BLACKHAWK

BLACKHAWK

From A Patchwork Memoir:

Earl and I are bound for Blackhawk in his red MG, the very same car and the very same route we took when I was seventeen. Actually, he has two MGs and goes to all the “Noggin and Natter” MG Club meetings held at various Bay Area pubs, as well as rallies, which are like treasure hunts with no treasure, only a secret destination that you find your way to by clues.

“Did you bring the spritzer?“ I ask anxiously. “It looks like a scorcher.” It gets so uncomfortable in the MG on a hot day, what with all the heat coming off the gear box, that the last time I spritzed a quart of water all over my face and clothes, drenching myself to keep cool. Going any distance with me and my back problem is a major production, so Earl always brings a small ice chest with two ice packs, as well as a special car cushion.

The mall is even prettier than I remember it. At one end is a modern fountain with tiered, round water tables, the runoff spilling under a bridge into a little lake that meanders between the shops and restaurants. It’s bordered by boulders, wild grass, and cattail reeds, and stocked with yellow and gold-spotted carp.

The Behring Museum is two stories, the black marble floors so shiny you can see almost as much detail in the gleaming reflections under your feet as you can in the antique cars all around you. There’s a 1926 Daimler made of German silver—so heavy they have trouble keeping the air in the tires, Earl instructs me. It was owned by a maharaja and has panes of smoked glass to hide his wives, an exterior wicker seat for the servant, and elaborate boa constrictor horns on each side. There are several Duesenbergs, including Clark Gable’s convertible coupe—they gave rise to the expression “It’s a duesy,” Earl explains. Also a 1931 Bugatti Royale made of thousands of small blocks of wood. What strikes me as funny about some of the earliest cars is that they’re conceptually incongruous—the cabs have the flowing lines of horse-drawn coaches, while the “business” ends look boxily like traveling chests.

One showstopper is rainbow-striped. “I wonder if that’s the original color,” muses Earl. “The cars I remember from my childhood were dark and somber. Henry Ford always said his customer could have any color they wanted, as long as it was black.”

I remark on the fact that many of the cars have TWO spare tires. Tire technology wasn’t all that advanced in those days, he tells me—and his family invariably had a flat on the way to Cape Cod every summer.

He explains to me about disk wheels versus spoke wheels that have to be tuned for tension and points out “artillery” wheels, which got their name because they have wooden spokes like cannon caissons.

Later we sit at the other end of the lake at a table with white linen under a canvas umbrella. A female mallard is snoozing on a boulder just beyond our table. When the waitress brings the bread, the duck rouses herself suddenly. Joined by her mate, they peer expectantly over the edge of the table at us, as irresistible as begging dogs at the family dinner table.

“Did I ever tell you about my Dad’s feud with our neighbor, Jack Landis?” I ask Earl, who shakes his head. I know I probably have, so I’m glad he’s almost as forgetful as I am (though he has the excuse of age) and I get to tell my stories more than once without having to worry about being a bore.

“When I went to Minnesota for my high school reunion,” I say, “My dad and I went back to see the old Dudley house together. He reminisced about how he’d bought me a duckling and built a small cage for it out of wood and chicken wire. The cage was just a little 12” box, so, as the duck grew, there was hardly room for it to turn around. Our neighbor, Jack Landis, told my dad it was cruel to keep a duck in such a small space, so my dad called the University Farm Campus and asked someone over there their opinion; he was assured it wasn’t inhumane, he claimed. He told me all this bitterly, still as angry at Jack as if it had happened yesterday.”

Besides believing animals couldn’t “know” anything, I remind myself, my father didn’t believe they had any feelings either—and I realize that in some way I’ve always identified with my duckling, as though my father built a cage for me, too, that I remained imprisoned in for many years.

