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.

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…

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?

A Left Turn from the Right Lane… And Getting Hit with a Baseball Bat

My Great Grandfather George Marshall would probably have objected to my traveling off to Africa in the Peace Corps.

I didn’t start off as a likely candidate for the Peace Corps. My family had conservative values that suggested other priorities. Our Republican roots dated back to the foundation of the Party. My Great Grandfather, George Jr., claimed in his 1920 biography that every Marshall born since the Civil War had been Republican. His big issue in the 20s was immigration. Sound familiar? Too many Italians were crossing our borders and staying. A bit ironic, perhaps.

The Marshalls were still Republican when I came on the scene in 1943. My father’s credentials were tainted. He belonged to a union. But he still voted Republican. Abe Lincoln had been a family lawyer to distant cousins and Pop believed that the worst thing that had ever happened to America was Franklin Roosevelt. 

How dedicated was I to the cause? Let me put it this way: My first political debate on behalf of the Grand Old Party put me in the hospital. 

I was in the 4th grade at the time. My mom sent me off to school proudly wearing an “I Like Ike” button. It was the 1952 Presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson. Another boy’s parents were equally dedicated to Stevenson. He was wearing an Adlai button. The two of us ended up in the boy’s restroom in a heated debate. I learned an important political lesson: Never argue politics with someone carrying a baseball bat. Lacking political sophistication, our discussion had quickly deteriorated into name-calling, the heart and soul of most political campaigns. I had a larger vocabulary of four letter words and was winning when the Stevenson devotee wound up and hit me across the thigh with his baseball bat. I ended up in the hospital with a knot on my leg the size of a softball. Like most martyrs, my devotion to the cause was only strengthened.

I graduated from high school Republican to the core and envisioned a future of wealth and power. It was not the type of future that would accommodate a detour to Africa and the Peace Corps. Had I been old enough to vote in 1960, I would have voted for Richard Nixon. He was running against Jack Kennedy, the founder of the Peace Corps.

I was about to make a left turn from the right lane, however. Old values would clash with new. College was looming. I spent my first two years at Sierra, a community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flashpoint of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra would liberalize my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it. 

The process of liberalization started during the first hour on my first day at Sierra. The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s Howdy Day welcome. Dr. No Yong Park, a Chinese man with a Harvard education, stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t. 

“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin.  His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question. 

“Well, I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.” 

It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factors seemed like the right thing to do. But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be. The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if I, or my children, ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting civil and human rights.

More shocks were coming at Sierra. My “rock that was Peter” ended up on an active fault zone; I met an environmentalist before the word was created; and the Cuban missile crisis with its threat of nuclear annihilation forced me to rethink my views on international relations. But these are all subjects for next Wednesday.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s back to the beautiful Oregon Coast to visit another state park: Harris Beach near Brookings. I’ve been going through the photos since we got home a week ago. There’s enough material for five posts! I’ll start with an introduction to the park.

Monday’s Blog-a-Book… Another tale from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : Held at gunpoint at Lake Tahoe, I go into training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps!

Born to Wander: Part 2… Great Uncle William Gets His Head Chopped Off

Edison Marshall, my great uncle, grew up in the town of Medford, living for a while with his extended family that included my mother as a child. His writing brought him fame and fortune, including this mansion near Augusta, Georgia.

I was born to wander; I’m convinced of this. Whatever lies over the next horizon calls to me and pulls me onward. Eventually this need to roam would be a factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps. It may be genetic. I come from a long line of pioneers and adventurers. Before Mother went trolling and landed Pop, he had lived in Nebraska, Washington, Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado and Oregon. I’ve no doubt that lacking an anchor of three kids and a wife, he would have kept on going and going, just like the Energizer Bunny. Happily so. And so it has been with most of my ancestors.

Restless urges sent members of both my mother and father’s families on their way to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries, and kept them moving west in the 19th and 20th. Puritan Marshalls packed their bags and sailed off for the New World from England in the 1630s. The Scotch-Irish Mekemsons arrived in Pennsylvania from Ireland in the 1750s, spent the Revolutionary War years in upper Maryland, and had moved on to Kentucky by the 1790s. My dad’s family tree shows that my Great, Great, Great uncle was a companion to Daniel Boone.

