Muriel Ellis – January 13th 2011

I met with Muriel at the Redwood Drive-In a week or so ago and we sat and drank coffee as shared her story with me… For those who don’t know, she is Terry Ryder’s mother and a part-time Valley resident who I know as a result of her regular attendance, and quite frequent victories, at the General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz held every Thursday at Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville
Muriel was born in 1924 in El Paso, Texas, the only child of Ernfred Herman Berg (‘Bill’) and Ruth Dewey. The Berg’s were originally from Sweden, Muriel’s grandparents coming to the States in the late 1800’s and settling in Chicago before moving down to El Paso for her grandmother’s health – she ended up living in to her mid-nineties. On the Dewey side the family was originally from Wales and in the mid 1800’s came to the U.S. and settled in Pittston, in northeastern Pennsylvania, Muriel’s maternal grandmother was a fifteen year-old dressmaker who eventually married the son of the family who employed her as their dressmaker. They raised a family in this mining community and at one point, in 1903, Muriel’s grandfather, Isaac Thompson ‘Tom’ Dewey, a free-spirited character and adventurer, left to work in mines in Mexico for several years, before Pancho Villa literally chased him back to the States in 1910 during the Mexican Revolution, and he settled down across the border in El Paso with his family from Pennsylvania.
Muriel’s parents met, and were married in El Paso in 1923. Muriel’s mother’s sister had died in childbirth and Muriel’s parents adopted the baby. Muriel was born less than a year later so a big ‘sister’ was already there – her cousin Mary. “For a few years, with my sister calling my parents Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth, I did too. That was confusing to people I’m sure… Eventually, when I was about four and my cousin six, her father re-married and took my cousin with him to California – that was very hard on my parents, particularly my mother, who obviously thought of Mary as their own…”
“My father had left school with just six weeks of high school education and had worked several jobs by the time he started at the Federal Reserve Bank at eighteen. He was to stay there until he was sixty-five, getting a self-taught masters degree in banking at the age of sixty. He read constantly and ended up being one of the most educated men I have ever known.”
In 1933, when Muriel was just nine years-old, her mother died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-two. A year later her father remarried a woman from Louisiana, Lucille Soniat. “She and I developed a wonderful relationship. She was like a big sister to me, a great friend, and a good mother too – I was very fortunate… In 1936 my half brother was born, Robert K. Berg, who was to later join the navy and ended up as a full Commander. He now lives in Cheshire, Connecticut where he just celebrated his Golden Wedding anniversary.”
In El Paso, Muriel attended seven years of grade school and then four of high school, graduating at sixteen in 1940. “I moved in with my grandmother for my final couple of years at school. She was lonely, it was easier for school and worked out better for everyone. Plus I had begun dating and father’s can be strange about that… I was a good student, a member of the National Honor Society, and editor of the school newspaper. I loved English, journalism, and history. I have always wanted to write. On the other hand, math and the sciences were not things I cared about. I did not play sports, although I sometimes went bowling I guess, but I did love to roller-skate… I was brought up in a Presbyterian household and attended Sunday school every week. I then went to a Methodist church that was really to watch and laugh at the minister scream, holler, and cry as much as anything. I am not an atheist but I don’t believe in a bunch of that stuff. I sang in the choir at the church and at college. I am not a follower of organized religion but at college I wrote a paper on Buddhism which I found fascinating, and the idea of reincarnation certainly appeals to me.”
“When I graduated high school I remember it was at the same time as the World War 2 Dunkirk evacuations out of France. We had a farewell high school dance and I went with my girlfriend’s date because she was out of town. He called and asked me. His name was Bob Broyles and after that we were together every day that summer until the fall of 1940 when I entered the University of Texas in Austin while he remained in El Paso to resume college there – he was a year ahead of me. My friends said I’d forget all about him. I didn’t – I’d rather be a widow than an old maid! – and he transferred to join me in Austin a year later. However, just a few months later in December 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor took place and he immediately tried to sign up for the Air Force, or Army Air Corps as it was at that time. He was turned down because he had broken his collarbone previously and they thought this might cause him problems when parachuting. Instead he signed up for the Air Corps Engineers. We were married in August 1942 and in March 1943 he was called up. He had been upset it had not been earlier because with El Paso being an army town he had got some abuse for being an able-bodied young man not at war.”
Bob was still not sent overseas at that time, instead he was sent to New Haven, Connecticut where Muriel found work as part of the war effort making rubber life rafts for 54 hours a week. Bob was sent on from there to Seattle, Denver, and for final training in Salina, Kansas; each time Muriel going with him. He was assigned as a B29 pilot but the planes were not ready so eventually he was assigned to the B 17’s. He went through all this training with three men, Ned, Larry, and Benny, who all became very close friends, along with their wives,, getting together for drinks, dinner, and games of Bridge. Finally by November 1944 they were all overseas and flew several missions together. Meanwhile Muriel returned to El Paso where she worked in a photo studio…
In February 1945, Bob and two of these close friends were reported missing close to Guam in the Pacific. Benny had made it back to base. A few days later Ned, who had been in a different plane to Bob and Larry, was found dead in a life raft, but Bob and Larry remained missing. Exactly a week after they went missing, February 21st, 1945, they were declared M.I.A. – it was Bob’s 23rd birthday. In February 1946, he was classified as missing, presumed dead. His body has never been found nor has the plane…
“It was the hardest thing. I have thought about what happened many, many times. I still think about it… I’m sure he went down with the plane and was killed – his father told me that Bob had told him that the crew had agreed to do that rather than parachute out and die in some other way… At the time, what was I to do other than just pick up the pieces and carry on… My cousin Mary was in Los Angeles so in October 1945 I decided to move there and moved in with her and her husband. There was a photo studio for sale for $1000 in Inglewood so I bought it with cash I had saved.”
This business fizzled out but she got some money back on the sale. Then another opportunity came along when Muriel spoke to a local builder/landlord by the name of William Ellis who was working on two storefronts and she opened her photo shop in one of these and lived in the very small space behind the shop. “I lived there for years and in that time the landlord’s son, William Ellis Jr., and I started dating. I eventually sold the photo shop but continued trying to sell my short stories and during our courtship he encouraged me by saying if I had a story written and in the mail to a possible customer by Friday evening we could go out on Saturday. I had dreams of taking my portable typewriter and a camera on a trip to Mexico and on to Central America, taking pictures and writing about my travels. It was a pipe dream but Bill said he would support me so I thought ‘this guy’s a keeper’ and we were married in 1948. At that point I pretty much quit sending off my stories and got a job at an advertising agency as a bookkeeper/publicist etc.”
Muriel voted for the first time in the 1948 election at the age of twenty-four. “We stopped off at the Beverly Hills City Hall on the way to our honeymoon so I could register to vote. It was Truman against Dewey, a distant cousin, but unfortunately he lost. That was fine. I thought Truman was President was terrific in the end, one of the best we’ve had I’d say. He was very honest and he had to fill some awful big shoes coming after F.D.R. It was a very tough decision but he made the right one to drop the bomb. It was an amazing time. We kept hearing that the Japanese were going to surrender but they didn’t for a few days until finally they did and it was over. It was a great feeling – my Dad ran into the street rejoicing with his co-workers at the bank.”
Muriel’s daughter Terry (Ryder) was born in 1950 and within a few years Bill’s sisters also had babies – “It was our own baby boom!” Over the next several years, during which time Muriel was a homemaker, she became increasingly involved with the Parent Teachers Association and even more so when a second child, son Dirk, was born. They bought a house in west L.A. and were generally homebodies. “I became President of the P.T.A. and that was very satisfying, as was starting the gift shop at the school and a craft fair for the kids. However, Bill was a loner and for him a social life was his family and that is who we spent time with when I was not involved with the school. As for my own family back in Texas I neglected to see much of them and I regret that now.”