SNEAKER WAVE

SNEAKER WAVE

It may seem paradoxical that, being as hypochondriacal as I am, I’m liable to risk life and limb when it comes to taking on challenges of nature. If there’s a promontory, I have to walk out to the very edge of it—to Earl’s chagrin; he’s afraid the ground beneath me is going to give way. Or I’m apt to climb up rocks I’m going to have trouble getting down, with no tread on my Reeboks and not a hell of a lot of strength. Or to wade into powerful river currents that could sweep me away. I’d like to think I have a reasonably good sense of what to attempt and what not to, but… As a child I was a tomboy, a rough-and-tumble little girl, and sometimes, despite my physical limitations, she still holds sway.

                                                                              …

On the phone, waiting for Earl to come up from his basement studio, Pippa—his roomer—tells me she loves the snapshot Earl took of me and my Reebok.

“’She has no fear,’ he says about you,” she confides.

“I used to have that photo on the Desktop of my computer,” I admit.

Then I tell her the whole story—how I tried, in my bare feet, to scale a huge rock on the cliffside of Stinson Beach after naively leaving my Reeboks on a ledge about four feet above the sand. I hadn’t clambered very far when a huge sneaker wave (a pun, I just realized) swept in and carried one of my shoes out to sea. “Fifty bucks down the drain!” I’d wailed tragically to Earl. But moments later, a second great wave carried it partway back. So of course I dashed out into the surf, knowing this would be my last chance to recover my investment. Earl snapped me at the moment I turned, white parka soaked to the neck, and triumphantly waved my rescued Reebok.

When Marga— from my Artist’s Way group—heard the story, she cried, “Oh, my God, Callie! You can’t do that! People are killed every year by sneaker waves. Next time, please remember I said I’d buy you another pair of Reeboks.”

OK, OK. I’ll try.

HAIRPIN TURNS

HAIRPIN TURNS

Besides having introduced me to the girls who became my teenage tribe, Linda introduced me to another of the major players in my life that same summer of our double date. She was living with the Steinkes at the time—her family‘s next-door neighbors—who were close friends with Earl and his second wife, Irene. Earl was teaching an adult education painting course in Walnut Creek—something he did for many years—and was looking for models. After Linda had modeled a few times for his class, she told Earl about me. And I followed suit. In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

Earl was fortyish, handsome, dashing, his hair turned prematurely white. He drove me to his class in Walnut Creek in a red MG, up the wooded roads above Strawberry Canyon, taking the hairpin curves—turns so tight you can see your own license plate, he joked—at breakneck speed and scaring me out of my wits. He was so attractive, it was hard to tell if the fluttering in my stomach afterwards was from the ride or—well, but…he was old enough to be my father.

Earl would become a paternal friend of Linda’s in the years to come, the person she went to when she was in crisis. But it was only decades later that he re-entered my life.

(I love this picture of him in his garden, where he used to grow corn and the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted!)

SEVENTY-FIVE

SEVENTY-FIVE

Today is Earl’s birthday—and in honor of the occasion, I’m posting a vignette I wrote for A Patchwork Memoir:

I hate shopping for men—I never know what to get—and shopping for Earl is no exception. For his last birthday, he mentioned he needed a turkey platter, so that’s what I bought, but this year he’s no help at all, insisting he doesn’t need anything. Whatever I choose, it’s got to be something special, since he’s turning seventy-five—pressure, pressure. Well, he’s covered one wall of his small basement, floor to ceiling, with snapshots—but they’re all of cars and, almost incidentally, people. So why not buy him an album for the nature photos we take when we’re out together? I consider.

I’m squatting on the floor of Radston’s Stationers with albums of various dimensions, trying to figure out which one best accommodates both vertical and horizontal compositions. I didn’t think to bring any of my photos, so I experiment with different layouts using a 4”x 6” picture frame from the shelf. I finally choose a handsome old-fashioned album with paper guaranteed not to yellow. At home I fill it with all my latest pictures—the spiraling staircase of the Pigeon Point lighthouse, that crazy shingled house in Miramar Beach with a wooden angel on the roof, those bizarre rock formations on an unnamed beach that looked like something from an alien world. Then I search among my collection of greeting cards. “People jumped up and down the day you were born. Of course, the earth’s crust was still cooling back then.”