The cry of gold sent both Marshalls and Mekemsons scurrying to California in the 1840s and 50s. 

George Marshall left his wife Margaret pregnant with my Great Grandfather on his trip to the goldfields. It was a good thing; no pregnant wife would have meant no me. George struck it rich, but his new found wealth didn’t make it back to Illinois. He was killed, stripped of his gold, and thrown into the Pacific Ocean on his way home, or so the legend goes. It was tough and often deadly on the frontier. Not that this cured any of my family from their wandering ways. The drive to roam far outweighed whatever the risks might be. One of my favorite family stories illustrates just how deadly frontier life could be. 

William Brown Mekemson, my great, great uncle, ended up on the wrong end of a tomahawk (or several) during the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832. A 1903 book by Frank Stevens describes the event. The Indians had attacked the night before, stealing a horse. Captain Snyder decided to pursue the Indians the next morning and caught up with them “firmly entrenched in a deep gulch, where, in a sharp hand to hand encounter, all four were killed with the loss of only one man, Private William B. Mekemson, who received two balls in the abdomen, inflicting a mortal wound.” 

Except it wasn’t immediately mortal. Mekemson was placed on a litter and transported back toward camp. Along the way he pleaded for a drink. A squad was assigned to climb down to the creek and fetch water. At that point the Indians struck again. Some 50 or so “hideously yelling, rushed poor Mekemson and chopped off his head with tomahawks…” and then rolled it down the hill. That was mortal.

The greatest wanderer among my modern-day relatives was my Grandfather’s brother, Edison Marshall, or Uncle Eddie as my mother called him. He was an accomplished writer quite popular in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. His short stories even made it into the high school literature books of the day and nine of his books were converted into movies. The first to obtain silver screen status was “Strength of the Pines” in 1922 and the last was “The Vikings” starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh in 1958. He had a long and profitable career.

I never met the man; his Augusta, Georgia mansion was a long way from our converted World War II army barracks house in Diamond Springs. But we did have a collection of his autographed books. They were swashbuckling historical novels that had his heroes such as Marco Polo wandering the world. Edison wandered along with them, doing research for the books and pursuing his passion for big game hunting.

We had a hand-me-down 1920’s Encyclopedia Britannica atlas of his where he had outlined his personal journeys in the map section. I spent hours staring at ink-drawn lines snaking off into East Africa and other exotic locales trying to imagine his adventures. (Years later I would learn that a brand new Encyclopedia Brittanica that I got as a Christmas present when I was 10, had anonymously been given to me by Edison and his wife.)

By then, I had the reading skills to handle his books but not the maturity, at least according to my parents. His books were restricted for sexual content and I was supposedly banned from reading them until I was thirteen, when I really didn’t need anything else to stir up my sexual fantasies.

Uncle Eddie was not noted for humility. “I went after fame and fortune, and I got them both,” he reported. That made his lifestyle all the more attractive to me. If he could gain fame and fortune through travel and writing, possibly I could as well. The combination of Edison’s books and his atlas gave me an early lust for travel, an appreciation of history, and a desire to someday write. So what if they didn’t come with fame and fortune.

In 1963 I had my first opportunity to wander away from home. I was accepted as a junior at the University of California in Berkeley, which, at the time, was about to become the center of a worldwide student revolution. My experience at the University, in turn, would lead to an even greater chance to travel, the Peace Corps.

So it’s off to Berkley I go next where I leave my conservative heritage behind, sit on the floor singing “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez, and stand on the Dean’s desk in my socks to give a speech on why students should have the right to participate in local Civil Rights demonstrations.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Since I am still taking photos of the ocean, I will share some photos on why I love the desert taken along Nevada’s Highway 95 between Reno and Las Vegas.

Monday’s Blog-a-Book from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I am kicked out of the First Grade for a year because of forgery and begin my wandering ways by heading across the alley to the jungle-like graveyard where I can let my imagination run wild.

Born to Wander: Part 1… The Bush Devil Ate Sam

Here I am in our backyard with the family pets. The overgrown graveyard next door and the alley that led off to the woods spelled adventure for me. While the cats stayed home, I could always depend upon a dog or two along for company.

