Tom English – April 17th, 2010

I met with Tom at his home in Rancho Navarro and following a warm welcome from his collies, Nell and Emma, we sat down with a cup of tea and some toast and began our chat…
Tom was born in Oakland in 1947, the third child of John English and Ruth Denson. His siblings are Bud, three years older, and Peggy, seven years Tom’s senior. His father’s side of the family is of Irish descent and his grandparents left Ohio around 1890 and settled in Oregon via the Oregon Trail. “My Grandfather was an inventor so he basically had little money, but my Grandmother worked in real estate and was well-known amongst the social circles in the Portland area. Grandfather was an alcoholic and so life at home was very unsettled and as a result my father and his sister were often put with foster parents. He joined the Army Air Corps in World War 2 and went through training in Texas where he met my mother and they got married.”
Tom’s mother, Ruth, was from at least two generations of Texans and had grown up on a small peanut farm. “She had married a fellow called Buck who was very lazy and a bit of a good-for-nothing. They had two children, Bud and Peggy, my half-siblings, but then she dumped him. She met my father at the Air Corps base and the wed at the end of the war”… Tom’s father and his bride moved to the East Bay where his father finished his college studies at U.C. Berkeley where he had completed two years prior to the War.
The family lived in San Lorenzo Village, a suburb south of Oakland. “It was a nice neighborhood subdivision, with each house built with what you might call an in-law apartment for returning soldiers to stay for a time after returning from the War. I went to grade school nearby and had a very pleasant childhood in many ways. The surrounding area was still quite rural with fields of tomatoes and orange groves and up to the late fifties San Lorenzo supplied San Francisco with most of its vegetables. My friends and I would play in the San Lorenzo Creek that went all the way into the Bay. We built rafts and had tons of fun there. I loved the outdoors and had all kinds of adventures – there were lots of kids in the neighborhood, so many that the school had to have split shifts. My parents would be out of the house by 7.30am and I didn’t not have to be in school until 10am so I was in the Creek every day, building forts and tunnels with friends in the fields that would soon make way for the Nimitz Freeway. When that happened we put up obstacles to try and stop the bulldozers in ‘our field’ but then had to sit and watch as they crushed our simple ‘defenses’ with ease. I then spent the rest of my childhood growing up with that freeway noise.”
When Tom was in his mid-teens, his parents had another son, Steve. “My sister had become a heroine addict and was to have three kids with three different guys and my older brother and his girlfriend had a child at sixteen and we were not close. My younger brother was gay and the family accepted this completely but when my parents had both passed away, by 1994, he cut himself off completely from the family. I have tried to contact him many times but haven’t seen him since. He does not want to be in touch. It is very strange, he was very close to his nephews and nieces when they were growing up but nobody has seen him since.”
Tom enjoyed elementary school and had performed well in math, reading and spelling and had played lots of sports, but when he arrived at San Lorenzo High School he started “goofing off” and becoming more inward. “I was suddenly a little fish in a big pond and didn’t handle it well. I stopped playing on the sports’ teams and started to gamble, playing poker every day at high school and becoming quite an addict. From my junior year on, during school vacations I worked at the factory where my Dad was the personnel manager and accountant so I had money. I would give the winnings to him to put in the credit union for me and had about $600 there. He then said he had to use it to pay for the damages my sister had caused in one of her drug-induced accidents. Anyway, I still had money from gambling so when I passed my driving test I bought a car and six months’ worth of insurance. I hung out with various groups of friends in those days. I was in the skateboard crowd, the surfer dude group, the ‘gangster’ wannabe’s dressing like Chicano kids, and also with the kids in my nearby neighborhood. I was in-between them all and didn’t quite fit anywhere. I was definitely mischievous and wanted to quit school but when it looked like I might not graduate, my father sat me down and explained some things to me and suddenly the need to study clicked. I blossomed in my final semester and pulled it out, graduating in the summer of 1964.”
Initially, Tom decided to go to nearby Chabot Junior College in Hayward and he moved out of the family home. “After owning a couple of cars, I was into paneled trucks – a pick-up with enclosed bed, certainly a good thing to have if you had a girlfriend, not that I often did. I lived in my truck and parked it in my parents back yard under the weeping willow tree, sleeping and cooking there and using my parents’ house just for the shower.”
“The Vietnam War was really getting going and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was doing o.k. at the factory job, on the packaging line full-time, but this meant I had too few hours at college for a deferment. At school my counselor had told me that if I went to war then the government would owe me and that I should take advantage of the G.I. Bill. I wasn’t politically astute at all and wasn’t questioning the situation like she was. On top of that, I was starting to know people whose relatives were being wounded and killed even. My Dad asked me whether I wanted to join up, go to jail, or move to Canada. I said I’d wait for them to draft me, thinking ‘why shouldn’t I serve?’ I was drafted by the Army in 1966 and went through basic training at Ft. Lewis.”
During training Tom says he had lots of fun. “I messed around as much as I could without getting caught, playing pranks, acting like I’d gone crazy, all kinds of goofy stuff, but I did well and was one of only two who came out as Private 1st Class. Normally there would be two weeks leave at the end of it but we were immediately sent for Advanced Infantry Training in Louisiana where the goofing around stopped. It was set up like a Vietnamese village and you knew where you were going to be sent. They told us that some of us would be going to Germany but nobody did.”
In February 1967, Tom arrived in Vietnam as a grunt in the army infantry, an ammunition bearer for a machine gunner, carrying six hundred rounds and his own M16 rifle. He decided he wanted to talk at length about his experience so I sat and listened. It may be a little too graphic for some readers so I have put in italics and you can continue reading at the end if you wish…
“I was in great shape physically and made the decision to do as well as I could to make my parents proud. In terms of status, I was the lowest of the low. Besides being a ‘FNG’ (F***ing New Guy), I was also a non-paratroop in a paratroop battalion and those around me were serious soldiers who took their image as good soldiers very seriously. These guys were squared away and I liked that; I felt I was in good hands. I was in the 1st Cavalry Division, Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Cav. Airborne and we were sent to the Central Highlands, an area of heavy fighting at the time. It was my first time around marijuana and some of the guys smoked dope but I always declined and told them I had a sister who had started that way and ended up a heroine addict. They were always trying to persuade me to join them saying it would make me laugh and feel happy. I still refused.”
“The head of our platoon was Lieutenant Anderson, a black guy who had graduated from West Point. Earlier he had agreed to let a former soldier, who had fought at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when the Vietnamese overran the French and who was now a filmmaker, to film the platoon. One evening we watched this movie in a bunker. One guy, by the name of Hvalchec, who was a weathered soldier who I though was several years older than me, was always riding me, trying to pick on me for things. I was a carrot top and he always called me ‘Red on the head like a dick on the dog’ which I hated after hearing it a few hundred times. I did not like him at all. Anyway he was watching the movie with the rest of us and he was just mocking the guys in it who were showing fear as a battle waged. One guy, Smith, was near to tears with fear after being wounded and Hvalchec just made fun of the poor kid, calling him ‘chicken shit’ and a ‘baby’. I just though Hvalchec was a heartless bully, an idiot too.”
“We would go on patrols during the day and stay in the compound behind the wire at night. One night I was placed on L.P. (Listening Post) which meant going about a hundred yards into the bush at dark along with two other guys, Tanner and Curtis, and a radio. We were out there to try and listen to the enemy’s movements and report back through the night. Soldiers hated this duty. There was no talking and we were to contact the base by clicking on a radio receiver every hour, with extra clicks if we detected movement. Well, when I was out there on that night of April 10th/11th, 1967 all hell broke loose on Landing Zone Charlie where the rest of the men were positioned. Mortars, small arms fire, tons of grenades, ours and theirs, it was an incredible noise. They were being attacked by about four hundred Vietcong, (I nearly called them ‘gooks’ then), and we were told to stay where we were. The enemy had known where we three were and had avoided our listening post before the attack so no warning would be given. Soon our artillery retaliated and shrapnel came in very close to where we were lying. Then came the helicopter gun-ships strafing the ground. It was just wild and we were positive we’d be hit at any moment. More helicopters arrived, these with the Quick Reaction Force, who did not know exactly what to expect on landing so they immediately started firing and throwing grenades in all directions. There were bodies everywhere and some of our guys couldn’t avoid treading on the bodies of our dead…”
“At first light it was all quiet, apart from the occasional gun-ships still flying around, and we returned to the camp, passing lots of enemy dead wearing just shorts or black underwear and belts across their chests with grenades. Two girls back home had sent me Easter baskets and the remains of the ribbons from these baskets were on the wire on our return and I knew my bunker had been hit. I lost a bunch of very close friends that day. The wounded had already been helicoptered out but the dead were still all around. The sergeant told us to get the bodies up to where the helicopters could land. I didn’t want to get emotional and managed to keep it together. I did not recognize the dead; their faces were terrible disfigured, the bodies black and green, although I did manage to read the name of just one nametag on a shirt – Hvalchec. I later found out that he was just six months older than me.”