Earl arrives in a very blue jacket—he’s taken to wearing western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and string ties. He told me to dress up and, since I’m always looking for an excuse to wear glitz, I’ve got on a blouse with a yoke of sequins. He opens his present in the cab of his truck. “You must have ESP!” he says, delightedly. “I was just thinking about putting together a ‘Beautiful California’ album—of your photos and the ones I’ve taken over the years at Tahoe and Yosemite…”

He won’t tell me where we’re going to dinner, though. “Is it somewhere we’ve been before?” I ask when we’re underway, hoping to pry a clue out of him. He tries to throw me off track by taking a round-about route, but pretty soon I guess it’s the Santa Fe Bar and Grill—the “crawdad” restaurant.

(And here I should explain that Earl refused to take me to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill last Christmas Eve because the year before they served him a lobster without claws. I was so disappointed I decided to call the restaurant and demand an explanation but didn’t need to because Igor, my Alexander Technique teacher, provided one first. “If I tell you why your lobster didn’t have claws, will you take me back to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill?” I’d asked Earl. “It better be good,” he’d warned. “Because western lobsters don’t have claws!” I’d said smugly. But it turned out the Bar and Grill wasn’t open that Christmas Eve anyway. And now Earl insists on calling our native arthropods “crawdads.”)

Though it’s one of the swankest eating spots in Berkeley, the Santa Fe Bar and Grill is located along a seamy stretch of University Ave., between a Jay Vee liquor store and what looks like a condemned motel. Once the Berkeley train station, it’s now a pale sandstone color, inside and out, with tall paintings of people on trains, and a grand piano and pianist in the center. We’re seated at a window table looking out on a garden—squat palms and over-sized jungle plants screen out the traffic and ramshackle neighborhood.

“When Kevin and Billy (his stepsons) were kids,” he waxes nostalgic, “Irene and I would pack them and all our camping gear in the MG and go camping at Tahoe. This was back in the days when sleeping bags were really bulky—like army surplus-type stuff—so when we hiked, I’d wind their bags around them and tie them at the waist with string. Kevin was always complaining, so we gave him the Indian name ‘Walking Tongue.’ Billy couldn’t sit still, so he was ‘Wiggly Willie.’”

After Earl and Moira were divorced, he remarried on the rebound—Irene, who was a pianist. She was zealous about a succession of causes, Earl has told me more than once, and he could always tell what their Thursday night fight would be about by the most recent book she had on her nightstand. She would take him to task as though he were personally responsible for the latest social ill to spark her indignation. (He generally retreated to the garage and tinkered with his MG.) Though their marriage only lasted eight years—Irene eventually went off to join a commune—I’ve always thought Billy and Kevin were lucky to have had Earl, if only for a while, as a stepfather.

“My family never went camping,” I say, “but my dad used to take Doug and me to stay at a cabin up in the northern wilderness of Minnesota. It was so wild back then, they were still discovering new lakes—as if 10,000 weren’t enough! One time we hiked through the woods, following red bands someone had painted on the trees to mark the trail, to one of them. I was disappointed it was so small, I remember, and that it didn’t look all that unspoiled—someone had left a rowboat on the shore, though how they managed to drag it through the woods, I couldn’t imagine. Sometimes we’d go fishing at dawn, and Dad would fry up some crappies for breakfast—or if we got lucky, a bass or northern pike.”

When the waiter comes to take our order, I’m still trying to decide. “Why is the duck always the best-sounding thing on the menu?” I grump. I like meat or fish with fruit—Café Select’s blueberry pork chops, Skates’ mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa…and duck usually comes with an orange sauce. Out of deference to the duckling I had as a child, however, I won’t eat its kind. They don’t have crappies or pike on the menu—no surprise—so I settle on the bass, out of nostalgia for those long-ago times, when I still had a father—of sorts.

