Sea Anemones Go to War… Harris Beach State Park

It’s the first day of spring here in the Applegate River Valley, and behaving like it. I watched two male flickers (woodpeckers) strutting their stuff this morning for a female while she studiously ignored them by pecking at the ground. One very pregnant doe was busy chasing off her twins from last year. She’ll soon have a new fawn— or fawns— to take care of. And, the swallows have arrived back in our neighborhood. Their aerial performances are truly amazing. Before long, they will start checking out our oak trees and bird houses for possible nesting sites. 

The first of our daffodils have burst into bright yellow blooms, shooting stars are covering the hillsides, and irises are popping up everywhere. Peggy and her sister Jane dug up our iris bed last year to separate the bulbs that were crowding each other out. Peggy discovered that there were more than she could possibly plant, so she started stuffing the extras into gopher holes and covering them— like you might sweep dirt under a rug. Well, that’s what I thought. The gophers will have a feast. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each hole is now proudly sporting its own iris and Peggy is giving me an “I told you so” look.

And what else happened this morning? There was snow, rain and sunshine. Sometimes simultaneously. Spring has arrived for sure.

Meanwhile, I have a nasty cold. “We don’t likes it,” as Gollum of Hobbit fame would say. I have a box of Kleenex on one side and a paper bag on the other. I feel like I am an essential part of an assembly line for creating dirty tissues. Pull a Kleenex out of the box, sneeze into it, and stuff it in the bag. Repeat. I filled two bags yesterday. I’d be worried in this age of Covid, but my sniffer is working fine, I don’t have a fever, and Peggy and I had our second dose of Moderna in February. 

I was totally out of it yesterday and the day before. Instead of writing, I read a 400-page fantasy novel about a reluctant hero, a kick-ass princess, a unicorn without a horn, and a dragon that collected butterflies instead of virgins and gold. It was just what the doctor ordered. I’m almost human today, which is why I am back to blogging. Today I am returning to the tide pools of Harris Beach for a look at sea anemones.

The sea anemones at Harris Beach come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This was one of the larger ones we found, a giant, green sea anemone or Anthopleura xanthogrammica, if you want to be scientifically correct.
A more typical view. The tentacles are covered in stinging cells that the anemone throws into small prey like a harpoon. Once the poison has done its job, the anemone then uses its tentacles to work its prey into the gaping mouth seen in the center. When the feast is over it jets the leftovers out its mouth that has conveniently become an anus. I wonder if the anemone then gargles with sea water. The anemones stinging cells are more or less harmless to humans. How do I know this? I petted a few in my youth. The anemones don’t seem to like it; they immediately close up shop, like the anemones below.
A few of the big guys hanging out together at low tide. Anemones close up when exposed to air as a way to protect their tentacles. A small, dark fish is lurking in the remaining water. Some small fish seem to have a symbiotic relationship with anemones and swim among the tentacles, free of worry. Predators beware.
I found this interesting. A number to the anemones were covered in brightly colored pieces of rocks and shells. Scientists speculate that this serves as a natural sunblock when the anemone is exposed to air at low tide. I was curious about how they go about gathering and affixing their collection but couldn’t find anything about it.
Some smaller sea anemones live in colonies as seen here. These are clones of each other except they differentiate into scouts, warriors and moms. When two colonies meet, they go to war. It’s the scouts job to find new territory for the colony as it expands. When they come on another colony, the warriors take over by whaling away at each other with their tentacles. The ‘moms’ stay in the middle out of harm’s way. Next Friday, I’ll cover the other sealife we found in the tide pools.

NEXT POST:

Monday’s Blog-a-Book Post… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I move outside to commune with nature in the summer but the ghosts continue to haunt our backyard. I hire the family pets for protection. They charge a high fee.

Held at Gunpoint: Training for Berkeley, and the Peace Corps… Part 2

In my last blog-a-book story from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I introduced the tale about getting caught in a laundry takeover by armed men in South Lake Tahoe, California where I was working at the time. Today, I will conclude that story.

Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and noted for its clear blue water, Lake Tahoe is one of the top resort areas in the world. The laundry I worked at was located in South Lake Tahoe. This map also shows the route I followed from Placerville to the Lake along Highway 50. Three years ago, I hiked from I-80 to Highway 50 through the mountains as part of the 750 miles I backpacked to celebrate my 75th Birthday.

My humdrum, ant-like existence of delivering linens to the motels of South Lake Tahoe came to a dramatic end the morning I heard the roar of laundry trucks firing up an hour before they were supposed to. I threw on my clothes, sidestepped the gunman guarding my door and jumped into my car. The guard immediately repositioned himself as a hood ornament and looked threatening. Guys with guns can do that.

“Don’t be worried, Curt,” a familiar voice told me.

“Right,” I thought as I checked out the tough looking goon. I turned my head and spotted Woody, our lead driver. “What in the hell is going on?” I demanded.

“We’ve taken over the laundry,” Woody replied casually. 

The next question followed naturally: Who in the hell constituted we? Woody had an answer for that, too.

“I work for the people that Douvres screwed when he took the laundry back,” he told me. “We’re here legally. These armed men are professional security guards we hired to protect our interests.” Apparently Woody had been quietly arranging a coup while taking Roger’s money.  

“I am leaving now,” I informed Woody.

“I don’t think so,” Woody replied. “Relax, it will all be over in a few hours and you can go to work for us.”