“We were moved the dead bodies to where they would be removed by helicopters and covered them with ponchos to give them some dignity. Then when then ‘copters arrived they all blew off – it was awful… We were then ordered to clear the Vietnamese dead off the hillside and by this time the high-ranking officers were arriving to assess the situation. They had come from somewhere safe way behind the front line and the fact that they came in after the battle, in their clean uniforms to stand around among all this carnage – that really annoyed me, I must say. I was dying of thirst; so much so that I drank five cartons of the terrible canned milk that nobody liked to drink. We thought we were going to simply burn the Vietnamese bodies with diesel and I wasn’t looking forward to that, but they flew in a Cat, dug a huge hole, and pushed the piles of bodies in. That was a better idea.”
“Later that day I decided to walk into town and bought some marijuana – I wanted to ‘smoke and joke’ as it had been explained to me. I was so emotionally drained I did not feel a thing after smoking two long Thai sticks but I did have what I later learned was called ‘big time munchies’. I was so hungry and ate several tins of the terrible ham and lima beans (‘ham and mothers’) that everyone hated… That night another soldier, Tanner, was supposed to wake me for guard duty but he did not follow the procedure to make sure I was awake. I do not remember him trying, although he said he did. We both got into big trouble even though we were both still in a state of shock… I had seen action both before and many, many times after that episode. I killed enemy soldiers and saved one or two of our own. I was even accused on at least one occasion of acting like ‘John Wayne’ when I had ran forward at the enemy firing at will, even when they were probably already dead. In don’t know. Several times I found myself getting very angry instead of very scared.”
“A week later new recruits arrived and now I was an old-timer with my seven weeks of action behind me! I didn’t know who had been wounded, who was dead from among my buddies, and whose bodies I had covered in the ponchos. I got hold of a roster for the platoon from 1966-67 and did not recognize names. To this day that has driven me nuts and I still cannot put faces on the dead. This is apparently a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.). I cannot handle going to the Vietnam Wall Memorial in D.C. and even though I have done a bunch of research and joined the 1st Cav. Association, I still cannot put faces on those names. It’s very weird because I can remember the faces from that movie we watched. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary for 1967 and I have a copy I got from Amazon on-line. I would like to go to one of the reunions of our platoon but haven’t managed it yet.”
“I had miraculous luck during the remainder of my year in Vietnam. I was very close to being killed on several occasions during the many firefights and skirmishes I was involved in. I have a hard time talking about those later incidents because of what they call ‘survivors guilt’. I really wish I had been in that battle in April so that I could have helped my buddies, even if it had meant being killed… I was helped to get through it all by the fact that I often exchanged letters with my Dad. One of my best friends, Tom Brooks, was a great soldier and he made it back too but he had been shot in the spine and was a quadriplegic. He filled in many of the gaps for me regarding the year in-country; I could not remember things too well. He did not settle well back in civilian life and was then diagnosed as bi-polar. Having suspected his wife of having an affair he killed her – shot her ten times and did five years in the penitentiary.”
“I had been on a few half-day passes when I would do a little drinking, and go with prostitutes. It was $4 for a woman. I did that many times – I always thought I might not be alive the next day… Once I was granted a three-day pass because I had shown ‘extra diligence’ when I killed an enemy soldier who was hiding and the rest of the patrol had missed him as we passed through. I spotted him and shot him three times. The third time was in the head and his skull just opened up and his brains fell out. He may have been already dead after the first shot. That was the way it was. The whole experience in Vietnam did have some pluses. I had lots of fun with the guys; you became very tight with your fellow soldiers, an incredible bond develops. It was the adventure of a lifetime despite being on the very edge of my nerves most of the time.”
Tom returned to the States in February 1968, two weeks after the start of the Tet Offensive. He had been on active duty for all but one week of his one-year tour in Vietnam and now spent six months testing weapons on home soil before he was discharged. He received $90 a month on the G.I. Bill and returned to Chabot College to study Geology and Geography. “It was strange to be among a bunch of peace freaks. How could they be saying we had to pull out when there were soldiers surrounded at Khe San? Pull out? Those guys needed all the help they could get. I was surrounded by people who apparently knew more about Vietnam than I did.”
Tom’s best friend from his days in San Lorenzo, Martin Miller, had a brother who had moved to Caspar on the Mendocino Coast and the two of them decided to buy a house in Navarro. Tom visited them a few times with a girlfriend and thought he was in “paradise.” In the spring of 1971 Martin found him a job and Tom moved to the Valley to work on putting in a deer fence on a forty-acre parcel on Guntley Road, owned by realtor Don Hahn. He initially lived in a house nine miles up Greenwood Ridge Road and then worked out a deal with Nick Alexander and realtor T.J. Nelson whereby he would live on some Nash Mill Road property, rent-free for five years.
Tom found work in the Vineyards at both Husch and Edmeades for $2 an hour and “did not run a whorehouse as some claimed I did at the time!” He began to really settle into Valley life and socialized at The Floodgate Store and Beer Bar, becoming tight friends with people such as Wayne Ahrens, Benton Kelly, Willy Roust, and Brad Wiley. “The Floodgate was the social hub where all kinds of Valley folks met, from the loggers to the vineyard workers. Sam and Marguerite Avery owned it and I became good friends with their son, Bernard. By 1969 I had really begun to drink heavily, mostly beer but with a double vodka Collins to follow – two of them actually. The bartenders thought I had someone coming to join me but they were both for me. On the bright side I was a very mellow drunk, happy even, and certainly not a slob or obnoxious. However, by 1973 I was a full blown alcoholic.”
“I played baseball in the Valley’s league that was quite a big scene here from the early seventies to around 1981. Our team was The Clams and I remember that the Mexican guys had a team called The Diablo’s. I loved it and it seemed that many others in the community did too. I played with or against the Waggoner boys, Wayne Ahrens, Brad Wiley, Bob Humphries, Bruce Anderson, Harold Perry and his son, Butch Paula, the Rossi’s, the Pronsolino’s, the Pardini’s, the Summit’s, the Bloyd’s, Keith Squires, Ken Montgomery, Fritz Ohm; it seems like everyone played in those days and it was great time… Meanwhile, Martin had told me that there were no girls here and at first sight the scene was quite pathetic I must say but over the years I did have quite a few girlfriends and fell in love a couple of times… I found work planting trees for Masonite for $3.50 an hour or 5 cents a tree so I quit the vineyards and went to work for Gary Womack who was a great boss. My goal was to earn $100 a day and I found out that it could be done.”
For a time Tom lived with a girlfriend in a tent a couple of miles back in the woods off Flynn Creek Road and then he built a home on a flat bed trailer that became known as ‘The English Hotel’ among friends. He had his own crew of tree planters but eventually left Masonite and formed his own business called Red Dog Reforestation, making fire trails, burning them in the fall, and planting in the winter. In 1975 he was swimming and diving in the river with Mickey Bloyd when he broke his neck at the Stump Hole on the Navarro River. “I knew something was wrong but I went to work the next day and it wasn’t until I fell down a few times, collapsing like a rag doll, that I had it checked out and found out the news… I quit the tree planting business in 1980 to work for Brad Wiley on his property doing various odd jobs, fencing, vineyard work, etc. and I lived on the property too, but then in 1981 I slipped and fell when getting into my truck and broke my neck again. This time I was paralyzed.”