August 1965. Tears tracked across Jo Ann’s cheeks. We had just left her parents in San Francisco and boarded a United Airlines jet bound for New York City. We were leaving family, friends and life in the US behind. I was sympathetic with Jo but my mind was elsewhere. While she was grieving over what we had left behind, I was celebrating where we were going. Mysterious Africa, teaching, and adventure beckoned. 

Except for the time when I was 15 and surrendered five hard-earned, pear picking dollars for a helicopter ride at the El Dorado County Fair, it was my first flight ever. How could I not be excited? The jet taxied out on to the runway, climbed above the Bay, and banked toward the east. For seven hours, we would be winging across America and gazing down on cotton clouds, mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, cities, towns, farms and forests. 

We waved goodbye to California as the plane flew over the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. The towering granite of the Crystal Range and Pyramid Peak gave way to the deep blue of Lake Tahoe. My mind turned to how the two of us, both from small Northern California towns, had ended up as Peace Corps Volunteers on our way to the remote jungles of West Africa. Certainly, the two years we had just spent at UC Berkeley were a factor. Our time at Sierra College near Sacramento had also played an important role, but my reasons went back farther, back to my very beginning. 

Family legend is that I was conceived during a moment of weakness when my mother had the flu. For the record, I delivered my first squawk of protest on March 3, 1943 in Ashland, Oregon. At the time, according to Life Magazine, American and Australian forces were duking it out with the Japanese at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, bow ties were the hot new fashion with American women, and Westinghouse engineers were firing dead chickens 200 miles per hour at airplane windows. They went splat. Success meant the windows didn’t crack.

I grew up in the small town of Diamond Springs, California about 35 miles east of Sacramento. Sleepy is too lively a word for describing the community during the 1940s and 50s. In Old West terminology, Diamond Springs was a one and one half horse town. There was one church, one barbershop, one hardware store, and one grammar school. On the two-horse side of the equation, there were two grocery stores, two gas stations, two restaurants, two bars, two graveyards and two major places of employment: The Diamond Lime Company and Caldor, the lumber company where my father worked as an electrician. 

The town hadn’t always been quiet. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Diamond Springs was once a major gathering spot for the Maidu Indians, and later became a bustling Gold Rush town. To the Maidu it was Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring and a very holy place.  The Indians came from miles around bearing their dead on litters to cremate on pyres. The smoke and spirits were sent wafting through the air to wherever deceased Maidu went. They had lived in the area for a thousand years. 

In 1848, John Marshall found some shiny yellow baubles in the American River at Sutter’s Mill, 13 miles away. The world of the Maidu and Morning Star’s Spring was about to be shattered. “Gold!” went out the cry to Sacramento, across the nation and around the world. Instant wealth was to be had in California and the 49ers were on their way. They came by boat, wagon, horse and foot— whatever it took. And they came in the thousands from Maine to Georgia, Yankee and Southerner alike. They left behind their wives, children, mothers, fathers, and half-plowed fields. The chance of ‘striking it rich’ was a siren call not to be denied. 

Seemingly overnight the once quiet foothills were alive with the sound of the miners’ picks and shovels punctuated by the occasional gunshot. Boomtowns sprouted wherever gold was to be found. In 1850, a party of 200 Missourians stopped off at Morning Stars Spring and decided to stay. Timber was plentiful, the grazing good, and a 25-pound nugget of gold was found nearby. Soon there were numerous hotels, stables, a school, churches, doctors, a newspaper, lawyers, vineyards, a blacksmith, some 8000 miners and, undoubtedly, several unrecorded whore houses. Morning Stars Spring took on a new name, Diamond Springs. The Wells Fargo Stage Company opened an office and the Pony Express made it a stop on its two-year ride to glory.

By the time the Mekemsons arrived at the end of World War II, Diamond Spring’s glory years were over. The gold had long since been mined out, the town had burned down three times, and the population had dropped to somewhere around 700. And, as far as I know, there weren’t any whore houses. In this pre-TV, pre-digital era, our entertainment depended on our imaginations. For me, this meant disappearing into the woods as soon as I could escape the not too watchful eyes of my parents. While other boys lined up for Little League batting practice, I was out doing an inventory of the local skunk, coyote and deer population.