I was beginning to feel like I had been caught up in a B-grade movie. 

“Woody, you are not going to shoot me,” I said with a lot more confidence than I felt. “Tell the man to get out of my way.” I was irritated to the point of irrationality. I turned on the car and started rolling forward. At the last possible moment, when it was clear that I intended to keep going, Woody motioned for his man to move. I was glad they couldn’t hear my sigh of relief over the sound of the engine.

Once away from the laundry, I shoved the gas pedal down and made a dash for Cefalu’s house. I knocked on the door of the dark house and was surprised to find Roger open it in his pajamas. He’d come up the night before.

“What’s wrong, Curt,” he said sounding a little alarmed. Obviously, I wouldn’t show up at 6:30 a.m. to wish him good morning.

“Your laundry has been taken over by armed men,” I blurted out and then quickly filled in the details. Roger responded with an incredibly imaginative stream of swearwords. He grabbed his jacket, yelled for his daughter to call the sheriff and told me to jump in his truck. There are three red lights between where Cefalu lived and the laundry. We ran them all. Our truck screeched to a halt in front of the office and Roger jumped out with me close behind.

Fine, I thought to myself. I just escaped from this place and here I am back providing muscle back up for an angry man who is probably going to pop someone in the nose and get us both shot. Fortunately, there were a lot of words before any action, and the Sheriff’s deputy showed up with siren blasting. It would all be settled in court. I was still in one piece and my experience at facing armed men would make a good story. I had no clue at the time that it would also help prepare me for facing men with guns as a student at Berkeley and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa.

Roger and John were successful at winning the court battle but things continued to be crazy at the laundry. I returned to my more peaceful job of driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. All’s well that ends well, but the insanity of the laundry takeover was about to be replaced by the insanity of being at Berkeley in the 1960s when the University was at the center of a world-wide student rebellion. Join me next Wednesday as I head off to UC.

NEXT BLOGS

Friday’s Travel Blog Post: The sea anenomes are marching off to war at Harris Beach on Oregon’s coast plus other fascinating creatures that hang out in the tide pools of the Pacific Northwest.

On a Pitch-Black Night, Something Stalked Us in the Graveyard…

A bit older than five, I find that the Graveyard next to where I was raised no longer holds the terror it did for me as a child. Plus they have cut down all of the heavenly trees and ripped out the myrtle. It is no longer a jungle playground for local kids. What’s the fun in that?

My first ‘wilderness’ was the Graveyard. It was out the backdoor and across the alley. We lived with its ghostly white reminders of our mortality day and night. Ancient tombstones with fading epitaphs whispered of those who had come to seek their fortune in California’s Gold Rush and stayed for eternity. Time had given their resting place a sense of permanence and even peace. But not all of the graves were old. Occasionally a fresh body was planted on the opposite side of the cemetery. I stayed far away; the newly dead are restless.

At some time in the past, heavenly trees, an import from China, had been planted to shade aging bones. They behaved like weeds. Chop them down and they sprang back up, twice as thick. Since clearing the trees provided Diamond Springs Boy Scout Troop 95 with a community project every few years, the trees retaliated by forming a visually impenetrable mass of green in summer and an army of sticks in winter. Trailing Myrtle, a cover plant with Jurassic aspirations, hid the ground in deep, leafy foliage. 

The thick growing heavenly trees and trailing myrtle gave the Graveyard the appearance of a jungle when I was growing up. Compare this with the photo above!

During the day, it took little imagination to change this lush growth into a jungle playground populated with ferocious tigers, bone crushing boas, and half-starved cannibals. My brother Marshall and I considered the Graveyard an extension of our backyard. Since it was within easy calling distance of the house, our parents had a similar perspective. Either that or they were glad to get rid of us. The skinny heavenly trees made great spears for fending off the beasts, or throwing at each other. At least they did until we put one through a playmate’s hand. Neither he nor his parents were happy. Spear throwing was crossed off our play schedule. We turned to hurling black walnuts at each other instead. They grew in abundance on the trees in our front yard. Plus, we could toss them at passing cars on Highway 49. Screeching brakes and one really pissed-off guy brought that activity to a halt.

Night was different in the Graveyard— it became a place of mystery and danger. Dead people abandoned their underground chambers and slithered up through the ground. A local test of boyhood bravery was to go into the Graveyard after dark and walk over myrtle-hidden graves, taunting the inhabitants. Slight depressions announced where they lived. Marshall persuaded me to accompany him there on a moonless night. I entered with foreboding: fearing the dark, fearing the tombstones and fearing the ghosts. Halfway through I heard a muzzled sound. Someone, or thing, was stalking us.

“Hey Marsh, what was that?” I whispered urgently.

“Your imagination, Curt,” was the disdainful reply.

Crunch!  Something was behind a tombstone and it was not my imagination. Marshall heard it too. We went crashing out of the Graveyard with the creature of the night in swift pursuit, wagging her tail.

“I knew it was the dog all of the time,” Marsh claimed. Yeah, sure you did.

By the time I was five, I had made my first tentative trips into the Graveyard. One of my early memories was spying on Mr. Fitzgerald, a neighbor who lived across the alley. He’s dead now— and has been for decades— but at the time he was a bent old man who liked to putter around outside. A black locust tree perched on the edge of the Graveyard provided an excellent lookout to watch him while he worked. One particular incident stands out in my mind. I had climbed into the tree and was staring down into his yard. It was a fall day. Dark clouds heavy with rain were marching in from the Pacific while distant thunder announced their approach. A stiff, cool breeze had sent yellow leaves dancing across the ground.  