It took one-and-a-half years of rehabilitation this time for Tom to recover and he also stopped drinking for good during that period. “I had been dating Clare Walker, a Georgia girl, and we were pretty serious so when she told me in the hospital that she would live with a paraplegic but not an alcoholic, I listened. I knew she was serious; it was not a false threat. It was what I needed to hear. Friends had said I was getting out of control and I did not want to be that drunken crippled guy in the corner of the bar. I was still only thirty-three and I decided to give it my best shot. I have not had a drink since, and that was twenty-nine years ago.”
In more recent times Tom has enjoyed some of the best times of his life when he went halibut fishing in Alaska with friends, homesteading about six hours from anywhere by boat. He would plant trees in the off-season and then return to Alaska, doing this for a couple of years in succession. He bought property in the Valley in 1987 and over the next few years a house was built, he and Clare finally moving in sometime in 1991. Socially in recent years he has continued to play poker with a group of local guys that includes Bill Meyers, Bill and Cathy Cook, Tom Smith, Steve Woods, Mitch Mendosa, Kyle Clark, Sarah Cornsweet, and J.R. and Jeanie Collins. He also remains in regular contact with several of his oldest friends from their days in San Lorenzo, “My guys” as he calls them. He and Clare live a quiet life but have the two dogs that he hopes will perhaps get to work on some sheep in the near future.
“I love the springtime here in the Valley. I think the people of the Valley are also a very special group. I am still in love with this place and even though Hwy 128 is more crowded, I still have many positive emotions about the Valley… I don’t like the whole methamphetamine scene that seems to be getting worse. It is so sad to see the affect of that drug on people. I am also saddened by the loss of our logging industry but we simply do not have enough trees to support it.”
I asked Tom for his responses to some of the issues confronting people in the Valley… The wineries? – “I am fine with them although I do worry about the water use in the long term”… The A.V.A newspaper? – “I think it is much improved in recent years. I have always read it but Bruce is doing a better job than he used to”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – I don’t listen to it very much”… Marijuana in the Valley? – “I am afraid that high school kids will seen it as the way they can make a decent living – just like some college kids mistakenly see playing internet poker as their way to make a fortune”…
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself many months ago. I have also recently added a few more new questions and hopefully you will find Tom’s answers interesting and illuminating…
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “When Clare gets home; an improvement in my dog’s behavior after training; a ripe tomato from our garden.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “When noise made by others affects me, especially loud music.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “Trickling water in a stream; the sound of thunder, although it sometimes scares the dogs; an M16 assault rifle firing on fully automatic.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Excessive bass music from a car or house.”
What is your favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? – “Venison and mashed potatoes.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? – “Teddy Roosevelt – the outdoors President. I’d love to hear first hand tales of his many adventures in Yosemite and the Amazon.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “A comfortable mattress; a great set of sun protection clothes and gear – I’m a red-head remember; and a kite to fly.”
Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The film and book would be ‘The Hustler’ – the movie starred Paul Newman and featured the great line, ‘The greatest American pastime is feeling sorry for yourself’… As for a song, perhaps ‘Voodoo Child’ by Hendrix.”
What is your favorite hobby? – “Flying kites, snorkeling, and I used to love fishing for Steelhead on the Navarro – can’t do that anymore.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? – “A salmon fishing guide in Alaska.”
What profession would you not like to do or are glad never to have done? – “A janitor.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Getting married to Clare – I never thought I’d get married… Halibut fishing in Alaska with my buddy Dave Miller.”
What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “Losing friends and dogs… Or that poker night when I had a full house but Gail Meyer’s mother had four threes – everyone else thought it was very funny!”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I can rebound pretty well to life’s adversities although sometimes that is a bad thing when something needs to be let go.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “He might say ‘I thought for sure I had you a couple of times earlier. I knew you’d make it eventually so now enjoy your stay’. Yes, that would be good.”

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 11:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jim Gowan – April 9th, 2010

I met with Jim at his home on Hwy 18 near to the Gowan Oak Tree fruit stand north of Philo. His wife of almost sixty-four years, Jo, joined us for our chat as Jim has a hard time hearing these days and perhaps she would also be able to “fill in some of the blanks”…
Jim was born in 1924 in Anderson Valley, with his family living in a house behind where the fruit stand now sits at that time. He is the youngest of five with three older sisters (Lucille, Bernice, and Mary) and one older brother (George), who have all now passed. “I was the spoiled baby!” he claims with a glint in his eye. Jim’s father, Cecil Gowan, came from an old farming family and was a young boy of about twelve when they moved to the Valley in 1902 from Wisconsin. Jim’s paternal grandfather, George, raised cows and other livestock here in the Valley and lived on property where the Farm Supply now stands. They first planted apple orchards in 1910. The family of Jim’s mother, Alice Studebaker, who was born in the Valley, had arrived here in 1876 in covered wagons and settled on forty acres they bought from the Nunn family behind where the Scharffenberger Winery now sits in Philo. “They had come here from Boonville, Missouri, and because they had been here for some time and were a family of inventors before they became farmers, they thought they were something special and may be looked down on the Gowan’s when they arrived. They had invented the special wheelbarrow that is used in mining.”
From 1st through 8th grade, Jim attended the Shield Schoolhouse, just a short way north from his home on Hwy 128 as it became known, with about a dozen other kids, one of them, young Hegermann, walking five miles there each way from his house on the Greenwood Road. Jim’s parents had also gone to there and had been school sweethearts. Jim enjoyed his school years, particular music and he played the baritone horn. He went to high school in Boonville at the location next to where the current elementary school now sits and among his contemporaries were Ray Pinoli, Bob Burger, Emil Rossi, Katherine Nobles, Bill Presley and Marilyn Tindall, these last two getting married at some point. “I played in the school band and really enjoyed being in the F.F.A. (Future Farmer’s of America) classes. My main project was raising pigs. I never penned them up but because I fed them so well they never went too far away.”
“Growing up on the farm meant that doing chores were just a part of every day life, and an important part of sustaining life too. I’d pick apples – timing myself for every bag I collected so that I could get faster, and I’d collect wood from what is now Hendy Woods – mainly the ‘widow-makers’ as we call them, the low dead branches on Redwood trees that can kill you if they break off, fall, and catch you. I would haul these out of the woods to use in the apple dryer on our property. Daniel Studebaker was the first peddler around here, taking the fruit and vegetables out of the Valley to the coast – Point Arena, Mendocino, Ft. Bragg. Then when transportation increased and more people began to drive through the Valley after the Second World War we eventually opened the Gowan Oak Tree fruit stand there on Hwy 128 at the side of the road. In those days we’d leave a coffee tin and trust people to pay for what they helped themselves to – apples, berries, peaches, cherries, vegetables, corn, tomatoes, etc. We did that for many years, until the seventies, I believe, but then some of the hippies who had come here thought they had the right to take what they wanted without paying – because it was all “God’s food for everyone” was their argument. My mother did not like that and was upset that they did it. We stopped that ‘trust’ method for a few years but did go back to it later.”
The dry fruit business began to die out in the forties and the Gowan’s started to sell fresh fruit wholesale to different outlets. “The Valley was very different in those days. Apple and fruit trees were everywhere and there were thousands of sheep – of course you could kill coyotes back them so your sheep had a chance of surviving. It’s very hard now. We would hunt for food to eat and fish for trout on the Navarro River. My mother loved trout and my Dad would get her some really big ones for breakfast and lunch. There’s no trout there now of course, and if any fish are caught it’s all ‘catch and release’ so that kills them anyway. I wasn’t much of a hunter really. I was more of a trapper – skunks and raccoons – and then I’d sell the fur. That was my spending money. It was a simple life – chores, school, my F.F.A. project, more chores. I think I got $1 a day for chores and more if I sold a fur.”