After a time in the aircraft industry, both preceding and following the war, Bill had been a house builder, selling the homes he constructed, but by the mid-fifties he was working as a Housing Inspector for the Federal Housing Authority (F.H.A.), checking the new tract homes being built everywhere. He moved away from this for a time, working for different contractors, before returning to the F.H.A. and working there until retirement. “In 1969, Bill got an itch to travel and we made a trip to Prescott, Arizona. While we were there we decided to buy a couple of acres in a place called Wilhoit, Arizona, sixteen miles south of Prescott. There was nothing there, in fact the sign said ‘Population 2’ but our plot was on the other side of the road where new buildings would soon be going up. Terry had moved out of the family home and was married in 1972, but Dirk was still in school so we stayed in California until he graduated in 1976.
In 1972, Muriel had attended a group counseling for women, “to decide what we would do with the rest of our lives! That gave me some ideas and I followed up by taking a course at U.C.L.A. in student counseling which led to a part-time volunteer position at the U.C.L.A. Extension as a career counselor for the students – one of them was Lorenzo Lamas, who later became a relatively famous television actor – the son of Fernando… Bill and I celebrated his retirement on July 3rd, 1976 and the next day the country celebrated its bicentennial! Dirk had just graduated and so we sold our house in California and moved to Arizona. We were to be there for twenty eight years.”
By this time the town had grown much bigger and although Muriel and Bill had a very good well on their land, others did not. “The community needed more water or it would not survive A co-op was formed to oversee this process of getting water in and I was the vice-president of this group, writing letters to everyone from President Reagan on down, eventually getting a government grant for a water system so that over time everyone there had water. Other than that, in those years I loved to garden and started to work on stained glass, as well as getting back into the creative writing by taking classes. Eventually I ran out of classes to take so I began to give them myself at the Senior Center and ran that workshop for fifteen years there.”
In December 2003, Bill had a heart failure. “He had been fighting it for years. The doctor told me he would not be coming home but Bill fooled them. He did come home and was even driving again but in November 2004 his heart failed again and he died in his sleep. He did not want to go back into hospital and fortunately he didn’t have to… The kids came out and dealt with all the ‘stuff’ that has to be done and in December I packed up and left, going to stay with Terry in Anderson Valley. I did not know where I was going to live and looked all over this area. I loved the Valley but felt I needed to be less isolated so I got an apartment in Santa Rosa in February 2005. I did go back to Arizona that summer, to get things and sell the house, but that was it. After all those years, I was moving on… With Terry living in the Valley I feel I have one foot here. It is a lovely place and I ask myself ‘how did I get to be this lucky?’ I am so grateful to have her here, where I get to spend some time, and yet also ‘do my thing’ down in Santa Rosa.”
Since September 2005, Muriel has made a wide circle of new friends through a couple of writing groups and she has resumed her writing once again in earnest. “On top of that, I had always wanted to travel but Bill, who was a wonderful guy in so many ways, and whom I loved dearly, did not want to, and when he did I’d have rather traveled with Godzilla! So, in recent years I have proceeded to travel. In the spring of 2006 I took a cruise down the Rhine in Germany and then visited London; in the fall of 2006 I went to London again and on to Wales, using a bus pass to get around. I saw Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in southern England – it was fantastic. Then in 2007, U.C. Berkeley offered a three-week course at Merton College at Oxford University in England called ‘The art of lying – creative writing.’ That was great, living on the campus. I went with my friend, Pat from the writing group, and together with another women there, a judge in San Francisco, we talked about going to Paris the following year, meeting for breakfast every day and then going off on our separate ways all day before meeting up in the evening. It did not happen but I went anyway, alone. I spent the month of May 2008 in Paris, writing a lot about my trip as it happened. I loved sitting in the parks, observing and writing. I love traveling alone too – you can do whatever, whenever you want… I went back in October of 2010 for another couple of weeks but I think that will be my last time. It is a little too much for me now, despite the benefits of been whisked through the airports on a golf cart because of my grey hair and cane.”
In 2010, Muriel was having some trouble with her legs so she went into the hospital for a check-up. They decided to give her a chest x-ray and found some cancerous cells that were removed. She was not going to go through chemotherapy but the cancer was caught in time. “I seem to have had a guardian angel taking care of lots of things in my life. Many of the sad and bad things have turned out to not be as sad and bad as I thought and now I’ve ended up where I want to be. I love the writing classes – one of which is called the ‘Feisty Five’ and I continue to read alot, fiction and non-fiction; and do crossword puzzles – I have done the one in the N.Y. Times for years and that has given me lots of miscellaneous information, very useful for the General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz at Lauren’s Restaurant every Thursday night which I rarely miss – it’s lots of fun.”
I asked Muriel for her thoughts of her father – “the most intelligent man I have ever met. Very loving and gentle too, although he did have an unpredictable temper”… And her favorite memory of her mother? – “Very sweet and quiet. I have her diary from the last four years of her life. Health-wise she was very fragile.”
As Muriel does not live in the Valley and has only been a regular visitor over the last several years I decided to forego the usual Valley questions and go straight to the final questionnaire – a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions answered as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Being with all the friends I have made in recent times.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Negativity… Current politics; Sarah Palin.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Classical music, new age music… A babbling brook, water over rocks.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “New music, or the noise of a plane.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Steak.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “Mark Twain.”
7. If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “Pen and paper, an encyclopedia, and family photographs.”
8. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? – “Sweden – the family connections on my father’s side.”
9. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “For books that would be ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Gone with the Wind’, and Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ series set in San Francisco… The film would be ‘Gone with the Wind’, and may be ‘E.T.’ or perhaps ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ from a couple of years ago… A song would be anything by Glenn Miller, or may be some of the Broadway show tunes, and Bob and I always liked ‘The Breeze and I’ by Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra in the forties.”
10. What is your favorite hobby? – “Many years ago it was sewing but now I guess it is writing.”
11. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Newspaper reporter or photo journalist – oh, boy, yes!”
12. What profession would you not like to do? – “Nursing or being a maid.”
13. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I would have given my children more access to my side of the family… And I wished I hadn’t stopped writing for such a long time.”
14. Tell me about a memorable moment in your life; a time you will never forget. – “The war years, not just in this country from 1941 but the whole war, from 1939 to 1945. I was very aware of it all and I knew that what was happening would change the world forever.”
15. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Well, the birth of my children and also raising them, but also now.”
16. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “The death of my mother.”
17. What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “Well… Yes, I’m going to say it – that I’m a damn good writer of short stories and essays.”
18. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Seeing all those people I’ve known and trying to cope with that scares the hell out of me… I guess if he said ‘You did the best you could, Muriel’ that would be good.”

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Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 5:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Michael Hubbert – January 10th, 2011

I met with Michael in the workshop at his home on Estate Drive on the outskirts of Boonville. He has been a professional instrument maker since 1980 until the present day. It was a sunny day and so we sat in the garden and began to chat…
Michael was born in Los Angeles in 1948, the youngest of three children born to parents Leo G. Hubbert and Dorothy Ann Goode, with brother Tom having come along previously in 1942 and sister Virginia in 1944. Originally the Hubberts were French Huguenots who had settled in West Suffolk, England in the 1600’s before coming to the States in the 1750’s and living in the West Virginia and Tennessee region where they were basically Indian-fighting farmers. “Colonel James Hubbert was a fiery character and at one point disappeared for a time after he had killed an Indian during a period of cease-fire. His grandson, my great, great Grandfather, Matthew Hubbert, was born in 1810 in Tennessee but moved on from there, living in the South and Louisiana before settling in San Sabo in the central Texas hill country – the house they lived in is still there. He had two wives and fifteen kids, who were named after historical figures – Benjamin Franklin Hubbert, Andrew Jackson Hubbert, etc, and my great Grandfather, Davy Crocket Hubbert. Matthew was a cattleman and he drove a herd from Texas to San Diego on three separate occasions before settling there in the late 1870’s. Back in Texas, he had a son, William Bee Hubbert, my grandfather, who lived to be 98 years old, and who raised his family there. In 1907 along came my father, Leo, who was one of seven kids. His oldest brother was Marian King Hubbert, a famous geophysicist who had attended the University of Chicago and who encouraged my father to move there during the depression. It didn’t work out and so my Dad moved to Los Angeles and found a job as a bus driver.”