Mr. Fitzgerald wore a heavy coat to fight off the chill. I watched him shuffle around in his backyard as he sharpened his axe on a foot operated grinding wheel and then chopped kindling on an oak stump.  When he had painfully bent down to pick up the pieces and carry them into his woodshed, I had scrambled down from the tree so I could continue to spy on him though a knothole. I must have made some noise, or maybe I blocked the sunlight from streaming into the shed. He stopped stacking wood and stared intently at where I was, as though he could see through the weathered boards. It frightened me.

I took off like a spooked rabbit and disappeared into the safety of our house. Mr. Fitzgerald was intriguing, but his age and frailty spoke of death— and the dead people who lived in the Graveyard. 

I will continue my tales of the Graveyard next Monday and relate how I moved outside to sleep under the stars in the summer. Unfortunately, the ghost continued to hassle me and I was forced to hire the family pets for protection.

NEXT POSTS

Blog-a-Book Wednesday…”The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: I complete my story on the laundry takeover at South Lake Tahoe where I was held at gunpoint. I drive my 54 Chevy toward the man holding a rifle who is standing in front of the car. Will he shoot me or get out of the way? That’s the question.

Travel Blog Friday... I return to my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach State Park where Peggy and I continue our exploration of tide pools.

The Charming Elephant Seals of Pt. Reyes National Seashore

Elephant seals have the look of an animal put together by a committee. It gives them a certain charm. We found this large fellow with his pronounced proboscis at Drake’s Beach. He’d come ashore at Pt. Reyes National Seashore looking for love.

Pt. Reyes National Seashore is located some 30 miles north of San Francisco. Peggy and I went there last week to celebrate my birthday. It’s been a go-to place for me since the 60s. In addition to spectacular scenery, great hikes, yummy food, and one of the best small bookstores I’ve ever been in, we were entertained by the wildlife: tule elk, a pair of sushi eating coyotes, and elephant seals (plus some cows).  Today, I want to do a teaser on our trip by featuring the elephant seals. I’ll get back to the rest after I finish my Harris Beach series. 

Elephant seals are amazing creatures that spend up to 80% of their lives at sea— 90 % of it underwater!  If that doesn’t seem remarkable enough, consider this: their normal dives for food range between 1000 and 2000 feet deep (305 to 610 meters). They can dive for up to an hour and a half before returning to the surface for three to five minutes of breathing. Semi-annual feeding binges take the males on a 13,000-mile roundtrip journey to the Aleutian Islands and females on a 11,000-mile roundtrip into the North Pacific.

They were absent from Pt. Reyes for 150 years. In fact, they were close to absent forever. Like whales, they came close to being hunted to extinction for their oil. Processing the blubber from one bull can produce up to 25 gallons. They were saved because the Mexico and the US banned hunting them in the 1920s. Gradually, they have returned to their old breeding grounds. When I first started visiting Pt. Reyes in the 60s, they were unheard of in the area. Today there are over 3000 that return annually to breed.

The Park Service had set up a barrier to separate the seals from the people who had come to admire them at Drake’s Beach. Those closest to the barrier were bulls. You can tell by their size and uniquely shaped noses. One had crossed the barrier and was worrying the rangers. “He’s escaping from the other bulls,” a ranger explained. Maybe.

This large bull had crossed through the barriers at Drakes Beach and was pointed toward the snack bar. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A little girl next to me exclaimed, “I think he is heading to the snack bar to get fish sticks!”

“I’d bet on ice cream,” I responded. “Look at how big he is.” The girl looked at me dubiously. “Fish sticks” she insisted.

Peggy and I spent an hour watching these wonderful creations of nature who are so competent at sea and ungainly on land. They move like an inchworm, using their dorsal flippers to pull their front half forward and then using their rear flippers to push the rest of their body along like a rolling wave. Imagine moving several tons of fat. The ones we watched would make two or three of these moves and then collapse to rest.

Given their trunk-like noses and appealing eyes, Peggy and I were particularly attracted to the looks on their faces.

Is this fellow being coy?
Check out the big brown eyes! The size of the eyes helps the elephant seal see in the dark depths of the ocean. The whiskers apparently help as well in the search for food. He had lifted his head to check us out. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
And then returned to his resting position. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A side glance. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A bit shy, perhaps. Maybe he thought that the log was hiding him.
Size matters. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
This was interesting. The skin of the elephant seals is sensitive to the sun. They cope by throwing sand over their bodies with their flippers, as seen in this photo.
Sometimes a little stretch really feels good! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy caught some of the girls sunbathing out near the ocean…
Drake’s Bay was named for Sir Francis Drake who reputedly visited the area in 1759. There’s another bull on the left— looking sluggish.
I’ll conclude today with this elephant seal that was making its way back toward the ocean. I decided he was waving goodbye with his flipper. I’ll return to the tide pools of Harris Beach in Oregon next week. Are you aware that groups of sea anemones go to war with each other?

NEXT POSTS:

Monday’s Blog-a-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I move outside in the summer to enjoy nature but hire the family’s dogs and cats to protect me from the ghosts.

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Held at gunpoint, I consider the odds of running over the gunman versus getting shot.