Jim graduated from high school in 1942 and stayed around for a time working for his Dad. Then he decided he wanted to “serve his country” even though he had been given a deferment due to his work in agriculture. “I signed up for the Army Air Force to become an aerial gunnery instructor. I would show these young city kids how to shoot guns – they knew nothing about that, and sometimes that would scare you to death with their lack of caution. I was in boot camp in Amarillo, Texas and caught pneumonia there. Winters in that part of Texas are very severe and I nearly died. They say ‘you can never get out of the wind in Amarillo.’ It didn’t help that they used sulphur in the treatment and found out later that I was allergic to it… During training I was moved around and spent time in Malden, Missouri, then Laredo, Texas, and then I spent three months on guard in the White Sands of Alamogordo, New Mexico. We had no idea why we were there guarding this wide open space but we were told to shoot anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Turns out it was the sight where they were building the atomic bomb.”
Jim was sent to Albuquerque to teach new recruits. His friend was dating a local girl and they set up a blind date for Jim with her friend Jo (Josephine Hackley) another local girl who was in attending the Cadet Nursing School. “The other couple left after five minutes and we spent a couple of hours at the amusement park together. We arranged a second date but I cancelled it, telling her I had to fly a plane. I didn’t really and went into town on the bus but when it dropped me off by the movie house there she was, standing in line right there in front of me. Boy, was I embarrassed. Anyway we started dating and it turned out the best thing I got out of my service was this girl!”
Jim was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina to the Overseas Replacement Center but just before he was to go overseas the war ended. “They asked for volunteers to join the Army of Occupation but I decided to stay and moved to San Antonio, Texas to work in the Army Discharge Center dealing with discharge papers for the soldiers. My name and that of a friend somehow ‘appeared’ near the top of the list! We were caught but they let us leave anyway.”
In March 1946, he brought Jo and her girlfriend to his home in Anderson Valley to meet his folks. “They approved and I took Jo for a walk in Hendy Woods. She was in shorts and of course there was lots of poison oak and berry briars. She left the next day to se her mother in Fresno and a week later she called to say she had weeping sores all over. She came back here and she looked so bad. I felt so sorry for her. I had to marry her! She went back home and I told her I could get a job near her home but I really wanted to stay here and work with my Dad. Jo knew this and told me to come and get her. She would move here and give up her nursing career. Her mother had told her she could not marry a ‘soldier boy’ because she had done that herself and had seen what we are like, I guess. I went to get her from New Mexico and we got married on the way back in a little chapel in Vegas on May 23rd, 1946.”
Jim and Jo lived with his parents for a couple of years and he worked with his Dad. “I just loved to farm the land. Jo was an outdoor girl and she followed me around helping where she could – she could out-pick many of the guys.” In 1947 the first of their seven children, Cecil, was born. He was followed roughly every couple of years by another – Henry, Raymond, Carl, Vivien, Grace, and then, after six more years, Don in 1962. They have twenty-three grandchildren, “about” thirty great grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren. (Meanwhile, on Jim’s mother’s side, with no sons been born for a couple of generations, the Studebaker name has now died out here in the Valley).
Jim’s parents liked having the young family around the house for a time but as it increased in number they needed more space and so they moved to another house on the property, eventually building a new home, in which they live today at the same spot, in 1961/62. “We had six kids and another on the way, with just two bedrooms. My Dad said, ‘Get this finished’ and we did. My mother bought us a dryer to deal with all the laundry we had each day.” Jim went into partnership with his parents and in 1948 they began to ship fresh apples to San Francisco as the dry fruit business dropped off. “We took them down to the City in an army surplus truck. We then built the first fruit stand in 1950, right where it is today. My Dad said it was way too big but it has been enlarged three times since then! The timber industry was booming and we employed the mill workers’ wives as pickers. They were very good and much more dependable than the men.”
The timber industry was already dropping off by the late fifties and some people returned to the southwest. Gowan Orchards was doing well and the sixties were very busy. In 1965 they brought in their first Mexican workers but the day-to day employees were not very reliable. “If those guys were paid they’d get drunk that night and not come back to work the next day. These guys were sent by the Employment Board, which was of little help. We found better workers through referrals from other apple farms, the Sanchez and Espinosa families being among the first – great workers. Vidal Espinosa is still with us. In those days some workers did not like working with those from a different part of Mexico but it’s much better now.” By the seventies the apple industry was in trouble. The first wineries arrived and began to take over the Valley. In the early eighties the wine boom really affected the apple production here in the Valley with just the Schoenahl’s (in the Boonville area and a little way to the north) and the Gowan’s (in and around Philo) surviving amongst the old businesses.
Over the years Jim and Jo have enjoyed a full-life when not working in the orchards. For many years they were in the ‘Redwood Squares’, a square-dancing club that used to meet at The Grange twice a week and they also frequently got together with friends for card evenings. “Our social group included people like the Ingram’s, the Tuttle’s, the Clow’s – Jack and Kay and Bud and Eleanor. We would play canasta and pinochle on our card nights – they was great times… For many years while our kids went through school we were always involved with their activities there. I was a member of the Farm Bureau and on the board for a time, and we have always attended the Methodist Church in Boonville and got involved with events there too.”
All of the older kids gradually left the area or quit the business as the apple market plummeted. They were losing money so their two hundred acres was reduced to one hundred. It is doing o.k. now. Youngest child, Don, left for college but came back and now takes care of the day-to-day running of the business and the work crews, all of which they try to get from amongst the local population. Daughter Grace runs the Oak Tree stand while Jo still does the books and pays the bills. Jim is the last of his siblings still alive as he enters his 86th year and yet he and Jo, following a bad year of health for both of them in 2009, plan to return to doing the Farmer’s Markets this summer. With the Valley already taken care of by the fruit stand, they go to the markets in Ft. Bragg, Ukiah, and Willits. “Hopefully, with my stomach cancer cleared up, our health will allow us to do it this year. We’ll take apples, apple related products and some asparagus. Other than that we like to go to the Senior Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays for lunch if we can. Jo drives us there and on Thursday we then go over to Ukiah so she can do some banking and pick up any stuff that is needed for the business.”
Jim and Jo have never thought about leaving here although they have enjoyed some traveling over the years, including trips to Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Hawaii, a Caribbean cruise that took them through the Panama Canal, and even a very enjoyable train trip to Florida and back. Jim loves the peace and quiet of Valley life although the gradual loss of the River Navarro is disappointing. “Our favorite place here has always been Hendy Woods and with most of the family being inlanders we used to also love going to the coast for family outings. We’d go out that way most weekends in the summer, to the mouth of the Navarro, or to Alder Creek by Manchester or north of Mendocino and we’d often take family outings to Lake Berryessa in Napa County. We also like to get to San Francisco sometimes and look around the Wharf and watch the Giants at their new stadium.”
I asked Jim for his brief responses to a couple of the Valley issues… The Wineries and their impact? – “One thing I will say is that Roederer, Brutacao, and Navarro Vineyards have all been good neighbors. I do think that some of the owners who don’t live here do not care about the Valley as much as others do”… The A.V.A.? – “We haven’t bought it since the kids were in school. Jo thought some of the language they printed was bad and so we stopped buying it. We read the Ukiah paper sometimes, and watch the television for weather and news”… Changes in the Valley? – “They are going to happen but not always for the better. In the old days you could do whatever you wanted but now there are too many rules and regulations in this business, and life in general, and our independence is slowly being lost.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself many months ago. I have also recently added a few more new questions and hopefully you will find Jim’s answers interesting and illuminating…
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Riding around the ranch, seeing the trees blooming, watching nature work.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Crowds – too many people around bothers me. I also get upset that I can’t hear well… And there’s an old chicken we have back behind the house that really annoys me by always eating the cat food.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “The piano playing at our church in Boonville.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – I guess really shrill noises. Sounds normally don’ bother me though because of my poor hearing…
What is your favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? – “A good hamburger with mashed potatoes and gravy… And fruit of course. My favorite apple out of them all? Well that would be the one that’s at its best that particular week. If I had to choose, I’d go with Golden Delicious.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? – “I’d love to meet up with my Dad again. Maybe Ronald Reagan would be a good one too – he was a bit of a hero to me.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “My watch – I’ve got to know what time it is, not that it would make any difference in this case; a surf net to fish with; and some sort of book about nature or horticulture.