I was born to wander, I’m convinced of this…

Why? Check this space next Wednesday.

NEXT POST:

Travel Blog Friday: Lyman Lake State Park along Highway 191 in Arizona… The backroad series.

How Brunhilda the Cat Became Rasputin… A Tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam

Liberian Peace Corps photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A fading black and white photo shows children in Gbarnga, Liberia mugging for my camera in 1965. Life wasn’t easy– check out the head loads.

In 1965, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I joined the Peace Corps, graduated from UC Berkeley, and flew off to the country of Liberia where we were assigned as elementary school teachers in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. My book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” relates our experiences at Berkeley and in Liberia.

January was the Liberian school equivalent of summer vacation and second year Peace Corps Volunteers took full advantage of it by chartering a jet airplane and flying off to East Africa. First year Volunteers were left behind and had to take on a ‘summer’ project.

I decided to write a second-grade reader while JoAnn worked with a blind student.

I had spent my first semester teaching a second-grade class where the children were expected to learn to read out of well-used 1950’s era California readers. It was hard for the kids to relate. The world of Dick and Jane in their big houses with white picket fences and white playmates in no way resembled the life of my kids in Gbarnga, as demonstrated by the photo above. As for Spot, he bore a striking resemblance to food.

I had plunged into my project: researching elementary school readers, gathering African folk tales, and putting together stories about the children that reflected their lives, not those of Dick and Jane. The country Peace Corps staff liked the book I submitted. They agreed to assign me an editor, an expert in elementary school education, and an illustrator. But it wasn’t to be. The government decided that my book on African Folk tales and Liberian children was somehow dangerous, a threat to its one-party state. Peace Corps told me to forget the book and not even bring it up in conversations. I might be kicked out of the country.

Fortunately, I had other things to occupy my mind. Jo and I had been assigned to teach at Gboveh High School our second semester and were moving across town. There were classes to prepare for and our ‘new’ house was in desperate need of a paint job. We had also assumed in loco parentis status. One of the second-year Peace Corps couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, had left four little female kittens to live with us while they flew off to East Africa. Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.

I had built our temporarily adopted cat family a three-story mansion out of cardboard. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. It even had a carpeted floor and a bathroom— a kitty litter box. The kittens would disappear inside and play for long periods. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.

In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitten we would keep. First, we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry, and then we brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe: Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.

Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet dinner and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground floor door of their mansion. Now we were ready for the test. Each kitten would be placed inside the third story door and given a nudge. We would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach the banquet. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze of hallways and ramps would be the brightest.

Grey Kitten # 1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching away on fish heads might inspire the other kittens on to even greater glory, however.

Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)

Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.

Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo had named her Brunhilda, after the Wagnerian opera star. By the time her turn came up, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way. I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the first hall was punctuated by a loud crash on the other end. Brake problems.

Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had her crash disoriented her? Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.

And that is how Brunhilda came to be our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildahood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of Brunhilda’s demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed the kitten Rasputin after the nefarious Russian monk.

Rasputin surrounded by Rhinoceros beetles.

 

If you have enjoyed this story and the many other tales I share, you might also enjoy “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.” It’s available in both Kindle and paperback form here on Amazon. For other sources such as Apple, click on the book cover top right.

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If Someone Steals your Spouse or Cow, Who Do You Call? The Lightning Man!

The Bush Devil is a powerful figure within traditional Liberian Culture. This is a Bush Devil of the Grebo Tribe that visited a Peace Corps Haight-Ashbury Party Liberia circa 1967.

 

I was in serious need of inspiration over the weekend when it came to today’s post. I had a bad case of blogger’s block. And then I was hit by a thought— why not throw in a chapter from my book. Other than the promo I run in the upper right hand corner, it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” on this blog. If you are new to The Bush Devil Ate Sam and enjoy this chapter, the book is available on Amazon.

 

Sam, the young man who worked for us in Liberia, was enamored with western culture. It fired his imagination. He spent hours listening to the Kingston Trio get Charlie off the MTA and dove into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like a frog dives into water. Still, for all of his excitement about things modern, ancient African was an integral part of who he was. He had the scars to prove it. They marched down his chest in two neat rows.

