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…

A Choice: Graduate or Go to Jail… The MisAdventure Series

I wasn’t expecting a tour of Placerville’s City Hall and the police parking lot on my day of graduation from high school. But as they say, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray…”

As you read this, I am out on the road doing some last minute route checks for my thousand mile backpack trek. So, I am effectively off the net until I put up my first post from the trail in a week or so. See you then! –Curt

 

My graduation from high school almost didn’t happen. The student strike I had organized wasn’t the issue. It was good practice for my future at UC Berkeley. Nor was it my grades. While mine had dropped somewhat when I simultaneously rediscovered girls, developed an aversion to algebraic equations and became allergic to chemistry labs, I was still floating along somewhere in the top ten percent of the class.

My problem was with the law, or, in this case, Mike De Natly, the Placerville Chief of Police. I had my run in with him on the very day I was to graduate. Of course, it was a goof off day. All the tests were over, yearbooks signed, and caps and gowns fitted. There really wasn’t much to do except revel in the fact that we were through and to say goodbye to friends. Lunchtime meant a final cruise of Placerville’s Main Street to check out girls, to see and be seen.

What happened was out of character for me. I normally keep my comments on other peoples’ driving habits to myself and car-mates. The horn is for really bad infractions and, on very rare occasions, a single digit comment is appropriate. I would never stick my head out the window and yell at someone. That can get you shot.

But we were hot stuff on graduation day. When a blue car decided to stop in the middle of Placerville’s crowded, narrow downtown street right in front of us, it irritated me. When the driver nonchalantly got out to have a conversation with the driver of the car in front of him, it pushed me over the edge. Out went my head as we edged around the two cars and I had an attack of uncontrollable Y chromosome aggression.

“You SOB,” I yelled, “get your car out of the way!”

So what if I didn’t recognize the Chief of Police out of uniform in an unmarked car. So what if he had stopped to offer help to a guy who had managed to stall his car on Placerville’s busy main street. So what if I had suggested he had canine parentage in a voice that half of Placerville heard. It was an innocent mistake.

“That was Mike De Natly you just cussed out,” our driver managed to stutter with mixed parts of fear and awe.

As a teenager, I had pulled some fairly dumb stunts. Teenagers have a responsibility to push the envelope. It’s the rather awkward method evolution has provided for growing up and developing unique personalities. Mistakes are bound to happen and it’s okay. But I was carrying my responsibility too far; I had gone beyond dumb and plunged into really stupid.

How dumb do you have to be to cuss out the police of chief of a town that is known as Hangtown?

A hundred years earlier, I might have found myself next to this guy. He was hanging there in 1961 and is still hanging there today.! Would-be hoodlums beware!

“Keep driving,” I uttered with all the hope of the irrevocably damned, “maybe he is too busy and will ignore us.”

Sure, like maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow. The poor stalled guy could still be sitting in the middle of Placerville for all of the attention the police chief paid to him after my little admonition. De Natly jumped in his car, slapped his flashing light on his roof, hit his siren and sped after us. Not that he needed to speed fast or far. We were creeping up Main Street in sheer terror about one block away. I am sure my car-mates were wishing fervently that one Curtis Mekemson hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning, had never made their acquaintance, and was, at that very moment, facing a group of starving cannibals in some far-off jungle.

We pulled over with De Natly literally parked on our rear bumper and resigned ourselves to the firing squad. Luckily, for my friends, the Chief had no interest in them. He appeared at my window red-faced and shouting about five inches away. Under the best of circumstances, he was known for having a temper and these were not the best of circumstances.

“Get out of that car,” he yelled. “Get out right now!”

I moved fast. This was not the time for bravery and stubbornness. It was a time to be humble— it was groveling time. And I groveled with the best. I blathered out apologies and managed to work “sir” into every sentence, several times. I trotted out my friendship with his stepson, I threw in the City Treasurer who was a mentor, and I even brought in Father Baskin, the Episcopal minister, as a character reference.

“Get in my car,” he ordered. My groveling seemed to be having minimal impact. At least he hadn’t handcuffed me.

We drove up to City Hall and I had visions of being booked and thrown into a cell with some big hulking giant who either didn’t like young men or liked them too much. I thought of having to call my parents and explain how their son had become a common criminal. But De Natly had an even more diabolical plan in mind. We slowly made a turn through the police parking lot to give me a sense of my future fate and then, to my surprise, hopped on Highway 50 to Canal Street and drove up to the high school. I was going to have to explain my actions to the Principal. My chances of graduating that night slipped another notch. I doubted that the Principal would have much of a sense of humor about one of his students cussing out the Chief of Police. But explaining my inexplicable actions to the Principal would have been mercy in comparison to what happened.

It was a beautiful late spring day, this last day of school, and it seemed like half of the student body and a significant portion of teachers were enjoying their lunches on the expansive lawn in front of the school. De Natly pulled up to the sidewalk beside the lawn and ordered me out. The Chief of Police arriving with me in tow was enough to capture the attention of several students sitting close by. Then he made sure that everyone was aware of our presence.