What is your favorite hobby? – “I like to watch game shows on television – to follow the other stuff you have to hear it and I can’t. I enjoy feeding the chickens and cats every day too.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? – ‘Since I was about five or six I have always wanted to be a pilot and fly a plane, either a fighter plane or a bomber.”
What profession would you not like to do or are glad never to have done? – “A doctor.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The day I married Jo.” (At this point Jo explained that she was named Josephine but only her father ever called her that. She was Josie to her mother, and then at school in Albuquerque, where there were no boys, just thirteen girls, some of them altered their girl’s names to sound like boy’s names for fun – ‘there was a Billie and a Lee, and others. I became Jo).
What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “The loss of each of my parents. I was very close to my Dad particularly. I came back to the Valley after the war to specifically work beside him and be with him.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I try to treat everybody the same, regardless of their race or class, etc. We are all created equal and I try to live by that.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I guess, ‘Welcome Jim’ would be a good thing to hear.”

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 12:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Bruce McEwen – April 2nd, 2010

As the torrential rain bombarded downtown Boonville, I met up with Bruce at the property he shares with the A.V.A.’s Bruce Anderson (part-time) and Mark Scaramella on Hwy 128 on the south side of town. He provided me with some hot chocolate with a hint of schnapps and we sat down to chat in front of the roaring fire…
Bruce was born on 9th, January 1952 (“the same birthday as Richard Nixon”) in a town called Panguitch, in the canyon lands of southern Utah. His parents were Eugene McEwen and Betty Dickinson and he was the middle one of three boys. “My father’s side had come over from Ireland via Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. They had been converted to Mormonism and the church had paid for the trip. They then joined the Mormon trek across country and settled in Utah. My mother’s family were from northern England and they too settled in Utah but this was later, around 1900 or so.”
Bruce’s father had been a Sherman tank commander in World War 2 and had fought in the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded, severely damaging his left foot. In 1954, when Bruce was just two years old, he was sitting in his truck at some railway racks waiting for a freight train to pass when, it is thought, this crippled left foot slipped off the clutch and the truck lurched forward and was hit by the train. He was killed instantly. From that time forward Bruce’s mother slipped into a depression and his memory of her is of a woman with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders sitting in front of the fire for hours on end, occasionally “swearing like a sailor.”
Apart from occasional visits, Bruce lost touch with the McEwen side of the family at that time and was mostly raised amongst the Dickenson’s by his Grandmother who had ten children. “We lived in a place called ‘Fairview’ – the Mormons called every place ‘Fairview’ it seemed to me – which is just seven miles from the famed Bryce Canyon National Park, where my younger brother, Steven, currently works. My Grandfather Dickinson had been an extra in a movies about a sheepdog called ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ and the star of the film, the dog, had some offspring, one of which my grandfather got for me. That was Boots, my first dog and I’ll never forget him. We went through toilet training together. However, I just got scolded when I messed up; I never had my nose rubbed in it like poor Boots, thankfully!”
Everyone in the town was Mormon and the religion was taught at his elementary and high school every day, playing a big part in Bruce’s upbringing. “Everyone in our family would congregate at my Grandmother’s house. I just loved being outside romping in the canyons and would frequently miss school and spend all day out there with just a biscuit and an onion to eat. At one point I was tied to the clothesline in the yard to stop me from running away. My mother wasn’t really able to raise me at all. Then she married a mean, horrendous drunk when I was about ten. We did not like each other. As I mentioned, I missed a lot of school although I did quite like it when I was there. It was just that I preferred being outside. I was a quiet kid, an average student with B’s and C’s but I was a good reader and liked English, where my aunt was the teacher and greatly encouraged me. I remember hearing several teachers say to my parents that ‘Bruce can do it, he just won’t.’ I skipped church often too so I was in trouble with the teachers and the bishop but never with the law, I can say. My stepfather and I had a few fist fights on the front lawn and at fourteen I left home to live with my Aunt and Uncle in San Diego.”
The Mormon religion continued to play a part in Bruce’s life as he attended a Mormon Seminary every day before regular school. However, his lifestyle had changed as he hung out with a friend from a very wealthy family who had horses and the two of them would ride out on hunting trips (mainly shooting rabbits) and playing at being cowboys. “For the first time in my life I was exposed to sailing, abalone diving, surfers, and hippies. I was in the Boy Scouts, which had a link to the Mormon Church, and my Uncle was the scoutmaster’s assistant. We lived in a trailer park near to the beach and my uncle was a civil servant at nearby Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Two of my uncles and one of my aunts had been in the Marines in the War and I started to think about that as a career.”
After two years however, Bruce’s mother wanted to try and be a family again and so he returned to Utah in 1968. “After San Diego that was hard and life at home in the house with the ‘old man’, as we called him, was very tough. I loved southern Utah in many ways but I knew I’d leave as soon as I could. I did my final year at high school and with my cousin Joe already in Vietnam I decided to follow his lead and went to Camp Pendleton to join the Marines. Like many other seventeen year olds at the time I was gung ho about the war. I was going to go to war and come back with medals and decorations. I had also seen a film about a soldier in World War 2 who had written a book about his experiences in war and thought maybe I would do that. That was my contingency plan – it would make for a great story I thought.”
While in camp Bruce met and married Nancy Steinberg from upstate New York and in 1970 he was flown to Okinawa on the way to Vietnam. Upon landing he and another soldier were taken off the plane. “It was at a time when a lot of noise was being made about the young age of some soldiers and we were both just seventeen. Most of the rest of them were probably older, and they were nearly all black. We never were told the reasoning and I imagine quite a few of them are now on the Wall.” (The Vietnam Memorial).
Bruce spent the next thirteen months on Okinawa shipping wreckage out to sea, “We would get all the damaged trucks and equipment delivered to the port, put it on barges, and it would be dumped in the South China Sea. Most of the trucks had the Army’s white star insignia on the side – a great target it seemed. The marines had unmarked trucks – a very smart move… I also pulled duty as a ‘chaser’ in that time, wearing an armband and carrying a nightstick and escorting soldiers to court-martials. One kid, the smallest marine in the company, was accused of killing a sergeant major with a knife. I was in court with him every day – my first experience of a court – and I envied the journalists who were there, in their khaki trousers and white shirts and talking about which bar they would drink in that evening. ‘That’s the life for me’, I thought. Anyway, nobody could possibly think this little kid could have killed this huge baboon of a sergeant major and he was acquitted. His name is not on the Wall so I guess he made it.”
Bruce returned to Camp Pendleton in October 1971 and for the first time saw his daughter, Sherry McEwen, who had been born in May 1971 when he was stationed in Okinawa. They found an apartment and for a very short time all was well. “I had relatives all around me there, apart from my immediate family. I had bought a VW Super Beetle before leaving for the war and had driven it once. On my return I discovered that my wife and some guy had driven all over the country in it and had had an affair. I was no prince either and had visited whorehouses overseas but following my return at some point she had traded my car for a Chevy Vega, the worst car ever made, and this bugged me so much that I couldn’t get over it and I divorced her – not because of the affair but because she got rid of my car!” However, this was not before she got pregnant again and they had another daughter, Johanna McEwen, born in 1972. “I have stayed in touch by phone and through letters but I was always behind in child support due to my iffy attitude to work. I do have a good relationship with my daughters but I’ve never been any kind of a model father.” (Bruce is a grandfather now – daughter Sherry is in Montana with three boys, while Johanna is in South Dakota with a boy and a girl).
Bruce was now out of the Marines and he returned to Utah to find that the hippies had moved in to the region. “My cousin Joe was also back from Vietnam and he had been made sheriff deputy and we went to check out the hippy encampment together. We walked up to some of them all stern and asked if they had any dope on them. They said no and my cousin replied, ‘Well I do’ and we sat down with them and not long after we had moved in on the camp. For a time we lived like Indians out there in the desert, shooting rabbits and deer, doing lots of fishing, and poaching, but the rednecks took exception to our activities and we were forced to move on. Our ‘tribe’ of about thirty people moved on to Colorado, then settled in the Flathead Valley of Montana.”
