Mark Scaramella – October 30th, 2010

Mark was born in 1944 in Palo Alto, California, the older of two sons of Mary and Gene Scaramella. “My father was the youngest son of an Italian immigrant dairyman from the Mendocino Coast. His father had come to the United States from Delebio in northern Italy. Six years later he sent for his wife, my grandmother, who came over with their first two sons, Joe and John, entering the States through Ellis Island, and crossing the country by train to San Francisco. After their first night in the City my grandmother and her two kids awoke to the 1906 Earthquake on April 18 and they ended up as refugees in Oakland. My grandfather eventually tracked them down and they made their way back to Point Arena where he had settled.”
Mark’s grandmother subsequently came to dislike the US. “She was a dutiful peasant woman who refused to learn English and resented her husband for bringing her here. They had two more sons, Charlie, who lived on the ranch in Manchester all his life until he passed in the 1980s, and my father Gene, who lived to the age of 92, dying on the last day of 1999. My mother was of English/German heritage, the youngest of seven children. Her father was a doctor who had a general practice but he was primarily a homeopath.”
As the youngest of four brothers, Mark’s father went to College at UC Davis and then became a professor of Dairy Science there, going on to a long, successful career as a creamery manager, retiring as CEO of Challenge Cream & Butter, the largest agricultural co-op in the US. “My mother was a Hoosier, from Peru, Indiana, and a housewife most of her life, but she was very well read, as people were in those days. She spent three happy years as society page editor of the Willows Daily Journal in the 50s which is when I was first exposed to newspapers,” Mark half-explained. “She would impress the hell out of me as I got older with all the things she knew about authors and literature.”
Mark never spent more than two years at any one primary school. “We lived in Hawaii for two years before school, then in the Bay Area, then to Willows through the 7th grade, and then on to Fresno where I went to high school at Clovis High and McLane High. Growing up, we used to regularly travel to Mendocino County to visit relatives on the Coast. The visits were great fun with all the snipe hunting and abalone diving, but the travel over those windy, dirt roads that my father took always made me and the dog sick. We had to stop periodically so the dog or I could puke on the road.”
“I liked many aspects of school and when I applied myself I did well. I had many other interests outside school though and they took up a lot of my time. Swimming was a big part of my life then. I was a lifeguard and a water-safety/lifeguard instructor for a while, and then became interested in music. I taught myself to play the organ and the piano, basically with a tape recorder at my side to learn from. During college in Fresno I played the pipe organs at the theaters in town. I even got a job as an usher at the theaters so that I could get to play the theater organs. I played intermissions and before the show, playing show tunes and production numbers while coming up on a lift from the pit, facing the screen, and playing rousing tunes like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Chess was another big activity in high school. At one time I was a ranked amateur in the California State Chess Federation. I took it quite seriously. At school I enjoyed Latin because I had a very good teacher, and English to some degree. I played tennis, some basketball – another thing I wasted a lot of time on. I had an accurate set shot but was a weak ball handler. I tend to get obsessed about whatever I’m involved with, from an early age until today. I prefer to learn things on my own and not in a classroom environment.”
Mark graduated from high school in 1962 and attended Fresno State as a Chemistry major. “I liked the high school Chemistry teacher. His experiments would often go awry, frequently in humorous ways, and the lessons would turn into learning experiences to figure out what had gone wrong. I liked the teacher, not chemistry particularly, but still I chose to major in it in college, probably not the best idea. I was disconnected from the frat parties and the social scene in college and began to lose interest in chemistry. I played varsity tennis, did a little dating, mainly outside college, did not drink and I was out of Fresno and into the Air Force by the time the hippie-pot thing arrived in the late 60s.