TO A LIGHTHOUSE – Part III

TO A LIGHTHOUSE – Part III

On the road again, we head north to the town of Pescadero and Duarte’s restaurant, famous for its artichoke soup. It’s a rustic tavern with wood-paneled walls and huntsmen’s trophies overhead—sets of deer antlers with and without heads. I marvel again at how beautiful deer faces are and wonder how anyone can bear to shoot them.

Earl tells me about his friend Hank from his Greenwich Village days answering a classified ad for a used something-or-other—and after going to buy it from the seller, commenting to Earl ingenuously, “And isn’t it a coincidence that his name was Norman Mailer, just like the novelist?” Earl’s circle of friends and acquaintances back then included Jack Kerouac, as well as Mailer, and other up-and-coming writers and artists of the time. He lived on the fourth floor of what had been a factory with his wife Moira, who was also a painter—and looked like the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, he swears. The “loft,” as they called it, was 2500 square feet (with the requisite skylights), which his friend Jimmy and he partitioned into three studios and a living space, using the wood from packing crates they scavenged in the neighborhood. He and Moira had a Siamese cat named Sheba that gave birth to a strange litter of kittens—Eightball, Oddball, Blackball, and Fink, they called them. Eightball, the one they kept, was huge and curly-haired, which led them to speculate he might have been sired by a bobcat. He used to climb up the back of Earl’s easel and jump up into one of the skylights, where he hunkered down on a beam and watched Earl paint with rapt attention for hours on end.

“Did you and Moira have a church wedding?” I ask. They were married by a Unitarian minister, he says, and Moira wore a blue cocktail dress. They had to cut back the guest list when her father, a graphic artist who worked for Disney, among other jobs, went bankrupt for the umpteenth time, and they realized they were going to have to pay for the wedding themselves. But the celebrated painter Hans Hoffman, Earl’s mentor, attended with his wife. And their weird friend Syd, who, after poring over the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, showed up at the Hoffman School, announcing at the reception desk he wanted to learn to paint like Delacroix. “That’s good enough,” said Hoffman, who happened to be standing nearby—and promptly admitted him.

When Earl talks about Moira, I think to myself, “She was the love of his life.” And I wonder how much competition had to do with the failure of their marriage. “If I was the better painter, she was the better artist,” Earl once told me. But the art world has always been an exclusive men’s club—and so while Earl won prizes and was offered teaching positions, Moira was left to watch from the sidelines.

TO A LIGHTHOUSE – Part II

TO A LIGHTHOUSE – Part II

                                                                 Outside the lens

After we’ve bought our tickets, we have to scuttle to catch up with the last tour. A hundred and thirty-five steps, our guide tells us. (Earl essays them despite his bad leg.) I’m secretly grateful for the pauses at various landings while she instructs us—and try not to huff and puff too wheezily, so no one will know how out of shape I am. Now electrified, our guide explains, the lens used to be turned by a weight on a pulley that sank into a six-foot well at the base of the lighthouse. The wrought-iron steps were ordered from San Francisco, then couldn’t be assembled without help from the manufacturer because no one could figure out the numbering system—and, of course, they had to be arranged in descending—er, ascending?—order of length. They’re anchored to a wall within a wall, she continues, since wrought iron is subject to corrosion by the elements.

At the top is a Fresnel lens, designed by the French physicist in 1822. It’s like a four-ton cocoon of prisms—a thousand of them, arranged in vertical rows to magnify and bend the light of the thousand-watt bulb within. In the days before electricity, the guide informs us, the lighthouse keeper had to climb inside to cut the wicks of the oil-burning lamp and polish the prisms ceaselessly to wipe off the soot.

There are drapes half-drawn across the windows that surround us. At the Point Reyes lighthouse—where Earl and I have also been—they have to keep the drapes closed on the land side, she tells us. Otherwise, the lens would focus the sunlight like a magnifying glass and set fire to the hillside.