Of the Goode side of the family, Michael knows far less. “My Mom was born in 1915 and grew up in Plankinton, South Dakota. Her heritage was English/Scots/Irish. Her mother had told her that she was related to the woman who had baked the plum pudding that was served at Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. My mother was one of five or so and when she was old enough (she graduated high school at fifteen) her father basically sold her into indentured service at the local hospital to pay off his hospital bills. As soon as this had been done, she was ‘set free’ and moved to Los Angeles to join her older sister there and she found a job as a secretary/receptionist at an alarm company. She worked late at night and would catch the last bus home at 1am – the driver was my Dad. She was often the only passenger and they would talk. The route was cancelled because of so little business so my Dad picked her up and dropped her off in his own car instead and they began to date after that, marrying in the early forties. My siblings were born during the war – Tom now lives in the high dessert country of New Mexico and we have always been close. My sister and her family are in the fundamentalist Christian, right-wing area of Arizona – Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck country.”
When Michael was young, his father became a police truck driver then a fireman, something he’d always wanted to be. Around that time, before any of the kids were born, his mother was hit by a car and nearly died. In fact they told his father that she would be mentally disabled if she lived, then that she would never be able to walk, then that she would never have kids – none of that happened and she lived a long life… The family grew up in west central Los Angeles, near to Inglewood, at 62nd and Crenshaw. “My Dad was at a fantastic old fire station with the pole and about twelve trucks. It was in the heart of old Hollywood and I loved visiting him there. He was a very driven man, a tinkerer, a fixer, a very capable person, very self-reliant and dependable, if a little rough and ready. As most firemen did, with the kind of hours they worked, he had another business on the side – making radio and electrical equipment for boats out of his garage. He eventually got transferred to the fireboat and after buying a house in Torrance he was close to both his firefighter job and the harbor where he worked on customer’s boats. I was always around his workshop that was full of ‘stuff’ and I learned a lot, making my first musical instrument under his tutelage – a whistle, and listening to his wild stories about country life in Texas.”
“My mother was a wonderful, very giving and generous person. Quite simplistic and not sophisticated but very helpful to anyone in need. My father worked a lot and was not around much. When he was, he was quite rough on us but as I was the third child he doted on me and encouraged my activities, whereas he was tough on my brother and sister. My brother Tom and I were close despite this and he was always a great pal to me, encouraging my interests in art, literature, and music – I had been playing the clarinet since I was eight. He was a major influence on me for many years. We had shared a bedroom and he would tune in to the radio late at night and I got to listen to all sorts of great musicians that way. When he was seventeen he was a beatnik with his goatee and hung out at the Insomniac coffee house and took me along there sometimes – I was just eleven. It was across the street from the Lighthouse Jazz Club and I would sometimes run errands for the waitresses who wanted to order some Chinese food from the Club. From the kitchen, where I waited, you could see the stage – I saw Thelonius Monk and others that way… My brother really liked folk and jazz and when I was about thirteen or so I would go with him to the Ash Grove and I got to see some of the legends of bluegrass and city blues there. It was a music venue but also had political gatherings that were getting very interesting in the early sixties.”
Michael was an average student academically, with music his main interest. “By 9th grade I was one confused kid. Then a substitute English teacher arrived who taught drama also. By 10th grade I was really into that and appeared in a number of school plays and even wrote one. In my final two years at school I was often in the lead role and even won a Best Actor award in a local festival. I had grown tired of the clarinet playing in a band at football games or behind horses in a parade and so I took up guitar and harmonica and a friend turned me on to the songs of Woody Guthrie. I sat around with friends playing folk and blues tunes and my Dad bought me a really good guitar. I began liking grittier stuff and had discovered Bob Dylan and older rock and roll stars such as Little Richard. I never liked the surf sound even though I was right there where it was happening and I was not into the Beatles at first. By 1963 I was into the Chicago Blues of Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield – electric blues, and then the second wave of the British invasion – John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, and the early Fleetwood Mac, when they were a blues band.”
Michael graduated from high school in 1966 and university was not that important to him so he attended a junior college to study theatre. “By 1967 I was a total hippy – but never a Deadhead. That summer I rented a car with some friends and we went to the Monterrey Pop Festival – the one where Jimi Hendrix burnt his guitar. It was an amazing experience and I went back to L.A. for a few days before setting off on a road trip in a Volkswagen Beetle with a buddy and some high grade marijuana. We went all over the country, covering about 13,000 miles.”
By early 1968, with the Vietnam War raging, Michael was failing a class badly and lost his student deferment so he filed for Conscientious Objector (C.O.) status – he was completely against the war in Vietnam. This was turned down and so when he arrived to be sworn in to the army, he refused. “My parents did not support me on this, in fact my mother eventually basically came apart. My father was very angry and his rage gradually broke my willpower and spirit and so when the next draft notice arrived six weeks later, in June 1968, I signed up for the army infantry. I went to boot camp and advanced infantry training at Ford Ord. There were lots of guys like me there – hippy musician types. It was very demoralizing – we knew where we would be going. After catching pneumonia in November 1968 I had a week’s leave before reporting to Oakland, California from where we flew to Vietnam and immediately went into the boonies north of the city of Hue. It was about forty miles south of the DMZ and a place where I was shot at and watched friends die… We went on patrols, did some reconnaissance, had a few firefights, and I feared for my life many times – every day. It was not that bad compared to other’s experiences though.”
“One day, I fell while climbing down a steep hill and severely gashed my leg. It became badly infected overnight and I could not walk so they took me out on a supply helicopter and I had five weeks in medical care. That was fine – I was bedridden but under my own supervision at the company barracks. I remember reading letters from friends and a girlfriend and reading ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Then one day I found a guitar, a cheap French copy from the time of their occupation of Vietnam many years earlier. The Chaplain, a very good guy, saw me playing and sat and listened to my story and objections to the war. He was very sympathetic. Just two days later I returned to duty, I was ordered to report to him. He wanted to help me in some way and so I traveled with him for the next few months, playing guitar for the wounded soldiers he visited in hospitals!”
Once the Chaplain left however, Michael briefly worked as a clerk in the motor pool before he had to return to his company that were now faced with the battle for Hamburger Hill – a stalemate that was witnessing terrible losses. “I refused to go and was told I’d either end up in Leavenworth Prison for a year and still have to go back and complete my service or perhaps just be shot – this was a combat zone and I was refusing to fight. I filed for C.O. status again but knew I would be going to jail or would have to fight and probably die. I sat on a helipad waiting for orders either way. I was in a daze. Suddenly a company clerk came running towards me, waving some papers. I had been given new orders, a reprieve – I was to work for three months in the PX – the store, a place rife with corruption and black marketing. It was unbelievable what went on there. I was able to send all kinds of things home to my family and friends – stereos, cameras, even a Rolex watch to my Dad, I learnt all the corrupt ways of doing things. It was amazing. Shocking, I guess. My mother asked me how I could afford all those things on my pay. It was weird. I realized later that I’d had my own Catch-22 situation – it was bizarre, funny, yet tragic.”
In November 1969 Michael was discharged from the army, a little early because he had been accepted into college, and he attended a J.C. for a semester. Then a friend, who was a film editor, offered him a job as a ‘gopher’ on the documentary of a tour by Joe Cocker – ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, which was released in 1971. Over time Michael worked as assistant editor, assistant sound editor, and music editor on various other projects in and around Los Angeles, while also continuing his enjoyment of repertory theater and music. “I guess I was in the ‘fast lane’ there for about four years or so. There were some crazy times and I could have burnt out like so many did but in 1973 I decided to get away from it all. I had been attending craft fairs doing music and theater, and had made many contacts there. Back at high school I had tried to build a guitar and was interested in doing more of that. I was offered a job making instruments with some friends from the fairs who lived in Santa Cruz in northern California and jumped at the chance. Besides, there was a good music scene there, unlike the burnout scene in L.A. where it was hard to avoid all the temptations – that Peruvian marching powder could be very enjoyable but it was no longer for me.”