“After graduating from Fresno State College in 1967 with a degree in chemistry and enology, it seemed that the Vietnam War was scooping up every able-bodied college student available. “Like most of my friends, I didn’t want to get my ass shot off in Vietnam, so I tried to get into the Air Force as a keyboard player. They auditioned me and gave me a slot as a musician, but the recruiter said that since I was a college grad I should apply for Officer Training School. I aced those tests and ended up, after months of technical training, as an aircraft maintenance officer at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was put in charge of hundreds of military and civilian aircraft technicians and mechanics. I learned fast and did pretty well considering how young and inexperienced I was. I’m working on a novel set in those days. But recreating realistic dialog from that time is hard.”
While in Biloxi, Mark cross-trained into logistics and did both maintenance and logistics command and staff jobs for most of his time there. “In December of 1972 I got orders to Vietnam as a crash recovery officer. That would have involved going out to crash sites to see what could or should be salvaged for spare parts, sometimes in combat zones. But Nixon announced the military withdrawal from Vietnam almost the same day I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay and I was quickly sent back to the US and was assigned to the Air Force Plant Rep Office at the McDonnell-Douglas plant in St. Louis. I had just read Barry Commoner’s groundbreaking environmental book, ‘The Closing Circle,’ and when I discovered that his ‘Center for the Study of Biological Systems’ organization was based in St. Louis I volunteered and was involved with them for my nearly three years there. It was strange because the Air Force people scoffed at the environmentalists and the environmentalists scoffed at the Air Force. Both organizations thought I was nuts to be involved with the other. I thought there were common elements through logistics systems analysis techniques and wrote several technical papers that were published by the Commoner outfit in their ‘Environment’ magazine on subjects like re-usable standardized packaging, design for recyclability, energy content reduction, manufacturing process improvements, internal combustion engine fuel efficiency, etc. It was an idealistic time. There were so many areas that needed conservation, reform and increased efficiency. Still are. I worked with several senior engineers at McDonnell-Douglas as well as some professors and senior scientists at Washington University in St. Louis. We actually thought industry would listen to our ideas for conservation of materials and fuels. Obviously, as it turned out, we were wrong.”
In 1974 Mark lined up a job with the EPA and filed papers to resign from the Air Force but that fell through when the mid-70s energy crisis hit. “After the big (fake) oil embargo, all the vacant positions in DC were taken up to create the Energy Department. Lots of military people ended up with those jobs, but not me. So I stayed in the Air Force for three more years.”
Mark was then assigned to ground and airborne radar programs at Hanscom Air Force Base outside of Boston, Massachusetts where he spent his last three years in the Air Force in the mid-70s. While there he was sent on a couple of short TDYs (temporary duties) to Iran as part of a study team advising the Shah’s Iranian Air Force. “I actually briefed the Shah on the pros and cons of airborne vs. ground-based radars, but it seemed like he was asleep during most of our presentation.” During that time Mark met Major General Richard Secord who was in charge of the Military Air Advisory Group (MAAG) in Tehran. “Secord is the man who was later exposed as one of the key masterminds of the Iran-Contra affair. I learned more about what was really going on then much later when I read Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s excellent book about Secord called ‘Out Of Control.’ That was an understatement. Secord was a nasty piece of work. No doubt about it. But we didn’t know about the secret behind-the-scenes maneuvering while we were there at the time.”
On April Fool’s Day of 1977 Mark resigned from the Air Force rather than take an assignment in Alaska for the Strategic Air Command. “It wasn’t Alaska that I refused; it was SAC. They don’t do anything but rehearse for doomsday,” Mark explains. “Several top generals tried to get that assignment changed but they failed, so I quit.”
Mark then worked as a logistics specialist and staff engineer for a military training equipment company on the East Coast for a few years, rising to Vice President of Engineering. Then, after a dispute with a new top management team there when they reneged on a promise they had made to him, Mark returned to California in 1981 where he took a job as a logistics and industrial engineer for a small engineering company in San Jose. While there, he got in on the ground floor of personal computers in Silicon Valley, learned programming, developed a number of commercial computer database applications, taught computers and computer applications at the local community college and became somewhat of an expert in PCs. “When the engineering company went bankrupt due to some really bad management decisions, I freelanced and consulted in inventory control systems, database applications, and technical writing until 1990.”