                                                                   Inside the lens

TO A LIGHTHOUSE – Part I

TO A LIGHTHOUSE – Part I

“Hi! It’s me!” I greet Earl when he answers the phone. “Hi, me!” he humors me. (Pippa, his boarder, tells me when Earl recounts one of our adventures he always begins, “Me and I…”) “I’m feeling stir-crazy,” I complain. “Wanna go for a drive?”

The day is bright and chilly, with a blustery wind, I discover when I sally out to his red truck. “I guess the beach is out,” says Earl—and suggests we drive inland to the wine country. Not easily deflected from my purpose, I trot back inside for my mittens and earmuffs. Earl says wryly that he’s going to have to find himself a landlubber for days like this.

“It’s not going to rain, is it?” I wonder out loud. “The weather man says no,” he assures me. But I’m not convinced. I’ve been waking to brilliant sunshine, nodding off again—I’ve been sleeping especially fitfully lately—and waking later to a dark, disgruntled sky dumping rain all over everything. Typical November contrariness. A couple of mornings ago, the whole east had a deep pinkish gold glow at dawn, as theatrical as a sunset. But an hour later, it was grim and stormy. “Uh-oh,” I say, spotting a single puff of cloud on the horizon, at this distance the size of a marshmallow.

The ocean is simply too blindingly bright to look at without sunglasses when we reach it. “I doubt our nudist is out today,” I observe as we pass high above his beach. He’s there, but bundled up.

We continue south to the second Pescadero Beach—there are two in a row; the more distant one, we discover, is barely walkable, it’s so littered with stones. Golden brown and ranging in size from a fist to a hassock, they’re covered with blackened seaweed—small rubbery leaves and fibrous clumps like Brillo pads.

Through a channel between boulders, I see the water seething oddly high above me. Intermittent gusts of wind are blowing flurries of foam at me, wads of it, pelting me like bullies throwing snowballs. It must have bombarded a lot of beachcombers before us, because there’s foam everywhere, settled among the rocks like snowdrifts. When I round a bend, I see an entire foam bank, impassable because you can’t tell what’s under it. I proceed carefully from stone to slippery stone around its perimeter. The illusion is you could step between them, but I quickly discern there are tide pools underneath.

I make my way gingerly out on a wall of rock, finding sure hand- and footholds, to get to a position where I can take pictures facing away from the sun. Even then I know there’s probably too much contrast—but I take snapshot after snapshot anyway. (The great thing about being a novice photographer is you get to live in a fool’s paradise, since you’re not all that clear about the limitations of film yet.) When I’ve taken a dozen, I notice belatedly that the lens is covered with a fine mist. “Ratso Rizzo!” I think peevishly. He was the character Dustin Hoffman played in the movie Midnight Cowboy, I realize, upon wondering where that expression came from. Earl hollers to me that he’s getting cold—and heads back to the car.

So we drive further south to the Pigeon Point lighthouse, which has tours on Sundays. 

 

SHELTERS

SHELTERS

Another major player in my life—my painter friend Earl Pierce. In A Patchwork Memoir, I wrote about several of our outings together:

Earl and I are tootling south along the coast highway in his truck; he’s telling me jokes about flying. Advice to a pilot (he was one in WWII): “Try to make the number of landings equal the number of takeoffs.” And “Helicopters can’t really fly—they’re just so ugly the earth repels them.” He’s wearing a new black shirt, instead of his usual red one with red suspenders. With his white beard shaved off, kids no longer mistake him for Santa Claus. His jaw and neck are still taut, I notice, and clean-shaven he looks years younger.

When his truck and the car on the cross street both start into the intersection at the same time, he sighs, “I don’t care which of us goes first; just so we don’t tie.” Behind an old lady who’s crawling along at fifteen miles an hour, he prods, “OK, now. You can pedal faster.”

We haven’t gone far before I spot strange constructions along the beaches below. They appear to be made of driftwood—too small for teepees, too big for bonfires. “Pull over!” I cry when I see a perfect little cove, trammeled only by plovers. He does, but looks at me sorrowfully. That’s when I remember his leg is bothering him. So we drive on, out of the hills, to where the road is level with the sea, and pull in at Pescadero Beach.

