry Ornbaun, Patty DeFaveri, and Karen Ottoboni – the ‘Hot Sox’ was their name and I guess I became their cheerleader. Their coach was Harold Perry and they were a very good team, winning the North Coast Championship.”
After Gwyn and Larry were married in 1983, she joined him in his business and over the next few years they lived and worked in South San Francisco for a time, working on a big sound-proofing project for houses near to the San Francisco Airport – just one of many other jobs in various northern Californian vicinities, from surveying for wells, to building improved housing developments in poor areas such as East Palo Alto, to moving effluent from sewage treatment plants to wineries. “I was an ideas man in a business that was basically all about problem-solving and solution finding. It was what I did best and most of the time we were based here in the Valley.”
In 1995, Larry had a brain tumor. An operation removed one third of the tumor and the rest was dealt with by radiation treatment. It has been a long recovery ever since and he still gets treatments for seizures and depression. “I also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of my wartime experiences. My dreams can be very tough, my memory can be bad, and I nod off to sleep easily. However, these days I think I can do just about anything and am currently learning Spanish, both as a brain exercise and also to keep pace with the human family.”
Larry has now been in the Valley for over 30 years and has obviously witnessed many changes. “I love it here – the people, the climate, the opportunities given to serve the community. The Valley has a magic vibration – I believe some people have come here when they are sick and then they get well… I am proud of what we have done at the Hospice, of which I was one of the founding members. If people are given six months or less to live we provide help and assistance of all kinds for them. We have helped many people in the Valley.” Larry was also on the Chamber of Commerce for a time and is still in the American Legion, which provides scholarships for students and help to veterans… These days he loves to come into Boonville and hang out with the many different people he knows – I can attest to that. His misses some of the old-timers such as Jack June but has friends in the younger generations and continues to play his trombone both in Bob Ayers Big Band and The Peanut Butter and Jam Band that plays regularly at Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville. He has also written a novel that he is fine-tuning for publication. “It’s a kids story, around 300 pages, set in a haunted house – essentially a tool for persuading young people to stay in school showing what can happen if you don’t. We are proud of our boys who came through the school system here in Anderson Valley – Nemo who was born in 1987 and Ras, born in 1990. There are thousands of Larry Smiths – I learned that, so I wanted different names for them and Nemo has a nautical connection while I had a favorite uncle called Ras.”
I asked Larry for his thoughts on various Valley issues and topics of debate… The wineries? – “I like them. They’re much better than sub-divisions, they provide employment for many, and they seem to contribute to local fund raising”… The school system? – “I’m really proud of our schools, they do an excellent job with 95% of the graduates going to college. Both of our boys are at college now – Nemo at Santa Rosa J.C. and Ras at Chico State – they received a good education here. One thing I would say is that there used to be more trade schools for the kids to go to and that’s something I think we need to think about again”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I’ve been a subscriber since before Bruce Anderson was the publisher the first time, back in the Homer Mannix days. I read just about the whole thing, including the want ads and people’s business card ads. Bruce is not a bad guy and I think it is wrong-headed to not read the paper just because you do not agree with some of the things that are written”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I’m a supporter and have been a member since the beginning, twenty years ago. I don’t like everything on there but the music is great and they are very helpful and are on top of any emergency or fire situation. If you don’t like it, become a part of it and initiate change”…Changes in the Valley? – “So much has changed in the 33 years I’ve been here. In those days you had to have your shit together to come into town, be prepared to defend yourself – there were several different groups at that time, downtown Boonville was a tough place, even the women used to fight back then, slugging it out just like men”… Drugs in the Valley? – “Well it has definitely got worse. In the old days it was just marijuana. I don’t think the government has any right to get involved with that if it is on private property. Isn’t it supposed to be government of the People, by the People, for the People’? Besides, marijuana is a good medicine for many – we have used it at the Hospice practice for years and have never had one person react negatively or have a bad experience, not one. Meth use is different and the problems with that have taken a toll on people here”…
And if Larry were the Mayor what would he do around here if such a position existed and had some legitimate power? – “II would order that building on the south end of town demolished as a hazard. I would even risk getting sued and organize volunteers to take it down piece by piece if necessary”…And whom would he vote for Mayor? – “Kirk Wilder probably – he walks on both sides of the street. I think he would blend in with old-timers at the Drive-In and also cross the road and be welcomed at the ‘love-in’ at the Boont Berry Store.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Larry 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? – “Beautiful.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “A word in Boontling used by some of the old-timers still – ‘eisel’, meaning asshole…Another is ‘I can’t’, I don’t like to hear that.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Music – all sorts. I once tried out for the Oakland Symphony with my trombone but I blew it.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Young people just hanging out with no get-up-and-go in them, with no ambition. So much is open to them these days.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “I like the sound of silence – I get that where I live five miles up the road out of the Valley.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “An unattended baby crying.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Shit or damn.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “A book called ‘Be here Now’ by Ram Dass, the section called ‘From Bindu to Ojas.’ It is oriental mystical philosophy and it opened the floodgates for wide acceptance of diverse philosophies and cultural diversity. It signaled the beginning of the ‘New Age’ movement. I read it in my 30’s and it made me cry. It really affected me and changed my life to some degree.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Reading – mysteries and history.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “High School career counselor.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Electronic plating.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – The day I closed escrow on the house on Peachland Road in 1976.”

What was the saddest? – “Probably the death of my Grandmother, who basically raised me. It was hard enough just dealing with that as a small child but my father did not approve of my lingering sadness and that was tough to cope with too.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “That I respect just about everybody and love ‘em if I can. Some are hard to love of course.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I have had some contact with ‘God’, so if he said ’Welcome home, son – good job’ that would be fine with me… Other regions in the world deal with death in better ways. I don’t believe in death per se. I believe the spirit leaves the body and goes to a place of all energy. As in the core tenet of Buddhism – ‘Gone, Gone, Gone beyond, Gone utterly beyond, Oh what an Awakening’ The meaning is essentially that by letting go of your preconceived notions, opinions, and attachments, you can become open to all the wonders of our life… I believe in a ‘creator of all that is’ – a higher power, I guess, but I admit I do have an element of doubt of course.”

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Published in: on November 4, 2009 at 5:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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