Over the next few years, Michael really enjoyed his new surroundings, honing his craft as instrument maker and playing lots of music, including learning to play the fiddle, in what was a vibrant scene. However, in the summer of 1977 he fell in love and he and his girlfriend moved to Aspen, Colorado where they opened a shop selling moccasins – shoes and boots. “I did that for a year but then the relationship ended and I got out of the business. I stayed in Aspen for another year but was missing California and the music scene there. I had kept in touch with three friends from my fair days who lived in Pt Arena in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco and they suggested I move there. I had some money saved up, I had my tools, and wanted a place removed from civilization somewhat, but close enough to a good music scene, so in 1979 I made the move west.”
Michael set to work making instruments and after a year he had enough inventory to attend the craft fairs with his goods. He did not have a regular booth but knew lots of people and sold through them. Around that time he met up with Mickie Zekley, and they played Irish music together. One evening in 1980 they played at the Sea Gull Cellar Bar in Mendocino and in the audience was the Dean of U.C. Irvine University. He offered them a gig at his college and there they met the entertainment booker for the university. This person had many, many contacts and, as a result, over the next five years Michael and Mickie toured constantly all over the western States at various folk clubs, colleges, and schools, playing their huge collection of weird instruments – including guitars, harp guitars, flutes, fiddles, whistles, mandolins, and hurdy-gurdy’s (wheel fiddles).
Meanwhile, in 1980, Michael had opened a shop selling his wares in Point Arena and then had a second one on Navarro Ridge in 1981. He moved a few miles north of Pt. Arena, to Little River, in 1982, where he was to stay until 1988. In 1984, he met Rod Cameron, a Scottish flute and woodwind instrument maker and they became close friends. Michael began to learn Rod’s particular trade too, buying an electric lathe from England on Rod’s recommendation, in order to do so… By the mid-nineties, Michael had pretty much finished with the hurdy-gurdy making and was exclusively working on woodwind instruments and some restorations of his choosing – mid 18th-19th century flutes, mandolins, and bassoons – “revitalizing the work of masters from a previous age is a major education for me.”
In 1984, he was teaching a mandolin class at the ‘Lark in the Morning’ music festival in Mendocino when he got talking to one of the students – Leslie. One thing led to another, they played music together, and in 1986 they were married, moving a few miles inland to Comptche in 1988, where they bought a house in “one of the last great deals…Throughout the seventies and eighties the Coast had a great music scene, an incredible network, and of course every Sunday there would be a session at somebody’s house with a pot luck, booze, and music. It was a very rich time musically to say the least. For fifteen years from 1990, when I wasn’t making instruments or playing, I had my music show on KZYX & Z and in that time Leslie became a substitute teacher and so much more at the school. In 1990, our first daughter Cora was born, with Amalia following in 1994.”
In 2001, they bought property in Anderson Valley on Estate Drive in the Boonville ‘suburbs’, moving there in 2002. “By the late nineties, I had launched myself into the making of Irish bagpipes and now do that almost exclusively – I have orders backed up, with a few restorations on occasion . I used to do eighty-hour weeks but I have cut back and do about forty over six days, unless I really get in a groove and will do more. Leslie is now full-time at the Elementary School as a multi-use teacher, doing music, shows, math, the after school chorus and guitar lessons. We continue to play together sometimes, and I am in the Latin band ‘Mambo This’ amongst others, plus we have played many bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings on the Coast in recent years, performing as ‘The Klesmerterians’… Music is like breathing to me – it is what I have to do. Yes, at times I have made some money but mostly that’s just a bonus.”
I asked Michael for his thoughts on a few of the issues that concern Valley folks… The wineries and their impact? – “Well, I like wine and also many of the people involved in the wine business in this Valley. However, there is little doubt that the riparian impact has been extreme. There are lots of good sides to the wineries being here and some potentially bad too. It is not the biggest problem we face in the world”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I have never been a subscriber but from time to time I do read it at lunch in the Boont Berry Store if there is a copy lying around. There are some very good articles although I have referred to it as the A.V. Assassin in the past”… KZYX & Z Local public radio? – “I support it. It is a great idea and has always been a fabulous service for the community. In the past few years though some of the program choices have not been good and personally some of the shows, while hugely popular with some people, are not for me”… The A.V. school system? – “They try very hard to give a decent level of education but are faced with lots of problems, not the least of which are some of the kids going to schools elsewhere. The demographic shift in recent times is pretty intense and I see issues in the future that will need good leadership if they are to be dealt with effectively”… Changes in the Valley? – “The economy has been stressful for many and there is still racism here – on both sides, but the Valley has done wonderfully well in dealing with the overall integration of the different communities.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Michael and asked him to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Good music; great traditional craftsmanship.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “U.S. politics… Consumerism…”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “The ‘toc, toc’ sound made by ravens or crows.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “The whining of my loose fan belt.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “The green enchiladas at Lauren’s Restaurant here in Boonville.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “The French actress Audrey Tautou – well, you did say off the top of my head and she just came to mind – wow!”
7. If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “A saw, a knife, and a guitar.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book, or one that has influenced you? – “Well a song would probably be Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ – I’ve been playing and singing it since I was fifteen… As for a book, how about one from recent times – ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a 2000 novel by American author Michael Chabon that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction… And films – that’s really tough. So many have been powerful for me, I’ve been a film buff for ever. Even if I had to give a top ten it would be hard…”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Reading and photography.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Acting in the theater.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “A fireman, like my father. My mother suggested that I should be one.”
12. Is there something you wish you could do over again, differently? – “I wish I had started making Irish bagpipes earlier. Other than that, and Vietnam, I wouldn’t change anything.”
13. What is a memorable moment in your life; a time you will never forget. – “That time when I was on the helipad in Vietnam, waiting to be court-martialed or sent into battle, then my new orders arrived. I remember that moment so vividly….”
14. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The births of my two daughters.”
15. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “When I was inducted into the army.”
16. What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “My ability to make myself happy by playing music.”
17. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well, that will remain a great mystery for all of us, for ever. I guess, for these purposes, if he said ‘Welcome to Heaven, here’s your accordion’ that would be good.”

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm  Comments (1)  

Eugenia ‘Gene’ Herr – January 3rd, 2011

I met with Gene for our chat a week or so ago in the unofficial ‘meeting room’ upstairs in the Farrer Building in downtown Boonville.
Eugenia ‘Gene’ Donnelly was born, in 1932, the youngest of two girls, (sister Nancy is one year older) to parents T. John Donnelly and Mary Clayton in Marin County, northern California, and grew up in the town of San Anselmo. On her father’s side, the family came over from Roscommon, Ireland in the mid-1850’s, following the famine there in the late 1840’s, and they initially settled in Boston. Her grandfather was born there but in 1861 they moved out west to San Francisco. Gene’s father was born in 1895 but immediately following the earthquake of 1906 the family was forced to move across the Bay to Marin. A couple of days later, he was sent back alone to the City, at the age of eleven, to see what was left of their neighborhood, The Mission district – it had been wiped out so they would have to stay in Marin… On the Clayton side, the family was English, from Henley near London, and her grandfather was one of nine children. They moved over to the Bakersfield area of California in the 1880’s and planted a peach tree farm. However, several years later the crop failed and they sold the land back to the oil company they had bought it from and moved to San Francisco. There, Gene’s grandfather, Ernest Clayton, became an artist of some repute, specializing in wildflower paintings, some of which remain in the history room of the S.F. Library to this day. Following the earthquake, they too moved across to Marin where her father worked in the stained glass window business and where Gene’s mother was born shortly afterwards.
“I grew up in San Anselmo and attended schools in that area all the way through high school, going to Drake Middle School and finally Tamalpais High, where both my mother and uncle had gone many years before. The public transport there back then was very good and my mother had caught a train to school, which you could take either all the way to Bolinas on the coast or inland to Sausalito where you could catch the ferry to San Francisco. After the war, in 1946, the whole rail network was disbanded which was very shortsighted of them, the beginning of a perverse social pattern, I’m afraid. I never understood why. We had enjoyed lots of fun catching the train and the ferry and going shopping in the City with my mother and grandmother – they were both excellent seamstresses and would buy the materials to make our clothes. Those were delightful trips.”