Held at Gunpoint: Training for Berkeley, and the Peace Corps… Part 1

In 1963, I landed a summer job driving a laundry truck between Placerville, California and South Lake Tahoe, a 60 mile drive. I’d pick up dry cleaning and motel linens in Placerville and make deliveries along the way. My day started at 1 p.m. and ended around 10 p.m. six days a week. This is a more recent photo of Placerville, but it doesn’t look all that different. The Bell Tower has been a symbol of the town seemingly forever. As has the hanging man…
Founded during the 1849 Gold Rush, Placerville was known as Hangtown for how it treated outlaws. It’s a heritage the town has strangely— but proudly— maintained ever since. This guy was hanging out on Main Street in the 50s and 60s when I lived three miles away and still hangs out there today. If Guinness had a record on the longest hanging man in the world, he would be it! He must have one heck of a strong neck.

The man leaned on the front of my 56 Chevy and rested his rifle on the hood. The message was clear. I wasn’t going anywhere.  Ten minutes earlier I had been happily sleeping in my trailer next to the Lake Tahoe laundry where I was working for the summer. I woke up and jumped out of bed at the sound of trucks warming up. Oversleeping was no excuse for being late. I looked accusingly at my alarm clock. It said 6 a.m., an hour before I was supposed to go to work. Glancing out the window, I spotted an armed man standing in front of my door. Several others were wandering around the property. The laundry truck drivers were people I didn’t recognize. Lacking a phone to call my boss, I decided it was time to vacate the premises…

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Sierra College I graduated from working on pear ranches to being a laundryman. Every afternoon at one o’clock I would zip over to Placerville, pick up clean laundry and dry cleaning and head over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to Lake Tahoe via Echo Summit on Highway 50. It was a great job for a college kid. I was provided with a new VW van and was totally on my own except for loading up in Placerville and making my stops on 50 and at the Lake. In between was a beautiful drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was even a touch of glamour to the work. 

Sugarloaf Mountain located next to Kyburz Resort on Highway 50 in El Dorado County, CA.
This wonderful chunk of granite is known as Sugarloaf and is a favorite view along Highway 50. It’s quite popular among rock climbers, which, like jumping off of high cliffs into water, is another sport I see no reason to pursue.

One of my regular stops at the Lake was Bill Harrah’s home. He was incredibly rich from his gambling empire, and his home seemed palatial to me. Never having mastered the servant concept, I always made my deliveries to the front door and was occasionally greeted by his headline performers who stayed there. This came to a screeching halt one day when a young Liza Minnelli opened the door in her baby doll pajamas. She didn’t seem to mind my admiration, but the major domo directed me to make all future deliveries to the service entry in the back. I had little appreciation for my new backdoor status.

Roger Douvres, my boss, had a contract to handle the dry cleaning for the stars that performed at Bill Harrah’s lakeside casino. They often stayed at his home, where I would make weekly deliveries. The picture windows provide a beautiful view of Lake Tahoe.

The best aspect of the laundry business was that the pay was four times what I had earned working in fruit orchards. Since I lived at home, I was able to stash most of my income away for college needs. Eventually, this would pay my expenses at Berkeley. Those were the enlightened years in California when tuition was free.

In the summer of 1963, Roger asked if I would move up to Lake Tahoe and work for his son-in-law, John Cefalu. John had taken over a laundry that Douvers had owned, sold, and then reclaimed because of back payments. There was an old trailer sitting next to the laundry ‘in need of a little work’ that I would be welcome to use. I jumped at the chance. What twenty-year-old male given a chance to work in one of the world’s top resort areas wouldn’t? The only disadvantage, from my perspective, was the distance from my girlfriend. At least, I consoled myself, there was a beach three blocks away that was normally filled with scantily clad young women. I’d get by.

Things, of course, are rarely as rosy as they seem. To start with, the trailer was a mess. It was probably twenty years old and, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been cleaned it in nineteen. My first weekend was devoted to twenty hours of scrubbing. There were no scantily clad women for Curt. Monday brought work, and it was work. I no longer had my leisurely trip back and forth across the mountains. It was stuff the truck with a mountain of clean linen, dash out to the motels and make deliveries, cram the truck up with dirty linen, and rush back to the laundry— over and over and over.

Fatigue, by the end of the day, usually meant I would crawl in bed and go to sleep. It was not the romantic lifestyle I had imagined. The second weekend, I did manage an obligatory trip to the beach for Female Body Appreciation 101.  But I had no desire for any other relationship and most of what my excursion did was to remind me of what I was missing. I did say mostly, didn’t I? The age of the ‘itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow polka dot bikini’ was dawning, and it was a sight to inspire bad poetry. Not even true love can totally deaden 20-year-old hormones.

My daily routine was about to end, however. I was soon to learn what it was like to be held by gunpoint. I’ll tell the story in my post next Wednesday from The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: I’m going to leave Oregon’s Harris State Beach for a week and jaunt 360 miles south to Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California to visit the Elephant Seals that hang out at Drake’s Beach.

Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : My love of the outdoors (plus a desire to escape from sharing a bedroom with Marshall) led me to move into my backyard the summer between second and third grade. It was perfect except for the tombstones…

Riding Pine Trees, Habanero, a Crowded Bed, and a 1st Grader’s Solo Hike— at 5 AM

In my last blog-a-book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I returned to the first grade, got spanked, and went on a play date/sleep over with my young Hispanic friends Rudy and Robert. A train locomotive engineer tossed us candy from his cab. The adventure continues today and includes tree riding and my first ever solo hike…

The perfect size pine tree for a first-grader to climb and ride. Peggy suggested I might be a little big— and, at 78, possibly a tad old… Nah.