“Do you want to spend the night in jail or graduate, Curtis?” he asked in a voice that was easily equivalent in volume to the one that I had used in suggesting he move his car. Conversation on the lawn came to a dead halt. Every ear in the place honed in on us with the intensity that a cat reserves for a potential mouse dinner. And I was the mouse. This was a Kodak moment, not to be missed. My answer was easy: Of course, I wanted to graduate, SIR. And so it went, De Natly barking questions with the voice of an army sergeant and me responding as the lowest of recruits. Finally, after a few minutes that felt like eternity, the Chief got in his car and drove away. I was left to deal with the not so gentle humor of the students and faculty plus a Principal who wasn’t quite sure whether he should take over where De Natly left off or laugh at my predicament. At least he had the grace to wait until I left his office before he chose the latter. I could hear his laughter echoing down the empty hallways. And yes, I was allowed to graduate that night.

This concludes my MisAdventure series for now. On Sunday, I start my 1,000-mile backpack trip and in a week or so, my posts from the trail should start arriving. Please join me as I make my way south following the Pacific Crest Trail.  It will be an adventure!

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Diamond Springs, California: From Gold Rush to Sleepy… The 50th EUHS Reunion

The message arrived by mail. My 50th High School Reunion was coming up. Once again the mighty Cougars of Placerville, California’s El Dorado Union High School would roar.

Or at least meow.

Teenage angst, hormonal overload and dreams of glory had long since been dimmed by the realities of life and aging bones. My classmates and I have reached the point where looking back is easier than looking forward.

A Memory Book was being created. What had happened to us since that warm June day in 1961? It was time to sum up our lives in 400 words or less. Should I lie?

Naah. I dutifully begin to put the words down on paper. I found, however, that my mind kept wandering back to what had happened prior to our graduation, during the formative years of our lives. Always on the lookout for blog material, I decided to post a few stories from those years. First up:

Many things influence whom we become. DNA, parents, friends, teachers… it’s a long list. Where we are raised also has to be included. It doesn’t matter where we go in life; our hometown remains our hometown. And this takes me back to Diamond Springs, a small town outside of Placerville.

Sleepy is too lively a word for describing where I lived from 1945 to 1961.

In Old West terminology, Diamond was a two-horse town. 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 the Caldor Lumber Company.

On the one horse side of the equation there was one church, a barbershop, a hardware store and a grammar school. High school was in far off Placerville, three miles away.

It hadn’t always been quiet. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Diamond 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.  Indians came from miles around bearing their dead on litters for cremation. Souls were sent wafting on their way to where ever deceased Maidu went.

Apparently they had been living in the area for a thousand years. It is a sad commentary on both our education system and how we treated the Indians that I grew up in Diamond never hearing the name Morning Star’s Spring much less Mo-lok’epakan. Our only connection with the Maidu’s lost heritage was finding an occasional arrowhead or Indian bead.

Then, in 1848, John Marshall found some shiny yellow baubles in the American River at Sutter’s Mill, 13 miles away. The worlds of the Maidu, California, and Morning Star’s Spring were 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 came from England and Germany and France and China, pouring in from all points of the compass. They left behind their wives, children, mothers, fathers, and half-plowed fields. The chance of ‘striking it rich’ was not to be denied.

Soon the once quiet foothills were alive with the sound of the miners’ picks and shovels punctuated by an occasional gunshot. Towns grew up overnight: Hangtown (Placerville), Sonora, Volcano, Fiddletown, Angels Camp, Grass Valley, Rough and Ready and other legendary communities of the Motherlode.

In 1850 a party of 200 Missourians stopped off at Morning Star’s Spring and decided to stay. Timber was plentiful, the grazing good and a 25-pound nugget of gold was found nearby. Soon there were 18 hotels, stables, a school, churches, doctors, a newspaper, lawyers, vineyards, a blacksmith, some 8000 miners and undoubtedly several unrecorded whorehouses.

Morning’s Star 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.

The town burned down in 1856, 1859 and again in the 1870s. By this time most of the gold had been found and the residents were forced to find other means of gainful employment.

The timber industry came to the rescue in the early 1900s when the California Door Company out of Oakland set up shop in Diamond to handle the timber it was pulling out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Starting with oxen and then moving to steam tractors, the company finally settled on a narrow gauge railway for retrieving rough-cut lumber and logs from its forest operations. By the 50s, it had moved on to logging trucks.

A couple of decades after Caldor was established, Diamond Lime set up business by opening a quarry two miles east of Diamond and a processing plant on the edge of town. The lime was so pure that a block of it was used in the Washington Monument.

This was pretty much how things were when the Mekemsons arrived at the end of World War II. Next blog… the Mekemson/Bray gang terrorizes Diamond Springs.