Bruce found work as a maintenance man at a Youth Camp while his girlfriend at the time was a waitress. “It was a stunningly beautiful place, just overrun with wildlife. We were close to the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness area – two of the biggest wilderness regions in the country. I explored all over that area on horseback. I guess one of the only decent things the ‘Old Man’ did was to get me a horse. I should thank him for that. It was the happiest day of my life when I got on that horse and I have loved them ever since. I held various wrangling jobs on ranches and generally had a wonderful time for a few years, living in a cabin and having a boat on the lake.”
By the late seventies, the Flathead Valley had been ‘discovered.’ “The rich found it and soon fantastic houses and palaces appeared. Once again, and not for the last time either, the rich had followed the hippies and changed everything for the worse. It became very expensive with the likes of Tom Selleck moving in; Jim Nabors too – I bought his fridge for $50 in fact. Yes, I owned Gomer Pyle’s fridge and being an ex-Marine it meant a lot to me!” In 1978 Bruce decided he wanted to go to college and took some classes at Flathead Valley Community College before going to the University of Montana in Missoula in 1980. “My major was anthropology with a minor in journalism, which I grew to prefer. However, I didn’t study well and was only a part-time student by my second year. I preferred to pursue my own interests and not those required by the course and ultimately failed to graduate.”
In 1982, Bruce moved to southern California and found a job working for ‘Ranch and Coast’ magazine – “a slick regional for the affluent, about horses, sailing, and the things rich people do. I covered various related events such as the America’s Cup, etc. I lived in Encinitas in north San Diego County, and both of my daughters were nearby so that worked out well. For one issue they needed a young girl for some story so I put forward Sherry and she appeared on the front cover – Johanna never forgave me for that. Then the publisher had a nervous breakdown and was bought out with the result that the new ownership fired everyone and the very next issue came out with a different focus and with sexy sitcom actress Loni Anderson on the cover!… I wrote to the new people about my displeasure about what had taken place and they gave me my job back but it only lasted a further year before we were all laid off again.”
In 1983, the original editor of ‘Ranch and Coast’ called and offered Bruce a job with ‘Guns’ magazine, which he gratefully accepted. “I like guns well enough but my co-workers and the readership were very redneck. Besides I didn’t really get to write much, spending my time editing and reviewing this semi-technical stuff. It was a fairly boring and dull magazine to me so I quit after a few months and returned to Montana… I worked briefly for the ‘Missoula Muse’ newspaper and then in 1984 I started my own magazine with a business partner, Lynette Waller – ‘The Flathead Valley Leisure Review.’ This was a weekly arts and leisure tabloid covering the region’s skiing, hiking, fishing, and hunting activities. I employed a stable of writers from the community college and we’d also cover openings at galleries, playhouses, restaurant reviews, movie reviews, and I did the book reviews myself.”
“I had been dating a girl for some time, Becky, and we almost got married but we had a big falling out and it never happened. Then I met up with Lynette, a sweetheart from college, and after we got the paper going we started to date. However the paper struggled and I worked on a horse ranch for a rich guy to supplement our earnings. In 1986, after two years, Lynette and I split up and the paper failed when we couldn’t sell enough ads and then we lost a court battle over a copyright issue regarding some photographs.”
Bruce found a series of jobs in construction which he did not enjoy and then returned to San Diego and spent some time with his kids. There was little work so he headed north, passing through Anderson Valley at some point, although it did not really register with him on his way back to Montana once again. “I was kinda lost and did lots of shitty jobs before making my way back to southern Utah and getting a job for a couple of years as City Editor at ‘The Color County Spectrum’, the daily newspaper in St. George. They tolerated me there. They didn’t like my politics and the final straw came when I bumped the Tiananmen Square story off the front page and replaced it with the news of Edward Abbey’s death – the environmentalist and a hero of mine. I was told they would fire me but I didn’t care. I wrote the piece, put it on the front page on this right-wing nutball newspaper…and they canned my ass.”
For a time Bruce worked on and off in a pasta restaurant for a friend as a waiter and prep cook and then in 1990 he opened his own Montana Pasta House in Hot Springs. “Once again it was something that lasted about two years. I was sleeping with one of the waitresses and she was sleeping with other people too. We fell out and she sued for half of the restaurant. She had already driven most of the customers away so I just told her she could have it all and in 1992 I returned to Utah to live in a place called Torrey, near to the Capitol Reef National Park. There I started to work both at a restaurant and in construction for a few years and at one point began to date a woman called Erica Larsen. Eventually we married in 1999 but it only lasted a year. In the years between 1992 and 2000 I continued to spend time in Utah, Montana and California doing a variety of odd jobs; my writing had been on hold for many years. At one point in the nineties I was involved in a car accident and broke my back. I couldn’t work and spent the year in a veterans home.”
In 2000, Bruce and Erica were divorced and he moved to Saratoga, Wyoming where are more hot springs and a tourist scene. He found work on a ranch and lived in a trailer on the North Platte River where he did a lot of fishing. “I spent most of my time with a special friend – Bobba Louis – the best dog I ever had, who I had got as a pup in 1995. She was always with me; a very, very intelligent cattle dog and people in that business offered me lots of money for her but I’d never sell her. A beautiful dog and we were very close. I spent seven years there until, in 2007, with Bobba Louis crippled up to some degree by that time, we came in from the ranch work to live in Cheyenne where I found work as a paint stripper removing lead paint of the buildings at an air force base. I had an apartment in town but with Bobba Louis getting worse and worse I did the right thing and put her down. I was very sad indeed. She had been my best friend for twelve years. I had nothing; my life was empty.”
About twenty years earlier, Bruce had become aware of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, having seen it in places as far away as Albuquerque, Denver, and Salt Lake City. “I had often thought I’d like to work with hose guys. It’s a unique newspaper and thought that the people working there must be really sharp and it became a bit of a daydream to write for it. Following Bobba Louis’ passing, I was not only sad but in a very foul mood and strange state of mind. I grabbed my guitar and a suitcase of my things and started to walk out of town, with a plan to go to Anderson Valley and get a job at the paper. I knew I was never going to fit the mold in Utah. I had not got far when a cop arrested me for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. I was put in jail overnight and then let out on bail, so I left town. I stopped to see my niece and nephews in western Utah and ended up staying for a year. It was a good time in my life, training horses and hanging out with family.”
In the summer of 2008, Bruce headed off once again. He made his way by “hitchhiking with the homeless” to Redway, California where he found a job as a dishwasher and prep cook at a restaurant in nearby Garberville. “I lived in a tent – there are lots of homeless in Redway. I got beat up one day and so I picked up my notebook and satchel and hitchhiked out of town on Christmas Day 2008. I ended up first in Ukiah then in a hospitality house in Ft. Bragg. I called Bruce Anderson from there and he suggested I went to the courthouse and report what was going on. I did and sent in a column to him which he printed it and it was a success. I did this for several months before I met him. I finally moved to Anderson Valley in the summer of 2009 and moved into the garage on the land which Bruce and Mark Scaramella lease in Boonville. I now go to the Ukiah courthouse five days a week on the M.T.A. bus – the most wonderful of commutes, I must say… I love my work and living in this beautiful place. The scenery and low-key nature of this place is very appealing to me. In those ways it is like many of the places I have lived but with a different and far more laid back and liberal attitude. However, I have always liked to go to a bar to meet people and I do miss The Lodge since it closed. Now my social life is at lunchtimes at the Forest Club bar in Ukiah near to the courthouse.”
With Bruce only being here for eight months or so, we did not go into any details about the Valley issues I usually bring up with my guests. However, we did touch very briefly on a couple of them… The wineries? – “I like wine”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “The greatest newspaper in the world”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “It’s the only station I can get but I do like the programs on Saturday mornings”… Law and Order in the Valley? – “I know Deputy Craig Walker and we are fast friends”… Marijuana? – “If it wasn’t around here for me to report on, along with the incidents that are connected to it, then I wouldn’t have a job”…
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself many months ago. I have also recently added a few more new questions and hopefully you will find Bruce’s answers interesting and illuminating…
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Playing my guitar and writing songs.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Being trapped in a conversation with a bore on a bus, or anywhere for that matter.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “A good cracking thunderstorm.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Lawn mowers and weed-eaters. Let the stuff grow. It’s beautiful if you leave it alone; only cute if you mow it.”