If one is fortunate enough to live next to the woods as a child, it’s easy to find ways to amuse yourself. After we had collected our candy from the train, dinner was a long hour off. I suggested to Robert and Rudy that we head out to the woods behind their house and ride trees. Who needs horses? My brother and I had learned that we could climb up to the top of young, skinny pines and make them sway back and forth by leaning out. The farther we leaned, the more they swayed. It offered a free carnival-like experience 10-15 feet up in the air. Even more could be accomplished by throwing our feet out in the direction the tree was swaying and hanging on for dear life. If the tree was skinny enough, we could make it bend all of the way down to the ground, where we would drop off and allow it to snap back up. It took a while for me to persuade Rudy and Robert that the sport wasn’t going to kill them.

The same tree seen above as a first grader might see it.

I suspect the trees didn’t enjoy the experience nearly as much as we did. When I later read Robert Frost’s poem about children bending birches, I fondly recalled our pine tree horses— or bucking broncs if you prefer.

“It’s dinner time!” came the call so we rushed back to the house and made use of an outside water faucet to wash the pine pitch off our hands. Sort of. Pitch has a way of sticking like super glue. It’s the pine tree’s revenge. Mother had a box of Boraxo at home for the the task. Hand inspections were held afterward.

“You have to try this,” Rudy enthused, dashing into the house and coming out with a red pepper. I should have been suspicious when the rest of the family followed him outside. But what does a first grader know? I gamely bit into the pepper and was introduced to habanero-hot. The whole family roared as I made a mad sprint for the faucet and drank a gallon of water, becoming a major part of the evening’s entertainment. It would had served them right later had I peed in their bed. I forgave them when I had my first Mexican dinner, however. I still love Mexican food. And I’ve come to enjoy habanero-hot on foods ranging from burritos to spaghetti.

One of many choices I have on hand for habanero-hot food.

As the night progressed, it soon became time for bed. I was about to flunk sleep-over etiquette.

The boys slept on the same bed. Admittedly it was bigger than my small single at home, but I had never slept in a bed with another person, much less 2 or 3, or maybe it was 10. That’s what it felt like. They put me in the middle. I was mortified, but I tried. I really did. Ten o’clock came and there I was, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, body frozen in place— and midnight, and two, and four. At five, I gently nudged Robert.

“I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept all night,” I confessed. “I have to go home.”

“Ummm,” the half-awake Robert had moaned.

I got up, dressed, and slipped out of the house, careful not to wake anyone else. It was close to dark, with only a dim light announcing the morning. Home wasn’t that far away, maybe a mile. But I still remember the journey from a first-grader’s perspective: long and spooky. It was my first great adventure. I followed the dirt road over the railroad tracks out to the Pleasant Valley highway. Not one car zipped by. Fortunately. They probably would have stopped and driven me home. Everyone knew everybody else in Diamond. “Sorry to wake you up Marge, but I found Curt out wandering in East Diamond.” By noon, everyone in town would have heard the story.

I walked past the hill with the cross on it and picked up Highway 49. Halfway home, I came to Tom Murphy’s grocery store. Sodas were stacked in wood boxes in front, waiting to be moved inside. I looked around furtively; I was totally alone. So, I helped myself to a coke; I deserved it. I continued on my journey, walking by the post office, Dub Walker’s store, the barber shop, hardware store, the historic Pony Express stop, firehouse and Gust Brother’s Garage, eventually reaching the dreaded Graveyard. I clutched my coke and crossed the road, preferring Pagoni’s mean dogs to the ghosts. Arriving home, I carefully hid the soda outside. It wouldn’t do to have overly inquisitive parents discover the purloined drink and ask questions. I happily enjoyed it later in the day, feeling much less guilty about stealing than I did about abandoning my friends. I suspect there was a bit of consternation when Rudy and Robert’s parents woke to find me missing. Imagine what would happen today.

Next Monday, it’s back to the Graveyard as I move outside for the summer to commune with nature. And, escape from my brother. It was the best decision of my young life except for one thing: The ghosts. I had to hire protection.

NEXT POSTS:

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Driving a laundry truck pays for my college education, but it was being held at gunpoint that prepared me for Berkeley and the Peace Corps.

Friday’s Travel Blog: Once again, it’s back to the ocean. Before moving on with my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach, however, I am going to take a brief detour to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, from which Peggy and I just returned. There are some elephant seals we want to introduce you to…

The Starfish of Harris Beach State Park, Oregon

We saw this colorful starfish from a distance and came over for a closer look. It’s scientific name is Henricia leviuscula. It common name is Pacific blood star.
I decided a slight shift in perspective would create a twirling ballet dancer! Or is it a whirling dervish?

We were lucky to find any starfish at all. The population up and down the Pacific coast came close to being wiped out in 2013. A rather nasty virus that melted these attractive creatures from the inside killed millions. Legs would fall off and go crawling away. It sounded like the plot to a Grade B horror flick. Fortunately, evolution came to the rescue. A small portion of the population seemed immune to the virus. Maybe some of the legs got lucky. They came back with a vengeance. We did find a few that were obviously dead. I touched one. It was mushy. Melting.