“How did you get those,” Jo (my former wife) asked with ten percent concern and ninety percent curiosity.

“I can’t tell you,” Sam replied with obvious nervousness as Jo’s eyebrows rose. “But I can tell Mr. Mekemson.”

Aha, I thought, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the Men’s Club! Actually, Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s organization, the Poro Society, which I wasn’t allowed to join. Its functions were to pass on tribal traditions, teach useful skills, and keep errant tribe members in line. Everything about the organization was hush-hush. Tribal members who revealed secrets could be banned and even executed.

Political power on the local level was closely tied to membership in the Poro Society. On the national level, President Tubman assumed leadership of all Poro Societies in Liberia. Tribal women had a similar secret organization called the Sande Society, which prepared young women for adulthood and marriage. A controversial aspect of the Sande initiation ceremony was female genital mutilation— cutting off the clitoris.

Sam got off easy.

He had been to Bush School the previous summer and learned how to be a good Kpelle man. Graduation to adulthood consisted of an all-consuming encounter with the Poro Society’s Bush Devil. It ate him— metaphorically speaking. Sam was consumed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks had been left by the devil’s ‘teeth.’ It seemed like a tough way to achieve adulthood, but at least it was fast and definitive.

The Bush Devil was a very important tribal figure who was part religious leader, part cultural cop and part political hack. Non-Kpelle types weren’t allowed to see him. When the Devil came to visit outlying villages, a frontman preceded him and ran circles around the local Peace Corps Volunteer’s house while blowing a whistle. The Volunteer was expected to go inside, shut the door, close the shutters and stay there. No peeking.

We did get to see a Grebo Devil once. The Grebo Tribe was less secretive, or at least more mercenary. Some Peace Corps Volunteers had hired the local Devil for a Haight-Ashbury style African party. It was, after all, 1967, the “summer of love” in San Francisco and the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Along with several other Volunteers, we hired a money bus to get to the party. Had we been thinking, we would have painted the bus with Day-Glo, like Ken Kesey’s bus, Further.

The Devil was all decked out in his regalia. His persona was somewhere between a voodoo nightmare and walking haystack. Grebo men scurried in front of him with brooms, clearing his path and grunting a lot. We stayed out of the way and took pictures.

Another area where Sam showed his tribal side was his fear of the newly dead. A person’s spirit was considered particularly powerful and dangerous right after he or she died. Later, the spirit would move away into the bush and fade. But first it had to be tamed with appropriate mourning, an all-night bash. One didn’t take chances. When Sam worked late for us after someone had died, he would borrow a knife and a flashlight in case he had to fight off the malevolent ghost on his way home. I had grown up next to a graveyard and was sympathetic with his concern.

Juju, or African witch doctor medicine, was another area where African reality varied from modern Western reality. Late one evening, in the middle of a tropical downpour, one of my high school students appeared on our doorstep very wet and very frightened. Mamadee Wattee was running for student body president. His opponent had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Juju man to make him sick.

It was serious business; people were known to die in similar circumstances. Had the opposition slandered Mamadee or stuffed the ballot box, I could have helped, but countering a magic potion wasn’t taught at Berkeley, at least not officially. I took the issue to Mr. Bonal, the high school principal, and he dealt with it. Mamadee stayed well and won the election.

The use of Juju medicine represents the darker side of tribal culture. Human body parts derived from ritual human sacrifice are reputed to be particularly effective in creating potions. Cannibalism may be involved. On the lighter side, my students once obtained a less potent ‘medicine’ and buried it under the goal post on the football (soccer) field with the belief that it would cause the other team to miss goals. Apparently, it wasn’t potent enough; the other team won.

Mamadee was also the reason behind our introduction to the Lightning Man. When Jo and I went on vacation to East Africa, we left Mamadee with $50 to buy a 50-gallon drum of kerosene. When we returned, there was neither kerosene nor $50, but Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep. Someone had stolen the money and Mamadee was extremely upset. Fifty dollars represented a month’s income for a Kpelle farmer. Mamadee’s father, a chief of the Kpelle tribe, was even more upset and wanted to assure us that his son had nothing to do with the missing fortune. It was a matter of honor. He offered to have Mamadee submit to the Lightning Man to prove his innocence.