What is your favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? – “Brown rice with a bottle of Mosel (German wine).”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? – “Alexander Cockburn – political journalist and A.V.A. contributor. I’ve always admired his work. He is the epitome of good journalism.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “My guitar, some reading material, and a case of wine.”
Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “I have to say ‘Brownsville Girl’ by Bob Dylan; the book ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry; and the movie ‘High Noon’ starring Gary Cooper.”
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I like to say ‘Keep the Faith’.”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Oh, all the usual ones – ‘Have a nice day’, etc.. And of course ‘last call’ is never nice to hear.”
What is your favorite hobby? – Hiking… It used to be horseback riding but since my accident I rarely do it.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? – “When the rich are finally brought to justice and are to be punished, I would like to be the guy who releases the blade on the guillotine and to add some smart-ass remark as I let it fall.”
What profession would you not like to do or are glad never to have done? – “Burning the shit in the toilets when I was in the Marines.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “As I mentioned – the day I rode that first wild horse.”
What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “The day I put Bobba Louis down.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I have a good sense of humor and that I believe that I can write quite well – I am very proud of that.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well, as Bobba Louis lasted longer than any of my wives or jobs, it would be good if he said, ‘Dude, is this your dog?’ Of course it will be Bobba Louis sitting there, wagging her tail, and heaven to me will be if we walk off together on a trail through the celestial ash.”

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 4:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kurt Schoeneman – March 26th, 2010

I drove to the Schoeneman place at what is known as Ferrington Vineyards just north of Boonville on the east side of Hwy 128. I received a cup of coffee and cookies and we sat down to chat.
Kurt was born in Oakland, California in 1941, the oldest of five children (three boys and two girls) born to Fred Schoeneman and Geraldine Clark. “ My father was born in 1910, also in Oakland, with a German father and English/Irish mother. His great grandfather had come over to the States in 1851 from Germany where he had been a surgical toolmaker. They had arrived in New Orleans where he jumped ship and came to San Francisco and then headed to Virginia City, Nevada where the Comstock Lode had been found and he began silver-mining there, eventually using his skills to become the gunsmith at the camp. He returned to San Francisco to open a sporting goods shop on Kearney Street and also bought a hotel and vineyard in San Rafael in 1890. “My grandfather worked for Wells Fargo and later in the insurance business and my father attended Berkeley at sixteen before transferring to Hastings Law School. He passed the bar and was a practicing lawyer at twenty-one.”
Kurt’s mother was also born in Oakland to parents of English descent, one of who had been a lady-in-waiting to the Queen (Victoria). Her grandfather had come over to this country and settled in Salt Lake City although they were not Mormons. “He started a small newspaper and at one point upset the Mormon community with some things he printed and they had to leave, quickly.” The family was hit by the Depression and Geraldine did not go to college and went to secretarial school, which was all they could afford. She and Fred met at his law office where she was a secretary and after a long engagement of four years they were married in 1939. “My Dad did not want to get married until he could put aside a certain amount of money each month – $150. There were lots of new labor laws introduced at that time and he specialized in this area, representing Safeway, Lucky, and other such stores. However, he hung out with the union guys a lot and felt he could see both sides and bring them together for a settlement. He was 6’6” and quite a presence. He was always well dressed and a man’s man. He liked to drink at lunchtimes when at work. His talent was deal-making.”
The family moved from Oakland to Piedmont in the forties and that is where Kurt attended junior high and high school. For many years they would take off in the family car, a ’47 Desoto Suburban, every summer for Healdsburg and stay at cabins there all summer long, with Fred joining them for weekends. It was a resort area for blue-collar workers from San Francisco but Fred preferred that to the more middle class scene at Tahoe.
“We played outside all day long and were tough kids, running and falling all over the place. My mother would sunbathe while Dad listened to baseball on the radio. He liked sports and would take me to the Oakland Oaks games – it was before the A’s arrived. I was not an athlete myself. I was a nerd, reading science fiction and science books in general. I did not like school and at one point I was told I would probably not graduate so I did what I had to do and in 1959 graduated 6th in my class – 6th from bottom that is!”
Kurt had spent a few months working in the summer in Grass Valley for the California Department of Forestry but by the fall of 1959 he had decided to join the army. “My parents were fine with this and gave their permission, which was needed as I was only seventeen. I wanted to get out of where I was. The family thought I was a failure. I joined the Army Security Agency (A.S.A.), an arm of the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) and began work as a code-breaker – it was a good fit as it turned out. It was the time of great tension in the Cold War and we were making a huge effort in the field of electronic intelligence. The agency grew into a monster, using the military to do all the work. After training I was sent to Korea for thirteen months, then six months in Japan, then in 1962 to Vietnam to monitor the communications of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. There were supposed to be just 680 American military personnel there at that time and I was the 683rd so I could not wear a uniform. I went out and bought a Hawaiian shirt and carried my passport everywhere as if I was a tourist. I even arrived there on an Air France jet. This was great considering the troopship I was on to get to Korea had been the worst experience of my life!”
Kurt was sent to a South Vietnamese military base. “It was terrible with mosquito-ridden tents and a real shit-hole. My buddy, a few years older than me, suggested we got out of there so we flagged down a taxi and went into Saigon where we found a hotel room. A few days later we began to rent a room for $35 a month in an old French Hotel with a rooftop garden restaurant and bar. It was a nice place with wonderful French/Asian food. For an extra $11 we got our dinners for a month. I didn’t really do anything, as nobody in the army seemed to know where I was. I was getting paid $105 a month plus $16 per day for expenses and managed to do this for four months. Eventually a friend of mine in the personnel department told me that they were going to do an audit so I showed up for duty as a code-breaker and began listening in on the ‘enemy’. Nobody said a word about my absence. In those few months the U.S. presence had grown to 10,000 soldiers. My buddy and I set up a bar for the troops, buying the beer from the PX (post exchange) and marking it up in price slightly. It was the first place the arriving soldiers passed so we did well. We also set up a currency exchange and a motorbike rental business. My Dad had told me that he would match whatever money I sent home and put it into an account for me. One month I sent $3000 home and he said he certainly wasn’t going to match that – you could get a nice Volkswagen for $1600! My buddy was the ringleader, without him I wouldn’t have done any of these things and would lived in the tent being bitten by mosquitoes.”
On his return to the U.S. Kurt spent six months in Petaluma at an A.S.A. facility. “It was top secret and we concentrated on listening to Soviet Sputniks in space via the 1000 antennas we had there. We were always on alert it seemed and at one point everyone received yellow fever shots in case we had to go to Cuba. We were trying to persuade the Soviets that we meant business. It was fascinating, exciting and I enjoyed my time there.”
In 1963, Kurt left the army and went to Oakland City Junior College for a year where he was in a class with Huey Newton of Black Panther fame. He studied Physics but one year was enough for him and he left and found jobs as a truck driver for a couple of years, first delivering packages and later meat to restaurants. “I still had money from Vietnam and in 1966 I bought an apartment building in Oakland. It was great move and soon I bought more and went into real estate sales. My business partner, Jack, a buddy from high school, was married to an Australian girl, Lynn, and sometime in 1968 they introduced me to a friend of hers from school, Heather. I liked her immediately and when she used the word ‘internecine’ in casual conversation as we had dinner in Sausalito and then proceeded to order these dishes I had never heard of, I was besotted. For a couple weeks I courted her around town in my 356 Porsche convertible… Heather returned to Australia but soon visited again, this time with her mother. We fell in love and a few months later I went to Australia and we were married in Sydney. We returned to California and moved into an apartment in one of my buildings in Oakland. It was a rough neighborhood and I carried a gun in my pocket when I collected the rent.”
In 1974, Kurt graduated with a law degree from Armstrong College in Berkeley, an un-credited school – “if your check to pay for the classes cleared, then you were in. We studied torts, criminal law, and contract law and after one year took what they called the ‘Baby Bar’ exam. Of the sixty-one students only seven passed and eventually only four of us graduated with our law degrees. My Dad had died in 1972 at only sixty-two and I thought I might as well do the law thing for him although while part of me liked the law I had trouble managing myself in practice so ultimately I made the decision to remain in real estate.”