Everywhere we looked we saw starfish. Sometime in bunches. These purple and orange star fish belong to the same family, Pisaster ochraceus. Scientists don’t know why they come in two colors.

Here are some fun facts:

  • These rather amazing five-legged creatures have seawater for blood. It serves the same purpose, delivering nutrients to cells. 
  • Starfish can regenerate an arm lost to a predator. But what if the arm loses its starfish? It can regenerate a new starfish, an exact replica. Pretty cool, huh.
  • They have very small mouths but like large, tasty morsels, like mussels. Not a problem. They have big stomachs. They send them out through their mouths and wrap them around what they want to eat. They digest their dinner and then suck the nutrients back into their mouths, along with the wandering stomachs. 
  • They move around on tiny little feet that are found on their arms. They fill these little feet with water and mimic walking. They travel slowly, at least I have never seen one move quickly. 
  • The feet also serve another purpose; they work as suction cups. The starfish will wrap itself around a closed mussel, attach their little feet, and pull the shells apart. Not an easy task.
  • One more thing about their arms, each one comes with eyes. Not eyes like you and I have but photo receptors that allow them to distinguish between light and dark and move around in search of food, or to avoid becoming food. 

Following are more of our photos:

At first, I thought that the ugly guy above the starfish was seaweed. But looking at it more closely, I decided that it wasn’t something I wanted to meet up with on a dark night.
I’ll conclude with this edgy fellow.

NEXT POSTS:

As you read this post, Peggy and I are on our way to Pt. Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. When she asked what I wanted to do for my birthday week, it popped up. The National Sea Shore is one of my all-time favorite places and I have been escaping there for 50 years. So, beyond responding to comments, I will be taking a break from blogging and reading blogs this coming week. Translate: Vacation! I’ll be back to work on March 8. See you then. –Curt

On Facing Nuclear War… The Cuban Missile Crisis

The world teetered on the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Massive destruction would have been the result. It changed my perspective on war, but it was only one of four events that took place while I was a student at Sierra College that impacted my view of the future. In my last post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I discussed how a Chinese man shook up my view of race. Today, in addition to my reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I explore how my views on religion and the environment were changed.

The Campus Center at Sierra College was the main gathering point for students and faculty. It’s where we all came together in October of 1962 and listened for news on the radio during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The photo above was from a less stressed time when socializing, studying, and discussing/debating other issues were what occupied our minds. I’m in the center with my mouth open. The photographer had asked us to look up.

I took my religion seriously as a young person at the Episcopal Church in Placerville. I started by carrying the California flag in the procession that kicked off the service. I then moved up to the American Flag, after which, I graduated to carrying the cross. I sang in the choir and did solos. I became an acolyte and a junior lay reader. I was even the church janitor. There was talk of my becoming a priest. The church helped get me through my teenage years.

The Episcopal Church in Placerville that played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

One day when I was perusing the small book store at Sierra, I picked up a Barnes and Noble book on comparative religion and learned about Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. I caught a glimpse of how much our great monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were based on older mythologies. I learned about Buddhism, Hinduism and the world’s other religions.

At the same time, I was taking a class on world history. I read about the inquisitions and holy wars brought about by religious fanaticism and exclusivity— about the tens of thousands of people who were killed in the name of God. I began to have doubts. My rock that was Peter made a dramatic shift and relocated itself on an active fault zone. So, I stopped going to church. But there was more. I came to believe that an all encompassing God would not limit ways people could reach Him/Her. It followed that people should be free to worship as they chose and that there should be a clear separation of church and state.

Another concept I was introduced to at Sierra was environmental activism. For this, I owe thanks to Danny Langford. Dan liked to talk and could fit more words into a minute than I could in five. One Monday morning he proudly informed me that he had spent his weekend pulling up surveyor stakes in El Dorado Hills, a new development east of Sacramento.

“You did what?” I asked in a shocked and disapproving voice. 

“I pulled up stakes to discourage a developer from building houses,” he responded in greater detail assuming it would make sense to me. It didn’t. Why would someone want to discourage a developer? It seemed positively Anti-American. My Republican roots were offended to the core. 

“Why would you pull a destructive stunt like that?” I demanded to know as I thought of a whole day or possibly several days of surveyor work going down the drain.

“It’s a beautiful area,” Dan responded, “covered with oak trees and grass. They are going to cut down the trees, plant houses, and pave over the grass.”

Suddenly what Dan was talking about made sense. I wasn’t about to join him on one of his destructive forays, but his comments made me think about how fast we were paving over California. Although I was only 20, many of the places I had wandered so happily as a kid had already met their unhappy demise at the business end of a bulldozer. Progress was how this destruction was defined and progress was a sacred American tradition. For the first time in my life, a question had been inserted into my mind about its value. 

The fourth event was one of the scariest our generation would face. All of our lives we had been raised under the threat of a nuclear cloud. We were constantly treated to photographs and television coverage of massive, doomsday explosions and their telltale clouds. In elementary school, I had been taught to hide under my desk and cover my face so the exploding glass windows wouldn’t blind me.

Atom bombs, which could destroy whole cities and kill millions of people, weren’t massive enough. We needed bigger bombs and we needed more. It was important that we could kill everyone in the world several times over and blast ourselves and the rest of life into times that would make the so-called Dark Ages seem like a Sunday picnic in the park. 