Here the structures have more fanciful shapes. They’re shelters, I realize. An elderly man lies sleeping in one, while a couple picnics in another. They’re constructed all cockamamie with any kind of driftwood at hand—logs, tree roots, branches, planks—all worn smooth and gray, and cunningly leaned, stacked, and interlocked. Some are long and low tunnels; others have windows facing the water.   Still others are too small for anyone but kids. “Welcome” is written on one, “Keep Out” scrawled on its child-sized annex. Charmed—they remind me of the forts I built in my childhood—I plop down in one, and Earl joins me, the two of us shielded from the wind.

Earl reminisces about his army days, saying that he may have been the youngest pilot in the Army Air Corps; he enlisted at eighteen, then was rushed through training, since the war was winding down. He flew C-37s—cargo planes—full of Jerry cans of fuel for the tankers that Patton abandoned when they ran out of gas.

The Americans flew in tight formation, he says, and joked about the British RAF’s lack of same, saying, “Same day, same direction.”

He describes the K-rations they lived on—cheese, crackers, and a slab of Spam—and the 1-in-10 rations—canned hash or spaghetti—they considered a luxury. They would poke the cans full of holes, so they wouldn’t explode, and heat them up by sticking them in a valve at the back of the plane. In the winter they washed their clothes in airplane fuel—they got cold, he explained, running around in only their skivvies and it was a fast way to get the job done. Then they hung them out to dry on the wings of the plane.

After the war, he went to see “With God as My Copilot” with George, one of the navigators. “The way the author described his exploits,” Earl had said, “you would have thought he won the war single-handedly.” “No wonder God only made copilot,” George observed.

Since he hadn’t finished his tour of duty when the war ended, Earl flew feeder planes carrying refugees back to their native countries. Though the planes were designed to carry fifteen people at most, they were able to crowd in twenty-five to thirty because the refugees, concentration camp victims, were so emaciated none of them weighed more than a hundred pounds.

We decide to head south to Santa Cruz for dinner, but on the way we pass San Gregorio Beach, where I spot more makeshift shelters. Of course I have to go exploring them all. They’re more ambitious than the ones we saw before, the driftwood lashed together with cords of kelp and decoratively draped with seaweed like bunting. The sand is so fine, it feels silky to the touch, but it’s hard to walk on because of the sharp little fragments of driftwood scattered throughout.

Here the waves roll in in four or five tiers and the dark sand separates out from light in a chevron pattern, ranks of spearheads that diminish in size to tiny arrowheads at the water line. I pull up my pants legs as far as I can and go scampering in the surf, but not too far out because of “sneaker waves”—and because a great white shark was recently spotted at Stinson Beach to the north.

Later, in Santa Cruz, we have dinner on the pier and watch the fishing trawlers come in at sunset. Earl tells me the story of Vally, short for Valentine, a wealthy, eccentric widow he knew when he was living as a struggling painter in Greenwich Village. “If she wasn’t served promptly in a restaurant,” he said, “she’d take out her cigarette lighter and announce loudly, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to set fire to the menu.’”

On the way home, taking the coast highway again, there’s a single streak of cloud on the horizon that catches all the colors of the setting sun. The whole west is rosy-gold above the navy blue waves. I see the shadow of Earl’s truck racing along beside us, so clearly I can make shadow puppets. Sometimes it doubles suddenly—a tiny truck poised atop a larger one. Sometimes the shadow reaches half-way across the cultivated fields. I see an arrow of pelicans in formation, so I tell Earl about the wily bird that perches atop the pelican’s forehead and, when its host lets the water out of its beak pouch before swallowing, it steals its catch. The highway is barely traveled now, the beaches deserted.   When I remember those driftwood wind blocks in years to come, I muse to myself, I know I’ll always think of Earl—and the sheltering presence he has been in my life.