Gene’s father had been a chief engineer on oil tankers in his days before marrying Mary and had frequently visited Alaska, Japan, and the Philippines. However, after getting married in 1928, he settled into a job as ‘traffic’ engineer for Pacific Bell telephone, making sure there was enough equipment and people in the right places at the right times. He enjoyed traveling and got to do plenty of that in this line of work, eventually becoming the North Coast District Manager. The family would sometimes go with him and Ft. Bragg was often on the route so Gene had been through Anderson Valley on several occasions in the late forties when the logging was booming. “I remember the smoke from the timber mills was so thick you could hardly see. Much earlier, when I was a toddler, we would go as a family on trips to Garberville where my parents had spent their honeymoon at the Benbow Inn, and we’d stay at the Palace Hotel in Ukiah on the way, and later, when I was about ten-ish, I remember stopping in the Valley on our way north to Eureka and going for a swim in the Navarro River near to Hendy Woods.”
Gene’s mother had graduated high school at fifteen and worked at the Federal Reserve Bank but after getting married she was forced to quit – that was the way it was back then – and once the girls were born she did not work again until during World War 2, when she worked for three years as a draftswoman in the shipyards in Sausalito. She was involved in community work and coincidentally, given Gene’s later activities, she was on the San Anselmo planning commission. “My parents were very law-abiding but always had a little liquor in the house during prohibition in open defiance of the law. They were strict in that they expected us to do as we were told, without whining. I never felt that they were unreasonable. They simply would want to know who we were with, what we were doing, and where we were, and to call if we were going to be late. We could not try to get away with doing something by saying ‘well so-and-so is doing it’. They were always willing to listen to us and as long as we did our chores we could then go out with friends, or on a date in later years.”
“Growing up we biked practically everywhere and during the summers we could always be found playing around San Anselmo Creek, where we fished and damned. I went to summer camps with the Campfire Girls, a group similar to the girl scouts but with an American Indian orientation. I loved going away camping for four weeks or so. My mother was concerned about me being homesick but in fact I cried when I had to go home! There would be about ninety girls from Marin and Sonoma counties, camping on Austin Creek near to the Russian River in western Sonoma County – a gorgeous spot in those days… At grade school the classes were small and I had lots of friends in my neighborhood. Then I met new friends in middle school. The teachers were very good and that period of my life was a particularly happy one. I enjoyed sports – softball and tennis, horse-riding too, although one of the great sorrows of my life was that I never had a pony of my own. At ten I was convinced I was getting one for my birthday but there was no pony on the lawn that day – I was heartbroken.”
Gene did well academically at school, with history and science her favorite subjects. “I am still in touch with my history teacher today – she is in her nineties. I graduated in 1950 and we have just had our 60th reunion – it was wonderful… I was always going to go to U.C. Berkeley from an early age. My sister was there and there was never any thought I’d go anywhere else. It was also an economic decision with tuition just $67.50 per semester, including fees – pretty good for a top quality education.”
Gene studied Political Science, specializing in International Relations, and became involved in many student activities, particularly of a political nature. She was Vice President of the student body in her senior year. “I was there before the Free Speech movement but during and after McCarthy’s ‘Red Scare’. It was a very interesting time with our professors taking oaths that they would never become communists. In the academic world, we were at the center of the opposition to McCarthyism… I joined a sorority and had a very good time socially. I had smoked at fifteen and now I would have a drink too – beer or liquor, there was little wine at that time. Did you know that in 1932, marijuana was legal and alcohol wasn’t? But that was before my time. Anyway, there were about seventy girls in the sorority and we lived in a big three-storey house with three girls to a room and I made a tremendous number of friends, many of whom have remained friends for life. We would always have each other’s backs… Meanwhile, I still got to play some sports such as tennis and swimming, and a little golf, and overall I had a terrific time at college. I enjoyed my studies and wanted to do so much more but there was just not enough time. By the time I was ready to graduate in 1954, I had given little thought to job possibilities. I did know that I was going to have to do something because my parents had made it clear that if I planned to stay at home then I’d have to start paying rent.”
Gene got a job at the International House, a dormitory for foreign students at the university, and home of what became a famous coffee shop. She met a graduate student, Richard Herr in 1954, when she was performing administrative work on a model U.N. debate and he was the faculty advisor on that project. They were engaged in the summer of 1954 and married on May 1st 1955. Richard had been a reserve in the National Guard during the Korean War and, following a draft deferment while he attended Yale University, he had to complete his service in the army’s military government and intelligence branch, which he joined in the spring of 1955. However, as members of his German family were living in Bulgaria and Israel, he was disqualified from working in military intelligence so he was given quite a plush spot – in Arlington, Virginia, as a reporter and later the assistant editor for the base newspaper. Gene moved too, finding work briefly for the State Department as a clerical worker, and then taking an internship in their budgeting and program development section, leading to a job for the Department of the Air Force involved with personnel management and later employee relations. Prior to their move east, Gene had worked in Berkeley in the State Department’s Public Information Section, reviewing the Indian press, and her work there proved to be very helpful when she went to work in Arlington.
After a year, she moved to the Air Force Employee Relations section. “That was not my favorite but it was extremely instructive, dealing with daily problems and getting backstairs insights into how big bureaucracy works. It was a very interesting time. President Eisenhower was cutting back the civil service to raise money for the country’s new freeway system and a massive reduction in the federal government was the result, without much drop-off in efficiency. Washington D.C. was also a very interesting place to live of course; really fascinating, and we had a wonderful time exploring it. Too bad about the climate though!”
Richard was done by 1957 and he went to work for the Department of Agriculture. Gene was getting itchy feet and wanted to do some traveling. She nagged Richard to transfer to the Agency for international Development and eventually, with the awful weather playing its part, he agreed. “He piddled around with agriculture for a year or so and then in 1959 he joined the Agency in D.C. Over the next couple of years I quit my job and had two children – John in 1961 and Serena in 1963. Then in the spring of 1964, Richard was assigned to El Salvador and we moved there; kids and cat too. We had a wonderful time for three years before he was re-assigned to Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 for two years, which became four in the end. I returned to Washington in 1967 and raised the children. I joined a marvelous baby-sitting club in which you could accumulate hours worked and then turn them in later for whatever time you wanted off. That meant I could enroll as a ‘Teacher of English as a Second Language’ and taught Cuban refugees in the evenings.”
“After two years, the children and I went out to join Richard but we lived in Thailand – a ‘safe home’ for families of American personnel in Vietnam. That was a terrific time – a whole new place to ‘play’. The kids went to school but I was not allowed to work, my ‘orders’ being to ‘assist in the representation element of your husband’s position in the Foreign Service’ and we were graded on that. Some might think that it was intolerable and some wives did not like it, but on the other hand, over the years I got to learn in great depth about the four very different cultures in El Salvador, Thailand, Indonesia, and India. We had a nice house, medical services and a very good support system for many things. I did a little volunteer work at times, including being a docent at the National Museum in Thailand. Following Thailand/Vietnam, we were in Indonesia from 1971 to 1973 then finally India from 1974 to 1979, at which point Richard retired. I found in general that the Thai people were very friendly, helpful and honest, whereas the Indonesians were constrained by their recent history and would adopt a rigid social behavior, telling you what they thought you wanted to hear rather than the reality. The whole experience was wonderful; I had always wanted to travel as long as I can remember and for this period of my life I did it extensively… A couple of strange things came out of all this. We were to buy our property on Holmes Ranch Road here in the Valley from the military officer who had been on the last helicopter out of Saigon in 1975. Somehow, a rumor got out around here that Richard was that guy. We thought it was quite a ‘useful’ rumor so we never addressed it either way. Then it was thought that in some way we worked for the C.I.A. in Indonesia during the overthrow of Sukarno’s government and the communist PKI Party in 1965, but we weren’t in Indonesia until 1971, It was another odd Anderson Valley rumor that was completely illogical but we didn’t get upset and just ignored it.”