The Lightning Man had a unique power; he could make lighting strike whoever was guilty of a crime. If someone stole your cow or your spouse, zap! Since we were in the tropics, there was lots of lightning. Whenever anyone was struck, people would shake their heads knowingly. Another bad guy had been cooked; justice had been served.

We didn’t believe Mamadee had taken the money, and even if he had, we certainly didn’t want him fried, or even singed. We passed on the offer. The Chief insisted on giving us $50 to replace the stolen money.

Another Liberian Peace Corps Volunteer in a similar situation chose a different path. Here’s how the story was told to us. The Volunteer had just purchased a brand new $70 radio so he could listen to the BBC and keep track of what was happening in the world. The money represented close to half of the Volunteer’s monthly income. He had owned his new toy for two days when it disappeared.

“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced to anyone who would listen and then walked into the village where he quickly gathered some of his students to take him to the Lightning Man. Off he and half the town went, winding through the rainforest to the Lighting Man’s hut. The Volunteer took out five dollars and gave it to the Lighting Man. (Lighting Men have to eat, too.)

“I want you to make lighting strike whoever stole my radio,” he said.

The Volunteer and his substantial entourage then returned home. By this time, everyone in the village knew about the trip, including, undoubtedly, the person who had stolen the radio.

That night, there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always tremendous thunder and lightning storms, place yourself in the shoes of the thief who believed in the Lightning Man’s power. Each clap of thunder would have been shouting his name.

In the morning, the Volunteer got up, had breakfast and went out on his porch. There was his radio.

NEXT BLOGS:

Wednesday: I wrap up the Sierra Trek series.

Friday: A look at several major art installations at Burning Man.

Monday: Astoria: A return to the Oregon Coast.

Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job… More Tales from West Africa

Three Hundred Cups of Tea and the Toughest Job by Asifa Kanji and David Drury

 

Peggy, who is President of Friends of the Ruch Library, came home from a Jackson County Library meeting this summer and told me that two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers had just given a program at the Ashland Library on a book they’d written about their experience in Mali, West Africa. She also had their names, David Drury and Asifa Kanji, and contact information.

Given the book I’d written about my Peace Corps adventures in Liberia, it caught my attention.  I called immediately and reached David. Asifa was off in Hawaii attending to business. Within a few minutes we had a picnic set up for Lithia Park in Ashland. We’d bring the wine. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ashland, it’s the first town you come to when following I-5 north from California into Oregon. The community is renowned for its Shakespeare Festival.)

By the end of lunch, we were on our way to becoming friends and had exchanged books. Asifa and David’s books, Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job, are combined under one cover. My book is The Bush Devil Ate Sam. 

I immediately took their books home and begin reading them. I was fascinated. Both are good writers, have a great sense of humor, and have interesting stories to tell.

I joined the Peace Corps when I was 22, right after I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965. David and Asifa joined almost 50 years later in 2012 when David was 60 and Asifa 57. They had to have vastly different experiences from mine, I thought. And yes, there were differences. I certainly didn’t have a cell phone or access to the Internet. They still weren’t invented. And David worked in a cybercafe! In 1965, I would have been running to the dictionary for a definition— and not finding it.

But in the end, I was more impressed by the similarities of our experiences than the differences. Working in an impoverished third world country while struggling to accomplish something in a totally different culture is slow arduous work, and often unsuccessful. Both of their book titles reflected this. Asifa’s 300 cups of tea was the number of cups you had to drink with someone to get their attention. Patience and, I might add, a strong bladder were called for. David’s book got right to the point; it was the toughest job he had ever had.

If you want a good tale that will transport you into another world with both compassion and humor, I recommend David and Asifa’s book. It’s available here on Amazon.

The Bush Devil Ate Sam, Tree Hundred Cups of Tea, and the Toughest Job: Books on Peace Corps Experiences in West Africa

If you are among my blog followers in Southern Oregon, Asifa, David and I will be doing a program featuring tales from West Africa on this coming Saturday, January 20 at the Ruch Library from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. You are invited! The address for the library is 7919 Highway 238 (one block past the Upper Applegate River intersection if you are coming in from Jacksonville on 238).