During the early seventies, Heather and Kurt had their three children – Sarah, Fred, and Douglas. “Sarah is doing a great job in real estate and will be getting married this summer; Fred is still not sure exactly what he is going to end up doing having been an Airborne Ranger for over four years – those guys are crazy. They have to be to do the stuff they do, often behind enemy lines; and Douglas recently spent fourteen months in Iraq in the Civil Affairs Unit where he basically ‘paid off the sheikhs’ and at one point was in an armored personnel vehicle that was hit by a bomb resulting in severe wounds for two of the four soldiers inside but not Douglas. He is now at Hastings Law School and has married a girl from India, Archana, and they have a sixteen-month old son – our first grandchild, Rohan. They all give me a lot of joy.”
During the seventies Kurt continued to buy and fix up buildings in Oakland and then began to convert some into condominiums. “It was a very lucrative business I must say. It was risky and I’d never do it again but it was the right time. There were many legal actions being taken against others doing this but we were never sued once. We did it right and made an awful lot of money.” In 1981, Kurt sold off most of his holdings, keeping the house in Tahoe that he had bought, and the family moved to Australia, figuring it to be a permanent move at the time. “It was a nice place but not the most welcoming. It was a time when I really became interested in farming and was tempted to invest in a huge cattle ranch. It was one hundred miles by hundred miles, with twenty-eight houses, twenty five thousand head of cattle – all for $5 million. Jesus God, that’s value, but in the end I didn’t have the money. After a year and a half we returned to Oakland and shortly afterwards Heather and I split up and she took the kids to live at the Tahoe house. It was a dreadful time. I would visit them and drive back to the Bay Area crying all the way. We got divorced in 1984 and I threw myself into the development and construction business.”
“Heather and the children moved back to the Bay Area in 1985, settling in Piedmont and the kids would visit me in Oakland in an integrated neighborhood – the only reason it was integrated was because I lived there! In the late eighties I started to buy and rent apartment houses in Berkeley and this was during the time of that town’s many conflicts about rent control. It was crazy and I led the movement to change the system that was being led by these Marxists on the Rent Control Board. Landlords were getting say $75 rent and the apartment was costing them $150 in insurance and taxes. Many of the apartment buildings I worked on to change were owned by the black community and they were being ripped off.”
From 1990 to 1996 Kurt fought the ‘Berkeley Radicals’, as he calls them. “I am not a conservative guy. I am a Democrat in the old-fashioned sense. Those people were awful to deal with, completely intolerable. Finally, I had to move on although progress had been made. I decided it was time to look into country property and my daughter Sarah, as an up-and-coming realtor, found this 160-acre property in Anderson Valley. The realtor Bob Mathias showed us around – it was a wreck of a place owned by a Dr. Richard Ferrington and his wife, Barbara. We went through the damndest of negotiations I’ve ever been involved in but I really wanted the property so I persevered and we finally bought for $960, 000 – a fair price overall I think. We renovated the property thoroughly with new vines and buildings for staff and vineyard workers and we have a lovely home here. I have a vineyard management company running the place although I did take viticulture courses at U.C. Davis so I’d have some idea what was going on.”
Kurt commuted to and from Berkeley until 2002 when he moved to the Valley full-time. He and Heather had begun to date again in 1996 and in 2003 they re-married. “I had been a millionaire in my thirties and did not handle that very well in many ways. We’re talking ass-hole here. Even though I had been a nerd and geeky as a kid, I became very cocky when I started to make money. We lived in a mansion on two acres in Piedmont – our grass-cutting bill was $600 a month and that was in 1975. I once turned $5K into $250K during a ten-month period in the eighties by simply trading commodities, not counting my regular salary etc. I drove flashy cars and behaved in an ostentatious way. The late seventies was a very lucrative yet crazy time for me and I threw my money at any problems. Looking back, I was an ass-hole in many ways and then the divorce really humbled me and made me think about what I’d had and lost… In the late eighties I became involved in the Oakland Boys and Girls Clubs and that really grounded me and they continue to be the charity I support financially the most by far. Getting involved in Oakland and Berkeley politics also helped. Looking back, I guess I just took too long to grow up in some ways. I finally learned some humility and social skills in my late forties. Now I try to take pride in that kind of stuff, finally. I had too much too soon and didn’t handle it terribly well. It was a reflection of my insecurities – now I’m completely well-rounded!” Kurt added with a loud laugh. “Actually I’m more of a semi-crazy old fart.”
“The vineyard has done very well since 2002 and I am blessed with a beautiful property in a beautiful place. I say to myself, ‘Gees, you ass-hole, look what you ended up with – not bad.’ I have Norman and Colleen Kobler, the son of the Koblers who founded Lazy Creek Winery, working the crews every day and they know the business. Then there Paul Ardzrooni doing my vineyard management and he has about six hundred acres in the Valley he looks after. We have about forty acres of Pinot and the other thirty or so are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and thirteen acres of Gewurztraminer. We sell all of our grapes to various wineries.”
“I love it here in the Valley, although the recent closing of The Boonville Lodge hurts! One of the charms of the Valley is the diversity of the people living here – it is unique as far as I know. I love the fact that Hwy 128 is never going to become a freeway and therefore the Valley is not going to get that big and yet I am only two and a half hours from the Bay Area. I would like to see some more small local businesses opening to serve the community, even a Wells Fargo ATM. It would also be nice to replace the terrible broken down buildings at the south end of town on the east side of Hwy 128.”
I now turned to asking Kurt for his opinions on some of the issues confronting Valley folks on a regular basis… The wineries and their impact? – “Yes, it does seem to be a subject of some controversy. Obviously the wineries are the economic backbone of Anderson Valley and it would be a much less viable and interesting place without them. They are a great asset and have a reputation for making wonderful wines. I honestly do not see much of a downside. I really believe that the water issue that many people worry about is bullshit. We fill our ponds every year when it has the least impact – between December and April, not August, and we use about one third of the water used by apples. Maybe we need some historical data on the water levels in the river and how the wineries and apple and marijuana growers have affected it. I believe that our vineyards have no impact whatsoever on the Navarro River”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I subscribe and we love it. I was very happy to see Bruce take it back”… The school system? – “I hope the bond issue passes – the school is a major asset to the Valley. A crappy, broken down school could eventually lead to a crappy broken down Valley”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I like it and listen to the news in the morning and the environmental/solar stuff and the Celtic music.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself many months ago. I have also recently added a few more new questions and hopefully you will find Kurt’s answers interesting and illuminating…
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Seeing my kids achieving things and doing things that make them happy.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The economy – it’s very depressing. And the high unemployment situation is a catastrophe that will have long-term effects. A lot of people have fallen through the cracks and it’s getting ugly. I voted for Obama and think he’s doing o.k. but the health issue should have been dealt with some time ago and the job situation confronted.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “Baah-ing sheep.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Bad music.”
What is your favorite food or meal? – “My own pot-roasted leg of lamb from one of our sheep here.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one, who would that be? – “President Teddy Roosevelt – a great leader and a very well-informed man.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “My sailboat, a fishing pole, and a frying pan.”
Do you have a favorite film/song/book? – “I always laugh at the film ‘Babe’ about the sheep-herding piglet…A book would be Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson, arguably the greatest book of this sort ever written… My favorite song would be ‘Ave Maria’…”
What is your favorite hobby? – “Collecting Chinese, Japanese and English porcelains, Georgian (17th Century) silver, and model cars.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A geneticist.”
What profession would you not like to do? – “A coal miner.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “I come back to my children – when they are happy. The most recent would be when our daughter Sarah told me she was going to get married and that she ‘had never been happier’… And the arrival of my grandchild, Rohan.”
What was the saddest? – “When my Dad died – it hurt a lot.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I am generous. Actually I don’t know if I am or not but I think I am.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “What a goddam jack-ass question! I don’t know…I guess if he said ‘We have re-opened The Lodge up here and tonight we’re having Trivia night there’ that would do me.”

Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm  Leave a Comment