Gene and Richard returned to the Bay Area and wanted to retire to Anderson Valley. “Richard had friends of his family who had vacationed in Mendocino on the coast and I had been through many times growing up, plus the scenery reminded me of Austin Creek and my campfire girl days. Back in 1962, when I pregnant with Serena, we had looked at property in Comptche but couldn’t afford it. However, in 1966, my sister found a spot there that we went in on with her and other friends. That is still ours and is being used by third generation now, but the zooming codes meant that we could not build for each family so we just had the one cabin there. We wanted something else nearby and in 1978 I found property on Holmes Ranch Road and we bought the twenty-acre parcel we have lived on ever since. After returning from our travels, we moved here full-time in 1979, living in a trailer while a house was built with neighbor Tom Jones’ help. We had found another culture to explore, had a vegetable garden, sheep, and dogs and cats and we soon got to know many Valley people through the endless pot lucks and parties held at every conceivable excuse.”
After living here for six months or so, Gene attended a Community Services District (C.S.D.) meeting to see how small communities are run. “It was me, five old guys, and Homer Mannix, the fire chief. I went mainly because we needed fire protection at the top of Holmes Ranch Road but I was also a reporter for Homer at his local newspaper – the A.V.A. (I later worked for Bruce Anderson for a time after he bought the paper from Homer, doing C.S.D. stuff, biographies and local news). At a meeting not long afterwards, they fired Homer which I have always thought was a catastrophe – he was a man with great vision. I was annoyed at the directors and applied for the C.S.D. manager position and got the job, which I performed for two years. There was still more improvements needed so I ran for and became the Director and did that for four years. During the eighties I also worked for Vicky Czapkay in the business office of the School District.”
By 1989, Gene’s mother was suffering from sever Alzheimer’s and Gene backed off from some of her activities to share in her mother’s care with her sister and a caregiver, spending lots of time down in Marin. The two children had grown up, finished college and were working, they had never settled in the Valley and neither had gone to school here – John was at Berkeley when his parents moved here and Serena stayed in the Bay Area with Gene’s sister and cousins for her final two years of high school. “It was a strange time for the schools system here in the late seventies – there were seven supervisors in a very short period of time.”
Gene’s mother passed away in 1993 and she and Richard returned to working on their house. “Once the roof, bathroom, and stove are working, things tend to go very slowly after that – we finally completed the house just this year with some wonderful bookshelves and cabinets by Steve Anderson who does such wonderful work.”
Gene’s primary activity in the community has been involvement with planning for the Valley’s future. “It has been very frustrating – people fight the same battles over and over. I worked with Barbara Goodell and Kathy Bailey on the A.V. Local Plan, a good plan, which is part of the County’s General Plan. It incorporated the ideas of over three hundred people and it relies for implementation on the revision of ordinances and laws to make it environmentally acceptable. Unfortunately the government is not going to do this – they say there is no money. It is very fashionable to talk about the County going broke and now we have been in limbo since 2009. A lot of it is just fads in thinking; hype and political manipulation. As I said, it’s very frustrating… As for the C.S.D. here in the Valley, they get no money from the county sales taxes. This could go towards providing some services such as a sewer system in Boonville but nobody there seems willing to look at this. The Teen Center is their current new program – that’s the most they can do I think. They could do a lot with grants, planning grants, construction grants, but there is little vision I’m afraid. Homer Mannix had the vision that is sorely missed today. He was way ahead of his time.”
I asked Gene for her responses to some of the issues that affect everyday life here in Anderson Valley. The wineries and their impact? – “I am as concerned with a lot of the social issues associated with the prevalence of wineries here, as much as with the economic story. Lots of the land here is under production and this monoculture takes away from the habitat of many life forms. Apart from the wildlife, the California wild flowers have taken a real beating and where there used to be poppies and lupines there are grapes. Also, the owners and many of the management class at the wineries are not permanent residents and therefore I’m not sure that they are personally involved or interested in the Valley’s well-being”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “Richard is on the air twice a month with his classical music show and I do like some of the programming – I love Ross Murray’s spot and enjoy listening to Norman deVall and Joy LaClair. However, I think there is far too much time spent on the marijuana issues – it’s so boring; and there is not enough local news. There is room for improvement certainly but it is tough to maintain it on a shoestring budget”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I really like parts of it, although the inaccuracies continue. Some parts I read religiously, some parts I never read. I wish Bruce would do more of his personal stories – they are very, very funny and true. Overall I think they do a very good job”… The school system? – “Well I am not involved anymore but I have been disappointed in some of the results I have seen. The continued participation by parents at all levels of their children’s education is very important. Meanwhile the work done at the Adult School has been a stellar accomplishment”… Changes in the Valley? – “There is a lot more traffic on the roads these days certainly. I think the changes in downtown Boonville are a great improvement, same with the Navarro Store, although the rest of Navarro is a blight on humanity.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Gene and asked her to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Wildlife, puppies, kittens, baby lambs.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The endless whining on television by people responding to questions from news commentators… The term ‘whatever’ – its implication that nothing matters is annoying.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “The absence of sound, the quiet…”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Moron music – thank you, Mark Scaramella for that phrase.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Roast leg of lamb with roast potatoes, and green peas; with a shrimp salad beforehand.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “The American author, Ursula Le Guin, who has written most notably in fantasy and science fiction although her works also explore Taoist, anarchist, ethnographic, feminist, psychological and sociological themes.
7. If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “My snorkel, my flips, and a good mat to sleep on.”
8. What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Well in certain company it would be ‘oh shit’.”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “I’ve never really had one. I have always liked to read and occasionally enjoy some handcraft projects. At the moment I am working on getting my Grandfather’s paintings at the S.F. Library being made more available commercially.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Probably an anthropologist or archeologist… Even a constitutional lawyer or perhaps a nurse – I enjoyed my time on the A.V. Ambulance crew.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “Restaurant work – that would be miserable I think.”
12. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was sixteen and we went to a dance – that’s what we did on Friday nights.”
13. What things have you found yourself doing that you said you’d “never” do? – “Urging my children to eat – my parents did that to me and I said I’d never do that to my kids.”
14. Tell me about a memorable moment in your life; a time you will never forget. “Hiking in Tuolumne with my mother and sister. We reached a ridge top and saw the moon rising and the sun setting. I had a sort of epiphany about participating in eternity.”
15. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “I try not to be too proud. I am happy that I’ve gotten this far and that I’m still somewhat together.”
16. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The births of my two kids.”
17. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “The day my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
18. What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I try to be responsible and competent if I am going to do something.”
19. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well if he said ‘There’s lots more out there to explore’ I’d be happy with that… That was a long interview for you, I’m sure – I guess the moral is to interview younger people!”

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)  

Tim Bates – December 31st, 2010

I met with Tim in the spacious kitchen that is used for cooking classes at his Apple Farm business on the Philo-Greenwood Road and we sat down to talk at the large dining table.
Tim is the oldest of three children born to Donald Bates and Eunice Radford, his siblings being David and Sherrie, each born two years apart. The family is of English/Scottish heritage on both sides although Tim has little knowledge beyond the fact that the Bates side had been in Michigan for a couple of generations and the Radford’s perhaps for one. “I know my Dad was a butcher in a town near to Detroit but on being discharged from the navy at the end of World War 2, he disembarked in Vallejo, California and thought ‘this is nice.’ He had been dating my mother back in Michigan and at some point over the next year or two they were married and decided to move out here, settling in Napa, where I was born in 1948.”
In those days Napa had a population of about 9,000 (not the 70,000 or so of today) and was basically a bedroom community, as they were called, for the two large industries nearby – the Mare Island Naval Base and Kaiser Steel. “My Dad was a butcher at a large store before becoming the general manager at a smaller establishment – most grocery stores had a section for a butcher in those days. We lived at the south end of town and the houses were basic blockhouses, many duplexes, surrounded by fields and ditches where we’d play. There were also lots of uninhabited hills in those days and of course the ‘dangerous’ reservoir where we’d often hang out. I did some fishing down towards the Bay, in what is now an area where you see vineyards everywhere. After kindergarten and 1st grade we moved to the Westwood district where I went to what the N.Y. Times called ‘the most modern school in the U.S.A.’ – it had lots of windows. I then went to Ridgeview Junior High and then Napa High.”