“A few years ago I tried to think back over all the paid jobs and assignments I’ve had since high school. It’s a long and varied list. Swimming instructor, lifeguard, boysenberry picker (a short-term job, to say the least, but very educational), cottage cheese maker, cold storage warehouse worker/manager, college tennis player/instructor and coach, organist/pianist, lab technician, chemist, aircraft maintenance supervisor, squadron commander, logistics engineer, contracts manager, quality control manager, aircraft support systems project manager, radar program manager, training equipment service manager, engineering director, database programmer, graphics designer, senior staff engineer, industrial engineer, facilities manager, technical writer, consultant, junior college teacher, and writer/reporter. And I’m sure I’ve left some out.”
In most, if not all of these endeavors, Mark would throw himself into whatever he did. “Once I reached a certain threshold I would find myself wanting to learn something else. C.S. Lewis, in commenting about romance in ‘The Screwtape Letters,’ once wrote ‘Some people prefer the diving to the swimming.’ That’s how I felt about many of the things I have done. The excitement is there at the beginning or in getting there but then it becomes more of a job. Having said that, many of the changes were simply due to circumstances at the time, not necessarily giving up on something. And once you’re out of something technical for a while it’s hard to get back into it.”
In 1986 Mark’s parents retired and moved back to Mendocino, and his evolving anti-Gulf War I politics and their aging condition led him to say goodbye to all that technical stuff and move to Boonville in 1990 where he hooked up with the AVA. “And the rest is a matter of record.”
“My Uncle Joe had always subscribed. He was an autodidact with no college education – a very smart and clever man. He was proud of the fact that he ran and lost election for Supervisor five times before he finally won in the early 50s. He liked Bruce Anderson’s AVA right away, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it. I’d visit my parents where Uncle Joe usually dropped off his copies of the AVA at their house. I thought it was wordy, dense and provincial at first, but I started to like it and subscribed when I lived in San Jose and wrote a few letters. Meanwhile life in San Jose was getting very expensive and I’d reached a point where I felt uncomfortable – my politics were very different from most of my technical associates. I had been through Anderson Valley to visit my parents in Irish Beach. I didn’t want to live out there – it was too remote and too close to my parents. So I met Bruce Anderson at the AVA, started writing and doing copy preparation. I lived on Lambert Lane in Boonville for a couple of years, then to Philo, on Kevin Burke’s property and now back to Boonville. I had no expectations; I just knew I was tired of everything in San Jose. Being a lifelong bachelor, I never gave much thought to long-term planning – what’s the point? Things change anyway. If I see something I like I pursue it until it runs its course. I’ve never owned a house; I have owned only three cars in my life. As the saying goes, ‘you don’t own property, property owns you.’ I liked having the option of being able to pick up and leave. But that’s in the past now too.”
Bruce Anderson’s wife Ling came up with the nickname of ‘Major’ Scaramella; there were already other ‘Captains’ around. However, there’s more to it than just a play on words. Sometimes he has been kiddingly referred to in the paper as ‘Major, USAF (retired).’ Mark was a captain when he left the Air Force after ten years; he would have been a major in a matter of months had he stayed. “We called it a ‘field promotion’,” Mark jokes. But in retired military circles people know that if you retire after 20 years and haven’t made it past the rank of Major then you are probably an alcoholic (with a few exceptions). “So the ‘Major, USAF, retired’ thing is amusing but to those who know the background it’s also a joke on a joke.”
“I do almost everything here but the editing. It is not the best analogy but I think of myself as the engine and Bruce Anderson as the driver. It’s a weekly grind and can run up to sixty to eighty hours a week. We’re a newspaper after all and I’ve always been good at meeting deadlines — not one missed in over 20 years. The Editor used to say I’m a connoisseur of tedium – unfortunately it’s true. Albeit selectively. I’ve always been a maverick and fairly anti-authoritarian since I experienced so much management incompetence during my regular career. So I’m skeptical of officials and never give those in authority a free pass. I just don’t like stupid officials wherever they are. It’s very irritating; I want it fixed. As Uncle Joe often said, ‘If there’s no criticism how can anything improve?’ He had many such aphorisms — ‘It’s good to know the other side’s argument better than they do,’ and ‘People don’t appreciate it when you shoot straight with them,’ for example. I tend to be hypercritical but I don’t wear it on my sleeve. KZYX, the Board of Supervisors, the schools – they’re not going to magically get better. I know that. But they have to be called on things they do that are not in the public interest. They may not like it, but I cannot ignore it. They’ve taken a position of public authority and should be held accountable. I try to be fair. If I’m wrong I am prepared to admit it. I hope I’m wrong about this latest batch, but so far…”
When not working, Mark likes to watch classic movies via Netflix, listen to the SF Giants on the radio, and regularly attends the weekly General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz night at Lauren’s where his ‘services’ are often in demand and at which he is pretty good. “I would like to get back into music in some way if the opportunity arose, but so far the pickins are poor and time commitments are hard. As for the Valley itself, I like the weather and a lot of the people. I like the live-and-let-live attitude that prevails. But of course I have a lot of complaints about how things are run. Having said that, over the years the Community Services District (which I report on and for which I’m a member of the budget committee) runs about as well as anything in the County I’ve seen.”
I asked Mark who he’d vote for as Mayor of the Valley. “I’d say Andrea LaCampagne – she has a good sense of humor, she’s smart and down to earth, she gets bothered by the right things, and she argues very well.” I then asked him what he’d change if he were the Mayor of the Valley with some political power. “Two things I can think of right away – I would try to incorporate the Valley and limit the size of vineyards to, say, twenty acres. Outside ownership would be prohibited. There are many pros and cons about incorporation and I lean towards the pros. My Uncle Joe leaned the other way because he felt the community was too divided on many major topics. I don’t think that there is that much division nowadays. Uncle Joe also felt it would be too expensive to staff such an entity. But I don’t see how it could be any worse than it is. It is up for debate, but I’d vote for incorporation.”
I asked Mark for his views on some local issues.
The wineries and their impact on Anderson Valley? “My critical views of the wine industry are probably known to AVA readers. I’d settle for a bit of real regulation and enforcement, maybe a limit on the size of vineyards in the Valley and a limit on how much water they can draw and when. But those reasonable things are not even on the horizon. Even though there’s lots of vague complaining about water, pesticides, labor practices, land use, corporate control, etc., there’s no serious opposition like there was to Big Timber’s clearcutting. The enviros seem reluctant to actively oppose people from their own economic class, even though Big Wine does as much if not more damage to the landscape than Big Timber ever did. But I’ve stopped being too concerned about it. It’s here. I get along fine with some of the local wine people. It’s a very fragile industry, environmentally and economically. It will probably self-destruct and contract soon enough, just like all the other industries that have come and gone on the North Coast. One hopes that something more useful or productive will have space to develop after that. Who knows?”
The AVA? “That’s like asking Donna Pierson-Pugh about the schools or Mary Aigner about KZYX. There’s really no point in my commenting.”
KZYX public radio? “It used to be amusingly bad. But it’s become boring and irrelevant to most people in the last couple of years.”
Law and Order in the Valley? “There’s not that much crime, really. Our deputies do a good job with what there is.”
The school system? “It suffers from the general decline of education across the state and the country. But the cronyism and cult-like thinking here makes it uniquely worse. There’s very little attention to serious academic subjects, and way too much on edu-fru-fru like rallies, trips, activities, and we-wuv-the-kids exercises.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Mark.
What excites you; turns you on; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “I’m too old to be ‘turned on’ by anything. But I like well-written essays and books, especially local ones.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Turns me off? I’ll take ‘annoy.’ That’s a long list these days. Inconsiderateness. Rudeness. Stupidity. Irresponsibility. Incompetence. Apathy. Boring people. Happy talk. And the tendency some people have to tell you more than you want or need to know when you don’t even know them and without them even asking you if you want to hear it. Just to name a few.”
What sound or noise do you love? “Absolute silence.”
What sound or noise do you hate? “Paul Hanson.”
What is your favorite food or meal? “Anything Bruce Anderson’s wife Ling cooks.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “I’d like to spend more time with my late Uncle, Joe Scaramella. He was Mendocino County Supervisor for 20 years and I learned important things from him every time I spoke to him. For example, I’ll always remember the time he told me, ‘People don’t like it when you shoot straight with them, Mark.’ On the national scene, I think I’d like to have met Roberto Clemente, the great baseball player and humanitarian. Maybe one late night jam session with Art Tatum in Harlem.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three things would you like to have with you? “A computer, a decent piano, and somebody smart to argue with.”
Do you have a favorite film or book or one that has influenced you? “Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is very good. I also liked ‘A Civil Action’ by Jonathan Harr, but the movie version starring John Revolting was revolting. Ted Conover’s participatory journalism is consistently good. Tim Weiner’s recent CIA expose ‘Legacy of Ashes.’ I could go on and on.”
What is a smell you really like? “Blooming lavender. My mother’s popovers smelled great too.”
Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “Perhaps Delebio in Italy – there are lots of Scaramellas there I understand, one of three family names that dominate the town.
What is your favorite word or phrase? “Meeting adjourned.”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? “Kendall Smith.”
What is your favorite curse word? “Shoot. I like ‘heck’ and ‘darn’ and ‘dangnabit’ too.”
What is your favorite hobby? “I still like to play keyboards and accompany singers, but I’ve had trouble finding singers around here who can let a vamp build up, catch the pick-ups and then keep the beat and stay on pitch. There’s also a tendency toward too-loud which I shy away from. These days I listen to a lot of recorded books, mostly non-fiction and classics.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “I think I’ve done enough. As a kid I wanted to be a dentist, but I grew out of that. Later it would have been a full-time musician but I was never quite good enough.”
What profession would you not like to do? “Sales and accounting. Never did it. Won’t do it.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? “I think personal happiness, as such, is overrated. But I still vividly remember my first public performance as a theater organist and my first day as Squadron Commander of Field Maintenance at Keesler AFB in Biloxi.”
What was the saddest day or period of your life? “When I got a letter from my first love that she had decided she didn’t want to get married.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “Dangnabit. I don’t know. That’s kind of a silly question.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “If we’ve made God in our own image then He’d probably say, ‘This is off the record, right?’ Actually, I doubt there’s a God. If there is, He certainly doesn’t need any advice from me on what to say. But I think He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 9:52 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello Mark,

    Jeanne forwarded your bio to me. Just read it. Gee, you’ve been a busy guy.

    I am looking forward to the end of this year when I will retire from my job as editorial page editor and go to work part time at the paper. It has been a long, tough 12 years before the mast(head) and I will be glad to get out from under the pressure and stress. It’s Medicare and Social Security time for me — yes, it has come to that. Oh lawd.

    If I ever get out that way, I will certainly look you up if we are still both on the right side of the ground.

    Keep in touch if you have the inclination.

    Lee Permenter

    ps — I have a website for my photography, but currently it is not up to date. The only thing there is a series of pictures that comprised a show I had here at the local arts center in Frederick a couple of years ago — still life images of, well, weeds. I work primarily in B&W — landscape and architectural.

  2. I was just listening to some old tapes I have of you playing and accompanying me on the piano and organ in Biloxi. You were so good! Remember the drummer from N.Y? His constant frills? Those were good times and you were such a good friend. I thought I’d try to see what you were up to and obviously, it is quite a lot! You fill up the pages! I do hope you go back to playing music again. I’ve been keeping my hand in it, one way or the other, ever since.

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