None of this was our fault, of course. We had the evil, Godless, Russian Communists and their desire to rule the world to blame. Losing a soul to communism was worse than losing a soul to the devil. And maybe it was the same thing. Better Dead than Red was the rallying cry of people whose fingers were very close to the nuclear button.

The closest we have come to the nuclear holocaust took place during two terrifying weeks in late October 1962.  I was student body president at the time and I, along with most of my classmates and faculty at Sierra College, sat tethered to the radio in the Campus Center as our nation teetered on the edge of nuclear abyss. It had all come about because a cigar chomping left-wing dictator we didn’t like had replaced a cigar chomping right-wing dictator we did. It was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and has its own headlines in the history books as being a highlight of the Cold War. 

Castro and his revolution had provided a toehold for Communism in the Western Hemisphere. Jack Kennedy had waged a crusade to get rid of him that had started with alleged assassination attempts using Mafia hit men and ended in the fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs. Castro had then called on Uncle Khrushchev to loan him something to make the USA behave. Russia had responded by offering nuclear missiles. 

The thought of having nuclear missiles pointed down the throat of our Eastern seaboard made the folks in Washington rightfully nervous, so Kennedy set up a blockade of Cuba. Fortunately, aided by promises that the US wouldn’t invade Cuba and that we would remove our missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev blinked.  From that point on in my life, I became convinced that there had to be solutions to solving international differences beyond blowing each other off the map. Nation states rattling sabers was one thing; rattling nuclear bombs was something else.

So here I was in mid-1963, a budding peacenik with international leanings, something of an agnostic, environmentally concerned, and committed to Civil Rights. I had made a left turn from the right lane and definitely become more liberal in my perspective. I figured I was ready for Berkeley. Not. But I was approaching the point where deciding to join the Peace Corps would be natural. First up, however, I learned what it meant to be on the wrong end of a rifle, which will be the subject of my post next Wednesday. I decided later that it was good training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Peggy and I are at Harris Beach State Park on the Oregon Coast where we end up exploring tide pools and finding starfish. Lots of them.

Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I continue my sleep over at Rudy and Roberts. I teach my friends how to ride pine trees. In return they teach me how to eat a habanero pepper. I end my adventure by taking my first solo hike ever, at 5 AM!

A Close-Encounter with a Train… Plus

In my last post from”It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Me,” I received a one year reprieve from attending the first grade under Mrs. Young’s ever watchful eye. In this post, my unending vacation ends. I trudge off to school, get spanked, make new friends and have a close encounter with a train.

Caldor Lumber Company was one of two major places of employment in Diamond Springs. My dad worked as an electrician for the company. Logs were brought into Caldor by train on a narrow gauge railway up into the early 50s.

I turned six on March 3, 1949. My endless vacation came to an end that fall. It was time for the first grade. Mother was delighted. Mrs. Young— not so much.  A number of the little boxes on my report card that reflected good behavior were marked ‘needs improvement.’ Mrs. Young had decided I needed a lot. Is neat— needs improvement; Shares— needs improvement; Is Polite— needs improvement. The list went on…

I even got spanked. “Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick” the old song School Days proclaimed. My classmate Joe and I had disagreed over who was top dog. We fought it out on the playground. I thought I was doing Mrs. Young a favor by clarifying the issue. Joe was even more uncivilized than I. She thought otherwise. The only justice I could see was that Joe got it in the end as well, so to speak.

First Grade was not the highlight of my school years, to say the least. Things had to get better and did. My second-grade teacher turned out to be my God-mother. There was a commandment issued on a mountain and written in stone: She had to like me. But back to first grade.

The high point of my year was that I made my first two friends who weren’t family or buddies of my older brother. Rudy and Robert were a pair of Hispanic brothers who lived in a small house out in east Diamond. We had hit it off immediately and on a Saturday toward the end of school, the boys and their parents invited me up to their house to spend the night. It was my first official play date and my first ever sleep-over. I was nervous. My mother took me up and dropped me off to a royal greeting by the boys, their parents and their siblings. 

“Quick,” the boys urged, “we have to go stand by the railroad tracks.” We could hear the train’s whistle as it approached Diamond. 

The tracks were part of a narrow-gauge railway Caldor Lumber Company used to bring logs from its tree-cutting operation 20 miles up in the El Dorado National Forest to its lumber mill in Diamond Springs. The company had been established in the early 1900s and, at first, used mules for hauling the logs. It had then switched to oxen followed by a giant steam tractor. The tractor made so much noise that the company was required to use outriders a quarter of a mile in front to warn people so their horses wouldn’t be spooked. 

Understandably, the company switched to the narrow-gauge railway. It, in turn, would lose out to logging trucks in the 50s. But for the time being, little kids still had the joy of watching the massive engines and their long line of rail cars carrying large logs out of the forest.

My father had a close connection with the railway. The train engines had recently been converted to diesel from steam and he had overseen the project as one of Caldor’s two electricians. He was also responsible for maintaining phone service between the lumber camp and the mill. When there was a problem, off he went to check out the 20 miles of line. A hand cranked generator was necessary for creating the electricity to make calls. We inherited one when the line was updated. Marsh and I would invite our little friends over, crank up the machine, and have them touch the outlet. It was shocking. 

Pop’s favorite railway task was clearing snow off the tracks each summer when the logging camp opened up for the season. “We had a diesel-powered rail car with a snow plow on it,” he explained to me later. “We’d back up and take a run at snow banks, crashing into them, and hopefully breaking through. Often our car would jump the tracks. We’d all pile out and lift it back on.” Some fun; he loved it. 

While watching the train was high entertainment, the primary attraction for us was that the engineers carried an ample supply of hard candy that they would throw out to the boys and girls standing along the track. It was almost a tradition.

The train was near; we could hear it chugging along. Rudy, Robert, their brother, sisters and I sprinted the hundred or so yards over to the tracks. I laid down and put my ear one of the rails. It was a trick I had learned from the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. You can actually hear the vibrations and supposedly judge how far away the train is. I needn’t have bothered since the train came into view when my head was still on the track. I’m sure the engineers saw me. “Get off the track!” Rudy and Robert screamed. We started waving vigorously. One of the engineers dutifully leaned out of the cab and tossed us candy, lots of it. We scrambled around picking it up and shoving it in our pockets, at least the ones that weren’t shoved into out mouths…

Next Monday I’ll continue this adventure as I teach the boys how to ‘ride’ pine trees and they teach me how to eat Habanero peppers. I find myself sharing the bed, a first for me. I don’t move. I don’t sleep. At 5 AM I hit the road on my first solo hike ever.

NEXT POSTS:

Blog-A-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” : I get a job driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. And then end up working for a laundry at the Lake. The upside is I pay for my college education, enjoy beautiful scenery, and get to meet stars. The down side is that I end up on the wrong end of rifle.

Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s all about star fish. Did you know they can send their stomach out of their mouths to eat?

Harris Beach State Park… Another Gem on the Oregon Coast: Part 1

Harris Beach State Park is located just north of Brookings, Oregon, which, in turn, is located north of the California border. It is one of a number of beautiful state parks located along the coast.

Peggy and I just returned from visiting another of the scenic state parks along the Oregon Coast. This time we followed the Redwood Highway from Grants Pass to Crescent City, which, in itself, is worth the trip. Highlights included following the plunging Smith River as it tumbles down to the Pacific Ocean and winding through the giant trees of Jedidiah Smith Redwood Park. (Smith, BTW, was an early mountain man, explorer, pioneer and author in the western US. His name is on lots of places. Had I been in his boots, those places would be named Mekemson. Grin.)

Harris Beach State Park is a short 26 miles from Crescent City following Highway 101. It’s about three hours from our home. We lucked out and got a campsite overlooking the Pacific that is normally booked months in advance. We don’t do months in advance.

The park is named for George Scott Harris, a native of Scotland. According to the Park website, he obtained the property in 1871 after a lifetime of wandering, which included serving in the British Army in India and spending time in Africa and New Zealand.  In 1860, he made it to San Francisco where he worked in railway construction and mining, finally migrating to what would become the park, settling down, and raising sheep and cattle.

We’ve visited the park before. This photo is from one of our trips. You can see why we would want to return.

While we are always fans of reflection shots, Peggy and I found something else to amuse ourselves with this time: Tide pools. Half of our beach time was spent ferreting out sea life. I plan to feature what we found in this five part series including starfish, anemones, hermit crabs, snails, limpets, chitons and seaweed. Oh my! Plus. Naturally, there will also be sea stacks, driftwood, unique rocks, and sunsets— the types of things one expects when visiting the Oregon coast. Today, I will post a few introductory photos to the park.

Looking down on the beach. We timed our visits for low tide so we could visit the tide pools. People walking on the beach provide perspective.
Looking out to sea.
It pays to look down, as well. Interesting patterns can be found in the sand. Temporary art, soon to be washed away. This reminded me of a ferocious ocean bird. Travel back from the long, pointed beak to the fierce eye.
Looking up provided a view of a dead tree, yellow flowers and rock. The yellow flowers are bourse, another visitor from Scotland that came to Oregon and decided to stay.
A whole different world exists on top of the rocks. Seabirds find the seat stacks at Harris Beach an ideal place for raising families.
Speaking of nesting, the largest island on the Oregon Coast is just off of Harris Beach. Known as Goat Island, it is also known as Bird Island since over 100,000 birds nest here in spring, including tufted puffins.
The rocks also have unique stories to tell.
While I like drift wood because of the character it develops bouncing around in the ocean, many people find other uses for it. One person’s photo op is another person’s fort! Or possibly, a beach campfire.
If you need a change of scenery, look back toward shore. My focus here was on the shallow stream spreading out over the sand.
Here, I liked the distinctive layers starting with the sand and working upward. Note the size of the driftwood logs.
A closer perspective.
I’ll conclude todays’ post with a sunset. Next Friday I am going to focus in on star fish, also known as sea stars. They were almost wiped out in the past few years by a virus but have made a miraculous recovery.

NEXT POSTS:

Monday’s Blog-A-Book…It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me: I discover that the overgrown, jungle-like graveyard next to our house is a great place to play during the day but becomes very scary at night when the ghosts come out.

Tuesday’s Blog-A-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: While driving a laundry truck to earn money for college, I meet a young Liza Minnelli in her babydoll pajamas at casino magnate Bill Harrah’s home, and am held at gun point during a laundry takeover at Lake Tahoe. Later on, I was amused by the thought that it was good training for me as a student at Berkeley and as a Peace Corps Volunteer.