Tim was a “semi-industrious” kid with a paper route and a number of lawns to mow. During the summers, he and his friends would also pick plums that became prunes in one of the three de-hydrators in Napa at that time. “We’d work from 6am to noon by which time it was too hot, getting 25 cents for each 50 pound box. Of course we’d inevitably have lots of plum fights. I spent most of my money on Levi jeans, Converse sneakers, and if I was lucky, perhaps a Pendleton shirt… It was too hot for apples really but Napa had walnuts, pears and cattle, and only about 400 acres of vineyards back then – the Beringer Winery, Christian Brothers, and Beaulieu vineyards were there then.”
‘I hung out with a group of friends and we’d play cards, bicycle everywhere, play a little baseball, some tackle football, and in the summer hang out at the recreation center. I liked sports and we played pick-up football games for years – they were great times, but I was not good enough to play on the school teams. My Mom was into sending us to summer school – not because of poor grades, I had a B+ for most of the time, but just to make sure we were kept busy. She would enroll us for art, clay modeling, and Spanish classes when I was younger but later I did subjects that gave me some units towards graduation. All that finally stopped by 10th grade fortunately. I stopped the picking by then too – it was not cool unless you got a job picking walnuts which paid much better.”
Tim played the clarinet in the band in 5th through 10th grades – “because I couldn’t play the trumpet. I would also go to the Saturday matinees almost every weekend. I’d mow a lawn for 35 cents and it would cost 25 cents to get in and 5 cents for candy or popcorn. I loved it – The Three Stooges, The Bowery Boys, Little Rascals, and of course the science fiction and horror movies of the time. Our family would also sit down and watch a film on the television on Sunday nights and have milkshakes and popcorn. Our family was not particularly close but my parents were very fair with us. They were quite firm with us – it was the fifties – and they based their parenting on work for rewards.”
By the beginning of his senior year, in the fall of 1965, Tim had become aware of the growing changes in modern culture – he had discovered the Beatles and grown his hair. “I got some John Lennon glasses, although I didn’t need them to see better, and was in a clique of friends at school all into the same thing. It was not the top tier group, we were the second tier in trying to be cool.”
He graduated from high school in 1966 and went to Napa Jr. College for two years. “I had some really good teachers in that time and education became more interesting to me and less structured. Some friends from Napa had enrolled at U.C. Berkeley so I’d visit them there while another friend, Gary Meyer, had been showing 8mm movies in his barn since Junior High where I got to see ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, and ‘The Seventh Seal’ for the first time – all three very different from anything I’d seen before and major influences on me in terms of my lifelong love for film.”
Like many others of that generation living in and around San Francisco, Tim experimented with Marijuana and L.S.D. during this time and also became politically aware and active. “At the Junior College I was part of a group that advocated alternative candidates for class President and I attended many anti-war protests. I guess I really embraced the counter-culture movement that was everywhere around me. A teacher at high school had introduced me to the music of Bob Dylan, and while I originally liked the Beatles and the pop stuff, I soon got into the Rolling Stones and as time went on I was really into all the bands that played such a big part in the hippie movement of the time – the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and particularly Jimi Hendrix, who I saw three times live. My first rock concert was in 1967 at the Longshoreman’s Hall in the City and saw The Doors open for The Seeds and The Rascals – that was a major event for me and I attended many performances at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom over the next couple of years. My mother didn’t approve of all this and I remember she threw out an album of mine by the controversial comedian, Lenny Bruce. I was into all aspects of this new scene and read the books of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, wore my hair long, with beads, and had my ear pierced.”
In 1968 Tim transferred to S.F. State to continue his studies. His filmmaker friend Gary worked there in the Audio-Visual department and helped Tim get part-time work there too. “This was a big change for me. Napa was lilywhite, but now I met black people for the first time really. With three friends I rented a huge house a few blocks from the college and we had a big old lot of fun for quite a few years. I got more into the civil rights and anti-war protest movements and I personally broke the College President’s window twice. I was chased through the streets by cops on horses with big sticks and I remember we tried to close down the bank of America and I was very close to getting arrested on that occasion. Unfortunately, my folks did see me on the television news and gave me one last chance or they would stop supporting me.”
Despite all of these extra-curricular activities, Tim was still reading a lot as he continued to study for his English literature degree. “I remember taking classes such as ‘Vonnegut the Absurd’ and ‘Primitive Drumming’. Teachers would invite you to give yourself a grade and so my grades certainly went up… I smoked a lot of dope and, after trying acid for the first time when the Beatles’ White Album’ came out, I dropped a lot of it – sometimes before classes. I even tried dealing the stuff but never sold a drop. At some point there were seven people in the house and we had Christmas lights on all year round. It was a very wild few years looking back… As for relationships, I enjoyed chasing girls but I’d always fall in love and then that would scare them off – most girls don’t like clingy and desperate men. Then I’d spend time alone in my room listening to the Beach Boys.”
In 1970, Tim received his degree from the President whose windows he had smashed but he continued to live in the house near to campus for nearly two more years. “My parents had split up and it was a strange time for me. I had got my college deferment for the draft and after working in a gas station for a time, my buddy Dan and I decided to go to Europe. We had a great time, first in England – I had been really into Brit bands like the Kinks, the Searchers and of course the Beatles and Stones, and then on to Scotland. I got to really like beer for the first time, particularly after being drunk for a week with two guys who gave us a ride and a place to stay. I had my first whisky in Scotland and we hitched everywhere. Then we crossed to France where nobody liked us. They ignored us in the cafes with our long hair and backpacks and we could not get any rides at all. Dan returned to the States so I caught a train to Germany and after that things went well as I hitched around Switzerland and Italy, paying $1 a night for hostels or being put up by friendly locals. I went on to Yugoslavia and finally Greece where I had heard there was an island called Mykonos where you could hang out naked, eat freshly caught fish, get drunk, and live in caves. It was true!”
Tim returned to the States in October 1970 to find that he would have to appear at the draft board office – he no longer had student deferment. He was in line at the physical when he decided to ask for conscientious objector status. They didn’t have the necessary papers for him to sign so he walked out. Two months later he was visited by the F.B.I. and told he would have to report. “I wasn’t going to shoot my toe off and I didn’t have asthma and so, with the thought of three years alternative service as a conscientious objector in my mind, when a friend of mine, John, from my days in Napa, thought we should ride bicycles to Canada to avoid the draft I thought that was the best plan. We cycled up Highway 1 for a time and took about three weeks in getting to Canada where I was to stay for nearly two years. There were plenty of other draft dodgers in the Vancouver area.”
Tim got his social security card and found himself working in various restaurants and then making waterbed frames – “it was a hot item…. I still did some pot smoking but not nearly as much L.S.D., and was into the new health food movement. I took some classes at the Free University and fell under the spell of a class called ‘Magick in theory and practice’ based on a book by occultist Aleister Crowley, and taught by an Anglican Priest. This turned out to be a serious occult endeavor. It was a sort of Gestalt therapy along with magic rituals that would help us to ‘lift the planet’s consciousness.’ I found myself in a house with several others in a twenty-four hour-a-day encounter group. I was convinced about a lot of stuff and was sure this was the fastest way to realize my higher self.”
When friends visited Tim from the States during this time they were worried about him. He was living in a house with twelve others and their priest and was clearly influenced by this man and their way of life. Tim had met a woman called Gail on the course but over time everything became too intense and after getting hives he moved out of the house. “I kept the restaurant job and Gail came and found me and we were married. It lasted about six weeks before her old boyfriend showed up and they got back together, in our house. Eventually we had had enough of our life there and those two wanted to go back to Montreal so the three of us caught a train and moved there. I once again found a job making waterbed frames for cash and claiming unemployment at the same time. Apart from some personal stuff, Canada was good to me – I loved the beer, the steak dinners, and I even got into ice hockey.”
Tim had money and found himself supporting the others. He still wanted to be with Gail and was becoming a nervous wreck as she remained with her boyfriend. The hives returned and he phoned his mother one day in some distress. ‘You’re not as far out as you think you are’ was her comment. He had had enough and decided to return to the U.S. in the early spring of 1973. “When I crossed the border at Burlington, Vermont, I was held by the border patrol. I was wanted by the F.B.I. for draft dodging and spent the next week in jail. I was advised by an attorney to waive my right to trial there and go to court in California. Two F.B.I. men put me in handcuffs for the plane ride back west. We sat in first class and I remember listening to the Grateful Dead on the headphones. I was ready to return.”
Tim met up with his old cohorts in Napa and he found work tearing down old barns that were in the way of the ever-expanding vineyards, and recycling the wood. He would hang out at a place called the Vintage Café in Yontville where two or three of his friends worked. “ I had hung out there many years earlier when at the junior college, cutting classes to sip espresso and play chess with my friend Ed. I did not have any full-time work and was hanging out there again, waiting for my trial date. That place had fantastic food, the best hamburger ever, and with my friends working there I got plenty of breaks. Then one day the cook cut himself and the owner, Sally Schmitt, asked if I wanted to work. The next day I am the fry cook in a very popular place, surrounded by friends and cute girls. Not long after I appeared in court and was acquitted due to the fact that I did not get my C.O. papers in the mail. We expected I’d get three years but I didn’t.”
Tim began hanging out with the owners’ daughter, Karen, and then on their first date he took her in his ’54 Chevy to go and see the latest Mel Brooks’ movie ‘Young Frankenstein’, which, being a Mel Brook’s fanatic, he’d seen a few times already. Apart from the odd shift, Tim left the café to take a job as a baker in Vallejo where he worked nights for three years. Karen became the manager of the restaurant and they were married in 1978. Around that time Sally and husband Don Schmitt opened what was to become a major landmark restaurant, ‘The French Laundry’ where Tim helped with the landscaping. Son Joe was born and soon afterwards Tim and Karen took a ranch caretaking job in Chiles Valley at the north end of Napa Valley. Karen continued to take some waitress shifts at the French Laundry while Tim babysat, having quit the bakery job.
“I learned quite a lot at that ranch job – particularly from their tree guy whom they had hired; also about tractors and orchard work too. The big problem was the woman we worked for. She was very difficult to deal with and after two years things came to a head and she fired us. Our daughter Sophia had arrived by this time and thankfully the French Laundry continued to be very successful meaning that Don and Sally were prepared to look for an investment somewhere. As a result we went in on a house with them in St. Helena and I started my own janitorial business and cleaned toilets etc for a couple of years, my main client being the Calistoga Inn.”
“We had grown tired of Napa and the increasing number of tourists. Meanwhile, Karen’s brother, Johnny, had driven through Anderson Valley a few years earlier and one day we had made trip up here with him. The Valley was similar in some ways to Napa but far smaller and so after another trip a few years later, when we camped at Hendy Woods, we checked out an apple orchard owned by the Schoenahl family. Don and Sally also checked it out and they were keen on something that was not just a home but a business too. In September 1983 we made an offer and after a few month’s of back and forth negotiations, the deal was made in January 1984, and the rest is history.”
It was a tough time at first with so much left that was worthless. Lots of renovation would have to be done. “We knew just one person here, Mike Langley, a friend from Napa, and he was a great help. It had basically been a farm labor camp and we were in a trailer at first while the house was worked on. We re-hired some of Schoenahl’s workers to do some major pruning – nothing had been done for three years and the fruit was small and scabby. Fortunately, we could get by raising the price for the fix-priced dinner at the French Laundry a little at a time – it went from $12.50 at the beginning to $48 seventeen years later at the time it was sold in 1994.”
Tim’s experience at the ranch earlier came in handy and the necessary equipment for running an apple orchard was purchased. The property is thirty-two acres, about twenty with apples, and Tim, having been into the idea of organic farming for many years, felt he had to learn about farming in general before he could do it that way. He was helped greatly by the Valley’s big apple producers, the Gowans, who bought his apples in the first few years and also showed him the ropes regarding pruning, thinning, weeding, mowing, and forklift driving. “I also learned that chemicals work very well but I didn’t want to use them. I was certified organic in 1986.”
Tim had about 2000 apple trees in the early days, mostly Golden Delicious, with a few Jonathan and Red Delicious, although over time the Sierra Beauty has become the Apple Farm’s signature apple. They also have one-and-a-half acres of Bartlett pears, and have found room for goats, chickens, horses, sheep, and then occasional pig. He became a member of the Mendocino chapter of the California Certified Organic Farmer’s, and later it’s president, which led him to being involved with the writing of many of the rules and regulations that exist in this field. “I am not a good leader as such but give me a sub-committee to work on and I will do well. I have made many proposals over the years and worked at the State level for fourteen years until the Feds took over and it got way out of hand so I stopped being involved in that side of things.”
Daughters Polly and Rita came along in 1988 and 1991 respectively and Tim and Karen built and moved into a rammed earth home on the property, where Rita was born. They made a groundbreaking move in 1994 when the very successful cooking classes were introduced for visitors to the Apple Farm by Sally Schmitt, which are now run by Karen following Sally’s retirement. Then some cabins were built for these people taking the classes to stay overnight thus offering a full weekend deal for visitors. This has been a great success and offset any down periods in the volatile apple market. “We have various wholesale outlets, two big ones being Monterrey Market in Berkeley, a ‘Mecca’ for top quality produce in the Bay Area, and Veritable Vegetables, but this has fallen to about 50% of our business with the rest coming from restaurants, retail, and direct to the customer at the farmers stand on site here, which Karen started in 1995, adding jams and jellies and chutneys etc over time. We also now offer the whole place for complete wedding packages and that is doing well also… I have learned so much about apples, although my knowledge is more from the emotive and passionate side than from an academic point of view. I am basically self-taught and do not have a degree from U.C. Davis!… I was dealing apples for a time but have now let that go, and we have less staff and fewer trees these days, with two thirds now replanted.”
A dozen or so years ago, Tim and several friends – Charlotte Triplett, Jeanne Eliades, Eric Labowitz, and Marie Goodwin, set up ‘Solstice Productions’ and showed films in the Valley, at the Veterans Hall mainly, and for three years in the late nineties they ran a film festival. He has now become involved with the current Film Festival team along with those same people, plus Heidi Knott and yours truly… He loves the Valley’s size and that it takes a determined person to visit and or settle here. “It is not a day-trip for most, as Napa is. What’s not to like here – we have Lemons’ Market – a real butcher!… Oh, but we currently don’t have a great bar that would be good for everyone to visit.”
It had been an unusually long chat so it was time to finish up. I asked Tim for his very brief thoughts on some Valley topics of interest… The Wineries? – “There is more than enough to be honest. We need another good row crop for some diversity. Water is a problem and I probably use more per acre than the wineries, but I do produce fifteen to twenty tons of food each year. Having said that I do like our wines”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “Great entertainment”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I was there at the beginning and had a show for fifteen years. I am glad it’s there”… The school system? – “Very tricky – I can’t complain, so I won’t. Polly went through there and got to Stanford so why people would take kids out and send them to Mendocino I’m not entirely sure, nor do I encourage it. We did that with Rita, although with her being the fourth it was a case of ‘whatever’ at that point, I think. Meanwhile cutbacks in the arts and sports cannot be good.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Tim and asked him to just reply off the top of his head…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Looking out at my Farm.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Not much. Perhaps the little things like the tractor not starting, a toilet not flushing right… oh and my arthritic knees.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Birds singing.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Goats that sound like a human baby that has fallen into an electric fence.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Well I’ll probably get into trouble for this but how about the perfect hamburger with grilled onions, fries, and two pints of beer.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “The author Herman Hesse.’
7. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The film would be ‘King Kong’ – the original of course; the book would be the complete works of Lawrence Durrell; and the song would be an album – ‘Aftermath’ – an early one by the Rolling Stones.”
8. What is your favorite word or phrase? – “It’s probably ‘Suure’, often said in a sarcastic way.”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Well I continue to be an avid reader, or perhaps it’s playing solitaire on the computer.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “An author.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “Well, I did clean out toilets so that’s out… Probably a coalminer.”
12. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “All those babies arriving.”
13. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “I’ve been very fortunate to this point. I was sad when my father died but as a family we were not close. Perhaps when my friend Mike died – he was one of the gang who played in those pick-up football games, a dear friend. Losing friends will be tough.”
14. What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I’m easy going and can always come up with an excuse for a beer – and that I very seldom get angry when I drink too much.”
15. Finally, if Heaven exists, what will God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “What do you want?”

Published in: on January 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment